Saturday, 4 June 2011

TCBS – Inklings – Notion Club


Tolkien loved clubs, but the first and most influential was the TCBS (Tea Club, Barrovian Society) formed in 1911 at King Edwards School in Birmingham. The story has been told by John Garth in his superb book – Tolkien and the Great War (TGW), 2003.

There were four core long-term members: Tolkien, Christopher Wiseman, RQ Gilson, Geoffrey Bache Smith (GBS); plus Vincent Trought who died from an illness in 1912. Gilson and Smith both died in the 1914-18 war.

The club began as a purely recreational and convivial group but (TGW p137) ‘Somewhere along the line the TCBS had decided it could change the world (…) Tolkien had told them that they had a ‘world shaking power’ and (…) they all believed it’.

And, of course - as it turned-out, and in ways unanticipated - Tolkien was perfectly correct.


So, how did the TCBS hope to change the world?

‘Smith declared that, through art, the four would have to leave the world better than they found it. Their role would be to drive from life, letters, the stage and society that dabbling in and hankering after the unpleasant sides and incidents in life an nature (…) to re-establish sanity, cleanliness, and the love of real and true beauty in everyone’s breast.’ (page 105).


Gilson: [In a vision…] “I suddenly saw the TCBS in a blaze of light as a great moral reformer (…) England purified of its loathsome insidious disease by the TCBS spirit. It is an enormous task and we shall not see it accomplished in our lifetime.” (page 105)


Tolkien: “the fairies came to teach men song and holiness”. Song and holiness: the fairies had the same method and mission as the TCBS. (page 107).

Tolkien: “What I meant (…) was that the TCBS had been granted some spark of fire – certainly as a body if not singly – that was destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war.”


So, the TCBS was a club devoted to the transcendental virtues of Truth, Beauty and Virtue – perhaps especially Beauty and Virtue. They were to teach song and holiness…

What of Tolkien’s later clubs – The Inklings and the fictional Notion Club? Were they too devoted to song and holiness?

I would say yes. But not explicitly, and not wholly.

The TCBS was refined from a larger and more frivolous club following disillusionment with the way that conversation was becoming superficial, glib, and facetious. It was only the core four who were the idealists.

Among the Inklings there was, really, only Jack Lewis and Tolkien who were idealists in the TCBS sense – and probably Tolkien more than Lewis. For the other members the Inklings were more of a stimulating social group.

But for Tolkien, I sense that the Inklings retained at least a residue of his youthful hopes as epitomized by the TCBS – and that this came through in a more purified form in the Notion Club where there was, again, a core of serious activist idealists surrounded by a larger group of pleasant, convivial but somewhat facetious types.


What of Charles Williams? Was he not part of the core? I tend to think not. Contrary to what some people say, Tolkien was certainly very fond of Williams while Williams was alive (he turned against him more than a decade later – probably as a result of discovering the extent of Williams involvement in occult magic, or perhaps his philanderings).

But Williams was not engaged in the same project as Jack Lewis and Tolkien – the aim to “rekindle an old light in the world”.


At some point both Lewis and Tolkien became aware that they were not going to be able to “re-establish sanity, cleanliness, and the love of real and true beauty in everyone’s breast” – but only in the breasts of a few. Lewis described himself the last of the almost-extinct dinosaurs in his Cambridge University inaugural lecture in the early 1950s, and Tolkien’s valedictory lecture at Oxford a few years later has a similar elegiac tone.

Tragically, England as a nation was not - after all - going to be purified of its loathsome insidious disease by the TCBS spirit.

Fortunately, like the fairies, the works of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien continue to teach many individual men song and holiness - in England and around the world.



Troels said...

Another good and provocative (in the very best sense of making me think one more time) post, thank you!

We have seen a lot of scholarly interest in the Inklings, who they were, how the community affected their work etc., but the role of the TCBS as a formative fellowship for young Ronald Tolkien has, I think, not received the attention it deserves.

The recent volume of Tolkien Studies (vol. 8) opens with an interesting paper by Philip Irving Mitchell titled ‘“Legend and History Have Met and Fused”: The Interlocution of Anthropology, Historiography, and Incarnation in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories”’. This paper, I think, fits in very well with the ideas you express here. Despite having read it recently, I am not sure I can do justice to Mitchell's paper in a brief summary, but he focuses on the ideas of Tolkien, Barfield, Chesterton and Cristopher Dawson as a response to certain ideas of that age about evolutionary history. He says, for instance, (p.9)

‘Fundamentally, moreover, because it
relegated its religious core to the
evolutionary survival of a pre-historic
past, each of the four writers judged
the modern West as failing to live in and
with the natural world and with the
imaginative faculties that made this
co-existence meaningful.’

Of Tolkien's work, Mitchell focuses on ‘On Fairy-Stories’, and I think he does a good job at arguing that Tolkien's essay should be seen as being also a contribution to this debate.

As I read both Garth's book and Mitchell's paper, the work and position that Mitchell describes can be seen as a natural extension of the decisions made at the Council of London -- modulated by later experiences, surely, but nonetheless I think that Tolkien's contribution, as described by Mitchell, can be seen as springing from the vision that was formulated by the TCBS.

Bruce Charlton said...


Thanks for your comment and recommendation.

I am very interested indeed by this whole area of the relation between myth and history - and its centrality to The TCB/ Inklings/ Notion Club (and to myself and modern society!).

I was just reading C.S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet this week, and noticed the following:

"[Ransom] became vividly conscious that his knowledge of Malacandra was minute, local, parochial. It was as if a sorn had journeyed forty million miles to the Earth and spent his stay there between Worthing and Brighton. He reflected that he would have very little to show for his amazing voyage if he survived it: a smattering of the language, a few landscapes, some half-understood physics - but where were the statistics, the history, the broad survey of extra-terrestrial conditions, which such a traveller ought to bring back? Those handramits, for example. Seen from the height which the space-ship had now attained, in all their unmistakable geometry, they put to shame his original impression that they were natural valleys. There were gigantic feats of engineering, about which he had learned nothing; feats accomplished, if all were true, before human history began... before animal history began. Or was that only mythology? He knew it would seem like mythology when he got back to Earth (if he ever got back), but the presence of Oyarsa was still too fresh a memory to allow him any real doubts. It even occurred to him that the distinction between history and mythology might be itself meaningless outside the Earth."

...Which is an observation that might come straight from the Notion Club.