Monday 18 March 2013

Mapping the Notion Club onto the Inklings – a parodic melange featuring in-jokes and running jokes


While some members are more-or-less based upon real life Inklings (such as Ramer on Tolkien and Dolbear on Havard), each member of the Notion Club in his origin contains playful elements of parodic melange, as appropriate for the status of the NCPs being designed to be read aloud to, and provoke discussion from, the Inklings.

As they progressed, as is usual for Tolkien, the NCPs became more serious, and pulled in (or were pulled-into) Tolkiens deepest concerns.

Yet the playful origins of the NCPs are clear in the earliest draft versions of the Foreword, and the first entry recording the club meetings.


Preface to the Inklings

While listening to this fantasia (if you do), I beg of the present company not to look for their own faces in the mirror. For the mirror is cracked, and at the best you will only see your countenances distorted, and adorned maybe with noses (and other features) that are not your own, but belong to other members of the company – if to anybody.


The Inklings were being told to look-out for characteristic features of group members, and parodic inversions of such features, but transposed between members.

In other words, the early drafts of the NCPs would have been stuffed with 'in jokes' – only some of which can now be decoded; yet the presence of an in joke is often implied by context, even when we cannot decode it.


Just to recap the six main Inklings members in the period leading up to 1945-6 when the NCPs was written; and therefore those members whose identities were most probably the models to be listed, inverted and mashed-up; in no particular order they were:

Jack Lewis
Warnie Lewis
and Charles Williams
(who died about 6 months before NCPs were drafted)

Notion Club


There is apparently no character that is 'based upon' Charles Williams, at least not obviously; quite likely because his absence was too recent and too keenly felt to permit of jesting parody – but it is not hard to suppose that a few scattered references in relation to Jeremy and elsewhere may have raised a rueful reminiscent smile from the surviving Inklings.

As an example of parodic inversion, early notes indicate that the character Frankley was originally 'based on' Jack Lewis, yet he is described as suffering from 'horror borealis',  that is the supposed medical condition of being 'intolerant of all things Northern or Germanic' – which is the opposite preference from Lewis's own well-known Nordic preferences.


The first entry in the NCPs, part one, is Night 54:

A wet night. Only Frankley and Dolbear arrived (Dolbear's house).

Dolbear reports that Philip never said a word worth recording, but read him an unintelligable poem about a Mechanical Nightingale (or he thought that was the subject).

Frankley reports that Rufus was drowsy and kept on chuckling to himself. The only clearly audible remark that he made was 'going off the deep end I think'. This was in reply to an enquiry about Michael Ramer, and whether D had seen him lately.

After F had read a poem (later read again) called The Canticle of Artegall they parted.


Aside from the single 'plot point' regarding Ramer possibly going off the deep end (i.e. going crazy); night 54 reads very much like an in-joke, as if it was based on an actual incident – presumably a meeting between Jack Lewis and Havard, and perhaps based on the fact that afterwards each gave a very different account of the proceedings.

The entry is written in a droll style, yet it is not clear what the actual jokes are. Possibly these include a mishearing of a poem title (maybe even Keats 'ode to a' nightingale being misheard as 'mechanical', and the drowsiness of Dolbear/ Havard.

As noted elsewhere on this blog, I have asked the real-life Havard's eldest son John whether it was characteristic of his father to be drowsy or nod off to sleep in company, and John says he has no recollection that this was the case.

Yet, of course, it would only need a single such incident of doziness (plausibly, since Havard was a doctor, after being kept awake all the previous night by on-call medical work), an incident quite likely unknown to his son, for the doziness of Havard to become an established stereotype and a 'running joke' among the Inklings – that is exactly the way things often work in groups of men (or boys).


As for the Canticle of Artegall, Christopher Tolkien has drawn a blank in unravelling the meaning of Artegall beyond noting that the Irish for article is arteagal.

My guess at the in-joke here is that Jack Lewis, at some point in an Inklings meeting, slipped into his Ulster accent and pronounced article as phonetically transcribed by 'artegall' – provoking first incomprehension then jocularity – and that this also became a running joke such that the 'song of artegall' was an amusing title for a poem by the parody Lewis.


Whether I have guessed right about these NCP in-jokes is probably unknowable, and not as important as the internal evidence that they are indeed in-jokes; and can be understood as intended to refer to some kind of running-joke of the Inklings.

(If the NCPs had ever reached the stage of being prepared for publication, these bits of private humour would most likely have been deleted.)

Such in-jokes and running jokes were entirely characteristic of the Inklings, as we know from other sources such as the Lewis brothers' letters and journals - although by no means restricted to the Inklings, but indeed to be found wherever men (or boys) gather for extended periods.



Wurmbrand said...

Artegall is the knight of Justice and a major character in Book V of The Faerie Queene. He is destined to marry Britomart.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - which is certainly very Lewisian!

And would also provide a punning basis for the comment; perhaps amplified by Spenser's Irish connection.

I wonder why Christopher T. didn't mention this relationship? I didn't bother doing the Google search which would have instantly revealed the FQ connection, because I assumed that CRT had done some hunting and drawn a blank on the word. Presumably he shares his Father's aversion to Spenser...

Anonymous said...

Re the "mechanical nightingale" -- there's something of that description in a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. To me this almost sounds as if Frankley is being given characteristics of Charles Williams, i.e. long poems about knights!

Bruce Charlton said...

@ Interesting...

It is interesting to try and unpack Night 54, isn't it; but the difficulty of the exercise emphasizes that (in a work written to be read-out-loud) it must be packed with humerous references transparent only to the intended audience.