Sunday 26 May 2013

What was the social dynamic of The Inklings?


Letter from C.S Lewis to Dom Bede Griffiths of Dec 21 1940

[Charles] Williams, [Hugo] Dyson of Reading, and my brother (Anglicans), and Tolkien and my doctor, Havard (your [Roman Catholic] church) are the 'Inklings'...


If we take this as the core Inklings grouping, it an be observed that there are three writers who would read out their work (Jack Lewis, Tolkien and Williams); and three (mostly) non-writers, who were listeners and commenters (Warnie Lewis, Dyson and Havard).

(In fact, Warnie Lewis later became a published author - and began writing his French histories in the second half of the Inklings period, from 1942.)


The non-writing listeners and commenters were probably important: a key to the success of the group.

I have (briefly, I didn't like them) been in a couple of writers groups in my early adulthood - and the problem was that everybody wanted to read their work and nobody really wanted to listen - didn't much enjoy listening. One effect of this was that comments from unwilling, unappreciative listeners were not much use to the writers.


Warnie and Havard were good listeners, and so was Jack - it being a much remarked-upon trait of his that he liked being read-to. Dyson did not like the Lord of the Rings, but I surmise he must have liked listening to most of the other things being read-out, or else someone so easily bored (as it seems) would not have commuted from Reading University nor continued attending when he got a fellowship in Oxford.

I suspect that the writers greatly prized the opportunity to read to the non-writers, and to hear their responses, as being a more representative audience than other writers; perhaps especially Warnie fulfilled that role of a 'plain reader' for Tolkien and Lewis, being a straightforward and typically military chap, who was nonetheless highly intelligent and well read.


The social dynamic was that the pattern of the evening was set by the writers and readers, but the success of that conversation which sustained the group was dependent on the response of the listeners, each of whom brought something distinctive to the ensuing discussions.


Saturday 25 May 2013

Is this CS Lewis's most famous sputter-and-point 'misogyny' passage?


What makes a pretty girl spread misery wherever she goes by collecting admirers? Certainly not her sexual instinct: that kind of girl is quite often sexually frigid.


In context, this comes from the section of Mere Christianity which is about the sin of Pride:

Greed will certainly make a man want money, for the sake of a better house, better holidays, better things to eat and drink. But only up to a point. What is it that makes a man with £10,000 a year anxious to get £20,000 a year? It is not the greed for more pleasure. £10,000 will give all the luxuries that any man can really enjoy. It is Pride—the wish to be richer than some other rich man, and (still more) the wish for power. For, of course, power is what Pride really enjoys: there is nothing makes a man feel so superior to others as being able to move them about like toy soldiers. What makes a pretty girl spread misery wherever she goes by collecting admirers? Certainly not her sexual instinct: that kind of girl is quite often sexually frigid. It is Pride. What is it that makes a political leader or a whole nation go on and on, demanding more and more? Pride again. Pride is competitive by its very nature: that is why it goes on and on. If I am a proud man, then, as long as there is one man in the whole world more powerful, or richer, or cleverer than I, he is my rival and my enemy.


In the first place, in context we can see that this is in the middle of a list of examples of pride - following an example of pride in a man (somebody like a Boss or a General) and followed by an example of pride in a political leader (such as Hitler?) or nation (such as Germany?).

So, Lewis is not going out of his way to, errr, insult women - just providing a female-related example of the sin of pride, to go with the male example/s.


In the second place, why is this statement supposed to be evidence of misogyny?

Is the statement false?

Does anyone suppose that 'pretty girls' of this sort don't actually exist, and don't indeed 'spread misery' - and that this misery-spreading activity is 'quite often' not about sex; but instead about the desire for attention, adoration, money and privileges... about power?

If anyone supposes such women do not exist, or are so rare as to be statistically ignorable, or are typically motivated by powerful sexual appetites rather than 'pride and power'; well, I can only say that such people must either be blind to the workings of human society, or else have led exceptionally sheltered lives - or be dishonest.

Friday 24 May 2013

Review of Alister McGrath's biography: CS Lewis: a Life


Rating: Five stars from a possible Five.

I slightly dragged my feet in reading Alister McGrath's new biography of C.S Lewis (but only by a month!) because I have a suspicion of 'late' biographies from large commercial publishing houses (as tending towards unsympathetic, formulaic muck-raking) and also because I supposed that since McGrath is a famous and busy theologian, he would be unlikely to put enough time into the job.

I am pleased to report I was wrong on both counts; and that this is an extremely enjoyable and worthwhile biography of CS Lewis - to put alongside the Lancelyn Green/ Hooper pioneer, and the definitive George Sayer volume - and ideally to be read after these two.

The biography, indeed, reads as if it was specifically designed to be read after Sayer; since McGrath's biography is complemetary: providing many new details and amplifications in just those areas where Sayer says least - and relatively cutting back in coverage of those areas where Sayer says most.

Aside from a mild but recurrent dash of chronological snobbery resulting from McGrath's centre-Right social liberalism (such that he sometimes simply assumes without argument that Lewis was wrong on those points where he clashes with modern shibboleths in relation to sex, politics, education, scholarship etc.), I have nothing negative to say about this book!

It was gripping, insightful, informative and thoroughly worthwhile.


Sunday 19 May 2013

Was Charles Williams the grey eminence behind the Inklings - an hypothesis sketched


I think it is possible to construct a scenario by which Charles Williams is seen as the moving force behind the Inklings.

I am not at all sure whether this is true - but it is perhaps possible, and there is some evidence in its support.


If it is agreed that 1936 was the key year in which Lewis and Tolkien became serious and ambitious about their writings, and began to work together on some kind of 'project' (to reconnect modern man with mythology)

then it is possible that this increase in seriousness and ambition was triggered by Williams' novel The Place of the Lion


Indeed, another route for Williams influence may have existed via Fr Gervase Matthew - who met Charles Williams in London in early 1936 (according to AM Hadfield's biography of 1959), and may by this time have been attending Thursday evening Inklings meetings - as he certainly did later - although precise chronological evidence seems to be lacking.


Having, as I think likely, provided a crucial stimulus to Lewis and Tolkien's writing by the example of Place of the Lion - Williams then reinforced this during the wartime period of late 1939 to early 1945 (when CW died) as a lynch-pin of the Inklings meetings - and also meeting with Lewis and Tolkien as a trio and individually.

What must be remembered is that, although Williams was socially of lower status than Lewis and Tolkien; he was older, and as an author was of much greater status and experience and volume of production; also, both professionally and by personal friendship, Williams was a part of the mainstream prestigious Metropolitan literary world of England.


Add to this Williams' extraordinary charisma and fascination, and it seems probable that (as implied by Diana Pavlac Glyer, in The company they kept) Williams was the dominant figure in those Inklings meeting he attended; not in terms of organizing and controlling the meetings and dictating the subject matter of the conversation (that was surely Jack Lewis), but as the person who was most deferred-to, whose words carried greatest authority.


The fact that Lewis and Tolkien were preparing a Festschrift for Williams, even before he died, seems evidence of this kind of role. Inklings activities in the period after Williams death were at least partly focused on preparing this posthumous volume of Essays presented to Charles Williams.

After 1945, when the young scholar and author John Wain attended Inklings meetings, he said (in the memoir Sprightly Running) that the group had been permanently wounded by the death of Williams - which is indirect evidence for Williams' key role.


Although the Thursday evening Inklings meetings continued another four years (until late 1949) this period was marked by a larger and more variable number of personnel at the meetings, and what seems a less close and intense atmosphere than the war years when the inklings was built around the solid core of the Lewis brothers, Tolkien and Havard - with Williams perhaps providing a crucial binding and inspiring focus.


As I said, I am not sure about this. Certainly, (according to comments in his letters, and the understanding of those who knew him from London) the Inklings seems to have been less important to Williams than it was to Lewis and Tolkien - which could be interpreted as evidence against him having any kind of 'leadership' role.

But on the other hand, Williams need not have been consciously adopting any leadership role, nor need he have subscribed to the Lewis-Tolkien 'project', in order for him to have been a kind of father figure and originator of the Inklings most serious and ambitious aspect.


Friday 17 May 2013

Two ways of being a Tolkien fanatic: pre- and post-Christian


Presumably there are numerous other ways - but I underwent a transition between the way in which I was a Tolkien fan in my youth and pre-Christian adulthood, and what came afterwards - what is now.

The transition was gradual, over several years; and indeed fairly closely related to becoming a Christian - especially to reading and writing about the story The debate of Finrod and Andreth (‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’) - or the writing which I have dubbed "The marring of men":


In my youth, Tolkien's world provided an alternative reality. It was a reality, of some kind, and it was something into which I projected myself.

Of course, at the same time as volitionally-projecting I was also passively absorbed-into this world.

The world of Tolkien in fact provided a thread running through my life - which was realler than most of my life - at least in memory and retrospect.


This gave rise to the question of the status of this reality of Tolkien's world.

On the one hand the reality was not objective, not factual, because the world was imagined; on the other hand the world was solidly-subjective (therefore not just a matter of wishful thinking) and it seemed an error simply to reject the factual objectivity.

More needed to be said than that it was all imagination and fantasy.

But I could not see quite how to say it, short of considering the whole of human experience to be a matter of imagination (which brought other problems: not least relativism and solipsism - then nihilism).

Somehow - to be true to experience - Tolkien's fantasy world had to be real despite being imagined.


When I became a Christian (the processes being gradual rather than instant), all this remained; but the nature of the reality of Tolkien's world was different - because my understanding of the nature of imagination changed.

I began to regard imagination of the kind displayed by Tolkien (that is, subcreation) to have properties akin to the divine revelation  of prophets. So, the Lord of the Rings was in fact true and real because it was divinely inspired: its truths were revelations.

Naturally, this does not make sense if the truths are seen as detachable facts (e.g. as providing information on the history of elves, hobbits, orcs etc.).


So, the situation seems to be that Tolkien's world is in fact true, but not factually true: the truth is not in the facts, which are explicitly imagined but in something else behind the facts, linking the facts, or the form of the imagined world.

I cannot explain - even to myself, leave aside explain to other people - how this works; but I do know that it does work.

Reality - and I mean real-reality, objective - is communicated from God, via Tolkien, by means of imagination and fantasy; therefore, this world is not a delusion, nor wishful thinking, nor an assertion of subjectivity, not (ultimately) invented but instead something given; this is solid: something to build life on.


Saturday 11 May 2013

Three possible but not-existing Inklings collections I would love


1. A complete edition of the diaries of Warren Hamilton ('Warnie') Lewis - or if not complete then a selection at least treble the length of the current (absolutely wonderful, but far too brief) Brothers and Friends - edited by CS Kilby and ML Mead (1982).

2. A book named something like 'Walking tours of CS Lewis' - derived from his diaries and letters and lavishly illustrated with photographs and maps. 

3. A single volume, separate cover edition of The Notion Club Papers by JRR Tolkien.


Friday 10 May 2013

Tolkien and the new moon, rising - a surprising recurrent error

I tend to think of Tolkien as someone who was knowledgeable about the natural world, and the kind of person who (like myself) makes a point of looking at the moon when possible and following its phases. 

Certainly, it is known that the Lord of the Rings was interrupted for a prolonged spell in 1944-6 (when the Notion Club Papers were drafted) because of difficulty synchronizing the phases of the moon between different parts of the narrative. In fact he never quite managed to solve this problem - but it is a rather obscure matter, and doesn't mean much.

Yet Tolkien made the elementary mistake of recurrently describing his protagonists observing the New Moon Rising at night - when in fact the New Moon rises only during the day - after dawn, following the rising sun - indeed when it is newest the moon is invisible due to being lost in the light from the nearby sun.

(The time to see the New Moon is just after sunset, in the evening - when the New Moon is setting, not rising.)

Three examples:

The first comes from The Hobbit where Bard shoots Smaug the Dragon at the rising of the moon when the moon rose above the eastern shore and silvered [Smaug's] great wings... the waxing moon rose higher and higher.

Then we see something similar in the drafts of The Lord of the Rings published in the History of Middle Earth as The Return of the Shadow when Christopher Tolkien notes:

My father no doubt made this change on account of what he said about the Moon; for there was a waxing moon as the hobbits approached Weathertop, and it was 'nearly half-full' on the night of the attack: the attack was on 5 October...and there could not be a full or nearly full Moon on 24 September, the night passed with the Elves in the Woody End... On that night it must have been almost New Moon. … But it is an odd and uncharacteristic aberration that my father envisaged a New Moon rising late at night in the East.

Nonetheless, this mistake persisted into the published Lord of the Rings - so I conclude that the mistake was not uncharacteristic; but happened because JRR Tolkien believed that the moon could rise at night, after the sun had set; even when the moon was new or 'young' as he describes the rising moon after sunset at Weathertop in the published LotR. 

There is a further example when, in the house of Tom Bombadil, Frodo dreams about Gandalf, imprisoned on the tower of Orthanc:

In the dead night, Frodo lay in a dream without light. Then he saw the young moon rising; under its thin light there loomed before him a black wall of rock, pierced by a dark arch like a great gate.

That new moon rising, yet again! But why?

Perhaps it is related to the very origins of Tolkien's Legendarium, when he envisaged (as many people vaguely do) that the sun was created to illuminate the day, and the moon to illuminate the night - albeit going through phases or waxing and waning; so that there is always a light in the sky. 

From The Book of Lost Tales Volume 1 - Chapter: The Tale of the Sun and Moon:

...for twelve hours shall the Sunship sail the heavens and leave Valinor, and for twelve shall Silpion's pale bark [i.e. the moon] mount the skies, and there shall be rest for tired eyes and weary hearts.

It is strange, but perhaps not surprising, that such a belief (sun by day, moon by night) is so common given the contrary evidence avaiable to all - and that the crescent moon is mostly a daylight object if visible at all against the bright sky... 

But there, perhaps, is the answer. The moon is only noticed by most people when it is near the full, and such a moon is mostly a night sky object - so perhaps they assume (when they bother to think about it) that the moon is only visible at night, rising at dusk and setting at dawn...

Monday 6 May 2013

Was Tolkien envious? - a bleg


I keep coming across people ascribing envy to Tolkien, as if it were a sin to which he were particularly prone.

Especially people say Tolkien felt envy of C.S Lewis (e.g. Lewis's fluency as a writer, or his fame, or his friendship with Charles Williams) - but I cannot myself recall a single instance of Tolkien expressing envy about anything; and particularly not about his friend Jack Lewis. The emotion seems alien to him.

But please correct me if I am wrong - does anybody know of any instance in which Tolkien really was envious?


Saturday 4 May 2013

A plausible non-explanation for why Tolkien and Lewis's friendship cooled...


It is plausible that the cooling of the once-close friendship between Tolkien and Lewis, while real, may have been over-played and over-explained. 

After all, how many male friendships last longer than Tolkien and Lewis's? (Leaving aside those which begin in childhood and youth.)

Male friendship is usually based in an alliance, a collaboration, working on something together.

Hence men friends tend to grow apart when circumstances change and the no longer have a shared project.

Quite likely The Lord of the Rings was that shared project which held Lewis and Tolkien together - and the end of writing LotR simply reduced the strength of the main factor holding them close - rather than there being some other factor which drove them apart.

Perhaps their friendship weakened (it never disappeared) mostly due to the loss of a powerfully-attracting magnetic field (i.e. LotR) rather than the addition of a repellant force/s (such as Charles Williams, Narnia books or Joy Davidman). 

H/T - This interpretation arose from an e-mail exchange with Dr Christopher Mitchell of Wheaton College, Illinois.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

A random thought about NCPs


There is, as it stands - as it comes to us, a gratuitous quality to the Notion Club Papers. Where is it coming from? Where is it going? It hasn't found its place. Yet it isn't a story. It is about things - almost like an essay.


Tolkien travelling on a dream-meteor

This remarkable and strange passage from The Notion Club Papers is an instance where I infer that Tolkien is being - in essence - autobiographical.

Of course I cannot be sure, but Note 32 indicates one of several instances in the NCPs in which a very strange dream reported by Ramer is confirmed as autobiographical by Christopher Tolkien - and it seems reasonable to suppose there are others which Christopher either did not reference or which were not known to him (see references at the end).

For me, the extreme strangeness of these dreams (given that several are confirmed) is evidence towards their autobiographical nature - given the context of how and why the Notion Club Papers was written, and the intended audience of Inklings.


'But all the time, of course, I wanted to get off the Earth. That's how I got the notion of studying a meteorite, instead of mooning about with houses, ruins, trees, boulders, and all sorts of other things.

'There is a very large meteorite in a park, Gunthorpe Park in Matfield, where I lived as a boy, after we came back from abroad; even then it had a strange fascination for me. I wondered if it could have come from Malacandra. I took to hobnobbing with it again, in the vacs.

'Indeed, I made myself ridiculous and an object of suspicion. I wanted to visit the stone alone at night - to lessen the distractions; but I was not allowed to: closing hours were closing hours. So I gave that up. It seemed to be quite without results.'

'So the poor old stone was left all alone?' said Lowdham.

'Yes,' said Ramer. 'It was. It is a very long way indeed from home, and it is very lonely. That is, there is a great loneliness in it, for a perceiver to perceive.

'And I got a very heavy dose of it. In fact I can't bear to look at such things now. For I found, about the end of the long vac. two years ago, after my final visit, that there had been results. It had evidently taken some time to digest them, and even partially translate them. But that is how I first got away, out beyond the sphere of the Moon, and very much further.'

'Travelling on a dream-meteor!' said Frankley. 'Hm! So that's your method, is it?'

'No,' said Ramer. 'Not if you mean how I got the news of Emberu that I put into my tale. But I did work back into the meteorite's history, I think; though that sort of vehicle does not readily give any place or time references that can be related to our waking point.

'I did get, all the rest of that term, and I still do get occasionally, some very odd dreams or sleep-experiences: painful often, and alarming. Some were quite unpictorial, and those were the worst.

'Weight, for instance. Just Weight with a capital W: very horrible. But it was not a weight that was pressing on me, you understand; it was a perception of, or sympathy in, an experience of almost illimitable weight.(Note 34)

'And Speed too. Heavens! waking up from that one was like hitting a wall, though only a wall of light and air in my bedroom, at a hundred miles a second - or rather, like knowing about it.

'And Fire! I can't describe that. Elemental Fire: fire that is, and does not consume, but is a mode or condition of physical being. But I caught sight of blazing fire, too: some real pictures. One, I think, must have been a glimpse of the meteorite hitting our air. A mountain corroded into a boulder in a few seconds of agonizing flame.

'But above, or between, or perhaps through all the rest, I knew endlessness. That's perhaps emotional and inaccurate. I mean Length with a capital L, applied to Time; unendurable length to mortal flesh. In that kind of dream you can know about the feeling of aeons of constricted waiting.

'Being part of the foundations of a continent, and upholding immeasurable tons of rock for countless ages, waiting for an explosion or a world-shattering shock, is quite a common situation in parts of this universe. In many regions there is little or no "free will" as we conceive it. Also, though they are large and terrific, events may be relatively simple in plan, so that catastrophes (as we might call them), sudden changes as the end of long repeated series of small motions, are "inevitable": the present holds the future more completely. A perceiving but passive mind could see a collapse coming from an immense distance of time.

'I found it all very disturbing. Not what I wanted, or at least not what I had hoped for. I saw, anyway, that it would take far too much of a mortal human life to get so accustomed to this kind of vehicle that one could use it properly, or selectively, at will. I gave it up.

'No doubt, when any degree of control was achieved, my mind would no longer have been limited to that particular vehicle or chunk of matter. The waking mind is not confined to the memories, heredity, or senses, of its own normal vehicle, its body: it can use that as a platform to survey the surroundings from. 

'So, probably, it could, if it ever mastered another vehicle: it could survey, in some fashion, other things where the meteorite (say) came from, or things it had passed in its historical journey. But that second transference of observation would certainly be much more difficult than the first, and much more uncertain and inefficient.

Note 34 (by Christopher Tolkien): My father once described to me his dream of 'pure Weight', but I do not remember when that was: probably before this time.


See also