I first read Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings more than thirty years ago, and have re-read it and consulted it many times since. It was a very important book in establishing the identity of the Inklings in the public mind - and it has many virtues.
In most chapters, Carpenter is able to weave a tremendous amount of information into a fascinating (mostly) triple-threaded narrative; principally of CS Lewis and Charles Williams with a fair bit of Tolkien - but less emphasis on JRRT because Carpenter had published the authorised biography just a year earlier.
My favourite chapter is a really wonderful recreation of an Inklings evening during the 1940-44 period attended by Jack and Warnie Lewis, JRR Tolkien, 'Humphrey' Havard and Charles Williams. Carpenter achieves this by using a framework mostly derived from Warnie Lewis's diaries and adapting passages from then-published writings and other projects that were being worked-on by the participants during this period.
Aside from this chapter; it is Charles Williams who brings out the best of Carpenter - with a very sympathetic and inspiring depiction of Williams - of a kind which can never again be possible since the sordid revelations of Grevel Lindop's full and detailed biography. Carpenter reveals Williams as - above all - a really interesting person and writer; and that is perhaps the biggest favour he could have done for him.
I well remember that the first thing I did after reading The Inklings (while I was living as a don in Durham Castle and living a very 'Inklings' life while studying for a Masters research degree in English) was to read through everything by Charles Williams I could get my hands-on. Or, at least, attempt to read through them, which I found to be rather more difficult than I expected. Nonetheless, it was the start of a very long and detailed engagement with Williams, which continues.
And there are sketches and details about a wide range of others more or less closely associated with the Inklings; to make up a delightful tapestry or cross section of middle twentieth century intellectual and literary life in England.
Forty years down the line, however - with all that has been published on the Inklings since, and with my now perspective of being an elderly Christian - I can see that there are many and fundamental faults in the book. These only partly derive from Carpenter's relative lack of material - this shows itself especially in the many (albeit mostly small, but cumulatively distorting) factual errors relating to CS Lewis's biography.
The main problem is that Carpenter was a young man; atheist, left-wing and very 'mainstream', 'trendy' and debunking in his perspectives and evaluations - in sum, just about the worst possible angle from-which to evaluate the Inklings! Consequently, when Carpenter steps-back from the narrative to reflect on the group or the individuals, there are some insidiously dreadful passages, especially in reference to CS Lewis!
Most importantly is the chapter entitled 'A fox that isn't there' in which he attempts to prove - by increasingly elaborate, tendentious and self-contradicting reasoning - that the Inklings was nothing more than a group of Jack Lewis's friends enjoying convivial evenings.
This assertion has since been conclusively refuted by several people since - notably Diana Pavlac Glyer, in The Company they Keep (2007); which establishes by detailed and specific documentation the large extent of mutual interaction of the Inklings considered as writers. And this blog has been, for the past decade, accumulating evidence that the Inklings also had an extremely important, indeed growing, role of a spiritual and social nature.
Throughout, Carpenter is an exponent of Bulverism in simply assuming the wrongness of views that were not then fashionable in Carpenter's circle, and trying to explain them in terms of disordered psychology.
For example, on pages 206-7, Carpenter lists several of CS Lewis's conservative views concerning taxation, private education, the badness of egalitarianism, and his Christian ultimate-indifference to the threat of nuclear destruction from The Bomb. Carpenter then implicitly assumes we share his belief that these are obviously wrong and proceeds (in terms dripping with the unearned condescension of an upper class, privately-educated, narrowly-experienced, pseudo-rebellious son of a bishop): 'These views are perhaps more understandable when one remembers that [Lewis] was brought up in middle-class Belfast society, where constant vituperation was poured upon the then equivalent of the Left... and when one realises that such things did not interest him very much'.
In sum, it seems obvious now that in evaluating the nature and importance of the Inklings, Carpenter discovered only what he wanted to find - and overlooked that of which he disapproved. Indeed, the book as a whole seems like an attempt to establish that the Inklings are of significant interest only to those with a gossipy fascination with the internal sociology of Oxford University: apparently hoping to put the Inklings into a box marked 'Trivial'.
All of which may seem a fairly extraordinary negative motivation for a biographer, but it is one that has been common since Lytton Strachey - and which perhaps reached its peak with Lawrance Thompson's attempted assassination of Robert Frost's reputation. Carpenter went on to do similar hatchet-jobs in, for example, Secret Gardens (about children's literature authors) and The Angry Young Men (about Colin Wilson and his circle).
Yet, in the end, Humphrey Carpenter failed in his attempt to throw the Inklings into the dustbin of irrelevance; because overall the book had the opposite effect of its intent - awakening for many, such as myself, a long-term and intense fascination with a 'group of friends' who were also, in reality, so much more than merely that.