Monday 22 July 2019

Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings - 1978

 The paperback version I owned until it fell to pieces from frequent use

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.


Keri Ford said...

I haven't read it and probably not much point now as I have read the Zaleski's book on the Inklings. But from what you say it also seems as though Owen Barfield doesn't play much of a part in it, which strikes me as leaving out a large part of the intellectual seriousness of the Inkings. You did make the recreation of the Inklings meeting seem fascinating, maybe creating a book length version of that could be a task for someone.
I do have Carpenter's biography of Tolkien and it is the only one I have read, it doesn't stick in my mind much it seemed ok, do you think he sold Tolkien short?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Keri - No, there isn't much about Barfield in this book - not enough to give any real understanding of him. For Carpenter, who sees the Inklings as a *social* group; Barfield was not very important because he was not often present at the meetings. Barfield said he might have attended about 6 or 8 actual (Thursday evening) meetings (this is not to be taken as an exact estimate, since it was recalled some fifty years later), when he happened to be staying with Lewis.

But when Barfield is regarded as a contributor to the 'group mind' or to the ideas and writings of CS Lewis, he becomes much more important - as the Zaleski's recognise. And (following RJ Reilly) spiritually, I would regard Barfield as The Key to both Tolkien and Lewis. But this kind of analysis is utterly absent from carpenter - he would have regarded it as utterly ridiculous! (Which is exactly the problem with him.)

Strangely, Carpenter's biography of Tolkien hasn't really been superceded; although there are many corrections to be found scattered across many books and articles written since; including the biographical work done on CSL. Lewis has attracted far more serious biographical study than Tolkien - with at least three major full biographies worth reading.

I suspect that the Tolkien estate has discouraged further serious biographies, perhaps while T's children Christopher and Priscilla remain alive. For example, there are many letters that have never been released.

The best extra biographical sources on Tolkien to supplement Carpenter 1977 are John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War, and the Chronology part of Scull and Hammond's Tolkien Companion and Guide; which has a detailed, sometimes almost daily, account of his doings - with many snippet quotes.

Wurmbrand said...

Raymond Edwards's TOLKIEN seemed to me a very good biography. It deserves to be better known.

The Zaleskis' Inklings book was interesting, but must be faulted. For example, they characterize Lewis's very fine novel Till We Have Faces as almost unreadable. (I don't recall their exact words.) It is a shame to see them as it were warning off people from reading such a wise and imaginative book. They may be faulted for some criticism of Williams's fiction too, as if All Hallows' Eve was just pulp. Their book's worth reading -- warily. They seem to be Christians, but of a mildly liberal sort I imagine.

Dale Nelson

Bruce Charlton said...

wrt The Zaleski Inklings:

And Till we have faces:

I have not read Edwards's Tolkien because it seemed to have nothing new in it; but maybe I was wrong.

wrt All Hallows Eve - I would say it was the best written of William's novels, overall - but I don't like it in the way I like Place of the Lion, which I have re-read many times; nor did I find it as interesting as Descent into Hell.

The first sort-of biography by Tolkien was by William Ready (1969); which is so extremely bad as to be almost enjoyable.

Another terrible book about Tolkien IMO was the bio by Daniel Grotta (1976).

Anonymous said...

Thinking aloud, I wonder how far Humphrey Carpenter may have implicitly taken into account the existence of the Hooper & Green Lewis biography (1974) with its attention to Barfield, as well as his own Tolkien bio, as forming part of the background to The Inklings book? A great thing about it, as with his Tolkien, is the amount of new material he includes, not least lots of quotations, from unpublished sources.

One might in this context consider to what an extent his edition of (selected) Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1981) complements not only the Tolkien biography but the Inklings book with further detailed matter.

That imagined Inklings evening is fine - and he kindly gave us permission to read it aloud dramatically in the Lewis Society, which worked splendidly.

You are right about the attention to Williams - which, in being the first work to attend to Phyllis Jones and quote her, as well as bringing Lois Lang-Sims's autobiography to wider attention, also introduced us to the darker sides of Williams, without reducing him to them. He encouraged further attention to Williams by agreeing to supervise my work on the unpublished Arthurian material, and, as he gave me to understand, and indeed as she says herself in her acknowledgements (p. ix), by helping facilitate Mrs. Hadfield getting her second book on Williams published in 1983.

I wish I could remember exactly how Dame Helen Gardner expressed her qualified dissatisfaction with the Inklings book to me, which I remember in terms of something like, not sufficiently capturing them as she knew them.

Checking the date of R.J. Reilly's book, just now, I see he passed away on 10 May 2016, but also that a website dedicated to him and his work is online:

as well as his Facebook page.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Thanks.

In his introductory remarks, Carpenter did make clear that the Inklings book was to be regarded as 'complementary' to his Tolikien bio, in that he would not be trying to cover the same ground.

wrt new material - I certainly agree. Carpenter was extremely good at weaving in a great deal of material - including primary sources - in a way that was also fluent and readable. Whenever I re-read sections, I am amazed at how much there is in such a modestly sized book. This could be contratsed with the much-less-skilled Alistair McGrath in his Lewis biography, where all new material is given in a very wordy and emphatic style.

Carpenter does not cite Reilly's Romantic Religion - for whatever reason. He may not have known it, at that time it was only available in th eedition from a small US university press; or he may have regarded it as unimportant, or just bracketed Reilly with the unnamed authors whom Capenter criticises for regarding the Inklings as Oxford Christians (I assume he mostly means Moorman's book, which I haven't read). Either way, it means that Carpenter's account of Barfield's achievement is superficial - whereas the Zaleski's (having read and assimilated Reilly) capture Barfield's essence.

In a nutshell, I think Carpenter was already, in the later 1970s, set on a trajectory that led hism away from the Inklings, such that his later comments are increasingly condescending to the group (especially Tolkien) - and the same applies to general culture. In retrospect it is easy to see the roots of this divergence in Carpenter's book - but when I first read it (in 1987) this was much less evident; plus, I myself was then a participant in that general culture.

Anonymous said...

You may well be right about the "trajectory" - which makes me the more think it good he wrote the Tolkien biography and the Inklings book when he did: as (I should say) not "a participant in that general culture", I was surprised when I got some sense of it - but am not sure when that was... I see his Jesus was published in 1980, and remember thinking how comical it was to put Our Living Lord in something called the "Past Masters Series", but have a sense of thinking he could not be blamed for that (other than accepting the job), and don't remember browsing it. I see too that his W.H. Auden appeared in 1981, it seems before he agreed to supervise me (I can't recall when he had started supervising Lorna Fergusson's work on Tolkien) - but further can't recall when I either read detailed reviews of it, and/or browsed it, but think of it as giving me that surprising sense of what seemed "a trajectory". Maybe that was somehow belatedly, as the vivid picture in my mind's eye of him working away in the Bodleian - with huge stack after stack of books - on The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, seems distinct from it... How the Tolkien Letters fit into this, I don't know, either - but am very glad to have it (and the assorted additions Christopher has made in the course of his editions), while wishing we had a lot more! (And wondering what-all he had to choose from which we (still!) don't have, yet - and how the assorted Tolkienian barbs about Lewis which were included fit into the 'big picture'.)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Good stuff.

It took me a while to realise that HC was not as sympathetic to Tolkien or the Inklings, as I had assumed. It happened when I was watching a documentary about Tolkien, probably around 2000, and maybe one associated with the Jackson movies; by by that time HC has a dopted a noticeably sneering and superior tone to at least some aspects of Tolkien, and perhaps especially many Tolkien devotees such as ourselves (I think he used the dismissive term 'anoraks' to smear the kind of people who learn elvish and the like). HC communicated that he thought such enthusiasm excessive and infra dig.

So I now think it useful for readers to know that there was a less than perfect sympathy between biographer and subject - HC and Tolkien/ Inklings were coming-from different places and aiming at different ends.

However, I intirely agree that HC was a an excellent scholar and writer in these books; his capacity to grasp and assimilate masses of material, then to express it i prose with a clear and enjoyable concision, is unsurpassed in my experience. The evidence is that I have re-read all these books *many* times.

I picked up the Tolkien Letters again after reading your comment, and it is a superb book; the single most interesting and enjoyable book of letters I've read; very well edited, and done with minimal fuss and intrusion from the editor.

Ultimately, however, I yearn for a Tolkien (and Inklings) 'scholarship' (thoughtful reading, informed thinking) which has profound sympathy with the spiritual perspective of one or more of these men; and is working from the basis that they were essentially right, are very 'relevant' here and now, and is trying to take this further in actual life.

Fortunately, I have quite a few 'penfriends' and blog commenters who are in agreement, and who are doing exactly this - yourself included!

Anonymous said...

He cheerfully lent me his notebook with a lot of excerpts from Williams's correspondence, not least in the Wade, and was justly satisfied with what a 'quick study' he could be, as in this case - how much important matter he noted in, I think, about a week there - I could extract a great basis for a lot of 'composition history' from that, in addition to what he'd done with it in his book. He had had good contacts with Michael Williams, and kindly put me in touch with him - and had given me what I needed to get in touch with Phyllis Jones, too - but had also passed me on to Anne Ridler for supervision of my work, who was very generous and helpful in so many ways, but thought we had better consult Mrs. Hadfield (whom I knew in a friendly way from the Williams Society) in this case, and she sadly put the kibosh on it at once.

I thoroughly agree about the proper sort of scholarship - but am glad that at the time of writing Humphrey Carpenter was not (to my mind) out of sympathy in a way earnestly to mitigate or mar his work. It is astonishing - I think, especially where Lewis is concerned - how many writers want to 'docket' him and box him safely away with condescending sympathy at best. E.g., how did someone so good on Williams as Brian Horne come to invite Richard Harries to lecture on Lewis, and how did Collins come to publish C.S. Lewis: The Man and His God (1987)? But perhaps those inviting and commissioning don't (or even, can't) always know well enough what or who they are getting involved with.

David Llewellyn Dodds