Saturday 1 April 2023

What more can we do with The Inklings (and Notion Club Papers)? Scholarship, Criticism, Philosophy, Fanfiction?

There is always, eventually, a finite amount given us of what we most like and find most important

For example, it seems as if not much more will be discovered about The Inklings; and The Notion Club Papers is incomplete, inconsistent and tantalizingly brief. 

So, apart from re-reading the same material; what can we do?

The classic answer within academic English Literature is some combination of scholarship and criticism. 

Scholarship such as 'editorial' activities - especially examining the primary source material (the actual manuscript evidence). For example, there is (so he tells us) more material from the Notion Club Papers that Christopher Tolkien did not include in his published version. Maybe we, or someone else, will find and publish this extra stuff, sooner or later.

This is what happened with The Lord of the Rings; when - after JRR Tolkien died - his son Christopher made available earlier drafts and much excluded and additional material. This has provided, for some people including myself, a way of extending the experience of reading LotR and inhabiting its world, beyond the core text itself.   

But probably there is now not much extra material, and what is unpublished is almost certainly not as good as what has been published; and anyway the material may be inaccessible to us. 

Similarly, the accounts of Inklings meetings - in journals, letters and other references - have probably nearly all been discovered and published - and what is yet to come is likely to be of lesser significance and less enjoyable. 

We could therefore move on to literary criticism, in its broadest sense; and while this is in theory without limit  in practice, there are only so many valid and interesting critical things to say that capture the spirit of the original - and that is surely what we crave.

We want more of that which attracted us in the first place. We don't just want to read 'about' it - but to explore deeper and further the same spirit. 

The most obvious (and satisfying) is literary biography - and that was the way in which The Inklings first became known; via books and essays about the group itself; and by (more or less detailed) references to the group in biographies of CS Lewis, Charles Williams and JRR Tolkien. 

Such biographical investigation can be extended to accounts of other Inklings - and their works. I have explored Owen Barfield, Warnie Lewis and Neville Coghill - in this spirit; and done some research into Robert 'Humphrey' Havard

This blog takes a further approach: which is philosophical. 

I am trying to understand and extract the philosophy of The Inklings and Notion Club; and then to explore and extend that philosophy in an open-ended fashion... In whatever manner and direction that I find to be valuable in my life. 

This philosophical approach is open-ended and - when done in the proper spirit and with proper motivations (and for those who enjoy and appreciate philosophical thinking) - its reward is exactly of the kind craved; which is to say that it is 'more of the same kind of thing' - it feels like part of the same 'world', and it engages me because I have participated in its creation and it arises from some need of other personal impulse. 

And philosophy can be done by private thinking, through writing - whether or not published; and by discussion - whether face-to-face, or through some kind of correspondence. 

But not many people enjoy and appreciate philosophy, and therefore they cannot appreciate 'the spirit' in a philosophical sense. And there may is another possibility which could be called Fanfiction. Which is to use 'the world' of The Inklings of Notion Club as the basis for some kind of fiction.

This could, in principle, be in any fictional form: novel, short story, drama - on the TV, movies, theatre or a small group. Or by the newer form of actual Fanfiction websites. 

Fanfiction is probably the form most directly addressed to the problem of providing 'more of the same kind-of-thing' - and then it is a question of how well this is done, and the depth at which it is achieved. 

Perhaps the most famous Inklings Fanfiction was the chapter 'Thursday Evenings' in Humphrey Carpenter's influential group-biography The Inklings. In this, Carpenter brilliantly synthesizes an ideal or 'representative' meeting of JRR Tolkien, the Lewis brothers, Havard, and Charles Williams during the early Second World War; using material from journals, letters and published articles - as well as his own invention. 

There exists at least one good quality Notion Club Papers fanfiction - a very brief story by "Shakespearianfish". More could, in principle, continue to fill-in or extend the original texts. 

I have myself attempted (in 2011) a summary and speculative 'Treatment' (as if for a movie) of how Tolkien might, eventually, have completed the NCPs - which was also posted as part of a Companion to the NCPs, first published in 2012. Although I cannot write fiction; preparing this essay provided me with exactly the kind of experience of 'inhabiting' the spiritual world of the Notion Club Papers that I have been describing. 

Of course; some (maybe most) Fanfiction is very superficial (eg focusing on romantic relationship - so called "shipping", which may extend into pornography); some is satirical or in other ways subversive of the primary work. 

Therefore - whether deliberately, or in its actual effect - Fanfiction can damage the primary experience of the primary material; and may tend to cloud or poison its spirit. But the same applies to literary biography, criticism, and even scholarship (by tendentious reasoning or merely through narrow or dull pedantry).  

Scholarship and Criticism, Philosophy and Fanfiction, are all potential responses to that yearning we may get for some phenomenon that engages us powerfully, and which evokes a spirit that we wish to sustain at least - and perhaps to explore and learn-from. 


No Longer Reading said...

Good post.

Another is going further into the past, for instance learning about the times when the Inklings lived or the times that influenced their times. Or reading things in a similar tradition such as the Romantics and Steiner.

Then also doing what the Inklings themselves did and making new creative works inspired by the Inklings or their works.

William Wright (WW) said...

Perhaps less of a suggestion of what to do with the Notion Club Papers, and more of what to do and explore because of the Notion Club Papers.

It is possible that the NCP exists in the first place because Tolkien himself was processing the increasingly inescapable thought that the language and stories that were bursting out of his mind and becoming the LOTR were not merely fiction, but were based in reality. Furthermore, not only was the story possibly history, but that he had had a role to play as a character in that same story. These themes or ideas, in addition to others, are present in the short story and discussion arcs of the NCP Inkling-based characters, and I believe are Tolkien expressing or alluding to these thoughts through them.

Once you accept that it is possible the stories are true (or based on truth), then a whole series of new and interesting avenues of exploration open up.

One such avenue is the connection of Tolkien's world with the world that Joseph Smith had been creating a century before - early Mormonism or whatever one would call it. Given your interest in both topics, Bruce, this could be an area of exploration for you.

Far from it being just an academic exercise, it might also be personally very rewarding for you and others in opening up a world that you might also find your own story in.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW - Good comment!

I agree with your diagnosis of why Tolkien wrote the NCPs, and that the way in which his own languages and stories were true was a major preoccupation.

And all truths are mutually coherent - insofar as they are true, which often takes discovering - so such connections can be expected. Which particular exploratory route we take (here and now) depends on what might be termed intuitive motivations.

Sean G. said...

Great comment WW.

I started reading the Book of Mormon a few years ago when my church declared itself non-essential. I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by the text and began praying regularly and with increasing desperation for God to to reveal to me whether the book was true or not.

On one such occasion I received a surprising answer. If I can paraphrase an instantaneous and wordless revelation it was “You already know it’s true, same as you already know Lord of the Rings is true, but you haven’t begged me for that answer”

At the time I took it to mean “it’s not literally true but it is *Good* and worth reading. I have since understood the revelation to mean, not that it was less true than I was asking, but that it was significantly MORE true. This has serious implications beyond the Book of Mormon. At the time my question (as I understood it) was on shaky ground. It’s as if God was feeding me mana from heaven, nourishing and sustaining me, but I kept pleading with God to tell me if it was *really* food.

I think that in my heart I knew it was true but I was pleading with God to reconcile this truth with my limited and flawed perspective— which has thankfully broadened in large part due to your posts, Bruce, on Father Christmas and Calvin’s good friend Hobbes, as well reading as Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances.

I now know that the Book of Mormon is true as is Lord of the Rings. I wonder to what degree Tolkien understood this.

Did you ever finish the Book of Mormon, Bruce? I only recently did. It’s worth reading cover to cover. It now sits with Lord of the Rings in my small selection of books to read and reread forever.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Sean G - Yes I read the Book of Mormon all through (more than a decade ago), and some parts more than once. I agree that it is true in the way you say, and was divinely inspired, and that Joseph Smith was a genuine prophet.

The main influence of Mormonism has been, however, the metaphysics and theology - which is hardly a part of the BoM (except for the focus on personal revelation); and only emerged gradually and later.

The BoM has never held the central place for me that is occupied by the Fourth Gospel. For recent years, that has been my main - almost exclusive - scriptural reading.

I'm not recommending this for others, we all need to beat our own path; but that is how things have been for me.

Sean G. said...

It’s fascinating how little of Mormon theology is in the BOM but it seems to me that the mysteries of this book cannot be so easily penetrated. But I agree that we should ride our own waves or beat our own path as you say. There is no formula.

If I was forced to choose one I might stick with the fourth gospel which seems to say more with far less.

William Wright (WW) said...

My view is that the bible is a Satanic counterfeit engineered with intent to blind minds and keep Men in captivity, and thus should be approached with significant caution. I unfortunately have to include John's gospel in there until demonstrated otherwise, notwithstanding the likely significant amount of truth I believe it holds. And as Bruce mentions, we all have our own paths and experiences, so I can only speak to mine.

I also, as part of this view, hold the BOM to be an opening move in a much larger game by agents of Heaven to set us free from that blindness and captivity. I say opening move because the BOM is quite clear in stating that even greater stories and words than what it contains are yet to come, and which, based on results so far, are very necessary given that even the various churches that most closely align themselves with the BOM I would consider to be blind and captive.

This is one of the reasons, I think, that the NCP speaks somewhat to me. I actually consider it prophetic in outlining or sketching how I think those stories or words will come and what they will do. Through magical and miraculous means, ancient stories are brought back into being. These stories not only help people believe or understand something long forgotten, but also enable or bring about real creative power, including the restoration of both the spiritual and literal/ physical link with Heaven.

Anonymous said...

The considerable additions in The Nature of Middle-earth to the description of Númenor given in Unfinished Tales has me wondering how much more there may well be of 'legendarium-material'- as I have wondered when encountering additions to Tolkien letters in History of Middle-earth volumes, how many unpublished (parts of) letters are there. Arend Smilde is collected numerous uncollected C.S. Lewis letters, and Don King in his recent biography of Warnie quotes new things from the diaries - and new parts of entries already pubished in part in Brothers and Friends, and notes there are unpublished Inklings references. And I wonder what-all may be in Raymond Hunt's papers (and correspondence with Williams) - so there is probably lots of interesting 'stuff' still 'out there': let us indeed hope "Maybe we, or someone else, will find and publish this extra stuff, sooner or later" - and the sooner the better and the more the merrier!

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - There are certainly plenty of unpublished Tolkien letters that I would find interesting; and Warnie wrote accounts of all his walking holidays with Jack - of which only a couple were published in the rather slim published selection from his journals. Warnie was such a good diarist that there must be another volume or two's worth of stuff that would be of interest to his 'fans' such as myself. But publication may not be commercially viable - since the original (marvelous) Brothers and Friends never got reprinted.

Anonymous said...

It is heart-breaking to think "the original (marvelous) Brothers and Friends never got reprinted" and is not readily available - Don King's book and it complement each other - but how easily can readers see that, unless they can read a library copy of Brothers and Friends? It seems to me there would be an enthusiastic readership for, say, a series of topical selections, complementing - or republishing more completely as well - the Brothers and Friends selections on the Inklings, the Tolkiens, the walking tours, Warnie's wartime experiences, Joy Davidman and her sons, for five examples... How much of the 'homework' for something like this must Don King have done already? "But publication may not be commercially viable", indeed - how might one get around that? A modern 'crowdfunding' analogy of the Eighteenth-century (etc.) 'publication by subscription'?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Anonymous said...

Rereading around in Brothers and Friends while reading Dr. King's biography, I encountered a reference by Warnie to The Notion Club Papers which I had forgotten (22 August 1946) - I wonder if there are any more (or, indeed, if there might be any more to this entry}?

David LLewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@DLD - Warnie's reference to the NCPs (using a slightly different name) was an important confirmation of the dates of writing. Although brief, it sounds as if the work was appreciated by the Inklings.