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But probably there is now not much extra material, and what is unpublished is almost certainly not as good as what has been published; and anyway the material may be inaccessible to us.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