The Centre of the Inklings: Lewis? Williams? Barfield? Tolkien?

By Glyer, Diana Pavlac | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Centre of the Inklings: Lewis? Williams? Barfield? Tolkien?


Glyer, Diana Pavlac, Mythlore


Introduction

ONE ISSUE FREQUENTLY DEBATED among Inklings scholars is the question of which member served as the center of that group. Most often, people claim that C.S. Lewis is the center, that he is in some sense responsible for the group's existence, and that he is the one who provided the glue that held them all together. Humphrey Carpenter, for example, tells us that "The Inklings owed their existence as a group almost entirely to [Lewis]" (Inklings xiii). Later in the same book, Carpenter defines the Inklings as a group of Lewis's friends: "The group gathered round him, and in the end one does not have to look any further than Lewis to see why it came into being" (171, emphasis added).

Many others champion Lewis as the group's central figure. Joan McClusky defines the Inklings as "a group of C.S. Lewis' admirers and friends" (35). Colin Duriez says, "'The Inklings' embodied C.S. Lewis' ideals of life and pleasure. In fact, he was the life and soul of the party" (Lewis Handbook 88), and again, the Inklings were "a literary group of friends held together by the zest and enthusiasm of C.S. Lewis" (Tolkien Handbook 134). Katharyn F. Crabbe writes, "Lewis was the center around which the 'Inklings' [...] formed" (19). Jared Lobdell says that the Inklings were "essentially Lewis's creation" (6). Daniel Grotta calls Lewis the "fountainhead" of the group (92). Sebastian Knowles says "Lewis was the lynch-pin of the group" (132). Mitzi Brunsdale calls them "Lewis's group" (170). Gareth Knight says, "Lewis may be regarded as the mainspring of the Inklings" (6), and again, "Its membership varied over the years but its effective center of gravity was C. S. Lewis" (1).

If you look at some of the statements made by the Inklings themselves, it becomes clear where this conviction is coming from. Dr. R.E. Havard, for example, has asserted, "In my view we were simply a group of C.S.L.'s wide circle of friends who lived near enough to him to meet together fairly regularly" (qtd. in Carpenter Inklings 161). Elsewhere, Havard says, "[Lewis] was the link that bound us all together. When he was no longer able to meet us, the link was snapped" (Havard 353). (1) According to Charles Moorman, "both Tolkiens remember Lewis as the firm center of the group" (29n12). Tolkien himself describes the Inklings as "the undetermined and unelected circle of friends who gathered about C.S.L." (Letters 388) and again as "the circle of C.S. Lewis" (Treason 85).

In considering these claims, it is useful to point out that there are others who contest this Lewis-centric approach and argue that although Lewis certainly played an essential role, other members serve as this group's true core. In an early article, Glen GoodKnight emphasizes the importance of Charles Williams to the group, and GoodKnight is among the first to describe Williams's role as the "catalyst" for what happened in the meetings (8). And although Gareth Knight tends to favor Lewis as central to the group, he also emphasizes the transforming presence of Charles Williams:

   It would seem that Lewis and Williams had a strong catalytic effect
   upon one another, for it is after their meeting that we find a
   spark entering C. S. Lewis's writing that transformed him from a
   little-known academic to a popular literary figure. (8)

Again, Knight writes that this friendship with Williams "influenced Lewis to a considerable degree in the period immediately prior to his bursting into prominence as a Christian apologist and writer of metaphysical science fiction" (153). The suggestion, of course, is that the timing is not coincidental, and that Williams is to a very large extent responsible for Lewis's transformation.

According to Knight, Williams had a similar impact on the Inklings as a group. Before Williams, the group lacked focus and literary effectiveness; after Williams, "a critical mass was reached in the alchemical crucible of the Inklings" (244). …

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