Inklings of Belief

By Folks, Jeffrey; Zaleski, Philip et al. | Modern Age, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Inklings of Belief


Folks, Jeffrey, Zaleski, Philip, Zaleski, Carol, Modern Age


In The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings--J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, Philip and Carol Zaleski have written a superb history of the group of writers and thinkers that included, in addition to the luminaries named in the subtitle, such figures as Hugo Dyson, Robert Havard, ford David Cecil, Nevill Coghill, Lewis's brother Warnie, and Tolkien's son Christopher. The Inklings, one learns, were accomplished in many forms of literary endeavor and, in a few cases, in nonliterary pursuits as well. Members of the group wrote fiction, poetry, essays, and academic studies, and several pursued careers in law, medicine, and the church.

What united them was a love of learning, a devotion to the Christian tradition, and a profound concern for the current state of Western civilization. As such, they became deeply involved in cultural disputes concerning the relationship of man to God, the nature of society, the role of education, and the proper modes of reading and criticism. Their inherent traditionalism put them at odds with the intellectual consensus of their day and in particular with that prevailing at Oxford and Cambridge.

It is reassuring to know that, long before the rise of contemporary literary criticism dominated by radical approaches such as deconstruction and identity politics, all of it classifiable under the heading of "Theory," a group of Christian thinkers at Oxford fought valiantly, if not always successfully, against Theory's predecessor: the so-called scientific criticism of LA. Richards and the dogmatic professionalism, with its criterion of "seriousness," of F. R. Leavis. The Inklings' rebuttal of Richards and Leavis was based on a clear-sighted view of literature as an endeavor that held inestimable worth in its own right. Artistic creation must not be understood as the handmaiden of "greater" ideological purposes, nor must it be seen as merely psychological or autobiographical expression.

Storytelling is an essential human activity that stems from man's attempts to know the shape and order of life and the relationship of human existence to a higher order of truth. It follows that the study of literature must allow for the greatest freedom of insight and interpretation, particularly as concerns the mind's longing for enrichment and order. The sine qua non of this approach is an unshakable respect for the wholeness of existence consequent upon the presence of divinity in the created world. Scientific and programmatic approaches would seem to require its practitioners to adhere to the opposite path: the demotion and ultimate abolition of the humanities so understood in the face of the presumed importance of ideological goals based on utilitarianism, social justice, or some other quantifiable scheme.

The Inklings shared the conviction that modern literature from the Victorians up to their present constituted a decisive break with the past, both in its hostility toward Christianity and in its rejection of meaning altogether. As Lewis pointed out in De Description Temporum, his inaugural lecture as the first occupant of the chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge, the rise of nihilistic movements such as surrealism and Dadaism, not to mention the increasing politicization of the arts and humanities that followed, testified to this break with the past. These developments were accompanied by the rise of a machine culture that constituted perhaps the greatest threat of all since it was, as the Inklings saw it, the means by which the forces of unbelief could control the world. As it is, that same struggle for the preservation of humanity informs the rebellious tradition of the faerie, running from Spenser and Shakespeare through the Romantics and late Victorians such as George MacDonald and William Morris. As Tolkien wrote in his lecture "On Fairy-Stories," fairy tales are a crucial embodiment of the most essential human aspirations: those of recovery, escape, and consolation in the face of those forces that limit the human imagination to the here and now. …

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