This week we began our reading of Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, and this biography of C.S.Lewis, Tolkien, and Charles Williams certainly divided opinion in the group.
Ian began the business of the afternoon with his observation that the book presents unbiased opinions of the subjects – including Tolkien – something we have not had to deal with before. Ian noted that this includes the many similarities between the childhoods of Tolkien and Lewis, and the differences between the grown men.
Mike threw down the gauntlet when he remarked that he had read further than the 3 first chapters and had enjoyed the reading, but had come to really dislike Lewis. Mike also observed that Carpenter does a good job of delving into the psychology of the man.
It was noted that the first section of the book is devoted mainly to Lewis with occasional references to Tolkien as appropriate to the chronology of Lewis’s academic life.
Mike went on to remark that, as far as he had read,the description of Lewis and his prolific publication rate actually reveals the extent to which he ‘parasitised’ other writers, including Tolkien. His ‘borrowing’ of special words, such as ‘Numenor’ only slightly altered, into his own work, was mentioned in passing. It was also felt in the group that Tolkien was not ‘streetwise’ enough to object to what his friend was doing.
Lewis’s belittling of Tolkien was picked up by Ian who cited Lewis’s comment on Tolkien ‘No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.’ Laura picked up this theme with her observation of Lewis’s strange comment that Tolkien ‘is a smooth, pale, fluent little chap’. Laura challenged the idea that Tolkien was physically undersized in the way this suggests.
We were beginning to question the terms of the Lewis/Tolkien friendship when Ian noted that their friendship developed when Tolkien’s home life was rather difficult.
Laura changed the theme of the discussion when she remarked on the different teaching techniques employed by Lewis and Tolkien: Lewis created rhyming mnemonics to help his students cope with the patterns of sound change in Germanic languages while Tolkien on the other hand ‘performed’ the language – famously reciting chunks of Beowulf. We thought this would be livelier and offer a better sense of the language.
Anne was interested in Lewis’s naming of a positive inner essence he felt as ‘joy’, and then his eventual love for a woman named ‘Joy’. Anne suggested this might have been an unconscious choice based nevertheless on a feeling that Joy was this inner essence personified.
Laura went on to remark on the difference between the Norse myth that inspired Lewis’s love of northernness and the Old English phrase that inspired Tolkien: Lewis admitted to the powerful effect on his young mind of the statement in one Norse myth: ‘Balder is dead.’ Tolkien similarly made no secret of the seminal influence of the OE salutation from the poem Christ, ‘Eala Earendel…’. Laura picked out the difference between the sonorous power of the Norse statement and the joyful tone of the OE, and observed that while the OE seemed to stay with Tolkien as an influence throughout his creative life, the impact of the Norse statement on Lewis seemed to have no such pervasive and long-lasting power over his creativity.
Anne then commented approvingly on Tolkien’s poetry, as reiterated in the biography, and elsewhere, and wondered how, given his powerful poetic style, he could ever have expressed his admiration for Njal’s Saga!
I admitted to feeling much the same reluctance to go on reading The Inklings that Anne had expressed over reading the Saga. We have clearly very different tastes in our choice of reading in some instances, but similar responses when we feel something is unengaging and we have other books waiting to be read. The reading and exchange of responses can be very enlightening about ones’ own attitudes, and I realised that I disliked the biography because of its clearly created elements, although I had no problem with these in Njal’s Saga because they were so obviously part of an oral tradition.
Vicki, however, brought a welcome lightness to the discussion when she drew attention to the description of serious academics actually cheating during a translation session that was entirely voluntary and a matter of personal interest for those who had joined the Kolbitars’ (Coalbiters’) ‘club’.
Ian then picked up Laura’s observations concerning the effects of the Norse myth on Lewis and the OE quote on Tolkien, and remarked that they show to 2 different approaches to Northernness, and Tolkien ‘gets behind’ the words and meanings to develop their origins in his own work. Lewis did not work in the same way. Ian commented that the different approaches of all the Inklings produced a dynamic that contributed to their individual creativity, and that it is easy to miss this in the dominant focus on Lewis and Tolkien, but by devoting the first chapters to Lewis, Carpenter drags us out of our focus on Tolkien. Anne asked if that actually added to the interest in Tolkien and Ian replied that it did.
Ian went on to wonder whether Carpenter had read the Notion Club Papers before writing the biography, because, as we shall later discover, his description of an Inklings meeting is highly reminiscent of Tolkien’s description of the meetings of the Notion Club. Apparently, all attempts to elicit further information on the reading/writing sequence from those who might have provided it has proved unsuccessful in ways that suggest the information could be out there. We of course draw our own conclusions from this.
Mike remarked that the biography shows that Lewis wanted to take ownership of whatever he was involved in. Vicki thought the difficulties of Lewis’s childhood: his mother’s early death and the bullying he suffered at boarding school explained his faults. Anne then compared the bleakness of his early bereavement with his predisposition towards northern bleakness – his emotional state was echoed by this – but both she and Laura thought the geographic bleakness was seen to consolidate and fortify the individual and thus became a consolation.
Laura took this a little further when she noted that Carpenter does not spend much time on Lewis being bullied, but the experience might be compared to Tolkien’s loneliness in his education after his mother died. Angela observed that both Tolkien and Lewis learned Latin from their mothers, who were therefore both educated women and different as educators from the teachers their sons later experienced.
Mike went on to observe that hardships, including the experiences of war, served to bond the 3 Inklings covered by the book (Charles Williams’s hardship too the form of poverty), and both Mike and Ian noted that theirs were friendships made in the academic environment.
Anne remarked on Lewis’s attitude to war as set out in his recollection of his reaction to being shot at for the first time, that as the bullet passed him he felt a slight emotion and then thought that this – War – was what Homer was talking about! I wondered if the reaction expressed a means of coping with fear: the bravado of a young man. Ian thought it seemed like Lewis constructing Aries as the bullet. Anne wisely questioned when exactly Lewis had written about his reaction – how much later was it recalled? Mike thought that in such conditions there was a necessary pragmatic coping. When Lewis was recounting the event later he was more self-deprecating.
Angela and Laura considered the difference between Lewis’s apparently cool attitude to his war experiences, compared to Tolkien’s horror and revulsion. It was noted that there was some age difference between Tolkien and Lewis which might account for differences in reaction, but it was also noted that Tolkien was repatriated on grounds of ill-health, and Lewis was a more robust person.
Chris drew attention to the undeniably odd relationship between Lewis and Mrs. Moore. We considered the extent to which he seemed to be dominated by this older woman, but it was remarked that he dominated other people.
Chris also wondered at the hint of the supernatural with which Lewis infused the account of the gust of wind that disturbed his conversation with Tolkien in which Tolkien argued that myths are not lies. Mike felt this aroused suspicion as Lewis seemed to be ascribing value, even a ‘romantic’ feeling to a simple natural event. I thought the description might have been influenced by Lewis’s knowledge of Coleridge, since it had (for me) distinct overtones of the way Coleridge and Wordsworth attributed spiritual or moral meaning to geographic and meteorological phenomena.
With that, we needed to decide on our next reading and agreed to read Chapter 4 of Part 1 and read all of Part 2 – which is not very long.