Spring briefly promised to be on its way this afternoon, although it went on to dramatically break that promise! Sadly Angela and Chris got stuck behind a broken-down train and could not get in to the meeting, but at least they were not held up by snow. As Anne and Pat were also away, it was a small but determined group who were updated by Ian on various matters and then set about the next part of Carpenter’s biography of the Inklings.
Mike started the discussion with his observations concerning Charles Williams’s love of London. Mike remarked that this did not seem to be homesickness for the built environment while Williams was working in Oxford, so much as a love of London’s metropolitan character and nostalgia for his cohorts of followers and admirers. Ian commented that Williams’s love of London was a love of its dynamics.
Mike thought that in comparison to Williams, Tolkien came across as very wholesome, and not transient. Mike also observed that Carpenter’s analysis of Inklings’ relationships does not reflect well on C.S. Lewis because of the extravagance of his admiration for Williams, expressed at times in astonishing hyperbole; and that this may be compared with Tolkien’s fascinating poem ‘Our dear Charles Williams many guises shows’.
Laura thought this poem had the feel of a Confession such as Tolkien would have been used to making regularly as a devout Catholic. Laura picked out for special mention Tolkien’s wittily expressed condemnation of Williams’s multi-layered construction of signification in his poem Taliessin through Logres (Ian had brought a copy of The Song of Taliesin to the meeting which was sensibly rather than extravagantly mythic).
Mike and Ian both picked out the line in which Tolkien refuses to be ‘muzzled’ by the admiration of Lewis for Williams, and Williams’s own complex poetry.
Mike suggested that Lewis exhibits signs of not only wanting to be most prominent among Williams’s admirers – claiming ‘first disciple’ status, but of desiring to hang on to what had become effectively his ‘school gang’. Carpenter represents this process through images of Lewis dominating and controlling who was in and out, what was discussed, and even what was drunk.
Ian observed that Tolkien didn’t like Williams, but that the tension generated over their differing approaches to some material created room for discussion.
Laura commented that Williams was remarkable for the way he lectured at Oxford, and Vicki remarked that Williams appealed to many people, if not Tolkien, and/because he was willing to listen to anyone’s problems and try to help.
Considering Williams’s obsession with the occult and supernatural, Laura remarked that while a ‘spell’ to Tolkien would connote a group of beautiful words with performative power, to Williams the words would be darker in their form and signification.
Laura had finished reading War in Heaven and observed that it contains some unpleasant material including child abuse. Mike commented that this perception of ‘unpleasantness’ may be a reflection of our own 21st century perception versus a different perception of the child as a tool or a channel. Mike allowed, however, that we could alternatively be looking at a real sign of Williams’s own character, or of his complexity.
Vicki remarked that Williams was always questioning things, and that War in Heaven reflected the prejudices of its own time.
Julie picked up the problems of prejudice when she noted that Williams was writing during the time of the rise of German nationalism, and that Tolkien responded to the associated prejudices when he hotly rejected a German publisher’s request for assurance that he had no Jewish blood.
Mike and Ian went on to note that Williams had been a product of early 20th century cultural socialism and education. Vicki elaborated on this with her observation that Williams obtained a scholarship to continue his education but had to give it up and ended up working for the Oxford University Press. She added that his young life made him pessimistic. I remarked that I didn’t get that impression from the way he conducted his later life, and Vicki pointed out that this impression could be a sign of Williams psychologically running away.
Vicki also commented on the useful role of Warnie Lewis as CSL’s secretary.
We again considered whether Carpenter had read the Notion Club Papers before writing the ‘Thursday Evening’ chapter, and Mike pointed out the problem of sorting out which came first, but it was felt that Carpenter’s access to Christopher Tolkien’s reminiscences could account for much of the lively depiction of an Inklings’ meeting.
Laura said she liked the ‘Thursday Evening’ chapter, and Mike said he found it easier than Tolkien’s Notion Club Papers. Their fictionalised account of something like an Inklings’ meeting is, of course, a vehicle (excuse the pun) for Tolkien’s depiction of Ramer’s travels in time and space.
Vicki went on to remark that she liked the idea of Tolkien composing poetry in the bath, and Julie commented that it would not be easy in a modern shower.
Laura observed that Lewis’s statement ‘Labour-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labour’ is a stereotypical man’s remark. The female members of the group supported this view with due consideration for our male colleagues. Slaving over a steaming sink full of washing was not something a university lecturer would necessarily have experienced in the first half of the 20th century.
I went on with this prejudiced view by expressing my disquiet over what I read as Lewis’s elitist remark about ‘universal suburbia’. I recalled that around this time the first council houses were replacing terrible slums, and causing some prejudice of their own while giving the urban poor decent homes. Mike added that there was rural disquiet over building suburbs, and Ian pointed out that poverty wasn’t confined to urban areas and there was grinding poverty in the countryside and there was a good deal of romanticising of the rural idyll going on in literature.
With the afternoon running out we needed to make some decisions about what comes next and when. The ‘when’ complication turns on whether we actually meet on 23rd March. At the meeting there was a possibility that we might be elsewhere, showing the flag for Tolkien and the Society, but to date I have heard no more about this from the organiser of a Tolkien-linked event. This means that we may finish the biography on 23rd.
Finishing the biography is indeed our reading for our next meeting, whether that turns out to be the 23rd, or the first meeting in April (13th). I will let everyone know in good time which it will be.
Our reading after that will be Egil’s saga – a more history-based saga in comparison to the concentration on family feuds in Njal’s saga. Ian located a downloadable version on the Icelandic Saga database.