Last meeting in July

We were discussing Chapters 3 to 5 of John Garth’s book this week, and we began with the unexpected delights of all the early poetry. Angela remarked that some of the poems evoked for her recollections of aspects of The Silmarillion. She particularly picked out ‘Lo!.young we are and yet have stood / like planted hearts in the great sun …’ pointing out the pre-echoes of the episode in TS when Melian and Thingol first meet in Doriath and stand gazing at each other while years pass.
Laura commented on the striking image of the ‘grey hand of tomorrow’ in the more sombre poem ‘You and Me and the Cottage of Lost Play.’
Pat wondered if there were any collections of these early poems. None of the rest of us were aware of any collection other than The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.
Laura then wondered how on earth Tolkien ever found time to write so much, not just the poetry but his Qenya lexicon, as well as doing his university studies and turning up for military manoeuvres.
Ian observed that with the inclusion of the early poetry John Garth fills in the pivotal five years of Tolkien’s life because it was the impending cataclysm of war that pushed Tolkien to write poetry. In a reversal of the usual idea of the effect of WW1 on Tolkien, Ian remarked that Tolkien wrote going Into the war, he was not writing Out of it.
Tim qualified this by commenting that Tolkien was writing in spite of the situation and dealing with topic distinctly other than war.
We went on to consider the very early version of ‘The Sleeper in the Tower of Pearl’, itself not one of the famous poems, but in its original form called ‘The Happy Mariners’. Mike wondered if the poem represented Tolkien’s underlying sense of being trapped by his decision to stay on and finish his studies at Oxford, only to find that the great enterprise to which he would then commit himself was slowly being revealed as less glorious than it originally seemed.
Tim and Mike then led a discussion on the difference between early and later work by other poets who experienced the war. They noted that Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon both initially wrote poems in support of war.
Pat took us on to more practical matters as she called attention to the long list of kit Tolkien was recommended to buy, all of which, including ‘a bath and wash-stand’ had to fit into a ‘large canvas kitbag.’ Tim likened this to Sam’s haversack into which he packed many useful things, except, the first time, a bit of rope.
We all turned our attention then to the reference to the ‘land of Nod’. We wondered at the cultural perspective of the ‘philanthropist’ who thought it of sending copies of the illustration of R. L. Stevenson’s ‘Land of Nod’ poem, about fairyland, to the men in the trenches. I thought maybe it was a reminder of their days in the nursery. We considered the background of the 19th century fascination with fairies that lasted into the Edwardian period, and it was noted that such a fascination seemed to run in parallel with and counter to appalling social conditions. Pat, however, observed that originally the Land of Nod was the place to which Cain was exiled after he had murdered Abel. Pat ad Angela also noted that by the time of the Great War the terms ‘fairy’ had already gained a negative sexual connotation.
Laura took us on to the topic of Wandsworth – the location of The Council of London – where the TCBS defined itself and its agenda. Laura wondered how close the exact location, Routh Road, was to the prison, and whether it provided any inspiration for the Black Gate.
Julie picked up the ‘Wands’ element belonging to the River Wandle and wondered about its connection – if any – with the Withywindle.
Laura remarked on the intensity of the TCBS which included an degree of elitism and factionalism as well as some patriotic fervour. Mike noted that groups of that age often look for a cause they would be prepared to die for.
Laura also remarked that at the same time that the TCBS were plotting their cultural revolution the Russian Revolution was also taking place. Ian observed that the TCBS were part of a cultural change overtaking Europe. However, the TCBS were intent on looking backwards for their moral and cultural foundations while throughout Europe violent destruction of the past in all its forms had political and aesthetic support.
Pat turned our attention to other matters when she commented on the Bronte children’s games which included making up languages and creating stories about little beings. Julie observed that Jane Eyre contains many references to fairies and elves, but these are of the nasty, malignant kind.
We went on to a long discussion on Tolkien’s attitude to language, including his delight in sound. Mike commented that some languages are best for opera, which Ian qualified as ‘some languages are better suited to the expression of high art’, when we discovered that we were naming different preferences. Laura and Tim suggested that it was all a matter of context.
Ian ended our afternoon by taking us back to 2 of Tolkien theatrical preferences – Peter Pan, and Pinero. Ian noted that Pinero said Peter Pan was really for grown-ups, and opinion that echoed and reversed Tim’s experience in finding LotR consigned to the shelves of children’s books in a book shop.
Before we ended we agreed to read chapters 6 ‘Too long in slumber’ and 7 ‘Larkspur and Canterbury Bells’
A few weeks ago Anne asked something along the lines of ‘how would we categorise Tolkien’s works in terms of literature?’ We rather strenuously denied the benefit of ‘categorising’ at all, but that was perhaps ducking the question. Having thought and read a little more since then, I would like to attempt another response. While remaining cautious of defending the idea of ‘great literature’, it may be relevant to consider texts that can be defended as ‘important’ because they are ‘open’ i.e. they allow a range of approaches and ‘meanings’ to emerge. Tolkien’s texts, and especially perhaps, LotR does this.
The evocation of diversity of meaning gives a text ‘staying power’, especially in so far as its meaning include adaptability to social and cultural change – not always exactly the same meaning but those in which some social and cultural values remain important – e.g. good defeating evil, the needs of the many promoted over what is personal or limited; a sense of fate or destiny; human frailty.
There are many other ways of arguing the importance of Tolkien’s work, but its openness is demonstrable by reviewing the diverse critical approaches to his texts. No doubt as time goes on new critics will apply additional new approaches which will extend our appreciation of the worth of the texts that are so often dismissed by critics who don’t understand how to read them.

Please comment, qualify, or extend these first thoughts.

First meeting in May

11th May

We began our afternoon with a discussion of the way we should pronounce the name ‘Egil’. Mike sought guidance online but even that was not clear enough for our satisfaction, so we settled on ‘Egil’ with /g/ as in ‘egg’.

After this we turned to the text with Anne’s observation that Egil’s Saga is ‘a hell of a soap opera’ that takes some coping with.

Laura had picked up the modern perception of Egil’s physical characteristics which have been defined as evidence of Paget’s Disease. Laura thought the description of Egil did not quite fit the modern understanding of the condition, although he is clearly different in appearance from others.

This brought us to consider his lineage as a descendant of a ‘half-troll’ and as having a father who seems to be a shape-shifter, as are a number of other characters. I asked if the ‘half-troll’ ancestor should be understood as evidence of the mythologizing of Egil the historical person, but Angela remarked that on a walking trip to Norway one of the guides of the walking party was very tall, and speculated that tales of giants may have stemmed from the reality of some very tall individuals.

Laura pointed out that both Njal’s Saga and Egil’s Saga begin with the same words ‘There was a man named … the son of….’ Although the details obviously alter, Laura commented that in both sagas it is important to establish the line of relationships with family and of family with places. Mike remarked that it seemed to be important to establish connections in an oral society.

Laura noted in the context of establishment of relationships that Egil and his brother come to be regarded as sons of a bad, or improper, marriage, and that this led to them being cheated out of their possessions and designated as being in the wrong when they tried to regain them.

Mike observed that in Norse society of the time, as we saw in Njal’s saga, law and legal matters were absolute in a society without a hierarchical head.

Anne noted that the society was all about getting ‘stuff’, including people. Laura qualified this by commenting that the acquisition of ‘stuff’ was in order to be able to give it away in order to keep the extended household together.

Angela observed that it was a multi-skilled society, and Mike noted that the skills included various kinds of science, and manual skills such a boat-building, but there did not seem to be a class of educators. Chris remarked that all skills, such a navigation, smithing, etc., would be passed down, and Laura defined this as learning by absorbing. Kathleen suggested that the society did not show sufficient development to allow for separate education.

This led Mike to observe that all the main characters in the story are in fact the aristocracy of that society. Anne added that quite a few berserks are mentioned and Angela noted that one is mentioned in Njal’s Saga; Laura recalled that everyone in that story was glad to be rid of him.

Mike followed this on with his comment that ‘viking’ was not just a name but a job or profession. Julie remarked that all the killing done on Viking raids would be self-defeating. I thought there was evidence in the story to show that Vikings did not raid continually in the same location.

I then asked if there was evidence in the story for things that might have inspired Tolkien. Julie immediately responded with the ‘war arrow’. Angela added the ‘coal biter’, and Laura picked out ‘Vestfold’ the unmistakable ‘Westfold’. Chris thought King Harald Fair-Hair had similarities to Aragorn because both real and fictional kings realise the political wisdom of treating conquered folk generously.

Anne objected that Harald was greedy for tribute, and Laura remarked that in this he showed dragon-like qualities. Chris also noted that Harald was persuaded against Egil’s brother Thorold in a way that is reminiscent of Wormtongue’s poisoning of Theoden’s mind against Eomer.

Harald offered another analogy as Angela noted his name ‘Grey-Cloak’ was used by Tolkien for Thingol.

Angela noted that the claiming of were-gild echoed Isildur’s claiming of the Ring as recompense for his father and brother.

Laura and Angela drew parallels between the many shape-shifters in the saga, and Beorn in The Hobbit, although it was noted that the saga shape-shifters do not transform into bears. However, the berserks (<bear-sark [shirt]) also ‘transformed’ when in their battle fury.

Julie defined shape-shifting as human behaviour that is ‘like animals’.

On the topic of the berserks Chris noted that Kvedulf needs a rest after his animalistic fury.

Anne then commented that after struggling through all the Norse names she found it a relief to come across the name Sandnes because it was so familiar sounding. Chris observed that places in Iceland were named for what happened at each one and there was no evidence that the settlers named their new settlements after the places they came from in Norway. This was compared to the nostalgic or respectful naming of places in USA by early settlers, and was taken as evidence of feelings of animosity towards Norway by the setters of Iceland.

Laura and Anne turned to poetry at this point and picked up the many translations of the name of a poorly skilled poet, one translation naming him ‘Audun the plagiarist’, another calling him ‘Audun the uninspired’.

Julie observed that in the poems men are often referred to as ‘trees’, and wondered if this ‘kenning’ was what Tolkien had developed into his Ents.

Laura remarked that Skallagrim’s smithing poem beginning ‘The wielder of iron must rise’ turns ordinary life into poetry. Julie observed that wolf-riders are mentioned in another poems, but they are not orcs, they are troll-wives.

I was surprised at Skallgrim’s comment to Egil the boy that he may not go raiding because he gets uncontrollable when he is drunk! Mike commented that it might have been small beer. Laura thought the unruly Egil might have been stealing from the grown ups. Julie noted that Egil had killed his young playmate over a game of football and far from being punished, it was remarked that he would make a great Viking!

Changing the tone, Laura expressed delight in the naming of Thora of the Embroidered Hand. We conjectured about what this meant without success. There was the possibility of tattooing, or the possibility that she was a great needlewoman. We were not convinced that she wore embroidered gloves.

Late in our discussion Anne observed that Hildirid is bought for an ounce of gold and the irregularity of her marriage leads to Egil’s disinheritance. This led us into a consideration of the treatment of female characters and provoked a good deal of feminist comment.

As we ran out of time we agreed that for our next meeting we would read from section 32 to the end of section 51. Some of us have already passed this point, but it should give Anne, Vicki, Pat and Ian a chance to catch up, should they need to. For the rest of us it is a text that seems to have plenty to offer.


Last meeting in April


We were a small gathering this time but our discussions were no less intense for all that as we took on the task of finishing off our reading of Carpenter’s Inklings. Ian led us into this by announcing that he had discovered the blue plaque to Charles Williams while in St. Albans for the TS AGM. This discovery had apparently taken other members attending the AGM by surprise!

Moving then to our text for the day, Vicki remarked on CS Lewis’s habit of serving beer to his undergraduates. Julie noted that cider was occasionally the beverage of choice, and Ian declared that the Inklings drank ‘bitter’ as a mature ‘man’s drink.’ He went on to elaborate on the gatherings at which drink was such a feature by noting the likely background to the kind of gathering that became the Inklings – initially the clubs and cliques favoured by boys at public school, and then the many undergraduate clubs they would have encountered at University. The Inklings were a natural extension of these peer groups.

Julie remarked on the paradox that the Inklings were thoroughly conservative in their outlook but initiated youth revolt, especially in the USA. Ian added that this was the counter culture, and Julie speculated that the New Age movement owed a debt to Tolkien. Ian considered the wider historical situation when he remarked that the origins of Tolkien and Lewis’s creative outlook lay in the pre-Raphaelite influence and its medievalism, which attracted Tolkien particularly. The effect of World War 1 was to destroy the old ideals of chivalry, but Tolkien’s work looked back to those ideals, and part of the younger generation after WW2 responded to those ideals, and the morality on which they were founded.

Julie observed that although the Inklings proposed among themselves that their writing should have a distinct influence on readers, they never as a group publicised their writing philosophy.

Kathleen distinguished between Lewis and Tolkien when she commented that the Narnia stories were written for children, but The Hobbit was written for older children. Julie observed that The Hobbit changes from a story crafted for children to a book for adults as the character of Bilbo develops, through the series of rescues he performs before and within Mirkwood.

Julie then went on to comment on the strange exclusion of Tolkien from knowledge of Lewis’s marriage. Ian observed that this was consistent with CSL’s particular view of managing such relationships, evidenced earlier by his dislike of other Inklings talking about their own personal relationships with their wives.

Vicki wondered what had happened to Joy’s sons after her death. Julie thought one of them had become quite eccentric.

I thought it was interesting that while Joy was in hospital she got to know Edith Tolkien and they seemed to be on friendly terms.

We all thought the Inklings functioned as a support network for its participants, and Ian observed that it was inward facing and devoted to their writing and other work. Ian also thought that the Inklings book illuminates the relationship between Tolkien and Williams which is often summarised inaccurately as Tolkien’s profound dislike of Williams, but was by no means one of such antipathy.

I remarked that having not known anything about Lewis or Williams until we came to this biography, I found nothing in the book that encouraged a feeling of wanting to know more about Lewis or his books, and Williams came across as having a fascination with the occult that was very much of its time, but was now outdated, hence the difficulty in finding any of his work.

Julie pointed out that the occult is still popular, as is clear from the popularity of books like The Da Vinci Code.

I wondered then about the appeal of the books of the Inklings, and whether this depended on the readership of their time and the changes to standards and scope of education. Ian reminded us of C.P.Snow’s theory of the 2 cultures, and the wider scope of education in USA as compared to UK, creating a different kind of readership.

Kathleen pointed out that in 1949 in England there was a great shortage of books in cheap paperback format, but this shortage did not affect the USA. Ian then remarked on Tolkien’s disgust at being transferred into paperback. Julie commented that even today there exists an elitist attitude to publication in England.

There was a division among us between those who found the Inklings biography a worthwhile read, and those of us who disliked it on various levels. It is unusual for anything we read to divide opinion in quite this way.

We move on now to read Egil’s Saga.

First meeting in April


After our trip to the Vyne, Easter and the five Saturdays of March, it seemed ages since we were last in the Library, so it was nice to be back, and our meeting this time was largely devoted to ctahcing up with news generated by (1) Ian’s trip to the Oxford Spring School, and (2) various kinds of fall-out from the Vyne exhibition. Laura brought some newspaper cuttings showing, among other things, that inaccurate newspaper copy is the least of the problems surrounding the wider dissemination of the Tolkien ‘brand’.

Ian’s report on his day in Oxford was far more positive. He reported the course structure to have been well thought-out, developing from Tolkien’s biography to cover matters including his created languages. Ian plans a proper report and the summary he gave us gave no hint of the fact that he had been suffering from a heavy cold while enduring the rigors of travelling in bitter snowy weather.

When we had exhausted our questions and sighs of envy, I addressed the question of our future reading in hopes of creating a good balance. It was pointed out that this May sees the publication of Tolkien’s Arthurian poem, which will be Christopher’s Tolkien’s swan song as an editor. More on future reading shortly.

We eventually turned our thoughts to our nominated reading for the day which was the final chapters of The Inklings. Chris opened the discussion with his observation that the book has provided interesting insights into the thoughts and feelings of people at the time when the Inklings group flourished. We noted some attitudes that seem now quite alien and entirely un-PC.

Angela remarked on the shocking insights provided by some of the remarks of members of the Inklings concerning women. Chris described them as generally a group of ‘odd-bods’, but this was contextualised by our various observations that they reflected contemporary attitudes, that their oddities related to some extent to the circumstances of their childhoods, in the case of Lewis and Tolkien – the early absence of mothers.

Anne noted in addition that they all projected massive egos. Tolkien’s desire to control even the design of the Allen and Unwin logo on the jacket of his own book was cited as evidence of this.

As a counterweight to the matter of huge egos, we all recalled the strange hold Mrs Moore exercised over C.S. Lewis.

Anne noted the recorded desire of CSL and Tolkien to change English literature and asked if we thought this had happened. I thought the only change they created was through Tolkien’s influence over the development of the fantasy genre. Ian thought Tolkien’s great contribution was the infusing of medieval morality in fantasy, and doing so in modern language.

Chris and Angela went on to observe that the war never really seems to touch the Inklings themselves. The peripheral problems such as running out of beer in the Bird and Baby because of the influx of American GIs was noted, as was Charles Williams’s grief at the bombing of London. His wife’s continued residence there seemed less of a concern – but it was for a time her choice.

Anne then pointed out that Oxford was never bombed and Laura pointed out that this was on Hitler’s specific orders as London was to be destroyed and after the invasion he wanted to take Oxford for his capital.

Carpenter’s choice to leave out much of the war experience of the Inklings was considered, and Chris noted that in the Tolkien Letters there is plenty of evidence of Tolkien being on fire-watching duties, but Laura was still surprised that Warnie Lewis, a former soldier, is not recorded as commenting on the war.

Having taken up much time at the start of the meeting with other matters, we ran out of time. It had been our intention to finish our deliberations on the Inkling with this session, but on account of the shortness of time, and the fact that Vicki had not had time to read the last chapters and Julie and Mike were both away, it was agreed that we should give ourselves another session to finish off the Inklings properly and allow everyone a chance to participate.

So our next reading will be a recap if necessary of the final Part of The Inklings. We will then start Egil’s Saga at our first meeting in May.

First meeting in March



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.

Last Meeting in February


On our second foray into Carpenter’s The Inklings we were reading chapter 4 part 1, and both chapters in part 2, which are devoted to Charles Williams.

Laura began the discussion with her heavily emphasised observation that part 2 is ‘Interesting!’ She had obtained and brought along a copy of CW’s book War in Heaven.

Pat and Kathleen remarked that they have never heard of Charles Williams until they read The Inklings, and Pat noted that although he wrote a good deal of poetry, he does not seem to be anthologised.

Pat went on to remark that the three writers, Lewis, Williams and Tolkien seemed to need each other.

Laura remarked that CW was clearly charismatic, as well as being self-educated, and that it was remarkable that man without a degree should end up lecturing not just at evening classes but at Oxford University.

Julie thought his novels as described by Carpenter came across as very 1930. – somewhat comic in places but suddenly turning to black magic. I added that much of what Carpenter described in terms of CW and the occult reminded me of T.S. Eliot’s description of Madam Sosostris and her Tarot cards in The Waste Land.

Anne considered CW to have a more positive outlook than Lewis or Tolkien and the possibility that this was due to a close relationship with his father was discussed. Laura added that this close intellectual relationship was similar to that between Lewis and his tutor. Laura also went on to observe that CW is another writer with a wife in the background, although it was generally agreed that she was badly named by him as ‘Michal’ has negative connotations.

Angela noted CW’s various and diverse relationships with women, reminding us of Lewis’s description of his unpleasantly ‘simian’ looks which were overwhelmed by a kind of ‘angelic’ charisma.

Pat thought CW’s thinking was heavily influenced by Freud, and also heavily Freudian.

Julie picked up the connection CW had with Aleister Crowley the infamous occultist, which brought us back again to consider the popularity of all forms of the occult in the inter-war period, as distinct from the pre-World War 1 fascination with fairies.

Laura observed that Tolkien was never doubtful about his religious commitment, and Julie remarked that Tolkien’s religion was based on faith, but Lewis reasoned himself into religion belief. Anne observed that CW embraced doubt.

Julie returned us to university contexts when she noted that Lewis seemed to delight in bullying his students. Chris observed, on the other hand, that students liked his handouts.

Angela remarked that Lewis was known to throw away papers he no longer wanted, including some of Tolkien’s work he was reading, much to Tolkien’s displeasure. Chris noted that the way Lewis threw away drafts of his own work suggested perhaps that he was paranoid about other people knowing about him and his working practices. This was compared with Tolkien’s habit of keeping everything.

While considering CW’s affair with Celia, Angela observed that he was disappointed with this girl’s responses to his letters and sublimated that disappointment into his enormous output of writing. Pat cited his strange attitude as a lover who also felt a delight in inflicting pain, and Angela noted his tendency to express his sadistic leanings in threats of punishment and penance. Though Carpenter avoids any direct reference to this attitude having manifested itself in overt violence, as Julie commented, it suggests he could have been a dangerous influence on the many young women who fell under his Svengali-like spell (my description).

This brought us on to a discussion of CW’s assertion that sexual energy could and should be sublimated into personal empowerment. I thought there was a hint of a secular version of Roman catholic celibacy about this view, but I was disquieted by carpenter’s choice of vocabulary at this point when he describes a character in one of CW’s books as a ‘superman’ because the character has used this kind of sublimation to extend his life to 200 years.

After some debate over the implications of Carpenter’s choice of word in this context, Anne went on to note that CW was impressed by Shakespeare, picking up a single line from Troilus and Cressida as the total theme of Shakespeare’s drama. Pat picked up his idea that poetry ‘was a storehouse of emotional or even supernatural power’. His poem about Shakespeare on the Underground was also noted.

Laura then remarked that Tolkien didn’t like CW, and Julie observed that by the 50s CW’s reputation was beginning to fade, perhaps because it was built on his ‘performance’ as a charismatic lecturer and work colleague and not on his increasingly obscure writing. It was noted that Graham Greene called some of his writing ‘pretentious’, and even Lewis found CW’s poems in Taliessin through Logres too obscure.

Laura contrasted this obscurity with Tolkien’s uncharacteristically wry poem on CW, and his anthropomorphising of the landscape in Taliessin, citing as particularly unTolkien-like: ‘O, Buttocks to Caucasia!’ In CW’s anthropomorphising, Pat and I were both reminded of John Donne’s poem ‘O My America!’, at which point Laura questioned Donne’s status as a metaphysical poet!

Pat went on to remark on the apparent dissimilarity between Lewis’s scholarly reputation as the analyst of the courtly love genre, and his participation in bawdy exchanges during Inklings meetings.

Chris then returned us to CW with his observation of Williams’s extraordinary output given that he worked, lectured to evening classes, commuted to and from St Alban’s every day, and had a wife and child. It was remarked that all 3 writers were capable of prodigious output given their domestic and work situations.

For our next meeting we will read Part 3 chapters 1, 2, 3.

From Omer
Apropos Blog 168, and your comments, I’d please like to add the following:

1. I do agree that at many times, Carpenter’s work is hard reading, and at times his ‘psychological’ ideas are rather abstruse.

2. He certainly seems to be ‘pro Tolkien’ and ‘anti Lewis’ (although this seems like a bit of a simplification yet that’s what I felt on reading the work) and seems to make a great mystery out of Lewis’s private life; and

3. In the overall analysis, although quite positive on Tolkien, I didn’t myself much really enjoy reading ”The Inklings”. Somehow, the work comes across as too simplistic and dull.

I dont know if you feel the same way or not –the few people here who have read the book seemed to find it good, or at least a better read than I found it! I guess that’s the ‘subjectivity’ of our tastes at work…

First meeting in February

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.