Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Inklings

When the poet, Kathleen Raine, in the 1950s went to Cambridge to complete her PhD on William Blake (as a mature student), she discovered her supervisor was to be C.S. Lewis. Given his persona as a staunch defender of orthodox Christianity, she wondered whether this was going to be, in any way, a sympathetic and supportive match. Neither Kathleen as a failed Catholic convert nor Blake as a 'heterodox' Christian radical were obviously 'Lewis' types' but this was to seriously misjudge Lewis (as Kathleen discovered).

First because he had a deep sympathy for anyone who would 'argue back', who would deliver as good as they got, and Kathleen was certainly so able. But, more importantly, because Lewis' deepest sympathy was with those who could articulate a mytho-poetic vision in which truth abides, even if certain parts of the architecture of that truth did not accord with his own beliefs. An ability both Blake and Raine possessed. These beliefs were passionately held but with an abiding scepticism too. After all they might not be true - even when he sounds most like a 'fundamentalist' (his own choice of words), there is always a wider vision (and a deepening doubt) lapping at their narrow foundations.

One of his closest friends was Owen Barfield, who was a deeply committed and articulate Anthroposophist, and, a second, Charles Williams, whose Christianity was recognizably so yet deeply novel and who had an abiding concern with magic and the occult!

Both of these friends were part of 'The Inklings' - an informal group, including Tolkien, who regularly met, twice weekly, in Oxford to read to each other ongoing work and engage in conversation. Humphrey Carpenter in his magnificent group biography, 'The Inklings' tries to capture the lives of its members, how they were brought together and what held them so until their final dissolution.

Many people have tried to identify the weaving strands and make of them an identifiable group - defenders of Christian orthodoxy or of objectivity in literary criticism or of mytho-poetic literature or simply in being anti-modern. None of which Carpenter convincingly argues stands up to scrutiny. If there was one defining weft around which all else was woven, it was Lewis himself. It was both his need and gift for friendship and an abiding love of talk that bound them together and when through death, Williams, or a drifting apart, Tolkien, the core sundered, it dissolved. Lewis took up his professorship in Cambridge and a brilliant, informal group came to an end.

Reading 'The Inklings' confirmed for me what a complex man Lewis had been - a strange admixture of the narrowly confined and the boldly adventurous - and how neither the hagiography of Christian apologist nor the denigration of the enlightened secular will do him justice. He, also, reminds us that as long as we live our character is not fixed: we can always be surprised by joy (or Joy) and the boundaries of our world be broken open to new experience (however much part of us, the settled part, would wish it were not so).

Grace is never done with us.

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