Inklings has been on my reading list for years now, and the only reason it took me so long to get around to reading it is because I had trouble obtaining a copy. A biography of the writing group/book club that features JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Charles Williams for decades at Oxford, where first drafts of The Lord of the Rings (then called “the new Hobbit,” after the original Hobbit was finished) and The Chronicles of Narnia were presented, discussed, and critiqued? There is something mythical about such a gathering that conveys a sense that just reading about it will impart some measure of the brilliance that would have been on display in those gatherings.
Perhaps I built the book (and the literary group for which it is named) up too much in my mind, for despite enjoying its biographical aspects, its storytelling, and its insights, I was left vaguely dissatisfied at the end. This is not, I think, any fault of the book’s, but rather for what I was hoping. In my writing recently I have come to consider that the most significant thing to improve my writing at this point would be to consult with a trustworthy group of fellow authors, and what this book is not is a study of how to run a successful writing group. In actuality, the Inklings as a group were more of a discussion group than a writing group, and most of its authors made few changes to their works based on the group’s conversations.
Instead, Inklings is a biography of CS Lewis and Charles Williams, with an emphasis on their respective roles in the Inklings group, especially Lewis, who was arguably the group’s heart. Tolkien features tangentially, as Carpenter wrote a previous biography dedicated to him. In that form, it is a wonderful book, and one I am very glad to have read. I learned far more than I knew before about both authors, especially Charles Williams, who struck me as especially intriguing, and I now better understand why I found War in Heaven so weird when I read it a few years ago – I may have to go back and re-read it now that I know that Williams’ writing is known for that kind of weirdness.
Reading about the Inklings’ weekly (or more frequent) discussions, I found myself by turns amazed at their intellectual idiosyncrasies and engaged by their philosophical rigor even through the medium of a biography, to the point that I desired to have sat in on their discussions. Lewis is quoted discussing how the modern view of progress focuses on the great oak growing from the acorn, but never on the mighty oak from which the acorn comes, and that was cited as a single entry in an evening’s conversation amongst the Inklings. Where are my peers today who would care to discuss Plato’s Republic and Dante’s Divine Comedy with me, or who are as fascinated as I by discourse on linguistics and the social contract as much as by reading our works of high fantasy to each other? Alas, Inklings does not contain the secrets to forming such a group, and my own past efforts have always failed to endure.
Even now, having read Inklings and come to understand that this was a discussion group, and had little impact on the development of such icons of literature as The Lord of the Rings, the idea of the Inklings is now less compelling. Just the thought of a core trio of perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest authors working and conversing together as friends and colleagues for so long, entertaining other notables (like ER Eddison) and discoursing on religion, mythology, and storytelling fires the imagination. Just for that, I could recommend this book; that it is well-written and interesting in its own right is a bonus.
Much can be made of the Inklings as a group, and much has been made of them, perhaps too much. Like the direct allegory against which Tolkien was prone to rail, or the social commentary school of criticism and literary interpretation that Lewis opposed, it would probably be wrong to say that the Inklings were hatching a plot to alter the face of literature, or any other kind of intentional manipulation. They were, in the end, exactly what they appeared to be, and Carpenter’s biography is wise to embrace that: they were a group of like-minded friends who gathered to converse upon the topics which mattered to them, and that happened to include some of the greatest authors of the century. That their work was foundational in ushering the era of modern fiction (and especially speculative fiction) is just a byproduct, but it does not make it any less valuable to learn about them. It might even make it more valuable, and I hope you give Carpenter’s Inklings a read soon.