The Inklings- Mythological Voyagers: Part 2

Continued from Part 1:

Part 2

The Inklings of course have now entered literary history and more has been written about them than I will ever know. A literary society of that name was founded in about 1931 by an Oxford University College Graduate named Tangye Lean. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both attended its meetings and when Lean left Oxford the name was applied to that group of friends, all of whom were male and Christian and most of whom were interested in literature. Two of the most prominent remained C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose friendship has become legendary.

Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien’s authorised biographer, was born in Oxford in 1946 and spent most of his life in that city. He read English language and literature at Keble College and met Professor Tolkien on a number of occasions. For some years he worked for the BBC as a radio producer and broadcaster. He felt that perhaps Northernness was the shared insight which started it all. He had written that since early adolescence Lewis had been captivated by Norse mythology, and when he found in Tolkien another who delighted in the mysteries of Edda and the complexities of Volsung legend it was clear that they would have a lot to share. Or perhaps their experiences in the First World War bound them together.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis wrote that friendship with Tolkien “marked the breakdown of two old prejudices. At my first coming into the world I had been (implicitly) warned never to trust a Papist, and at my first coming into the English faculty, (explicitly) never to trust a Philologist. Tolkien was both.” Lewis, of course, the son of a Belfast solicitor, had been brought up by an Ulster Protestant, but during adolescence he professed agnosticism. In Tolkien he found a person of wit and intellectual verve who was, nevertheless, a devout Christian and it was Tolkien’s influence which led to Lewis’ eventual conversion. Yet Tolkien always regretted that Lewis had not become Catholic like himself, but had begun to attend his local Anglican Church, resuming the religious practices of his childhood.

Carpenter says that “Tolkien had a deep resentment for the Church of England which he sometimes extended to his buildings, declaring that his appreciation of their beauty was marred by his sadness that they had been, in his opinion, perverted from their rightful Catholicism. When Lewis published his prose allegory telling the story of his conversation under the title The Pilgrims Regress, Tolkien thought the title ironical. ‘Lewis would regress,’ he said, ‘He would not re-enter Christianity by a new door, but by the old one: at least in the sense that in taking it up again, or re-awaken the prejudices so sedulously planted in childhood and boyhood. He would become again a Northern Ireland Protestant.”’

I am not so sure. Speaking to Roman Catholic friends on the question of Christian Reunion, Lewis said, “I will begin by saying that, whether for good or ill, the nature of the disunity has changed with the centuries: it has become more clearly or strictly theological. I have been well placed for noticing this because I grew up in a very archaic society – that of Northern Ireland – amidst conditions which had even then long since passed away in England.” And again in his Meditation on the Third Commandment regarding the proposed formation of a Christian Party, Lewis said that, “The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient makeup we can find. If ever Christian men can be brought to think treachery and murder, the lawful means of establishing the regime they desire, and fake trials, religious persecution and organised hooliganism the lawful means of maintaining it, it will surely, be by just such a process as this. The History of the late medieval pseudo-Crusaders, of the Covenanters, of the Orangemen, should be remembered.”

By the mid 1940s Lewis was receiving a good deal of publicity. “Too much,” according to Tolkien, “for his or any of our tastes” in connection with his Christian writings, the Problem of Pain and The Screwtape Letters. Tolkien perhaps felt, as he observed his friend’s increasing fame in this respect, rather as if a pupil has speedily overtaken his master to achieve almost unjustified fame. He once referred to Lewis, not altogether flatteringly, as “Everyman’s Theologian.” Yet, if these thoughts were at all on Tolkien’s mind in the early 1940’s they were well below the surface. He still had an almost unbounded affection for Lewis – indeed still cherished the occasional hope that his friend might one day become a Catholic. And the Inklings continued to provide much delight and encouragement to him.

Hwaet! We Inclinga,” he wrote in parody in the opening lines of Beowulf, “on aerdagum searopancolra snyttru gehierdon.”

“Lo! We have heard in old days of the wisdom of the cunning- minded Inklings; how those wise ones sat together in their deliberations, skilfully reciting learning and song-craft, earnestly mediating. That was true joy!”

And it was to Beowulf that I owe the pleasure of my own introduction to Professor Tolkien through his famous essay Beowulf – The Monsters and the Critics, which of course was one of the first to show that the construction of the poem was rather more subtle than had been thought. I first read of it in 1963 in a Penguin Classic Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, so that I was further prompted to buy Professor Tolkien’s own edition of his work. And I wondered at Gawain’s identification with Cuchulainn.

C.S.Lewis once remarked that it was a shame that the stories of Cuchulainn and the Red Branch Knights were not better known in his native Ulster. I am unsure why this should be, especially as they were probably written in Bangor and with their possible connections to Arthurian legend. Ireland’s rich folklore has been carried to other parts of Europe and in return European folk tales of all times have made their way to Ireland. But few bodies of stories have exhibited such an international appeal as those comprising Arthurian literature.

When the tales of the deeds of King Arthur and his companions first hit Europe, they were a spectacular success; indeed some clergymen expressed alarm that the populace might prefer the stories of King Arthur and his Knights to the teachings of the Church. Names such as Merlin, Excalibur, Camelot, Morgan le Fay, Tristan, Lancelot, Avalon became some of the most enduring ever known. Arthur I met again in the Gododdin, Tristan as Drust, son of the Pictish king Talorc, who ruled in Northern Britain about 780, who was placed with Merlin in the Caledonian Forest and whose legends were later given a new setting in Cornwall. Merlin I met again in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, his chilling study of the evil banality of academic politics in which his figure of Merlin is partly based on Yeats, as Gandalf in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, and more recently as Dumbledore in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter. Mordred, the Dark Lord, is everywhere.

Code: Picts

To be continued

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