on 17 June 2010
Through the years, I've had numerous friends who've been fascinated/inspired by the life and works of C.S. Lewis. Due to that, I read both Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity while in college, though I didn't really enjoy them until I reread these works in 2009. I also enjoyed the 1993 film Shadowlands, but didn't have a great interest into learning about Lewis' life until more recently. Two issues of Christian History whet my appetite, and I eventually read The Narnian earlier this year. C.S. Lewis not only had a voluminous literary output, but his life itself proved a strong example of Christian faith in action. Yet, how did his books come together?
The Inklings, Humphrey Carpenter's engaging work from 1978, sets out to answer that question. It shows how Lewis benefited greatly from the feedback of others, and how the creator of Narnia conversely aided fellow authors with their respective works. This text also gives the reader helpful insight into how Lewis and Tolkien's philosophical and theological differences led to their regrettable estrangement. It further demonstrates how lesser-known characters, such as Charles Williams, played a role in Lewis' intellectual journey and social life.
If one is looking for an extensive biography on Tolkien, this is probably not the best place to go. Humphrey Carpenter wrote a much-praised volume about him one year before The Inklings, so Tolkien's interactions with fellow Inklings are a primary focus here. As part of that, the reader does get the feeling that C.S. Lewis helped to make the Lord of the Rings a reality through his constant encouragement. At the end of The Inklings, it's obvious that Tolkien never forgot Lewis' personal and professional contributions to his own life story.
This work is full of other "nuggets" as well, including one chapter devoted to creating a hypothetical Inklings meeting. If you're in the market for a Lewis-related biography, you won't go wrong here.
on 9 November 2012
Humphrey Carpenter's "The Inklings" charts the lives of the Inklings, and the lifetime of the group itself.
It begins with potted biographies of CS Lewis, and Charles Williams. Tolkien's life is alluded to throughout the book, but he doesn't get this level of attention, apparently because Carpenter wrote a more detailed biography of him. This is the one disappointment of the book.
We get to see Lewis in a different light. Less the dusty academic and more doing jobs around the house for the older woman he had a complex relationship with. We don't usually associate him with DIY.
For me, the potted biography of Williams was really informative. This Inkling is someone we all tend to know much less about. I am reading some of his "supernatural thrillers" and can't help feeling he's been unfairly forgotten.
The book then goes on to explain the Inkling meetings at the zenith of their activity, in Oxford in the 1940s. It even goes as far as to "reconstruct" a typical Inklings meeting - featuring reported conversations but fictionalised. This is very illuminating. This is how "Lord of the Rings", "All Hallow's Eve" and much of Lewis's output got developed.
Just one word of warning about the book itself - the print is very small and difficult on the eyes. Admittedly I read this book a little too late at night, but the print is still too small for very intense reading.
But on the whole, this is a fascinating read.
on 4 June 2014
If you'd gone into an Oxford pub on a Tuesday during the Second World War, you might have seen three tweedy, middle-aged men laughing uproariously over their beer and baccy - C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. Lewis was a fellow of Magdalen and, although once an atheist, had become a famous religious writer and broadcaster. Tolkien was a professor who studied Old Norse and Old and Middle English. Williams was a poet, novelist and critic and an executive of the august Oxford University Press. United by a shared love of fantasy, belief in the supernatural and profession of fundamentalist Christianity, they enjoyed regular meetings at which they and a little circle of like-minded friends could discuss their thinking and writing.
They were certainly an odd trio. Tolkien had little interest in any literature written in the last half-millennium, and had spent decades devising the intricate languages of his various Elves. Lewis lived in philanthropic martyrdom and a slummy bungalow with his alcoholic elder brother and a cantankerous old Irish lady, twenty-six years his senior, on whom he had developed a crush at the age of nineteen. Williams was fascinated by witchcraft, and had become the focus of a tiny group of admirers who were close to being a cult. There's something immensely ironic about the subsequent trajectories of their reputations. In the 1940s, Tolkien was known to the fiction-reading public solely for his short children's story, The Hobbit; Lewis's only fiction was the Wellsian sci-fi tale Out of the Silent Planet; but Williams had produced a string of supernatural thrillers published by the distinguished house of Faber & Faber, as well as many other books. Tolkien and Lewis both seemed like survivors from some other, ancient epoch; Williams wrote accessible stories set in his own place and time, and appreciated modernists like T. S. Eliot whose work his two chums both cordially loathed. (Eliot returned the compliment, drawing on Williams in his Four Quartets.) Of the three of them, the sophisticated, up to date Williams might have seemed the author most likely to endure, and yet his writings are now remembered by hardly anyone, whereas Tolkien's Middle-earth and Lewis's Narnia are loved by hundreds of millions, and have earned billions of dollars for Hollywood.
Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings tells the story of these extraordinary men. A companion volume to his biography of Tolkien - see J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography - it's really three books in one: a biography of Lewis, a biography of Williams and a history of the three writers' complex friendship. How Williams came to be seen by Lewis as part saint, part genius, the greatest poet of the age - how Lewis was so enthralled by Williams that he wrote what was in effect a book of Williams fan-fiction - how Tolkien came to dislike Lewis's greatest works, and to be estranged from his friend after his Shadowlands marriage - it's a tale that's strange, comical and tragic all at the same time, and fascinating from beginning to end.
As for the quality of Humphrey's writing, I'm not surprised that his book won the Somerset Maugham award for the best biography of its year. The way in which he handles his material shows amazing literary virtuosity. Perhaps most memorable of all is a chapter in which he provides a dramatized reconstruction of the kind of conversation that the three men used to have in Lewis's college sitting room: it could hardly be more convincing if it had been transcribed from a recording.
My own copy of this book is the hardcover first UK edition. At the end of its 287 pages, it has an appendix of potted biographies of all the major dramatis personae, a thorough bibliography, a list of sources of quotations and an excellent index. There are also twenty-seven black and white photographs beautifully reproduced on inserted plates. The paper, printing and design are all admirable - I hope that the modern paperback is even half as nice!
on 15 May 2013
`The Inklings' were just a group of friends who let their imaginations `run wild' and spent many a happy hour discussing all things remarkable, inexplicable and simply wonderful. As stated on the older edition of this book, the Inklings were...
"A group of writers whose literary fantasies shall fire the imagination of all those who seek a truth beyond reality"
C.S Lewis, JRR Tolkien and their friends were a regular feature of the Oxford scenery in the years during, and after the Second World War. They drank beer on Tuesdays at the `Bird & Baby' and on a Thursday night they would meet in Lewis' Magdalen College rooms to read aloud from the books they were writing. Jokingly they called themselves "The Inklings". C.S Lewis and JRR Tolkien first introduced `The Screwtape Letters' and `The Lord of the Rings' to an audience in this company, with Charles Williams (poet and writer of supernatural thrillers) being another prominent member of this select group of individuals. Humphrey Carpenter (who also wrote the highly acclaimed biography of J.R.R. Tolkien, draws upon unpublished letters and diaries, to which he was given special access to create this thoroughly engrossing story.
This highly enjoyable read is a triumph of skill and tact, for it not only paints a clear and vivid picture of these iconic individuals but it doesn't contain one single dull or slack sentence. I am sure that when Humphrey Carpenter set about producing a biography of more than one person, (certainly not a small feat!) he was presented with difficulties such as capturing the atmosphere of a group of people. He however managed to overcome these challenges, as a skilled writer himself, for here we have an admirable example of a biography of not just one individual but many whom all contributed to a group known as `The Inklings'. Also included within are details relating to other members of this group, alongside the familiar C.S Lewis, Charles and Tolkien.
I would highly recommend this wonderful book as an informative, insightful read that delves deliciously into the past and presents us with a privileged glimpse of these memorable people who impacted so greatly on Literature. As an ardent admirer of JRR Tolkien and his works, I was initially keenly intrigued by those comments relating to him, on the other hand I have always loved C.S Lewis' `Narnia' creation and so these two prominent individuals certainly stood-out. But, it is additionally the other tales, stories and `fables' (not everything said about who was a member is true), that I found equally as entertaining to read about. This book highlights the value of friendship and the sharing of ideas, creative imaginings and concepts that are as dearly cherished today as they were many years ago...
`Oh for the people who speak one's own language!'
on 26 March 2013
Anyone who has enjoyed the books of CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien should read this book. It is an account of the group of friends who gathered around these two for many years in Oxford. They gathered weekly in a pub and in Lewis' rooms in Magdalen College to drink beer (a lot of beer - I am surprised they didn't all die of liver cirrhosis) and read to each other poems, stories and books that they were writing. Without the Inklings we might never have had the "Lord of the Rings", although we would probably have had the Chronicles of Narnia.
I found it a fascinating read and have only one or two quibbles. For example, Carpenter does not mention the Evacuees that Lewis and his brother hosted for several years during the Second World War and who provided at least one of the sparks that led on to the writing of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe". Then on pp 216/7 Carpenter describes the meeting of the Socratic Club in 1948 when Elizabeth Anscombe severely and effectively criticised one chapter of Lewis' latest book of Christian apologetics "Miracles". Carpenter says that Lewis was deeply disturbed and wrote no further books of Christian apologetics for ten years. This is somewhat misleading; Lewis revised the offending chapter in the light of Anscombe's critique and the book was republished (and is still in print).
on 4 January 2013
A very atmospheric book, great writing about Oxford, literary criticism and literature of ideas. The Inklings themselves come across as surprisingly odd and unlikeable to this modern reader, although their friendships were admirable and fun, war and women appear as trifling inconveniences that might get in the way of discussing poetry and God. With strong ale and cider before lunch and an awful lot of smoking and wandering about, the donnish life is portrayed as like being a student for your whole working life, which does sound rather appealing. There are some insights into the interests which prompted the great, familiar works of Narnia and Middle Earth to be written, and the book left me keen to get stuck into Charles Williams' novels, which may have a welcome whiff of Dennis Wheatley or Aleister Crowley while being more serious-minded than both. I came a bit unstuck with the chapter featuring a fictitious Inklings meeting, which seemed rather indulgent and out of kilter with the rest of the book, which is all about unearthing and assessing interesting facts about these great writers.
on 10 April 2006
I'm currently doing a research paper on the Inklings and I found Carpenter's biography extremely useful, easy to read, and exciting. He has an incredible way of taking you back to the past and making it come alive.
on 21 January 2001
Having read this book just prior to working on my own commission - a biography of folk singer Bert Jansch within the context of the British folk and blues scenes of the early 60s (published as 'Dazzling stranger: Bert Jansch and the British folk and blues revival', bloomsbury 2000) - I found it immensely inspirational. The content, of course, had no bearing on my own work but Carpenter's book gave me confidence that complex interweaving of what are effectively multiple biographies within one book and within a single, binding and (most importantly) eminently readable narrative thrust COULD be done. Further, Carpenter's lean and accessible writing style belies the comprehensiveness of his research. True, one can find more detailed biography on Tolkien and Lewis as individuals elsewhere but Carpenter paints a particularly intriguing portrait of the relatively obscure Charles Williams and builds up a compelling portrait of these writers' interactions from minimal documentary sources but filling the gaps of formal knowledge with great insight and convincing conjecture. His recreation in one chapter, for example, of a typical Inklings meeting in Lewis' rooms is brilliantly done through recreating as conversation views known to have been held by all the participants and, as far as possible, by importing actual sentences and arguments from the various letters and writings of each one. This kind of work is rarely successful in my judgement, but Carpenter pulls it off wonderfully. This book is both a good read for those casually interested in the main protagonists, and - in my view - an inspirational work of research and realisation for other biographical writers. Brilliant!
on 17 February 2006
This book is absolutely great if you want to discover more about Tolkien and Lewis. But what if found the best part is that you discover loads about their friends whom you almost never heard about (at least I didn't). If you want to know more about the ties Tolkien, Lewis and their friends (and their work) had this is the book for you.
on 10 February 2015
A wonderful evocative biography of the "inklings". Today most people are familiar with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, but thanks to this book I have discovered the interesting novels of Charles Williams on the theme of the mysterious workings of the universe and transdimensional phenomena.