Today I want to follow up my last post, about how exemplary figures, whether in our lives, in the Bible, or in our fields of study, contribute to our formation – particularly as we live and think in community.
Earlier this year, I was asked to fill in on a discussion panel unlike any I’d ever participated in before: an ‘evening with the Inklings’. This was organised by the Oxford Centre for Fantasy, which runs creative writing courses with a focus on the Inklings, the famous twentieth-century Oxford reading group centred around C.S. Lewis. The idea of this particular event was to recreate something like an Inklings meeting of readings and informal discussion, with four experts ‘representing’ the best-known members of the original group: Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield.
I ended up ‘being’ Charles Williams, which was slightly surreal but a lot of fun. I love Williams’ deeply weird ‘theological thriller’ fiction, his occasionally incomprehensible but very beautiful Arthurian poetry, and his playful and thoughtful closet dramas, and I always enjoy having the chance to introduce others to him.
The Inklings today
The Inklings have gained an almost mythical status in certain circles – usually Christian but not always (as the OCF’s interest demonstrates). This is mostly because of Lewis: his huge popularity as a writer of both fantasy and Christian apologetics, and his friendship with Tolkien, an equally famous fantasy author. Many have recognised how that friendship, and the others that networked out from it, contributed to the authors’ writerly development .
It is clear that many people – often very different from the fairly narrow demographic of the original Inklings community – recognise the group and its members as both an example to follow, and fellow travellers on any number of levels. Some celebrate the Christian worldview animating much of the Inklings’ work, some delight in their convivial, pub-centred approach to writing and thinking, and some take inspiration from the fusion of academic interest and creativity that Lewis and Tolkien in particular practised.
As with any desire to find an example in people from the past, however, there is complexity. In some circles, Lewis has a hallowed status as an eminently quotable apologist and as the author of the excellent and unimpeachably Christian Narnia books; but I’m not saying anything new to point out that this reputation downplays some aspects of Lewis’s wide-ranging thought. His leanings towards ‘hopeful universalism’, his very specific understanding of the meaning of gender, and his (at the time uncontroversial) acceptance of evolutionary accounts of human origins tend to be ignored. In a very different sphere, the academic and amateur literary subfield of ‘Tolkien studies’ has had to find ways to deal with the racialised descriptions of evil characters in Middle-earth, within a literary academy increasingly struggling over whether and how to separate art from artist, historical context from lasting beauty.
Seeing exemplars in context
There is much more to say here, and I don’t mean to attempt a simplistic knockdown of beloved historical figures. Instead I want to reflect on something Richard said in a comment on my previous post, about ‘the need to be more critical than traditional Sunday-school exhortations to emulate the assumed “good” guys’ in how we respond to Biblical figures. We need to try and see our exemplars in their whole story, whether that’s an intentionally told narrative, as in much of the Bible, or the histories we create as we read and learn about the past.
My experience ‘speaking for’ Charles Williams is pertinent here. He’s certainly much less famous than Tolkien or Lewis, but also less exemplary in many ways! His fiction doesn’t have the vividly and clearly drawn Christian message that is so central to the Narnia series, while in contrast to the high-minded beauty of Middle-earth, it’s often concerned with the occult and with the perversities of evil. His approach to personal relationships was complicated and his charismatic personality could clearly cross the line into manipulation. He doesn’t fit into a simplified narrative of the wise professor (he never took a university degree) or the edifying Christian writer (his theological views were decidedly eccentric).
Nonetheless, the OCF ‘Inklings evening’ would not have been complete without someone to represent him. While he wasn’t part of the group from the beginning, it’s clear that he became integral to it, throwing himself with vigour into the robust give and take that characterised their approach to discussion and writing.
It’s when we see him as part of the community that we can start to perceive the nuances both of his story, and of the group as a whole. Part of why I enjoyed speaking for and about him was that he doesn’t fit the stereotype of the Oxford don so often associated with the Inklings. He was self-taught, an outsider to academia in many ways, a man whose career took multiple forms and who had to think carefully about money and priorities. While his story is different to mine, after two years of post-doctoral precarity and identity crisis, I felt closer to him on several levels than to more established figures in that group!
Telling many stories
That feeling made me think again about the Inklings as exemplars. While I have often been uncomfortable with the near-hero worship that sometimes surrounds the group, the posture of learning from them as a group seems to still have more to teach us, if we are open to being surprised and challenged by the different stories that can be told from the facts of their history.
When we look at a figure from the past, whether Biblical or more recent, it’s never enough to consider them alone: we have to discern them in their communities. Indeed, it’s wise to do so also in our own communities, listening on both sides for the complexity that comes from many voices speaking together.
Where in your thinking, or your discipline more broadly, is there a story that could be told differently when you consider the communities involved? How could listening to others’ voices help you to nuance, but still learn from, the examples from the past?
 Diana Pavlac Glyer has a very readable book on this theme: The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (2008).