One of the most widely-known and important aspects of JRR Tolkien’s life was his “extra-curricular” involvement with a group of like-minded scholars and writers who called themselves The Inklings.
The Inklings were a literary discussion group whose membership included some of the most influential intellectuals and authors of the day. The Inklings themselves may have actually evolved from an original meeting-group that Tolkien himself had organized called the “Coalbiters”.
The Coalbiters had been formed for a specific purpose, the reading of the Old Icelandic myth cycle leading up to the main cycle of northern myths known as The Elder Edda.
The club faded away fairly quickly, having run out of mythological material to read. But it is important because it laid the foundation for what was to become a far more wide-ranging and influential group.
One of the latecomers to the Coalbiters was a young Fellow of English Language and Literature at Magdalen College by the name of C.S. Lewis. Lewis and Tolkien had met several times before and found they had many ideas and interests in common.
This was the beginning of a long and very significant friendship that would define the rest of their lives and works. Daniel Grotta writes in his Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien: “If Tolkien ever encountered a kindred spirit at Oxford, it was Lewis” (pg. 80).
The Inklings began meeting some time in the mid 1930’s (1933 or ’34), and existed in some form or another until 1962. Like most other Oxford clubs of the time, it was all-male. Its synthesis involved the gathering of a close circle of friends and was centered around C.S. Lewis. According to several members of the group, it was Lewis who christened the group with their familiar name.
The Inklings were a very informal group, not having elected officers or formal inductions. An invitation from a group member was necessary to attend, and then only the approval of the other members could initiate membership.
Most meetings, at least in the beginning, took place in C.S. Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. Another popular haunt of The Inklings was at the Eagle and Child pub, where they often gathered in a private back room.
The meetings themselves were not formal by any account. They were something of an open forum on a wide range of issues. Bits of each scholar’s unpublished fictions, works-in-progress, ideas, poetry, and criticism were generally circulated, often along with drinks and tobacco.
Some of what were to become the most important texts of the 20th century were first read amongst friends at an Inklings meeting. Tolkien read early drafts of The Lord of the Rings and discussed its problems and development. Lewis read Out of the Silent Planet, The Problem of Pain, and likely many of his other important works at various meetings.
Other members of the Inklings were some of the most notable and important scholars of the day.
- Charles Williams, who joined the Inklings a couple of years after its foundation, is perhaps the best known Inkling outside of Tolkien and Lewis. Williams read parts of many of his important unpublished writings to the Inklings.
- Nevill Coghill was another of the more well-regarded scholars of the period. He specialized in Geoffrey Chaucer and later succeeded Tolkien as Merton Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford.
- Owen Barfield was another of the founding members of The Inklings. He was a close friend of C.S. Lewis and a very notable philosopher and writer in his own right.
- Hugo Dyson was another holdover from Tolkien’s old Coalbiter’s club.
- Two other very important additions to the club near the end of WWII were Father Gervase Matthew – who was a childhood friend of Tolkien’s and later helped to persuade Tolkien to push on in his attempts to publish The Lord of the Rings – and JRR Tolkien’s son Christopher Tolkien, who had become a serious scholar in his own right and later edited and prepared many of his father’s manuscripts for publication after his death.