The Oxford Inklings: Lewis, Tolkien and their Circle. By Colin Duriez. Oxford, UK: Lion Books, 2015. 288 pages. Paperback, $16.95.
In Colin Duriez’s latest book, he explores the inner-workings of the Inklings, especially “their lives, their writings, their ideas, and most crucially the influence they had on each other” (11). The mid-twentieth century Oxford writer’s group is not new terrain for Duriez, whose works include The C. S. Lewis Encyclopedia (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), The Inklings Handbook (Saint Louis: Chalice, 2001), J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship (Mahwah, NJ: Hiddenspring, 2003), Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings (Mahwah, NJ: Hiddenspring, 2001), and A Field Guide to Narnia (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004).
The Inklings were an informal gathering who, according to their founder, C. S. Lewis, had two things in common: “a tendency to write, and Christianity”; yet there was no established agenda, mission, or membership (25). Duriez writes, “it equally mistaken to see the literary club simply as a group of friends, or as a doctrinaire group driven by a highly defined common purpose” (217). Lewis stood at the center of this gathering, alongside J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield; however, the number of members would wax and wane over the course of the years. This open and informal group “existed in times of great change in Oxford, through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and petered out only with Lewis’s death in 1963” (12). They would gather in residences and pubs across Oxford, where they would spur one another on to write by having someone read “from a work in progress,” after which he “received extemporary criticism from the group” (225). When one considers the literary output of those who were in attendance, one can only consider the critique that would have been offered in high esteem.
Duriez provides an overview of the Inklings’ history, but is interested primarily in exploring “how this eclectic group of friends, without formal membership, agenda, or minutes, came to have a purpose that shaped the ideas and publications of the leading participants” (11). The main task taken up by the author is to describe the group’s influence upon the works of the individual Inklings. In some ways, this influence is obvious in that the authors were constantly encouraging one another to take up a particular effort, and discouraging other efforts. They critiqued one another’s works, made suggestions and edits, and at times, called for entire rewrites. However, for Duriez, this influence extends far deeper than merely offering friendly criticism.
Duriez posits that a special bond between the Inklings had the greatest effect on the individual authors’ works. He writes, “For Lewis and his friends, friendship itself was a rich and complex relationship, with roots in an older world, and with the power to enable what is best in our humanity” (229). This older world was that of the pre-Christian and Christian past, which for Lewis, stood in opposition to the post-Christian modern age governed by science (20). These values, then, were encouraged among the Inklings, and they provided the basis upon which the Inklings were established. Thus, according to the author, the Inklings greatest affect upon their own works was by way of a shared passion for faith, an appreciation for good literature, and a common worldview that drove them to charge each other to “point to a different kind of contemporary world, rooted in old virtues and values” (16). This conclusion that the shared worldview of the group influenced their works most profoundly provides a deeply-considered answer to one of the most common questions asked by readers of Lewis, Tolkien, and the other Oxford Inklings.
The author’s forty years of studying the Inklings is evident in each page. Those beginning to take interest in the Inklings will find this to be a friendly introduction to the Oxford writers group and long-time readers of the Inklings will take advantage of the insight, research, and documentation of the author.
Colin Duriez, The Oxford Inklings
This review appears in the Southwestern Journal of Theology 59.2 (Spring 2017): 257-58.