THE INKLINGS, J.R.R. TOLKIEN, AND C.S. LEWIS: COLLECTIVELY
PROVIDING SCAFFOLDS OF SUPPORT
A Thesis presented to the faculty of
California State University Dominguez Hills
In Partial Fulfillment
of the requirements for the Degree
Master of Arts
I dedicate the work in this thesis to my aunt, Dr. Paulette Harris, and to the loving memories of my uncle, Dr. Audie Holmes, my personal friend Melissa Petrey Kern, and
the love of my life, Nadine. My aunt and uncle’s words of encouragement and push for continued hard work towards furthering my education made all of this possible. Both of you have been my best supporters starting from my Associates degree all the way to this
Master’s degree. Mel, you were instrumental in connecting me with others who were
equally passionate about the works of Tolkien. These introductions paved the way for
many great sources of inspiration in my life. Nadine, you never gave up on me through
the struggles of writing this thesis. I love you with all my heart.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
DEDICATION ...... ii
TABLE OF CONTENTS ...... iii
ABSTRACT ...... iv
1. INTRODUCTION ...... 1
2. THE IMPACT OF WAR ON C.S. LEWIS AND J.R.R. TOLKIEN ...... 5
Tolkien’s Life before the War Years ...... 6 The Battle of the Somme becomes Middle Earth ...... 8 C.S. Lewis’ Life before the War Years ...... 14 The Battle of the Arras and Lewis’ Innocence Lost ...... 17
3. THE FORMATION OF THE COALBITERS AND INKLINGS GROUPS ...... 22
The Seed of Creativity ...... 24 The Inklings Arise ...... 28 Tolkien’s Impact on Lewis...... 29 Lewis’ Impact on Tolkien ...... 33
WORKS CITED ...... 38
In the early 1930s, a group of writers met each week and discussed their literary works in progress. The types of support varied from confidence builder to constructive criticism from fellow writers. Many times, Tolkien and Lewis’s discourse resulted in the final drafts of pieces of literature. This study uses primary and secondary sources that pertain to the Inklings, specifically C.S. Lewis and J.R.R
Tolkien’s collective provision of literary support to one another. This thesis addresses the following topics: (1) how war service impacted the fantastical ideologies of Lewis and Tolkien who both had served in various roles during World
War I, (2) how the Inklings improved the selected writings of the authors Tolkien and Lewis, (3) how Tolkien’s support and Lewis’s views on theology impacted their writing and spiritual beliefs, and (4) how the camaraderie formed in the Inklings defined authors Tolkien and Lewis. 1
Beginning in the late 1930s and lasting nearly two decades, the literary group of scholars called the Inklings met twice each month on Thursday evenings at an Oxford,
England pub where they read their writings in small group settings. The Inklings were not an official, formal, literary club. Yet, the group met regularly and discussed unfinished works that each member was writing. These members included prominent writers such as
C.S. Lewis, who had been a member of an earlier writing support group known as “the
Coalbiters,” J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others (Duriez 81). The writers participated in a beneficial, supporting exchange of ideas. At least six of the founding members had served in World War I, the war having ended over a decade before the
Inklings were formed. Meetings of The Inklings provided a myriad of opportunities for prominent and lesser known literary scholars not only to perfect each other’s writing styles but to discuss and negotiate their many different genre writing preferences and background experiences, especially related to World War I. Writing that sparked the imagination was rising among faculty at Oxford. The world around them was drastically changing due to the growing industry brought on by war. Tolkien’s obsession with language and service as a communications officer in the war allowed him to transfer his passion for language into his writings. 2
In this thesis, I will address the impact that World War I had on the literary works of the group known as the Inklings, and I will take an in-depth look at the friendships and associations that occurred between Tolkien and Lewis, who had both been in battle. This thesis will identify the reasons for keeping such writing groups today.
The Inklings of Oxford were both talented and challenged. The individual successes of the Inklings’ authors directly related to the support they provided each other.
These writers truly were not only exceptionally gifted, but were faced with challenges from the war years. Society was ripe for escapism from the constant barrage of grim news regarding the war. These writers witnessed their country shrivel from a beautiful countryside to a dark industrial center pumping out weapons of death and destruction.
The membership of the Inklings provided Tolkien and Lewis with coping strategies and the assistance each needed to become a more successful writer. The Inklings served as resources for the collective literary, social and emotional development of Tolkien and
Lewis. According to Gareth Knight, that understanding of each other’s social and emotional climate was critical to their individual writing successes. The Inklings especially came to the writing group at critical points in their writing careers and their lives, especially Tolkien and Lewis (Knight 243-244).
The Inklings recognized and nurtured the writing capabilities of their fellow
Inklings. Collectively, they helped each other achieve their writing potential by serving as resources for each other not only in terms of their writing achievements, but in supporting their physical, social, and emotional frailties, which otherwise could have resulted in their writings suffering. According to Knight, such variables as mental health issues, post-war
3 syndromes, neurological disorders, physical handicaps, and overall social and emotional problems could have impeded their writing efforts and achievement (Knight 4-5).
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis recognized “the writing gift” that each possessed.
The group would intervene at the right moment when Tolkien or Lewis would require a boost because their creativity was suppressed by physical, social, or emotional problems.
Often such impediments were masked to outsiders; however, their fellow Inklings were quick to recognize the situations under those bravely worn masks. The Inklings did not address just simple, homogenous issues that had the potential to gently impede their writing success. According to Colin Duriez, they were a heterogeneous group of writers who experienced a variety of serious physical, social, and emotional crises oftentimes directly related to the times of their lives (Duriez 87-88). The Inklings’ camaraderie addressed such barriers.
This lens allowed Inkling members to work through weaknesses while building each of their writing strengths. The most notable Inklings were C.S. Lewis, Owen
Barfield, Charles Williams, and J.R.R Tolkien. This group of writers came to the Inklings unable to fully recognize what great writing potential lay inside them. The company the fellow Inklings kept brought out this hidden talent. The Inklings fit the following butterfly analogy: “A chrysalis is understandably nervous about its prospect as a butterfly. Not that, in the end, it has much choice in the matter; we are all part of some ordered process, whether we see it as the direct hand of a God or through the agency of various intermediaries of the company we keep” (Knight 245). The Inklings acted as the catalyst that each member needed in order to grow. These creative minds were
4 transformed from the early stage of a caterpillar, to cocoon, chrysalis, and finally into a beautiful butterfly through their company with fellow Inklings.
An in-depth study of the research related to the Inklings, namely Tolkien and
Lewis, will require the study of sources primary and secondary, in order to gain a better understanding of the Inklings and their influence on each other. For example, during the prime years of the Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis played off the literary genius of one another. It will be necessary to understand the authors’ works and the authors themselves in order to grasp the full impact that the Inklings’ camaraderie had on each other’s literary prowess during the war years, and how the writing of the Inklings improved from interactions at Inkling meetings.
THE IMPACT OF WAR ON C.S. LEWIS AND J.R.R. TOLKIEN
The best way to understand the impact that World War I and World War II had on the creative minds of authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien is to look at their lives prior to and during service. Various Tolkien and Lewis scholars over the years have put forward their own theories about these writers and how their service impacted their later works. A few theories already available include John Garth’s idea that The Battle of the
Somme has direct correlations to The Fall of Gondolin and The Lord of the Rings (Garth
312). These theories are hard to ignore as one reads through the text and sees war ravaging peaceful places like Bilbo Baggin’s home, the Shire. The hobbits are peaceful folk who enjoy good company and food. During the scouring of the shire in Chapter
Eighteen of Return of the King, Sam and Frodo return to find that their once-tranquil homeland has been spoiled and burnt to the ground by a traveling band of Saruman’s
Orcs. The Shire is a close parallel to Tolkien’s childhood England changing during the war. According to Anne Arnott, what Tolkien took away from the war experiences was that war is a terrifying place, but also ground zero for an epic battle of good versus evil
(Arnott 115-120). The world of Middle Earth contains all sorts of evil creatures. These monsters hearken back to machines of war. John Garth states the impact that Tolkien saw in combat might explain the central or climactic roles of battles in his stories. The tank- like dragons in the assault on Gondolin strongly imply that this is the case (Garth 298).
Tolkien’s Life Before the War Years
The first twenty-three years of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s life prior to joining the Lancaster Fusiliers was a bumpy one. His mother Mabel and father Arthur both passed away before Tolkien was twelve years old. Garth explains the importance of faith in Tolkien’s life early on by his mother’s action of leaving legal guardianship to Catholic priest Father Francis Xavier. The Father would ensure that young Tolkien would have a wholesome Catholic education and upbringing (Garth 11-13).
From 1903-1910 Tolkien would attend various academic institutions and Catholic schools. His love for nature and languages was blossoming more then ever. By the time
Tolkien was nineteen, he would form a friendship with a group of young men that would first illustrate his need for creative support from a peer group. Tolkien met Rob Gilson,
Geoffrey Bache Smith, and Christopher Wiseman while attending King Edward’s School.
They formed a literary group called the Tea Club Barrovian Society (T.C.B.S). This was
Tolkien’s first experience with group work and literature. He found the experience of sharing his love of literature and analyzing the texts to be invigorating. The times the group could meet would vary, but according to Garth the group would get together, read, tea, and discuss literature at the school’s library, among other places, after school or whenever they could (Garth 17-18).
The T.C.B.S. gave Tolkien his first feeling of a true fellowship of friends that would later be an inspiration for characters that appear in Lord of the Rings. The hobbits
Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins form a lasting friendship throughout the three novels.
One of the themes of the story is the corruption of power and how a small group of
21 friends can overcome that power, no matter the danger. The group of friends would be a strong part of Tolkien’s life for years to come. Time passed quickly, and Tolkien found himself considering attending college. In October of 1912, Tolkien attended Exeter
College in Oxford.
By 1915 Tolkien had to fight off the mounting social pressure to enlisting, which was very common in England for a young man his age. According to Garth, he was determined to complete his college degree before turning his life over to the military
(Garth 40-41). Tolkien felt the mounting pressure of the years prior to the war and mentions it in his forward to Lord of the Rings:
One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully
its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to
be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be
involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918, all but one of my close
friends was dead. (Tolkien XV)
In retrospect, he realized war was a big part of his life and it left physical and emotional scars.
The Battle of the Somme and Middle Earth
Many authors have written of the impact war can have on the mind, body and soul. Studies have been done that deal with the impact of war on soldiers. Just through reading Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, the reoccurring themes of war, corruption of the natural world, and the scars left on the characters are evident and cannot be ignored. Tolkien scholar Robert Blackham explains how these two novels dive right into
21 the events on the battlefield:
War can be a strange thing, short periods of adrenaline packed action with
death and destruction all around, and long periods of boredom either in
camp or waiting in reserve or the line before waiting to see action. Tolkien
had churned thoughts and images over and over in his mind and, on his
return to Great Haywood, words were leaking from his fingers, so he
started to write what would become The Book of Lost Tales. Within this
book are the major themes that would become the basis for The
Silmarillion, a book Tolkien worked on for the rest of his life.
Tolkien’s initial glimpses of evil and destruction were from the weapons of war being unveiled at The Battle of the Somme. At this battle, the British military was unveiling a new weapon that was another type of fire-breathing dragon, the primitive version of the modern tank. Other experimental weapons were also unveiled at the Battle of the Somme, including experimental noxious gas shells, aircraft, and primitive flame throwers. The flame throwers were used to force German infantry out of their trenches. The flame- throwing devices worked well so long as German mortars did not make contact. These new weapons and their impact on the German soldiers must have been seared into the memory of many young men, especially Tolkien.
By the age of twenty-two, Tolkien had to put on hold finishing his education at
Oxford and marrying the love of his life, Edith. The societal pressures to fight for king
21 and country were just too much. According to Garth, in July of 1915 Tolkien received his job in the Lancashire Fusiliers and would report for training in Staffordshire and Bedford
(Garth 82-83). For the next three months, Tolkien would train in various cities throughout
England. The military was able to use his ability to decipher languages. Tolkien landed the job of Battalion Signal Officer with the Lancaster Fusiliers. Tolkien reluctantly said goodbye to his new wife Edith and T.C.B.S. members in the months leading up to leaving for France. This one event echoes Fellowship of the Ring’s Chapter twenty-two, “The
Breaking of the Fellowship.” In this chapter, Sam and Frodo are forced to take the One
Ring to Mordor on their own while Legolas, Gimli, and Aragorn must fight to save the hobbits Merry and Pippin. Although the friendship was forced apart by circumstance,
Tolkien allows the reader to feel that the characters will find their paths to one another again. On the boat to France, Tolkien was saddened by having to say farewell to so many friends and loved ones. This sad time inspired him to write. He was working on
“Kortirion Among the Trees.” The poem describes a fading town upon a little hill where none linger, except the Lonely Companies, the holy companies and the immortal elves:
O fading town upon an inland hill,
Old shadows linger in thine ancient gate,
Thy robe is grey, thine old heart now is still;
Thy towers sit in mist await
Their crumbling end, while through the storeyed elms
The Gliding Water leaves these inland realms,
And slips between long meadows to the Sea,
Still bearing downward over murmurous falls
One day and then another to the Sea;
And slowly thither many years have gone,
Since first the Elves here built Kortirion. (Tolkein, Kortirion Among the
According to Humphrey Carpenter, the elves are used quite a bit in Tolkien’s works to reflect the honorable service they are willing to give for a good that is worth fighting for (Carpenter 8). Elves are immortal beings with limits. They can die from wounds but not from sickness or old age. Perhaps the elves represent the young solider that has everything to live for and a lifetime to live it. The loyal elf and solider will give their precious life for the greater good over worldly possessions.
In July, 1916 Tolkien arrived in France and was assigned to the front line. His love of language and communication made him a wonderful signal officer. He found the military came with lots of downtime. He would make the best of this downtime by expressing his love of writing and creating language. While waiting for orders, Tolkien would jot down notes on his fairy language that would soon become Quenya in Middle- earth. Tolkien found it best to communicate back home with friends and family. In a letter he explains what how trench life was and provides a glimpse into his feelings of creative inadequacy:
The miserable drizzling afternoon I have been reading up on old military
lecture notes again and getting bored with them after an hour and a half. I
have done some touches to my nonsense fairy language, to its
improvement. I often long to work at it and don’t let myself cause though I
do love it so it does seem like a mad hobby. (Humphrey 8)
Garth explains that from July through October of 1916, Tolkien would see battle, lose close friends, and get dangerously ill. Sickness would spread through the trenches at fast rates (Garth 152-201). Just like Frodo Baggins, Tolkien was extraordinarily lucky, for most men who went off to war never returned.
The 11th Lancashire Fusiliers’ job was to seize key German trenches in the
Somme region of France. Tolkien would come and go from the trenches in July through
October. What Tolkien witnessed during this period would provide him with the insight to create characters like Aragorn and his bravery in Lord of the Rings. The soldiers would climb out of the trenches blindly and charge into no man’s land. This was similar to the way Arargorn charged into Mordor’s army in Return of the King. German troops had just started using machine guns. According to Garth, these deadly weapons of war would mow down countless numbers of troops in seconds (Garth 152-201).
Many times the Fusiliers would be called in to dig mass graves, and they would see the carnage from an earlier battle. Tolkien on many such occasions would see young soldiers’ corpses floating in shell holes. He perhaps used this experience to write the scene of the dead marshes in Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s use of immortal elf corpses floating in the marshes parallels the idea of youth, innocence, and beauty lost to war. In
Chapter Two of Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien describes the scene that Sam, Frodo, and
21 the creature Gollum see when they come across this old battlefield:
In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces,
deep, deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and
noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair and weeds in their silver
hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them.' Frodo hid his
eyes in his hands. 'I know not who they are; but I saw there Men and
Elves, and Orcs beside them. (Tolkien 614)
The hobbits and elves were beautiful innocent creatures of the earth. Seeing them give their lives in his books must have been how Tolkien felt seeing such carnage in the
Somme. The young and innocent lives lost on the field may have given Tolkien the inspiration to write the race of elves into Middle-earth:
It was Sam's first view of a battle of men against men, and he did not like
it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered
what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really
evil at heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his
home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.
The character Sam Wise was unaccustomed to the idea of war. His wonder about the soldier’s identity shows his innocence and compassion towards life. Tolkien and many other young men saw death for the first time. The German soldiers had names and families that soldiers may have wondered about.
The war continued on, and the Fusiliers played their part in a failed attack on the German occupied village of Ovillers and other failed attacks on the heavily fortified German trench Schwaben Redoubt. Tolkien received news his good T.C.B.S. friend Rob Gilson had been killed during a mortar attack. This loss forced Tolkien to come to the realization that his precious school fellowship was broken and the T.C.B.S. would never be the same again. The loss of his friends is a symbolic of the breaking of the fellowship in Lord of the Rings. Upon the death of Gandalf the Grey and Boromir, the fellowship is forced to break up and go their own ways. The innocence of that group that set off from Rivendell is ruined by death. Tolkien had begun to devote much energy to writing poetry, the result, he believed, of the shared ideals and mutual encouragement of the T.C.B.S. Tolkien was motivated to write much of his early poems thanks to the support of the members of the
T.C.B.S., and in a letter to fellow surviving member Geoffrey Smith, Tolkien talks about how war broke up the writing group:
So far my chief impression is that something has gone crack. I feel just the
same to both of you – nearer if anything and very much in need of you -1
am hungry and lonely of course – but I don’t feel a member of a little
complete body now. I honestly feel that the TCBS has ended – but I am
not at all sure that it is not an unreliable feeling that will vanish – like
magic perhaps when welcomed together again. Still I feel a mere
individual at present – with intense feelings more than ideas but very
powerless. (Carpenter 10-11)
After four long months with the Lancaster Fusiliers, the chapter of Tolkien’s life as a solider would be ended by trench fever. Tolkien spent a month unsuccessfully being treated at a field hospital; doctors decided to send him back to England where he could receive comprehensive treatment and train new soldiers. Carpenter explains sadder news would reach Tolkien in England that another T.C.B.S. member had died from wounds received at the Somme (Carpenter 9-10).
Tolkien went on to say that the group was responsible for finding a talent he had in himself, that opened up a whole world for him. Tolkien thrived on the support and constructive criticism of the group dynamic, something he found again later with long- time friend C.S. Lewis and the Inklings. In a letter to the only surviving T.C.B.S. member other than himself, Tolkien sums up the impact the group played on his life and his thankfulness for the council he received from it:
Council was as you know followed in my own case with my finding a
voice for all kinds of pent up things and a tremendous opening up of
everything for me: I have always laid that to the credit of the inspiration
that even a few hours with the four always brought to all of us. (Carpenter
C.S. Lewis’s Life before the War Years
Clive Staples Lewis was born on November 29, 1898 in Belfast, Northern Ireland to Albert J. Lewis and Florence Augusta Hamilton Lewis. He was proud of his Irish heritage and kept strong ties to his homeland. His Irish passion opened his mind to the
21 myths and legends of the Celts. Lewis spent the first ten years of his life appreciating his country and living a relatively calm life. Warren Lewis, the six-year-old brother of Clive, ran into the nursery to see his brother. He carried a biscuit tin lid filled with moss, flowers, and sticks to proudly show his younger brother. This is the earliest encounter with the beauty that Lewis will recall as a romantic experience of Ireland (Duriez 3). In
1905 Lewis’s family moved to the outskirts of Belfast. Lewis scholar Lionel Adey explains that by the time Lewis was eleven years-old, his mother Flora passed away from cancer. His father was eager for him to gain an education regardless of the difficult loss of his wife (Adey 3-4).
By June 1908, eleven year-old Lewis departed the Wynyard School to attend a boarding school at Campbell College. He was there for only a few months before he came down with severe respiratory issues. A choice was made for him to leave Ireland and see a specialist in England. At fourteen Lewis arrived in Malvern, England to join a health facility for individuals with respiratory issues. Lewis scholar A.N. Wilson explains
Clive attended a nearby prep school, Cherbourg House, which allowed him to continue his education and have his lung condition treated simultaneously (Wilson 21-23).
In September of 1914, Lewis began preparations for higher education. He worked with the former Headmaster of Lurgan College, William T. Kirkpatrick, through April.
Lewis’s brother Albert had also received tutelage from Kirkpatrick. Wilson explains that during his late preparatory years, Lewis developed a passion for Norse mythology that greatly added to his imaginative growth (Wilson 37-38). Lewis found the world of Nature fed his imagination sufficiently. As he ventured into the world of fiction, he felt the
Christian faith from his childhood was unable to satisfy his growing mind. Colin Duriez explains that Lewis abandoned his Christian faith in favor of Naturalism (Duriez 11).
People can act as a catalyst for ideas and passions which otherwise would remain dormant. Before meeting Tolkien, Lewis had made few friends that helped him grow. He lived a solitary and oblivious life during his early teenage years. The T.C.B.S. provided
Tolkien with an early appreciation for the group dynamic in writing and analyzing literature. Lewis was rather an independent mind from his early elementary years through his preparatory years in England and hadn’t quite found any forms of support from friendships. His friendship with Arthur Greeves perhaps first illustrated his need to have another mind to bounce ideas off of, minds much like his own. The friendship of other men was one of the sources of happiness in Lewis’s life. The two men formed a friendship with their shared love of Norse mythology and would spend long hours together analyzing mythology like Loki Bound and Myths of the Norsemen. According to
Wilson, after life took them their separate ways, both continued to write one another, which helped Lewis’s fluency in communication with others and later in his own literary works (Wilson 38-39). Greeves was the first friend Lewis met on the road to his growth as a writer:
It was in writing to Greeves that he decided, very often, the sort of person
he wanted to be. We could very definitely say that if it had not been for
Arthur Greeves, many of Lewis’ most successful books would not have
been written. The letters were the dress rehearsal for that intimate and
fluent manner which was to make Lewis such a successful author; the
early stuff that he wrote for himself was entirety unreadable. In the letters
to Greeves, he learned to write for an audience. (Wilson 38)
The impact social interaction can have on the creative mind is paramount. The creative person may have all the inventiveness needed to make a piece of art, literature, or music, but are crippled when it comes to social interaction. Some of the greatest of artists lived an improvised existence because there was no one there to help them harness their creativity. Greeves was one of Lewis’s greatest supporters.
The Battle of Arras and Lewis’s Innocence Lost
By December of 1916, Lewis made his first trip to Oxford and took a scholarship examination there. College was on his mind, but England had declared war on Germany two years earlier. Lewis was going to find that the world he knew around him was about to change.
There was no law set in place for an Irishman like Lewis to join in the war effort.
For reasons that are his alone, he enlisted in 1917 and went to Keble College for officer’s training. While there he became great friends with Edward Courtney “Paddy” Moore.
Edward was also Irish and had found himself in England due to family turmoil. These two Irishmen would become friends and their paths would cross in a big way later in the war. Officer’s training had come to an end, and Lewis was ready for assignment. He was commissioned as an officer in the 3rd Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry on September
25, 1917. Duriez explains that three months later, just shy of his eighteenth birthday,
Lewis was at the front line in the Somme Valley (Duriez 18). The unorganized nature of the military allowed Lewis to do as he pleased during downtime. He found solace in reading, and described his feelings about trench warfare up to this point. Lewis wrote letters to his good friend Arthur Greeves throughout his life. In a letter he explains his first experience with war:
They are very deep, you go down them by a shaft of about 30 steps; they
have wire bunks where a man can sleep snugly and braziers for warmth
and cooking. The trenches are a place where a man, at least this man,
could read. January has found me deeply absorbed in Adam Bede and The
Mill on the Floss, which I like even better. (Wilson 55)
The down time in the trenches allowed Lewis to escape into his imagination through reading works of literature. These precious moments are perhaps where Narnia and other fantastical worlds began to take shape. Lewis’s first tour in the Somme Valley was cut short due to a case of trench fever, also known as pyrexia. He spent some time at a Red Cross hospital. While recovering Lewis spent his time much the same way he had always done, retreating into his imagination by reading. He wrote home for books and recovered by indulging his love of reading and writing. According to Wilson, he had dodged a bullet in his first tour of the Great War, but wouldn’t be so fortunate the second time he was called up (Wilson 55).
Lewis was deployed a second time to the front in 1918. This time he was to see action in the Battle of Arras. He witnessed corpses everywhere. The death all around
Lewis reminded him of the loss of his mother. Lewis’s mind was so used to escaping into
21 books and indulging his imagination that he was unprepared for what he was seeing. The
German offensive was intense. Lewis was on Mount Bernenchon. His friend Sergeant
Ayers was mortally wounded when a German shell exploded nearby. The explosion threw shrapnel in the direction of Lewis. He received wounds to the hand, leg, face, arm, and lung. Lewis lay there on the ground waiting for death. Wilson states it was a moment he felt neither fear nor bravery (Wilson 56). In these moments, a man’s ideas about life go flashing through his eyes. Lewis had spent much of his life reading and had made very few friends. He had abandoned his Christian faith and was unsure what to expect next.
The only true friends he had were his college mate Arthur Greeves and fellow Irishman
Francis “Paddy” Moore. Lewis had escaped the horrors of war, but was about to receive some horrible news. Lewis was taken to a mobile hospital in France to treat his shrapnel wounds. He was stabilized and eventually moved back to England to recover (Moore 56).
Paddy’s mother was Lewis’s first visitor and explained that Paddy had been reported missing in action. Lewis had to consider the pact he and Paddy had made should one of them be killed in action. He honored his word and looked after Paddy’s mother for some time and was even considered by Mrs. Moore as an adopted son (Wilson 59). Lewis was glad to be done with war, and the fear of getting called back to active duty subsided.
During his recovery, an armistice was signed and Word War I was over. Lewis had new scars to deal with, both physical and emotional. He wrote of his experiences looking back and how he saw war:
The frights, the cold, the smell of heavy explosive, the horribly smashed men still moving like half crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer
21 earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night until they seemed to grow to your feet (Duriez 18).
Lewis found the soldier’s life difficult. The experiences may have seemed awful at the time, but would ultimately lead to experiences to pull from in places like Narnia’s epic ending battle between the White Witch and Aslan’s army. Lewis’s first bit of creativity to have come from the war was poetry. Lewis wrote “Spirits in Bondage,” a poetry collection with very dark undertones. These poems were the direct result of the carnage Lewis had witnessed:
Ah, to be ever alone,
In flowery valleys among the mountains and silent wastes untrod,
In the dewy upland places, in the garden of God,
This would atone!
I shall not see
The brutal, crowded faces around me, that in their toil have grown,
Into the faces of devils-yea, even as my own—
When I find thee,
O Country of Dreams!
Beyond the tide of the ocean, hidden and sunk away,
Out of the sound of battles, near to the end of day,
Full of dim woods and streams. (Hamilton)
In these poems Lewis uses vivid imagery to describe the field of battle. In the poem he explains that no matter how beautiful the imagination and solitude can be, the
21 horrors of war will overtake all. The poetry that was created out the despair Lewis felt is what propelled his writing career. Many times the creative mind helps the person cope with life’s difficulties. Lewis was a man who valued solitude, reading a good book, and escapism. What war did for his mind was offer him the opportunity to appreciate everything because it can all be taken away in a instant. Some of his innocence was lost by the experiences of war, but new experiences were gained to make up for the loss.
THE FORMATION OF THE COALBITERS AND INKLINGS GROUPS
The events and people that come and go from an individual’s life can greatly impact their lives. What brought C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien together can be called fate or a chance coincidence, but the impact of their meeting would influence some of their works and philosophies. From the time they left the front lines in France, Tolkien and Lewis spent the next few years pursuing various academic ventures at England’s prestigious Oxford University. Both men shared a passion for mythological stories and philology. They both wished to bring the masses a modern day myth for England.
In the early part of the twentieth century at Magdalen College, a feeder institution to Oxford, Lewis was hired as a tutor of English language and literature. Before meeting
Tolkien, the atheist Lewis was a staunch follower of the school of naturalism. Which was the philosophical idea that natural laws and forces operate the world. The laws of nature can explain everything, and the world of the supernatural was one that had no place in explaining day-to-day events. It was a non-spiritual way of viewing the world, but one he was passionate about. Lewis felt no higher power was in control of his destiny, and there was no divine being in charge of the world around him. According to Duriez, he was on his way to a faculty meeting of Magdalen College and Oxford University faculty to talk about the syllabus for the upcoming school year when he would first met John Tolkien
After his service in the war, Tolkien found himself back at Oxford with his wife
Edith; they were beginning a small family. Tolkien continued writing languages and studying language. He also created new parts of the growing land of Middle Earth. He found work as an English tutor and employee at the Oxford English Dictionary and later as a professor of English at Leeds College. Tolkien was raised a devout Roman Catholic.
His views were very idealistic. The school of idealism maintains that the spirit and the mind shape the world. It deals much more heavily with supernaturally held doctrines than the school of naturalism does. Idealism was linked in many minds with Christianity, or with spiritual views that opposed a rapidly spreading school of naturalism. Tolkien got the job he had hoped for at Oxford University as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon studies.
According to Wilson, during this time he formed a literary group he called “the
Coalbiters,” an Icelandic kenning which means those who sit around a fire (Wilson 105).
This literary group read and discussed Norse mythology and its language by the fireside.
The idea of the group was to encourage those who enjoyed the text, but wished to learn more about the language of the Edda.
Tolkien was called to a faculty meeting where the syllabus was being discussed.
The idea tossed around was providing a proper study of Old English poetry in the English courses at Oxford. Victorian literature would be removed in order to give more time to
English poets (Wilson 104). Many of the other faculty members present found the removal of Victorian literature unnecessary; Clive Staples Lewis was one of those faculty members. Lewis found something interesting about his colleague.
A clashing between the naturalist and idealist points of view would build the foundation of Tolkien and Lewis’ enduring friendship. Lewis and Tolkien got to talk after the faculty meeting and discovered that while they both disagreed on many philosophical points of view, they shared a passion for Old Norse culture and mythology. Again, both found support and friendship through their shared passion for Icelandic mythology.
Neither of them knew that the other had also served in the French trenches and had lost friends to war. Tolkien invited Lewis into the Coalbiters, and Lewis accepted. Never having read a word of Norse (Old Icelandic) before, Lewis jumped at the chance to understand a small number of lines from the Laxdaela Saga (Wilson 105). In a letter to his longtime friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis tells of his excitement about joining Tolkien’s literary group and what amazing memories the fellowship brought back up: “I am learning Old Norse and thus beginning to read the original things I have dreamed of since before I really knew you. Dreams come true in unexpected ways” (Wilson 105). Tolkien had yet to find anyone outside of his childhood writing group that shared a passion for
Norse mythology the way he did. His mind now had other like minds to bounce ideas from, thus helping plant a seed of creativity.
The Seed of Creativity
The search for others who share common interests is a driving force. In the schoolyard, children bond with those who are similar in both personality and preferences.
This type of friendship comes and goes through an individual’s life. These friendships may end negatively or form a companionship that lasts a lifetime.
What is taken from these encounters makes all the difference. Fate brings beings together at times when they perhaps need feedback and positive reinforcement the most.
As the Coalbiters continued to meet, Lewis and Tolkien found many similarities in their interest in Old Norse mythology and language. Both men saw an inherent lack of fairy stories in England during the early twentieth century. They had seen battle in World War
I, lost close friends in battle, and had a passion for escapism through reading and writing.
A metaphorical seed for creative writing was in both Tolkien and Lewis that needed just a little water and sunlight to make it grow. Little did they know that seed inside them was about to be nurtured in a way neither could have imagined. In a letter to childhood friend
Author Greeves, Lewis is excited about joining the Coalbiters:
I am realizing a number of very old dreams in the way of books reading
Sir Gawin in the original (you remember my translation of it in a
companion volume to my translation of Beowulf) and, above all, learning
Old Icelandic. We have a little Icelandic Club in Oxford called the
‘Kolbitar’: which means literally ‘coal-biters’, i.e. an Icelandic word for
old cronies who sit around the fire so close that they look as if they were
biting the coals. We have so far read the Younger Edda and the Volsung
Saga: next term we shall read the Laxdale Saga. You will be able to
imagine what a delight this is to me, and how, even in turning over the
pages of my Icelandic Dictionary, the mere name of god or giant catching
my eye will sometimes throw me back fifteen years into a wild dream of
northern skies and Valkyrie music: only they are now even more beautiful
seen through a haze of memory-you know that awfully poignant effect
there is about impression covered from one’s past. (Hooper 298)
This letter illustrates how Lewis has truly found an outlet for his passion and creativity. After years of finding peace in solitude and escapism, Lewis could truly share his excitement for mythology. Having an outlet allowed him to find his voice in a group and be confident about what he loved so much. This relationship began to blossom as a result of the Coalbiters meetings, and they soon came to appreciate similar interests in mythology, poetry, language, myth and storytelling. Neither seemed to fit into modern culture; the two would rather spend their time in front of a fireplace reading than discussing politics. Their conversations usually dealt with a book either was reading or with translating the language of Norse mythology. Both men relied on public transport and neither owned nor drove a car. When they realized the other was a fledging writer, a position that had to be filled was inadvertently filled; each would act as the other’s first reader. Tolkien wrote to Rayner Unwin later in 1965, describing just how much Lewis would later impact his writing:
Lewis was a very impressionable man, and this was abetted by his great
generosity and capacity for friendship. The unpayable debt that I owe to
him was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer
encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I
ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But
for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have
brought a conclusion. (Humphrey 362)
Tolkien and Lewis worked in two different departments. Tolkien was on the linguistics and background of language portion of the English faculty. Lewis, on the other hand, was a member of the literature portion. The changing of the syllabus for the Oxford
English School brought them together. This gave the two a chance to work together outside of work. Their differences did not outweigh their similarities. Both men bonded over their similar experiences in World War I. They had retreated to their imaginations when life dealt them harsh realities. Their parents had died at young ages, which drew them towards escapism. They would create new worlds in order to escape difficult memories. These created places, of course, contained evil and death, much like the men’s own realities.
The once a week Coalbiter meetings continued with Tolkien and Lewis often going off together to discuss the northern Norse mythology of Thor and Odin. Tolkien had become so impressed with his new friend that he decided to let him read a rough draft of part of his Middle-earth saga The Silmarillion, specifically, Lay of Leithian. This poem is roughly fourteen cantos long when completed. The narrative poem’s plot revolves around Beren and Luthien, both of who are of the Elven race in Middle-earth.
Their poem is about a quest is to find the Silmaril. Beren’s land is ruined by a war over precious jewels. Beren meets his love Luthian in the neighboring land of Doriath. Beren is worn out from war in his homeland and wishes for the escape from the realities of life.
Upon reading the early-uncompleted version of this poem, C.S. Lewis was enamored with it at once. Beren is very much like Tolkien and Lewis, a man broken by war only wishing to escape. Lewis wrote to Tolkien in 1929 soon after reading the early
28 manuscripts of Lay of Leithian and was ecstatic: “I should have enjoyed [the poem] just was well if I’d picked it up in a bookshop, by an unknown author. The two things that come out clearly are the sense of reality in the background and the mythical value.”
(Carpenter The Inklings 30)
This type of feedback was exactly what Tolkien needed with his creative writing.
Many of his colleagues at Oxford would have laughed at the idea of a well-educated man writing such childish nonsense. Tolkien needed someone to inspire him. A seed needs the ingredients inside to grow, as well as soil, water, and sunlight; Lewis would provide these essential elements. This would be only the beginning of Lewis and Tolkien’s influences on each other’s creativity.
The Inklings Arise
In the early 1930s the purpose of the Coalbiters was over. The group decided to go in another direction. Many members of the group wished to start experimenting with writing their own mythologies. This allowed for the Inklings to be born. The motivation behind the new group was a simple one, but allowed for creative minds to benefit each other. Every Thursday evening the group would get together and discuss unfinished works. The meetings were in no way formal (Carpenter The Inklings 30). The sessions started in Lewis’s classroom at Oxford. Sometimes a few members ventured less formally to a nearby pub for more relaxed discussion. These group sessions provided exactly what Tolkien and Lewis needed to further their writing. The works of Tolkien and Lewis received both praise and criticism within the group. During the early 1930s
Professor Tolkien worked on manuscripts of poetry: The Lay of Aotrou, Itroun, and The
Lay of Leithian. Lewis also worked on a narrative book of prose at this time, The
Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism.
Tolkien’s Impact on Lewis
The bond between Tolkien and Lewis was unmistakable. They enjoyed many of the same things. Lewis wrote to his brother telling of their visits:
It has also become the custom for Tolkien to drop in on me of a Monday
morning for a glass. This is one of the pleasantest spots in the week.
Sometimes we talk English school politics, sometimes we criticize one
another’s poems, other days we drift into theology or the state of the
nation; rarely do we fly no higher than bawdy and puns. (Lewis 292)
Tolkien had met his match with Lewis. They both shared passions for fantasy and mythology. Lewis could stand toe to toe with Tolkien on many of the issues he felt passionate about. Both men needed the social interaction their friendship granted them.
The poetry manuscripts shared with the writing group paid off. Now their works had an audience of like-minded people to share with. Many of Lewis’s writing contained deep allegory. Tolkien was not a fan of allegorical styles. Lewis researched the method of allegory in The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason, and
Romanticism. According to Duriez, Lewis was at home in the vast range of pre-modern imagination, from the ancient Greeks through the medieval and Renaissance periods.
John is the protagonist making a fantastical pilgrimage towards finding truth (Duriez 94).
John represented Lewis and his discovery of faith. Writing allegorical works influenced Lewis to write The Chronicles of Narnia. Tolkien liked where the Narnia manuscript was going, which led to a conversation regarding modern literature and fantasy:
Some of the Scientifiction (science fiction) around evokes wonder—
sometimes offers fleeting glimpses of genuine other worlds. There is some
deplorable stuff, too, but that's true of all the genres. Space and time
stories can provide Recovery and Escape. I hope to lecture soon on this as
a quality of Fairy Story. I relish stories that survey the depths of space and
time. (Duriez 99)
Lewis was passionate about bringing fantastical worlds to the public. He felt
England at this time was lacking in quality fantasy literature and made it his job to bring it to mainstream public readers. The public did not receive Lewis’s book of prose fiction the way Lewis and Tolkien thought. It was somewhat obscure, which Tolkien thought might be the reason for the public misunderstanding of it: “Your Pilgrim’s Regress had something of what we like- romance. It’s a pity it did not go well with the public. It was a bit obscure in places. It can be a deuce of a labor to get it right” (Duriez 100).
Tolkien did not want to discourage the creative efforts of his friend, but instead offer some constructive criticism. It was this type of back and forth which helped the writers develop their unique styles without crushing their creativity. When criticism comes from a close friend it is from a place of caring and taken into consideration. Lewis was very rational in his approach to philosophical questions. He was capable of digging
31 deep into his imagination, but was unable to create a marriage between his naturalistic side and rational thought processes. He wanted to write stories that could amuse and teach the philosophical values in life that mattered.
Tolkien gave Lewis the ability to see how reason and imagination could co-exist.
The men had nightly discussions after Inkling meetings. Tolkien and fellow member
Hugo Dyson showed Lewis how the Gospel could bring reason and imagination together in literature. Lewis’ passion when reading Norse Mythology and the fantasy tales of the
Grimm Brothers could be used in a format of storytelling. The reader would have imaginative settings and characters, as well as a moral theme of good versus evil. These conversations eventually led to C.S. Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves to share in the excitement of finding faith:
Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea
of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the
idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself (cf. the quotation opposite the
title page of Dymer) I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by
it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis,
Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it in anywhere except the
Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the
myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’
I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant. (Hopper 426 - 438)
Lewis was able to connect his reasonable side to his imagination. He found that the pagan story format could be used to provide an imaginative world, along with teaching a lesson of reason and faith. He wrote more of his understanding to Greeves:
The Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of
poets, using such images as He founded there, while Christianity is God
expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’. Therefore it is true,
not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could
take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can)
appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of
course less true: they are the translations into our concepts and ideas of
that. God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the
actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. Does this amount to a
belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian
story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b)
That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain
that it really happened. (Hopper 426 - 438)
It was through their friendship that Lewis was able to discover faith and find a way to bring his love of pagan mythology to Christianity. His new established faith left him questioning how to approach writing and where his motivation would be creatively.
He found story-telling existed in both paganism and Christianity. The themes present in both were just as powerful to readers. The 1931 discussions of Tolkien, Dyson, and
Lewis set into motion writing based on Christian pieces of literature including Out of the
Silent Planet, The Screwtape Letters, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
Wardrobe catapulted Lewis’s career as a children’s writer and is one of his most successful and deeply allegorical tales. The themes present in Narnia draw right from the crucifixion story in The New Testament. During his almost thirty-year friendship with
Tolkien, Lewis was able to find and harness his voice in the literary world.
Lewis’s Impact on Tolkien
When Tolkien met Lewis at the Oxford faculty meeting, he never imagined they would be such close friends for twenty-eight years. Tolkien’s earlier writing consisted of mythological stories meant for private audiences. His belief in his work was low, and reaching a larger audience was not something he could do. Lewis had the ability to instill confidence in his friend. Tolkien had many unfinished stories that were waiting to be published. Lewis sat and listened to Tolkien read chapters from works in progress. These
Inkling meetings gave Tolkien the chance to overcome his fear of letting others listen to his manuscripts.
After reading Tolkien’s rough drafts, Lewis would ask questions. The use of personification in Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet gave Tolkien the fuel he needed to add color to his Middle-earth novels. Many of Tolkien’s spiders, trees, and eagles speak and have personalities. Tolkien also needed assistance with fleshing out Middle-earth. He had all the groundwork needed for a fantastical world. He had been working on Middle-earth as early as the French trenches. His first narrative in Middle-earth was The Hobbit. He had manuscripts he was comfortable sharing with Lewis. Tolkien appreciated Lewis’s
34 constructive criticism. Tolkien began writing The Hobbit in 1930 and worked on it part- time for the next seven years. He had to juggle writing and working as a professor of
Anglo-Saxon literature and language at Oxford. According to Carpenter, in 1932 Tolkien had reached a creative dry spell. After the dragon Smaug’s death, Tolkien did not know where to take the narrative. He decided to lend a copy of it to C.S. Lewis (Carpenter 14).
In a letter to Arthur Greeves, Lewis explains what his thoughts were on Tolkien’s unfinished children’s story:
Since term began I have had a delightful time reading a children’s
story which Tolkien has just written. I have told of him before: the one
man absolutely fitted, if fate had allowed, to be a third in our friendship in
the old days, for he also grew up on W.E. Morris and George Macdonald.
Reading his fairy tale has been uncanny- it is exactly like what we
both have longed to write (or read) in 1916: so that one feels he is not
making it up but merely describing the same world into which all three of
us have the entry. Whether it is really good (I think it is until the end) is of
course another question: still more, whether it will succeed with modern
children. (Hooper 449)
Lewis’s belief in The Hobbit was exactly what Tolkien needed to complete the story after Smaug’s death. Tolkien finished the The Hobbit over the the next five years.
With Lewis’s approval Tolkien found the courage to submit a completed version of the story to a publisher. Susan Dagnall, an Oxford graduate working for a London publishing
35 house read the first draft. Tolkien scholar Humphrey Carpenter believes this led to the book getting a publisher (Carpenter 14).
One of the first to review the book was C.S. Lewis. His three-paragraph review was published in the October 1937 issue of The Times Literary Supplement. It was a combination of a nice review for a good friend and a pre-conceived literature observation.
Lewis explained that he liked the different races and creatures in Middle-earth. His last paragraph applauds Tolkien:
The Hobbit … will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only
years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to
realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to
make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so
true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a
classic. (Lewis Review of The Hobbit 1937)
This review meant so much more to Tolkien than any commentary simply because it was from a friend. Tolkien was in a very vulnerable place and hearing this from Lewis was very important in shaping what he did after The Hobbit. As Tolkien’s first venture into Middle-earth, The Hobbit contains some of Tolkien’s own experiences.
Duriez explains that The Hobbit exposed Tolkien to the public and helped him get over his lack of self-confidence. His publisher loved the book and so did the public. It was only a short time before he was asked by his publisher for Middle-earth sequels. He was forced to abandon work on The Simarilian to start brainstorming for “The New Hobbit”
(Duriez 101-145). The three volumes of Lord of the Rings took Tolkien almost twenty
36 years to write and get published. From 1937-1954 he juggled finishing these Middle- earth tales with his personal life, a professorship at Oxford, poetry writing, and lecturing on fairy stories. Tolkien leaned on Lewis again when writing Lord of the Rings. Lewis urged Tolkien to complete his tale, and he helped him during Inkling meetings. Other group members would give constructive criticism. On one occasion, Hugo Dyson had enough of hearing about Tolkien’s elves of Middle-earth. Dyson muttered while lying on the couch, “Oh God, no more elves” (Tolkien Gateway). Tolkien decided to no longer read at Inkling meetings. He and Lewis continued talking privately.
Lewis and Tolkien’s friendship was tested during this time since Tolkien became more of an outsider to the group and Lewis took charge as the group’s unofficial leader.
Lewis still wrote a wonderful review of his old friend’s story:
[The Fellowship of the Ring] is like lightning from a clear sky. To say that
in it heroic romance, gorgeous, eloquent, and unashamed, has suddenly
returned at a period almost pathological in its anti-romanticism,
is inadequate . . . Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like
cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart (C.S. Lewis).
Just like the review for The Hobbit, Lewis is constructively criticizing his friend while simultaneously praising him. It was the nature of their friendship to be both critic and friend. Perhaps it was the love-hate nature of their relationship that pushed the two apart. The reason behind their broken friendship is debatable, but many feel the gift of faith that Tolkien gave Lewis was too much for Tolkien to deal with. Tolkien felt theology should be left to the professionals, while Lewis thought anyone could
36 evangelize Their impact on one another during those influential years was significant.
Support groups are an invaluable resource to a writer. Tolkien and Lewis both shared their wartime service and similar imaginative minds. What impacted them most was the ability to share their work among a peer group. It is easy during the writing process to have no contact with the world, making it a very isolating experience. What modern day writers have that the Inklings didn’t have is the Internet. In this digital age, joining online writing groups has become a much easier endeavor. Writing is aided greatly when more eyes look over a selected work. The obvious impact of clear more concise writing will emerge from writing groups, but a social aspect will also emerge. Writers who would otherwise not interact with others are being forced into social situations. The lesson that is learned from The Inklings, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien is important today just as it was then. Working to improve knowledge and skills in both the profession and business of writing will yield results. By getting together with those who a writer can trust will lead to the ability to accept constructive criticism as a beneficial tool instead of an obstacle.
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