Unexpected Fellowship, Part Two

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Addison’s Walk, Magdelen College, Oxford

“I will not walk with your progressive apes, / erect and sapient. Before them gapes / the dark abyss to which their progress tends / if by God’s mercy progress ever ends, / and does not ceaselessly revolve the same / unfruitful course with changing of a name.” – by J.R.R. Tolkien from the poem “Mythopoeia”,  written in response to that night on Addison’s Walk where he challenged C.S. Lewis.

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This weeping willow filled me with that “spirit of divine discontent and longing” to take a boat and disappear down the River Cherwell.

One of my favorite spots in Oxford was Addison’s Walk.  It was a welcome escape from the chaotic streets of Oxford.  I love people, but I need my breaks from them, too.  I found the grounds to be just wild enough to make me feel miles away from city, yet they were comfortable, welcoming, and filled with a benign beauty that soothed.  Did I mention the trees?  Truth be told, I preferred the  simple beauty of the trees to the intricately adorned architecture of the city.  We actually got lost on the walk and I am not entirely sure that I would have been disappointed if we remained lost.

Addison’s Walk is also where future fellow Inklings, Tolkien and Dyson taught Lewis that in Christ, “Legend and History have met and fused” and “art has been verified” as Tolkien would later write in his essay, “On Fairy-stories” (part of our assigned reading).[1]  Tolkien saw Christ’s story as the true fairy-story that provides a consolation that is not only momentary, but one that “reflects a glory backwards” upon the realities of human suffering and sorrow, so that a truly complete deliverance is accomplished.[2]  It also gives us a “fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the world, poignant as grief.”[3]  Perhaps that is why fairy-stories often fill us with sorrow and longing.  They uncover a buried desire in our heart that pierces.  We heard from Dr. Holly Ordway on this subject as she lectured on Tolkien’s view of Faerie and the essential elements of a genuine fairy-story (i.e., what we might call fantasy today).

Through Tolkien’s understanding of how the Christian narrative fit into the pagan myths, Lewis was able to come “to feel as one was told one ought to feel about … the sufferings of Christ.”[4]  It was on Addison’s Walk, on the idyllic grounds of Magdalen College, that Christ began to “steal past those watchful dragons” in Lewis’s heart.[5]

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The entrance to Addison’s Walk with Magdalen College in the background.  “Quick, quick, quick, quick!-the gates are drawn apart.” – C.S. Lewis, “What The Bird Said Early in the Year”

Not long after this, in the early 1930’s, the first meetings of the Inklings informally began.  As I mentioned before,  these men were united in their Christianity (albeit of many different flavors) and their appreciation for the need to fight the negative effects scientific reductionism was having on culture.  They resisted the “chronological snobbery”[6] characteristic of their times that rejected everything pre-Enlightenment as barbaric and uninformed.  The Inklings were also keenly aware that with the widespread rejection of Christianity and the anointing of science as the only arbiter of truth, “the good, the beautiful, and the true” would either be relegated to the subjective obscurity of personal taste and feelings and / or “explained away” by scientists, as Lewis warned in The Abolition of Man.  Indeed, one can see that this has happened in our culture today.  The work that the Inklings began is apparently not finished.

The Inklings had a high regard for the medieval mind and they looked to medieval ideas to help in their endeavor to breathe meaning back in to the cosmos through their writings.  The medievals were a “literate people who had lost most of their books,” writes Lewis in his essay, “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages,” one of the works we read in preparation for our trip.[7]  Lewis describes the medieval mind as one in which “we see the tranquil, indefatigable, exultant energy of a passionately logical mind ordering a huge mass of heterogeneous details into unity.  They desire unity, proportion, all the classical virtues, just as keenly as the Greeks did.  But they have a greater and more varied collection of things to fit in. And they delight to do it.”[8]  Indeed, this is quite evident in the architecture they left behind.

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The Quad at Magdalen College.  Many of the colleges at Oxford are built with quadrangles, an architectural feature that is thought to mimic the cloister gardens of medieval monasteries.

From the “chance collection” of translations that had reached down through the centuries from Athens, they had “a corpus that frequently contradicted itself.”[9]  Yet instead of taking the modern route of accepting one authority at the expense of another, the medieval mind delighted in harmonizing the apparent contradictions – even between Christians and pagans.  All truth was God’s truth to them, even that which comes from pagan cultures.

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The stunning college chapel at Magdalen College.

This enabled these thinkers “to produce the greatest, most complex specimen of syncretism or harmonization which, perhaps, the world has ever known.”[10]  Lewis claims that “they tidied up the universe” without stripping it of meaning.[11]  Of course, their models were defective insofar as the data were limited, but that could be said of any age and we can be assured that future generations will say that of our own models.  I think the key for Lewis was that the medieval mind took for granted that there was purpose in the universe and, as a result, their models were richer, more imaginative, and better at reconciling all the data. Compare this mindset with the one prevalent in our age, one in which the underlying assumption is that we live in a vacuous universe devoid of purpose.  For Lewis, this creates a blind spot for modern man, and the models we produce are defective in that we have to discard important data in order to reduce our world to a mindless machine.

This ability to take into account all the information our world gives us, including our intuition that there is meaning and purpose in the universe, is what Lewis and the Inklings sought to restore.  They were particularly concerned with the effects of reductionism on human imagination.  “Rehabilitation and recovery” united them, notes the Zaleskis.[12]  They write that the Inklings “were twentieth-century Romantics who championed imagination as the royal road to insight and the ‘medieval model’ as an answer to modern confusion and anomie; yet they were for the most part Romantics without rebellion, fantasists who prized reason, for whom Faerie was a habitat for the virtues and literature a sanctuary for faith.”[13]  In other words, they sought to bridge the modern world’s sacred / secular and fact / value divides through their imaginative works.

And much of the work of the Inklings took place in this monument to medieval imagination that is the city of Oxford.  The Nicene Creed and the needs of our age brought them together, but what kept such diverse backgrounds (and personalities) from going the way of so many before them?  From what I learned, I am confident in saying that it was largely C.S. Lewis, the “mere Christian”, that not only hosted many of the meetings in his messy, book-strewn rooms at Magdalen College, but was also the “glue” of the group.  This author of The Four Loves was very skilled at managing relational dynamics, and he set a tone of tough criticism tempered by authentic and persistent encouragement.  It must be noted that he was not without faults when it came to managing the group.  Supposedly, in the early years Lewis refused to admit members’ wives or other women to the meeting  (something that irked Tolkien greatly) but later, Lewis insisted on Joy Davidman’s admittance.  Nevertheless, despite his inconsistencies, Glyer writes that Lewis was the consummate encourager and promoter of his fellow writers. (NOTE:  Lewis held women writers in high regard, like Dorothy Sayers, and even sought their advice and critiques for his own writing.  His views on women were complex, to say the least, and not easily dismissed as misogynistic.  You can read more here.)

bandersnatchMost of all, the Inklings did not refrain from sharing their work and seeking helpful criticism.  If they were initially afraid, and I cannot help but imagine they were, they quickly learned the tremendous returns in overcoming that fear.  I am confident that if it were not for the Inklings, we would not have Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia.  And those represent only the tip of the iceberg of works that benefited from this collaboration that extended into the late 1940’s.  As Dr. Ordway said in her lecture, “community was instrumental to the greatness” of their work.  This shouldn’t surprise Christians, for time and time again we are reminded of how essential the Body of Christ is for believers in their spiritual growth and calling.  This is how our Lord works.

” … We will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”  Ephesians 4

In the end, I found a unexpected connection between our little group of HBU-MA in Apologetics students and the Inklings.  Our religious backgrounds were just about as diverse as the Inklings (as were our personalities!).  Yet, there we were, thousands of miles away from home, united in our purpose to learn.  So, even after his death, Lewis is still gathering together small bands of believers longing to reach this meaning-starved world with the satisfyingly rich truths of our Lord.  The communion of saints extends through time, indeed.  May we carry on the tradition of that unexpected party of dabblers in ink!

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The Kilns – C.S. Lewis’s home just outside of Oxford in Headington

Notes:

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories”, Tales From the Perilous Realm, (Great Britian:  HarperCollins, 2008), 389.

[2][2] Ibid., 385.

[3] Ibid., 384.

[4] C.S. Lewis, Of Other Worlds: Essays and Other Stories, (Orlando: Harvest, 1974), 37.

[5] Ibid.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1984), 206.

[7] C.S. Lewis, “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1966), 44.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 45.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 511.

[13] Ibid., 510.

 

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Unexpected Fellowship, Part Two

  1. Pingback: Unexpected Fellowship, Part One | Along the Beam

  2. Is the quote “the spirit of divine discontent and longing” from the Wind in the Willows?

    You’ve definitely piqued my interest with this article, as s lover both of Christ and fantasy. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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