Oxford has attracted writers for centuries and few cities can rival its literary pedigree. In the 1930s and 1940s, Oxford’s remarkable ability to attract literary talent spawned the Inklings – a very informal but influential literary discussion group.
The Inklings included two of the 20th century’s most popular writers of fiction – J.R.R. Tolkien of Lord of the Rings fame and C.S. Lewis, who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia. The group is also famous for sometimes meeting in a pub called The Eagle and Child and mixing high-end literary discussion with pints of beer.
The pub, located in the central St Giles area of Oxford and known as the Bird and Baby to the locals, is still around today and anyone (aged 18 and over) can follow in Lewis and Tolkien’s footsteps by buying a bitter (I recommend the Wadworth 6X) and sitting down to talk about literature.
Aside from the two big names, the Inklings also featured some other important writers and thinkers who did not achieve the popular success of Tolkien and Lewis. Owen Barfield (1898-1997) was a noted philosopher, author, poet and critic. He is best remembered for writing Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry where he addressed the relationship between Christianity, poetry, and philosophy.
Charles Williams (1886-1945) was a poet, acclaimed novelist, theologian and critic. His novels are probably his strongest legacy, and War in Heaven (1930), Descent into Hell (1937) and All Hallows' Eve (1945) are well regarded pieces of fiction. The supernatural was a reoccurring theme in his writing. His day job was working as an editor at Oxford University Press – just up the road from The Eagle and Child.
Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-1987) was a biographer and children’s writer, and was taught by Lewis at Oxford. He wrote more than 20 pieces of fiction, on subjects ranging from Robin Hood and King Arthur to Troy, and more than 10 biographies about notable figures such as Lewis Carroll, Andrew Lang and Lewis himself.
Lord David Cecil (1902-1986) was a biographer and historian. He wrote about many notable figures of literature, including Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Thomas Gray and Sir Walter Scott.
Warren Lewis (1895-1973) was CS Lewis’ brother and wrote books in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s about French history. Christopher Tolkien also joined his father in the group.
Adam Fox (1883-1977) became professor of poetry at Oxford and is buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Other members of the Inklings included various academics and a doctor. Members came and went, and guests of interest joined the group when in town.
The group talked about fiction and particularly fantasy which was not the established genre it is today. They read and discussed books they were writing. Manuscripts were passed around and critiqued. Christianity and spirituality was often considered. You can just imagine the group talking about the pros and cons of magical wardrobes, talking animals and mythical beasts. It was all very informal with no agendas or structure, just good company, intelligent discussion and a few pints.