I have just finished reading “The Inklings” by Humphrey Carpenter, a biographical account of the group of Oxford Christian friends that met together, centred on Tolkien, Lewis and Charles Williams. I am, as anyone who knows me well knows, a long-time lover of the works of Tolkien and Lewis: I fell in love with Narnia as a child, and fell in love with Jesus as represented by Aslan, connecting to Him in a way I could never connect to the rather boring figure in my Sunday School lessons. Later I read, and loved the space trilogy, and as a brand new Christian in my teens I devoured his theological works, starting with Mere Christianity. Although there are issues where I definitely part company with Lewis (purgatory, the role of women, his position on creation/evolution etc – on the last I am more conservative than this man of my grandparents generation) he shaped my foundational thinking in many ways, making me very much an Anglican, albeit a different type in some particulars. And then Tolkien – I enjoyed the Hobbit, but it was just another book for the most part (and I read everything I could get my hands on) – it was LOTR that won my heart and captured my imagination with its imagery of absolute courage and humility and devotionlived out in the context of things that truly were high and wonderful. Charles Williams? I tried reading one of his books once, but I didn’t really get it, it was like reading a poem whose imagery compels your attention, but you don’t have a clue what it’s about, or why it matters so much.
Lewis is the centre of the book, and rightly so, for he was the centre of the group, the one whose enormous gift for friendship held the whole thing together. I have read other biographies of Lewis, but this was different because it was less interested in the isolated facts of his life and more in seeing him through the lens of his relationships with others. Fascinating, but left me pondering a couple of things:
1. The misogyny of these people. Oh, they weren’t anti-women in any nasty patriarchalist sense, and much can be explained simply in terms of their being the products of their particular time and culture, where academia was still very much a boys’ club, but still .. They took for granted that intellectually stimulating rich and fulfilling world of male conversation was precisely where females didn’t belong. Ok, that’s going to get up my personal bristles, because my best friends (mainly male, I must confess) have always been precisely the sort of people with whom I can talk for hours in exactly that way, and the men I have had the most trouble relating to are those who feel awkward with a woman whose conversation isn’t all domestic and girly. To be fair, I have no idea that anyone at the time felt excluded in that sort of way, but it conjured up memories for me of all the times I have felt brushed aside and excluded from what interested me most precisely because I was a woman. So maybe it’s more my issue than theirs ..
2. The apologetics are dated, the works of imagination don’t date. Not that Lewis isn’t still worth reading, and his continuing sales attest to that, but the parts of his writing that are most defensive and argumentative have worn the poorest, whereas, even in his non-fiction, the parts where the poet breaks through stay undimmed, for instance that beautiful sermon, “The Weight of Glory”, whose last part still moves me incredibly every time I read it and helps me treat my fellow human beings with a little more reverence. But then, I have a theory (based on the not-so-weighty evidence of my personal reactions!!) that head-stuff, valuable and important though it is, (and I’m not knocking or demoting it) needs to be constantly refreshed not to grow stale and same-old, whereas heart stuff keeps its freshness from a deeper spring.
What do you think ..