Oxbridge Day 1 Report

Pippin Skywalker writes:

Hello my dear hobbits, elf-friends, and all free peoples if Middle Earth! I am pleased to announce that I have managed to step out of the comfort and delight of my little hobbit hole to depart on another extraordinary adventure. Here I will tell you of my adventures and experiences in Oxford in this special year of 2005, which, quite coincidentally, is both the 75th anniversary of C.S. Lewis and the 50th anniversary of the publication of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I have had the good fortune and delight of attending the triennial Oxbridge, an event held over a period of two weeks by the C.S. Lewis foundation. As may be denoted from the title, the event takes place in both Oxford and Cambridge. Although ostensibly and mainly devoted to C.S. Lewis and his works, the conference also has several seminars and papers on J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings. The conference is also marked by its diversity, featuring seminars and workshops on such topics as religion, literature, pop culture, music, art, science, and philosophy. I believe this is an event both Lewis and the very dear and amiable Mr. Tolkien would have enjoyed because of its vast array of topics and its thought provoking conversation.

The name of this particular Oxbridge is Making All Things New: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Twenty-First Century. The seminar I took was The Inklings: Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, Barfield and Friends taught by Colin Duriez who is the insightful author of the Inklings Handbook launched in 2001. I actually remember meeting him at that time at Oxonmoot where he was speaking about his new book at the Eagle and Child. It has been a delightful and enlightening experience listening to his extensive and amusing anecdotes about the Inklings, and especially of the great friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The first session for today, July 25, 2005 was at St. Columba’s Hall on a lovely and hobbit sized cobbled street called Alfred Street. Our class consisted of about twenty people all filled with curiosity and interesting stories of their own about their experiences and knowledge on Tolkien and Lewis. Most enjoyable was the wonderful stories of Duriez himself, who had carefully researched many fascinating details about the lives of Tolkien and Lewis as well as their friendship. He went into some detail of how the Inklings began, their squabbles and merriments, and the individual natures, humors, and quirks of each member. Lewis was distinctively mentioned as being a man of a jovial nature, being very loud and opinionated-a reality very different from the more stayed portrayal of the author in the biographical film Shadowlands. In a surprising comment on Tolkien, Dureiz mentioned how the seemingly quiet, pipe-smoking don would often get very loud himself. In fact volume was a notable and common trait of the Inklings gatherings, and not without surprise considering the opinionated and intellectual natures of all the members. As it usually transpires in such a diverse and colorful group as the Inklings the conversations were as varied as the personalities of the group. Tolkien was known to talk excessively about hobbits, to such an extent that certain members such as Owen Barfield grew tired of these continuous speeches as well as of the common and frequent readings from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Other topics the Inklings discussed were the translation of books into films (an interesting as well as ironic conversation considering that both Lewis and Tolkien’s books have been made into films) as well as whether dogs have souls. The Inklings would hop around from place to place to have their meetings which were usually held on Tuesday and Thursday at one of three places: the Eagle and Child pub, Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen, and Tolkien’s rooms at Exeter. At these gatherings, the members would read from their own stories. Tolkien read most of Lord of the Rings to the group. The Inklings would also read eccentric and overly emphatice Victorian stories as a game to see who read the longest without laughing. These meetings were times of laughter as much as they were debate and deep thought. The whole point of the group was to have a sort of informal gathering of like minded dons and their friends to talk, consider, and laugh about issues and ideas that mattered most to them. Amongst all this great whirlwind of joy and thought was the deep and lasting friendship of Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis did not become a Christian until halfway through his life, but was greatly influenced by his talk with Tolkien and Hugo Dyson on Addison’s Walk, where the three men discussed Christianity and myth and their relationship to eachother. This conversation changed Lewis’ life and beliefs which ultimately contributed to the inception of his many great and diverse works. Tolkien continued to play a major part in Lewis’ life, and even assumed a fatherly protectiveness for his friend. For instance, Tolkien strongly disapproved of Lewis’ friendship with fellow Inkling Charles Williams, whose interest in the occult probably aroused concern in John Ronald for the impressionable (in Tolkien’s view) Mr. Lewis. Not only did Tolkien and Lewis have differences in choice of friends but also in Christian belief. Tolkien was a Roman Catholic from childhood, while Lewis was a Protestant. There were commonly many witty exchanges about their differences in this respect. In a letter to Charles Williams in 1936, C.S. Lewis refers to Tolkien in the following manner:

“..I have put on Tolkien [in the Inklings] (The Professor of Anglo Saxon and a papist)..”

What is amusing here is that Lewis makes a point of not only mentioning Tolkien’s profession and position, but also markedly points to his difference in religious practice. Tolkien himself was not without his own merry retorts to Lewis’ Protestantism, saying of Lewis that he had an “Ulsterian motive.” This pointed but light hearted jest was aimed to reference the Protestant history of Ulster in Ireland, where Lewis was from. But for all their differences, Tolkien and Lewis had a lot in common. Their experiences in the first World War changed the style and thought of their writing. Both despised the rise of the machine, and treated on this subject in their fiction-Tolkien did so in Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis in his science fiction novel That Hideous Strength. Both Tolkien and Lewis were very much influenced by G.K. Chesterton. These two men also shared the belief that science fiction and fantasy worlds gave readers glimpses into the spiritual world. Tolkien and Lewis both believed that evil was temporary.

As writers, these two literary greats would criticize and praise eachothers works, at times inspiring eachother, at other times disagreeing with the literary choices of the other. Lewis, with great effervescence, praised Lord of the Rings. Tolkien, on his part, was not always as positive on Lewis’ works, disliking the style and odd literary and creative comibinations in the Chronicles of Narnia. This does not mean the two writers didn’t have many literary collaborations. Tolkien and Lewis cast a coin up as to which of them would write a time travel story and which would write a space story. This (according to Duriez) is perhaps the reason LOTR came into being. LOTR is, in a way, a kind of time travel story. Lewis ended up creating a set of famous science fiction novels, taking up the job creating the space story. There are many deep experiences that Tolkien and Lewis shared-both had suffered loss at a young age. Tolkien lost his mother and father in childhood, and Lewis also lost his mother at young age. Both men experienced the horrors and sadness of the first World War, and both lost friends. Tolkien and Lewis were both men of depth who conveyed their sadness, experiences, hopes, and dreams in the beautiful tapestries of their works.

Author’s Note: The next report will contain more notes and thoughts on the Colin Duriez Inklings course. Special thanks to the C.S. Lewis Foundation, Colin Duriez, Dana, and to all the elves and hobbits who helped with transportation to Oxford. 🙂