Saturday, December 01, 2012
Hearing the Inklings: The Platypus Reads Part CCIII
Reading about the Inklings, the informal literary circle that gathered around C.S. Lewis in the thirties and forties, gradually begins to feel like adjusting the focus on a camera lens. You start with a single figure in hazy focus, say J.R.R. Tolkien. Picking up Humphrey Carpenter's biography draws the professor in a few stark lines. A person, a personality begins to emerge. To begin to see Tolkien, however, is for others figures to become perceptible on the edges of your vision. C.S. Lewis enters into the picture, and Charles Williams hovers, indistinct around the edges. Seeking to know the relationship between the three men better, you may pick up Carpenter's second work, The Inklings. Suddenly, Lewis and Williams jump sharply into view as characters and Tolkien continues to take on life and weight. New personages flit through the frame: Hugo Dyson, Humphrey Havard, Dorothy L. Sayers, T.S. Eliot, Warnie Lewis. Carpenter's Lewis doesn't seem quite like the friendly author of Narnia, and so the quest begins to get to know "Jack." Plenty of people who knew him are still alive and kicking. Suddenly, to know Jack is to know Douglas Gresham and to learn all about Joy Davidman. Mrs. Moore leaps into view and suddenly there's a war of perceptions between Gresham and Carpenter and new figures, like George Sayer. Carpenter says Lewis is a bully. No he isn't! Says Sayers, Lewis' former pupil. But Mrs. Moore wasn't all that bad, nor was Lewis' father, and his brother was a lazy drunk. Now Gresham has to raise his objection and argue the point. Warnie was a good man with a real problem that was not properly recognized and treated in his day. As for Mrs. Moore, couldn't it be possible that she showed one face to guests and another to her family? The logical next step is to find out what others who knew them say. Suddenly, Walter Hooper is enlisted and Sheldon Vanauken (which may lead you to even odder places like Biola University or Houston Texas). Offhand remarks by Kingsley Amis are sought out which drag G.K. Chesterton into the mix again. Finding out that Lewis and Sayers corresponded brings her back into the mix along with Williams (with whom she also corresponded) who we find when consulting Glyer points out that Warnie claimed to understand better than any of the other Inklings. Along the way, we are forced to learn about the development of Oxford, English Public school life, the history of the World Wars (John Garth comes into the mix here), the history of the Church of England, the origins and evolution of the fantasy novel. Ridder Haggard gets thrown about and suddenly we find that Lewis was corresponding with Arthur C. Clark and that Tolkien liked Robert E. Howard's Conan books. If you're watching at this point, you might even find some offhand remarks from Lewis that sound particularly Lovecraftian. If High-brow is where you're at, then you may note where Tennyson, Auden, and Eliot's poetry are vital along with Richard Wagner and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In short, a whole world opens up before your eyes that lived and moved and had its being with all the reality of broken water pipes and trips to the grocery store. Victorian novelists and a communist screen writer join hands with Tasmanian adventurers and a morbid new England shut-it. Texans share tamales with Irish revolutionaries while Gandhi asks for the vegetarian option. Names and places roll by with the force of a freight-train or the charge of Alfred's men at Ethandune. All things rise up and exclaim: rejoice with me for I too am the center!