Five Tips From The Oxford Inklings

Inklings groupI’ve known about The Oxford Inklings for most of my lifetime. However, I didn’t become interested in them again until quite recently. For those of you who don’t know the story, The Inklings were an informal literary society and critique group that started meeting in Oxford during the 1930s. However, they weren’t just any group, they were made up of several writers who would go on to become awe-inspiring authors still popular today. This group also managed to influence and change the nature of fiction writing in profound ways and these literary developments lasted long after the group disbanded. Some legendary books got their start in the group’s critique trenches, including those of its most famous member J.R.R. Tolkien. Other members included C. S. Lewis, his brother Warren Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield.

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Here are five things we can all learn from The Oxford Inklings about growing and maintaining a career-changing writer’s support group.

Be honest and move on:
The Inklings didn’t always agree and the critique in their own words could be “brutally honest.” Tolkien never approved of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, yet it didn’t stop Lewis from attending the meetings. Nor did it stop Tolkien from adopting whole lines of text verbatim from Lewis and his critique notes for The Hobbit.  Most writing groups have moments of discord, but if they can’t embrace The Inklings no-hard-feelings attitude, the group is dead before it even starts.

Encourage diversity:
Granted, the Inklings were a pretty homogenous group, all white and all male, but the one thing they weren’t was all academics and/or writers. They included a doctor, a lawyer and a professional military officer. Nor were they all the same type of writers. The epic tomes of Tolkien are a far cry from the sparse, one might almost say truncated language of Lewis. The members also wrote fiction in many different genres, and for both children and adults. They even wrote poems, plays, and nonfiction in the form of history, theology and scholarly works on a variety of subjects. Plus the club door was always open to newcomers and visitors, leading to a steady stream of new ideas and fresh perspectives.

Pub for webKeep regular meetings:
The Inklings stayed together for decades. During the most significant years the group met once or twice a week with between six to eight members attending each meeting. The maintained this schedule even during the WWII years. There were about nineteen Inklings; members came and went, but a core membership held fast and continued to create memorable works regardless of shifts in attendance. The group meet in a number of places, but a favorite was a pub called The Eagle and Child. Members continue to meet well into the 1950s. The pub still stands.

Don’t have rules:
Although I would argue rules are helpful, the Inklings didn’t believe in them. They said the only group rules were: you must be a writer and Christian. They stuck to neither rule. They also firmly held to the position that they had no group leader. However, since the group started meeting in Lewis and Tolkien’s Oxford rooms, one could argue these two were the leaders. The group also never kept minutes or took roll. Everything we know about their meetings comes from the member’s personal journals, letters, and manuscript pages. We do know they encourage drinking, perhaps to make the being honest part easier to take.

Push the Envelope:
This group managed to fundamentally change fiction forever. They created unique narrative structures and predicted many future changes in literary theory. We are only now starting to understand what a dramatic influence this group had on writing craft and on future generations of writers. They did this by creating a safe environment where heated debate was encouraged. The members were always willing to take risks with their writing and they knew the others would respect their efforts, even if their execution was a failure.

The Inklings were lucky, they found a large group of like-minded writers living in the same community. They built long lasting relationships and learned to work collaboratively in order to encourage and promote each other’s work. All writers need this type of support system. If you can’t find your own Inklings in the local coffee shop, go out and find them online. Writing is lonely, so with the wisdom of The Inklings in hand, create your own critique group magic and make some writing history.

For more on The Oxford Inklings: Wikipedia, Tolkien Gateway and Mythopoeic Society.

 

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, an educator and historical consultant. She writes dark young adult fiction, with diverse characters. She's currently querying a novel, and working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook(https://www.facebook.com/robin.rivera.90813) or on Twitter @robinrwrites. However, Pinterest (https://www.pinterest.com/RRWrites/) is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

15 thoughts on “Five Tips From The Oxford Inklings”

  1. Fascinating, I was totally unaware of this early critique group, as we would call it here. What a powerhouse of authors. This is food for thought, thanks. My hubby wants to know which protagonist Lewis created using Tolkien as a basis. I read him that comment. Cheers, Brenda

    1. Sorry, I had no idea this was considered an obscure fact or I would have given the name earlier.
      Ransom is the character, and he’s in the space trilogy. On the flip side of this coin, Tolkien said he modeled aspects of Treebeard on Lewis.
      And thank you for stopping by.

      1. Fabulous! I have read their books, but my historical research has been nil. Mostly we studied American lit at my university. I only ever had one class that examined history and literature in one class, and that was Irish lit. It was one of the best classes I ever took, and I can see that the two subjects would be better interwoven. 🙂

  2. I’ve always been powerfully jealous of people who got to be in the Inklings. 🙂 I have always heard that arguments over Narnia and the Hobbit drove Lewis and Tolkien apart… Still looking for reliable information on what exactly caused the split though. Surely there were personal facets as well, not just literary disagreement.

    1. Hi Hannah,
      Lewis and Tolkien stayed friends until Lewis died in the 1960s. The did argue in the 1940s for a bit, non writing related, but it didn’t last long. However, Lewis never considered Tolkien his closest friend, as he did with Williams and his brother. From my research, I would say Tolkien valued Lewis above all the other Inklings. Relationships that last over three decades can be complicated, times of cooling emotions should be expected.
      Glad you stopped by and thanks for the comment.

      1. Interesting! How do you think the “falling out over Narnia” rumor got started? I’ve literally always heard that, but can’t think of any specific examples — just conversations, etc.

        1. Hi,
          I’m not a Lewis authority, but I have heard the same type of thing, and a whole bunch more. There tends to be a lot of trash talk about Lewis in general. I think the fact that Lewis modeled one of his protagonists on Tolkien says a lot. He must have seen some positive and admirable traits in him or he would have picked another person.

          However, as I dig back into my notes, I still think the length of the relationship and the fact that Lewis supported The Lord of the Rings release so aggressively shows they had a normal friendship with ups and downs. Let me know if you find something more definitive. It’s a very interesting topic.

  3. And then there is Dorothy L Sayers, who was a friend of C. S. Lewis and also attended meetings. And who wrote that wonderful tongue-in-cheek essay Are Women Human? Good to get the sisters in there when you can. 😉

    1. Hi Paula,
      Sayers, Lewis and Williams were close. She did soak up the new ideas the group generated, as did other contemporary writers. But Sayers was not an Inkling by most historical accounts. Her works were however read and discussed by the members.
      It’s often believed by historians that those “no rule” Inklings may have had a no women allowed rule.
      Thanks for stopping by, I’m glad you liked the post.

      1. This is great. Thanks Paula, I’m sure you have just given Gene’O fresh fuel for a Feminist Friday post in the making. Can’t wait to read it.

  4. This is awesome. I meant to be here much earlier in the day and bring a friend with me, but we both had such hectic days we weren’t online 🙁

    I’d either forgotten Barfield was a member or never realized (not really all that up on the inklings, so thanks for the primer). I like these lessons, especially “be honest and move on,” and “don’t have rules.” Though I’d probably say, have a couple, but be open to changing them if they don’t work.

    This stuff has a wider application than writing groups, although I can see why they work for that. It’s a good way to run a group if the organizing principle is a single interest and you want to operate as equals.

    1. Hi,
      Barfield was one of the more significant members in terms of attendance and also production of quality written work. But the group was rather large, some 19 people were members at different times, it’s easy to forget one. I like how you mentioned the wider application of the tips. I feel The Inklings have much to teach all of us on the nature of generosity and collaboration. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, as always they were very insightful.

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