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22nd March 2021

Book in Focus

The Inklings and Culture

A Harvest of Scholarship from the Inklings Institute of Canada

It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a warm, wise, and wide-reaching community to develop a fellowship of scholars like the Inklings Institute of Canada. From our humble origins about ten years ago, when our visionary colleague and Department Chair Holly Faith Nelson put forth the brainchild of our teamwork, to that first cup of coffee that my colleague Stephen Dunning and I shared as we mulled over, sized up, and mainly rejoiced over the prospects, today we, along with our many members, locally, nationally, and internationally, are amazed and thrilled at how our partnership has grown since our inception in 2013. Good things take time, but sometimes miracles accelerate the process. Indeed, the Inklings Institute of Canada proves not only the miracle of community, but the principle that you can best find your voice and your courage in a growing circle of friendship with interested fellow sojourners.

Housed in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, we are an interdisciplinary research community that advances the works of the Oxford Inklings group—the famous four, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield—but also their friend Dorothy L. Sayers and their earlier mentors George MacDonald and G. K. Chesterton. We aim to cultivate the kind of learning spaces in our classrooms that nurture students’ intellects and imaginations. Locally, our twenty charter members span the disciplines of English, Philosophy, Biblical and Religious Studies, Art and Design, Media and Communications, Physics and Mathematics, and Political and International Studies. Nationally and internationally, we have an additional fifty members: in Canada, we span from our Pacific Coast to Prince Edward Island; internationally, our members include professors from across the United States, England, Scotland, and Romania. Our community is made up of professors, students, alumni, and members of the general public.

Oh, it’s been fun! Honestly, I (Monika) never imagined, as a young undergraduate of yesteryear, that I’d be teaching C. S. Lewis and Inklings-related authors as a literature professor (not exactly the “canon”), let alone become co-founder and co-director of this enterprise. Perhaps I should be “amazed to be amazed”—the reason being, of course, that we’re merely studying some of the most eminent British writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Perhaps we could say that these illustrious seven authors redefine what should be the “canon” in literary academe. It is rather clear, we think, that these authors came to contribute more to the intellect and imagination of millions than many of their literary contemporaries put together.

Imagine a world where there was no Narnia. No Middle-earth, and no hobbits. No new Arthurian poetry, no talk of co-inherence, no supernatural thrillers. No contemplation of the quintessential meaning of myth and metaphor. No Lord Peter Wimsey, no deeply resonating, theologically inspired plays, books, or essays. No fellowship of sundry Oxford scholars and friends frequenting The Eagle and Child pub or Magdalen College rooms with pipes and ale, laughing, arguing, going on walking tours, reading their latest drafts, and writing, always writing. No Victorian granddaddy pioneering fantasy literature, no Princess Irene, and no Phantastes. No prolific early twentieth-century journalist and writer of almost every other genre, one boasting to be as wide as he was tall, whose pithy observations strike home as precisely as ever. We rejoice that the world “without Narnia and without Middle-earth” is not our world.

Just how did they do it? Why have so many been inspired by their achievements?

It is probably safely said that their literary legacy continues to grow because of the seriousness of their engagement with culture. Just what did they not talk about? How did they manage that clever trick of formulating arguments, as well as creating imaginative stories that continue to speak into our time—so much so that they’re often considered prescient (such as Lewis’s views on scientism, Barfield’s ideas on consciousness, Sayers’s views on gender, and Tolkien’s depiction of totalitarianism)?  Given their Christian faith, a faith often misunderstood in their time(s), and certainly questioned in our own, how is it that they continue to speak powerfully to the needs of the twenty-first century?

As this book testifies, we venture the answer that their voices continue to resonate because they valued conversation, real conversation, where all ideas were up for grabs, debate, and revisiting. As Christians, they were fairly firm on the essentials—on the sacredness of the individual human being made in the image of God, for starters. However, that didn’t ever mean that they traded in genuine conversation for what Sayers described (using her lovely irony) as what could be, very mistakenly, regarded as the seven Christian virtues: “respectability, childishness, mental timidity, dullness, sentimentality, censoriousness, and depression of spirits” (“The Dogma is the Drama”).

Far from it! These authors knew what they thought, why they thought it, and boldly said so. Indeed, if and when they changed their minds, they weren’t shy to declare it. They knew neither soft-pedalling nor cancelling other’s voices. They were friendly, outspoken spirits who laughed as heartily as they argued, and helped ensure the evening’s levity with traditional refreshments. They knew what it meant to disagree with one another (Lewis said of his close friend Barfield, “He has read all the right books but has got the wrong thing out of every one,” Surprised by Joy). More than that, they knew what it meant to share the same hope: essentially, that hobbits can overcome the worst of times with courage and faith. They recognized that, even at the greatest cost, there is still hope, some for this life and entirely for the one to come—and that it was worth fighting for. They were a committed community of like-minded thinkers—people with a common vision upheld in friendly and mutually augmenting diversity. Moreover, they were giants who cared to communicate with the so-called ordinary person.

It’s a humbling thing to read the greats and to grapple with their ideas.

In working on our book, all of us got that much closer to these authors who could speak hope into a hurting and deeply divided world.

Critical Praise

“The Inklings and Culture has so much to commend it that it is hard to know where to start my commendation of it. [...] It is no exaggeration to say that this book is a small library in one compact package. The book is a stunning achievement.”

Leland Ryken
Emeritus Professor of English, Wheaton College

“Readers of this book will gain much more than literary interpretation, for here are essays that show how pertinent the insights of these writers are for so much of contemporary life.”

Malcolm Guite
Girton College, Cambridge

“This richly insightful volume […] amply demonstrates the continuing, and increasing, relevance of the Inklings for the twenty-first century.

Holly Ordway
Fellow of Faith and Culture, Word on Fire Institute

“This authoritative volume is essential reading for all intent upon discovering much about the Inklings and what shaped them, a topic that is too rarely explored.”

Colin Duriez
Author of The Oxford Inklings: Lewis, Tolkien and Their Circle

“[…] the intriguing, insightful essays in The Inklings and Culture delight in their depth and breadth, offering readers a rich feast of food for thought.”

Andrew Lazo
Independent C. S. Lewis speaker and scholar

Monika B. Hilder is Professor of English at Trinity Western University, Canada, where she teaches children’s and fantasy literature. She is co-founder and co-director of the Inklings Institute of Canada, and is the author of a three-volume study of C. S. Lewis and gender: The Feminine Ethos in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, The Gender Dance: Ironic Subversion in C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, and Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C. S. Lewis and Gender. She has also published on George MacDonald, L. M. Montgomery, and Madeleine L’Engle. She is currently working on a fiction book Letters to Annie: A Grandmother’s Dreams of Fairy Tale Princesses, Princes, and Happily-Ever-After.

Sara L. Pearson is Associate Professor of English at Trinity Western University, Canada, specializing in nineteenth-century British literature, particularly the works of Charlotte Brontë. She has co-authored with Christine Alexander Celebrating Charlotte Brontë: Transforming Life into Literature in Jane Eyre, has recently contributed a chapter on Charlotte Brontë in Anglican Women Novelists, and is currently working on Anne Brontë’s surprising literary “afterlife” as a hymn writer. Sara has been a member of the Inklings Institute of Canada from its inception, and was delighted to bring Charlotte Brontë and C. S. Lewis together in her chapter in The Inklings and Culture.

Laura N. Van Dyke teaches at Trinity Western University, Canada, and is an active contributing member of the Inklings Institute of Canada. Her research focuses on twentieth-century and contemporary British literature, especially the writings of Charles Williams and the other Inklings. She has published a chapter on A. S. Byatt in Curious, If True: The Fantastic in Literature, and is currently working on a study of Owen Barfield’s eco-novella Eager Spring and co-writing a paper on C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.

The Inklings and Culture: A Harvest of Scholarship from the Inklings Institute of Canada is available now in Hardback at a special 25% discount. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout to redeem!