The Great War destroyed much the Inklings had held true, personally and culturally. Each lost friends, and each felt the guilt that any survivor of a war feels. Many of them refused to talk about their own experiences, for good or ill. J.R.R. Tolkien, perhaps, provides the best example.
Though not the best-known Inkling, Adam Fox had the privilege of being the first of the group to arrive in this world. Through no choice of his own, he appeared on July 13, 1883. Dark and inscrutable are the ways in which we come into the world, Edmund Burke reminded us. Canon Fox, Platonist and Anglican, would have most certainly agreed. Editor and writer Charles Williams, remembered far more than Fox, for better or worse, came a little more than three years later, on September 20, 1886. He survived birth, while his twin brother did not. Almost a full decade after Fox, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien entered this existence on January 3, 1892, in South Africa, his father having moved the family there for banking opportunities in the diamond-mining industry.
Major Warnie H. Lewis, the somewhat Samuel Boswell of the Inklings, was born on June 16, 1895, followed in that same year, December 20, by medievalist, linguist, and philologist Charles Leslie Wrenn. Only four and half months later on April 7, 1896, English lit expert and sardonic wit Hugo V. Dyson appeared. Warnie’s little brother and life-long best friend, Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis, arrived on November 29, 1898, with philosopher, lawyer, and anthroposophist Owen Barfield three weeks earlier on November 9, and modern historian R.B. McCallum on the Feast of St. Augustine (August 28) of the same year. 1898 obviously proved a critical and good year for the Inklings, or, at least, for their respective parents.
Chaucerian and Shakespearian Nevill Coghill came on April 18, 1899; Royal Navy officer and physician R.E. Havard in 1901; biographer Lord David Cecil on April 9, 1902; Roman Catholic priest and scholar of Byzantium Mathew Gervase on March 14, 1905; ancient Western historian C.E. Stevens on April 14, 1905; and classicist Colin Hardie on February 16, 1906. The youngest of the Inklings was also the only New Zealander, J.A.W. Bennett, a historian and literary critic of the medieval and Renaissance literature, born February 28, 1911.
For those looking for a generational explanation for the intent as well as of the success of the Inklings, the birth dates provide only minor guidance, sadly. The twenty-eight years separating the birth of the oldest, Fox, from the birth of the youngest, Bennett, witnessed vast changes in the world. Victorian and Edwardian in large part, the Inklings, especially the English ones, each came into a world romantically and mythically in love with children and the innocence of childhood. World War I, of course, shattered this, symbolically as well as actually, exchanging a rather idyllic and sacramental world for an ideological and ceaselessly bloody one.
As explored in some detail in this book, World War I radically shaped each of the Inklings, even if he did not fight. Warnie Lewis, already an officer in the Royal Army when the war broke out, served in France with the British Expeditionary Force. J.R.R. Tolkien received a commission with the Lancashire Fusiliers and spent July through November 1916 at the Battle of the Somme. At Chemin des Dames, Tolkien lost almost the entirety of his battalion. Owen Barfield served as a Royal Engineer from 1917 to 1919. R.B. McCallum spent “two years with the Labour Corps of the BEF in France,” beginning in 1917. Hugo V. Dyson served with the Queen’s Own Royal West Kents, and was “very seriously wounded at Paschendaele and sent home. He was now a Lieutenant, but the gravity of his injuries exempted him from further active service.”
C.S. Lewis joined the Somerset Light Infantry in 1917, receiving a wound on April 15, 1918 at the Battle of Arras. Upon first hearing the sound of battle on his first day of the fight, Lewis proclaimed in defiance of the enemy forces, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”
Whatever the bravado, though, the war destroyed much the Inklings had held true, personally and culturally. Each lost friends, and each felt the guilt that any survivor of a war feels. Many of them refused to talk about their own experiences, for good or ill. Tolkien, perhaps, provides the best example. One of Tolkien’s closest students, John Lawlor, recorded in his own memoir of Lewis, Tolkien, and the Inklings, that Tolkien never spoke of the war. “What befell him in a far-off country, wartime France, we do not know.” Yet, there is much we can understand about Tolkien’s experiences through his own writings and mythology. To his children, he must have been somewhat open, and his daughter Priscilla and son Michael are worth quoting at length on this:
It was the First War recollections that formed the basis for the Black Riders. During the early part of the war, the Germans used cavalry. In the fogs and smokes of Flanders, while JRRT was on guard duty, he heard whispers which carried unnatural distances, and saw shadows and unreal movement. The horses appeared natural, while their riders did not. Tolkien was in the cavalry himself—The King Edward Horse—he was keen on horses, and had a very great affinity for them. He turned out to be an unofficial breaker-in, since it seemed that as soon as he had satisfactorily broken a new horse it was taken from him and he was given another. As the war developed, he was switched to infantry, which he disliked particularly as he abhorred loud noises. He saw, and was opposed to, the horrors of war, but was never a pacifist, as wars made him angry and bitter. He was never a soldier, but went to war out of a sense of duty. He was also a particularly good shot, but, at home, never shot anything larger than a rat.
As explored in detail later in this chapter and book, World War I shaped everything in Tolkien’s mythology from his Black Riders, to the fall of Gondolin in The Silmarillion, to the passages across the dead marshes in The Lord of the Rings. As Lewis later noted about the last, “This war has the very quality of the war my generation knew. It is all here: the endless, unintelligible movement, the sinister quiet of the front when ‘everything is now ready,’ the flying civilians, the lively, vivid friendships, the background of something like despair and the merry foreground, and the such heaven-sent windfalls as a cache of choice tobacco ‘salvaged’ from a ruin.” Only much, much later—in 1960—did Tolkien admit some direct influence in terms of details from the war. “Personally I do not think either war (and of course not the atomic bomb) had any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding,” Tolkien wrote in a personal letter. “Perhaps in landscape,” he offered. “The Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme.” Previously, he had admitted publicly—at the University of St. Andrews in 1939—that the war had awakened his imagination.
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1 London Times (January 19, 1977), 16.
2 “Charles Williams,” entry in the Dictionary of National Biography, v. 59, pg. 146.
3 For Warnie, see London Times (April 16, 1973), 16; and for C.L. Wrenn, London Times (June 4, 1969), 12.
4 (Dyson) London Times (April 7, 1896), 17.
5 See, respectively, (C.S. Lewis) London Times (November 25, 1963), 14; “Owen Barfield,” entry in DNB v. 803; and (McCallum) London Times (May 21, 1973), 16.
6 See, respectively, (Coghill) London Times (November 10, 1980), 14; (Cecil) London Times (January 3, 1896); “Mathew Gervase,” entry in DNB v. 37, 288; (Stevens) London Times (September 2, 1976), 14; and (Hardie) London Times (October 20, 1998).
7 (Bennett) London Times (February 5, 1981), 16.
8 London Times (April 16, 1973), pg. 16.
9 John Lawlor, C.S. Lewis: Memories and Reflections, 36.
10 Carpenter, Inklings, 255.
11 London Times (May 21, 1973), pg. 16.
12 London Times (June 11, 1975), pg. 17
13 Carpenter, Inklings, 257.
14 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy; and London Times (November 25, 1963), pg. 14.
15 Though Charles Williams did not see battle because of his poor health, he did serve, and he lost two of his closest friends in the First World War. See Anne Ridler, “Introduction,” to Charles Williams, The Image of the City And Other Essays (1958; Apocryphile Press: Berkeley, CA, 2007), xviii.
16 Lawlor, Memories and Reflections, 36.
17 “Oxonmoot Report, 1974” [in conversation with Priscilla and Michael Tolkien], Amon Hen No. 13 (October 1974): 9-11.
18 C.S. Lewis, On Stories.
19 J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, Letter 226. John Garth has produced the best work on Tolkien and the First World War. See, especially, his Tolkien and the Great War.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photograph of the Gunners of the Machine Gun Corps as they fire their gun at a German aircraft during the Battle of Arras (April 1917), by John Warwick Brooke (1886-1929), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.