Group work

Several years ago, while I was teaching in Dublin, I got the opportunity to join a varied group of colleagues – historians, classicists, modern language specialists – in an Old Norse reading group. Once a week we gathered in a seminar room and worked our way haltingly through stories full of complex sentences and magical names. It was slow work but great fun; add to that the pleasure of meeting new people at the group, not to mention our tendency to head down to the College bar every week after the session was over, and there are new worlds opening up in the texts and new friends with whom to explore them.

We were by no means original in our Old Norse group; in fact, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis first got to know each other in just such a group, started by Tolkien on his return to Oxford as a professor and named the Coalbiters (Carpenter 2006, 27). Like us, the group was made up of a varied set of people with equally varied knowledge and ability in Old Norse, but all with an interest in getting direct access to Icelandic sagas and that strange, ‘Northern’ quality they contain. Tolkien and Lewis became friends as a result (and because of their many shared interests, not the least being the works of William Morris and George MacDonald), and Tolkien showed Lewis some of his work after they had been reading Old Norse together for a couple of years; it was a version of his story of Luthien and Beren (Carpenter 2006, 29). Lewis rewarded him with a very positive reaction and so heard more of Tolkien’s writing.

Their friendship continued as they developed and wrote, not just as scholars but as readers with particular tastes that were perhaps not entirely in keeping with literary fashions of the time. As Tolkien put it, ‘Lewis said to me one day: ‘Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves’ (Carpenter 2006, 65-6). Their interests were pursued as part of a ‘literary club’ of writers who met in Lewis’s rooms and also in the pub ‘The Eagle and Child’ in Oxford from the early 1930s on and who were called the ‘Inklings’. When Charles Williams, whose writing hovered somewhere between the supernatural, the spiritual and the fantastical, was relocated to Oxford on the outbreak of the Second World War, in many ways their group was complete (although Tolkien was wary of Williams’s beliefs). You can read useful summaries of his books here. Williams was well versed in things medieval and medievalist; he wrote Arthurian poetry, such as that published in Taliessin through Logres in 1938, and praised his fiancée by declaring that she had ‘a face which some pre-Raphaelite should have loved’ (Carpenter 2006, 79). The Inklings read their work to one another and commented on it, offering approval, advice and criticism.

In this, they were displaying precisely the same kind of behaviour recently described of a group of fan fiction writers and, of course, of many others in other writing groups of all sorts and persuasions. What is interesting about the Inklings is the ways in which an shared interest in reading and writing literature which is now grouped together as ‘fantasy’ was promoted and shaped through the key members of this group, even though the work they produced was very different. For Tolkien, Lewis and Williams, that work was underpinned by a sound knowledge of medieval literature and culture which continued to influence what they wrote. And, in various different configurations, these were also fans of each other. Lewis was the first to read and praise Tolkien’s work while Tolkien helped Lewis get published by recommending Out of the Silent Planet to his own publisher. Lewis wrote what was effectively a ‘fan letter’ – his first ever – to Williams about The Place of the Lion, only to discover that Williams had equally strong feelings about Lewis’s academic book (still recommended reading for medievalists) The Allegory of Love: ‘It has never before happened to me to be admiring an author of a book while he at the same time was admiring me’ wrote Williams back to Lewis (Carpenter 2006, 99). For these three writers, their relationships with the past, especially the medieval past, and each other were of primary importance; between them they produced some of the most important fantasy novels yet written, and had a huge effect on the development of fantasy as a genre.


Humphrey Carpenter (2006). The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (London: Harper Collins)

For a huge range of web resources on the Inklings, see those amassed by the Journal of Inkling Studies

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One Response to Group work

  1. robstroud says:

    Amazing post. What a joy to hear that the legacy of the Coalbiters has continued into our own day!

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