50 years later, Inklings Lewis and Tolkien still inspire

A portrait of C.S. Lewis hangs next to the ‘C.S. Lewis and friends’ section in Eighth Day Books.
A portrait of C.S. Lewis hangs next to the ‘C.S. Lewis and friends’ section in Eighth Day Books. The Wichita Eagle

They met in a smoky pub or C.S. Lewis’s rooms in Oxford more than 50 years ago.

Today, their works are read in schools, have been made into blockbuster movies and have inspired an entire genre.

So why have the Inklings – a small group of academics and clergy – had such a lasting influence?

The Inklings in Wichita

Next month, Wichita’s Eighth Day Institute will hold its third Inklings Festival, delving into how the best-known members of the Inklings, J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis, responded to the two world wars with hope and creativity.

“They believed in the goodness of the world, they saw evil in the world and they put that into their fiction,” said Erin Doom, director of the institute. “In some ways their fiction is like mythology. It’s articulating truths and realities, but in the form of a story. It’s probably the most effective way for people to learn, through story.”

The annual Inklings Festival is hardly the only time Wichitans enjoy the Inklings.

On Thursday, the Spiritual Life Center of the Catholic Diocese of Wichita held an “Encounter with J.R.R. Tolkien.”

Dusty Gates, assistant program director, said the lecture developed from a class he taught for Catholic school teachers.

Works of Tolkien and Lewis have such appeal because people are naturally interested in a “larger, cosmic story” that includes the message of good triumphing over evil, Gates said.

Some area Catholic schools teach books by Lewis or Tolkien, Gates said. One teacher uses Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” to teach about the Christian faith, Gates said.

Eighth Day Books also has a shelf dedicated on both sides to “C.S. Lewis and friends.” The basement, which houses children’s books, is fondly called the “hobbit-hole.”

“C.S. Lewis kind of charted my course as a reader, as a Christian, so I honor that influence,” said Warren Farha, founder of Eighth Day Books. “I am just one of millions of people that can say the same thing. Their influence has just been incalculable as far as how many people they’ve shaped.”

The Inklings today

It’s possible that we wouldn’t have Star Wars, Harry Potter or numerous other works of fantasy without Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” said Joseph Pearce, senior editor of the Augustine Institute in Denver and author of several books about the Inklings. Pearce will speak at the Inklings Festival next month.

Tolkien’s trilogy “singlehandedly established what we would now call the fantasy genre” by tapping into the past in an innovative way, Pearce said.

Many acknowledge their debt to Tolkien. George Lucas has cited the trilogy as an influence on Star Wars. George R.R. Martin, author of the “Game of Thrones” series, said he reveres the trilogy and began the saga “in some sense … replying to Tolkien, but even more to his modern imitators.”

Authors Philip Zalenski and Carol Zalenski wrote in an essay that, “By the time the last Inkling passed away, on the eve of the 21st century, the group had altered, in large or small measure, the course of imaginative literature (fantasy, allegory, mythopoeic tales), Christian theology and philosophy, comparative mythology, and the scholarly study of the Beowulf author, of Dante, Spenser, Milton, courtly love, fairy tale, and epic.”

The fascination with the Inklings hasn’t stopped: Many books have been written about them, and a biopic called “Tolkien” is set to star Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien and Lily Collins as Tolkien’s wife, Edith Bratt.

Movies based on Tolkien’s work and Lewis’s “Narnia” series have grossed between $700 million to more than $1 billion per film.

Lewis’s works arguing for and explaining the Christian faith are widely read. Evangelical magazine Christianity Today named Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” as one of the top books that has shaped evangelicals.

There has also been pushback: Author Phillip Pullman called Lewis’s religious writings “bullying, hectoring and dishonest in all kinds of ways.” Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy has also been described as an anti-Narnia.

Even the lesser-known Inklings have had lasting influence, although more on academia than pop culture, Farha said. Charles Williams’ work on Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is still read, as are Owen Barfield’s theories of language and poetry.

Friends and writers

Stephanie Mann, a Wichita-based writer, said the Inklings stand out because of their strong community.

“They had that kind of camaraderie where they could share what they were working on and get reactions,” Mann said. “For a writer that can be a hard thing to do, so you have to have that friendship and camaraderie. … From the friendship came great imaginative works that we just love to read and experience.”

Even in friendship, the Inklings could be blunt with criticism: Tolkien infamously disliked Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.”

They also differed in religious beliefs, including the Catholic Tolkien, Anglican Lewis, Anthroposophist Barfield and Anglican mage Williams.

Without Lewis’s pressure on Tolkien to finish his work, it’s possible “The Lord of the Rings” would never have been published, said Farha, the bookstore owner.

“They met because they enjoyed each other and they were all writers and they found in the other members critics who cared about what they were doing and understood what they were doing,” Farha said. “That collective friendship really changed the culture.”

The Eighth Day Institute’s Inklings Octoberfest takes place Oct. 20-21 and costs $40 (early rate). More information is available at www.eighthdayinstitute.org.

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess