The Lewis Society and the genuine enjoyment of rational disagreement

The collected essays in "C.S. Lewis and His Circle" demonstrate the importance of lively debate and robust discussion of serious questions

Should the opportunity ever arise to do a bit of time-traveling – say, if a police call-box materialized in front of me – I’d be inclined to ask for just a short hop back, to Oxford in the 1940s, where (aided by a ring of invisibility) I could sit in on an Inklings meeting in C.S. Lewis’s Magdalen College rooms, or a Tuesday-morning gathering at the Eagle & Child pub.  

Alas, no such travel is possible, but something just as good – or, dare I say, even better? – is possible: participation in a group that starts with the Inklings and their legacy and carries it onward. While the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society is not the oldest Lewis Society – that honor goes to the New York C.S. Lewis Society, founded in 1969 – it is still more than thirty years old, and has the distinction of meeting continuously in Oxford, the city where the Inklings met and where Lewis and Tolkien pursued distinguished academic and creative careers.

The excellent new volume C.S. Lewis and His Circle – appropriately subtitled Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society – is a collection of addresses given at the Society at various points since its founding in 1982.  

It behooves me, then, to say a few words about the Oxford Lewis Society – whose gatherings I’ve had the pleasure of attending on many occasions over the past few years.

The Society meets, during term-time, on Tuesday evenings in the Frederic Hood Room of Pusey House, on a street called St Giles. At 8:00 pm attendees make their way upstairs and settle themselves to hear the week’s talk – sometimes by a visiting scholar, sometimes by one of the Society members. Following the talk is a Q&A, and here the quality of the group shines brightly, because the audience is comprised of well-educated, highly engaged, and super-articulate people who ask great questions and make valuable contributions to the discussion. Though that might seem a bit intimidating, in fact the atmosphere of the Society is relaxed and inviting. At about 9:30 the assembled company puts the chairs away and those who are so inclined re-locate to the Lamb & Flag pub for more conversation. (The Eagle & Child is usually too full.) Anyone can come to the meetings – from new reader to senior scholar, from any background or academic discipline, Christian or non-Christian. And the talks themselves are highly varied – some very specialized, others broad. Michael Ward writes in his insightful Afterword on the history of the Society that “Perhaps chief among the reasons for the longevity and liveliness of the Oxford Lewis Society is that, despite its name, it is not a single-issue group. ‘Lewis’ really serves as an umbrella term that covers an array of authors and a range of concerns.”

Opening C.S. Lewis and His Circle, then, is like being invited to step into the Frederic Hood Room of Pusey House. Starting each chapter is like settling down to hear the speaker for this Tuesday night – who will it be? What will be the topic? It might cover  something you’ve never heard of before, in which case the talk, Q&A, and discussion open up a new vista. It might be something you know a lot about, perhaps from a new angle or with new insights. Or it might be anything in between.  

The addresses collected in this volume must, of course, represent a selection, the barest skimming off the top of more than 200 recorded lectures. The editors have chosen pieces that are notable for their author, their content, or both; the selection of talks speaks to the way that Lewis, and Inklings studies more broadly, has attracted the sustained, serious interest of fine minds across disciplinary and denominational lines. One of the characteristics of the Lewis Society is its robust engagement with ideas; speakers know that they will not merely receive polite applause at the end of their presentation, but will get well-informed and often highly challenging questions. And so the talks included here are in that spirit – full of ideas, often provocative.

The pieces are collected into two main sections: Essays and Memoirs. The Essays section is divided further into “Philosophy and Theology” and “Literature.” A word on structure: the book is not, in my view, arranged in the best possible order, and readers may want to jump ahead and start with the “Memoirs” section.

Alister McGrath’s “C.S. Lewis, Defender of the Faith” works well as an opening, since McGrath provides a broad overview of Lewis’s writings, suitable for general readers or newcomers to the Inklings, and outlines what will be some of the recurring themes in the other contributions. McGrath writes that “Lewis helps us to understand how the imagination retains both its hold on human nature and its capacity to break through the barriers of both secularism and rationalism. It is not simply Lewis’s ideas that we must treasure, but the means by which he expresses them – above all, a well-told story.” However, the next piece, Elizabeth Anscombe’s “C.S. Lewis’s Rewrite of Chapter III of Miracles,” is almost impenetrably abstruse. While it will be of great interest to a small subset of Lewis scholars, it is highly technical, and seems better suited for inclusion in the Journal of Inklings Studies.

The high points of the “Essays” section are in the “Literature” category, which is uniformly good, starting with Rowan Williams’ “That Hideous Strength: A Reassessment.” It is thoughtful, well-argued, and stimulating – and had a number of points where I disagreed, and would have liked to have raised further argument. In short, it is a perfect example of a successful Society talk: challenging and productive of further insights as the ideas are discussed in more detail.

Another exemplary piece is Tom Shippey’s “The Lewis Diaries: C.S. Lewis and the English Faculty in the 1920s”, which further illuminates the ‘syllabus battles’ that Lewis and Tolkien fought, and, importantly, shows that the issues they were concerned with were ones of great importance for the shape of the discipline and student education, and indeed have consequences for education today. Lewis, Shippey argues, “was trying to fill a gap [between language and literature], and succeeding by personal effort – as did Tolkien in his own private and personal way… But then they died, and the matter was once again dropped, and the gap is still there.”

The second half of the book, “Memoirs,” is divided in turn into “Memories of C.S. Lewis by His Family and Friends” and “Memories of the Inklings.” Readers would be well advised to start reading at this point, so as to ease into the more scholarly pieces. The “Memoirs” section is delightfully personal, since what’s collected here are direct reminiscences from people who knew Lewis and the other Inklings. We hear about the extended Lewis family from Joan Murphy, a family cousin; George Sayer, one of Lewis’s students and, later, a friend, offers his recollections; Ronald Head tells what it was like to have Lewis as a parishioner at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry. Readers who are more familiar with the details of Lewis’s biography and academic work will be glad to see Peter Bide’s recollection of the impromptu marriage service he performed for Lewis and Joy Davidman, and Stella Aldwinkle’s account of the Socratic Club, in which Lewis was a key figure.

Owen Barfield’s reflection on his friendship with Lewis is interesting, not least because of the glimpse it gives of Barfield himself – in some ways an outsider to the Inklings, despite his long friendship with Lewis. Walter Hooper’s talk on the Inklings as a group helpfully broadens the focus beyond Lewis, as do John Wain’s two warmly appreciative pieces: one on Warnie Lewis, CSL’s brother, and one on Nevill Coghill and C.S. Lewis as Irishmen at Oxford.

My only serious criticism is that I wanted more! More essays – particularly on Tolkien, who is sadly under-represented here – and more supporting material, such as expanded author biographies and a more in-depth introduction. This volume only scratches the surface of the excellent material in the archives of the Society, so here’s hoping that a second volume will follow.

Taken as a whole, C.S. Lewis and His Circle shows that the Oxford Lewis Society has had an important role in helping form Inkling studies into the lively, robust, and ramifying field that it is today. And so this volume not only provides a selection of excellent essays and memoirs, it opens up to a wider audience the nature of the Society itself – a model of what a group like this can achieve. Ward writes in his Afterword that “Lewis’s dedicatory epigraph to Barfield in The Allegory of Love – ‘Opposition is true friendship’ – reflects his continual quest for and genuine enjoyment of rational disagreement. The Lewis Society has tried to emulate this example.”

In the 21st century culture of polarized rhetoric, with media that thrives on exaggeration and hyperbole, this ‘rational disagreement’ is hard to come by (let alone enjoy) – hard, at times, even to imagine. Knowing that the Inklings’ rational and imaginative engagement with the issues of their time is being continued today, in one of the premier intellectual cities of the world, is encouraging. What they achieved can be seen not just as past but as prologue.

C.S. Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society
Edited by Roger White, Judith Wolfe, and Brendan N. Wolfe
Oxford University Press, 2015
Hardcover, 288 pages

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About Holly Ordway 0 Articles
Holly Ordway is Professor of English and director of the MA in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). She is the Charles Williams Subject Editor for the Journal of Inklings Studies and is currently working on a book on Tolkien and his modern sources.