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How The Inklings Shaped the Fantasy Genre

An unscheduled, unruled group of university men would go on to create beloved works of the fantasy world.

photos of seven men, members of the inklings
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  • Photo Credit: Counterclockwise from top left: Hugo Dyson, Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lord David Cecil, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield

Imagine you’re a student at university. Tasked with onslaughts of readings and papers, you’re eager to read something simply for enjoyment, something you won’t have to write a dissertation on. Professors have similar struggles, often stuck rereading the same course materials and having to grade papers upon papers on the same subject. J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams faced the same dilemma in the 1930s. Together they created the Inklings, an informal group made up of men who regularly met to read aloud works written by each other as well as other writers. 

Founded initially at Oxford University, the group denounced the titles of a club or literary society. They were simply a group of men who appreciated written narratives and wanted a time and place to celebrate that; there was no set order of things, no schedule or leader—though they did often meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Whenever they met, they would read aloud and workshop unfinished pieces.

The beginnings of the Inklings came from Edward Tangye Lean in 1931 when he was a student at Oxford University. Both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were involved in the literary society Lean led, and they carried that legacy after Lean’s graduation. While teaching at Magdalen College, Tolkien and Lewis established what became the Inklings, following in Lean’s stead. They did not want the camaraderie they experienced in Lean’s society to end with his departure from the university, so they continued on by themselves.

At the height of the group, they met twice a week with a high of 19 members. The informal meetings developed naturally after Lewis and Tolkien fell into weekly engagements soon after becoming friends. The duo expanded to include the rest of the Inklings as they met to discuss writing over a drink. Often held in Lewis’s bedroom, the group would gather to read narratives aloud and help each other workshop their projects. 

Along with giving and receiving advice, they would often hold vibrant and in-depth discussions about fantasy works they’d read recently. One of the earliest pieces brought to the group for discussion and workshopping was what went on to become Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Lewis also brought some of his now famous works including Out of the Silent Planets

Other notable members of the group include Warren Lewis and Christopher Tolkien, C. S. Lewis’s brother and J. R. R. Tolkien’s son respectively, and Owen Barfield who was known as the first and last Inkling for his influence on Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis and Barfield were close friends for over 40 years after their initial meeting at Oxford in 1919 before going on to become members of the Inklings together.

The Inklings are responsible for some of the most iconic work still well-known today including 
The Contenders by John Wain and Descent into Hell by Charles Williams. They were also known for translating other iconic works such as Dante’s Inferno, Beowulf, and many of Chaucer’s works among an array of others.

facade of the eagle and child, pub where inklings met
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  • The Eagle and Child, a pub where the Inklings regularly met.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Another figure who was adjacent to the group was Dorothy L. Sayers, a prolific writer in her own right. Although Sayers was a close friend of Lewis and often attended Inkling meetings, as a woman, she was not allowed to join the Inklings properly. What set her apart from the men—other than simply not being a man—was her status as a full-time writer, something many of them were not. 

In a unique position as a woman during that time, Sayers provided for herself and her husband with her writing career. She is hailed as a Queen of Crime for her mystery novels alongside Agatha Christie and beloved for her creation of Lord Peter Wimsey. Though only considered an ‘honorary’ Inkling, there is no doubt that Dorothy Sayers is just as notable a figure in literary history as the rest of them.

The camaraderie from the group paired with the often brutally honest critiquing aided in the development of icons like Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams as well as any member of the group. Together they built a safe space that allowed each of the men to hone their skills and improve their craft surrounded by people who were doing the same—and who were just as passionate about it.

It’s safe to assume that if not for the Inklings, fantasy classics would never have become what they are today. That specific group of men laid the foundation for genre-defining works of literature. A pub the Inklings often met at, the Eagle and Child in Oxford, England still has a corner dedicated to the group’s members. Some of their early works and manuscripts can be seen at Wheaton College in Illinois.

20 years of weekly meetings and critiquing inspired a generation of writers. The impact of the Inklings will be felt for centuries. It’s only natural for some of literature's brightest minds regularly together in one room to have a lasting impression.