While anyone who knows anything about C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, or Owen Barfield knows of the existence of the Inklings, the group remains nearly impossible to define. Even the members of the group could not identify exactly what it was or what it meant. By the mid 1940s, Lewis defined it as a group of “literary friends,” who read, “smoked, talked, argued, and drank together,” and who presented one another’s works with “hard-hitting criticism.” In his personal letters to his wife, Charles Williams described the group simply as “Magdalen,” meaning the college in which Lewis had his rooms. In 1955, Lord David Cecil called it a “circle of Oxford writers” that “flourished round about 1939, and a little later. Perhaps one shouldn’t call it a circle—that sounds too formal. It was simply that a few friends, with tastes and interests in common, and all of them engaged in the practice of literature, used to meet in Magdalen from time to time, and talk about their work, and read to each other what they were writing.” A quarter of a century later, he wrote that neither religion nor politics held the group together, as significant differences existed among them. Instead, he wrote, rather directly,
The qualities, then, that gave The Inklings their distinctive personality were not primarily their opinions; rather it was a feeling for literature, which united, in an unusual way, scholarship and imagination. Their standard of learning was very high. To study a book in translation or without proper knowledge its historic background would have been to them unthinkable; they were academic in the best sense of the word. But—and this is what made them different from most academics—they already read imaginatively. The great books of the past were to them living in the same way as the work of a contemporary.
The one thing that held them together, at a personal level, Cecil continues, was C.S. Lewis.
In a talk offered in the late 1960s, Owen Barfield, who claimed only to have attended ten percent of the meetings, defined the Inklings has a group possessing four interconnecting parts, each representing the four best known members. Lewis most personified the “yearning for the infinite and unattainable,” while Williams sought to idealize romantic love. He, Barfield, believed fully in “the dignity of man” and a real progress toward the divine in the incarnate being of the human person. Tolkien best understood the necessity of “the happy ending” in story as well as in ultimate reality. By 1990, however, Barfield refused to give any specific definition of the group beyond a few scattered reminiscences of his time with the group, some of which he experienced directly and others he merely heard about after the fact.
A number of scholars, beginning in the 1940s, have tried to define the Inklings as well. The best remain those that offer impressions rather than exact details. The former present a poetic and humane view of a poetic and humane group. The latter, while interesting and generally well researched, come across as desiccated forms of a life, the work of a mere recorder rather than an agent possessed of imagination and free will.
The first American to take notice of the group was Father Chad Walsh, an American Episcopal priest, poet, and literature professor at Beloit College, who attended Tuesday lunch meetings. “The group is a fluctuating one. It is likely to contain a couple of Lewis’s colleagues such as Professor Tolkien, one or two students, sometimes a relative of someone or a distant friend,” he recorded. Then, he offered his own take, bewildered only in hindsight.
Only in retrospect did I realize how much intellectual ground was covered in these seemingly casual meetings. At the time the constant bustle of Lewis racing his friends to refill empty mugs or pausing to light another cigarette (occasionally a pipe) camouflaged the steady flow of ideas. The flow, I might add, is not a one-way traffic. Lewis is as good a listener as talker.
In 1966, Charles Moorman, a professor of literature and expert in Arthurian legend, published his scholarly work, The Precincts of Felicity: The Augustinian City of the Oxford Christians. In his work, Moorman gave an equal weight to Charles Williams as he did to C.S. Lewis, and he sought to find a “corporate mind” at work.
The best known of all books on the Inklings was Humphrey Carpenter’s 1979 work, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends. While beautifully written and filled with fascinating tidbits about the Inklings, Carpenter’s work is really a biography of C.S. Lewis and fascinating biographical diversions about the other members of the group. For better or worse, this book essentially made “Inklings” synonymous with “C.S. Lewis.” To this day, scholars of Lewis distinguish themselves from scholars of Tolkien by insisting they have the proper understanding of the Inklings, which seems to have become, in hindsight, the personal possession of Lewis. Tolkien, Barfield, Hardie, Cecil, and others serve, at least in appearance, as mere appendages to Lewis. As Carpenter wrote in that book “the Inklings owed their existence as a group almost entirely to” C.S. Lewis.
Since 1979, as noted above, works by a number of excellent scholars have appeared, following to varying degrees the arguments first set forth by Carpenter. Barfield found much to love in Gareth Knight’s 1990 book, The Magical World of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. Per the title, Knight focused on the heterodox views of each.
Thus we have four Christians of widely different types producing a body of work firmly based upon mythopoeic principles. Most of their admirers understandably prefer to emphasise their links with orthodoxy. However, they were, in their cumulative effect, the cutting edge of a deeper approach not only to Christianity but to our whole view of the material world—because they identified and acknowledged a lively awareness of an ‘inner’ side to it. For this reason I feel quite justified in talking about ‘the Magical World of the Inklings,’ for this is where the mythopoeic dynamic naturally leads; into worlds ‘visible and invisible.’ Furthermore they have laid the ground to rescue much of this invisible country from the squatters of the lunatic fringe who so easily frighten off the orthodox. In support of my contention, which I hope to demonstrate at length in the pages that follow, I may perhaps quote Professor Adam Fox, himself at one time an Inklings, and one whom the others were delighted to see achieve the Oxford Professorship on Poetry. Interviewed in 1975 he said, ‘They all had a tendency to the occult in some way.’ This, I wish to submit, is largely the cause of their strength and enduring popularity.
In addition to a number of articles asking about the central element of the Inklings, Diane Pavlac Glyer’s The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, offered a painstakingly researched examination of the group. After exhaustive reading and digging through the archives, Glyer forcibly concludes that the Inklings found inspiration in one another rather than direct influence of thought and idea. Too strong in personality, she claims, the members of the Inklings each very much remained his own man. In his several books on the Inklings, individually and as a whole, Colin Duriez comes to much the same conclusion, drawing significantly on Glyer’s work in his most recent books.
The best book thus published on the Inklings is The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015) by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaeleski. Dedicated to the greatest English Christian humanist of his age, Stratford Caldecott, The Fellowship breathes the very spirit of the Inklings. The only deficiency of this beautiful work is that it still focuses, primarily, on the traditional four members of the Inklings: Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, and Barfield. In large part, the Zaleskis succeed because they recognize the humility found within the membership and work of the Inklings. In particular, though, Tolkien “has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening.” These awakenings, the authors rightly note, have yet to found their endings, continually offering and baptizing the works of those who have followed.
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
 As one of many such references, see Roma A. King, Jr., To Michal from Serge: Letters from Charles Williams to His Wife, Florence, 1939-1945 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2002), 101.
 Rachel Trickett and David Cecil, “Is There an Oxford ‘School’ of Writing?” Twentieth Century (June 1955), 561-562.
 Lord David Cecil, “Oxford’s Magic Circle,” Books and Bookman (January 1979), 10-12.
 It must be noted that this is an interpretation of a talk given by Barfield. Taken from “Rand Kuhl, “Owen Barfield in Southern California,” Mythlore 1 (October 1969), 10.
 Owen Barfield, “The Inklings Remembered,” The World and I (April 1990), 548-549.
 Walsh, C.S. Lewis: Apostle, 16-17.
 Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), xiii.
 While each of these authors is quite good, I have a personal friendship with Duriez. I’m also quite attracted to his exacting and detailed research. Though all of his books are strong, his best, in my view, is his Inkling’s Handbook.