Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Notes: The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter

"The Inklings" were an informal literary group of Oxford academics and writers who met in various room and pubs in the city, and was focused around the writers C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, Charles Williams, but whose evolving membership also saw a large number of less well-known figures. It was at weekly "Inklings" that first drafts of works such as The Lord of the Rings, and the Narnia series were first aired, and discussed.

Humphrey Carpenter was a tremendous biographer whose easy-prose contains an ability to probe his subjects, gently yet perceptively. He writes neither as an assailant nor a sycophant, but as a sympathetic biographer prepared to deal with his subjects flaws and foibles as much as their triumphs. His other great strength was his ability to address the context of a subject's narrative in a way which was neither patronising nor unintelligible. So, in this instance where he deals with some of the academic debates about the nature of the English Literature curriculum at Oxford, he opens up the scholarly debates of the time in which they were embroiled, with clarity and depth, to the reader who is a stranger to them.

Carpenter previously applied these skills to biographies such as that of Robert Runcie, and a wonderful book about Spike Milligan. He was also the biographer of J.R.R. Tolkein, and it was on the basis of that book that he was invited to chronicle The Inklings. Writing the biography of a group is a difficult proposition, which Carpenter handles by focussing his attention in turn on the major players of the group, and allowing the overall story to bend around these chapters. As such, nice little potted biographies of the likes of Tolkein and Lewis emerge alongside the startlingly idiosyncratic figure of Charles Williams.

This is a fascinating book, which opens up a past-world, a picture of British Academic life in the mid-Twentieth century which is now long gone. The lives, beliefs, battles, joys and struggles of this eclectic group of scholars is told with style and is remarkably informative, of both their lives and their times.  Certainly reading it adds an new dimension to reading about Middle Earth or Narnia.

This was another excellent book recommendation from my old friend Dr Stumpy Greenisland, whose suggestions on such matters rarely disappoint!

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