Eighth Day Inkling Festival: ‘What the Inklings Mean to Me’ Reflections

f192990758The Eighth Day Institute in Wichita, Kansas, has a mission “to renew culture through faith and learning.” (Yes, they’re an off-spring of the venerable institution Eighth Day Books in the same town.) They are holding an ‘Inklings Festival’ this year, 17-19 July, with the theme ‘Ethics in Elfland: Virtue and Vice in Narnia and Middle-Earth.’ To create some buzz about the event in the blogosphere, the Institute leader, Erin Doom, asked 30 friends to contribute a brief essay on the theme, ‘What the Inklings Mean to Me’ and he is posting these reflections at the Eighth Day website in a 30 day countdown to the festival. Check it out.

f38810022Having spoken at an Eighth Day Symposium ‘On Imagination and the Soul’ in 2011 concerning both Harry Potter and Twilight, I was happy to comply with Erin’s request. I’m ‘Day 22’ in his countdown for what it’s worth — and you can read my essay below if you like. Your comments and corrections are coveted as always.

‘What the Inklings Mean to Me’

May I confess that this assignment has the feel of an in-class writing task about “What I Did Over Summer Vacation”? Forgive me, please, in advance, if the resulting essay, however brief, is no more engaging than those annual exercises were.

I answer this question as ‘The Hogwarts Professor’ and the ‘Dean of Harry Potter Scholars.’ Though I am older than the average member of Rowling’s Raiders, the global fandom empires, I am guessing that I am not unusual in coming to an appreciation of the Inklings, specifically, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, through my search for answers to the question, “Why do we love Harry’s seven adventures the way we do?” That search for me began with Ms. Rowling’s primary source material, the part of her reading material she calls her “compost heap” from which everything she imagines grows.

f39067750While Austen is her favorite writer and Emma the book she read 20 times in a row before writing Philosopher’s Stone, though Nabokov and E. Nesbit and Collette inform her thinking, Ms. Rowling’s obvious points of reference for writing a seven book series with Medieval flourishes, High Fantasy symbolism, and heroic battles against Evil in the World were the Narniad and The Lord of the Rings. Her public relationship with ‘Jack’ and ‘Tollers’ has waxed hot and cold – first flattered by the linkage in readers’ minds then alarmed and defensive (see this review of the history for more on that) – but the debts remain obvious and profound.

My take-aways from the Inkling study I have done as a Potter Pundit have been these three points:

Place of the Lion(1)    Charles Williams, as Lewis put it in Coleridgean language, the “esemplastic” figure of the mythopoeic crowd who met in Jack’s rooms and at the Bird and Baby. Though not as accessible or as popular as his friends became, his genius for renovating Medieval story telling elements – literary alchemy, ring composition, and dynamic allegory – to critique Modern mindsets and errors (and provide solutions in the imaginative cathartic experience the reader has) are the stuff, structure and substance of his friends’ Chronicles and Middle Earth triumphs. It is no accident that their reading Williams’ Place of the Lion re-set both Lewis and Tolkien’s ideas of what was possible in story-telling in our times.

t3755430(2)    We love Lewis’ Narniad and Tolkiien’s Rings for the same reason we love Harry Potter, what I call the ‘Eliade Thesis.’ Mircea Eliade wrote in The Sacred and the Profane that in a secular culture entertainments, fiction especially, serve a mythic or religious function. The Granger Corollary to this thesis is that those stories that serve up the most mythic or transcendent content with sufficient subtlety that the reader is able to suspend disbelief in poetic faith (Coleridge again) will serve this “religious function” or spiritual oxygen best in our God-denying Age. The Christian content of Rowling’s septology is as deep as her literary mentors’ work  if she is never the apologist or evangelist in hiding that Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien are.

f39067686(3)    Coleridge, Coleridge, Coleridge… The Bard of Ottery St Mary is the genius beneath the Inklings and what Rowling lifts from their imaginative toolboxes. His “inside bigger than the outside” conceit and its delivery of the radical contra Empiricist and materialist logos epistemology is the heart of everything Lewis wrote, what Coleridge scholar Barfield taught him about “the world being mental,”  and a much bigger part of Tolkien’s magic than is usually acknowledged (his Newman-inspired priory education being his Coleridge fount).

What do the Inklings mean to me? They’ve helped me understand the artistry and meaning of Harry Potter, from the alchemy and soul triptych to the chiastic structures and resurrection symbolism. And in that, they pointed to a better understanding of the mechanics and the point of writing within the Eliade Thesis, stories written for the cardiac rather than the cranial intelligence, the logos within rather than the discursive occluding logismoi.

Which has helped clarify Patristic anthropology, psychology, epistemology, and soteriology for me.  I am a better person, a more real person, for reflecting on and entering into the works of Lewis, Tolkien, and Williams.

Can a reader ask for more?


  1. Sharon Slade Jackson says

    Thanks for this heads up John. I have a friend from the blogosphere who lives in Wichita so I’ve sent her notice, but it’s a bit far for me to travel. Thanks also for the link to the previous conference. I appreciate being able to listen to talks from past conferences.

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