“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally — and often far more — worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”
— C.S. Lewis
I’m reading the first book published in 30 years about the Oxford University writing group known as “the Inklings,” a literary discussion group made up of academics at Oxford University, which included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, two authors who are, today, considered major contributors to the Western literary tradition.
Confirming my most basic suspicions, I’m reading that the Inklings were not just a group of individual writers but a kind of cabal of scholars who believed in the core values of Western tradition and worked to revive the best spirit of the past and reawaken the minds of others through use of an “exalted view of the mythopoetic imagination.”
In other words, they steeped themselves deeply in the best of the Anglo-Saxon traditions, forming a “school of thought” whereby “the reflective imagination is actively evoked and personal and social myths brought forth” through their writing. It was a mainstay of Anglo-Saxon culture to pass on the structure of values and traditions to the next generation through story. As academic scholars steeped in Nordic culture, Tolkien and Lewis intentionally set out to use the “mythopoetic imagination” as a means to re-communicate the best of Western themes and values — good vs. evil, valor, honor, loyalty, bravery, etc., and perhaps, most of all, Christianity — back into a “progressive” world which they saw as losing its very soul to modernity. And, of course, the modernist critics condemned them most heavily for committing the greatest crime of all: belief in the happy ending. But Tolkien, a devout Catholic, assisted Lewis’ conversion to Christianity and together, along with the other Inklings, when they saw the worst in Western cultural modernity rising its ugly head, they conspired to reinfuse it with the greatest values of its own primitive past.
“The Inklings work, then, taken as a whole, has a significance that far outweighs any measure of popularity, amounting to a revitalization of Christian intellectual and imaginative life. They were 20th-century Romantics who championed imagination as the royal road to insight and the ‘medieval model’ as an answer to modern confusion and anomie [lawlessness]...” [Philip and Carol Zaleski, “The Fellowship: Literary Lives of the Inklings”]
So it is that we have before us a model and an inspiration to revitalize our democratic view of freedom, if a literary one, that is there to inform us of a way ahead that is not grounded in ignorance of the past, but in a resuscitation of the best of the past bound only by the imaginary demarcations of the fictional kingdoms of Narnia and Middle Earth. In this visionary movement to rescue the Western focus based upon a new appreciation for its own traditional values, we see a cultural impetus to turn our heads to our own past in order to preserve and protect our future.
Further, let it be said that both Tolkien and Lewis were adamant that their writing was not “children’s literature.” Wrote Lewis: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” Wrote Tolkien: “Fantasy is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent…”
We need to double down on our teaching of history to our youth, step up our passing on of the Western tradition ... or lose it. It is not the work of children to rescue history from the assault on human memory; it is ours to secure before them.
And perhaps the best way to do so is to scare ourselves into doing it by reading about what our world would be like if taken over by forces akin to the evil Sauron or the evil Queen Jadis, that is, by witches … and dragons ... and orcs.