Option 3: The Inklings in Oxford

Dr Maria Artamonova & Dr Juliana Dresvina


The Seminar will focus on the Oxford literary group known as the Inklings: with J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis at the centre of the circle, it included scholars, authors, and thinkers such as Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield and attracted many other brilliant and eccentric minds.

The life and writings of Tolkien and Lewis are naturally at the centre of attention, with the city and University of Oxford providing a backdrop for class discussions and excursions. We look at the role of the University in the life of authors and scholars who eventually came to be counted among the greatest literary and religious influences of the 20th century. The routine of college life that became instrumental in shaping their existence will be experienced by the students and illustrated by trips to Oxford colleges where the Inklings worked.

Tolkien and Lewis’ medievalist background and the key medieval texts which occupied them throughout their careers and inspired their own creativity will be explored (extracts from Beowulf, Ancrene Wisse, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Faerie Queen, and Pilgrim’s Progress will be cited among others).

Other topics will include the gradual shaping of Tolkien’s mythological world and its deep grounding in the 20th century, and the versatility of CS Lewis’ mind applied to literary criticism, fantasy, and religious apologetics. We will look at the way in which the writings of these two men are still extremely relevant to the lives of millions of people all over the world, not least in Oxford. Other members of the wider Inklings circle (Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Dorothy Sayers) will also be a focus of one of the seminars.

Indicative Interdisciplinary Seminar Programme

Week 1 : University Men

The first seminar of the series will look at the University of Oxford, its structure and routine as it underwent important changes over the course of the 20th century. Most of the men associated with The Inklings were in one way or another connected with the University, and in many cases their lives and careers were entirely shaped by this connection. We will follow the biographies of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis from their undergraduate years at Oxford through the trauma of the First World War to the struggle to find an academic position. The life of an Oxford don with its many charms, troubles, and idiosyncrasies will be explored and explained. Trips to colleges such as Merton and Magdalen will provide a close-up view of a don’s life.

• Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and their Friends (1979).
• Colin Duriez and David Porter, The Inklings Handbook: The Lives, Thought and Writings of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and their Friends (2001)

Week 2 : Middle-earth and the Middle Ages

This seminar will look at Tolkien and Lewis as medievalists and explore the importance of medieval literature and languages for their work. We will start by discussing the profits of learning languages, especially ancient ones, as viewed by people nowadays and as discussed by Tolkien in his letters and essays. We will also look at the Oxford medieval syllabus and the role of the two men in shaping and reforming it. Echoes of medieval literature in The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia series and other works by Tolkien and Lewis will be discussed too, as well as Lewis’ interest in (and Tolkien’s dislike of) allegory. Once again, Oxford’s medieval buildings and academic resources will provide a backdrop for the seminar.

• J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘A Secret Vice’, The Monsters and the Critics and other essays
• C.S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (excerpts)
• Excerpts from Beowulf, Ancrene Wisse, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, The Faerie Queen, and Pilgrim’s Progress

Week 3 : J.R.R. Tolkien’s life-work

This week’s study will focus on Tolkien’s Magnum Opus, the world of Middle-earth which he spent most of his life creating. We will trace the early sketches and glimpses of this world and trace its development through a plethora of tales, poems, manuscripts, versions, and languages, focussing especially on the three greatest and best known works in the cycle: The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. We will talk about the incredible detail and imaginative richness of Tolkien’s creation and explore his own attitude to his work as well as the worldwide response they have provoked – from scholarly books and theses to fan clubs, role-playing games, and award-winning films. Tolkien’s influence on the fantasy genre will also be discussed.

• J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit (optional), The Silmarillion (optional), Leaf by Niggle

Week 4 : C.S. Lewis

A counterpart to the trilogy of Tolkien’s Opus Magnum, Lewis’ best known example of adult fiction, ‘The Space Trilogy’ (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength) was written at the same time (late 1930s-40s) exploring similar themes as LOTR within a different – mostly cosmic – setting. We look at the final book of the series, set in Oxford and inspired by fellow Inklings Tolkien and Charles Williams, and trace its Arthurian motifs. A shorter specimen of Lewis’ writing, a parable The Great Divorce depicts his views of the other world and offers a solution to the complicated question of co-existence of free will and predestination.

• That Hideous Strength (1945)
• The Great Divorce (1946)

Week 5 : The wider circle: other Inklings and Associates

In the final week of the course we will discuss the figures of two other prominent Inklings, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield, as well as of Dorothy Sayers, who is often considered an ‘associate’ of this otherwise purely male circle. We will focus on one of the most famous ‘spiritual thrillers’ by Williams, All Hallows’ Eve, written while in Oxford on consultation with Lewis and other Inklings , and also consider extracts from Barfield’s Poetic Diction – a book that particularly influenced both Tolkien and Lewis. Finally, we will look at some passages from Gaudy Night, ‘the first feminist mystery novel’ by the Oxford-born and educated Dorothy Sayers, describing her experiences of academic life at the University, and compare them with Lewis’ bitter satire found in the previous week’s material.

• Williams, All Hallows’ Eve (1945)
• Extracts from Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction (1928)
• Extracts from Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935)


© Dr Ken Addison, Oxford Academic Summer School Tours Ltd: for 2024

St Peter’s College Summer School at Magdalen College, University of Oxford