One of the most celebrated pubs for writers is the Eagle and Child in Oxford. This public house on St Giles’, known informally as the ‘Bird and Baby’, was the place where the Inklings met during the mid-twentieth century. The ‘Inklings’ were a group of writers living in Oxford who would meet on a weekly basis to read and discuss each other’s work. The group included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (both of whom taught at Oxford University) as well as Charles Williams and Hugo Dyson. Their meetings took place in a private lounge at the back of the pub known as the ‘Rabbit Room’. A plaque on the wall commemorates the place where The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings were discussed over a pint (and the 1993 biopic about Lewis, Shadowlands, includes a scene set in the pub).
Tolkien converted Lewis – a staunch atheist throughout his teens and twenties – although Lewis embraced the Protestant faith while Tolkien was a strong Roman Catholic. Tolkien hated The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: he considered it too preachy with its Christian allegorical overtones. Lewis took the name Narnia from a classical map depicting Narni in Italy – which, in Latin, was rendered as ‘Narnia’.
Tolkien reputedly came up with the word ‘hobbit’ while he was busy marking students’ exam scripts. Coming to a blank sheet of paper, he impulsively wrote, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ This became the first line of his first published book set in Middle Earth, The Hobbit.
Strictly speaking, Middle-Earth isn’t the world in which Tolkien’s books take place, merely part of it. The world is called Arda, and Middle-Earth is merely one of the continents (like Europe) that make up that world.
Lewis died on 22 November 1963, the same day as fellow writer Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World. Neither death received much news coverage, as it was also the day on which John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas.
C. S. Lewis’s first name was Clive, but he was known by his friends and family as ‘Jack’. His middle name was Staples. His love of writing began at a young age: as children, he and his brother Warren (‘Warnie’) created the fictional world of Boxen, which featured talking animals including King Bunny – quite fitting for an author who would, as an adult, meet to discuss his writing in a place known as the Rabbit Room.
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We always sat in this very pub between lectures and the pressure to come up with something as incredible as Tolkien or Lewis was heavy in the atmosphere haha! Wonderful pub. I wonder whether it’s true that up until recent years, women were not allowed into the back room…hmm..
Wow, how marvellous! I’ve been lucky enough to have a few pints there once, six years ago, but would love to go back. Great pub. I’ll have to look into that fact about the back room – if I’m back in Oxford some time soon, I’ll have to buy a pint and make some enquiries…
A nitpick: a bit too simplistic to say that Tolkien converted Lewis. Lewis first moved in the direction of conversion (and the fantasy genre) after reading MacDonald; he was then moved further toward conversion in conversation with Tolkien, but also with HVD Dyson, another Inkling (who was the one who actually protested “not another fucking elf!”)… and most of all perhaps by reading Chesterton, particularly ‘The Everlasting Man’. Lewis once said that MacDonald had baptised his imagination, and Chesterton had baptised his intellect.
Chesterton himself had in turn been influenced religiously and artistically by MacDonald (as was Tolkien), so I suppose you could see the Inklings at the end of a chain of influence – MacDonald, Chesterton, and then Tolkien and Lewis. It’s interesting that what to us seems primarily an artistic school – the birth of modern fantasy, we might go so far as to say – looked to the protagonists like a religious school… for all these men, their approach to literature was largely an expression of their religious beliefs. Perhaps that’s why their works have a strength and vitality that often seems lacking in modern vitality – their work wasn’t just a game for them, but the flowering of deeply-held beliefs.
Thanks for the comment, and you’re absolutely right to pull us up on that. We may have to write a further post in the future addressing MacDonald’s influence on such figures (his importance for Chesterton we were not aware of), and clear up the nuances of this matter. At any rate, the whole ‘overnight conversion’ story is appealing, but, as you point out, sadly untrue.
My favourite line from the “Rabbit Room” in Shadowlands is Warnie turning to Tolkien and saying “not another bloody elf”.
I’d forgotten that line – might have to watch the film again now. Fantastic! (In every sense!)
Thanks for this, IL … it is so refreshing to find someone who knows about classical English Literature …
Thanks Angela! We’ve got many more posts planned for the next few weeks, including one on Christmas, so watch this space…