Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends

Among Winter Cranes
The Quarterly of the Christian Poetics Initiative
Vol. 3 Issue 3
Summer 2020

Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends
By Darren Dyck

In “Thursday Evenings,” a chapter of his 1978 biography of the Inklings, Humphrey Carpenter recreates a typical meeting of C.S. Lewis and his friends (ca. 1940). Lewis, his brother Warnie, R.E. Havard, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams get together in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College and say things each man is known to have said or written. The meeting is lively, the conversation moves quickly from topic to topic, and there’s even a moment of high drama when, well past midnight, Charles Williams materializes at the door reciting the Athanasian Creed (and then, moments later, The Tempest). It’s a delightful read, and likely especially so for lovers of the Inklings, as it allows us a brief glimpse into what may well have been.

My suggesting “Thursday Evenings” as literature helpful for reflection, however, has little to do with the delight I derive from reading it. Rather, there is a moment of particular poignancy that, I think, deserves highlight. It’s a moment prompted by Lewis’s war-time question: “in purely practical terms, were we meant to know so much about the sufferings of the rest of the world?” He’s asking because it seems to him “modern communications are so fast” that “there’s a burden imposed on our sympathy for which that sympathy just wasn’t designed.”

The relevance of Lewis’s question for us in 2020 is clear: should we feel the same sympathy for people we’ve never met, suffering in some far off place, that we feel for our next-door neighbor? Can we? Prior to what Lewis called “modern communications,” the answer would have been obvious: we barely know anything about those far-off people, so it’s impossible to sympathize with them as we would (and ought to) with our neighbor. Today, however, when communications are fast, when CBC or CNN or Twitter regularly prompts us to both sympathy and righteous indignation, and when our knowledge of people we’ve never met is great, the answer’s far more muddled. Lewis’s quippy solution to the problem of sympathy burnout was simply not to read the news. Can we do likewise?  And, if so, would we be preserving our humanity or denying it?

Dr. Darren Dyck
Assistant Professor of English
Ambrose University, Calgary, AB

Image Credit:

Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. “Momoyogusa = Flowers of a Hundred Generations.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1909.