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The Inklings

The Inklings were a group of writers who used to read their work to each other and discuss it in Oxford, England. The best-known members of the group were C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams.

C.S. Lewis's "Space trilogy"

In Out of the silent planet, C.S. Lewis explores some of the abuses of power in the modern age. The book opens with the kidnapping of the philologist, Ransom. His kidnappers, Weston, the scientist, and Devine, the financier, take him to the planet Malacandra, where Devine hopes to make his fortune by mining gold.

For a South African, certain parallels in the history, politics and economics of Africa are very obvious. Weston is motivated by a kind of racist imperialism, transposed to a different key. Malacandra is inhabited by three different intelligent species, each speaking a variant of the same language. So racism is expanded into speciesism. Devine, the entrepreneur, is unmoved by such high-flown idealism. He is simply in it for the money. He tends to mock those characteristics in Weston. The role of mining capital in the development of South Africa is well known, and its financing of the development of apartheid almost equally so.

Of the three human characters, it is clear where Lewis's sympathies lie: Ransom is an academic, working in a field close to Lewis's own. The fact that he is a philologist fits the plot, of course, since it enables Ransom to learn the language of Malacandra without too much difficulty. Ransom represents the humanities, Weston the sciences, and especially those in the field of the sciences whom Lewis perceives as having no values.

In Perelandra. there is a different theme, that of innocence and corruption. There is very little science, since Weston has almost entirely lost his mind. There is far less action than in the other stories, and it is generally more abstract. I wonder how much it was influenced by the Second World War - the final battles between Weston and Ransom take place almost entirely at the physical level, just as the battle against Hitler's Germany, whose racist theories bore more than a little resemblance to Weston's, had by 1943 got down to a question of military defeat or victory.

That hideous strength, unlike the other two, does not involve travel to other planets, but the action takes place on earth, in a quiet English university town, where ambition leads a university lecturer to become involved with a group of unscrupulous power seekers. In some ways the novel is prophetic, as there is a strange interaction of premodern, modern and postmodern worldviews. There are echoes of That hideous strength in Stephen King's more recent novel, Desperation.

One of the themes that I found most attractive in these novels was the abuse of power and those who resisted it. It seems that others of my generation felt that same attraction, but some, like Michael Moorcock, have maintained that we were mistaken:

The majority of the sf writers most popular with radicals are by and large crypto-fascists to a man and woman! There is Lovecraft, the misogynic racist; there is Heinlein, the authoritarian militarist; there is Ayn Rand, the rabid opponent of trade unionism and the left, who, like many a reactionary before her, sees the problems of the world as a failure by capitalists to assume the responsibilities of 'good leadership'; there is Tolkein and that group of middle-class Christian fantasists who constantly sing the praises of bourgeois virtues and whose villains are thinly disguised working class agitators -- fear of the Mob permeates their rural romances. To all these and more the working class is a mindless beast which must be controlled or it will savage the world (i.e. bourgeois security) -- the answer is always leadership, 'decency', paternalism (Heinlein in particularly strong on this), Christian values...

Moorcock finds it far more disturbing that people should read books by such authors than that they should read something like Mein Kampf:

If I were sitting in a tube train and all the people opposite me were reading Mein Kampf with obvious enjoyment and approval it probably wouldn't disturb me much more than if they were reading Heinlein, Tolkein or Richard Adams. All this visionary fiction seems to me to have a great deal in common. Utopian fiction has been predominantly reactionary in one form or another (as well as being predominantly dull) since it began. Most of it warns the world of 'decadence' in its contemporaries and the alternatives are usually authoritarian and sweeping -- not to say simple-minded. A look at the books on sale to Cienfuegos customers shows the same old list of Lovecraft and Rand, Heinlein and Niven, beloved of so many people who would be horrified to be accused of subscribing to the Daily Telegraph or belonging to the Monday Club and yet are reading with every sign of satisfaction views by writers who would make Telegraph editorials look like the work of Bakunin and Monday Club members sound like spokesmen for the Paris Commune.

And he goes on to say:

Then the underground papers began to emerge and I found myself in sympathy with most of their attitudes -- but once again I saw the old arguments aired: Tolkein, C. S. Lewis, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov and the rest, bourgeois reactionaries to a man, Christian apologists, crypto-Stalinists, were being praised in IT, Frendz and Oz and everywhere else by people whose general political ideals I thought I shared. I started writing about what I thought was the implicit authoritarianism of these authors and as often as not found myself accused of being reactionary, elitist or at very best a spoilsport who couldn't enjoy good sf for its own sake.

It may be unfair to string together selective quotes like that, and to do Moorcock justice, one should read the complete article (Starship Stormtroopers). But having said that, I must also say that I find Moorcock's own writing very dull. I read one of his books, and wasn't tempted to read another. Having read his article, I think I know why. Much as I might sympathise with his political views (he claims to be an anarchist), I disagree as strongly with his literary taste as he does with those of us who read "crypto-fascist", "crypto-Stalinist" and "Christian apologist" authors, and not least because I can see nothing that the Inklings have in common with writers like Robert Heinlein and Ayn Rand. That he can lump them together as he does doesn't say much for his ability to discriminate.

For another view of Lewis's Cosmic Trilogy, see Richard Harter's essay.

For a good survey on Ayn Rand and her influence, see The heirs of Ayn Rand. While she has nothing whatever in common with the Inklings, the article is worth reading just to see how wrong Moorcock is.

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If you're interested in learning more about the group of authors who have become known as "the Inklings", have a look at our Literary Links page. There's also a much more personal view of all this on my literary pilgrimage page, and a discussion on Christianity, paganism and literature, suggesting that the works of the Inklings point to some common ground between Christians and neopagans.

If you would like to discuss any of this, a good place to do so might be in the books or theology conferences on the FamilyNet BBS network, which you can also subscribe to as mailing lists. For more details on how to join them, see the Books Conference page. If you'd just like to make a quick comment, you may use the message board or sign the guest book. Other pages with information and discussion about the Inklings are:

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Started: 1996-09-30
Updated: 2013-09-25