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The Inklings Were Not Closet Pagans

The Inklings, a group of writers that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, thought pagan myths grasped at greater truths fully revealed in Christ.


In her review of “The Fellowship,” Philip and Carol Zaleski’s group biography of the Inklings, Elizabeth Hand does a fine job surveying the accomplishments, and peculiarities, of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. She is far too eager to question the sexuality of Lewis and Williams, and she drags out the same old tired accusation of sexism against the male camaraderie of the Inklings, but these do not quite spoil the wit and brio of her review.

There is a problem, however, with her assessment of the Inklings that flows, not from political correctness or a desire to shock, but from a misunderstanding of the Christian vision that energized and inspired Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams. Hand is too quick to set up an artificial dichotomy between Christianity and paganism, suggesting that the real heart of the Inklings’ imagination lay with pre-Christian England and not with an orthodox faith rooted in the Nicene Creed.

What Hand misunderstands is that the love for paganism that Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams shared rose up out of their belief that the myths and sagas of the Norsemen, together with those of Greece and Rome, were filled with glimpses of greater divine truths whose fullness would not be revealed until the coming of Christ. Indeed, it was this very belief—that Christ fulfilled not only the Old Testament Law and Prophets but the good dreams of the pagans—that led Lewis from a generic belief in theism to a radical faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

The person who opened his eyes to this belief was none other than Tolkien. In answer to Lewis’s argument that Christ was merely the Hebrew version of the pagan myth of the dying and rising God, Tolkien replied that the reason for the parallels between Balder, Adonis, Osiris, and Mithras on the one hand and Jesus of Nazareth on the other was that Jesus was the myth that became fact.

For the Inklings, Christianity was a religion that, though fixed in history (Jesus died and rose again in real time and space at a specific moment in human history), was also bathed with the warm glow of myth. As such, it appeals with equal power to our reason and our imagination, to our adult logic and our childlike wonder, to our search for truth and our hunger for meaning.