By Jennifer Watton. Trinity Western University has established a new research unit dedicated to the study of a group of popular British authors and thinkers, the Inklings. While the name may not be immediately familiar to many, the most famous members—C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien—are certainly household names, conjuring memories of favourite childhood fantasy stories.
Led by English professors Stephen Dunning, Ph.D., and Monika Hilder, Ph.D., the Institute gives a name to what’s already been taking place at the University for over a decade, and solidifies TWU as an official hub of Inklings research.
The Inklings, says Hilder, have ongoing relevance today, “not just as imaginative writers, but as culture critics,” she explains. “Their work invites us to ask questions that many of us have not yet begun to consider—and their answers are potentially transformative.” She has written three books on Lewis that discussed gender and the interplay of theology and cultural studies, and has been called upon as guest expert in the media. Along with Dunning, who specializes in the writer Charles Williams, she has seen a significant uptake in Inklings-related study at TWU. Together, the professors bring more than 40 years of research on these authors.
Their expertise will fuel the Institute as TWU becomes a base for Inkling-related conferences, a vehicle for research funding, and a draw for graduate students and additional top tier researchers in this area.
But additionally, they hope it will give the public a greater awareness of these authors and their innovative thinking. “Most of us come to this group through Lewis or Tolkien,” says Dunning, pointing to Lewis’ popular Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. But, he explains, both of these writers were heavily influenced by a group of colleagues, especially by those who regularly gathered through the 1930s and 40s, including Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, their peer Dorothy L. Sayers, and earlier mentors George MacDonald and G.K. Chesterton.
These authors shared an open exchange of ideas during their Oxford years, but says Dunning, “in many ways these people did not agree on a lot of key issues. Tolkien was influential in Lewis’ conversion, but Tolkien was deeply disappointed that his friend didn’t become a Roman Catholic. And while both owe a strong debt to Owen Barfield, according to Lewis, Barfield had read all the right books but gotten the wrong thing out of all of them.
Much like the rich group of thinkers who gathered in Lewis’ Oxford rooms—which included a doctor, Robert Havard; historian, Lord David Cecil; and even shipowner Percy Bates—the new Institute is cross-disciplinary. In addition to literature scholars, it includes scholars in the fields of arts and media, communications, philosophy, physics, political studies, and religious studies from across the TWU faculty, as well as scholars internationally.
“You can’t do Inklings studies without that diversity of discipline,” says Dunning.
“It’s part of a bigger picture—these authors didn’t just explore what it means to be a writer or a Christian thinker, but what it means to be human.”
At the moment there is nothing like the IIC in Canada. South of the border, the Wade Centre at Wheaton College is a significant repository of Inklings documents, and the IIC will be another leading research centre on this side of the Atlantic.
Photo caption: English professors Monika Hilder, Ph.D., and Stephen Dunning, Ph.D., together, bring more than 40 years of research on the Inklings authors.