One of the stories often told by fans of the Inklings — C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and their friends — is that their great success is a kind of “revenge of the outsiders” story: writers whose ideas were rejected by the cultural elite end in triumph. The story’s origins lie with the Inklings themselves: so they conceived themselves, as a ragged group of oddballs tending the flame of old tales and old ways while the cultural elite went its corrupt modernist way. Lewis returns to this theme often in his letters.

But were Lewis and Tolkien really outside the mainstream? Consider:

  • Each of them was a fellow of an ancient and prestigious college in one of England’s two elite universities
  • They were the two leading authors of the English curriculum at that university (a curriculum that lasted longer than they did)
  • Each of them published books for that university’s prestigious press
  • One of them (Tolkien) shared a publisher with Bertrand Russell
  • One of them (Lewis) gave immensely popular radio talks for the BBC

Even Owen Barfield, in some ways the most culturally marginal of the major Inklings, early in his career wrote articles for the New Statesman and had a book (Poetic Diction) published by Faber. (After that he was largely self-exiled from the mainstream by his commitment to Anthroposophy.)

To be sure, there were important ways that both Lewis and Tolkien were, in the eyes of some, not quite the right thing at Oxford: neither of them attended an elite public school; Lewis was Irish; Tolkien was Catholic; each of them stood for ideas about literature that were palpably old-fashioned; and Lewis was (in addition to being generally assertive, sometimes to the point of bullying) vocal about being a Christian in ways that struck many of his colleagues as being ill-bred at best. But considering such impediments to insider status, they did amazingly well at finding their way into the midst of things, and they did so before either of them had written anything for which they’re now famous.


  1. Perhaps what needs to change is our definition of Modernism. At the time it was happening it was assumed that Eliot, Joyce, Woolf and those with similar aesthetic tastes were what constituted Modernism and everything else was reactionary rot or cheap escapism. Now I think we can say that Eliot, Joyce, and Woolf were merely one side of Modernism. The Inklings, Weird Tales, Looney Tunes, Batman, and Superman were the other half.

  2. I think when most people make this argument they're not referring to people in positions of power necessarily, but rather those who came to positions of power despite being outsiders. Granted, it's not clear where the line should be drawn and most people tend to draw it in such a way that they come across as 'outsiders' in comparison to the entrenched powers that be. One rare exception is the work of Whit Stillman – basically a long meditation on the diminishing Northeastern WASP culture in the US. What's really sad is if you're born into all the privileges of attaining power, and instead lose the position to some know-it-all kid from the sticks. But I would guess that in 1920s Britain this was relatively harder to do than in 2010s America, so perhaps there could still be a good case for Lewis and Tolkien as 'authentic' outsiders.

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