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J.K. Rowling among the Inklings?

11 October 2010

Lingwë – Musings of a Fish points out some similarities between J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and the Inklings, especially Charles Williams’s War in heaven:

The title of this post invokes a rather well-known work of Inklings scholarship, Women among the Inklings (Candice Fredrick and Sam McBride; Greenwood, 2001). The book discusses, among other things, women on the fringe of the Inklings’ coterie: the members’ wives, friends, and fellow authors. A notable example is Dorothy L. Sayers, often mistaken for an Inklings or nominated by fans as an “honorary member”. J.K. Rowling is not discussed in this book — after all, her Harry Potter novels were still very new at the time Fredrick and McBride were writing it. And of course, Rowling was not a contemporary of the Inklings, so any (hypothetical) mention of her would have been off the main subject of their book.

The point about Dorothy Sayers is that she never attended a gathering of the Inklings, though she was a friend of some of the Inklings. But if attendance at the gatherings is what makes an Inkling, was Roy Campbell an Inkling?

Roy Campbell, the South African poet, briefly joined the Inklings in 1944-46. Lewis objected to what he called “Campbell’s particular blend of Catholicism and Fascism”, though Tolkien was more sympathetic. Carpenter states, erroneously, that Campbell had fought on Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War, and had become a Catholic in the process. In fact Campbell had become a Catholic before the war, and it was the killing of Catholic priests and nuns by the Republicans (including the priest who had catechised him) that led him to sympathise with the Nationalist cause, which he supported with the pen, though not the sword.[1] What Carpenter says of Tolkien, then, applied equally to Campbell, “during the Spanish Civil War, Tolkien largely sympathised with Franco’s cause in Spain, not because he approved of fascism but because he saw Franco as the defender of the Catholic Church against communist persecution.”

J.K. Rowling was neither a friend of any of the Inklings, nor did she attend any gatherings of the group. The Harry Potter books have in common with the Narnia series and The Hobbit the genre of being children’s fantasy, but I don’t think that is enough to make anyone an
honorary Inkling. The other Inklings didn’t write children’s fantasies, and some of them didn’t write anything at all.

The thing about the Harry Potter books is that they came after a dearth of decent children’s books. For a long time all you could get was R.L. Stein and the “Goosebumps” series, which were mediocre, to say the least. And now you have the “I’m a lovesick teenage vegeterian vampire” kind of thing which are as bad as the “Goosebumps” lot, though my son, who works in a bookshop, says they are now selling a lot less of those than of Harry Potter.

I think Neil Gaiman’s American gods and Neverwhere are a lot closer to Charles Williams than the Harry Potter books are, but I’m not sure that that would make him an honorary Inkling either.

I have, on several occasions, challenged people to try their hand at writing a novel in the same genre as the Charles Williams ones, and perhaps, since NaNoWriMo (National Novel-writing month) is coming up soon, this is a good time to reissue the challenge. And if you’re interested in discussing these things in more depth than is possible in blog comments, now is the time to join in the Neo-Inklings discussion forum.

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Notes and References

[1] Pearce, Joseph. 2001. Bloomsbury and beyond: the friends and enemies of Roy Campbell. London: HarperCollins. ISBN: 0-00-274092-3, p. 186.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 13 October 2010 10:26 pm

    J.K. Rowling was neither a friend of any of the Inklings, nor did she attend any gatherings of the group. [A.] The Harry Potter books have in common with the Narnia series and The Hobbit the genre of being children’s fantasy, but I don’t think that is enough to make anyone an honorary Inkling. [B.] The other Inklings didn’t write children’s fantasies, and some of them didn’t write anything at all.

    Nice to see this being discussed (I noticed the alt.fan.tolkien discussion as well). Just to make one thing clear: I myself call neither Rowling nor Sayers “honorary Inklings”.

    However, I will say that as regards your first point, marked [A.] above, Rowling has much more in common with Tolkien that just this. There are many similarities in plot and characterization — to give one conspicuous example: the character of Kreacher in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s advice to show him mercy, which indeed pays substantial dividends later in the series, bear a striking resemblance to Tolkien’s characterization of Gollum and Gandalf’s advice to show him mercy. A similar comparison may be drawn between Gollum and Wormtail. There is also the Christian element, never made explicit (just as in Tolkien), but present nonetheless. And there is Rowling’s language play, not just in the naming of her spells and incantations, but also her clever use of onomastics and nomenclature. Something Tolkien would have appreciated even if Rowling’s language play is nowhere as sophisticated as Tolkien’s. This is just off the top of my head; there is certainly more one might say.

    Turning to your second point, marked [B.] in the quotation, I will be more brief. It is quite common to say “the Inklings” when what we really mean is “Tolkien and Lewis, certainly; Williams, on occasion; and perhaps Barfield from time to time”. Nobody who likens an author’s works to the Inklings’ really means to invoke Dyson, Mathew, Wain, or the others. The “tradition of the Inklings” is a convenient shorthand, that’s all. And I see nothing wrong with that and no need to split hairs.🙂

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