Greg Wolfe on "Why the Inklings Aren’t Enough"

In the new issue of Image, editor Greg Wolfe writes about the problem of Christian veneration of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

…it has often been noted that the two Oxford dons at the center of the famous literary group known as the Inklings — C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien — would be appalled by the virtual canonization that has been conferred on them by adoring fans.

What concerns me, however, is not so much the tendency of many Christians to treat these two writers as saints, as dubious as that may be. Rather, I find worrisome the fact that for many believers today, the Inklings seem to provide the sole literary diet. As we near the half-century mark since their deaths, this clinging to Lewis and Tolkien seems less a matter of homage and more an act of quiet desperation.

The problem is not the Inklings, but Inklingism.

As much as I love the Inklings, I gotta admit, Wolfe’s right. It’s a shame that these two are the only writers celebrated so enthusiastically in Christendom, and it’s an ever greater shame that the very culture honoring these men fails to understand or encourage the virtues that made them… and so many other great Christian artists… able to achieve literary greatness in the first place.

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  • Michael Knepher

    There was also a mention in yesterday’s Parade magazine, according to my wife. It seemed to highlight his production of Cassandra Wilson’s new album.

  • mike duran

    Burnett’s, The Criminal Under My Own Hat, is still one of my favorite albums.

  • B Edwards

    I agree with Adam–Wolfe’s piece is an exaggeration of a suppsoed problem that he can’t quite quantify or illustrate. Most of the comments here are merely generalizing prejudices. Wolfe does not get Lewis’s An Experiment right.

    And would anyone take the trouble to define “realism”? Do you really think Buechner and O’Connor qualify as realists?

  • Ellen Collison


    I really have met people whose “worship” of both Tolkien and Lewis was kind of (how can I say it?) outré, and I’ve also met people who stick to them – and writers like them – for fiction. (Honest – not in the sense of Inklings-only, but truly in the sense of imitation is the sincerest form of flattery-types.) But maybe this is due to my having done a lot of bookstore work in the past? It’s very eye-opening!

    And (believe it or not), I once met two people who seemed to be involved in creating a religion in which Thomas Paine was the deity. (Not through bookstore work, though.) I wish I was making this up!


  • Adam Walter

    Ellen, I know there are some Christians who read only Christian books and stick to only fiction they can find in a Christian bookstore. But that’s not the same thing. There are also Christians who watch only TBN, but that’s not the issue Wolfe raises. Do you know people who read only the Inklings?

    Also, I’m curious: what form does this near-deification take? I can almost imagine an Inkling fan making Lewis or Tolkien into a saint, but a god?

  • Gaffney

    Off of Eucharisto’s appeal comment: Lewis and Tolkien did have wide and common folk appeal. Just imagine: one catholic, one protestant, both able to be critics of each others work and still enjoy a pint together.

    Now that’s broad appeal, decades before its time.


  • Ellen Collison


    To answer your question, I know a number of people who will read only “Christian books” and, more specifically, “Christian fiction.” (Other than the Bible and books on following Christ, that is.) Which seems to be a very narrow reading list, much like eating the same food for breakfast, lunch and dinner 365 days of the year.

    I’ve also met people (professing Christians) who have pretty much deified both Lewis and Tolkien. (But not Sayers or Chesterton, oddly enough!)

    It all speaks to me of a lack of balance, in multiple ways.


  • Adam Walter

    I’ll contain my rant on this editorial to my own blog. But I will ask this: Has anyone really met these people who read only the Inklings?

  • Ellen Collison

    Hi again,

    My comment above wasn’t intended to denigrate either Lewis or Tolkien – I like them both. But I’ve got a sneaking suspcion that we’d all be beter off if we varied our reading some… Maybe adding people like Shakespeare to the list would help! :)

  • Wasp Jerky

    It’s definitely a sad thing that you can’t go into a Christian bookstore and find the writings of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, or even Flannery O’ Connor. No wonder I don’t shop at Christian bookstores.

  • Ellen Collison

    I think Wolfe puts his finger on many of the problems further on in his editorial. Here are some more excerpts:

    “Lewis and Tolkien, along with Charles Williams and earlier British Christian writers such as Hopkins, George MacDonald, and G.K. Chesterton, sought to baptize the Romantic movement. They shared with the Romantics an aversion to modern, technological society and stressed the healing powers of nature, organic form, and the dignity of the common man. With the Romantics they celebrated the Middle Ages as a time of unity and balance. Narnia and Middle Earth are essentially medieval cultures.”

    ” In a chapter on realism in An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis calls this the argument against “infantilism,” and goes on to make the case for the virtues of childlike wonder, citing Tolkien as an authority. Ostensibly, Lewis is merely arguing that fantasy be given a place in the canon. Indeed, his book is a plea for tolerance and the development of a catholic taste in literature.

    But here things get muddled. In this chapter and elsewhere Lewis is guilty of putting his finger on the scales: while granting that there is a distinguished tradition of realism—Middlemarch and War and Peace are his paradigms—he evinces no enthusiasm for it. He makes realism an entirely modern phenomenon, which is nearly impossible to maintain. While the realistic novel may be a recent development, realism itself is deeply woven into our culture, from the Greeks onward. It is no secret that he found little of interest in modern literature, loathing even the poetry of T.S. Eliot, a fellow defender of the faith.”

    I dunno, maybe I’m going against the grain by liking “realism,” too?

  • eucharisto

    Perhaps Wolfe is right, in many respects. “Lewis worship” is becoming more and more common. It could be a misguidance for some, but I would think that many people are simply giving credit where credit is due. Of course, there have been many wonderful writers within Christianity, Madeleine L’Engle, Frederick Buechner, even John Williams, who was within the inklings group. All of those forementioned writers achieved literary greatness. But Lewis and Tolkien had something greater than just literary greatness. They had widespread appeal. Mere Christianity can be read by most any moderately intelligent person, and understood, as well as The Chronicles of Narnia. The Lord Of The Rings appealed to the emotions and ideas that all humans have to struggle with. They were literary works of deep Christianity, that had the ability to appeal to the common man, and such a feat should certainly be praised.
    Perhaps the real problem is that people are cheapening Lewis’ and Tolkien’s work by overanalyzing and overusing the books. When something becomes too common, it looses its value. Perhaps that is what is happening. I truly hope that it doesn’t happen, as Lewis and Tolkien’s books deserve to stay the unique and genius works of art that they are.