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The Problematic Inklings

December 4th, 2023 | 8 min read

By G. Connor Salter

J.I. Packer observed in 1988 that if American evangelicals have a patron saint, it’s probably C. S. Lewis. Scholars who have explored Lewis’ views on purgatory and praying for late saints may find that foolish, but Packer had a clear point. Because American evangelicalism tends to be a broad but thin tradition—strong in numbers, weak on institutional memory, always struggling to cultivate an “evangelical mind”—there aren’t many thinkers that evangelicals all admire. Lewis (followed probably by Timothy Keller) is one of the few writers you know will be highlighted in any Christian bookstore, evangelical pastor’s conference, or church camp.

Of course, seeing someone as a saint makes it hard to believe the person had flaws. It’s not easy to admit that the Inklings—Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their friends who met weekly to share their writings—weren’t the perfect heroes revered in Christian homeschool guides.

But eventually, we must recognize that everyone’s life is complicated.

The point hit home recently when I was doing research at Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center, one of the world's largest collections of Inklings materials. I was sharing an Airbnb with several other Inklings researchers, some of whom gave evening presentations. One evening, we gathered to hear Dr. Sørina Higgins discuss her specialty: Charles Williams, a rather problematic Inkling.

Williams, a writer and editor who worked for Oxford University Press, met Lewis in 1936 after they exchanged fan letters about each other’s books. He didn’t begin regularly attending Inklings meetings until 1939 when World War II caused OUP to move employees from London to Oxford. While Williams only attended Inklings meetings for six years, Humphrey Carpenter and other scholars have argued that Williams’ 1945 death signaled the group’s end. Everyone mourned him.

Williams was well-loved inside and outside the Inklings. Tolkien let him be the first person to read an in-progress draft of The Lord of the Rings. W. H. Auden compared spending time with Williams to being in the presence of holiness. T. S. Eliot called him “a man of unusual genius.” Dorothy Sayers credited Williams with inspiring her to translate the Divine Comedy. Lewis described Williams as having an angel’s radiance when he spoke, which affected women so much that Williams could have used them horribly if he were a bad man.

The Third Inkling, Grevel Lindop’s authoritative Williams biography did not appear until 2015. It revealed that he was rather a bad man with women. He had an intense emotional affair with coworker Phyllis Jones for 14 years. He mentored many women spiritually, often assigning unusual tasks (writing essays on Dante, for example). Not performing a task led to disciplinary actions, like Williams spanking them with a ceremonial sword. Or striking their hands with a ruler. Many of these women allowed Williams to hurt them when he needed artistic inspiration. He admitted these behaviors combined eroticism and pain. In a 1929/1930 letter to Jones, he wrote, “Did I ever tell you that I suspect I am a mild masochist as well as a mild sadist? But not happily with anyone but you.”

However, the sadomasochism was always couched in spiritual terms. As Higgins detailed in her presentation (which she’s made available on her blog, The Oddest Inkling), Williams belonged to two secret societies between 1917 and 1939. One (the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross) described itself as a Christian mystical organization. The other was an offshoot of the infamous Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (dissolved in 1900, partly due to a feud involving Aleister Crowley and William Butler Yeats). Williams’ experiences with these secret societies gave him a grounding in Kabbalah, tarot cards, astrology, alchemy, and other alternate spirituality subjects. So, his sadomasochistic relationships were filled with mystical phrases and rituals, making it all appear like a spiritual exercise. As one of my fellow Wade researchers observed, Williams’ activity was sexual, but closer to the ritualized sexual behavior in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut than to the outright kink of Fifty Shades of Grey.

After the presentation, I went to dinner with the other researchers. We talked about nothing but Williams. When we returned to the Airbnb, we continued talking about Williams. Many of us had taught courses on him or published essays about him. One person had built courses based on his theology of love. How would we reconcile the man Lewis called “my friend of friends, the comforter of all our little set, the most angelic,” with magic-themed sadomasochism?

What do we do when we realize our heroes are not perfect?

Of course, Williams is not the only Inklings with a complicated life. Alister McGrath has discussed the Philomastix (Latin, “lover of the whip”) letters that Lewis wrote in his teenage years. In these letters, Lewis bares his darkest sexual temptations to his childhood friend Arthur Greeves, including fantasies about sadism.

More worrying for some scholars is the recent revelations about Lewis’ relationship with Mrs. Janie Moore. They met in World War I when Lewis served with her son, Paddy. Lewis promised Paddy he would care for Paddy’s mother if he died on the front. Mrs. Moore lived with Lewis from 1919 until her 1951 death (minus several years she lived in a care home). In a 1947 Time magazine profile, Lewis refers to Mrs. Moore as his “old mother,” and early biographers generally accepted that story. A man who lost his mother at age nine accepts a deceased friend's mother as his mother-substitute.

However, in 2020, Lewis’ secretary, Walter Hooper, passed away. Documents that Hooper had requested stay sealed until his death were opened. They revealed that Lewis had a sexual relationship with Mrs. Moore in his twenties, though it became a platonic mother-son relationship by Lewis’ 1931 conversion to Christianity.

The fact Lewis and Mrs. Moore once shared something illicit may help explain why, as Lewis’ brother Warren and others observed, Mrs. Moore became resentful and possessive of Lewis’ time as she aged. Her behavior became so erratic that Lewis wrote in 1951 that while she lived in his house, “I never went home without a feeling of terror as to what appalling situation might have developed in my absence.” He handled the chaos calmly and made sure she was cared for. Trevin Wax even suggests serving Mrs. Moore became a sanctifying act of service. The line between service and obligation is not always easy to see, especially when there’s a sexual history.

There are other complex stories about the Inklings’ private lives. Owen Barfield was one of Lewis's lifelong friends—they met as Oxford students in 1919. Lewis described Barfield as a key influence on his discarding atheism and dedicated two Narnia books to Barfield’s children. Barfield was married to Maud Douie from 1923 until her 1980 death. However, biographer Simon Blaxland-de-Lange reports that Barfield had two affairs—one with Marguerite Lundgren, who later married another Inkling, Cecil Harwood. Barfield was the witness at their 1953 wedding. Following Lewis’ death, the two men worked together to manage his literary estate before handing it over to Lewis’ stepsons.

Then, there are complex stories about minor Inklings (or friends of the Inklings) whose sexuality would surprise conservative evangelicals. Several years after the teenage letters in which Lewis told Arthur Greeves his sexual struggles, Greeves admitted having homosexual interests. Lewis accepted this while discreetly not telling anyone else about Greeves’ confession. They were both from Northern Ireland, so Greeves could have been criminally charged under the 1885-1967 Labouchere Amendment.

Lewis probably did not know about another friend’s sexuality. He met Neville Coghill in 1922, the last year of his Oxford studies. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, Lewis remembers Coghill as a “Christian and a thoroughgoing supernaturalist” with such morals he could imagine Coghill fighting a duel. Coghill went on to teach at Oxford (mostly drama, famously teaching a young Richard Burton), and several students wrote about him. In 2012, his student Reynolds Price released a memoir, Ardent Spirits. Reynolds writes that Coghill “was born in 1899, served in the First War, married, fathered a daughter, then separated from his wife and lived a quietly homosexual life thereafter. He later spoke to me of several romances with men, but he apparently never established a residence with any of them.”

So. A group of complicated men.

Time has made it somewhat easier to deal with these complexities. Williams’ behavior with women would still (and should) be condemned. However, many churches are slowly learning to talk honestly about spiritual leaders’ sexual brokenness. Coghill couldn't teach at many Christian colleges today, and conservative Christians will debate whether he would qualify as a gay Christian or a Christian living a gay lifestyle. Still, even as debates continue, books like Matthew Lee Anderson’s Earthen Vessels have made it possible to discuss Christianity and sexuality with care.

Other complexities remain thorny. Talking about Williams’ interactions with women has become complicated this side of the #ChurchToo movement. A week after the Wheaton Airbnb conversation, Higgins devoted a piece on her blog to whether people should cancel Williams. She observes an excellent reason to keep reading Williams is that for all his broken choices, his advice and his writings often did (and still do) help people spiritually grow. “God uses broken instruments for good,” she writes. “Indeed, there is no other kind of instrument available.”

Tolkien was no stranger to this idea. He often found relating to the other Inklings complicated. While he apparently considered Williams a good friend, Carpenter reports that after Williams’ death, Tolkien described him as “that witch-doctor.” Yet Tolkien does not seem to have been threatened by the idea God could use the man he found problematic. In fact, he quoted Williams when advising one of his children.

In a November 1, 1963 letter, Tolkien responds to his son, Michael, about struggling faith. The letter talks honestly about church scandals (“I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests”). Then Tolkien advises Michael that the only cure for struggling faith is communion with other believers—in fact, to do so with believers we don’t care for, and pray for them.

Tolkien switches to talking about his love for the true (Roman Catholic) church, then quotes Williams. By this point, Williams has been dead for almost 20 years and his disciples have made his sadistic behavior public (a point Gina Dalfonzo discusses in her book Dorothy and Jack). As Tolkien talks about the Roman Catholic Church, his footnote adds, “Not that one should forget the wise words of Charles Williams, that it is our duty to tend the accredited and established altar, though the Holy Spirit may send the fire down somewhere else. God is not limited… and may use any channel for his grace.”

People are complex. Talking about their complexities is not always pleasant. Yet, as Christians, we remember that God can use even broken channels to do his work.

Tolkien was speaking about the sacrament when he advised communion with believers to revive our faith. I find the broader form—fellowship, the communion with saints—also helps. The kind of communion with saints where we talk honestly about our flaws and remember our father in heaven has given us all grace.

The evening conversation in the Wheaton Airbnb wrapped up at a quarter to one. It ended with four people pondering how much consent the women had when they got involved in Williams’ games. No one went to bed with a happy face announcing they had solved the Great Inklings and Sex Dilemma.

However, the next morning, we had breakfast together. We now knew many of us had different views on this thorny topic. But no friendships were lost. No proposals to cancel Williams or the other Inklings, or each other. We discovered we had enough empathy to share our views without ostracizing each other. Enough humility to admit we were all too broken to enter heaven on a merit system. Enough charity to admit our heroes were complex people.

Complex people who, like every generation of Christians, made choices we struggle to understand today. Complex people that God used.

I don’t know how I feel about calling C.S. Lewis an evangelical saint. I suspect that creates expectations that make these kinds of conversations about the Inklings so difficult. But I strive to enjoy the Inklings’ work while having these tough conversations about how their lives contained beauty and brokenness.

G. Connor Salter

G. Connor Salter is a writer and editor with over 1,300 bylines. In 2020, his journalism won an award from the Colorado State Press Association. His work has appeared in Mythlore, The Oddest Inkling, CSL Bulletin, An Unexpected Journal, and A Pilgrim in Narnia.