Interview with Harry Lee Poe author of The Inklings of Oxford (11.03.09 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

Members of the famed Inklings literary circle lived in the university city of Oxford. What were the places there like where people like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien met to talk and to share their writing?
You’ll find the answer in this lively book, whose stunning photographs and insightful text will deepen your knowledge of Oxford and the Inklings alike.

Oxford’s fabled streets echo with the names of such key figures in English history as Edmund Halley, John Wycliffe, and John and Charles Wesley. Of more recent times are those of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the other members of the renowned literary circle to which they belonged, the Inklings.

What would it be like to walk this medieval city’s narrow lanes in the company of such giants of Christian literature, to visit Magdalen College, where Lewis and Tolkien read aloud their works-in-progress to their friends, or the Eagle and Child pub, the Inklings’ favorite gathering place?

The lavish photography of this book will introduce you to the fascinating world of the Inklings, matching their words to the places where these friends discussed—and argued over—theology, philosophy, ancient Norse myth, and Old Icelandic, while writing stories that were to become classics of the faith.

The Inklings of Oxford will deepen your knowledge of and appreciation for this unique set of personalities. The book also features a helpful map section for taking walking tours of Oxford University and its environs.

The Inklings of Oxford: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Their Friends The Inklings of Oxford: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Their Friends

Authors:
Harry Lee Poe, James Ray Veneman
Type:
paperback
Extent: 176 pages
Publisher: Zondervan Publishing House
Publication date: July 1, 2009

Language: English

ISBN-10:
0310285038
ISBN-13: 978-0310285038


The interview


When I was contacted about a year ago by someone working at Zondervan I was immediatly impressed by the research they were doing. It is not often I get questions that need several hours of research before I can start answering. When I saw the cover of the book I knew something unique had been made and thought it was a great idea to do an interview with the author of the book. Hope you enjoy this Q&A and learn some more about this interesting and unique book.


TL: Could you please tell us a little about yourself?

Harry Lee Poe author of The Inklings of Oxford HLP: I serve as the Charles Colson Professor of Faith and Culture at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. My primary interest concerns how the gospel intersects with the deepest questions of every culture. This interest led me to Tolkien who had such a profound understanding of the deepest issues of life. My teaching, research, and writing range from science and religion to religion and art. I also serve in a voluntary capacity as president of the the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. For his bicentennial in 2009 I wrote Edgar Allan Poe: An Illustrated Companion to His Tell-Tale Stories which has been nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America and also for an Agatha Award.

TL: You are the author of 'The Inklings of Oxford' could you tell us what this book is about?

HLP: Several fine works have been written on the Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter, Colin Duriez, and Diana Glyer. With the release of the films of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia with more to come, I wanted a book for the person who has only newly come to Tolkien and Lewis through the movies. This book introduces Tolkien and Lewis and their remarkable group of friends who called themselves the Inklings. I want the public to move from watching the movies to reading the books.

To accomplish this aim, the book is more than a book of words. It is a picture book. It is filled with the fabulous photography of Jim Veneman who is noted for his photographs of people. This book, however, tells the story of the Inklings through images of the place where they lived and wrote – Oxford.

TL: What surprises me is that this book is being published by Zondervan from Grand Rapids, Michigan and focuses on Oxford, which is far away in the UK. Is there any connection?

HLP: Zondervan Press has its offices in Grand Rapids. Jim and I live and work in Jackson, Tennessee. These towns have no connection with Oxford. The connection is a state of mind. The editors and staff at Zondervan love Tolkien and Lewis. The faculty and staff at Union University love Tolkien and Lewis. The connection is one creating by those remarkable writers who created worlds that we visit in imagination.

TL: Did you travel to Oxford to make the book?

HLP: We travelled to Oxford in August 2007 for a ten day photo shoot. I had completed the manuscript at that point. In order to make the most of our limited time, I made a list of every place or scene connected with the Inklings that was mentioned in the book. Sadly, we could not include everything, but we have shots of every house where Tolkien lived in Oxford and many of the favorite haunts. Of course we have the photos of the Eagle and Child, but we also have the Eastgate Hotel where Tolkien and Lewis met every Monday morning for over twenty years. We also have the Mitre Hotel where the Inklings liked to go for supper. The book includes shots of the colleges associated with the Inklings; including Merton (Tolkien and Dyson), Exeter (Coghill, Dyson, and Tolkien), New College (Cecil and Christopher Tolkien), University (Lewis), Magdalen (Lewis, Fox, and Hardie), Christ Church (Cecil), and Pembroke (Tolkien). People sometimes forget that after the war, the Inklings were as apt to meet in Tolkien’s rooms in Merton as Lewis’s rooms in Magdalen.

We began shooting every morning before eight o’clock, and we rarely finished before ten o’clock at night. The colleges graciously allowed us to take photos. We wanted to convey to the readers the feel of Oxford and why it is so conducive to the kind of friendship the Inklings shared.

We had glorious weather our whole time. In fact, it was so good that we realized we were missing something important about Oxford – rain. Fortunately, the day before we were to leave, the heavens opened and we got some good, gloomy shots.

TL: How did you get interested in the Inklings?

HLP: The book is dedicated to Anne Coppenger who introduced me to the Inklings when I was up at Regent’s Park College reading Church History years ago. I had first heard of Tolkien in 1969 when I went away to college, but he sounded suspicious to me then, with his stories of Hobbits who did not wear shoes. I heard of Lewis when I was in graduate school, but I did not read any of the Chronicles of Narnia until I started my PhD. I read them one a day for a week in the summer before leaving for Oxford. When I returned from my research at Oxford, I read The Lord of the Rings one week instead of studying for my comprehensive exams. I recommend this course to all serious scholars!

TL: What prompted you to write a book about the Inklings?

HLP: I thought we needed a simple introduction to the Inklings for the person whose interest had been stirred by the movies and who did not belong to a community that could nurture their interest.

TL: Which of the Inklings are covered most in this book?

HLP: The book is fairly well balanced, though more attention goes to Lewis and Tolkien. Hopefully, one will take away a greater appreciation for Lord David Cecil, one of the remarkable men of Oxford in the twentieth century. The younger son of the fourth Marquess of Salisbury and grandson of the Prime Minister, Cecil knew absolutely everyone in art, politics, religion, and literature. And everyone loved him. His book on Lord Melbourne was John Kennedy’s favorite book. His work on Jane Austin is still authoritative, and he singlehandedly led the English faculty to teach Victorian literature. Likewise, Nevill Coghill left a huge mark on Oxford and beyond. His translation of Chaucer was adapted to the stage and had a successful run in London and on Broadway. His two prize students were W. H. Auden and Richard Burton, who collaborated with Coghill in a screen adaptation of Faust.

TL: What special qualifications do you have for making this study? What makes you different from your colleagues?

HLP: My interest in how the gospel intersects with culture drew my attention to Tolkien and Lewis whose works of imagination reflect their faith without compromising their art. Some of my first book reviews for scholarly journals were of Walter Hooper’s Through Joy and Beyond and Warnie Lewis’s diary. I reviewed a string of books on Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, and their friend Dorothy L. Sayers. I have taught a course on Lewis for a number of years.

In 1998 I returned to Oxford after twenty years in January for a seminar on science and religion and then in July to lead a seminar on apologetics for the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute. I was invited to chair the program committee of the C. S. Lewis Summer Institute for their triennial programs in 2002 and 2005.

As the generation who studied with Lewis passed from the scene, I became curious to know what his impact had been as a teacher. This led me to contact a number of his former students, or people who had known him in other ways during their youth. The result is C. S. Lewis Remembered (Zondervan 2005) which is co-edited by my daughter Rebecca who spent her junior year at my old college.

Many interesting things came to light from C. S. Lewis Remembered, but perhaps the most significant is the republication of memoir of Lewis by Alastair Fowler who mentioned that Lewis had allowed him to read the manuscript of “The Dark Tower” when he studied with Lewis. The remark is significant because Kathryn Lindskoog accused Walter Hooper of forging “The Dark Tower.” This testimony from Fowler, who is one of the monumental figures of English literary studies of the second half of the twentieth century, settled the matter for most people.

I have written a number of articles about members of the Inklings and have a deep interest in the work of J. K. Rowling who continues in their tradition.

TL: What is the big difference between your book and other books like the Inklings biography by Humphrey Carpenter and the Company they Keep by Diana Glyer?

HLP: Carpenter and Glyer have written definitive treatments. They go into much more depth and detail than our book. On the other hand, our book is based on critical research but directed toward a less well informed and not yet dedicated reader of the Inklings. Our book intends to develop an interest, whereas Carpenter and Glyer aim to satisfy an existing interest.

TL: To write this book, did you work alone or did you have help of others?

HLP: I wrote the text alone. The photography, on the other hand, depended upon the help of many. I put together the initial list of several hundred places that we wanted, but we needed help. In spite of my early time in Oxford, there were a few places I had never seen. Walter Hooper told us where Tolkien went to church in Oxford and in Headington. Walter also told us about St. Peter’s in the East where Jack and Warnie took communion every Wednesday morning. Colin Duriez took us by taxi to Hillsboro House where Lewis lived for eight years in Headington with Janie Moore before he moved to the Kilns. Stan Mattson told us how to find Cuckoo Lane, the little path that by-passes the business district of Headington which Jack and Warnie often took on their way into town and which crosses Tolkien’s street not far from his door. Beyond these, we were reminded of places by Derek Brewer, Barbara Reynolds, Francis Warner, Basil Mitchell, Alastair Fowler, Brown Patterson, and George Watson.

TL: The photographs were made by James Ray Veneman, how did this cooperation work?

HLP: One of the greatest joys of my professional life was my collaboration with Jim Veneman on this book. Perhaps my greatest professional sadness is finishing the book.

Jim does not merely snap pictures. He is an artist with a camera, but he made me a part of the process. I knew what needed to be included in the book in order for the photographs to tell the story of the Inklings, but Jim knew how to take the photographs so that they could tell that story.

Each night we went through the hundreds of photos taken each day. We grouped them and chose the best. Before we went to bed each night, we knew what we had and if we needed to go back to re-shoot anything. As we went, we assigned each photo to a chapter and section of the book. Because of the variation in light at different times of the day, I had to choose locations for shooting throughout the day based on the sun. We shot indoors at certain hours and at other hours we shot toward the east or west.

TL: This book must have meant a lot of research? How long did it take to make this book?

HLP: It took thirty years to research the book and two months to write it.

TL: How long did it take to select all pictures?

HLP: We spent ten days in Oxford on the shoot. When we left Oxford, all the work of picture selection had been completed. The only task remaining was to write the captions for the pictures.

TL: Are there any unpublished pictures of the Inklings in this book?

HLP: The only unpublished picture comes from my private collection. It is a shot of Tolkien and Dyson sitting next to each other. They were both elected to Merton College in 1945.

TL: What are your expectations for this book?

HLP: I hope that lovers of Tolkien and Lewis will find this book a doorway into the place they loved. Oxford is the place that nurtured them and provided the context for their imaginations to take flight. I hope the book with its vivid images will be a source of delight for many.

TL: The book also has a walking guide through Oxford, what place should every Inklings fan visit?

HLP: Each Inkling fan will have their own special place in Oxford, but everyone should end the day with traditional English pub food at one the Inklings favorite pubs and top off the meal with sticky toffee pudding. If you don’t think you can eat the most fabulous dessert this side of Rivendell after a heavy meal, then skip the meal.

TL: A final question, which of the Inklings is your favorite and why?

HLP: My favorite is the one who lets the rest of us sit around the table – Warnie Lewis. He was not one of the great men of Oxford like the rest. He attended the gatherings every Thursday night and made the tea, but he entered into the conversation. In turn, he received encouragement and acceptance. Without his diary we would know precious little about the Inklings. Tolkien makes occasional mention of a gathering in letters to his son Christopher during the war and in a letter to W. L. White explaining how the group got started. Warnie’s diary, however, tells us the funny as well as the boring things that happened and the oddities about each of the Inklings. In the end, the friendship of the Inklings encouraged Warnie to try his hand at writing about what interested him. The result is seven books on the period of Louis XIV of France which were highly regarded and went into several editions in England and the United States. Warnie shows us that we can all rise to the occasion through the encouragement of friendship.


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