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Inking and Mapping the Inklings of Oxford: a review
Chad Chisholm

When my wife and I arrived in Oxford, England in September of 2007, I was probably unconsciously expecting it to be more similar to Oxford, Mississippi—all sorts of landmarks indicating where the celebrated writers lived, ate, and slept, as well as a surplus of local people with an abounding knowledge of the literary giants that drew a slew of worldwide tourists to their city. Of course, what I found was not the romanticized university village but a sizable city that is busy, modern, and multifarious in its interests: many of the people had some knowledge of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but few of them could tell me anything. I spent much of that trip frustrated, trying to find Magdalen College, the Eagle and Child pub, and other places for myself. Finally, I had to catch a bus for Salisbury, so I never made it to the Lewis’ home, The Kilns, about which I’m still shooting myself in the foot.

Still brooding about it all when we were walking around Old Sarum, I told my wife that what we needed was a picture/travel book of Oxford from the point of view of The Inklings—the literary group that included Lewis, his brother Warnie, Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and other writers—to help time-strained travelers find the places they want, as well as the places they haven’t considered, but ought to. As I later learned, Lewis scholar Harry Lee Poe and photographer James Ray Veneman had been in Oxford one month before us working on such a book. After a couple of years, they completed their book The Inklings of Oxford (Zondervan, 2009), which completes all (or most all) of the goals of tourist cartography that I could hope for.

Page after page is copiously illustrated with nostalgic images of Oxford as Lewis and Tolkien would have known it. Aside from the photographs and captions of Magdalen, Merton College, the Divinity School, there are also views of the surrounding countryside and scenic walks that the Lewis brothers used when walking from Headington to Oxford, as well as their local restaurants such as The Trout and the Mitre help to recreate this matchless time in the book. The index of the book also has several useful maps and talking tours, which are very practical and easy to follow. Therefore, the tourist who enters this modern metropolis wishing to follow those waning footprints of The Inklings (and in doing so, perhaps find what is best in Oxford) will be able to do so with more ease (if not with less sweat and muscle aches). 

Finally, as valuable Poe’s and Veneman’s book is as a map and a concise history for travelers, it is also a much needed piece of popular scholarship not only on certain historical and biographical issues, but Poe also is able to translate some of the most complex ideas behind The Inkling’s epistemology into terms that are accessible to most readers. For example, in Chapter One, Poe discusses the role of imagination that was so paramount for Lewis’ and Barfield’s theory of knowledge:

Where philosophy and reason could not take him, Lewis discovered that imagination and language easily could. Imagination goes beyond the mere concrete and analytical world of philosophy, no matter how speculative the philosophy may be. Philosophy is tied to the physical world even when it ponders the world of ideas. Imagination, on the other hand, journeys beyond the physical world and comes back again. Every great scientific breakthrough has come not from building on old, established understandings of science and reasoning, from there to something radically different. Instead, people like Einstein take flight through imagination, which takes them somewhere else and returns them with a new understanding of the world (46). 

While I will not further discuss this view of knowledge, Poe’s ability to take this complicated proposition and put it into the scope of all readers takes an incredible amount of scholarly elasticity in itself. Indeed, while there is little information in The Inklings of Oxford that is new in the way of scholarship, Poe envisions for his book a larger audience—travelers as well as normal readers—and his pedagogical considerations are what make this book effective. Furthermore, such a book could only be written by such a scholar as Poe who has devoted much of his time to Lewis and The Inklings.

I have heard too many academics snub (sometimes politely, sometimes not) popular scholarship as not worthy of their attention, implying a sort of ‘us and them’ dichotomy. However, the popular scholarship of authors such as George Orwell has been beneficial in drawing interested persons into their respective fields (and thus furnishing their paycheck and continued tenure). Therefore, while the need for high scholarship is paramount, popular scholarship is needed just as much for its pedagogical—as well as its  inspirational—value, which is what ultimately draws many of us to scholarship in the first place.

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