27 February 2024

Sir Martin Gilbert and the Inklings

A fascinating account of a luncheon conversation between the author and Sir Martin Gilbert, a friend of both J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

From The Imaginative Conservative

By Bradley J. Birzer, PhD

Sir Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, knew J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the Inklings personally. At one memorable lunch, Sir Martin gave me his impressions of these great men and of the Oxford of their day.

During my time at Hillsdale College—having arrived in the fall of 1999—the college hired a number of fascinating persons to come and lecture on what might be considered a permanent, part-time basis. That is, these scholars and writers came, say, every fall semester and taught classes for up to three or four weeks. These were three-credit courses, generally, intensive and compact. In my time at Hillsdale, we had such luminaries as Victor Davis Hanson, David McCulloch, Mark Halprin, and Sir Martin Gilbert. I never really got to meet the middle two, but I have had the great blessing of getting to know Dr. Hanson and Sir Martin. I realize a number of Imaginative Conservatives might find Dr. Hanson a little too-pro war, but he is a great person. He is as brilliant as he is kind, and he loves a good argument. But once the argument is done, it is done. After, it is time to grab a beer and talk about everything under the sun, all in the name of good, clean fun.

Sir Martin, though, comes from a different generation and world. A traditional British conservative, Sir Martin is the official biographer of Winston Churchill as well as a former member of the British government. He possesses an Old-World charm that is so attractive and yet so alien to us Americans. He also spent much of his early career—beginning in the 1950s—as a student and then as a professor at Merton College, Oxford. He worked with the famous historian A.J.P. Taylor. Though now in poor health, Sir Martin still writes from Israel and England. He is, proudly, a Jew and a Zionist.

Needless to write, I was rather happily stunned when Sir Martin asked me to lunch so that we could talk about my book on J.R.R. Tolkien. I had no idea that Sir Martin even knew who I was, beyond being introduced to him in a large academic setting, and I certainly had no idea that he knew I had written a book on Tolkien. Happily, I agreed. The next day, September 13, 2006, Sir Martin, Lady Esther (his wife), and I had lunch together in Jonesville, Michigan. We ended up talking for two hours and forty minutes. As it turns out, Sir Martin had gotten to know Professor Tolkien very well in the late 1950s and early 1960s, often dining together in Merton College. When I asked Sir Martin if this came about because of mutual interests, he laughed. Because neither he nor Tolkien were Protestant, they were not allowed to sit with the other faculty and students. Instead, the Catholics and the Jews had to sit separately from the Protestants. Hence, as Sir Martin told me, Catholics and Jews were always the best of friends. In some ways, Sir Martin noted, Jews fared better than Catholics. Being anti-Catholic was so ingrained in the English character, that every Protestant Englishmen believed in his right, and perhaps his duty, to attack—intellectually and brutally—any Roman Catholic.

It was not just Tolkien whom Sir Martin knew. He knew C.S. Lewis especially well, as the two men had taken a course together, offered privately on Sundays by an expert on the Psalms. Indeed, Sir Martin is convinced that Lewis’s own understanding of the Psalms came directly from this course and the discussions that followed. Sir Martin also knew well Nevill Coghill, who was one of his tutors; C.E. Stevens, a close historian friend; the famed biographer, Lord David Cecil; the literature professor, Hugo Dyson; and J.A.W. Bennett. Most importantly, though, Sir Martin and Christopher Tolkien have remained very close. In fact, as Sir Martin, his wife, and I were having lunch, Sir Martin had just received an invitation from Christopher to visit him in the South of France.

During the two-hour-forty-minute lunch, Sir Martin offered very few specific stories about Tolkien. Rather, he gave me his impressions of the great man and his literary associates—known as the Inklings—and of the Oxford of their day. Here are some of the impressions Sir Martin relayed to me during that wonderful lunch conversation:

First, Tolkien absolutely loved, cherished, and niggled over details. This seems to have been as true in Tolkien’s personal life and scholarship as it was in his fiction.

Second, though Sir Martin did not know Tolkien’s family beyond Christopher, he was not at all surprised that Tolkien was well-known for being such a family man and having such fine relations with his own children and grandchildren.

Third, many faculty in Oxford, on principle, distrusted anyone who published at any popular level, as it was perceived as denying time to scholarship and teaching.

Fourth, almost every member of the Inklings was regarded by the students at Oxford as the best among the faculty.

Fifth, Tolkien was always, without exception, his own man. This was as true in his personal beliefs, as it was in what he chose to wear, and how he presented himself to others. In large part, this “individualism” manifested itself in all the Inklings. At a time when formality ruled all social relations in England, the Inklings attacked the very rigid social structure of the middle part of the twentieth century.

Sixth, every member of the Inklings held a true patriotism toward England, that is, toward the very fabric and soil of that country. Equally important, every member of the Inklings, at some level, regretted that he did not die during World War I; that is, each suffered survivor’s guilt. In many ways, this explains why so few ever spoke of their experiences in the horrors of the trenches.

Seventh, World War I affected every member of the Inklings in ways that words could never express. Only rarely do they speak of their experiences during the Great War, but they each believed they had fought to defend not only England but Western Civilization itself.

Eighth, Sir Martin remembered his meals with Tolkien as some of the finest moments in his life. If they had dinner together, conversation usually lasted until at least midnight. The men not only talked about every topic under the sun, but they constantly smoked and drank. Rarely did they speak about matters dealing with academia, but they cherished jokes, humor, and especially puns.

As noted at the beginning of this essay, this conversation took place in the fall semester of 2006. You, gentle reader, should naturally be skeptical about details that come from such distant memories. But my memory is aided by one important fact: The moment I left that glorious lunch, I wrote down every single thing I could. I have never told anyone, except my closest friends, about this lunch conversation. I am not exactly sure why this is the case, but I think it has to do with protecting such a personal moment of beauty. Selfish on my part, to be sure. Now that almost a decade has passed since that conversation, I would absolutely hate for any of this knowledge to be wasted, or lost, or both.

And frankly, The Imaginative Conservative is exactly the place where this should be remembered and preserved.

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