The Inklings have been in the news alot recently. Who were they? A group of writers who met on a regular basis, sharing their work in progress (often over a pint) might not be extra-ordinary, but when you consider their core members consisted of JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Charles Williams and others, whose works have become some of the best-loved books in the English language, it is worth taking note. Recently the 50th Anniversary of CS Lewis’ passing was acknowledged in the media with various documentaries and radio plays. Of course, the latest instalment of Peter Jackson’s ‘re-imagining’ of The Hobbit is coming up (The Desolation of Smaug, 13.12.13), and Tolkien’s birthday is on the 3rd January. So it seems like a timely time to revisit the Rabbit Room, the name of the snug bar they used to gather in the Eagle and Child, Oxford… I have written a radio drama about this, but here is the short story version, featured in my Oxfordshire Folk Tales (The History Press, 2012). Pull up a chair, sip your pint, and enjoy…
The Rabbit Room
by Kevan Manwaring
Memorabilia adorns me now. Quiet photographs of the legends I once accommodated. A plaque commemorating their presence. Hordes of tourists come to visit, take snaps, film it with their phones – gasping in delight at how tiny the snug is, how quaint. They pretend to enjoy a pint of tepid English beer, the stodgy food. Enthusiasts linger. Writers stay even longer. Sitting in the corner – the hallowed corner – trying to imbibe the atmosphere, to capture the ambience. They ponder on literary immortality while trying to ensure a place for their own ink-stained soul in the bardic firmament. Here is as good a spot as any cathedral or mosque. This last homely house, this Prancing Pony, is a wardrobe, a wood between the worlds, a portal to magical lands – to Middle Earth, Perelandra, Narnia, Logres. Once it was the rabbit hole to Wonderland and now it’s a knife-cut gateway to Jordan College, to quantum worlds beyond reckoning. The new chap has been in, of course, raised a glass to his antecedents, two fingers to Jack. Perhaps one day they’ll be visiting his old haunts? The God-botherers and the pagans, the atheist scholars and fanatic movie devotees in costume. All those who come to pay homage here. To breathe in the same air – well, almost – it no longer swirls with pipesmoke and cigarettes, but the fire still crackles in the grate, the pumps provide the same local ales, the kitchen offers its homity pie, the barflies their homilies, and when its quiet, when the customers don’t drown out the silence with their chatter, the voices come back, the ghosts in the wall stir, those lost lunchtimes are replayed – a decade of Tuesdays – recorded like voices from long ago on wax cylinder and reel-to-reel, by the wooden Akashic record of my walls. Listen… Hear their voices …
JRR ‘Tollers’ Tolkien, pipe-smoker, RP, but at times fast and low; CS ‘Jack’ Lewis, donnish, slight trace of Ulster, at times stentorian; Owen Barfield, solicitor, softer educated voice; Charles Williams, poet, novelist, occultist, North London accent; and now and then Charles Blagrove, landlord of the Eagle and Child, an Oxfordshire man.
One by one they would share their work and offer gruff, honest feedback. They would share tells from lands far away, and sometimes closer to home…
‘Once there was a beautiful Queen who lived in a beautiful house. It had many elegant rooms in which to entertain elegant guests. And even more lovely were the gardens. The parterre had four-and-twenty square beds with Irish yews at the corners; the Italian garden has a large ornamental pool enclosed by yew hedges and set about with statues; beyond, was a wild garden, with lime-tree avenues, shrubs, a stream and pond.
It had not always been so lovely.
When they had inherited this kingdom, her husband, the king, set his servants to work, restoring it. It was a difficult time – the country had just gone to war – a land that is always there, waiting for the foolhardy to visit.
Many brave men went to the land of war and never returned.
The Queen invited her beautiful friends, the Bloomsberries, many of whom did not believe in living by the sword. Some called them Conchies and accused them of cowardice. From the cruel tongues and the consensus madness them came seeking refuge. The bright, the brilliant, the beautiful – philosophers, poets, novelists, peace campaigners, aristocrats and socialists… They had many lovely parties where conversation flowed like champagne. To escape the war they worked on the land. The gardens prospered as the Queen’s house became a sanctuary of sanity in an insane world.
The queen took a lover and found happiness.
For a while, all was bliss.
Yet amongst them was a traitor, a turncoat, who weasled his way into their hearts until he won their trust and learnt their secrets – and then, when he left with their love and praise ringing in his ears – he wrote poisonous things about them. Some say he was blinded – others, that he had true sight and saw things as they truly are. A scandalous book was published, mocking them, and the spell of the palace was broken. The parties stopped, the gardens became neglected and overgrown, and the Queen and her husband, the King, moved out.
For a while there they had pursued and found happiness. They had held off the barbaric tides with their cultured ways, but they could not fend off the enemy within – the worm in their hearts and the fool who saw.’
The room settled back into its silence. There was a cough.
‘I detest allegory,’ Tolkien responded with a jab of his pipe. ‘At least it didn’t have another effing elf in it,’ quipped Jack, raising a glass to his old friend. The others pitched in, pulled the tale apart, yet always with good humour and a deep fondness for one another. Yet somehow, the enchantment remained – lingering in the air like pipe smoke as the conversation flowed.
Mingling with the voices – other sounds … The clink of coin and chink of glasses. Laughter. The strike of a match. The puff of a pipe, and the crackle in the grate. The rustle of papers. Murmurs of appreciation or snorts of good natured mockery. Ripples of warm applause. Coughs and scraping of chairs. Farewells…
They kept meeting throughout the war – here and at other pubs in the city, unless prevented by ‘no beer’. Later in the war, before the D-Day landings, the American soldiers would come and drink the city dry. Yet the Inklings sustained each other from deeper wells – sharing work in progress, making conversation, supporting one another, living by their myths.
Yet man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live. One of them would die a week after the war ended – yet his brief time with the Inklings left its mark – one of them would find his muse again; another find joy in an unexpected guise; two would rise to fame…But this you know. My story now has ended. But if you chance to visit the city of dreaming spires, pay the Bird and Baby a visit, sit in the Rabbit Room and raise a glass – to the Inklings. Whose doorways lie open still, waiting for you to enter.
Notes: During the Thirties and Forties, in The Eagle and Child, a pub in Oxford, every Tuesday lunchtime a group of writers met who called themselves the Inklings. Amongst them were a couple of Oxford dons who would become two of the most famous writers of the Twentieth Century, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, and some less well known, but equally influential to the group, including Charles Williams. Here, working drafts of The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia novels and other works of literary importance were read out for the first time. Sitting in the Snug Bar, called the Rabbit Room, sipping a local ale, one imbibes something of the atmosphere that made the sharing of tales by this group of friends so conducive. It is a numinous place where storytelling, literature and listeners converge – a Mecca for all pilgrims of the imagination.
The embedded tale, which I call ‘The Queen of the Bloomsberries’, was an invented one about the beautiful Society hostess Lady Ottoline Morrel, who held famous literary soirees at the lovely Garsington Manor, on the outskirts of Oxford. She was fêted by the Bloomsbury Set – among her elite clique were Bertrand Russell (her lover), Aldous Huxley, Rupert Brooke, and others. The Manor no doubt its fair share of tales to tell too. These days it hosts annual opera gala – so I’ll end this narrative perambulation of the county with a fat lady singing.
From Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Kevan Manwaring, The History Press, 2012