Carey’s Oxford: Encounters with the Inklings

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The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (Faber and Faber, 2014)

Professor John Carey

Professor John Carey

My holiday reading last week took an unexpected turn – it turned out to be yet another bout of Inklings Studies instead of a holiday. Not that I’m complaining. It was a fantastic surprise to find Prof John Carey’s new autobiography on the shelf in a friend’s loo and to see it contained accounts of encounters with C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, Neville Coghill, Helen Gardner, Lord David Cecil, and Austin and Katherine Farrer. True, they don’t all come out of it very well, but I’m as fascinated as the next fan of the Inklings by first hand reports of them and their friends. We all want to know ‘What was it like to meet Lewis or Tolkien? What did they look and sound like? How did they smile, laugh? Did they have any odd habits we don’t know about? And what was it like to study with them or be their college colleague?’ Carey, Emeritus Professor of English at Merton College, gives us some fascinating glimpses as he tells of his own experience in the Oxford of the 1950s onwards.

With it being an autobiography, obviously Carey tells us a great deal about his own life and background which is fascinating in itself. He was born in London in 1934 and can remember the Silver Jubilee celebrations for King George V in 1935 (an elephant in a street parade in particular) and the fiery glare in the sky of the destruction of the Crystal Palace in 1936. I was particularly interested in the time he spent as a boy in Nottingham, my own home town, where he was evacuated in the Second World War for safety. But I will confine myself to Oxford and the Inklings…

Winning a scholarship to study at Oxford meant that Carey experienced the English Faculty there in the 1950s. He is scathing about the archaic nature of the syllabus (“a scandal or a joke, depending on your sense of humour”) which of course Lewis and Tolkien had helped to design. It stopped at 1832, seeming to assume that everyone would read Victorian literature for pleasure anyway and that modern stuff wasn’t worth studying, or at the very least, the jury was out. The syllabus had been heavily weighted towards Anglo-Saxon and early Middle English (pre-1300), “on the grounds, I suppose, that since no one could conceivably read them for pleasure they suited the rigorous demands of an academic discipline.” [1] Carey was a fan of the Modernists and found delving back into Anglo-Saxon a great chore: “Apart from Beowulf only three or four poems are worth reading…” [2] But it was a tremendous luxury to be able to read all day and Carey loved the Oxford tutorial system with its one-on-one time each week with some of the greatest experts on the planet.  Lectures, he found, were sometimes a waste of time. “J. R. R. Tolkien, lecturing on Beowulf was mostly inaudible and, when audible, incomprehensible. He seemed immemorially aged, and green mildew grew on his gown, as if he had recently emerged from a wood.” [3]

Despite these seeming setbacks to his enjoyment, Carey achieved a First in his degree and set about applying for scholarships for postgraduate study. His interview at Merton for a Harmsworth Senior Scholarship was with Hugo Dyson, who had already examined him as an undergraduate: “…Dyson, an Oxford ‘character’, known for his wit. I always found him alarming. He was like a hyperactive gnome, and stumped around on a walking-stick which, when he was seized by one of his paroxysms of laughter, he would beat up and down as if trying to drive it through the floor. It brought to mind Rumpelstiltskin driving his leg into the ground in the fairy tale.” [4] Carey acknowledges that Dyson was one of the famous Inklings and had had a role with Tolkien in bringing C S Lewis to the Christian faith: “So he was, at least in part, responsible for the Narnia books.” [5] But Carey never asked him about it. He does quote the famous story, however, of Dyson cutting off the reading of The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien at the Inklings with his protest: “Oh, not another ******* elf!” [6] But Carey was certainly impressed with Dyson’s humour: “On a good day he was the funniest man I ever met…”, second only to Peter Ustinov who could do mimicry as well, although he always seemed more ‘rehearsed’, “whereas Dyson was famous for his spontaneity. It was said that, one evening in Merton when there was duck on the menu, and the bird served was not duck but pheasant, he remarked, ‘Ah, le mallard imaginaire.” [7]

But on the day of Carey’s interview for the scholarship at Merton he had the surprise of finding that, not only was he introduced to all the Fellows, he was expected to play bowls (called ‘woods’) with them on the lawn of the Fellows’ Quad after dinner, amongst whom was Prof Tolkien. (I too have a Tolkien-related memory of having dinner with the Fellows at Merton when I was a Curate at St Aldate’s church, unfortunately when the Professor himself was long gone. It was around 1994 and we had wandered on the Fellows’ Quad and seen the ruin of the many irises lining the medieval wall, apparently caused by the visit the day before of President Clinton whose helicopter landing in the field next door had whipped off all the flowers, spoiling what should have been a beautiful show. I then had post-prandial drinks in a Fellow’s rooms who casually mentioned that they were the rooms occupied by Tolkien. There was not much there other than bookshelves and a desk and my main memory is of everything painted white. In those days I didn’t have a camera on me, so that was that. The Merton Fellow seemed as nonchalant about it as all in Oxford are who are used to that sort of thing.)

One intriguing detail of what it was like to be a postgrad in English in the Oxford of the 1950s is that Carey had to take two introductory courses in order to specialise in 17th century literature – how to decipher 17th century handwriting, and how to set up a page of type and print on an old handpress in the Bodleian Library, just like a 17th century compositor. Apparently those on the course made authentic-looking 17th century Christmas cards that year!

The other major part of a postgrad’s life is of course Supervision. Carey is critical of the standard of supervision in Oxford in those days. He refers to Kingsley Amis’ description in his Memoirs of Lord David Cecil’s non-cooperation and unavailability for him. But he particularly singles out Dyson for his lackadaisical approach to his postgrads: “…Dyson would slam down a fistful of coin on the mantelpiece, explain derisively that this was all the university paid him for the supervision, and suggest he and [the student] go off and ‘drink it’ in a pub.” [8] (I’m sure there are a lot of us who would pay good money for the chance of a drink in a pub with Dyson, but anyway…)

Carey feels he was lucky to have Helen Gardner as his supervisor. She may have been scary at times, reducing some students to tears, and have knitted during supervisions, but she was brilliant and helpful. Most people at the time, apparently, thought she should have been given the Merton Professorship of English that went to Neville Coghill. Carey writes: “I met Coghill, a tall, twitchy, gentle man with a face full of care.” Coghill was so nervous about giving his inaugural address as Professor that he asked Carey to second for him and read his lecture in case on the day he couldn’t go through with it. Fortunately Coghill managed.

Carey doesn’t seem to have come across C S Lewis much apart from one main encounter at Keble College. The new Warden of Keble in 1960 was the philosopher and theologian Austin Farrer who had just moved there with his wife Katherine, the detective novelist. Carey had managed to get a job there and moved into the same building as the Farrers at the same time. He was hugely impressed with Farrer: “He was lean, quick and witty, and seemed to me – though he was well into middle age – like one of Jane Austen’s clergymen – Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, say. His wife Kay was tiny, sharp and so neurotic you imagined she’d emit a shower of sparks if placed in a dark room… [She] talked in a series of rapid squeaks that were hard to interpret…. Farrer was the nearest thing to a saint I have met, but he was capable of asperity, as saints no doubt need to be.” [9] Farrer was always very considerate to the Careys and invited them one day to lunch to meet Lewis. Both Carey and his wife had Firsts in English and were in awe of Lewis’ “prodigiously learned” The Allegory of Love, “besides, he had a ferocious reputation as a tutor and was famed for having challenged an undergraduate who failed to share his passion for Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum to a sword-fight. However, he was not at all intimidating that day. He had walked down across the University Parks from his home in Headington Quarry, and strode into the room, rubicund and tweedy, with a knapsack slung over his shoulder, like a farmer on holiday.” [10] There were only the Farrers, the Careys and Lewis at lunch that day in “mahoghany-and-damask splendour”, eating stuffed onions served by a housekeeper.

They spoke on literature, as one would expect, and Lewis quoted a line from a poem, “It was a little budding rose”, but couldn’t remember where it was from. Carey reports his ambivalence at saying the source in such august company and showing up their ignorance, as he just happened to have read the Emily Bronte poem that contained the line that week. But he needn’t have worried, as “both Lewis and Farrer were obviously delighted to be enlightened, and showed not the least trace of pique, so in character-test terms they won by an enormous margin….” [11]

Carey had been raised in a Christian context but had lapsed from the faith. However, he seems to have remained fascinated by faith in others, especially the devotional poets of the 17th century. He was also impressed by Farrer’s preaching at Keble chapel. “In the pulpit… Farrer’s personality changed. He would start very quietly, almost in a whisper, and gradually work himself up into a soaring climax, as if the Holy Spirit had entered him, as perhaps it had. I was not a regular chapel-goer but I tried not to miss his sermons because I was interested in the histrionics.” [12]

Another of Carey’s jobs in Oxford was that of Fellow at St John’s College in 1965, teaching medieval literature alongside Tom Shippey who was later to become such an authority on Tolkien. At this point Carey identifies Shippey as “a science fiction fanatic” [13]. Carey is now Emeritus Merton Professor of English, aged 80, having retired in 2011 after a distinguished career at his alma mater and as a writer and critic.

It is sad that he always felt like he was studying the Christian faith from the outside rather than entering into it. “…I came to feel that studying seventeenth century English Literature was really the same as studying Christianity. That was all they seriously cared about, and they cared enough, at a pinch, to kill or to be killed for their own particular brand of it. I was excited by this. As a lapsed Christian I felt I could imagine – just – how it would be to believe as they believed. At heart I knew this was a delusion. I was simply substituting aesthetic admiration for belief, and a real believer would probably tell me there was a special department in hell reserved for people who did that. All the same, it was the nearest I could get. When I read Henry Vaughan, for example, describing his experience of God:

“O joys! Infinite sweetness! With what flowers

And shoots of glory my soul breaks and buds!”

“It seemed to me that no one in the post-God era ever feels joy like that. The death of God has meant the death of joy – if joy means absolute certainty of eternal life. If a modern poet wrote those lines they would be about having sex, which doesn’t seem a very adequate substitute.” [14]

What a shame a man with such an opportunity of quizzing the Inklings and co didn’t discover the open secret of their inner life of joy for himself.



[1] John Carey, The Unexpected Professor, p102.

[2] ibid., p103.

[3] ibid., p122.

[4] ibid., p135.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., p136.

[8] ibid., p142f.

[9] ibid., p178.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[13] ibid., p239.

[14] ibid., p123f.