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Romantic Conservatives: The Inklings in Their Political Context

"J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams were arguably the most influential 20th century writers in English"

Before we begin our current discussion, I must invite my audience to forget everything they believe they know about such words as “liberal” and conservative.” All of us have been programmed to have immediate reactions to them --- good or bad --- but such will be very unhelpful in dealing with the Inklings and their political views.

It is not too much to say that J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams, were, in descending order, arguably the most influential 20thcentury writers in English --- certainly in the fantasy genre. As the success of the three Lord of the Rings films and the upcoming release of a movie based upon The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe show, a new, less literate, generation is discovering the Inklings’ magic; lest purists sniff too loudly at this, watching the movies has led many a younger person to the books themselves. Of course, Williams has yet to be translated to celluloid. At a guess, this writer would bet on All Hallows Eve being the first such effort onscreen, if any of his works make it.

"None of the three held to the American myth of separation of Church and State, and would certainly have denounced any attempt to separate literature from either."

But in any case, the Inklings have actually had influence in three areas. Their literary impact is too obvious to comment much upon here. Their religious views have also generated a great deal of both examination and agreement, although their influence here is far from being as great. But perhaps least looked at are their strictly political views. Of course, they would be the last to speak of their own political views as separate from their religious or literary, simply because in all three men these impulses were united. None of the three held to the American myth of separation of Church and State, and would certainly have denounced any attempt to separate literature from either.

Nevertheless, although there will necessarily be some overlap, it is precisely their politics and the tradition from which they sprang that we will examine. The first thing to remember is that while we tend to see the Inklings as a bloc, a sort of “Chesterbelloc,” they certainly did not see themselves as such. On the literary plane, although JRRT enjoyed Lewis’Space Trilogy (particularly the first two), he had little use for Narnia, which he considered rather a thrown-together hodgepodge of incongruous myths --- and worse still, allegory. For Williams’ novels, Tolkien had even less use. Religiously, the Catholic-Anglican split was an ever-present source of tension among the company. This carried over into political questions: JRRT was, as were most Catholics aware of Communist atrocities during the Spanish Civil War, a sturdy supporter of Franco and the Nationalists. Lewis, on the other hand, was not. In a letter to his son Christopher on 6 October 1944, Tolkien described the meeting of himself and Lewis with Roy Campbell. The latter was a South African poet, a convert to Catholicism of Ulster Scot descent who had fought for Franco. Therein, JRRT wrote:

C.S.L.’s reactions were odd. Nothing is a greater tribute to Red propaganda than the fact that he (who knows they are in all other respects liars and traducers) believes all that is said against Franco, and nothing that is said for him. Even Churchill’s open speech in Parliament left him unshaken. But hatred of our church is after all the real only final foundation of the C of E --- so deep laid that it remains even when the superstructure seems removed (C.S.L. for instance reveres the Blessed Sacrament, and admires nuns!). Yet if a Lutheran is put in jail he is up in arms; but if Catholic priests are slaughtered --- he disbelieves it (and I daresay really thinks they asked for it).

Even so, despite their internal divisions, in comparison to the most widely-held views of our time, they appear monolithic. As John Wain, a staunch Labour supporter and occasional participant in the Inklings’ evenings has written, “The group had a corporate mind, as all effective groups must; the death of Williams had sadly stunned and impoverished this mind, but it was still powerful and clearly defined. Politically conservative, not to say reactionary; in religion, Anglo- or Roman Catholic; in art, frankly hostile to any manifestation of the ‘modern’ spirit.”[1]

The latter two observations are obvious, but what of the first? Just what did the phrase “conservative” mean, in the Inklings’ context? Certainly, it did not mean a mere adherence to the Conservative Party. None of the trio was a notable advocate of Stanley Baldwin, or Harold MacMillan, either. It is of course anyone’s guess what they would think of today’s Conservatives, transformed by Lady Thatcher, as some wags would have it, into a mere copy of the American Republicans (of course, the same sort would maintain that Mr. Blair has turned Labour into a corresponding imitation of the U.S. Democrats, but that is another matter).

“Conservative” is one of those words that is meaningless without clarification as regards its use in a particular case. Europe and Latin America traditionally defined it quite differently from the United States, in a political sense. What Americans called “Liberals” their cousins to the East and South named Socialists; American “Conservatives” would be “Liberals” in Europe and Latin America; what the latter folk would call “Conservatives” really have not existed in the United States as an organised political force on the national level since the Loyalists were forced into exile or silenced in 1783. In a nutshell, “Conservative” at the very least meant opposition to the French and succeeding revolutions, and adherence to altar and throne, among other things. These other things will require closer examination shortly.

But first let us see precisely what the Inklings did believe, politically. Of J.R.R. Tolkien’s political views, Humphrey Carpenter wrote:

"Tolkien was, in modern jargon, “right-wing” in that he honoured his monarch and his country and did not believe in the rule of the people; but he opposed democracy simply because he believed that in the end his fellow-men would not benefit from it."

His view of the world, in which each man belonged or ought to belong to a specific “estate,” whether high or low, meant that in one sense he was an old-fashioned conservative. But in another sense it made him highly sympathetic to his fellow-men, for it is those who are unsure of their status on the world, who feel they have to prove themselves and if necessary put down other men to do so, who are the truly ruthless. Tolkien was, in modern jargon, “right-wing” in that he honoured his monarch and his country and did not believe in the rule of the people; but he opposed democracy simply because he believed that in the end his fellow-men would not benefit from it. He once wrote: “I am not a ‘democrat,’ if only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanise and formalise them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power --- and then we get and are getting slavery.” As to the virtues of an old fashioned feudal society, this is what he said once about respect for one’s superiors: “Touching your cap to the Squire may be damn bad for the Squire, but it’s damn good for you.” [2]

This was radical stuff in J.R.RT.’s day, to be sure, but it is revolutionary in ours. Nevertheless, whatever Tolkien’s attitudes toward Charles William’s religious and artistic views and work, in the light of the foregoing it would seem obvious that he found Williams’ politics congenial, as they were set forth by Alice Hadfield:

[Williams] had grown up much aware of political structure. He saw the res publica, the matter of public life, the political community, presented in the experience of love and the family, in Victorian poetry, in eighteenth century thought in France and England, in medieval feeling, as a balance between equality and hierarchy. Though youthfully a very temporary republican, he slowly created for himself over the years a synthesis in which all men were equal and yet different within their hierarchies of excellence and distinction, in which above political equality everyone’s distinctiveness was embodied in the single person of the monarch, as everyone’s personal equality and distinctness was held in Christ. He retained his sense of monarchy, hereditary in that it must have a blood link with the long history of England, visible to high and low, free from fashion, choice or vote, apex of an administration free, equal and yet hierarchical in public distinction. [3]

So too, with C.S. Lewis. On the one hand, unlike Tolkien and Williams, he was quite happy to call himself a “democrat.” But this must be understood in the sense in which he himself meant it:

Being a democrat, I am opposed to all very drastic and sudden changes of society (in whatever direction) because they never in fact take place except by a particular technique.

That technique involves the seizure of power by a small, highly disciplined group of people; the terror and secret police follow, it would seem, automatically. I do not think any group good enough to have such power. They are men of like passions with ourselves. The secrecy and discipline of their organisation will have already inflamed in them that passion for the inner ring which I think at least as corrupting as avarice; and their high ideological pretensions will have lent all their passions the dangerous prestige of the Cause. Hence, in whatever direction the change is made, it is for me damned by its modus operandi. The worst of all public dangers is the committee of public safety. The character in “That hideous strength” whom the Professor never mentions is Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the secret police. She is the common factor in all revolutions; and, as she says, you won't get anyone to do her job well unless they get some kick out of it.[4]

That he shared the basic outlook of his confreres is evidenced by his view of the Monarchy. In That Hideous Strength, arguably Lewis’ most overtly political work of fiction, Ransom responds to Merlin’s urging that the Pendragon and his followers overthrow the powerless King of Great Britain, “I have no wish to overthrow him. He is the king. He was crowned and anointed by the Archbishop. In the order of Logres I may be Pendragon, but in the order of Britain I am the King’s man.”[5] His views here went beyond fiction:

Monarchy can easily be debunked, but watch the faces, mark well the accents of the debunkers. These are the men whose taproot in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach -- men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch. Yet even if they desire mere equality, they cannot reach it. Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served: deny it food and it will gobble poison.[6]

"Where men are forbidden to honour a king they honour millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served: deny it food and it will gobble poison."

In sum, the political areas of agreement among the trio were greater than their disagreements. All three in actuality had little use for politics as commonly defined in their time (and in ours). This was because the Inklings did not separate reality into little boxes marked “politics,” “religion,” “art,” “science,” or “literature.” Rather, for all three reality is a seamless thing in which all of these areas intertwine and affect the others, for good or ill.

For all their shared adherence to Monarchy, to fully understand the political element in their work one must start with the individual. As believing Christians, they held that each man is on earth “to love, know, and serve God in this World, and to be happy with Him forever in the next.” From this simple sentence stemmed their view of his dignity as a child of God, from which reality stems all of his rights, first of which is the right, so long as he obeys the law, to be left alone. Throughout The Lord of the RingsThe Chronicles of NarniaThe Space Trilogy, and Williams’ seven novels we are presented with an endless parade of dreadful would-be “organisers” and “rationalisers” of their fellow man, from Lotho Sackville-Baggins to Jadis of Charn to the N.I.C.E. to Sir Giles Tumulty. Much of their villainy in itself derives from their contempt for the humble.

Their love of the common man and hatred of any who would enslave him is mirrored in their shared love of both nature and the built heritage. Whether one looks at Sharkey’s work in the Shire or the plans of the N.I.C.E. for Edgestow and environs, one sees their identification of oppressors of the individual with despoilers of the landscape. What Patrick Curry says of Tolkien in his masterful Defending Middle Earth, can, I think, safely be said of all three of our authors:

…we cannot simply drop the Shire and the Sea, the social and spiritual dimensions; rather, they must be integrated into nature’s centrality. Their final synthesis, I think, is that Tolkien’s work urges a new ethic of human conviviality, respect for life, and ultimate humility. That ethic is to be based on the experience of life on Earth, and therefore the lineaments of life --- good earth, clean water, fresh air, and the like --- as sacred. Finally, for that resacralisation to succeed, it must be deeply rooted in culture, through being celebrated and communicated in local and traditional ways. The result is not simply a negative critique of “positivist, mechanist, urbanised, and rationalist culture” but a positive version of what one reader well described as “sanity and sanctity.” [7]

Lewis’ depiction of the N.I.C.E.’s opposition to the mere existence, for example, of the small village of Cure Hardy (“you can bet it’s insanitary,” observes Cosser) with its “undesirable” population of small rentiers and agricultural labourers is in much the same vein. Studdock finds upon actually meeting these sorts of folk that he likes them better than his colleagues. All three of our authors were great believers in the wide distribution of property amongst country livers --- that is, in the proliferation of small-holders, “brewing their own beer, and baking their own bread.”

As implied in this and in the Carpenter and Hadfield quotes regarding Tolkien’s and Williams’ politics, however, the Inklings, while believing in the innate dignity of the individual and his equality before God and the law, nevertheless also believed in class distinctions and hierarchy. But this hierarchy, to be authentic, must be organic and natural, an earthly reflection of that hierarchy that prevails in heaven. Moreover, like the Kingship of Christ and the authority of the clergy, it must be based upon service to those beneath the office holders: with privilege comes responsibility. Further, it must be a reflection of that legitimacy of order that ought to characterise society and the nation as a whole. A perfect illustration is the speech of the Mayor of Rich in Williams’ Many Dimensions, when that worthy is faced with the healings in his town by the fragment of the Philosopher’s Stone that has come to it: 

“Good people,” he said in a stentorian voice, “you all know me. I will ask you to return to your homes and leave me to discover the truth about this matter. I am the Mayor of Rich, and if the people of Rich have been injured it is my business to remedy it and help them. If, as appears, the Stone of which we have heard is able to heal illness, and if the Government are using it, as swiftly as may be, for that purpose, it is the duty of all good citizens to accept what delay the common good of all demands. But it is equally their right to be assured that the Government is doing its utmost in the matter, day and night, so that not a single moment may be lost in freeing as many as may be from pain and suffering. I shall make it my concern to discover this at once. I know the hindrances which must, and I fear those which may, follow on what has happened. I will myself go to London.” He paused a moment, then he went on. “Some of you may know that my son is dying of cancer. If it is a matter of ensuring swiftness and order he and I will be the last in all the country to claim assistance. But I tell you this that you may be very sure that he shall not suffer an hour longer than need be because of the doubts or fears or stupidities of the servants of the people. Return to your homes and tomorrow at this time you shall know all that I know.” He paused again and ended with a loud cry, “God save the King.”

“God save the King!” yelled Oliver in a thrill of delight, and assisted the Mayor to descend. Who turned on him at once and went on talking before the Chief Constable could interrupt.
“I shall want you,” he said. “I want all the information you can give me, and I may need your personal help. Are you free? But it doesn't matter whether you are or not. I demand your presence in the name of the King and by the authority of my office.”

Their ideal society would no doubt endorse the traditional rhyme:

Oh let us love our occupations,
Bless the Squire and his relations,
Live upon our daily rations,
And always know our proper stations.

Yet by the same token, they held out for the ability of those gifted with superior virtue and ability to rise by pluck and luck, as witnessed by Sam Gamgee --- all the while respecting the integrity of those remaining in the humbler place birth had put them: a birth seen, not as accident, but as deliberate work of the God Who presides over the great tapestry of human society, so far as human Free Will permits Him to.

All three writers had a love of the traditional offices of Great Britain, and in the country’s ceremonial idiosyncrasies. These are reflected in such characters as Tolkien’s Mayor of Michel Delving, Master of Buckland, and Thain of the Shire; as Williams’ aforementioned Mayor of Rich and, in War in Heaven, the Duke of the North Ridings, “Marquis of Craigmullen and Plessing, Earl and Viscount, Count of the Holy Roman Empire, Knight of the Sword and Cape, and several other ridiculous fantasies;” and in Lewis’ obvious hatred of the “Progressive Element’s” dismantling of traditional collegiate ritual at Bracton College. It is not just that these things are pleasant and pleasing in themselves, lending mundane life a touch of colour; it is also that they are seen by the Inklings as remnants or signs of greater things, which may spring back into action as needed. The placing of the Sovereign over this hierarchy is obvious.

Just as obvious is the love of the trio for England herself, and for her towns and shires. But what about the rest of the world? Certainly, Tolkien was notorious for disliking the French (yet another area where this Francophone must dissent from the master --- but of course JRRT never forgave the Norman invasion). Lewis was, thanks to his Ulster background, provincial to the core. Williams seems to have been the most cosmopolitan, culturally. But it would be incorrect to think of any of them as “nationalist,” in the modern sense. For in differing ways, all of them saw their beloved England as a part of a greater whole, even as were their favourite places all essential components of England. 

That greater whole was Europe --- not , however, a sort of sterile mechanism as the EU appears headed for, but as a religious and cultural entity: Christendom, or, as earlier thinkers would have it, the Holy Empire. That is say, a higher unity that did not repress local or national liberties. As Tolkien wrote to his son, Christopher, in a letter dated 31 July 1944, “I should have hated the Roman Empire [that is, the pre-Christian one --- CAC] in its day (as I still do), and remained a patriotic Roman citizen, while preferring a free Gaul and seeing good in Carthaginians.” That he applied that view to current events may be seen by another letter to his son, this time of 9 December 1943: “…I love England (not Great Britain and certainly not the British Commonwealth (grr!))…” Certainly, the Shire is his idealized vision of England --- self-governing, and that government itself extremely limited in day-to-day affairs.

But the Shire-folk are also bound (however tenuously prior to the War of the Ring) to a greater unit --- the Kingdom of Arnor. Where Tolkien hates the grinding power of the Roman Empire prior to Constantine, his Numenorean realms in exile mirror the Christian Empire. Arnor itself is very like the Western Empire; counting progressively less militarily as the decades pass, it nevertheless survives in the minds of its subjects, even after the end of its actual existence. Its revival under Aragorn (or Elessar, as we must call him at that stage) bears a striking resemblance to the Carolingian revival. Gondor, on the other hand, reminds one of the Eastern Roman Empire, an analogy expressly made by JRRT in a letter to Milton Waldman in late 1951, wherein he speaks of Gondor’s initial glory, “almost reflecting Numenor,” and then fading “slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.” As opposed to the mere force of arms and weight of government machinery that Tolkien hated in the pagan Roman Empire, the restored Kingdom under Elessar exemplified the “unity-in-diversity,” the preservation of local freedoms under an overarching Monarch, that Medieval theorists ascribed to the Holy Roman Empire. In 1963, he wrote to a fan: “A Numenorean King was a monarch, with the power of unquestioned decision in debate; but he governed the realm with the frame of ancient law, of which he was administrator (and interpreter) but not the maker.” Another Holy Roman Emperor manqué was Ingwe, chief of the Vanyar and High King of all the Elves.

That Tolkien, in reality as in fiction, saw his beloved England as properly a part of such an organic whole may be seen from his 8 February 1967 reply to the first draught of an article about him by Charlotte and Denis Plimmer:

Auden has asserted that for me “the North is a sacred direction.” That is not true. The North-west of Europe, where I (and most of my ancestors) have lived, has my affection, as a man’s home should. I love its atmosphere, and know more of its histories and languages than I do of other parts; but it is not “sacred,” nor does it exhaust my affections. I have, for instance, a particular love of the Latin language, and among its descendants for Spanish. That it is untrue for my story, a mere reading of the synopses would show. The North was the seat of the fortresses of the Devil. The progress of the tale ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome than anything that would be devised by a “Nordic.” 

"One of the reasons (though by no means, of course, a major one) for his [Tolkien's] love of the Catholic Church was its universality; this was part of his dislike of abandoning Latin in the liturgy for the vernacular."

One of the reasons (though by no means, of course, a major one) for his love of the Catholic Church was its universality; this was part of his dislike of abandoning Latin in the liturgy for the vernacular.

With C.S. Lewis, one finds, as might be expected, greater insularity. But despite that, he too had an appreciation of sorts for at least the historic unity of Christendom. One would be hard put to define the role of the Christian Emperor as seen by contemporary writers better than Merlin’s advice to the Pendragon in That Hideous Strength: “Then we must go higher. We must go to him whose office it is to put down tyrants and give life to dying kingdoms. We must call on the Emperor.” For a moment, we almost share the old wizard’s shock when Ransom replied, “there is no Emperor.”

But Lewis appreciated the fact that the ideal England he believed in was, while certainly legitimate in its own sphere, not the end all and be-all. It is a part of a greater whole. Thus, Dr. Dimble expostulates:

“Don’t you feel it? The very quality of England. If we’ve got an ass’s head, it is by walking in a fairy wood. We’ve heard something better than we can do, but we can’t quite forget it…can’t you see it in everything English --- a kind of awkward grace, a humble, humorous incompleteness? How right Mr. Pickwick  was when he called Sam Weller an angel in gaiters! Everything here is either better or worse than---“
“Dimble!” said Ransom. Dimble, whose tone had become a little impassioned, stopped and looked towards him. He hesitated, and (as Jane thought) almost blushed before he began again.
“You’re right, Sir,” he said with a smile. “I was forgetting what you warned me always to remember. This haunting is no peculiarity of ours. Every people has its own haunter. There’s no special privilege for England --- no nonsense about a chosen nation. We speak about Logres because it is our haunting, the one we know about.”
“But this,” said MacPhee, “seems a very round about way of saying that there’s good and bad men everywhere.”
“It’s not a way of saying that at all,” answered Dimble. “You see, MacPhee, if one is thinking simply of goodness in the abstract, one soon reaches the fatal idea of something standardised --- some common kind of life to which all nations ought to progress. Of course, there are universal rules to which all goodness must conform. But that’s only the grammar of virtue. It’s not there that the sap is. He doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels. The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China, why, then it will be spring. But meantime, our concern is with Logres.”

Despite his apologia for the Reformation, and his love-hate relationship with Rome, Lewis was very conscious of (and nostalgic for) the old, pre-Reformation --- I had almost written, pre-political --- unity of Christendom. He was enough of a Latinist to carry on a correspondence in that language with an Italian priest, Don Giovanni Calabria. While they are writing back and forth about the Continent’s future, Lewis observes, “Let us beware lest, while we rack ourselves in vain about the fate of Europe, we neglect either Verona or Oxford.” Here again, in the universal language we see the ongoing juxtaposition of the local and the supra-national.

Williams was of course the author of the Logres/Britain dichotomy Lewis deals with so well in That Hideous Strength. But while so much of his work is as deeply English as those of our other two authors, Williams also sees that what he loves in his own country is found --- in different ways --- elsewhere. In describing the visit of a fictional Zulu King in Shadows of Ecstasy, he writes:

For a few moments royalty -- a dark alien royalty --- had appeared in the room, imposed upon all of them by the mere intensity of the Zulu chieftain's own strength and conviction. By virtue of that wide reading which both she and her husband loved, she had felt a shadow of it at times; in the superb lines of Marlowe or Shakespeare, in the rolling titles heard on ceremonial occasions at Church or in local celebrations: “The King's Most Excellent Majesty,” “His Majesty the King-Emperor,” “The Government of His Britannic Majesty.”

But Kingship is not the only motif to transcend boundaries in Williams’ work. The Mass of the Grail in War in Heaven is perceived by each of its witnesses on precisely their own terms. Williams’ description of the effect it has on the Catholic Duke of the North Ridings is all the more striking given his own Anglicanism: 

In each of them differently the spirit was moved and exalted --- most perhaps in the Duke. He was aware of a sense of the adoration of kings --- the great tradition of his house stirred within him. The memories of proscribed and martyred priests awoke; masses said swiftly and in the midst of the fearful breathing of a small group of the faithful; the ninth duke who had served the Roman Pontiff at his private mass; the Roman Order he himself wore; the fidelity of his family to the Faith under the anger of Henry and the cold suspicion of Elizabeth; the duels fought in Richmond Park in defense of the honour of Our Lady by the 13th duke, when he met and killed three antagonists consecutively --- all these things, not so formulated but certainly there, drew his mind into a vivid consciousness of all the royal and sacerdotal figures of the world adoring before his consecrated shrine. “Jesu, Rex et Sacerdos,” he prayed…

Given the very sympathetic way he had written of the first Protestants in various of his histories and plays, Williams was certainly a man who could see past his own positions.

But it is in his poetry that the figure of the Christian Empire becomes an explicit motif. Agnes Sibley well describes the view of the Empire that Williams conjures up in Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars:

The universe of the poems is sixth-century Europe, where the historical Arthur might have lived.  Logres is a province (“theme”) of the Byzantine Empire, the seat of the Roman Empire after the provincial tribes had captured Rome. Williams chose Byzantium as a symbol of wholeness, a perfect balance of body and soul --- possibly because under Byzantine rule the church and secular society were more unified that at any other period of history.
The Empire, as Williams sees it, is not only a unified community but also a symbol of  the “whole nature of man,” including, of course, his body. For the first edition of Taliessin through Logres, a friend of Williams drew a map of Europe in the form of a woman’s body, the parts of which are frequently mentioned in the poems. Logres is the woman’s head; her buttocks (Caucasia) represent the natural, physical side of the human being, and her hands are at Rome, where the Pope performs with his hands the Eucharist, in which body and soul are of equal importance and are seen as one in Christ.[8]

Logres, and the Empire of which it forms an integral part, is held together, not by force, but by its shared Faith and the resulting “Co-inherence,” in which each part of the Empire is connected to each other, as are the individuals that inhabit the provinces. It is love, in essence that gives the Empire unity --- and that maintains Arthur’s kingdom as a constituent part of it. All of this is maintained by “exchange” accepting one another’s burdens, and by prayer --- most famously, the “Prayers of the Pope,” in the poem of the same name.

In the simultaneous embrace of the local, the national, and the supranational, the Inklings were not proposing the construction of a specific political arrangement – rather they believed that society on all levels ought to reflect a higher reality. As believing Christian Medievalists, each of the three had absorbed a great deal of Neoplatonism; to a great degree through St. Augustine, but also through other Church Fathers and directly from Plato himself.

This influence expresses itself in their political views by holding that the Divine Order is at once concealed and symbolised by the earthly, and that legitimacy in government derives from the governing folk attempting to realise in this world the order that reigns in Heaven. But the Augustinian view opposing the City of God to the City of Man is also present in their thought: the latter city becomes evil to the degree that it deviates from the norm offered by the former, and all good men are required to struggle, one way or another, against that deviance; but at the same time the two Cities are distinct, and that of Man can never replicate exactly that of God --- it can only become somewhat closer. Yet this seemingly endless and unwinnable (in earthly terms) struggle can help the individual attain eternal salvation, and at times, as a bonus, actually improve the situation for a while. Paradoxically, however, attempts to replicate the City of God using illegitimate or evil ends must inevitably bring about worse evils than those being struggled against --- as Galadriel reminds us when refusing the Ring.

This, then, was the common political teaching of the Inklings. But whence did it come? What name can we give it? Was it autogenetic, or were they part of a larger stream? Did any of their contemporaries hold similar views?

The reply to the last question is --- certainly. The Distributists, led by G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc are the most obvious seconders of the views of the Inklings; as a rather well known group in England between the Wars, our authors were extremely aware of their views regarding little England, the widespread distribution of property (from whence the title came) and the like. In That Hideous Strength, Curry says of Denniston, “A brilliant man at that time of course, but he seems to have gone quite off the rails with all his Distributism and what not.” In fact, the Chesterbelloc had a tremendous effect on the three authors, literarily, religiously, and politically.

Mention of them, however, automatically brings into play a host of writers of the period: Maurice Baring, Christopher Hollis, Douglas Woodruff, T.S. Eliot (whose work Lewis initially loathed but came to appreciate) and many, many more, whose complex interaction was so masterfully chronicled by Joseph Pearce.[9] Alongside the host of characters Pearce explores, however, there were other figures such as fantasist and horror writer Arthur Machen, whose similar religious and political opinions were put for in such works as Dr. Stiggins: His Views and Principles and Dog and Duck; naturalist and organic farmer H.J. Massingham, co-founder of the Soil Association who combined defence of the countryside and organic farming with Catholicism and Distributism; and Halliday Sutherland, travel writer, medical doctor, and anti-contraception writer. There were all sorts of political movements like Guild Socialism and Social Credit that aimed on reorganising society and the economy on a non-Marxist and non-Capitalist basis, deriving inspiration from various aspects of the Medieval past and advocating, in addition to their particular mechanical solutions to the problems raised by the Depression, renewed devotion to altar and throne. As with the Inklings, these individuals and groups were extremely disparate among themselves but were similar enough to find common expression in the pages of such publications as Douglas Jerrold’s English Review and Stephen Orage’s New Age. In such a milieu of writers, artists, and thinkers (for very few were practical politicians) the politics of the Inklings were unremarkable, however eccentric they might have appeared to the media and political classes of their time --- to say nothing of our own.

But from whence came this family of views? Well, there actually is a line of descent to be traced. To begin with, all of these ideas might be described, as John Wain did, as “conservative.” But just what did that word mean in this case? As mentioned earlier, it did not necessarily mean adherence to the party of Stanley Baldwin. Certainly the Conservative Party in some sense traditionally encompassed loyalty to both the Crown and the Established Church --- or at least the Once-Established Church. But as early as 1844 in his novel Coningsby, Benjamin Disraeli jibed about “A sound Conservative government, Tory men and Whig measures.” At that time, the fiery anti-slavery, anti-child labour, and anti-poverty Tory reformer Richard Oastler was rousing the factory workers with his battle cry of “altar, throne, and cottage!” We can see, looking at such men as Oastler, William Cobbett, and Sir Francis Burdett why the first Labourites, men such as R. H. Tawney, were accused of being “the new Tories.” It is in this direction we must look, if we are to place the Inklings in context.

It has often been remarked that Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams --- as well as their circle --- were late manifestations of English Romanticism, and this is also true of their non-Inkling contemporaries who held similar ideals. This has been considered to be particularly true as regards their theology. But it applies to their politics as well. As we have seen, Medievalism played a large part in the social worldview of the Inklings and like-minded contemporaries. But it was a Medievalism filtered through the 19th century, and owing its origins to Sir Walter Scott, the foremost practitioner of Romanticism (of which more later) in Great Britain. 

Powerful as was Sir Walter’s influence on the literature of his day, it was just as strong, ultimately, in religious, social, and political matters. For rather than portraying the age of Ivanhoe as the realm of superstition and oppression denounced by the writers of the Enlightenment throughout Europe, Sir Walter presented it as a time when society was an organic whole, when oppressors were --- despite whatever office in either institution they might have held, even the highest --- rebels against the order of Church and State, rather than as their prototypes. He also recast the Jacobites, in the popular mind, as heroic loyalists to a dying, but worthier state of affairs, rather than as the obscurantist traitors they had been seen as. In so doing, he turned the minds of many of the intelligentsia of Britain into an entirely new direction.

One of his disciples, Kenelm Digby, in 1822 produced The Broadstone of Honour: or, Rules for the Gentlemen of England, a book whose influence in its own time is equalled only by its almost complete obscurity in our own. An attempt to show the young men of the time how they might lead the sorts of chivalrous lives themselves that they had read of in Sir Walter’s novels, it took the young Oxbridge intellectuals of the time by storm. It had of course its more ludicrous results: the celebrated Eglinton tournament of 1839, for example, when rain drenched the attempts at jousting by a sort of 19th century English SCA. But it created an atmosphere from whence came rather more lasting results. Converting to Catholicism himself, Digby’s work made the idea of returning to the Old Religion more respectable, showing that the Faith was more than just the tribal belief of Old Catholic gentry and nobility, and poverty-struck Irish immigrants. The Oxford Movement, which transformed the ritual life of Anglicanism and created an important (if never dominant) party in the C of E wedded to Medieval religion, owed much to Digby. The code of the Gentleman, which so dominated much of Victorian social life finds its origin in him as well.

There were also political results. The first and most obvious was Young England, whose leading proponents, George Smythe (later 7thViscount Strangford), Lord John Manners (later 7th Duke of Rutland), Henry Hope, Alexander Baillie-Cochrane, and, the young Benjamin Disraeli launched their political effort in 1841. Influenced by Digby and by the Oxford Movement, as well as by such as Cobbett, Oastler, and Burdett, Young England strove to restore the class unity of Medieval England and to limit the power of industry over agriculture. In Lord John Manners’ 1841 England's Trust, and Other Poems he “falls into a reverie before St Albans Abbey. Reflecting on episodes from the early days of Christianity in England, he regrets the passing of the ancient Church.. . . and sees rationalism as a spiritual sickness of modern times.”[10] Lord John mourns “the loss of values and disruption of social order that he attributes to the absence of a strong monarch and Church, and he finds hope for England's future in its fictional medieval past when,”

Each knew his place king, peasant, peer, or priest
The greatest owned connexion with the least;
From rank to rank the generous feeling ran,
And linked society as man to man.

As its few members were all in the House of Commons, they backed up their writings with votes, using their influence in favour of various schemes for industrial reform and amelioration of the misery of the poor, toleration for Catholics and Jews, and opposition to weakening of the Established Church and the Monarchy. In the end, the group began to splinter when Disraeli, out of opposition to the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, voted against the Maynooth Grant Bill in 1845. This measure, providing a subsidy to the Irish Catholic seminary of that name, was typical of the things Young England had supported. But Disraeli could not resist a chance to embarrass Peel.

Nevertheless, the end of Young England was not the end of English Romantic Conservatism. For from the influence of the Oxford Movement also emerged Pre-Raphaelitism on the artistic front, and such of its practitioners as Dante Rossetti and William Morris applied their Romanticism first to literature and, in the latter case to politics. Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement’s social implications were an important part of the rise of Guild and other non-Marxist Socialisms. Here we see the ideological origins of such as R.H. Tawney, whose analysis of Capitalism as a product of the Reformation[11] was shared by the Distributists. Such as F.D. Maurice began a strain of Anglican (and even Anglo-Catholic) Socialism firmly rooted in the Romantic view of the Middle Ages.

But some of Young England’s views continued to be seen in the ranks of the second rung of Tory Party leadership in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. On the one hand, some of the circle called the Souls, especially George Wyndham (not surprisingly, a close friend of Belloc) continued to push for Romantic Conservative ideals --- not just for the political goals of social union under the altar and throne, but also in literature. 

Another result was 19th century Neo-Jacobitism, finding its ultimate roots in Scott’s Waverley novels, but receiving an impetus from the Oxford Movement’s revival of Anglican devotion to Charles I as a saint and martyr and a desire to find a dynasty that would reinvigorate the Monarchy. This led not only to the foundation of the Order of the White Rose (a group that attracted a number of 19th century artists, such as Whistler, and eventually became a co-founder of today’s Royal Stuart Society) but also, alongside the influence of a resurgent Irish Nationalism, to the origins of Cornish, Welsh, and Scots nationalism. Not surprisingly --- although they would take a leftward turn after World War II --- the Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party numbered a great many Catholic Distributist types among their pre-war founders.

At any rate, it is to this historical development that we must look for the origins of the political ideas espoused by the Inklings and their like-minded contemporaries. Yet, if the social notions dominant at the Manor of St. Anne’s, the Citadel of Minas Tirith, and the Rectory at Fardles owe their origin, as it would seem at the moment, to Sir Walter Scott, is Romantic Conservatism a purely British phenomenon, with a purely British relevance? By no means.

As mentioned, Sir Walter Scott was indeed the foremost British literary practitioner of Romanticism. But it must be remembered that Romanticism was a Europe-wide phenomenon, and so one may well speak of it as a European family of ideas. We must now take a look at it in itself, and then take an-all-too-speedy look at some of its parallel developments in the various nations of the West.

To begin with, just what is Romanticism, anyway? There do seem to be as many definitions as there are writers; but it is as accurate a one as any might be to call it Europe’s artistic and philosophical reaction to the arid rationalism of the Enlightenment, the horrors of the French Revolutionary Wars, and the centralising hand of Napoleon Bonaparte. As with any other current of thought, Romanticism did not spring from a vacuum, and scholars trace it origins back before the Revolution to the German Sturm-und-Drang, the cult of Sensibility, and various other interesting phenomena. What is certain is that it began in Germany with such folk as Novalis, Goerres, and the like; France picked it up with Chateaubriand, and then the British Isles gave us Coleridge, Wordsworth, and of course Sir Walter Scott. From there it spread throughout Europe and the Americas.

Opposing the Enlightenment’s emphasis on rational thought and individual freedom (and noting how these contradicted themselves in the Revolutionary bloodshed inspired by them) the Romantics looked to intuition and traditional wisdom (especially religious and folkloric). To the Enlightenment’s love of classical antiquity, the Romantics replied with an exaltation of the “barbarous” Middle Ages, and where the Enlightened, Revolutionaries, and Bonapartists alike attempted to overthrow both hierarchies and local peculiarities, the Romantics revelled in both. Not too strangely, after 1806 they rallied to the fight against Napoleon; from the critiques the Romantics mounted against their foes emerged a sort of Conservatism of which Klaus Epstein has said of the German variety in that year, “The Romantic movement --- appealing to the eternal human craving for miracle, mystery, and authority --- had begun to put the [Enlightenment] on the defensive in German cultural life.”[12]

By 1815, it was the same throughout Europe, and in many ways the Congress of Vienna was the high-water mark of political Romanticism. The Holy Alliance represented the effort of Tsar Alexander I (a Romantic if ever there was one) to unite Europe’s sovereigns on a basis of shared mysticism.  It seemed as though a golden age had arrived.

It had not, however. Many Romantics were eventually disappointed with the regimes that succeeded Napoleon --- hence the transformation of such as Victor Hugo, who had written an ode for Charles X’s coronation, into a republican. Thus was born Romantic Liberalism. For those who remained attached to Conservative Romanticism, the steady march after 1830 of a decidedly un-Romantic Liberalism (of which the Manchester School was the leading British exponent), with its industrialisation, its governmental centralisation,  its secularism, its republicanism (or least, its limitation of the Monarchy where retained), and its substitution of bankers and industrialists for nobility and gentry, of a proletariat for peasantry, called for their contempt and their resistance. This latter occurred in many different fields --- literary, political, and even military. As in Britain, this contributed to both a Catholic revival and, where Protestant State Churches existed, a “High Church” movement.

So in Germany and Austria, folk like Friedrich Schlegel and Adam Mueller rallied to the House of Austria, in hopes of recalling the glories of the Holy Roman Empire. After 1866, when the Habsburgs were definitively ejected from Germany, these folk looked to a spiritual and literary revival of the Empire --- and hatred of what they saw as the Bismarckian “pseudo-empire,” hence such disparate groups as Richard Kralik’s Gralbund and the Stefan George Circle.

Chateaubriand, De Maistre, de Bonald, and their many disciples acted as the ideologues of the Restoration in France. After the overthrow of Charles X in 1830, their successors, men like Barbey d’Aurevilly, Blanc de St. Bonnet, and Paul Bourget wrote both defences of altar and throne and, in many cases, fantastic literature.

Spain and Portugal saw civil wars that pitted traditionalist proponents of the senior lines of the two royal families, the position of the Church within the State, and traditional local liberties against Liberals. Defeat coming in both cases, they transferred their efforts to the literary field. In Ibero-America, similar folk continued, after independence, to write on behalf of Hispanidad and Lusofonia, closer ties between the former colonies and their motherlands. These folk worked and wrote particularly against the dominating efforts of the United States.

In Italy, the effort to unite the country split into a Romantic or Neo-Guelph wing, which advocated a federation under the Pope, and a Liberal wing that wished to bring all the Italian states under the sway of Savoy. Still other Romantics pressed for continued independence or autonomy for these little entities.

Russian Romanticism resulted in the Slavophile movement, which sought to reject Western European influence in favour of native tradition. But perhaps the greatest later exponent of Russian Romanticism was Vladimir Soloviev, who evolved from Slavophilism to a desire to reconcile Russia with Papacy, and to have the Tsar take the lead in the spiritual regeneration of all of Europe.

In the rest of Eastern Europe, as in Scandinavia, Romanticism led also to movements in favour of reviving native traditions, in the former case to reviving national sentiment among such suppressed minorities as the Serbs and Slovaks. Even the Meiji Restoration in Japan and the abortive similar attempt in China owed a little to Romanticism.

In the United States, as mentioned, political Conservatism of the European type died in 1783. Even so, such Romantics as Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Fitz-Greene Halleck (son of a Loyalist and notorious public defender of both Catholicism and Monarchy) were, in the first three cases, as close to Romantic Conservatives as an American could be. The South, in love with Sir Walter Scott, provided fertile ground for it; defeat in the War Between the States sealed this, resulting in the 1930s in the Southern Agrarians. A coming together between these and the British Distributists was perhaps to be expected. Even in New England, however, such as Ralph Adams Cram --- famous writer and architect, as well American head of the Order of the White Rose --- joined in the chorus.

"But just as the Cataclysm of Robespierre and Napoleon had called Romantic Conservatism into being, that of Hitler effectively destroyed it."

As with every other current of European thought, Romantic Conservatism received a dreadful shock in World War I. But it nevertheless rebounded after the War, as the survivors tried to make sense out of what had happened to them, and to repair the ills of their respective nations; the need to do so was exacerbated by the Depression, and it was from this ferment that the Inklings as well as many other such groups emerged. But just as the Cataclysm of Robespierre and Napoleon had called Romantic Conservatism into being, that of Hitler effectively destroyed it. This was partly because some of its proponents saw alliance with Fascism as a quick way to score a victory against a Liberal establishment which had previously seemed impregnable; but it was also because the Nazis directly destroyed as much of it as they could. A fitting end-scene, perhaps, of the movement in Germany might be seen in the execution of Count von Stauffenberg, a member of the George Circle, crying “long live Secret Germany!” as the firing squad’s bullets cut him down. As might be guessed from this swift encapsulation, volumes might be written about this history.

The aftermath of the War saw the world divided between American-sponsored Liberal Democracy and Soviet-style Communism, each in their way equally opposed to Romantic Conservative views, albeit in different ways and on different fronts. Even so they managed to survive as a sort of literary mood amongst a number of writers, including, of course, the surviving Inklings and a few of their disciples. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not affect the retreat of Romantic Conservatism into complete political irrelevancy. Indeed, in the years since, the gradual emergence of the Nanny State in the various nations of the West epitomizes everything the Romantic Conservatives loathed. Of course, such events as the United States’ Supreme Court’s ruling that the government may seize any private property to give to developers who might pay larger taxes, and Tony Blair’s outlawing of hunting might well give comfort to any remaining Fascists. Government management of private ownership of property and the means of production was a cardinal dogma of Fascist economic theory, and Hitler’s outlawing hunting with hounds is one of the few bits of Nazi-era legislation to remain on German law books. 

In the face of all of this, is Romantic Conservatism dead? By no means, although it is virtually confined to literary or enthusiast circles --- it might be said to have become entirely Romantic, in the vulgar sense of being purely theoretical and seemingly unattainable. In Great Britain, such groups as the Prag Magazine crowd, the circle inspired by the group at Oxford centring around Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P. (author of the groundbreaking book, Christendom Awake!), and the Royal Stuart Society, to name a very few, keep the ideas of Romantic Conservatism alive. Writing in a publication of the latter, the late Robert F.J. Parsons, O.B.E., wrote: 

Traditional values are constantly under attack. The media are not exactly governed by their supporters. Even those who profess support, as does Mrs. Thatcher with her reference to the merits of ‘Victorian values,’ do little in practice to express that profession of faith. Church, home newspapers, television, police, Parliament, are all permeated with a spirit that is fundamentally hostile to the cornerstones of our civilisation either actively or, more often and in ways more dangerously, passively because either not understanding or not feeling able to summon up the requisite energy against heavy odds.[13]

So too, on the Continent, such groups as Italy’s Identita Europea, the Paneuropa Union, and France’s Alliance Royale deal with such ideas, as do various groups advocating single issues from quality education to traditional Christian liturgy to organic farming to conservation of the built heritage. Groups dedicated to the writings of various such thinkers serve much the same purpose.

All of that being said, being effectively severed from any chance, as things stand, from influence on governance, do the political ideas of the Inklings and their innumerable confreres have any relevance at all to-day? Certainly. The West faces a number of large and seemingly insuperable problems. European Unity, for instance, may be inevitable and perhaps even essential. But what will the shape of that unity be? What about the demographic problem, the “population implosion,” in Europe and North America?  The threat posed by Radical Islam, especially in terms of terrorism at home? What is certain is that the current rulership in the “developed” countries have no long term solutions for any of these problems; it may well be that the Romantic Conservatives do. For example, in response to the first-named issue, Fr. Nichols in his work earlier cited wrote:

Catholicism, as Orthodoxy, has, historically, regarded the monarchical institution in this light: raised up by Providence to safeguard the natural law in its transmission through history as that norm for human co-existence which, founded as it is on the Creator, and renewed by him as the Redeemer, cannot be made subject to the positive law, or administrative fiat, or the dictates of cultural fashion.  Let us dare to exercise a Christian political imagination on an as yet unspecifiable future.  The articulation of the foundational natural and Judaeo-Christian norms of a really united Europe, for instance, would most appropriately be made by such a crown, whose legal and customary relations with the national peoples would be modelled on the best aspects of historic practice in the (Western) Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine "Commonwealth" --- to use the term popularised by Professor Dimtri Obolensky.

Such a crown, as the integrating factor of an international European Christendom, would leave intact the functioning of parliamentary government in the republican or monarchical polities of its constituent nations and analogues in city and village in other representative and participatory forms.  As the Spanish political theorist Alvaro D'Ors defines the concepts, power --- that is, government --- as raised up by the people can and should be distinguished from authority.  Power in this sense puts questions to those in authority as to what ought to be done. It asks whether technically possible acts of government, for co-ordinating the goals of individuals and groups in society, chime, or do not chime, with the foundational norms of society, deemed as these are to rest on the will of God as the ultimate power of the shared human goal.  Authority, itself bereft of such power, answers out of a wisdom which society can recognise.

Utopian? Perhaps. But it is couched in terms that each of our three authors would in all likelihood recognise and agree with, as would most of their Conservative Romantic colleagues. As things stand, it is doubtful that the powers-that-be would ever permit such things. Still and all, a cataclysm gave birth to Romantic Conservatism, and another eliminated it. It may well be that a third shall will bring it back. For all that I myself agree with the Inklings and Co., it is not an eventuality I look forward to.

[1] Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1978, p. 206.

[2] Humphrey Carpenter, J.R..R. Tolkien: A Biography, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000, p.132

[3] Alice Mary Hadfield, Charles Williams: An Exploration of His Life and Work, London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 21.

[4] W.H. Lewis (ed.), Letters of CS Lewis. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966, p. 83.

[5] C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, New York: Scribner, 1945, p. 289.

[6] quoted by Lady Elizabeth Freeman, The Traditionalist's Anthology, Privately Printed, p. 161

[7] Patrick Curry, Defending Middle Earth --- Tolkien: Myth and Modernity, New York: St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1997, p. 154.

[8] Agnes Sibley, Charles Williams, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982, p. 92.

[9] Joseph Pearce, Literary Converts: Spiritual Inspiration in an Age of Unbelief, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999

[10] Louis Cazamian,  The Social Novel in England 1830-1850. Trans. Martin Fido. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973, p. 98.

[11] R.H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. New Brunswick: Transaction publishers, 1998 (1st ed., 1926).

[12] Klaus Epstein, The Genesis of German Conservatism, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966, p. 674.

[13] Robert Parsons, O.B.E., “The Role of Jacobitism in the Modern World,” Royal Stuart Paper XXVIII, Huntingdon: The Royal Stuart Society, 1986, p. 39.

Charles A. Coulombe

Charles A. Coulombe is an American Catholic author, historian, and lecturer who is known for his advocacy of monarchism. Mr. Coulombe has a weekly podcast where people ask him all sorts of questions on religion, culture, politics and history.
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