Inklings and Coal Biters, Welcome!

The Inklings, of course, is the name for the now-famous group of writers and thinkers hosted by C.S. Lewis in his rooms at Magdalen College at Oxford – rooms that might be called shabby chic, with worn, comfortable armchairs and a big sofa. Attendees included Lewis’s good friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others. They would brew a pot of strong tea, light their pipes, and have at it, first reading excerpts from a work-in-progress and then letting the assembled company “sit in judgement upon it.”

As quoted in Diana Pavlac Glyer‘s fine book, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, member and older brother of C.S. Lewis, Warren (“Warnie”) Lewis said: “We were no mutual admiration society: praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work – or even not-so-good work – was often brutally frank.”

Glyer’s book documents how they influenced each other in so many ways, as a regular meeting of working writers. In detail, she describes (see p. 104 on) how Lewis helped Tolkien refine the tone of his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, steering the early drafts of first chapters away from a hobbity, chatty, playful work (first conceived as a sequel to Tolkien’s earlier work for young readers, The Hobbit) and into a more serious work with real “gravity.” It’s a fascinating look into the minds of those two great writers of modern fantasy.

The Company They Keep also brought to my attention the name (see Glyer’s book, p. 3) that Tolkien chose for an earlier version of the Inklings, Kolbítar. It came from an Old Norse/Icelandic word meaning Coal Biters, describing “old cronies” who sat closest to a fire; close enough, as it were, to bite the coal.

What a great image for a literary fellowship, friends huddled around a glowing hearth-fire!

Ever since I heard that term, I’ve also thought of it as a great image for the virtual form: the legions of blog followers, electronic “coal biters,” those of you who bend close to the computer monitor and follow the ethereal musings of bloggers small and mighty. (Today, the term could be “pixel polishers,” but that has so little poetic appeal.)

So welcome, coal-biters all! And be sure to pass on an invitation to others to join us here at at any time. There’s always a seat at the fire for any and all who might like to squeeze in for a bit of bandying about of all things philosophical and fantastical.

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  1. I am a coal-biter par excellence – or rather a radiator-biter most of the time! And a lover of fantasy literature, who’s very much enjoyed your musings about magic and whether it’s a ‘tool’ or an amplification/quickening of inner abilities…Also loved the Ursula le Guin description of magic – amazing. My blog on fantasy themes is at – will link to you!

  2. Hi Martin,

    Owen Barfield – one of the Inklings, has written some illuminating fairy/fantasy and SF stories. Have you read’ The Rose and the Ash-Heap’ ‘Eager-Springs’ or ‘Night Operation’ ?

    I would be interested to read your response as these works are not known in my circle.As a result , I am presently out in the cold and long for some conversation…

  3. Steve Folkers

    It has long been my suspicion (fantasy, perhaps) that legend has collapsed two papers into one. The first was a test Tolkien was grading wherein a student attempted to spit the word “kolbitar” back at his professor, but had scribbled class notes so slovenly and then misremembered, so that Tolkien, peeved at having to decipher garbage, wrote on the back, What is a “holbytla”? But then, being Tolkien, he immediately grabbed a clean sheet and translated into modern English something very like “holbytla> hobbit”, and then tried the word out with that now famous sentence. Just a wild idea (unless I subconsciously stole it from somewhere– Humphrey Carpenter?), but it gloriously links those two exquisite words.

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