Sunday, November 17, 2019

Introducing the Inklings Literary Crossover Universe

This past April Fool's Day, C. S. Lewis fansite posted an article claiming that the Tolkien biopic would feature a post-credits cameo of Lewis, thus setting up the "Inklings Cinematic Universe". While an amusing reference to 2008's Iron Man and the franchise it spawned, in the absence of the scheduled-for-this-month Lewis film (starring current Spider-Man Tom Holland in the title role!), it occurred to me that the Inklings, or at least Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, had put enough shout-outs and shared concepts into their work to form a little universe of their own.

Art by Afalstein
The linchpin of this Inklings Literary Crossover Universe, or ILCU, is Tolkien's unfinished 1945 novel The Notion Club Papers. In this story, an ersatz version of the Inklings discuss science fiction and experiment with astral projection, culminating in an echo of the sinking of Atlantis manifesting in the modern Atlantic. Now, there's a good deal more going on in the story than that - it's a very experimental piece of writing in many ways, quite distinct from Tolkien's usual neomythic mode - but for ILCU purposes there's two things to focus on. First is that Tolkien uses in the story his own version of Atlantis, or more properly Númenor, that sits in the background of The Lord of the Rings as the homeland of Aragorn's ancestors. This fits with Tolkien's idea that Middle-Earth is the mythic past of our own world.

The other thing to note about The Notion Club Papers is that one of the works discussed early on is Out of the Silent Planet, the first book in C. S. Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy. What makes this interesting from a crossover world-building perspective is that Out of the Silent Planet ends with a conversation between the protagonist Elwin Ransom (in many ways a fictionalized Tolkien) and the un-named narrator (implicitly Lewis himself) discussing how they were going to publish an account of the story marketed as fiction. So, we can assume that the world of the Notion Club's psychic voyages is the same as Dr. Ransom's physical ones, and both are the far future of Middle-Earth. The last Cosmic Trilogy book, That Hideous Strength, also talks about Atlantis as "Numinor", strengthening the connection.

Another connection to the Cosmic Trilogy that only recently came to my attention is the result of the academic work of Brenton Dickieson, who in a 2016 blog post described his discovery of a hitherto unknown draft preface to The Screwtape Letters which attributed the acquisition and translation of the letters as being from none other than Dr. Elwin Ransom. As the following chart shows, Screwtape was written after Out of the Silent Planet but before its two true sequels (there's also the whole issue of the controversial The Dark Tower, which I have yet to read):

Now, this definitely shows that Lewis made a couple of false starts in developing the sequel to Out of the Silent Planet, and the extent to which he still considered Screwtape to be connected is an open question. Personally, I can think of a couple of episodes in Screwtape that support the connective interpretation, such as the incident where Screwtape "inadvertently assumes the form of a large centipede", similar to the end of the fight between Ransom and the Un-Man in Perelandra. And frankly, the idea of Wormwood and Screwtape as bent Eldila toiling away under the fallen Oyarsa Melkor is, to me at least, a pleasingly coherent one.

One final thought for this post, and that's how Lewis' claim to fame, The Chronicles of Narnia, might be brought into the ILCU. Unfortunately there is not, to my immediate recollection, a direct textual link between the Chronicles and the other works of the various Inklings. The penultimate book in the series, The Magician's Nephew, offers a few thematic links, such as a mention of Atlantis (not Numenor, this time), and the image shared with Tolkien's work of the universe being sung into existence. There are references to Sherlock Holmes and the Bastable children, which were used by Win Scott Eckert in his Crossovers series to fit the Chronicles into his post-Farmer Wold Newton work (a context in which I've mentioned The Notion Club Papers before), but a direct Inklings-only connection will require additional research.