Well, I’m Back Home Again in Indiana for the holidays, with very little to do except read my old journals from high school, goof off with my siblings, avoid former acquaintances at the gym, and visit the la-di-da grocery store that just opened up around the corner.
Which, actually, is plenty.
Most of the Christmas gifts I received were books…
…or other literary paraphernalia, including (but not limited to) this Anna Karenina “litograph” poster, created using text from the novel, and these hilarious Pride and Prejudice tree ornaments.
But that wasn’t the end of my readerly Yuletide.
For as long as I can remember, and probably much longer, there has been an orange and an envelope at the bottom of my Christmas stocking. The orange, of course, is just an orange. But the envelope contains a year-end bonus to supplement our usual family wages (unconditional love and the occasional home-cooked meal, that is).
Don’t get the wrong idea, though. There are strings attached to that envelope. We have to earn what’s inside it through a demonstration of knowledge—or, failing that, a brief bout of humiliation. Because on the outside of that envelope, there’s a question.
And the question is never easy.
My question, this year, was: Who were the leading members of the Inklings?
And even though the term meant nothing to me, I gathered up a quick round of clues (“Ink,” from the name itself, and then “mid-century,” “British,” and “fantasy” from my Question Master uncle) to quickly reach Tolkien as an obvious front-runner.
“Yes, Tolkien,” said my uncle. “And his friend…?”
“Oh, C. S. Lewis,” I rattled off like a professional nerd. And then I got to open up my envelope with the dignity that comes with a trivial triumph (PUN INTENDED OBVIOUSLY).
Now that I’ve done the appropriate research, I can tell you that the Inklings were an all-male literary group that met regularly at Oxford during the 1930s and ’40s. At their meetings, members would read and discuss their latest projects, drink beer, and make fun of lesser writers. One of their favorite rendezvous points was the Eagle and Child, a popular Oxford pub.
I’ve been to that pub. I’d even heard that Tolkien and Lewis visited often. But I never knew, until last week, that they called themselves the Inklings. And even for someone like me, who thinks Tolkien is over-hyped to grotesque proportions and finds Lewis just a tad boring, this new information is adorkable and charming enough to evoke fond memories of both beer and Christmas.
The trivia ransom game is far from being our weirdest holiday tradition (sneaking this traumatizing ET doll into each other’s coat pockets and suitcases is closer to the top of that list). But it remains one of our most
stressful enlightening. I pass on this knowledge today in the hopes that you, too, look for literary lessons inside your local pub and at the bottom of your Christmas stocking.
Just don’t expect much out of the orange.