The Inklings at Hillsdale

Written by Liam Martin

In early 2022, over 250 students, dozens of faculty, and hundreds more visitors gathered twice a day in Plaster Auditorium to listen to talks from renowned scholars. An observer, if told the topic, might laugh; the seminar was on a small club of professors and students at Oxford that met between 1933 and 1949. However, the names of two members of that club are much better known: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. These two men, known for their fantasy writings such as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, respectively, have captured the imaginations of the English-speaking world for decades, and Hillsdale is no exception. 

The popularity of the Center for Constructive Alternatives (CCA) seminar is explained in part by the love of Lewis’ and Tolkien’s writings on campus. Many students have been inspired by these writings, including Jonathan Rolfe, ’25. He can often be spotted around campus wearing a t-shirt with a stylized white tree on the front, the symbol of the fictional kingdom of Gondor from The Lord of the Rings. “When I wear that shirt around campus, usually someone says, ‘Ooh, that’s an awesome shirt,’” he explained. 

After reading Tolkien’s letters as a freshman in high school, Rolfe became interested in learning Anglo-Saxon, which he did over the following four years. Now on campus, he leads a group of five or six students in reading Anglo-Saxon texts. In addition, he is one of several students that seek to emulate Tolkien in writing poetic myths. 

Classics major Michael Frost, ’22, similarly traces his love of ancient literature and languages to the influence of Lewis and Tolkien. “Lewis and Tolkien were my gateways to literature,” Frost said. “They were fundamental in my reading life and sparked my interest in mythology.” In addition to studying Greek and Latin language and culture as a classics major, Frost is among the students who take part in the Anglo-Saxon readings. 

However, interest in Tolkien and Lewis on campus is by no means limited to amateur scholars of ancient languages. Some students are drawn primarily to Lewis’ philosophy and the way he and Tolkien embodied Christian ideas in their fiction. Walking around campus, it isn’t unusual to hear discussions and debates about this or that point from The Abolition of Man by Lewis, or for students to compare Hillsdale to Rivendell, the Shire, or other havens of sanity in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. 

But for most students, Lewis and Tolkien are notable simply because they tell good stories. Their charming fairy stories, such as Narnia or The Hobbit, and more mature epics like the Space Trilogy and The Lord of the Rings, shaped the imaginations of many students, and the 2000s film adaptations of their works are major elements of pop culture for Gen Z. 

This love of Lewis and Tolkien also extends to Hillsdale’s broader community, whether faculty, alumni, donors, those who enjoy Hillsdale’s free online courses, or simply friends of the College. Behind only the famous Constitution 101 course, the most popular of the more than 30 online courses is “An Introduction to C.S. Lewis: Writings and Significance,” which has over 500,000 viewers to date. Dr. Bradley Birzer, the Russell Amos Kirk Chair of American Studies and a popular professor of history at the College, has written extensively on Tolkien, both on his online publication The Imaginative Conservative and in a biography, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth. In addition, Dr. Nathan Schlueter included a lecture on Lewis in his online course, “Introduction to Western Philosophy.” 

Naturally, the excitement for the CCA was palpable. Students were warned to arrive early, as more people had signed up than there were available seats in Plaster Auditorium. Students who had already fulfilled their CCA requirement came just to hear lectures on some of their favorite authors; friends of the College from all over the country made the trip, even bringing their children; and multiple faculty attended the various talks. In short, the CCA provided a powerful reminder of the special place the Inklings hold in the heart of the Hillsdale community.

Liam Martin, ‘25, is a native of rural Ohio and plans to major in History. In his free time, he enjoys coffee, Shakespeare, Latin chant, and debating politics and religion with whoever will listen.

Published in March 2022