Catching the opening night of the film version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are (from left) CUA undergraduates Rachel Grabowski, Toni Gallo, Lauren Russo and Ian Swank. Grabowski and Gallo are two of the students who live in a section of Walton Hall set aside for those who want to discuss the works of Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and related writers.
When Rachel Grabowski first brought up the idea that she and other CUA undergraduates might live near each other in a residence hall and together focus on exploring the literature of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and related writers, she thought her fellow students would dismiss the idea out of hand.
“I thought everyone would think I was a dork and that no one would want to do it, but it turned out there was a significant amount of interest,” says Grabowski, a sophomore who hails from Urbana, Md.
Thus started the “Inklings” thematic housing group, which consists of three female and four male undergraduates who have chosen to live next to each other in the Walton residence hall on campus. The septet convenes monthly to eat supper and discuss particular works of authors who were members of “the Inklings,” an informal group of friends, including Tolkien and novelist Charles Williams, who met weekly in C.S. Lewis’ Oxford University rooms from the 1930s to 1949. The CUA students have also read and discussed the work of G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936), another British author and an important influence on Lewis’ fiction and theological writing.
Each monthly CUA discussion is led by a different Catholic University professor recruited for his or her expertise on or appreciation of these authors. All the authors in question wrote fiction of a very imaginative variety and were devout Christians, either Catholic (in the case of Tolkien and Chesterton) or Anglican (in the case of Lewis and Williams).
The group of students — Grabowski, Jocelyn Rohrbach, Toni Gallo, Laszlo Korossy, David Smedberg, John Paul Sheehy and Pat Simon — meets for their dinner discussions in the back room of Kelly's Ellis Island restaurant and pub on Brookland’s 12th Street. It’s arguably the local establishment that best approximates the wood-paneled bonhomie of the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, where members of the original Inklings often would meet for a drink between their weekly gatherings in Lewis’ rooms.
Catching a Wave in Popular Culture
Not only was Grabowski’s love of Tolkien and Lewis echoed by her fellow students, but millions of other Americans have been experiencing — and contributing to — surging interest in Lewis and Tolkien and the movie versions of their books.
Director Peter Jackson’s three films of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings brought in combined box office receipts of nearly $3 billion from 2001 to 2003, and the new movie version of Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe made a remarkable $67 million dollars during its debut weekend, Dec. 9-11. Among those who handed over money to see the film’s opening night in Washington, D.C., were — not surprisingly — members of CUA’s Inklings group.
Grabowski gave the movie a big thumbs-up, objecting only to actor Liam Neeson’s too-soothing voice for the talking lion, Aslan, the Christ-like king of the alternate world of Narnia in which the book and movie are set.
The members of the housing group were split on whether to see the movie, however. Two members, especially Jocelyn Rohrbach of Princeton, N.J., argued against seeing it.
“We all have really strong emotional ties to the book,” Grabowski explained before seeing the film. “I have a lot of fond memories of reading the book, as do most of the other members. Some of them are afraid that the film is going to ruin the book — especially the character of Aslan — that they’re not going to be able to capture [Aslan or the rest of the book] on the screen.”
Meetings of the Discussion Group
The thematic housing group has been able to attract CUA professors from a range of academic disciplines to lead their monthly dinner sessions:
• At the first meeting, in September, the group discussed Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories” with the help of Christopher Wheatley, an English professor and the university’s vice provost and dean for undergraduate studies.
• At the second meeting, theology Associate Professor John Grabowski (who happens to be Rachel Grabowski’s father) led a discussion on the accounts of the creation of the world in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and in Lewis’ sixth book in his Chronicles of Narnia series, The Magician’s Nephew.
• For the third meeting, Associate Professor of Philosophy Kevin White led a discussion about two of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories.
At upcoming meetings, likely topics of discussion are the novels of Charles Williams, which are often characterized as supernatural thrillers; Chesterton’s adventure novel, The Man Who Was Thursday; and other works of Tolkien and Lewis.
CUA’s thematic housing option is offered in order to help integrate academic pursuits into students’ residential setting, according to Stephanie Luzader, area coordinator for CUA’s Centennial Village residence halls. Nearly 80 other students have formed five more thematic housing groups this year. The five other groups are built around the following interests: 1) arts appreciation, 2) Spanish culture, 3) the transition of books into movies, 4) becoming future community leaders, and 5) serving the Washington-area community through volunteer service.