Unsung Inklings: Hugo Dyson

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Dyson demonstrated a pious persistence with Lewis, something we can emulate in our own friendships and conversations.

In today’ spotlight on some of the unsung Inklings, we will take a look at one of the earliest core members, H.V.D. Dyson, or Hugo Dyson.

Hugo Dyson (1896-1975), so named by fellow Inklings, was born April 7, 1896 in Hove. He later attended Brighton College and Sandhurst Royal Military College. He served in WWI as a First Lieutenant until seriously wounded at Passchendaele. He earned his B.Litt at Exeter College, where he met Tolkien at an essay club and heard early portions of his legendarium, The Fall of Gondolin. In 1925 Dyson took a position at Reading University and gained a reputation for being an engaging lecturer. Dyson met C.S. Lewis in 1930 through their mutual friend, Nevill Coghill. Dyson was known by fellow Inklings for his wit, humor, intelligence, and banter, preferring the Tuesday morning conversation over the Thursday evening literary critique, though he was a regular at both when schedule allowed. Whenever Dyson was late to an Inklings it was usually because he got sidetracked with several conversations along the way. Lewis and Dyson were often witnessed battling for the last and loudest word. Sadly, however, on occasion, Dyson’s “mind outran his manners.” [1] Dyson did not care for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, complaining outloud one evening, “Oh ‘expletive’, not another elf!” Still, he was influential in the lives of the Inklings, C.S. Lewis in particular.

Hugo Dyson was a devout Christian and member of the Anglican Church. He shared a love of words in Shakespeare, lecturing, and conversation with friends. He is most well known for the deep impact and lasting influence he and Tolkien had on the faith of their friend, C.S. Lewis. Lewis writes, “What I owe to them is incalculable. Dyson and Tolkien were the immediate human causes of my own conversion. Is there any pleasure on earth as a great as a circle of friends by a good fire?” [2]

The nighttime conversation along Addison’s Walk, not far from Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College, is one of the great true legends of the Inklings. On the evening of September 19 until 4 am September 20, 1931, Dyson, Tolkien, and Lewis discussed matters of mythology, metaphor, and the Christian faith.

Lewis recalls, “We began on myth and metaphor - interrupted by a rush of the wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing…we continued on Christianity…a good long talk.” [3]

For some time, Lewis had wrestled with the meaning of Christianity. How did Christ’s redemption affect him? Lewis had also been struggling to resolve the tension between his love of imaginative stories and his love of logic and reasoning. Dyson helped resolve this tension by showing that in Christianity, one finds the best of both worlds; Christianity is both rigorously intellectual and richly imaginative, it is meaningful and true. As Lewis learned from Dyson and Tolkien, Christianity was the myth that became fact. They understood myth not as make believe or a falsehood, but a story that was a vehicle for truth, and in the case of Christianity, the truth, the way, and the life. 

Dyson helped Lewis to see that the Christian faith is both true and meaningful.

Lewis told his friend Arthur Greeves:

My puzzle was the whole doctrine of redemption: in what sense the life and death of Christ saved or opened salvation to the world…now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of a sacrifice in a pagan story, I didn’t mind it at all…I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again the idea of the dying and reviving god similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except the Gospels…the story of Christ is simply a true myth, a myth working on us in the same way as others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened. [4]

Dyson demonstrated a pious persistence with Lewis, something we can emulate in our own friendships and conversations. Into the chasm of Lewis’s reason between imagination, Dyson placed the incarnation of Christ. For Lewis, that cemented and grounded everything. God became man. Jesus, the Son of God, was incarnate in a real place at a real time and died a real death on a real cross to save sinners from their real death and separation from him, not in never-never land, or a galaxy far-far away, but in the days of Caesar Augustus and Pontius Pilate. He helped Lewis to see that the Christian faith is both true and meaningful; it captures both our reason and our imagination; it answers that longing Lewis called Joy and it is historical as well. Christianity spoke to the head and the heart. Intellect and imagination are both gifts of God and both found within the true and beautiful story of the Gospel.

Hugo Dyson teaches us the value of friendships. Within our friendships, God gives us the opportunity to share the gospel, and point our friends to Jesus crucified, the greatest friend of sinners. Like Philip told Nathanael in John 1, we too can tell our friends, “come and see” Jesus, that they may hear the good news, that greater love has no man than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.

[1] Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015, p. 358.

[2] Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 2, p. 501.

[3] Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol, 1, p. 970.

[4] Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, vol. 1, p. 976-977.