I recently finished the book, The Fellowship – The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski; 2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. At 644 pages (512 pages are the main text, the balance contain footnotes, bibliography, index, and acknowledgements), this is the most comprehensive treatment of the Inklings of which I am aware and it is also the best – both in terms of breath and depth. This is a book to be read more than once.
The book begins and ends with the question, “What then, were the Inklings?” If you’d like to know, or if you think you know, or if you’re sure you know the answer – this book is for you. If you don’t care about the answer but you have an interest in Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield or Williams this book is for you. If you think life has a purpose, if you think life has no purpose, if you don’t know whether life has any purpose, this book is for you. If you enjoy well-written biography and want to know the lives of two of the most influential scholars and writers of the 20th Century, this book is for you. I could continue this “this book is for you” list but you get the message – this is a book rich in narrative detail and yet broad enough to appeal to many people. Philip and Carol Zaleski (husband and wife) have written a masterpiece; Philip is a writer and Carol is a professor of world religions at Smith College.
The subtitle is, The Literary Lives of the Inklings; the book explores the lives of Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams using their writing as a compass to guide the narrative – what they wrote was who they were and their writing, and the cross-pollination it produced, was the coal that fed the fires of their meetings and friendships. Sometimes the coal fell out of the stove and produced disagreements with sad results. Fire is dangerous.
This is an adult book, it is not hagiography. While I need not write this for most people, there are those who idealize and idolize others and find it difficult to acknowledge their imperfections…and yes…their sins. How is it that we can so easily forget Romans 3:23? The authors treat difficult personal issues and struggles with respect and decorum and do not engage in tangential psychoanalytics; they keep their eyes on the compass and the compass keeps them on course.
As a work of the rare genre of collective biography the narrative comes together nicely with the tributaries entering the River Inklings in due season. Two of the tributaries (Lewis and Tolkien) are longer than the other two (Barfield and Williams). Other Inklings are picked up along the way, such as Dyson, Havard, Cecil, and Christopher Tolkien. Another Inkling’s life (Warnie Lewis) is intertwined with his brother’s throughout the book. Non-Inklings such as Sister Penelope, Ruth Pitter, Dorothy L. Sayers, and of course Joy Davidman also contribute to the river’s flow.
There is an unhappy irony in the title, The Fellowship; for unlike Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, the Inklings unravel and that which was once intimate becomes distant and in some cases bitter at worst, and bitter sweet at best. In the Fellowship of the Ring, the first volume of Tolkien’s trilogy, the fellowship is broken, but with the exception of Boromir it comes together at the end in the third volume, The Return of the King. In that light perhaps we can anticipate that when our King returns the Inklings will find themselves in the fullness of reconciled fellowship. This is also a book about friendship; I will explore this subject in the book in a future post.
If you know Lewis’s life well you may find it tedious going over much of the same ground early in the book, the journey down the river is worth it; when we leave home on a long trip we have to travel through familiar places to reach the unfamiliar or to revisit places we have not seen in some time.
The authors provide rich context and explanation of the literary, philosophical, religious, and spiritual currents that informed the lives of these men and influenced their relationships – this context in turn helps us understand their lives and writings.
In our day it is difficult to conceive of a group of men (or women) meeting together every Tuesday morning and Thursday night to enjoy each other’s company, to share their creative work, to critique that work, to talk about ideas, to share stories, to encourage one another, and to vigorously disagree with each other – week after week, year after year. Why weren’t they busy, busy, busy like we are? What did they hope to accomplish, if anything? Surely drinking pints of beer at a pub and imbibing whisky in Lewis’s university rooms could lead to no good thing – not to mention the walks they took together, sometimes for hours, other times for days.
No good thing? No The Lord of the Rings, no Mere Christianity, no Space Trilogy, no Narnia…? to name just a few. Philip and Carol Zaleski have invited us on a journey well worth taking – There and Back Again.
Robert L. Withers, July 26, 2015