Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Inklings and Friendship - There but not Back Again

In my previous post I touched on the unhappy irony of the title of Philip and Carol Zaleski’s marvelous new book, The Fellowship – The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. When Lewis recorded his talks on The Four Loves in 1958 (which subsequently became a book) he must have reflected back on the Inklings when he prepared the section on friendship, one of the finest treatments on the subject that I’m aware of. And yet…relying on memory (and I will go back and reread that section), Lewis does not explore what happens when friendship breaks down, nor does he, as I recall, explore how friendships might be restored. By this time the Inklings are no more and his friendship with Tolkien has been cold for a few years; and so while Lewis’s treatment of friendship in The Four Loves is touching and while there is much to be enjoyed and gained from it, it’s failure to recognize the likelihood of conflict and breakdown in friendship is unfortunate.

One of the characteristics of the Inkling’s gatherings was the give-and-take, their argumentative disagreements; yet eventually some of these disagreements fermented into some of the members becoming disagreeable. It is painful for me to read of Hugo Dyson’s attitude toward Tolkien reading sections of his draft of The Lord of the Rings- to the point where Tolkien stopped reading from it altogether. This must have been painful for Tolkien who was constantly struggling with writing and rewriting and doubt about the worth of his Middle-Earth mythology. Here are Tolkien and Dyson, the two men who took a walk with C.S. Lewis some twenty years prior to Dyson having enough of hobbits and elves, a walk that led to Lewis coming to know Jesus Christ, in such conflict that Tolkien gives up reading from the work which has consumed much of his life.

Then there is Tolkien’s severe criticism of Lewis’s Narniad, this after Lewis’s encouragement of Tolkien in Tolkien’s writing of the Lord of the Rings. Tolkien writes to the effect that Lewis’s encouragement was critical in his completion of his Middle-Earth trilogy, but now Tolkien can’t let his displeasure with Lewis’s Narnia go, he can’t leave his remarks at the level of helpful questions and constructive criticism – he raises his criticism to another level…a level that exits the pale of friendship.

It is warm to see the Inklings as they were when times were good, it is sobering to see them when clouds overshadowed their fellowship as the clouds of Mordor threatened the existence of Gondor. It is one thing to see the Inklings as if they lived all their lives in the Shire, it is another to see them as they encountered Orcs. The test of fellowship, of friendship, is not found in the serene confines of the Shire of hobbits, but rather in the challenges of ego, agendas, tastes, preferences, envy, jealousy, gossip, and the choice between honesty and deceit.As Bilbo Baggins demonstrates in The Hobbit – There and Back Again, it isn’t just how a journey begins that matters, or the adventures found in the journey that matter, but it is supremely important that the journey ends well. Tolkien and Lewis demonstrate this in their writings – that is one of the joys in The Lord of the Rings; it is one of the sorrows of the Inklings.

What can we learn from this?

To be continued…

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