J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams: two of these men are, if not exactly household names, nearly so—who has not heard of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings?. But what about the group called the Inklings; who were they? Why did they matter in wartime Oxford? Do they matter now, in the 21st century?
The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski’s group biography of the Inklings—the first fully developed one since Humphrey Carpenter’s pioneering study of 1978—sets out to answer these questions. It is the first of three new Inklings-related biographies slated to be published this year, the other two being Grevel Lindop’s Charles Williams: The Third Inkling and Abigail Santamaria’s Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis. The Zaleskis’ book is to be welcomed for giving us a broad-based, big-picture view of this hugely important circle of writers. It wisely does not attempt to displace Diana Glyer’s magisterial study of intra-Inklings influence in The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community.
The Zaleskis’ overall approach is usefully set out in the title: The Fellowship evokes the Fellowship of the Ring, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Like the varied members of that group—hobbits, men, a dwarf, an elf, a wizard—the Inklings were quite different from one another in their personalities, their literary work, their personal lives, and their faith, and yet shared certain elements of a common vision.
The subtitle, “The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams”, shows the book’s particular concerns. The Zaleskis focus on the Inklings’ writing careers, while painting the broader biographical background in enough detail for us to see how their literary works fit into the larger pattern of their lives and relationships. And, in addition to having this literary slant, the book homes in on just four out of the nineteen figures who are generally reckoned to have belonged to the group.
By following these four men chronologically, The Fellowship illuminates how the different strands of their lives intertwined. Seeing their literary interests in the broader context of historical events, work, and family provides insight into their books and to the significance of the Inklings as a whole. The Fellowship also shows, as a quiet but consistent background note, the importance of certain other key Inklings, above all Lewis’s brother Warnie—himself a successful author—whose quiet hospitality was a central element of the group’s success. Likewise, we see the importance of Tolkien’s son Christopher, a junior Inkling, who has famously gone on to do wonders in preserving and extending his father’s literary legacy. These glimpses of Warnie and Christopher, among others, suggest the need for another book, on the Minor Inklings!
Attentive readers will notice that Tolkien is—somewhat unexpectedly—listed first in the subtitle. Noting that while the story “might begin with any of the company,” the Zaleskis open with Tolkien “because with Tolkien the Inklings constellation began its ascent into the English literary firmament; he was the first to create work that bears the group’s special stamp of Christian faith blended with pagan beauty, of fantastic stories grounded in moral realism.” Indeed, one of the strongest contributions of the volume is to show that Tolkien and Lewis together, rather than Lewis alone, formed the heart of the Inklings.
Tolkien’s Catholic faith is, happily, given proper attention as a vitally important part of his life and work. The Zaleskis quote substantial passages from Tolkien’s letters, showing the depth and quality of his Catholicism, especially his devotion to the Eucharist and to Mary. We see how his Catholic faith extended throughout his life, and touched every aspect of his life. His was no light-weight faith, but was deep-rooted, as is apparent in his commitment to his wife and children. Of the four men covered here, Tolkien models most fully what it means to be a true family man, well-balanced and integrated.
The treatment of Lewis is likewise well handled, showing his intellectual and moral growth over time, and giving a nicely balanced portrayal of his complex relationships with the women in his life (Mrs. Moore and Joy Davidman). Readers who are familiar mainly with either his apologetics works or his fiction will benefit a great deal from the Zaleskis’ attention to Lewis as an academic as well. For instance, after discussing Lewis’s use of allegory, they underscore Michael Ward’s argument, in his brilliant Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis, that the medieval image of the cosmos is deeply important to Lewis’s work as a whole.
The sections on Williams and Barfield will contain new insights for many readers. Williams comes across as less orthodox, and more disturbing, than most readers will probably be aware, but the portrait it is well supported by the evidence, and is an important corrective to wishful thinking about his orthodoxy. This fuller depiction of Williams may also shed light on Tolkien’s complicated relationship with him; Tolkien may well have intuited, at some level, that Williams was not nearly as spiritually healthy as others more optimistically took him to be. The Fellowship provides useful background too on Owen Barfield, perhaps the least familiar of the four Inklings treated here, and shows that although he was an influential member of the group, he participated much less substantially than did others who are counted in the second rank. Living in London as he did, Barfield was an occasional rather than a frequent participant in the Oxford meetings.
Inevitably, the Zaleskis address the ‘male-only’ character of the Inklings, something that too often leads modern readers to suspect sexism where none exists. The context that they provide in The Fellowship is refreshing in this regard. The Inklings was an informal gathering of personal friends, not an official ‘club’ or ‘society’ in the usual sense; and the Zaleskis show that its members were not by any means isolated from or hostile to women. They had personal friendships, professional connections, and deep familial bonds with women; for instance, Tolkien made a point of spending ample time at home with his wife Edith and their children, including their daughter Priscilla; Lewis sought the advice and literary judgment of his friend the poet Ruth Pitter; Dorothy Sayers was friends with both Williams and Lewis, and contributed to the Williams memorial volume that Lewis edited. The Zaleskis note dryly (and aptly) that “We can dismiss as meaningless the claim that if [Sayers] had been a man she would have been an Inkling, for if she had been a man she would not have been Dorothy L. Sayers.” Likewise, if the Inklings had been a mixed-sex group, it would not have been the Inklings, but something else—neither better nor worse, but simply different.
As an intellectual biography, and as an account of the Inklings as a whole, The Fellowship is very strong indeed, satisfying, engaging, and nuanced. The place where it does show a certain weakness is, surprisingly, in literary judgment. I would contend that the Zaleskis’ assessment that the Inklings were “surpassed in poetry and prose style by the very modernists they failed to appreciate” suggests a misunderstanding of the different aims and stylistic preferences of the two schools of writers. The Zaleskis seem, on the whole, to recognize the overall value of Lewis’s and Tolkien’s work, but unfortunately without having much appreciation for their literary style. Referring to their use of stately, epic prose as the ‘heigh stile’ seems uncharacteristically dismissive, suggesting by use of the archaic spelling (which neither Tolkien nor Lewis ever used) that this style is quaint and precious.
In criticizing Tolkien in this regard, they quote a few of Gandalf’s lines out of context; it is easy to mock the epic tone by doing this, but unfair. Tolkien did not write the entirety of The Lord of the Rings in this style, but rather used it in particular contexts to create a particular dramatic effect. Perhaps in an effort to show that they are not uncritical ‘fans,’ the Zaleskis appear to have over-compensated, going out of their way at times to find fault. For instance, it strikes me that few readers will agree with the description of The Screwtape Letters as “terribly clever but a bit sophomoric” and that “if it were half as long and twice as clever, it might have been twice as good.”
However, these are minor criticisms of an excellent study, and if the Zaleskis have occasionally over-indulged their own preferences, the result may well provoke readers to healthy discussion or even argument over the merits of particular books, which is very much in keeping with the spirit of the Inklings themselves. It’s also a salutary reminder to aficionados of the circle that these men had very different personalities and interests, wrote a wide range of works on many subjects, in diverse modes and styles, and for a variety of audiences. Though there is a strong common thread, as the Zaleskis ably show, there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach in the Inklings’ work—nor need there be in readers’ responses to the group.
Indeed, one of the virtues of The Fellowship is that it helps to correct a certain sentimental-nostalgic picture of the Inklings, one that I call the ‘Oxford Disneyland’ vision. We see vividly the difficulties, pains and struggles of the Inklings’ lives—not just in their experiences of two World Wars, but in the day to day challenges of working life, marriage, raising families, ill health, and the loss of loved ones. In this light, their literary accomplishments are even more to be admired, and the Inklings become all the more an example worth following.
The Inklings’ “project of recovery” continues; “what permanent place the Inklings may come to occupy in Christian renewal and, more broadly, in intellectual and artistic history, is for the future to decide.” But their legacy depends not on chance, but on the work of modern-day Christians who share their vision. And, if we have learned from the Inklings’ lives as well as their writings, we will see the necessity of hard work and real community—including friendships sustained over many years, and the difficult and vital work of raising children in the Faith, as Tolkien’s mother Mabel did—for creating the conditions in which scholars, writers, artists, and teachers can sustain and extend the Inklings’ achievement of a “revitalization of Christian intellectual and imaginative life.”
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
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
Hardcover, 656 pages
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!
Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.