The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams
C. S. Lewis is the 20th century's most widely read Christian writer and J.R.R. Tolkien its most beloved mythmaker. For three decades, they and their closest associates formed a literary club known as the Inklings, which met every week in Lewis's Oxford rooms and in nearby pubs. They discussed literature, religion, and ideas; read aloud from works in progress; took philosophical rambles in woods and fields; gave one another companionship and criticism; and, in the process, rewrote the cultural history of modern times.
In The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski offer the first complete rendering of the Inklings' lives and works. The result is an extraordinary account of the ideas, affections and vexations that drove the group's most significant members. C. S. Lewis accepts Jesus Christ while riding in the sidecar of his brother's motorcycle, maps the medieval and Renaissance mind, becomes a world-famous evangelist and moral satirist, and creates new forms of religiously attuned fiction while wrestling with personal crises. J.R.R. Tolkien transmutes an invented mythology into gripping story in The Lord of the Rings, while conducting groundbreaking Old English scholarship and elucidating, for family and friends, the Catholic teachings at the heart of his vision. Owen Barfield, a philosopher for whom language is the key to all mysteries, becomes Lewis's favorite sparring partner, and, for a time, Saul Bellow's chosen guru. And Charles Williams, poet, author of "supernatural shockers," and strange acolyte of romantic love, turns his everyday life into a mystical pageant.
Romantics who scorned rebellion, fantasists who prized reality, wartime writers who believed in hope, Christians with cosmic reach, the Inklings sought to revitalize literature and faith in the twentieth century's darkest years-and did so in dazzling style.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote that the name "Inklings" suggested "people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink." Yet it's difficult to overstate the influence of the two most famous Inklings, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, on varied fields including Christian apologetics and fantasy writing. The Zaleskis trace the history of this informal club of Oxford-educated, Christian intellectuals, which first coalesced in the early 1930s, by focusing on four of the most prominent Inklings: Tolkien, Lewis, mystic Charles Williams, and philosopher Owen Barfield. As scholarship, the book is immensely successful, describing its protagonists' strengths and shortcomings with insight and facility. Understandably, the Zaleskis spend more time on Lewis and Tolkien than on their fellows (mainly due to the amount of material available), but their portraits of Williams, "a swirling mass of contradictions," and Barfield, dedicated "to unraveling the secret life of words," are no less nuanced. Particularly insightful is the observation that the Inklings' scholarly preoccupations affected their public writings and personal lives as much as the reverse. Ultimately, this meticulous group biography allow readers to decide whether the Inklings were, as novelist John Wain suggested, a countercultural "circle of instigators, almost of incendiaries," or, as they themselves insisted, merely a pipe-smoking, ale-drinking, loud-laughing group of friends.
Excellent despite the minor flaws
It’s hard to believe that the world needs yet one more book exploring the lives of the Inklings. Yet the fact that so many other writers have come before the Zaleskis gives them the opportunity to go to the next level, adding details previously overlooked or ignored while providing a good assessment of (and sometimes rebuttal of) others’ conclusions. The new material on Williams — which will be unfamiliar to those, like myself, who had previously relied on Humphrey Carpenter and Alice Hadfield’s work — is startling, to say the least. Less successful — at least so far in my reading (I’m about 1/3 of the way through the book) — is the authors’ decision to give Barfield equal billing with Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams. His friendship with and influence on Lewis certainly warrants it. . . but his literary output does not seem to. While highly influential in the philological world, Barfield never produced books or a following anything like the other three men with whom he shares cover space. (Of course, there were many more men who participated in Inklings discussions beyond the four named on the cover, and the authors do cover them.) My one real complaint about the book — and it’s really only a niggling one — is that the authors do everything in their power to stress how “serious” they are in their pursuit by almost always choosing an archaic (or at least arcane) word to describe something when a much more common word is not only available but also more accurate. If you're reading this on an iPad, you will be grateful for the built-in dictionary, which you may need to use multiple times per page. But I found several words that stumped even the US and UK dictionaries. It’s a pseudo-elitist approach that both Lewis and Tolkien would have rejected, I think. And the sometimes pompous diction stands in contrast to the thoughtful care taken by the authors when actually describing some of the more controversial aspects of their subjects’ lives.