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, 2016.
This is a biography of four men, all academics, all writers, all Christians. The Inklings have produced some of the most beloved works of literature of the twentieth century, but not all of them are household names. J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings saga, and C.S. Lewis, best known for the Narnia novels and many works of Christian apologetics, are the most famous Inklings, but the lesser-known authors such as Owen Barfield and Charles Williams are also addressed. Some other more obscure members of the group, along with “unofficial” Inklings such as Dorothy L. Sayers, also receive some attention. Williams receives far less attention overall due to his untimely death in 1945, and Barfield, who long outlived the others, receives more space. Barfield was known as “the first and last Inkling,” and lived for nearly a quarter-century after Tolkien died in 1973, Lewis having passed a decade earlier.
The authors are fully aware that Tolkien and Lewis are the “lead” characters in their drama, and that Barfield and Williams are just the supporting players. The Zaleskis also tailor their study to provide an informative reading experience not just for those who are already experts on their favorite authors’ lives, but also for those individuals who are completely unaware of the lives of the men behind the books.
“Interest in the Inklings often first dawns in the minds of readers who have fallen in love with Tolkien and Lewis, and wish to enter more deeply into their spiritual and imaginative cosmos. But there are others who, though immune to the evangelizing power of Faërie, are curious to know more about a movement that arose not long ago in the colleges and pubs of Oxford and continues to cast a spell upon our culture. We have written with both kinds of readers in mind.”
The other major character in this history is Oxford University– the institution of higher education itself is presented as a complex figure that is both ever-changing and tied to tradition. In the Zaleskis’ depiction, it seems as if the legendary school has a soul of its own, or at least the ability to affect the souls of those who studied and taught there. They write:
“Whether high or low church, Evangelical, Broad Church, or Catholic, Oxford was in love with the idea of Christian perfection. It was here in 1729 that Charles and John Wesley founded their “Holy Club” and from here that George Whitefield went forth to evangelize America. It was from Oxford in the 1830’s that the Tractarian movement set out to re-Catholicize the national church, and it was in Oxford that the saintly John Henry Newman made his submission to Rome. Here John Ruskin, who had a love-hate relationship with the city and with his own Evangelical roots, sought to awaken the nation’s sleeping conscience to his vision of Christian socialism, medieval artisanship, and educational reform and it was here, in the cathedral-like University Museum that Ruskin helped to design, that the ornithologist and bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, took on T.H. Huxley in the celebrated 1860 debate on the validity of Darwinian evolution. The Victorian crisis of faith took place here, but so did what the historian Timothy Larsen has called “the Victorian crisis of doubt.” From Ruskin’s time until the days of the Inklings, a pattern of religious rebellion and rediscovery would repeat itself; one could be a militant skeptic like Huxley relishing the escape from Victorian restraints, or a militant believer like Ronald Knox relishing the escape from modern liberalism, or an initiate in any of the manifold schools of occultism, theosophy, and spiritualism that flourished in Oxford as well. All the spiritual alternatives were on offer, all could be sampled, but there was little room for indifference– certainly not for a generation that lived through the Great War.”
One particularly memorable aspect of the book is how it humanizes the various real-world effects of literary criticism and academic politics. Readers learn how Oxford was beset by various rivalries, alternative cliques, and other forces that endangered the careers of the Inklings. C.S. Lewis lost a chance at a fine position because people on the voting committee didn’t want somebody who wrote Christian apologetics. It is also revealed how certain literary critics were deeply prejudiced against all things fantasy-related, and how certain prominent academics strove to keep Inkling authors off of the “approved” reading lists. Indeed, The Fellowship underscores the point that there was a distinct “antimodernist” movement in literature and culture that ran parallel to the modernist movement. Even though modernism took hold in academia, as the careers of the Inklings illustrate, the antimodernists still have played a role in shaping the broader culture and intellectual debate.
“If Virginia Woolf was right that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” in the direction of modernism and daring social experiments, the Great War intensified that change; according to standard histories of this period, the rising generation of British writers reacted to the catastrophe by severing ties to tradition an embracing an aesthetic of dissonance, fragmentation, an estrangement. Yet the Great War also instilled in many a longing to reclaim the goodness, beauty, and cultural continuity that had been so violently disrupted. The Inklings came together because they shared that longing; and it was the Inklings, rather than the heirs of the Bloomsbury Group– the other great, if ill-defined, English literary circle of the twentieth century– who gave that longing its most enduring artistic form and substance. Far from breaking with tradition, they understood the Great War and its aftermath in the light of tradition, believing, as did their literary and spiritual ancestors, that ours is a fallen world yet not a forsaken one. It was a belief that set them at odds with many of their contemporaries, but kept in the broad currents of the English literary heritage. They shared much with Bloomsbury, including love of beauty, companionship, and conversation, but they differed from their older London counterpart in their religious ardor, their social conservatism, and their embrace of fantasy, myth, and (mostly) conventional literary techniques instead of those dazzling experiments with time, character, narrative, and language that mark the modernist aesthetic.”
Throughout The Fellowship, we see a subtle argument that realism may be overrated, that the use of fantasy provides an emotional and imaginative sphere that fiction that precisely mirrors the real world cannot. The idea that imaginative and speculative fiction can tell truths and lessons and provide a connection to the reader that other forms of life cannot is an impressive one, because it contends that creating a supernatural world is critical to exploring supernatural issues connected to religion and morality.
“Fantasy, then, was in Oxford’s blood, and it is no wonder that the major Inklings experimented in so many fantastic subgenres (myth, science fiction, fable, epic fantasy, children’s fantasy, supernatural thriller, and more). They chose to be fantasists for a variety of reasons– or, rather, fantasy seemed to choose them, each one falling in love with the genre in youth (Lewis in Ireland, Tolkien in Birmingham, Williams and Barfield in London) many years before coming to Oxford. Their passion arose, in part, from the sheer excitement of the genre, the intoxication of entering the unknown and fleeing the everyday. For all of the leading Inklings, however, the rapture of the unknown pointed also to something more profound; it was a numinous event, an intimation of a different, higher, purer world or state of being. Fantasy literature was, for the Inklings, a pathway to this higher world and a way of describing, through myth and symbol, its felt presence. Fantasy became the voice of faith. And it made for a cracking good story.”
The Fellowship is a “cracking good story” of its own. The book manages to make each of its four central characters real, living persons, with noticeable flaws that are dwarfed by their virtues. Tolkien often comes across as curmudgeonly and sharply critical of his peers’ work, but he remains a loving family man whose force of will helped to propel the literary careers of those close to him. Lewis’ personal problems and turbulent early life underscore just how revolutionary and transformative his embrace of faith became.
This book is in many ways an epic of the twentieth century, emphasizing how war shaped the minds and souls of men. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to the next.” The Oxford Inklings built their lives around educating and entertaining others, and this book is a fine testament to their memory and a staunch defense of their legacy.