Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (2015)
Love them or hate them — and there are large camps on both sides — it’s undeniable that CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien have had a huge impact on the imaginative landscape of the last century. Where did their tales of planetary travel, magical wardrobes, sinister rings, and elves, dwarves and hobbits come from? What were the sources of their Christian faith, and how was it expressed in their fiction and nonfiction? What do they still have to say to us in today’s post-modern, highly secular world?
To understand the Tolkien/Lewis phenomenon, it’s vital to see them in their context of friends, fellow academics, and colleagues, particularly the circle known as The Inklings, a semi-informal writers’ group that saw the genesis of many of their most important works. Two lesser-known members of the group, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, played crucial roles in its development, and particularly influenced Lewis as intellectual foils and sparring partners. In The Fellowship, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski explore the extraordinary creative ferment of the Inklings with zest, lucidity, and intelligence.
The Zaleskis are clearly in the friendly camp, but avoid idolizing their subjects excessively, bringing in some of their less savory sides while ultimately refraining from passing judgment. (Lewis lived for many years with a married older woman; the angelic Williams had a taste for sadism.) They adroitly juggle the stories of the four men and their overlapping paths toward Oxford, painting a fascinating picture of the flowering of a literary circle within the turbulent years of a world at war. Even in a book whose main section exceeds 500 pages, it’s not possible to exhaustively cover each life; some personal details are glossed over, the emphasis being on their “literary lives” as the subtitle states. But in general a fine balance is struck between the private and public sides of the Inklings, and much light is shed on the sources and reverberations of their work.
For any avid reader of any of these four writers, this is an essential and highly enjoyable book. Even those who disdain Lewis’s popular Christian apologetics or Tolkien’s Hobbit epic may, the Zaleskis hope, “come to see that Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, Williams, and their associates, by returning to the fundamentals of story and exploring its relation to faith, transcendence, and hope, have renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature.” That’s my hope, too, and my reason for continuing to hold these four writers as touchstones for my literary life.