Book Review: “The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams” (Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski)

Given that it’s Tolkien Appreciation Month, I’ve been reading pretty widely, not just revisiting The Lord of the Rings, but also wading into the waters of Tolkien biography and secondary scholarship.  First up is the new book The Fellowship:  The Literary Lives of the Inklings:  J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams.

As its title suggests, The Fellowship charts the literary and scholarly fortunes of the four key members of the Inklings, a group of men that bonded over their devout Christianity and their belief in the power of fantastic literature to provide meaning to a disordered world plagued by anomie.  Though the cohesiveness of the group weathered many challenges, and while many men came and went during the course of its existence, the assembly left an indelible mark on each of its members, allowing each of them to produce some of the most remarkable works of imaginative literature in the 20th Century.

The authors have a strong grasp of the philosophical roots underpinning both Lewis’s scholarship and his fiction.  Indeed, their discussion of the former helped me, always a Lewis skeptic, gain a newfound appreciation for one of the 20th Century’s most noted Christian apologists.  To be quite honest, I’ve always found The Chronicles of Narnia to be vastly inferior to The Lord of the Rings, and the Zaleskis pay less attention to Lewis’s fantasy series and more attention to his many other works of scholarship, devotion, and fiction.  While not a Christian myself, the skill and aplomb with which the authors depict Lewis’s own conversion and subsequent intellectual and religious rigour granted me a deep and abiding appreciation for his genius.

There are also a few compelling observations about Tolkien’s work, including the note that Tom Bombadil represents an escape from the terrors of history that afflict the other characters.  The Fellowship allows us to understand Tolkien in all of his vast complexity:  a man of incredibly devout Catholic faith; a rigorous and vigorous scholar who wrote incredibly textured and insightful scholarship on his beloved Anglo-Saxon; and, bringing these two together, something of a visionary of fantasy, using the act of subcreation to show how fiction can both express God’s divine plan and bring us closer to that plan.  Yet, as with the other Inklings in the book, Tolkien was sometimes not very pleasant, and could indeed be quite cutting (almost vicious) in his criticisms of both his work and that of others.

Unlike many other reviewers, I actually found the portions of the book dealing with Charles Williams and Owen Barfield to be some of the most compelling.  It is certainly true that the two of them have become overshadowed by Tolkien and Lewis, but they were rigorous philosophers and compelling fiction-writers on their own, and the authors devote several chapters to looking at their thought and works.  Owen Barfield, as the last surviving of the central four, gains especial attention, and the authors do a creditable job of teasing out both his (admittedly rather strange) belief in anthroposophy and his intense commitment to finding meaning in all aspects of the universe.

All of the Inklings emerge as fully-fledged individuals, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree.  The book doesn’t gloss over the fact that the Inklings was ruthlessly exclusionary along lines of gender, and each of the men had character traits that could be downright unpleasant in certain circumstances.  The book does entertain a rather prurient interest in Warnie Lewis’s chronic alcoholism, which becomes a might distracting (which is a shame, considering he was an immensely well-regarded scholar of French history), and there are other casualties, including Mrs. Moore, C.S. Lewis’s long-time companion.  Yet these are minor flaws and don’t distract from the whole.

In terms of style, the book is accessibly and even entertainingly written.  It moves at a brisk pace, while also slowing down when necessary to move through the intricacies of the philosophical underpinnings of many of the men in the group.  While some have complained that these portions of the book are difficult to follow, I think that any reasonably educated person could grasp the basics of the discussion.  And, given that these men did see themselves as philosophers, this aspect of their intellectual and mental lives is worth addressing in detail.

All in all, The Fellowship does justice to at least the central four that served as the nucleus of the group during its most productive period.  Just as importantly, it allows us to see the ways in which they influence, and continue to influence, the literary and intellectual contours of the 20th, and the 21st, Century.

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