They didn’t achieve the literary fame of some of their contemporaries – James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges or T.S. Eliot. They sat in rooms at Magdalen College and The Eagle & Child pub in Oxford and debated, discussed, reads works in progress to each other, critiqued each other, argued, laughed and drank. They were academics and they were Christians, although some had professional lives outside the university and not all of them had what we might call orthodox Christian faith.
But their influence was huge, even in their lifetimes, and it has only grown since their deaths.
In The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski tell the literary story of the four men who were the main Inklings – C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield. The work is filled with their biographical information, but it is more about their thought and ideas, their books, their lectures and influences. And their faith, and not only what they believed but how they believed.
I don’t think I’ve ever used an exclamation point in a book review, but I am now. What a marvelous book this is!
The Zaleskis have undertaken an enormous amount of research and closely read all of Inklings works, major and minor. Their gift is how well they tell this story, deeply sustaining interest for more than 500 pages (and add 73 pages of notes and a 23-page bibliography). The idea for this book, they write, started in the 1980s, with phone calls and letters from the last of four alive, Owen Barfield, to a young writer named Philip Zaleski.
We learn not only about the impact of the writings most familiar today – Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and his Christian apologetic works like The Screwtape Letters – but also how each made major contributions in their academic disciplines. We see the long decades of struggle that Barfield experienced – with most of his career spent as an attorney while his heart was in literary studies. And we understand the contribution of Charles Williams, best known for a book about the Holy Spirit (The Descent of the Dove) but also the author of seven of the strangest novels you are ever likely to read. Williams also had a major impact on the writings of C.S. Lewis.
What’s particularly powerful is how the Zelskis consider each of the four Inklings – and the reader gets warts and all. These were men, men with Christian faith to be sure but also men with human frailties. By giving us a complete picture, we are better able to grasp the impact each of the four had.
Bonus: The Fellowship contains one of the best analyses of The Lord of the Rings I’ve ever come across.
|Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski|
Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski are co-authors of Prayer: A History (2006) and co-editors of The Book of Heaven (2000). He is also co-author of Gifts of the Spirit (2009) and editor of the annual editions of the Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing. Carol is the author of Other World Journeys (1988) and The Life of the World to Come (1996) and a professor of World Religions at Smith College and a columnist for The Christian Century.
If you’re interested in Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, The Fellowship is a wonderful guide to their writings. If you’ve ever wondered where the Harry Potter books came from or why The Game of Thrones made it to television this book will help provide an explanation.
Or if you simply want to know who were some of the major Christian thinkers of the 20th century, who thought about Christianity in the context of learning, academics, history, philology, literary studies, and life, then The Fellowship will serve as a fine introduction.
Top photograph (composite of, clockwise from upper left, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield) – aslanchristianbooks.co.uk.