The Fellowship: A book review by Bob Morris

FellowshipThe Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams
Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)

How and why a small, informal discussion group is viewed today as “a major literary force, a movement of sorts”

Who were the “Inklings”? Briefly, the name refers to an informal discussion group that met weekly, founded by a student in University College at Oxford University, Edward Tangye Lean, in the early 1930s. Its purpose was to have compositions (i.e. works-in-progress) read and discussed. Membership consisted of students, teachers, and others with some manner of association with the University. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien joined, as did Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. Later, the group met in Lewis’ quarters in Magdalen College. In this volume, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski focus primarily on Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams.

TheEagleandChildMoreover, “they also could be seen regularly on Tuesday mornings, gathered for food and conversation in a side nook of a smoky pub at 49 St. Giles’, known to passersby as the Eagle and Child but to habitués as the Bird and Baby.” They explain how and why, during several decades, these four and their associates discussed literature, religion, and ideas; read aloud from works-in-progress; took philosophical rambles throughout the woods and fields nearby; shared companionship and constructive criticism; and in process, rewrote the cultural history of their times.

When Warren Lewis, C.S. Lewis’s brother, realized that the Inklings had “already passed into literary legend,” he felt obliged to explain the group’s nature: “Properly speaking it was neither a club nor a literary society, though it partook of the nature of both. There were no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections — unless one counts it as a rule that we met in Jack [C.S. Lewis]’s rooms at Magdelan every Thursday evening after dinner…The ritual of an Inklings was unvarying. When half a dozen or so had arrived, tea would be produced, and then when pipes were well alight Jack would say, ‘Well, has nobody got anything to read us?’ Out would come a manuscript, and we would settle down to sit in judgment upon it — real unbiased judgment, too, since we were no mutual admiration society; praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work — or even not-so-good work — was often brutally frank.”

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of the Zaleskis’ coverage in the first ten chapters:

o “Friendship to the Nth Power” (Pages 26-28)
o The Pudaita Bird (36-38)
o The Banks of the Styx (43-49)
o Introduction to J.R.R. Tolkien (57-72 and 123-143)
o Introduction to C.S. Lewis (72-98 and 144-172)
o Introduction to Owen Barfield (99-122)
o The Evolution of Consciousness (105-107)
o The “Great War” (110-114)
o Opening a New World (124-129)
o Benedictus Qui Venit in Nomine Domini (137-143)
o Introduction to C.S. Lewis (72-98 and 144-172)
o Realism…And Idealism (156-162)
o Duties and Pleasures (167-172)
o “The Fire Was Bright and the Talk Good” (176-185)
o The Pilgrim’s Regress (189-191)
o The Hobbit (202-209)
o The Extraordinary Ordinary (209-213)
o Introduction to Charles Williams (221-230)
o The Theology of Romance (232-233)

I was especially interested in what the Zaleskis have to say about the artistic maturation of several Inklings, notably Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams. Fantasy was in the Oxford community’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…For all the leading Inklings, however, the rapture of the unknown pointed also to something more profound; it was a numinous event, an imitation of a different, higher, purer world or state of being.”

It should be added Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams, especially, did not indulge fantasy independent of their ideas; rather, as David Cecil suggests, “it was fantasy about their ideas. Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski concur: “The Inklings, then, constituted ‘Oxford’s nearest recent approximation to a school…a school of ideas expressed through adventurous but learned fantasy.’ Whatever the Inklings may have been during their most clubbable years, today they constitute a major force, a movement of sorts. As symbol, inspiration, guide and rallying cry, the Inklings grow more influential each year.”

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