“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 Giroux)


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 Giroux. 644 pp. $35

In “The Fellowship,” Philip and Carol Zaleski examine the lives and works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, but — their book’s subtitle notwithstanding — the focus is less literary than religious or metaphysical. What did the Inklings, as this group of friends called themselves, believe? How did their beliefs affect their writing and thinking? What did they hope to achieve with their novels, stories and nonfiction? These are the sort of questions that most interest the Zaleskis. Overall, they argue that the Inklings aimed at nothing less than “a revitalization of Christian intellectual and imaginative life.”

This thesis isn’t surprising given that Carol Zaleski teaches religion at Smith College and that her husband, Philip, once edited “The Best American Spiritual Writing” series. Yet the couple’s ideological approach hasn’t precluded them from packing an enormous amount of biographical information and useful insight into “The Fellowship.” Did you know that Lewis read E.R. Eddison’s heroic fantasy “The Worm Ouroboros” at least six times? That Tolkien loathed Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey more than any other character in literature? That in the late ’50s Marquette University bought the manuscripts of “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings” and other Tolkien works for just 1,500 pounds?

All four of these writers, as well as a handful of other friends, met regularly over beer in an Oxford pub to discuss their scholarly and literary projects — or almost anything else. One evening’s conversation, according to Lewis’s brother Warnie, touched on “red-brick universities . . . torture, Tertullian, bores, the contractual theory of medieval kingship, and odd place-names.” In general, the all-male group shared a longing for that half-imaginary time before man’s alienation from God, nature and self, the time before the chaos and materialism of the post-industrial era had displaced the elegantly organized cosmos of the Middle Ages. In their ­various ways, each hoped to spearhead a rehabilitation, a re-enchantment of our fallen world.

Christianity, the Zaleskis remind us, was central to their lives. Tolkien, for example, attended Mass every morning and found great comfort in holy communion. Yet if you were to name the great Catholic novelists of 20th-century Britain, would Tolkien be on the list with G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Muriel Spark? Probably not. Middle Earth lacks any theological system one would call Christian, let alone Catholic. There are no churches in the Shire and, at best, only vague hints of some kind of afterlife. One might liken Morgoth — the evil Sauron’s master — to Satan, and the Valar to demigods or archangels, but this is reading into the text. Nonetheless, the Zaleskis assert that the tales of Middle Earth are suffused with Christian themes, such as “pity and mercy, faith and trust, humility, self-sacrifice, the powers of the weak, providence (disguised as chance), freedom (deformed by sin), and grace when all seems lost.”

This is certainly true, yet are these virtues and ideals restricted to Christianity? I would rather believe the more general statement: that “The Lord of the Rings” is a fusion of “invented mythology, imagined history, high fantasy, and deep piety.” In fact, Tolkien created a secondary world, one with its own integrity. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” the great scholar of Old English and northern saga gave the name “subcreation” to this kind of epic myth-making. There, too, he emphasized the signal importance of “eucatastrophe,” a happy ending unexpectedly achieved in the face of imminent defeat.

Much has been written about the creator of Middle Earth — Tom Shippey’s “J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century” is still the best critical introduction — and even more about the ebullient Lewis, now widely revered as a champion of the Christian literary imagination. The Zaleskis track the evolution of Lewis’s beliefs through his numerous publications, so that their interpretations of, say, “Out of the Silent Planet” and “Perelandra” depict these planetary romances as (rather tedious-sounding) explorations of Anglican dogma. They devote several excellent pages to Lewis’s “The Allegory of Love,” but only note briefly his later works of scholarship. Here “Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer” receives far more attention than Lewis’s magisterial history of English literature during the 16th century or “The Discarded Image,” his brilliant précis of the medieval worldview. No adoring acolytes though, the Zaleskis frequently draw attention to Lewis’s faults as a Christian apologist, noting the “condescension” in some of his books and their frequent mix of “affable common-sense laced with sentimentality.”

Many readers of “The Fellowship” will, I suspect, be at least vaguely familiar with the lives and achievements of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. But what about Charles Williams and Owen Barfield? Who were they?

Williams spent most of his adult life working for the Oxford University Press, while also writing poetry and plays, and producing valuable, if somewhat idiosyncratic, Christian scholarship, notably “The Descent of the Dove,” about the Holy Ghost in history, and “The Figure of Beatrice,” about Dante’s muse. Today though, he is largely remembered for his spiritual thrillers — the best is probably “All Hallows’ Eve” — featuring the Holy Grail, the Tarot, the Seal of Solomon, Platonic archetypes taking physical form and all sorts of black magic.

Williams himself was something of a Christian magician. While remaining technically faithful to his wife, he regularly dallied with the souls, if not the bodies, of a series of attractive younger admirers. His attitude toward these besotted women alternated between reverential courtly love and spiritual bullying, sometimes with a streak of sadomasochism. One disciple was caned for failing to be sufficiently charitable. Obviously a complicated man and audacious writer, Williams was also a brilliant lecturer and probably Lewis’s closest friend.

While Barfield, a philologist and philosopher, did write some fiction (e.g., the children’s fantasy “The Silver Trumpet” ), he is known mainly for such books as “History in English Words” and “Poetic Diction.” In these, he explores how our language affects our understanding, in particular how an era’s words embody the character and limits of what people know of themselves and the world. A London lawyer by financial necessity, he was also a prominent disciple of Rudolf Steiner, whose “spiritual science” of anthroposophy charted the continuing evolution of human consciousness. Barfield sparred regularly with Lewis who, he claimed, suffered from RUP — the “residue of unresolved positivism.” Late in life, this last of the major Inklings taught in the United States, first at Drew University and later at Brandeis, produced an important book on Coleridge’s thought and became — for a while — a friend and adviser to Saul Bellow, who was deeply drawn to Steiner’s mystical thinking.

Tolkien famously said that “the road goes ever on and on,” and at 600-plus pages it sometimes seems that “The Fellowship” does, too. Besides its sheer length, the book’s religious focus, though obviously legitimate, may limit its audience appeal. Still, the Zaleskis have produced a major work of biography and criticism, and if you are a devotee of any of the Inklings, you will want to read it.

Dirda reviews books each Thursday in The Washington Post.

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