The Fellowship: The Literary Lives Of The Inklines, by Philip & Carol Zaleski
This ambitions book, coming in at more than 500 pages of text and ample endnotes that demonstrate the authors’ command of the sources of the Inklings’ goings on, is the sort of book that any group of talented friends would love to have written about them. The Inklings, as a fairly loose sort of group of friends, all of whom were immensely talented, and all of whom were somewhat strongly sensitive to criticism, made for an unusual but also an unusually influential group of people bound by a Christian worldview (albeit diversely expressed) as well as a strong attraction to the legitimacy of fantasy literature as an expression of serious creative energies. Although not all of the Inklings focused on are particularly well known, the authors make a good case for focusing on the Inklings that they do, those who were the most creative throughout the course of their lives, and those who had the most important role in the operations of the Inklings and had the most solid attendance records. Although the cover focuses on J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams, those who are fans of the more obscure Inklings will likely not be disappointed as there is plenty of room to discuss the larger creativity of the other Inklings, including Warnie Lewis, who is often commented on for his gentleness of spirit that allowed the conflicts and the strong personalities in the group to coexist for years despite tensions.
In terms of its organization and structure, the authors begin in a mostly chronological fashion, covering the childhood of the main people discussed, starting with Tolkien and Lewis, and then picking up the thread of the lives of others once they intersect with the Inklings in nascent form. In some areas, the book covers familiar ground to those who read about the formative nature of the the World War I experience for Lewis and Tolkien or the speculations on Lewis’ writings and opaque personal life , but the authors do great work in focusing a lot of attention on the unfamiliar lives of some of the less familiar Inklings. Many readers of the book will already know that Warnie Lewis was an alcoholic, but the details of his lengthy and unsuccessful battle against the bottle are heartbreaking, even as his study of the French ancien regime was itself a worthy set of books that look worthy of reading. Likewise, Charles William’s double life between passionately creative Christian and hobbyist in fairly light and emotionally adulterous sadomasochism is quite shocking, as is Barfield’s unfaithfulness to his wife and his esoertic speculations on the astral plane. Other Inklings, like Dyson, were highly critical but not always creative themselves. Dyson’s comments about hobbits are unprintable (at least in a family-oriented blog like this one) but demonstrate someone for whom envy gets the better of good feeling. There is also a sense of autumnal ripeness about the ending of this book as it discusses the decrepitude and death of the last Inklings during the 1970’s through the 1990’s, reminding us that the group of friends was vitally important for their effect on contemporary literature.
As someone whose writing and thinking have been profoundly influenced by the work of the Inklings, particularly Lewis and Tolkien , what I found most notable about this book was the way it discussed an informal friendship that enriched its participants. Sharing hours of conversation, encouraging each other in one’s work, writing glowing book reviews (often anonymously) as a way of helping to promote each other’s works, all of those are things I could easily see myself doing in a group of creative friends with a shared commitment to creativity as well as belief systems. Among the most important aspects of this book is the way in which it shows how others can profit by imitation, so long as there is a commitment to regular meeting, and people who can handle the logistics and provide a rough and ready pattern of behavior that serves to encourage others with a core membership. Some readers will likely dislike the fact that the core group of the Inklings was entirely male, and lament the lack of female company, even though many of the Inklings (especially Lewis) had fruitful relationships with female writers. One of my occasional random thoughts upon reading this book was wondering whether it would be feasible among my own circle of friends and acquaintances to provide a Festschrift of essays and papers about subjects near and dear to the heart of aging scholars or ministers or writers. Of course, many people would not think of such things when they read a book, but for me, reading tends to inspire plans for more writing, just as writing often requires more reading for background or research. This is the sort of book that inspires both more reading and more writing, which is one of the measures of a very good book.
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