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 and Giroux, 2015
656 pages, $35
To order: amazon.com
Devotees of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien are usually aware that the Inklings was the name of an informal circle of Christian writers and scholars at Oxford University, of which Lewis and Tolkien were principal members. Most people are less familiar with the other members of the group — Owen Barfield, Charles Williams and a few others. In The Fellowship, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski fill in these gaps and fling open the doors of a treasure house of information about this fascinating group of men, who not only formed and influenced each other, but shaped arts and letters in and beyond the 20th century.
The book starts with the early life of Lewis and Tolkien, including their experiences in the trenches of World War I and the post-war beginnings of their legendary careers at Oxford. Readers are then introduced to the talented but frustrated Owen Barfield, who, despite early success in fiction and scholarship, faltered artistically and ended up making his living in law, achieving the notoriety he dreamed of only late in life. Then there’s Charles Williams, an editor at Oxford University Press, lay scholar and fantasy novelist, who wrote a groundbreaking work on Dante and a treatise on romantic love not dissimilar to Pope St. John Paul II’s theology of the body.
The Inklings was actually founded, by that very name, by an Oxford undergraduate as a club for students and instructors. The year was 1932. Tolkien and Lewis were energetic young dons, solidly ensconced in their academic posts and making names for themselves in their respective fields. Previous clubs they had been involved in consisted of reading and discussing published literary and scholarly works or were purely social. The innovative purpose of the Inklings was to discuss works in progress. After the founder’s graduation, the Inklings continued as a slightly more formal coalescence of what Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield and their colleagues had already been doing for years: getting together to discuss their work or whatever else they were thinking about.
As a literary biography, The Fellowship excels in connecting the lives of these artists to their work. “[T]he Inklings constituted Oxford’s nearest recent approximation of a ‘school’ … a school of ideas expressed through adventurous but learned fantasy.”
Lewis and Tolkien fans will love this book, but be forewarned: Lewis’ conversion to Christianity was long, tortuous and not exactly G-rated. Barfield considered himself a Christian, but he was also a disciple of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, an esoteric movement with beliefs incompatible with orthodox Christianity. Williams was an Anglican, but his early experience with Freemasonry, occultism and magic had profound negative effects on his life and possibly his mental health. Tolkien, however, remained a faithful Catholic his whole life.
Clare Walker writes from