A Fuller Reading of “The Fellowship” | Holly Ordway | CWR
As an intellectual biography and an account of the Inklings as a whole, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski's new book is very strong—satisfying, engaging, and nuanced
J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams: two of these men are, if not exactly household names, nearly so—who has not heard of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings?. But what about the group called the Inklings; who were they? Why did they matter in wartime Oxford? Do they matter now, in the 21st century?
The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski’s group biography of the Inklings—the first fully developed one since Humphrey Carpenter’s pioneering study of 1978—sets out to answer these questions. It is the first of three new Inklings-related biographies slated to be published this year, the other two being Grevel Lindop’s Charles Williams: The Third Inkling and Abigail Santamaria’s Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C.S. Lewis. The Zaleskis’ book is to be welcomed for giving us a broad-based, big-picture view of this hugely important circle of writers. It wisely does not attempt to displace Diana Glyer’s magisterial study of intra-Inklings influence in The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community.
The Zaleskis’ overall approach is usefully set out in the title: The Fellowship evokes the Fellowship of the Ring, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Like the varied members of that group—hobbits, men, a dwarf, an elf, a wizard—the Inklings were quite different from one another in their personalities, their literary work, their personal lives, and their faith, and yet shared certain elements of a common vision.
The subtitle, “The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams”, shows the book’s particular concerns. The Zaleskis focus on the Inklings’ writing careers, while painting the broader biographical background in enough detail for us to see how their literary works fit into the larger pattern of their lives and relationships. And, in addition to having this literary slant, the book homes in on just four out of the nineteen figures who are generally reckoned to have belonged to the group.
By following these four men chronologically, The Fellowship illuminates how the different strands of their lives intertwined. Seeing their literary interests in the broader context of historical events, work, and family provides insight into their books and to the significance of the Inklings as a whole. The Fellowship also shows, as a quiet but consistent background note, the importance of certain other key Inklings, above all Lewis’s brother Warnie—himself a successful author—whose quiet hospitality was a central element of the group’s success. Likewise, we see the importance of Tolkien’s son Christopher, a junior Inkling, who has famously gone on to do wonders in preserving and extending his father’s literary legacy. These glimpses of Warnie and Christopher, among others, suggest the need for another book, on the Minor Inklings!
Attentive readers will notice that Tolkien is—somewhat unexpectedly—listed first in the subtitle.