The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York. 2015. pp 644 (512 pages of text - 132 pages notes, references, index etc).
This new book fills a niche for those of us who regard the Inklings as being much more than merely a collection of CS Lewis's friends - and who see them as a group of thinkers and writers who have something of vital importance to say to us now.
There is a large amount of published material concerning the Inklings, scattered across works focused on the specific members - especially Lewis, Tolkien and Williams - but only two previous full-dress group biographies: The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter (1978) and The Company They Keep by Diana Pavlac Glyer (2007).
Both are excellent - Carpenter's a masterpiece of deft orchestration, and Pavlac Glyer's an intense and thorough exploration. But Carpenter is insistent that the Inklings are nothing more than a social group, while Pavlac Glyer regards them as primarily a mutual-help writers group.
The Zaleskis get the focus right for the first time, because they regard the Inklings primarily in a context which might be termed 'socio-spiritual'. In other words, the Inklings are seen as important primarily because they are perhaps the major and most influential representatives of a counter-cultural movement which aims to heal the alienation, meaninglessness, purposelessness, ugliness and nihilism of modernity.
So, The Fellowship is the best-yet book on the Inklings in terms of its primary focus; also its balance and detail. Indeed, The Fellowship is very well-written and constructed - following Tolkien, Lewis and Barfield in a three stranded chronology - then introducing Williams at the point when Coghill, Lewis and Tolkien encountered The Place of the Lion.
(In my opinion, this was the exact point when the Inklings 'gelled' and their implicit purpose began to emerge - http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/tolkien-and-lewiss-annus-divertium-of.html).
The decision to include Barfield to make a core quartet is well justified. Indeed, this was the first time that Barfield has 'come alive' for me, as a real person; and at last I appreciate his prolonged sufferings and disappointments.
Until recently, I have found Barfield's writing the most difficult to engage-with - perhaps because his prose style is relatively plain and his ideas are both deep and unfamiliar. But I am now looking forward to re-engaging with the work with this most subtle and elusive of the Inklings.
The pen-portraits of Tolkien and Lewis strike me as almost wholly accurate and empathic. However, I disagree when the authors are critical of Tolkien - repeatedly! - for what is termed his 'heigh stile'; that is to say his use of archaic forms of language in a context of modern speech.
Of course, archaic pastiche is not to everybody's taste - on the other hand, too much should not be made of it, since clearly it did not prevent Lord of the Rings becoming probably the best loved of all very popular fictions of the twentieth century.
But, personal preferences aside, it is surely unwise to bracket Tolkien's use of archaisms with those of other authors; because Tolkien was the most gifted philologist of his generation, and (according to Tom Shippey) no-one alive can match him in knowledge and understanding.
Tolkien knew exactly what he was doing with the English language, and he did it.
Unlike the other three main Inklings in this study; Charles Williams, as seems almost inevitable, is described 'from the outside' and we don't get a feel for what he was 'really like'.
However, this is not really a failure on the part of the Zaleskis; because I don't know whether there ever has been, or ever will be, anyone who can identify with Charles Williams to the extent of understanding his core being and motivation!
Despite thirty years of intermittent effort in reading dozens of accounts of the man and plumbing his works, I myself regard Williams inner self as a mystery; and this seems to have been the case for everyone who wrote about him. Indeed, all we can say is that those who thought they did understand Williams (such as CS Lewis or TS Eliot) can now be seen to have been mistaken.
I was impressed with the evaluation of Williams ouvre, and I agree with the negative judgement on his poetry. Williams reputations stands or falls on his novels (especially The Place of the Lion) and his main critical and theological work - although I personally have a blind spot about The Figure of Beatrice, which most people regard as one of Williams very best things.
The Zaleskis also have a blind spot, about Lewis's The Screwtape Letters! This book strikes them as sophomoric and an over-extended joke; and as probably destined for long-term oblivion. My opinion is the opposite, and that Screwtape will survive and be cherished when Mere Christianity, Miracles and the other apologetics have come to seem dated. Time will tell.
The Fellowship wears its scholarship lightly, but it is very accurate - and I only spotted a handful of trivial errors among the tens of thousands of facts. In only one respect would I regard the book as significantly mistaken - and that is a matter of interpretation.
The Fellowship repeats near-universal belief that Tolkien did not much like Charles Williams, and that he was jealous of Lewis's devotion. This leads the Zaleskis to doubt Tolkien's sincerity in his letter of condolence to William's widow in 1945 when Tolkien says 'I had grown to admire and love your husband deeply'.
But I have argued that in reality, according to all contemporary evidence, Tolkien did 'love' Charles Williams until more than a decade after Williams death.
Indeed, it was only after the revelations concerning CW's infidelities and involvement with ritual magic became public knowledge in the late 1950s that Tolkien had anything negative to say about him. Only then did Tolkien apparently revise his attitudes - and it is these retrospective re-interpretations that have misled biographers.
That Tolkien was indeed prone to negative retrospective re-evaluations during the early 1960s is confirmed on page 484 of this study, which documents Tolkien's contemporary 'sniping' posthumous comments about CS Lewis (including Letters to Malcolm), and explains them as probably due to his 'drear' state of mind during this period:
'mired in the bottomless bog... trapped fast by illness, overwork, and anxiety over his wife's health, his children's faith, and his own failing powers. Exhaustion and depression lowered his inhibitions and loosened his tongue.'
This is an important thing to get right, since it concerns the core dynamic of The Inklings in their most intense and important phase - during the 1939-45 war, when Williams was living in Oxford. So, my hope is that this might be corrected in a future edition of this study - assuming, that is, that the authors are convinced by my arguments!
Despite The Fellowship's relative comprehensiveness, there still remains much to be done in Inklings studies; not least because the fascination and influence of this group continues to deepen and spread.
Jack Lewis's life has been thoroughly documented - but the same cannot yet be said of Tolkien's. A detailed new biography of Charles Williams is imminent from Grevel Lindop. The fifth most important Inkling - especially as a listener and audience - was Warnie Lewis, and his life and work is still somewhat hazy; and this is even more the case for 'Humphrey' Havard. Plenty of work ahead...
In the meantime, here at last we have the definitive book, the go-to volume, on the Inklings. It is the first book to read if you want to find out about this group
For this much thanks!