Biographies of the Inklings

The Fellowship:  The Literary Lives of the Inklings     Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski     (2015)

Confession:  I find JRR Tolkien’s mythopoeic masterpiece The Lord of the Rings too dark. CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which have enchanted generations of children, hammer the Christian allegory too hard for my taste. Charles Williams’ Arthurian poems in Taliessin Through Logres are impenetrable. As for Owen Barfield, I’d heard of him only vaguely as an odd writer on anthroposophy, of which I’m not a devotee.

So why did I check out from the library a 644-page biography of these four authors?  Because Lewis’s scholarly book The Allegory of Love had enormous influence on me when I was a student of medieval literature. Lewis validated the Middle Ages as producing serious literary works, not just pieces of antiquarian interest—if you were willing to learn its tenets and culture. And my copy of Tolkien’s edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, my favorite Middle English work, has been thumbed so often that it’s falling apart. His glossary for that text, and for Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose, were indispensable when I worked as a lexicographer with the Middle English Dictionary.

I thought that I might skim the Zaleskis’ book The Fellowship for bits on the relation of Lewis and Tolkien and on the context of their era at Oxford. I ended up gobbling the story of the Inklings whole, fascinated by the Zaleskis’ ability to selectively include minute detail and still maintain readability for chapter after chapter, decade after decade of the tumultuous twentieth century. The Fellowship follows the Inklings before, during, and after two world wars and innumerable academic skirmishes. The dates of the four principal Inklings reveal the scope: Lewis (1898-1963), Tolkien (1892-1973), Williams (1886-1945), and Barfield (1898-1997).

The bulk of the biography is dedicated to these four Inklings, whom the Zaleskis have wisely selected for their literary prominence. I was bemused at first about the inclusion of Barfield, since he didn’t seem to write much in the 1930s and 1940s, when the other Inklings were prolific. It turns out that, to make a living, Barfield had to spend decades toiling as a lawyer, finding little time for his own pursuits. Finally, in 1957, he was able to move into semi-retirement and spend the rest of his very long life probing issues of consciousness.

The Zaleskis had to draw a circle around the core of the Inklings, who held weekly discussions for thirty years, but other members and hangers-on enter into the narrative, too. I hadn’t expected that Lewis’s older brother Warren, called “Warnie,” would be a part of the extended group. Warnie, who struggled with alcoholism throughout his life (1895-1973), was a respected historian in his own right and assisted his brother on both practical and intellectual fronts.

Even Dorothy L. Sayers (1893-1957) comes in for several mentions, although as a female she would not have been invited to join the Inklings. Sayers, who’s a favorite of mine, produced both scholarly works on Dante and popular murder mysteries (the Lord Peter Wimsey series).

Neville Coghill (1899-1980) and JAW Bennett (1911-1981) were other distinguished medievalists associated with the Inklings at one time or another. In fact, a fascination with the medieval period was a hallmark of much of the writing of the Inklings. As the Zaleskis tell us, “Their great hope was to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, to reenchant the world through Christian faith and pagan beauty.” The fields they plowed were fantasy and epic, allegory and myth, philology and theology—all rooted in the past. In 1954 Lewis gave a controversial lecture at Cambridge called “De Descriptione Temporum” (“On the Description of Eras”), in which he argued that the divisions of history into Antiquity, the Dark Ages, the Middles Ages, and the Renaissance are artificial, ignoring the continuities of Western culture. Lewis saw a much more significant break from this culture, which he revered, in the early nineteenth century, with the beginnings of modernism.

Lewis was much sought after as a speaker on ethics who was able to convey complex philosophical principles and Christian religious doctrines in simple language. I hadn’t known that he presented many well-received lecture series on the radio for the BBC, especially during World War II. The account of Tolkien’s literary life also held some surprises for me. He didn’t create Middle Earth solely as a parallel universe in which to situate his non-human characters. His larger goal was to construct an entire British mythology, comparable to that found in medieval Scandinavian literatures.

The Inklings were astonishingly hard-working and well-read, fluent in dozens of ancient, medieval, and modern languages. Yet they all had unsuccessful books, difficulties in their family lives, and crises of faith. This biography doesn’t spare the reader their blunders, their arguments, and their occasional pigheadedness. So, while fans of The Hobbit or of Perelandra will find plenty of background on the genesis of the Inklings’ writings, they’ll also find the brilliant—and flawed—Inklings in The Fellowship