The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings
by philip zaleski and carol zaleski
farrar, straus and giroux, 656 pages, $35
The name they chose for their group was, J. R. R. Tolkien self-effacingly recalls, “a pleasantly ingenious pun . . . suggesting people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.” The description conjures a picture of “donnish dreaminess,” a rag-tag band of tweed-clad writers who met for a pint from time to time.
The English novelist John Wain, himself an occasional Inkling in the 1940s, remembers the group as something wholly different. To him they were a veritable “circle of instigators, almost of incendiaries, meeting to urge one another on in the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life.”
What, then, were the Inklings, really? Philip and Carol Zaleski set out to show us that they were something in between—or, rather, both things at once: whimsical and ponderous, very learned and very fantastical. As David Cecil recalls, “Their fantasy was not indulged independently of their ideas; it was fantasy about their ideas.” And even more importantly, the Zaleskis then ask the question: What are the Inklings to us now? Even if they had conceived of themselves as ruffled, ink-stained, and rather inconsequential, the truth is that they did unleash both a mythic and a Christian awakening of sorts.
In more than six hundred rich pages, these are the two main questions at hand. But as they are being answered, something else comes into focus and, perhaps accidentally, emerges as central: that is, the bond of friendship that existed between these men. The personalities are recounted, the oddities, the attractions, the convergence of views, the misunderstandings. For instance: “The three companions formed a perfect debating circle, a study in types: Barfield, slender, elegant, gently but insistently advancing esoteric doctrines; Lewis, boisterous and belligerent, his face turning bright red as he bellowed objections and distinguos; Harwood, quiet and observant, the go-between, a summoned voice rather than a vociferous one.”
They resembled “an intellectual orchestra, a gathering of sparkling talents in a common cause, each participant the master of his own chosen field,” but there are, of course, many moments of discord and readjustment. Their temperaments cause friction; one bristles at another’s religious convictions or aesthetic sensibilities, and so on. A study of the Inklings is, then, at its heart, a study in friendship—the continuous conversion that it engenders, the lasting fruit that it can bear.
This review was first published as a Briefly Noted in the 2015 June/July print issue.
Bianca Czaderna is a junior fellow at First Things.