It is The Year of the Inklings. Again. Few groups in literary or religious history have received more attention that the Oxford Christians - broadly understood - or the Inklings, that small male enclave centered around C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, two of the most popular and influential religious writers in history. In the past few years, Lewis has been the subject of a great new biography by Alister McGrath, and his imaginative works explored in a marvelous study by Rowan Williams, and this year, again, we see new books on the influence and work of Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, et. al. on the shelves. Chief among them this year are The Fellowship, the best-selling literary biography of the Inklings by Carol and Philip Zaleski, two of America's foremost writers on religion.
The Fellowship received a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and was one of their most anticipated biographies of the year. It should be well anticipated: the book is a substantial gift, reflecting years of study, thoughtful appreciation, and critical engagement. In this exclusive interview for Patheos, the Zaleskis explain their attraction to the Inklings and help us understand why one more book on the group matters.
The Inklings - especially C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien - have oft been written about, including a couple of new books out at this moment alongside yours. What prompted the two of you to write about these figures? What did you think that you particularly could bring to this study that hadn't been offered yet?
There is a vast body of scholarly writing about Lewis and Tolkien, and a growing body of work on Barfield, Williams, and others in their circle. We entered this stream because we admire these authors, have been inspired by them, and have lived with them on and off for our entire adult lives.
The Fellowship is the most detailed birth-to-death biography to date of the four authors taken together, and provides the fullest treatment of Owen Barfield (whose thought was barely touched upon by Humphrey Carpenter). It is not intended to take the place of the major biographies and reference works on the individual Inklings. We will be pleased if it is seen as a worthy complement to other studies of the whole group - such as Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings, from thirty years ago; Diana Pavlac Glyer's The Company They Keep; and Colin Duriez's several books on Lewis and Tolkien (including a new book called The Oxford Inklings). Our bibliography and endnotes, amounting to nearly a hundred pages, testify to the vigor and extent of Inklings studies. And there are more works on the horizon, including forthcoming biographies of Joy Davidman and Charles Williams. The Road of Inklings scholarship goes ever on and on!
What we brought to this study that is not found elsewhere is our personal appraisal of the Inklings' literary legacy and spiritual and cultural significance. We present this appraisal in the context of a synthetic vision of the narrative arc of these four extraordinary lives - a vision that took shape over many years as we combed through the primary sources, their letters, diaries, reviews, essays, works of historical and philological scholarship, fictional writings, scribblings and drawings. Our aim, above all, was to produce an engaging and entertaining literary account of these four scintillating minds (bodies included).
Rowan Williams described your book as "sympathetic but not uncritical," which, as we might expect, is a lovely and accurate judgment. You write with awareness and admiration of the gifts, shortcomings, and accomplishments of the Inklings. What do you think is their greatest accomplishment, particularly viewed from our vantage point of half a century or more? What most surprised you in the writing of the book?
It's hard to choose just one greatest accomplishment, since the Inklings were far from monolithic and had no conception of themselves as a formal movement. Tolkien's great achievement was The Lord of the Rings and the mythology with which he infused his tale, with its invented languages, consistent nomenclature, deeply worked out geography, and spiritual depth. Nothing on this scale had ever been done before; and nothing quite like it has been done since, even though it has certainly galvanized the imagination of a great number of the most creative writers, artists, and filmmakers of our times. Lewis's greatest achievement was his recovery of "old Europe" - his communication in an extraordinary variety of genres and idioms, scholarly, popular, and imaginative, a fully realized, culturally rich, deeply humanizing Christian worldview. Barfield cured Lewis of his "chronological snobbery" and went on to write fascinating studies of the "evolution of consciousness" as evidenced by the history of words. Williams - how to describe his accomplishments in a sentence? - wrote compelling "supernatural shockers" and developed a characteristic "Romantic theology" in which Dante and 20th-century esotericism played almost equal parts.
Religiously, they were far from homogeneous: Tolkien was a devout Catholic, Lewis an ecumenically-minded Anglican, Barfield an Anthroposophist, Williams an Anglican mage. That they could find common ground, or make common cause, despite undeniable tensions and disagreements, is an encouragement to those who care about ecumenism.
As writers, they were not always paragons of style; cloying elements, false archaisms, labored allegories mar even the best works of these writers. They were great storytellers, but not great poets. As human beings, they had their foibles, too; Charles Williams was particularly (and paradoxically) strange. But their closets, as far as we could peer into them, were relatively skeleton-free; they were impressively decent men, for the most part free of excessive vanity and literary pretentiousness; they were faithful lovers, generous to strangers, honorable friends. It may make for less sensational copy, but there is something cheering for a biographer in writing about a 20th-century literary coterie that did not go in for massively destructive patterns of behavior.
Alister McGrath has recently argued that World War I, which we're currently commemorating, should be seen as much more central to the Lewis legacy than is usually done. You've noted how 20 percent of Oxford students who served in the Great War lost their lives. What's your impression about how the war and its aftermath shaped the project of the Inklings?
We agree with Alister McGrath's assessment. Lewis has remarkably little to say in his memoir Surprised by Joy about his experience at the front, but we know that it haunted his dreams. The profound extent to which Tolkien was shaped by his war experience is well known, thanks to John Garth's Tolkien and the Great War and Janet Brennan Croft's War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Not only their own harrowing wartime experiences, but the loss of intimate friends scarred Lewis and Tolkien permanently and redirected the course of both their lives. Indeed all the Inklings, and their whole generation, suffered wounds from the two world wars that Americans, as we think back to those times, may not fully appreciate. The tremendous losses made the prospect of fellowship (in particular, male camaraderie) all the more inviting.
During World War II, when Lewis and Tolkien were too old for active duty, their main wartime service was to tell stories: stories that fully acknowledged the terrors of our world, but also held out hope. Lewis became famous during these years for telling the Christian story ("mere Christianity") in a series of instructive and consoling talks on the BBC Radio. For these Christian authors, war was just one more piece of evidence that we live in a world whose original beauty and goodness have been marred by malice and violence - a world under siege, a fallen world, yet not a forsaken one. This is the great underlying theme of their various literary works.
You write that "those who delight in mythology and fantasy already have one foot in a spiritual cosmos." What are some of your findings about how the Inklings unleashed the power of imagination with the hope of approaching something transcendent?
We read, Lewis once said, because "we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. . . . We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own." All literature offers us this gift - it takes us out of ourselves - but mythopoeic literature has a particular power to make spiritual realities imaginatively plausible. That doesn't mean that religious people need or wish to live in a dream world, lulled by compensatory fantasies. Far from it! If the Inklings succeeded as writers it was because they wedded realism to hope and fantasy to reason.
The book is as much about the friendship or fellowship of these great writers and thinkers as it is their individual works. How did they shape each other? Can you think of any similar circumstances where a group of writers have been so powerfully shaped by each other?
Friendship is a major theme of this book, as the title suggests, though we are equally interested in the individual trajectories and idiosyncrasies of each author. They were not always together, and not always on good terms. And there were many other influences shaping their lives - family, professional colleagues, literary and academic rivalries, and extra-Inkling friends.
The main way in which the Inklings shaped one another was simple encouragement. As Lewis puts it in The Four Loves, "The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, 'What? You too? I thought I was the only one'." The Inklings were able to say this sort of thing to one another, and to defend one another against the vitriol of some critics; such fellowship was vital to their literary productivity and to their mental health.
In The Company They Keep, Diana Pavlac Glyer demonstrates (against claims by Humphrey Carpenter and others to the contrary), that there are clear signs in their individual works of mutual influence. Glyer is continuing to investigate the creative power of collaboration, among the Inklings and also in other literary circles, as a source of inspiration and guidance for writers of all kinds.
Finally, as your last question suggests, there is a long history of informal intellectual clubs. We mention the 18th-century Scriblerus Club, which included Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and John Arbuthnot as well as Samuel Johnson's dinner-and-discussion circle, called "The Club," and we compare the Inklings to the older, convention-busting Bloomsbury Group. This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. Think of Wordsworth and Coleridge; their Lyrical Ballads may be regarded as inaugurating the literary and spiritual movement to which the Inklings, as latter-day Romantics, were heir. And though "clubbability" is a British phenomenon, with its heyday during the expansion of the British empire, there are plenty of examples to consider on our own shores - the Metaphysical Club, for example, to which Louis Menand devoted a wonderful book.