The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings
by Philip and Carol Zaleski.
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015.
644 pp., $35.00 cloth.

Evelyn Waugh once complained that during the twentieth century, certain literary coteries had “ganged up and captured” an age’s emblematic stature even though they “by no means comprised the best of the period.” Scholars of the Inklings have uttered a similar grievance, arguing that modern critics have valorized technically innovative but substantively limited movements, like the Bloomsbury group and the Angry Young Men, while contemning the more searching Oxford fabulists as purveyors of sentimental superstition, juvenile quests, and pernicious beast-fables. The Fellowship is one of the most sweeping, spirited, and sophisticated such rehabilitations of the Inklings, regarding their art and vision as equally, if not more, profound as their more celebrated counterparts’: “they constitute a major literary force … [that] made designs on the culture that our own age is only beginning fully to appreciate.” In the process, this study merges the emphasis on personal and literary biography of Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings (1978) with the stress on intellectual development and aesthetic interplay of Diana Glyer’s The Company They Keep (2007); its further focus on the synergy of the Inklings’ religious convictions, scholarly research, and artistic creations allows the Zaleskis’ volume to supplant those forebears as the premiere prosopography of this ring of fellowship. Their account therefore also spurs reflection on the Inklings’ intertwined roles as pioneers of modern fantasy literature and as exemplars of the enduring, subversive vitality of orthodox Christianity as a source of intellectual and imaginative inspiration in a post-Christian culture.

Although the Inklings had a wide, and somewhat fluid, membership, the Zaleskis concentrate on the group’s four principals: C. S. Lewis (1898–1963), J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973), Charles Williams (1886–1945), and Owen Barfield (1898–1997). All of them were drawn to fantasy from childhood, and Oxford had become a center of English fascination with the fantastic, most notably in the works of Lewis Carroll and of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Inklings’ signature contribution to this heritage was, as sometime member David Cecil explained, being “a school of ideas expressed through adventurous but learned fantasy.” One set of ideas their fantasies expressed was traditional Christianity. Lewis claimed that “fairy tales really already contain much of the Spirit,” as mythopoeia and sacramental Christianity both attempt to integrate temporal materiality with the numinous transcendent; in his terms, each is a kind of “symbolism” that “leaves the given to find that which is more real.” Lewis recognized this fusion of the natural and supernatural as a hallmark of Williams’s novels, in which everyday English life is “invaded by the marvellous” (be it the Holy Grail, the Stone of Suleiman, or the Platonic forms) to make the permeability of the quotidian to the eternal plausible for a modern audience. Yet the Inklings cautioned that such articulation of religious themes in fantasy should respect the genre’s integrity, lest a tale degenerate into pious propaganda. For instance, although Tolkien held that it was “impossible to disentangle” religion from art, he nonetheless insisted that the spiritual element must be “absorbed” into the story instead of applied directly to it.

Besides considering fantasy and Christianity to be compatible, the Inklings engaged and avowed specific Christian convictions. Oxford had been the doctrinal and intellectual nucleus of English Christianity historically, and the Inklings perpetuated this patrimony by accenting dogmas particularly pertinent to their era, especially the Fall and Redemption. They all possessed a tragic view of life, as exemplified by Tolkien’s declaration that “a Christian was (and is) … a mortal hemmed in a hostile world.” This awareness of tribulation was often sparked by the early loss of a loved one, and was intensified by confronting technocratic war, what Tolkien termed the “War of the Machines” based on “the great lie that power offers more than love.” Indeed, as the Zaleskis note, even those Inklings who did not share Tolkien’s and Lewis’s front-line service in the Great War found their religion, art, and scholarship molded by that conflict, as all of them tried to “reclaim the goodness, beauty, and cultural continuity that had been so violently disrupted” by the conflagration. However disturbingly novel mechanized combat seemed to them in its destructive force, then, the war remained comprehensible “in the light of tradition” and of the belief that “ours is a fallen world yet not a forsaken one.” These efforts to place total war in historical and religious perspective hence league the Inklings with Christian high modernists like David Jones and T. S. Eliot, whose literary techniques they eschewed or misunderstood, even as these writers collectively comprised a cloud of witnesses to hope in an age of blood and darkness.

But this hope was not facile optimism. It was rather what Tolkien named “eucatastrophe,” an unexpectedly joyous denouement to what had appeared a tragic fate, as epitomized by the providential incarnation and resurrection of Christ. Tolkien’s own legendarium also embodied this concept, most poignantly when Frodo fails to renounce the Ring at the Crack of Doom yet it is nevertheless destroyed through Gollum’s unanticipated seizure of it; even if fallen creatures are unable to overcome evil fully by their unaided natural courage, Tolkien suggests, they can still be saved by the “unlooked-for” assistance of grace. Thus, just as Eliot affirmed that “all shall be well” despite ubiquitous suffering, so the Inklings’ faith in what Lewis dubbed this “good news, news beyond hope” imparted “a felicity with beatitude at the core but bordered by tragedy.”

The Inklings felt that their dedication to the gospels of mythology and Christianity set them at odds with their milieu, and hence that their work could provide release from what Lewis labeled “the prison of the Zeitgeist.” Although often derided as escapists, the Inklings actually saw fantasy as what W. H. Auden called “escape-art”: the creation of an imaginative rival to prevailing norms and institutions that empowers people to rethink and reform them. For example, the Inklings had a strong apprehension that modern Britain was a post-Christian polity, and they thus derived rebellious inspiration from medieval Christendom. Lewis, for one, could “never forget” a foreign visitor’s query about whether Britain was “once a Christian country,” and he referred to his faith as “a great campaign of sabotage.” These Christian efforts to subvert secularism were grounded frequently in a competing vision of society shaped by the Inklings’ interpretation of medieval culture. Their conception of the Middle Ages was not that of antiquarians, but of scholars who discerned certain ideals, which were rooted in Christianity and regularly expressed in myths, that happened to have been realized most fully during that period but that, being true, were applicable to any era. In both his literary histories and his Ransom trilogy, for instance, Lewis endeavored to recover the “medieval model” for modern men, as he strove to “reimagine the universe as an organic whole, teeming with life and intelligence, hierarchically differentiated, and knit together by an inner telos; as a cosmic order whose microcosm is the rational creature made in the image and likeness of God, marred (in our world) by the Fall, but restored by deifying light.” In Lewis’s mind, this Christian humanist cosmology was the antidote to a “crude scientific positivism” that was currently hegemonic but that revitalization of this fundamental alternative could deliver his epoch from: “It will be a comfort to me all my life to know that the scientist and the materialist have not the last word.”

It is therefore unsurprising that the distaste for technology and mechanism that Lewis and the Inklings developed during World War I deepened as the century proceeded, and that its basis was traditional Christianity. To them, Baconian technocracy was rooted in the primal sin of pride and its consequent attempts to usurp God’s control over the natural order would hence end in environmental defilement and, if unchecked, destruction. Tolkien thus decried consistently “the cursed disease of the internal combustion engine of which all the world is dying.” Not only was Tom Bombadil “the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside,” but he averred explicitly that “modern life” was “Mordor in our midst”; indeed, Williams identified a “great strength” of The Lord of the Rings as its contrast of the bucolic peace of Bombadil and the Shire with the mechanized militarism of Mordor. In so depicting a pastoral society governed by a harmonizing ethic of humble stewardship, Tolkien proposed a theologically grounded remedy to twentieth-century mechanophilia and a resultant means of liberation for those who were (in Barfield’s phrase) “caged in the materialism of the age.”

Onetime Inkling John Wain dubbed his confreres “a circle of instigators, almost of incendiaries … [committed to] the task of redirecting the whole current of contemporary art and life.” The Inklings’ rejection of secularism, modernism, and materialism in favor of orthodox Christianity, medievalism and mythology, and a humane ecology supplied a forceful counterstatement to regnant intellectual, literary, and socio-economic mores. If they have not captured the twentieth century’s eponymous approbation, their recasting of traditional, Christian themes explored in their scholarship in the modern form of fantasy has combined spiritual and intellectual depth with aesthetic originality to create a distinctive, dissenting voice in Western literature. Being based in the permanent things—”faith, virtue, self-transcendence, and hope”—their achievement is more likely to perdure than the relative ephemera of their momentarily more famous contemporaries. As the decades pass, characters like Mrs. Dalloway become literary relics, and the Angry Young Men’s howl is stilled. But Frodo lives and Aslan roars. 

Adam Schwartz is author of The Third Spring: G. K. Chesterton, Graham Greene, Christopher Dawson, and David Jones (The Catholic University of America Press, 2005). A professor of history at Christendom College, his scholarly interests are in the Catholic literary revival and the Inklings.