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REVIEW: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

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The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski

“….it is plain that Tolkien has unleashed a mythic awakening and Lewis a Christian awakening”

“….these clubs offered grand things: escape from domesticity, a base for intellectual exploration, an arena for clashing wits, an outlet for enthusiasms, a socially acceptable replacement for the thrills and dangers of war, and in the aftermath of World War I, a surviving remnant to mourn and honor the fallen”

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a book outside my usual wheelhouse, being concerned deeply with the intellectual interplay among the Inklings impacted their literary works and legacies and more fundamentally, the central role played in the former by Christianity and anthroposophy. I was drawn to this book primarily by virtue of being a radical J.R.R. Tolkien fan, but the center of gravity of The Fellowship is C.S. Lewis, the pivotal figure with whom the other Inklings related; even if Lewis was not always the dominant persona, he was frequently a catalyst or a foil for his fellow Inklings. While the Inklings could survive the untimely death of Charles Williams, whose intellectual brilliance and influence over other writers always surpassed his own literary fame, when C.S. Lewis passed from the scene, the Inklings as an active literary society did as well.

What were the Inklings?

This is a question the authors struggle to answer, despite haven woven four strong biographical essays into one. To call them merely an informal discussion club of Oxford and Cambridge scholars is to miss the mark and greatly underrate their influence. To call the Inklings a “movement” or a “school” – either for promoting Norse mythic or Christian revival – imparts a pedantic formality and air of proselytizing that simply never happened.  The Inklings were always particular about admitting new faces to their pub meetings and stubbornly refused to include women, even Dorothy Sayers , a gifted author whom many of the Inklings admired, respected and befriended. Some of the Inklings were not scholars either, not in the academic sense, being editors, lawyers, poets and religious bohemians of a literary bent.

Largely, the authors struggle because while the Inklings have written or admitted how much their meetings or particular members influenced their thinking, their writings or in Lewis’ case, his faith – there is very little record of the meetings themselves. Much of what happened has to be inferred beyond specific incidents like Hugo Dyson’s repeated taunting of J.R.R. Tolkien (“…not more fucking elves!”) or taken from extant correspondence of prolific letter writers like Lewis or diarists like his brother, Warnie (who despite his raging alcoholism, managed to become later in life, an impressive historian of the France of Louis XIV).

The Fellowship though leaves little doubt  that the meetings of the Inklings at the Eagle and Child (“the bird and baby”) or C.S. Lewis’ rooms at Magdalene College at Cambridge were a chief intellectual and social support for the Inklings and an escape from possible loneliness. While Tolkien enjoyed a busy family life with his wife Edith and four children, Lewis’ long endured (which is the correct word) for much of his life, a bizarrely dysfunctional relationship with a much older woman whom he never married, Mrs. Jane Moore, the mother of a close friend who had been killed serving on the Western Front. Other Inklings were bachelors or had unhappy, austere, marriages, making the cerebral debate and late night amusements of the Inklings a welcome refuge.

One of the aspects of the Inklings that comes across in the book – their fellowship of male camaraderie – is nearly extinct in the 21st century and has a distinctly antiquarian air. Such associations were once commonplace. Not merely in academic circles or exclusive clubs of the wealthy, but every small town and hamlet had its charitable societies, Masonic orders, veteran’s organizations, Knights of Columbus and humble bowling leagues that formed and strengthened male social networks among friends, neighbors and their larger community from the 18th century onward. By the time women began demanding entry (or abolition) in the early 70’s these groups were already well into dying off, victims of mass society and suburbanization.

As the Zaleskis convey in The Fellowship, for an informal club of sorts lacking the aesthetic pretensions of the Bloomsbury group, the range of Inkling scholarship, literary and religious influence remains to this day, staggering. Aside from the scholarly accomplishments of its members, other writers drawn into their orbit, at least for periods of time, included T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Saul Bellow, G.K. Chesterton, John Wain and Roy Campbell; and also several generations of fantasy authors were inspired by the tales of Narnia and Middle-Earth, including by his own admission, the immensely popular George R.R. Martin. The effect of Lewis’ Christian apologetics, especially The Screwtape Letters, may be equally large – and this was the largest source of friction for Tolkien, whose deeply pious, pre-Vatican II traditional Catholicism left him with scant patience for C.S. Lewis’ “amateur” theology and even less for his dear friend’s residual Ulster Protestant cultural prejudices.

In The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings, Philip and Carol Zaleski have crafted a deeply researched and complex group biography of impressive depth and reach. Strongly recommended.

11 Responses to “REVIEW: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings”

  1. Sean Meade Says:

    Good review and good book. Tolkien is my favorite author and I sure like CS Lewis. I was surprised (not exactly by joy 😉 to find this work tempered my respect for Tolkien. I highly value friendship and loyalty and Tolkien did not support Lewis well in later life and, if this account is accurate, simply did not age well. He seemed to become crabbier over time.

    On the other hand, my respect for Lewis increased, not least because he seemed to remain gracious or even grow in that regard. Sure, he was in a crazy relationship, but he seemed to regard it as something that could be endured for her good and even for his, so he endured it.

  2. Jim Gant Says:


    Excellent review. I ordered The Fellowship immediately after you mentionned it to me and read it rather quickly. I am huge CS Lewis admirer and have read all of his writings and many books about him. This book increased my appreciation of him. I did not know much about Tolkien, very little about Barfield, and nothing about Williams. I found their ‘conversations’ quite fascinating. As you point out they made a great contribution to our world. Thank you for your great reviews and I’ll be standing-by for your next ‘must-read’ books. I ordered all four of the Zen meditation books you recommended as well as a book written by Ibn-al Arabi, The Sufi Path of Knowledge. Take care. Keep up the great work!
    Jim Gant

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Gents,
    Sean, I too was impressed with Lewis but also puzzled by him. he was probably the most intellectually curious of the Inklings, as his evolution from atheist to Christian thinker and his vigorous philosophical debating demonstrated. One area the Zaleskis do not give enough attention to – perhaps due to their background in theological issues – was WWI. It is difficult to argue that their experiences on the Western Front did not hit Tolkien, Warnie, Lewis extremely hard. They were at the Somme and the war killed off many of their contemporaries, I read somewhere that all but three of Tolkien’s high school classmates were dead ( John Keegan’s intro his First World war deals with the death tables by year and the reason why “the Lost Generation” was a fitting description). I think some of the odd life choices of Lewis and his brother and Tolkien’s prickly insularity have the same root. So too Hugo Dyson’s abrasiveness.
    I think your having been a Lewis fan, you got even more out of the book than I did. Lewis is clearly central to the story and there are parts I would have grasped better if I had read surprised by Joy and That Hideous Strength first. I wasn’t familiar with Williams or Barfield either though I’d heard of the Inklings of course.
    Sufis are a recurrent Charles Cameron topic – maybe because they try to think differently in their own way like the zen koans teach; however the only sufi I’m familiar with is Mullah Nasruddin

  4. Charles Cameron Says:

    Where to begin? Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, Williams, Nasruddin?
    WIlliams in particular interests me for his deep and sympathetic knowledge of western occultism, understood as a mode of discussion of what classic Christanity might term the potential pearls and perils of the mystical ascent in imaginative language — found for instance in his great paragraphs about the moving Tarot, which I quoted and discussed in Games “not unlike chesse”:

    Consider the chess-like board that Williams describes:
    But the top was hidden, for it was covered by a plate of what looked like gold, marked very intricately with a pattern, or perhaps with two patterns, one of squares, and one of circles, so that the eyes, as with a chess board, saw now one and now the other as predominant. Upon that plate of gold were a number of little figures, each about three inches high, also of gold, it seemed, very wonderfully wrought; so that the likeness to the chess board was even more pronounced, for to any hasty spectator (could such a one ever have penetrated there) the figures might have seemed like those in a game; only there were many of them, and they were all in movement. Gently and continuously they went, immingling, unresting — as if to some complicated measure, and as if of their own volition. There must have been nearly a hundred of them, and from the golden plate upon which they went came a slight sound of music — more like an echo than a sound — sometimes quickening, sometimes slowing, to which the golden figures kept a duteous rhythm, or perhaps the faint sound itself was but their harmonized movement upoin their field.
    This is the ur-tarot, the prototype from which all tarot decks are generated, and it is also the key figure in Williams’ work, and the archetype of the great dance which is the world…
    All the figures of the deck are there:
    He saw among them those who bore the coins and those who held swords or staffs or cups; and among these he searched for the shapes of the Greater Trumps, and one by one his eyes found them, but each separately, so that as he fastened his attention on one the rest faded around it to a golden blur. But there they were, in exact presentation: the Juggler who danced continuously round the edge of the circle, tossing little balls up and catching them again; the Emperor and Empress; the masculine and feminine hierophants; the old anchorite treading his measure and the hand- clasped lovers wheeling in theirs; a Sphinx-drawn chariot moving in a dancing guard of the four lesser orders; an image closing the mouth of a lion, and another bearing a cup closed by its hand, and another with scales but with unbandaged eyes — which had been numbered in the paintings under the titles of strength and temperance and justice; the wheel of fortune turning between two blinded shapes who bore it; two other shapes who bore between them a pole or cross on which hung by his foot the image of a man; the swift, ubiquitous form of a sickle-armed Death; a horned mystery bestriding two chained victims; a tower that rose and fell in pieces, and then was re-arisen in some new place; and the woman who wore a crown of stars, and the twin beasts who had each of them on their heads a crescent moon, and the twin children on whose brows were two rayed suns in glory — the star, the moon, the sun; the heavenly form of judgement who danced with a skeleton half freed from its grave-clothes, and held a trumpet to its lips; and the single figure who leaped in a rapture and was named the world. One by one Henry recognized them and named them to himself, and all the while the tangled measure went swiftly on. After a few minutes he looked round. “They’re certainly the same; in every detail they’re the same. Some of the attributed meanings aren’t here, of course, but that’s all.”
    “Even to that?” Aaron asked in a low voice, and pointed to the Fool in the middle of the field.
    It was still; it alone in the middle of all that curious dance did not move; though it stood as if poised for running. The lynx or other great cat by its side was mttionless also. They paused — the man and the beast — as if struck into inactivity in the very midst of activity. And all about them, sliding, stepping, leaping, rolling, the complex dance went on.

    There is matter here to set beside the heights of Eliot’s Four Quartets IMO.
    Tolkiien’s Leaf by Niggle brings me to tears every time I attempt to read it out loud. The speech of the High Elven folk in the trilogy captures an essence of nobility that I fear is all but lost elsewhere, and sadly absent from the films. And the Music of the Ainur in the Silmarillion — a superb creation myth, a superb theodicy.
    Oh, and Nasruddin, and Ibn Arabi –I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them so closely paired, but what a range and depth Sufism offers us.

  5. Charles Cameron Says:

    And a minor point..
    Did the Inklings really meet in Lewsis’ rooms in Magdalene College, Cambridge? I seem to recall them meeting in his rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford, and would stroll by the deer park there and around Addison’s Walk — but Cambridge? That’s possible, but would be news to me.
    I once had the misfortune to go by train from Oxford to Cambridge — a route which famously confirms the utter separation of the two university towns — and somewhat doubt the Inklings would have traveled to meet in Cambridge once Lewis was ensconced there.
    He certainly prefered Magdalene (Cambridge) to Magdalen (Oxford), though, as he eloquently put it:

    Did I tell you I’ve been made a professor at Cambridge? I take up my duties on Jan. 1st at Magdalene College, Cambridge (Eng.). Note the difference in spelling. It means rather less work for rather more pay. And I think I shall like Magdalene better than Magdalen. It’s a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they’re so old fashioned, & pious, & gentle and conservative– unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, hard-boiled, huge Magdalen. Perhaps from being the fogey and ‘old woman’ here I shall become the enfant terrible there.

  6. zen Says:

    Some possibilities:
    1. I may have very well confused Magdalene and Magdalen. especially bc when I came back to the post to finish it and decided I had spelled Magdalene incorrectly and dropped the “e”. I may not have dropped the “e” the first time and had it initially correct and forgotten what I had meant.
    2. It was a different set of rooms after Jane Moore died than when she was alive. When the Thursday evening meetings stopped, the morning meetings on Tuesday continued and also small gatherings hosted by Lewis. Where though now I’m not certain, lol.
    In any event I yield to your firsthand Oxford knowledge.
    Agree that the films did not catch the epic grandeur or tragic nobility of the Noldor – Galadriel was represented as powerful but not really explained as to why that should be, why she was mighty among the Wise. Jackson did some things well and made a huge mess of others. His rendition of The Hobbit as a Dwarven X-Men superhero film was IMHO, an act of spiteful vandalism toward the Tolkien Estate. Fun but bad fan fiction with CGI.
    Christopher Tolkien was right to bar Jackson from putting The Silmarillion to film

  7. Charles Cameron Says:


    Christopher Tolkien was right to bar Jackson from putting The Silmarillion to film

    Thank God!
    BTW, I shd invite Tim Furnish to join us in this comment thread.

  8. Timothy Furnish Says:

    Thanks for that in-depth review. I’ll put this book on my birthday (August) wish list and suggest it to my wife and sons….
    I’ve written my own book on Tolkien’s world (and writing another, as you know) and I’ve read every bit of non-fiction Lewis wrote (I can’t abide his fiction). And although I’m more interested in Middle-earth than in the personal interactions of its author with other brilliant writers, I’ll give this work a go.

  9. Grurray Says:

    I think the biggest disappointment I had with the film adaptations was the camp on Weathertop. In the book the dread, sweet despair, then terror, then last minute leap to the rescue- all were done so well. I know that the best computer generated graphics will never match the visualizations in our minds, but Jackson’s scene fell flat. The CG revealing the ring wraiths was just anti-climactic. Instead of the hellish desperation of the narrative, it was all antiseptic video-gamish. A sign of what was to come in the next two bloated and soulless installments.
    It seemed like it was a special part for Tolkien, knowing how much depth and richness was imbued in that place. And to Charles point, considering how it intersected with the other Tolkien worlds exemplified by Aragorn’s song of Beren and Lúthien, whose tale is going to be released in a new book this summer.
    A synoptic version of the song was cut out of the theoretical release but made the extended cut:

  10. tdaxp Says:

    I began reading the book this weekend. It is very good.

  11. Zen Says:

    Here is my review of Dr. Furnish’s most enjoyable High Towers and Strong Places, a must read for dedicated Tolkien fan:
    Tim – I hope your military history of Middle Earth gets into Dwarven military tactics ( and Orcish and Elven for that matter) there were historical axe men ( the Saka) and the Romans were short and fought accordingly against taller Gauls and Germanic tribes with their sturdy “Spanish” gladius

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