Tolkien, Lewis, and a World Shot through with Meaning

Review: Philip and Carol Zaleski, ‘The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings’

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis
J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis / AP, Wikimedia Commons

There are those whose love for J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis is so fervent that no amount of detail about these writers is too much. These are the people who read and re-read not just Tolkien’s ring trilogy but also The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales; not just Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia but also his science fiction novels and letters and lectures and maybe even his 1936 scholarly work, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition.

For all those people—and they are legion—there’s now a very long and detailed book about Tolkien and Lewis and their famous literary club at Oxford, the Inklings—the first such book in more than thirty years.

Full disclosure: I am, to some extent, one of these people. As a kid, I had all the Tolkien calendars. I read The Hobbit in the third grade and dressed up as Gollum for Halloween (and was crestfallen when none of the other children knew who I was supposed to be.) As a seventh-grader I may or may not have drawn elaborate portraits of each member of the Fellowship of the Ring, and one of Tolkien himself.

So, I am not exactly an impartial judge. To a large extent, my imagination as a child was formed by Tolkien and Lewis, by Middle Earth and Narnia and the world of myth and poetry to which they belong. I am one of those for whom the works of the Inklings re-enchanted the modern world and pointed to a spiritual reality beyond it.

Articulating the influence and achievement of this odd band of Oxford writers is the aim of husband-and-wife team Philip and Carol Zaleski, who have produced a remarkable book, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, chronicling the group’s principle figures: Tolkien and Lewis, of course, along with the lesser-known yet highly influential Charles Williams and Owen Barfield.

In short, the Inkling's achievement was to articulate a vast and compelling apologia for Christianity in a decidedly un-Christian age, and to revive romantic literature and myth, reclaiming it for the faith. That they accomplished this during the darkest decades of the twentieth century, when romanticism and faith were—as they still are—under heavy fire from critical theory and scientism, makes their achievement all the more remarkable.

Avid readers of Tolkien and Lewis will no doubt wonder whether this new volume adds anything important to Humphrey Carpenter’s beloved 1979 book about the Inklings. It does—while at the same time relying on the earlier book—both by sheer weight of detail and discussion (at 618 pages, the Zaleskis’ book is well more than twice as thick as Carpenter’s) and also because the authors widen their gaze to encompass the lives and work of other Inklings, most notably Williams and Barfield, but also Warren ("Warnie") Lewis, the elder brother of C.S., a loving champion of his brother’s work and that of his fellow Inklings.

In many ways, the Lewis brothers knit the club together and kept it going despite the upheaval of World War Two, the tension of professional rivalries and clashes of personalities, and the sudden death of Williams in 1945. In one of Lewis’ many letters to Williams in the 1930s, Lewis described the Inklings as a group of Christians who like to write. "That might do as a description of the genus," note the authors. "But Inkling authenticus, the actual species, shared more precise characteristics, including intellectual vivacity, love of myth, conservative politics, memories of war, and a passion for beef, beer, and verbal battle. Inkling David Cecil adds to this ‘a feeling for literature, which united, in an unusual way, scholarship and imagination.’"

This last bit is the key to understanding the immense influence of these men, not just on western culture but also on one another. For the principle Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis, the union of scholarship and imagination would find its most powerful expression in fantasy. The mythopoeia of Middle Earth and Narnia, however outlandish at first glance, are compelling because they feel true, like real and believable worlds called forth by a creator. It takes great talent and discipline for a writer to pull this off, but it also takes something akin to Tolkien’s understanding of the artist: "we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker."

Thus the artist is a kind of sub-creator, enchanting new worlds by drawing on the power and mystery of creation itself. Tolkien’s famous 1939 lecture, "On Fairy-Stories," articulated a theory of story-telling that was uniquely Christian and that he would employ in his greatest literary creation, The Lord of the Rings. The fairy stories Tolkien was concerned with have nothing to do with little winged creatures or magic. His interest was with stories that shared common, fundamental elements that enabled them to impart "a sudden and miraculous grace … a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief." Through such stories, readers can catch "a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world."

That gleam is rather bright in works like Tolkien’s Rings trilogy and Lewis’s Narnia books. It is less obvious, but still apparent, in Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. The authors take the trouble to explain at length Lewis’s deft use of the "medieval model" in Out of the Silent Planet, his first foray into novel-writing. Lewis dreams up the alien world of Malacandra, which corresponds, in a more or less transparent fashion, to a hierarchal and rational—that is, Christian—cosmos. As the Zaleskis notes, Lewis’s

…real object, at which he succeeded, was 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 the deifying light.

Lewis believed that science—or rather, "crude scientism"—could not overthrow or undermine this medieval model, no matter what modern intellectuals or scientists claimed to be able to explain away. Space, for example, rather than being cold and dark, in Lewis’s telling is light and heat—a kind of heaven. Other worlds and aliens, if they existed, would fit into the same sacramental cosmos that Thomas Aquinas understood and affirmed. A passage from one of Lewis’s lectures that, decades later, would become The Discarded Image illuminates his creative approach to space in his science fiction: "The ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony."

Lewis sent the manuscript for Out of the Silent Planet to Tolkien’s publisher, who initially rejected it (an external reader had thought Lewis’s aliens were "bunk"). Tolkien, the Zaleskis tell us, rose to his friend’s defense, arguing that if Lewis’s "otherworldly creatures were really ‘bunk’ … then so was the myth of the Fall of angels and men; and if that myth were bunk, very little of Western literature would be left standing."

Of course, The Fellowship isn’t only about Lewis and Tolkien. Ample space is made for Williams, the strange Arthurian poet and Christian occultist who fired Lewis’s imagination with his 1931 novel, The Place of the Lion. Upon reading it Lewis wrote to Williams, whom he’d never met, that it was "one of the major literary events of my life—comparable to my first discovery of George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris." Lewis invited Williams to attend a meeting of the Inklings, and he remained an active member until his sudden death in 1945.

The authors also give a fair shake to Barfield, a scholar and student of Anthroposophy, and an early friend of both Tolkien and Lewis. Unlike his friends in Oxford, Barfield spent much of his middle-age in literary purgatory, working as a solicitor in London (a job he loathed) and unable to find success as a writer. Only late in life, in America, did Barfield come into his own, finding professional fulfillment as a university lecturer and publishing successful works of scholarship (and, for a brief period, becoming a literary mentor to Saul Bellow). As the other Inklings faded into retirement, or died, Barfield kept writing and publishing into the 1990s and died at the age of 99.

Today, the Inklings’ principle works are more popular and more influential than ever, a remarkable feat in our scientific modern age. They were not conscious rebels, but they rejected the claims of modernity and so became accidental rebels simply because, as the Zaleskis rightly note, "they were at work on a shared project, to reclaim for contemporary life what Lewis called the ‘discarded image’ of a universe created, ordered, and shot through with meaning."

Tolkien once wrote to a young correspondent who had asked about the purpose of life that the question was really about the purpose of human beings and the "things they design and make." Tolkien believed, as did all the Inklings, that our creations could not only reveal a hidden world, but that they could eventually lead us to our creator.