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

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol ZaleskiSummary: A joint biography of a group of writers that impacted the 20th century, perhaps more than any other group of writers.

Several years ago I read a ton of books by and about CS Lewis. I am still fascinated by Lewis, and there is still more to read by or about Lewis, but at this point much that I read about Lewis is repetition. So I was a bit reluctant to read The Fellowship because one of the complaints about it, is that it is too much about Lewis and not enough about the others. That complaint is valid. Although the Zaleskis managed to include new information about Lewis and the others, once I got past the initial introduction of the characters.

The Fellowship is not a short book. I listened to it on audiobook and it was over 26 hours (nearly 700 pages). While I did set it down a couple times, it was interesting and well written. Primarily I was interested in the biography of Charles Williams. He was one of the earliest Inklings to pass away (1945), but he was an important, but odd, member. Williams was the only member that was not highly educated (never competing a college degree). Gut as an editor at Oxford University Press, Williams came up through an alternative system of learning about writing. Williams was certainly odd. He was fascinated with the occult and magic and seemed to have a certain sexual appeal that he took advantage of, potentially to the level sexually abusing some women. At the very least he was a serial adulterer.

William is just one example of a mix of people that surrounded JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. Both Lewis and Tolkien, were clearly orthodox Christians, and at least after Lewis’ conversion, they were both very conventional in their morality. But many of the others around them were not. It was not just Williams. Barfield was fascinated by, and a proponent of, Anthroposophy, a pseudo-scientific, semi-religious rationalistic philosophy. Most manifestations of it were clearly not compatible with orthodox Christianity.

But what the Inklings did do is create a community that encouraged writing. Not everyone was a fiction writer. Lewis wrote a number of non-fiction works, Warren Lewis (CS Lewis’ older brother) was primarily a historian, Barfield and others wrote a mix of non-fiction and fiction. But it was through fiction, primarily fantasy that the Inklings really changed the course of 20th century literature. I tend to think of epic fantasy as an old genre. But epic fantasy, as it is not understood, really is dependent on The Lord of the Rings. And lighter fantasy has been significantly influenced by the Chronicles of Narnia. The Zaleskis assert that the Inklings did not start to fall apart upon Williams’ death, as some have proposed. Instead, they suggest that, while his death was important, the group started to wane as a natural progress of the aging of the group (and being pulled by work and family needs) and the inclusion of some of the newer members that were less compassionate toward fantasy writing. (Tolkien never read any of the Lord of the Rings to the group and Lewis seems to have not read much of the later Narnia books to the Inklings because the group was not particularly supportive by the time the books were being worked on.)

Part of what is fascinating about the group is that while it is viewed as incredibly successful group of writers now, much of their fame was posthumous. Lewis was genuinely famous prior to his death. But his fame grew much larger after his death. Tolkien, through the editing of his son, published much more after his death than prior to his death. Williams, while much less known, died early and was not particularly successful prior to his death. Barfield retired as a lawyer when he was 60 and spent most of the rest of his life (he passed away when he was 99) as a traveling speaker and professor and finally getting to write in ways that he did not have opportunity while the Inklings was active.

The early part of The Fellowship was fairly boring because it was basic info that I was very familiar with. It was only later when the other characters were introduced and there was actual analysis of writing or the group that the book picked up. I was ready to give up about half way through the book. But I am glad that I did not. The second half of the book was much better.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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