A feeling for literature which united, in an unusual way, scholarship and imagination.” Thus David Cecil described an Oxford literary club that midwifed books that have become classics of fantasy literature, apologetics, and poetry. C. S. Lewis, the engine behind the group known as the Inklings, described it more earthily: “We smoked, talked, argued, and drank together.” This they did, despite professional setbacks, personal disputes, and a world war, for almost three decades—until the death of Lewis. There was nothing fashionable or avant-garde about the Inklings: they were a small group of white men who got together to talk about religion, literature, and philology while smoking and eating unhealthy pub food. Yet Tolkien remains the most important writer in Britain according to polls, Lewis continues to command attention, and their influence remains across a range of genres and scholarship. In The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski try to discern both why the Inklings lasted and why they still capture our imagination.
Meeting on Tuesday mornings at Lewis’s rooms in Oxford’s Magdalen College and Thursday nights at the Eagle and Child pub (the famous “Bird and Baby” in Inkling parlance), the group was dedicated to reading and critiquing one another’s work. From these meetings came the work that made them famous: The Lord of the Rings, Out of the Silent Planet, fiction by Charles Williams, and work by the fourth figure profiled here, the lawyer and philosopher Owen Barfield, who has been called the “first and last Inkling.” Other figures fill out the portrait, such as Lewis’s brother Warnie, Dom Bede Griffiths, David Cecil, and Henry “Hugo” Dyson. The details of the meetings are not known, but the Zaleskis dig deep into archives, letters, and other sources to provide in-depth biographies, summaries of popular and critical reception, and insight into the group’s creative process. We get to know Tolkien, a fecund source of languages and mythic tales who tended to mumble at the group’s meetings. The Lewis presented here is jovial and in command, ready with a sharp barb or remembered quote form his copious store of British literature. There is constant talk among the Inklings about work in progress, work contemplated, or work abandoned.
As with any good myth, there is an origin story—or rather, there are two. One was a literary club established by an Oxford undergraduate, Edward Lean, in 1932–33; he called it the Inklings. Lewis and Tolkien became members, continuing an acquaintance that had begun in 1926, when Lewis met the “smooth, pale fluent little chap” at a tea. The two formed a strong bond over beef, beer, English literature and, at least initially, a common interest in their Christian faith. The second origin story involves the long walks that Lewis took along with Barfield and Cecil Harwood in the 1920s, which combined enjoyment of the countryside with rigorous evening philosophical discussions.
It is easy to think of the group as a model of intellectual fellowship and mutual support, but over the course of their long career together the Inklings had a number of disputes and arguments. In particular, Tolkien, as a Catholic, took a critical view of his friend’s “mere Christian” apologetics. Lewis, for his part, harbored a residual Protestant distaste for Rome. Dyson, whose career was overshadowed by Tolkien and Lewis, seemed after some years to favor conflict and rivalry over fellowship.
Williams does not appear until about two hundred pages in, and dies about a hundred pages before the book ends, but in some ways he is the magnetic and mysterious core of the story. Although previously acquainted with the Inklings, Williams began to attend their meetings regularly only after his offices at the Oxford University Press, where he worked his entire career, were relocated to Oxford proper at the outset of the war. His arrival changed the group’s dynamic. Lewis thought highly of him, and praised his work at almost every chance. Tolkien saw him as a rival for Lewis’s attention, and Williams’s lectures at Oxford drew some of Tolkien’s audience away. But most of Williams’s books were, and remain, neglected, ever on the brink of rediscovery, though a new biography might finally introduce him to a wider audience.
IN A WAY, Williams’s obscurity makes sense: his occult interests (membership, for example, in the esoteric Fellowship of the Rosy Cross) and idiosyncratic religious doctrines did not travel well outside of the England of his time, and much of his Arthurian poetry sounds odd to contemporary ears. Williams was perhaps one of those whose qualities are easiest to appreciate in person—a man whose agile and restless mind mesmerized students and companions with its play of words and ideas. The Zaleskis rightly focus on his strangeness. Williams really did, for a while at least, believe in magical and occult practices, and he seems to have had odd and sadomasochistic (but also seemingly chaste) relationships with some of his more ardent female admirers. Certainly Tolkien did not fully take to him, even though some of the details of Williams’s stranger practices were unknown to him or the other Inklings. Still, the Zaleskis give Williams his due; his “doctrine of co-inherence,” and the informal community he established to live it, is strongly related to his interpretation of Christian doctrine. And they note that Lewis thought highly of Williams’s unusual fiction, a series of supernatural (or better, transcendental) novels, some of which might make very interesting movies.
Barfield was another important member of the group, but one whose orbit was eccentric. He spent much of his life as a solicitor in London, which he generally regretted since it took so much time away from what he considered his more important literary and philosophical labors. Although among the earliest members of the Inklings, his devotion to Anthroposophy, a school now as exotic as Williams’s occultism, kept him at a distance from the increasingly orthodox Christianity of Lewis and Tolkien—so much so that Barfield would not discuss his theological ideas at meetings. He suffered a series of disappointments, both personal and literary, and he seemed for a time the least distinguished of the Inklings. But that is not the whole story; in the 1960s and ’70s, as the other Inklings passed away—Lewis died in 1963, Tolkien and Dyson in 1975—Barfield kept going, an inspiration to those who have not spent their lives in intellectual pursuits but still wish they could. He arrived for the first time in the United States, less than a year after Lewis’s death, for a stint of lectures at Drew University.
In his book Surprised by Joy, Lewis had famously described Barfield as the Second Friend, the one with whom “you go at it, hammer and tongs, far into the night, night after night…. Out of this perpetual dogfight a community of mind and a deep affection emerge.” American audiences in part wanted to see who had drawn such respect from the master, and Barfield was more than willing to oblige. He lectured and wrote about his early friendship with Lewis, and their philosophical disputes (which they called, semi-seriously, “the Great War”), as well as his own work. His lectures were well attended and he entered into a remarkably vital and creative phase of his life. He wrote a well-received book on Coleridge, and two other books, Poetic Diction and Studies in Words, have attained cult classic status. He never became a household name like Lewis and Tolkien, but in his areas of interest he is now considered as accomplished as any other member of the group.
The Inklings lasted for as long as they did, the Zaleskis believe, because they were serious about their work and the critiques of their fellows, and they were serious about a certain kind of (male) friendship. They shared convictions about the power of story, including that True Story of creation and redemption they believed was reflected, obscurely, in literary creation. But what about their lasting influence? The enduring popularity of Lewis and Tolkien, in particular, has inspired critics (like the feminist Germaine Greer) to discount them as mere tellers of just-so stories. But Tolkien’s philological scholarship is still important. Barfield continues to inspire more than just Christians (or Anthroposophists). And Lewis’s apologetical work and literary scholarship is widely read and respected, even if most people know him for his Narnia stories.
The Zaleskis highlight what perhaps really discomfits some modern readers about the Inklings: they believed in redemption, in what the Zaleskis call the Happy Ending—not an ending without sorrow or wounds, but salvation all the same. They believed that Western culture had lost the image of salvation, which was expressed in story, legend, and myth (including what Lewis called the Truth Myth, Christianity). But they were not really nostalgists; their work was directed not “simply to restore the discarded image, but to refresh it and bring it to life for the present and the future.”