Book Review: The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings

Authors: Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

Year of First Publication: 2015

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2016

Number of Pages: 644

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Biography, Literary Criticism


Exciting things are happening in the world of the Inklings. Once a bit of esoterica for fantasy fans, this small club of Oxonian friends and writers is coming further into the public eye all the time as new generations discover their stories for the first time and scholars shed new light on their lives and works. So what better time could there be to publish a new book on the four men who made all of it possible?

The Fellowship is just such a book: a joint biography of the four authors—J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield—who made up the four cornerstones of the Inklings. Of course, these weren’t the only great writers in the club, nor were the other members’ contributions to the club’s success negligible. But scholars and readers generally agree that without these four, there would be no Inklings to write about.

The Eagle and Child, one of the two Oxford pubs where several of The Inklings' meetings were held.

The Eagle and Child pub in Oxford, one of the Inklings’ usual hang-outs. Image by M Perel.

I’m sure that most, if not all, of you already know the Inklings backwards and forwards. But in case you’re late to the party, the Inklings was an Oxford-based writing club that met regularly from 1932 to about 1963. According to C. S. Lewis, one of the club’s founders, only two things were required to become a member: “a tendency to write, and Christianity.”* (There was also the unstated rule that all members must be male.) At the club’s meetings, which usually took place in one of Oxford’s many pubs, members would read aloud from their works-in-progress—often fantasy fiction, but really anything was fair game—and then the other members would critique their work. There was a lot of talking, a lot of debating, and a lot of beer.

Inklings fan that I am, I had very high hopes for this biography, but a few concerns as well. For instance, would Williams and Barfield fade into the background as the authors focused on the more famous pair of Lewis and Tolkien? Would they soft-pedal Williams’s—um—idiosyncrasies so as to make him more palatable to the average reader/average Christian? Worse, would they soft-pedal the Inklings’ manifestly Christian worldview in an effort to appeal to secular audiences?

As it turns out, there was never any need to worry: the Zaleskis have written a wonderful biography, one that I think captures both the essence of the group and the characters of each of the main members. While the Inklings were united by their common faith** and their shared love of stories, each was a complex and fascinating person in his own right, independent of any of his interactions with the group. Still, never once in this book was one person’s story drowned out by another’s, or by the story of the collective: instead, the stories of these four men are blended together in a way that helps us appreciate them both as individuals and as four examples of the same type of “creature,” namely an Inkling.

Of course, I would have been happy just with the biographical information on “the Core Four,” but The Fellowship is more than straightforward biography. It’s just as much about the spirit behind the group and the forces that shaped it as it is about the members. Besides the Inklings themselves, we also get insight into the world they lived in: the art that influenced them, the triumphs and controversies that colored their professional lives, and the marks that war, politics, and modernization left on them and their work. Even the city of Oxford itself becomes a sort of character in the story, with its rich history becoming yet another influence on the group. This book actually inspired me to read Owen Barfield’s 1928 book on philosophy and language Poetic Diction. Early in the book, Barfield describes what he calls “joint-stock poetry,” poems that come from a group of related writers (maybe a cabal of friends or students of the same master) and that carry with them the unique imprint of that group. I think the Zaleskis did an excellent job of capturing the “joint-stock” quality of the Inklings’ work and tracing how that ethos came to be—the loves, longings, and beliefs that made the Inklings what they were.

In any biography, there’s always the question of how true to life the narrative really is. Especially where figures as well-known and beloved as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis are concerned, the authors might be tempted to apply some whitewash, to paint their subjects as the wonderful little angels that so many of their fans expect them to be. So I was a little surprised to see the Zaleskis write as bluntly as they did about, for instance, the question of whether young Lewis had an affair with a much-older, married woman (they’re pretty well-convinced that he did) or about Tolkien’s views on marriage and gender (common enough for his own day but scandalously old-fashioned in ours). They didn’t even shy away from Williams’s extramarital affairs. Mind you, none of these gory details are shared in a gossipy or malicious way: all that’s intended by it, I think, is to show these four men as they actually were. I appreciate that kind of honesty, especially from biographers.

I can’t tell you how sad I was to finish the 19th chapter of this book and find that the sizable chunk of paper still in my right hand was mostly indices and notes, not more story. The Fellowship is a wonderful book, both for Inklings fans and for those looking to get acquainted with this fascinating group of authors. It’s also a book that I’ll be revisiting many times in the future.


* quoted on page 238 of The Fellowship.

** Common up to a point that is. The Inklings are actually a fascinating example of the diversity of religious opinion that can exist even among close friends and colleagues. Lewis, for instance, was an Anglican convert, “not especially ‘high,’ or especially ‘low,’ nor especially anything else” (Mere Christianity, Preface), while his friend J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic who attended Mass daily, received the Eucharist at least once a day, and showed an extraordinary devotion to the Virgin Mary. Barfield, coming from an agnostic family, embraced a sort of Christian-like mysticism as a young man, which he combined with the teachings of the Austrian occultist Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy. Barfield was baptized into the Anglican Church in 1949, but he continued to believe in, write about, and teach on anthroposophy for the rest of his life. And then there was Charles Williams, a high church Anglican who nevertheless maintained a deep interest in (obsession with?) the occult, even becoming a member of the Rosicrucian offshoot group the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. He also maintained an array of beliefs regarding salvation, marriage, and Christian brotherhood which, if they aren’t heretical, are at least very, very weird.

Bookish Links—August 2016

Photo by Jez Timms.

Photo by Jez Timms.

A Poem for the Weekend

Father Gerard {PD-1923}

Father Gerard [PD-1923]

Because what are weekends for if not for reading beautiful poems?

“As kingfishers catch fire”

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying
Whát I dó is me: for that I came.

I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Source.

Next Sunday: ‘Inspector Lewis,’ Starring Charles Williams

You may remember last Fall, there was a slight brouhaha among Inklings fans online when the British detective series Lewis aired an episode centering around a murdered Charles Williams expert and a shadowy cabal reminiscent of Williams’s own Companions of Co-inherence. The episode, whose premiere coincided with the publication of Grevel Lindop’s long-awaited biography of Williams, was titled “Magnum Opus” and appeared as part of Lewis‘s ninth season. The series airs in the US as well on PBS (where its called Inspector Lewis instead), but because of some odd scheduling, the numbering for the seasons is a bit off. So what was Season 9 for the Brits is Season 8 for us.

I mention this because Season 8 of Inspector Lewis premieres tomorrow on PBS. “Magnum Opus” is the second episode in the season, which means if you want to see it, next Sunday, August 14 is your chance.

The episode will also be available to stream from PBS’s website, though I haven’t been able to find out how long it will be there. It is also only available to people within the US.

I’m afraid I haven’t been keeping up with Inspector Lewis so far, but for a chance to spot a few Inklings references, I might have to start.🙂

HT: Murder! ‘Orrible Murder!

A Lost J. R. R. Tolkien Interview Will Air This Saturday

Great news! Almost fifty years after it was recorded, a BBC interview with J. R. R. Tolkien is finally going to be broadcast.

According to The Tolkien Society, the interview was recorded in 1968 as part of a BBC documentary titled Tolkien in Oxford. In the end, only a small portion of the interview appeared in the documentary and the rest was thought to be lost, until the film’s producer, Leslie Megahey, found a copy of it on a video tape. He then combed the BBC archives for the original recording, which is set to be aired on BBC Radio 4 this Saturday, August 6, at 8:00 PM GMT.

If you’re not in the UK or not near a radio, you can listen to the program online: Radio 4 posts all of their programs on their website soon after they air and usually keeps them there for thirty days, if not longer. When the Tolkien interview does become available, it will be posted to this page.

Bookish Links—July 2016

Photo by Sanwal Deen.

Photo by Sanwal Deen.

  • Just before the great Elie Wiesel passed away earlier this month, the magazine Tablet posted this essay about Wiesel’s little-known articles for the Yiddish newspaper The Forverts, articles in which he describes, among other things, his first impressions of the American west and his first trip to Disneyland. (HT: The Paris Review.)

“Summer Storm” by Dana Gioia

Here in southern Louisiana, we’ve been experiencing blistering heat (85° on a good day), periodically interrupted by short but fierce thunderstorms. Naturally, I’ve been thinking of Dana Gioia’s poem “Summer Storm.” I only discovered Gioia recently, but I’m quickly falling in love with his work. Below is a video of Gioia reading the poem, which you can also read for yourself at this link.

The Western Canon Reading List

One of Gustave Doré's brilliant illustration for The Divine Comedy. This one is called "Crystalline Heaven." (Via Wikiart.)

One of Gustave Doré’s brilliant illustrations for The Divine Comedy. This one is called “Crystalline Heaven.” (Via Wikiart.)

If you follow Brenton Dickieson’s blog A Pilgrim in Narnia (which you certainly should), you’ve probably heard about his project in which he aims to read through the Western canon. Looking for a list of canonical books to work from, Brenton turned to Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. From it, he compiled a list of all of the works that Bloom presents throughout the book as examples of what the canon is, how it works, and why it is important. You can read more about how this list was compiled here.

But wait, what is the Western canon? Which books are in it? I doubt if anyone knows for sure. For as long as anyone can remember, there’s been much disagreement between academics, authors, and readers as to which books should be part of the canon and which should not. Some wonder if we should even have a canon at all. But whatever we as individuals think of the canon, one thing’s for sure: the impact these books have had on the culture and on history is immeasurable. These are the books that the whole world has been talking about for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years . . . and we all just walked in in the middle of the conversation.

For those reasons, I’ve decided to give the list a shot myself, although unlike Brenton, I don’t plan to set a date by which I expect to finish. Brenton is giving himself nine years to read the whole list through—I’d like to finish in five or six years, but at the moment, twenty seems like a more realistic number.😉

Here’s the complete list:

Foundational Work (Theocratic Age)

  • Homer
    • The Iliad (Greek, 8th BCE)
    • The Odyssey (Greek, 8th BCE)
  • Virgil, The Aeneid (Latin, 29-19 BCE)
  • The Bible

Late Medieval and Renaissance (Aristocratic Age)

  • Dante Alighieri, Comedia/The Divine Comedy (Italian, 1308-1320)
  • Chaucer, Canterbury Tales (English, 1475)
  • Shakespeare
    • Love’s Labour’s Lost (English, 1597)
    • Hamlet (English, 1603)
    • Othello (English, 1604)
    • King Lear (English, 1606)
    • Macbeth (English, 1611)
  • Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (Spanish, 1605)
  • Molière, The Misanthrope (French, 1666)
  • John Milton, Paradise Lost (English, 1667)
  • James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (English, 1791)
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust (German, 1772-1790)

19th Century+

  • William Wordsworth
    • “The Ruined Cottage” (English, 1800)
    • “Tintern Abbey” (English, 1798)
  • Jane Austen, Persuasion (English, 1818)
  • Walt Whitman
    • Leaves of Grass (English, 1855)
    • “Song of Myself” (English, 1855)
  • Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (English, 1800s)
  • Charles Dickens, Bleak House (English, 1852-1853)
  • George Eliot, Middlemarch (English, 1874)
  • Henrik Ibsen, Peer Gynt (Norwegian, 1876)
  • Leo Tolstoy, Hadji Murad (Russian, 1896-1904)
  • Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (a.k.a. Remembrance of Things Past) (1913)
  • James Joyce, Ulysses (English, 1922)
  • Virginia Woolf
    • Orlando (English, 1928)
    • A Room of One’s Own (English, 1929)
  • Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks (German, 1917-1919)
  • Jorge Luis Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths (Spanish, 1941)
  • Pablo Neruda, Canto General (Spanish, 1938-1950)
  • Samuel Beckett
    • Endgame (English, 1957)
    • Murphy (English, 1938)
    • Waiting for Godot (English, 1953)

I’ve read three of these works already (Hamlet, Macbeth, and “Tintern Abbey”) and I’m halfway through with another (The Aeneid). So, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

In the meantime, have you read any of these books? Are you planning to tackle this list too? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — June 2016

Photo by Patrick Tomasso.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso.

  • As part of the “Shakespeare Lives” festivities, the British Council launched a new feature on their site called “Mix the Play.” Basing this feature around Act 3, Scene 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you choose how the scene will look and sound and the site returns a video of that scene performed as you directed it. No, I will not divulge how much time I spent on this site.

Top Ten Tuesday: Music and Books

toptentuesday21Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Since this week’s Top Ten Tuesday is a free-for-all, I thought I’d go back in the archives and do a topic I missed a while ago, “Books and Music.” Below is a list of songs that, for one reason or another, I associate with certain literary works. Some were directly influenced by said works, and some have no relation to them whatsoever except in my own mind.

Let’s see how this goes.

1: “On Raglan Road” by Glen Hansard

We start off with a song whose connection to literature is strong indeed, on account of the fact that its lyrics are Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “On Raglan Road.” It was first set to music by the Irish folk singer Luke Kelly, as Hansard explains in the video.

2: “Carry the Fire” by Andrew Peterson

According to an article on Peterson’s site The Rabbit Room, the line “I will carry the fire / Carry the fire for you” was inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. Writing about the creative process behind the song, Peterson said:

Right away, for reasons I don’t know, I thought of Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road. It’s an amazing (and amazingly dark) book about a father and son trying to survive the apocalypse. They’re traversing the wasteland of America with hunger at their heels and man-eating wretches on their heels, too, trying to reach the ocean where the father believes they’ll find help. Along the way, he tells his little boy again and again that they have to “carry the fire.” It’s a simple, beautiful metaphor that can mean quite a few things.

3: “Great Expectations” by The Gaslight Anthem

Obviously, this song shares its title with one of Charles Dickens’s best-known and best-loved novels. I thought the similarities would end there, until I listened to the second verse, which goes:

And I never had a good time.
I sat by my bedside
With papers and poetry about Estella.

I confess that I only made it halfway through Great Expectations, but I did read enough to know that Estella is the name of the beautiful and haughty young girl whom the main character Pip falls in love with. Of course, the song isn’t about Pip, but the singer certainly seems to be comparing his love for an unattainable woman to Pip’s love for Estella.

That’s close enough for me.

4: “Running for Cover” by Ivan and Alyosha

True, there’s nothing especially literary about the song itself. The band, however, is named after Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov, two of the main characters in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

5: “Winter 1” by Antonio Vivaldi and Max Richter

Late last year, I talked a friend into reading Hamlet about the same time he introduced me to Max Richter’s “recomposition” of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. At some point, he mentioned that the menacing tone of the first movement of “Winter” seemed perfectly suited to Hamlet. Ever since, I’ve associated this version of the song with foggy battlements and princes draped in black.

6: “Shadowfeet” by Brooke Fraser

Before she got her new sound, Brooke Fraser wrote pretty singer-songwriter stuff like this. According to the artist herself, she was inspired to write this song after reading C. S. Lewis’s novel The Great Divorce. She pointed to this passage specifically:

“Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened. Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows. But will you come?”

7: “Calamity Song” by The Decemberists

The Decemberists are known for their quirky, sometimes challenging lyrics, but on this track, they outdid themselves.

“Calamity Song” was written shortly after The Decemberists’ lead singer Colin Meloy finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Although Meloy claims the song isn’t exactly about Infinite Jest, it does contain an oblique reference to the book at the end of the second verse, when Meloy sings: “On the road / It’s well advised that you follow your own bag / In the year of the Chewable Ambien Tab.” Wait, what?

As it turns out, Infinite Jest takes place in a future American dystopia where, among other odd features, every calendar year is sponsored by a different corporation and is named after one of that corporation’s products. So one year becomes “The Year of the Whopper” whereas another is “The Year of the Perdue Wonder Chicken.” Following Wallace’s lead, Meloy set his song in “the Year of the Chewable Ambien Tab,” which is purely his own invention and not mentioned in the book.

But wait, there’s more! The music video for this song—directed by Infinite Jest super-fan Michael Schur—also recreates a scene from the novel, in which (if I understand correctly) students at a tennis school act out a nuclear war on a tennis court.

8: “Dandelion Wine” by Gregory Alan Isakov

As far as I know, this song is not related to Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine. But with that title, I can’t help but think of Green Town, Illinois in summer.

9: “Ulysses” by Josh Garrels

As one might expect, references to Homer’s Odyssey are scattered throughout. Indie rock meets Greek mythology? You bet I’m into it.

10: “Ghetto Defendant” by The Clash

For young’uns like me who aren’t too familiar with ’80’s music, “Ghetto Defendant” is one of two songs that came out of a famous collaboration between the British punk rock band The Clash and American poet/Beat Generation superstar Allen Ginsberg. (The other song was called “Capital Air.” It was performed once at a concert and never released on any of The Clash’s albums.) In addition to writing much of the lyrics, in tandem with The Clash’s lead singer Joe Strummer, Ginsberg also performs the spoken word portions of the song. I have to admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of Ginsberg or The Clash, but nevertheless, I love the idea of a rock band collaborating with one of the most influential poets of his day.

That’s it for me. Do you have any favorite songs with literary connections? Let me know what they are in the comments.

Current Reads

So.

Things have been a little quite around here lately, I know. But while I haven’t been posting, I have been busy reading, buying, and writing about books. Here are just a few of the things I’ve been reading lately and hope to feature on the blog soon:

"Macbeth, Banquo, and the Witches" by Henry Fuseli. Image via Wikiart

“Macbeth, Banquo, and the Witches” by Henry Fuseli. Image via Wikiart

Macbeth by William Shakespeare – Easily one of my most favorite books in the world. I have so many thoughts on this that I might write a whole series of posts on the play and its history, so let me know if that sounds interesting to you.

The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fitzgerald – I’ve had this on my list ever since I read Seamus Heaney’s “The Golden Bough” from his 1991 collection Seeing Things. The publication of Heaney’s full translation of Book Six of The Aeneid gave me the last push I needed to finally embark on this vast epic. Currently, I’m on Book Five (of twelve) and, though I had my doubts at the beginning, I’m enjoying it now.

The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis – At last count, I own twenty books by C. S. Lewis. I’ve only read six of them to completion. That has to change.

Neruda reading for the Library of Congress in 1966. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Neruda reading for the Library of Congress in 1966. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Essential Neruda by Pablo Neruda – Corey (a.k.a. the Ink Slinger a.k.a. G. K. Raptorton) piqued my curiosity when he recently started reading this anthology. Since Neruda is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to read for some time, this seems like a great place to start with his work.

I also recently finished Rain, a collection of poems by the celebrated Scottish poet Don Paterson, and Lewis’s The Weight of Glory. Those reviews should be coming before long, but for now…

What have you poor neglected blog people been reading? What books have you recently finished? Let me know in the comments.

“Canal Bank Walk” by Patrick Kavanagh

The Grand Canal in Dublin. Image by Kaihsu Tai via Wikimedia Commons.

The Grand Canal in Dublin, where Kavanagh was inspired to write “Canal Bank Walk.” Image by Kaihsu Tai.

Today is the feast day of St. Columba, which has me thinking a lot about Ireland and about poets, Columba being the patron saint of both.

As much as there is to love in the poetry of the Americas, Great Britain, and elsewhere, Irish poetry seems to strike a chord with me that no other country’s poetry comes near. A good number of these soul-stirring, stunningly beautiful Irish poems has come from an author I discovered early this year, Patrick Kavanagh.

My first introduction to Kavanagh’s work came thanks to this lecture by Christian Wiman, titled “When You Consider the Radiance: Poetry for Preachers and Prophets.” In the lecture, Wiman reads two Kavanagh poems, “Innocence” (at the 17:38 mark) and “Canal Bank Walk” (at 21:20). And while “Innocence” is beautiful and moving in its own right, it was “Canal Bank Walk” that has stuck with me ever since.

To put it simply, this is a poem that reminds me of why I love poetry. It’s also a perfect example, I think, of what G. K. Chesterton meant when he said that “at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet” (Manalive, chapter 2). Written while Kavanagh was recovering from lung cancer, the poem brims with thankfulness for and wonder at the grace of God, as expressed in the natural world. To this poem’s speaker—having realized how precious and fragile life is–every leaf on every tree and every drop of water in the canal becomes a token of God’s love for him and of his grace toward him. It’s one of those poems that makes you (like Chesterton) amazed just at the fact that you’re alive.

You can read it here and here, and also in Kavanagh’s Collected Poems.