Book Review: The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip 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 nineteenth 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. I look forward to  revisiting it 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. Lewis, for instance, was an Anglican convert, “not especially ‘high,’ nor 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 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 held an array of beliefs regarding salvation, marriage, and Christian brotherhood which, if they aren’t heretical, are at least very, very weird.

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