The Inklings were a mid-century club of writers and talkers who met twice a week in Oxford, Thursday nights in the Magdalen College rooms of C. S. Lewis, Tuesday mornings at a pub, the Eagle and Child (known to regulars as the Bird and Baby). All were interested in the power of words, stories, and myths; most were Christians. They saw the two interests as related (in the beginning was the Word). The Fellowship focuses on four of them — Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.
The Inklings were a productive group, and so are those who have written about them. The bibliography of The Fellowship devotes two pages to a discussion of other bibliographies, and 22 pages to individual titles. What are my credentials for adding my mite to this hoard?
When I was ten or eleven, an older boy at Scout camp recounted the story of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I was enthralled. I bought the paperback of the first volume; I have it still, held together by tape. Over the years I read the complete trilogy 30 times, the last time aloud to my wife, and read other works by Tolkien, none of which I liked (when The Silmarillion came out I said I liked it in my review for NR, but loyalty made me a liar). I came to Lewis in college, too late for the Narnia stories, but I read various apologetic and critical works. Barfield and Williams were no more than names to me.
They seem not much more in The Fellowship, partly because they spend so much time offstage. Williams, who joined the Inklings when he was employed by Oxford University Press, died suddenly at age 59. Barfield, an early friend of Lewis, spent arid years working as a solicitor, enjoying little success until a late-life move to the United States. Both men were also more than a little nuts. Early on Barfield developed an intriguing theory of language: Words are miniature histories of consciousness, retaining all the meanings that those who used them have given them over time. But he was also a devotee of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian crackpot with a Theory-of-Everything. (Sample: There were two Jesuses in Bethlehem, one a reincarnation of Zarathustra, the other of Buddha; when they were twelve, they became the same person.) Williams was a charismatic talker who impressed W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas as well as the Inklings. He was both a devout Anglican and a believer in Christian magic. At the recommendation of friends (and Eliot, who wrote the introduction to it), I read one of his novels, All Hallows’ Eve. It has an arresting heroine and moments of wisdom and sorrow, but the villain is preposterous, a sinister Jewish magician who wants to take over the world. You had to be there. So The Fellowship is in effect an enriched double biography of its two most famous subjects, Tolkien and Lewis.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born to English parents in the Orange Free State, but was taken by his mother to England when he was an infant. His father died and his mother converted to Catholicism, incurring the wrath of her chapel-going relatives. Even as a boy he made up languages and myths. One of his first jobs was with the OED; he worked on w-words, including “waggle” and “walrus.” In 1925 he landed a professorship of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.
Tolkien was a slow worker. One anecdote in The Fellowship describes him helping out in the garden of a friend; he did a splendid job, but it took forever. The tortoise produced two seminal works. His 1936 lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” rescued the poem from antiquarians; Tolkien argued that it was a great tale of heroism in a hostile world. In private he labored on a body of legend about Middle Earth, a world he had made up. He wrote a child’s book about some of its inhabitants, The Hobbit, published in 1937, then spun the longer, darker story that became The Lord of the Rings, which was not published until 1954–55.
Clive Staples Lewis (“Jack” to friends) was born and raised in Belfast. He looked, the Zaleskis write, like “the neighborhood butcher.” He once said that there had been a break in Western civilization after Persuasion and the Waverley novels; he seemed to have read everything written before that break, and could recite long swatches at will. He was combative, generous, and a great lecturer; Magdalen College made him a tutor and a fellow in 1925, the year of Tolkien’s professorship.
Tolkien and Lewis met soon after. Early in the Thirties they became the leading lights in the Inklings, a discussion group founded by an undergraduate. Members met to read works in progress and to talk. About what? “Torture, Tertullian, bores, the contractual theory of medieval kingship, and odd place-names,” reads one account. They also talked about Christianity. Tolkien helped lead Lewis, who had been a young-adult rationalist, back to belief. A key moment was an all-night walk in 1931 with Hugo Dyson, a third academic friend. Tolkien argued that the life of Jesus was a myth that was true. Lewis was convinced — though Tolkien was always irked that he became an Anglican, not a Catholic.
Lewis had the more versatile mind. His Christian work switch-hits between argument and storytelling. His polemical style was straightforward and earnest, without the dancing-elephant levity of Chesterton. He relied heavily on two arguments: aut Deus, aut malus homo (a man who said of himself what Jesus said must either be God or be evil); and the self-contradiction of naturalism (if reason is only an evolved process, it can have no validity). The Zaleskis suggest a problem with the first argument: We do find truth in people whom we do not credit entirely (e.g., the Dalai Lama). Elizabeth Anscombe, a Catholic convert and a student of Wittgenstein, poked at Lewis’s second argument in a debate with him at Oxford in 1948: Reason has internal consistency, which does not depend on the limitations of those who reason.
Lewis’s stories rely on their charm or force, which can both be considerable. The Screwtape Letters, a devil’s correspondence with his nephew, is keen: Hell, it turns out, is a bureaucracy. The Great Divorce (souls in hell can take a bus to heaven), Out of the Silent Planet (set on Mars), and Perelandra (on Venus) have scenes of wonder and strangeness. Lewis’s large and never-abating sales make him one of the most prominent Christians of the 20th century. John Paul II probably tops him, but popes have many divisions. Billy Sunday? Billy Graham? Arguable.
Tolkien’s mind was more limited, but more powerful. Middle Earth is an astonishing creation. Step back, and it is full of gaps: no worship, no eros, no money, no farming (Hobbits smoke tobacco, but what does everybody eat?). The reader never steps back, though, because the languages and proper names that Tolkien devised for his characters imply (as Barfield might have said) entire cultures. Not only is each language internally consistent; they play off each other in a way that suggests different civilizations: rustic, barbaric, imperial, savage, otherworldly. For fanboys the trilogy’s appendices lay out a political backstory of wars and rulers, as credible as textbook lists of Egyptian dynasties or Roman emperors.
The final reason The Lord of the Rings persuades is that it is a war story — something the Inklings knew firsthand. Lewis and Tolkien served in World War I, Tolkien at the Somme. In World War II, Tolkien served as an air-raid warden and had a son in the RAF; Lewis joined the Home Guard and gave talks to chaplains. Tolkien’s Enemy, Sauron, is Satan, or at least Moloch, which makes skeptical readers balk. But Hitler was a good human equivalent, and Wilhelmine Germany — even discounting British propaganda — was worse than we now often acknowledge.
Early in Don Quixote the priest burns the books of romance that have addled the hero. It is Cervantes’s way of clearing the decks of decadent Arthurian crapola and making way for real people. It’s not just that the Don and Sancho encounter shepherds, students, noblemen, and hussies rather than giants and wizards; it is that they think and talk just as you and I do. In England, at the same time, Shakespeare was writing to similar effect. Western lit rolled on for three centuries, performing variations on these feats. It is odd that Lewis admired Persuasion; the walk-ons in Jane Austen have more individuality than everyone in his oeuvre put together.
Yet even in realism’s heyday, writers looked over the edges, for bigger shapes and primary colors: demon lovers (Heathcliff), strange places (Lilliput, Innsmouth), larger-than-life characters (Leatherstocking, Fagin). Even Cervantes took the Don into the Cave of Montesinos to learn about death.
The Inklings made an open march back to myth. Now new-made myths overwhelm us, most of them garbage (Star Wars), some of them telling (Star Trek the TV series, J. K. Rowling). Lewis died in 1963, the same day as JFK; Tolkien lived ten years longer (I wrote him a fan letter, which he graciously answered). Their books march on.