Saturday, December 19, 2015

Literary Lives of Inklings...

The Fellowship by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski, new from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is a hefty book, 644 pages, but because its subtitle is The Literary Lives of the Inklings, we are immediately drawn in. Yes, we want to read about their literary growth but we would also like to hear about their families, their histories, their ups and downs throughout their own cultures and it's all here, thanks to the Zaleskis. who must have spent years tracking down all these details.

The authors concentrate on the four most prominent members of this group who called themselves the Inklings, and first they tell some of the stories about J. R. R. Tolkien, who was older than the others. Then they move to C. S. Lewis, then Owen Barfield, and finally Charles Williams. But the Zaleskis move back and forth, depending on who was doing what, alone or together, when the group began spending their Thursday evenings together at Lewis's at Magdalen College, or their Tuesday mornings at the pub they called the Bird and Baby. In both places, these men enjoyed sharing what they were writing or doing in their teaching and learning. Often two or three of them would go hiking and it's easy to imagine them throwing their words up into the sky, discussing and considering each other's opinions as they walked.

Tolkien thought the name Inklings was a pun, suggesting a group with half-formed ideas that dabbled in ink. But the Zaleskies remind us that in spite of the Inklings modest self-image, which was part of their charm, their ideas did not remain half-formed and their inkblots were not mere dabblings. Some of them became quite well known, even famous, and some of their work amounted to genius.

This was the time of the Great Depression and on through World War II and into the 1950s. The Inklings were in and around Oxford, a city in the English Midlands and some of them came and went for awhile during the two wars of those times. Several of them were professors, some were married and parents and some not.

Three Anglicans and a Catholic walked into a pub...

Let's look at what the Zaleskis said about Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, and Barfield. Barfield was perhaps the most brilliant but the least published. His day job for 30 years was as a barrister in his father's firm. His fascination with words led him to see them as the clues to the development of history, indeed the evolution of human consciousness. Early fascination with music gave him an imaginative, less rational feeling for words.

Williams likewise held a day job outside of academia, as a London editor at Oxford University Press. He also dabbled in the occult while remaining a practicing Anglican. He was known perhaps best for his five imaginative/fantasy novels (Lewis especially liked Williams's The Place of the Lion and invited him to meet the Inklings). Williams also published poetry and wrote Outlines of Romantic Theology, not published in his lifetime, but now in print (Berkeley: Apocryphile, 2005).

We know Tolkien's Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but the Zaleskis also give us a look into their source: Tolkien's story-telling with his children on long Christmas evenings. This Oxford professor (philology and northern European mythology) would make up the stories as they talked, and later polish them. Father Christmas Letters is one example and the published version (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) includes a selection from the annual letters, with Tolkien's drawings. Tolkien was the Catholic in the group, his widowed mother having joined a local Catholic parish with her 8 and 6-year old boys.

Lewis was perhaps the central figure when the Inklings met in "the frayed comfort of [his] Magdalen digs" for long Thursday evenings with lots of tea and pipes (or in the Bird and Baby pub) to read drafts of their works in progress and to offer encouragement and critique to each other. The most rational, Lewis relished a vigorous debate with an atheist, having been one himself. He also was as imaginative as any of the others. Like Tolkien's discovery, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit," Lewis would claim that his Narnia Chronicles started with a mental picture of a fawn with an umbrella.

These four authors had a huge impact on each other as well as on their readers, who continue to search, study, read, share, and perhaps be inspired to write their own special words and works. Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, and Barfield, might be pleased to know that.

---Larry and Lois Sibley,