At some point even a “101” look at Tolkien has to consider the other Inklings. I had read both the fiction and nonfiction of C.S. Lewis, but The Fellowship was the first book I read to really cover the other Inklings. Ostensibly, the focus is on Lewis, Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. Lewis, “the most celebrated and execrated.” Barfield, “the least known but, some say, the most profound.” Williams, “first to be born, the first to publish, the first to die.” Tolkien, the, well, Tolkien. But the cover, with equal quadrants for Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams, gives the wrong picture. Tolkien and especially Lewis dominate (I would complain if they didn’t). Charles Williams, a bit of a latecomer to the Inklings, doesn’t get the Zaleskis’ focus until page 221. Nor do the four get all the attention. Other Inklings show up regularly. Lewis’ brother Warnie is arguably the fifth Inkling here. It is through his brother’s chapters, but Warnie is as present as Williams or Barfield. Tolkien is the only one who does not perhaps get his due, but the Zaleskis likely had a reader like me in mind, coming in mostly with knowledge of Tolkien.
If you’re looking for a place to start diving into nonfiction on Tolkien, I probably wouldn’t recommend The Fellowship (I would go with Author of the Century by Tom Shippey instead). But it is an excellent choice when you are ready to broaden your studies to the Inklings more generally (if you are instead interested in just Tolkien and Lewis, I would go with A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War by Joseph Loconte). It is also a good place to start if your interest in more generally in the Inklings than in Tolkien (or even if you have some antipathy toward him, given his somewhat muted role here). The Fellowship is a doorstopper, but one written with considerable literary flair and chock full of information.
The Fellowship is the sort of book I would prefer to read about writers in lieu of a more traditional biography. It intermixes the basic facts of their lives with discussion of their literary efforts. I expected thorough coverage of their writings, and of their academic careers (I didn’t realize before I started the book that Barfield was a lawyer and that Williams worked at the Oxford English Dictionary rather than in a professorship). I didn’t expect so powerful a discussion of the Inklings’ (varied) Christianity (unsurprising now that I know more about the Zaleskis’ background). Even the much shorter treatment of the Great War is powerful: Tolkien’s “greatest contribution to the war effort would come decades later, when The Lord of the Rings apotheosized, in its account of hobbits battling ultimate evil in a landscape of fantastic redoubts and talking trees, the achievements of ordinary Tommies and Doughboys among the barbed wire, rats, mud, and machine gun fusillades of rural France.”
The Inklings, of course, were a famed, all-male, informal, literary circle with Lewis at its center. They were drawn together by Lewis, and by shared tastes. Consider how the Zaleskis describe a proto-Inklings circle: “Their tastes were conservative and refined. They adored mythology, traditional art, and the Romantics, and despised all bohemian movements.” Those views would result in work bearing a “special stamp of Christian faith blended with pagan beauty, of fantastic stories grounded in moral realism.” Consider this passage:
At least in Lewis’ case, the holiness of Phantastes was not confined to the book; when he closed its covers, rather than finding ordinary things dull by comparison, he discovered that its enchantment had spilled into the real world, “transforming all common things.” Lewis’s imagination, he tells us, was forevermore “baptized.”
The book is full of wonderful detail. For Tolkien’s and Lewis’ academic careers, it is the little things the Zaleskis mention that are the most illuminating. Tolkien had the prestigious chair; Lewis the time to write that came with a less prestigious position. Lewis described his frequent conversations with Tolkien thusly: “Sometimes we talk English school politics, sometimes we criticise one another’s poems; other days we drift into theology or ‘the state of the nation’; rarely do we fly no higher than bawdy and ‘puns.’” Think you’re being edgy by saying don’t read anything written after 1980? Tolkien and Lewis agitated (successfully) to remove all modern English literature (including Shakespeare) from the Oxford program. Lewis wasn’t opposed to reading modern literature, he just thought that “the student who wants a tutor’s assistance in reading the works of his own contemporaries might as well ask for a nurse’s assistance in blowing his own nose.”
Tolkien had a flair for the dramatic (he was known to burst into a lecture hall with an exclamation of hwæt!), but he was also known for his mumbling, barely audible diction (courtesy, in part, of a tongue injury received playing rugby). Lewis, on the other hand, had a lecture style that was “slow enough for note taking, loud enough to rouse the dullest listener, straightforward, abundantly furnished with quotations, and lavish in wit.” It was all delivered with a “booming voice” to “rap, enthusiastic crowds.” He had the power to make his lectures seem less a performance but rather the exploration of “a thought for the first time.”
The Fellowship is similarly delightful in describing the Night of Addison’s Walk, that mythical long walk by Lewis, Tolkien, and Hugo Dyson that led to both Tolkien’s Mythopoeia and Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.
The Zaleskis religious and academic backgrounds serve them well in the above. Surely they live and would be quick to speak well of bourgeois values. But the average upper middle class person, even while proudly living bourgeois values, accepts and even expects that the aristocracy will not. Why else would the Zaleskis express even mild surprise that Tolkien would “choose such a middle-class, conventional, well-regulated existence”? He did, of course, “because he believed it was the right way to live.” He was right, and obviously so. But how many Oxford dons and literary stars have “a deep admiration for ordinary people—butchers, police officers, mail carriers, gardeners—and a knack for befriending them”? Tolkien did, because “he valued their courage, common sense, and decency.” But then the academic elite today don’t have “ample opportunity to observe” the values of their betters “in the trenches.”
See above for my recommendation as to when to read The Fellowship. It’s a tome, but a worthy one. I have it ranked behind Author of the Century and A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War, I think, but only slightly so.
4.5 of 5 Stars.
You can find all of my Tolkien 101 posts here.