My vacation reading this Summer was The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, by Phillip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski. It’s a very nice book: well-written, and with a good balance of ‘fun’ and ‘serious’ aspects of these Inklings’ lives. I enjoyed it a great deal, and recommend it to anyone with an interest in the works of Tolkien and Lewis, especially.

The adjective ‘literary’ in the title is ambiguous: does the book purport of focus on the literary aspects of the lives of these men, or are their lives merely being described as ‘literary’? When I bought the book I hoped for the former, but as it turned out the book tended toward the latter. Any biography about Tolkien or Lewis is bound to refer to their consumption and production of literature. That is of course a main focus of the book, but it tends toward typical biography more often than one might wish. (By way of example, the life and character of Warnie, C.S. Lewis’s brother, are described in some detail, whereas there is no discussion of his literary output.) Nevertheless, the authors take care to refer to many of the books that the Inklings read and enjoyed. I took care to highlight names and titles as I read through in the Kindle; I have reproduced those lists below for anyone who needs a book recommendation.

The book is largely about Tolkien and Lewis. I was a bit disappointed, since I have read biographies of Tolkien and Lewis, and there was not much new information here. Barfield is a shadowy figure for most of the book. He comes across as a sort of pathetic hanger-on for most of the book. He only found literary success later in life, after the other Inklings were dead, so his literary output doesn’t really intersect with that of the others. The treatment of Williams is also fairly shallow. He is certainly the most mysterious of the Inklings—his odd relationships with women, his interest in the occult—but the authors don’t probe very deeply into his life and thought. I would have preferred that more space would be given to the thought of Barfield and Williams, which was strange and difficult, than to Lewis and Tolkien, who were really quite typical.

Humphrey Carpenter’s biography presented Tolkien as an absentminded professor, brilliant and but hopelessly unproductive. I don’t think the Zaleskis’ book did much to change that impression. I’ve heard criticism of Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work, but I think on the whole we need to be grateful for having more than two books out of Tolkien.

I think I am ready to give up trying to understand C.S. Lewis as a person. I’m at a loss to draw any conclusions about his inner life. His literary life is easy enough to understand, but his carefully presented public personality didn’t let much out. (This same problem plagued another disappointing biography I read recently, of Richard John Neuhaus, another public intellectual.)

One of the themes of Lewis’s (intellectual and public) life was Joy, which for him was an unrequited anticipation and longing, a longing in itself more satisfying than its satisfaction would be. (I don’t have the book in front of me; I wouldn’t be surprised if that sentence didn’t unintentionally plagiarize.) I can’t help but observe that the Inklings themselves produce that same sense of longing in a certain kind of person—a person like, for instance. There’s certainly an aesthetic desire: for the oak paneled rooms, and glasses of wine and beer. There’s also a longing for real friendship, for free exchange of opinions, for deep engagement with ideas, for mutual encouragement and frank criticism. (The Zaleskis are aware of this, and there’s a delightful introductory bursting of bubbles, as they describe the real gritty and industrialized Oxford, in contrast to the idealized medieval temple of learning.) That longing is real and present—tasted occasionally, not often. Even for the Inklings there seemed to have been something of a golden age in the war years, and a swift decline thereafter. In fact, as the Zaleskis tell it, the group broke up largely because Hugo Dyson wasn’t a very nice person. So, perhaps in the end the Inklings are best enjoyed as an ideal.

Authors mentioned approvingly:

Edith Nesbit; Arthur Conan Doyle; Mark Twain; F. Anstey; H. Rider Haggard; H. G. Wells; Henryk Sienkiewicz; Lewis Wallace; William Morris; Dorothy Osborne; Benvenuto Cellini; Algernon Blackwood; Boswell; George Eliot; Rupert Brooke; Robert Graves; John Masefield; Walter de la Mare; Siegfried Sassoon; Anthony Hope; Kafka

Books mentioned approvingly:

The Golden Bough; Al-munqidh min al-dalāl (The Deliverer from Error), al-Ghazālī’s medieval predecessor to Surprised by Joy; House of the Seven Gables; Letters from Hell; Lavengro; Le Père Goriot; Rosa Alchemica; Per Amica Silentia Lunae; The Ultimate Belief; The Mabinogion; The Crock of Gold; The Silver Trumpet; Poetic Diction (Barfield); In Defense of Poetry (Shelley); Kalevala; Cædmon’s hymn; The Making of English; Dymer; Piers Plowman; Space, Time, and Deity; The Everlasting Man; George Herbert; The Marvellous Land of Snergs; A Voyage to Arcturus; The Moonstone; The Vision of Judgment; Our Mutual Friend; Ruskin’s Modern Painters; First Men in the Moon; The Worm Ouroboros; The Figure of Beatrice; The Necromancers; A Trophy at Arms; The Idea of the Holy (Otto); The Ermine: Poems 1942–1952; The Origins of Modern Science, 1300–1800; The Golden Ass; I Ching.

I created these lists for myself, and so, for the books especially, I am sure I left out titles that I have already read.