A Ring of Fellowship
“Every great man nowadays has his disciples,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “and it is always Judas who writes the biography.” Even conceding that Wilde was writing for effect and with his usual affectation, it is nonetheless true that biographers often betray their subjects with either a kiss or a curse, and that the kiss is sometimes more deadly than the curse. Wilde himself suffered abominably at the hands of Richard Ellmann, whose sympathetic portrayal poisoned every fact it touched with the cynicism of deconstructed meaning. In similar fashion, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis have often been ill-served by their biographers. One thinks of Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien (1977) or A. N. Wilson’s life of Lewis (1990). It is especially irksome that Carpenter’s book on the Inklings (1978) has straddled the decades since its publication as the generally-perceived definitive work on the subject, whereas, in fact, it is anything but a full and fair treatment of the most important literary group of the twentieth century. It is, therefore, entirely gratifying to find that recent years have seen the publication of not one but two books on the Inklings, both of which deserve to eclipse Carpenter’s deficient and defective prototype.
The Oxford Inklings (Oxford: Lion Hudson) by veteran Lewis and Tolkien scholar, Colin Duriez, is a delightfully easy read that will warm the hearts of those who share the author’s enthusiasm for his subject. At the very least, it serves as a much-needed counterpoint to Carpenter’s somewhat jaded and jaundiced perspective. It is, however, the second book, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, that demands our attention. Whereas the books by Duriez and Carpenter are what might be termed welterweight volumes, weighing in at around 300 pages, The Fellowship by Philip and Carol Zaleski is a truly heavyweight tome, tipping the scales at over 600 pages. As such, it promises to be the full and fulsome study of Tolkien, Lewis and their circle that the subject so obviously warrants.
Crucially, the authors of The Fellowship adopt a chronological approach, resisting and spurning the temptation to treat the subject thematically. Whereas a thematic approach would have made the book much easier to write, with each author being given a separate section of his own, thereby making it a compendium of several mini-biographies, such an approach would have left the book bereft of the historical engagement which the reader needs to understand how the lives of the several protagonists interacted with each other and with the times in which they lived. The Fellowship is, therefore, not a collection of pen portraits of those writers who constituted the Inklings but is a story, a history, of the group from its embryonic genesis in the respective childhoods of the main protagonists, Tolkien, Lewis, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield, through to its coming of age as a literary group in Oxford, and its many trials and tribulations as its members begged to differ, proceeding to its effective dissolution upon the death of Lewis, and ending with the later years of Tolkien and Barfield. It is, therefore, a history of this remarkable movement of minds, this energizing network of grace and creativity, from the childhood of its members in the late nineteenth century to the death of Barfield, its last surviving member, more than a century later, all of which is framed contextually by a prologue and epilogue that set the scene and assess the legacy of a group of writers whose collective influence is too immense to fully quantify or fathom.
If the panoramic and chronological scope of the book is to be praised, it is lamentable that the devil can sometimes be seen in the detail, especially in the manner in which the authors occasionally succumb to the language and lunacy of the modern academy. Thus we are told that Lewis had a “canny sense of person”:
He cultivated an image, that of the ordinary chap, endowed perhaps – one can do nothing about these things – with extraordinary brains, who lived an ordinary life of plain talk, plain food, and plain (“mere”) faith. He called himself Jack, a plain handshake of a name, a far cry from the Clive Staples he had been christened, and to be Jack was the hard work of a lifetime. Lewis longed to be ordinary ….
A page or so later we are told that Lewis “would have to learn to play the parts assigned to him, until, as an adult, he could assume his chosen part as Everyman”.
To speak as plainly as Lewis would no doubt have done had he read this, it is utter relativistic nonsense to suggest that we are nothing but the parts that we play or the masks that we wear. It is arrant nonsense, worthy of Wilde at his provocative worst or of that old liar Screwtape at his wicked “best”, to argue that there is nothing but the truth of masks. If the persona that we present to the public is a self-constructed mask, we are nothing but charlatans; and if our very self is a carefully constructed lie so are the truths that we profess. Against such (post)modern nonsense, we should insist, with Lewis, that our engagement with reality forces us to remove our masks until at last we have faces. Lewis was not cultivating an image when he sought to be ordinary, he was removing the extraordinary masks that had separated him from the plain and ordinary truth. He never assumed his chosen part as Everyman but accepted his responsibility as an ordinary man to defend ordinary men from extraordinary nonsense. In short, Lewis sought to conform himself, his “self”, to the reality beyond the self, a reality which demands the discarding of all self-constructed and therefore self-deceiving masks.
Although this descent into the de-faced inanity of postmodernism is lamentable it is also thankfully very rare. For the most part, Messieurs Zaleski and Zaleski are both perceptive and au point in their handling of their subject. They offer great insight into the confused and confusing psyche of Charles Williams, treating this most perplexing of men with both the gravitas and the levitas that he deserves. Having paid due deference to the importance of his engagement with Dante’s Divine Comedy and having discussed the kinship of spirit that he had in his Dante scholarship with Dorothy L. Sayers, the authors are clearly and rightly amused by Williams’ apparent conflation of his love for his wife with Dante’s love for Beatrice: “He addressed her as Madonna and declared his love for her to be amor intellectualis – an exalted phrase, to be sure, but not one that many women welcome from their lovers.”
There is much that will please, fascinate and enlighten the aficionado of Tolkien and Lewis in The Fellowship, as well as a much needed engagement with the life and ideas of the forgotten and neglected Inkling, Owen Barfield, whose anthroposophy sits somewhat uncomfortably beside the Christian orthodoxy of the other members of the group.
The discussion of the debates of the Socratic Club is handled well, especially the legendary battle between Lewis and the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe on the relationship between naturalism and miracles, a battle which most people, including Lewis himself, judged that Anscombe had won.
The Zaleskis are better as historians than they are as literary critics, a fact that becomes apparent in the inadequacy of their critique of Lewis’ novel, That Hideous Strength, and of his debate with E. M. W. Tillyard, published as The Personal Heresy. Since, however, the strength of The Fellowship resides in its value as a work of history and not as a work of literary criticism, these defects are not particularly harmful to the reader’s enjoyment of the work or to its intrinsic value as an important addition to the corpus of work on Lewis, Tolkien et al.
One of the highlights is the authors’ discussion of Lewis’s broadside against the chronological snobbery inherent in the progressivist understanding of history, and particularly intriguing is the book’s highlighting of the congruence between Tolkien’s view of the art of translation with that of T. S. Eliot, the former’s view of the challenge of translating Gawain and the Green Knight conforming with the latter’s views on the translating of Dante.
Having greatly enjoyed the fruits of the really substantial scholarship which informs this commendable tome, it is a shame that it ends on a low point. As with the postmodern banality which blighted the beginning of the book, it ends with a similar descent into postmodern conformism. Intent, it seems, on placating their academic peers, the authors concede that “the Inklings never achieved the formal brilliance of the greatest of their contemporaries, such as Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Borges, or Eliot” and that they were “surpassed in poetry and prose style by the very modernists they failed to appreciate.” Such dismissiveness, which does violence to the authentic greatness of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s oeuvre, can itself be dismissed as little more than a genuflection before the altar of (post)modernism.
Feeling no urge to earn the approval of the decaying and deconstructive academy, the present reviewer is happy to insist that The Lord of the Rings is, as millions have testified, the greatest work of the past century and that Lewis’s literary masterpiece, Till We Have Faces, can outface anything from the pen of lionized authors, such as Virginia Woolf. As for poetry, few would argue with the judgment that Eliot is a greater poet than Lewis or Tolkien, as he is a greater poet than anyone else of his generation, but such a comparison should not detract from the sheer brilliance of Tolkien’s “Mythopoeia”, a poem which holds its own amidst the best verse of the twentieth century.
Its anti-climactic conclusion notwithstanding, and its other flaws duly acknowledged, The Fellowship remains a work of consummate scholarship worthy of its subject and full to the brim with fascinating facts that will satisfy those who desire more than a mere inkling of knowledge about Tolkien, Lewis and their world.
This review was first published by the Intellectual Conservative and is reprinted with permission.