The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings
By Philip and Carol Zaleski
Someone recently asked me why Philip and Carol Zaleski’s book, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings would have any relevance to a theological conversation among clergy. Good question. We might want to consider that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien probably have about as much influence on the people who sit in the pews of churches today than probably any two other writers in Christian history. In 2006, Christianity Today named Lewis’s book, Mere Christianity, the third most important book among Evangelicals since 1945. Carol Zaleski says that Lewis is “arguably the best selling Christian writer since John Bunyan.” As for Tolkien, the British bookseller Waterstone’s declared Lord of the Rings book of the century in 1997. Sales for Lord of the Rings are estimated between 150 – 200 million copies. The film trilogy that was based on Tolkien’s book was collectively the highest grossing films of all times. Why add Charles Williams and Owen Barfield to the theological conversation? The Zaleskis write that, “They make the perfect rose of faith: Tolkien the Catholic, Lewis the “mere” Christian, Williams the Anglican (and magus), Barfield the esotericist. Frankly, given the theological mix of clergy and laity these days, this quaternity might reflect the theology of the Episcopal Church better than any combination of writers in the modern era.
C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams were complex men, romantics, philosophers, theologians, fiction writers, and friends. These men were the heart of a male only group known as the Inklings. They gathered for most of twenty years, from the Great Depression through the 1950s, in an Oxford pub to drink, to smoke, to read their latest work, and to endure frank, sharp critique. The Inklings could exemplify the best and the worst of men only gatherings; unrestrained masculinity can lead to authentic conversations, however, without confrontation from the feminine shadow they can also lead to relationships that lack the integration of mind, body, soul, and spirit.
Carol and Philip Zaleski, authors and professors of religious studies, have tackled the complicated task of writing a biography of four unique personalities. The Zaleskis, rightfully, are unwilling to excuse the Inklings for their exclusion of women writers from their group. They are, however, not willing to go as far as to name the Inklings, what other critics have labeled as, “simply a club of Lewis’s friends.” The Zaleskis are fair in the assessment of the contribution of the four Inklings they chose to focus their time on throughout this lengthy work. Yet, to me, their book feels biased by their analysis of these men’s religious pursuits. They give the cradle born and faithful Catholic Tolkien, a pass. In their eyes, he seems to do little wrong. Lewis, on the other hand, an agnostic until his moment of “conversion” to Christianity, is subtly critiqued for not taking the step from Anglicanism to Catholicism. Williams, an Anglican, is questioned for his involvement in the secret Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a group founded by A.E. Waite. The Fellowship has significant influence on Williams’ novels and his Theology of Romance. The Zaleskis would suffer none of Williams’ ideas of secret societies, the kabbalah, alchemy, Freemasonry, or the Tarot. Barfield faired even worse. He came under the influence of Rudolf Steiner and the Anthroposophical Society, which was “dedicated to expounding ‘Spiritual Sciences.’” A method of occult insight that offered, Steiner claimed, “reliable, verifiable, clairvoyant exploration of the spiritual realm.” Later they even passively dismissed Barfield’s eventual conversion to Christianity through the Anglican Church.
The Zalenski’s provide a detailed, well-researched, and interesting book. They offered unique insights about the Inklings’ relationships with each other. As well, the Zaleskis delve into the personal lives of each author, especially their relationships with women. Tolkien may have based the women in his books on the idolization of his mother, who died when he was a child. Lewis had, at the least, odd relationships with some of the women in their lives. Williams, who poetry and theology swing like a pendulum between the Song of Solomon and Dark Eros, can be troubling for those not willing to carefully analyze his work at a Jungian level. The Zaleskis advertise that their book delivers new information about Williams. Such is probably an overstatement on their part given the work of Gavin Ashesen’s Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration and Grevel Lindop’s Charles Williams: The Third Inklings. Considering Barfield, other biographers find little of substance to question Barfield’s relationship with his wife. The Zaleski’s, however, write, “The two (Barfield and his wife) maintained a peaceful veneer by avoiding all discussion of religion or metaphysics and especially Anthroposophy, but this scarcely constitutes a prescription for marital bliss. Frustrated in his art, unhappy in his career, uninspired in his marriage, Barfield longed desperately for…well, he hardly knew what.”
This leads to my critique of the Zaleski’s book. It feels as if they wrote their book as a Sunday school morality lesson for Carol Zaleski’s young women students at Smith College. She praises Tolkien’s Catholic morality. (She never discloses that she was a mid-life convert to Catholicism.) Then proclaims that after Lewis converted to Christianity he “brimmed with happiness; everything falling into place. Since becoming a Christian, his teaching, reading, writing, and scholarship had all acquired zest and purpose.” Of course, Lewis used his newly found Christianity to cut off any religious discussion with Barfield and Bede Griffiths, for which the Zaleskis appear to exonerate Lewis. Of course Zaleski’s students, by reading this book, would now be fully warned about men like Williams (occultist and sadist). And bored with men like Barfield (esoteric).
In the end, though, the Zaleskis offer this positive conclusion to their 512 page work on the life of the Inklings; “Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams, and their associates, by returning to the fundamentals of story and exploring its relationship to faith, virtue, self-transcendence, and hope have renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature.”
The Fellowship was very much worth the time invested. And I do think their book could be the seed for an extremely important discussion about the current state of theology in the Episcopal Church, especially considering the influx of those from other traditions, Roman Catholics (Tolkien), Evangelicals (Lewis), mystics (Williams), and philosophical intellectuals (Barfield).