The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings masterfully weaves together the stories of four major figures in the world of letters: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams. This is a quartet at the core of a literary group that flourished in that most intellectually fertile of cities, Oxford. In addition to being a center of ideas, it has also long been a center of faith. Appropriate, then, that a central requirement for being an Inkling was Christianity and the passion for scribbling words upon the page. Authors Philip and Carol Zaleski offer us more than a biography of four authors in these pages, though. They also chart the birth and growth of a movement or, if you prefer, a club. This was a club (though its members might have cringed at that designation) that dealt in smoke (of the tobacco variety), beer and a conviviality that may be surprising given the stature of the talents involved.

The Inklings were not unique in either intent or spirit. Writers have long craved the company (and feedback) of other writers. Circles or salons provide a place for critique and conversation but also a sense of security. Fellow artists can be brutal and exacting in their comments but their insights can prove more constructive and well-intended than those lobbed from the outside world. The long hours of solitude the profession requires may be the thing that offers many to seek escape in spirits or chemicals; it may also be the thing that helps form the strong bonds of friendship that seem uncommonly affectionate among scribes.

Those affections come to light in these pages as the Zaleskis chronicle the three decades during which these writers gathered to air their works in progress and discuss a smorgasbord of ideas and fancies. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and Williams’s All Hallows’ Eve all unfolded in this community. Tolkien was creating his own mythology as he moved in and out of these meetings. He was attempting to discover more than plot, theme and character. Instead, he was attempting to uncover the roots of meaning, the very thing that give words their impact. It is art but it also philosophy and it is also tradition.

These were men well-versed in Beowulf and the scriptures, in Milton, in Chaucer, in Shakespeare and all those important figures before them. They were cognizant of the changing world around them but suspicious of its tendency to eschew the godly and embrace man as the focal point. Lewis’s 1942 novel The Screwtape Letters emerged at a time when people had more than a few reasons to question a belief in God. The story did more than defend Christianity from detractors, though, it examined the very essence of being by probing reason and evil; it acknowledged a world that was short on hope but suggested, in its way, that that precious commodity could itself be a remedy. It also reminded (and continues to remind) readers that faith can have an intellectual component, subject to the same rigors and struggles of its secular counterpart, subject to the same surprises and disappointments too.

The connection between a writer’s faith (or lack thereof) makes for interesting fodder no matter the beliefs of the reader. One needn’t subscribe to Christian doctrine to enjoy the story the Zaleskis tell over the course of more than 500 pages. (If Lewis and Barfield couldn’t always agree on the “correct” system of beliefs, why should we?) That said, the audience for this book will most likely be heavily Christian and heavily intent on embracing these four figures as four great writers of the faith.

The book can be a bit of climb at times. It comes in at just over 500 pages before the notes, acknowledgements, bibliography and index and tracking the various streams and narrative threads may be a daunting task for Inkling novices. Nevertheless, it’s a potent portrait of how four lives intersect at the right time and place and went on to shape the lives of readers for the better part of century. Not bad for a group of blokes who loved smoky rooms and a good pint almost as much as they loved the written word and the idea of an eternal power.

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