The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams
by Philip Zaleski & Carol Zaleski
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, 656 pages)
This is the first full group biography of the Oxford literary group known as the Inklings since Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and their Friends, published in 1978. The Zaleski’s new book does not surpass Carpenter’s classic biography of the writers that produced classics like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. However, the new book incorporates much of the best Inklings scholarship from the intervening years – and there has been a lot of it. The Fellowship is also distinctive from other books on the Inklings because of the space it devotes to Owen Barfield, a fascinating but often neglected figure.
Though it benefits from ongoing research on Charles Williams, I was disappointed with the Zaleski’s treatment of the group’s strangest (and in my opinion, most interesting) member. They seem to think that Williams’s poetry was of little value, and his most powerful and sophisticated novel, Descent into Hell, is hardly mentioned. Williams is depicted as a popular theologian of some value and (mainly) as a catalyst for C. S. Lewis’s literary imagination. While this gets at important elements of Williams’s legacy, his own literary contribution is undervalued. Grevel Lindop’s biography, Charles Williams: The Third Inkling, was also published last year and provides a much fuller picture of his life, as well as a more accurate assessment of the value of his work.
Despite my disappointment with the handling of Williams, I really enjoyed this biography. Carpenter’s book captures something of the group’s spirit more fully, but The Fellowship provides a very valuable assessment of the friendships and literary tastes that made these writers distinctive. There are plenty of books to read about the Inklings, individually and collectively, but The Fellowship serves as a very good starting point.
**editor’s note: this was our last “full-length” review – the next post will begin our “5-word” reviews.