December 5th 2015

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COVER STORY Well designed same-sex marriage law no solution

CANBERRA OBSERVED Kidman hectares to stay in local hands ... for now

EDITORIAL How to respond to Islamic State's latest outrages

OPINION What's left if Malcolm is in the middle?

LIFE ISSUES Feminists, conservatives unite against surrogacy

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Turnbull government is not serious about defence

HISTORY Geography the great shaper of Taiwan

PHILOSOPHY AND POLITICS Green ideology balances illogic with contradiction

SOCIETY Cultural displacement and the new terrorism

PUBLIC POLICY Cannabis for R&D has precedent in poppy trade

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Swedish daycare: paradigm or cautionary tale? Part I

CINEMA Not your average psychopath: James Bond: Spectre

BOOK REVIEW Fantastical Four


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Fantastical Four

News Weekly, December 5, 2015


THE FELLOWSHIP: The Literary Lives of the Inklings:
J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis,
Owen Barfield, Charles Williams

by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2015)
Hardcover: 656 pages
ISBN: 9780374154097
Price: AUD$34.00


Reviewed by Bill James


The Inklings was an Oxford club with no rules, agenda, minutes, structure or hierarchy, which met weekly in an atmosphere of pipe smoke, beer and male heartiness, between the early 1930s and 1949.

Most of its members were writers and academics, with a common interest in literature (particularly fantasy) and Christianity. They never, contrary to some – usually hostile – opinion, constituted a homogeneous and self-conscious literary or religious “movement”.

This is by no means the first published description of the Inklings, who attract undiminished interest as a sub-enterprise of the seemingly uncontainable C.S. Lewis industry. Not only did they meet in Lewis’ Magdalen College rooms, but Lewis was the figure around whom they coalesced, and without whom the club would not have existed.

There are two distinctive emphases in this new account by the husband-wife Zaleski team. The first is a concentration on four of its members.

Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s inclusion is essential, but Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, it could be argued, are scarcely representative of the Inklings as a whole. For a start, they were not regular or frequent attenders.

Barfield was an early member, but was forced to work in London as a lawyer for most of his career, while Williams only became prominent in the club when the Oxford University Press was transferred from London to Oxford during World War II, and he died in 1945.

What is more, neither Barfield nor Williams was a Christian in any conventional sense, and had nothing like a commitment to the historic, credal faith characteristic of Lewis and Tolkien.

Barfield was nominally Anglican, but “his spiritual home remained Anthroposophy, which entailed beliefs – reincarnation, akashic realms, the evolution of consciousness, and the rest – that have never found a home in Christian orthodoxy”.

For Rudolph Steiner, Anthroposophy’s founder, Christ was “the pivot of cosmic and human evolution”.

Williams was similarly Anglican but syncretistic, blithely wallowing in magic, astrology, the occult, and the promulgation of an idiosyncratic “Romantic Theology” which attempted to sacralise sexual love.

The second special feature of the Zaleskis’ account is its analysis of the four selected Inklings’ writings, hence the Literary in the title. It is thus more than just a history of the group, or a collection of biographies of its members. Not that it doesn’t do an excellent job of the straight biography.

That of Lewis includes a necessary but implicit emphasis on the important women in his life: his beloved mother, who died when he was only 10; his “mother” (and sometime lover?) Janie Moore; his wife Joy; and philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who bested him in debate and, in the opinion of some biographers, drove him to an imaginative rather than logical apologetic, which produced the Narnia stories.

Lewis had one of the most protracted, well-chronicled, and intellectual (specifically literary) conversions in Christian history. He gradually progressed from materialism, to idealism, to deism, and then to theism.

The culmination came after a nocturnal walk and conversation with “Hugo” Dyson and Tolkien, during which he grasped, in the Zaleskis’ words, that “in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus we discover a myth that has entered history”.

This last step is famously described in Lewis’ own words, apropos of an outing with his brother: “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.”

The descriptions of Lewis’ books and articles are well informed, illuminating, and integrated with his life and spiritual pilgrimage, but at the same time critical and unhagiographical. For example, his famous trilemma regarding Christ (“liar, lunatic or Lord”) is carefully deconstructed.

Tolkien wrote and revised at a glacial rate – even The Hobbit took over six years to complete, and had a complex pedigree in literature, philology and the graphic arts.

The excruciatingly protracted gestation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings does not lend itself to scintillating literary history, but the Zaleskis do their best. Given the importance of this masterpiece, their progress report of its creation, and the readers’ effort to follow it, are both justified.

Likewise, Tolkien’s relationships and family life do not make for gossipy biography, but their relative normality provide a useful contrast to those of the other three Inklings with whom the book groups him.

His Roman Catholicism was also the most homogeneous form of faith practised by any of the four, and was one of the reasons for his emerging dislike of Lewis because of the latter’s “Mere”, and more eclectic (though orthodox) Christianity.

It is a different story when we come to Barfield and Williams. They are typical of the writers whom many a C.S. Lewis enthusiast has rushed out to buy on discovering them commended by him, only to find them unreadable.

Other examples of this common reaction include Edmund Spenser, John Milton and George MacDonald.

Barfield’s early literary and philosophical insights, including the role that he allotted to myth and the imagination, challenged the positivist materialism that lay at the foundation of Lewis’ atheism, and were therefore instrumental in his conversion.

As the Zaleskis put it: “Barfield believed that the imagination was a legitimate tool for acquiring objective truth.” It was Barfield, too, who was instrumental in exposing to Lewis the fallacy of “chronological snobbery”.

His subsequent lifelong immersion in Rudolph Steiner’s vague and esoteric Anthroposophy, however, and his quest for evidence in language of the “evolution of consciousness”, makes for very dull reading.

Williams was a much more colourful character than Barfield. The names of the mystical organisations with which he was associated, and their elaborate costumes and liturgies, read like a satire, and include the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, and the Companions of the Co-inherence.

Despite his marriage, he also enjoyed a succession of intense relationships with young female acolytes, which seem to have been non-sexual (though he occasionally spanked them).

His writings are variously characterised by the Zaleskis as “dense, elliptical … obscure … [a] tangled array of fraught syntax … esoteric allusions and occasionally tortured prose”.

Only his Christian fantasy novel, The Place of the Lion, has any sort of claim to lasting popularity, and contains a possible precursor of Aslan.

Despite its unfortunate concentration on Barfield and Williams, The Fellowship contains much valuable and enjoyable material on other Inklings such as Nevill Coghill, “Hugo” Dyson and Lewis’ brother “Warnie”.

It makes no attempt to present the Inklings as some sort of Oxford idyll.

Not only does it honestly portray the work pressures, marriage tensions, family responsibilities, wartime disruptions, money worries and health crises faced by the Inklings, but also the club’s internal tensions and rivalries – personal, theological and literary.

Tolkien’s disapproval of what he perceived as Lewis’ slapdash Narnian mythology, and of his alleged anti-Catholicism (the “Ulsterior motive”), are only the best known of the many disagreements within the group.

The Zaleskis conclude that the Inklings’ writings signified “a revitalisation of Christian intellectual and imaginative life. They were 20th-century Romantics who championed imagination as the royal road to insight and the ‘mediaeval model’ as an answer to modern confusion and anomie; yet they were for the most part Romantics without rebellion, fantasists who prized reason, for whom Faerie was a habitat for the virtues and literature a sanctuary for faith.”

For anyone with an interest in the Inklings in general, or in any of its individual members, this book is indispensable.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


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