October 13, 2015
You really must read this:
In this nearly magical room, amid fire-crackle and clink of glass, you can hear them talking. Pipe smoke is in the air, and a certain boisterous chauvinism, and the wet-dog smell of recently rained-on tweed. You can hear the donnish mumbles of J. R. R. Tolkien as the slow coils of The Silmarillion glint and shift in his back-brain. Now he’s reading aloud from an interminable marmalade-stained manuscript, and his fellow academic Hugo Dyson, prone on the couch, is heckling him: “Oh God, not another fucking elf!” You can hear the challenging train-conductor baritone of C. S. Lewis, familiar to millions from his wartime radio broadcasts; hear the unstoppable spiel of the writer/hierophant Charles Williams, with his twitchy limbs and angel-monkey face; hear the silver stream of ideas and argumentation that is the philosopher Owen Barfield. They are intellectually bent upon one another, these men, but flesh-and-blood is the thing: conviviality is, for them, a kind of passion. The chairs are deep; the fire glows gold and extra fiery in the grate. Lewis’s brother, Warnie, rosy with booze and fellow feeling, serves the drinks. And the walls drop away, and the scene extends itself backwards and forward in time …
Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a mental map, a religious journey, and the biography of a brotherhood. Plenty of distinguished Inklings came and went over the years, padding across the carpets with a Warnie-provided drink in hand, but the Zaleskis zoom in on (and out from) the primary axis of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, and Barfield, the four among whom the invisible correspondences of thought and affection were strongest. Christians all, these men formed what the Zaleskis call “a perfect compass rose of faith”: Barfield the proto–New Ager, Tolkien the rather prim orthodox Catholic, Lewis the noisy and dogmatically ordinary layman and popular theologian, Williams the ritualistic Anglican with a taste for sorcery.