Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Book Review: "The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings"

Book: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings
Authors: Philip and Carol Zaleski
NYC, New York:Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, c2015

Mythopoeia (“myth-making” in Greek) is not a word in everyone’s vocabulary, but maybe it should be.  A storytelling device characterized by a rich, densely structured, artificially-created mythos, it has existed since humans first told stories, but filtered into popular imagination today through the efforts of fantasy icon J.R.R. Tolkien.  The Oxford don’s compelling mythic narratives practically built our modern iterations of dwarves, elves and dragons, and we encounter variants of his creations in nearly every drop of fantasy media around, whether they are games, books, art, or the silver screen.  It's no exaggeration to say that the story of high fantasy in the second half of the 20th century and beyond is, ultimately, the story of Tolkien; everyone else is either a mimic, a detractor, or a renovator of his legacy.  

Tolkien’s towering presence in all things Fae is matched only by C.S. Lewis, the famous writer, scholar, and Christian apologist, as well as Tolkien’s friend and colleague.  Between them, they created some of the most memorable works of fantasy found in the English language.  But their most attentive devotees are well aware that the men were more than just casual friends.  Tolkien and Lewis were both part of an altogether higher order - an informal circle of like-minded peers, most hailing from the University of Oxford, gathered to discuss literature, philosophy, and the contemporary trends of society.  These men, “the Inklings,” were a diverse lot, bound only by a common Christian faith and a fondness for the fantastic, but they left a lasting impact in the world of letters and fantasy literature.  The fount of this grand legacy is captured in the wise and well written work by a husband and wife team; writers and religious scholars Philip and Carol Zaleski.  The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is a riveting group biography, chronicling not only the lives of literary greats like Tolkien and Lewis, but also covering some of the lesser known members of this cabal, particularly Owen Barfield, the Anthroposophist philosopher; and Charles Williams, Anglican mystic and delver into supernatural worlds unseen.  The Zaleskis shed new light on these writers, and in the process weave together a spellbinding narrative of collaboration, friendship, and ultimately, the triumph of wonder over the technical ingenuity of their literary peers.

The book’s function as a literary biography lends an idiosyncratic structure in which the lives of the Inklings are accompanied and bolstered by examinations of their relevant works.  This proves a successful showing, though it took some time before the core of this got going. The book's first half or so narrows its focus to Lewis and Tolkien, who are given a very thorough treatment of their lives from birth onward.  It make sense narrative sense, since both Lewis and Tolkien are unquestionably the main draws of both scholarly and informal study of the Inklings: the former recognized as maestro of the Inkling gatherings and the advocate of their place in intellectual discourse, while the latter is crucial to their modern fame and their launch into current fictional consciousness.  The authors cover their early lives, including their nascent years and the deaths which shaped them, and onward to their harrowing experiences during World War I and post-war lives as academics, translators, and writers.  The narrative grabs you like a fantasy epic, one informed by personal letters and reflections, and leaves you following the trail of these “characters” as you would any of their fictional creations: Lewis’s climb from atheism to “mere Christianity,” Tolkien’s dealings with a national and intellectual environment hostile to his beloved Catholicism, and the manner in which both men confront the materialism and skepticism rife in their surroundings with faith and humor.  My only issues is that the two other foci, Barfield and Williams, are given comparatively skimpy treatments, their stories subject to curt summation in the space of a chapter or two, with the importance of their roles initially limited to their relationships to Lewis.

But soon after the Inklings formed, the book really hits its stride, seamlessly integrating the great works by these men and the corresponding life events that shaped them.  They come alive as  personalities along with their highs and lows, and the Zaleskis’ lively prose keeps things moving along in a well-plodded pace.  The language can get a little flowery at places, but that minor quibble pales before the passion clearly shown for their subjects on every page.  Likewise, some important aspects of the Inklings' private lives are left curiously unexamined, like the tensions between Tolkien and his wife Edith over his religion, or details of Lewis's courtship with and eventual marriage to American writer Joy Davidman - which seems odd, considering the amount of detailed they poured into many other areas.  That said, the final analysis reads like a clear and balanced apologia of Inklings’ place in literary history: though lacking either the stylistic sophistication of their modernist contemporaries, or the thorough mastery of technical argumentation present among academic theologians and philosophers, they were able to tap into a sense of wonder and joy clear only to unjaded eyes, and in the process shaped the face of modern fantasy fiction - and will likely continue to do so for many years to come.

Recommendation: Must Read

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