It’s popular to publish end-of-the-year lists featuring Best Books. I’m not that ambitious. Here is what I consider to be perhaps the best book of 2015.
This year, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski graced us with The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux). The Zaleskis recount the wonderful story of how J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams “gathered on a weekly basis in and around Oxford University to drink, smoke, quip, cavil, read aloud their works in progress, and endure or enjoy with as much grace as they could muster the sometimes blistering critiques that followed.” If you love literature, history, and biography, this book is for you.
Edward Tangye Lean, the younger brother of director David Lean, founded the Inklings in 1932 while an undergraduate at Oxford. It was a small informal literary society of students and dons. The name pays homage to those who express themselves through ink and discover, through their inky labors, inklings of a higher order. The meetings, as Tolkien recalled, consisted of reading aloud “unpublished compositions.”
When Lean graduated, the group, or at least its name, fell into Lewis’s lap. After a brief hiatus, he adopted it for his own “undetermined and unelected” (Tolkien’s description) circle of friends, and the assembly we know today as the Inklings was born. Their great hope was to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, and to reenchant the world through the Christian faith and pagan beauty.
The core group initially consisted of Barfield, Tolkien, and Lewis, with one or two others tossed in on occasion. They began meeting regularly in Lewis’s Magdalen quarters. Charles Williams soon became a regular. The Fellowship focuses on the intertwining of these four lives—Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams—all Christians.
While followers of Christ, each saw the faith from different angles. Tolkien was devoutly Catholic. Lewis was Anglican. Williams was a mystic. Barfield’s faith was, well, difficult to describe. Yet all four got along, albeit with bumps and bruises and hurt feelings along the way. They always came back together because Christ held sway in their lives. Inklings is a testimony to how an agile mind and warm heart yields a gracious yet rigorous spirit.
Inklings is also testimony to how contrarian voices contribute to better discussions. Many of the Inklings were drawn to the legend of King Arthur, especially Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. King Arthur’s Round Table included two “outside” voices, Merlin the wise sage and Dagonet, the court jester, or devil’s advocate. The Inklings sought to emulate this model by inviting contrarian opinions.
Finally, the Inklings appealed to the imagination through metaphor. Barfield believed that the imagination was a delicate instrument, often abused, but if properly employed, it provided access to knowledge unavailable to ordinary perception. In his mind, every effective metaphor brings with it a more complete perception of the world and its interrelationships. It reveals more truth, it brightens, expands, clarifies—in effect, it helps to create—our understanding of the world.
Lewis didn’t go this far. He, on the other hand, argued that the imagination pointed toward truth but could not disclose it directly. Truth, he believed at this time, was always somewhat elusive. “We must be content to feel the highest truths ‘in our bones’: if we try to make them explicit, we really make them untruths.”
At the end of the day, the Inklings were dinosaurs (a word Lewis used to describe himself). They were “Middle Ages” men, convinced that only through medieval eyes can we see a meaningful, humanly habitable ordered universe—a universe that is truly a cosmos rather than a chaos or a trackless waste. They were convinced that poetry and imaginative literature were the best means of achieving this. Their legacy, preserved in such masterpieces as The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia make, in my opinion, reading The Fellowship worthwhile.
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