New Book Explores the Literary Lives of the Inklings – J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams


The Inklings will not go away. College courses devoted to this informal association of Christian authors based in Oxford in the 1930s and ’40s are oversubscribed. Their books sell millions yearly. Studies of their lives and works burden our bookshelves.

So why this tome? Among other reasons, because the proliferation of Inklings books is often prompted by Christian triumphalism. The Inklings are often regarded as having the last word on nearly every topic from apologetics to aesthetics, literary theory to literary history, allegory to fantasy and myth making. When questioned about important matters, enthusiasts tend to cite one of the Inklings as if nothing more need be said.

Carol and Philip Zaleski have something much more interesting to say. They provide a fresh, critical assessment of the four central figures—C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Wil­liams, Owen Barfield—and show how their writing lives were wondrously intertwined. In demonstrating the authors’ influence on one another as well as their continuing pertinence for our time, the Zaleskis take no shortcuts. They seem to have read nearly all of the books, ancient and modern, that decisively shaped the Inklings, and their narrative sparkles.

Among their many fine distinctions, the Zaleskis show that while the Inklings cannot be regarded as modernists, neither can they be dismissed as reactionaries. The Inklings’ love of the past—the ancient Greco-Roman world, the Middle Ages of both northern and southern Europe, the Renaissance in Italy and England—was not dreamily nostalgic. They regarded tradition much as Jaroslav Pelikan defined it: “the living faith of the dead.” For the Inklings, the past was still alive in the present. They refined and reshaped it so as to give old things a “new voice amidst the nearly incessant wars of flesh, mind, and spirit that marked the twentieth century.”

The Zaleskis are especially to be commended for discerning differences within kinship. Lewis, for example, was much more of a rationalist than Tolkien. He emphasized clear-minded personal choice and thought that humans, though aided by divine grace, can decide to open or shut the gate to God. Lewis can sound almost Kantian in his insistence on individual choice. As he endlessly reiterated, the door to hell is locked from the inside. Rarely do we hear in Lewis’s work anything like the cry Frodo utters as he carries out his mission in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “Why am I chosen?” For Lewis, the war against evil could be won if the soldiers of Christ would arise and put on their apologetic armor.

Tolkien had a darker, more Augustinian sensibility. While he likened the gospel to the perfect fantasy that culminates in a paradoxical eucatastrophe—the good calamity that brings all things to a triumphant end—he never depicted that end in his fiction. The ending of the Ring trilogy is irremediably sad; Tolkien himself wept at its completion. Frodo’s will is virtually broken by his long struggle with the evil wizard Sauron. He barely accomplishes his mission to destroy the ruling ring, and it is done with the unintentional aid of Gollum, the ruined hobbit whom Frodo repeatedly and undeservedly forgives. Nor does Frodo enjoy the fruits of victory by returning to his home in the Shire; his suffering leaves him incurably wounded.

Tolkien’s work is imbued with a Nordic sense of fate ruling all things earthly. What counts is not victory so much as courage and valor. Hence the pagan motto, “Defeat is no refutation.” Yet The Lord of the Rings is an implicitly Christian work in many regards, especially in the unwillingness of the Nine Walkers to adopt evil means to achieve good ends, even to destroy Sauron. They win, instead, by losing. Their hope lies, as Tolkien said, “beyond the walls of the world.”

Treating Lewis as apologist, the Zaleskis criticize but also mildly defend Lewis’s trilemma, his notorious formulation that Jesus was either a lunatic, a liar, or the Lord. They may be right that versions of the “mad, bad, or God” argument were made by ancient theologians, but I have never heard it employed except smugly as a cheap put-down of skeptics. Even one of Lewis’s witty friends confessed that God surely can count beyond two. The Zaleskis note that Lewis did not abandon apologetics for imaginative work even after his chastening debate with Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe over a purely physicalist notion of causality. He revised Miracles to meet her objections, and he continued to the end of his life to write essays in defense of the faith.

Lewis was an apologist in nearly everything he wrote; Tolkien wanted his fiction to be religious only in an indirect way. Evangelism, for him, was the work of the church, not the purpose of either scholarship or the arts. He didn’t care whether readers discerned the various Catholic allusions inThe Lord of the Rings. Yet the communal quality of the struggle against evil in Tolkien is implicitly ecclesial, whereas the victors in Lewis’s work are often solitary individuals.

Lewis and Tolkien also differ in treating their experience of the Great War in their fiction. In Lewis, the war appears hardly at all. In The Screwtape Letters, he has Screwtape declare, concerning World War II, that his fellow devils can expect to benefit only from “a good deal of cruelty and unchastity.” The greater danger, from Screwtape’s demonic viewpoint, is that soldiers experiencing the terrors of battle are likely to “have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self.”

Lewis wants readers to hear the devil’s complaints as ironically true, but they strike me as dangerously false. Heroic valor for monstrous ends is not to be admired. And surely the chief horror of war, especially modern warfare, lies in its wanton destruction of entire societies and communities, nations and cultures. Even if World War II was a justifiable battle, how could Lewis blink back his firsthand knowledge of World War I’s 17 million dead and 20 million wounded?

Tolkien did not blink. The Lord of the Rings constitutes a testament that war is the world’s chief scourge. “Wars are always lost,” he wrote to his son Christopher near the end of World War II, “and The War always goes on.” Even when the enemy is defeated, the costs are irreparable. Precisely because the demonic has no proper existence, it can always assume new and more terrible forms.

There are only two pitched battles in The Lord of the Rings; both are briefly narrated, and neither celebrates the thrill of the killing of enemies. Only an inferior people such as the Rohirrim find their frisson in battle: “They sang as they slew.” Amid victory, Frodo orders the Company to slay no hobbits as they scour the Shire of its defilement by Saruman and his minions, and Frodo himself vows that he will kill no one at all. He has become, if not a pacifist, then a potential martyr.

The Zaleskis make the salutary decision to treat Dorothy L. Sayers as an important contributor to the fellowship of the Inklings. Her main link to the group was through Charles Williams, who kindled her passion for Dante. Besides her essays and novels, she wrote important essays on The Divine Comedy and translated its rhyme-rich Italian terza rima into a rhyme-poor English replica.

Tolkien may have despised the dandyism of Sayers’s fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey, but his notion of subcreation—the idea that humans take the things of the primary world and refashion them into works of art, whether for good or ill—finds a close parallel in Sayers’s work. In The Mind of the Maker she likens the creative process of art to the complex action of the Trinity. Karl Barth regarded the book as such an original work of theology that he had it translated into German.

Lewis himself was deeply moved by his yearly reading, during Holy Week, of Sayers’s The Man Born to Be King, her 12-play cycle on the life of Jesus cast into contemporary speech. This work, together with her apologetic writings and chancel dramas (especially The Zeal of Thy House), elevated Sayers alongside Lewis as the two most celebrated Christian figures in British public life during the 1950s.

Click here to read more.

SOURCE: The Christian Century
Ralph C. Wood


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *