The last major work about the Inklings, the group of Oxford writers centered around C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, (there has been a plethora of minor works, most not worth reading, in my opinion) was Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends (1978). This was a delightful book, well-told, trailing scents of the very tobacco the Inklings, or most of them, smoked, and the taste of the beer and port they imbibed. The Zaleskis—Philip Zaleski is the editor of the Best Spiritual Writing and Best American Spiritual Writing series; Carol Zaleski is a professor of world religions at Smith College—have written a more scholarly book, plunging deeper into the philosophies and lives of their subjects, but they admit Carpenter’s reconstruction of an Inkling’s meeting, “the centerpiece of his entertaining 1978 study The Inklings” is “vivid” albeit “rather a patchwork, assembled from numerous published and unpublished memoirs and letters.” Carpenter’s book is a good introduction to the subject; the Zaleskis’ book is for those who want to go deeper.
One Inkling who thought Carpenter’s reconstruction of an Inkling’s meeting was “surprisingly successful” was Owen Barfield, who had a lesser role in Carpenter’s book. In The Fellowship he comes into his own and shows that the Inklings, traditionally thought of as a Christian group, allowed for other philosophies; they were more about friendship than about a literary program (though they did, loosely, have one). For Barfield was an anthroposophist, [a spiritual philosopher] and although he was baptized as an Anglican in middle age (partly, at least, to please his wife, who detested his anthroposophy), he always reverenced Rudolf Steiner as perhaps the “key thinker” in the history of consciousness.
The latter is what Barfield was interested in and what he wrestled with all his life. He fought in letters what he and Lewis called “The Great War” about anthroposophy, which Lewis respected but considered deeply flawed. Unlike Lewis and Tolkien, Barfield struggled as a writer and worked in his father’s law office most of his life, not succeeding until late in life, when he became a popular lecturer in the United States and an almost guru figure for people as different as the poet Howard Nemerov and the Nobel-winning novelist Saul Bellow. The Zaleskis include a fascinating section about the friendship between Barfield and Bellow, which, on Bellow’s part, followed the typical path from idealism to disillusionment.
There is really nothing new in here about Lewis and Tolkien, the most prominent Roman Catholic of the group, or at least nothing major. They were very close friends, and without Lewis’s encouragement we might not have had The Lord of the Rings. Which would have pleased, it appears, another Oxford scholar, also an Inkling and, ironically, along with Tolkien, a major player in Lewis’s conversion, Hugo Dyson, a disruptive force among the Inklings who, the Zaleskis imply, might have been a large factor in the break-up of the Thursday night meetings (although the Inklings’ Tuesday midday meetings at an Oxford pub, continued for many more years). Dyson is famous among Inklings fans for loathing Tolkien’s work and bellowing, “Not another f—g elf!” when he saw Tolkien pulling manuscript pages from his overcoat.
The Zaleskis do a fine job toning down some of the sentimental excesses of some Inklings’ fans and perhaps, at times, Carpenter. They quote Max Beerbohm about his disappointment with Oxford (“Here, in a riot of vulgarity, were remnants of beauty”) and do not flinch from portraying Charles Williams’s sadomasochistic (think: ruler and bottom) yet “platonic” outings with “followers.”
They end their book, after a glance at the “grinding of teeth” with which some thinkers, notably Germaine Greer and Philip Pullman, treat the Inklings, and admitting that “the Inklings never achieved the formal brilliance of the greatest of their contemporaries, such as Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Borges, or Eliot,” (which will in itself cause more teeth grinding among some Inkling’s devotees), with what I think is a fair appraisal of the group:
Literary revolutions leave many in their wake; but some of those who excoriate the Inklings may come to see that Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, Williams, and their associates, by returning to the fundamentals of story and exploring its relation to faith, virtue, self-transcendence, and hope, have renewed a current that runs through the heart of Western literature, beginning with Virgil and the Beowulf poet; that they have recovered archaic literary forms not as an antiquarian curiosity but as a means of squarely addressing modern anxieties and longings. From our present vantage point this looks like a signal and even unprecedented achievement; but what permanent place the Inklings may come to occupy in Christian renewal and, more broadly, intellectual and artistic history, is for the future to decide.