Book review: The Fellowship - on Tolkien's literary circle

The Inklings, whose members included C. S. Lewis, was the Oxford literary society where J.R.R. Tolkien read his Rings cycle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 12:07am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 12:07am


There's a kind of fan who will see a book title that includes the words Tolkien, Lewis and Inklings, and hunger for every last detail. For fans with lesser appetites, parts of The Fellowship will still surprise and even delight. But be warned: a lot of the book is focused on obscure references to The Lord of the Rings. And if you don't get those references, you are not the target audience.

The Inklings were a group of writers at Oxford University who met informally during the 1930s and '40s to read their work for the others to critique. Oxford had lots of discussion groups at that time. The Inklings were unusual in the eventual fame of some of the members.

J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the best-known works of the 20th century. C.S. Lewis' Narnia series is his best-known work today. Owen Barfield and Charles Williams were two other key Inklings who never got nearly as famous - but based on the details here, their lives were in many ways more interesting than those of their more famous fellow members.

The Zaleskis are a husband-and-wife team whose writing style is both academic and a bit archaic - and occasionally puzzling. Consider this line in their description of Tolkien's mother: "She may have sensed, too, that her life would not last long." The authors, however, make no case for her being psychic.

The book shows instead the painstaking assembly of Tolkien's magnum opus, the evolution of Lewis' religious thought (and more than a nod to his distinctly odd personal life), and a peek into metaphysics and philosophies that are all but unknown now but which animated Barfield and Williams.

One problem the Zaleskis faced is that the Inklings kept no minutes of their meetings and only scraps of description remain. So there's not a lot of the drama that some of those discussions must have included.

One of the most famous lines from the meetings is included, however. A reader of this volume ploughing through the lists of European philosophers and lecturers whom the Inklings knew or admired is likely to feel some sympathy for Henry Dyson, an Inkling who had little love for the intricacies of Tolkien's Middle-earth.

"Oh, God," Dyson famously observed during one of Tolkien's Inkling readings. "Not another f***ing elf!"

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings  by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski  (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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