A look at the Zaleski's THE FELLOWSHIP: Literary Lives of the Inklings

Biographies and I have a vexed relationship. On one hand, they're probably the most accessible types of scholarly writing out there. On the other hand, if you're already decently conversant in the subject of the biography, the ratio of "new facts" to "time invested" starts sinking rapidly. Thus, while I'd been hearing about The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Phillip and Carol Zaleski for a while, I've deliberately avoided it. I already know Tolkien pretty well, and the other Inklings aren't that vital to my research. (Plus, my brand of lit crit doesn't rate biography very highly, although I won't ignore it.)

Anyway, I picked it up, and it's pretty good -- well-written with lively prose and story-telling. I'd been worried at first after seeing some snide remarks in a few on-line commentaries, but the book is generally impressive. All the Zaleskis' other books have to do with spiritual matters, and they even dedicated their book to Stratford Caldecott, a very prolific Christian writer (who once, incidentally, did a book on Tolkien, which I own). As such, the Zaleskis have a very Christian-centric interpretation of the Inklings, which might seem like an obvious angle to take, but a lot of the good criticism -- on Tolkien, anyway -- tends to be less interested in that aspect of their thought, thus making this book a good corrective.

Structurally, it's organized chronologically, so that multiple Inklings appear in every chapter, which gives a strong sense of the Inklings as a group evolving over decades. I'd quibble with some of their interpretations of various works (like I said, they hit the Christian angle hard, which means they sometimes exclude other possible interpretations) and I detected a few misstatements, but nothing that really ruined the book for me. Their writing is peppered with gems, and here's one I particularly liked:

  • “One could imagine Dorothy Sayers as an Inkling, but Joy [Davidman] would have never passed muster: her sex, nationality, ethnicity, and impending divorce (finalized on August 5, 1954) made her a walking catalogue of disqualifications” (429).

Incidentally, I looked up several reviews on The Literary Lives of the Inklings. Most were positive, but I thought the following typical in that it dismisses the Inklings because their intellectual concerns do not match the reviewer's own. Granted, I'm rather far from sharing many of their viewpoints, but such disagreements are hardly grounds for dismissing them entirely.

Here's the review. Elizabeth Hand writes in an article for the Los Angeles Times:

  • "Still, in our own multicultural landscape, it's difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the Inklings' countless heated arguments on Catholicism versus Anglicanism or the critical head-butting with F.R. Leavis. Their scholarly machismo made it possible for Lewis to do a very public volte-face from heartfelt atheism back to Christianity but never entertain the thought of a female Inkling."
Now that's just depressing.


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