Well I finally got around to it, and it was a slog. That is probably an unfair start to a book review, but I intend to keep this brief since I have very little nice to say. And my mother did try her best to drill into my head, “if you can’t say something nice…” But I have space to fill, so here goes.
I went into The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inkings with high expectations. At the time of it’s publication it was receiving rave reviews and I grabbed a copy as quickly as I could. And then it languished on my shelves after spending time in pride of place on the top of my to read pile. (You can see a scuff mark it received when I left it in my chair to read and a friend accidentally hit with a sword scabbard.) I got engaged, married, then moved house, and frankly more interesting books came and went. Part of the delay was its daunting size. I struggle to get up the gumption to tackle massive books. Things begin to feel like a slog after some time, and I would prefer larger books be broken up into slimmer volumes. Part of its heft is the hundreds or so pages of notes and citations at the back end. These are a testament to the work and scholarship involved in its writing. It is well composed and not a particularly difficult read. It has an unenviable task of trying fill out the lives of the people surrounding C.S. Lewis. It is billed as a biography of four men: Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. The problem begins to arise in that Lewis the the key figure, and the most interesting one. The problem of the book then comes to fruition in the Papal thin skin of the authors, who take umbrage at Lewis every third chance they get.
C.S. Lewis was not just an inviting author, but also an imminently interesting person. He fought in a war, he new death and tragedy, he had secrets (some that are viewed as salacious), and he possessed the kind of magnetic gregarious personality that still is easy for biographers to make leap off a page. Lewis was the inevitable center of the Inklings universe. He is also the person the most personal material has been made available (diaries, letters, personal memories of friends, and broad literary work).
J.R.R. Tolkien was a master of his craft, and an infinitely dull man. When he described himself as practically a Hobbit he was not wrong. He was the kind of Hobbit that stayed in the Shire and if he had have been forced out by Gandalf he would have somehow made the journey dull. A genius yes, but also a jealous, insecure, mystical person who was more a brain on legs than a personality that grabs attention.
Charles Williams was a heretic and the only person who I would actually say the term emotional affair applied as I real thing. I can see why Lewis was fascinated with him, but again, he is really only important due to his relationship with Lewis. Otherwise he would be largely forgotten as a strange, writer who spectacularly failed to blend the occult and Christianity simply because of their base incompatibilities that he was incapable of seeing.
Own Barfield was a duller version of Williams, and was not really an Inkling. A lifelong friend of Lewis (note the connection again) he attended meetings infrequently. A professed Christian he was an, until late in life, a failed Anthroposophist. A kind of thinking I still can’t entirely get my brain wrapped around. But I can tell it is antithetical to the true faith once delivered to the saints. He is distinctive for having outlived the other players and moving to America where he gained notoriety for his willingness to speak about Lewis and a revival of interest in his chosen heresy.
The bad taste in my mouth from the book comes from the overt Romanist leaning of the authors. In short the book reads as follows: Tolkien could do no wrong and was a shining example of all that is right good and Papal. Williams and Barfield were delightful chaps with fun ideas and who really cares if they were wrong. Lewis is a grave disappointment, not only because of his protestantism, but also his opposition to Rome. This then colors all and his work would have been better if he had just come to his senses and bowed the knee to the Pope.
Obviously this gets grating. It is made more so because Lewis is, inevitably, the lions share of the books content. While there is a valiant attempt to balance all four lives, the sheer amount of Lewis available as opposed to the others is staggering. What then develops is lots of Romanist criticism of Lewis in his voluminous pages in what seems to be an attempt to knock him down a peg or two.
I didn’t like the book. Granted if someone wanted an introduction to the four “major Inklings” I suppose they could start with it. But even with the contentions over its accuracy I would still recommend Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings over The Fellowship. If for no other reason than length. As a deep dive I would have preferred sketches of the various people over the years not just these four, two of which can easily be read up on, and the other two who need some serious scrutiny before we welcome their thinking into the fold of the Reformed.
2 thoughts on “The Fellowship Book is Broken”
What a fascinating and honest review! I too have a copy of the book sitting in my read pile. Must confess that I’m now less eager to invest the time in it.
Although I’m not Reformed (being an evangelical/Confessional Lutheran), I share all of your theological reservations about the theology you have described in the volume. It certainly is ironic that some authors (i.e. from this particular theological perspective) would find more to criticize in an orthodox Anglican than in people espousing literal heresies.
It does seem to be a trend with many Lewis biographers to treat Williams and Barfield as odd but orthodox (which I obviously take issue with) but this book added a whole new dimension with the Romanish fanboying over Tolkien.
I am almost done and plan to review The Making of Martin Luther soon, which may interest you so thanks for reading and stay tuned!
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