The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams
Philip and Carol Zaleski
The Fellowship is a readable, detailed, and sympathetic biography by a pair of Smith College professors. It's nice to see the Inklings get some scholarly attention, even if it's only a fraction of the attention that's been given to contemporaries such as the Bloomsbury Group. It's not, perhaps, for the casual reader; if your interest starts and ends with Middle-Earth and Narnia, you might want to work your way up to this one.
Inevitably, the coverage of the Inklings is uneven. Lewis and Tolkien get roughly equal time, with Lewis emerging as the driving force of the group. Williams and Barfield share a second tier. The remainder of the group, aside from Lewis's brother Warnie, gets only token attention.
To be honest, that's fine by me. I've read some Charles Williams, but in general I find him obscure and unengaging. I have read nothing by Barfield, and based on this account I'm unlikely to do so; each of us would consider the other as spouting tendentious gibberish. No doubt both men were genuinely deep and original thinkers, but they wrote for an audience of which I'm not a member.
If anything, that points out the genius of Lewis and Tolkien. Both of them were first-rate intellectuals (critical snobbery aside), and far more deeply versed in theology, literature, and philosophy than I will ever be. They put that depth into their writings; and yet both men--especially Tolkien--can be read for pure, unadulterated pleasure.
This, I think, is one of the two major divides between JRRT and the vast legions of schlock artists who've followed in his footsteps. You might not see the genuine depth of The Lord of the Rings, but you can still feel it. The sense of mingled loss and consolation, for example, that pervades the book isn't an accident; it's fundamental to Tolkien's Christian, Catholic, and Boethian philosophy.
The other (and related) major divide is that all the Inklings were fascinated by myths: how they work, why they work, and what they're good for. Commercial fantasy writers focus on the mere trappings of myth (swords, magic spells, divine power, etc.) without having the least idea of why. The result is a kind of literary placebo, which dulls the imagination rather than stimulating it. It is to the genuine stuff what Nabisco's "Chips Ahoy!" is to home-made chocolate cookies.
Confession: I've read my fair share of this writing. I hope never to do so again. Life's too short to spend it killing your own brain cells.
Humphrey Carpenter's J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography is a good starting point for the curious. Lewis has had a good many studies of his life and work, but they've mostly taken a rather academic slant.