Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book Review/Essay: The Fellowship

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams
Philip and Carol Zaleski
Literature, biography

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.


  1. This could be why I am no longer tolerant of religion in my fantasy (or scifi for that matter). In general, the external trappings are there, but the chewy center of the tootsie pop just ain't. To be successful, it has to be interesting, believable, relevant. More often than not it is none of the above.

  2. I think that expresses it very well. Fantasy, even more than science fiction, can be a genuinely immersive environment. (Roger Ebert called the original _Star Wars_ "an out-of-body experience".) That's the mythic element; it gets past your defenses and lets you, for a moment, really believe in things that aren't really true. All that uninteresting, unbelievable, irrelevant fantasy merely asks you to look at all the pretty magic.

  3. Nice dissecting of why Middle Earth is so successful and why, for example, Tad Williams books are like the third pressing of the grape rings.

    1. Thank you. It's not terribly original, perhaps, but it's sincere.

      Question for the class. What are some other successful (on the deep level) fantasies? Do they have something in common?

  4. I honestly haven't read a lot of fantasy lately, but _Curse of Chalion_ (and the subsequent Paladin and Hunt books) is the first that comes to mind. Interesting, believable, and relevant to the story.

    1. Huh. Neither Robin nor I cared much for the Chalion books. Among other objections, Lois Bujold is weak at writing female characters.

      How about the classics? The first three Earthsea books still do it for me, as do the five classic Amber books. Parts of Leiber's Fafhrd/Grey Mouser series hold up; parts don't. Katherine Kurtz definitely doesn't. Lloyd Alexander's Prydain series, though nominally for younger readers, have what I think of as the true mythic depth that great fantasy requires.

      Classic Pratchett has the mojo in spades. If you haven't read it already, look for his short story "Troll Bridge"; it was originally published in a book of stories in honor of Tolkien, and it shows that Sir Terry knew exactly what he was doing.

    2. It has been an age since I read the Earthsea books, and I only really remember the first, and that only vaguely. Same for Fafhrd/GM, though that is slightly clearer as I think I was older.

      Hrm, I think that this tells me that I have moved on from the genre. I tried to read one recently, and just couldn't get through the first chapter. I can't even remember the name of it, but I can look it up later when I get home.