Book Review: “Rigour of the Game”: The Literary Lives of the Inklings

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The Inklings, from left to right: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. (Image courtesy of

“The talk might turn in any direction,” chronicled Warnie Lewis, “[always featuring] the cut and parry of prolonged, fierce, masculine argument and “the rigour of the game.” Later Warnie would chronicle that

Out would come a manuscript, and we would settle down to sit in judgment upon it – real unbiased judgement, too, since we were no mutual admiration society: praise for good work was unstinted, but censure for bad work – or even not-so-good work – was often brutally frank. To read to the Inklings was a formidable ordeal.

So read some of the most compelling descriptions of the Inklings ever penned, part of numerous personal writings and anecdotes which reveal the ruthless intellectual atmosphere and yet jovial masculine camaraderie of the famous group as chronicled in The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski.

In an age of unfettered modernism, artists and intellectuals seeking a more human and spiritually authentic aesthetic are often left feeling part of a neglected minority. There are scant examples of effective counter-movements to modernism in various arts: in music one may perhaps think of Nadia Boulanger’s composition pedagogy as a striking counterpoint to the relativist serialism of Schoenberg, or of the so-called “spiritual minimalists” in (Pärt, Tavener, Górecki) who dealt musical modernism such a stunning blow. Yet the most famous anti-modernist movement was a literary one, and it began as a small gathering of writers and intellectuals in Oxford, ultimately forging a bond which would help birth some of the most important written works of the twentieth century. In chronicling the fascinations, loves, inspirations, triumphs and tragedies of the famed ‘Inklings,’ from their informal development to their gradual fading away, Carol and Philip Zaleski give us perhaps the most complete portrait of the modern era’s most potent literary counter-insurgency. The Inklings were a historical anomaly which coalesced at the right time in an unlikely place, just as society had greatest need of such brave and imaginative forays in literature.

511ximwLEgL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This text chronicles the contrasting lives of the Inkling’s four most famous members: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield, while also introducing considerable information for stalwarts like Warnie Lewis (C.S. Lewis’s brother) and even addressing the mislabeled “honorary” Inklings such as Dorothy Sayers (who, as we find out, could never have attended a meeting.) Without undue sentiment or hero worship, the Zaleskis give an honest portrait of the mortals who gave us so much timeless work, in the process shedding light on their flawed humanity alongside the spiritual power of their movement. One is edified to see Tolkien slowly climb the great mountain which was the composition of the Lord of the Rings, plodding on despite his flaws, procrastination, and seemingly endless stream of excuses. One reads with fascination of C.S. Lewis’s jagged path of conversion, along with the moral ambiguity which seemed to accompany him until the death of his far older female companion of many years. One flinches at reading of Hugo Dyson meanly heckling Tolkien for his fantasy stories, as much as one reacts sympathetically to the tragic alcoholism of Warnie Lewis. Owen Barfield’s strange lifelong allegiance to the new-ageism of Rudolph Steiner is chronicled, as well as the always contradictory Charles Williams’s strange relationship to women. Indeed Catholic readers may finding a surprising similarity between Williams’s “Romantic Theology” and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, even as John Paul II’s work is far more developed and cogent.

The historical journey embodied in this work is profound. The reader is ushered through the international shattering of innocence which accompanied the first world war, and into the spiritual hunger it awakened in the future Inklings. One follows these great men as they mature, complete degrees, begin families, and go about the business of life all while the pre-war gloom of the encore catastrophe gathers. Academic and personal rivalries, coalescing literary theories, and personal foibles are colorfully presented in a narrative which leaves the reader with new insights not only into the artists in question, but their towering works as well. “The Fellowship” is a must read for Inkling admirers, or for any reader who would join these men on the epic life journeys which lay behind the great tales they told.

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