Carol Zaleski is the co-author, with Philip Zaleski, of the new book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. Their other books include Prayer: A History and The Book of Heaven. She is a professor of religion at Smith College.
Q: Why did you decide to write a group biography of the Inklings, and how did they get their name?
A: We wrote our book about the Inklings because the group is utterly entrancing, a fascinating medley of voices, joining together artists, novelists, poets, soldiers, philosophers, literary historians, philologists, and more.
The two most prominent Inklings, C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, have proven to be two of the most important writers of the past 100 years; and all the Inklings had a great deal of value to contribute.
The name, a curious one, came from a previous Oxford University literary circle; it is meant to suggest, as Tolkien said, “a pleasantly ingenious pun . . . suggesting people with vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink."
Q: What role did Oxford play for the Inklings, and could their creativity have been fostered in the same way in a different setting?
A: Oxford during the time of the Inklings – roughly from the post World War I era until the mid-1960s -- was a tremendously exciting place to be, if one cared about ideas and their artistic and literary expression.
The city’s famous “dreaming spires” seemed a natural home for fantasy, which became a favorite (though by no means the exclusive) mode of expression for the Inklings. The group could have appeared elsewhere – in London or Cambridge, perhaps – but it wouldn’t have been quite the same.
Q: How would you describe the Inklings’ relationship to religion, and what do you see as these writers’ spiritual legacy today?
A: The Inklings were Christians with a literary and scholarly bent. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, Lewis an ecumenically-minded Anglican, who would become, through his wartime BBC radio talks and popular books, the leading Christian voice of his generation. Owen Barfield was an Anthroposophist and a Christian; Charles Williams was an Anglican with occult interests.
There were religious differences and tensions among them, but they all saw their work in life, at least in part, as having a religious dimension; working with the tools at their disposal, most often pen and ink, for moral goodness, for reason and faith, for charity, for hope in the face of war, and for the recovery of traditional ways of thought and life, for environmental awareness – the last a particular concern of Tolkien’s.
The Lord of the Rings gave rise, not only to a vast genre of modern fantasy, but to a generation of young people committed to defending the natural world, while Lewis’s many works continue to bring spiritual consolation and encouragement to millions of readers.
Q: How did the two of you collaborate on the book and divide up the research and writing?
A: We always collaborate in the same way. We divide a book into various parts, and each of us tackles what suits him or her best. We then pass our pages back and forth, rewriting constantly. What emerges is, we hope, a single, appealing voice. As the years go by, we grow more alike.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: We are beginning to sketch out a new co-authored book on the relation of religion to art and literature; and we each have our individual projects as well (mine, currently, is a book on immortality, heaven, hell, and purgatory).
--Interview with Deborah Kalb