There’s a sort of fan who will see a book title that includes the words Tolkien, Lewis and Inklings and hunger for every last detail. If you are that sort of fan, this may be your book.
For fans with lesser appetites, there are still sections that will surprise and even delight. But be warned: A lot of this has the literary quality and overwhelming volume of obscure specifics of the appendixes to the Lord of the Rings. And if you don’t get that reference, you are not the target audience.
The Inklings was a sort of informal writers’ discussion club at Oxford University during the 1930s and 1940s. Oxford had lots of discussion groups at that time. The Inklings was unusual in that it was a working group: Authors read sections of their works-in-progress for critiquing. It was also unusual in the eventual fame of some of its members.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the best-known works of the 20th century. C.S. Lewis gained acclaim as a lecturer and author arguing the case for Christianity. His Narnia series is his best-known work today.
Owen Barfield and Charles Williams were two other key members of the Inklings. Based on the details here, their lives were in many ways more interesting than those of their more famous fellow Inklings.
The Zaleskis are a husband-and-wife team. Their writing style is academic and a bit archaic. Consider this line in their description of Tolkien’s mother: “She may have sensed, too, that her life would not last long.” The authors, however, make no case for her being psychic.
A feeling for the level of detail: The chapter notes run 73 pages, the bibliography 23 pages, and the index, from the “Abecedarium Philosophicum” to Zulu, 27 densely packed pages.
But if you want a sense of the intellectual life and times surrounding some remarkable literary figures, you’ll find it. Some of the toss-off lines could be the seeds of an entire novel. An apparently gifted writer named William Empson gets one sentence that ends, “ … but was banished from Cambridge upon the discovery of condoms in his Magdalene College rooms.”
Also here is the painstaking assembly of Tolkien’s opus, the evolution of Lewis’ religious thought (and more than a nod to his distinctly odd personal life), and a peek into metaphysics and philosophies that are all but unknown now but which animated Barfield and Williams.
One problem the Zaleskis faced is that the Inklings kept no minutes of their meetings and only scraps of description remain. So there’s not a lot of the drama that some of those discussions must have included.
One of the most famous lines from the meetings is included, however. A reader of this volume plowing through the lists of European philosophers and lecturers whom the Inklings knew or admired is likely to feel some sympathy for Henry Dyson, an Inkling who had little love for the intricacies of Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
“Oh, God,” Dyson famously observed during one of Tolkien’s Inkling readings. “Not another [expletive] elf!”
Jeffrey Weiss reviewed this book for The Dallas Morning News.