Readers of these pages will not at all be surprised to find a whole post devoted to the Inklings, the Oxford School of writers and thinkers joined by their mutual love of the mythopoeic and their mutual love of Christ. Indeed, it may be that virtually the whole foundation of the modern Christian literary experience is founded entirely on these trailblazers. But I am told that this was no school as such, highlighted by C.S. Lewis’ own words toward the end of his life. It was, rather, merely an informal group of friends joining together in a real and mystical fellowship, encouraging each other in their efforts to live out faith through art. Philip and Carol Zaleski explore the four pillars of this remarkable gathering—C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield—in their book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).
Nearly all of our contemporaries are familiar with Lewis and Tolkien. The average reader may not know of Lewis’ apologetic works, but they have at least heard of how to get to a secret world through a wardrobe. The non-reader may have never picked up The Lord of the Rings at Barnes & Noble, but they have certainly seen Peter Jackson’s depiction of Middle Earth. Fifty years and more after their deaths, Lewis and Tolkien have achieved the rare “cross-over” status—like Taylor Swift but with far more depth and artistry. Yet fewer readers are familiar with the contributions of Charles Williams and Owen Barfield. For those needing an introduction to these authors, I might recommend Williams’ fiction, Descent into Hell and War in Heaven, and Barfield’s linguistic criticism, Poetic Diction. (Williams’ The Figure of Beatrice and Barfield’s What Coleridge Knew are occupying restless space in my queue.) In their time, each of these authors contributed a prolific body of work to imaginative fiction, literary criticism, and the cultivation of a Christian mythos. The Zaleskis capture with incredible historical clarity and fine storytelling the biography of each of the four Inklings, and not a few details of several of the secondary figures.
Time does not permit to discuss the various biographical elements of each Inkling here. So I’ll state that the most exciting aspect of this book for me was its ability to capture the zeitgeist of early twentieth century Oxford. There remains, in my mind at least, a romanticized picture of the British Academy in the 1920s and ‘30s. With their descriptions of social functions, tutoring and lecturing, and even an occasional committee assignment, the Zaleskis have only increased my idealism for this period as I imagine what it must have been like to work alongside these giants. Yet the authors also remind us of what is often forgotten in reading The Abolition of Man or Farmer Giles of Ham—namely, that these men were fighting against the worst excesses of Modernism. They were not writing bestsellers, at least initially, because they seemed like antiquaries, relics of a forgotten age, shelves in a library which no one visits except as a curiosity. History seems a foregone conclusion only for subsequent generations.
Time soon proved the Inklings right, as readers then and now hunger for the vitality of the past and the music of mythopoetry, but detractors—and there were many, including I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, and T.S. Eliot—are often unremembered, and few beloved. The Modernist lust for novelty and disgust of tradition had so pervasively infiltrated culture that its innovations instantly became assumptions. Most Westerners today even are so narrowly focused—ironically, while claiming a global view—and guilty of chronological snobbery—ironically, while claiming to understand the injustices of history—that they cannot articulate their own Modernist worldview. Lewis especially was able to identify the various supports to the Modernist foundation and carefully demolish them through reason and argument. Tolkien, for his part, offered an alternative vision that gave readers the freedom to appreciate traditionalism, history, and a more comprehensive view of nature and the supernatural. Williams deepened the role of the spirit in the visible world, often uncomfortably so for many Christians, and Barfield cast a vision of Western literature returning Christ to Christendom.
This book is more than just a paean, however, and many readers will be disappointed to learn that their idols were, after all, men. Lewis’ bizarre relationship with an older woman, Tolkien’s petty insecurity and cantankerousness, Williams’ unhealthy fascination with the occult, and Barfield’s new age anthroposophy, all run counter to their mythic status as great men of faith. Yet when we study intimately the heroic lives of the past, we must be prepared to accept what we uncover, which may be a disrobing of imagined glory and a painful recognition of their profligacy. This is a good rather than an ill, I believe, for it reminds us that the truest saints are the worst of sinners. Indeed, because they are all too human we can admire them even more. We, too, can achieve what they did because we share a common wretchedness—and a common grace.
But at its heart, this is a story of friendship, of how great men encouraged other men in their greatness, of the sacred bonds of those who share vision and talent. Friendship, as Lewis tells us in The Four Loves, is the least needful of all affections. Yet it can be the most powerful because it, like agape, is willed, and like eros, unwilled. We all need friends like these—to encourage us, to rebuke us, to believe in us. Good things grow in a spirit of peace and amity.
So if you find yourself wondering about the story behind The Problem of Pain or guessing why Tolkien never completed The Silmarillion, or—more importantly—if want to know the bonds of brotherhood that depict full living at its finest, then I heartily recommend The Fellowship.
One of the immediate collisions my students suffer when encountering Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for the first time is the inevitable why. Why risk life and fortune just to see a shrine? Many understand the desire to see Europe or to visit Washington or to take the family to Disney World. But few grasp what would compel people to a holy place when God is everywhere, as close as a conversation, as easy as turning on the television, as individual as listening to a podcast or playlist. They perceive input and feasting as the best avenues to spirituality, not knowing the blessings that come with quiet and fasting.
Pilgrimage is an experience far removed from the Modernist understanding. Many Christians and pagans alike find it a curious archaism at best, a fundamentalist madness at worst. The iconoclast, as cynical as he is unimaginative, casts it as a glorified vacation, while the symbolist, untethered in his philosophy, sees it strictly a metaphor. And, surely, there is a practiced homelessness in pilgrimage that appears to the outsider as a kind of madness. When we skeptically raise our eyebrows at the one who does not live in the world, does not strive after success or riches, we must recall that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. The teachings of Jesus, however paradoxical, are too little practiced today in their literal form. Yet for the Christians of the Middle Ages, who sometimes sacrificed the figurative understanding for the literal obscurity, walking in the footsteps of the Christ or of the saints was a meaningful and life-changing journey. Indeed, it is in the sacramental character of pilgrimage that metaphor and reality meet.
In Britannia, off the west coast of what was then called Dál Riata, on the edge of the former empire, still rests a lonely isle. In the crosswaters of Scotland, Ireland, and England, it is central enough to be reached by merchants and raiders but far enough away from the concerns of the mainland—from a world just as busy, just as harried, just as confused and uncertain of its future as our own. Iona was founded as a monastery by St. Columba over a hundred years after Augustine’s picture of the everyman’s journey toward the City of God, and it became a sacred locus for pilgrims to find themselves and to commune with the Spirit. The modern traveler can see that it is an unideal location to start a church, but it is a perfect place to raise a shrine. Pilgrimage should bring about reflection, meditation, contemplation, illumination; Iona would offer all this and more—a place, as Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale reminds us, for transformation. A great cloud of witnesses, all those who came before, from St. Columba to George Macleod, would gather here to spur the pilgrim on to charity and to good works. Heaven and earth would meet on this humble island, and the invisible Kingdom perhaps never felt more tangible than in Iona’s magnificent rocks, its beige sands, and its paradisal, clear blue waters that stretch into an azure horizon.
In this collection of poems, I take as my central theme the experience of pilgrimage, realized in the island of Iona, the British Isles, and beyond. All of literature can be distilled to two stories: either a stranger comes to town, or a hero goes on a journey. Or so my English teacher once told me. If true, then all stories are about the transformation that occurs in the liminal spaces of the pilgrimage. With that in mind, I have tried to craft each experience as something unique to each pilgrim: some of them real and some mystical (though perhaps not less real); some are true and some fictional (though, too, perhaps not less true); and all of them are shared by someone who passed that way before. If the saying is accurate that we take something of a place with us when we leave, and we also leave part of ourselves behind in that place, then historical memory must be a fathomless well indeed.