Writing a biography about a person is one thing. A person's life has an essence about it that can be viewed as something of a plot, with significant events along the way. There's a beginning, childhood, a middle, adulthood, and an end, death. Writing a biography about a group is something altogether different. The social dynamics, the multitude of players and countless disparate threads inherently make it difficult -- if not impossible -- to present a coherent, comprehensive picture of the group. The Inklings, a group of academics including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien that formed at Oxford and reigned supreme through the 30s and 40s is such a complex group that defies a simple chronicle. The skilled biographer Humphrey Carpenter gamely tackles the challenge though, having gotten a jump-start on the project with his excellent work Tolkien: A Biography.
The three dominant players here are Lewis, or "Jack" as his friends called him, Tolkien, or "Tollers" and Charles Williams, a brilliant but obscure writer best known for his dark-themed fantasy. No less than a dozen other players are involved here, but it becomes apparent early on that Lewis is the center of this congregation, and he dominates the book. His life is traced through his early childhood, where he suffered terribly while attending Britain's notorious boarding schools, then follows his college years and experience during World War I, during which time he developed the notion that he was an atheist. That belief is shaken, and ultimately eroded once he joins the staff at Oxford and becomes friends with another young Don -- Tolkien. A devout Catholic, Tolkien and other Christian members of the as-yet-unformed Inklings engaged Lewis in theological debate (debate being a great love of Lewis), prompting Lewis to re-evaluate his beliefs, eventually becoming quite a vocal lay-theologian.
It's here that one of my greatest misconceptions about Lewis and the Inklings was dispelled. As long as I'd known about the Tolkien-Lewis connection, I'd always thought fantasy came first, with Tolkien writing Lord of the Rings and Lewis writing The Chronicles of Narnia concurrently, and Lewis' more religious-themed efforts, such as Out of Silent Planet and The Screwtape Letters only coming much later. I was astoundingly wrong. Long before Lewis had begun to make even the slightest name for himself as a fiction writer, he lectured on faith, and had written texts on the subject, which directly led to The Screwtape Letters, earning him his first widespread fame. And that's just one of the many facts my eyes were opened to.
Another was the life of Charles Williams. In many respects, Williams was the third wheel of the Inklings, and the eventual downfall of that group. He didn't join up until the Second World War began in earnest, forcing his publishing offices to relocate to Oxford from London. A prolific writer, Williams was fascinated by the occult and included it in much of his fiction, writing supernatural thrillers. This, along with extensive non-fiction, earned him a fan in Lewis, who raved about Williams to the other Inklings, and unilaterally brought him into the group once Williams came to Oxford. This drove something of a wedge between Lewis and Tolkien. Their friendship had always meant more to Tolkien than Lewis, and now Tolkien was faced with the prospect of sharing his best friend with another writer whose work he didn't particularly like.
Of course, that's barely scratching the surface of this remarkable group, which flourished for nearly two decades. Other characters get their own moment in the sun: Warnie Lewis, the older brother of C.S. who was often overshadowed by his younger sibling, but wrote a good volume of well-received non-fiction on his own; Hugo Dyson, who so intensely disliked Lord of the Rings he single-handedly brought an end to the Inklings' practice of reading works-in-progress at their weekly meetings; even Christopher Tolkien, who drew the famous maps of Middle-earth and eventually became an instructor at Oxford himself.
All had a great love of beer -- often gathering at the Bird & Baby pub before noon for a pint, and conducting tutorial sessions with students while the taps flowed. All were Christian, an oddity for Oxford where institutional atheism was the preferred dogma. Oddly, Lewis held a strong anti-Catholic streak, believing, for example, that Catholics worshiped the Virgin Mary instead of merely revering her, despite the fact that several of his close Catholic friends, Tolkien included, tried to convince him otherwise. Lewis was a bombastic, passionate man, whose every belief was held whole-heartedly -- even the contradictory ones. He seldom lost an argument or debate, but usually won through personality and sheer force of will rather than through logic and debate skills.
Of all the Inklings, Tolkien perhaps gets the short shrift. After all, Carpenter had already chronicled the man's life quite thoroughly in his biography, and again in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, and to include much more would be replowing the same field, which he comes close to doing in any case. What is fascinating is the degree of hurt Tolkien feels when he perceives he's been replaced by Williams as Lewis' best friend (Lewis, apparently didn't have a "best friend," but instead held court with multiple confidants). The final blow to their friendship came in 1956, when Lewis married American divorcee Joy Davidman. Lewis, who enforced a strict rule at Inklings meetings that family matters weren't to be discussed, forced Joy on the rest of the Inklings from the start, years before their marriage, in a way that was quite similar to the way he'd brought in Charles Williams. When they were married (for immigration reasons), Lewis kept the union secret, and it wasn't until months later that Tolkien actually leaned the truth second-hand.
All in all, Carpenter shows a very even hand in dealing with the people and events that made up the Inklings. There are no bad guys here -- indeed, everyone liked each other to varying degrees and conducted themselves in courteous and civil manners that are almost foreign in this day and age. Academia is the main concern to these people, even though it is through their creativity that they will leave their greatest legacies. Even though there are gaps in the narrative, and vast areas left unexplored -- a scant four pages are devoted to the Narnia books -- The Inklings is entertaining and readable, an admirable distillation of the lives of a dozen or so men, three of which could fill several volumes on their own.