A Comprehensive Guide to the Lives, Thought and Writings
of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield
and Their Friends
and David Porter
London: Azure, 2001.
£20.00, 244 pages, ISBN 1902694139.
Texas Tech University
Opening this book is like opening a treasure chest. Part biography,
part bibliography, part encyclopedia, and part literary criticism,
Duriez and Porter have assembled a useful and fascinating handbook
that is at once seriously scholarly and respectfully personal. The
book examines the events, people, and thoughts (philosophical, theological,
social, political, and personal) that influenced and shaped the four
primary members of the informal Oxford-based literary group known
as the Inklings: C. S. Lewis (CSL), J. R. R. Tolkien (JRRT) (the two
central figures), Charles Williams (CW), and Owen Barfield (OB). Duriez
and Porter say of this group: "We remain convinced that there
is a real, defining essencea quiddityto the Inklings,
making it one of the most remarkable associations of writers in the
last century of the second millennium. Their themes and concerns are
strikingly relevant to the beginning of the third" (viii). Additionally,
the two authors are themselves friends of many years, who share an
interest in the writings of the Inklings, assuring that the book is
more than a collection of facts. The tone of the writing reflects
both their friendship and the sincere appreciation for the subjects
of the book.
Duriez has a long history of scholarly association with the Inklings,
having published several books dealing with the group as a whole,
and the individual members CSL and JRRT. Although less directly concerned
with the Inklings or its members, Porter's publications and interests
are highly influenced by the themes and subjects of especially CSL
and JRRT. While the information gathered has obviously been painstakingly
researched, the authors have not presented their findings in the dry
manner of some encyclopedic collections. Biographical and critical
material is liberally combined with anecdotal reminiscences in the
words of the four primary Inklings or their friends, especially CSL's
brother, Warren Hamilton (Warnie), who kept diaries (later published)
in which he wrote extensively about both his brother and the Inklings'
meetings. Duriez and Porter seem to have made a concerted effort to
make the handbook accessible to even the most casual of readers, explaining
quite complicated and obtuse philosophical or theological ideas in
simplified, but not condescendingly simplistic, language.
The beauty of this book is its organization, as it allows for a variety
of approaches to accessing the information. It is divided into two
sections: the first, a set of narrative chapters that present an overview
of thematic and biographical details; the second, alphabetically arranged
encyclopedic entries of the people, events, writings, and ideologies
connected with the Inklingsincluding entries about each of the
four main Inklings themselves. In both sections, major points of information
that merit an encyclopedic entry are marked with an asterisk, indicating
to readers that further, or more detailed, information is available.
Basic plot summaries and critical notes are provided in the second
part of the book for all the major writings of each of the four primary
Inklings. Duriez and Porter have also provided an exhaustive bibliographical
appendix, of the writings by the four Inklings and of writings about
the Inklings. I found myself skipping around considerably as I read,
following the asterisks in the narrative chapters to their entries
in the second part, which then led me to other cross-referenced entries,
and finally returning to the narrative chapter to continue the thread.
Rather than frustrating me, I found that this made my reading of the
narrative chapter in question richer and more contextually cohesive,
although it sounds like it would be fractured and incoherent. Additionally,
I found myself simply browsing through the encyclopedic section, my
interest piqued by a particular entry, and following the cross-reference
asterisks where they led me.
For the beginning, or even serious, scholar, the handbook provides
a storehouse of material, themes, or subjects to pursue; it is a useful
starting point with the added attraction of being enjoyable to read.
For the avid fan of, most likely, CSL or JRRT, the book sheds light
on aspects of their lives and writings they may not have been aware
of, especially in terms of the longevity and influential nature of
the friendship between CSL and JRRT, and of the significant influence
that others in the group had on these two well-known writers. If nothing
else, the handbook will make these fans painfully aware of how much
more to CSL or JRRT there is than the Narnia stories or Lord
of the Rings. To the more casual reader of either of these two
writers (or one of the other Inklings, although, sadly, not as widely
known) or to the newly inaugurated JRRT-follower by virtue of the
blockbuster Lord of the Rings film, the book offers a non-intimidating
exploration of the background and context of the writers' theological
and philosophical themes and literary structures.
The first (narrative) part of the book is divided into six short chapters:
1) a brief biographical account of the four Inklings; 2) a chronology
of their lives; 3) a contextual explanation of CSL's Narnia universe;
4) a contextual account of JRRT's Middle-Earth; 5) a framework within
which to understand Charles Williams's Arthurian poems; and 6) a clearly
explicated overview of how theology, fantasy, and the imagination
figure in and shape the writings of the four main Inklings (although,
predominantly, these ideas are at the core of CSL's and JRRT's literature).
As fascinating as the chapters are that deal with the contextual explanations
of the literature, I found the chronology the most arresting and enlightening.
Perhaps because of its simple arrangement of dates and events, this
chapter (2) vividly shows just how intertwined and connected these
men werenot just with each other, but also with others that
had remarkable, consistent, and far-reaching influence on them.
Duriez and Porter take pains to personalize the chronology by including
several excerpts from letters, memoirs, or diaries of several members
and friends of the group. The two entries devoted to Charles Williams's
unexpected death in 1945 serve as powerful examples. For May 15, 1945,
Duriez and Porter include Warnie Lewis's comment about the death in
his diary: "'And so vanishes one of the best and nicest men it
has ever been my good fortune to meet. May God receive him into His
everlasting happiness'" (16). They record CSL's words from a
letter to a former pupil for May 20, 1945: "'I also have become
much acquainted with grief now through the death of CW, my friend
of friends, the comforter of all our little set, the most angelic
man'" (16). The addition of those personal comments gives the
chronological entries a sense of immediacy and intimacy, as if the
reader were eavesdropping, or standing just at the edge of the circle
of friends sharing their thoughts and writings with each other. This
chapter, I feel, most achieves what Duriez and Porter hope their book
will do: "capture the elusive complexity of these friendships
and these individuals who made up the Inklings as an entity"
Duriez and Porter subtitle their handbook a "comprehensive guide,"
and it certainly fulfills that definition. As a lifelong fan of both
CSL and JRRT (I discovered Narnia in grade school and Middle Earth
as an adolescent; both CSL and JRRT were influential in my love of
medieval literature and literary scholarship as a graduate), I found
this handbook revealing and fascinating, and it awakened a wish to
revisit those early fantasy worlds with this new understanding. The
book has also made me all too aware of how much else there is to explore
in order to truly understand these two writers, including reading
what their friends have writtenespecially Charles Williams,
who had the greatest influence, on CSL primarily, but also on JRRT.
I am certain that other readers, with either cursory or extensive
knowledge of the Inklings, will find this book an invaluable addition
to their libraries. Because it is neither a straightforward biography
nor exclusively a critical literary analysis, it is not a book to
be read once and then relegated to the shelf. Even those readers who
are quite familiar with any of the Inklings and their work should
find this useful, enlightening, and relevant. For others, however,
with only a limited acquaintance of one or more of the Inklings, this
book will be like discovering a treasure chest in the corner of a
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