The Fellowship - A Recent Book for Inklings Fans

For many fans the Inklings, anything about C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and their assorted friends is welcome. We’ve pored over the literary works of both men and the apologetic contributions of Lewis and still celebrate any tidbit that might help to explain why their stories move us so deeply and inspire us to live more richly.

At this point, decades after the last of the first-generation Inklings have died with only Christopher Tolkien—J. R. R. Tolkien’s son—­­still alive, many books have been written about this literary club and their assorted works. And yet, avid readers still snap up new entries into the discussion. In reality, there are still untapped manuscripts, correspondences, and connections to be made, so many of these works make legitimately original contributions to the field.

The 2015 volume The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings is just such a volume. Penned by a husband and wife team who both teach at Smith College, Philip and Carol Zaleski, this book groups Tolkien, Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. Barfield is much less discussed in Inklings studies, in part because his public prominence largely occurred after the Inklings had ceased meeting and in part because of his connection to Tolkien and Lewis. Williams is better known, but less popular than Tolkien and Lewis, in part because of his esoteric version of Christianity.

The Zaleski’s have accomplished a feat in this volume. They have written a scholarly tome that is lucid and engaging. There are places where the tempo drags a bit, but given there are just over five-hundred pages of text, enticing the reader to make it to the finish line is in itself an accomplishment.

Summary

The format of the book is mainly chronological, though in an attempt to weave back and forth between the four figures they are discussing, there are points where the tales get out of order. However, the markers in the text are clear and shift in timeframe does not result in a confused muddle, as it too easily can. Overall, the book emphasizes the literary lives of Tolkien and Lewis more than the other two. This makes sense, since Barfield and Williams are less publicly known, have a less significant body of work, and are interesting in large part because of their influence on Tolkien and Lewis.

The book is a literary biography, which means that it emphasizes the written work of the four men, using biographical data to inform the argument. It shows how their literary works developed and the circumstances under which they evolved.

In our day of electronic communication, one wonders if such a project will be possible for whoever contemporary authors of interest will be. However, the Inklings left behind ample correspondence, diaries, and other artifacts to piece together a reasonable history.

Analysis and Conclusion

The weakness in this volume, as in many literary accounts of the Inklings, is that theology is handled in a confusing and sometimes non-discerning manner. Specifically, the four Inklings discussed in this volume are all discussed as equally Christian. Yet, Williams was syncretistic, bringing elements of the occult and other mystical theories into his Christianity. Similarly, Barfield engaged in downright pagan practices. Both Barfield and Williams were quite far from any orthodox version of Christianity, but those divergences are glossed over in this volume. Additionally, the Zaleski’s—who are Roman Catholics—take great pains to pitch Lewis as on the threshold of Catholicism in several instances. They are also apologetic as times when Lewis makes statements that clearly differentiate Christianity from other religions, particularly Judaism. As intriguing as this volume is, it isn’t clearly a reliable source for the theological lives of the Inklings.

That notwithstanding, this is an excellent book. Others who are interested in the Inklings will find this a rich resource that should influence Inklings studies for years to come. The Zaleski’s should be applauded for their careful research and elegant prose.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume without expectation of a positive review. Also, the above link is an affiliate link.

Three Political Dangers of Moral Relativism

There are three political options that offer strong temptation on a regular basis in a relativistic world. For individuals whose morality is unpinned from an objective reality, these are logical possibilities not temptations. In other words, these three political options are viewed as a menu of choices rather than a list of dangers when relativism is the accepted epistemological basis for morality.

As we sort through the muddle of mixed morality, we need to recognize these dangers for what they are. Until we recognize them, we can take no positive steps to avoid them. I have been helped recently by reflecting on the moral situation in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as it reveals much about contemporary politics.

Lesser of Two Evils

The first political danger is to choose the lesser of two evils.

In a fallen world, sometimes we do need to accept proximate justice. We must work toward what good we can accomplish, recognizing there is much good that is left undone. Such compromise is necessary sometimes, but not always. There are times when we must reject false dichotomies and choose a third option.

Photo Credit: Battle of Vera by Lord Willington1815 http://ow.ly/4nkjpl Used by CC license.

Photo Credit: Battle of Vera by Lord Willington1815 http://ow.ly/4nkjpl Used by CC license.

In the case of politics, this sometimes means that we attempt to impact the future by voting for a cause that is certain to fail in the present. This is why there is a case for a write-in ballot or voting for a third party in an election. It is unlikely that such a candidate will win in our present circumstance, but it gives evidence that we will not be forced to choose the lesser of two evils. In politics, we will never choose perfectly nor have perfect options to choose from, but sometimes the two options presented by our system are simply unpalatable.

There is justification for choosing the lesser of two evils in some cases, such as amputating a limb instead of starving because a hand is pinched in a rock. Before we get to that point, however, we should consider whether there are other options.

Without a thorough acceptance of the existence of objective good, it is unlikely that someone will look past two mediocre options to find a third option that better matches the moral order of the universe.

This danger can be witnessed in Saruman’s alliance with Mordor in an attempt to defeat Mordor. On the one hand he saw a total defeat of good by Mordor if he did not establish his own empire. On the other hand he could see that he would have to use many of Mordor’s methods to build an empire capable of resisting. The lesser of two evils seemed to him to be to turn Orthanc, his little kingdom, into a mini-Mordor in hopes of achieving the lesser of two evils.

At some point, he made a logical choice in his own mind, but it becomes clear later in the narrative of The Lord of the Rings that he did not sufficiently consider a third option that was not evil at all. This led him to use Mordor’s tactics to fight Mordor, and ultimately corrupted any good he could have hoped to accomplish.

When in Mordor

The second political danger that regularly presents itself is to use unwholesome tactics simply because the opponent uses them. This approach recognizes that evil will be done through the unwholesome tactic, but the abuse of power is justified for some later good.

Tolkien captures the essence of this error in his classic work. The One Ring offered such a draw it leads to the corruption of the formerly good Saruman. The desire for power turns him to corrupt means to gain it, supposedly for the common good.

It was, arguably, with the intent to do good (as he understood it) that Saruman sought power. There were justifiable motivations for Saruman’s alliance with Sauron. Power, if used well, can lead to doing good. But such power when concentrated in the wrong hands, is a danger in itself. It proved to be too great a lure to Saruman. His invitation to Gandalf to betray his friends reveals the dangerous trajectory of the utilitarian logic of such political alliances:

“A new Power is rising. Against it the old allies and policies will not avail us at all. . . . This then is the one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf. There is hope that way. Its victory is at hand, and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the power grows, its proved friends will also grow and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evil done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs only in our means.”

In his attempt to draw Gandalf to join him, he offers the lure of power through the One Ring:

“The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us.”

But Gandalf recognizes the problem with such a quest for power, even if it was intended to be used for good. The good that is done via evil means, in this case through the use of the One Ring, would turn to evil. The goodness of the result would be diminished and ultimately corrupted because of the unwholesome means that are used to reach the desired goal.

A moral relativist will be unlikely to recognize this, because when there is no objective good there can only be a calculus of benefit for a majority. In such a calculation, the inconvenience of a few is less significant than the relative good of a larger number.

Redescription of Good

A third political danger is to redescribe something that is evil as good. This is the ultimate fruit of moral relativism as it is being fleshed out in our society.

Saruman did not see his own corruption. He had not only assumed the end justifies the means, he had begun to redefine a negative end as good to cover his immoral actions.

Thus even after sending his armies to destroy and enslave his neighbors he still tried to lure Gandalf in to his plot to gain power. He still couched his goals as being for the ultimate good. Saruman saw his perverted domination of Middle Earth as a moral good. As he said to Gandalf after being unmasked as a traitor,

“Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world. Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk! Let them wait on our decisions! For the common good I am willing to redress the past, and to receive you.”

But Tolkien provides a foil to that relativism in the character of Gimli the dwarf:

“The words of this wizard stand on their heads, [Gimli] growled, gripping the handle of his axe. ‘In the language of Orthanc help means ruin, and saving means slaying, this is plain.’”

In this passage, Saruman is demonstrating a consistent postmodern epistemology and Gimli recognizes it. He has redefined “help” and “saving.” Gimli, being grounded in an objective epistemology, recognizes this and calls him out. Simply by changing the terms evil did not become good, though things can be made confusing through that process.

The Present Context

I realize that I demonstrate a degree of nerdliness in using the Lord of the Rings to illustrate my points. However, this is the purpose of good literature. It delights and instructs. It tells us something about who we are as humans and not simply what is happening in a fictitious world. In this case, it helps us recognize some of the dangers of relativism.

Our world is swimming in a relativism that is largely unrecognized. To many people, the acceptance of any sort of non-relativistic understanding of morality is a form of violence. We may have reached a critical mass of relativism where a plea to the self-referential incoherence of absolute relativism is incomprehensible. It seems to me that this is so.

Despite this overwhelming relativism around us, we cannot fall prey to it. In order to remain faithful to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, we cannot use the means of the world to stand our ground. We need to be aware of these political dangers and stay away from them. There is an objective moral good in the universe. We need to avoid compromising it by using flawed methods to achieve a supposed good.

Everyone is a hero in their own story. Relativism provides an easy path to self-justification. It does, however, leave one exposed as an evildoer in the presence of a real, holy, and objective God. We need to remain faithful to our objective epistemology and avoid these three pervasive political dangers.

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling - A Review

Charles Williams stands in literary history among the group of men called the Inklings.  Most famously, that group includes J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Often Owen Barfield is mentioned along with them, too.  Williams gets discussed but often on the fringes—a much less known person than Lewis or Tolkien. He remains known, in part, because of his association with the other two.

Whereas there are many biographies (authorized and otherwise) on Lewis and Tolkien, there have been few on Williams. Recently Oxford University Press has published a lengthy biography on Williams by poet and literary critic, Grevel Lindop.

Who is Williams?

It is appropriate that OUP publish this biography of the third Inkling because Williams’ biography is as much the history of OUP as it is the story of his own life. He worked for many years as an editor at Amen House, the London office of the Oxford University Press. During World War II, he worked for OUP in Oxford proper.

For the student of English literature, particularly of modern British literature, Williams’ life and work is interesting because of his interactions with the intelligentsia of that era. He corresponded in detail with Dorothy L. Sayers. He was friends with T.S. Eliot. He interacted with Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manly Hopkins and others. Some of these, even more than Tolkien and Lewis, are names that haunt the syllabi in colleges to this day. Williams helped shape the literary history of the English language due to his significant position as an editor of volumes, curator of anthologies, and author of prefaces and introductions. Lindop chronicles the work of Williams quite adeptly along those lines.

Williams was also a creator of literature. He wrote poetry, plays, and novels. Some of them are still in print today. In this endeavor Williams was, perhaps, no less avid than some of his more popular friends. However, he was much less successful.

Although he wrote numerous novels, plays, and poems, he was regularly in financial difficulty. (This stemmed in part due to the low wages paid by OUP.) Yet he, like many other creative people, was frantic to put his vibrant imaginations onto paper and thus bring others into the worlds he was creating. He often published without pay and when he was paid, it was often very little. In that regard little has changed in the literary world.

He was enthralled with the Arthurian legends as well as with mystic and sometimes occult practices. Williams was involved in several secret organizations that incorporated various magical rituals, mystical concepts such as sharing the pain of others, and syncretistic practices that melded Christianity with pagan rites. Most of what Lindop describes is rather benign and not dark magic, as it were, but Williams had shaky theology to say the least.

His Theology and Praxis

Williams was obsessed with his notion of Romantic Theology and wrote a book by that title. The concept is that through romantic love one could have a spiritual experience. Lindop deals with this in some detail, but it is not a fully orthodox conception of worship. However, it points toward some of the disturbing aspects of Williams’ amorous life.

He married a woman for whom he experienced something akin to love at first sight. He and his wife, whom he nicknamed Michal after David’s wife, remained married until his death just before the end of World War II. However, Williams was not faithful to her in any true sense of the word.

According to Lindop, it does not appear that Williams committed physical adultery with any woman. However, he committed many emotional affairs with young women around the office of Oxford University Press. In these relationships Williams often released sexual energy through mildly sadomasochistic practices like light spanking, striking palms with rulers, and other minor forms of “discipline.” Often these encounters occurred in broad daylight in the offices of OUP. In many of these interactions, Williams acted as a spiritual mentor to the young ladies, thus inculcating their devotion and submission to his odd practices.

Williams also developed the idea that the biblical mandate to “bear one another’s burdens” included the ability to suffer by proxy for an individual—to take on the physical and emotional pain of someone, whether known or not, and thus reduce it. He was quite active in organizing these activities among what seems to be a fairly broad group of spiritual followers. 

Relative Obscurity

The unwholesome affections and spiritualism help explain why Williams, even when he is read, does not resonate with as wide an audience as Lewis and Tolkien. Certainly, as Lindop documents, Williams was as innovative as the two more famous Inklings, perhaps even more innovative. But his gospel was tainted by spiritualism and distorted understanding of love. This cannot help but come through in his writing. While Lewis and Tolkien are telling the greatest story ever through their myths, Williams was caught up in spiritualism that effectively drew his mind from the truth.

Also, where Lewis and Tolkien understand joy and hope, Williams led an unhappy and unfulfilled life. He was constantly nervous. He was always something of a social oddity. He withdrew from his family often to be creative and productive. Lindop paints the portrait of one who well knew suffering, but little knew joy. This, too, seasons his writing and helps explain why he continues to be read but rarely devoured by generations of devotees, like those that follow Lewis and Tolkien.

Lindop’s biography of Charles Williams is good. The research is well done, with many footnotes and ample evidence of thorough research into Williams’ extensive correspondence and his voluminous literary estate.  This is a book that needed to be written and has been written well. If it fails to inspire as much as a biography of another Inkling, that is likely because a fair telling of the life of Charles Williams cannot be a happy story if it is to be an honest one.

Charles Williams: The Third Inkling
$33.52
By Grevel Lindop

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.