In The Next Page, Erin Newcomb reads stuff she likes and reflects on things eternal and earthy in the popular literature of our time.
This is my first article for Christ and Pop Culture after taking the entire summer off; it’s a new beat for me, as one of our founders suggested it was time to retire “The Kiddy Pool” and push my writing in a new direction. That level of editorial insight is one of the things I appreciate about CAPC, where my health and growth as a writer are as important as the content I produce. And it’s not the only thing I missed about the group during my sabbatical, because instead of resting or directing my attention to other creative pursuits, I basically worked my tail off this summer. It helped pay the mortgage and purchase a much-needed new furnace, but by the end of August, I just found myself burned out.A reminder that the struggle for creativity amid daily toil is both ordinary and worthwhile.
As I started this assignment, a reflection on Philip and Carol Zaleski’s The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, I started to get a sense of what I’d been missing. It was partly the nature and quantity of my workload [What Was? How so?], and I could relate to the frustrations of the Inklings whose creative projects were often delayed or derailed by the need to make a living. At the same time, I appreciate the sense that all work is meaningful if one labors unto the Lord. I could blame my work, but my perspective and lack of balance were off too. Say Zaleski and Zaleski, the Inklings’
sympathies were mythological, medieval, and monarchical, and their great hope was to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, to reenchant the world through Christian faith and pagan beauty. How they realized or miscarried these great (or grandiose) hopes constitutes a large part of our tale. (5)
I was drawn to this book not just because I am a literary scholar and university English instructor who spends her commute listening to The Lord of the Rings, but because I feel the same longing within myself—for creativity and beauty pointing to God.
There’s a reason the Bible exhorts us to worship the Lord with all our minds, too, and I’d consumed my thoughts with minutia and crowded out the Christ. I thought a break from CAPC would keep me fresher, but instead, I felt isolated because I’d done nothing to replace the discipline of my weekly column. All of my scholarly energies were channeled into activities that drained me instead of nourishing me. Reading the Zaleskis’ text provided a fresh perspective. I will say that it’s a long read at 512 pages (not including the Notes and other end material). It also suffers at times from confusion about its audience; there’s an effort to summarize many of the writers’ works for readers who haven’t read most of the texts (even the most popular ones), but I struggle to imagine those readers being particularly interested in such a specific kind of biography. For me, the insights into the creative process and petty academic squabbles are charted territory, but for readers outside of that perspective, I recommend taking seriously the titular adjective “literary.”
That said, the book thoroughly examines the literary ideas and ideals of the Inklings, as well as the complex and truly human relationships that fostered their framework. I felt the text favored Tolkien (as evidenced by the title) and Lewis, but that is forgivable given their greater fame and more mainstream religious beliefs than Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. As the authors describe them,
[t]he Inklings were, to a man—and they were all men—comrades who had been touched by war, who viewed life through the lens of war, yet who looked for hope and found it, in fellowship, where so many other modern writers and intellectuals saw only broken narratives, disfigurement, and despair. (9)
That worldview still applies today, which perhaps explains the lasting appeal of these writers, even to those who are surprised to learn of their faith.
The book makes the clear the “boys’ club” mentality that dominated both the social and academic climates of their time, but even as a female academic removed by several decades, the text still helped me to reflect on my own privilege. For one thing, my seasonal work gave way to a more balanced semester schedule, and here I sit, writing about this rather lengthy book after ruminating on it for several days. Yet I know, too, the challenges of cultivating the intellect while engaging in care work (or just daily life). My primary work involves taking care of my young children, so I spend more of my day preparing snacks and wiping up spills and sidestepping piles of Duplos than engaging in philosophical debates. A few years ago, I wrote “Diapers, for the Glory of God,” which aptly summarizes my point of view about the struggle to find purpose in mundane (and sometimes disgusting) tasks.
Zaleski and Zaleski admit that we know little of the Inklings’ conversations at meetings:
This is a strange circumstance, at first glance, given the loquaciousness and eventual fame of so many of the members, but it is not entirely strange when one remembers that at the time, these young men had little or no idea that their gatherings would pass into literary legend. (196)
As tantalizing as it would be to read the minutes, the authors describe the personalities and perspectives well enough that readers get a sense of the tone; and the works produced (many initially read at Inklings’ meetings) support the claim that iron sharpens iron. At the same time, the Zaleskis don’t shy away from the conflicts and flaws that also characterized these great men, as well as their work, and it’s unsurprising that insecurities infected the group too. That reality furthers the challenge set before us, to walk in faith and worship God with all our minds, when both daily life and our own shortcomings and sins impede our progress.
We learn of Williams’ fascination with Anthroposophy and the occult along with regular emotional affairs with women—traits that troubled his relationships with his wife and fellow Inklings. We see Barfield’s frustrations with the drudgery of legal work that pays the bills but limits his time and energy for creative projects. We read of Lewis as atheist, in a browbeaten liaison with Mrs. Moore, concerned for his brother Warnie, and ultimately emerging as a leading evangelical voice. And we get a glimpse of Tolkien, toiling for decades on the intricacies of Middle Earth, fretting about his friends’ faith, and settling into family life. Both their faith and their failings characterized all their relationships, with their families, with each other, and with their reading publics. I found it encouraging to find that these giants, the ones whose work I often turn to in search of clarity, found themselves muddled too. Iron still sharpens iron.
How then, can the intellectual Christian proceed? How to escape the mundanity of everyday living and the mire of relationships so easily soured? How to push the boundaries of the mind, engage in creative works, and support oneself and one’s family? These are not questions that the Zaleskis answer, nor do (or can, I think) the Inklings. That’s not the purpose of their text, nor would it be reasonable. What they do, in writing these literary lives, is to show the struggle that all Christians who ask these questions face, and to remind us that the struggle itself is both ordinary and worthwhile.
After I completed the book, I invited a friend to go for a walk in the woods; we’d wanted to go over the summer, but my schedule made that impossible. I felt sorry I’d delayed it so long and thankful that we’d connected at last. My walking partner is a friend I love and admire for her faithfulness, her gentleness, her encouragement. I value her presence in my life and her company along our walk, both literal and figurative. We talked of many things (shoes and ships and sealing wax, cabbages, kings), but our shared faith ungirded all of our questions, concerns, and comments. The walk didn’t clear me of all confusion, all uncertainty, but it provided me with something better—a fellow traveler. It was fellowship I’d be lacking all summer, and fellowship that patched up my spirits. It’s fellowship that bound together the Inklings and fellowship that I found, in traveling by book, as I read the Zaleskis’ book.
So while we are called to worship the Lord with all our minds, we’re called to do so in fellowship. It’s good to be back.