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book review

The Fellowship looks at the impact of an Oxford group of writers that included J.R.R. Tolkien.

Picture an Oxford pub named the Eagle and Child but known familiarly as the Bird and Baby. Beginning early in the 1930s, a fluctuating group of Oxford dons, writers and friends met in the back room on Tuesday mornings. As one of them described the scene, "Back and forth the conversation would flow. Latin tags flying around. Homer quoted in the original to make a point. And Tolkien, jumping up and down, declaiming in Anglo-Saxon." That might be your idea of a particularly horrific nightmare, but for the Inklings, centred on J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), it was heaven for three decades. (They also met on Thursday evenings in Lewis's rooms in Magdalen College.) Their name was a self-deprecating nod to the unpublished work they often read to fellow Inklings, which aroused insults, praise and above all heated debate.

Aside from prodigious intelligence and clubability, there were other requirements to become an Inkling. First, you had to be male. Oxford dons had only been allowed to marry from the 1880s, and the university's intensely masculine, often misogynist, ethos was alive and well in the back room of the Bird and Baby. The learned mystery writer Dorothy Sayers would have loved to join the Inklings, but her gender was wrong. Tolkien believed that "literature is written for the amusement of men between 30 and 40." Of the Inklings' camaraderie, Lewis wrote happily, "There is no sound I like better than adult male laughter."

Second, you had to be Christian. Unlike the slightly older Bloomsbury group of secular, experimental writers, the Inklings were socially and artistically conservative and fervently religious. Many, including Tolkien who went to mass daily, were Roman Catholics – so many that Hugo Dyson, another member, threatened to quit if more papists were allowed in. Others, such as Lewis, who described himself as "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England" and went on to become the foremost Christian apologist of his generation, were Protestants.

Third, the Inklings had an abiding attachment to fantasy and fairyland that either strikes you as terrific or weird. They connected it to a lost England, deprived of its folklore by the Norman conquest, while its idealistic, happily-ever-after spirit accorded well with Christianity. The Inklings heard the first airings of Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, as well as Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and a host of other fantasies. Not every Inkling was keen on fairies, and before a reading of The Lord of the Rings, Dyson famously groaned, "Oh God, not another fucking elf!" He finally succeeded in banning all readings of the book at meetings he attended.

Like the parson's egg, The Fellowship is excellent in parts. (Sorry, reading 500 pages about these deliberately old-fashioned Englishmen brings their hoary expressions to mind.) Group biographies are notoriously hard to write and this group is harder than most. Its biographers need to convey the brilliance of Tolkien and Lewis, who produced some of the 20th century's masterworks of literary criticism and scholarship; the oddness of several Inklings' relationships with women, including Lewis's 30-year entanglement with a domineering woman the age of his mother; the Oxford zeitgeist; and the waxing and waning of religious fervour in 20th-century England. Sympathetic to their characters and to the Christian background and foreground but by no means uncritical, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski accomplish a good deal of this agenda.

But much has already been written about Tolkien and Lewis and the Inklings in general. Perhaps to take an original slant, the Zaleskis have compounded their difficulties by choosing as two of their four main characters men who just aren't in the same league as Lewis and Tolkien. Charles Williams (1886-1945) wrote poems based on the Arthurian legend and supernatural thrillers. He merits an entry in Margaret Drabble's Oxford Companion to English Literature, but the same cannot be said for Owen Barfield (1898-1997). An eccentric (even by Inkling standards) devotee of Rudolf Steiner and anthroposophism, Barfield unexpectedly became a countercultural guru in the United States in the sixties and seventies. His most unlikely follower, Saul Bellow, left him when he criticized Bellow's fiction severely – an Inkling habit that did not travel well to the U.S. The Zaleskis try, but they did not convince me of Williams's or Barfield's importance, and their inclusion adds lots of stuffing but little heft to The Fellowship.

Ever since her undergraduate days in the 1960s, as Germaine Greer wrote in 1996, "it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the 20th century. The bad dream has materialized." Tolkien's success and influence are undeniable: The Lord of the Rings has sold between 150 million and 200 million copies worldwide, and begat, as the Zaleskis note, Dungeons & Dragons and the world of online fantasy, Harry Potter, Philip Pullman and a host of lesser fantasists. Most of Tolkien's descendants do not share his religious impulse, but the "flight from reality" Greer deplores is central. The Zaleskis raise the question of the Inklings' legacy, then leave it for the future to decide. In 2015, it seems clear – and ironic – that these formidably smart men contributed significantly to the dumbing down of our culture.