Inklings: Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, and Williams :: Summer Reading Series

The Summer Reading Series is designed to equip our growing community with curated book recommendations that shape faith and sharpen cultural insight.

By Philip and Carol Zaleski

During the hectic middle decades of the twentieth century, from the end of the Great Depression through World War II and into the 1950s, a small circle of intellectuals gathered on a weekly basis in and around Oxford University to drink, smoke, quip, cavil, read aloud their works in progress. They called themselves, with typical self-effacing humor, the Inklings.

But history would record, however modest their pretensions, that their ideas did not remain half-formed nor their inkblots mere dabblings. By the time the last Inkling passed away on the eve of the twenty-first century, the group had altered, in large or small measure, the course of imaginative literature (fantasy, allegory, mythopoeic tales), Christian theology and philosophy, comparative mythology, and the scholarly study of the Beowulf author, of Dante, Spenser, Milton, courtly love, fairy tale, and epic; and drawing as much from their scholarship as from their experience of a catastrophic century, they had fashioned a new narrative of hope amid the ruins of war, industrialization, cultural disintegration, skepticism, and anomie.

Interest in the Inklings often first dawns in the minds of readers who have fallen in love with Tolkien and Lewis, and wish to enter more deeply into their spiritual and imaginative cosmos.

Lewis resembled, many said, the neighborhood butcher. Add the ubiquitous tweed jacket and flannel slacks, and he comes up in the world, but only as far as a midlevel accountant. He dressed like an ordinary man. He cultivated an image, that of the ordinary chap, endowed perhaps—one can do nothing about these things—with extraordinary brains, who lived an ordinary life of plain talk, plain food, and plain faith [“Mere Christianity”].

As a scholar, he made sure never to be mistaken for an aesthete. ‘What is life’s greatest pleasure?’ he asked his doctoral student, the future Renaissance scholar Alastair Fowler. Lewis ticked off the possibilities—Fowler remembers them as great art, mystical ecstasy, simultaneous orgasm—rejecting them one by one. “I’ll tell you,” Lewis said. “It’s the pleasure, after walking for hours, of coming to a pub and relieving yourself.”

But this sensuous side of Lewis’s nature was a late development. Lewis as a youth was extraordinarily uncomfortable in his body. His face betrayed him, broadcasting arrogance or anger in just those moments when he was feeling particularly meek or contrite. Each thumb had only one joint, a defect that led, when shaving, tying laces, or attempting other normal manipulations, to fury and tears.

He inhabited his young body as if it were a suit of armor; and if his face was doomed to miscommunicate his true feelings, he would have to learn to play the parts assigned to him, until, as an adult, he could assume his chosen part as Everyman.

*Excerpt from Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. Book review at The Atlantic.

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 33 (Listen – 3:45)
Revelation 3 (Listen – 3:53)

Fields of Blood :: Summer Reading Series

By Karen Armstrong

The Summer Reading Series is designed to equip our growing community with curated book recommendations that shape faith and sharpen cultural insight.

I believe modern society has made a scapegoat of faith. In the West the idea that religion is inherently violent is now taken for granted and seems self-evident. As one who speaks on religion, I constantly hear how cruel and aggressive it has been, a view that, eerily, is expressed in the same way almost every time: “Religion has been the cause of all the major wars in history.”

It is an odd remark. Obviously the two world wars were not fought on account of religion. Experts on political violence or terrorism also insist that people commit atrocities for a complex range of reasons. Yet so indelible is the aggressive image of religious faith in our secular consciousness that we routinely load the violent sins of the twentieth century onto the back of “religion” and drive it out into the political wilderness.

Since all premodern state ideology was inseparable from religion, warfare inevitably acquired a sacred element. But to what degree did religion contribute to the violence of the states with which it was inextricably linked? How much blame for the history of human violence can we ascribe to religion itself? The answer is not as simple as much of our popular discourse would suggest.

People rarely go to war for one reason only; rather, they are driven by interlocking motivations—material, social, and ideological. Until the modern period, religion permeated all aspects of life, including politics and warfare, not because ambitious churchmen had “mixed up” two essentially distinct activities but because people wanted to endow everything they did with significance. Every state ideology was religious.

It was not until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that religion was ejected from political life in the West. When, therefore, people claim that religion has been responsible for more war, oppression, and suffering than any other institution, one has to ask, “More than what?”

Until the American and French Revolutions, there were no “secular” societies. So ingrained is our impulse to “sanctify” our political activities that no sooner had the French revolutionaries successfully marginalized the Catholic Church than they created a new national religion. In the United States, the first secular republic, the state has always had a religious aura, a manifest destiny, and a divinely sanctioned mission.

If we are to meet the challenge of our time and create a global society where all peoples can live together in peace and mutual respect, we need to assess our situation accurately. We cannot afford oversimplified assumptions about the nature of religion or its role in the world.

*Excerpt from Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood. Anchor Press, 2015. Book review in the New York Times Book Review.

Today’s Reading
Isaiah 32 (Listen – 2:46)
Revelation 2 (Listen – 4:59)

Saved by Mercy :: Tolkien’s Letters

By J.R.R. Tolkien

If you re-read all the passages dealing with Frodo and the Ring, I think you will see that not only was it quite impossible for him to surrender the Ring, in act or will, especially at its point of maximum power, but that this failure was adumbrated from far back.

He was honored because he had accepted the burden voluntarily, and had then done all that was within his utmost physical and mental strength to do. He (and the Cause) were saved—by Mercy : by the supreme value and efficacy of Pity and forgiveness of injury.

1 Corinthians 10.12-13 may not at first sight seem to fit – unless ‘bearing temptation’ is taken to mean resisting it while still a free agent in normal command of the will. I think rather of the mysterious last petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. A petition against something that cannot happen is unmeaning.

There exists the possibility of being placed in positions beyond one’s power. In which case (as I believe) salvation from ruin will depend on something apparently unconnected: the general sanctity (and humility and mercy) of the sacrificial person.

I did not ‘arrange’ the deliverance in this case: it again follows the logic of the story. (Gollum had had his chance of repentance, and of returning generosity with love; and had fallen off the knife-edge.)

No, Frodo ‘failed.’ It is possible that once the ring was destroyed he had little recollection of the last scene. But one must face the fact: the power of Evil in the world is not finally resistible by incarnate creatures, however ‘good’; and the Writer of the Story is not one of us.

*Excerpt from the draft of a letter to Miss J. Bum, July, 26 1956. From The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Mariner Books, 2000).

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 36 (Listen – 4:26)
Revelation 22 (Listen – 3:59)


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How to be Married to your Soul Mate :: Tolkien’s Letters

By J.R.R. Tolkien

The essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called ‘self-realization’ (usually a nice name for self-indulgence, wholly inimical to the realization of other selves); but by denial, by suffering. Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification.

No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial. Too few are told that—even those brought up ‘in the Church.’

When the glamour wears off, or merely works a bit thin, they think they have made a mistake, and that the real soul-mate is still to find. The real soul-mate too often proves to be the next sexually attractive person that comes along. And of course they are, as a rule, quite right: they did make a mistake.

Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates. But the ‘real soul-mate’ is the one you are actually married to.

Only the rarest good fortune brings together the man and woman who are really as it were ‘destined’ for one another, and capable of a very great and splendid love. The idea still dazzles us, catches us by the throat: poems and stories in multitudes have been written on the theme, more, probably, than the total of such loves in real life.

In such great inevitable love, often love at first sight, we catch a vision, I suppose, of marriage as it should have been in an un-fallen world. In this fallen world we have as our only guides, prudence, wisdom (rare in youth, too late in age), a clean heart, and fidelity of will

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.

*Abridged from a letter to Michael Tolkien, March 6-8, 1941. From The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Mariner Books, 2000).

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 35 (Listen – 5:25)
Revelation 21 (Listen – 4:34)


Give a Year-End Gift Now.

Your tax-deductible donation can help us increase Scripture engagement in cities around the world. Support our work today.

When Christian Leaders Fail (Part II) :: Tolkien’s Letters

Also Read: When Christian Leaders Fail (Part I)

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Higher devotion to religion is, of course, degraded in some degree by all ‘professionals’ (and by all professing Christians. But you cannot maintain a tradition of learning or true science without schools and universities, and that means schoolmasters. And you cannot maintain a religion without a church and ministers; and that means professionals: priests and bishops. The precious wine must (in this world) have a bottle, or some less worthy substitute.

‘Scandal’ at most is an occasion of temptation—as indecency is to lust, which it does not make but arouses. It is convenient because it tends to turn our eyes away from ourselves and our own faults to find a scape-goat. But the act of will of faith is not a single moment of final decision: it is a permanent indefinitely repeated act—a state which must go on—so we pray for ‘final perseverance’.

The temptation to ‘unbelief (which really means rejection of Our Lord and His claims) is always there within us. Part of us longs to find an excuse for it outside us. The stronger the inner temptation the more readily and severely shall we be ‘scandalized’ by others. I think I am as sensitive as you (or any other Christian) to the ‘scandals’, both of clergy and laity.

The only cure for sagging of fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect.

Go to Communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. I myself am convinced by the Petrine claims, nor looking around the world does there seem much doubt which (if Christianity is true) is the True Church, the temple of the Spirit* dying but living, corrupt but holy, self-reforming and re-arising.

*Abridged from a letter to Michael Tolkien, November 1, 1963. From The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (Mariner Books, 2000).

Today’s Reading
2 Chronicles 34 (Listen – 6:23)
Revelation 20 (Listen – 2:49)