The Fellowship

After reading The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings – J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski, I can’t help but imagine a little corner of heaven with an Oxford pub where a bunch of old British guys are still drinking beer, talking about literature, theology and philosophy, laughing and arguing and, at least from my perspective, having a good time.

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The authors in the title all belonged to a literary circle known as the Inklings and met together once a week for the better part of several decades. In the 21st century, Tolkien is probably the most well-known due to Peter Jackson’s film version of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. 

Coming out of World War I, they all dealt with the disillusionment so much of the world felt, though they dealt with it differently than some of my favorite American authors. They are primarily known for writing fantasy and, in their writing, they never completely lost hope:

 

Yet underlying his pessimism about humanity was an indomitable hope, born, as surely as his pessimism, from his Catholic faith. Belief in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, logos over chaos, bestowed upon all the oppositions in his life – scholarship and art, male friendship and marriage, high spirits and despair – a final and satisfying unity, a deep and abiding joy. When Tolkien said of himself that “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size),” he spoke the truth, not only about his material likes (trees, farms, tobacco, mushrooms, plain English food) and dislikes (cars, French cooking, early rising) but also about the disposition of his soul. He, like a hobbit, was at home in his shire; he like a hobbit, trusted the cosmos – but not necessarily the powers that held sway on earth.

While I still love the way so many American authors poured all of their disillusionment into their writing, I personally have difficulty “staying there”. I enjoy Tolkien and Lewis (I haven’t read Barfield or Williams) for the fact that they are “guilty of the heresy of the happy ending” as the Zaleskis put it.

This book was a complete joy to read for someone who has read Tolkien and Lewis since they were twelve; however, if one is not all that inclined to read about literary analysis, theology or philosophy, one might struggle through parts of the book but there’s still plenty of fascinating history and biography.

War and Peace: Book 1

I’ve completed Book 1 of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace which takes me to page 344, not quite one fourth of the way through the book.

I’m experiencing what I would call a minor phenomenon that I’ve experienced before in a few other books – books that have numerous characters and story lines woven together.  When I attempt to make a concerted effort to keep all the characters and stories straight, I get frustrated; however, when I kick back and just soak it all in, the characters and the stories eventually fall into place.  That’s what’s been happening from my perspective in the first book with the Rostovs, Kuragins and Bolkonskys along with their friends and enemies.  A number of years ago, a co-worker of mine bought J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy at a bookstore.  The clerk at the bookstore told her that The Lord of the Rings was War and Peace with elves.  I could reverse that and say War and Peace is The Lord of the Rings without elves (or hobbits or wizards).

Unlike The Lord of the Rings, however, a character or characters have not jumped out at me as a favorite.  Anatole Kuragin, Prince Vasili’s “wild child” probably comes the closest.  No favorite, though, does not correspond to no enjoyment.  From the conversations in the drawing rooms to the battlefield, the characters manage to quite brilliantly fascinate, intrigue and keep me engaged in the story.

The military storyline provides the most thought-provoking moments and the thoughts of the soldiers, from privates to commanding officers, depict a great paradox not only applicable to war but to life itself:

From general to private, every man was conscious of his own insignificance, aware that he was but a grain of sand in that ocean of humanity, and yet at the same time had a sense of power as a part of that vast whole.

The structure of the novel made me realize that television series were not the first to utilize what is known as a cliffhanger.  If the books of War and Peace were published separately, Book 1 would have left it’s original readers wondering about the marriage of Pierre Bezuhov to Prince Vasili’s daughter, Helene, and the rejection of Anatole by Prince Bolkonsky’s daughter, Maria.  Book 1 involves the bitter defeat of the Russian army by Napoleon’s forces, ending with one of the major characters suffering a life threatening wound as he is captured by the French army.  This character movingly faces his fate with these words:

Nothing, nothing is certain, except the unimportance of every thing within my comprehension and the grandeur of something incomprehensible but all-important.

Does he live or die?  I don’t know yet.  I’m looking forward to reading more to find out.