10 Must-Read Books about C. S. Lewis

Remembering C.S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him ed. by James T. Como

This collection brings together the recollections of twenty-four men and women who knew C. S. Lewis both in his professional and in his everyday life.  An intimate, varied look at the celebrated author.

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The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Glyer proposes to change our understanding of the Inklings by going against the common understanding that the Inklings did not influence each other’s writings. She defines the difference between “influences” and “similarities” and goes on to outline how writers can be influenced by resonators (supporters), opponents, editors, collaborators, and referents. It’s also a fascinating read for those interested in the writing process.

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C. S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Greene and Walter Hooper

The first biography of C. S. Lewis to published, this book was written by his former student and later friend Roger Lancelyn Green, along with his secretary Walter Hooper.  It paints a sympathetic picture of Lewis, focusing on his academic and literary life.

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Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis by Douglas H. Gresham

Joy Davidman’s son recounts his life growing up in New York, Joy and C. S. Lewis’s romance and eventual marriage, life at the Kilns, and his life as a farmer and radio announcer up until Warnie Lewis’s death. An intimate glimpse at C. S. Lewis’s home life by his stepson.

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All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis, 1922-1927 by C. S. Lewis

This volume collects five years’ of diary entries by C. S. Lewis when he was in his early 20s, returned from WWI and attending university.  It contains a foreword by Lewis’s friend Owen Barfield and an introduction by Walter Hooper.

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Boxen: Childhood Chronicles before Narnia by C. S. Lewis and W. H. Lewis, ed. by Walter Hooper

While growing up, C. S. Lewis and his brother Warnie imagined a world of talking animals that they called Animal-Land or Boxen.  This book collects their stories, sketches, and maps.

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The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis by C. S. Lewis, ed. by Walter Hooper

This three-volume collection includes letters from Lewis’s boyhood and time serving in WWI through his professional life and marriage to Joy Davidman, right to the day before he died.  His thoughts on theology, poetry, and children’s stories can be found within, as can his correspondence with such figures as J. R. R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers.

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Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life by C. S. Lewis

Lewis’s spiritual autobiography famously recounts how he converted to Christianity by attempting to explain his search for joy, a piercing longing for something else.

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C. S. Lewis in a Time of War by Justin Phillips

Phillips’ book traces the history BBC and its religious programming before moving into an examination of the request for C. S. Lewis to provide a series of talks on Christianity during WWII. This look at a specific historical moment may be of most interest to readers who enjoy works about radio broadcasting or who are really fascinated by the details of Lewis’s life.

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Planet Narnia: the Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis by Michael Ward

Ward argues against the common perception that there is no unifying theme that ties the seven Chronicles of Narnia together.  He suggests that Lewis was inspired by medieval cosmology and that each of the seven books reflects characteristics of a planet, including Jupiter, Mars, Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, and Saturn.  A provocative criticism of Lewis’s work.

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The Oxford Inklings: Their Lives, Writings, Ideas, and Influence by Colin Duriez


Goodreads: The Oxford Inklings
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2015


Colin Duriez focuses on four of the most prominent members of the Inklings–C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield–telling their stories and examining how they influenced each other.

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Colin Duriez’s work on the Inklings seems highly influenced by Diana Pavlac Glyer’s groundbreaking research on the Inklings and how they influenced each other.  Glyer wrote in response to the misconception that the Inklings had not influenced each other–an belief that was shaped both by the Inklings’ own words about each other and by a misconception that influence equals only similarities in works written.  Her work proposes that the Inklings did influence each other because they acted as editors, collaborators, supporters, opponents, and referents.  Duriez’s book thus takes their mutual influence for granted and examines their lives in light of Glyer’s findings.

Regrettably, however, Duriez’s work offers little that is new for readers already familiar with the Inklings.  Biographies of the major figures are readily available and Glyer’s study of influence is far more extensive and explicit than is Duriez’s.  Perhaps his most intriguing argument centers around Lewis’s move from writing theological books to writing the Chronicles of Narnia.  Otherwise, however, I felt that that the book was nor particularly original or insightful.  Its main use may be in bringing more biographical details together with the study of influence in one volume.

Readers who are new to the Inklings and who have not read other books about them will find Duriez’s work a useful, concise introduction.  However, readers who have already explored some of the major works on the group may want to pass.

3 Stars

The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer


Goodreads: The Company They Keep
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2008


In this groundbreaking study, Glyer proposes to change our understanding of the Inklings by going against the common understanding that the Inklings did not influence each other’s writings. She defines the difference between “influences” and “similarities” and goes on to outline how writers can be influenced by resonators (supporters), opponents, editors, collaborators, and referents.

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Diana Pavlac Glyer’s book represents an important contribution to Inklings studies.  While many have argued that the Inklings had no influence on one another, often quoting Inklings who said as much, Glyer argues that influence means far more than textual similarities.  She illustrates how the group members offered encouragement and support, edited each other’s projects, sometimes opposed projects, collaborated, and referenced each other in their works.  She illuminates the work not only of the Inklings but also of writing groups in general.

The beauty of Glyer’s work is that it seems so obvious once she says it. Some readers may be tempted to dismiss it for that reason.  However, it is important to remember that her arguments were not obvious to many for a very long time.  Assertions by the Inklings themselves that they had no influence on each other were taken at face value, rather than read in context.  The ways in which they supported each other by reviewing, editing, and just listening were ignored.  There are copies of Inkling drafts with the handwriting of other Inklings on them–and yet this was apparently not significant to many scholars.  All because influence studies focused on finding one-to-one correspondences in published work.

The writing may appear academic to some, but the text is supremely readable, even if written in more formal a style than many are familiar with.  Glyer’s points are clear and crisp, and any lay reader should be able to follow along.  There is no jargon here, nor attempts to make up new words or string big words together in the hopes of sounding learned.  The Inklings themselves would likely be pleased, as clarity was always their aim.

So if you’re interested in the Inklings or even in how writing groups come together and work, check out Glyer’s work.  It’s worth it.

4 stars

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski

Fellowship Literary Lives of the Inklings


Goodreads: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: June 2, 2015

Official Summary

C.S. Lewis is the twentieth century’s most widely read Christian writer and J.R.R. Tolkien its most beloved mythmaker. For three decades, they and their closest associates formed a literary club known as the Inklings, which met weekly in Lewis’s Oxford rooms and in nearby pubs. They discussed literature, religion, and ideas; read aloud from works in progress; took philosophical rambles in woods and fields; gave one another companionship and criticism; and, in the process, rewrote the cultural history of modern times.

In The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski offer the first complete rendering of the Inklings’ lives and works. C. S. Lewis accepts Jesus Christ while riding in the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle, maps the medieval and Renaissance mind, becomes a world-famous evangelist and moral satirist, and creates new forms of religiously attuned fiction while wrestling with personal crises. J.R.R. Tolkien transmutes an invented mythology into gripping story in The Lord of the Rings, while conducting groundbreaking Old English scholarship and elucidating, for family and friends, the Catholic teachings at the heart of his vision. Owen Barfield, a philosopher for whom language is the key to all mysteries, becomes Lewis’s favorite sparring partner, and, for a time, Saul Bellow’s chosen guru. And Charles Williams, poet, author of “supernatural shockers,” and strange acolyte of romantic love, turns his everyday life into a mystical pageant.

Romantics who scorned rebellion, fantasists who prized reality, wartime writers who believed in hope, Christians with cosmic reach, the Inklings sought to revitalize literature and faith in the twentieth century’s darkest years–and did so in dazzling style.


The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings gives readers an in-depth look at the four men generally considered the most influential and successful of the writers’ group known as the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Charles Williams.  The book, at a hearty 644 pages (about 100 which are bibliographic references) combines biography, religious studies, and literary studies to look at the lives of these four men and explain how their academic training and their Christian (though not always orthodox) faith influenced their writing, from poetry to novels to straight apologetics.  Expect more than four overlapping biographies; Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski give a full overview of all of the men’s writing, from the influential to the unknown, summarizing it and explaining how it fit into their ever-evolving worldviews.

Despite the promise of four Inklings, the focus is truly on Lewis and Tolkien.  Charles Williams does not even appear in the book until after page 200, and 100 pages later, he’s dead.  (Not his fault he died first, though, I suppose.)  Owen Barfield is a little more present, but he never gets as much attention as the two other authors.  This spotlight on Lewis and Tolkien is, on one hand, understandable; they’re the two most famous Inklings, and readers who pick up the book are likely to have the greatest interest in them.  However, one would assume part of the appeal of a book about “the Inklings” more generally would be that it would tell readers about the Inklings they don’t already know much about.  (As a bonus, readers do get to learn a lot about Lewis’s brother Warnie, also an Inkling and a respected academic in his own right, but perhaps doomed to be always known as “C.S. Lewis’s brother.”)

My real frustration with the book, however, is that the authors consistently impose their personal opinions and interpretations.  There are numerous offhand comments about people’s characters, without much backing evidence, as well as blithe declarations that, for example, a certain work is obviously the author’s weakest novel.  There could be reasonable explanation for these judgments.  Perhaps literary scholars in general think x is author y’s weakest novel.  However, the Zaleskis’ failure to back up many of their claims is a recurring issue in the book.

I also think it worth mentioning that the book could be a bit of a slog for readers without some knowledge of literary theory, religion, and philosophy.  It is, admittedly, unclear who the target audience of this book might be.  It seems to be marketed to a general audience, but one assumes anyone who actually picks up a 600+ page tome classified as “biography/religion/literary criticism” is going to have some background knowledge on the subject matter and not be a complete novice.  However, the authors frequently refer to theories, scholars, and other movements in various academic fields without any explanation of what they are or why they are important.  I did alright reading the book, but I credit that with having a graduate degree in English literature; I admit to being somewhat lost when it came to some of the religious studies references.  The book is not impossible to read, but some readers may do well to have Google handy.

These flaws aside, the book does offer an immensely thorough look at how these four men influenced each other’s writing and how their faith and their scholarly interests pervade all of their writing.  Readers may already be aware that Tolkien was an active Roman Catholic or that Lewis became known for his Christian apologetics work.  However, what the Zaleskis clearly show is how each of the four men’s faith changed over time and how certain movements, beliefs, and struggles might have colored their work over their entire lifetime—how Lewis moved from essentially pagan views in his early poetry to become the Christian voice of a nation, for instance.

I would warn off readers who feel the need to idolize their authors.  Personally, I think Tolkien’s private life is the only one that comes across as admirable here, even though he himself felt he may never have devoted as much time to his family as he would have wished.  However, the contradictions add a layer of interest to the work, as readers must ponder how Lewis could espouse Christian teaching while living with an older, married woman for the majority of his life (critics are unclear whether the relationship was sexual), or how Williams could justify his ideas of pure love leading to virtue while engaging in multiple affairs (never sexual, as though that excused them).  But the point is that these were all real men, all struggling to refine their beliefs and their own behavior, even as they sought to illuminate some type of truth through their writing.  They were never perfect, but they all thought deeply about what perfection might look like.

Despite my issues with The Fellowship, I did find it a worthwhile read.  I learned a number of new things about all four of the authors, and the intersections drawn between them were immensely helpful.  I recommend it to Inklings fans serious about learning more about their lives and work.

3 Stars Briana

Top Ten Tuesday (13): Top Ten Books Relating to J. R. R. Tolkien

Top Ten Tuesdays is a meme hosted by the Broke and the Bookish. This week is a “freebie” topic, so I am choosing

Top Ten Books Relating to J.R.R. Tolkien

1.  The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview behind The Lord of the Rings by Peter Kreeft: Kreeft understands Tolkien in a way not many authors do.

2. Master of Middle-Earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien by Paul H. Kocher: This was one of the first books about Tolkien I read, and it has remained a favorite ever since.

3. The History of the Hobbit Part One: Mr. Baggins by John D. Rateliff:  An absolutely enthralling exploration of the making of The Hobbit.  The second part is doubtless as good as the first, though I have not read it yet.

4. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter: A vital book for anyone studying Tolkien.  Read Tolkien’s own explanations of characters, events, and other parts of The Lord of the Rings.

5. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography by Humphrey Carpenter: There are a decent number of biographies of Tolkien available.  Not all of them are as good as this one.

6. Beowulf by Anonymous: This epic poem, and Anglo-Saxon culture in general, was very influential to Tolkien’s work.

7. Understanding the Lord of the Rings ed. by Rose A. Zimbardo and Neil D. Isaacs: A collection of essays on a variety of topics, this is a great introduction to Tolkien criticism.

8. J.R.R. Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion by Richard Purtill:  Read in conjunction with Kreeft’s book.

9. The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, E.S.C. Weiner, Jeremy Marshall: Tolkien loved words.  Find out more by reading this fascinating little book.

10. Unfinished Tales: The Lost Lore of Middle-Earth by J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien: A fascinating look at some of the stories of Middle-Earth that never made it to complete publication.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Summary: Bilbo Baggins is living comfortably in his hobbit hole when a group of dwarves show up at his door asking for a burglar.  They wish to reclaim their ancestors’ treasure from the Lonely Mountain, where a dragon named Smaug is sitting on the hoard, and they think Bilbo is just the person for the job.  Bilbo personally has his doubts, but eventually he begins to enjoy the adventures of travelling and becomes a very important member of the group as he saves the dwarves from danger in several situations.

Review: Sometimes The Hobbit confuses or disappoints fans of The Lord of the Rings, so a few misconceptions should be gotten out of the way before a proper review of the book.  First, The Hobbit was written as a children’s story and not an epic.  In fact, when Tolkien submitted the work for publication, the publisher had his eight-year-old son read the manuscript—and the boy concluded that it was a fine story but better suited to readers younger than himself.  Second, Tolkien did not have the story of The Lord of the Rings in mind when he wrote The Hobbit, so many things simply do not match up.  Eventually he went back and edited and made the transition between the stories smoother, but The Hobbit still gives the sense Middle-earth is a fairytale land and many characters (Gandalf, the elves, the goblins) do not have the personalities or sheer impressiveness they do in The Lord of the Rings.  This can be rattling, and it is really a letdown for readers who consider the epic a higher form of literature.  However, The Hobbit is still a very good story, and this fact is best appreciated when the book is considered as what it was meant to be—a children’s book.

The Hobbit follows the traditional quest pattern: a character goes on a predetermined adventure seeking something (in this case treasure) and then comes home again.  But the story is often more about the journey than the ultimate goal.  The Hobbit, then, is partially about finding treasure, but it is also about the adventures experienced along the way, and some of the story’s most memorable moments come before the dwarves and Bilbo are anywhere near the Lonely Mountain.  The book is episodic, but it is supposed to be; it is a bunch of mini adventures that the reader is swept into with Bilbo, and we experience with him a mixture of fear and hope when we wonder what possibly could happen next.  We thought the hard part would be getting treasure from a dragon, but it appears there are other dangers in the world.  This is a classic literary structure, and it provides the hero with the opportunity to prove himself or prepare himself before he reaches his ultimate goal.  Tolkien just turns things a bit upside down by giving his readers an unlikely hero who is physically small, mentally doubtful, and very worried about having left his home without his pocket handkerchief.

Tolkien’s ability to take the classic quest and make it something new, imbued with comedy and joy, is what makes The Hobbit so enjoyable.  Reading the book, it is evident exactly how much fun Tolkien had while writing it.  He includes funny poems, he describes his characters looking physically ridiculous with their hoods wagging or their big noses sticking out of spider webs, and he makes trolls talk like British cab drivers.  He lets us picture Bilbo, his hero, running around in a panic trying to think of a plan.  The lightheartedness is somewhat contagious, and it lets the readers know that even though there are cruel goblins and greedy dragons, the world is still good.

Of course, The Hobbit is not completely a comedy.  It keeps it roots in literary tradition.  Like many good children’s tales, there are a few morals; for instance, it is okay to have a love of beautiful things, but remember that immaterial things are more important.  Thorin tells Bilbo, “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”  But this statement is more than a warning to children not to be too attached to money; it is a clear echo of the Anglo-Saxon philosophy that characterizes epics like Beowulf.  The Anglo-Saxon belief is that gold is a good thing, but it ought to be freely gifted and shared.  When a king begins hoarding his gold, he becomes a bad king.  (Dragons who keep treasure but do nothing with it, then, are an obvious symbol of evil.)  In fact, Tolkien gives a little nod to Beowulf by having Bilbo’s theft of a cup first awaken Smaug.

The Hobbit may not be an epic, but it is a very clever children’s tale.  It expertly combines an adherence to and disregard for literary conventions in a way that makes the story seem familiar and complete but also interestingly new.  Like Bilbo himself, there is more to The Hobbit than at first meets the eye.  Children, adults, and scholars will all be able to find something in this book, even it if is not what they were expecting.

Published: 1937

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The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams

Summary: Platonic archetypes begin to appear in a small English town, drawing their symbols to themselves.  Some men react with terror and some with joy, but not all men understand the powers they witness, causing them to lose their identities either in fear or in the arrogant belief that they can control the archetypes for their own ends. Anthony Durrant follows the path of wisdom and begins to realize that man has a special place in creation and perhaps can choose to set the world back to the way it once was.  He hopes to send the archetypes back to their own place before they reach his beloved Damaris and destroy her.

Review: I have long wanted to read a book by Charles Williams because of his relationship with C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.  Many believe Williams’s work strongly influenced the final book in Lewis’s space trilogy, That Hideous Strength, and Lewis speaks with great emotion about the impact of Williams’s death in The Four Loves.  Williams belonged for a time to the Inklings, an informal literary group where members read their work aloud for comment and criticism.  The group boasted Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, Roger Lancelyn Greene, and Warren Lewis among its members, as well as both C. S. Lewis and Tolkien.  Williams’s close association with some of the greatest literary men of his time gives his work added interest as readers can compare his thoughts and style with those of his contemporaries.

Books I had previously read about the Inklings led me to expect difficulty in reading Charles Williams.  Williams was, I understood, strangely obscure and not many people would appreciate his work—surely not nearly the number of people who love and admire Lewis and Tolkien.  Once I began The Place of the Lion, however, I realized that the book both met and defied my expectations.  I struggled to understand some parts, but Williams also frequently interrupted the story to describe in detail the events taking place and their significance.  My difficulty with the work, I realized, did not stem primarily from the text, but from my lack of familiarity with Williams’s beliefs.

Anyone familiar with the concept of Platonic archetypes will have enough knowledge to understand the gist of The Place of the Lion.  However, these forms interacted with the world as godlike beings and this confused me, since I had had the impression that Williams was some sort of practicing Protestant and therefore expected Williams to portray God as the primary supernatural agent in the lives of men.  The Place of the Lion does suggest that the archetypes are subordinate to God, but I had trouble reconciling the chaos which the archetypes cause with my expectations of how God would respond to such activity.  Only research into Williams’s specific beliefs on God, the nature of God, and the nature of other supernatural beings can clarify the plot for me.

Other knowledge that I would have found helpful when reading The Place of the Lion includes an understanding of Abelard and other medieval philosophers, William’s thoughts on the nature of philosophy and wisdom, and Williams’s understanding of the nature of romantic love.  Familiarity with the beliefs of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien did little to help me understand the beliefs of Williams, even though I expected to see some sort of influence in the works of the Inklings.  Before I read more of Williams, I plan on reading some biographies or some criticism in order that I can truly appreciate his work.

Published: 1931