The first thing that will strike you about this book is how well-written it is: the words are well-chosen, well-ordered, the organization is well thought-out, the difficult job of tracing four lives, interacting with the literary production of each, weighing their merit, evaluating the evidence and pronouncing on relationships and motives, all are well-done. I pay the work every hyphenated compliment and even un-hyphenated ones. Of course, it is a book about a group of writers, so that is how it ought to be–these are the necessary qualifications. I read early reviews and thought they were being glib to praise this book as they did, but now I realize the Zaleski’s have contributed a good and lasting tome.
Insights abound—helpful ones, interesting, useful. I don’t know how much of what Lewis wrote there is I haven’t read, but it isn’t that much. I’ve read most of Tolkien, most of Williams, and a good bit of Barfield. The Zaleski’s seem to me to have done excellent research and what is more difficult: appraised what they found out with persuasive accuracy. Their insights ring true.
I did have some reservations when the authors began disparaging Tolkien’s ancient diction. I still think they are being modern and a bit obtuse about that, but that’s really the only negative thing about this book I found. The big error for me was when they say that Eddison’s Worm is ‘mock-medieval’. It is Jacobean prose, and brilliant, and a great part of the point; there’s no shame in Lewis having read it six times; the person who does not relish it enough to read it six times has something wrong with him. Yet they are sound in so many other literary judgements, and it really is such a strength of the book, this particular insight into word choice and diction, that I am tempted to think they are so well attuned to a contemporary perfection that they have a tin ear for anything that is not.
And even when they’re on that modern vein of disparaging the ancient diction, on anachronisms in The Hobbit, for example, they can still be correct: “It is this anachronism, this bridging of worlds—ours and the archaic past—that gives the story its power to enchant and to disturb.”
I think they have more insight on Lewis than McGrath, and I have to wonder if that isn’t one of the great advantages of a married couple’s collaboration: they can talk things over, evaluate the evidence out loud and in company: in conversation, as Plato would have it. I say that with the relationship between Mrs Moore and Lewis in mind, into which they shine an understanding, critical light. The one relationship they gloss over in a way McGrath did not, is the one with Joy Davidman, which is curious. On Williams, about whom we shall have the first full biography in December, they have a lot I did not know. Barfield too, though not as much as Williams for all that the former takes up many more pages than the latter. And they are good on Tolkien: they put things together better for one’s view of him. They evaluate his letters, I think, particularly well. It is a book with a bit more of the struggle, the problems, the rough and tumble of life than I’ve encountered so far. It does make one long for a more thorough and more recent biography of Tolkien.
Many props to the Zaleski’s, by the way, for passing over the movies without any mention at all.
The book proceeds chronologically, starting with Tolkien, the oldest, and ending with Barfield, who died in the late nineties. At first the chapters alternate between each figure, but then chapters are blended together as the subjects come together. It is the point of the book to do that, but I for one am amazed at how well it works. You learn quite a good deal about peripheral characters.
Here is a work of scholarship that was hard to put down, which is the way it ought to be but seldom is. So for that reason alone, never mind the insight into the lives of writers, the ways of writing, the lives of these particular writers, life in England during the last century, many other curious things, it is something to keep in mind if you’re looking for a good book.