This post is part of a series called The Fellowship of the Inklings where I attempt to blog my way through reading The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings by Philip and Carol Zaleski.
In the Prologue, the Zaleskis orient the discussion of the Inklings in exactly the same way that I do. They are speaking my language!
They see the Inklings as a group of thinkers responding to the chaos, despair, fragmentation, and isolation created by World War I—a situation that both created Modernity and is the product of Modernity. It’s sort of a vicious cycle. Everything that Modernity offers (or more specifically sells us) to soothe our souls ends up contributing to the very problems it seeks to remedy. We are hopelessly caught up in cycle of trying to fill our emptiness with the very things that hollowed us out in the first place.
The Inklings thought that the way out of this cycle is to reject Modernity and re-embrace a Medieval sensibility and understanding of reality. That means primarily embracing a Medieval imagination.
This is an idea I’ve been thinking about a lot lately–that we read the Great Books not to extract from them a bunch of disembodied ideas that we can reject or accept, but rather that we read them to have our imaginations redeemed. We need new ways of seeing the world, outside of our narrow, materialist, hyper-rationalist modern understanding of reality.
It makes sense then that the Inklings devoted themselves—both in their scholarly work and in their imaginative work—to the redemption of the imagination. By the time the last of the Inklings had died (in 1997!!), “the group had altered … 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…. They had fashioned a new narrative of hope amid the ruins of war, industrialization, cultural disintegration, skepticism, and anomie. They listened to the last enchantments of the Middle Ages…”
Yes! I love that! They listened to the last enchantments of the Middle Ages.
One of the destructive consequences of the Enlightenment is that man in his attempt to explain everything took the mystery and wonder and transcendence out of the universe. In the modern narrative, we no longer live in an enchanted reality, but in a mechanistic, materialist, universe. But in seeking to make mankind big, we had only succeeded in making the universe small. And we despaired.
But it was the great hope of the Inklings “to restore Western culture to its religious roots, to unleash the powers of the imagination, reenchant the world….”
So obviously, it makes sense that they would seek to express that longing for re-enchantment through the form of fantasy, which the Inklings saw as “a pathway to this higher world and a way of describing, through myth and symbol, its felt presence. Fantasy became the voice of faith.”
Indeed. That is one of my most passionately held beliefs—that fantasy and myth and fairy tale are the voices of faith. And as much as that voice was needed in the aftermath of World War I, I think it’s even more needed now.