Women Among the Inklings
Fredrick, Candice and Sam McBride. Women Among the Inklings: Gender, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001. ISBN 0-313-31245-1, hc, $59.00.
(This review originally appeared in Mythprint 39:6 (#243) in June 2002.)
Reviewed by David Bratman
This literary study is provocative in the best sense: it’s deeply researched, well-written, thinks its arguments all the way through, and unashamedly tackles its difficult subject: the attitudes of the three principal Inklings towards women, in their lives and in both deliberate and casual references in their writings. The authors ground their work very thoroughly in facts, giving their guesses and speculations a sure and stable basis. The biographical study is the book’s superior half, and is unsurpassed in psychological insight: though, as usual in such work, their analysis works best on Lewis, somewhat less so on Williams, and does not quite engage with Tolkien. They are searing, but not entirely unsympathetic, in exposing hypocrisies of all three men.
What makes this book provocative is that it has not only a thesis but a mission: convinced that Christian fans of the Inklings tend unjustly to reject feminist thought, and that sympathetic critics tend to be apologetic or even hagiographical, the authors go out of their way to find problems with portrayals of women in the Inklings’ work. To write that Tolkien’s heroic princess Luthien “does very little,” or to temper praise of Lewis’s wholly admirable Till We Have Faces with a criticism of the author for involving his wife Joy in its creation because he didn’t involve her enough for one’s own tastes, is to strain desperately for something bad to say. Nor do the authors quite grasp what Lewis disliked about most female social company, an understanding of which would have explained his friendship with women who did share his social preferences. The authors have utilized unpublished as well as published primary sources, and quietly show a familiarity with parts of Tolkien’s “History of Middle-earth,” an essential but often omitted requirement in Tolkien studies. Unfortunately there’s a glaring omission in their otherwise thorough coverage of the Inklings’ female characters: Erendis from Unfinished Tales, surely the most complex and fully-realized woman in Tolkien’s work. (Andreth from Morgoth’s Ring and the women in Tolkien’s minor works are also not mentioned, where equivalent female characters in Lewis and Williams are discussed fully.)
The authors conclude by asking readers and critics to accept gender studies as a legitimate lens through which to view the Inklings. In some of their comments on Lewis’s and Williams’s fiction, and especially in their outstandingly insightful analysis of Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore, the authors have proven their case for gender studies. This is an honest and insightful book that should cause all Inklings readers to think hard about the authors, and criticism has no higher value.