A Well of Wonder

Essays on C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Inklings

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Clyde S. Kilby
Editor(s): 
Loren Wilkinson, Keith Call
Mount Tabor Books, Volume 1
  • Brewster, MA: 
    Paraclete Press
    , April
     2016.
     368 pages.
     $18.99.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9781612618623.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In a time when C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others in their literary circle are not only household names, but subjects of countless biographies, biopics, and devotional books, it bears asking; how did a group of beer-drinking Anglican and Catholic British academics rise to near sainthood in a tee-totaling, evangelical America? The best answer to this question is Clyde S. Kilby (1902-86), a former English professor and Founder of the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. In A Well of Wonder: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and The Inklings, Kilby’s former student Loren Wilkinson, along with Keith Call, have compileda selection of Kilby’s essays as a testament to his literary scholarship, as well as his role as an apologist to the evangelical world—and the wider American public—for the Wade Center’s famous “seven” British Christian authors and it is this role which stands out clearly in this volume. Due to the collected nature of A Well of Wonder, there is certain repetitiveness within the sections, however, the overwhelming picture is that of a man dedicated to providing a place for the authors he knew and loved in the pantheon of literature. 

In Section 1—“C. S. Lewis on Theology and the Witness of Literature”—focuses on Lewis as a theologian, and is where Kilby’s role as Inkling-apologist is clearly seen. For example, in “The Witness of Holiness,” Kilby challenges Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham, who insisted that Lewis was a Christian gentleman, but “not a saint” (120). “On the contrary,” says Kilby “my own longtime reading of the works of Lewis has slowly but increasingly impressed upon me his real saintliness, his genuine holiness” (120). Likewise, Kilby asserted that, while Lewis rejected doctrines like inerrancy and total depravity, his books could be enjoyed by an evangelical audience. Readers looking for detailed literary analyses of Lewis’s works will be disappointed with these essays as the majority were written for the broader audiences of publications such as Christianity Today and Discipleship Journal. Nevertheless, one would be hard pressed to find clearer summations of Lewis’s thought, especially in essays such as “On Scripture, Myth, and Theology,” “His Fate Among Theological Critics,” and “On Imagination and Reason.” The former walks the reader through some of Lewis’s most influential theological texts, including Mere Christianity and Miracles, to demonstrate Lewis’s approach to scripture and reason in his theology. Other essays, such as “On Music, Worship, and the Spiritual Life” and “Between Heaven and Hell,” analyze Lewis’s understanding of specific elements of Christian teaching by examining his treatment of them in numerous sources. The one outstanding work of literary analysis on Lewis is “An Interpretation of Till We Have Faces” which comes from a hitherto unpublished manuscript held by the Wade Center. This essay tracks the concentric circles of symbolism and metaphor in what Lewis (and Kilby) believed to be his greatest work. Kilby’s essay is helpful both as an introduction and an analysis that illuminates the framework of Lewis’s own writings, scripture, and classical mythology, which surround the novel. 

Unlike with Lewis, Kilby had a friendship with Tolkien that lasted from 1965 to Tolkien’s death in 1973, and Section 2—“J. R. R. Tolkien on Story and the Power of Myth”—reflects this fact. Whereas Lewis was a distant and unimpeachable figure, Tolkien was a friend whose faults Kilby had seen displayed on numerous occasions. This is especially notable in “Initial Encounters with J. R. R. Tolkien” as well as in “The Evolution of a Friendship and the Writing of The Silmarillion,” which tell the story of their friendship. The result is a nuanced and ultimately richer section than the one that preceded it. Kilby’s essays on Lewis primarily attempt to convince an evangelical audience that, while foreign, Lewis’s Christianity did not contradict their own. With Tolkien, Kilby’s argument is directed at both the Christian and the non-Christian, attempting to show that Tolkien’s stories have a fundamentally spiritual quality to them. For example, “The Lost Myth and Literary Imagination” contains a detailed analysis of The Lord of the Rings, showing how the stories restore an appreciation of hierarchy, courtesy, and ceremony—which postmodernity has lost—but which Tolkien retains as a result of his faith (238). Furthermore, in “Literary Form, Biblical Narrative, and Theological Themes,” Kilby pits himself against Tolkien, who often insisted his works had nothing to do with his faith. Kilby shows that these statements are just “another case of Tolkien’s ‘contrasistency’” (243)—his proclivity toward contradictory statements. Kilby quotes from The Lord of the RingsThe Silmarillion, Tolkien’s essay “On Faerie Stories,” and his correspondence and conversations with the author to prove that what gives Tolkien’s works their strength is, fundamentally, their Christian sources. 

The third and final section— “The Inklings as Shapers of a New Christian Imagination”— contains essays on Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, the coming together of the Inklings, and the Wade Collection. The essays on Williams, Sayers, and the Inklings are good introductions to these now lesser known figures, but provide little illumination beyond that. Far more interesting are essays such as “Understanding the Oxford Group,” and “The Wade Collection and the Preservation of a Legacy,” where Kilby recounts how what began as a single purchase in 1965, grew into one of the richest collections of manuscripts on Lewis, Tolkien, Williams, Sayers, Owen Barfield, George MacDonald, and G.K. Chesterton in the world. The section concludes with three interviews in which Kilby offers his general view of the relationship between Christianity and fantasy, derived from the Wade “seven.”

A Well of Wonder is an important book for anyone interested in these seven authors and how they came to their current place of prominence. More than this, A Well of Wonder is a testament to one of the most influential evangelical literary scholars of the past century. Kilby was a giant of the literary world whose legacy lives on in generations of English professors on faculties across America. I hope that this book introduces many unfamiliar with him to his scholarship.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua Rawleigh is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Clyde Samuel Kilby was an American author and English professor, best known for his scholarship on the Inklings, especially J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. A professor at Wheaton College, IL for most of his life, Dr. Kilby founded the Marion E. Wade Center there, making it a center for the study of the Inklings and their literary companions.

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