C.S. Lewis first encountered J.R.R. Tolkien in 1926 at a tea at Merton College, Oxford. He recorded his impression in his diary: “No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.” From that unpromising beginning grew a complex, occasionally fractious friendship between the men who would create two of the 20th century’s most famous pieces of imaginary real estate, Narnia and Middle-earth.
They didn’t do it alone. Tolkien and Lewis were part of a loose intellectual circle, which also included Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, called the Inklings. As Philip and Carol Zaleski write in The Fellowship, the first group biography of the Inklings, “The name … rides the seesaw between cuteness and cloying.” They met, drank and argued about art, philosophy and God for three decades. The Fellowship makes a convincing case that their cultural legacy deserves comparison with that of the less Christian, more intellectually austere Bloomsbury group.
Lewis and Tolkien shared a literary ancestor, another Oxonian dreamer, the Rev. Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland turns 150 this year, and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, himself a professor at Oxford, has written a timely book about both its author and its putative real-life subject, Alice Liddell.
The Story of Alice is a fascinating, unsettling read, giving us a clear-eyed view both of Liddell’s ambivalence about her fictional counterpart and of Dodgson’s preoccupation with young girls, whom he occasionally photographed naked. But Dodgson’s true nature remains elusive–fittingly, since that was the nature of his art. Wonderland is not Middle-earth, or even Narnia. It’s not a place where heroes go to find themselves; it is a place where identity comes apart.
This appears in the June 08, 2015 issue of TIME.