It’s a little-known fact among my close friends that I am a chronic “lister.”

Want to know what are the greatest bands ever?  I’m happy to put tell you those, and defend my choices–even if I’ve never heard one of them.

I find some amusement in this habit, especially since I don’t take the lists very seriously at all.  An argument over whether the Beatles or U2 are better (ahem, the latter, clearly) isn’t worth dying for.  But its an entertaining exercise all the same, and occasionally can be quite enlightening.

I thought this habit was idiosyncratic to me, but some new friends from South Africa recently disabused me of that notion:  apparently, High Fidelity (which I have not seen) uses the device, and quite effectively at that.  One more reason to dislike John Cusack.

With that in mind, on the occasional Friday we’re going to list and debate the top five items in whatever category strikes our fancy.  Your contribution is welcome–if you have a particular top five list you have been dying to defend, email me and we’ll make it happen.

This week I present the authoritative, indispensable list of the top five fiction books by the “Inklings.”  But to make it more fun, we’ll use the expansive definition of the group to include those authors who they were friends with and who influenced them–G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, and Dorothy Sayers.

1)  Till We Have Faces.  With all due respect, Lewis’ fiction is more profound for what it says than for what it does.  Not so this book, which goes about as deep as any book I’ve read, and certainly as deep as anything the Inklings put out.  Plus, it’s only fitting that the Inklings most famous member would take the top spot.

2)  Descent into Hell.  Williams is the weirdest Inkling, but a far superior writer to Tolkien.  And Descent is a challenging, serious examination of reality and its power.  Like Till We Have Faces, you have to be prepared to read this one a few times through to really begin to appreciate just how rich it is, which is (to me) a sign of great fiction.

3)  Lord of the Rings.  It probably won’t help my case for putting it here if I tell you that I almost put it as number four.  I get that it’s a massive achievement and practically created a genre of literature.  I understand that the plot-line is incredibly well-crafted.  I’m a fan, okay?  But let’s just be clear:  Tolkien’s descriptions are uneven, and when I hit the Return of the King, the heroic language is so over-the-top that the effect of the story recedes to the background because I can’t quit thinking about the fact that it sounds a 19th century translation of an Arthurian legend.

4)  The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s not my favorite Chesterton fiction (that belongs to Manalive), but it’s doubtlessly his best.  It’s initial preachiness recedes into the background as the story takes over, leaving the reader breathless and lost in wonder (and a bit of confusion).   “Can you drink the cup that I drink?” is an enormously provocative use of the Scripture.  If part of what great literature does is evoke questions and interest, Thursday succeeds in spades.

5)  Phantastes.  George MacDonald was a universalist, but that doesn’t mean he can’t write good.  Phantastes is a beautiful, dream-like tale that enchants as much as it instructs.

Notice whose not here?  Dorothy Sayers.  That is not an accident.  Her fiction is fun and occasionally edifying, but not much more than that.

Now it’s your turn:  how would you make out the list, and why? Bonus points for leaving off Sayers.

(And if you have a category for top five, don’t forget to email me.)

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Okay,
    Suspend your profound faculties for a moment and engage in imagination and use for the Christian life:

    1) The Chronicles of Narnia. I just finished Dawn Treader and was blown away again by Lewis’ use of the Christian life in a tale about children. Plus, I’m naming our first child (wife 35 weeks pregnant), Lucy.

    2) Manalive. The most common Chesterton motif: the crazy man is really the sane man, the most rational among us.

    3) Man Who Was Thursday- Wow, what a gloriously weird book. Read it last summer for the first time. Just when I thought I figured out what Chesterton was doing…….but man what a ride!

    4)Father Brown mysteries. Hey, I love me some mysteries.

    Here is where I cheat:
    5a) Lord of the Rings- bc it has to.

    5b) Till We Have Faces- bc it has to.

    Admittedly, I have read no Sayers or Williams.


  2. Top Five: Inklings Fiction (according to Matthew Lee Anderson)

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


  3. Elliot Ravenwood August 13, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    1. Taliesin Through Logres (Williams)

    2. Boxen (Lewis)

    3. The Children of Húrin (Tolkien)

    4. Leaf by Niggle (Tolkien)

    5. The Dark Tower (Hooper)

    … what? Isn’t that everyone else’s top five?


  4. Elliot Ravenwood August 13, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Ok, but seriously, Matt, it sounds like you have some serious Anti-Sayers spleen you need to vent.

    Why the hate for dear Dorothy? Gaudy Night isn’t half bad, is it? Man Born To Be King was decent too, no?

    Plus, “The Lost Tools of Learning” will end up as one of the influential documents of the 20th century–once a classically educated homeschooler is elected President in 2024 and makes Latin required at all public elementary schools, thereby saving the West.


  5. Dave,

    Manalive over Thursday? Anathema! And LOTR fifth? Questionable, my friend…questionable.

    Elliott, your list cracks me up. It’s my favorite yet.

    I like Sayers’ stuff. But honestly, her non-academic work makes me say, “meh” in comparison to Lewis, Chesterton, etc. That’s true of her non-fiction, too. I generally think it’s good, but not particularly transformative.


  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Vander Klay, Craig L. Adams. Craig L. Adams said: Top Five: Inklings Fiction (according to Matthew Lee Anderson) […]


  7. Top Five: Inklings Fiction

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


  8. You’re wrong. These are the five that will stand the test of time:

    1. Till We Have Faces by Lewis.

    2. The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien.

    3. The Princess and Curdie by MacDonald

    4. The Great Divorce by Lewis

    5. Gaudy Night by Sayers

    Only a few people think they understand Chesterton’s fiction, and I’m not one of them. And nobody understands Charles Williams. Nobody.

    Sayers, on the other hand, writes good, solid, non-esoteric fiction. And her characters are great and lovable and fun to read about. Chesterton’s characters are fun, but insanely unreal. And, again, Charles Williams inhabits a world that only he can make any sense of at all.


  9. We’re limited to (only) the fiction of the Inklings? Not *everyone* who influenced them, who they influenced, who they might influence some day? What about those who should have been influenced but didn’t hear, are they condemned to h….I mean are they rejected just because they didn’t hear the gosp….I mean, their works? What if any of them wrote something they thought was nonfiction but does not meet muster under some criteria of doctrine…does that make it fiction?

    Whatever happened to being ‘inclusive’ ?

    (Hey, I’m married to a Tolkienista, so I need some air-space man.)


  10. Some of my favorite comments at Mere-O in a while: “You’re wrong.” by @semicolonblog cracks me up.

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter


  11. Sherry,

    “You’re wrong” is one of my favorite lines in a comment ever. It just cracks me up. I can’t believe you’d put The Great Divorce on that list, though. Aren’t you supposed to be the master of all things books? Perelandra would be a better choice for a runner-up than GD, or maybe one of the Narnia books.

    But you’ve set me up to write about Williams, now. I don’t pretend to understand everything, but I’ve got an okay handle on what’s going on in Descent. It took me 3-4 times reading it to start to see, and I’ve got a ways to go before I “master” it. But I am confident enough in my reading of it to put it on the list.

    But next to Chesterton himself, I don’t feel like his characters are unreal. : )



  12. Greg,

    “Whatever happened to being ‘inclusive’?”

    You haven’t been reading Mere-O long, have you? : )



    1. Matt–

      I dabble…which I think makes me a dabbler.

      Hey, no changing the subject.



  13. I might have to duck and cover for this, but:

    1. Till We Have Faces (Lewis)

    2. The Man Who Was Thursday (Chesterton)

    3. Silmarillion (Tolkein) – let me justify myself! It sounds like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and it sounds like the Old Testament, and it’s beautiful in its complexity and the way the characters seem to breath on their own without help from the narrative. I can’t read it enough. So there.

    4. The Horse and His Boy (Lewis) – the most profound of the Narnian series by far, because it steps out of the mythology and attains higher theological truth than the other books (Aslan attacks them?!), and it deals with contemporary issues (that really aren’t so contemporary – exploitation and ethnic conflict and cultural superiority are as old as mankind).

    5. The Mind of the Maker (Sayers) – I know, I know, not fiction – but Sayers’ genius is her understanding of the Trinitarian nature of the creative process, and there’s nothing like her explanation of it. All you need to start plumbing the complexity of the creative process is Mind of the Maker and Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners.


  14. Having only read Chesterton and Lewis (and one book of Tolkein) I can’t really make this list. But I’m still stuck on “G.K. was an Inkling…?”


  15. Dan, don’t be a hater! No, he clearly wasn’t an Inkling, but tossing him in the mix makes things just a little more interesting.


  16. Linds,

    That you listed Thursday second warms my heart. And I’m going to have to reread Silmarillion. I’ve only read it once, loved it, but didn’t think it was on the same level as LOTR. I’ll give it another shot.



  17. Linds’ No. 5 breached so take the hill:

    1. GKC: Orthodoxy & The Catholic Church and Conversion (and bunches of other stuff :> )
    2. Greene: The P&G/End of the Affair combo (cheating…and loving it)
    3. Percy: Love in the Ruins & Why I Am a Catholic (altho Moviegoer is Museum-framed and on the wall—I wrote a proposal of marriage to my wife on that one…)
    4. P6/JP2/B16 (Myst. Fidei/Everything/Everything), just for starters
    5. Newman/Dulles/Ign./Iren./Justin (OK, all the boys in the band)

    …and the current running favorite: ‘The Price of Unity’ (Maturin), freely available full-text on the net (whoopee!)

    A prof once said in class, ‘there’s only one reason to study sociology: to avoid math.’ Evidence now submitted, above.

    Has Mere-O already been through Eric Seddon’s piece: ‘Letters to Malcolm and the trouble with Narnia: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their 1949 crisis’ and I missed the discussion??? Say it ain’t so. Would be curious to know how ya’ll busted it down.

    Peace, Love, and Bobby Sherman (in the most orthodox way, of course)


  18. @Matthew: Heh, I love G.K., so no hating intended.

    I probably should’ve read your initial post more carefully, but didn’t because it was 3am for me and whatnot, or at least, that’s my lame excuse.

    @Greg: In a totally non-commandment-violating way, I hope I meet a woman like your wife. I’ve got at least two copies of Love in the Ruins I could use to propose if I met the right person.


  19. In my *least* humble, there are thousands like you, so wait in line :> She’s a keeper. (Lv. in Ruins was our “date”—we read it to ea other instead of going out…, I have to do the reading–if she does, I fall asleep). And…I’ll let’er know :)

    Don’t happen to have a spare copy of ‘Monsignor Quixote’ lying around do you? Misplaced or loaned our copy and it has to be one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

    I don’t suppose we can toss in Oddie’s recent piece in The Herald (UK) and Aidan Nichols’ piece in New Directions (also to be found on “Anglican Patrimony”‘s website)?????


  20. Hey, Matt, after giving it some thought I’ll trade The Great Divorce for either Perelandra or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or The Horse and His Boy (I agree with LInds that H&B is profound). I still like the Great DIvorce because I use examples from it a lot in discussions with others about the basic truths of Christianity and salvation.

    And you’re right. Chesterton’s characters are unreal because Chesterton himself was larger than life, pun intended. Wouldn’t it have been an adventure to have had tea with Mr. Chesterton or Professor Lewis? I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep up with the repartee, but it would be fun to watch and to try.


    1. I’ve often thought of Great Div. as my fav. book, and Chesterton as my fav. author.


  21. Top Three reasons why Matt linked to the IMDB page for High Fidelity like this: “”

    1. He thinks that in the world-wide-web, Mere Orthodoxy always comes first.
    2. He thinks he is the real hyper-text-transfer-protocol.
    3. He’s trying to take over the world with his blog.


  22. @Ched,

    You missed a fourth. He’s just technologically incompetent, plain and simple.

    @Sherry, larger than life, indeed! And I agree about not being able to keep up with them. They both had an overabundance of *wit,* which I, sadly, lack altogether.

    @Greg and @Dan, Sorry to break into the lovefest, but no, we haven’t looked at those two essays. Thanks for noting them–I may try to get to them at some point in the next decade. : )



  23. Oh do let the lovefest continue, it was starting to rock.

    Is the next decade like the millenium; so we have to wait until 2021, or are we shooting for 2011? I can hold my breath for 6 months.

    Your reference sources for the next decade:

    Essay No. 1–

    ‘Letters to Malcolm and the trouble with Narnia: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their 1949 crisis’
    Essay No. 2–

    Aidan Nichols @ Anglican Patrimony:
    Essay No. 3–
    William Oddie @ Herald UK:

    Rock on.


  24. No top-5 list is legitimate without Lewis’ Perelandra.

    Best plot ever.


  25. Linds, (I hope I know who you are)

    The Mind of the Maker (Sayers)

    Absolutely. One of her most overlooked books, which is also one of the best books written on the popular Inkling topic of co-creation. Popping the hood on the process of creativity – ridiculously big-headed… but she pulls it off with swagger. So it has to be on the list. If only out of principle.


  26. I would have placed Lilith instead of Phantastes.


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