Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings
by Diana P. Glyer.
Kent State University Press, 2015.
Paperback, 224 pages, $19.
There is no shortage of books on the authors who made up the best known writing group of the twentieth century—the Inklings. Less common are books about the Inklings as a group, especially when it comes to how these writers critiqued and collaborated on one another’s projects. Diana Glyer’s new book Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings is not merely an abridged version of her earlier work of scholarship, The Company They Keep (2008), adapted for a broader audience. In many ways, Bandersnatch is a call to action.
After decades of inquiry and countless books and articles, we know quite a lot about the Inklings, and we understand that this group helped bring great works of fiction by Christian authors into the world, the most famous being The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. But Glyer seems to be asking why more Christian artists have not formed similar groups imitating the effective strategies of this Oxford circle. In other words, where are the Lewises and Tolkiens of today? Whether such religiously inspired fiction has faded or not has been the subject of a lively debate, in print an online, among such writers as Paul Elie, Gregory Wolfe, and Dana Gioia. Some, like Gioia, believe the best days of what was once known as “the Catholic writer” may be behind us, while others, such as Wolfe, believe such writers are there but are more difficult to find in our cultural context, while the contemporary audience is more skeptical of outright religious claims, or those perceived as such.
One of the more captivating parts of the Inklings story is that they weren’t an obscure group of eccentrics who retreated from the world into their myths. Lewis and Tolkien were respected professors. Other members, such as Charles Williams, who spent his career at Oxford University Press and Owen Barfield, who made a career in law, were equally accomplished.
Their focus was never overt evangelization through literature. They simply wrote and shared the kinds of stories they themselves wanted to read, though their understanding of “story” contained a moral core. Not only did this commitment result in a community that provided multiple authors with creative support, the Inklings helped several of its members achieve publication. Most writers are aware that the road of publishing, especially with a major house, is long and arduous. Glyer’s thorough study of how this group’s members challenged, encouraged, and collaborated with one another serves as a source of inspiration for those struggling with the often solitary nature of being an artist, and the deeper calling most of us feel to enter into authentic community with others. This is surely one of the reasons Glyer, a professor of English at Azusa Pacific University, has adapted this work for readers who are not Inklings scholars, as evidenced by the “Doing What They Did” sections at the end of each chapter explaining how writers can imitate the Inklings by forming communities that give artists of faith opportunities to engage in meaningful exchanges.
The whimsical title of the book comes from a line in one of C. S. Lewis’s letters, which has informed how many Inkling scholars have interpreted the group’s interactions: “No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.” The members of this group may have met to experience the joy of sharing their writing aloud and perhaps even to receive a bit of feedback—some scholars have thought—but this does not mean the Inklings actually influenced one another directly. Glyer, in contrast, contends that the Inklings were far from a mutual admiration society, a conclusion supported by the recent study by Philip and Carol Zaleski that describes Inklings meetings as fora for friendly but unsparing criticism. Despite Lewis’s quip, Bandersnatch reveals that even if it was characteristic for Tolkien to grumble at his friends’ suggestions and to show resistance to making changes at first (prudence, Russell Kirk claimed, being the chief virtue of a conservative), Tolkien did take the comments of his fellow writers seriously. Glyer provides specific and fascinating textual evidence that reveals how Tolkien did in fact change aspects of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a result of his conversations with the Inklings, sometimes going against his more self-indulgent inclinations as creator of his mythical world in order to better meet the needs of his audience.
For fiction authors in particular the last two chapters of Bandersnatch and its epilogue are particularly valuable. Glyer submits that a group like the Inklings defies modern, romanticized notions of “the Artist” as an exceptional individual and solitary genius who receives no outside assistance, not even from the Muse. Yes, writing does require sitting down in solitude and staring at a blank page until he or she comes up with the right words to transmit what’s going on in the realm of the imagination, but for most of human history, storytelling has been a communal endeavor. There are surely people who write only for themselves as a hobby, as a form of inexpensive therapy, or as a mode of self-expression, but for the vast majority of those who long to tell stories, it would be disingenuous to claim that the audience—the reader who receives these words and joins us on our imaginative journey—doesn’t matter. Bandersnatch effectively reveals that while the Inkling members remained true to their own visions, they did influence one another and wrote with an audience in mind—most often, each other.
Bandersnatch closes with an epilogue that suggests this study doesn’t have to be the end of the story when it comes to the Inklings and their impact on the world. With suggestions such as “Start Small,” “Meet Often,” and “Criticize but Don’t Silence,” Glyer includes practical steps that those who are inspired by the Inklings might take in order to form their own collaborative communities. Fortunately, this is already happening. In the United States alone, I can think of several groups that actively promote the notion that creativity does not occur in total isolation but is often the result of a conversation—whether that conversation is with a great tradition that goes back thousands of years or with other artists still living today. These conversations may seem fractured to us at the moment, but it is also comforting to note that overly self-conscious movements—ones that know they’re movements—tend to be rooted in ideology. In contrast, the intermittent and organic conversationsof today’s artists of faith might occur around the fireplace of the Russell Kirk Center library, at a workshop sponsored by Image Journal, at a retreat put on by the C. S. Lewis Foundation, or at an event hosted by The Anselm Society. The good news is that they are happening, so perhaps a renaissance of imagination capable of forming this generation’s own Tolkien or Lewis isn’t as far-fetched as we might have thought.
In addition to teaching literature, writing, and philosophy at the high school and college levels, Ashlee Cowles is a former Russell Kirk Center Fellow who writes fiction. Her debut Young Adult novel, Beneath Wandering Stars, will be published by Merit Press in 2016. Learn more at ashleecowles.com.