Diana Glyer, The Company They Keep, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
as Writers in Community (Kent State University Press, 2007)
Anyone who has ever read of the legendary group of writers called the Inklings, about their friendship and lives as Oxford academics, has likely wondered about the nature of this long standing group. Its two most commercially successful authors, Tolkien and Lewis, at times seemed to play down the idea that the group, which existed for some three decades, had influenced them in their writing, as did other members of the group. Yet something was clearly going on in these weekly meetings in pubs and Dons' quarters as the members read and dissected one another's work. Tolkien, in particular, was adamant that the group had not "influenced" him, although it does not seem to make sense that a group that was admittedly quite meaningful to its members did not have some impact on them. So what was going on?
Glyer carefully dissects the group in well-researched detail to give the reader a glimpse into the workings of the Inklings, who formed in the 1930s to encourage each other in writing "stories we like." In doing so, she takes on a lot of scholarship that tends to support several members' adamant statements that they were not "influenced" by each other. She paints a lovely picture of the group, comparing it to other writing groups, and gives a general idea of what some of the members were like, along with a glimpse of its social norms and conventions. The "Building Community" chapter will be of great interest to serious fans of both authors. In so doing, she explores various notions of influence, from the role of thoughtful reader, to critic, to collaborator, finding examples from various members to support her arguments. If she focuses mostly on Lewis and Tolkien, I suspect that is because she knows that these are the writers that most of her audience want to know about. She makes no apologies for the group's demographics as white, male and Christian, although she is careful to explain how this had an impact on them as writers, their values and their themes. She may focus on these writers' Christianity more than some readers may like, particularly Tolkien fans who would prefer to read the Kalevala rather than the book of Genesis.
All in all, I enjoyed her descriptions of the group and found her arguments for the ways that the Inklings might have influenced each other very plausible -- and sensible. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the members as "Resonators" and "Opponent" because they portrayed such lovely vignettes from the group members. Indeed, after reading the book and seeing the various ways that the authors affected one another, it is difficult to understand how they could have denied "influence." Difficult to understand that is, unless one understands a bit more about academia and the role of "originality" and "influence" in that sphere.
Within the hallowed halls of places of "higher" learning like Oxford, and particularly in the heyday of these authors, the academic world gloried in the myth of individual achievement and the suspicion that collaborative work was somehow evidence of a lack of brilliance. That view is still alive and well in some circles today, despite the invasion of women, people of colour and so forth. Glyer even discusses the role that several wives played in various works during this period, including one author who wondered whether his wife shouldn't have been given co-author status all along. Glyer does allude to the impact of the authors on the rest of academia, and spends a few pages on their joint efforts in university politics, particularly the horror evoked by Lewis with his "unprofessional" work in publishing Christian allegories, when he was clearly unqualified as a theologian. But I would have liked to see her wrap up the work with more of a critique of the bias against this type of collaborative work, or even some speculation on what admitting to "influence" might have meant for the individual Inklings. I seriously doubt their many readers would have minded the idea that their friends heard the books and through their critiques and encouragement made the books, perhaps, better. I found the discussion of how authors sharpened their arguments when faced with principled opposition rather than changing them to be fascinating. And it this notion of changing one's individually-brilliant work in the face of opposition that forms the crux of the matter from an academic point of view, because academics need to see themselves as perservering in the face of criticism and critique. It is just part of the job. I suspect that Glyer has some opinions on what the authors might have faced had they "admitted" to "influence," and it would have been a lovely addition to this book.
Overall, I believe that readers serious about the authors, or serious about writing, will enjoy this book. It gives a glimpse into a rarified, fascinating world that, along with the authors, has passed with the 20th century. The tools for gaining critique are much more accepted and available to us now than during the time of the Inklings, what this book contributes to our world is a careful study of how the influence of our friends can make us better. In addition to being a great story of a particularly influential writing group, it might serve as a manual for how to act as a friendly critic within a writing collective, and the very real benefits of membership.