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Mutual influence among the Inklings

2 October 2009

The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Several books and articles have been written about the literary group known as the Inklings, but this is one of the best and most informative.

The Inklings were a group of friends who met in Oxford to read to each other, and criticise each other’s work. There were 19 members of the group, though they were not all present at every gathering, and joined and left at various times. At the core of the group was C.S. Lewis, and most of the other members were his friends. Among the most active members were C.S. Lewis’s brother Warren Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Owen Barfield. The book has an appendix listing all 19, with a potted biography of each.

Glyer shows how the members of the group influenced one another, and challenges the view of many scholars that there was no such influence. She notes that an entire generation of scholars was discouraged from studying or asserting mutual influence among the Inklings when C.S. Lewis warned a correspondent who asked about influence among the Inklings that he should not “waste time” on a “barren field”. Glyer argues that there was a tendency to confuse influence with imitation. “In claiming that Tolkien was not influenced by Lewis, for example, scholars typically mean that his sub-created world does not resemble Malacandra and his creative aesthetic is different from that which envisioned Narnia.”

The Inklings were not a literary school with a common point of view, and they sometimes disagreed vehemently over the merits of each other’s works. Tolkien disliked Lewis’s Narnia stories, Hugo Dyson poured scorn on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Nevertheless, they did influence one another, not merely in the comments on the work that was read, but in joint literary endeavours, in dedicating their work to each other, reviewing each other’s work, and occasionally recommending it to publishers.

The negative attitude towards influence is a relatively recent phenomenon, and is a result of post-Enlightenment individualism, where there is an excessive concern for originality and “genius”. Barfield explained that the concept of independent creativity emerged well after the Renaissance. Before the Renaissance “genius” is a spirit-being other than the poet himself, and they would say “he has a genius”. After the Renaissance the inspiration is seen as part of the poet himself and we say “he is a genius”.

Lewis and Tolkien agreed that if they wanted to see the kind of stories they liked, they would have to write them themselves, and this influenced Lewis to write his space trilogy, though Tolkien never completed his contribution, which was to be based on time. To children who wrote to ask Lewis to write more Narnian stories, he replied that he had no more to say, but there was plenty of room for them to contribute their own.

Glyer concludes “I am persuaded that writers do not create text out of thin air in a fit of personal inspiration. I believe that the most common and natural expressions of creativity occur as part of an ongoing dialogue between writers, readers, texts, and contexts. This truth is exemplified by the weekly meetings of the Inklings. It is manifest in their relationships with family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. And it is expressed in many of their own statements about the creative process. As Williams reminds us, an emphasis on isolated individuals must give way to an interactive view of life, culture and creativity.”

I think Glyer makes a very good case for this, and I recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed reading anything written by the Inklings. It gives new insights into their lives and their works.

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I would also add that I agree with C.S. Lewis’s idea if that if we want more of the kind of stories that we like to read, we should write our own. And as November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I challenge any Inklings fans to wrote a novel in the genre of their favourite Inkling.

In many ways we have it much easier than the original Inklings. When they read their writings to each other seventy years ago, they did not have the benefit of word processors or even photocopiers. They read from hand-written manuscripts which they brought to meetings stuffed in jacket pockets. But they also lived close to one another, and could meet face to face.

Now we have the Internet, and even if there are no likeminded friends within visiting distance, it should be possible to find people with similar literary interests with almost the whole world open to us. Distance is no longer a barrier.

So if anyone is interested in the kind of discussions that the Inklings had, and the kind of community, and keeping that kind of company, and sharing and dicussing one another’s writing, I invite you to join the Neoinklings forum. There you can upload a chapter of your novel (your NaNoWriMo novel, perhaps), or a poem, or something else you are writing, for others to read and comment on.


Click to join eldil

Click to join eldil

And if you’re an Inklings blogger, join the Inklings bloggers group.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 2 October 2009 6:11 pm

    Good stuff Steve. I also liked “The magical World of the Inklings” by Gareth Knight, and “Secret Fire: the Spiritual Vision of JRR Tolkien” by Stratford Caldecott.

  2. malcolmguite permalink
    20 January 2010 11:24 pm

    I agree Diana Glyer’s book is excellent. Its as much a book about writing itself as it is about the inklings, and I think the parallels she draws between communal creativity and the communion of the saints are really enlightening

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