What the Inklings Did
This review first appeared in File 770, #149 (March 2007).
The Inklings are not as famous as Opus Dei or the Bloomsbury Group, but famous they are, with their own entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and a well regarded collective biography by Humphrey Carpenter. Any more-than-casual reader of C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien has heard of them: a circle of Oxford friends, including Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams and others less well known, who met weekly in Lewis's college rooms to talk, smoke, drink tea, and listen to readings of one another's manuscripts. The group was the initial audience for Out of the Silent Planet, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Screwtape Letters, The Lord of the Rings, All Hallows' Eve, and at least fifty other books, essays and stories.
Inklings sessions flourished for over 15 years, from about 1932 (the exact date is obscure) through 1949. Though there was never a formal membership roll, identity as an “Inkling” was clearly important to the more active members. For that reason, the group has been the subject not only of Mr. Carpenter's book-length study but of innumerable articles by amateur and professional scholars interested in the various individual Inklings. One would think, then, that there was little room for a new book addressing fundamental questions. Strangely, that is not the case. The overwhelming emphasis of past work has been antiquarian: assembling rosters of “members” during different periods, describing the ambiance in which they gathered, and collecting anecdotes. The dynamics of the society - what it did and how it affected its members, rather than what it looked like from inside or out - have attracted less attention.
The reason for this superficial approach isn't hard to discern. The consensus view has been that the Inklings qua Inklings had more social than literary or intellectual heft. The group was “just a gathering of friends, an opportunity for informal friendly talk, an assembly of those who had much in common and much to share”. Humphrey Carpenter sums up the conventional wisdom:
It must be remembered that the word “influence”, so beloved of literary investigators, makes little sense when talking about their association with each other. Tolkien and Williams owed almost nothing to the other Inklings, and would have written everything they wrote had they never heard of the group. Similarly, Tolkien's imagination was fully fledged and the fundamental body of his ideas was sketched out before he even met Lewis. As he himself declared, his debt to Lewis “was not `influence' as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement”. Nor did Williams owe any crucial part of his thinking to Lewis or to others of the group. . . . [Lewis] alone can be said to have been “influenced” by the others . . . , but for the rest it is sufficient to say that they came together because they already agreed about certain things. [The Inklings, p. 160]
Supporting this opinion are statements made by the Inklings themselves. The most widely quoted, Lewis's “No one every influenced Tolkien - you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch”, is far from unique.
Instead of accepting these generalizations, Diana Pavlac Glyer has combed through the extensive, though fragmentary, evidence. She comes up with a very different picture, one in which the Inklings' Thursdays did a great deal to shape their literary works in ways both major and minute. Contrary to Mr. Carpenter, she avers that Tolkien and Williams, as well as Lewis, would not have been the same writers if they had not written within the “community” of the Inklings and specifically if they had not participated in regular reading and criticism of works in progress.
The Company They Keep traces a number of avenues of influence in ample, but not wearying, detail. The argument, it should be noted, is confined primarily to literary influence. The extent, or indeed the existence, of the Inklings' mutual intellectual, philosophical or ideological influence is a different topic. It surfaces occasionally, particularly when Dr. Glyer discusses Owen Barfield, but is of secondary importance.
As a paradigm for the Inklings' interactions, the author chooses “writers' groups”, as filtered through an academic study that sounds quite dreary but is employed usefully here. The Inklings were not, of course, much like the neophytes who exchange critiques, either personally or often these days via LiveJournal, in the hope of developing into published authors. Almost all of them (Christopher Tolkien, J. R. R.'s son and assistant, and John Wain, whose work took a strongly non-Inklinesque turn, are the exceptions) were mature men, already established in their professions. The only one whose literary career was nurtured in the bosom of the group was C. S. Lewis's brother, Warren, author of several histories of the colorful goings-on at the 17th Century court of Versailles. Moreover, authorship was not really the center of their association. In fact, only seven - the Lewis brothers, Tolkien, Williams, Barfield, Nevill Coghill and the anomalous Wain - had any substantial output of belles lettres. The others wrote in a scholarly vein, in fields ranging from Roman Britain to the history of the British Liberal Party to medical research, or not at all. (An appendix by David Bratman usefully summarizes the life and works of each of the 19 “recognized” Inklings.)
Nonetheless, when presented with a new manuscript, the Inklings worked in much the same way as the composition-centered groups that Dr. Glyer uses as a template. She identifies four principal roles - “resonators” (ugh; the term is borrowed from the aforementioned academic study), “opponents”, editors and collaborators - and shows how the various Inklings played them, mostly vis-à-vis the three best known figures in the group.
The first two roles, “resonance” and “opposition”, are two complementary aspects of the same process. The allegedly uninfluenceable Tolkien offers the most carefully worked-out illustration. What he got from the circle who heard the “New Hobbit” read week by week was not “sheer encouragement” but a sense of direction that led to a story not at all like the one that he was naturally inclined to tell. “Without the Inklings, it is certain that we would have more details of Shire genealogies, more words in the Elvish vocabulary, and fewer stories of the Third Age of Middle-earth.” The contrast between The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion, the latter completed long after the Inklings had dissolved, is telling. Tolkien cut much from The Lord of the Rings that the first hearers did not like, such as long stretches of “Hobbit talk” and a saccharine epilogue, while emphasizing the elements of quest and adventure that he did not find especially congenial. There cannot be many readers who are ungrateful for the transformation.
Similarly, Charles Williams abandoned a new novel, tentatively titled The Noises That Weren't There, after the first three chapters failed to enthrall the Inklings. He then used some of its materials as the foundation for All Hallows' Eve.
[H]e read it to the Inklings, chapter by chapter, and then revised it in response to their criticism. Most scholars [more to the point, most readers] consider it one of Williams's finest works, and the Inklings played a significant role in it from start to finish. Tolkien notes, “I was in fact a sort of assistant midwife at the birth of All Hallows' Eve, read aloud to us as it was composed, but the very great changes made in it were I think mainly due to C.S.L.”
At this time, one should note, Williams had by far the highest literary reputation of any Inkling. We tend to think of him as an obscure writer appealing to an exotic taste. In the 1940's, as Dr. Glyer reminds us, he was widely regarded as one of England's nonpareil men of letters. T. S. Eliot was among his fervent admirers. When Lewis called him, following his premature death in 1945, “the great English poet of this age”, he spoke plausibly. While the ensuing years have been unkind, and today, “It may be said that in offering this magnificent compliment, Lewis's gift for friendship is more in evidence than his gift for prophecy”, it is remarkable that, at the height of his career, an acclaimed novelist paid attention to criticism from comparative amateurs, revised his work to please them, and profited by the exercise.
All Hallows' Eve serves also as an example of the Inklings' unpaid editorial labors. The alterations for which they are responsible, mostly proposed orally, are recoverable only when chance has left traces behind. Still, Dr. Glyer assembles a suggestive list, noteworthy for the fine sensitivity displayed by the auditors, as when Charles Williams's rebuke led the replacement of Treebeard's original expletive “crack my timbers” by the far more Ent-like “root and twig”.
Collaboration is where the Inklings diverge from the “writers' group” paradigm. Fledgling authors are attracted by the idea of crafting a story together, but the process is very hard work, one place where many hands do not make light work. (This reviewer has co-written two books and knows.) Successful collaborators almost always join together early in their careers. The Inklings were past that stage, and, save for jeux d'esprit and a few editorial projects, their occasional ideas for collaborations fell through almost as soon as they were conceived. Lewis and Tolkien went so far as to devise a title, Language and Human Nature, for a volume announced for publication. If they went further, nothing of the labor has survived.
Dr. Glyer elides this point - I'm not sure why - by following the contemporary academic fad of stretching “collaboration” to embrace a writer's entire milieu. When “collaborators” means “agents, editors, friends, publishers, sources, and spouses”, and even “other thinkers, historical events, and readers” (pp. 160-61), what is the word still good for?
The final chapter of the book leaves literary history for more theoretical territory and is disappointing after what has come before. It sets up what appears to be an opposition between “collaboration”, very broadly construed, and the modern opinion, specifically rebuked by Lewis in The Discarded Image and elsewhere, that originality is the sine qua non of great literature. But that can't be the dichotomy that Dr. Glyer has in mind, for she puts very similar writers on both sides of it. Goethe and Shelley “celebrate the poet as one who invents within the rich, supportive context of other writers and other works” (p. 219), while Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats “subscribe to the Romantic view of individual, inspired Genius” (p. 228). The confusion is probably mine, but I think that it is understandable.
Whether or not one calls what the Inklings did “collaboration”, The Company They Keep demonstrates that many of their works owe a great deal to their Thursday evening fosterage. Insofar as we can judge, the effect was invariably beneficial. One might say that the Inklings illustrate “the wisdom of crowds”. Individual evaluations did not always agree. Had Lewis consulted only Tolkien, he would never have written The Screwtape Letters or The Chronicles of Narnia. Hugo Dyson, a great authority on 18th Century literature, loathed The Lord of the Rings, and other Inklings had severe reservations about it. The collective judgment, however, again and again showed superlative taste and discernment. The average writers' group probably does not do as well.
Let me end with a final compliment and a minor complaint. Taking the latter first (chiasmus), the author buries too much significant material in her endnotes. To grasp her argument in full, one must inconveniently turn back and forth between text and annotation. On the positive side, her writing is almost completely free from the academic jargon that infests contemporary studies of English literature and that even the best-intentioned student is in danger of picking up from daily reading of Derrida-tainted nonsense. Not utterly free: One does stumble upon, “The Inklings grew in the transactional space between Lewis and Tolkien as they shared their original drafts with one another” (p. 43). There is also some funny business with pronouns, but I suppose that a straightforward generic “he” would give the ladies at an academic press a severe case of the vapours and is best avoided for charity's sake.
After finishing Dr. Glyer's book, the reader may well feel that her thesis is too self-evident to require so thorough an exposition. If so, he should reread the passage from Humphrey Carpenter with which this review began. That the meetings of the Inklings were not merely occasions for boisterous merriment, excessive tea drinking and occasional plotting against the spirit of the modern age has not been obvious to a great many earlier students, and those who have seen the Inklings as “influential” have said little about why and how. In the nascent field of genuine “Inklings Studies”, as opposed to research devoted to particular authors and the elaboration of “Inklings fandom”, The Company They Keep is a bold and successful pioneer.