The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community.
WITH THE PASSING of the generation that included Owen Barfield, Humphrey Carpenter, and George Sayer, people who knew the Inklings personally and who wrote about them, the mantle of Lewis scholarship rests upon a new generation. But with such creative and assiduous work as we are witnessing from Bruce L. Edwards, David C. Downing, Peter Schakel, and Michael Ward, it appears that the legacy of insightful and scholarly books about C.S. Lewis has fallen into very good hands. Reading the deeply satisfying feast that is The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community proves that Diana Pavlac Glyer has vaulted herself into the company of the very best thinkers and writers on the Inklings.
In her book-length study, Glyer stands on the shoulders of giants, and yet with balance, style, and sheer hard work she manages to dwarf them. In particular, she completes nearly twenty years of work by updating and even surpassing Humphrey Carpenter's The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends. In so doing, Glyer has crafted an eminently readable and thoroughly scholarly book. She explores in depth and in careful detail the ways that Lewis and Tolkien and their friends wrote in community, and points to collaboration as a key not only to understanding the Inklings but also to comprehending their several writing processes.
The structure of her book lends much to its helpfulness. In the Introduction, Glyer addresses a fundamental misreading of the concept of influence among the Inklings, a misreading into which many writers have justifiably fallen. She calls into question the way that scholars and biographers mistakenly have accepted at face value Lewis's and Tolkien's assertions that they influenced each other little or not at all.
Chapter One, "Inklings: Building Community," sets the stage for the book, offering one of the clearest accounts ever attempted concerning the formation of that collaborative community which produced so much intriguing writing. Indeed, Glyer pinpoints the date of the inception of the Inklings, suggesting the authorial risk Tolkien took in December 1929 in first sharing his Beren and Luthien poem with Lewis as the starting point for all that followed. Lewis responded with just the right combination of enthusiasm and criticism, cementing their personal and collaborative relationship for years to come and effectively birthing the Inklings. To have in one chapter such a clearly-written and well-documented account of the formation of the Inklings itself makes Glyer's book invaluable.
In Chapter Two, "Influence: Assessing Impact," Glyer makes the central argument of the rest of the book-that the Inklings indeed shared varied and multivalent influence. She sets the framework for the rest of the book by adopting Karen Burke LeFevre's four-fold model of writing communities: Resonators, Opponents, Editors, and Collaborators, using these categories as the themes for most of the remaining chapters. As with all of the concepts Glyer discusses, she deftly introduces her topics and immediately supports her claims with a tower of research. In fact, this reader often found himself delightedly absorbed in the footnotes, wishing they themselves comprised a companion volume. Such attentive and diligent scholarship in such clear prose offers practical joy for those of us who want to think clearly about the Inklings and their writings.
Chapters Three through Six follow LeFevre's framework, tracing how the Inklings supported each other's progress, issued challenges to write or to improve their writing, made changes to books in progress, and worked together to bring their books to completion. These chapters form the heart of Glyer's perceptive study. They showcase Glyer's gift for combing through all of the biographies and commentaries and then cohesively presenting the most salient material in a way that will intrigue readers new to the Inklings while delighting those familiar with the scholarship. The Company They Keep impressively serves as both useful compendium and thoughtful argument, offering all readers fresh ways to consider old material, inviting us to read more widely and to think more deeply about such matters. (And this surely was Lewis's most persistent purpose in all of his writing and teaching.)
In Chapter Seven, "Referents: Writing about Each Other," Glyer takes both LeFevre's model and Carpenter's biography a step further, gathering together all of the Inklings's comments about each other that she could find. This chapter accomplishes two remarkable things. Those who have read the primary and secondary sources on the Inklings at one time or another will find gathered much of what they have encountered, and perhaps half-remember, from their peripatetic reading. Glyer has vigilantly and laboriously collected all these chestnuts, ordering them neatly in one spot. Second, Glyer has achieved for Lewis readers a semblance of what Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull have done for years for Tolkien studies. Hammond and Scull's inimitable scholarship into primary source material has cleared a path for Tolkien scholars for decades to come. So now too has Glyer, both in this chapter and throughout her remarkable book. Glyer's work gives rise to the hope of more such scholarship to come--if not from Glyer, then at least inspired and encouraged by her example.
Her final chapter, "Creativity: Appreciating Interaction," points to the wider themes of the collaborative project, and also indicates the direction which Glyer's next work might take. She inspires readers of the Inklings to follow their example by developing their own writing communities. She also rounds out her study with a much-needed exploration of Harold Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry and the resulting critical conversation regarding the concept of influence. As she so deftly does throughout the book, Glyer in her conclusion marshals primary text, biography, and criticism to address the larger implications of her topic, touching upon theorists including Michael Oakeshott and Michel Foucault in order to explore the ramifications of her study. In her last chapter as throughout the rest of her book, Glyer's clear thinking, careful research, and lucid style do what all such books should do-invite readers to follow her example, thoughtfully doing more of the same.
David Bratman's Appendix of nineteen biographical sketches of the "canonical" members of the Inklings slots nicely into Glyer's book, achieving the same effect Lewis so often has with his own literary name-dropping: namely, making readers want follow the trail of the authors he discusses. Rather than an afterthought, Bratman's Appendix forms a vital addition and ratifies the usefulness of The Company They Keep. It deliberately finishes the volume, arriving almost like a perfectly tasteful dessert at the end of an excellent meal, completing and unifying a deeply-satisfying feast.
This reader is left at a loss as to how to deride this outstanding volume, and he can only find one complaint. Glyer has indicated in private correspondence that her bellwether of a book shrunk upon revision, to the point of eliminating two Appendices. The greatness of The Company They Keep is tempered only by making us wish there were more of it. This book represents a major landmark in Inklings scholarship.
Nearly half a century after his death, in significant ways the best scholarship on C.S. Lewis (and especially on the manifold implications of his work) lies ahead of us. If Diana Pavlac Glyer's excellent work offers any indication, the path forward promises much. Readers and scholars alike shall surely find more light on C.S. Lewis so long as books like The Company They Keep appear, guiding us with such clarity and insight on our way.
Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their
Friends. Boston: Houghton, 1979.
LeFevre, Karen Burke. Invention as a Social Act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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