Until the publication of Diana Pavlac Glyer’s new book The Company The Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, I hadn’t realized how strong was my urge to be a “completist.” A new book out on the Inklings? By all means, I had to have it, period. This is fortunate, because if I paused to remind myself that I’d already read Humphrey Carpenter’s superb biography The Inklings, and then to ask if I really, really needed another book on the subject, the rational part of my brain might have said “no,” and (it’s not completely impossible) might have carried the day. And that would have been too darn bad. Glyer’s book makes a wonderful companion to Carpenter’s more well known volume, and stands very well on its own. Carpenter’s book is a biography; Glyer’s is an examination of the very significant ways in which, as a community, the Inkings challenged, inspired, influenced, and supported one another. The Company The Keep is a terrific and insightful read.
Carpenter’s The Inklings tells a rollicking good story. When Carpenter describes the group’s meetings at The Eagle and Child Pub, you can almost hear the glasses clinking merrily; you’d swear that, now and then, you catch, almost the faint and fading scent of sweet pipe smoke. You feel that you know Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Barfield, and the others, a privilege as welcome as it is rare. Carpenter’s recreation of the now-famous conversation between Lewis and Tolkien on mythopoeia and the deeper truth hidden in the “lies” of myth is moving and profoundly beautiful.
By contrast, Glyer mentions this conversation only in passing. Her purpose isn’t to tell a story. It’s to explore. In her introduction, Glyer notes that early critics, from Gareth Knight and Lin Carter to Mark Hillegas and Carpenter himself, tend to downplay the influences the writers had upon one another. Glyer reminds us that Carpenter claims that the Inklings has, for example, no influence at all on the development of The Lord of the Rings. Glyer argues that this claim is at best unfair. Why would the men have continued to meet and critique one another’s works in progress if they perceived no value in the exchange? More, Glyer points out that common sense alone suggests that any group that meets over a long period of time — some seventeen years — is bound to change its members in ways both subtle and obvious.
So why would critics argue that the Inklings had no influence on one another’s work? Glyer builds a convincing case that Carpenter, Carter, and the others were reacting to earlier critics who accused the Inklings of a sort of group think, marching in almost corporate lockstep, writing interchangeable, virtually indistinguishable works. Confronted with such preposterous accusations, it seems natural that more sympathetic critics would have been quicker to defend each individual’s personal achievement and genius.
To start her study of the Inklings, Glyer looked at other communities of working writers, and was stuck by how both members and critics readily acknowledge the groups’ influence without diminishing individual achievement. More, Glyer found that members of writer’s groups and communities tend to influence each other in very specific ways: as resonators supporting and encouraging progress, as opponents issuing challenge, as editors, as collaborators working together, and finally as referents writing about each other. Glyer devotes long chapters to each, using letters, interviews, essays and other evidence to show how the Inklings filled each role for one another.
Glyer concludes that writers don’t create in a vacuum; every artist’s work is inevitably embedded in the work of others. Community doesn’t stifle creativity or individual expression. Rather, it fertilizes and nurtures it. For anyone interested in how a favorite book came to be, and especially for artists exploring their own craft, The Company The Keep is a must read. Her conclusions are well supported and her arguments thorough. Best of all, her book is fascinating and a joy to read. Any fan of Tolkien, Lewis, and the others absolutely must have a copy of Carpenter’s The Inklings. The shelf is equally bare without a copy of The Company They Keep.