Category Archives: Reviews: The Inklings

Love and comfort in fantasy, or why George R. R. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien

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I totally stole this image. I honestly have no idea where it originated, but I really like it. So many, many props to some unknown but sincerely appreciated artist.

First, I am really enjoying HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I was enjoying the books, immensely, until I realized I was forgetting so much between volumes that it just made more sense to wait until the entire series is finished to dive into them again. My “to be read” stacks are perilously high, and having to re-read an entire series of not exactly concise tomes every time a new volume is released takes a lot of all-too-scarce reading time away from other books, any one of which might become a new and beloved favorite.

Overall, though, I’m a fan. I mention that because what follows might be perceived as throwing shade on Mr. Martin’s books, or on HBO’s adaptations, and I don’t mean it that way. This is, in fact, not a review at all. It’s just a series of thoughts that occurred to me about my own writing, specifically in my Widening Gyre series, as I was watching the most recent episode of A Game of Thrones on HBO.

Sure, Professor Tolkien’s and Mr. Martin’s books have a lot in common … on the surface.


Also, both Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin introduce heroes of smaller stature. I stole this image, too, by the way.

I often hear Mr. Martin called “The American Tolkien.” I can see why people say that. (Was Lev Grossman the first?) Both write (or wrote) extremely complex fantasy novels, both have very passionate fan bases (with a great deal of overlap), both have created British Isles-inspired worlds rich with invented history and languages, and, well, both authors have the initials “R. R.” in their names.

But honestly, I think the resemblance ends there. The similarities are superficial at best.

Mr. Martin’s books are grounded in, well, the rather unpleasant realities of a world at war. Mr. Martin has made no secret of the fact that his books are inspired by true history, most notably the War of the Roses. When his books are brutal, it’s because, well, history was brutal. In fact, Mr. Martin has criticized Professor Tolkien, pointing out that his wars aren’t like the wars of history (they certainly aren’t), and even pointing out that The Lord of the Rings never bothers to address Aragorn’s tax policy. (For more, read this article and this one.)

To be fair, I think Mr. Martin’s complaints have more to do with how Professor Tolkien has become a template for lesser writers than with any real issue with The Lord of the Rings, but I think the point is an interesting one.

You see, Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin are writing books in the same genre only to the extent that it makes it easier for bookstores to know where to shelve them. Mr. Martin writes grounded, historically-based fantasy that appeal largely (I think) because they are so grimly real. The famous shocks and twists come from the harsh brutality of a world at war. Even the famous Red Wedding is based on two different historical events. (For more information, read here and here.) To a large (and often uncomfortable) degree, Mr. Martin is writing history, with a few ice zombies and dragons tossed in.

Professor Tolkien, on the other hand, is writing myth.

In his book The Inklings, biographer Humphrey Carpenter recounts a significant and now famous conversation between Tolkien and a then-atheist C.S. Lewis. The two were walking among the colleges in Oxford on a September evening in 1931. Lewis had never underestimated the power of myth. One of his earliest loves had been the Norse myth of Balder, the dying god. All the same, Lewis did not in any way believe in the myths that so thrilled him. As he told Tolkien, “myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though (they are) breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” 

Tolkien went on to explain that early man, the creators of the great myth cycles, saw the world very differently. To them “the whole of creation was myth-woven and elf-patterned.” Tolkien went on to argue that man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his ideas into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideas. Therefore, Tolkien argued, not only man’s abstract thoughts, but also his imaginative inventions, must in some way originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth.

When creating a myth, a storyteller is engaging in what Tolkien called mythopoeia (myth-oh-pay-uh). Through the act of peopling an imaginary world with bright heroes and terrible monsters, the storyteller is in a way reflecting God’s own act of creation. Human beings are, according to Tolkien, expressing fragments of eternal truth. Tolkien believed that the poet or storyteller is, then, a sub-creator “capturing in myth reflections of what God creates using real men and actual history.” A storyteller, Tolkien believed, is actually fulfilling Divine purpose, because the story always contains something of a deeper truth. Myth is filtered through the artist’s culture, experiences, and talents, but it is drawn from a deeper well.

By Tolkien’s argument, all myth is a response, a reaction to the force of creation occurring all around us. Granted, this calls for a slightly different definition of myth — and ignores the perhaps (probably) different intentions of the storytellers — which, of course, we can never know in any case. But a story can be myth, Tolkien would argue. Indeed, it could scarcely be anything else, because any act of creation is a reaction to the call of the Divine. Tolkien and the Inklings were responding to the same “shout” that the creators of myth have been responding to throughout the ages — the utter magnificence of a beautiful, dangerous, and impossible universe.

I’ve written more on that topic here (in fact, I stole the preceding five paragraphs from myself).

I bring that up because I can’t help thinking that anyone who reads The Lord of the Rings and comes away asking about Aragorn’s tax policy has completely missed the point. (Although again, I think Mr. Martin is actually ranting against the clichés that sprung up from Professor Tolkien’s imitators, rather than the books themselves. The Lord of the Rings was groundbreaking … but I certainly can’t blame Mr. Martin for wanting to break the template. In fact, I applaud him.)

The twin ideas of mythopoeia and eucatastrophe are at the heart of Professor Tolkien’s work. Indeed, the deeply mythic concept of eucatastrophe, a sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the hero does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom, is antithetical to the core of Mr. Martin’s work.

Professor Tolkien formed the word eucatastrophe by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used in classically-inspired literary criticism to refer to the “unraveling” or conclusion of a drama’s plot. For Tolkien, the term had a thematic meaning that went beyond its literal etymological meaning. It was at the very core of Christianity and his love of myth and art. It was a part of his very DNA.

Eucatastrophe is the blessed conclusion we all crave; it’s something we long for deeply in the heart — a time when wounds are healed, the broken are mended, and rights are made wrong. That longing, I think, is key.

In that sense, Mr. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Professor Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are polar opposites, matter and antimatter.

Let me ask you this. Would you really want to visit Westeros?

There’s quite a few variations of this meme floating around on Facebook and Twitter:


There’s something in the mythopoeic works of Tolkien and Lewis that calls to that deep longing within us. There’s a part of us, somehow, that knows that the fantasy landscapes are a metaphor for something beyond, something more than the fields we know. It makes us feel almost homesick for a place we’ve never been.

I image that most of Mr. Martin’s fans can relate to the Hunger Games fans. A visit to the world of A Game of Thrones is … well, less appealing.

(Although I think there’s another blog to be written about the appeal of The Hunger Games. Stay tuned.)

This idea struck me when I was watching the most recent episode of HBO’s A Game of Thrones with my wife, Carol. The episode happened to feature two absolutely stunning shots of the castle Riverrun. Carol and I turned to each other with wide eyes and just said, “wow.” The shots were lovely. It was, in fact, the first time I can remember that a location in A Game of Thrones had made us want to visit that place. The fact that there was a siege going on quickly damped our enthusiasm, but still, I was struck with the idea that A Game of Thrones is almost utterly devoid of any kind of wish fulfillment, key elements of fantasies like the Harry Potter series or, say, Star Wars.

It made me wonder if anyone would want to visit the locations in my books, or spend time with my characters. I hope so. I really do. At very least, I hope readers would long to visit the Renaissance festival in Blackthorne Faire, or the Commonwealth pub in The Widening Gyre. I try to ground things, solidly — a lesson I’ve learned from Mr. Martin — but mythopoeia and the longing for eucatastrophe are in my DNA, too.

Another thought struck me soon after.

Both the television and the novel versions of A Game of Thrones are short on love. I don’t (necessarily) mean romantic love, but love. Love of family, love of place, love of friends, love of partner. When love is there, it’s usually broken in some way … think of the late King Robert’s lost love for Ned Stark’s sister, Lyanna. Think of Jamie and Ceresi Lannister (but not too much, because ewwww). Think of Tyrion’s love for his prostitute, Shae. Perhaps the purest love in the story is that of Ned Stark’s family, and look how that turned out.

By contrast, The Lord of the Rings is bursting with love, even though it is (almost) completely devoid of romantic love. There are certainly deep and loving friendships — Merry and Pippin for Frodo, Sam and Frodo, Gandalf and Bilbo, Gimli and Legolas. There is also a deep love of place … think of Frodo’s love for the Shire, all the walks he takes. Think how heartbreaking it is when Frodo’s ultimate sacrifice isn’t his life, but rather the life he has known and loved in the Shire. When he returns, his battles won, the Shire is lost to him, but not his love for it.

Indeed, the whole story turns on the role of Providence, the divine love that leads to eucatastrophe, that dearest of all loves.

The Narnia stories, too, are rich with love. So are the Harry Potter stories. They shine with love and grace.

Last — and this is something that the films missed for the most part — The Lord of the Rings, the novel, holds precious moments of comfort, even in the midst of terrible war and danger. There’s Bag End of course (who wouldn’t want to visit Bag End?) — which, to be fair, the films absolutely nailed. But Bree, a port of (at least temporary) safety in the books, is a frightening place in the films. Ditto Lóthlorien, that precious place of unfallen paradise. Gone utterly are Tom Bombadil’s house and Crickhollow.

The dear and comfortable places make Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth come to life. It makes us long to visit, just as (for example) Cair Paravel and Beaver’s Dam make us want to visit Narnia, and Hogwarts makes us long for an owl-delivered letter.

For the most part, the Lord of the Rings films miss these moments of comfort, and the moments of the numinous. I think that’s why they’re less likely endure the test of time, as the books certainly have.

These moments are, at best, rare in A Song of Ice and Fire. Mr. Martin seems to be crafting more of a puzzle box, closer to, say, Lost than to The Lord of the Rings. When was the last time you heard someone talking about Lost? (To be fair, I expect a much stronger resolution to A Song of Ice and Fire.)

I wonder … when the last shock has shocked and the last twist has been revealed in all its gory glory, will we still turn to A Song of Ice and Fire?

Probably. I certainly think so. I think Mr. Martin’s achievement is a remarkable one that will continue to find new readers for generations. I hope writers will learn the right lessons from it … break the templates, don’t just imitate the new ones.

I think A Song of Ice and Fire will gain as many new readers as The Lord of the Rings does. When all the mysteries are unfolded, and there’s no need to go back and scour the text for clues, I wonder if A Song of Ice and Fire will have as many re-readers? I don’t think so.

I wonder, too, if A Song of Ice and Fire will inspire the same enduring love, and longing, that The Lord of the Rings kindles. Time will tell.

In the meantime, both have lessons to teach writers like me. I’ll ground my fantasies. I might even think about the tax policies of my own (metaphorical) Aragorns. But I’ll always season my stories with love, place, and comfort, even in the moments of darkness.

Mr. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien. He’s the American Martin. That’s more than good enough.


Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part One: Iconic Locations

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When asked to picture Narnia, you probably think of something rather like this, don’t you?

If asked to close one’s eyes and picture Narnia, I am willing to bet that just about everyone will picture a snow-covered wood surrounding a clearing where a lamppost sheds a soft, golden light … just beyond a wardrobe door. Something about that image, that specific location, is iconic. It’s a strong, concrete, visual image. It’s something we almost can’t help responding to, almost like it, that one place, was a character in a story. When we revisit, years later, it’s like meeting an old friend.

As many of you know, some partners and I are starting a new publishing venture, ePic Adventures, Inc. We’ll be doing print books, sure, but our emphasis is on eBooks. Magical eBooks. Think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

In short, ePic Books present a platform that stretches the idea of what an eBook can be. The original idea was to focus on a narrow selection of genres — fantasy, science fiction, mystery, paranormal romance, and young adult. Our investors and advisors talked me out of that. So we’re focusing on fantasy, at least for the first year or two, and expanding once we’ve built our brand.

Quick, what’s this? Once answer: it’s utterly iconic.

That still doesn’t narrow things down a whole lot. So we have developed a sort of checklist of things we’re looking for. Some of them have to do with the medium … books we we purchase (yes, we’ll be paying advances and royalties) have to have elements that fit the technology we’re developing. That’s obvious enough.

And, of course, we’re looking for the usual: strong characters, excellent writing, surprises, unique ideas, well-structured stories. all that stuff. I would have mentioned that first, since ultimately those are most important. But they are kind of obvious, and most publishers, even small ones, have literally hundreds of manuscripts that meet those criteria on their desks at any one time.

Beyond that, we took a heuristic look at story, trying to identify elements that the truly successful works in the genre, regardless of medium, share in common. That’s not to say that we’re trying to be formulaic. Far from it. But certain elements are at the heart of successful stories, especially in the fantasy genre. There are things many share in common. Those are the elements we’ll be looking for next year.

The first? Iconic locations. Think of some of the most beloved and successful fantasy works. Almost without exception, they feature absolutely forgettable locations: places that everyone who has ever experienced the work can describe in a minute. Think of Charlie’s Chocolate Factory or the cantina in Star Wars. In the Harry Potter books, Hogwarts is almost as much a star as Harry himself, and it stands out in a series that is absolutely packed with iconic locations.

In fact, I am at a loss to think of a truly successful fantasy that has endured the test of time that doesn’t include at least one absolutely iconic location. The Wizard of Oz? Think of that first color shot Munchkin Land, or the Emerald City, or even the Yellow Brick Road. Field of Dreams? The baseball field in the cornfield. The Name of the Wind? The University, of course, and its library in particular. A Song of Ice and Fire? I think the Wall is likely the best example.

If you’ve read the works of Charles de Lint, think of his Tamson House or his city of Newford. Speaking of cities, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol might be an exception, although you can argue (convincingly, I think) that the snow-covered London is as much a part of the story as Scrooge and the ghosts.

Now, picture scenes from the best of the Disney animated films. They are rife with iconic locations, from the cottage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the castle, the pub, and the lonely tower in Tangled. Picture Pleasure Island or the Fairies’ House from Sleeping Beauty. Chances are, if you’ve seen any of those films, those places are locked away somewhere in the attics of your brain. They are beautifully realized.

Professor Tolkien’s Bag End, one of the most iconic fantasy locations of all.

Or maybe the most perfect example of all: Bag End in Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth books. Tolkien even begins with a description if Bag End in The Hobbit … it is described in loving detail long before we learn one single fact about the main character (aside from the fact that he lives there, which now that I mention it does tell the reader rather a lot about Bilbo Baggins) or the story. We know about that hole in the ground long before we learn of wizards, dwarves, or dragons.

Of course, Professor Tolkien’s works are full of iconic locations, and many of them are places you long to visit. LothLorien. Rivendell. The Lonely Mountain. Beorn’s House. The Prancing Pony in Bree. Minas Tirith. Mirkwood. Gollum’s cave.

Gormenghast. Amber. The Swiss Family Robinson’s treehouse. Dune. Treasure Island. 221 B Baker Street (although as with Mr Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle’s London might be a better example). The Hundred Acre Wood. Ray Bradbury’s Greentown or Mars. Barsoom. Callahan’s. Neverland. Prydain. The Commonwealth (yes, the whole damn thing) from Silverlock. The Batcave. The starship Enterprise. Even the secret junkyard headquarters in the Three Investigators books.

Mentioning the Three Investigators may be a cheat, since they are mystery rather than fantasy, but looking back at my love of reading, I honestly think it begins with my longing to visit that secret headquarters (through Tunnel Two, naturally) or Charlie’s chocolate factory, that amazing creation of Mr. Wonka and Mr. Dahl. The place was a part of the appeal. If you’re lost in a story, isn’t one of the reasons that some part of you wishes, deeply in the heart, to visit those places you’re falling in love with?

I won’t say that is rule is universally true. But again, I am at a loss to think of an exception. I’m sure one will occur to me the instant I hit “publish,” but it’ll be the exception that proves the rule. I am also not saying it’s the only element that makes these stories work, or even that it’s the most important one. (We have a whole list of key elements that I’ll be talking about on this blog over the next few weeks.)

So what makes an image iconic? Four things, I think.

First, an iconic location is utterly unforgettable. Once seen, it lingers.

Two, it’s distinctive. If you’ve experienced the story, you should be able to name the location at a glance or describe it in a sentence or three. It must be utterly unmistakable. There’s no confusing Bag End or the Emerald City. Both were described perfectly, and later realized brilliantly on screen. Ideally, one should be able to sketch it (although you’d need a green crayon for the Emerald City).

Third, it’s an integral part of the story. After all, where would the Arthurian legends be without Camelot? One of the reasons the ending of The Lord of the Rings (the real one, not the awful movie ending) works so well is because we’ve come to share the characters’ love of the Shire.

What makes a location iconic? A good map never hurts.

Finally, and most importantly, an iconic location inspires emotional response independent of the audience’s response to the character or story. Iconic locations evoke strong emotions … usually wistful longing (who doesn’t want to visit Bag End or the Beaver’s Dam for Tea?) or dread. The Death Star and Orthanc are both unforgettable and utterly unmistakable, but really, who wants to hang out there?

By the way, my friend Angela Still has pointed out that iconic locations are also a key part of gothic literature, too. I think more than a few of these key elements are also important in other genres, too. I should also point out that iconic locations are very close to, but not quite the same as, the next criteria on the list: iconic images. But I’ll talk about that next week.

So what do you think? Are iconic locations a part of what you respond to? If you are a creator, how important are iconic locations to your story? I’d really love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

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Book Review: Looking for the King, An Inklings Novel

Read Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel by David C. Downing

A very special Christmas gift brightened this past gloomy December: a chance to spend some remarkable evenings in conversation with the Inklings, that famous band of readers and writers that counted among its members C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and Hugo Dyson. This remarkable experience came in the form of a new book, Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel by David C. Downing. It’s a somewhat flawed but overall delightful read.

The story tells of a young American, Tom, who has come to England in the months just before World War II to research a book on the historical King Arthur. Along the way, he encounters a lovely young woman, Laura, who is haunted by dreams that seem to be leading her to specific historical sites, all of which are connected to a famous lost artifact—the Spear of Destiny that pierced the side of Christ as he hung on the cross. Along the way, our heroes are fortunate enough to receive some help from the Inklings themselves, especially Williams, Tolkien, and Lewis.

From a pure storytelling point of view, the Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel could have used, uh, well, another draft. We never get a feel for why Laura is apparently led to discover the Spear of Destiny, or what might happen if she doesn’t. There are sinister “others” after the spear, and we know they are following our heroes closely. But we never really get a feeling of danger from them. Even the ultimate end of the quest seems a little too easy, and there’s little to suggest that the world would have been significantly different had Tom and Laura simply stayed at home. More, there is a significant obstacle in the way of Tom and Laura’s chaste and charming budding romance that simply disappears, in a rather offhanded way midway through the novel, without apparent consequence, emotional or otherwise. All of those are fairly significant and rather obvious storytelling flaws.

And, frankly, none of them matter a bit.

While Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel doesn’t quite work as a supernatural mystery thriller, it does work as mythopoeia, as myth making—it is a reflection of the true light, like a shaft of dappled sunlight reaching through the thick, green canopy of a dense forest. For better or for worse, David Downing isn’t Dan Brown. The thriller aspects of this novel are lacking, the character arcs, especially for Tom, are profound and significant.

Unlike Brown’s shallow Langdon, who is basically the same smug man book after book, Tom changes profoundly as the book progresses. He is changed by the events of his quest, by his growing feelings for Laura, and, most of all, by his conversations with the Inklings. Those conversations alone are worth the price of the book. I’ll be thinking about the ideas, philosophical, theological, and mythic, long after I’ve forgotten the details of the story.

Downing has done a remarkable job researching the Inklings … plowing through volumes of biographies, first person accounts, essays, and, most of all, letters to capture the essence of their personalities, their speech patterns, their humor, their relationships, and even their thoughts. In many cases, Downing has used their own words (carefully annotated at the end of the book) to recreate the wisdom they might have bestowed upon a bewildered, seeking American. In some cases, I felt like they were talking to me.

The Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien especially, are a part of a very special personal pantheon for me: they number, along with Ray Bradbury, Lloyd Alexander, Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney, Hank Aaron, Joseph Campbell, and the crews of the Apollo flights, as my personal heroes. My journey to the Eagle and Child, the Oxford pub where the Inklings met, was a kind of personal pilgrimage for me. Reading Looking for the King: An Inklings Novel is as close as I’ll ever come to joining them for a pint and a night of conversation. For one night, at least, I felt like I was right there with them. I’m grateful for that experience.

Also, kudos to Ignatius Press for crafting a lovely edition, with quality paper, stamped spine, and, so help me, stitched binding. While I sincerely applaud print on demand for making far more titles available to hungry readers like me, and for making the publishing industry (at least potentially) more efficient overall, I am delighted to still run across fine craftsmanship from a smaller press now and again. Although come to think of it, some of the finest print craftsmanship around these days comes from small publishing houses like Small Beer Press and Subterranean Press.

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“The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia” by Laura Miller

Read The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia

I should start by pointing out that I am nobody’s skeptic. As a matter of fact, I consider myself very, if hardly conventionally, religious. That said, I read Salon co-founder Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia with a constant grin on my face, as passage after passage made me cry out with delight: “friend!” Here is someone who seems to not only understand the love I felt for C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, a love that still endures very deeply in my heart, but also my love of stories and reading. Indeed, she helped me understand that love better, and by consequence the person I am and the writer I hope to be.

The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia is a hard book to define. It’s part literary criticism, part biography, and part memoir. It’s also a very poignant meditation on the difference between reading as a child and reading as an adult, about what we lose and what we gain. Ms. Miller first read the Narnia stories with the deep love of a child. As she grew older, and was able to recognize the Christian themes that permeate the books, she felt betrayed — even tricked — by an author trying to “sneak” religion past her childish, unformed defenses. And yet as an agnostic adult, she circled back to the love she knew as a child. That journey is an especially moving one, and it tells us as much about the powerful and, yes, even defining relationship between reader and cherished book as it does about C. S. Lewis and the Narnia stories themselves. Which is to say, quite a lot.

As much as I adored exploring Narnia in Ms. Miller’s company—and I truly did, and will do so again—we don’t see eye to eye on a whole wardrobe full of issues. I found her criticisms of Tolkien, for example, to be a little harsh. And she has developed a view of Christianity that, frankly, has little to recommend it—as is as far removed from my own experiences as the deserts in the south of Calormen are from the giant wastes in the far north (a little Narnia reference for you. If you haven’t read the books, well, it’s just way far. That’s all you need to know. But seriously, read the books). But ultimately, those points are minor, and I found Ms. Miller’s insights fascinating. She doesn’t gloss over the points that critics are wont to attack—the apparent sexism, for example—but she deals with them in a frank and honest way that only deepened my appreciation for Lewis’s works. Her love for Lewis’s work is undiminished by examination. If anything, it is strengthened. The love of a child assumes that the object of love is perfect and above reproach and criticism. The love of an adult sees past flaws—acknowledging, never ignoring them—and loves more deeply for that insight.

Her research is excellent, her interviews with other readers and writers are well selected and insightful, and she leaps from idea to idea with seamless grace. In fact, the sections on the differences between allegory and metaphor are worth the price alone. She understands what Lewis meant by joy and longing more than many scholars and Christians I know. After reading her book, I felt like I’d spent a weekend in deep conversation with a person I’d just met—one with whom I happened to discover a shared and wonderful past—and one I thought of as an instant friend.

Whether you are religious, agnostic, atheist, or somewhere in between, I highly recommend The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia to all who loved the Narnia books as a child, or who has come to love them as an adult, or even to those who simply love books, reading, stories, and storytelling. It’s a special book. It’s certainly made me want to reread the Narnia books. With the holidays approaching, now seems like the perfect time.

I’d love to know what you think.

In Good Company: “The Company They Keep” by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Read The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community

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.