Bandersnatch: The Inklings as writers group

Bandersnatch by Diana Pavlac Glyer non-fiction book reviewsBandersnatch by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Diana Pavlac Glyer abridged her academic book The Company They Keep and published the abridgement as Bandersnatch. In it, she studies the Oxford circle of writers and thinkers that included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams through the lens of a creative community. Glyer chose the title Bandersnatch from of a quote by C.S. Lewis about Tolkien, that “No-one ever influenced Tolkien — you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch.” In fact, the book goes on to explore in depth just how deeply and broadly Tolkien was influenced by the Inklings and by the creative currents that swirled around the group. The Inklings influenced each other, helping each other create work that was deeper, stronger and better because of the input of the others.

The first thing that stands out about Bandersnatch is its readability. Glyer’s prose is crisp and clear. Glyer is clearly familiar with the torrent of material created by and about the Inklings, and she provides quotes in their own words frequently (many, in fact, that I hadn’t read in other works). She draws her own conclusions, though, and her arguments are clear and strong.

The second thing that stood out was the enthusiasm Glyer has for this subject. When I realized this book was the layperson’s version of a scholarly work, I half-expected something that was either going to be slight and “dumbed-down,” or dry, more of the dreaded “executive summary.” Instead, the book carried me along. Many chapter headings are quotes from the Inklings, and you may come across ones like “Drat that Omnibus!” (the perils of fact-checking) and “Mystical Caboodle.” There is one “executive summary” aspect to the book; at the end of each chapter, in a text box, Glyer has summarized how the Inklings did what they did, and how it can apply to modern creative communities. These went from being mildly interesting to extremely useful as the book progressed.

My favorite chapter was Chapter Three, where the book discusses the power of the “resonators” in a creative circle. More than just fans, resonators are people who understand the intent of the writer (or other creative) and encourage and support that intent. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible.”

This does not mean that the work isn’t criticized. The Inklings were famous for harsh criticism, but their intent was to better the work, not to redirect or silence it. There are, sadly, two examples of attempts at silencing or redirection. Hugo Dyson’s dislike of the work that would become The Lord of the Rings was well known, and his comments degenerated to something that resembles heckling, as Christopher Tolkien recounts:

… and The Lord of the Rings would begin with Hugo lying on the couch, lolling and shouting and saying, “Oh, God, no more elves.” The Inklings was a bit like that.

The other example, unfortunately, came from Tolkien himself and his strong reaction to the first three chapters of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Tolkien told Lewis that the story was “as bad as it could be.” Later he expostulated to another friend, “I mean to say, Nymphs and Their Ways; the Love-Life of a Faun! Doesn’t he know what he’s talking about?” It’s hard to tell what horrified Tolkien more: the idea, obvious from his remark, that Lewis was going to hew closely to the original mythic meaning of fauns, aggressively sexual beings, in a children’s book… or the realization he wasn’t. Instead he was going to pick and choose the mythic tropes that spoke to him, and mix them up in his own fantasy world. Fauns and talking animals in the same mythic setting? Tolkien the purist was disapproving.

Both of these incidents bruised feelings and damaged trust, but the basic friendships and trust endured, and this is largely what Glyer talks about in Bandersnatch; that, and how people can re-create, to a degree, that level of support in a creative community.

I read The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez before I read Bandersnatch, and I’m glad I did because it gave me a broader context. While they are very different these two books complement each other, not unlike the diverse group they are both about.

Bandersnatch is vital to anyone who loves Tolkien, Lewis, or Charles Williams, anyone who is curious about the creative process, and for anyone who writes. The book is inspiring, and the illustrations by James A. Owen add a dimension of richness.

Published January 4, 2016. An inspiring look at the creative process. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings met each week to read and discuss each other’s work-in-progress, offering both encouragement and blistering critique. How did these conversations shape the books they were writing? How does creative collaboration enhance individual talent? And what can we learn from their example? Featuring full-page illustrations by James A. Owen, Bandersnatch offers an inside look at the Inklings of Oxford, and a seat at their table at the Eagle and Child pub. It shows how encouragement and criticism made all the difference in The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and dozens of other books written by the members of their circle. You’ll learn what made these writers tick, and more: inspired by their example, you’ll discover how collaboration can help your own creative process and lead to genius breakthroughs in whatever work you do.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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3 comments

  1. *shuffles off to the bookstore*

  2. Marion’s on an Inklings kick.

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