The cover and illustrations of Bandersnatch by Diana Pavlac Glyer put me off enough that I doubt I would have bought it if I thumbed through it in a bookstore, or saw it pop up on Amazon or some other book site. It gives off the air of a fangirl’s indulgent exercise. (The hidden bandersnatches in every illustration only add to that impression.) But then, I dislike crosshatchedpen-and-ink drawings, especially as illustrations. She is an artist herself and is thus more likely to admire such things. Fortunately, I was given it as a gift and so was dragged over that hurdle, because I learned a great deal from the book and admire it very much indeed. I did not like the final chapter originally, but a Lewis-Tolkien-other Inklings reader can comfortably skim that when she gets there.
The title comes from a comment of CS Lewis's that it was impossible to influence the writing of JRR Tolkien. “You might as well try to influence a bandersnatch . ..He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.” Ms. Glyer then proceeds to charmingly undermine that entire premise, detailing the considerable, even essential influence the Inklings had on each other, including several on Tolkien. Restarting an entire project in response to criticism amounts to considerable influence, after all.
I am left with the impression that none of the Inklings would be much remembered without the influence of the others. Every work of theirs bore the strong imprint of at least one other. I knew from biographies that Tolkien would never have completed Lord of the Rings without Lewis’s encouragement and pressure, and that Lewis’s conversion to Christianity grew directly out of his conversations with JRRT and Hugo Dyson.* But what Glyer documents runs far deeper than that. She has mined the Wade Collection and other sources for significant and ongoing influence of Inkling upon Inkling – diary entries, margin notes, correspondence, and reminiscences, often matched in time with manuscript changes, and rewritings large and small. For example Tolkien loved to work out the details of Elvish, and write hobbit conversation and genealogy for his own amusement. It was Lewis who told him that hobbit-speech is only interesting when it is recorded in non-hobbitish situations, and Lewis's notes on the encounter with Saruman at Orthanc are strongly reflected in the final manuscript. Christopher Tolkien, whose influence on his father while he was alive is often overlooked because of his rather obvious influence on the posthumously published works.
When the Inklings gathered, they intentionally shared manuscripts in early stages, when a little encouragement or disapproval over a specific approach can have an outsize influence. I think that is missed in most tellings. Their encouragement of all on all was great, not mere compliment but praise which showed understanding. Criticism was not always gentle, but it was never dismissive. They collaborated, they advocated with publishers, they corrected, they argued.
Glyer closes each chapter with a boxed paragraph, "Doing What They Did," describing the interactions and suggesting the reader treat other writers or collaborators in the same way. I found those a bit odd, as if she were writing her own study guide to her book. The Epilogue reveals that this has been one of her main aims all along - to encourage the reader to get a group and begin collaborating and encouraging. I found it jarring, as it seemed to turn a literary matter into a self-help book. Being away from the book for two weeks has given me a kinder impression of that. It is good advice. The narrative of the isolated genius, not only in literature but in most human endeavors, is wildly oversold. It happens, but influencers and corresponders and schools of thought happen more. She is under no illusion that it will be easy to set up either: most attempted groups will peter out fairly quickly.
Until I started blogging ten years ago, I very much considered myself a writer in splendid isolation. Significantly, I was never very good, either. I wanted to be a writer of fiction when I was in college. A friend who had accidently read only a few pages of the second chapter had told me I had a great ear for writing dialogue, and I pressed on. After graduation I showed my first four chapters of that heroic fantasy to a friend who was a poet. She didn't like it. I abandoned the project. Twenty years later, I learned she didn't like any heroic fantasy. Encouragement would have mattered, I think. However, I would likely have been too brittle and arrogant to join a writer's group. It was likely not possible for me, except by accident. But when I lived with songwriters I wrote songs. I wrote a few songs after, but not as good.
* It is sobering to realise that the two of them might be remembered, if at all, only for The Hobbit, some essays on Beowulf and Anglo-Saxon literature, an Oxford History of the English Language textbook still in print, and some unrecognizable variation on The Abolition of Man. A work here or there by Barfield or Williams, still reaching a small but devoted audience, would round out the production of the entire group. A non-Christian Lewis might still have written something memorable, though unimaginable to current readers, I suppose.