Now THAT’S a writers’ group

When the film version of The Lord of the Rings capped off in 2003 with The Return of the King, there were all sorts of groans and protests to the effect that the film had too many endings. Turns out that J.R.R. Tolkien himself had to be dissuaded from using a final chapter that would have padded out the conclusion of his epic by another dozen or so pages:

What stopped Tolkien from publishing this ending was his membership of the Inklings – that renowned circle of Oxford writers and academics who met for seventeen years from 1932 and which counted C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams and E. R. Edison, the author of The Worm Ouroboros, among their number. It was they who pointed out the glutinous sentimentality of the scene, marshalling their forces to argue that it added nothing of substance to a narrative which had already swollen far beyond the “second Hobbit” requested by his publishers. Glyer suggests that this incident typifies the way in which the Inklings affected one another’s work, despite the fact that in later years its members were frequently to insist that their meetings acted more as a social club than a writers’ circle, brushing aside any suggestion of real influence.

Tolkien and Lewis formed the spine of the Inklings, regularly convening to read and discuss one another’s work in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. There were nineteen members in all, and Glyer excels at depicting their world, with its petty rivalries, joshing honesty (“he is ugly as a chimpanzee”, wrote Lewis of fellow Inkling Charles Williams), its wit and learning and championship of scholarship for its own sake. The Inklings were often supportive and sympathetic (“the inexhaustible fertility of the man’s imagination amazes me”, wrote Lewis in 1949 on receipt of another instalment of The Lord of the Rings), but were capable of ferocious criticism if it was felt that a member had done anything less than his best (“You can do better than that. Better Tolkien, please!”). Tempers must surely have become frayed at times – as Tolkien became unyieldingly critical of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (“about as bad as can be”) or as the English don Hugo Dyson met the latest bulletin from Middle Earth by (according to Tolkien’s son Christopher) “lying on the couch, and lolling and shouting and saying, ‘Oh God, no more Elves’”.

Not that all of them were ever present at the Magdalen reading meetings: often no more than six or seven would turn up, while the rest preferred to save themselves for the more raucous social gatherings in the Oxford pub The Eagle and Child. Inkling James Dundas-Grant recalls a typical scene:

“We sat in a small back room with a fine coal fire in winter . . . . back and forth the conversation would flow. Latin tags flying around. Homer quoted in the original to make a point . . . . Tolkien jumping up and down, declaiming in Anglo-Saxon.”

Oh, to have been a fly on that wall — or, much better, a participant in an armchair with a pint of ale. The passage quoted above is from a new book by Diana Pavlac Glyer, The Company They Keep, that analyzes the Inklings in terms of their literary influence upon each other. It’s an irresistible subject — I’ve taken a run at it myself — because, after all, we’re talking about a group of high-level scholars whose ranks included two of the most influential English-language writers of the 20th century. And because I shared Dyson’s reaction on more than one occasion as I worked my way through The Lord of the Rings.

I’m also interested in the idea of writers’ groups, because I’ve never been in one. I briefly joined a Princeton-based group in the 1990s, but the presiding author was a queen bee type who would never read her own stuff but condescended to listen to everyone else’s feeble efforts. That got tiresome pretty quickly. I then tried to start one while living in Montclair, but the only people interested in joining were college students with erratic work habits and a Sunday-painter type who’d been grinding away at a memoir for umpteen years. There’s nothing wrong with being a Sunday-painter type — immersing oneself in an extended creative project carries great personal benefits, regardless of whether one sells the work or launches a career with it. But I was hammering myself into a professional frame of mind, with a regular writing schedule and a daily page quota, and they weren’t. We didn’t really have anything to offer one another.

I think the secret of the longevity of the Inklings was that the group grew out of another club called the Coalbiters, who gathered to read the Icelandic sagas in the original Old Norse. (The name “coalbiters” played off an Icelandic kenning for storytellers who gathered so close to the communal fire that they were almost literally biting the coals.) There are only so many sagas, so the nucleus of the group evolved into a writers’ circle.

I guess that’s the important element, the natural evolution of the group. If you’re a writer and you’ve found yourself in such a group, then value what you have and keep it going. Because, take it from me, you can’t force it to happen.

One thought on “Now THAT’S a writers’ group

  1. […] Blogging from the great Garden State, author Steven Hart compares the Inklings to modern writers’ groups and finds the latter wanting. […]

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