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Book Review: The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community by Diana Pavlac Glyer

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Diana Pavlac Glyer’s thesis is simple: Creativity happens in community. The idea, she claims, that genius rises out of individualism is false. Nothing great comes out of the lone individual locked away in a closet somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.

In order to prove this thesis true, Glyer dissects the literary group known as The Inklings, a group of scholars and writers who met between the early 1930s and late 1949. The Inklings were comprised of (to name a few): C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, J.A.W. Bennett, David Cecil, Charles Williams, H.V.D. Dyson, Nevill Coghill, and Adam Fox.


Glyer does a magnificent job of chronicling the history of The Inklings. At times, one feels as if he or she is actually there amongst these literary giants debating narrative theory and philosophy. Glyer’s genius, however, is that while she paints an enticing portrait, she also develops her thesis. Creativity happens in community, Glyer says, because in community writers are influencers, resonators, opponents, editors, collaborators, and referents. She debunks the myth that writing in community is in some way similar to plagiarism and minimizes the artfulness of a particular work. She claims: “working together, very ordinary people make extraordinary advances in their field.”

Glyer’s work is reactionary, yes, but also corrective. According to her, the study of literary groups in general and The Inklings in particular, have sought to show that The Inklings knew nothing of influence and that literary groups, in general, take away from the exceptionality of a particular work. This bias runs deep in scholarship and, according to Glyer, in the use of loaded metaphors to describe one author’s influence over another.

We often use words like “echoes” or “overlaps” or “haunted” or “borrow.” Yet, creative people working together to perfect their art is neither unimaginative nor plagiarism nor theft. Rather, influence and collaboration are both necessary and enriching factors in all creative endeavors.

The Company They Keep is scholarship at its best, because it both teaches and asks something of its reader. It is hard to finish The Company They Keep and walk away disagreeing with Glyer’s summations. It lets the reader into the closed historical doors of an important literary group, while simultaneously allowing the reader to view his or her world afresh. It prompts the question: How do you view both the books you read and the texts you write?

According to Glyer, they should both be recognized as a dialogue taking place between individuals and communities. Glyer summarizes her position thus: “I am persuaded that writers do not create text out of thin air in a fit of personal inspiration. I believe that the most common and natural expressions of creativity occur as part of an ongoing dialogue between writers, readers, texts, and contexts.”

The Company They Keep is well worth the read for both budding writers and Inkling enthusiasts. And in the end, it prompts a final, deeper question: With whom do you keep company? With whom are you creatively seeking to leave a mark on our little globe?

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About Benjamin John Peters

Benjamin John Peters is the author of Through All The Plain. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Religious and Theological Studies at the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology. He lives in Denver with his wife and three children.
  • http://www.richardrbmarcus.com Richard Marcus

    Community is what we make it. My community of “writers” stretches from my own backyard of monthly poetry readings to writers living in India, Great Britain and North America. It includes writers whose works I admire who have been dead for centuries and those currently alive who I communicate with via email but will never meet. I agree that writing can’t exist in isolation, but I also know that I could never sit around and talk about writing with a group of people, or be part of any sort of organized group. Communities grow out of like minds and like minds aren’t constrained by time or place.

    Good review by the way – and thank you for posing the question at the end.

  • http://benjpeters.tumblr.com/ Benjamin

    Thank you for the comment, Richard! I agree with everything you said. Communities do grow out of like minds. I think that is what was so exceptional about The Inklings. They seemed to be very like minded and in the same geographical location.

    Thanks again!