Well, has nobody got anything to read us?

Those who write will agree that having an audience to read your works to is one of the key elements and among the most potent driving forces in keeping a writer going. Having a company of like-minded people is even essential for any person who decided to master the art of putting words into stories. After all, who if not those who share your beliefs, ideas and views will be able to provide the best criticism, feedback and encouragement when you feel stuck?

J. R. R. Tolkien was not an exception in his need for attentive ears. A perfectionist through and through, he needed a certain amount of pressure to keep going with his writings. Besides, even the greatest writers can feel stuck, unsure or insecure while creating, need an outside opinion, a push to go on or a simple conversation with those who will listen and understand in order to move from the dead point. Being naturally humble about his writing talent, Tolkien found a lot of necessary support in the Inklings that became one of the most prominent and important literary groups of XX century.

For Tolkien the importance of literary groups goes as far back as the early 1900s. When the future writer discovered his passion for languages, literature, writing and Norse mythology, he was willing to share it with other people. Thus, the Tea Club Barrovian Society, or simply T.C.B.S., was formed. Started at King Edward’s School in Birmingham, which Tolkien attended, the club comprised Ronald himself, Christopher Wiseman, Robert Gilson and Geoffrey Bache Smith. At first the boys met illicitly at the school library, but then moved their sessions to the Barrow Stores, which gave the name to the club. With interests spanning a wide range of spheres, they talked about everything from literature to science, and shared their writings with each other.

With T.C.B.S. Tolkien got his first taste of literary societies and encouragement they could provide for a writer. He realised full well the role they played in a writer’s life and the importance of having a company of like-minded people as a source of motivation, feedback and encouragement.

Another literary group that was destined to play a vital part in Tolkien’s life was the Coalbiters. Its members’ major interest lay in Icelandic sagas, so during their meetings the young men read and discussed the legends from the Elder Edda. The name Coalbiters implied that the members gathered round a hearth and sat so close to it that they nearly bit coal. Another implication was the close bond that existed between the participants. The society allowed its members to deepen their interest in Norse mythology, find close friends, and also comprised several members who would later join the Inklings. It also marked the beginning of friendship between Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

The role of Lewis and the Inklings in Tolkien’s life is hard to overestimate. Tom Shippey is positive that the Professor would have never finished The Lord of the Rings if it had not been for Lewis and the Inklings. Tolkien himself says as much:

C. S. Lewis is a very old friend and colleague of mine, and indeed I owe to his encouragement the fact that in spite of obstacles (including the 1939 war!) I persevered  and eventually finished The Lord of the Rings.
(Letters, № 227)

I have never had much confidence in my own work, and even now when I am assured (still much to my grateful surprise) that it has value for other people, I feel diffident, reluctant as it were to expose my world of imagination to possibly contemptuous eyes and ears. But for the encouragement of C.S.L. I do not think that I should ever have completed or offered for publication The Lord of the Rings.
(Letters, № 282)

From the very start the Inklings were a very different society from both – the ones Tolkien had ever been part of and those that existed at Oxford at that time. This difference lay in the fact that the Inklings read works in progress to each other, rather than finished, polished ones. It is also reflected in the name Inklings, jokingly referring to those who dabbled in ink. The writers met and read their unfinished works to get feedback and criticism in order to improve their writings before offering them to wider audiences. This difference proved vital in the group’s longevity and role it played in the participants’ lives.

As a writer Tolkien needed constant pressure in order to keep going. He was a perfectionist who would improve his manuscripts for days on end, changing minor and major details, making sure that everything was absolutely perfect. Very often when the Inklings made a comment on this or that passage that needed slight improving, Tolkien would go and re-write it entirely. Thus he could remain stuck in one place for a long time, but the Inklings, and C. S. Lewis in particular, provided all the necessary motivation for him to keep going, even when he wanted to abandon his book at all.

Praise was one of the main things in the Inklings’ routine of offering feedback. However, it was not just praise for the sake of saying something good. It was usually well addressed and to the point, without unnecessary overexcitement. Still, it was one of the most effective ways to motivate Tolkien to write further. Being naturally humble and very modest about his writings, his seeing that other people were interested in those stories and liked them, made a huge difference. Here is an example of how Warren Lewis mentioned The Lord of the Rings in his diary:

10 October 1946 Tollers continued to read his new Hobbit: so sui generis, so alive with the peculiar charm of his “magical” writing, that it is indescribable—and merely worth recording here for an odd proof of how near he is to real magic.

24 October 1946 Tollers read us a couple of exquisite chapters from the “new Hobbit.” Nothing has come my way for a long time which has given me such enjoyment and excitement; as J says, it is more than good, it is great.

4 July 1947 After dinner I read about half of the batch of [the new] Hobbit which Tollers sent me: how does he keep it up? The crossing of the marshes by Frodo, Sam and Gollum in particular is magnificent.

(Bandersnatch, loc. 577-583, Kindle edition)

Another important trait of the Inklings meetings, which kept Tolkien motivated, was healthy criticism. Just like anything else with the Inklings their criticism was always spot on and very precise. They could comment on a writing as a whole or make remarks about some particular parts. In any case, Tolkien listened to what his fellows had to say and made use of their remarks in his writings.

One of the most important commentaries that helped Tolkien out of a very difficult spot the Professor had been struggling with for a long time was made by C. S. Lewis. Diana Pavlac Glyer calls this commentary «the turning point in the history of Middle-earth» (Bandersnatch, loc. 1284, Kindle edition). Having finished and revised earlier chapters of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien felt stuck. He simply had no idea how to proceed with the story and felt he had already said everything there was about Halflings in The Hobbit. He felt at a loss and had not touched the story for almost half a year as he simply had no idea what to do with it further.

One lunch with Lewis in 1938 changed it all. When Tolkien complained to his friend about the difficulty he had faced, Lewis remarked that Hobbits were amusing in unhobbitlike situations. This simple phrase made a great impact on Tolkien. He saw a fresh direction for his  «new Hobbit». The Professor’s attempts to put Hobbits in unhobbitlike situations resulted in a darker and more serious tone that the whole Lord of the Rings was destined to acquire. The key change happened in Chapter III, where the Hobbits meet a rider. White rider Gandalf was changed into a yet unknown Black Rider and the story took an absolutely new turn from there, forming step by step into The Lord of the Rings the world got in the end. With The Silmarillion always at the back of his mind, Tolkien incorporated some elements of its seriousness and atmospheric darkness into The Lord of the Rings, so the light tone of The Hobbit was never destined to make it to its sequel.

It was also due to Lewis and the Inklings that Tolkien cut out a lot of Hobbit-talk, which he found very amusing, from his narrative, shortened some dialogues and changed the wording in several places. The scene of the Hobbits leaving the Shire became shorter, but more to the point by losing some of the Hobbit babbling and the episode of encountering Saruman in Isengard changed considerably into a grander and tenser affair after, presumably, Lewis’s commentary. Having the Inklings as a target audience of sorts Tolkien learnt to tailor his writings a bit to make them more comprehensible and enjoyable for other people who were supposed to read them.

The atmosphere of the Inklings’ meetings, their special attitude and way of communication found their reflection in Tolkien’s Notion Club Papers. This unfinished story gives a glimpse of how the Inklings functioned and reaches to the very heart of this literary group. Their deeply intellectual conversations which were not deprived of a very special humour, a variety of opinions on different topics, a circle of close friends, coming from various backgrounds but united by one single passion for literature and creativity – all of these can be seen in the Notion Club, the reflection of the Inklings.

Now we cannot even imagine that there could have been no Lord of the Rings if it had not been for the Inklings, but their role in Tolkien’s merely finishing the book was undeniably vital. No wonder that when The Fellowship of the Ring was published in July 1953, it bore a dedication to the Inklings who  had contributed a lot to making this masterpiece possible.

Works consulted:

  1. C. Duriez – The Oxford Inklings. Lewis, Tolkien and their Circle; Lion Hudson; 2015 (Kindle edition).
  2. D. Pavlac Glyer – Bandersnatch. C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaborations of the Inklings; Black Squirrel Books; Kent, Ohio; 2016 (Kindle edition).
  3. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
  4. Ph. and C. Zaleski – The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; New York (Kindle edition).

Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.

11 thoughts on “The Oxford company.

  1. It’s useful to have an intermediate level of publication between rough draft and journal, where we can bounce ideas off of others. Blogging seems to be surprisingly good at reproducing this kind of interaction, for those of us who don’t have a group of brilliant humanities scholars down the hall.

    1. Indeed, this chance to communicate with others and share ideas with them is a great advantage of modern technology. I sometimes think that it’d be great to have a company similar to the Inklings to discuss things, but then remember that there are various online communities that can offer just this sort of communication. Sort of Inklings in the virtual world.

  2. I agree with the Joviator when he says that blogging allows writers to share ideas with each other in a way that until recently was very difficult. Having said that, however, there is a congenitality in the kind of gathering that the Inklings enjoyed that requires being able to see one another, face to face.

    1. This is a scary thought indeed. I’m so grateful to Lewis and the Inklings for how they joined Tolkien on that long and difficult road of writing LOTR.

  3. Fascinating!
    I’m reading my way through The History of Middle-earth with a small group of friends and we are not far from the volumes devoted to LotR. Can’t wait to get there. Everything I’ve read about the first stages of the story is so fascinating. We are now reading The History of the Hobbit and enjoying it so very much.

    As a writer myself, I can’t agree more that a critiquing group is invaluable to the life of a writer. Not just for the support and the citique, but also because sometimes you really feel that nobody else understands what you say. A bibliotherapist friend of mine always says that readers have their own language, a language that only other readers understand. It’s the same way for authors. Authors have their own language that only other authors understand. If we can’t speak that language with anybody else, I belive that at a certain point we just stop speaking. So yes, i think it’s entirely possible that without the Inklings, Lotr might have never seen the light of day.

    1. These volumes are so enlightening! There’s so much in them that you can’t stop marvelling at how much went into these books we love so much!
      I totally agree with you here. We, as readers and writers, need other people able to understand us. Tolkien wrote somewhere that being a writer he did need an audience. And it’s true — all writers need audiences, someone to share their creative work with.

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