Book Review: Bandersnatch
C.S.Lewis once wrote of his close friend: “No one ever influenced Tolkien — you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch.’
Comparing Tolkien to the elusive creature inhabiting Lewis Carrol’s fictional Universe, Lewis’ quotation may buttress the impression many of us already have of Tolkien: the solitary Oxford don, the philological genius, crafting Middle Earth alone in his ivory tower. If this is what Lewis meant, however, then on this point he was quite mistaken — and a lifetime’s scholarship has now shown why.
As a young woman, Diana Pavlac Glyer set out to answer the question of how the Inklings — the Oxford literary group that orbited Lewis and Tolkien — shaped each other’s writings. ‘Bandersnatch’ is Glyer’s accessible distillation of those findings. And the result is, quite simply, masterful.
You might wonder how Glyer went about demonstrating lines of influence among the Inklings. After all, most of their conversations are now to lost to us. The answer is: an awful lot of hard work. And more specifically: a lot of long days pouring through original drafts of the Inklings’ writings and inter-personal correspondences. By joining up the dots, Glyer has been able to isolate specific instances where the Inklings seem to have taken each other’s advice on board, and changed their work forever.
Ironically, perhaps the most significant example of influence in the Inklings is Lewis’ own influence on Tolkien. The latter professed he could never have published The Lord of the Rings without the former — and he was not exaggerating. When Tolkien set out to write LOTR, he was attempting to write another Hobbit. ‘The New Hobbit’ is what the Inklings had read to them.
But Tolkien had reached a stumbling block. The story wasn’t going anywhere, and it was clogged up by what he called ‘Hobbit talk.’ It was only after Lewis pointed this out to him that he began to cut the dialogue and write a more serious story, the epic which we know today as The Lord of the Rings. By examining drafts of Tolkien’s against the timing of Lewis’ feedback, Glyer shows that Tolkien took this feedback to heart.
There are a number of things I took away from Bandersnatch. Perhaps most importantly, the book helps to dispel the Romantic myth of the individual genius which pervades academia today. Collaboration was essential to the Inklings. But not only to them. It has been essential to all the great minds, whether they have built upon the ideas of those around them — or more likely the cloud of witnesses who inspire them from the past. To thrive, we need to listen to these voices.
Bandersnatch also taught me that if we are going to collaborate (and we should), the Inklings show us there is no ‘one way’ to do it. The Inklings gave specific feedback, as Lewis did in the example above. But they also encouraged each other (‘go for it!’), bounced ideas off each other, criticised one another, gave each other ideas for new projects, collaborated on existing poems, exchanged nonsense poems, went on walks, drank, and smoked together. Whilst the Inklings are often associated with The Eagle and Child pub on St. Giles, this location served for their more informal lunchtime gathering on Tuesdays. More formal literary business occurred on Thursdays when drafts were read at Lewis’ spacious rooms at Magdalen. Healthy groups will have both less formal and more formal meetings when they are built around friendship and constructive criticism.
Finally, Bandersnatch busts any over-idealised impressions we may have of the Inklings. The Inklings finally ended, at least in part, because of the irritation one member (Hugo Dyson) caused the group on account of his sharp dislike of The Lord of the Rings. Whilst this thankfully did not dissuade Tolkien from finishing the work, it caused the spirit of the Inklings to crumble. Glyer teaches us here that there is a fine line between honest critique and silencing another. We are at our best when we are able to see the value in something (for others), even when we cannot see it for ourselves. Whilst Tolkien is known for his distaste of The Chronicles of Narnia, Glyer highlights important evidence that he saw the value of it for others, even encouraging his grandchildren to read it.
I’m not sure any book I’ve read in 2019 has made me laugh so hard, stirred my imagination so much, or encouraged me so deeply as this one. Anyone who loves the Inklings must read this book right away.