Cultivating Interview 7
In so much of your work, Diana, you’ve established how much of a difference this historic friendship made and how much difference they both made to each other. But Lewis also wrote that “No-one ever influenced Tolkien – you might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.” What exactly was Lewis saying with this remark, when he knew full well from his own experience that Tolkien solicited comments and suggestions, listened to critique, and made changes to his drafts? Lewis also knew that Tolkien could be hurt by remarks of others (including Hugo Dyson). What do you suppose he meant by the term “influence”? Was his understanding of influence different than we understand it some fifty-plus years later?
Honestly, Lewis’s comments on influence are much bigger and rather more complicated than that one comment might suggest. But yes, Lewis does say that sometimes when the Inklings gave him feedback, Tolkien “took no notice.” At times, I’m sure that’s true. Then again, I think that Lewis underestimated the extent to which Tolkien responded to the Inklings and their specific advice. Picture it this way: in the heat of an Inklings meeting, one member or another would make a suggestion, and Tolkien would push back, fighting to defend his artistic choices, resisting any change. That’s what writers do; no, that’s what all of us do when someone gives advice or offers, um, “constructive criticism.” The snarling, defensive impulse of the bandersnatch is strong in us.
Here’s what I’d like you to picture: What do you think happened after an Inklings meeting, after Tolkien returned home, when his house was quiet and the pages of his draft were spread out before him? There is ample evidence that in that moment, he’d remember a comment, consider its merits, and make significant changes to his story.
Perhaps an example will help. Let’s say that I give my manuscript to Linda asking for feedback. She reads it through and saying something like, “The whole thing is way too long. Chop your third point; the first and second will suffice.” I might respond, “But Linda!! The third section is the most important one!” She’ll mutter a response; I’ll argue and pout; we’ll both go home feeling huffy. Then later, I’ll calm down and reconsider the draft.
With her critique in mind, I might decide to move the third point and put it first, then clarify and strengthen it. After that, I might severely shorten the other two sections to pick up the pace. In one sense, it may look like I ignored her advice entirely. In fact, her comment was the catalyst that completely changed the work.
Did the Inklings influence Tolkien? Well, he certainly didn’t always do what they told him to do. But even when he ignored their specific advice, he listened and he made major changes in response to what he heard.
This question-and-answer is part of a larger interview conducted by Lancia Smith with Dr. Diana Glyer in January 2016 on “Cultivating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.” To read the full interview and gain further insights into creative collaboration, click here.