Writers in Community

As Tolkien began his teaching career at the University of Leeds, he joined with his colleague E. V. Gordon to establish the Viking Club, a gathering of undergraduates devoted to reading sagas and translating songs and children's tales into Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse.  Later, when Tolkien took a position at Oxford, he founded the Coalbiters, a group that consisted not of undergraduates but college dons; as we have seen, it was through the Coalbiters that Tolkien and Lewis became friends.

Much more could be said.  Carpenter's biography of Tolkien and Garth's book on Tolkien's early years paint a compelling picture.  Tolkien's involvement in groups is impressive; his leadership in founding and developing them is significant; the extent to which his creative imagination was nurtured in them is extraordinary.  In short, participation with the Inklings was not an isolated happenstance in Tolkien's life, but rather the continuation of a long-established pattern of working with others.  Furthermore, he continued to work in a context of creative interaction even after the Inklings ceased to meet.  One particularly compelling example is Tolkien's communication with Clyde S. Kilby as he struggled to complete the work of his heart, The Silmarillion Kilby, a professor of English at Wheaton College, wrote to Tolkien in 1965, expressing his desire to help with The Silmarillion:

I hope you will not feel me impertinent if I make you the following offer:  Being eager to see The Silmarillion published, I should like to come over to Oxford next summer and render you any help I can. I am 1) a good typist 2) a bit of a literary critic, having written for the largest newspapers in this country 3) an enthusiast for your writings, having conducted last semester a seminar on them at my college, and 4) for many years I have been used to handling every sort of correspondence.  I mention these four rather disparate things with the notion of persuading you I could fit in somewhere, (unpublished letter, 19 November 1965).

Kilby wrote to offer practical help, professional expertise, and enthusiastic support.  Tolkien saw the need for it and accepted Kilby’s offer in a letter written on 18 December 1965: "If I had the assistance of a scholar at once sympathetic and yet critical, such as yourself, I feel I might make some of it publishable.  It needs the actual presence of a friend and adviser at one’s side, which is just what you offer" (Letters #366).  Tolkien is clearly grateful for the offer of help but even more so for the physical presence of an interested reader, a friend and adviser, a resonator who comes alongside.

Diana Pavlac Glyer
The Company They Keep
Chapter 8 – Creativity : Appreciating Interaction

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