Literary Criticism, Inklings Style

bandersnatchIf you’re a writer and you’ve never been part of a critique group, you’ve missed out on some beneficial (and occasionally annoying) experiences.

Critiquing is, of course, the process of providing constructive criticism to someone, in the hopes of improving their work. Good criticism is priceless. The problem is that it takes true skill to offer useful advice . . . and it requires the proper degree of self-assurance to receive the criticism itself.

Those who have been burned by scathing criticism are reticent to “invite” more of the same. However, when the criticism begins with affirmation (about positive aspects of the work), that tiny spoonful of sugar certainly helps the more difficult parts of the evaluation easier to swallow.

And yet, for some, even expertly delivered criticism—covered by a chocolate layer of affirmation and accolades—remains nearly impossible to accept.

A fine example of this truth comes in C.S. Lewis’ description of a prominent member of the Inklings writing fellowship. J.R.R. Tolkien was a virtual perfectionist when it came to all things Middle Earth. Because of this “flaw,” Lewis and the other Inklings were frustrated when it came time to review the progress of The Hobbit and elements of Lord of the Rings. As Lewis described it in a 1959 letter:

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

To learn the nature of a bandersnatch, we must travel Through the Looking Glass into Lewis Carroll’s 1872 novel. Carroll coined the word and introduced it to the world in a poem called “Jabberwocky,” which appears in Alice’s wonderful adventures.

Lewis, of course, was not likening his dear friend to a frumious* bandersnatch in terms of it’s overall personality. Rather, he was describing the severity of Tolkien’s inability to positively process criticism of his work, to the bandersnatch’s incapacity to do the same. It is similar to the sense in which the White King alludes to the creature’s swiftness in describing his wife: “She runs so fearfully quick. You might as well try to catch a Bandersnatch!”

Although few of us are destined to be members of so illustrious a critique community as the Inklings, I highly commend joining one of your local parallels. While you may encounter a bandersnatch or two, on the whole you’ll likely find the process quite beneficial.


* “Frumious,” like bandersnatch itself, was coined by Lewis Carroll and is a blending of the words “fuming” and “furious.”

The bandersnatch, as envisioned above, is used with the permission of New Zealand illustrator David Elliot.

22 thoughts on “Literary Criticism, Inklings Style

  1. Lewis wrote a 1995 letter? Impressive, since he died in 1963! :) But more seriously, I didn’t know of this critique of Tolkien. It does make sense with what I read from Tolkien himself, and with the fact that Lewis’ works sometimes reference Tolkien’s I don’t think the reverse happens. It’s a pity, but everyone has their own style, and some stories are more resistant to outside influences.

    My critique group has always been online – only one of them has ever lived near me. Mostly through email exchanges, but I also have a page on the Elfwood site with some older stories posted publicly. I value the harsh critique a lot because I can also be a perfectionist in my creative writing, and am often frustrated when a story’s not quite right and I don’t know what it’s missing.

    1. My challenge is in finding companions who can effectively place themselves in the position of my targeted readers. For example, gifted writers of devotional and biographical material are not necessarily suited to critiquing theological debate, ancient historical nuance or pastoral care methodology. Guess my literary niches are just too restricted . . .

      Oh, transposed the digits… 1959.

  2. I tend to stay away from critique groups. They have been of very limited help and generally curtail any type of creativity. I am with Tolkien on this. Seems history has proven his writing.

    1. We’re all different, aren’t we? I have to confess I also often feel as though I offer far more than I receive in most critique settings, but then I sincerely enjoy helping fellow writers grow and improve their work. And, if I actually brought more work to be critiqued by my writers group, I’d actually receive more feedback.

      1. Good point. There comes a time when a writer must decide who he or she is trying to please. Hopefully, they look inwardly rather than externally for affirmation. All the great writers, poets, artists, scientists, biblical scholars faced enormous opposition from those who were considered experts in their fields. But, I don’t mean to suggest that we should not offer advice – just that we ned to take care not to impose our personal values and belief systems.

  3. There is a skill for productive criticism.
    Whether a writer takes offered advice or not, hearing comments does provoke thought and sometimes a writers sees things from a different angle. It may not make a difference or the writer may charge off in an entire direction never suggested by the reviewer. Or the writer may decide he’s fine with things they way they are knowing you can’t please everyone. But the discussion got some brain cells going. And that’s a good thing.
    Great post.
    We had to memorize Jabberwocky and repeat it in a college class. Such a great poem for so many reasons.

    1. Very true. I actually use about 75-80% of the suggestions I receive, and particularly valuable are comments where readers say they’re uncertain what I mean.

      “Jabberwocky!” Curious if you could recite it today! :)

  4. Jabberwocky was probably one of the first poems I ever learned, and I expect I shall be able to recite it perfectly if I live into my 90s, provided my mind survives in tact.

    I did not know that about Tolkien, but it does make sense. I suspect, though, that the critiquing may have had more effect than Lewis knew. Just because a writer does not overtly accept criticism does not mean that he does not let it sink in. Provoking thought is invaluable to the process, don’t you think? I know that even reviews I reject, or argue against, have at least made me think about different angles of my work.

    I’ve had online communities review my work as well as friends and family who live near. It’s hard to find a good constructive group, though, and for works one intends to publish there are still downsides to publishing too much of it online. :P

  5. Thanks for the smile and suggestion. I pulled way, way, way away from a group as most in the group come from a narrow piece of ground, hold that thought in abundance… and are still not published. I’d much prefer a more open minded group with stinging thought if brought to provoke of sincere belief with clear motive of helping my writing continue and not regress. I’m currently writing a fantasy series which is both wonderful for the writing but horrid in approach to grammar for in this far away world they talk and think in manner backward of our used to. In this manner, my hope and desire is to be published which might find gain for my other six novels. Terry at

  6. What great insight into Tolkien’s ability to take criticism! I’ve struggled to find a local critique group but admit I haven’t tried very hard. I had some brief success with an online group of writing friends, but I’ve found that face-to-face really is best for critiques of this nature. Thanks for the push to get me looking around for a local group to join (or form!).

    1. Nice to see you including the possibility of starting a group if the appropriate one doesn’t already exist. It can be a lot of work (trust me). But, as they say, it’s definitely worth it. One vital piece is to make the focus of the group quite clear, since each person will come with their unique (sometimes diametrically different) understanding of what such a group “should” be. What I mean is, if the group’s purpose is to critique, focus on that. Opening with prayer is wonderful, of course, but other time-consuming activities can be distracting (and frustrating to those who are attending for the critiquing). The same is true if the group’s primary purpose is education. The less time invested on peripheral activities, typically the better.

      1. Thanks for the advice about keeping a group tightly focused! I think I would have gone into a critique group with that as a given, but it’s a good reminder that any group needs to set out clear expectations from the outset (or risk some very frustrated group members). I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

  7. As if this page needed any more love or insight, here is my own like. As for insight, well, perhaps not as much.

    All I can say is that frumious does not get as much love as some other, recently invented words. If I can google something, I can be frumious while I do it.

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