The Magic of Two

by Bethany Wagner '14

One cold autumn afternoon in England, two Oxford professors met at the Eastgate Hotel, their customary haunt for Monday lunch. The first, a large man with an eager, flushed face, barreled into the hotel dressed in casual tweed, his gregarious presence immediately noticed. The second, a short, slim man dressed in a formal suit, followed quietly. They sat at their usual table, ordered their usual fare, and began their usual discussion, debating literary topics and critiquing one another’s papers and stories.

At the time, few outside academia could place them, but today the world knows these men as two of the foremost Christian writers: C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and many theological works, and J. R. R. Tolkien, creator of The Lord of the Rings.

What brought these very different men together? Lewis, a native of Northern Ireland, taught English literature, while Tolkien, born in South Africa and raised in England, studied languages. Unreserved and outgoing, Lewis stood in sharp contrast to the more introverted Tolkien. Yet they formed one of the most successful creative partnerships in history.

"They shared a love for the same things and came at them from nearly opposite angles, jointly reaching ideas they could never have come up with on their own."—Diana Pavlac Glyer, Ph.D.

“Despite their differences, Lewis and Tolkien bonded over a common love for Norse mythology and old poetry,” said Diana Pavlac Glyer, Ph.D., professor in the Department of English and a leading scholar of the Inklings, Lewis and Tolkien’s writing group. “They shared a love for the same things and came at them from nearly opposite angles, jointly reaching ideas they could never have come up with on their own.”

Lewis and Tolkien forged a friendship that sparked incredible success, paving the way to four children’s adventures in Narnia and a hobbit’s daring journey to save Middle-earth. Eventually, they founded the Inklings, the famous critique group that met weekly for 17 years and included Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and Lewis’ brother, Warren.

Glyer explores the working relationship of Lewis and Tolkien in The Company They Keep (Kent State, 2008), a groundbreaking study of the Inklings and the importance of creating in a community. Joshua Wolf Shenk used The Company They Keep as a source for his book, Powers of Two (Houghton Mifflin, 2014), in which he explores the unique creativity of two-person collaboration by researching the lives of creative duos, from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Marie and Pierre Curie to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. “This research has immense implications for how we perceive the creative process and innovation,” said Glyer. “A closer look at the lives of dynamic leaders reveals that many of them worked with less outspoken, but no less important, partners. Lewis and Tolkien offer just one example. There are myriad others.”

Some such pairs work together on APU’s campus. Although meeting in Heritage Court instead of Oxford’s Eastgate, Don Thorsen, Ph.D., professor of theology, and Steve Wilkens, Ph.D., professor of philosophy, have worked together as colleagues for more than 25 years and jointly published two books. Poring over drafts in the food court, the two combine strengths as Wilkens looks at structure and global issues, while the more detail-oriented Thorsen checks form and content.

Even when not collaborating on major projects, Thorsen and Wilkens meet weekly in local coffee shops to share ideas, bouncing intellectual thoughts back and forth. “Our fields consider the same questions and topics, but through different lenses,” said Wilkens. “As I look with philosophical eyes and he with theological eyes, we come up with combined solutions impossible to reach alone.”

"As I look with philosophical eyes and he with theological eyes, we come up with combined solutions impossible to reach along." –Steve Wilkens, Ph.D.

Another pair gathers routinely to tackle a different kind of project. Frequently, Christopher Flannery, Ph.D., professor of history and political science, and David Weeks, Ph.D dean of the Honors College, generate ideas for the Honors College over their usual pulled pork sandwiches and iced tea. Weeks brings course curricula to the table for Flannery’s feedback, as well as specific questions like “What do you think about this course assignment?” and “Which translation of the Iliad should we use?” Together they share perspectives and brainstorm fresh, often out-of-the box answers before making final decisions.

“We play different roles at the university and in our collaboration, but unite over a love for teaching and classic works,” said Flannery. “David is a gifted natural leader. But you can’t have leaders without followers, and I help him reach decisions from my position as a scholar and professor.”

Even beyond the realm of academia, the creative pairs model has merit. Early next year, English professor Diana Glyer will release her newest book, Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings (Kent State University Press, 2016), an adaptation of The Company They Keep reimagined to encourage everyday readers to follow Lewis and Tolkien’s example in their own endeavors, whether starting a business, planting a church, writing a book, or developing new technologies. ­

“Partners like Lewis and Tolkien represent the best pattern for success,” said Glyer. “Ideas flow like electricity between two such people. Then, as in the case of the Inklings, more people take part as the creative influence grows.”

Bethany Wagner ’14 is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. [email protected]

Originally published in the Spring '15 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.