Archives For C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner never met, yet they are “friends” because they share so many similarities as authors writing from a Christian perspective. In terms of Buechner’s themes and range of his writings, this award winning American author and ordained Presbyterian minister may have as much in common with C.S. Lewis as his own British Inklings. So let me introduce Frederick Buechner and his writings.

Do you read primarily to relax and allow your imagination to soar? Or, do you normally select “useful” books, with the potential to be applicable to meeting the challenges of real life?

During my college years, I enjoyed scifi and fantasy. I still have a weak spot for alternative histories. But my seminary years had a subtle effect on my reading. With time always at a premium as a young pastor with a family, I had so many practical, pastoral books and journals to study, that I seldom had time for something so frivolous as “fiction.” Fortunately, semi-retirement has released me from that restrictive literary diet.

I’ve finally found some time to unpack a few of the boxes of books sitting in my garage. (The fact we moved them into the garage around 2010 would be embarrassing if it got out, so I ought not to mention it here.)

As one would expect, I’ve encountered many pleasant surprises. A number of books I had been missing have turned up, I’ve found some that are even more timely today than when they were stored, and—best of all in the minds of my adult children—I’ve been able to part with about two-thirds of the titles, and recently donated about 150 volumes to a local charity.

One of the titles I am currently reading is Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets. I had picked up a copy when it was highly recommended to me, only to discover it was a memoir. Being a “practical pastor” who always had too many utilitarian books to read, I set it aside . . . only to pick it up twenty years later.

And what a joyous surprise it has been. Buechner is in his nineties, and is widely respected. He has been a prolific writer, and has received numerous awards for his fictional works. Readers, particularly from the Reformed branch of Christianity have been especially fervent fans of the Presbyterian pastor and theologian. My friend, Brenton Dickieson is quite fond of Buechner and has written about him in A Pilgrim in Narnia on several occasions. He notes that Buechner quotes a number of the Inklings, including Tolkien, Williams and Lewis.

I vaguely recall the Lewis connection being one reason my fellow Air Force chaplain recommended Telling Secrets to me. But I had forgotten that the first section is entitled “The Dwarves in the Stable.” This is, of course, an allusion to an extremely momentous scene in The Final Battle, the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia. It was originally published as an independent essay, as this entertaining post points out.

Buechner shares a dark family secret, the consequences of his father’s suicide in 1936. Listen to how movingly he describes the secret’s power:

His suicide was a secret we nonetheless tried to keep as best we could, and after a while my father himself became such a secret. There were times when he almost seemed a secret we were trying to keep from each other.

Buechner moves on to relate the suffering the family experienced during his daughter’s battle with anorexia. He shares few details, since “it is not mine to tell but hers.” Nevertheless, he describes setbacks in the struggle causing him to feel as though he “was in hell.”

I choose the term hell with some care. Hell is where there is no light but only darkness, and I was so caught up in my fear for her life, which had become in a way my life too, that none of the usual sources of light worked any more, and light was what I was starving for. . . .

I remained so locked inside myself that I was not really present with them at all. Toward the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle there is a scene where a group of dwarves sit huddled together in a tight little knot thinking that they are in a pitch black, malodorous stable when the truth of it is that they are out in the midst of an endless grassy countryside as green as Vermont with the sun shining and blue sky overhead.

The huge golden lion, Aslan himself, stands nearby with all the other dwarves “kneeling in a circle around his forepaws” as Lewis writes, “and burying their hands and faces in his mane as he stooped his great head to touch them with his tongue.” When Aslan offers the dwarves food, they think it is offal.

When he offers them wine, they take it for ditch water. “Perfect love casteth out fear,” John writes (1 John 4:18), and the other side of that is that fear like mine casteth out love, even God’s love. The love I had for my daughter was lost in the anxiety I had for my daughter.

This is just a single example of the sensitive wisdom Buechner shares throughout this grace-filled work.

After I finish Telling Secrets, I look forward to reading two of Buechner’s novels already on my shelf, Godric and Brendan. They are both historical fiction, telling the stories of two sainted monks from the twelfth and sixth centuries respectively.

I encourage any of you unfamiliar with his writings to explore his work. If an autobiography can be this good, I’m eager to take a journey through what I have no doubt will be quite an adventure in his fiction.

Buechner possesses an additional connection to C.S. Lewis, which has the potential to last centuries. He describes his decision to offer his personal papers to Wheaton College, where they are available in the archives. The theologian describes his decision in this humble manner.

Wheaton College [has] a great collection there of the manuscripts and papers of people like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and the like, and because I could think of no more distinguished company than theirs among whom to have my own literary remains molder, a year earlier I had offered them everything I had stowed away over the years in cardboard boxes and scrapbooks and manila folders; and to my delight they said that they would be delighted to have it.

If you would enjoy learning more about the relationship between Buechner and the Inklings, check out this fine article; “C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner: Literary Expression of Faith” is available for download. It’s quite enlightening.


Bonus Insight

The second chapter of Telling Secrets is entitled “The White Tower.” Many Inkling fans will jump to the conclusion (especially after reading this post) that it is a reference to the citadel of Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor. Like me, they would be incorrect.

Buechner is not alluding here to Tolkien’s masterpiece. On the contrary, he is referring to the central tower which was the old keep of the Tower of London. Ironically, that very keep, the White Tower, was built by a Norman monk who became the Bishop of Rochester. His name . . . Gundulf.

Buechner chose this metaphor for the human condition for the following reason.

I think here of the Tower of London. More particularly I think of that oldest part of it, known as the White Tower, which was built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. On the second floor of it there is a small Norman chapel called the Chapel of Saint John. It is very bare and very simple. It is built all of stone with twelve stone pillars and a vaulted ceiling.

There is a cool, silvery light that comes in through the arched windows. . . . The chapel is very silent, very still. It is almost a thousand years old. You cannot enter it without being struck by the feeling of purity and peace it gives. If there is any such thing in the world, it is a holy place.

But that is not all there is in the White Tower. Directly below the chapel is the most terrible of all the tower’s dungeons. It has a heavy oak door that locks out all light and ventilation. It measures only four feet square by four feet high so that a prisoner has no way either to stand upright in it or to lie down at full length. There is almost no air to breathe in it, almost no room to move. It is known as the Little Ease.

I am the White Tower of course. To one degree or another all of us are.

Long words can be daunting. Even for native speakers. The illustration above comes from The Japan Times, and reveals how the challenge is magnified for others.

I love learning new words. And, since these treasures frequently drift out of my vocabulary because I fail to use them, I often have the joy of re-learning unique words.

Sesquipedalianism is actually a genuine word which can be validly applied in a variety of settings. After all, haven’t we all encountered a sesquipedalianist or two, who uses especially long, and occasionally obscure words?

How many syllables are required before a word grows too long? To a monosyllabic individual, two might be deemed excessive.

Seriously, it’s not the length of a word that matters, it’s the word’s familiarity. For example, “familiarity” has six syllables, and everyone reading Mere Inkling knows its meaning. (I resisted saying “is familiar with . . .”) On the other hand, “carbuncle” is only trisyllabic, and yet the only people likely to know its definition are either those in medical professions, or unfortunate individuals who have suffered from one.

But it’s not only unfamiliarity that causes confusion; misunderstanding can result from a lack of context. Let’s take “trisyllabic,” a word even an active reader seldom encounters. As used in the paragraph above, the context (along with the prefix and root), provide us with more information than a person needs to recognize its meaning.

In a famous letter from 1956, C.S. Lewis included the following advice:

Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Great advice, just as one would expect. However, this does not constitute a blanket rejection of “big words.” Lewis is simply reminding us that our prose must not be more complicated than it needs to be. Thus, the title of this column uses a precise word – rather than saying “Please Forgive My Practice of Using Long and Sometimes Obscure Words” – since Mere Inkling readers are quite capable of uncovering a definition if a particular word is unfamiliar.

Plus, as I hinted above, many of us enjoy expanding our vocabularies.

In the aforementioned correspondence, Lewis offered additional useful advice. Another dictum is: “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”

Here too the great writer is astute. However, this caution is not actually about the length of words. Lewis’ desire for clarity in communication leads him to reject “vague” words, which coincidentally happen to be longer than those he refers to as “direct.”

Using longer words than necessary is not, of course, always a good thing. While it comprises neuron-stretching play for word lovers, it can easily be misperceived by others as “showing off.” (Note: I’m not defending those cases in which the writer or speaker really are attempting to impress others with their verbal dexterity.*)

You can easily find collections of the longest words in English. While some cheat, including “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” others are more scrupulous. Despite doing just that, I like the list at grammarly because of their definition of one of the words they include.

Floccinaucinihilipilification
The estimation of something as valueless. Ironically, floccinaucinihilipilification is a pretty valueless word itself; it’s almost never used except as an example of a long word.

I’m not currently planning on adding floccinaucinihilipilification to my personal vocabulary, but don’t let me dissuade you from doing so.

Learning new words often reaps extrinsic benefits. As a historian who enjoys learning about the Latin language, I found the following definition, and illustration, from the Cambridge dictionary quite interesting.

The act of considering something to be not at all important or useful – used mainly as an example of a very long word:

The honor of being the longest non-technical word goes to floccinaucinihilipilification.

The word . . . is “an 18th-century coinage that combines four Latin prefixes meaning ‘nothing.’”

Oh, and one final suggestion. When visiting the Cambridge site, in the likelihood you’ll someday wish to use this word in conversation, take a moment to make certain you learn to pronounce in the U.K. or American manner, as appropriate for your location.


* I am not here referring to the Irish bred Bay Colt for some curious reason named “Verbal Dexterity.”

First of all, they may be right. If everyone tells you you’re crazy, you should be concerned. Especially if those you trust the most are convinced you’re unhinged, you should probably be evaluated by a psychiatrist.

However, even when you are 100%, bona fide sane, you may have to deal with the misperception that there is something off kilter in your perceptions or behavior. It happened to me.

I’m not too concerned, since there are even maniacs out there who consider C.S. Lewis to be a tad daft due to his counter-cultural (i.e., Christian) views.

In an article measuring his legacy a half century after his death, James Como said, Lewis’ “long and unrelenting resistance [to civilization’s decline] yields a commanding perspective that is not only not cultural, not only not trans-cultural, not only not merely counter-cultural, but almost anti-cultural; in a word it is supra-cultural . . .”

Surely Lewis’s sharp-shooter’s application of the phrase “enemy-occupied territory” to Western culture must come to mind.  Of course, from inside the culture, it is Lewis who must seem crazy: if not quite as febrile as  Jeremiah out there in the wilderness, surely close enough?  And so his genius – the application of his transcending individuality – is to present us with a choice: in or out?  We, with Lewis, might escape, leaving the Zeitgeist behind.

I’m with Lewis, which I understand makes me suspect in the eyes of the worldly. But it’s not my faith that has caused me to be labeled as crazy for many decades, even by family members whose love for me is beyond question.

It’s all about that despicable herb some people sickeningly regard as delicious – cilantro. As early as I can remember, I would sometimes have a meal where I found a dish had been contaminated by soap. It was horrible. Not just unpalatable, but inedible.

Everyone would praise the food and call me crazy. Especially when I told them why it tasted so bad. It was because it tasted like the chefs had grated a bar of soap over the meal. They would all laugh, look at each other with that “he can’t be serious” expression, and resume their dinner. Meanwhile, I’d basically go hungry, since I was unwilling to eat the perfectly “good” food.

After many years, as an adult, I finally was able to analyze the problem and identify the culprit as cilantro. This did not, unfortunately, restore my mental credibility. Now everyone was certain I was insane, because the whole world knows cilantro is delicious! My case was weakened by the fact that I thought the seeds of the plant, coriander, were just fine. Ahah! That inconsistency proved to them that I was faking my dislike for some unknown reason.

During the decades that followed, I would try to avoid the herb. Occasionally I would bite into something only to unexpectedly encounter the dreaded flavor of a bar of soap. If it was minor, like mixed very lightly into the salsa, I could force myself to ignore, but it was still there, robbing me of the opportunity to really savor my meal.

If I mentioned that I had tasted the cleansing residue, I’d get the familiar quizzical looks and drop the subject. Until one glorious day when one of the other people at the table said, “it tastes like soap to me too.” And I learned they too had lived under the stigma of being a nutcase.

Over the years (I’m not young), I encountered a number of like spirits who shared my alleged dementia. I delighted in assuring them they were not alone. Like most people who truly are crazy, we had learned to try to mask our aberrant tastes and blend in with the cilantro-enamored masses . . . lest we be treated as outcasts.

Still, I wondered why only a small number of people shared my experience, when the taste is so pronounced it can taste literally like biting into a bar of Ivory.

Thank God, I was finally rescued by genetic scientists. Per Brittanica, “for those cilantro-haters for whom the plant tastes like soap, the issue is genetic. These people have a variation in a group of olfactory-receptor genes that allows them to strongly perceive the soapy-flavored aldehydes in cilantro leaves.”

And, in a related article, they warn about one member of the aldehyde-family you will want to steer clear of: “formaldehyde (HCHO), also called methanal, an organic compound, the simplest of the aldehydes.”

Pure formaldehyde is a colourless, flammable gas with a strong pungent odour. It is extremely irritating to the mucous membranes and is associated with certain types of cancer in humans and other animals. Formaldehyde is classified as a human carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).

Cilantrophiles be warned. It may be cilantro is just a gateway aldehyde. Now who’s the crazy one? The lesson – don’t be hasty in judging the mental acuity of others. (With the single exception for contemporary Americans, who feel compelled to say the absolute worst about anyone who has different political opinions.)

On a serious note, actual mental illness is no joke. Whether it’s genetic, accidental, or degenerative, it can destroy the life of the victim and all those who care about them. If you don’t have any acquaintances suffering in this manner, there are plenty of places you can volunteer to serve these various communities.

Providing love and encouragement to others is always admirable. When we do so for those unable to “repay” us in any way, it’s doubly rewarding. Jesus had something to say about that, and you can read it in Matthew’s Gospel.

When my grandchildren were younger, we played a game where everything would be “normal” and I would without warning say “you don’t need to be afraid of me, because I’m not…” [transformational pause, followed with a growl] “… an ogre!”

The kids would squeal and hightail it for cover where they were safe while I briefly lumbered about for a moment. It was much fun, and if Jesus tarries, perhaps I’ll play a similar game with their children.

I recently read an interesting article about Martin Luther’s understanding of God’s playfulness. You can read the entire article here: “Deus Ludens: God at Play in Luther’s Theology.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Luther knows a kind of unstructured play, especially between parents and children, that may involve . . . a kind of pretending which then gives way to the revelation of reality.

C.S. Lewis was a confirmed bachelor when he was surprised by encountering Joy, who would become his wife. He did a commendable job as a stepfather after her death, but wasn’t well equipped for the job.

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis confessed “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself.” Yet he did enjoy other forms of play – of the mental and imaginary varieties – that many young people also savor.

One pastor encourages us to apply Lewis’ observation to ourselves.

Do you recognize that an inability to enjoy children is not representative of a defect in the children, but of a defect in us? I hope that you do. And if not, I hope that you will.

In “C.S. Lewis on Pretending,” the author touches on this theme. After quoting the following passage from Mere Christianity, he writes, “Lewis is drawing out two key elements of change. The role of imagination in faith. The necessity of visionary faith for change.”

Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups – playing soldiers, playing shop.

But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them grow up in earnest.”

Poet Malcolm Guite challenges (accurately, in my opinion) Lewis’ self-diagnosed disconnect from children.

That Lewis could write immortal children’s tales in late middle age, and weave into those tales such truth and vision that the children who first read them at 8 or 9 keep returning to them in adult life and finding more and more, is a sign that he retained to the end, ‘the child within,’ to borrow George Macdonald’s phrase. And yet in those very stories he provides for both children and grown-ups some very searching truths about what it is both to be a child and to grow up.

Other Christians have identified with Lewis’ challenge. One pastor repeated Lewis’ words about his “defect,” admitted he felt similarly, and responded:

Do you recognize that an inability to enjoy children is not representative of a defect in the children, but of a defect in us? I hope that you do. And if not, I hope that you will.

Because children, just like the poor, offer us another unique opportunity to see what it means to live inside God’s kingdom.

Like it or not, children are going to be who they are. With zero nuance or subtlety, they are going to be consistent – the authentic version of themselves – in every situation.

Ironically, despite his supposed handicap, C.S. Lewis directly blessed more children than it would be possible to number. The follow article, “A Playful Romp with God,” reveals an excellent example of his accomplishment.

The first time I encountered this scene – as an adult, reading the Narnia books to my own kids – I cried. The possibility that God might laugh, romp, and play with his children stopped me in my tracks. How could such a scandalous thing be true?

Growing up, I never heard a word about God laughing, joking, or doing anything for fun. No one invited me to imagine the Jesus of the Gospels smiling, much less goofing around with his disciples, playing hide-and-seek with the children who flocked to him, or basking in the sunshine on a gorgeous summer day.

The list of characteristics I associated with God – omniscience, holiness, transcendence, righteousness – did not include playfulness.

The writer of these words is not alone. Too many people have been raised with the image of a stern, humorless Christ. That’s one of the reasons I am so pleased with the new series, “The Chosen.”

While they may carry the image of Jesus’ playfulness a bit too far – who can say – it is a truly refreshing and convincing portrayal of the Lamb who came to lay down his life as a sacrifice for each of us.

C.S. Lewis portrays this aspect of God brilliantly in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. After his resurrection, Aslan reveals himself first to Susan and Lucy. And, rather than rush off to prepare Narnia for the approaching battle with the Witch . . . he plays.

“Oh, children,” said the Lion, “I feel my strength coming back to me. Oh, children, catch me if you can!” He stood for a second, his eyes very bright, his limbs quivering, lashing himself with his tail. Then he made a leap high over their heads and landed on the other side of the Table.

Laughing, though she didn’t know why, Lucy scrambled over it to reach him. Aslan leaped again. A mad chase began. Round and round the hilltop he led them, now hopelessly out of their reach, now letting them almost catch his tail, now diving between them, now tossing them in the air with his huge and beautifully velveted paws and catching them again, and now stopping unexpectedly so that all three of them rolled over together in a happy laughing heap of fur and arms and legs.

It was such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia; and whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten Lucy could never make up her mind. And the funny thing was that when all three finally lay together panting in the sun the girls no longer felt in the least tired or hungry or thirsty.

Do we have a playful God? If you still think not, you have my sympathy, my prayers, and my encouragement to read this helpful article, “The Role of Laughter in the Christian Life,” written by the author of Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis.

The halls of academia are a curious place. Dark wooden walls and well-worn stairways hearken back to legions of students and professors who have invested portions of their lives in the academies’ life. Some of us are drawn to the air of knowledge and residue of research that made them what they are.

At the same time, however, many universities have become parodies of what they once were. Some self-important leaders and faculty cry out for satire and parody. As one liberal American journalist, a defender of academic elitism, admitted: “academics can be condescending and arrogant.”

Through the years I’ve known many brilliant men and women who retained their humility. Sadly, I’ve also encountered many whose view of themselves was so exaggerated that one could only respond with disbelief. Do they really believe no one sees through the façade?

Rather than write a longer column here, I want to provide a link to an unusual article I recently wrote related to this subject. If you have a sense of humor, and are not afflicted with academic grandiosity, please check it out. It appeared this past week in the latest issue of CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society.

CSL is a small but mighty (think Reepicheep) publication. It’s worth subscribing to, even for those of us thousands of miles from their regular meetings in the Empire State.

My article is brief, but it includes “the Mere Oxford Inkling Erudition Chart,” which promises countless hours of educational entertainment.

The people my satire seeks to unmask are the type of academics who attempted to make Oxford and Cambridge Universities so inhospitable to C.S. Lewis. Read this interview with one of his former student who critiques the opinions of lesser minds.

The BBC [invited him to broadcast the] talks that ultimately became Mere Christianity. The BBC was astounded by the response to these talks. As you know, Mere Christianity has never been out of print since.

He then became very unpopular with the senior faculty at Magdalen College. Magdalen was a godless college and a very famous college, very atheistical. . . . So [Lewis] got a rough ride there. He never made professor at Oxford.

So much for the civility one would expect in such environs.

You can read my modest article, “Mastering Inkling Erudition,” at this link today.

Literary Pasta

December 28, 2022 — 8 Comments

How many cans of SpaghettiOs would you need to purchase to be able to write the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in their noodley alphabet?

What, you’ve never pondered that quandary? Well, now that the question has been posed, you may as well learn the answer.

The purveyor of this revelation is an online personality who analyzed the ratio of letters in cans of the SpaghettiOs A to Zs. He then devised a computer “program that converts books to SpaghettiOs.” [An inarguably valuable pursuit.]

It involved identifying the typical shapes of the pasta fonts.

Ah, to the solution to the puzzle. An individual seeking to replicate the Lord of the Rings would require 8,795 cans. The price would be slightly more than $2,000 and as a bonus, you would be left with more than eight million characters to devour.

Having labored to create the complex algorithms in his computer program, he has applied the versatile tool to other publications.

The King James Bible, for example, would demand 51, 214,669 cans to reproduce. At a price of approximately seventy-one billion dollars. [Editor’s note: the cost would probably be prohibitive, so don’t expect to see a physical attempt made in the near future.]

J.R.R. Tolkien was an extraordinary philologist. He loved languages, and he actually created more than one.

The creator of Middle Earth actually fashioned an alphabet for his Elven tongues. I have had my own name (by virtue of its meaning) rendered in Tengwar alphabet here.

Nevertheless, as inspired by linguistics and alphabets as he was, I doubt Tolkien would have been the least bit impressed by the canned pasta research.

In a 1956 letter, Tolkien described the process of completing his masterpiece for publication. I share the letter now, due to its reference to alphabets. However, due to its illuminating insight into the broader subject, I offer here a more extended rendition.

As ‘research students’ always discover, however long they are allowed, and careful their work and notes, there is always a rush at the end, when the last date suddenly approaches on which their thesis must be presented.

So it was with this book, and the maps. I had to call in the help of my son – the C.T. or C.J.R.T. of the modest initials on the maps – an accredited student of hobbit-lore. And neither of us had an entirely free hand.

I remember that when it became apparent that the ‘general map’ would not suffice for the final Book, or sufficiently reveal the courses of Frodo, the Rohirrim, and Aragorn, I had to devote many days, the last three virtually without food or bed, to drawing re-scaling and adjusting a large map, at which he then worked for 24 hours (6 a.m. to 6 a.m. without bed) in re-drawing just in time.

Inconsistencies of spelling are due to me. It was only in the last stages that (in spite of my son’s protests: he still holds that no one will ever pronounce Cirith right, it appears as Kirith in his map, as formerly also in the text) I decided to be ‘consistent’ and spell Elvish names and words throughout without k. There are no doubt other variations. . . .

I am, however, primarily a philologist and to some extent a calligrapher (though this letter may make that difficult to believe). And my son after me. To us far and away the most absorbing interest is the Elvish tongues, and the nomenclature based on them; and the alphabets.

My plans for the ‘specialist volume’ were largely linguistic. An index of names was to be produced, which by etymological interpretation would also provide quite a large Elvish vocabulary; this is of course a first requirement. I worked at it for months, and indexed the first two vols. (it was the chief cause of the delay of Vol iii) until it became clear that size and cost were ruinous.

Back to the noodle font. I doubt it Tolkien would have been impressed. What about his fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis? What might he have said about the quantity of pasta-based “moveable type” required to reproduce Tolkien’s trilogy?

Allow me to take two simple words (out of context) from a letter he wrote in 1956. I think the Oxbridge don would have labeled the effort (and today’s post itself) “infinitely unimportant.”

Please forgive me if this sojourn into current trivia wasted your time. (But I hope, at least, that you enjoyed learning more about Tolkien’s linguistic and cartographic expertise.)

And just what will those heavenly bodies be like..? And what about those angels..?

Among the many things that Christians look forward to, as an unearned gift from God, is a new body. This resurrected body will not be like our old (i.e. former) body… but it will be similar to the bodies of our first parents, Eve and Adam. So, in a sense, one might say it’s a bit like that old, old (i.e. original) body.

Sadly, there’s a lot of unnecessary confusion about what awaits us after death. While the Lord doesn’t give us all the details (which we wouldn’t be able to comprehend right now anyway), he does make the big picture clear. Here are some facts (based on the Scriptures as interpreted for 2,000 years within the orthodox Christian faith).

1.  You can’t do enough good works to deserve to enter heaven. It’s all about God’s mercy and grace.

If you think you can be good enough to get there on your own . . . sorry. If you therefore don’t think it matters at all how you live… you will end up just as sorry.

2. In heaven, God’s redeemed will not be incorporeal spirits. We’ll have bodies, just as our Maker intended from the day he breathed life into Adam’s lungs. Christians affirm belief in the “resurrection of the body.”

As to the nature of the bodies, God doesn’t leave us ignorant. One of the best New Testament descriptions is found in First Corinthians.

Even the Old Testament prophet Job proclaimed the wonders of a bodily resurrection when, in his own flesh, he would see the Lord.

God’s written word includes more about our resurrection bodies. One, from the letter to the Christians in Philippi, says, “the Lord Jesus Christ . . . will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” This verse, like the stained glass image above, inspires me to wonder what that body will be like. Like Jesus’ own resurrection body, we learn.

Perhaps also like humanity’s unfallen human bodies portrayed here in colored glass. If the artist’s vision is accurate, I’m eager to welcome back the hair that once adorned my head, and to enjoy those stunningly defined abs, that I unfortunately never possessed.

Writing to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis clarified the biblical definition of resurrection.

I agree that we don’t know what a spiritual body is. But I don’t like contrasting it with (your words) “an actual, physical body.” This suggests that the spiritual body wd. be the opposite of “actual” – i.e. some kind of vision or imagination. And I do think most people imagine it as something that looks like the present body and isn’t really there.

Our Lord’s eating the boiled fish seems to put the boots on that idea, don’t you think? I suspect the distinction is the other way round—that it is something compared with which our present bodies are half real and phantasmal. (19 August 1947)

3. Human beings never become angels. One of most common mistakes about heaven is that people (“good” ones, at least) become angels after they die. They don’t. Period. Angels are angels and people are people – two separate beings, each with their own nature. Angels are majestic, most certainly, but they were not blessed like humanity to be created in the very image of God.

And never forget, not all angels are good. Those fallen ones, in fact, no longer merit their identification as angels. Better to label them as what they’ve become, demons.

As for people being intrinsically distinct from angels, C.S. Lewis wrote a poem that contrasts angelic and human personhood.

On Being Human by C. S. Lewis

Angelic minds, they say, by simple intelligence
Behold the Forms of nature. They discern
Unerringly the Archetypes, all the verities
Which mortals lack or indirectly learn.
Transparent in primordial truth, unvarying,
Pure Earthness and right Stonehood from their clear,
High eminence are seen; unveiled, the seminal
Huge Principles appear.

The Tree-ness of the tree they know – the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
– An angel has no skin.

They see the Form of Air; but mortals breathing it
Drink the whole summer down into the breast.
The lavish pinks, the field new-mown, the ravishing
Sea-smells, the wood-fire smoke that whispers Rest.
The tremor on the rippled pool of memory
That from each smell in widening circles goes,
The pleasure and the pang – can angels measure it?
An angel has no nose.

The nourishing of life, and how it flourishes
On death, and why, they utterly know; but not
The hill-born, earthy spring, the dark cold bilberries.
The ripe peach from the southern wall still hot
Full-bellied tankards foamy-topped, the delicate
Half-lyric lamb, a new loaf’s billowy curves,
Nor porridge, nor the tingling taste of oranges.
– An angel has no nerves.

Far richer they! I know the senses’ witchery
Guards us like air, from heavens too big to see;
Imminent death to man that barb’d sublimity
And dazzling edge of beauty unsheathed would be.
Yet here, within this tiny, charmed interior,
This parlour of the brain, their Maker shares
With living men some secrets in a privacy
Forever ours, not theirs.

Heaven will be wondrous. Not only will we get to worship the One who created and redeemed us, there is so much more we have to look forward to. Enjoying a new, unflawed body . . . hobnobbing with angels who sang to celebrate Christ’s Nativity . . . and waiting in line to enjoy a beverage with C.S. Lewis.


The picture above is of a stained glass window in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Children in Châteauneuf-sur-Cher, France. Olive Titus, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Academic Expenses

December 13, 2022 — 4 Comments

Rich people don’t need to worry about the cost of college educations. The rest of us do (or, at least, we should). C.S. Lewis could not rely on family wealth to pursue his academic dreams, and we can learn from his example.

My wife and I were the first members of our respective families to attend college. Without assistance from our parents, we did chose the most fiscally responsible path. We opted for a public university (in my own case, via “community college”) and worked as many hours a week as we could while maintaining our grades.

Even this would have been far more difficult without receiving student loans, which we diligently repaid following our graduations.

Years later, we were in a position to help our own children pursue their higher educational aspirations. Still, graduate degrees are not inexpensive, and all three of them received government-backed loans to get them to the finish line.

They have been diligently repaying that borrowed money since graduation and never complained about the debt, since no one coerced them to accept it.

Our daughter, in fact, made significant sacrifices to pay off her student loans as quickly as possible, and accomplished that goal far earlier than we imagined she would.

Here at Mere Inkling, we go to great lengths to avoid political partisanship. In addition to that, I’ve made it quite clear I have no illusions about understanding economics.

Nevertheless, it requires no genius intellect to imagine how people who sacrificed to pay off their personal debts feel about now having to (thorough their taxes) also pay off the sometimes-delinquent debts of their peers. Our middle class family is only one of presumably millions who are experiencing this personally today.

Who Paid for C.S. Lewis’ Collegiate Studies?

The world has changed much since C.S. Lewis left home for boarding school and ultimately, for the university. It was unsurprising that when his father was widowed while his sons were young, he entrusted them to schools where he assumed they would be safe, and well prepared for their future professions.

Once the boys were old enough to choose career paths, Warnie (1895-1973) pursued a military profession. Following graduation from the U.K.’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he served in both World Wars. However, as one writer accurately notes, “perhaps Warnie could have accomplished far more, but his lifelong struggles with alcoholism kept him from doing so. Some have speculated Warnie’s alcoholism resulted in an earlier retirement from the military than he would have wished.”

As for the younger Lewis scion, Clive would eventually make major contributions on the faculties of both Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Getting there took some time, and was interrupted by the First World War. After his recuperation as a seriously wounded veteran of the trenches, Lewis renewed his academic studies. Discovery Institute has an excellent article describing “C.S. Lewis and the Ceremonies at Oxford University (1917-1925).” I particularly enjoy Kathryn Lindskoog’s understatement that “Oxford University, in Lewis’s time and since, is not the best place to learn Christian humility . . .”

As a student, Lewis was reliant on continuing support from his father. Only after graduating and beginning to receive a stipend as a Fellow of Magdalen College in 1925, did Lewis consider himself financially independent. (The year prior he had received a modest salary from the college, as an employee of the College, but it was inadequate to meet his needs.)

During his college studies, despite a scholarship, he relied on his father’s generosity. His opening in a 1919 letter to his father illustrates this relationship.

Many thanks for your letter and also for the enclosed cheque for £19.12.8. That amount includes all the charges both for tuition and college expenses and may serve as a base for future calculation, tho’ of course there may be slight differences from term to term.

Still, even in the best of families, financial considerations may become a matter of concern. Five years later, as he was at the end of his life as a student, his father was wondering when he would become satisfactorily employed. (That’s a conversation replayed around the globe on a daily basis.) The first two paragraphs illustrate the theme, but you won’t be disappointed if you have the time to read the entire passage.

And now to business. The Univ. Fellowship has not been filled up. You may have read in the papers that a new ‘Chaplain Fellow’ has been elected, but that of course is a different job. If I don’t mention it, it is because there is nothing new to say about it. Just at present a new and very good vacancy at Trinity (I mean Trinity, Oxford of course) has appeared, for which an election is to be held in the summer, and I shall certainly go in for it.

As to money: I had rather you had explained in detail what you ‘don’t follow’ in my arithmetic, but I trust there is nothing seriously wrong with the figures I gave you and will proceed accordingly. What is more serious is your reference to £30 extras last year. The only part of this which I can at present identify are the extra tuition and the book bill. The former of course was purely abnormal and will not occur again. The book bill was naturally increased by my turning to a new subject.

I try to use the libraries as much as possible: but when one is reading for a particular exam there are over a hundred other people taking the same books out of the libraries – and of course there are some things one must have at command. My expenditure on books will be less in future. I have a book bill due to be paid some time soon which is under five pounds: if you will pay that I think I can undertake to find myself for books in the future – tho’ since you tell me to be frank, I will say that this may not always be easy.

The rest of the £30 you mention is, I suppose, made up by items of clothing. I presume it does not include my two suits? As to clothing, I’m afraid that even if you increase my allowance as you suggest, I cannot undertake to find myself.

I mean that my loss of the scholarship and my outlay on clothes would not be balanced by an addition of £40 or £50. I cannot see how to cut down my expenses on clothing. You know I think that it does not go to fancy waistcoats or kid gloves. And I have some ties that date from before the war!

Flannel trousers are an item that I have to repeat pretty often: they ARE ill wearing things, but if I didn’t wear them I should need suits more often than I do. On shoes I admit that I am hard and have to get a good deal of ‘soling’ done: but I am afraid this reads rather as if I were defending myself against a charge of extravagance, which you will justly reply you never made: but you must not think that. I am only trying to put down the facts of the question as they actually occur to me from day to day in order to make my conclusion more reasonable and intelligible to you.

And the conclusion is this. You ask me where £85 a term to ‘cover everything’ would be sufficient. If by ‘covering everything’ you mean covering my books, shoes, shirts, socks and other items that I have hitherto sent you, I am afraid it would not. As I said, if you wish it, I will try to undertake my own books in the future, and, at any rate to cut them down.

I will also abandon the new dinner jacket suit that was mooted, and you must not imagine that I would feel that sort of curtailment as any hardship. As for a new overcoat, the one you gave me when I left home suits and fits me so well that the question need not be considered. But I do not think that I can manage to keep myself in minor articles of clothing.

I’m afraid this may seem to you but a charter of indefinite expenses for the future. Well then, to say all, if it is too much, you must tell me so. You have done all and more than all I can expect of you, and if you tell me that these extra years are too heavy, I assure you that I shall never, even in my secret thought, criticise such a decision.

If on the other hand, you see fit to lodge £85 a year and to pay for such extras in the way of clothing, etc. as may occur, I will try to make them as little as I can. I must point out however that it is much easier to save on the big items I have mentioned – the dress suit and overcoat – than on those necessary articles which have so often to be replaced.

If you will give me a dress suit when I get a job, I ought to be able to tide over these years without any more ‘suitings’ from you at all. If, till they are over, you can lodge £85 a term and make it retrospective for the present year, while paying for my smaller articles of clothing, I think I can manage. And whether you can do this or not, I have nothing but deepest gratitude for the past.

So, once again we see that C.S. Lewis’ experiences were not all that different from our own. Most people who have accepted their parents’ financial aid during their adulthood, can identify with Lewis’ mixture of sincere gratitude and muted frustration.

Perhaps it is a very good thing that today we have so many different assistance programs for potential students. Good things, I believe, as long as they are not abused – and borrowers pay them back, as they promised.

If you were to embark on a university education today, which sort of campus would you prefer?

(1) A university featuring “vaulted ceilings that draw the eye upwards and outwards . . . the frivolous artistic detail that announces the importance of the unimportant [or] the interplay of light and shade that marks the great Gothic masterpieces, the brilliant proportions of the best classical buildings, and the elaborate grandeur of the Baroque.”

(2) A modern campus comprised of “buildings entirely lacking in charm, grace, or playfulness [featuring] the boxy utilitarian grimness of official educational architecture.”

A second question clearly betrays my own preference. Which academic setting do you imagine C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings would most esteem? Tolkien, after all, was not complaining in a letter to his future bride when he wrote “I have got to go to the college library now and get filthy amongst dusty books . . .”

The quotations included in the choices above come from a thought-provoking essay just posted on the website of First Things. The British writer, Niall Gooch, melds wit and genuine insight as he offers an answer to the question “Why are Universities So Ugly?” I highly commend it to you.

Libraries are of particular interest to many of us who treasure the Inkling ethos. And the article includes a delightful discussion of the treasure houses “now called ‘Information Centers’ or ‘Knowledge Hubs.’”

Books increasingly appear to be an afterthought, squeezed into the small spaces not occupied by banks of computers or the glass rooms designated as group work areas. Quiet has been banished to special Silent Study rooms, where those dangerous oddballs who wish to sit still by themselves and concentrate on one thing for a long period can be safely segregated from the normal people.

Inkling Libraries at Cambridge and Oxford

In 1959, C.S. Lewis wrote to T.S. Eliot. Both men served on the Commission to Revise the Psalter. Lewis mentions that he will be hosting an upcoming meeting of the Commission at Cambridge, and that he had secured one of the libraries for their use.

I can’t find the name and address of the secretary of our Commission on the Psalms. As you are in London could you kindly let her know that I have rescued the use of the inner library at Magdalene for our July session? It would be convenient if she told me – for the benefit of the servants – what our daily hours of sitting are likely to be. I also look forward to it.

Although Magdalene College has a distinguished history, it too has joined the revolution offering more contemporary Information Centers. They proudly declare “The New Library is . . . a purpose-built space in College for Magdalene students to meet, work, relax and find inspiration.”

As for the “Inner Library,” to which Lewis referred, I believe it to be what is presently called “The Old Library.” It fittingly includes among its special collections, “the books and manuscripts of T.S. Eliot (Honorary Fellow).”

A revealing history of “The Architectural Evolution of Libraries” begins with the question: “Can you have a civilized society without a library?”

In this article, we trace the typology of the library through history, highlighting twelve of the most important libraries in the world, from Ancient Alexandria to Raleigh, North Carolina, where robots retrieve books from storage.

A fitting close to our consideration of libraries comes from a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1966. The English Faculty of Oxford University had commissioned a bust of Tolkien – to be sculpted by his daughter-in-law. It presently resides in the English Faculty Library, which undoubtedly displays the elegant architecture of the classical university.

I feel much honoured, and so also does my daughter-in-law (the sculptress), by the Faculty’s wish to place the bust of me in the English Library in some prominent position – if on second thoughts you do not think a storied urn would be better. I shall be most pleased to present it to the Faculty.

It occurs to me that the plaster bust is rather fragile and very easily damaged. I suggest, therefore, that I should have it cast in bronze for presentation (at my own cost). I have already referred the matter to the sculptress who knows how these things are done.

Once in bronze it would then be unaffected by any dignities or indignities offered to it. I often used to hang my hat on the Tsar of Russia’s bust, which he graciously presented to Merton.


The illustration accompanying today’s post is the bust of Tolkien referred to in his correspondence. (In light of this column’s discussion, one can hardly ignore the rather utilitarian architecture revealed through the window behind the celebrated author.)

C.S. Lewis & Rigmarole

November 16, 2022 — 9 Comments

I hope my confusion is not due to a decline in my mental faculties. But it seems to me politicians are becoming even more incoherent than they’ve always been.

Is it me? Or, are you also amazed at how some of them appear to be babbling half the time?

C.S. Lewis was a master of communication. And some of his observations about how poorly some people communicate can be insightful.

Listen to this verse from a poem entitled “The Prudent Jailer” which he wrote in 1947. (It deserves to be read out loud.)

Some walls cannot a prison make
Half so secure as rigmarole.*

Lewis wasn’t referring to political jargon when he wrote this poem, but it seems quite apropos in a number of contexts.

For example, consider a recent article from the American Institute for Economic Research. Jon Sanders applies Lewis’ poem to foreboding aspects the government’s response to the pandemic.

The poem originated not in political allegory, but as a critique of unimaginative literary criticism. Notwithstanding, the Jailer is a diabolical figure, and his prudence is this: he imprisons with words, not walls. . . .

The Jailer has them imprisoned by their own thoughts, while he keeps them focused ever on the presumption of a prison. He doesn’t want them thinking of anything else.

This post isn’t about politics. I detest the subject as a whole, and find it particularly corrosive to conversation as elections draw near.

The verse I cited above simply evoked for me the power of words to distort and, yes, imprison. Lewis’ use of rigmarole⁑ (a word sadly out of vogue) highlights the fact that the crippling words themselves are often nonsensical.

Other colorful synonyms that we might hear in the company of our seniors could include balderdash, poppycock, or perhaps even malarkey.

In a 1940 letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, Lewis applies “balderdash” to describe art and literature done “for their own sake.”

I do most thoroughly agree with what you say about Art and Literature. To my mind they are only healthy when they are either (a) Definitely the handmaids of religious, or at least moral, truth – or (b) Admittedly aiming at nothing but innocent recreation or entertainment. . . .

But the great serious irreligious art – art for art’s sake – is all balderdash; and, incidentally, never exists when art is really flourishing.

Fortunately, such words rarely become completely obsolete.

A noteworthy mythopoeic⁂ scholar, Brenton Dickieson, used “balderdash” quite skillfully not that long ago.

“The Prudent Jailer” was originally published in 1947 under the mundane title, “The Romantics.”

Since you’ve read this column to its conclusion, allow me to reward your diligence by presenting the poem in its entirety.

The Prudent Jailer

Always the old nostalgia? Yes.
We still remember times before
We had learned to wear the prison dress
Or steel rings rubbed our ankles sore.

Escapists? Yes. Looking at bars
And chains, we think of files; and then
Of black nights without moon or stars
And luck befriending hunted men.

Still when we hear the trains at night
We envy the free travelers, whirled
In how few moments past the sight
Of the blind wall that bounds our world.

Our Jailer (well may he) prefers
Our thoughts should keep a narrower range.
‘The proper study of prisoners
is prison,’ he tells us. Is it strange?

And if old freedom in our glance
Betrays itself, he calls it names
‘Dope’-‘Wishful thinking’-or ‘Romance,’
Till tireless propaganda tames.

All but the strong whose hearts they break,
All but the few whose faith is whole.
Some walls cannot a prison make
Half so secure as rigmarole.


* Thank you to Jon whose comment below pointed out the connection between Lewis’ allusion to the very famous poem “To Althea, from Prison,” written by Richard Lovelace in 1642. “Stone walls doe not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage…”

⁑ Some people in the States will be more familiar with the variant “rigamarole.”

⁂ Mythopoeia is a modern literary genre in which the author creates a fictional mythology. The finest example of such writing comes from the pen of J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of Middle Earth.