Archives For J.R.R. Tolkien

Gambling, Sin & C.S. Lewis

February 14, 2022 — 10 Comments

Gambling has become pervasive in modern society. It is so endemic that people rarely spend a moment wondering whether it is morally good, bad or indifferent.

This past week numerous articles appeared about multi-million dollar bets and the stunning amount waged on the final game of the NFL season. And, a day after the game is played, the odds for next season’s winner are already online.

The Super Bowl is traditionally the biggest annual sports betting event in the United States. But it’s only one of many events where the legally gambled totals are stunning.

It is estimated that Americans wager over $150 billion dollars per year on sporting events, and even more is bet on legally [on events] around the world.

Naturally, the World Cup – with its global audience – trumps the sum gambled on American football.

In the United States, opportunists created state-sponsored lotteries, presumably to fund worthy causes like education. Today most of these are taken for granted as a stable revenue stream (not always for their promised purpose).

And we haven’t even factored in the casual or unsanctioned gambling that takes place.

In many gambling situations, wagers are made between friends, for minor amounts. In such cases there seems to be little reason for concern. Perhaps it is about willpower and moderation.

However, there are some cases where people wager large amounts – far beyond what they can “afford” to lose. And in such cases, something dangerous is afoot. In the worst cases, people can lose everything they own. Even worse, innocent members of their families frequently suffer.

These are the people for whom Gamblers Anonymous exists. The organization “is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from a gambling problem.”

Recent brain research has confirmed a genetic element and that “gambling addiction triggers the same brain areas as drug and alcohol cravings.”

The grim truth, you see, is that gaming businesses are not the fun, innocent entertainment industry they claim to be. Gambling enterprises don’t rely on casual bettors for their profits. It’s the people who cannot resist making just one more bet, who fund their rich coffers.

And, while technology may make some gambling more appealing, it’s dangers were recognized centuries ago.

By the time George II came to the throne in 1727, Britain was a nation addicted to gaming. The capital was fit to burst with gaming houses, where play continued round the clock . . . A game named Hazard was one of the most popular games, and also one of the most aptly named, since there were hazards aplenty in playing.

Squeezed around a large, circular table, a player could easily win or lose an entire fortune in a single night, since large stakes were wagered on each throw of the dice, and four-figure losses were not uncommon. No amount of skill could improve the odds of winning at Hazard, either. . .

It was a highly addictive game too; payouts and losses came quickly, and so the atmosphere around the table was always one of fevered anticipation.

But is Gambling a Sin?

The fact that gambling can destroy families and lives suggest that it is not morally ambiguous. But, is it a matter of degree, rather than a right or wrong?

To answer that question, people of Christian faith look first to the Scriptures. The Bible speaks a great deal about money, but very little that relates directly to gambling. Most people are well acquainted with the biblical warnings that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” The rest of that verse describes the troubled state of people who have surrendered to its power.

It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1 Timothy 6:10).

Beyond the cautions about being tempted by money, gambling is not expressly addressed. Nevertheless, this essay offers a thorough discussion of the subject, and is worth reading.

What did C.S. Lewis Think?

C.S. Lewis had an excellent hermeneutic, or approach to interpreting the Scriptures. He believed that Jesus’ disciples should do what God’s Word tells us to do, and avoid what it instructs us to avoid. Pretty simple, right? Too bad we find that model so challenging to follow.

Because the Bible is essentially silent on the practice, Lewis applied his reason, and his personal experience to the matter when he was asked about it. In a collection entitled “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” he offered a very practical response.

Gambling ought never to be an important part of a man’s life. If it is a way in which large sums of money are transferred from person to person without doing any good (e.g., producing employment, goodwill, etc.) then it is a bad thing.

If it is carried out on a small scale, I am not sure that it is bad. I don’t know much about it, because it is about the only vice to which I have no temptation at all, and I think it is a risk to talk about things which are not in my own make-up, because I don’t understand them.

If anyone comes to me asking to play bridge for money, I just say: `How much do you hope to win? Take it and go away.’ (God in the Dock).

An Inkling Postscript

J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate faced an ethical challenge when Warner Brothers, one of their licensees, abused their rights and created “online games, slot machines and other gambling-related merchandise based on the author’s books The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings.”

Tolkien’s estate had accused the defendants of violating a 1969 agreement allowing the sale of “tangible” merchandise, by associating the books with the “morally-questionable (and decidedly non-literary) world of online and casino gambling”.

It said this “outraged Tolkien’s devoted fan base” and irreparably harmed the legacy of the English author, who died in 1973 at the age of 81.

Since the Chronicles of Narnia were written for children, they are less susceptible to such abuses. But, wherever a dollar can be made (or won) the possibility exists they could also be misused to that end.

If we were to ask C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the rest of the Inklings for insights about a New Year, what wisdom might they share?

Read on. Mere Inkling answers that question with a few select quotations from their writings. We also include comments from several other writers associated, in spirit, with the Oxford Inklings.

While some of the pithiest of the quotations below are well represented at quotation websites, your humble host has secured the less familiar quotations through the diligent search of obscure manuscripts.

J.R.R. Tolkien:

From a holiday letter to a friend.

“There is small chance of this reaching you tomorrow Jan. 1 to wish you a Happy New Year. I hope you have plenty of food in store! It is my birthday on Jan. 3rd, and I look like spending it in the isolation of a house turned igloo; but the companionship of several bottles of what has turned out a most excellent burgundy (since I helped to select it in its infancy) will no doubt mitigate that: Clos de Tart 1949, just at its top. With that hobbit-like note I will close, wishing you and your wife and children all blessings in 1962.”

As the world conflict raged on, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher who was serving in the Royal Air Force. “This empty year is fading into a dull grey mournful darkness: so slow-footed and yet so swift and evanescent. What of the new year and the spring? I wonder.”

Christopher Tolkien:

A scholar in his own right, Christopher devoted much of his life to editing his father’s published and unpublished works. In The End of the Third Age, he reminds us that sometimes the jobs on which we embark end up being far more involved than we anticipated. “With this book, my account of the writing of The Lord of the Rings is completed. I regret that I did not manage to keep it even within the compass of three fat volumes.

C.S. Lewis:

“What wonderful adventures we shall have, now that we are all in it together.”

“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”

“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different.”

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and help others to do the same.”

“If you live for the next world, you get this one in the deal; but if you live only for this world, you lose them both.”

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

“I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise, it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”

Charles Williams:

“I think in order to move forward into the future, you need to know where you’ve been.”

“Play and pray; but on the whole do not pray when you are playing and do not play when you are praying.”

Owen Barfield:

“. . . the poet, while creating anew, is likely to be in a sense restoring something old.”

In a short story entitled “The Devastated Area,” Barfield, a veteran of WWI, described the way a soldier can view an uncertain future. “Armistice day; the last shot; and the hushed, doubtful little group in the dug-out at 11 o’clock. He is sitting there in uniform, willing for the first time in three years to let his thoughts run on into the future. But they will go back to the past instead . . .”

Adam Fox:

In his history of English hymnody, Fox praises his nation’s people and offers timely advice regarding musical accompaniment. “It takes no long argument to prove that Hymn Singing is a national institution in Great Britain. It is so rather in the same way as cricket. . . . The singing is usually accompanied on an organ, or if there is no organ, then on a piano. The harmonium, though sometimes used for the purpose, cannot be recommended, and is falling into disuse.”

Jack A.W. Bennett:

In The Humane Medievalist, Bennett praises his friend and fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis. Coincidentally, this essay was his own inaugural lecture as he assumed the Cambridge chair which had been created for Lewis himself. “C.S. Lewis died a year ago today, and the year has deepened not diminished our sense of loss. Those of us who had the good fortune to call him master must feel as the prentice Hoccleve felt about Chaucer: ‘Fain he would me have taught, But I was dull, and learned little or naught.’”

Lord David Cecil:

He begins his biography of Lord Melbourne with a curious sentence suggesting that even we who have lived the most average of lives, may still have great things ahead of us. “William Lamb, second son of the first Viscount Melbourne, had arrived at the age of forty-seven without achieving anything of significance in the world.”

Hugo Dyson:

Discussing the Tragedies written by Shakespeare, Dyson reminds us to recognize potential blessings in the coming year’s challenges. “Our awareness both of ourselves and of the world at large is intensified by confrontation with an unexpected or serious or painful situation. Our wits and imaginations alike grow more acute under difficulties.”

Nevill Coghill:

Referring to Chaucer’s portrayal of the Knight, Coghill describes an ongoing goal for those who will to live nobly. “There is a fundamental answer to those who want to think the Knight’s moral nature . . . was too good to be true, and so can be no better than a romantic illusion. People who think thus can never have thought about Christianity at all; that we can live up to the moral demands that it makes on us, and that at any moment we may fall into the pit that opens beneath us, does not lessen the love we are taught . . . to have, and to attempt. Christianity plainly tells us to be perfect, impossible as it seems, impossible as it proves; but this does not make that demand less real, or even less realistic . . . Coming to the aid of human imperfection, there is grace.”

A Special Bonus for Mere Inkling Readers as the Year Ends

And a few additional thoughts from writers with connections to our favorite Inklings.

George MacDonald:

“A man’s real belief is that which he lives by. What a man believes is the thing he does, not the thing he thinks.”

A reminder to trust God for his daily provision. “It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow, that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear.”

“Past tears are present strength.”

Dorothy Sayers:

“Paradoxical as it may seem, to believe in youth is to look backward; to look forward we must believe in age.”

G.K. Chesterton:

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

Joy Davidman:

“Being a fool for God was not merely alright but liberating.”

“We do not need a world in which there is nothing to be afraid of . . . Nor can we have such a world, for all our strivings; no matter pleasant and safe we make the journey, the end of it is death. What we do need is to remember that we have been redeemed from death and the fear of death, and at a rather high price too.”

Douglas Gresham:

“I am beginning to realize that every point in one’s life at which one loses everything is far more a beginning than an end, for one has lost merely the past, and one has yet to gain the future, and eternity itself.”

And, encouragement for those among us who are writers: “Don’t forget, the rejection by a publisher of a book that you’ve written is not a failure.”

One Final Bit of Wisdom for the New Year

The internet offers lots of valuable information, accessible with the click of a key. Unfortunately, a significant amount of it is unsubstantiated, and downright false. This includes the quotations attributed to various people.

Some largescale quotation “aggregators” consider attribution on other unvalidated sites sufficient justification for loading the questionable citations to their own pages. For example, check out the quotations attributed online to Lord David Cecil. Or, better yet, don’t.

During my research for this post I discovered many of them – or, at least those most beneficial to reflective minds – actually come from the pen of Richard Cecil (1748-1810), an Anglican priest. Here is a grand example of misattribution, particularly appealing to a pastor such as myself: “It requires as much reflection and wisdom to know what is not to be put into a sermon, as what is.”

We’ll close now with an apocryphal C.S. Lewis quote. Despite scores of sites attributing the following thought to Lewis, no one can find it anywhere in his work. It is, however, consistent with his wisdom, and leaves us with an optimistic truth as 2021 draws to a close.

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Amen. Lord, grant all those who read these words of wisdom, both now and during years to come, a blessed New Year.

Machinery, one of the fruits of scientific research, is intended to benefit humanity. It often does. However, even machines with totally peaceful purposes – hay balers, for example – can be deadly.

Machines-run-amuck populate many dystopian novels and films. One of the most successful franchises is Terminator. Humanity is brought to the precipice of extinction, after devising machines – and their perilous companion Artificial Intelligence. The very first film, The Terminator (1984) brilliantly uses the biblical allusion “Judgement Day,” to mark the sentience of the genocidal Skynet.

Nearly forty years later, debates about weaponized autonomous systems have moved far beyond speculation. And it does not require a doctorate in computer science to recognize that given a potentially lethal machine the power to make its “own” decisions poses a deadly risk. After all, if software programs can be virally infected, and secure systems can be locked tight and held for ransom, there are no guarantees that “terminators” will not be part of our future.

We’ve seen how weapons can easily be mounted on the robotic dogs that are currently accompanying our troops.

And in a recent Air Force Magazine article, “Unmanned Flying Teammates,” we read the promise that “Robots will join the Combat Air Forces within the next decade.”

The common nomenclature for the current generation of these machines is Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. You can read about “slaughterbots” at the Future of Life Institute site.

Whereas in the case of unmanned military drones the decision to take life is made remotely by a human operator, in the case of lethal autonomous weapons the decision is made by algorithms alone.

Slaughterbots are pre-programmed to kill a specific “target profile.” The weapon is then deployed into an environment where its AI searches for that “target profile” using sensor data, such as facial recognition.

While the first generation of such weapons are still being designed, a genuinely wonderful new machine foreshadows what might be an ominous future.

In response to the destructive necessity for pesticides, scientists have come up with a new self-driving farm machine that avoids the need for poisons by selectively zapping individual weeds with lasers. Forbes has a great article on the subject, with the unwieldly but informative title, “Self-Driving Farm Robot Uses Lasers To Kill 100,000 Weeds An Hour, Saving Land And Farmers From Toxic Herbicides.”

The weeding machine is a beast at almost 10,000 pounds. It boasts no fewer than eight independently-aimed 150-watt lasers, typically used for metal cutting, that can fire 20 times per second.

They’re guided by 12 high-resolution cameras connected to AI systems that can recognize good crops from bad weeds. The Laserweeder drives itself with computer vision, finding the furrows in the fields, positioning itself with GPS, and searching for obstacles with LIDAR.

I applaud this invention, with one major caveat. How large a step is required between zapping weeds and burning holes through human bodies?

Ironically, they have even named this agricultural prototype for human-hunting machines “Terminator technology.”

Terminator technology is the genetic modification of plants to make them produce sterile seeds. They are also known as suicide seeds. Terminator’s official name – used by the UN and scientists – is Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs).

Actually, this is a very positive breakthrough in terms of increasing harvests while preserving the natural health of the earth (and the Earth). C.S. Lewis, I believe, would have welcomed this new technological achievement.

The affinity of C.S. Lewis and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien for nature is well recognized. The two WWI veterans were averse to industrialized landscapes, and much preferred bucolic images. You can see that in Lewis’ fiction, although it’s much more evident in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (Even Tolkien’s truest fans must admit that some readers find his elaborate discussion of the Hobbits’ harmony with nature almost mundane.)

True science is a good thing, but one must remain vigilant against an idolatry that masks itself as science.

Beware of Scientism

C.S. Lewis’ role as a an apologist for Christianity – and for what was worthwhile in past history – brought him into more direct conflict with technology. Of course, it was not scientific advances per se of which he was wary. It was the creeping idolatry of scientism, which assumes the trappings of faith in its disciples’ eyes. Tolkien shared his concerns regarding the matter, but confronting such lies was not part of his vocation.

Lewis’ clearest exposition of humanity’s lust for progress may be his 1954 Inaugural Lecture as the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. De Descriptione Temporum (A Description of the Times) should be read in one sitting, as it was delivered. It is included in several collections, but available online here. The quotation below offers a very small slice of his influential lecture. (Coincidentally, A Pilgrim in Narnia featured a superb column on the address just yesterday.)

[The birth of the machines] is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. . . . What concerns us . . . is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation,” with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”?

Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. . . . Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”?

Well, let us admit that these semantic developments owe something to the nineteenth-century belief in spontaneous progress which itself owes something either to Darwin’s theorem of biological evolution or to that myth of universal evolutionism which is really so different from it, and earlier. . . . But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image.

It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. . . .

Our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder [all of those who have gone before us.]

A thought-provoking article, “The Folly of Scientism,” offers the argument of a professor of Biology, which is independent of C.S. Lewis, while echoing many of his cautions.*

Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics – seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence.

An excellent work on this subject is available for purchase, entitled The Restoration of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism. Michael Aeschliman’s excellent treatment is evidenced by the fact the 2019 version is the third edition of the title.

But why should this central civilizing truth about the “res sacra homo,” [the fact that “humanity is a sacred thing”] . . . need C.S. Lewis’s [reaffirmation]? The answer to that question is philosophical, historical, and complex, but it should not be as obscure or little understood as it is today.

Although there was never a “golden age” of civilization within historical time, this radically noble idea was often better understood in the past, even the recent past.

Back to the Robots

Wait, I just noticed some armed drones flying overhead, and what appeared to be a silhouette resembling a GURT-101 Terminator skulking through the woods outside my office . . . Perhaps I’ve already written too much.

* This article appears in The New Atlantis, where they say “Our aim is a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.”

Would you like to receive free books for the simple exchange of a short, honest review of them? If so, join me at LibraryThing. Best of all, they offer additional benefits for readers (and writers).

You may already have a free account there, since they offer a book cataloging system connecting you to fellow readers, which appeals to many book lovers.

They also offer TinyCat, which is a sophisticated cataloging system designed for small libraries. And it is free for personal use! I don’t have the time to input my own library, despite all of their tools for making that easy, but it could well work for you. [Warning: if your library includes more than 20,000 items, it may be a tad too large.]

Requesting a book for review is simple. Each month they list a bunch of new, mostly self-published titles that are available. You express your interest and they distribute the quantity that are available. You can see current offerings here: LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

The truth is that I rarely request a title. The vast majority are fiction, while my tastes strongly lean toward nonfiction. Even there, available time restricts my interests to a handful of topics. Still, I wrote a review about a book I received entitled  A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Postmodern Times: Aphorisms. (I am a sucker for thought-provoking maxims, especially if they are witty.) More on my review in a moment.

In the past I’ve written book reviews for military and theological journals. Most publications offer specific guidelines as to what they desire in a review. If you opt to ignore these, you are wasting everyone’s time. Most online sites are more tolerant.

Writing Book Reviews

Writing effective reviews is an art in itself. To do it well requires some conscious effort. To simply describe something as “good” or “boring” is basically not worth the effort. You need to think about what you, as a potential reader, are interested in knowing about a title before you invest your time and money in procuring it.

It appears there are hundreds of online sites describing the process. This one from Grammarly is a quick, clear read. One piece of their advice relates directly to my latest review.

Remember that you’re reviewing a book that another human poured their heart and soul into to write. Express your honest opinion, but don’t be nasty about it.

That sentiment is similar to one I just read in an old magazine I was perusing.

Concerning satire, I’ve always followed the rule laid down by an old college professor: “I only pick on those I love.” If I have trouble loving someone, it’s better if I refrain from jokes, satire, and teasing.

C.S. Lewis & the Art of Reviewing Books

If one were to tally all the reviews that have been written about the works of C.S. Lewis, their number might rival the grains of sand spread around the world’s beaches.*

It is unsurprising that Lewis, being a professor of English literature, wrote a significant number of book reviews himself. Some of the most notable are gathered in Image and Imagination. While the volume includes a number of valuable essays, it is the collection of his published book reviews which are of interest to us today.

You see, in Image and Imagination we encounter ten of his reviews written about books authored by his fellow Inklings. These include Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. The volume is edited by Walter Hooper, who ably introduces each of the reviews, and provides unique insight. For example, he notes C.S. Lewis’ ongoing debate with Owen Barfield about anthroposophy.

Barfield’s conversion to Anthroposophy . . . marked the beginning of . . . the ‘Great War’ between [the two friends]. . . . While the ‘Great War’ had ended years before, the problem Lewis faced in reviewing Romanticism Comes of Age is that it contains in the Introduction and other places Barfield’s ‘case’ for Anthroposophy (“Who Gaf Me Drink?”).

Lewis’ review of the culmination of the Lord of the Rings is worth the full price of the collection. Doesn’t the following ring true?

The other excellence is that no individual, and no species, seems to exist only for the sake of the plot. All exist in their own right and would have been worth creating for their mere flavour even if they had been irrelevant.

Treebeard would have served any other author (if any other could have conceived him) for a whole book. His eyes are ‘filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking.’

Through those ages his name has grown with him, so that he cannot now tell it; it would, by now, take too long to pronounce. When he learns that the thing they are standing on is a hill, he complains that this is but ‘a hasty word’ for that which has so much history in it (“The Dethronement of Power”).

On My Review of the Curmudgeon’s Concerns

My recent review (to which I referred above) was not easy to write. What made it difficult was my mixed opinion of the aphorisms chosen for the publication. Most were quite interesting, and a few were downright brilliant. The problem was the strong bias of the author when he addressed two “controversial” topics – politics and religion.

Unlike Mark Twain, to whom I refer in the review, this author forsakes humor when he deplores subjects with which he disagrees. Twain made it clear how he stood, but usually in a manner that left even his opponents entertained. This particular book is much more “curmudgeonly,” in that some of it is delivered in an ill-tempered, alienating manner.

If you are curious in seeing how I threaded the needle of honestly reviewing a book with problematic material, you can read it here. While praising many aspects of the book, I did make one critical observation related to an aphorism related to The Chronicles of Narnia.

Greene even invokes my favorite author to mischaracterize Christianity. “C.S. Lewis depicted God as a lion. The lion, of course, is a predator.” So much for agnus dei and Aslan’s manifestation as a lamb.

A Final Encouragement

If you are a writer, or an aspiring writer, consider writing some book reviews. It can provide a more welcoming entrée into the publishing world than other features. Write it in a style similar to the reviews they normally run, and be sure to read any guidelines they provide for contributions. As with other submissions, it’s best to query first. Best of luck!

* The World Atlas estimate of 2.5 to 10 sextillions may suggest this estimate of Lewisian reviews may be hyperbole. But at least I did not refer to the number of stars, which is estimated at 10 to 200 sextillion.

Humorous Examinations

September 21, 2021 — 13 Comments

Could you pass this examination?

Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

In contrast to the serious tone of the last two posts, today I am offering some edifying entertainment. As a gift to you, I have edited a perennial favorite of internet humorists. I recently came across my copy of this comprehensive knowledge examination, which motivated me to tweak it for Mere Inkling’s erudite audience.

You have probably seen versions of this exam in the past. The basic questions have remained surprisingly stable despite its age. I encountered it in the University of Washington campus paper in 1973. One writer claims “the Graduation Exam—Authentic Assessment has been in circulation since at least the 1950’s.”

The exam certainly makes the rounds, as this Navy veteran described.

The pressures of comprehensive exams were apparent to many, which resulted in one of the few officially sanctioned jokes in Naval Nuclear Power. In one of the official publications of Naval Reactors, someone inserted a sample “final exam” from Nuclear Power School.

In 2012 elements of the examination created confusion in the People’s Republic of China. It was included in an article about how Chinese nationals could prepare for an American State Department exam required for positions at the United States embassy in Beijing. According to China’s Global Times, “US embassy spokesman Richard Buangan made clear on his Sina microblog Sunday that an alleged ‘recruitment test for expatriate employees at the US embassy’ is fake.”

A June 2008 issue of Foreign Service Journal carried a story, which includes an English version of the [exam stating] the questions are from the US State Department’s entrance exam, in a bid to “measure the stability of perspective Foreign Service officers and to weed out the dummies.”

The Function of Examinations

Testing and documenting competence is obviously important. This is especially true for people in critical roles, such as prescribing drugs, designing aircraft engines, and manufacturing ice cream.

Of course, not everyone is able to pass every test. Which is precisely how things should be.

C.S. Lewis noted how educators truly familiar with their students readily recognize when it is a waste of time for them to continue repeating an exam they obviously cannot pass. He said an academic “master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again” (The Problem of Pain).

I have met very few people who enjoy being tested. Yet, for many faculty members (C.S. Lewis included), being on the “other side” of exams is not particularly enjoyable either. This delightful passage comes from a 1927 letter to his brother, Warnie.

My period of examining passed over with its usual accompaniment of neuralgia and oaths, relieved by the one excellent boy who defined ‘a genie’ correctly, yet more than correctly, as ‘an eastern spirit inhabiting bottles and buttons and rings.’ Pretty good for a boy.

I was also pleased with a youth who, being asked to write a letter to a friend recommending Guy Mannering,* wrote to his brother recommending it and saying ‘I think you would be interested in the character of Colonel Mannering, he is so like our father’: and then later in a paper on Guy Mannering in which I had set the question ‘Would you have liked Colonel Mannering as a father?’—illustrate your answer etc.—began decisively ‘I would not have liked Colonel Mannering as a father in the least.’

Well, it’s time now to offer you the opportunity to prove your worthiness. If you wish to evidence the breadth and depth of your knowledge, proceed now to the exam. (Astute readers will note I’ve added a personal twist to a couple of the exam questions.)

Comprehensive Knowledge Exam

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific. Now do the same for the Zoroastrian priesthood. [Bonus credit for including Antarctica in your response.]

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes. [Option: if you feel the scotch would impair your responses to the remaining questions, you may defer this portion of the exam to the end of the exam.]

PUBLIC SPEAKING: Two thousand riot-crazed anarchists are storming the campus. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin, Greek or Sanskrit. [Pig Latin is allowed.]

BIOLOGY: Postulate the 500 million year progression of a life form based on silicon, ranking its likely preference for form of government Enumerate the pros and cons it would associate with democracy, monarchy, socialism, theocracy, and totalitarianism. [Caution: any references to the Horta of Janus VI will result in disqualification of your answer, since Star Trek is a fictional resource.]

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and digeridoo. You will find a piano under your seat. The wind instruments, of course, were among the items you were directed to bring with you to the examination.

PSYCHOLOGY: Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment, and repressed frustrations of each of the following: Alexander of Aphrodisias, Hildegard of Bingen, Rābi’a bint Ka’b al-Quzdārī and Simeon the Stylite. Support your evaluation with quotations from each individual’s work, citing original sources. It is not necessary to translate.

SOCIOLOGY: Using the pretext of Planet of the Apes, where homo sapiens have been subordinated to various primate species, assess the prospects for achieving mutual toleration and equilibrium before one group is driven to extinction. [Caution: confusion of apes (which lack tails) and monkeys (which lack an appendix) will result in disqualification of your response.]

CHEMISTRY: Transform lead into gold. You will find a beaker, a three hundred count box of matches and five lead sinkers under your seat. Show all work including Feynman diagrams and quantum functions for all steps. [Transformation into silver will provide half credit.]

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. [Special Consideration: Satisfactorily explain the differences between Fahrenheit and Celsius to the tiger, and it will be replaced by a rabid ferret.]

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing global debt, without hypothesizing a benevolent intergalactic alliance with unlimited resources coming to the planet’s aid. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: Cubism, the Donatist controversy, and the 1913 foundation of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Gabon.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: Devise an infallible, seven-step plan to transform the United Nations into an organization that will successfully foster peace and goodwill in all international relationships. [Bonus credit for providing a major role for two of the following nations: Dominica, Liechtenstein, Tuvalu.]

AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE: Outline the steps involved in breeding your own super high yield, all weather hybrid strain of wheat. Describe its chemical and physical properties and estimate its impact on world food supplies. Construct a model for dealing with world-wide surpluses. Draft your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on astronomy, botany and numismatics. [Bonus Credit: write today’s date in metric.]

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought. Be sure to include an analysis of the influence exerted on philosophy by Diogenes the Cynic.

CREATIVE WRITING: Compose an epic poem based on the events of your own life in which you see and footnote allusions from T.S. Eliot, Titus Lucretius Carus, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante Alighieri, Þorbjörn Hornklofi, Gilgamesh and Stephen King. Critique your poem with a full discussion of its syntax and metrics. [Bonus Credit for writing alternating stanzas between free and rhyming verse.]

EDUCATION: Formulate an examination which accurately measures an individual’s comprehensive knowledge base without cultural or linguistic prejudice. Limit the question parameters to what can reasonably be covered during a four hour testing block.

LITERATURE: Discuss in detail at least three major literary figures from each of the following civilizations: the Xia Dynasty, the Akkadian Empire, the Mayan Empire, the Aksumite Empire, the Polynesian Tuʻi Tonga Empire, and nineteenth century United Kingdom. [Caution: failure to include J.R.R. Tolkien and/or C.S. Lewis will result in disqualification of your answer to this question.]

Congratulations on finishing the exam. You are encouraged to use any remaining time to review your answers in light of the fact that grammatical errors and misspellings will significantly impact your final grade.

* You can download a personal copy of Guy Mannering, one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, at Internet Archive.

If you should question the distinctions I noted between apes and monkeys, please know that the facts are genuine. However, for future examinations, you should be aware that not all monkeys have tails.

Inkling Action Figures

August 31, 2021 — 8 Comments

Have you ever dreamt of having an action figure made in your honor? No, neither have I.

Well, that was until I saw this picture of product knockoffs published last week by The Power of Story.

One of the characters portrayed above raised the notion in my mind because of the counterfeit’s “name.” No, it wasn’t the muscular hero with the S emblazoned on his chest (even though my family frequently reminds me that I am “special”).

The figure that inspired me was Robert Cop. Not because I wore a police uniform for seven years (as a volunteer chaplain for the Kitsap County Sheriff’s Office). But because Robert is my own name.

By the way, the Social Security Administration says that it’s still the 80th most popular boy’s name in America (down from 29th twenty years ago). For those curious about the frequency of their own names, I’ll provide a link to the SSA website below.*

“Robert” was number three in the 1950s when I received it (superseded only by James and Michael). That’s not to suggest frequency of usage bears any significance. One could easily argue that having a less common name makes a person more “special.”

Take C.S. Lewis, for example. His full name was Clive Staples Lewis—Clive came from Major-General Robert Clive (1725-1774) and Staples was a great-grandmother’s family name.

In fact, Lewis published his two early poetic works, (Spirits in Bondage in 1919 and Dymer in 1926) under the name Clive Hamilton, using his mother’s original surname.

Later, Lewis chose to use his first two initials for publication and official purposes. To his family and friends, however, he was always known as “Jack.” This oddity was a consequence of his conscious decision as a very young (and, apparently, precocious) child to choose his own name.

In his ‘Memoir’ of his brother, Warren – or ‘Warnie’ as he was known – said that when Clive was about four years old he “made the momentous decision to change his name. Disliking ‘Clive’…he marched up to my mother, put a forefinger on his chest, and announced ‘He is Jacksie.’ He stuck to this next day, and thereafter . . . a name contracted to Jacks and then to Jack” (C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Sceptics).

C.S. Lewis also, like most of us, had a variety of nicknames. I’ve written about some of them here.

Inkling Action Figures

Sure, heroic characters from Narnia and Middle Earth have been memorialized as action figures. Many have even made it into the hallowed halls of Lego figurines.

But where are their creators (or subcreators, to use Tolkien’s parlance)? I know I’m not alone in yearning for some great Inkling figures. (And I’m confident there must be at least two or three other potential customers.)

Just think of all the dynamic action poses a creative manufacturer could include. You could have C.S. Lewis lecturing at a podium. Or J.R.R. Tolkien busy at his desk working on his translation of Beowulf.

You might pose Charles Williams proofreading a volume of the Oxford English Dictionary. Or Owen Barfield conscientiously administrating C.S. Lewis’ estate. What about Hugo Dyson lecturing about Shakespeare on a 1960s television soundstage?

And these exciting scenes around the campus environment are merely the beginning. Can you imagine a group of them seated around a table at the Eagle and Child pub? Or, getting them off of their bums [British usage], you could pose them in the midst of one of their thrilling walks.

Seriously, several of the Inklings did exhibit heroic actions that would provide forceful images. Take Tolkien and Lewis, for example, during their combat service during the First World War.

Warnie Lewis was a veteran as well, and a career Royal Army officer to boot. Nevill Coghill served in the artillery during the First World War, and occasional member Christopher Tolkien was in the Royal Air Force during the second global conflict.

In one of his essays, Lewis described the use of particular things for alternative purposes. In making his case, he illustrates it with several examples. One is apropos here. And, although he would never have dreamed of it being applied to him personally, I believe it fits the manner in which many of us regard him and his friend Tolkien.

You can use a poet, not as a poet, but as a saint or hero; and if your poet happens to have been a saintly or heroic man as well as a poet you may even be acting wisely. (The Personal Heresy).

Both men were talented writers. Each was a sincere disciple of Jesus. And both responded to their nation’s call to face the horrors of the Western Front. In light of their service, it seems a skillful designer could base exciting Tolkien and Lewis figurines on something like this generic WWI British officer.

Just do everyone a favor, please don’t use a doll as a template for my literary and spiritual hero.

After all, real heroes are not always cuddly. But they are definitely epic! Just like Robert Cop and Special Man.

* If you are curious about where your first name ranks in popularity, now or during various decades back to the 1880s, you can find out here.

If you were to liken your personal writing to that of a famous author, who would you name? Are you similar to Emily Dickinson, or are you an echo of Charles Dickens?

Perhaps your words flow like Shakespeare’s or erupt in staccato, like Hemingway’s. If you are a member of a writing critique group – which I highly recommend – your friends may have offered their own suggestions about authors you resemble.

It just so happens there are a couple of tools that can offer hints as to the answer to this question. When I looked back at an earlier post on this subject, I was shocked to find I had written it all the way back in 2012. Yes, I know some of you were in grammar school then.

I shared then a site which was relatively new. The “I Write Like” site invites you to submit samples of your writing, which it compares to a range of famous authors. I am curious to try the process today, since the programmer continued to update it until 2016. Perhaps my results will be different than those from 2012.

Programs such as this are frankly quite limited. For those of you interested in the programmer who designed this one, you can check out an interview conducted when it was initially released. In the interview, Dmitry Chestnykh explains how his “algorithm is not a rocket science, and you can find it on every computer today. It’s a Bayesian classifier, which is widely used to fight spam on the Internet.”

My Own Results

I’m unsure how many authors our Russian friend has included in the comparison files. It does include historical and contemporary authors. I have no idea whether my favorite author, C.S. Lewis, found his way into the database or not. My results do reveal, however, that at least one of his fellow Inklings did make the cut.

Without further conversation, allow me to share the results from my experiment nearly a decade ago.

Make sure you include lengthy selections from your work. Also, testing the program with different genres (assuming you write in different styles) will actually give you new matches. (That is, of course, as it should be.)

I tried a number of times (no, not fishing for results I wanted, but using a variety of types of my writing) and here were the repeated results:

For my blog posts: H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien
For my more formal essays: J.R.R. Tolkien or Jonathan Swift

These were admirable results with which I have been happy to live. Thus, it is with some trepidation that I revisited the astonishing program today. And the results – For my blog posts: Arthur C. Clarke – For my more formal essays: Ditto.

Very interesting. Aside from the possibility that the program has been contaminated by some spaceborne virus, or intemperate Clarkean fans, I have to assume that Clarke may have been added after my initial venture into the unfathomable world of I Write Like.

In case any of you try out the program, I’d enjoy hearing your results – especially if they are someone other than a science fiction writer who died in 2008.

Another Way to Look at Writing Styles

There are a multitude of different elements involved in assessing a writer’s style – that which constitutes your “voice.” Vocabulary, sentence length, cadence, tone and a myriad of additional elements meld together in unique ways.

As David Downing’s fine article on C.S. Lewis’ advice to writers points out, the skilled writer considers how their words “sound.”

Lewis also believed that one should always write for the ear as well as for the eye. He recommended that a piece of prose be read aloud, to make sure that its sounds reinforce its sense.

Naturally, when we write for different audiences or purposes our voice can shift accordingly. That is why I fed the program selections from my blogs and my more considered essays. And, if they differ somewhat, you can imagine how distinctive my devotions are from my catechesis, or my fiction from my satire.

Speaking of satire, check out my recent report on Chinese Olympic results and the Uyghur people published last week in the Damascus Dropbear, a site similar to the Babylon Bee from the Land Down Under.

Back now to a second online program for assessing one’s writing. It can be found on a curious site called MySocialBrain. There you can participate in a variety of “research projects” that forfeit structured controls for broader access. The scientific benefit is obviously debatable, but the personal insights may well be beneficial.

One study entitled “Who do you write like?” compares the writing you submit with a number of famous authors. (As with “I Write Like,” your text is not retained on the system. Likewise, neither site requires that you enter your name or any other identifying information.)

This research project focuses narrowly on one dimension of stylometric study, a field explored in great depth in “Quantitative Patterns of Stylistic Influence in the Evolution of Literature,” available online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

MySocialBrain bases its study on a reasonable premise. “Despite the seemingly ineffable qualities of style, great progress has been made in measuring writing quantitatively. This process, known as stylometry, can identify the influence of one writer on another or reveal the author of unattributed work.”

You can have your writing compared to that of others at this site.

I used two different samples of my writing (blog, then essay) and came up with fairly similar results. I haven’t read much from every one of these authors, but my gut suggests there may be a valid correlation here. And that impression is reinforced by how little correlation my submission had with the writing of Beatrix Potter, R.M. Ballantyne and Baroness Orczy (of whom I had never heard).

If you have a few free minutes, and are curious about what this stylometry tool might conclude about your writing, give it a try.

The cartoon at the top of this column is used with the permission of its talented creator, Jonny Hawkins. He is both talented and prolific. Enjoy a humorous jaunt through his personal website today.

Don’t you find it slightly irritating when people intentionally mispronounce words? Sometimes it isn’t merely a silly affectation. What bothers me are cases where people consciously reject the accurate version and flaunt their personal (inaccurate) alternative. It comes across to me like they are magnifying their ignorance with a sizeable dose of obnoxious stubbornness.

Anyone, of course, can accidentally mispronounce a word. Well, anyone aside from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, that is.

I don’t enjoy (but don’t object to) simple silliness. In a 1932 American Speech article entitled “Intentional Mispronunciations,” the author says, “the custom is an old one, and in our age of light-hearted youth it is unusually widespread.” She immediately notes one danger.

The use of mispronunciations sometimes becomes habit, and it is often difficult to speak correctly when one is in sophisticated company.

The humble person, when advised on the proper enunciation of a particular word, thanks their friend (only friends should dare to sensitively point out such a slip). After expressing that appreciation, they go forward with the commitment to being a bastion of proper usage of the word in question.

However, there are those obstinate ignoramuses (OIs) who defiantly insist on perpetuating their sins.  

Let us consider a common error. One that is quite easily corrected, unless the OI insists on actively rejecting knowledge. The word is “nuclear,” and you already know what the all too common mistake is. How can anyone, much less a graduate of Yale, entrusted with the Gold Codes, accompanied at all times by a military aide ready to hand them the “nuclear football,” continue to use the non-word nu-cu-lar? I have no idea how common this atrocity is outside the United States, but here in the States, it is far from rare.

A good friend of mine, who does public speaking, insists on pronouncing “recognize” without its “g.” I understand he must have learned it that way, but I will never get used to a person with advanced degrees saying “rec-a-nize.” My father was a curmudgeon, and this conscious affront reinforced his chosen image. He loved to push my buttons by adding an “r” to the state I call home. Warshington doesn’t exist on any map, but it certainly did in his mind.

Why Pronunciations Err

People are prone to mispronunciation when they’ve only read a word, and never heard it pronounced before. This was especially perilous before the existence of online dictionaries.

There is another hazard which can mislead someone in pronouncing a word incorrectly—and it was to this that I succumbed my first year at seminary. This is the case where a word is spelled in a manner that makes the errant pronunciation possible, and you have only heard it pronounced in the wrong way. This is the story of my shame.

I was taking a consortium course on ministry and media, which was taught by professors from four or five different seminaries. In my first “radio” presentation, I cited a passage from one of the Psalms. Everyone said it was well done—until the Roman Catholic professor (with nary a hint of affirmation) declared, ex cathedra: “it’s ‘sahm;’ you don’t pronounce the ‘l.’”

I was so embarrassed that I remained silent and soon as I got home I pulled out my dictionary, and darned if he wasn’t right. I have pronounced it correctly ever since, even in the face of a world that now considers me to be wrong.

My aversion to the intentional-mispronunciators does not extend to people who say “salm.” After all, that’s how the word should be pronounced.* But those people who insist on saying “re-la-ter” when the profession is clearly spelled “re-al-tor,” are begging for some sort of aversion therapy.

There is one additional case I wish to note here. That is when there are two (or more?) legitimate ways to pronounce a word. I’m not referring to homographs, like wind (wĭnd) and wind (wīnd).

C.S. Lewis also discusses pronunciation at great length in his essay “The Alliterative Metre,” where he notes,

In modern English many words, chiefly monosyllables, which end in a single consonant are pronounced differently according to their position in the sentence. If they come at the end of a sentence or other speech-group—that is, if there is a pause after them—the final consonant is so dwelled upon that the syllable becomes long.

If the reader listens carefully he will find that the syllable man is short in ‘Manifold and great mercies’ or ‘The man of property,’ but long in ‘The Invisible Man’ or ‘The Descent of Man.’

Words with multiple formally accepted pronunciations are fair game—as long as a person’s choice is from the list. Here’s one where pronouncing the “l” is optional: almond. Apricot can begin with either the sound “app” or “ape.”

A Playful Game Using Homographs

The following example uses a name, but the principle would be the same for any word with more than one authentic pronunciation. It comes from a book I read many years ago, which has retained a fond place in my memory. Robert McAfee Brown (1920-2001) was a Presbyterian theologian. The title of the volume suggests its satirical bent: The Collect’d Writings of St. Hereticus.

One of the appendices in the book is called “Theological Gamesmanship.” One of the games he features is “How to Win a Theological Discussion Without Knowing Anything.” The following gambit is called “Help from St. Augustine.”

A quiet yet forceful way of demonstrating superiority when Augustine is under discussion is to pronounce his name in contrary fashion to the pronunciation of the Opponent.⁑ Make a point of emphasizing the contrast, so that it will be apparent that you know you are right, and not even for politeness’ sake will you pronounce the name incorrectly as Opponent is doing. Either,

Opponent: . . . leading ideas in Augustine (Ogg-us-teen).
Self: Augustine (uh-Gust’n)may have said that on one or two occasions, but . . .
Opponent (usually an Anglican in this case): . . . leading ideas in Augustine.
Self: Augustine may have said that on one or two occasions, but the whole Augustinian tradition, following, as I believe, the essential Augustine himself . . .

In this second gambit, it is advisable to maneuver the conversation into a discussion of “the Augustinian tradition” as indicated, so that when Opponent refers to it, as he must, without pronouncing it “the Augustinian tradition,” you can smile deprecatingly, to indicate that your point has been made.

[Brown adds a footnote that reads:] With sensitive Anglicans, it will often be enough simply to raise, ever so slightly, (a) both eyebrows, and (b) the second, third, and fourth fingers of the left hand.

Naturally, I’m not seriously suggesting that one-upmanship is something in which one should engage. On the contrary, Brown (and I) are holding up this sort of petty behavior as beneath the dignity of good people.

I’m sure that some would argue that correcting someone’s pronunciation in even the most glaring examples of verbal atrocities, constitutes bad manners. I, however, appreciate being privately corrected, so that I might not continue making the same mistake. Thus, I consider it the act of a friend.

C.S. Lewis was a patient and gracious man. He was quite tolerant of variation in pronunciation, even when it came to his own creations. In 1952 he responded to a correspondent inquiring how to properly pronounce the name of Aslan. I would guess the most common American version would be “æzˌlæn” opting to pronounce the “s” as a “z.” Here is Lewis’ response:

It is a pleasure to answer your question. I found the name in the notes to Lane’s Arabian Nights: it is the Turkish for Lion. I pronounce it Ass-lan [æsˌlæn] myself. And of course I meant the Lion of Judah. I am so glad you liked the book.

I loved the book, and I affirm its readers, whichever way they pronounce the name of the Great Lion. Well, as long as they don’t intentionally mispronounce it, including an invisible “r.” After all, there is most certainly no beloved image of Christ named Arslan!

* This waiver does not extend, however, to what may be the most common biblical mistake. The Book of Revelation does not have an “s.” Yet, how often do you hear it cited as Revelations?

⁑ This brazen technique is equally effective, no matter which pronunciation the person you seek to upstage has used.

The cartoon at the top of this post is used with the permission of xkcd.

Which type of epic are you most likely to write? The two basic choices are either a natural epic, or a literary epic.

Actually, it’s a bit of a trick question, since it would be extremely challenging to draw together all of the pieces necessary to compose a natural epic. You can see just why, in this passage from one of C.S. Lewis’ early letters to his father.

I came across it while searching for references to elegies in Lewis’ writings, as I discussed in my previous post. Lewis mentions an elegy in a letter to his father. One of Lewis students referred to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” from which I had included an excerpt. As I mentioned there, it was common for schoolchildren to be required to memorize the poem at the time.

I include a portion of Lewis’ letter, however, not because of the elegy reference, but due to the distinction he draws between the two types of epics. In addition, it is entertaining and ends on a positive note despite the disappointing performance of the student in question.

I have got quite recently one pupil [who] is a youth of eighteen who is trying to get a Classical scholarship. I am to coach him in essay writing and English for the essay paper and general papers which these exams always include. I fear we shall win no laurels by him.

I questioned him about his classical reading: our dialogue was something like this:

Self: ‘Well Sandeman, what Greek authors have you been reading?’
Sand: (cheerfully): ‘I never can remember. Try a few names and I’ll see if I can get on to any.’
Self: (a little damped:) ‘Have you read any Euripides?’
Sand: ‘No.’
Self: ‘Any Sophocles?’
Sand: ‘Oh yes.’
Self: ‘What plays of his have you read?’
Sand: (after a pause): ‘Well–the Alcestis.’
Self: (apologetically): ‘But isn’t that by Euripides?’
Sand: (with the genial surprise of a man who finds £1 where he thought there was a 10 [shilling] note): ‘Really? Is it now? By Jove, then I have read some Euripides.’

My next . I asked him if he were familiar with the distinction that critics draw between a natural and a literary epic. He was not: you may not be either, but it makes no difference.

I then explained to him that when a lot of old war songs about some mythological hero were handed down by aural tradition and gradually welded into one whole by successive minstrels (as in the case of ‘Homer’) the result was called a natural epic: but when an individual poet sat down with pen in hand to write Paradise Lost, that was a literary epic.

He listened with great attention and then observed ‘I suppose “Grey’s Elegy” is the natural kind.’ What idiots can have sent him in for a Scholarship? However, he is one of the cheeriest, healthiest, and most perfectly contented creations I have ever met with.

I have often thought how pleasant it would have been to enjoy C.S. Lewis’ company. Yet, when I read about his expectations for his students, I’m not confident I would have measured up. (If I didn’t possess so much respect for teachers, I suppose I could just blame mine.)

Currently, it appears that the two types of epics are usually referred to as folk epics and literary epics. I prefer the word “folk” to “natural” in this regard. It elicits the image of older cultures sitting around the fire telling tales (as some of the Inklings replicated in kolbitar).

And so, we arrive at a question. Not the question of which Greek authors we’ve read. Nor the question of whether we know the difference between folk and literary epics—since we have all now mastered that distinction.

The question is this: will your personal epic be of the literary variety? Or, will you lay aside all of your responsibilities and journey to some primitive environment like a sociologist conducting field research for their PhD—and compile ancient oral traditions into a monumental folk epic destined to be celebrated by one and all?

Actually, it does not have to be one or the other. Since they are not mutually exclusive, perhaps you should be one of the first people in history to ever create both.

A Final Caveat When Authoring Epics

Whatever your path in pursuing your epic dreams, do not fall into the same trap as James Macpherson (1736-1796). He was the first Scottish poet to become widely famous in Europe. Unfortunately, his fame was built on the foundation of a Scottish folk epic attributed to Ossian.

Fortunately for Macpherson, he was already interred in Westminster Abbey by the time his Gaelic “originals” were published. It is widely recognized they were back translations from his English “translation” to create the supposed source material. Not the legacy one would desire.

At least C.S. Lewis evaluated Macpherson’s legacy temperately. In his essay “Addison,” he mentions the poet in passing.   

If [we suppose that] sublime genius lies all in the past, before civilization began, we naturally look for it in the past. We long to recover the work of those sublime prehistoric bards and druids who must have existed. But their work is not to be found; and the surviving medieval literature conspicuously lacks the sublimity and mysteriousness we desire.

In the end one begins inventing what the ‘bards,’ ‘druids,’ and ‘minstrels’ ought to have written. Ossian, Rowley, and Otranto are wish-fulfilments. It is always to be remembered that Macpherson had written original epics about prehistoric Scotland before he invented Ossian. By a tragic chance he and Chatterton discovered that their work was marketable, and so make-believe turned into fraud.

But there was a sincere impulse behind it: they were seeking in the past that great romantic poetry which really lay in the future, and from intense imagination of what it must be like if only they could find it they slipped into making it themselves.

Should you decide to compose a fictional folk epic, feel free to do so. It could end up being quite well received. Please though, for the sake of your future literary reputation, don’t pretend that it is anything but a work of fiction.

Free Storytelling Class

March 3, 2021 — 8 Comments

If you are a storyteller—and if, like me, you’re interested in screenwriting—there is a free class you may find valuable.

John Paul the Great Catholic University focuses on degrees related to the creative arts. They are currently offering a five session “crash course” discussing the key elements of storytelling. And the teachers apparently possess genuine credentials, being “veterans of Pixar’s Braintrust, Warner Bros. Script Department, and Hollywood writers’ rooms.”

You can learn more about the self-paced course here.

The final session on “adaptations” looks particularly intriguing.

What makes a good adaptation? In this lesson, Professor Chris Riley guides you through the basic principles of adapting source material (such as novels and true stories) for film and television. . . . Recommended for anyone with a curiosity for how novels and real life stories are distilled and written into movies. Especially recommended for writers interested in making movies from short stories, novels, or real life stories.

C.S. Lewis and the rest of the Oxford Inklings were gifted storytellers. Lewis began honing his skills when he a child and collaborated with his brother Warnie to compose the tales of Boxen.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings relates an overarching saga of humble heroism. Its skilled creator weaves into the Fellowship’s quest many other fascinating tales. The trilogy is a series that spawns fresh wonders, reading after reading. As one reviewer notes, Tolkien showcases “duty, honor, perseverance, and friendship.” He continues:

That, my friends, is the power of great stories. But a good story alone isn’t good enough either. One reason that Tolkien remains popular is because his stories were about important ideas, ideas that stand the test of time.

In a rather more scholarly article, “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Telling of a Traditional Narrative,” the writer says “the literary critical question is, why would Tolkien spend so much time and effort telling such an old story?” He answers that question in the following manner.

The answer lies . . . in the purpose of traditional narrative and the intent of the traditional tale teller. The traditional tale teller, like any traditional performer, is recreative rather than creative, doing those things that the community wants (and perhaps needs) over and over again, striving not to do something totally inventive and perceptually new but rather to do the traditional thing well and, perhaps, with some special, individual flair.

Turning to C.S. Lewis, we find numerous reference to his storytelling skills. In one aptly named work, we discover why Lewis became a writer rather than a sculptor.

C.S. Lewis loved stories. Throughout his life he found it really had to make anything by hand.* He could, though, hold a pencil or a pen and was driven to write stories instead. It was a blessing in disguise! Many years later C.S. Lewis wrote that you can do more with a castle in a story than with the best cardboard castle that ever stood on a nursery table (C.S. Lewis: The Story Teller).

Encouraging Another Storyteller

One of the main reasons for the Inkling’s very existence was their mutual encouragement in writing. Members often read their works in progress and offered (occasionally gentle) constructive criticism.

As a popular author, C.S. Lewis was approached by many aspiring writers. He patiently and encouragingly responded to these contacts. Some of these correspondents were former students and friends.

One such dear friend was Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-1987). Green had been a student of Lewis’ and a member of the Inklings while he studied and taught at Oxford. The two were quite close, and he actually joined Lewis and his wife Joy during their holiday in Greece.

As an Inkling and an English professor himself, Green was destined to become a writer. In addition to his other biographies—he co-authored one of the best on C.S. Lewis—he was a noted children’s writer. In fact, among his popular retellings of various mythologies, he compiled the stories of the Greeks, Egyptians and Norse. Many of his works can be “borrowed” from the Internet Archives library.

However, years before he wrote these volumes, Green shared one of his earliest efforts with his mentor. In September of 1945, C.S. Lewis offered him a significant amount of specific advice, but begins—as all good critiquing should—with encouragement.

My dear Green– I have now read The Wood That Time Forgot and this is what I think. The general narrative power is excellent: i.e. on the question whether you have in general the story-telling talent, you may (in my opinion) set your mind at rest. I read it on a railway journey and it carried me as far as Bletchley (which was at chapter VII) without a single flagging of interest.

I particularly admired the transition from the natural to the supernatural part. This went just gradually enough to elicit one’s faith and by the right stages. I thank you for giving me the authentic thrill: as you did several times.

As noted, Lewis follows this introductory affirmation with explicit comments on various facets of the manuscript. In June of 1949, Lewis offered his friend comments on a revised version of the story.⁑

Too bad we don’t all have a mentor like C.S. Lewis. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be encouraged by such an anointed storyteller.

Chances are that you, like Tolkien and Lewis, are a storyteller as well. Which is why I shared with you the invitation to the free storytelling course linked above. I will likely sign up for it myself, since I too have a screenplay I would someday like to write.

* This was due to a the lack of a metacarpophalangeal joint in his thumb. He shared this syndrome with his father and brother. If interested, you can read “Symphalangism, C.S. Lewis Type” in an online catalog of genetic disorders.

⁑ Lewis’ comments regarding the revised manuscript are included in volume two of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, with the following introduction.

Roger Lancelyn Green, in an attempt to turn his story The Wood That Time Forgot into “a fairy tale for grown-ups,” had revised it . . . to give it a completely new ending—of which Lewis approved. The book, however, remains unpublished as it would appear to owe too much to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

All of Green’s mythologies appear to currently be in print. In the introduction to his Norse mythology  volume, he provides an interesting contrast with his previous work closer to the Mediterranean.

Norse mythology is the very antithesis of Greek from the reteller’s point of view. The wealth of literature and legend available for studying the gods of Olympus is positively embarrassing, and the problem there is one of selection. The gods of Asgard, on the other hand, remain strangely aloof: the difficulty here is to find enough about them. And when the scanty material is collected, it is still harder to fit together the incomplete jigsaw-puzzle which is all that remains to us.