Archives For Middle Earth

polyps

These two great Oxford giants were good friends. As such, they accepted each other’s eccentricities. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t find humor in those peculiarities.

The Inklings were notorious for their candid critiques and their not-so-subtle teasing of one another. That’s what we all do with our good friends, right?

It’s humor offered not to wound, but to gently discombobulate our companion. And it’s success is measured in the laughter generated among colleagues who share goodwill.

I recently came across a reference, however, where Lewis may have transgressed the bounds of propriety. I leave the assessment of that fact to you.

In a 1947 letter to Margaret Douglas, who had recently lost her mother, Lewis offers warm words of consolation. In addition, he briefly references two publications that she had apparently alluded to in her own letter. The first was his Preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, which he refers to as the memoir. The second is Tolkien’s sequel to The Hobbit, which would become The Lord of the Rings.

Dear Miss Douglas, Accept my deepest sympathy on the death of your mother: for I think the bond between you was unusually close. You have one great consolation which few bereaved people have—a clear conscience towards the dead.

It was apparent that you were spending yourself largely upon her. I remember her very vividly, and much admired that blend of the playful and the stately, of which only old ladies have the secret.

I am so glad that you approved of the memoir. Professor Tolkien’s second Hobbit is still unfinished: he works like a coral insect you know!

With all good wishes, yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis

Just How Unflattering is the Comparison?

To compare Tolkien to a minute sea creature of sedentary nature may not, at first read, seem offensive. One might wonder though whether it is quite so innocuous as it might appear.

The National Ocean Service, here in the U.S. provides an answer to the frequently posed question, “are corals animals or plants?” Like Lewis, we already know the answer to that—“a coral insect you know!”—but their colorful description illuminates said insect in a curious manner.

Corals actually comprise an ancient and unique partnership, called symbiosis, that benefits both animal and plant life in the ocean. Corals are animals, though, because they do not make their own food, as plants do. Corals have tiny, tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep it into their inscrutable mouths.

I wasn’t aware that they had tentacles. And I don’t think I want to know what makes their mouths “inscrutable.” However, the description adds one more element that I certainly don’t recall from my childhood science classes . . . it’s what the tiny creatures that create such lovely exoskeletons are called.

Most structures that we call “coral” are, in fact, made up of hundreds to thousands of tiny coral creatures called polyps. Each soft-bodied polyp—most no thicker than a nickel—secretes a hard outer skeleton of limestone (calcium carbonate) that attaches either to rock or the dead skeletons of other polyps.

Either I never knew the zoological definition of the word polyp, or it’s been pushed aside in my mind by the more common pathological meaning of the word. It just makes the association of someone with these “columnar bod[ied] . . . mouth and tentacles” oddities seem even more disturbing.

Fortunately, it’s obvious Lewis wasn’t equating the creator of Middle Earth with invertebrate coelenterates. The creator of Narnia was simply likening Tolkien’s publication pace to the secretion rate of the polyps that populate the corals themselves.

Over the years, some of my best friends have labeled me in what an outsider might regard as an unflattering way. While I taught at USAF Chaplain School, my teammates called me “Lemming.” (On occasion, they still do.) The reference had nothing to do with me following the crowd . . . and everything to do with being directed to march off any number of cliffs.

I doubt that Lewis ever shared this association with Tolkien himself. It’s likely that he freely associated the idea at the moment he wrote it, and never thought about it again.

That was one of Lewis’ gifts, being able to use creative analogies to make his points. It is simply one of his talents I would love to share.

And, as for Lewis’ use of the word “insect” here, he is obviously alluding to the polyp’s small size. It would not surprise me to learn that there is an archaic British precedent for such usage. Or, is it just possible that he knew the proper word for the creature, and was too cultured to use it in this context? Perhaps we will never know.

coralpolyp.jpg

night patrolThe poetry of a dead veteran spoke to me today. He was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and in a sense his life lives on in the descriptions of Middle Earth.

In a recent column my Canadian friend Brenton Dickieson, introduced me to one of the many poets whose lives tragically ended on the battlefields of WWI.

Professor Dickieson describes the context of a new film about the impact of the war on J.R.R. Tolkien. It is called Tolkien’s Great War. It is based on the book Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth.

You will find a link to the half hour documentary below, and I strongly—yes, strongly—encourage you to watch it. It is quite moving.

Like most members of their generation, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were deeply moved by the horrors of the First World War. Both served on the front lines, in the grim trenches, during the bloody conflict. And they lost friends. I’ve written in the past about their military service, including posts herehere, and here.

The Deceased Poet

The documentary describes the untimely deaths of two of Tolkien’s closest friends during the war. One of them, Geoffrey Bache Smith, was a poet.

Following his death, Tolkien gathered together his writings and published them as a tribute to his friend. It was one of the earliest contributions to a wealth of soldier’s poetry that would deluge grieving Europeans by the close of the conflict.

Due to the brevity of his life, the collection, published as A Spring Harvest, is short. Tolkien also penned an introduction to the work which is equally Spartan. The literary austerity is fitting, given the sad reason for the volume’s brevity. The introduction, in full, reads:

The poems of this book were written at very various times, one (“Wind over the Sea”) I believe even as early as 1910, but the order in which they are here given is not chronological beyond the fact that the third part contains only poems written after the outbreak of the war. Of these some were written in England (at Oxford in particular), some in Wales and very many during a year in France from November 1915 to December 1916, which was broken by one leave in the middle of May.

“The Burial of Sophocles,” which is here placed at the end, was begun before the war and continued at odd times and in various circumstances afterwards; the final version was sent me from the trenches.

Beyond these few facts no prelude and no envoi is needed other than those here printed as their author left them.

J.R.R.T., 1918.

The poems themselves run the gamut of emotions. This is unsurprising, given that some were born during the idyll dreams of youth, while others were forged by the anvil of war.

The limited press run of the book has made it difficult to find. Fortunately, it is now available for free via Project Gutenberg.

While the poems include the familiar references to the “old gods” so common to the period, there are also some moving references to a more Christian ethos.

Creator Spiritus

The wind that scatters dying leaves

And whirls them from the autumn tree

Is grateful to the ship that cleaves

With stately prow the scurrying sea.

Heedless about the world we play

Like children in a garden close:

A postern bars the outward way

And what’s beyond it no man knows:

For careless days, a life at will,

A little laughter, and some tears,

These are sufficiency to fill

The early, vain, untroubled years,

Till at the last the wind upheaves

His unimagined strength, and we

Are scattered far, like autumn leaves,

Or proudly sail, like ships at sea.

Tolkien and Smith formed half of the T.C.B.S., a communion knit together during the school years. The war would cut that number in half, as poignantly described in Tolkien and the Great War. The first of the companions had already died, and five months later Smith was spending the final moments of his own life encouraging his friend to press on, whatever might befall him.

Before reading Smith’s “So We Lay Down the Pen,” consider his final letter to Tolkien. He wrote it as he prepared to lead a night scout through dead man’s land at the front. It was dangerous duty which did indeed, that very evening, cost him his life.

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered [ambushed and killed] tonight—I am off on duty in a few minutes—there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S.

Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off tonight. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.

Yours ever,

G.B.S.

Tolkien compiled Smith’s poems as a tribute. And, when he wrote his masterpieces, there is a profound sense in which he truly did say things his friends had tried to say, long after they were not there to say them.

So We Lay Down the Pen

So we lay down the pen,

So we forbear the building of the rime,

And bid our hearts be steel for times and a time

Till ends the strife, and then,

When the New Age is verily begun,

God grant that we may do the things undone.

 

csl introvertLearning about ourselves is a lifelong quest. And the more actively we pursue self-knowledge, the wiser we become.

A well known sixteenth century Christian mystic wrote:

“Self-knowledge is so important that even if you were raised right up to the heavens, I should like you never to relax your cultivation of it.” (Saint Teresa of Ávila, Interior Castle).

This self-knowledge leads to a greater recognition of our dependence on God. She continues, “so long as we are on this earth, nothing matters more to us than humility. . . . As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating on His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble.”

C.S. Lewis echoes this sentiment.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed. (Mere Christianity).

As part of my self-examination, I have recently revisited my “personality type” as assessed by the well known Myers Briggs Personality Indicator (MBTI).

Without over-explaining the MBTI, it measures an individual’s preference related to four ways by which we experience and make sense of the world. (News Flash: Not everyone perceives reality the same way!)

These dichotomies are:

Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I)

Whether your preferred focus is outward or inward.

Sensing (S) or Intuition (N)

How you focus on information and process it.

Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)

Primary preference in your decision-making.

Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)

Your orientation towards making sense of existence.

You can get some additional authoritative information here. There are also numerous “unofficial” websites related to the subject.

Sixteen combinations are possible, and each has its respective strengths. (None are “better” than others, of course, since we’re all created in the image of God.)

Speaking of which, I’ve also been studying the different combinations that are more common to Christian ministers than they are within the general population.

For example, the following types (with their shorthand title) range from two to six times more common for male clergy than the general male American population:

ENFJ (The Teacher)

ENFP (The Provider)

INFP (The Healer)

INFJ (The Counselor)

ENTJ (The Field Marshal)

Which type of pastor do you prefer?

Online Surveys to Visit after you finish this post

There are a number of free MBTI-type tests online. Naturally, they are not as reliable as the official inventory given through a certified provider. Nevertheless, the following sites did render accurate assessments for me, based on my formal scoring.

I have mentioned in the past that I am an *NTJ… with the asterisk representing that my I/E preference is too close to call. A previous post shows how that makes me a blend of Middle Earth’s Elrond and Théoden.

Humanmetrics Jung Typology Test

CelebrityTypes Personality Type Test

So, What Is C.S. Lewis’ Personality Type?

This is a subjective question. The MBTI is a self-reported assessment, so guessing the type of another person is by nature dicey.

In Lewis’ case, however, there is a fair degree of consensus. This is due to his openness about his personal life and his extensive writings. The general agreement does not mean though that there are not minority opinions.

The most common argument is that C.S. Lewis was INTJ. I find the reasons persuasive, and not just because it matches my own type!

One student of the subject says “Check out this quote—how INTJ is this?!”

Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them—never become even conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through? (A Grief Observed)

One blogger writes, “There is no doubt in my mind that Lewis was an INTJ. It seeps off all his writing and is blatant in his behavior in all of his biographies.” She continues:

Highly imaginative child who lived in a dream world? Check.

Someone highly emotional/sensitive but that never showed it on the surface? Check.

A prolific writer who blazed through finishing projects at an astounding rate, who was so successful at everything he did, despite never having done it before, that he quickly rose to the top? Check.

Another site considers both C.S. Lewis and his fellow inkling J.R.R. Tolkien to be INFPs. The aptly titled CelebrityTypes.com offers a brief selection of quotations to illustrate the reasons for their identification.

If the site’s identifications are accurate, the two are in good company. Other writers include John Milton, Augustine of Hippo, Hans Christian Andersen, William Shakespeare, Søren Kierkegaard, George Orwell, A.A. Milne, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, J.K. Rowling and George R.R. Martin.

A Warning from Lewis Himself

Understanding ourselves better than we already do, is a good thing.

Being overly curious about the personality of someone who is deceased is another matter. Lewis’ point in the passage that follows is that such concerns must never supersede our regard for others, in the spirit of Matthew 8:22.*

There is a reaction at present going on against the excessive love of pet animals. We have been taught to despise the rich, barren woman who loves her lap dog too much and her neighbor too little. It may be that when once the true impulse is inhibited, a dead poet is a nobler substitute than a live Peke, but this is by no means obvious.

You can do something for the Peke, and it can make some response to you. It is at least sentient; but most poetolaters [worshippers of poets] hold that a dead man has no consciousness, and few indeed suppose that he has any which we are likely to modify. Unless you hold beliefs which enable you to obey the colophons of the old books by praying for the authors’ souls, there is nothing that you can do for a dead poet: and certainly he will do nothing for you. He did all he could for you while he lived: nothing more will ever come.

I do not say that a personal emotion towards the author will not sometimes arise spontaneously while we read; but if it does we should let it pass swiftly over the mind like a ripple that leaves no trace. If we retain it we are cosseting with substitutes an emotion whose true object is our neighbour.

Hence it is not surprising that those who most amuse themselves with personality after this ghostly fashion often show little respect for it in their parents, their servants, or their wives. (The Personal Heresy: A Controversy).

Reflecting on our own nature, and pondering the personalities of those we respect, are worthwhile activities. However, it’s best to remember that all we can see are mere glimpses into the depths of who we truly are.**

_____

* Matthew 8:22 quotes Jesus’ response to a disciple who demurred that he could not follow the Lord until after he attended to his father’s burial. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.’”

** As Paul words in Romans 8:27 are paraphrased in The Message Bible: God “knows us far better than we know ourselves . . .”

From Ear to Quill

October 21, 2015 — 10 Comments

anglo saxonConsider how one humble Anglo-Saxon poet can teach us about the ancient transition from the oral to written delivery of poetry.

In recent study about the transition from aural to literary communication I came upon the following fascinating fact.

In an essay entitled “Oral to Written,” J.B. Bessinger writes:

As literate authors learned to assimilate oral materials to pen-and-parchment composition, and since cultural life and centres of writing were controlled so largely by the Church, it was inevitable that the oral transmission of pagan verse would die out, or at best leave few records of an increasingly precarious existence. Meanwhile the invasion of bookish culture into an oral tradition proceeded.

Amid the overwhelming anonymity of the period, Cynewulf was the only poet who troubled to record his name, not from motives of a new literary vanity, but against the Day of Judgement:* “I beg every man of human kind who recites this poem to remember my name and pray . . .”

I’ve read elsewhere that the names of a dozen Anglo-Saxon poets were recorded, although only four have any work that has survived. I understand, however, why Cynewulf is so well recognized—several thousand lines of his poetry are extant. You can access copies of his work for free at Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive.

Curiously, we know no details about Cynewulf other than his name. This he included in his manuscripts, spelled in runic characters.

Cynewulf’s poetry was familiar to the Inklings.

In his diary during the 1920s, C.S. Lewis describes reading Cynewulf and Cyneheard while he bemoaned that Old English Riddles continued to represent an obstacle to him.

I set to on my O.E. Riddles: did not progress very quickly but solved a problem which has been holding me up. [Henry] Sweet is certainly an infuriating author . . .

[Following afternoon tea, Lewis] retired to the drawing room and had a go at the Riddles. I learned a good deal, but found them too hard for me at present.

J.R.R. Tolkien paid an unimaginable tribute to Cynewulf. He attributed to the ancient poet no less than the original inspiration for his mythopoeic conscience.

In the summer of 1913 Tolkien . . . switched course to the English School after getting an “alpha” in comparative philology. At this time he read the great eighth-century alliterative poem Christ, by Cynewulf and others.

Many years later from the poem he cited Eala Earendel engla beorhtost (“Behold Earendel brightest of angels”) from Christ as “rapturous words from which ultimately sprang the whole of my mythology.”**

Cynewulf was an inspired poet. And, it is possible to discern some Anglo-Saxon words which have made it into contemporary English when passages are lined up, side by side.

We’ll close now with a passage from his poem, Christ. These words come from the beginning of Part II (Ascension) and comprise the beginning of chapter four. For those who would like to compare the texts, a parallel version follows.*** (Just click on the image to enlarge it.)

Enjoy Cynewulf’s celebration of God’s abundant gifts, extended to poets, musicians, and all others.

Then He who shaped the world, God’s Spirit-Son,

ennobled us, and granted gifts to us,

eternal homes ’mid angels upon high;

and wisdom, too, of soul, full manifold

He sowed and set within the minds of men.

To one He sendeth, unto memory’s seat,

through spirit of the mouth, wise eloquence,

and noble understanding; he can sing

and say full many a thing, within whose soul

is hidden wisdom’s power. With fingers deft

’fore warrior-bands one can awake the harp,

the minstrel’s joy. One can interpret well

the law divine, and one the planets’ course

and wide creation. One cunningly can write

the spoken word. To one He granteth skill,

when in the fight the archers swiftly send

the storm of darts, the wingéd javelin,

over the shields defence. Fearlessly another

can o’er the salt sea urge the ocean-bark

and stir the surging depth. One can ascend

the lofty tree and steep. One can fashion well

steeled sword and weapon. One knoweth the plains’ direction,

the wide ways. Thus the Ruler, Child divine,

dispenseth unto us His gifts on earth;

He will not give to any one man all

the spirit’s wisdom, lest pride injure him,

raised far above the rest by his sole might.

cynewulf

_____

* Please don’t correct me regarding the misspelling of “judgment;” this quotation comes from a British text. ;)

** From Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez.

*** This image is derived from the 1892 translation of Cynewulf’s Christ by Israel Gollancz.

The lovely Anglo Saxon cross at the top of this page was discovered several years ago in the grave of a young teenage girl who had been buried near Cambridge.

I have blogged about Anglo Saxon legacy in the past . . . here and here.

Life in Middle Earth

August 25, 2015 — 29 Comments

theodenIf you resided in Middle Earth during the Third Age,* which of the major characters might you have been? Boromir,** Pippin, or perhaps Gandalf himself?

And, we’re only talking about the “good guys and gals.” We’ll have no one identifying with villains like Saruman, the Nazgûl ringwraiths or Grima Wormtongue here at Mere Inkling!

In a moment, I’ll help you answer that question.

Unfortunately, the internet abounds with time-consuming black holes. Pouring minutes and hours of our lives into the abyss of mindless videos or addictive games is the sad result.

Some entertaining diversions, however, possess merit. Case in point, an analysis of the leaders of Lord of the Rings, arranged according to their personality types.

Visiting a website such as this is not only fun, it offers insight into human differences. And, for the unwary, it may even reveal some new insights into our own nature.

I believe in the general validity of the best known personality inventory, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I have posted in the past about C.S. Lewis’ (likely) personality type being an INFP. That appropriately identifies him with none other than Frodo, “the idealist.”

elrondMy own type is ENTJ, which matches with King Théoden above. As I age, however, I am finding myself less extraverted and more desirous of solitude. That means I am progressively becoming an INTJ, and that aligns me with Elrond. Frankly, both of the characterizations suit me quite well.

A person’s type is determined by which of four polarities is dominant.

Extraversion/Introversion

Sensing/Intuition

Thinking/Feeling

Judging/Perceiving

If you don’t know your type, and have the time to take an online assessment now, you can do so for free here.

You don’t need to do it to enjoy the Lord of the Rings chart though. So, which are Middle Earth leader are you? Find out here.

A Note of Caution

While instructive, tools such as this should never be used to put people into boxes (which is ironic, since the MBTI is graphically presented in that fashion).

The last thing we need is someone thinking they are defined by a psychological instrument such as this. After all, today’s Gimli may just well be tomorrow’s Bilbo.

_____

* The complete timeline of Middle Earth is available here.

** I have written in the past about the hero Boromir.

 

Worshiping Thor

November 25, 2013 — 20 Comments

thorI have a confession to make. One that is particularly awkward for a pastor.

The current success of the recent films about the Norse god of thunder have reminded me of one of the “errors” of my youth.

As a young boy I discovered great delight in reading comic books. And among all of the countless Marvel and DC titles I read during my youth, none was more precious to me than Thor. I never really “worshiped” him, of course, but I was enraptured by his saga.

I loved the comic, and it was difficult to wait each long, long month for the next issue to be published. I followed Thor’s adventures with intense devotion. An intense loyalty that was probably inappropriate since it was directed towards a pagan deity.

To make matters worse, the part of the magazine that appealed most to me was not the contemporary escapades of the otherworldly hero. The feature that most captivated my imagination was a smaller story included in each issue and entitled “Tales of Asgard.”

These stories were terribly brief, only five short pages, and didn’t introduce contemporary terrestrial or interstellar villains. Instead, they recounted the historic tales of Norse myth and religion. Their very earthiness—their historical authenticity—impressed me far more profoundly than did the 1960s superhero fare so commonplace during that era.

In fact, in Thor’s two cinematic blockbusters, I find the same to hold true. I find the mythological elements, the portions of the story set in Asgard far more captivating than the familiar, run of the mill heroic landscape of Midgard (Earth).*

I doubt  I am alone in my appreciation of the mythical over the scientific or magical elements. In the preface to The Pilgrim’s Regress, C.S. Lewis wrote, “When allegory is at its best, it approaches myth, which must be grasped with the imagination, not with the intellect.”

C.S. Lewis wrote a great deal about the power of myth. Like his close friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, Lewis brought myth to life in The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1944, Lewis wrote an essay entitled “Myth Became Fact.” In it he explores the notion that in a sense Christianity too, is a myth—with one distinction from all of the rest.

Now as myth transcends thought, Incarnation transcends myth. The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.

We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

I began by saying I was making a confession of sorts. In truth, fascination with myth is nothing to be ashamed of. Lewis describes how it was precisely his own interest in such matters that played a primary role in his conversion to Christianity. In a 1931 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he describes the incipient process. These words foreshadow the message of the essay referred to above.

Now what [Hugo] Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.

The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose “what it meant.” Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call “real things.”

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a “description” of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The “doctrines” we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.

The awareness that a mind so brilliant (and sanctified) as Lewis’ recognized the value of myth comforts me. I guess, in retrospect, that my youth was not entirely misspent reading those amazing stories. Thor still occupies a special place in my life journey, albeit not in a pantheon.

_____

* There are nine worlds in Norse cosmology. Midgard lies between the noble worlds of Asgard, Vanaheim and Alfheim . . . and Jotunheim, home of the frost giants, Svartalfheim, realm of the Dark Elves, and Muspelheim, abode of the Fire Giants and demons.

Autistic Considerations

August 22, 2013 — 13 Comments

Bill & Barbara ChristopherMost of us have a friend, loved one, or acquaintance affected by autism. I’m not sure if this would have been accurate a generation ago.

And I’m not merely referring to the lack of proper diagnosis of the problem. There are numerous reports that its frequency is increasing.

Autism is not necessarily debilitating. In minor cases it’s barely noticeable. Like many problems, its severity is manifested across a wide spectrum.

I have autism on my mind now, as the new school year approaches and my wife sets up her special education classroom. She’s excited about the return of her precious kids. It’s wonderful how so many of them make amazing process both in academics and social abilities.

The return of school, however, is not the primary reason for my current thoughts. I’m writing an article I hope to submit to an Autism magazine, inspired by a recent interview I conducted.

I was privileged to speak at length with the father of a severely autistic son who will be known to many readers of Mere Inkling. William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, has been a prominent spokesman for autism concerns for many years. (A link to the article appears below.)

Along with his wife Barbara, Christopher wrote a book entitled Mixed Blessings. It recounted their early struggles providing Ned with everything he needed to make his life as full as it could possibly be. Due to their diligence and deep love for their son, Ned continues to enjoy his active life today.

They embody the noble type of earnest love C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves. There he says that true love is gift-love, not seeking increased dependence on itself, but liberating the beloved to become as independent as they possibly can.

The maternal instinct . . . is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give; therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.

Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” should be our reward. But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law.

The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love—a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes—must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication.

This despite the counsel of one early specialist who advised them that since Ned was adopted they should just take him and trade him in for a child who wasn’t defective. Yes, someone really said that to them.

If I end up publishing the article, I’ll mention it again for those who might be interested in reading it. In the meantime, the extensive interview appears in the current issue of a journal I edit for military chaplains, called Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

When we look at a list of autistic traits, it’s normal to recognize some of them in ourselves. That shouldn’t surprise us, since most of these traits are completely “normal” in various degrees.

It is a commonplace practice to perform posthumous diagnoses of well known figures, based upon detailed descriptions of their behaviors. In that vein, I found online lists that included the following personages as possibly autistic: Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Stanley Kubrick, Lewis Carroll, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Oh, and there’s another name I discovered in one article. The writer suggested that C.S. Lewis’ social preferences suggest that he too suffered the mild version of autism, typically called “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

I don’t intend to discuss that now, but I wanted to share a fascinating concept I encountered while researching for this column. In Autism, Art and Children: The Stories We Draw, I read the following about imaginary worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth:

It is this element of world building that forms a bridge between the impersonal character of research and clinical observations and the individual young artists with autism in whom our interest especially lies.

Sacks (1995) points out the importance of fantasy worlds to some individuals with autism . . . this predilection for alternate worlds is frequently encountered in many high-functioning people with autism . . . such high-functioning individuals with autism “describe a great fondness for, almost an addiction to, alternative worlds, imaginary worlds such as those of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, or worlds they imagine themselves.”

Illustrating such world-building activities by an entire family (two parents and their son), all of whom have autism, Sacks remarks, “They have spent years constructing an imaginary world with its own landscapes and geography (endlessly mapped and drawn), its own languages, currency, laws, and customs—a world in which fantasy and rigidity play equal parts.”

This creative activity is of particular interest, for many of the children we have met have individual fantasies in alternative worlds that play major roles in their lives and activities.

I find this analysis captivating. I am utterly fascinated by the construction of imaginary settings. That’s one reason I love the alternate history genre, as it combines the familiar with elements that have transformed them into something inherently different.

I must confess I’ve occupied many an idle hour imaging new worlds. I’ve even invested a fair amount of time in world-building myself—for an alternative history for which I still compile notes and ideas, despite the fact it’s unlikely to ever be written. I don’t attribute this to autism, but it serves as another example of just how much all of us have in common.

The fact is none of us is perfectly healthy—physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. We are who we are. We can strive to improve many aspects of our lives (and the wellbeing of others), but attaining perfection is impossible in this life.

In the meantime, we can be grateful for wonderful people like Barbara and Bill Christopher, who have courageously shared their own journey to aid us in ours. Their willingness to forsake their rightful shield of privacy and step out into the glare of the public—for our benefit—reveals both their love for their children and their generosity towards strangers.

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The wonderful photograph at the top of the column features Bill and Barbara Christopher. Barbara had a guest role as a nurse in “Dear Mildred,” during which the two of them sang a duet.

The interview with Bill Christopher can be downloaded for free in the current issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, which is available here.