Archives For Middle Earth

If you were a Scandinavian living a millennia ago, you would be faced with a critical decision. Would you embrace Jesus Christ and a new life based on mercy, or would you cling to Odin and the Norse pantheon, with its glorification of bloodshed?

When I first heard this choice posed as a choice between the “White Christ” and the blood-drenched Thor, I assumed the white color alluded to traits commonly associated with it today—e.g. purity, innocence, and holiness.*

To my surprise, I recently learned there was a completely different to the Vikings. For them, referring to Christ as “white” was a term of derision.

Before returning to the Northmen, let’s consider for a moment the Inklings. These brilliant writers were well acquainted with white as a biblical metaphor for holiness, etc. They understood how the miracle of the <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:embed {"url":"https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9\u0026version=ESV","type":"rich","providerNameSlug":"embed","className":""} –> <figure class="wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-embed wp-block-embed-embed"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9&version=ESV </div></figure> Transfiguration described Jesus’ radiant face shining “like the sun” as the “bright cloud overshadowed them.”

As <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:embed {"url":"https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9\u0026version=ESV","type":"rich","providerNameSlug":"embed","className":""} –> <figure class="wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-embed wp-block-embed-embed"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9&version=ESV </div></figure> Mark records in his Gospel, Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.”

It is no accident Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey returns as Gandalf the White following his deadly battle with the Balrog.

In C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan manifests himself to the children as an unblemished lamb.

But between them and the foot of the sky there was something so white on the green grass that even with their eagles’ eyes they could hardly look at it. They came on and saw that it was a Lamb. “Come and have breakfast,” said the Lamb in its sweet milky voice. . . .

“Please Lamb,” said Lucy, “is this the way to Aslan’s country?”

“Not for you,” said the Lamb. “For you the door into Aslan’s country is from your own world.”

“What!” said Edmund. “Is there a way into Aslan’s country from our world too?”

“There is a way into my country from all the worlds,” said the Lamb; but as he spoke his snowy white flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane.

On the other hand, C.S. Lewis tosses us a curve with the White Witch in his Chronicles of Narnia. The reason for her identification with white is obvious, since she is holding Narnia in an austere, perpetual winter. The witch’s hue carries other messages. Her unthreatening appearance moves Edmund to drop his defenses during their initial encounter.

[Queen Jadis was] a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head. Her face was white—not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.

Northern Mythologies

C.S. Lewis was enraptured by Northernness. He and Tolkien spent many hours reading Viking sagas.

However, Lewis was inspired not by the warrior Thor, but the person of Baldur. Several of my online friends and acquaintances have also written about Lewis’ affinity for Baldur. These include Brenton Dickieson, Eleanor Parker, and Bradley Birzer.

Turning from Baldur (Baldr) the Brave to Thor (Þórr), the god of thunder, we find the Norse deity with the largest number of followers. Thor was the ideal divinity for independent adventurers, warriors and violent raiders.

The story of the heroic thunder god still resonates today, as the success of the recent cinematic blockbusters attests. To suit contemporary tastes, the bloody red giant-slayer of myth has shed his more gruesome traits. They have been replaced by nobler aspects, as befitting a modern superhero protecting Midgard (Earth) from danger.

But the medieval period was not the relatively safe world we know. And pleas to turn the other cheek sounded like utter foolishness. The belligerent nature of the Germanic and Scandinavian chieftains of the era, resulted in a modification of the Gospel which was shared by some evangelists. In order to impress a militant population, the pacific nature of Jesus was downplayed. In “Why Trust the White Christ?” we read, “Not until the 1100s did the concept of the suffering Christ take root in Scandinavia; before that Christ was depicted as a triumphant prince—even on the cross!”

Eventually the Gospel would triumph, but one of its first effective renditions for the northern barbarians came in a gospel harmony⁑ entitled the Heliand. A number of references to the Gospel in J.R.R. Tolkien’s academic writings reveals his familiarity with the Old Saxon work, which he also mentioned in his lectures. The Heliand was commissioned by Charlemagne’s grandson Louis the German (806-876) to reach the Franks’ fellow Germanic tribes who remained Pagan. It was written by a Benedictine monk named Notker, who also wrote The Life of Charlemagne.⁂

The fact that this alliterative Gospel (in poetic form) was composed for the Saxon warrior class (their nobility), makes it particularly interesting.  Knowing it was recited not only in monasteries, but also mead halls, makes one’s personal reading of it feel like a journey into the ancient past.

Mariana Scott’s 1966 translation ⁑⁑ is available here. This site posits her translation beside the original Old Saxon. One of my favorite passages comes in the “introduction,” as the context of the Gospel proper is set for the hearers. It is very serious and describes the four Evangelists as inspired by God.

[The Lord] had filled the hearts of the heroes,
     with the Holy Ghost.
Perfectly all,
     with pious opinion,
And wise words many
     and still more of wit.
That they should begin
     the goodly Gospel
With their holy voices,
     raise it on high—

The Question of the White Christ

Referring to Jesus as the “White Christ” may have been related to the association of white baptismal robes worn by the newly baptized. But it involved more than that.

Apparently, the appellation “white,” especially when linked to Christ, was a Pagan insult. In a Scandinavian Studies article entitled “The Contemptuous Sense of the Old Norse Adjective Hvítr, ‘White, Fair’” we learn that it possessed a pejorative sense.

The [Old Icelandic] heathen religion glorified physical strength and courage in combat, a direct antithesis to the Christian ideal of pacifism based upon the Golden Rule. Hence, the heathen Icelanders interpreted the Christian Hvítakristr ‘The White Christ’ as a cowardly, contemptible counterpart of Thor, the god of courage and strength . . .

And this negative connotation continued, even after the triumph of the new faith.

[Even] after Christianity had become established as the national religion in Iceland, this heathen conception of Christian ‘cowardice’ disappeared but left its traces in the epithet hvítr, especially when one wished to belittle or vilify a personal enemy.

. . .

The double sense (‘fair’ : ‘cowardly’)was characteristic of skaldic poetry and served to enhance the sarcastic effect.

And thus my youthful innocence about the meaning of the White Christ has been dispelled. But, at the same time, my insight into the historic prejudice against the sacrificial Son and Lamb of God has grown.

Jesus was no coward, but he is—now and forever—pure, innocent, and holy.


* It should go without being said that associating the color white with Jesus has absolutely nothing to do with ethnicity. The Incarnation of our Lord makes it abundantly clear that Jesus was a Jew born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. The Bible describes nothing noteworthy about his appearance that would distinguish him from the rest of the Jewish people in ancient Palestine. Thus, whatever Jesus’ complexion, he would have looked little like the pale Anglo-Saxon messiah we have often seen in paintings and cinema.

⁑ A Gospel harmony is a blending together of the four canonical Gospels into a single account. Tatian (c. 120-180), an Assyrian theologian, compiled the Diatessaron, which was prominent in the Syrian church, and is thought to have directly influenced the Germanic harmony, the Heliand.

 ⁂ Notker (c. 840-912) who also composed hymns and poetry. As mentioned above, the Benedictine monk also wrote The Life of Charlemagne which records many fascinating stories about Frankish and Germanic Christianity. Apparently a poor precedent was set by Frankish generosity when a group of Northmen serving as envoys received baptism.

As I have mentioned the Northmen I will show by an incident drawn from the reign of your grandfather in what slight estimation they hold faith and baptism. . . .

The nobles of the palace adopted them almost as children, and each received from the emperor’s chamber a white robe and from their sponsors a full Frankish attire, of costly robes and arms and other decorations.

This was often done and from year to year they came in increasing numbers, not for the sake of Christ but for earthly advantage.

A very enlightening and sadly entertaining account. But what happens when the gifts run out?

⁑⁑ In the foreword to her translation, Scott shares some intriguing thoughts on the challenging labor of translation.

It was important for me to remember that the Heliand was originally intended for recitation. This accounts for the very great emphasis on rhythm. While the exact form of the old alliterative verse, though common to both early English and German poetry, proved too confining, a freer adaptation was possible. Let us remember that much of the effect of modern free verse depends on the interplay of sounds: assonance and alliteration.

Keeping in mind the purpose of the original, I read my translation aloud as I worked, repeating lines several times, varying and checking rhythms, trying to imitate the surge of the meter and yet avoid monotony. The end result was a line of variable feet, usually a rather free alternation of anapests and iambics with a few scattered tribrachs and spondees, divided by the traditional caesura.

I aimed for an alliteration of at least one accented syllable in the first half line with one accented syllable in the second half. If more sounded right, I was delighted. If none worked, I tried to make the rhythm carry the line along to the next cadence. Not all of it, I painedly admit, turned out to be poetry—but then not all of the Old Saxon is!

The Patina of the Inklings

February 4, 2021 — 7 Comments

Some antiques boast lovely patinas. Some old words do, as well. In fact, I would argue the legacy of, and the deep respect for, the Oxford fellowship known as the Inklings, has created a rich patina of its own.*

The community gifted scholars, especially in the persons of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, accrued a reputation that continues to gain a deeper luster with each new generation.

When I was a young man, I collected American coins. I also studied what Americans call “World coins.” The latter reinforced my love for geography as well as history.

To me, the most fascinating period of history has long been that of the Roman empire.

 So you can imagine my awe when I learned how simple it was to collect genuine Roman coins.

 This remains true today for common coins, such as bronzes of the fourth century (when the first Christian emperors reigned). This article describes “Collecting Roman Coins on a Budget.”

A surprising number of ancient coins, all readily identifiable and of historical interest, can be acquired for less than $100—and often in the $5-to-$25 range. This is especially true with Roman coins . . .

When I began collecting ancient coins, I learned the multifaceted meaning of a word unfamiliar to me at the time. That word was “patina” (pə’tēnə). As you probably know, it literally refers to the green or brown film (not rust) that appears on bronze and other metals under suitable conditions over a period of time. A handful of coins in my collection possess stunning patinas.

Metaphorical Patina

Many people are also acquainted with the figurative use of the word, as I employed it in my introduction It refers to an appearance or impression of distinction or luster associated with a person, idea or object. It is often linked to esteem held for the past. The following provocative quote comes from a contemporary Swiss artist.

“Life is one long decay, no? There’s a lot of beauty in it. Like the patina in an old city” (Urs Fischer).

Chad Walsh applied it to one of C.S. Lewis’ early books in The Literary Legacy of C.S. Lewis. Writing more than forty years ago, in a discussion of Pilgrim’s Regress, he said:

Regress has permanent value. It is, first of all, a spiritual autobiography, no matter how much Lewis may wish to minimize the personal quality of the quest and make his John into a potential Everyman. . . .

The Regress is already taking on a patina of age, a pleasant chronological quaintness, but time does not render it obsolete.

Four decades after he offered this comment, I believe I am correct in ascribing a warm patina to the Inklings as a fellowship.

Patinas can be added to items, to affect a more aged appearance. While “acquired” patina is always considered desirable, “applied” patina is often quite acceptable. It does not become problematic until the application is used to intentionally misrepresent the age of an item. An example of the proper use of applied patina is seen in these modern busts of C.S. Lewis.

In reviewing Lewis’ writings, I only uncovered one occasion where he used the concept of patina. It occurred in a 1946 letter to his friend, Ruth Pitter. Lewis is contributing to one of their ongoing conversations.

The truth is that there are a great many different kinds of poetry and extreme roughness (or smoothness) evocative epithet (or plain statement), the metaphorical (or literal) the colloquial (or rhetorical) may all, in their place, rise to perfection. . . .

 Once more, read Barfield on Poetic Diction.⁑ That is why Spender’s objection to the ‘willed quality’ in Milton seems to me so bats’-eyed. It is the glory of one kind of poetry to sound un-willed, as if it had dropped out of the sky like Blake or else arisen spontaneously in conversation like Donne.

But then it is equally the glory of another kind to sound willed: to sound as if one were watching, or even sharing, the building of a huge tower.

To demand that Milton should have the spontaneity of Catullus or Blake is like demanding that a King at his coronation or a celebrant approaching the altar should have the same charm as a child dancing in the waves. Don’t we want both: both frolics and rituals? At any rate I do. . . .

Of course you are very right about Patina–again see Barfield. No old French poetry got that peculiar Old-Frenchness which is to us part of the charm. Half the beauties of the Old Testament did not exist for the writers. I wouldn’t be too sure, though, that it is wholly a question of our ‘projecting’ qualities into the old lines.

Ending on a Numismatic Note

Although I have not actively collected coins for many years, I commend it as a rewarding pastime. Seven years ago⁂ I wrote a column about religious likenesses on coins, which included a moving poem written by C.S. Lewis. You can read it here.

While writing this column I came across some genuine Narnian coins that were minted in New Zealand. They are genuine in the sense that they possess actual face values for legal tender in the island nation, which minted similar coins in honor of Middle Earth.

In terms of Narnian coins which circulated in Narnia itself, I learned that you can purchase “coins” which were used as actual props “appearing” in the recent Chronicles of Narnia films.

For an Inkling cinema buff such as myself, deciding to grab one for my personal collection was a no-brainer.


* The writings of the Inklings have even enhanced the patina of Oxford itself. This is especially true for those who live “across the pond,” and will never journey to the city itself. In a succinct review of The Inklings of Oxford: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their Friends, one Aussie architect refers to the stately oxidation of the city’s copper, brass and bronze: Picturesque book of picturesque Oxford focusing on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and the elegant, much patina-ed Oxford environment that they lived in.” I imagine he would concur with my suggestion that the Inklings themselves also bear a splendid patina.

⁑ Owen Barfield dedicated this book to his good friend with the inscription: “To C.S. Lewis ‘Opposition is true friendship’”

⁂ Seven years of blogging does sound like a lengthy time, but it’s not long enough for even the best of posts to accrue a patina of their own.

Like many of you, I love words. Like C.S. Lewis, I recognize the value of understanding each word’s etymology—its origin and history.

That’s why I was hooked right from the beginning by a short essay on “Language and the Bible” that I read in a magazine to which I subscribe. Dr. Mark Ward’s column goes by the heading Word Nerd. (Yes, I recognize the title is dweebish, but bear with me, his insights are worthwhile).

Word histories are for precocious nine-year-old homeschoolers who enjoy presenting irrelevant factoids to bemused adults. But word histories are history, and they come with all the drama that human life does.

You don’t have to be a geek to have fun with etymologies. Right here at Mere Inkling we enjoyed exploring Viking words that found their way into English. We also discussed the importance of using the etymological meanings of one’s name when determining how that name is properly rendered in the Elvish tongues of Middle Earth.

Etymology is serious business to those of us who study history and, especially, theology. The article I just cited is available online in a delightful video presentation. I’ll link to it below, for those interested in language as it relates to the Bible. Yet, even for those without these theological or historical interests, learning the life story of words can be fascinating, and even inspiring.

Listen to C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on the importance of philology, the broader study of languages which incorporates etymology.

I am sometimes told that there are people who want a study of literature wholly free from philology; that is, from the love and knowledge of words. Perhaps no such people exist. If they do, they are either crying for the moon or else resolving on a lifetime of persistent and carefully guarded delusion.

If we read an old poem with insufficient regard for change in the overtones, and even the dictionary meanings, of words since its date—if, in fact, we are content with whatever effect the words accidentally produce in our modern minds—then of course we do not read the poem the old writer intended.

What we get may still be, in our opinion, a poem; but it will be our poem, not his. If we call this tout court “reading” the old poet, we are deceiving ourselves. If we reject as “mere philology” every attempt to restore for us his real poem, we are safeguarding the deceit.

Of course any man is entitled to say he prefers the poems he makes for himself out of his mistranslations to the poems the writers intended. I have no quarrel with him. He need have none with me. Each to his taste. (Studies in Words)

Exciting News for Word Lovers

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) provides an unrivaled treasure-trove of information about the world’s most influential language. And—it is currently being expanded. The second edition, published in 1989, consists of twenty volumes (21,728 pages). The new edition will, of course, eclipse that.

Best of all, will be the OED’s deeper exploration of each word’s etymology. As they say in the already-released Preface to the Third Edition of the OED:

The revision of the Oxford English Dictionary’s etymological component is a substantial undertaking. In the First Edition many entries whose origin was taken to be self-evident (typically native English formations) were not provided with etymologies.

In the revised material each entry has a formal etymology. . . . the most significant changes relate to the analytical content of the revised etymologies, which for the most part update text which appeared in the First Edition of the Dictionary, and therefore represented the state of scholarly knowledge approximately one hundred years ago.

Your reward for reading this far: At the beginning of this post, I quoted from the Bible Study Magazine article that inspired it. This is a link to the article itself . . . but I strongly recommend you follow this link to the video version by the author, which I mentioned earlier.

A Bonus Surprise from C.S. Lewis

I suspect most fans of C.S. Lewis would imagine him to be very fastidious, even punctilious, about spelling. The following letter will prove otherwise.

Lewis recognized the purpose of language is to communicate, and although there are valid reasons to investigate their etymologies, such pursuits need not muddy the conversation, so to speak. This letter was published on New Year’s Day in 1960 in the London Times Educational Supplement. It was written in response to a contemporary debate about “spelling reform.”

Nearly everything I have ever read about spelling reform assumes from the outset that it is necessary for us all to spell alike. Why? We got on for centuries without an agreed common orthography.

Most men of my age [i.e. officers serving during WWI] remember censoring the letters of soldiers and know that even the wildest idiosyncrasies of spelling hardly ever made them unintelligible.

Printing houses will always have, as they have now, their own rules, whether authors like them or not. Scholars, who know the ancestry of the words they use, will generally spell them accordingly.

A few hard words will still have to be learned by everyone. But for the rest, who would be a penny the worse if though and tho, existence and existance, sieze, seize and seeze were all equally tolerated?

If our spelling were either genuinely phonetic or genuinely etymological, or if any reform that made it either the one or the other were worth the trouble, it would be another matter.

As things are, surely Liberty is the simple and inexpensive ‘Reform’ we need? This would save children and teachers thousands of hours’ work. It would also force those to whom applications for jobs are made to exercise their critical faculties on the logic and vocabulary of the candidate instead of tossing his letter aside with the words “can’t even spell.”

So, console yourself today with the knowledge that C.S. Lewis would not judge you for accidentally writing “sieze,” or using personal shorthand like “tho” or “thru.” Lewis respected the value of etymology, but he also understood quite well its proper place.

Have you ever carved your initials, or some other pictograph (perhaps a heart?) in the bark of a tree? I never thought much about such things until I learned about the key role played by their bark in a tree’s health. Now I tend to consider this arboreal graffiti* as unfortunate.

I haven’t found any reference in C.S. Lewis to such carvings. However, I suspect that due to his love of nature and hiking, he would discourage the wounding of trees in this way. And there is another reason I believe the Inklings would be wary of this practice. More on that in a moment.

Tree carvings can actually record history for preliterate peoples. I even learned a new word, the meaning of which is easy to decipher from its parts—dendroglyphs. Not all tree scars are considered dendroglyphs. Just those, as Brittanica says, “the dendroglyph [is] an engraving on a living tree trunk. Carved in the usual geometric style, dendroglyphs featured clan designs or made references to local myths. They were used to mark the graves of notable men or to indicate the perimeters of ceremonial grounds.”⁑

One unique people group living “at the edge of the world” faced the fate of most pacifists who are not protected by a benign power. The Moriori lost their island home to the Māori people to whom they were related. Some of their stories survive, partly due to their dendroglyphs.

An academic article on the subject of dendroglyphs is available here.

Dendroglyphs are distinct from scarred trees, the former being decorative marks cut into the bark or heartwood of living trees, while the latter result from resource use, such as bark removal for making implements, obtaining native honey or hunting. A further distinction can be made between two types of dendroglyphs: Indigenous dendroglyphs and dendrograffiti.

Indigenous dendroglyphs are a form of visual expression that reflects affiliation with the land and special cultural association with the landscape and its resources. Dendrograffiti are carvings made by land users, such as shepherds and pastoralists, and often display names, dates, symbols and images that mark boundaries, communications and light entertainment.”

The image above comes from an ancient Australian tree. You can read more about it here, but this is the myth it portrays:

The tale behind the tree has been passed on for generations. It’s the story of two Western Yalanji men who have gone over into Eastern Yalanji country and tried to get a woman. . . . The family of the girl they were trying to take pursued the men.

The Western Yalanji men were chased and speared. One of the men that got speared . . . became a lizard, crawled up the tree and became that carving.

History aside, cutting bark should be avoided in general. And, should you visit a national forest in the United States, be forewarned—“carving into trees is illegal in all national forests!” As the National Park Service pleads: “please respect the law, the trees, and your fellow public land users by not carving words, initials, or anything into tree bark!”

Other Places Where Dendroglyphs are Dangerous

The United States isn’t the only place where a person desiring to mark a tree with a blade should be cautious. This activity is generally inadvisable in both Narnia and Middle Earth.

At Narnia’s very creation, Aslan bestowed sentience on some of the trees of that blessed land. “After Aslan gave certain animals the gift to speech, he declared to the Narnian creatures; “Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”

And their creator loved their company. Later we read: “Aslan stood in the center of a crowd of creatures who had grouped themselves round him in the shape of a half-moon. There were Tree-Women there and Well-Women (Dryads and Naiads as they used to be called in our world) who had stringed instruments . . .”

Yet, as gentle as these dryads were, the Witch was able to deceive some of their number. As Tumnus warns the children, “the woods are full of her spies, even some of the trees are on her side.” Still, most continued to follow Aslan, and some of these dryads were among the stone statues restored to life by their lord.

In one of The Last Battle’s saddest scenes, King Tirian is addressed by a tree nymph who warns that Aslan’s imposter is cutting down the forest.

King Tirian and the two Beasts knew at once that she was the nymph of a beech tree. “Justice, Lord King!” she cried. “Come to our aid. Protect your people. They are felling us in Lantern Waste. Forty great trunks of my brothers and sisters are already on the ground.”

“What, Lady! Felling Lantern Waste? Murdering the talking trees?” cried the King, leaping to his feet and drawing his sword. “How dare they? And who dares it? Now by the Mane of Aslan—”

“A-a-a-h,” gasped the Dryad, shuddering as if in pain—shuddering time after time as if under repeated blows. Then all at once she fell sideways as suddenly as if both her feet had been cut from under her. For a second they saw her lying dead on the grass and then she vanished. They knew what had happened. Her tree, miles away, had been cut down.

Narnia is not the only land where trees are damaged at one’s risk. J.R.R. Tolkien populated Middle Earth with amazing creatures. Among these were the Ents.

Ents are not actual trees. They are ancient “shepherds of the trees,” who care for the forests. (The Entwives preferred to care for smaller plants, such as gardens.)

When the hobbits awake Treebeard, he mistakes them for little orcs and is prepared to crush them. Orcs, after all, are destructive by nature and always deserving of a good stomping. When they explain their quest and inform the ancient Ent of Saruman’s burning of their forests near Isengard, he calls on his brethren who respond to the threat.

Treebeard is pleased and says, “Indeed I have not seen them roused like this for many an age. We Ents do not like being roused; and we never are roused unless it is clear to us that our trees and our lives are in great danger.”

I can almost hear Treebeard calling out now, “the Ents are going to war.”

We’ll close now with the marching song of the Ents, and let these words provide a sharp warning to those among us who might contemplate violating trees in the future.

Though Isengard be strong and hard, as cold as stone and bare as bone,
We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door;
For bole and bough are burning now, the furnace roars—we go to war!
To land of gloom with tramp of doom,
with roll of drum, we come, we come;
To Isengard with doom we come!


* I came up with the term “arboreal graffiti” myself, but was pleased to find that other creative minds have also used it online. This post on the subject offers an interesting twist, and is well worth the quick read.

⁑ This quotation is taken from their article on Australian aboriginal art.

Don’t Be a Pirate

October 6, 2020 — 15 Comments

Pirates make for interesting reading. The Inklings thought so. In a 1932 letter to his brother, C.S. Lewis mentions Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Pirate.

“I am now reading through [a Scott biography], and am just at the Shetland and Orkney diary:89 which you will constantly have been reminded of if you have read The Pirate.”

In 1952, Lewis mentioned to a colleague another pirate story. “High Wind in Jamaica which I’ve just read is better than I expected. . . . A grim book but good in its way.”

This is not to say that Lewis regarded pirate tales, as a genre, as very good. His praise of Ray Bradbury’s work includes an entertaining aside in this regard.

I have just read two books by an American ‘scientifiction’ author called Ray Bradbury. Most of that genre is abysmally bad, a mere transference of ordinary gangster or pirate fiction to the sidereal stage, and a transference which does harm not good.

Bigness in itself is of no imaginative value: the defence of a ‘galactic’ empire is less interesting than the defence of a little walled town like Troy. But Bradbury has real invention and even knows something about prose. I recommend his Silver Locusts.

With the recent exception of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, piracy does not seem to capture our cinematic imagination as it once did. Onscreen, buccaneers are often treated as heroic swashbucklers, as in the delightful Princess Bride.

However, in reality, we know real pirates were merciless.*

Some were “privateers,” authorized by a government to prey on the shipping of other countries. (Privateering was not banned until 1856.)⁑ They were simply pirates with papers, although they possessed a veneer of respectability in some circles. If you are interested in a recent argument for privateering “to fight Chinese aggression at sea,” You need to read “Unleash the Privateers!”

These oceanic criminals were not confined to exotic ports. As recently as 1614, the coast of Ireland was home to a major “pirate alliance.”

[In 1604] James I of England ended the long English naval tradition of “privateering” as part of a peace agreement with Spain. . . . Though it was risky work, many sailors preferred it to more official service on the King’s ships, which offered low pay, poor sanitary conditions, and an aging fleet.

Over time, English privateers grew in numbers, with the more successful commanding well-armed fleets of multiple ships. . . . as a consequence of the decision by James I, thousands of mariners suddenly found themselves out of work. Used to operating independently, they became prime targets to drift into piracy. Unsanctioned piracy, that is.

Long before Jack Sparrow ever considered wearing an eyepatch, pirates had become a staple Hollywood trope. In 1935 Errol Flynn appeared in Captain Blood, where he portrayed a gentlemanly physician who is falsely imprisoned and ends up becoming a hugely successful scourge of the seas.

A decade earlier, Douglas Fairbanks starred in The Black Pirate (1926) where his dashing athleticism entertained audiences. Here too the protagonist is actually a “good” person, enlisting in criminal ranks merely to punish those responsible for his father’s death.

Pirates in Inkling Literature

Both of the most famous Inklings included pirates in their best known works. J.R.R. Tolkien included an entire nation of pirates in Middle Earth. The Corsairs of Umbar were utterly despicable, and aligned along with the Haradrim on the side of Mordor. Even before we see them portrayed in the film set in the Third Age, they had carried destruction to the people of Gondor.

The second and greatest evil came upon Gondor in the reign of Telemnar, the twenty-sixth king, whose father Minardil, son of Eldacar, was slain at Pelargir by the Corsairs of Umbar. . . . a deadly plague came with dark winds out of the East. The King and all his children died, and great numbers of the people of Gondor . . . When King Telemnar died the White Tree of Minas Anor also withered and died (Annals of the Kings and Rulers).

C.S. Lewis also incorporated pirates into his own Narnian saga. The entire Telmarine population, which figures prominently in Narnian history, is descended from pirates who arrived there from Earth. In the following passage, Aslan explains this arrival to Prince Caspian.

“You, Sir Caspian,” said Aslan, “might have known that you could be no true King of Narnia unless, like the kings of old, you were a son of Adam and came from the world of Adam’s sons. And so you are. Many years ago in that world, in a deep sea of that world which is called the South Sea, a shipload of pirates were driven by storm onto an island.

And there they did as pirates would: killed the natives and took the native women for wives, and made palm wine, and drank and were drunk, and lay in the shade of the palm trees, and woke up and quarreled, and sometimes killed one another. And in one of these frays six were put to flight by the rest and fled with their women into the center of the island and up a mountain and went, as they thought, into a cave to hide.

But it was one of the magical places of that world, one of the chinks or chasms between that world and this. There were many chinks and chasms between worlds in old times, but they have grown rarer. . . . And so they fell, or rose, or blundered, or dropped right through, and found themselves in this world, in the Land of Telmar which was then unpeopled.

But why it was unpeopled is a long story: I will not tell it now. And in Telmar their descendants lived and became a fierce and proud people, and after many generations there was a famine in Telmar and they invaded Narnia, which was then in some disorder (but that also would be a long story), and conquered it and ruled it.

Epilogue: Don’t Be a Pirate

In a 1950 letter to a correspondent who had apparently argued that institutional loyalty is actually loyalty to individual leaders, Lewis disagrees.

No, I don’t agree that loyalty to an institution is simply loyalty to the personnel and their policy. If I join a ship because I like the captain I am not justified in deserting the moment he dies, nor because I dislike his successor.

There might come a point (e.g. if the new captain were using the ship for piracy) at which it would be my right, and my duty, to leave: not because I simply disliked him and his polity, but because the particular duty (keep your contracts) would now conflict with, and yield to, the higher and more universal duty (Don’t be a pirate).

Like C.S. Lewis, I assume most readers of Mere Inkling would agree that we must follow our conscience, should our earthly loyalties be directed toward an institution or person devoted to an evil end. In the military, this conundrum was addressed in the legal freedom—even mandate—to disobey “unlawful orders.”

No doubt many people are challenged on a regular basis to compromise their conscience in order to succeed in their morally-challenged environment. I would add my own voice to Lewis’ in urging them not to become a pirate.


* Much has been written about piracy, an ancient plague that still afflicts the world today. You can download a fascinating piece of history in the form of a 1724 London publication of A general history of the robberies and murders of the most notorious pyrates, and also their policies, discipline and government, from their first rise and settlement in the island of Providence, in 1717 to the present year 1724.

⁑ The vast extent of Atlantic piracy is sobering. One history site describes it thusly:

The Golden Age of piracy (c1680s–1726) was the most dramatic era of maritime marauding the world has ever known, a period which at its peak saw as many as 4,000 pirates a year wreaking havoc across the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

The age of colonial expansion meant that huge quantities of valuable cargoes were being shipped over vast ocean areas and, as European navies were reduced, many experienced sailors who were out of work turned to piracy.

treebeard &amp; groot

Not only do trees cleanse the air we breathe, there’s more evidence they contribute to our mental health as well.

An article entitled “Greener Childhood Associated with Happier Adulthood,” describes research from Denmark’s Aarhus University discovering that “growing up near vegetations is associated with an up to 55 percent lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood.” An American researcher commented on the findings.

“The scale of this study is quite something,” says Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond who studies the psychological effects of natural spaces. Smaller studies have hinted that lack of green space increases the risk of mood disorders and schizophrenia and can even affect cognitive development.

In a rapidly urbanizing world, this data is particularly troubling. Most of us must live “where the work is,” and our children sometimes grow up in places where trees are few and far between (and I wouldn’t really count Joshua “trees” which are Monocotyledons, and not true trees).*

This research confirms my own, personal experience. I have always found lush greenery energizing. I used to attribute this association with family—while growing up in a USMC family, we would try to make an annual trip “home” to Puget Sound. The nearer we got to my grandparents, the greener the Puget Sound terrain grew.

In my affection for trees, I am akin to the Inklings. Much has been written about J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of the forests of Middle Earth. The terrible damage to the Fangorn forest done by the army of Saruman is one of the tragedies of The Lord of the Rings.

C.S. Lewis and his friends enjoyed walking trips. Much of the countryside they covered in these treks was adorned by healthy copses, but they do not appear to have ventured into any deep forests.

In a 1953 letter to a correspondent who was attempting to lure Lewis to visit America, he paints a clear picture of what he finds alluring.

How wrong you are when you think that streamlined planes and trains would attract me to America. What I want to see there is yourself and 3 or 4 other good friends, after New England, the Rip Van Winkle Mts., Nantucket, the Huckleberry Finn country, the Rockies, Yellowstone Park, and a sub-Arctic winter.

And I should never come if I couldn’t manage to come by sea instead of air: preferably on a cargo boat that took weeks on the voyage.

I’m a rustic animal and a maritime animal: no good at great cities, big hotels, or all that. But this is becoming egotistical. And here comes my first pupil of the morning.

All blessings, and love to all. Yours, C.S. Lewis

I’d love to see a bear, a snow-shoe, and a real forest.

Lewis wrote a fascinating poem about the spiritual price of deforestation.

The Future of Forestry

How will the legend of the age of trees
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?

When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s heart; when contraceptive
Tarmac’s laid where farm has faded,
Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,
And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from
Dover to [Cape] Wrath, have glazed us over?

Simplest tales will then bewilder
The questioning children, “What was a chestnut?
Say what it means to climb a Beanstalk,
Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.”

Then, told by teachers how once from mould
Came growing creatures of lower nature
Able to live and die, though neither
Beast nor man, and around them wreathing
Excellent clothing, breathing sunlight –
Half understanding, their ill-acquainted
Fancy will tint their wonder-paintings
Trees as men walking, wood-romances
Of goblins stalking in silky green,
Of milk-sheen froth upon the lace of hawthorn’s
Collar, pallor in the face of birchgirl.

So shall a homeless time, though dimly
Catch from afar (for soul is watchfull)
A sight of tree-delighted Eden.

Plant a Tree

In “The Arbor of God,” the physician who founded Blessed Earth poses a thoughtful question: “Trees are everywhere in Scripture. Why have they gone missing from Christian theology?”

I’ve always loved trees. I love their look, their shade, the sound of wind in their leaves, and the taste of every fruit they produce. As a grade-schooler, I first planted trees with my father and grandfather. I’ve been planning them ever since. . . .

But a dozen years ago, when I offered to plant trees at our church, one of the pastors told me I had the theology of a tree-hugger.

This was not meant as a compliment.

There is a possibly apocryphal statement credited to Martin Luther during the Reformation. In a spirit of faith and commendable actions for Christians, Luther said, “If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.”

As I gaze out the window now, at the four blossoming apple trees we planted just three years ago, I’m inspired to plant some more trees. This year, I think, it will be some bushes and plants that provide year-round nectar for the hummingbirds that grace our woodlands. Even the anticipation of planting them brings me joy.


* Joshua trees, such as those which surrounded our home at Edwards AFB, are actually “flowering plants.” As such, they do have green growth and even fruit. So, in a generous spirit, I’ll credit them with 50% of the positive effect on mental health that a maple or fir might offer.

What We Worship

February 1, 2018 — 13 Comments

worshipping squirrel

It’s curious to consider the varieties of deities worshipped throughout history and around the globe. And it is important that we understand the god we choose to follow, as well as the nature of “faith” allows us.

This picture came from a nearby garden. The squirrel effects the pose of a worshipper, but it’s motivated by the nuts the gardener has rested in the Buddha’s lap. It’s not intended to be irreverent, and one assumes that Siddhārtha Gautama would not be offended.

The image is provocative. If you were to put yourself in the squirrel’s place, it would be of no surprise that you would be devoted to the “Provider of Nuts,” especially if you did not make the connection between the gentleman who filled and the statue that actually offers them to you.

Whether we are adherents of one of the so-called monotheistic religions, or pantheists who see the presence of god in all of universal nature, our “religion” directly affects our worldview and life choices.

And then there are the “no religious preferences,” who embrace or reject labels like “agnostic.” Some of them long to believe, but demand proof, where God calls for faith. Others opt for lives of hedonism, gambling that their notion there is no Creator is right. Many of these individuals actively hope that there is no God, and not a few of them have a nagging fear that he may just exist, and call them to account one day for their selfish lives.

C.S. Lewis was in the latter category. Before he became a Christian, Lewis entertained no desire to seek Christ out. “Amiable agnostics,” he wrote, “will talk cheerfully about ‘man’s search for God.’ To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat” (Surprised by Joy).

About the Nature of Faith

God chooses to call us into a restored relationship with himself through the mechanism of faith. If that word troubles you, think of it as “trust.” Faith is necessary, for an obvious reason. In the New Testament, we read, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).

That faith is necessary may sound intimidating. However, the good news is that what God demands, he himself provides . . . even to the most reluctant of converts such as Saul of Tarsus or C.S. Lewis of Oxford.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis discusses the nature of faith at great length. He provides a number of helpful images. In the book he clearly distinguishes between faith (trust) and feelings or moods. I enjoy the way that the final sentence of this passage is evocative of the worshipping squirrel which inspired these reflections.

Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience.

Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway.

That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods “where they get off,” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.

Dithering to and fro, indeed.

A Surrealistic Postscript

I had been thinking about writing on this subject ever since I saw the photo, some months ago. I was spurred to compose it now, by a fact that recently appeared in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It speaks for itself.

A Brazilian grandmother believed she was praying to a figurine of Saint Anthony for years, only to discover that it was an action figure of the Elf Lord Elrond from the “Lord of the Rings” films!

wedding.pngIf you know the meaning of bricolage and understand its application to C.S. Lewis, I doff my cap to you.

Since I’m not an artist (the field in which the word is most common), “bricolage” was foreign to me before I encountered it during my doctoral studies. I read there that it constitutes a valid “approach to qualitative research.”

The term “bricolage” was taken from the work of the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (1968), who used it to distinguish mythological from scientific thought. . . . Levi-Strauss described the bricoleur as someone who uses whatever tools and materials are at hand to complete a project.

The key idea is that rather than developing a logically consistent plan in advance and then systematically using the materials and tools that the plan and the norms of the community prescribe (as science is widely, though I think somewhat incorrectly, believed to do), the bricoleur spontaneously adapts to the situation, creatively employing the available tools and materials to come up with unique solutions to a problem. (Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach)

If you picked up on the “mythological” reference within the definition—and drew a connection to the creator of Narnia—you may have the makings of a fine bricoleur. (But don’t add it to your résumé quite yet.)

Lévi-Strauss contrasted this mythological approach with the technological dominance of modern thinking.

The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual “bricolage.” (The Savage Mind)

Fordham University has a comparative literature journal entitled Bricolage, inspired by “literary bricoleurs [who] produced stories, ones with historical and cultural significance and unique relevance attached to them, that colored the past with intentional highlights and included questions, ideas, and voices that were never part of the frozen time period they wrote about, but always had the potential to be.”

If that makes sense to you, and even inspires you, they have a list of prompts on the website to guide your own submission to the periodical. (I particularly like open-ended: “Describe the problem.”)

They even solicit suggestions for future prompts, if you would like to game the system by suggesting a subject for which you already possess some bricoleurological notions.

I don’t wish to suggest that this literary journal does not include some genuinely insightful work. Consider the following, from “Imagination: An Internal Reality” by Brittany Gilmartin.

While reality is an external landscape for our bodies and senses, the imagination is an internal landscape for our minds and thoughts. A limitless realm that only we ourselves can control, the imagination is a space for us to think freely about the outside world and create a new reality inside of us.

This mental reality is a place that we can escape to when we are not satisfied with the real world, as in “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien, or find the real world too hard to bear, as in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce.

Some may argue that instead of escaping into the fantasy of our imaginations, we should focus on factual knowledge; however, the imagination can teach us about the facts in a new light. Indeed, L. Frank Baum, in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and C. S. Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia, use their imaginations to redefine their external realities through allegories, allowing their readers to gain a deeper understanding of these realities than they could have gained through a textbook.

Great writers, such as the Inklings, did not bring newborn imaginations to the task of writing their diverse works. They were nourished and stirred by their lifelong consumption of a rich banquet of literature. And the way in which these themes are intentionally (and accidentally) woven into new texts displays their great talent.

Intertextuality as a Tool for the Bricoleur

Skilled writers frequently use devices to enrich their work. Quotations, allusions, pastiche and parody are obvious examples. Some critics would even include plagiarism as an intertextual exercise, and in the strictest sense, it is. While unacknowledged direct quotations are inappropriate, many readers savor reading volumes filled with well-done allusions.

By their very nature, shaped as they are by each culture’s history and ethos, fairy tales provide fertile soil for bricolage.

C.S. Lewis pointed out that fairy tales don’t have to be great works of fiction, or even especially well written, to be unforgettable. . . . The libretti of ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and many others invent this and borrow that, crystallizing various elements from national folklore (Russian folk tales) and literary classics (Perrault, E.T.A. Hoffmann).

The raw materials are not, however, always readily identifiable, but have been transformed freely by the creators’ imagination: The Firebird and Giselle are original dramatic works in their own right.

Yet they are also essentially fairy tales, composed by bricolage with features that define the genre: supernatural and mysterious beings, a prevailing atmosphere of enchantment and vulnerability to destiny, and opening to another, imaginary world that is only accessible through the work of art. (Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale)

When the Bricoleur Denies External Influences

Many, if not most, examples of intertextual dependence or allusion are intentional. And, since few of us possess perfect memory, there will be cases where we “borrow” from other works unconsciously.

Many writers find their path to success by following well-worn paths and adding some new twist of their own. To be called “derivative” is not flattering, but carrying bags full of cash to the bank can take the sting out of the label.

In any case, it is disingenuous to deny the influence of others on your work—when their voice is recognizable to all.

The Harry Potter books are, without question, the outstanding British literary phenomenon of the last twenty years. Not everybody likes them, though. . . .  surely nobody can deny that, when it comes to her prose, Rowling is not remotely in the same league as, say, T.H. White or J.R.R. Tolkien, let alone Kenneth Grahame or Edith Nesbit.

So, why are her books so successful? The obvious answer is that, as the critic Wendy Doniger puts it, Rowling “is a wizard herself at the magic art of bricolage: new stores crafted out of recycled pieces of old stories.”

Long after she had become a multi-millionaire, Rowling tried to play down her borrowings from earlier authors, insisting that she was “not a huge fan of fantasy,” had never finished The Lord of the Rings and had a “big problem” with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, which she had never finished either.

Perhaps her memory was playing her false, though, for in earlier interviews she had talked warmly of her affections for The Lord of the Rings . . . In 1998 she even told an interviewer that she “loved” C.S. Lewis, whom she considered a “genius,” and actively reread his Narnia books.

None of this, though, would surprise an attentive reader of her work. Indeed, I suspect much of the attraction of the Harry Potter stories is the fun of spotting the allusions, as well as the nostalgic reassurance of seeing old devices and even familiar characters in a new context. (The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination)

On the opposite end of the humility spectrum, consider C.S. Lewis. Although his Chronicles of Narnia were in many ways groundbreaking, he readily offered gratitude to his various sources of inspiration.

Lewis was generous in thanking thinkers to whom he was indebted, and only failed to do so when he assumed any educated reader would recognize the source of an image or phrase.

With the contemporary state of literary education, this is an assumption modern writers are unwise to share. Sadly, this ignorance of formerly pervasive ideas and expressions is most visible in the realm of biblical literacy. But that is a subject for another day.

Stay Tuned

Our next post will consider an aspect of “unintentional bricolage” that C.S. Lewis found quite entertaining. I suspect many of us will agree.

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.