Archives For Narnia

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

oz-lionFew people know this peculiar fact about The Wizard of Oz. And this oddity shares an interesting link to one of C.S. Lewis’ most familiar novels.

Filmmaking has changed greatly since 1939 when Dorothy first tapped together her ruby slippers. One of those modifications involves the treatment of animals.

Some of us are old enough to remember the initial appearance of the disclaimers: “No animals were injured in the making of this film.” Those announcements disappeared long ago, as people have long supposed the humane treatment of animals required.

As far as I know, no one has alleged the mistreatment of animals in The Wizard of Oz. But the odd fact mentioned above refers to one of the costumes worn by a major character in the film.

Bert Lahr played the Cowardly Lion, who continued acting until he died during the filming of The Night They Raided Minsky’s in 1968. Fortunately, he was in his prime while traipsing across Oz, because his costume weighed at least sixty pounds.

Apparently the costume designer was going for accuracy—in the case of the Cowardly Lion, if not for the citizens of Munchkinland. He opted for using an actual lion pelt. At least two, in fact, since there was a least one backup.

Cinema memorabilia often provides unbelievable dividends. MGM sold the primary costume in 1970 for a mere $2,400. In 2005, after some restoration by a taxidermist, the costume sold for $826,000. Nine years later, in 2014, it became the highest valued male performer’s costume, selling for $3,100,000.

It is quite fitting that Leo the Lion is the mascot for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. While there have been seven “Leos” since 1916, it is doubtful that any of them contributed their hide to costuming the Cowardly Lion.

What Has Oz to do with Narnia?

Oz and Narnia resemble one another in the obvious sense that both are fantasy lands. I’m ill-equipped to compare the two beyond that, having no desire to read about the former. Here you’ll find an interesting article that offers some insights into the realm of the Wizard. The literary critics of The Telegraph offer the following contrast.

Even so, [Oz is] a strangely amorphous creation, originally reached by cyclone but in later books by shipwreck (twice), by earthquake and by simply getting lost. As a fantasy land, it has none of the depth or authority of Tolkien’s Middle Earth nor even the physicality of CS Lewis’s Narnia.

Reaching back to the turn of the millennia, you might enjoy reading “Oz vs. Narnia.” Comparing the promotion of the two realms on their respective hundredth and fiftieth anniversaries, the author finds Narnia’s treatment by HarperCollins wanting.

But however much the tribute to Oz exceeds the tribute to Narnia in sumptuousness, it can’t disguise the superiority of Lewis’ book. As a child, I loved Oz’s endless cavalcade of strange creatures and, especially, John R. Neil’s trippy art nouveau illustrations and extravagant marginalia; I still like the books today. But the first time I read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” in second grade, I knew that I’d stumbled into a whole new league.

A Tale of Two Lions

The odd overlap in the two stories is not due to the prominent presence of lions in each world. The Cowardly Lion and Aslan have nothing in common, save perhaps, compassion for others.

But the real life costume of Oz’s lion does relate directly to one of Lewis’ most amazing fictional creations.

In the final Chronicle, The Last Battle, we find many people are led astray by a false prophet. There is a liar masquerading as the true king. The horror that he is able to mislead so many vulnerable souls is magnified by the fact that he too wears an obvious costume—the pelt of a lion.

Lewis’ account of the deception is skillful. One of the most brilliant aspects is that the “king” himself (a donkey) is actually tricked into playing the role by the true deceiver (an ape).

“All the same, Shift,” said Puzzle [the donkey], “even if the skin only belonged to a dumb, wild lion, oughtn’t we to give it a decent burial? I mean, aren’t all lions rather— well, rather solemn? Because of you know Who. Don’t you see?”

“Don’t you start getting ideas into your head, Puzzle,” said Shift. “Because, you know, thinking isn’t your strong point. We’ll make this skin into a fine warm winter coat for you.”

“Oh, I don’t think I’d like that,” said the Donkey. “It would look—I mean, the other Beasts might think—that is to say, I shouldn’t feel—”

“What are you talking about?” said Shift, scratching himself the wrong way up as Apes do.

“I don’t think it would be respectful to the Great Lion, to Aslan himself, if an ass like me went about dressed up in a lion-skin,” said Puzzle. “Now don’t stand arguing, please,” said Shift.

“What does an ass like you know about things of that sort? You know you’re no good at thinking, Puzzle, so why don’t you let me do your thinking for you?”

Obviously, a comparison between real and fictional characters wearing lion skins can only go so far. Still, I assume some readers will find the use of a lion’s pelt to camouflage a completely different species, to be a rather peculiar parallel between Oz and Narnia.

Those Lazy Males

October 12, 2016 — 3 Comments

squirrelIn some places a debate rages over the question of who works the hardest, men or women. In our family, there is no such disagreement. We all recognize that the typical woman works far more than her male counterpart.

Take my case. I’m a Type A workaholic who lost (unused) leave every year of my military career. I still keep extremely busy, but when it comes to work ethic and effort, I don’t even pretend to hold a candle to my wife.

Now another example from the animal kingdom has confirmed what most people have suspected—females do far more than their share of the work.

Men have been embarrassed for generations by the example of lazy lions who rely on the lionesses to do nearly all of the hunting. Not to mention taking care of the family’s domestic responsibilities.

And now men have been betrayed by a more modest mammal—the squirrel.

I happen to like squirrels. I always have, even when they try to hijack the birdseed we always have available at our home. I hate hearing people refer to them as “tree rats,” and considered it good fortune that the street where we built our home is named “Squirrel Place.”

C.S. Lewis loved small animals. Reepicheep, a mouse, is one of the great heroes of Narnia. But it was a squirrel who played a role in one of his earliest “mystical” experiences. Fittingly, it also relates to Autumn, the season those of us in the Northern Hemisphere currently enjoy.

The following passage comes from Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. It describes the impression left on him after reading one of Beatrix Potter’s children’s books.

It will be clear that at this time—at the age of six, seven, and eight—I was living almost entirely in my imagination; or at least that the imaginative experience of those years now seems to me more important than anything else. . . .

But imagination is a vague word and I must make some distinctions. It may mean the world of reverie, daydream, wish-fulfilling fantasy. . . .

The . . . glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn.

It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible— how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it.

And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.”

Squirrely Dads

Returning to the recent research that proved beyond any shadow of doubt that even among industrious, nut-gathering rodents, the males cop out. Don’t be put off by the study’s title—“The secret life of ground squirrels: accelerometry reveals sex-dependent plasticity in above-ground activity”—this is serious.

Apparently, while mom is down in a dark burrow nursing the kids, dad’s out lounging in the sunshine. It’s inexcusable.

And don’t try to use some lame excuse or misogynist argument that these findings are only true for Urocitellus parryii, semi-fossorial arctic ground squirrels, but they’re only fooling themselves. We all know that women work harder than men, especially when it comes to raising kids.

The female squirrels are literally so drained by the demands put upon them that they have to begin their hibernations before the males and end them after the males emerge from their hibernacula!

Following the termination of heterothermy in spring, male arctic ground squirrels remain below ground for a three to five week interval during which they consume a food cache to regain body mass lost during hibernation . . . Males intercept and mate-guard newly emergent females that become pregnant within a few days of emergence; gestation lasts for approximately 25 days, and lactation is another approximately 28–35 days.

Unlike males, females do not cache food and, with the exception of early gestation when they continue to lose body fat, they appear to fuel their reproduction using energy gained concurrently through foraging. [Note: it doesn’t appear the males share. Another strike against them.]

In addition, females are delivering energy to pups as milk during lactation . . . Once their young have been weaned, females undergo a moult and fatten; autumn immergence occurs in August [while] males that fatten and cache food later in the autumn immerge in early- to mid-October.

And there is no doubt that the people who conducted this research are right, after all, they used “collar-mounted light loggers and triaxial accelerometers!”

 

policePolice are entrusted with the power and authority to protect the innocent. That very power provides them with the opportunity to abuse that trust.

Recent events in the United States have drawn to the world’s attention the fact that human beings are incapable of providing perfect law enforcement. That should come as no surprise since, due to our fallen nature, we can do nothing perfectly.

C.S. Lewis never wrote a treatise specifically about law enforcement, but he did refer to it on a number of occasions. This week I thought it might be beneficial to consider a number of his insights. The final quotation relates a specific experience Lewis had with responsive police and a rather unresponsive judiciary.

Lewis had an impressive knack for using familiar images to illustrate biblical principles. In the following example he uses police, an occupation recognized by all, to display the absurdity of the logic of skeptics of Christianity.

If the universe is teeming with life, this, we are told, reduces to absurdity the Christian claim—or what is thought to be the Christian claim—that man is unique, and the Christian doctrine that to this one planet God came down and was incarnate for us men and our salvation.

If, on the other hand, the earth is really unique, then that proves that life is only an accidental by-productd in the universe, and so again disproves our religion. Really, we are hard to please. We treat God as the police treat a man when he is arrested; whatever He does will be used in evidence against Him. (“Dogma and the Universe”)

Let us now consider a few of the principles easily gleaned from Lewis’ writings.

Law Enforcement is a Normal Occupation

In that sense, police are no different than any other member of the community. C.S. Lewis illustrates that truth by including them in a list of “regular” occupations.

Dr. Pittenger would be a more helpful critic if he advised a cure as well as asserting many diseases. How does he himself do such work? What methods, and with what success, does he employ when he is trying to convert the great mass of storekeepers, lawyers, realtors, morticians, policemen and artisans who surround him in his own city? (“Rejoinder to Dr. Pittenger”)

Law Possesses a Vital Function

The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. (Mere Christianity)

In his essay “Vivisection,” Lewis mentions in passing the role of law enforcement in society. We have assigned to them the responsibility of investigating suspicious behavior to determine whether it conforms to the law of the land. And they do so according to whatever guidelines or restrictions the government (presumably of by and for the people) levies upon them.

In justifying cruelty to animals we put ourselves also on the animal level. We choose the jungle and must abide by our choice. You will notice I have spent no time in discussing what actually goes on in the laboratories. We shall be told, of course, that there is surprisingly little cruelty. That is a question with which, at present, I have nothing to do. We must first decide what should be allowed: after that it is for the police to discover what is already being done.

In Democracies Police are Generally Trustworthy

Lewis acknowledges that there are places where the police are frequently corrupt and perhaps even brutal. But he reminds us that we who live in democratic nations should be grateful for the normal behavior of those who serve in law enforcement.

The decline of ‘religion’ is no doubt a bad thing for the ‘World.’ By it all the things that made England a fairly happy country are, I suppose, endangered: the comparative purity of her public life, the comparative humanity of her police, and the possibility of some mutual respect and kindness between political opponents.

But I am not clear that it makes conversions to Christianity rarer or more difficult: rather the reverse. It makes the choice more unescapable. When the Round Table is broken every man must follow either Galahad or Mordred: middle things are gone. (“The Decline of Religion”)

Is it inappropriate to note how prophetic Lewis’ observation was that the secularization of Western culture would also erode political civility?

“Police States,” by Contrast, are Evil

In his preface to The Screwtape Letters, Lewis divulges where he found some of his images for his infernal milieu.

I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.

C.S. Lewis’ father was an attorney. But not just any sort of solicitor. He was a Police Court Solicitor, an important role which had as one of its purposes allowing a person who was arrested on suspicion of a criminal offense to consult with a lawyer while in initial police custody.

Lewis describes in his autobiography how his father regaled him and his brother Warnie with stories about curious police-court happenings. At the same time, Lewis confesses to his father’s struggle to relate to his boys after the loss of his wife when they were still young. Confessing that he frequently found his father’s conversations with his young sons confusing, he writes:

The man who, in his armchair, sometimes appeared not so much incapable of understanding anything as determined to misunderstand everything, was formidable in the police court and, I presume, efficient in his office. He was a humorist, even on occasion, a wit. (Surprised by Joy)

Corrupt Governments Corrupt the Police Force

One of the characteristics of police states is that they have extensive networks of “secret police,” who are often imbued with extraordinary prerogatives. One such malevolent presence plays just such a role in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Searching for Mr. Tumnus, the Pevensie children are discovered by Mr. Beaver. When they inquire of Lucy’s friend, the faun, he says:

“Ah, that’s bad,” said Mr. Beaver, shaking his head. “That’s a very, very bad business. There’s no doubt he was taken off by the police. I got that from a bird who saw it done.”

That explains the note the children had discovered at Mr. Tumnus’ ransacked home.

The former occupant of these premises, the Faun Tumnus, is under arrest and awaiting his trial on a charge of High Treason against her Imperial Majesty Jadis, Queen of Narnia, Chatelaine of Cair Paravel, Empress of the Lone Islands, etc., also of comforting her said Majesty’s enemies, harboring spies and fraternizing with Humans.

signed MAUGRIM, Captain of the Secret Police

LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!

One more passage reveals how quickly the deceitful captain can vacillate between threatening and gracious poses. Edmund has arrived at the Witch’s castle is been confronted by Maugrim.

“If you please, sir,” said Edmund, trembling so that he could hardly speak, “my name is Edmund, and I’m the Son of Adam that Her Majesty met in the wood the other day, and I’ve come to bring her the news that my brother and sisters are now in Narnia—quite close, in the Beavers’ house. She—she wanted to see them.”

“I will tell Her Majesty,” said the Wolf. “Meanwhile, stand still on the threshold, as you value your life.”

Then it vanished into the house. Edmund stood and waited, his fingers aching with cold and his heart pounding in his chest, and presently the gray wolf, Maugrim, the Chief of the Witch’s Secret Police, came bounding back and said, “Come in! Come in! Fortunate favorite of the Queen—or else not so fortunate.”

The Police Can Solve Problems

Yes, the example below comes from his novel The Silver Chair, but it is too good to overlook. Lewis is skilled at teaching through his fiction as well as in his essays.

This excerpt come from one of the Chronicles of Narnia, and Aslan has just returned Jill and Eustace to England, where there was a “corrective” encounter with some school bullies. The headmistress calls the police, and we join the scene . . .

When the police arrived and found no lion, no broken wall, and no convicts, and the Head behaving like a lunatic, there was an inquiry into the whole thing. And in the inquiry all sorts of things about Experiment House came out, and about ten people got expelled.

After that, the Head’s friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn’t much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after.

Police are Not Soldiers

In the following passage, Lewis shows an astute awareness of the actual role of the Roman soldier in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. They were certainly an occupation force, but their role in garrison was not to be “soldiers,” but rather to be “peacekeepers.” They were to maintain law and order, the so-called Pax Romana.

And because the whole difficulty for us is that the natural life has to be, in a sense, ‘killed,’ [Jesus] chose an earthly career which involved the killing of His human desires at every turn—poverty, misunderstanding from His own family, betrayal by one of His intimate friends, being jeered at and manhandled by the Police, and execution by torture. (Mere Christianity)

Lewis does the same thing in his essay “Modern Translations of the Bible,” where he compares the common* nature of the Greek used to write the Scriptures with the Incarnation.

The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language . . . It is a sort of `basic’ Greek; a language without roots in the soil, a utilitarian, commercial and administrative language. Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us.

The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary literary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.

C.S. Lewis’ Experience with the (In)Justice System

In 1957, Lewis wrote an essay** about a personal experience with the British judicial system. I choose to close with this selection because it is quintessential Lewis. He uses a fine critique of the treatment of criminals to also acknowledge his personal sinfulness. In this true story, the police do their job admirably. The judge . . . not so much.

Not long ago some of my young neighbours broke into a little pavilion or bungalow which stands in my garden and stole several objects—curious weapons and an optical instrument. This time the police discovered who they were. As more than one of them had been convicted of similar crimes before, we had high hopes that some adequately deterrent sentence would be given.

But I was warned: “It’ll all be no good if the old woman’s on the bench.” I had, of course, to attend the juvenile court and all fell out pat as the warning had said. The—let us call her—Elderly Lady presided. It was abundantly proved that the crime had been planned and that it was done for gain: some of the swag had already been sold.

The Elderly Lady inflicted a small fine. That is, she punished not the culprits but their parents. But what alarmed me more was her concluding speech to the prisoners. She told them that they must, they really must, give up these “stupid pranks.”

Of course I must not accuse the Elderly Lady of injustice. Justice has been so variously defined. If it means, as [Athenian sophist] Thrasymachus thought, “the interest of the stronger,” she was very just; for she enforced her own will and that of the criminals and they together are incomparably stronger than I.

But if her intention was—and I do not doubt that the road on which such justice is leading us all is paved with good ones—to prevent these boys from growing up into confirmed criminals, I question whether her method was well judged. If they listened to her (we may hope they did not) what they carried away was the conviction that planned robbery for gain would be classified as a “prank”—a childishness which they might be expected to grow out of.

A better way of leading them on, without any sense of frontiers crossed, from mere inconsiderate romping and plundering orchards to burglary, arson, rape and murder, would seem hard to imagine.

This little incident seems to me characteristic of our age. Criminal law increasingly protects the criminal and ceases to protect his victim. One might fear that we were moving towards a Dictatorship of the Criminals or (what is perhaps the same thing) mere anarchy. But that is not my fear; my fear is almost the opposite.

According to the classical political theory of this country we surrendered our right of self-protection to the State on condition that the State would protect us. Roughly, you promised not to stab your daughter’s murderer on the understanding that the State would catch him and hang him.

Of course this was never true as a historical account of the genesis of the State. The power of the group over the individual is by nature unlimited and the individual submits because he has to. The State, under favourable conditions (they have ceased), by defining that power, limits it and gives the individual a little freedom.

And so we see that Lewis shared a concern that has only become accentuated among many today. When the State abuses its prodigious power, and especially when it revises the role of those in law enforcement, transforming them into “enforcers,” we are in dire straits.

Thankfully, that has not yet transpired in most democratic lands. Still, the possibility of such decay has not been eliminated, and wisdom suggests that we remain vigilant should we see things sliding in that direction.

_____

* On the subject of the commonness of the language God uses to speak to us, you may wish to read my column on “Vulgar Christianity.”

** “Delinquents in the Snow” is included in the readily available collection, God in the Dock.

Is Fantasy Foolish?

April 26, 2016 — 6 Comments

lion of lyonSome of the smartest people around dismiss reading fantasy as a crazy waste of time. At the same time, many of the most brilliant people I know love nothing more than passing from their mundane lives through a magical wardrobe into a land of wonder.

On a recent episode of the television series Castle, the eponymous Richard Castle,* a best-selling author and private eye, has a great line. Castle is defending his hyperactive imagination (which frequently leads to the solving of the crime of the week).

A suspect calls him “reality-challenged.”

To which he responds, “I prefer fantasy-augmented.”

Now, there’s a description that would fit most readers of Mere Inkling. We’re “fantasy-augmented.”

It would also fit most of the Oxford Inklings. Not all of them, of course. Some of them, like C.S. Lewis’ brother Warnie, were more oriented towards factual, historical literature.

The fantasists among their ranks were not lacking as writers of nonfiction either.

However, it was the fact that they were “fantasy-augmented” that has led to the inclusion of several of their members in the first ranks of twentieth century writers.

Narnia and Middle Earth are as real to many people today as Ogre, Latvia, Humpty Do, Australia, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales, and Frankenstein, Missouri. (Perhaps more real!)

In 1936, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to Charles Williams, praising his recent novel.**

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer.

I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life–comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

The following day, Williams wrote a letter of his own to C.S. Lewis. It began:

My dear Mr Lewis, If you had delayed writing another 24 hours our letters would have crossed. It has never before happened to me to be admiring an author of a book while he at the same time was admiring me. My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day. To be exact, I finished on Saturday looking—too hastily—at proofs of your Allegorical Love Poem.

William’s reference to coincidence is poetic. He doesn’t rely on the timeworn “divine Providence,” which is so prevalent in literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Returning to Lewis’ missive, we learn exactly how Williams’ fantasy so deeply impressed him.

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer. I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life—comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G.K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

There are layers and layers—first the pleasure that any good fantasy gives me: then, what is rarely (tho’ not so very rarely) combined with this, the pleasure of a real philosophical and theological stimulus: thirdly, characters: fourthly, what I neither expected nor desired, substantial edification.

It’s unlikely that any of us should ever author a work that would equally impress C.S. Lewis. Still, what a grand goal for any fantasy-augmented writer to strive for!

_____

* Castle is played by Nathan Fillion, who captained the spacecraft “Serenity,” in a delightful series entitled Firefly.

** You can download The Place of the Lion in a variety of formats at ManyBooks.

The illustration above is used with the permission of its creator, Charis Tsevis.

 

Not Wholly Contemptible

April 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

cornwallisEveryone loves a compliment. Allow me to rephrase that. Most people appreciate a sincere compliment when it is genuinely flattering.

Actually, “flattering” isn’t a good word choice here. Flattery has a bad rep. The way it’s currently used, it hints of exaggeration and manipulation.

So let’s return to the concept of “compliments” in general. Most, we know, are welcome. It’s nice to have someone tell us we did a commendable job or had a good idea.

Then there are those less sincere “compliments” that require a bit of intelligence or wit to offer. The go by different names, but are commonly referred to as “left-handed compliments” or “backhanded compliments.”

This type of statement might sound on its surface like a compliment, but includes an element that undermines the praise. The Urban Dictionary offers the following example:

“Boy, you’re pretty hot . . . for a fat (or skinny) chick!”

Now, that is nothing but an insult. And it’s an insult of the crassest variety. One that demands no wit at all.

The British, on the other hand, are often capable of offering highly refined backhanded compliments.

I just came across a delightful one, delivered by the commander of the King’s forces during America’s War of Independence. What makes this exquisite is that it was offered in the wake of the general’s defeat at the close of the war.

When finally brought to heel at Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis reported, “I will not say much in praise of the Militia of the Southern Colonies, but the list of British officers and Soldiers killed or wounded by them since last June, proves but too fatally that they are not wholly contemptible.”

You can read more about the context for that statement in an excellent article about the American legacy of “citizen soldiers” published in Hallowed Ground magazine. This excellent journal is published by the Civil War Trust, which works diligently to preserve battlefields from the Civil War. They have recently expanded those efforts to include the Revolutionary War.

C.S. Lewis & Compliments

Lewis included backhanded compliments in his fictional works. Two simple examples follow. The first is found in The Screwtape Letters, where the tempter frequently commends the skill of God (“the Enemy”) in redeeming the lost.

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours.

Here is an offhanded compliment that Lewis places on the lips of Prince Corin in The Chronicles of Narnia. He is asked where Queen Susan is, on the eve of a battle and he responds like a typical young boy (which he still is at the time). He praises the martial spirit of her sister, Queen Lucy, who is a young adult at this point in the series.

At Cair Paravel. She’s not like Lucy [her sister who is in the ranks of the archers], you know, who’s as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy. Queen Susan is more like an ordinary grown-up lady. She doesn’t ride to wars, though she is an excellent archer. (The Horse and His Boy).

The late Bruce Edwards described how C.S. Lewis offered H.G. Wells a backhanded compliment. He did so by following the structure of Wells’ works, but devoting them to a vastly different philosophical purpose.

In Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Lewis adapted the general plot outline from H.G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon in order to tell an essentially anti-Wellsian tale. In Perelandra, Lewis pays a similar backhanded compliment to the man he admired as a speculative writer, but not as a philosopher.

The broad narrative structure of Perelandra resembles another novel by H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895). . . . In Wells’s novel, this narrative outline provides the basis of a quasi-Marxist fable about effete bourgeoisie and surly proletariat. In Lewis’s hands, a similar story structure tells a very different tale, one in which the ultimate battles are not economic and political, but rather cosmic and spiritual. (C.S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet).

Compliments: the Good & the Bad

Lewis’ use of Wells’ science fiction template was not meant to slight him. It was actually a tribute. Likewise, in the examples from his fiction, Lewis is simply representing (effectively) the attitudes of the speakers.

Returning for a moment to the abject General Cornwall, we recognize as well the grudging nature of his praise of the enemy. They were certainly rabble—possessing no great military skill, in his estimation. Yet, in terms of bringing the army of the greatest power in the world at that time to its surrender, “they are not wholly contemptible.”

And that, when it came to winning the war, apparently proved quite sufficient.

Africa Comes to America

September 23, 2015 — 9 Comments

saharaYes, you read the title correctly; it’s no typo. Africa itself arrived in America this summer—and it’s an event that apparently takes place every year!

In a recent post by one of Mere Inkling’s earliest subscribers, I learned about the annual Saharan Air Layer. It is an enormous dust cloud that transits the entire Atlantic Ocean and is vital to the western hemisphere, especially the Amazonian rain forests. More about the SAL below.

I find this phenomenon fascinating. It reveals how intricately balanced and interconnected God has created this amazing ecosystem we call earth.

I appreciate this fact, even though I don’t consider myself an environmentalist. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t recycle. What’s more, I would actually like to see brazen polluters incarcerated and tasked with personally cleaning toxic waste dumps . . . but that’s not the theme of this reflection.

It seems to me that part of being truly human, is possessing an appreciation—or even a love—for the world in which our Creator has allowed us to dwell. By love, I mean a deep affection for the flora and fauna, and even the mountains and valleys themselves.

I am not proposing idolatry.

I am in good company in valuing nature. C.S. Lewis found time spent walking in the countryside to be invigorating. It was renewing, for body, mind and soul.

Several years back a book was published with the peculiar subtitle, The Environmental Vision of C.S. Lewis.

The authors of Narnia and the Fields of Arbol explores the way Lewis displays his “ecological” concerns, particularly in his fiction. They also consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s similar attitude.

It is no coincidence that these two men, as soldiers during the Great War, had seen the worst violence humanity could do to nature. The ravages wrought by the orcs surrounding Isengard were echoes of the lifeless terrain of shell-shattered Western Front.

Writing this now, I recall a poem I wrote for Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

“A Foreshadowing of Epics” begins:

Filthy trenches greeted the novice soldiers’ eyes,

their two imaginations envisioned greener lands.

Crimson combat splashed red their vision,

and colored portraits one day painted with their words.

The frontlines were barren,

scarred earth stripped of all life.

Fallen trees mimicked casualties,

not even the smallest of creatures escaped death.

It may seem ironic to some that those very fields now are green, and teeming with life. It is the mercy of God that restores the scarred and heals the broken. And, as impressive as those miracles are evident in nature, they are far more wondrous when it is human lives that are transformed and resurrected.

So it is that I find the wonder of the barren and seemingly lifeless Saharan dust bringing nutrients to hungry forests on the other side of the earth amazing. No mere accident that.

If Jesus delays his return and this globe continues to spin for more centuries still, I would not be surprised to see the Americas returning to Africa a similar gift of life.

_____

Weather.com has a short video about the Saharan Air Layer here.