Archives For Narnia

One of the earliest lessons children learn is how many senses the human being possesses. You know the answer off the top of your head, right? Five. But, apparently, that’s no longer correct. Oh, you may think I must be including that long-time poser, extrasensory perception (ESP), which purports to be a sense of sorts beyond the five we all experience. If you thought that . . . sorry, but you are wrong again.

We all agree on the basic five: the faculties of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. To this list, science has recently added several other senses we experience. They’re not actually new; Adam and Eve knew them too (with the possible exception of nociception). They actually make sense (in the other use of the word), as well. Here they are:

Proprioception – perceiving where your body parts are relative to one another, and the strength of effort being employed in movement

Thermoception – sensing temperature

Equilibrioception – perception of balance

Chronoception – sensing the passage of time

Interoception – feeling internal needs such as hunger and thirst

Nociception – experiencing pain

More expansive lists exist as well. Some are discussed online at The United Kingdom’s Sensory Trust. The Trust is devoted to “sensory design . . . [using] nature and the outdoors to improve the health and wellbeing of people living with disability and health issues.” They describe how “neurological classification” can result in numbers up to fifty-three. (It makes one long for the simplicity of the past when we followed Aristotle’s citation of only five.)

C.S. Lewis’ Celebration of Life

You can pick up nearly any one of Lewis’ essays or fiction, open to any page of his autobiography, read almost any of his letters, and you will see his love for nature. And Lewis is often quite vivid in his description of his encounter with God’s creation. The sights, sounds and smells he describes make the depictions real. Consider his description of Tash, the “god” worshipped by the Calormenes, in The Last Battle.

[King Tirian said] “What foul smell is this?”

“Phew!” gasped Eustace. “It’s like something dead. Is there a dead bird somewhere about? And why didn’t we notice it before?”

With a great upheaval Jewel [the unicorn] scrambled to his feet and pointed with his horn. “Look!” he cried. “Look at it! Look, look!” Then all six of them saw; and over all their faces there came an expression of uttermost dismay.

In the shadow of the trees on the far side of the clearing something was moving. It was gliding very slowly Northward. At a first glance you might have mistaken it for smoke, for it was gray and you could see things through it. But the deathly smell was not the smell of smoke. Also, this thing kept its shape instead of billowing and curling as smoke would have done. It was roughly the shape of a man but it had the head of a bird; some bird of prey with a cruel, curved beak. . . . It floated on the grass instead of walking, and the grass seemed to wither beneath it. . . .

[They] watched it for perhaps a minute, until it streamed away into the thicker trees on their right and disappeared. Then the sun came out again, and the birds once more began to sing. Everyone started breathing properly again and moved. They had all been still as statues while it was in sight.

From a more philosophical, even metaphysical perspective, Lewis ponders the senses experienced by angels in his poem, “On Being Human.” He describes the differences between how angels and humanity experience God’s creation. Lewis suggests that in exchange for their unblurred perception of cosmic reality, they lack the more mundane (i.e. earthly) experience of physical perception of creation.*

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

The Tree-ness of the tree they know—the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it, all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;
But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
—An angel has no skin.

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

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

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

This notion that we comprehend things the angels cannot—for example, the indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit—is expressed in the spirit of the First Epistle of Peter. These wondrous miracles are “things into which angels long to look.”

As amazing as our human senses are, we should never delude ourselves into thinking they are infallible. Far from it. As precious as they are, due to our fallen nature, they possess two shortcomings. First, they may misperceive reality. Such is the case with allodynia, in which a person “feels pain from non-painful stimuli,” such as a light touch or a cool temperature.⁑

The second limitation comes in the obvious fact of our finite nature. We are simply incapable of perceiving, much less processing, all the information that washes over us. Perhaps you would join me in identifying with C.S. Lewis’ description of himself in A Grief Observed.

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

The number of human senses is not important. Our recognition of their divine source is, however, of eternal import.


* Chris Armstrong, Senior Editor of the Christian History Institute, wrote an exceptional article on the importance of our senses. Citing C.S. Lewis’ “On Being Human,” he declares our senses are the only means by which we can “know God.”

Nor is sense-knowledge about God through his Creation, second-class knowledge. Lewis expresses this idea memorably in his poem “On Being Human,” which compares the angels’ incorporeal way of knowing with our way—to the advantage of the latter.

The Christian History Institute publishes the exceptional Christian History magazine, which is offered for a simple donation. They also provide free, downloadable copies of past issues. I strongly encourage your support of this superb ministry.

⁑ From Medical News Today. “Some people feel extreme pain from something minor, such as a paper cut. Feeling increased pain or being hypersensitive to mild pain is called hyperalgesia. Individuals with allodynia, however, feel pain when something is ordinarily painless.”

C.S. Lewis loved rabbits. His affection for the cuddly rodents went all the way back to his childhood. And it continued through the whole of his life. In fact, you can read about “C.S. Lewis as an Advocate for Animals” at a Humane Society link below.*

Despite this affection, rabbits do not feature prominently in The Chronicles of Narnia. They are among the “statues” turned to stone by the Witch. In the description of Aslan breathing life back into them, it says, “then [Aslan] pounced on a tall stone dryad which stood beyond the dwarf, turned rapidly aside to deal with a stone rabbit on his right, and rushed on to two centaurs” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

Rabbits helped spread the word about an impending attack on Archenland in The Horse and His Boy. Shasta urges the animals to spread the word.

“Oughtn’t your High King to be told?”

“Certain sure, something ought to be done about it,” said the Hedgehog. “But you see I’m just on my way to bed for a good day’s sleep. Hullo, neighbor!”

The last words were addressed to an immense biscuit-colored rabbit whose head had just popped up from somewhere beside the path. The Hedgehog immediately told the Rabbit what it had just learned from Shasta.

The Rabbit agreed that this was very remarkable news and that somebody ought to tell someone about it with a view to doing something. And so it went on. Every few minutes they were joined by other creatures, some from the branches overhead and some from little underground houses at their feet, till the party consisted of five rabbits, a squirrel, two magpies, a goat-foot faun, and a mouse, who all talked at the same time and all agreed with the Hedgehog.

For the truth was that in that golden age when the Witch and the Winter had gone and Peter the High King ruled at Cair Paravel, the smaller woodland people of Narnia were so safe and happy that they were getting a little careless.

In The Last Battle we see a clear contrast between the types of animals which populate Narnia. Tirian, the last king of Narnia, is leading the children toward their destiny.

First, he had given Jill some practice in archery and found that, though not up to Narnian standards, she was really not too bad.

Indeed she had succeeded in shooting a rabbit (not a Talking rabbit, of course: there are lots of the ordinary kind about in Western Narnia) and it was already skinned, cleaned, and hanging up.

Back to the Beginning

When he was a child, beginning at age eight, Lewis began writing stories about “Animal Land.” His brother Warnie, several years older, joined him in composing stories inspired in part by their reading of the words of Beatrix Potter.

Animal Land is clearly the product of young children—children with wonderful imaginations—but children nonetheless. These various works have been published by Lewis’ stepson in a collection called Boxen. As Douglas Gresham writes, “In developing the world of Boxen, Jack appropriated the ‘dressed animals’ of Beatrix Potter and that part of their fictional world they called ‘Animal-Land,’ while Warnie (whose interests were always a touch more prosaic than Jack’s) made his half ‘India.’”

The world was thoroughly thought out, complete with maps and a historic chronology.

Animal-land is divided into 13 provinces. Bear-land, Wolf-land, Squirrel-land, Mouse-land, Rabbit-land, Pig-land, Bird-land, Horse-land, Fox-land, Land of Typical Animals, Insect-land, Rat-land, With the island of Piscia, or Fishland. . . . Rabbit-land is the first provence in learning and art.

Rabbits feature prominently in Boxen. The very first element is a script, entitled “The King’s Ring (A Comedy).” The introduction is delightfully childlike: “Interesting carictars. Famous ones. For instance, Sir Big, a world-famed gentleman. A very good choreus and nice scenry. (Slight comic tints in and out threw it.)”

The two protagonists are King Bunny, whose ring is stolen, and Sir Peter Mouse, his “knight in waiting” who aids him in finding it. It is filled with silly dialog, despite the serious plot. For example:

KING BUNNY: Tell Sir Goose to tell Sir Big to tell Mr Gold Fish to tell Gollywog to tell Mr Icthus-oress to tell Dorimie to tell the sailors to take Hit [the villain] away.

In his autobiography, Lewis wrote of his childhood home. “Here my first stories were written, and illustrated, with enormous satisfaction. They were an attempt to combine my two chief literary pleasures—‘dressed animals’ and ‘knights-in-armour.’

Drawing Pleasure from Real Life Rabbits

Lewis’ correspondence includes passing references to rabbits, always expressed in an approving way. For instance, in 1947 he mentions enjoying a memorable event during a boring time. “I wonder how you are all getting on? Nothing much has happened to me except that I saw a rabbit yawn. I suppose people who keep tame ones have seen it often but this was a wild rabbit and I thought it a very curious sight. It was a very bored triangular yawn in the middle of a long hot afternoon.”

During WWII, he penned a curious comment about rabbits recently added to his home.

We are keeping rabbits at the Kilns now, in addition to the hens! But they are very much nicer. As I passed the enclosure in which all the young ones are the other evening, I saw they had all got into a box which happened to be lying there.

They were all standing (or sitting) up on their hind legs and all facing in the same direction: so that they looked exactly as if they were conducting some kind of evening service—the box looked just like a pew.

While the rabbits were almost certainly present to supplement food rations during the war, they were not treated as commodities. Lewis appreciated them in the way he respected other creatures designed by God’s hand. Thus, he had what my wife and I would consider to be a well-rounded family—including one or more members of the non-human variety.

Lewis described this diverse household in a 1943 letter to June Flewett,⁑ one of the children evacuated to his home during the war.

Bruce [Lewis’ dog] behaved with great lack of fortitude during the thunderstorm last night and two of the rabbits made it an excuse for absenting themselves without leave. Pushkin [his cat] behaved better, but not well. In fact there is a general lack of keenness and discipline among the four-footed members of the household which I deplore.

One more story about an actual rabbit with which the great author developed an ongoing relationship.

In a 1942 letter to Sister Penelope CSMV, he says, “I am establishing quite a friendship with one of the rabbits which we now keep along with the deer in Magdalen grove. It was done by the discovery that he relishes chestnut leaves which grow too high for his reach. He doesn’t yet allow me any familiarities but he comes and eats from my hand.”

Lewis continues to describe his new friend, and adds a keen theological observation. “But oh!, the great lollipop eyes and the twitching velvet nose! How does [God] come to create both this and the scorpion?”

Later that same year, Lewis updates the Anglican nun on the status of his animal-friend.

The Rabbit and I have quarrelled. I don’t know why, unless I gave him something that disagreed with him. At any rate, he has cut me dead several times lately—so fair and so fickle! Life is full of disappointments.”

At that time he shared his disappointment with his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves. “Did I tell you in my last letter that I’d struck up quite an acquaintance (almost a friendship) with a rabbit in Magdalen Grove who used to come and eat leaves from my hand? Alas, I must have given something that disagreed with him, for he disappeared for about 10 days, and since his reappearance has refused to look at me.”

It may be that same rabbit, or one of its kin, renewed its relationship with Lewis, because he referred to a similar experience in two 1944 letters to other children.

I live in a College here: a college is something rather like a castle and also like a church. It stands just beside a bridge  over a river. At the back of the part I live in there is a nice grove of Trees. There are a lot of Rabbits there. One very old rabbit is so tame that it will run after me and take things out of my hand. I call her Baroness Bisket because she is a kind of biscuit colour.

It’s not easy, nor is it usually relevant, to determine a bunny’s gender. So, Lewis may be excused for writing the following to the second young correspondent, six months earlier.

I am getting to be quite friends with an old Rabbit who lives in the Wood at Magdalen. I pick leaves off the trees for him because he can’t reach up to the branches and he eats them out of my hand. One day he stood up on his hind legs and put his front paws against me, he was so greedy. I wrote this about it:

A funny old man had a habit
Of giving a leaf to a rabbit.
At first it was shy
But then, by and by,
It got rude and would stand up to grab it.

But it’s a very nice Rabbit all the same: I call him ‘Baron Biscuit.’

Like C.S. Lewis, I adore rabbits. Years ago we had an indoor bunny, appropriately named “Sweetheart.” In her youth she acted like the cartoon character Ricochet Rabbit, pinging from place to place. In her senior years she settled down and was contented to be a cuddly lap bunny. I add my own “thank you” to Lewis’ for these precious parts of God’s creation.


* The Humane Society pdf is available here.

⁑ June Flewett is regarded as the inspiration for Lucy Pevensie in the Chronicles, and grew up to become an actress and theater director. C.S. Lewis paid for her tuition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. When she and her two sisters were sent from London to the Kilns, her favorite author was C.S. Lewis. Ironically, it was a while before she learned that he and their host were one and the same.

Dark days demand two seemingly contradictory things. Serious reflection and diversion (often in the form of entertainment).

Things are serious. The ultimate toll of the current pandemic remains unknown. Even if we regard ourselves as safe due to age, health and isolation, the simple fact is thousands are dying. Beyond our compassionate concern for those who are suffering, only a fool would fail to reflect on their own mortality during this plague.

Christians, who recently “celebrated” Good Friday are quite conscious of the fact that “we are dust and to dust we shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

Yet this awareness doesn’t leave us in despair, because Easter has come. Our Lord’s resurrection means that for those who trust in him, death does not have the final word.

I pray for those who are overcome by worry during these days. Because dwelling solely on the negative robs life of its present joys, and worsens the impact of the pandemic on individual lives.

Rather than feed your anxiety with troubling reports and thoughts, I urge you to take the opportunity to read, watch a classic program, or play a game. Distracting activities are healthy, as long as they do not displace serious awareness of our circumstances.

Seriously Assessing Our Predicament

Others have written eloquently about Lewis’ response to situations such as that in which we find ourselves today.

For example, the Gospel Coalition offers an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ 72 year old essay about atomic weapons. They suggest we “just replace ‘atomic bomb’ with ‘coronavirus.’” Lewis’ advice holds up well in our turbulent era.

Annie Holmquist of Intellectual Takeout elaborates on Lewis’ essay. “How C.S. Lewis Would Tell Us to Handle Coronavirus” is well worth a read.

Several weeks ago, the Wade Center (which hosts the Western Hemisphere’s finest Inkling collection) struck the balance I am suggesting. They acknowledged the danger, and offered advice on spending our time well. Their blog included an excellent suggestion in “Those Who Lived to see Such Times: Suggested Readings from the Wade Authors during Times of Uncertainty.” The Wade Center provides links to a number of fine text and audio resources that will offer encouragement from authors who “witnessed both world wars, and . . . lived to see the unsettling days of nuclear weapons.”

Enjoying Life Despite the Danger

Those who are working during this time remain in need of our prayerful support. For the majority of us, however, the cancellation of most of our normal social activities has provided us with an abundance of leisure time. In addition to attacking postponed chores around the house, we should fill some of this interval by enjoying old pleasures and discovering new interests.

Take advantage of treasures such as those mentioned in the Wade Center post. Hundreds—even thousands—of free, public domain books are available online. For those whose preference is visual, there are plenty of free video options, including many vintage television shows you can view on YouTube.

If you’re craving a humorous treat, check out the great satire at The Babylon Bee and The Salty Cee.

A recent article on the former site reveals the sad tale of a boy whose childhood has been ruined by modern online games. It’s entitled, “Boy Discovers Wondrous Land Of Narnia, Leaves Negative Yelp Review.”

Lutherans (and self-confident Christians of other traditions) will enjoy the Lutheran Satire site. For people who don’t object to listening in on a demonic press conference, a fictional Easter interview on their main page is enlightening.

A bit lighter, is this rendition of Saint Patrick explaining the Trinity to the Irish pagans. It will help you sharpen your Christology.

There is a vast, unexplored world of literature out there. I recently read this illuminating post about one of George MacDonald’s fairy tales. MacDonald exerted a great influence on C.S. Lewis. With a curious twist on light and dark, the post also provides a link to a film based on MacDonald’s The Light Princess. I haven’t viewed it yet—but if you have a high tolerance for 1980s BBC productions combining animation and live action, you could be in for a treat.

Where to Begin?

Before exploring some of these links I’ve included, I encourage you to view “The Age of the Coronavirus.” The videographer has done what was suggested in one of the articles mentioned above. He has substituted the virus for the threat of nuclear war in C.S. Lewis’ abbreviated essay.

The video is good enough that you may well desire to share it with others. It can help to know the threats of our day are not unique to history. I suggest that you also include the amazing C.S. Lewis Doodle which offers an illustrated version of the entire essay.

C.S. Lewis had a deep fondness for horses. I imagine he would have enjoyed a recent report from the historic village of Kilmallock, Ireland. It appears that some stray horses have been attempting to upstage the local ducks.

According to the Independent, one of the horses even proudly trotted into a local gymnasium. The mare (or stallion) appears to be more brazen than last year’s crisis which caused one councillor to call “on gardaí [police] in the Co Limerick town to rein in children as young as six riding sulkies in the town which he claimed was turning into the ‘Wild West.’” Yes, you most certainly need to beware of those rowdy six year old cowboys and cowgirls!

Dog owners have begun raising questions about why they must clean after their animal companions while the horses treat the parks like, shall we say, regular pastures. The city’s senior executive engineer attributes the problem to the fact the equines are just so sneaky. “Any time it is reported we go down but the minute our back is turned they are put back. We can’t be there 24/7.”

The most humorous element of the effort to ban the horses, in my mind, is because they have interrupted the entertainment of local ducks.* Not one, but “two duck races on the river have been affected.”

Lewis’ Thoughts about Horses

One of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia presents a pair of horses as two of its major protagonists. The Horse and His Boy features Bree and Hwin, Talking Horses captured from Narnia by the Calormenes. A wonderful passage that illustrates the book’s ethos comes when the two horses and their respective riders decide to journey north together.

Aravis is a Calormene princess fleeing her land’s tyranny. Her mount, Hwin, is a young mare who was stolen as a colt and raised in the south. Bree was a stallion, also captured as a colt, and raised to be a warhorse.

“All right then,” said Aravis. “You’ve guessed it. Hwin and I are running away. We are trying to get to Narnia. And now, what about it?”

“Why, in that case, what is to prevent us all going together?” said Bree. “I trust, Madam Hwin, you will accept such assistance and protection as I may be able to give you on the journey?”

“Why do you keep talking to my horse instead of to me?” asked the girl.

“Excuse me, Tarkheena,” said Bree (with just the slightest backward tilt of his ears), “but that’s Calormene talk. We’re free Narnians, Hwin and I, and I suppose, if you’re running away to Narnia, you want to be one too. In that case Hwin isn’t your horse any longer. One might just as well say you’re her human.”

While technically their own genus, centaurs might be considered “part horse.” Thus the entertaining description from The Silver Chair. The children are surprised that the centaurs are still about their breakfasts, two hours after rising before dawn.

“Why, Son of Adam, don’t you understand? A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse-stomach. And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders [small fish] and kidneys and bacon and omelette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer.

And after that he attends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats, and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the weekend. A very serious thing indeed.”

In Mere Christianity, Lewis uses the transformation of a horse to a new creation as an analogy for what happens to people when they surrender their lives to God’s mercy and seek to follow him.

“Niceness”—wholesome, integrated personality—is an excellent thing. We must try by every medical, educational, economic, and political means in our power, to produce a world where as many people as possible grow up “nice;” just as we must try to produce a world where all have plenty to eat.

But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might even be more difficult to save.

For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.

Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game. But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so: and at that stage the lumps on the shoulders—no one could tell by looking at them that they are going to be wings—may even give it an awkward appearance.

For a more in-depth discussion of this subject, I commend to you Leslie Baynes’ column, “The Heavenly Horses of C.S. Lewis,” which you can read at A Pilgrim in Narnia.

A final comment from Lewis’ youth worth noting. When writing to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1914, he refers to his scribblings and attempts (quite likely involving the Boxen era) when he attempted to sketch horses.

I sympathize with your difficulty in drawing a horse, as I have often made the attempt in the days when I fancied myself in that line. But of course that counts for nothing: as the easiest of your sketches would be impossible for me. But there are heaps of pictures in which you need not introduce the animal.

It was this passage that inspired the graphic created for the top of this post.


* I wish the Irish were cultured enough to allow actual ducks to enjoy the adrenaline rush of a race, rather than using those little rubber ducklings that belong in children’s baths. If it’s the latter, which I fear it could be, I vote to let the horses run free. After all, some of those rubber ducks wash out to sea and become part of the international litter problem. For example, the piece of rubbish pictured on this link presumably polluted the Irish Sea for a full decade before it washed up on a distant shore.

Ah, the snow is wrapping the world in a thick blanket, and I have no where I need to be. As I sit at my desk gazing out at the whitewashed forest, I attempt now something that I seldom do. I am writing a poem.

I admit that I haven’t read Jane Kenyon’s work, but I can definitely relate to one of her famous quotations: “My ear is not working, my poetry ear. I can’t write a line that doesn’t sound like pots and pans falling out of the cupboard.”

One of the bloggers I follow hosts a weekly poetry contest. I’ve never been tempted to compete, although I’m eminently qualified. You see, this is a “Terrible Poetry Contest.”

I had already begun writing my next post, and it relates to the depression some people feel during the winter. Of course, I do my best to make sure that what I write for Mere Inkling is not “terrible.” But I decided to delay that column and pause to enter this contest. On a whim. I certainly don’t expect to win . . . which in this case is, ironically, good news.

I decided to use an uncommon poetic form, since I can at least have the satisfaction that it offers patient readers an “educational” tidbit. I chose the French descort poetic form, because it seems expressly tailored to generate terrible poetry. According to Writer’s Digest, “the descort differentiates itself from other forms by differentiating its lines from other lines within the poem. That is, the main rule of descort poems is that each line needs to be different from every other line in the poem.”

A descort poem has different line lengths, meters, avoids rhyming with other lines, no refrains, and that goes for stanzas as well. In other words, no two lines in a descort should look like each other, and the same could be said for each descort.

The strength of the form is that it allows utter freedom to the poet. The weakness is that the results are appalling. (Read the example written by the editor of the linked article, if you don’t believe me.) Without further ado, I present my latest experiment with verse.* (There’s really nothing “French” about it, beyond the fact it’s a descort.⁑

Frigid French Philologies
by Robert C. Stroud

Shards of bleak winter gestate day after day.
The citric cannonade gurgled melodies of complacency.
Echinodermata rides again.

Hagar was not so Horrible.
Beware 48°52.6′S 123°23.6′W.
Fini.
Don’t stare at dark holes.
A Galapagos penguin reads about tobacco.

Captain Kirk sings the National Anthem.
Angkor longed to visit Tenochtitlán.
Sheepish wolves.
From lofty Mount Olympus descended Odin.

Soon comes the summer of our discontent.

A French Poem by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis wrote poetry. There is actually a plaque in his honor in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Deservedly so. Nevertheless, Lewis’ poetry was never highly regarded.

I, for one, consider this lack of appreciation providential. By this I mean that even though C.S. Lewis had to suffer the disappointment of not realizing his desires as a poet, it is a blessing to the whole world that his energies were redirected into his other writings. Who knows, if his poetry had been celebrated, whether or not Narnia would ever have existed?

The only book of Lewis’ which is in the public domain (i.e. free for downloading), is Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics. It was published after the First World War, written while he was still an atheist. While it makes for interesting reading, much of the imagery will be a bit disorienting for readers only familiar with Lewis after he encountered Christ.

The following poem is taken from that collection. As Alister McGrath writes in The Telegraph article, Lewis’ hopes were dashed relatively early.

The early poems remain a powerful witness to Lewis’s early atheism, railing against an absent and uncaring God who failed to halt the slaughter the author saw around him. But he never achieved recognition as a “war poet,” like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, who are also commemorated in Poets’ Corner. Indeed, not only did he fail to secure recognition for his war poetry, he was not acclaimed as a poet of any kind, as the lack of interest in his second volume of verse—Dymer (1926)—made painfully clear.

This example of Lewis’ war poetry does stand tall in comparison to the verse of the “acclaimed” war poets (in my modest opinion). It describes a battle site during the war—and the transformation of human beings into beasts.

French Nocturne (Monchy-Le-Preux)

Long leagues on either hand the trenches spread
And all is still; now even this gross line
Drinks in the frosty silences divine
The pale, green moon is riding overhead.

The jaws of a sacked village, stark and grim;
Out on the ridge have swallowed up the sun,
And in one angry streak his blood has run
To left and right along the horizon dim.

There comes a buzzing plane: and now, it seems
Flies straight into the moon. Lo! where he steers
Across the pallid globe and surely nears
In that white land some harbour of dear dreams!

False mocking fancy! Once I too could dream,
Who now can only see with vulgar eye
That he’s no nearer to the moon than I
And she’s a stone that catches the sun’s beam.

What call have I to dream of anything?
I am a wolf. Back to the world again,
And speech of fellow-brutes that once were men
Our throats can bark for slaughter: cannot sing.

I confess (though I did it on purpose) that the heading for this section was a bit misleading. “French poem” may have been interpreted as a poem written in French. While Lewis was certainly fluent in French, he did not write in the language. He did, however, appreciate the tongue.

In 1952 he wrote his publisher about the French translation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He praised quality of the translation, as well as the tone achieved by the translator, in Le Lion et la Sorcière Blanche.

I don’t foresee many occasions for copies of Le Lion, but if you will kindly send me 2, they might come in useful. The translator deserves to be congratulated of course—French is a very powerful language—the children become perfect little Frenchmen, but that is all to the good.

What pleased and surprised me is the passage at the end where I made them talk like characters in Malory, and he has really got some of the quality of the French 13th century prose romances: grande honte en aurions⁂—is exactly right.

C.S. Lewis’ brother, Warnie, was a bit of a Francophile. He knew his subject well enough that he authored a book about its history, The Splendid Century: Life In The France Of Louis XIV. He offers an entertaining account of some literary gatherings where the works of Jean Chapelain (1595-1674) were employed in a novel manner. The writers shared agreed upon rules, and transgressions demanded discipline. Thus the punishment for “the breach of rules was to read a verse of Chapelain’s poetry, or, in aggravated circumstances, a whole page.”

I won’t hold my breath awaiting the results of the poetry contest. Though I periodically enjoy dabbling in poetry, I feel I am destined to share the fate of Lewis when it comes to the way in which the masses assess the quality of our verse.


* I have written poetry in the past. I explored the quintain here, and have a few of my experiments in poetry posted at All Poetry.

⁑ According to Encyclopedia Britannica, descort can also refer to “a poem in medieval Provençal literature with stanzas in different languages.”

⁂ The phrase means “great shame we would have.”

C.S. Lewis & Tattoos

January 3, 2020 — 13 Comments

How is this for an odd New Year resolution? Getting a new tattoo—with a connection to the writings of C.S. Lewis.

I suppose I’m betraying my age here. Being a retired pastor, my body remains a totally uninked canvas. Not that I’ve never considered getting a tattoo. In fact, if I end up making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem before I journey to the New Jerusalem, I may still opt to get inked. In Jerusalem there is a tattooist whose family traces their art back for 700 years to when their Coptic family lived in Egypt.

Our ancestors  used tattoos to mark Christian Copts with a small cross on the inside of the wrist to grant them access to churches . . and from a very young age (sometimes even a few months old) Christians would tattoo their children with the cross identifying them as Copts. . . .

One of the most famous of Christian types of tattoos, however, is still in use today—that of the pilgrimage tattoo. At least as early as the 1500s, visitors to the Holy Land . . . often acquired a Christian tattoo symbol to commemorate their visit, particularly the Jerusalem Cross.

In Bethlehem, another Christian tattooist practices his art “near the Church of the Nativity, offering pilgrims ink to permanently mark their visit.” He offers designs featuring scriptural texts in Hebrew and Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

Tattoos have a fascinating history, and it should be noted some people consider Torah prohibition to bar even religious tattoos. “You shall not make any cuts on your body for the dead or tattoo yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28). However, most Christians* and increasing numbers of Jews do not agree that the passage forbids the current practice.

That doesn’t mean all tattoos are appropriate, of course. Most tattoos are innocuous. Some are humorous. A small number are actually witty. Yet some tattoos can be downright malevolent.

Like so many human activities, the significance of a tattoo depends in great part on the intention of the person asking for this permanent mark. For example, my wife and I approved of our son and his wife having their wedding rings tattooed in recognition of God’s desire⁑ that a marriage will last as long as both individuals live.

What has this to do with C.S. Lewis?

Precious few writers have penned more inspiring and enlightening words than Lewis, that great scholar of Oxford and Cambridge. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that there are many Lewis-inspired tattoos gracing bodies. There is even a website devoted to C.S. Lewis-inspired body ink.

I imagine that Lewis himself would regard this as quite peculiar. I don’t believe he had any tattoos of his own, but it’s quite possible his brother Warnie—a retired veteran of the Royal Army—may have sported one or more.

In 1932, Lewis wrote to Warnie about his recent walking trip. Warnie was his frequent companion, when he was not elsewhere deployed. In this fascinating piece of correspondence, Lewis described his most recent excursion. I include a lengthy excerpt (comprising the first half of the journey) not because of its single passing mention of tattoos. Rather, because of the portrait it paints of the young and vigorous scholar in the prime of life. If you would prefer to skip to the mention of inking, see the sixth paragraph.

Since last writing I have had my usual Easter walk. It was in every way an abnormal one. First of all, Harwood was to bring a new Anthroposophical Anthroposophical member (not very happily phrased!) and I was bringing a new Christian one to balance him, in the person of my ex-pupil Griffiths. Then Harwood and his satellite ratted, and the walk finally consisted of Beckett, Barfield, Griffiths, and me.

As Harwood never missed before, and Beckett seldom comes, and Griffiths was new, the atmosphere I usually look for on these jaunts was lacking. At least that is how I explain a sort of disappointment I have been feeling ever since. Then, owing to some affairs of Barfield’s, we had to alter at the last minute our idea of going to Wales, and start (of all places!) from Eastbourne instead.

All the same, I would not have you think it was a bad walk: it was rather like Hodge who, though nowhere in a competition of Johnsonian cats, was, you will remember, ‘a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’

The first day we made Lewes, walking over the bare chalky South Downs all day. The country, except for an occasional gleam of the distant sea—we were avoiding the coast for fear of hikers—is almost exactly the same as the Berkshire downs or the higher parts of Salisbury Plain. The descent into Lewes offered a view of the kind I had hitherto seen only on posters—rounded hill with woods on the top, and one side quarried into a chalk cliff: sticking up dark and heavy against this a little town climbing up to a central Norman castle.

We had a very poor inn here, but I was fortunate in sharing a room with Griffiths who carried his asceticism so far as to fling off his eiderdown—greatly to my comfort. Next day we had a delicious morning—just such a day as downs are made for, with endless round green slopes in the sunshine, crossed by cloud shadows. The landscape was less like the Plain now. The sides of the hill—we were on a ridgeway—were steep and wooded, giving rather the same effect as the narrower parts of Malvern hills beyond the Wych.

We had a fine outlook over variegated blue country to the North Downs. After we had dropped into a village for lunch and climbed onto the ridge again for the afternoon, our troubles began. The sun disappeared: an icy wind took us in the flank: and soon there came a torrent of the sort of rain that feels as if one’s face were being tattooed and turns the mackintosh on the weather side into a sort of wet suit of tights.

At the same time Griffiths began to show his teeth (as I learned afterwards) having engaged Barfield in a metaphysico-religious conversation of such appalling severity and egotism that it included the speaker’s life history and a statement that most of us were infallibly damned. As Beckett and I, half a mile ahead, looked back over that rain beaten ridgeway we could always see the figures in close discussion. Griffiths very tall, thin, high-shouldered, stickless, with enormous pack: arrayed in perfectly cylindrical knickerbockers, very tight in the crutch. Barfield, as you know, with that peculiarly blowsy air, and an ever more expressive droop and shuffle.

For two mortal hours we walked nearly blind in the rain, our shoes full of water, and finally limped into the ill omened village of Bramber. Here, as we crowded to the fire in our inn, I tried to make room for us by shoving back a little miniature billiard table which stood in our way.

I was in that state of mind in which I discovered without the least surprise, a moment too late, that it was only a board supported on trestles. The trestles, of course, collapsed, and the board crashed to the ground. Slate broken right across. I haven’t had the bill yet, but I suppose it will equal the whole expences of the tour.

Wouldn’t it have been amazing to join C.S. Lewis on one of these walking trips? A Lewisian tattoo is no substitute, to be sure, but I imagine it does offer certain people a sense of connection to the great author. Perhaps, if I were a younger man . . .


* Two recent converts to Christianity, Kanye West and Justin Bieber have made public their recent religious additions to their vast tattoo collections.

⁑ As Jesus said, “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The motivational poster above was created by Mere Inkling, and represents only an infinitesimal number of the misspelled tattoos adorning human bodies. What a travesty . . . one that may have been prevented by remaining sober. The tattoo below, on the other hand, strikes me (being a writer) as quite clever.

C.S. Lewis and Squirrels

October 31, 2019 — 15 Comments

One unchanging constant through the whole of C.S. Lewis’ life, was his love of nature. His affection for a creature frequently regarded as a pest, illustrates this perfectly.

In 1954, Lewis wrote playfully to the eight Kilmer siblings in the, the family to whom he dedicated The Magician’s Nephew. (Coincidentally, the thirty letters he wrote to these children recently sold for over $100,000.)

There is no snow here yet and it is so warm that the foolish snowdrops and celandines (little yellow flowers; I don’t know if you have them or not) are coming up as if it was spring. And squirrels (we have hundreds and thousands about this college) have never gone to bed for their winter sleep at all.

I keep on warning them that they really ought to and that they’ll be dreadfully sleepy (yawning their heads off) by June if they don’t, but they take no notice.

One can imagine the awe Lewis would have expressed at learning about the almost supernatural hibernations undergone by Arctic ground squirrels. Believe it or not, as they say, it is a fact that during their lengthy hibernations, curled up beneath the solidly frozen ground, the core body temperature of these small mammals actually hover around 3 degrees below freezing!

In 1941 he responded to a comment from one of his correspondents about unbridled nature.

I do know what you mean by the sudden ravishing glimpse of animal life in itself, its wildness—to meet a squirrel in a wood or even a hedgehog in the garden makes me happy. But that is because it is, being partly exempt from the Fall, a symbol and reminder of the unfallen world we long for.

That wildness would not be lost by the kind of dominion Adam had. It would be nicer, not less nice, if that squirrel would come and make friends with me at my whistle—still more if he would obey me when I told him not to kill the red squirrel in the next tree.

In the early 1930s, Lewis mentioned squirrels in several of his letters to his good friend Arthur Greeves. For example, he described a simple pleasure experienced during one of his daily walks.

I also had the experience lately of walking under an avenue of trees after a shower, and saw that tho all the rest was still, a kind of wave-motion was passing over the branches on one side, followed by a patter of drops. Coming nearer I found it was a squirrel leaping from branch to branch and sending a wake of tiny showers to earth as they bent under him.

Similar happiness echoes in a 1939 letter to another friend.

[During] my annual January walking tour with my brother . . . We had one glorious day crossing Wenlock Edge . . . with new snow on the ground and cloudless sunshine from end to end of the skies–beautiful shadows. And out in the country snow is a great betrayer. Rabbits and squirrels became as easy to see as bushes.

The tracks are rather exciting, too, aren’t they? To climb up some unearthly lane to a hill crest far from any house, still early in the morning, and find from the innumerable paw-prints how long ago the animals’ day has begun.

Squirrels in Narnia

Squirrels play prominently in at least two episodes in the enchanted land of Narnia. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we witness a terrible scene when the White Witch comes upon a group of Narnians who are celebrating a visit by Father Christmas.

A little way off at the foot of a tree sat a merry party, a squirrel and his wife with their children and two satyrs and a dwarf and an old dog-fox, all on stools round a table. . . . But when the whole party saw the sledge stopping and who was in it, all the gaiety went out of their faces.

The father squirrel stopped eating with his fork halfway to his mouth and one of the satyrs stopped with its fork actually in its mouth, and the baby squirrels squeaked with terror. “What is the meaning of this?” asked the Witch Queen. Nobody answered. “Speak, vermin!” she said again. . . . Who gave [these things] to you?” said the Witch.

“F-F-F-Father Christmas,” stammered the Fox. “What?” roared the Witch, springing from the sledge and taking a few strides nearer to the terrified animals. “He has not been here!” At that moment one of the young squirrels lost its head completely. “He has—he has—he has!” it squeaked, beating its little spoon on the table.

Edmund saw the Witch bite her lips so that a drop of blood appeared on her white cheek. Then she raised her wand. “Oh, don’t, don’t, please don’t,” shouted Edmund, but even while he was shouting she had waved her wand and instantly where the merry party had been there were only statues of creatures . . .

On a happier note, in Prince Caspian we see how even the Talking Animals remain true to their species’ nature.

After that they went on till they came among tall beech trees, and Trufflehunter [the badger] called out, “Pattertwig! Pattertwig! Pattertwig!” and almost at once, bounding down from branch to branch till he was just above their heads, came the most magnificent red squirrel that Caspian had ever seen. He was far bigger than the ordinary dumb squirrels which he had sometimes seen in the castle gardens; indeed he was nearly the size of a terrier and the moment you looked in his face you saw that he could talk.

Indeed the difficulty was to get him to stop talking, for, like all squirrels, he was a chatterer. He welcomed Caspian at once and asked if he would like a nut and Caspian said thanks, he would. But as Pattertwig went bounding away to fetch it, Trufflehunter whispered in Caspian’s ear, “Don’t look. Look the other way. It’s very bad manners among squirrels to watch anyone going to his store or to look as if you wanted to know where it was.”

Squirrels certainly know how to chatter. In 1955, C.S. Lewis shared with a regular correspondent, his idea of a perfect world. “I’m all for a planet without aches or pains or financial worries but I doubt if I’d care for one of pure intelligence. No senses (no relish of smells & tastes?), no affection, no Nonsense! I must have a little fooling. I want to tickle a cat’s ears and sometimes have a slanging match with an impertinent squirrel.”

The Most Significant Squirrel in C.S. Lewis’ Life

In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis describes an early encounter that exerted a profound influence in the shaping of his identity. It came not from a living specimen but, as I have written about in a different context, from a fictional member of the Family Sciuridae. Lewis describes the opening of his mind to the pursuit of true Joy.

Then came the Beatrix Potter books, and here at last beauty. 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. . . . in mapping and chronicling Animal-Land I was training myself to be a novelist.

Note well, a novelist; not a poet. My invented world [Boxen] was full (for me) of interest, bustle, humor, and character; but there was no poetry, even no romance, in it. It was almost astonishingly prosaic. Thus if we use the word imagination in a third sense, and the highest sense of all, this invented world was not imaginative. But certain other experiences were, and I will now try to record them.

The second 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.”

Rereading some of Lewis’ words about these entertaining creatures has taken me on an enjoyable journey, and not only because I share a similar rodent legacy or because our forest home is located on Squirrel Place. Lewis’ vision of the place of animals in this world and the next resonates with my sense of God’s relationship with this portion of his creation.

After all, it was our parents, not theirs, who brought about the fall. Thus Lewis’ sentimental thought that they are, “being partly exempt from the Fall, a symbol and reminder of the unfallen world we long for.”