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C.S. Lewis seldom kept a secret his low opinion of poor writers. This wasn’t because he was a literary snob, it’s because he was a literary critic.

Actually, the breadth of Lewis’ literary tastes was extraordinary. He didn’t expect texts to be more than what they purported to be, and could even enjoy the pulp fiction of his day. Still, Lewis had an eye for pretentious and anemic writing, and he sometimes penned cutting commentary

One of his lifelong friendships began with a discussion about poor writers. More about Lewis’ friendship with Oxford Classics scholar Nan Vance Dunbar (1928-2005) in a moment.

There are some contemporary voices that argue Lewis was misogynistic. Many of these complainants are non-Christian, and eager to see Lewis’ influence diminished. The truth is he possessed a strong traditional respect for women. And, while he unapologetically enjoyed the company of men—no surprise for a longtime bachelor—he counted a number of women scholars among his close friends.

My friend Brenton Dickieson has an excellent column on the subject of women in Lewis’ life, in which he persuasively argues that Lewis “was hardly the insular, sexist, Oxford bachelor that some would make him out to be.”

Professor Dunbar was a devout Christian, of the Presbyterian persuasion (no surprise, since she was Scottish). She attended one of Lewis’ lectures in 1955, and respectfully challenged in correspondence, his interpretation of the Roman poet Statius.

Their friendship grew, although they never agreed upon the status of Statius. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis includes a biography of Dunbar which describes how the subject even brought her some peace when she was grieving Lewis’ death.

Lewis’s final letter to her, on 21 November 1963–possibly the last he wrote–was to arrange for a visit in December. When he died the next day, Nan was beside herself with grief.

She was consoled by the theologian, Henry Chadwick, Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford. Professor Chadwick reminded her that she would some day die. “And when you get to Heaven,” he said, “you will be met by Lewis. He will have got there before you, and he’ll have his arm firmly around a small man in a toga, who is being dragged along to meet you. ‘All right,’ Lewis will be saying to the ancient Roman–“Tell her!! Tell her!!”’

Nan had no doubt that Lewis would be in heaven, and she roared with laughter at the thought of Statius waiting there to rebuke her. Perhaps such thoughts gave her comfort when she confronted her own death.

The two had grown quite close. “Everyone would agree that Nan Dunbar–with her erudition, her common sense, her Christian faith, her lively conversation–would have been the ideal daughter for Lewis. Indeed, years later, in his letter of 18 November 1963, he spoke of her as ‘the liveliest and learnedest of my daughters.’” (Collected Letters).

Their Discussion about Bad Writers

Diplomas are not required for people to criticize books and writers. Wherever readers gather it is possible to find discussions about favorite, and least favorite writers.

Some literary reputations are so notorious they have awards devoted to them. Each year, for example, The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest draws thousands of entrants. Their motto is quite inviting: “Where WWW Means ‘Wretched Writers Welcome’”

The event honors the great author whose opening line in 1830 also enriches every story ever begun by Charles Schulz’ canine novelist Snoopy.

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. (Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford)

It is unknown whether B-L’s name arose in the following conversation, but we do find references to two other “notorious” writers.

Dunbar met Lewis for the first time at a dinner in Girton College, probably on 25 January 1956. On finally meeting his critic, Lewis said: “Ah! Miss Dunbar! I’m glad to find you actually exist–I’d thought perhaps you were only the personification of my conscience!”

Lewis was charmed by this delightful Scottish woman, whose wonderful talk and Glaswegian accent made one think she had stepped out of a novel by Sir Walter Scott.

Dunbar remembered that over dinner she talked to Lewis about the Scottish writer William McGonagall (1825–1902), said to be the world’s worst poet, while Lewis introduced her to the Irish novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860–1939), known as the world’s worst novelist. (Collected Letters).

If you care to read anything written by the writers Lewis and Dunbar mentioned in their dinner conversation, refer to the links below. While on its surface their repartee may appear uncharitable, it was certainly not intended to be.

After all, if our own writing brings some measure of joy and entertainment to others, most writers would welcome that. Similarly, to have one’s name associated in history with truly talented writers (even in such an unflattering manner) is by far preferable to the anonymity which is the swift destiny of all but a few.

_____

To learn more about McGonagall and Ros, you may wish to download the following free volumes: 

“He was not a poet at all, and that he has become synonymous with bad poetry in Scotland is only a natural consequence of Scottish insensitivity to the qualities alike of good poetry and of bad.” (Scottish Eccentrics)

“Sympathise with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity; dash it against the rock of gossip; or, better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn. Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected.” (Irene Iddesleigh by Amanda McKittrick Ros)

 

presence

Have you read The Practice of the Presence of God? Between the world wars, C.S. Lewis pondered this devotional collection written in the 1600s.

Lewis was rather disappointed during his initial reading, but he apparently grew in his respect for the slim volume. He read it in 1930, the year prior to his becoming a communing member of the local Anglican church. His body rests in its cemetery today.

In a letter to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis describes his impression of the work. It is impressive to note how he acknowledges that his own “mood” may have influenced his reception.

In reading I have of course little to record, and never shall have much in term time. I read in two evenings a little book that came from Leeborough called The Practice of the Presence of God which I picked up & put in the study when I was there last because it seemed to me a promising title. It is by a seventeenth century monk.

It is full of truth but somehow I didn’t like it: it seemed to me a little unctuous. That sort of stuff, when it is not splendid beyond words, is terribly repulsive, or can be, can’t it?

No doubt it depends very largely on one’s mood. I had just finished the fourth Gospel in Greek (as I think you know) before you came, and after that most other things are a come down. Not that I liked that in all respects either.

It’s fascinating that Lewis acknowledges that his reading of the humble kitchen monk and sandal-maker followed in the wake of his reading of The Gospel according to John, in the Greek. This must rank near the top of Lewis’ greatest understatements: “and after that most other things are a come down.” (Who among us would ever desire for even our finest writing to be compared to John’s inspired Gospel?)

Lewis was not dismissive of the seventeenth century work. As late as 1956, the two friends discussed the volume in their correspondence. That year Lewis wrote “Yes, Bro. Lawrence is of course right” in response to an unpreserved observation made by Greeves.

Christianity Today offers a brief account of the Frenchman’s life here. It describes a pivotal point in the life of the man who would become a soldier, and then a monk.

Born Nicolas Herman in 1614 in a small village in Lorraine, France, he had a soul-altering experience at 18. That winter, while looking at a leafless tree, he marveled that its barrenness would soon turn green again, flower, and bear fruit. This insight made him intimately aware of God’s love from then on.

The Soul of C.S. Lewis describes one example of the similarities shared by the Oxford professor and the French monk whose work he described as “full of truth.”

One of Brother Lawrence’s secrets was in realizing what Lewis would one day also discover: that every activity can be either religious or irreligious. The difference is in our minds and hearts.

Obviously, The Practice of the Presence of God is now in the public domain (since its author died in 1691). There is no excuse to ignore this Christian devotional classic which has long been appreciated by many Protestants, as well as Lawrence’s fellow Roman Catholics. You can download it in several formats here or obtain a (currently) free kindle version from Amazon.

Lewis Quotes Brother Lawrence

Although the following excerpt lacks sufficient context to make a great deal of sense, it is worth noting the following from That Hideous Strength, the final volume in Lewis’ space trilogy. It reveals that the wisdom of the uneducated monk remained with Lewis, even as he wrote his own religious treasures.

In the book, Dr. Dimble is a good-willed academic who Lewis uses to interpose some of his personal thoughts.

Dr. Dimble drove out to St. Anne’s dissatisfied with himself, haunted with the suspicion that if he had been wiser, or more perfectly in charity with this very miserable young man, he might have done something for him. “Did I give way to my temper? Was I self-righteous? Did I tell him as much as I dared?” he thought.

Then came the deeper self-distrust that was habitual with him. “Did you fail to make things clear because you really wanted not to? Just wanted to hurt and humiliate? To enjoy your own self-righteousness . . ?” The sadness that came over him had novelty in it. “And thus,” he quoted from Brother Lawrence, “thus I shall always do, whenever You leave me to myself.”

This intriguing passage suggests that Brother Lawrence’s thoughts continued to inspire Lewis . . . long after his initial exposure to them. Here the fictional professor nearly succumbs to his self-doubt before he reminds himself that this is a common result of introspection that ignores the love and presence of God.

If you have not yet decided to read, or reread, The Practice of the Presence of God, perhaps one of these excerpts will inspire you to do so.

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”

“That we should establish ourselves in a sense of God’s Presence, by continually conversing with Him. That it was a shameful thing to quit His conversation, to think of trifles and fooleries.”

“We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.”

A Rare C.S. Lewis Book

March 29, 2017 — 6 Comments

readers

Just because you read a book doesn’t mean you need to purchase it for your library. Yet some of us do feel compelled to add almost every volume we enjoy to our personal collections. The dilemma arises when the cost of a particular book may exceed its “long-term” value to us.

Faced with this question a few weeks ago, I pursued a course open to many readers of Mere Inkling. I simply borrowed the book from my local library, which in turn borrowed it via interlibrary loan from a university in a neighboring state. Most libraries offer this service without charge. I regularly use it when researching obscure subjects I don’t anticipate I will continue to follow.

The subject of the particular text I am currently reading, of course, C.S. Lewis. While I believe I own a copy of every work ever written by Lewis that has been published, I doubt any human being could gather together every book written about the Oxford and Cambridge professor.

The Volume in Question

So, I have been spending some time during recent days reading notes and essays on Lewis that were written in a variety of periodicals and collected in 1992. Critical Thought Series 1: Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis was edited by George Watson, and published by Scolar Press. Watson also served as General Editor of the Series, compiled “in an attempt to recover the controversies that have surrounded the great critics of the modern age.”

The material is of particular interest to those interested in Lewis’ work as a literary critic. In addition to general reviews, there are special sections for critiques of The Allegory of Love, A Preface to Paradise Lost, and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Allow me to share a small taste of CEoCSL.

In the editor’s introductory article, he argues that Lewis possessed an “essential modernity, which was seldom if ever noticed in his lifetime.” An example he offers is Lewis’ “mingling of formalism and fantasy.” This facet of Lewis’ genius has a peculiar result.

[Lewis] belongs to that rare breed of critics who are more original than they would wish to be.

Watson also provides an intriguing view of how Lewis’ faith and literary community were perceived by those outside its influence.

Early and late, critics and reviewers found [Lewis] a hard nut to crack. In his middle years, from the late 1930s till his removal to Cambridge in 1954, the critical reception of his works was admiring of his style but wary of his matter.

It was vaguely understood by the late 1930s that a neo-Christian group of story-tellers and critics existed at Oxford, even that they were known as Inklings; but they formed no part of London literary life and were widely seen as a reactionary clique all to apt to a remote, rainy place celebrated for its devotion to lost causes and impossible loyalties.

Lewis, though a best seller, belonged wholly to that remote world, and his sales only made matters worse. They made him look formidable. He and his friends were occasionally dismissed as new-romantics, since a label can be an easy excuse for declining discussion; and the suspected association with Chesterton was not, to avant-garde opinion, endearing. The Inklings were anti-Modernist, anti-modern, backward-looking and deliberately unfashionable.

As I hinted above, this book contains a number of interesting pieces not readily accessible elsewhere. It is no hagiography, and includes essays that offer criticisms of some of Lewis’ writing.

In one review of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, American poet and literary critic Yvor Winters enumerates problems he has with Lewis’ arguments. He then wraps up his review with an analysis of the cause of the disagreements.

There are many men who have re more in this field than I have, and Lewis is certainly one of them. Some of them will find errors in Lewis which have overlooked. I have found more errors in my own few publications than I have found in Lewis. It is not the errors in scholarship which trouble me, primarily, however, for those are inevitable. It is the critical mind that bothers me. . . .

There is a great deal in Lewis’s book which is valuable, and I may as well confess a great deal which has added to my own education. . . . But what is the function of this kind of book? No single man is competent to write it. . . .

Because it is impossible to write a flawless survey] the book is, as I have said, misleading, and so is every other book of the kind which I have ever read. And within twenty years it will doubtless be superseded by another book on the same subject, which will be better in some ways and worse in others.

The first-rate monograph, or the first-rate critical essay, is never superseded; it becomes a part of literature; but the text-book is a hugger-mugger affair, no matter who writes it. Lewis undertook a thankless task, and a hopeless one.

Personal Libraries

You are fortunate if you have this volume in your library. But don’t let its absence rob you of the chance to read it. There are many fascinating insights to be gleaned from its pages . . . and I am certainly glad that I borrowed it.

Oh, and as to Winters’ prediction that Lewis’ treatment of sixteenth century English literature would be superseded . . . thanks to the marvels of Kindle, it remains in print more than sixty years after his prognostication.

_____

The picture on this page is a drawing entitled, “Their First Quarrel.” It was obviously sketched prior to the invention of the television and cellphone.

C.S. Lewis and Punditry

January 30, 2017 — 10 Comments

chesterton-sanity

Odds are that you, kind reader of Mere Inkling, are a pundit. While the overpaid professionals who overpopulate the media would like for us to think being a pundit requires possessing special knowledge or expertise, that’s simply not true.

Any of us who make comments or pass judgments in an authoritative manner can rightly be deemed a pundit. If you are simply a commonplace critic, you probably qualify for the title. All the more so if you publish your thoughts.

If the recent elections proved anything, they revealed there may well be more pundits per cubic acre in the modern world, than there are bees.

Recently I came across a peculiar essay, written by a writer with whom I’m totally unfamiliar. David Harsanyi is a senior editor of The Federalist, although this article appeared in National Review. Presumably he is a conservative, but of the atheist variety. (No wonder I haven’t read any of his work.)

At any rate, he’s a journalist who describes his “line of work” as “punditry.” Punditry as we have noted, has become all the rage in our modern era. I’m debating though whether adding it to one’s resume would be beneficial. It appears that receiving the validation of a punditry paycheck is the best gauge for making that determination.

As soon as people had the leisure time to develop their senses of humor, the seeds of punditry were planted, and many a silver tongued cynic has reaped the harvest. The past has known people who offered social criticism with a dash of wit (typically of the sarcastic variety).

An admirable example of such was G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton differed from Harsanyi in that he was also a philosopher and poet, not merely a journalist. Most notably, Chesterton was also a Christian.

C.S. Lewis held Chesterton in very high regard, and included his book The Everlasting Man among the top ten titles which had influenced his professional and philosophical thought. You can download an audio copy of that text here.

There is a great essay here that explores the influence of Chesterton’s essay “Ethics of Elfland” on the Inklings.

Jerk Logic

Returning to the article with which I began, “Jerk Logic” is the title of Bersanyi’s essay. He began with a question that more people should probably ask themselves.

Am I a jerk? You may find this an odd question for a person to ask himself. But when you’re in my line of work—which, broadly speaking, is called punditry—complete strangers on social media have little compunction about pointing out all your disagreeable character traits.

I found his article interesting for several reasons. He’s candid about some of the booby traps that endanger those who dare to write about controversial subjects. He offers a confession about just how soul-scarring the past election has been for some who have followed its permutations closely.

The 2016 election, I’m afraid, has convinced me that the joke is definitely on me. But after taking meticulous inventory of my actions over the past year or so, I am forced to acknowledge that perhaps, on occasion, some of my behavior might be construed as wantonly unpleasant. Long story short, I am a jerk . . . with an explanation.

Another thing I enjoyed in the brief piece is how he turned to a personality inventory (similar to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator) to assess his potential jerk quotient.

As I learned more about my personality type, I began feeling sorry for everyone in my almost certainly beleaguered family. While we pride ourselves on “inventiveness and creativity” and “unique perspective and vigorous intellect,” Logicians can also be “insensitive,” “absent-minded,” and “condescending.”

The essay concludes with a justification for a modest amount of jerkiness when living the life of a journalist, and especially a pundit.

As a writer, it’s incumbent on me to be clinically unpleasant and prickly when focusing on self-aggrandizing do-gooders or abusers of power or those who pollute our culture with garbage. One can make arguments in good faith while still being downright disagreeable. So I make no apologies for being disliked. There’s nothing wrong with being hated by the right people.

There are, in fact, far too many journalists overly concerned about being shunned. As a young critic writing his first reviews for a wire agency, I sometimes wrestled with an existential question: “Who am I to say these horrible things about people who are far more successful and powerful than I am?” Nowadays I ask myself: “How exactly can I say more horrible things about these people who shouldn’t be more successful or powerful than any of us?”

A skeptical and contrarian disposition is not only useful if you want to be a decent pundit, but indispensable if you want to be a good journalist on any beat.

I wonder whether Chesterton would think of this as an indispensable journalistic trait. He did, after all, have an honest view of the overall profession. “Journalism largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones is dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” (The Wisdom of Father Brown)

I did find a fascinating description of the press provided by Chesterton in “The Boy.” It was published in 1909 in All Things Considered . . . and echoes true a century later.

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds.

If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong.

Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage.

Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before.

Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter.

The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else—mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

Amen. Evil acts today are nearly always attributed to some shortcoming or flaw such as insanity (e.g. individual acts) or delusional indoctrination (e.g. jihadism). While these are sometimes contributing factors, Chesterton rightly assessed the base cause.

Sadly, by affirming that fact, I expect that I too will be going on some people’s “jerk” list. They may consider me contrarian, but I’m simply striving to be honest.

 

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.

Who Said That?

June 14, 2016 — 3 Comments

thoms and lewisWho said that? It’s a question people ask when they recall a familiar saying and don’t remember the source.

Occasionally when we are reminded of the source, we shake our heads and think that’s right; how could I have forgotten!

At other times though, discovering the source of the maxim doesn’t help at all. It could be because the proverb is anonymous, or it might be due to the fact that it’s originator was not particularly well known.

That’s the case of the following statement, which is familiar to many Christians.

“Be careful how you live; you will be the only Bible some people ever read.”

When I thought of this phrase several weeks ago, I had a bit of trouble tracking it down. I actually found it on a number of sites, but the problem was that the author’s name was so unfamiliar it was almost always misspelled.

He was usually cited as “William Toms.” Yet I was pretty sure the saying hadn’t originated, however, with an Irish footballer.*

Just when I assumed I had encountered a clichéd brick wall, I stumbled upon the truth. Like so many classic maxims, the quotation did indeed originate from the British Isles.

The British writer William J. Thoms penned this thoughtful maxim, and it isn’t the only wise thing he wrote.

William John Thoms (1803 – 1885) was a British writer credited with coining the term “folklore” in the 1840s. Thoms’ investigation of folklore and myth led to a later career of debunking longevity myths. Hence, he is an early advocate of “validation research” when examining demographics.

Several of Thoms’ works are available online. They include:

C.S. Lewis had more in common with Thoms than simply being British and engaging in literary pursuits. The two men shared an interest in simple tales that intrigued and inspired men and women through the ages.

It was Thoms, in fact, who in 1846 introduced into English the term “folklore.”

A shared interest in legends and even the supernatural, suggests that the two may well have enjoyed one another’s company, had their lives intersected.

Sadly, Thoms’ desire to compile a comprehensive “Folk-Lore of England” was never realized, as this superb article describes.

The two scholars shared another trait of bookish people. (“Bookish,” by the way, is a compliment here at Mere Inkling.) Neither man sought out the frivolities of popular society. They were both content to socialize with similar minds in more intimate community. The following description of Thoms, from the Dictionary of National Biography,could just as naturally have been written about Lewis.

Thoms went little into society, but at congenial resorts, such as the ‘Cocked Hat Club,’ he was remarkable for a ready play of wit and an almost inexhaustible fund of humorous anecdote and reminiscence.

Can’t you just picture the Cocked Hat Club meeting at one table in the Eagle and Child while the Inklings shared their own warm friendship at their table at the other end of the pub?

_____

* Not that I follow English football, but I learned an athlete by that name played forward for Plymouth Argyle and Manchester United.

** The Book of the Court, published in 1838 with the second edition, linked here, printed six years later, has the delightful, if rather lengthy, subtitle: Exhibiting the History, Duties, and Privileges of the Several Ranks of the English Nobility and Gentry, Particularly of the Great Officers of State and members of the Royal Household; Including Vaious Forms of Court Etiquette, Tables of Precedency, Rules to be Observed at Levers and Drawing Rooms, Etc.

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

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

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

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

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

The Deceased Poet

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

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

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

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

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

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

J.R.R.T., 1918.

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

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

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

Creator Spiritus

The wind that scatters dying leaves

And whirls them from the autumn tree

Is grateful to the ship that cleaves

With stately prow the scurrying sea.

Heedless about the world we play

Like children in a garden close:

A postern bars the outward way

And what’s beyond it no man knows:

For careless days, a life at will,

A little laughter, and some tears,

These are sufficiency to fill

The early, vain, untroubled years,

Till at the last the wind upheaves

His unimagined strength, and we

Are scattered far, like autumn leaves,

Or proudly sail, like ships at sea.

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

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

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

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

Yours ever,

G.B.S.

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

So We Lay Down the Pen

So we lay down the pen,

So we forbear the building of the rime,

And bid our hearts be steel for times and a time

Till ends the strife, and then,

When the New Age is verily begun,

God grant that we may do the things undone.