Archives For History

The Ugliest Book

October 26, 2018 — 9 Comments

mayan image.png

Every reader knows “not all books are created equal.” This fact has two applications. Most importantly, since books are built from words, the comparison refers to comparing the content or message of different works. In a totally distinct sense, it may distinguish between the differing presentation or physical aspects of the book itself.

Fifty-four years after its discovery, the oldest surviving Mayan text has been officially authenticated. One of the reasons for the delay was that “for a long time, critics of the codex said the style wasn’t Mayan and that it was ‘the ugliest’ of them in terms of figures and color.”

What does that mean? It means that just because the tree bark pages were composed by a less skilled artist . . . in a more primitive age . . . living in a relatively impoverished region . . . with a smaller pallet of colors available . . . its authenticity was questioned.

Not quite what I would consider top flight analysis. Fortunately, Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology has finally righted that wrong. They declared, “The Mayan Codex is authentic and the oldest, legible pre-Hispanic manuscript in the Americas,”

Seriously, the only flaw I can find in the facsimile of the pictograph portrayed above is the attachment of a right hand to a left arm. Then again, if Mark Twain could make the very same mistake roughly eight centuries later, I can forgive the ancient Mayan illustrator.

Illustrative Options

Frankly, the more one learns about the publishing industry, the less responsible we can hold authors for the final look of their works. Rarely do they even get to choose the cover art for their books, although sometimes particularly prominent authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis are granted that privilege. That is how the artwork of Pauline Baynes became intimately associated with the two Oxbridge giants.

The lucky few may even be able to select their own fonts, with many wisely opting for the more trustworthy serif families.

For the common woman or man, we are lucky if our publishers even let us have a veto over the artwork that they commission. The exception to this comes with the nature of the self-publishing industry, where the author possesses sole authority in choosing their cover, illustrations, fonts and format.

Still, those hoping for “traditional” publication should recognize in advance how much control over their book they will forfeit to editors and publishers.

With Paper at a Premium

Even with influence in the selection of artwork, some aspects of publishing lie outside the control of writers. A perfect example of this is found in rationing of paper in Britain during the Second World War. The British War Economy Standard meant books visually declined in production quality.

rationing

Paper was rationed, beginning in March 1940, when publishers were allowed only 60 percent of what they had used in 1938-39. The proportion fell to 37.5 percent by January 1, 1942, when the Book Production War Economy Agreement took effect.

The scheme mandated smaller type, less white space, and inferior papers and bindings. It resulted in some remarkably ugly books, but it conserved raw materials. (“Modernity and Print I: Britain 1890-1970” by Jonathan Rose)

A number of Lewis’ books appeared in these wartime editions. They are quite collectible.

Scarce first impression of the true first edition, produced on wartime economy standard paper, and thin boards, published during the Second World War, especially hard to find in its complete original dustwrapper in collectable condition.

Let’s consider an unlikely scenario. In eight centuries, C.S. Lewis’ writings have been forgotten. Then, one archaeologist stumbles across a rare physical copy of a book, that survived the universal “grand purging” following the transfer of such items to some post-digital, post-electronic format.

What would historians assume about the value placed on Lewis’ work if it was a wartime edition compared to other “regular” books by other authors? They could not be faulted for assuming that the people of our day valued the inferior publication less than the “nicer” editions. (This is assuming that the acid-laden paper of the war years would not simply flake apart in their hands.)

The quality of the paper and print make a strong impression on readers. Just as we often judge books by their cover.

C.S. Lewis, a true bibliophile, illustrates how even a modest book (in terms of content) can be deemed “exquisite.” In a 1935 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he humorously describes the impending publication of The Allegory of Love.

I have finished my book which is called The Allegorical Love Poem, and is dedicated to Barfield. The Clarendon Press have accepted it and hope to have it out by May.

As I am to get 12 free copies (Dents only give one 6) you and Tchanie shall each have one and save your silver: and whatever you think of the matter, I hope, from experience of the Clarendon Press, that binding, paper etc will be—in our old formula—excellent, exquisite, and admirable.

In other words, if you can’t read it, you will enjoy looking at it, smelling it, and stroking it. If not a good book, it will be a good pet! It will be about 400 pp, they say. (It will be funny, after this, if they do it in double columns and a paper cover.)

Returning to the Mayan pages with which we began, we sadly are unable to judge them by their original codex in its pristine state. However, the extant pieces possess great historical value, even if scholars took a long time determining the fact . . . and whether or not they would ever consider it to be “a good pet.”


In case you are interested, Mere Inkling has explored Mayan books before, in “One Weakness of Modern Books.”

 

C.S. Lewis the Irishman

August 31, 2018 — 7 Comments

irish aslan

Contrary to the common assumption that C.S. Lewis was English, he was actually an Irishman. He was born in Belfast, and those who know him attested to how his Irish-ness lasted the whole of his life.

Lewis was proud of his roots, and celebrated them. When he first journeyed to England, he experienced a culture shock. “No Englishman will be able to understand my first impressions of England,” he wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Lewis always loved Ireland. He vacationed there regularly, and chose the island for his honeymoon, late in life. One of his Irish students, David Bleakley, related that the transplant professor declared, “Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of County Down.” (C.S. Lewis at home in Ireland)

Several years ago, David Clare of the University of Limerick wrote “C.S. Lewis: An Irish Writer.” It appeared in Irish Studies Review, and the abstract is illuminating.

This article examines the effect of C.S. Lewis’s Irish background on his work. It attempts to contradict the assumption that this Belfast-born writer should be included in the English and not the Irish canon. It emphasises that Lewis saw himself as Irish, was seen by others as Irish, and that his Irish background, contrary to what some have written, was important to him throughout his lifetime.

It goes on to demonstrate the ways in which his work was influenced by his youth in Ireland and by the Irish mythology that he loved. Furthermore, this article maintains that, as a child of pre-partition Ireland with roots throughout the island, Lewis was influenced by the country as a whole, not just his native Ulster. Finally, it attempts to understand why Lewis, a proud Irishman, did not do more to promote himself as an Irish writer.

Clare’s argument is necessary because of Irish political correctness. In Surprised by C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath describes the prejudice.

So why is Lewis not celebrated as one of the greatest Irish writers of all time? Why is there no entry for “Lewis, C.S.” in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)? The real issue is that Lewis does not fit—and, indeed, must be said partly to have chosen not to fit—the template of Irish identity that has dominated the late twentieth century.

In some ways, Lewis represents precisely the forces and influences which the advocates of a stereotypical Irish literary identity wished to reject. One of the reasons why Ireland has largely chosen to forget about Lewis is that he was the wrong kind of Irishman. . . .

Lewis may have chosen to rise above the provinciality of Irish literature; he nevertheless remains one of its most luminous and famous representatives.

It should be noted, of course, that countless Irish men and women are proud of Lewis, and count him as one of their own.

There’s No Other Place Quite Like Ireland

On a less serious note, and at the risk of contributing to a stereotype, I want to share with you an incident that occurred in Dublin.

First some context. Some people suggest that people in Ireland have a particular affinity for alcohol. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, since they are only ranked twenty-first in the world (for alcohol consumption).

The 1875 tragedy goes by several names, but one is the “Dublin Whiskey Fire.” A malt house and a whiskey warehouse caught fire, and as thousands of gallons of their contents poured down the street in a fiery channel, the blaze spread to many homes and businesses.

Miraculously, the fire did not take any lives. That does not mean, however, that there were not a number of fatalities. A dozen people died from alcohol poisoning. Tempted by unrestricted access to the alcohol, many Dubliners cupped their hands or used their boots to gather up the liquid and drink themselves into oblivion.

You can read an account of the bizarre occurrence in The Irish Times.

I wonder what Lewis thought about this revolting event, since he was surely aware of it. The deranged consumption of filthy and burning alcohol would be condemned by any sane person.

Among teetotalers, however, even a sip of alcohol is objectionable. Many attribute their aversion to their faith. While the Christian Scriptures strongly condemn drunkenness, some verses tacitly affirm the drinking of wine in moderation.*

C.S. Lewis and Drink

C.S. Lewis was among the majority of Christians who accept drinking while avoiding drunkenness. I have written on this subject at length.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis says,

Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened ‘Temperance,’ it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.

It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers . . . Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself.

But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way.

An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

This is wise counsel. Recapturing the original meaning of temperance—and living as temperate people—results in happier lives and a more peaceful world.


* For those who God expressly commands not to drink, should avoid it completely. For example, an angel told Zechariah that John the Baptist, “must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15). John’s cousin Jesus, on the other hand, miraculously created wine for a wedding party, and offered the Passover wine to his disciples with the words “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20)

 

fjord

Norwegian immigrants to North America were a hardy breed, and some of their descendants continue to display that resilience.

When they came to the United States, they scoffed at the thought of heading southward where any average human being could survive. Instead, they flowed in great numbers to Minnesota and the Dakotas. Spawned near the arctic, they appreciated the balmy temperature of places like Sioux Falls and Fargo.

The Norwegianest of the immigrants chided their countrymen and women for settling in the tropics, and aimed higher than the United States. They opted to move to Canada, which was nearer their native land’s latitude. To make up for being closer to the equator, they compensated by settling in Canada’s harsh heartland where no ocean currents mediated the bitter cold.

Meanwhile, back in the States . . . as farmers continued to settle further west, some of them eventually happened upon paradise on earth. They crossed over the Rockies and Cascades and came to Puget Sound, a land with abundant coasts and shorelines which reminded them of the fjords back home. There the Norse placed deep roots.

Fjords are inherently impressive. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis describes encountering just such a body of water.

When morning came, with a low, gray sky but very hot, the adventurers found they were in a bay encircled by such cliffs and crags that it was like a Norwegian fjord.

In front of them, at the head of the bay, there was some level land heavily overgrown with trees that appeared to be cedars, through which a rapid stream came out. Beyond that was a steep ascent ending in a jagged ridge and behind that a vague darkness of mountains which ran into dull-colored clouds so that you could not see their tops.

The nearer cliffs, at each side of the bay, were streaked here and there with lines of white which everyone knew to be waterfalls, though at that distance they did not show any movement or make any noise.

Indeed the whole place was very silent and the water of the bay as smooth as glass. It reflected every detail of the cliffs.

Some of my own ancestors settled in the late 1800s in Poulsbo, a modest community that came to be known as “Little Norway.” They bore the familiar surname Olsen (Ole’s son). My grandfather married one of their descendants and our family name became Nesby (so revised because English’s stunted alphabet lacked two of the original name’s letters: Næsbø).

Following my retirement from the United States Air Force, I moved near to my family’s American homestead. However, I ended up living next to a rare geographic feature, a fjord.

It sounds reasonable that America would have fjords in Alaska, but Washington is home to a number of them as well. Much of Puget Sound was carved by glaciers that deeply scored the western portion of the state. Independent of these is a long inlet called Hood Canal. It is part of the Salish Sea.

This amazing fjord extends for approximately fifty miles. That makes it almost the length of Romsdalsfjord, Norway’s ninth longest fjord.

I absolutely love surveying the waters of Hood Canal. I suspect I was genetically preordained to feel at home here.

Fjords Appealed to C.S. Lewis Too

In 1958, C.S. Lewis described a visit he and his wife Joy had recently made to Ireland. They were awestruck by the scenery.

Yes, my wife and I had a glorious trip to Ireland. For one thing, we flew and it was for both of us a new experience. I can quite believe that for really long journies it can be dull and monotonous.

But one’s first sight of the cloud-scape from above—then, when the clouds cleared, the coastlines looking (as I’d never really quite believed) just as they do on maps—the first bit of Ireland shining out on the dark sea like enamel work—all this was indescribably beautiful. . . .

As for beauty . . . we saw mountains, heather just beginning to bloom, loughs (= fjords), yellow sand, fuchsia, seas Mediterraneanly blue, gulls, peat, ruins, and waterfalls as many as we could digest.

Lewis’ words serve as a reminder that while we may not all be so fortunate as to live beside a fjord, there is nothing to prevent us from visiting one to savor its wonder.

Renaissance Rap Music

January 11, 2018 — 5 Comments

renaissance rap

If you never listen to classical music, you are missing out on one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you have been exposed to small doses, and developed an unfortunate distaste for historic music from the past several centuries, give it a second chance.

The fact is there are so many varieties, with exciting variations introduced by countless gifted composers, that almost anyone can find something in the field that inspires them.

It was probably classical works that C.S. Lewis had in mind when he wrote to Arthur Greeves in 1916, “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you—almost apart from their meaning—a thrill like music?”

Our Director of Parish Music recently shared some interesting facts that I had not known. Although I’ve sung in a number of choirs through the years, I never mastered any “instrument.”

Sure, teachers attempted to teach me about music back in the days of the flutophone. (Yes, I was introduced to instrumental music way back in the day before most elementary schools upgraded to plastic instruments properly called “recorders.”)

A flutophone may look like a toy, but it is actually a legitimate “pre-band instrument” belonging to the wind family.

Returning to the class I attended . . . our Music Director introduced us to one of the seventeenth century’s finest composers, Heinrich Schütz. This German Lutheran studied with the Italian Roman Catholic Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, a master of polyphony. Curiously, their shared devotion to religious music allowed for a genuine friendship, despite the Thirty Years War which raged across Central Europe at the time.

In addition to learning some history about composers, I was stunned to learn that rap music had been invented as long ago as 1635-45.

It was called “recitative,” and is a style of vocal music that alternated between speaking and singing. We listened to some examples, and I immediately realized that even fans of modern rap (among whom I do not include myself) can find some classical music they would likely enjoy.

C.S. Lewis and the Blessings of Music

Luther famously declared, “next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”

C.S. Lewis also regarded music as a gift of God. In his essay, “On Church Music,” he ponders the blessing received by those who listen to religious music. He finds that humility is the key.

There are two musical situations on which I think we can be confident that a blessing rests. One is where a priest or an organist, himself a man of trained and delicate taste, humbly and charitably sacrifices his own (aesthetically right) desires and gives the people humbler and coarser fare than he would wish, in a belief (even, as it may be, the erroneous belief) that he can thus bring them to God.

The other is where the stupid and unmusical layman humbly and patiently, and above all silently, listens to music which he cannot, or cannot fully, appreciate, in the belief that it somehow glorifies God, and that if it does not edify him this must be his own defect.

Neither such a High Brow nor such a Low Brow can be far out of the way. To both, Church Music will have been a means of grace: not the music they have liked, but the music they have disliked. They have both offered, sacrificed, their taste in the fullest sense.

But where the opposite situation arises, where the musician is filled with the pride of skill or the virus of emulation and looks with contempt on the unappreciative congregation, or where the unmusical, complacently entrenched in their own ignorance and conservatism, look with the restless and resentful hostility of an inferiority complex on all who would try to improve their taste—there, we may be sure, all that both offer is unblessed and the spirit that moves them is not the Holy Ghost.

Lewis continues his thoughts, turning to the practical application of his thoughts to the local parish. Members of a typical congregation, of course, do not all share the same musical tastes.

These highly general reflections will not, I fear, be of much practical use to any priest or organist in devising a working compromise for a particular church. The most they can hope to do is to suggest that the problem is never a merely musical one.

Where both the choir and the congregation are spiritually on the right road no insurmountable difficulties will occur. Discrepancies of taste and capacity will, indeed, provide matter for mutual charity and humility.

What wise advice. The presence of love and humility, essential elements of Christian spirituality, can see a congregation through discrepancies of taste. We should each remind ourselves of this, the next time we hear something in worship that does not appeal to our personal preferences.

The question should not be whether we “like” specific music or not, but rather whether or not it truly glorifies God.


The unattributed photograph below suggests C.S. Lewis may have enjoyed a periodic musical interlude as he toiled over piles of correspondence.

Lewis and recorder

Write Like C.S. Lewis

December 27, 2017 — 8 Comments

escher hands.jpg

What would you give to be able to write like the creator of Narnia? It’s unlikely his brilliance will be replicated in the near future, but there is one peculiar sense in which writing “like” Lewis may be feasible.

The digital creation of the fonts we see on our computer monitors—and print to physical copies—is far simpler than the manual process used by Gutenberg. In fact, with just a few clicks, you can be reproducing text nearly identical to the documents printed by Johann five centuries ago.

I have previously confessed I am addicted to fonts. I consider myself a connoisseur, since I am not drawn to every font I encounter. Still, my tastes are quite eclectic, and I cannot deny that I am a fontaholic.

I have written in the past about the frequently overlooked importance of the fonts we choose. This link will show you some posts I’ve written about why common fonts such as Arial and Helvetica are less reliable than other options, the wisdom of avoiding ALL CAPS, a font designed for dyslexics, free monastic scribal fonts, and more.

You probably see where I’m going. When I said that we might be able “to write” like C.S. Lewis, I was alluding to using a font based upon his unique handwriting. In one sense, it would look like the genuine writing of the master. The literary merit of the words would clearly be another matter.

Creating a font based on Lewis’ handwriting is a feasible project, as the following examples illustrate.

Writing Like Other Famous Individuals

A moment ago I mentioned Johann Gutenberg. One of the first writers to take full advantage of his innovations, was the reformer Martin Luther. Various examples of Luther’s personal penmanship exist, and at this very moment a German craftsman is in the process of reproducing it as a font that could be used by anyone.

I learned about the project in the posts of Gene Veith, a scholar who writes about religious issues, especially those with some Lutheran connection.

The Kickstarter Project promises a copy of the font for a mere 10€ (about $12, U.S.). The typographer has already reproduced the handwriting of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud.

Whether or not you are interested in the handwriting of Luther, Freud or Einstein, is not my concern here.

I am hoping that somewhere out there, there is a skilled typographer who would be interested in digitizing the handwriting of C.S. Lewis. It’s a project that would not make them rich, but I know I would not be alone in appreciating their effort. Since he eschewed the typewriter, there are numerous examples of Lewis’ handwriting in existence.

This chart from the Wade Center illustrates various changes in his script through the years. During the last two decades of his life, Lewis often apologized for his writing, writing in 1955, “I’m sorry my handwriting is so hard: it was very nice until about 10 years ago, but now I have rheumatism in my wrist.”

Fonts of the Famous

Interest in handwriting is not limited to the script of historical figures. Artists and literary stars (some “historical” in their own right) have been the subject of similar efforts.

The creator of a René Descartes font cites a typical challenge.

In 1634, from Amsterdam, he wrote a famous letter to his friend Mersenne, a great scientist monk, in which he spoke about [Galileo’s] works. The greatest part of our glyphs is based on this document. We have added some letters Descartes himself didn’t use, like modern s and j (he used exclusively s long and i instead of j).

There is one particular font producer, P22 Type Foundry, that “specializes” in recreating the handwriting of artists. (I find Michelangelo and Da Vinci more inspirational than Vincent van Gogh.) The font designer even recreated Da Vinci’s “mirror writing.”

This set faithfully captures Leonardo’s remarkable imagination and includes an exclusive Da Vinci Backwards font (reflecting the artist’s own unique style of handwriting). The 72 extras included are drawn from Leonardo’s sketchbooks and journals.

A number of the P22 fonts have been produced in partnership with various museums and institutions. (Perhaps someone connected with the Marion E. Wade Center would like to run this past them?)

Returning to the Handwriting of C.S. Lewis

If people can be sufficiently inspired to create a script for Grigori Rasputin, how is it we are still awaiting a C.S. Lewis font?

Despite his apologies, even in his later years, Lewis’ handwriting is generally quite legible. This despite his comment the final year of his life that, “My mind has not, I trust, decayed so badly as my handwriting.”

In 2008, HarperCollins commissioned a professional graphologist to anonymously analyze this handwriting. The results were quite intriguing.

At first glance this small, neat script appears to trot unprepossessingly across the page. His exceedingly small personal pronoun does indeed suggest that this man is a modest individual; but being modest does not mean ineffectual.

There is evidence of strong personal discipline in this angular, firm script. Here we have a man who is far more likely to harbour a preference for detailed, factual understatement than “in your face” floridity of wording.

It seems to me that he takes himself rather seriously. He requires no outside criticism as he provides more than enough for himself. He is self-critical and self-monitoring. He really cares about getting things right. I don’t think he’s shy—but he chooses to keep himself to himself.

I began to trace the writing and found that it is guarded and careful rather than relaxed and freely written. This is someone who is particularly sensitive and at times somewhat pedantic; not the sort of person to easily catch unawares.

And, Should You Desire to Write Like Jane Austen . . .

If you are curious about the accommodations graphologists must make during these projects, check out the discussion and download a copy of Jane Austen’s handwriting font here. (If you explore the creator’s website you will discover a font based on Giovanni Borgia, eldest illegitimate child of Pope Alexander VI.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intertextuality as a Tool for the Bricoleur

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

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

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

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

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

When the Bricoleur Denies External Influences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay Tuned

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

When the Angel is a Demon

October 26, 2017 — 9 Comments

devil tatoo

Not every supernatural being claiming to be an angel really is.

C.S. Lewis’ most familiar discussion of fallen angels (also refered to as demons) appears in The Screwtape Letters. In the preface, he describes the equally disastrous errors people can fall into when pondering the occult.

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

In a separate discussion, Lewis acknowledges the different opinions Christians can have on the subject, and he notes that it is not a salvific concern.

No reference to the Devil or devils is included in any Christian Creeds, and it is quite possible to be a Christian without believing in them. I do believe such beings exist, but that is my own affair. Supposing there to be such beings, the degree to which humans were conscious of their presence would presumably vary very much.

I mean, the more a man was in the Devil’s power, the less he would be aware of it, on the principle that a man is still fairly sober as long as he knows he’s drunk. It is the people who are fully awake and trying hard to be good who would be most aware of the Devil . . .

Of course, they don’t want you to believe in the Devil. If devils exist, their first aim is to give you an anaesthetic—to put you off your guard. Only if that fails, do you become aware of them. (“Answers to Questions on Christianity”)

I have mentioned in the past one of my seminary professors who served in Madagascar as a medical missionary. He had since become a successful psychiatrist. When he left for Africa, he did not believe in the existence of demons.

A final observation about demons, or devils as he typically refers to them: they act in a manner opposite to God. In That Hideous Strength, he includes the observation that, “In fighting those who serve devils one always has this on one’s side; their Masters hate them as much as they hate us.”

This echoes a truthful dialectic.

God loves everyone, even those who hate him. While Lucifer hates everyone, even those who love him.

An Ancient Illustration

I’ve been reading recently wisdom from the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They left ancient Roman cities to pursue spiritual growth as hermits and monks beginning in the middle of the third century.

The history of Christian monasticism is fascinating. All the way up to our own day, male and female monastics of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant traditions have pursued holiness by this particular path.

A common occurrence for desert monks involved waging spiritual warfare of a more intense nature than most of us ever experience. I particularly enjoyed the following encounter (which reminded me of Martin Luther’s advice about ridiculing Satan and his minions). The following episode comes from an ancient collection of Desert sayings.

“The devil appeared to a monk disguised as an angel of light, and said to him, ‘I am the angel Gabriel, and I have been sent to you.’ But the monk said, ‘Are you sure you weren’t sent to someone else? I am not worthy to have an angel sent to me.’ At that the devil vanished.”

Good riddance, C.S. Lewis and I would agree.


The image above is of a tattoo whose “wearer” will one day experience great remorse.