Archives For Mythology

Humorous Examinations

September 21, 2021 — 12 Comments

Could you pass this examination?

Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

In contrast to the serious tone of the last two posts, today I am offering some edifying entertainment. As a gift to you, I have edited a perennial favorite of internet humorists. I recently came across my copy of this comprehensive knowledge examination, which motivated me to tweak it for Mere Inkling’s erudite audience.

You have probably seen versions of this exam in the past. The basic questions have remained surprisingly stable despite its age. I encountered it in the University of Washington campus paper in 1973. One writer claims “the Graduation Exam—Authentic Assessment has been in circulation since at least the 1950’s.”

The exam certainly makes the rounds, as this Navy veteran described.

The pressures of comprehensive exams were apparent to many, which resulted in one of the few officially sanctioned jokes in Naval Nuclear Power. In one of the official publications of Naval Reactors, someone inserted a sample “final exam” from Nuclear Power School.

In 2012 elements of the examination created confusion in the People’s Republic of China. It was included in an article about how Chinese nationals could prepare for an American State Department exam required for positions at the United States embassy in Beijing. According to China’s Global Times, “US embassy spokesman Richard Buangan made clear on his Sina microblog Sunday that an alleged ‘recruitment test for expatriate employees at the US embassy’ is fake.”

A June 2008 issue of Foreign Service Journal carried a story, which includes an English version of the [exam stating] the questions are from the US State Department’s entrance exam, in a bid to “measure the stability of perspective Foreign Service officers and to weed out the dummies.”

The Function of Examinations

Testing and documenting competence is obviously important. This is especially true for people in critical roles, such as prescribing drugs, designing aircraft engines, and manufacturing ice cream.

Of course, not everyone is able to pass every test. Which is precisely how things should be.

C.S. Lewis noted how educators truly familiar with their students readily recognize when it is a waste of time for them to continue repeating an exam they obviously cannot pass. He said an academic “master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again” (The Problem of Pain).

I have met very few people who enjoy being tested. Yet, for many faculty members (C.S. Lewis included), being on the “other side” of exams is not particularly enjoyable either. This delightful passage comes from a 1927 letter to his brother, Warnie.

My period of examining passed over with its usual accompaniment of neuralgia and oaths, relieved by the one excellent boy who defined ‘a genie’ correctly, yet more than correctly, as ‘an eastern spirit inhabiting bottles and buttons and rings.’ Pretty good for a boy.

I was also pleased with a youth who, being asked to write a letter to a friend recommending Guy Mannering,* wrote to his brother recommending it and saying ‘I think you would be interested in the character of Colonel Mannering, he is so like our father’: and then later in a paper on Guy Mannering in which I had set the question ‘Would you have liked Colonel Mannering as a father?’—illustrate your answer etc.—began decisively ‘I would not have liked Colonel Mannering as a father in the least.’

Well, it’s time now to offer you the opportunity to prove your worthiness. If you wish to evidence the breadth and depth of your knowledge, proceed now to the exam. (Astute readers will note I’ve added a personal twist to a couple of the exam questions.)

Comprehensive Knowledge Exam

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific. Now do the same for the Zoroastrian priesthood. [Bonus credit for including Antarctica in your response.]

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes. [Option: if you feel the scotch would impair your responses to the remaining questions, you may defer this portion of the exam to the end of the exam.]

PUBLIC SPEAKING: Two thousand riot-crazed anarchists are storming the campus. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin, Greek or Sanskrit. [Pig Latin is allowed.]

BIOLOGY: Postulate the 500 million year progression of a life form based on silicon, ranking its likely preference for form of government Enumerate the pros and cons it would associate with democracy, monarchy, socialism, theocracy, and totalitarianism. [Caution: any references to the Horta of Janus VI will result in disqualification of your answer, since Star Trek is a fictional resource.]

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and digeridoo. You will find a piano under your seat. The wind instruments, of course, were among the items you were directed to bring with you to the examination.

PSYCHOLOGY: Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment, and repressed frustrations of each of the following: Alexander of Aphrodisias, Hildegard of Bingen, Rābi’a bint Ka’b al-Quzdārī and Simeon the Stylite. Support your evaluation with quotations from each individual’s work, citing original sources. It is not necessary to translate.

SOCIOLOGY: Using the pretext of Planet of the Apes, where homo sapiens have been subordinated to various primate species, assess the prospects for achieving mutual toleration and equilibrium before one group is driven to extinction. [Caution: confusion of apes (which lack tails) and monkeys (which lack an appendix) will result in disqualification of your response.]

CHEMISTRY: Transform lead into gold. You will find a beaker, a three hundred count box of matches and five lead sinkers under your seat. Show all work including Feynman diagrams and quantum functions for all steps. [Transformation into silver will provide half credit.]

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. [Special Consideration: Satisfactorily explain the differences between Fahrenheit and Celsius to the tiger, and it will be replaced by a rabid ferret.]

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing global debt, without hypothesizing a benevolent intergalactic alliance with unlimited resources coming to the planet’s aid. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: Cubism, the Donatist controversy, and the 1913 foundation of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Gabon.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: Devise an infallible, seven-step plan to transform the United Nations into an organization that will successfully foster peace and goodwill in all international relationships. [Bonus credit for providing a major role for two of the following nations: Dominica, Liechtenstein, Tuvalu.]

AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE: Outline the steps involved in breeding your own super high yield, all weather hybrid strain of wheat. Describe its chemical and physical properties and estimate its impact on world food supplies. Construct a model for dealing with world-wide surpluses. Draft your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on astronomy, botany and numismatics. [Bonus Credit: write today’s date in metric.]

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought. Be sure to include an analysis of the influence exerted on philosophy by Diogenes the Cynic.

CREATIVE WRITING: Compose an epic poem based on the events of your own life in which you see and footnote allusions from T.S. Eliot, Titus Lucretius Carus, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante Alighieri, Þorbjörn Hornklofi, Gilgamesh and Stephen King. Critique your poem with a full discussion of its syntax and metrics. [Bonus Credit for writing alternating stanzas between free and rhyming verse.]

EDUCATION: Formulate an examination which accurately measures an individual’s comprehensive knowledge base without cultural or linguistic prejudice. Limit the question parameters to what can reasonably be covered during a four hour testing block.

LITERATURE: Discuss in detail at least three major literary figures from each of the following civilizations: the Xia Dynasty, the Akkadian Empire, the Mayan Empire, the Aksumite Empire, the Polynesian Tuʻi Tonga Empire, and nineteenth century United Kingdom. [Caution: failure to include J.R.R. Tolkien and/or C.S. Lewis will result in disqualification of your answer to this question.]

Congratulations on finishing the exam. You are encouraged to use any remaining time to review your answers in light of the fact that grammatical errors and misspellings will significantly impact your final grade.


* You can download a personal copy of Guy Mannering, one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, at Internet Archive.

If you should question the distinctions I noted between apes and monkeys, please know that the facts are genuine. However, for future examinations, you should be aware that not all monkeys have tails.

One honor that eluded C.S. Lewis during his distinguished life was the opportunity to represent the United Kingdom at the Olympics.

This would have been particularly satisfying during the XI Olympiad in Nuremberg. Fortunately, despite Lewis’ absence, America’s Jesse Owens was present to derail Hitler’s myth about so-called master races.

Actually, Lewis was a scholar, not an athlete. (Although the two can occasionally be combined.) The Olympics were not at the forefront of his concerns, a self-described dinosaur, immersed in the classics.

Nevertheless, a few interesting tidbits about the Olympics can be gleaned from Lewis’ published correspondence, which we shall consider forthwith.

Both of the following citations come from Volume 3 (1950-1963) of C.S. Lewis’ collected correspondence. In October 1955, Lewis responded to correspondence from I.O. Evans.

I return the article which interested me very much, for I have lately written a paper [“On Science Fiction”] on the same subject for an undergraduate society. I can’t send it, for it exists only in my own, almost illegible, MS. You seem to have dealt with the subject very well, and corrected some current errors.

I will certainly let you have a word about Olympic Runner when I have got round to reading it. You have no idea how little space for recreational reading there is in my life, and how long books have to stand in the queue.

Idrisyn Oliver Evans (1894-1977) book, Olympic Runner: a Story of the Great Days of Ancient Greece, was published in 1955. I have seen no evidence it made it to the front of C.S. Lewis’ queue.

On 16 November 1955, Lewis wrote to an acquaintance, Delmar Banner. Banner had created a likeness of Christopher John Chataway (1931-2014), who competed in the 1952 Olympics, and at one time held the world record in the 5,000 meters. Chataway had studied politics at Magdalen College in 1950.

Banner sought Lewis’ opinion on its accuracy. Lewis has to disappoint him, but does so in a friendly and encouraging manner.

Many thanks for your kind and encouraging card of the 15th; it is a great pleasure to me to know that anything I have written should be of help to the School [Pelham House]. Please give them all my best wishes.

I have never seen Chataway in the flesh, or even a profile photo of him, so can express no opinion of your portrait qua likeness; but even I, ignorant though I am on the subject, can admire the beauty and vigour of your drawing. I too hope that we may meet again.

Since I have uncovered so little information about Lewis’ thoughts on the Olympics, allow me to refer those who are interested to an article from Practical Theology.

C.S. Lewis at the 2012 London Olympics: Reflections on Pride and Humility” is available for free download from the University of York St. John.

This paper provides a theological analysis of modern professional sport, in particular the modern Olympic Games, in light of some of C.S. Lewis’s writings on pride and humility. This is prefaced with an analysis of the nature and character of ‘human competition’ in the sporting context and its potential positive and negative consequences.

We conclude by suggesting that the modern professional sports institution and the Olympic movement, while possessing many positive and enriching attributes, requires “wholesale spiritual rehabilitation” due in-part to both individual and national pride. However, we also believe that the modern Olympic Games that are characterized by passionate international sports competition, has many positive and life-affirming attributes and that there is hope of a lasting “legacy”, the prayer of Lord Coe [chair of the London 2012 Olympics Organising Committee]!

The essay is well worth a read, particularly as the latest Olympiad is matching global champions. The authors include a timely caution, lest we over-idealize the winners and add them to a pantheon of “modern sporting demi-gods.”

Casual readers of C.S. Lewis are not always familiar with his supremely balanced view of science and faith.

In a world where skeptics allege science and religious faith are incompatible, Lewis upheld the orthodox Christian understanding that Christianity and true science are 100% compatible. The problem arises when people attempt to use science to explore matters science cannot address.

In “C.S. Lewis and How Christians Should Think about Science,” we read that “C.S. Lewis has written extensively on science or specifically on how believers should think about science. Lewis himself was not antiscience. But he had grave concerns about the use of science to either manipulate nature or validate worldviews based on reductionism or naturalism.”

I would like to emphasize this warning, by adding three simple letters. C.S. Lewis “had grave concerns about the misuse of science.” And so should we all.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis describes science’s proper role.

Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, “I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2:20 a.m. on January 15th and saw so-and-so,” or, “I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such-and-such a temperature and it did so-and-so.” Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is.

And the more scientific a man is, the more (I believe) he would agree with me that this is the job of science—and a very useful and necessary job it is too. But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes—something of a different kind—this is not a scientific question. If there is “Something Behind,” then either it will have to remain altogether unknown to men or else make itself known in some different way.

The statement that there is any such thing, and the statement that there is no such thing, are neither of them statements that science can make. And real scientists do not usually make them. It is usually the journalists and popular novelists who have picked up a few odds and ends of half-baked science from textbooks who go in for them. After all, it is really a matter of common sense. Supposing science ever became complete so that it knew every single thing in the whole universe. Is it not plain that the questions, “Why is there a universe?” “Why does it go on as it does?” “Has it any meaning?” would remain just as they were?

There are, of course, many, many thousands of scientists who are Christians.

I recently read an interesting article on the Society of Roman Catholic Scientists. I commend it to everyone, whatever your religious affiliation (or lack thereof). It is entitled “Christianity in Scientific Mythology,” and begins with the author saying,

It shocks many people to find out that I am both an astrophysicist and a religious believer.  It shocks some of my fellow astrophysicists and even some of my fellow Catholics. . . . But why should this be?  Why should it be a surprise that someone whose chosen profession is the scientific study of the universe is also a person of faith? Why the perception of conflict?  Is it intrinsic to the business of science that it be “at odds” with religion?

Despite the fact that Professor Clemens fails to mention C.S. Lewis in his essay, he makes many valid points. The first lays a solid foundation for his message, and dispels a patently obvious, but seldom acknowledged, fact.

One of the defects of contemporary culture is the undue and unhealthy reverence we show toward scientists.  The public imagines scientists to be too smart to disagree with, too objective to be swayed by emotion or bias, and experts on every subject they choose to talk about.  None of these things is true, of course, and the unquestioning acceptance of these notions does great harm.

C.S. Lewis’ Concept of Scientism

Like all sane people, C.S. Lewis appreciated the great value of science. What he warned against was a sort of deification [my word] of science. It is like the elevation of scientific mythology to the status of ultimate religious truth, able to answer even metaphysical questions with certitude.

If you would like to read more on this subject, consider the following articles:

Science and Scientism: The Prophetic Vision of C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis: Science and Scientism

C.S. Lewis and the Religion of Science

C.S. Lewis on Science, Evolution, and Evolutionism

Another worthwhile article, published in the journal of Science and Christian Belief, is available at “Science and Religion in the Writings of C.S. Lewis.”

As a person of faith, albeit not a scientist, I concur wholeheartedly with C.S. Lewis. In the following passage from The Weight of Glory, Lewis makes a profound point, although it may require more than a single reading to comprehend. You may wish to read the entire essay to see how he builds up to this observation, but I offer it here on its own merits.

The waking world is judged more real because it can thus contain the dreaming world: the dreaming world is judged less real because it cannot contain the waking one. For the same reason I am certain that in passing from the scientific point of view to the theological, I have passed from dream to waking. Christian theology can fit in science, art, morality, and the sub-Christian religious. The scientific point of view cannot fit in any of these things, not even science itself.


The illustration above was drawn by E.J. Pace and appeared a century ago in The Sunday School Times. You can download a personal copy of a book featuring a hundred of Pace’s cartoons here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Northern Mythologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Question of the White Christ

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis did not write a Cinderella story of his own, but he did refer to one of his books as his “Cinderella,” for a different reason.

The Cinderella folk tale is familiar to many cultures. Like the Ugly Duckling, it celebrates real life occasions where events turn upside down, and the disadvantaged are vindicated.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greeks told the story of Rhodopis, a Greek slave girl whose sandal was snatched by an eagle and dropped into the lap of the Egyptian pharaoh. His search for the lovely foot that graced the footwear culminated in a joyous marriage.

I was thinking about step parenting recently, and how some people care for their own children differently than they treat children brought into the union from a spouse’s previous relationship. The subject arose during my prayers, when I thought to offer thanks to God for the depth of love he has given me for my “step-grandchildren.” It is, as far as I can tell, indistinguishable from the love I hold for my biological grandkids.

Following my prayers, I reflected further on family. And—because it reflects real life in terms of raising children, I thought of the story of Cinderella. In particular, I was wondering whether the “wicked stepsisters” were destined to be cruel simply because they were raised by their “wicked stepmother.”

The answer to that dilemma is obvious. Do bad parents raise bad kids? Sometimes, but thankfully, not always. Do good parents raise good kids? Sometimes, but sadly, not always.

If you remove the outliers—the saints on one side and the sociopaths on the other—kids have a reasonable chance to turn out “okay.” Basically, just because someone’s parents are disreputable, doesn’t mean the kids will grow up to be bums as well.

This comes as no shock to any of us, of course. We are too sophisticated to impute the sins of the parents to their children. But are we really? In truth, we often make judgments based upon things utterly beyond a child’s control. Nationality, social status, physical or mental disability . . . some people default to an unconscious ranking of desirability.

I’m reminded of the rewards of working with orphans and the tragic manner in which even these victims are “ranked” in terms of their perceived worth. So much for viewing the world through carnal eyes.

C.S. Lewis described the way a children’s story can flip things around in a way that reveals truth. In 1947 he described this to an American correspondent.

About stories for children. (a) Don’t the ordinary fairy tales really already contain much of the Spirit, in solution? Does not Cinderella give us exaltavit humiles,* and is not Redemption figured in The Sleeping Beauty? (b) For something a little more explicit, what about Geo. MacDonald’s⁑ The Princess & the Goblins, Curdie & the Princess, The Wise Woman, and The Golden Key?

In a 1943 letter to Sister Penelope, Lewis commented on a manuscript she had sent for his review. He suggests a “longish speech” by Melchizedek would be better presented in a different manner.

He’s got to have the sense of mystery about him. That means, for purposes of these plays, he must sound like a king out of a fairy tale. Actually in this speech he sounds more like a Bampton Lecturer! Represents, condemnation, include, mediator all strike the wrong note. I am referring only to the style: the matter is perfectly right. It is easier, of course, to pick holes than to mend them!

He then offers a note about the power of stories to communicate facts and deeper truths.

If I were trying to do it myself I should make it a speech about the Kings of Salem, not about ‘kingship’ in general—like a special magic in that family. (The Kings of Salem are not ordinary kings. . . .)

On the imaginative level I think the deepest truths enter the mind much better as arbitrary marvels than as universal theorems. Cinderella had to be back at midnight—Psyche must not see Cupid’s face—Adam and Eve must not eat the fruit: how much better these statements are than any philosophical generalities about obedience.

C.S. Lewis’ Personal Cinderella

Each reader of C.S. Lewis has their personal favorite, thoughtfully selected from the rich buffet of his diverse works. While I treasure many of his works, my personal favorite is The Great Divorce. It pleases me that the title also occupied a special place in Lewis’ own estimation.

Lewis described the underappreciated volume as his “Cinderella.” The beauty and nobility were there all of the time, though unrecognized.

Writing in 1954 to his editor, Jocelyn Gibb, he expresses appreciation for two handsomely bound copies of his books. He says, “perhaps these two charming volumes will teach me at last to have for the bodies of my own books the same reverence I have for the bodies of all other books.” In the same letter he writes, “I am always glad to hear of anyone’s taking up that Cinderella, The Great Divorce.”

Kathryn Lindskoog wrote an article about the book, calling the volume “C.S. Lewis’s Divine Comedy.” She begins with a personal anecdote.

C. S. Lewis beamed, then said “It’s my Cinderella.” I had just told him how much I loved The Great Divorce. (If I had been forced to choose one favorite of all his books, that would have been my choice.) He said he didn’t understand why Screwtape Letters got all the attention when The Great Divorce was so much better.

The Screwtape Letters is another of Lewis’ works that continues to impress me for its unique and effective way of illustrating the malevolent mind that shapes so many of the temptations that assail us. But, for sheer pleasure, I too prefer the wisdom, and the witness to heaven’s reality, that shine so brightly in The Great Divorce.

——

* Exaltavit humiles comes from the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and means God “has exalted the humble.”

⁑ Most of MacDonald’s books are available for free download at Google and Kindle.

Sand is a fascinating, and awe-inspiring, substance. It evokes a variety of reactions, depending on our personal histories and preferences. Some smile as they contemplate lounging on warm, smooth beaches. Others may grimace as they recall desert experiences where they struggled to remain hydrated, and sandy grit seemed to work its way into all those places it didn’t belong.

Some places have lots of sand. For example, 80% of Turkmenistan is covered by sand. And yet, this doesn’t stop them from wanting more! Turkmenistan determined theirs wasn’t appropriate for building a racing track, so they paid $1.3 million for British sand.

Turkmenistan is so stark that one of its main tourist attractions is a fiery crater on a barren landscape that is called the “Door to Hell.” National Geographic participated in an expedition which included a descent into the 100 foot deep inferno.

The idea of a nation of unending sand purchasing even more, brought to my mind a familiar verse from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” And recalling the relentless flames of their methane pit, inspired me to pen my own variation of that theme.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
(Samuel Coleridge)

Sand, sand, everywhere,
But not a grain to sell;
Sand, sand, everywhere,
A scorched foretaste of hell.
(Robert Stroud)

Lewis and Irish Sand

It is no surprise to readers of Mere Inkling, that we can find a Lewisian connection to even something so inconsequential as rocks* which have been weathered and worn into small fragments.

Like most of us, Lewis encountered sand in a variety of settings. In the 1950s he made a trip to Donegal, where he noted its distinctive beaches.

My correspondence has lately been in much the same state as yours: that is, on coming back from a holiday in Ireland I found about 60 letters to deal with. I had a lovely time over there: the best part in Donegal, all Atlantic breakers & golden sand and peat and heather and donkeys and mountains and (what is most unusual there) a heat wave and cloudless skies. Walks were much interrupted by blackberries: so big and juicy, and sweet that you just couldn’t pass without picking them.

To another friend, he wrote:

I was with a friend in Donegal which is a very fine, wild country with green mountains, rich secretive valleys, and Atlantic breakers on innumerable desolate sands.

But alas!, they get less desolate every year and it will soon be just a holiday resort like so many other places. (One always disapproves of all holiday-makers except oneself!)

Sand as a Metaphor

Everyone knows sand. That is especially true of the people who populated the lands of the Bible. From Ur to Egypt to Jerusalem, they encountered more than their share.

Because of its familiarity, and its unique traits, sand provides fertile soil [sorry] for producing metaphors. A couple, for example, from the Scriptures themselves.

[God speaking to Jacob] “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”
(Genesis 22:17)

[Description of the combined army facing the Hebrews in Canaan] “And they came out with all their troops, a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots. And all these kings joined their forces . . .”
(Joshua 11:4)

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.”
(Psalm 139:17-18)

But sand is not simply used to illustrate multitudes or numbers.

“A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty,
    but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both.”
(Proverbs 27:3)

[From a description of the Messianic Age]
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water . . .”
(Isaiah 35:7)

[God declares his power]
“Do you not fear me? declares the Lord.
    Do you not tremble before me?
I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea,
    a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass;
though the waves toss, they cannot prevail;
    though they roar, they cannot pass over it.”
(Jeremiah 5:22)

[Jesus said] “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matthew 7:26)

C.S. Lewis’ Use of Sand as a Metaphor

In Mere Christianity, Lewis alludes to Jesus’ words when he says even the best human beings will disappoint. Only the trust placed in Christ will never disappoint.

We must go on to recognise the real Giver. It is madness not to. Because, if we do not, we shall be relying on human beings. And that is going to let us down. The best of them will make mistakes; all of them will die. We must be thankful to all the people who have helped us, we must honour them and love them.

But never, never pin your whole faith on any human being: not if he is the best and wisest in the whole world. There are lots of nice things you can do with sand: but do not try building a house on it.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis explains his concept of Joy and how it relates to longing for heaven and being in the presence of God. In his description of how flashes of wonder grace our lives, he warns we should not confuse them with the ultimate joy for which we yearn.

I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it,” had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed.

All that such watching and waiting ever could find would be [merely] an image . . . I knew now that they were merely the mental track left by the passage of Joy—not the wave but the wave’s imprint on the sand.

A final example comes from Lewis’ under-appreciated Pilgrim’s Regress. One of the archetypal characters, Mr. Savage, attempts to waylay young Christian from following the Landlord (i.e. God).

“But as [belief in the Landlord] is not true, there remains only one way of life fit for a man.” This other way of life was something he called Heroism, or Master-Morality, or Violence. “All the other people in between,” he said, “are ploughing the sand.”

Plowing the sand is an ancient idiom. And its meaning is fairly evident, even to those encountering it for the first time. An online dictionary says “ploughing the sand has been a proverbial image of fruitless activity since the late 16th century.” In truth, wasting one’s energies in this fruitless pursuit possesses far deeper roots.

In The Story of Troy, the author describes the efforts of Ulysses to avoid crossing the Aegean to fight a war for which he had forcibly argued. He feigned insanity to stay home.

[Ulysses] paid no heed, however, to the messages sent to him asking him to join the army at Aulis. Agamemnon resolved, therefore, to go himself to Ithaca to persuade Ulysses to take part in the expedition. He was accompanied by his brother Menelaus, and by a chief named Palamedes, a very wise and learned man as well as a brave warrior.

As soon as Ulysses heard of their arrival in Ithaca, he pretended to be insane, and he tried by a very amusing stratagem to make them believe that he was really mad. Dressing himself in his best clothes, and going down to the seashore, he began to plow the beach with a horse and an ox yoked together, and to scatter salt upon the sand instead of seed.

Fortunately for the great author, Homer, Ulysses’ ruse was exposed. And it was revealed in an act worthy of Solomon that gave dual meaning to the hero’s fruitless plowing of sand.

Palamedes, however, was more than a match in artifice for the Ithacan king. Taking Telemachus from the arms of his nurse, he placed the infant on the sand in front of the plowing team. Ulysses quickly turned the animals aside to avoid injuring his child, thus proving that he was not mad but in full possession of his senses. The king of Ithaca was therefore obliged to join the expedition to Troy.

It is my hope that you have found this post informative and entertaining . . . and that writing it does not constitute my own example of plowing the sand.


* Most sand was originally rock, although some beaches are predominantly composed of other materials. Many beaches are “almost entirely composed of worn down dead animal bits.” White sand beaches often have a different source, parrotfish excrement.

Parrotfish eat the algae that grow on coral. [Their] large, beak-like teeth (which inspire their name) help them break off and eat small pieces of coral. They have another set of teeth, called pharyngeal teeth [that] grind up the coral into small grains of sediment, which parrotfish then excrete in clouds of white powdery sand. (A single large parrotfish can produce hundreds of pounds of sand a year!) The sediment is distributed onto the reef and, eventually, can pile up above the surface of the water, forming islands like the Maldives . . .

During the middle ages, Scandinavia’s skálds were poets, storytellers and even musicians. They were the equivalent of bards in medieval British and Gaelic culture. They were oral historians, committed to memorizing their paeans verbatim, which was simpler since they were in poetic form. Not all skálds possessed the talents to create their own memorable epics. These lesser poets, so to speak, could still memorize and recite the classic or popular songs.

A graphic explanation for the difference in the talents of the first tier skálds and their inferiors is found in the Prose Edda which was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Sturluson compiled Norse myths in his Edda, and the sagas of her kings in Heimskringla.

The second part of the Prose Edda is entitled Skáldskaparmál, which means the language of poetry. One of the myths it contains describes the Mead of Poetry. Mead, of course, is the rich Viking beverage created by fermenting honey.

As for poetry, I’ve written about it fairly often. (Most recently in respect to my “winning” entry in a Terrible Poetry Contest.) I’ve even offered genuine, albeit feeble, attempts at the art myself. Alas, if I were a classical Greek I would say my Muse is Clio (the Muse of History), rather than Thalia or Erato, Muses of various genres of poetry.

It is well known that C.S. Lewis himself was a frustrated poet. While his literary criticism and historical work was highly respected—and his Christian works are still revered—his poetry never received a warm reception. The Poetry Foundation offers a useful article on the subject here.

My personal opinion is that I am thankful Lewis’ energies were devoted to more profitable fields of writing.

Back to the Vikings

C.S. Lewis and several other Inklings were enamored with Northern sagas. I have touched on this in the past, and discussed the amazing fellowship gathered by J.R.R. Tolkien, as a sort of precursor to the Inklings.

Tolkien named the group Kolbítar, which denoted “Coalbiters,” or Norse storytellers who gathered close to the fire as they discussed the stories of their ancestors. This exploration of Icelandic literature was connected to Tolkien’s conviction, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon, that these works belonged within the study of the English canon.* Old Norse definitely left a mark on English, as I’ve discussed here at Mere Inkling.

In Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Nancy Marie Brown gleans some insights about Kolbítar from Lewis correspondence. They gathered to read the literature aloud.

They began with Snorri’s Edda. Reading it in Icelandic was slow going but addictive, Lewis recalls: “Hammered my way through a couple of pages in about an hour, but I am making some headway. It is an exciting experience.” Lewis . . . had also been smitten as a boy by “pure ‘Northernness’” [and] popular versions of Snorri’s tales had inspired Lewis to write an adolescent tragedy about the Norse gods, “Loki Bound.”

There is no record of what the members of the Kolbítars thought of the myth of the Mead of Poetry, but I would imagine that they found its crass distinction between gifted and stumbling poets quite—Norse. To set the stage for the following passage, one should know: (1) the Aesir were the Old Norse gods, (2) Suttung was a Jötunn (belonging to a race of giants at war with the Aesir), (3) Suttung was in possession of the magical mead of poetry, which Odin stole through cunning but immoral means, swallowing all of it, (4) Odin changed into an eagle to effect his escape, and Suttung followed him in the same form, and (5) the Aesir prepared large vessels to receive the disgorged magical mead. Now, from the Edda itself:

When the Æsir saw Odin flying, they placed their vats in the courtyard, and when Odin entered Asgard he spat the mead into the vats. It was such a close call, with Suttung almost catching him, that he blew some of the mead out of his rear. No one paid attention to this part, and whoever wanted it took it; we call this the bad poets’ portion. Odin gave Suttung’s mead to the Æsir and to those men who know how to make poetry. For this reason we call poetry Odin’s catch, find, drink or gift, as well as the drink of the Æsir.

No one said the Norse were above using crass humor. Still, it does offer a quite imaginative explanation for the differences between exceptional and mediocre poets, doesn’t it?


* Tolkien “loved the cold, crisp, unsentimental language of the sagas, their bare, straightforward tone like wind keening over ice. Reading Snorri and his peers was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because their books were more central to our language and our modern world” (Song of the Vikings).

C.S. Lewis considered war a hated necessity in a fallen world. Emperor Constantine I, in contrast, did not shirk from waging violent conflict to reunite the Roman Empire in the early fourth century. What could these two men, humble and proud, have in common?

In a New York Times essay, “C.S. Lewis’s Legacy Lives on, and Not Just Through the Wardrobe,” Mark Oppenheimer compares their influence on the expansion of the Christian Church.

Who, since the time of Jesus and his apostles, has brought more people to Christianity than anybody else?

A short list would include the Roman emperor Constantine, who legalized Christian worship in 313, and Pope Urban II, who began the First Crusade in 1095. But it would also include C.S. Lewis, who moved more hearts with a pen than others have with armies.

Oppenheimer’s Jewish perspective is likely the reason Urban II (c. 1035-1099) finds himself on this short list. After all, the Crusades were intended to liberate the Holy Land from its Muslim conquerors. Other than a handful of the genuinely religious individuals who participated, no historian (much less any educated practicing Christian) would consider the Crusades an evangelistic enterprise.

As for the similarities between C.S. Lewis and Constantine, I am hard-pressed to find many. One, however, is common to many men throughout history. The influence of women in their lives was significant. This is true in terms of both their revered mothers, and their tenacious wives.

Women in Constantine’s Life

Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert. Because he delivered the Church from persecution and favored the religion within the empire, he is regarded by the Orthodox Church to be a saint. His transitional reign, and the foundation of Constantinople, were monumentally important. But the violence experienced within the imperial family leaves disturbing questions that cannot be answered.

Constantine’s mother, Helena, was a true saint. She lived a devout life and did many good works. Doubtless, she also tempered the volatility of her son.

Constantine had four sons. The first was born to Minervina, a wife or official concubine about whom very little is known.* However, in 307 Constantine followed the common practice of marrying the daughter of a powerful ally, in this case the Augustus (Emperor) Maximian. This wife, Fausta, gave birth to three emperors who succeeded their father and proceeded to battle one another.

The first son, Crispus, was likely the most virtuous of them all. Unfortunately, however, Constantine heeded the lies of his step-mother, Fausta, and had Crispus put to death.⁑

The image of the Roman coins at the top of this column reveals official images of Helena and Fausta. Both of the women had, by the time these were minted, been honored with the title Augusta. The photograph comes from a detailed study of the coinage minted during Constantine’s Vicennalia, which marked the twentieth year of his reign. It features two coins of each, from different mints.

“For Helena,” that author notes, “the reverse always figures Securitas, and for Fausta, either Salus or Spes.” Roman personifications were not actually regarded as “gods,” except by the most superstitious. They were images intended to represent abstract qualities or values. Securitas represented Security with Salus and Spes representing Health and Hope, respectively. The inference here is that Helena represented the stability and authenticity of the dynasty, while Fausta represented its vitality and hope for the future, particularly as she nestles in her arms two future emperors.

Women in C.S. Lewis’ Life

For symmetry, we won’t discuss Minto here. Lewis’ mother and wife did, however, exert a great influence on the man he became. Whereas, with Constantine, one a saint, and the other a murderer, Lewis’ ladies both lived their Christian faith.

Flora Augusta Hamilton Lewis (1862-1908) was the daughter of an Anglican priest in Belfast. (By odd coincidence, her name included Helena’s regal title, Augusta.) Flora was quite gifted, and taught young Jack French and Latin. Her untimely death, during her boys’ childhood, left a last mark on both of them.

My father never fully recovered from this loss. Children suffer not (I think) less than their elders, but differently. For us boys the real bereavement had happened before our mother died.

We lost her gradually as she was gradually withdrawn from our life into the hands of nurses and delirium and morphia, and as our whole existence changed into something alien and menacing, as the house became full of strange smells and midnight noises and sinister whispered conversations. (Surprised by Joy)

Despite the great loss, life continued. Everyone eventually came to view Professor Lewis as a confirmed bachelor. Himself included. That is, until Joy Davidman entered his life. She turned his life upside down. Much has been written about their deep love for one another, and how well suited they were for each other.

Some have criticized Lewis for insensitivity to women. I consider this allegation utterly fallacious. Like all interpersonal relationships in this fallen world, bonds between (and within) genders are complex.

For those who consider Lewis’ personal outlook on male/female roles to be unenlightened, might I suggest you compare them to the example of any other man. Constantine perhaps?


* Minervina may have been Constantine’s wife, or official concubine. Since Crispus was regarded as a fully legal heir, the former is most likely. She may have already died before Constantine strengthened his political position with his second marriage.

⁑ The most probable account is that Fausta falsely accused Crispus of molesting her. After mercilessly condemning his own son, Constantine learned of the deceit and had Fausta executed as well. Crispus already held the rank of Caesar, and was heir apparent to his father. The story is extremely complicated, and heartbreakingly tragic.

C.S. Lewis did not write ghost stories, but he lived in a country that celebrated the strange genre. For some bizarre reason, the telling of ghost stories became associated with Christmas Eve. It’s a wonder to me why Lewis didn’t include this impropriety in his brilliant essay on Xmas.

“Christmas Eve was traditionally the time to tell scary stories round the hearth,” opens an article in The Guardian. I had never before associated Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with this bizarre tradition. Nor had I connected it with Amy Grant’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Far better the theme of Grant’s Nativity song “Breath of Heaven.”)

I presume I can thank my Scandinavian heritage for the absence of ghost stories in our Christmas season traditions. Mercifully we also avoided the plague of seasonal trolls and gnomes.

One of the most noted of authors of ghost stories had much in common with C.S. Lewis. M.R. James (1862-1936) was a medievalist scholar who taught at Cambridge. In fact, “James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows.” In the same article no less than H.P. Lovecraft himself is cited as describing James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank.”

I suppose it is a sign of his minimal interest in ghost stories that I cannot find any reference to James’ fiction in C.S. Lewis’ writing. Lewis does, however, refer to one of James’ scholarly works, The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses.

In a 1955 letter, Lewis describes how experiencing a relationship with Christ is different than simply knowing about him.

Yes, Jesus Himself, of course: the heart. Not only the God in Him but the historical Man. I don’t know that I ever got much from reading things about Him. Perhaps, in a queer way, I got most from reading the Apocryphal Gospels (The whole Apocryphal N.T. is done in one vol. ed. M.R. James). For there you find things attributed to Him that couldn’t be true. You even find wise & beautiful sayings which nevertheless just don’t ring true. And have you noticed–reading the true sayings in the real Gospels–how hardly one of them could have been guessed in advance?*

References to Ghosts

As befits a person writing over a fifty year period, C.S. Lewis’ comments about ghosts vary. This is emphasized by the change in his worldview which accompanied his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

A 1915 letter to Arthur Greeves reveals Lewis’ affinity for the supernatural. He is describing his reading of “Roots of the Mountains” by William Morris (1834-1896).

Tho’ more ordinary than the [“Well at the World’s End” here and here], it is still utterly different from any novel you ever read. Apart from the quaint and beautiful old English, which means so much to me, the supernatural element, tho’ it does not enter into the plot, yet hovers on the margin all the time: we have ‘the wildwood wherein dwell wights that love not men, to whom the groan of the children of men is as the scrape of a fiddle-bow: there too abide the kelpies, and the ghosts of them that rest not . . .’

In Lewis’ essay “The Novels of Charles Williams,” he describes the uniqueness of Williams’ work.

We meet in them, on the one hand, very ordinary modern people who talk the slang of our own day, and live in the suburbs: on the other hand, we also meet the supernatural—ghosts, magicians, and archetypal beasts.

The first thing to grasp is that this is not a mixture of two literary kinds . . . Williams is really writing a third kind of book which belongs to neither class and has a different value from either.

He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, ‘Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.’

In 1939 he wrote to his brother about a play by W.B. Yeats featuring a ghost.

The plays were worth seeing: one, by Yeats [“Purgatory” in Last Poems and Two Plays], his last one, was really powerful: conversation between a tramp and his son outside the ruins of a great house and then the ghost of its last mistress at the window, re-enacting her past life-she being the one who had finally let the whole thing down, marrying a horse-dealer . . . all the usual tragedy of the Irish aristocracy.

Not quite true, of course, because probably most of the preceding generations had been pretty good wasters too: but an effective play.

I have previously explored C.S. Lewis’ actual encounter with Yeats. It was quite odd. In 1921, he had written to his father.

I have been taken recently to see the mighty Yeats. It was the weirdest show you ever saw, and I fear he is a Kod [slang, I believe, for a fraud or a hoaxer]. You sit on hard antique chairs by candlelight in an oriental looking room and listen in silence while the great man talks about magic and ghosts and mystics . . .

What fluttering of the dovecote! It is a pity that the real romance of meeting a man who has written great poetry and who has known William Morris and Tagore and Symons should be so overlaid with the sham romance of flame coloured curtains and mumbo-jumbo.

In 1940 Lewis shared with Warnie his notion that if the seances were real — they had been popular during England’s flirtations with spiritualism — it did not suggest the spirits are particularly bright.

Part of Thursday afternoon I spent with unusual pleasure in the dark, pleasantly smelling, warmth of the old library with a slow dampish snow falling outside-flakes the size of matchboxes. I had gone in to look for something quite different, but became intrigued by the works of Dr Dee [(1527-1608) of Trinity College Cambridge], a mysterious magician and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth’s time.

The interesting thing about this was the fact that it was so uninteresting: I mean that the spirit conversations displayed, so far as I could see from turning over a few pages, just exactly the same fatuity which one observes in those recorded by modern spiritualists. What can be the explanation of this?

I suppose that both are hallucinations resulting from the same kind of mental weakness which, at all periods, produces the same rubbish. One can’t help, however, toying with the hypothesis that they are all real spirits in the case, and that we tap either a ghostly college of buffoons or a ghostly home for imbeciles.

In 1946 he complimented Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a longtime friend and correspondent. Pitter’s First Poems are available here.

I’m not sure I’ve understood The Bridge as a whole: but I love ‘shapes of sorrow and empty vessels,’ etc. Nice things in Seaborn. The Cygnet comes off as well as things like air-raids can come off in poetry. I don’t mean because they’re modern.

But as a rule, the bigger a thing is, physically the less it works in literature. One ghost is always more disquieting than ten: no good fight in a story can have more than a dozen or so combatants: the death of a million men is less tragic than that of one.

By the way, that final comment will prove of great value to any modern writer!

I’ve accumulated several other Lewisian references to ghosts, so what say we continue this discussion in our next post? In the meantime, perhaps you will care to read some of the linked volumes, or to comment on the odd link between ghost stories and Christmas Eve.


* The Apocrypha Anecdota: A Collection of Thirteen Apocryphal Books and Fragments by Montague Rhodes James is available here. He also wrote The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: Their Titles and Fragments.

Several of James’ ghost stories are available in these collections: The Five Jars and A Thin Ghost and Others. Dr. Dewi Evans has compiled The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James and made them available in several formats on his website.

achilles

If you don’t know the meaning of “hamartia,” you’re not alone. But it’s a very important word, for more than one reason, so read on.

Hamartia describes a feature many writers of fiction or drama instill in their most memorable characters. It simply means “tragic flaw.” The deep character defect which cannot be overcome by sincere intention or persistent effort.

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

Aristotle introduced the term in the Poetics to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. As you can imagine, the word is most often found in literary criticism.

However, news writers occasionally employ the word when discussing the unexplainable misfortune or missteps of übercelebrities regarded as immortal gods and goddesses before being felled by their own shortcomings.

Despite being a thespian in high school, I never formally studied drama. So I didn’t encounter the word there.

Likewise, I have written consistently since earning a Journalism degree four decades ago. However, since I have a 37:1 nonfiction to fiction ratio, I did not know this Greek word had found its way into the English lexicon.

I was surprised to discover its English meaning in my usually-familiar word of the day email (from The Free Dictionary).

While I was unfamiliar with its English usage, I already knew the word. I originally met hamartia (ἁμαρτία) while studying the New Testament in Greek. Hamartia literally refers to “missing the mark,” and it is the primary biblical Greek word for sin.

The first usage of the word in the sense of being an inner quality, occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle writing as a pre-Christian philosopher, naturally perceived the literary device in a pagan manner.

The Greek word hamartia translates pretty directly as “error” or “shortcoming” without any necessary overtones of guilt or moral failure. Our modern conception of tragedy and the “tragic flaw” of the hero usually involves the concept of hubris, or overweening pride, that leads to disaster.

Macbeth, for instance, has the arrogance to think he can overstep the laws of God and state, and ultimately pays dearly for this arrogance. Macbeth is a tragic hero with a clear tragic flaw: his downfall results from a moral failing and can be seen as divine retribution proportional to his guilt. But Macbeth also contains heavy Christian overtones that would of course be found nowhere in Greek tragedy.

An understanding of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia—and indeed an understanding of Greek tragedy in general—relies on an understanding of the ethics and cosmology of the ancient Greeks. . . . Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation.

What of the Consequences?

In a 2014 article entitled “C.S. Lewis: The Anti-Platonic Platonist,” Grace Tiffany skillfully explores the Platonic echoes in Lewis’ writings. In discussing his literary examples of human failings, she writes:

There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis’ “negatively capable” presentations of misguided characters . . . An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative.

Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce “fear and pity” (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)—compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible end to which hamartia has led . . . (Christianity and Literature 63.3).

In 1953, C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent that sin was more than merely making a mistake. In doing so, he alludes to the change in the meaning of the word ἁμαρτία.

No. I don’t think sin is completely accounted for by faulty reasoning nor that it can be completely cured by re-education. That view has, indeed, been put forward: by Socrates and, in the early 19th Century, by Godwin.

But I think it overlooked the (to me) obviously central fact that our will is not necessarily determined by our reason. If it were, then, as you say, what are called ‘sins’ would not be sins at all but only mistakes, and would require not repentances but merely correction.

Returning to the literary or dramatic definition of hamartia as a tragic flaw, it seems to me that this term offers a fitting parallel to the word sin.

Ever since humanity’s fall, we suffer the curse of bearing original sin, a tragic flaw. It is a scar that no medical or psychological treatment can cure and no amount of determination can repair. This tragic flaw will be our doom. Unless, that is, there is One who is capable and desirous of restoring us to our original health and purity. One, perhaps, in whose own image you and I were created . . .

This wonder is something well worth pondering—and perhaps one day, writing about.