Archives For History

C.S. Lewis begins his essay “Miracles” with a rather odd analogy. “I have known only one person in my life,” he writes, “who claimed to have seen a ghost.” As he tells the rest of the story, it works well to illustrate his point about the necessity of faith for recognizing miracles.

It was a woman; and the interesting thing is that she disbelieved in the immortality of the soul before seeing the ghost and still disbelieves after having seen it. She thinks it was a hallucination. In other words, seeing is not believing. This is the first thing to get clear in talking about miracles. Whatever experiences we may have, we shall not regard them as miraculous if we already hold a philosophy which excludes the supernatural.

In our previous post, we explored a number of references to ghosts in C.S. Lewis’ works and correspondence. Most of these notes relate to encountering these disembodied spirits in literature.

For example, as a young man, he commended a poem by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) to his friend Arthur Greeves.

I was sure that you wd. like “Balder Dead . . .” it is a topping piece of work, especially the journey, as you say, and the description of the ghosts, and the ending with its impressive pause before the glorious line “At last he sighed & set forth back to Heaven.” Doesn’t it all make you think of the dear old days when we were writing our great opera on Loki & Odin & the rest?

It is easy to see how “Balder Dead” resonated with Lewis, given his affinity for “Northernness.”

And doleful are the ghosts, the troops of dead,
Whom Hela with austere control presides…
And all the nobler souls of mortal men
On battle-field have met their death, and now
Feast in Valhalla, in my father’s hall;
Only the inglorious sort are there below…

In 1952, C.S. Lewis was invited to comment on a volume written by Phyllis Elinor Sandeman. The sensitive Inkling displayed the virtues of every good member of a writing critique group. Lewis begins with praise, and offers a single, concrete constructive comment, to aid the author.

Dear Mrs. Sandeman, I have read Treasure on Earth and I don’t believe you have any notion how good it is. . . . The only page that I can’t enter into at all is p. 83. I can’t conceive not being afraid, as a child, of those unseen presences. I should have behaved like little Jane Eyre in the Red Room when she dried her tears for fear a ghostly voice should awake to comfort her. One would rather be scolded by a mortal than comforted by a ghost.

Lewis is referring to a passage in which a specific location in her childhood home presumably granted the author immunity from fears: “Stories of ghosts and witches so delightful in cheerful company returned to trouble her when alone in the dark. It was impossible ever to feel fear in the drawing-room—there could surely never be a room more conducive to peace of mind.”

Two months later, Lewis again wrote Sandeman, perhaps to address her disappointment at receiving his comment about ghosts.

You were perfectly right to put in the bit about the friendly ghosts. I think the absence of fear is, as far as it goes, probable evidence that the experience was not merely imaginary. Everyone fears lest he should meet a ghost, but there seems to be some ground for supposing that those who really meet them are often quite unafraid.

Notice that angels, on the other hand, seem in Scripture to be nearly always terrifying & have to begin by saying “Fear not.”

In Ireland I stayed at a lonely bungalow last summer which the peasants avoided not because a ghost had been seen near it (they didn’t mind ghosts) but because the Good People, the Faerie, frequented that bit of coast. So apparently ghosts are the least alarming kind of spirit.

In a letter to another correspondent, Lewis describes the same stay at the isolated Irish lodging. “I have been really in quiet and almost unearthly spots in my native Ireland. I stayed for a fortnight in a bungalow which none of the peasants will approach at night because the desolate coast on which it stands is haunted by ‘the Good People.’ There is also a ghost but (and this is interesting) they don’t seem to mind him: the faerie are a more serious danger.”

The Anthroposophist Connection

Anthroposophy is a religious philosophy created by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). It is diametrically opposed to Christian revelation, and was the cause of one of C.S. Lewis’ greatest disappointments. Tragically, his dear friend and fellow Inkling, Owen Barfield, subscribed to Steiner’s doctrines. C.S. Lewis’ “Great War” with Owen Barfield describes a five year period when the two young scholars argued about the religion. Unfortunately, this was prior to Lewis’ own conversion, so he did not bring a Christian faith to the battle.

Steiner’s religion is complex and confusing. There are, in his view, a plurality of gods. And the god to whom he refers as humanity’s Creator is not the God of Genesis. Steiner argues we have lost sight of the true knowledge or gnosis.

During this [contemporary] era, people no longer see Christ as the being who came down from the stars, because they do not understand the stars themselves as an expression of the spirit as it weaves in the cosmos. For humanity today, there is no God or Christ in the cosmos. (The Three Eras of Human Religious Education)

Naturally, since Barfield was such a good friend of Lewis, there is much that is commendable in him . . . despite his esoteric beliefs. Lewis, after all, entrusted Barfield to be the executor of his estate. Despite their differing theologies, Lewis wrote nakedly about his deep sorrow in the wake of the death of their fellow Inkling, Charles Williams.  

My dear Barfield Thanks for writing. It has been a very odd experience. This, the first really severe loss I have suffered, has (a) Given corroboration to my belief in immortality such as I never dreamed of. It is almost tangible now. (b) Swept away all my old feelings of mere horror and disgust at funerals, coffins, graves etc.

If need had been I think I could have handled that corpse with hardly any unpleasant sensations. (c) Greatly reduced my feeling about ghosts. I think (but who knows?) that I should be, tho afraid, more pleased than afraid, if his turned up. In fact, all very curious. Great pain but no mere depression.

In this letter C.S. Lewis is speaking wistfully about the ghost of a friend. He is well aware of the fact that—despite the British fascination with spiritualism—that is not how the afterlife works. Those who die “in Christ” join him in Paradise, just as he promised the believing thief who perished beside him.

Ghosts do not wander around the earth. Those are different types of spirits, to be discussed another day. By contrast here are some Steinerian thoughts on the subject.

When human beings cling too strongly to earthly things it may be difficult for them to find their bearings in the sphere of the Moon Beings [which] may cause human beings who have to pass after death into the Moon sphere—the soul-world—but are unable to understand the Moon Beings, to be trapped . . . and they can actually be seen . . . wandering about as ghosts, as spectral shades. (Steiner, Karmic Relationships)

The accumulation in the etheric body caused through these [wicked] experiences of the soul . . . brings about detachments from the beings working in the spiritual worlds and these likewise are now to be found in our environment—they are the “specters” or “ghosts.” (Steiner, Nature Spirits)

Ghosts, as they are generally called, are spirits which have acquired a sensory-physical character (or have become tangible) through the human organisation, whereas impulses, instincts, desires and passions are modern spectres pointing towards the future, spectres which have not yet been raised to spirituality. (The Contrasting World-Conceptions of East and West)

But enough of quotations that foster more confusion than understanding. Let’s look at a letter C.S. Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1920. In it Lewis describes a visit with Leo Kingsley Baker (1898-1986). Like Lewis, Baker was a young veteran of the First World War. Both served in France, Lewis in the trenches and Baker as a pilot in the RAF. Baker also happened to be an Anthroposophist, and it was in fact Baker who introduced C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield.

I was in [Leo] Baker’s rooms with [Rodney] Pasley last night: Pasley departed early and the conversation between us two fell on shadowy subjects–ghosts and spirits and Gods. You may or may not disbelieve what followed.

Baker began to tell me about himself: how he had seen things ever since he was a child, and had played about with hypnotism and automatic writing: how he had finally given it all up, till now “things” were coming back of their own accord. “At one time” he said “I was afraid to look round the room for fear of what I might see.”

He also stated confidently that anyone could compel a ghost to appear, that there were definite ways of doing it: though of course the thing you “fished up” might not be what you wanted—indeed quite the contrary.

The greater part of his views I will reserve for our next meeting: what I wanted to tell you was the effect on me. I got, as it were, dazed and drunk in all he said: then I noticed his eyes: presently I could hardly see anything else: and everything he said was real—incredibly real.

When I came away, I moved my eyes off his, with a jerk, so to speak, and suddenly found that I had a splitting headache and was tired and nervous and pulled to pieces. I fancy I was a bit hypnotised. At any rate I had such a fit of superstitious terror as I have never known since childhood and have consequently conceived, for the present, a violent distaste for mysteries and all that kind of business. Perhaps he is a bit mad.

It comes as little surprise that an encounter such as this would leave one with a serious headache. Likewise, further consideration of these arcane matters here at Mere Inkling would likely promote similar cranial vexation. Suffice it to say, as we close, that we who trust in Christ need not fear any spirit or demon we might encounter, because “greater is he who is in [us] than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).

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.

Saved by a Misspelling

September 9, 2019 — 7 Comments

Recently I came across a sad record from the American Civil War. It described a too-common occasion during the later years of the war—the execution of Union deserters. Yet this story was unique. One of the three men sentenced to death, was spared. And this wonder occurred because of a simple misspelling.

As we know, most misspellings are inconsequential, while others are significant, such as making a mistake with the Lord’s name.

On New Year’s Day in 1960 The Times Educational Supplement published a letter from C.S. Lewis on the subject of spelling.

Nearly everything I have ever read about spelling reform assumes from the outset that it is necessary for us all to spell alike. Why? We got on for centuries without an agreed common orthography. Most men of my age remember censoring the letters of soldiers and know that even the wildest idiosyncrasies of spelling hardly ever made them unintelligible

In the case of the Civil War deserter, the misspelled name was not significant. Everyone in the regiment knew the three guilty parties. After their initial arrests, the men had escaped from confinement, and then been recaptured. Not once, but twice.

According to the regimental history of the Sixth Connecticut Infantry, the circumstances followed a common pattern.

Volunteering having partially subsided in the State, and as the government was in need of more troops, drafting commenced in other States as well as in Connecticut. The Sixth received about 200 men in October; some were conscripts and others drafted men, as but few volunteered for the service. Their advent was not hailed with much pleasure or satisfaction by the old regiment, as they claimed that “forced” men would not fight and could not be trusted in case of an emergency.

Some were vile roughs and were frequently in the guard house; while others manifested a disposition to do their duty, and did make very good soldiers. Three of the substitutes deserted from the regiment while on picket . . . (The Old Sixth Regiment by Charles K. Cadwell)

The three deserters shared a common background, and were destined for a common fate.

[Following their first escape] they were tried for desertion before a court martial . . . found guilty and sentenced to be shot to death by musketry. They were then chained hand and foot to a post inside of the provost quarters; and, notwithstanding these precautions, together with a strong guard, they succeeded in getting away again.

They took a boat near the pier and made off; but while in Warsaw Sound near the shore, their boat grounded and they were captured by a picket boat from the gunboat Patapsco. They were very bold, ingenious men, and their skill and perseverance might have won them honor if rightly applied. The culprits were Germans by birth: privates Henry Schumaker, of Co. C, Henry Stark, of Co. E, and Gustav Hoofan, of Co. B. (The Old Sixth)

The execution was conducted in the traditional, solemn manner of the era. However, one of the condemned soldiers would survive another day.

[Two of] the prisoners were taken from their cells at about two o-clock, placed in army wagons and seated on the coffins in which they were to be buried. . . . The funeral escort, consisting of a corporal and eight men, marched to funeral music, with arms reversed.

Slowly the procession proceeded to the appointed place; the square was formed on three sides, and the victims were driven around once that all might see them and avoid their fate. They maintained a calm demeanor to all, except as they passed our regiment they took off their caps several times to their old comrades. On reaching the end of the square they were assisted to alight from the wagons, the coffins were placed on the ground, the culprits sitting down upon them while the Provost Marshal read the charges, findings and sentence.

After a short prayer by the priest they were blindfolded and their hands tied behind them and made to kneel upon their coffins, facing the center of the square. The firing party came up and were halted at six paces distant, when, at a signal from Capt. Babcock, they fired and the victims fell upon their coffins. . . . They lay just as they had fallen till the whole command marched past them on the way to camp, when they were put into the coffins and buried. (The Old Sixth)

Only two of the three deserters had perished in the fusillade that riddled their bodies. Gustav Hoofan survived. Alternative spellings in Civil War records were common. In the rosters as maintained by the National Park Service, Hoofan’s name was also spelled Hoffan and Hofen. The unfamiliarity of Hoofan’s name—combined with the mercy of a commander—were his salvation.

In the case of the [the third deserter] an error was discovered in writing his name, the name Hoofan having been written Hoffman by the Judge Advocate. Col. Duryee wishing to be merciful to the full extent consistent with duty, availed himself of this technical error and protested against his execution. This protest was allowed, and he was saved from death and ordered to return to duty with his regiment. The man was more than pleased at this announcement, but the Judge Advocate, a lieutenant of the Eighty-fifth Pennsylvania regiment, was severely censured in general orders for his inexcusable carelessness and fatal error. (The Old Sixth)

I was unable to ascertain what eventually became of Private Hoofan. Apparently he completed the rest of this service commitment and returned to civilian life with a profound sense of gratitude.

C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts on Spelling

I shared above the beginning of Lewis’ letter to The Times Educational Supplement. The remainder of it is well worth reading. It is clear that he regarded the communication of information (i.e. the actual function of writing) to be far more important than the execution of arbitrary rules.

Printing houses will always have, as they have now, their own rules, whether authors like them or not. Scholars, who know the ancestry of the words they use, will generally spell them accordingly. A few hard words will still have to be learned by everyone. But for the rest, who would be a penny the worse if though and tho, existence and existance, sieze, seize and seeze were all equally tolerated?

If our spelling were either genuinely phonetic or genuinely etymological, or if any reform that made it either the one or the other were worth the trouble, it would be another matter.

As things are, surely Liberty is the simple and inexpensive ‘Reform’ we need? This would save children and teachers thousands of hours’ work. It would also force those to whom applications for jobs are made to exercise their critical faculties on the logic and vocabulary of the candidate instead of tossing his letter aside with the words “can’t even spell.”

It’s so refreshing to see that even a renowned scholar can exercise such common sense.

We live in what some consider a scary age. Even if you avoid all the dystopian books and films, real life provides more than enough worries. Thank God that C.S. Lewis offers wise counsel to help us cope with our fears without despairing.

The Department of Defense just released its 2019 report from the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force. The 2018 Report, which lays the foundation for the latest electromagnetic pulse (EMP) study, is also available.

These reports make fascinating, though sobering, reading. Their warnings are applicable not only to the United States, but to everyone depending on modern conveniences such as electricity. The EMP threat comes, after all, not only from nuclear attacks, but also from coronal mass ejections which are spawned regularly by the sun. (NASA agrees with the potential dangers.)

As the report says, “The potentially catastrophic effects of these types of natural or man-made EMP events are not science fiction but science fact and have been well studied and documented for nearly six decades.”

Warning people about the dangers—and preparations that can easily be made in advance to survive them—is the mandate of the Task Force. I imagine one of their educational recommendations they suggest might come to resemble the “Duck and Cover” training provided to students in the 1950s and 1960s.

How Bad Could It Be?

Pretty terrible, if the worst circumstances align. The reports support the findings of a previous Congressional study that “an EMP-induced blackout could cause a long-term nationwide grid collapse and the loss of up to 90 percent of the population through starvation, disease, and societal collapse.”

Ninety percent. This would be nothing less than apocalyptic. Yet, even in such a scenario, we would not need to surrender to hopelessness. I’ve discussed this in the past.

Most of the fatalities would result from starvation, since food production would drop dramatically, and there would be no fuel available to move it to markets. The even more ominous threat would come from our fellow citizens. Describing this, one contributor to the report cites three certain factors that are not currently considered in any official plans: human desperation, starvation, and “living without the rule of law” which has its own acronym, WROL.

C.S. Lewis’ Response

The danger of EMPs was little known during Lewis’ life. Nonetheless, he did write about the possibilities for global disaster created by the existence of hydrogen bombs. And Lewis’ response was the Christian one—do not despair, since these threats change almost nothing. Even without them, we humans are mortal. Likewise, barring the creation of a new heaven (which is coming), even the expanding universe we inhabit is destined to fade away.

Our ultimate hope comes not from the material creation, which itself shares the scars of humanity’s fall. We are not simply physical beings. Created in the image of God, you and I possess a spiritual nature. And God will deliver us from this final dissolution.

Lewis describes this dilemma extremely well in his essay “On Living in an Atomic Age.” And this video helps to illustrate Lewis’ words.

As Lewis says,

If we are all going to be destroyed by [an event such as an EMP], let that [event] when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep” dwelling on our vulnerability. Such terrible events “may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.” (On Living in an Atomic Age)

Preparing for Disasters

When we lived in the Midwest, where winter storms could readily strand motorists for a day or more, we carried a “survival kit.” It was a wise precaution, though by the grace of God we never needed to use it.

Off the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada, lies a mounting danger. The Cascadia Subduction Zone generates earthquakes and mega-tsunamis every 500 years or so . . . Today tsunami escape routes have become a normal component of disaster preparedness for those living on the Washington and Oregon coasts.

Each individual and family must determine their own course when it comes to disaster preparation. If my family had settled in Texas where two tornadoes passed near our home while we lived there, I would not have relied on taking shelter in a hallway beneath an antique table. I would have prepared for the potential threat by having a home built with a basement designed to serve as a tornado shelter.

The problem isn’t that people take precautions that often prove unnecessary—at worst they have expended money that purchased only peace of mind. The problem is that some people become consumed by the prospect of a national or global disaster. Their fear can grow to the point where it is all they can think about and the rest of their life often ends up in ruins.

It is to people in this group—those we might call extreme doomsday preppers—that C.S. Lewis speaks most intentionally. He offers sound advice that can help restore balance to the lives of those who have been crippled by fear.

It will be very interesting to see how the recommendations of the Electromagnetic Defense Task Force are implemented. Particularly their challenge to actively educate the public. Hopefully whatever program arises will be reasonable and constructive, and avoid excessive drama. But, living in our increasingly hyperbolic world, I’m not confident that will be true. Prepare to hear more about this subject in the years ahead.


The image above was captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and the “Sun-flanking STERO-B spacecraft” in 2012.

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.

CSL China

If C.S. Lewis had desired to teach English in China he would probably have succeeded. However, due to some rather peculiar requirements, he may not have passed muster.

In that Asian nation, you need four years of college to become a teacher. At 山西师范大学 (Shaanxi Normal University) they include another odd requirement. Shaanxi has a minimal height standard. Men must be at least 5-foot-1 and women must be no shorter than 4-foot-7.

C.S. Lewis would have passed this mandate; he was just shy of 5-foot-11. But who knows what other arbitrary dictates may have barred him from sharing his brilliant mind.

The university’s policy came to international attention when the plight of a young student who completed her studies only to be informed that she was four inches too short to receive her diploma. As the BBC reports, there is a waiver for those who wish to teach the very young.

Those wanting to teach at nursery are able to apply for special accreditation if they are five centimetres shorter.

The school’s, albeit flimsy, rationale is that teachers may need to reach high on blackboards when they are teaching their students. (So much for using modern technology to compensate.)*

It would be bad enough if they failed to admit such candidates to their program, but obviously some are not informed of the standard until they have completed their university studies. One can hardly imagine how that unfortunate graduate felt.

C.S. Lewis spent his academic life at Oxford and Cambridge. Although he lectured in a variety of venues, no international university was blessed to have him serve as a visiting scholar.

Fortunately, however, his words reached far beyond the campuses of Oxbridge. And, even though Lewis never taught in China (or in Chinese), his words are available today via translation. At Wheaton College, the Marion E. Wade Center preserves a great deal of information about the Inklings, including some original material.

The Wade’s translation collection has a diverse amount of languages represented, even if only by one book. The languages at the Wade include: Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech,  Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, Estonian, Faroese, Finnish, French, Gaelic, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Welsh.

A Two-Way Street

Those of us who have taught realize better than others that teachers often learn as much from their students as they offer to them. Preparing to teach demands that we study to know the subject matter as intimately as we can, so we might convey it effectively to others.

Although he was a brilliant teacher, C.S. Lewis was also a diligent lifelong learner.

Lewis held great respect for Chinese civilization. He was interested in the Chinese philosophical concept of the Tao. I’ve written about his thoughts on this subject before.

Lewis viewed the Tao as being similar to what Christian theologians traditionally refer to as Natural Law.

The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments.

If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world.

What purport to be new systems or . . . ideologies . . . all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. (The Abolition of Man)

Lewis was an advocate of what some refer to as Classical Education. It involves loftier goals than simply communicating data. In his essay “Our English Syllabus,” Lewis “propagated education’s end, rather than as the filling of students’ heads with information or their muscles with habits, as the inculcation of virtue.”

Lewis treasured the essence of knowledge rather than its trappings. He was patient with those genuinely hungry for knowledge. But you could also readily apply to him the maxim that he did not suffer fools gladly.

It does not take a genius to discern what C.S. Lewis would have thought about this Chinese height requirement. To prevent a motivated and capable educator from pursuing her vocation simply because she may lack the reach of someone taller, does not pass the test of common sense.


* “The first interactive whiteboard was released in 1991,” and I assume The People’s Republic “magically” secured that very technology no later than 1992.

 

arthur.png

This book belongs in the library of every fan of the Inklings and each devotee of King Arthur. The truth is that anyone interested in British literature or the Dark Ages will find much that appeals to their curiosity. King Arthur is known around the world as an archetypal hero, and he was a central fixture in the minds of the Inklings.

The Inklings & King Arthur (TIKA) is impressive in every way. However, it’s 555 rich pages should not intimidate potential readers. Editor Sørina Higgins masterfully gathered diverse insights from a score of scholars, and the individual chapters can be approached in any manner the reader desires. Even if a few of the chapter titles fail to resonate with a particular reader, the solid value of the remainder far exceed the price of the work.

Mere Inkling seldom offers reviews of books, despite the “libraries” of new Inkling literature published every year. The Inklings & King Arthur is the exception, for two reasons.*

TIKA does not require a familiarity with its subject. The academic background of the contributors allows them to usher readers into rewarding discussions without additional research. C.S. Lewis described “the task of the modern educator [as] not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” The writers in this volume have written so clearly that even if your knowledge of King Arthur is the Mojave, and your familiarity with the Inklings is the Sahara, you will enjoy reading this book.

Truth be told, much has been written about King Arthur. Likewise, films have explored the myths, with varying degrees of faithfulness. Some make no effort at all to be faithful to the inspiring story. An extreme example would be the ludicrous storyline of the 2017 film, Transformers: The Last Knight. In striking contrast to this, the Inklings sought to penetrate the mists of time and discern the reasons Arthur’s story has inspired men and women for so many generations.

In the book’s introduction, Higgins says her hope was “to fill a sizeable hole in the field of Inkling studies” (2). She surely achieved this task. She also says “the present collection endeavors to usher the field of Inklings studies into more rigorous theoretical territory” (3). This goal, the contributors have surpassed.

Proceeding to some specific comments, my first would be to point out the accuracy of the volume’s title. It is an exploration of “the Inklings,” rather than simply Lewis and/or Tolkien. The fact that less well-known members of the literary group wrote the most Arthuriana means their works are particularly well represented in the current collection.

This fact might discourage a potential reader who is disinterested in the lesser known authors. However, the truth is, exposure to work of these friends and influencers of the two über-Inklings helps us better understand them and the confluences that flowed together in that unique literary fellowship.

Most articles consider the Inklings as group in relationship to a theme. For example, Christopher Gaertner discusses, “Shape and Direction: Human Consciousness in the Inklings’ Mythological Geographies.” The author identifies their differing viewpoints and how they influenced one another. Despite “their shared resistance to a scientistic worldview” (150), Tolkien, Lewis and Owen Barfield did not share identical understandings of how the world should be perceived.

Beyond the Eagle & Child

One pleasant surprise is the inclusion of an essay on G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man contributed to the conversion of C.S. Lewis.

In his TIKA essay “All Men Live by Tales,” J. Cameron Moore reveals how Chesterton’s poetry about Arthur is rooted in England. Arthur was important enough for Chesterton to return several times to the story of this hero who is “Mythic, Roman, and Christian (205). You can download a free copy of The Ballad of St. Barbara which includes “The Myth of Arthur” here. You can read “The Grave of Arthur” at this site.

Benjamin Shogren explores the significance of the addition of two new names—Pendragon and Fisher-king” to the protagonist of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy. Elwin Ransom “represents Arthur by . . . evoking the primary imagery associated with the role of Arthur” (399). Ransom is now imbued with a mythological aura of royal leadership and courageous chivalry.

This volume overflows with richness. In “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien describes the dense blend of mythologies present in the story of Arthur, using the image of a pot of soup with various ingredients added over time.

It seems fairly plain that Arthur, once historical (but perhaps as such not of great importance), was also put into the Pot. There he was boiled for a long time, together with many other older figures and devices, of mythology and Faerie, and even some other stray bones of history (such as Alfred’s defence against the Danes), until he emerged as a King of Faerie.

The situation is similar in the great Northern “Arthurian” court of the Shield-Kings of Denmark, the Scyldingas of ancient English tradition. King Hrothgar and his family have many manifest marks of true history, far more than Arthur; yet even in the older (English) accounts of them they are associated with many figures and events of fairy-story: they have been in the Pot.

The soup or stew pot may also serve as a fitting metaphor for The Inklings & King Arthur. This exceptional volume offers a potent mix of wisdom and insights that go beyond the boundaries of its title. Readers will be rewarded, in fact, with many satisfying literary meals.


* The first reason is that the academic weight of the work merits the undertaking. The second is because I have received a review copy, which obligates me in a sense, to providing a review—not a positive review, of course, but an honest assessment of its value, from my personal perspective.

Honest reviewers, of course, are mandated to acknowledge the fact that they received a particular volume gratis. This is done to protect one’s integrity. At the same time, a writer’s honor is also protected by their pledge to provide an honest evaluation of each work, for good or ill. This is what you will discover here.

The volume’s editor, Sørina Higgins, gathered an impressive group of Inkling scholars to contribute. She is a poet who is Chair of Language and Literature at Signum University.

It would be challenging to find any flaw in this amazing volume. Its sole weakness, in this reviewer’s opinion, is that it is so detailed and thorough, that it transcends the reading skills (or perhaps, “tastes”) of some of today’s readers. Despite that, the authors have gone to significant effort to write clearly and make their extremely detailed subject matter accessible to all.