Archives For Literature

C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner never met, yet they are “friends” because they share so many similarities as authors writing from a Christian perspective. In terms of Buechner’s themes and range of his writings, this award winning American author and ordained Presbyterian minister may have as much in common with C.S. Lewis as his own British Inklings. So let me introduce Frederick Buechner and his writings.

Do you read primarily to relax and allow your imagination to soar? Or, do you normally select “useful” books, with the potential to be applicable to meeting the challenges of real life?

During my college years, I enjoyed scifi and fantasy. I still have a weak spot for alternative histories. But my seminary years had a subtle effect on my reading. With time always at a premium as a young pastor with a family, I had so many practical, pastoral books and journals to study, that I seldom had time for something so frivolous as “fiction.” Fortunately, semi-retirement has released me from that restrictive literary diet.

I’ve finally found some time to unpack a few of the boxes of books sitting in my garage. (The fact we moved them into the garage around 2010 would be embarrassing if it got out, so I ought not to mention it here.)

As one would expect, I’ve encountered many pleasant surprises. A number of books I had been missing have turned up, I’ve found some that are even more timely today than when they were stored, and—best of all in the minds of my adult children—I’ve been able to part with about two-thirds of the titles, and recently donated about 150 volumes to a local charity.

One of the titles I am currently reading is Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets. I had picked up a copy when it was highly recommended to me, only to discover it was a memoir. Being a “practical pastor” who always had too many utilitarian books to read, I set it aside . . . only to pick it up twenty years later.

And what a joyous surprise it has been. Buechner is in his nineties, and is widely respected. He has been a prolific writer, and has received numerous awards for his fictional works. Readers, particularly from the Reformed branch of Christianity have been especially fervent fans of the Presbyterian pastor and theologian. My friend, Brenton Dickieson is quite fond of Buechner and has written about him in A Pilgrim in Narnia on several occasions. He notes that Buechner quotes a number of the Inklings, including Tolkien, Williams and Lewis.

I vaguely recall the Lewis connection being one reason my fellow Air Force chaplain recommended Telling Secrets to me. But I had forgotten that the first section is entitled “The Dwarves in the Stable.” This is, of course, an allusion to an extremely momentous scene in The Final Battle, the final volume of the Chronicles of Narnia. It was originally published as an independent essay, as this entertaining post points out.

Buechner shares a dark family secret, the consequences of his father’s suicide in 1936. Listen to how movingly he describes the secret’s power:

His suicide was a secret we nonetheless tried to keep as best we could, and after a while my father himself became such a secret. There were times when he almost seemed a secret we were trying to keep from each other.

Buechner moves on to relate the suffering the family experienced during his daughter’s battle with anorexia. He shares few details, since “it is not mine to tell but hers.” Nevertheless, he describes setbacks in the struggle causing him to feel as though he “was in hell.”

I choose the term hell with some care. Hell is where there is no light but only darkness, and I was so caught up in my fear for her life, which had become in a way my life too, that none of the usual sources of light worked any more, and light was what I was starving for. . . .

I remained so locked inside myself that I was not really present with them at all. Toward the end of C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle there is a scene where a group of dwarves sit huddled together in a tight little knot thinking that they are in a pitch black, malodorous stable when the truth of it is that they are out in the midst of an endless grassy countryside as green as Vermont with the sun shining and blue sky overhead.

The huge golden lion, Aslan himself, stands nearby with all the other dwarves “kneeling in a circle around his forepaws” as Lewis writes, “and burying their hands and faces in his mane as he stooped his great head to touch them with his tongue.” When Aslan offers the dwarves food, they think it is offal.

When he offers them wine, they take it for ditch water. “Perfect love casteth out fear,” John writes (1 John 4:18), and the other side of that is that fear like mine casteth out love, even God’s love. The love I had for my daughter was lost in the anxiety I had for my daughter.

This is just a single example of the sensitive wisdom Buechner shares throughout this grace-filled work.

After I finish Telling Secrets, I look forward to reading two of Buechner’s novels already on my shelf, Godric and Brendan. They are both historical fiction, telling the stories of two sainted monks from the twelfth and sixth centuries respectively.

I encourage any of you unfamiliar with his writings to explore his work. If an autobiography can be this good, I’m eager to take a journey through what I have no doubt will be quite an adventure in his fiction.

Buechner possesses an additional connection to C.S. Lewis, which has the potential to last centuries. He describes his decision to offer his personal papers to Wheaton College, where they are available in the archives. The theologian describes his decision in this humble manner.

Wheaton College [has] a great collection there of the manuscripts and papers of people like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, George MacDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, and the like, and because I could think of no more distinguished company than theirs among whom to have my own literary remains molder, a year earlier I had offered them everything I had stowed away over the years in cardboard boxes and scrapbooks and manila folders; and to my delight they said that they would be delighted to have it.

If you would enjoy learning more about the relationship between Buechner and the Inklings, check out this fine article; “C.S. Lewis and Frederick Buechner: Literary Expression of Faith” is available for download. It’s quite enlightening.


Bonus Insight

The second chapter of Telling Secrets is entitled “The White Tower.” Many Inkling fans will jump to the conclusion (especially after reading this post) that it is a reference to the citadel of Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor. Like me, they would be incorrect.

Buechner is not alluding here to Tolkien’s masterpiece. On the contrary, he is referring to the central tower which was the old keep of the Tower of London. Ironically, that very keep, the White Tower, was built by a Norman monk who became the Bishop of Rochester. His name . . . Gundulf.

Buechner chose this metaphor for the human condition for the following reason.

I think here of the Tower of London. More particularly I think of that oldest part of it, known as the White Tower, which was built by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. On the second floor of it there is a small Norman chapel called the Chapel of Saint John. It is very bare and very simple. It is built all of stone with twelve stone pillars and a vaulted ceiling.

There is a cool, silvery light that comes in through the arched windows. . . . The chapel is very silent, very still. It is almost a thousand years old. You cannot enter it without being struck by the feeling of purity and peace it gives. If there is any such thing in the world, it is a holy place.

But that is not all there is in the White Tower. Directly below the chapel is the most terrible of all the tower’s dungeons. It has a heavy oak door that locks out all light and ventilation. It measures only four feet square by four feet high so that a prisoner has no way either to stand upright in it or to lie down at full length. There is almost no air to breathe in it, almost no room to move. It is known as the Little Ease.

I am the White Tower of course. To one degree or another all of us are.

Long words can be daunting. Even for native speakers. The illustration above comes from The Japan Times, and reveals how the challenge is magnified for others.

I love learning new words. And, since these treasures frequently drift out of my vocabulary because I fail to use them, I often have the joy of re-learning unique words.

Sesquipedalianism is actually a genuine word which can be validly applied in a variety of settings. After all, haven’t we all encountered a sesquipedalianist or two, who uses especially long, and occasionally obscure words?

How many syllables are required before a word grows too long? To a monosyllabic individual, two might be deemed excessive.

Seriously, it’s not the length of a word that matters, it’s the word’s familiarity. For example, “familiarity” has six syllables, and everyone reading Mere Inkling knows its meaning. (I resisted saying “is familiar with . . .”) On the other hand, “carbuncle” is only trisyllabic, and yet the only people likely to know its definition are either those in medical professions, or unfortunate individuals who have suffered from one.

But it’s not only unfamiliarity that causes confusion; misunderstanding can result from a lack of context. Let’s take “trisyllabic,” a word even an active reader seldom encounters. As used in the paragraph above, the context (along with the prefix and root), provide us with more information than a person needs to recognize its meaning.

In a famous letter from 1956, C.S. Lewis included the following advice:

Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Great advice, just as one would expect. However, this does not constitute a blanket rejection of “big words.” Lewis is simply reminding us that our prose must not be more complicated than it needs to be. Thus, the title of this column uses a precise word – rather than saying “Please Forgive My Practice of Using Long and Sometimes Obscure Words” – since Mere Inkling readers are quite capable of uncovering a definition if a particular word is unfamiliar.

Plus, as I hinted above, many of us enjoy expanding our vocabularies.

In the aforementioned correspondence, Lewis offered additional useful advice. Another dictum is: “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”

Here too the great writer is astute. However, this caution is not actually about the length of words. Lewis’ desire for clarity in communication leads him to reject “vague” words, which coincidentally happen to be longer than those he refers to as “direct.”

Using longer words than necessary is not, of course, always a good thing. While it comprises neuron-stretching play for word lovers, it can easily be misperceived by others as “showing off.” (Note: I’m not defending those cases in which the writer or speaker really are attempting to impress others with their verbal dexterity.*)

You can easily find collections of the longest words in English. While some cheat, including “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” others are more scrupulous. Despite doing just that, I like the list at grammarly because of their definition of one of the words they include.

Floccinaucinihilipilification
The estimation of something as valueless. Ironically, floccinaucinihilipilification is a pretty valueless word itself; it’s almost never used except as an example of a long word.

I’m not currently planning on adding floccinaucinihilipilification to my personal vocabulary, but don’t let me dissuade you from doing so.

Learning new words often reaps extrinsic benefits. As a historian who enjoys learning about the Latin language, I found the following definition, and illustration, from the Cambridge dictionary quite interesting.

The act of considering something to be not at all important or useful – used mainly as an example of a very long word:

The honor of being the longest non-technical word goes to floccinaucinihilipilification.

The word . . . is “an 18th-century coinage that combines four Latin prefixes meaning ‘nothing.’”

Oh, and one final suggestion. When visiting the Cambridge site, in the likelihood you’ll someday wish to use this word in conversation, take a moment to make certain you learn to pronounce in the U.K. or American manner, as appropriate for your location.


* I am not here referring to the Irish bred Bay Colt for some curious reason named “Verbal Dexterity.”

And just what will those heavenly bodies be like..? And what about those angels..?

Among the many things that Christians look forward to, as an unearned gift from God, is a new body. This resurrected body will not be like our old (i.e. former) body… but it will be similar to the bodies of our first parents, Eve and Adam. So, in a sense, one might say it’s a bit like that old, old (i.e. original) body.

Sadly, there’s a lot of unnecessary confusion about what awaits us after death. While the Lord doesn’t give us all the details (which we wouldn’t be able to comprehend right now anyway), he does make the big picture clear. Here are some facts (based on the Scriptures as interpreted for 2,000 years within the orthodox Christian faith).

1.  You can’t do enough good works to deserve to enter heaven. It’s all about God’s mercy and grace.

If you think you can be good enough to get there on your own . . . sorry. If you therefore don’t think it matters at all how you live… you will end up just as sorry.

2. In heaven, God’s redeemed will not be incorporeal spirits. We’ll have bodies, just as our Maker intended from the day he breathed life into Adam’s lungs. Christians affirm belief in the “resurrection of the body.”

As to the nature of the bodies, God doesn’t leave us ignorant. One of the best New Testament descriptions is found in First Corinthians.

Even the Old Testament prophet Job proclaimed the wonders of a bodily resurrection when, in his own flesh, he would see the Lord.

God’s written word includes more about our resurrection bodies. One, from the letter to the Christians in Philippi, says, “the Lord Jesus Christ . . . will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” This verse, like the stained glass image above, inspires me to wonder what that body will be like. Like Jesus’ own resurrection body, we learn.

Perhaps also like humanity’s unfallen human bodies portrayed here in colored glass. If the artist’s vision is accurate, I’m eager to welcome back the hair that once adorned my head, and to enjoy those stunningly defined abs, that I unfortunately never possessed.

Writing to his friend Arthur Greeves, Lewis clarified the biblical definition of resurrection.

I agree that we don’t know what a spiritual body is. But I don’t like contrasting it with (your words) “an actual, physical body.” This suggests that the spiritual body wd. be the opposite of “actual” – i.e. some kind of vision or imagination. And I do think most people imagine it as something that looks like the present body and isn’t really there.

Our Lord’s eating the boiled fish seems to put the boots on that idea, don’t you think? I suspect the distinction is the other way round—that it is something compared with which our present bodies are half real and phantasmal. (19 August 1947)

3. Human beings never become angels. One of most common mistakes about heaven is that people (“good” ones, at least) become angels after they die. They don’t. Period. Angels are angels and people are people – two separate beings, each with their own nature. Angels are majestic, most certainly, but they were not blessed like humanity to be created in the very image of God.

And never forget, not all angels are good. Those fallen ones, in fact, no longer merit their identification as angels. Better to label them as what they’ve become, demons.

As for people being intrinsically distinct from angels, C.S. Lewis wrote a poem that contrasts angelic and human personhood.

On Being Human by C. S. Lewis

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

The Tree-ness of the tree they know – the meaning of
Arboreal life, how from earth’s salty lap
The solar beam uplifts it; all the holiness
Enacted by leaves’ fall and rising sap;

But never an angel knows the knife-edged severance
Of sun from shadow where the trees begin,
The blessed cool at every pore caressing us
– An angel has no skin.

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

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

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

Heaven will be wondrous. Not only will we get to worship the One who created and redeemed us, there is so much more we have to look forward to. Enjoying a new, unflawed body . . . hobnobbing with angels who sang to celebrate Christ’s Nativity . . . and waiting in line to enjoy a beverage with C.S. Lewis.


The picture above is of a stained glass window in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Children in Châteauneuf-sur-Cher, France. Olive Titus, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you were to embark on a university education today, which sort of campus would you prefer?

(1) A university featuring “vaulted ceilings that draw the eye upwards and outwards . . . the frivolous artistic detail that announces the importance of the unimportant [or] the interplay of light and shade that marks the great Gothic masterpieces, the brilliant proportions of the best classical buildings, and the elaborate grandeur of the Baroque.”

(2) A modern campus comprised of “buildings entirely lacking in charm, grace, or playfulness [featuring] the boxy utilitarian grimness of official educational architecture.”

A second question clearly betrays my own preference. Which academic setting do you imagine C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings would most esteem? Tolkien, after all, was not complaining in a letter to his future bride when he wrote “I have got to go to the college library now and get filthy amongst dusty books . . .”

The quotations included in the choices above come from a thought-provoking essay just posted on the website of First Things. The British writer, Niall Gooch, melds wit and genuine insight as he offers an answer to the question “Why are Universities So Ugly?” I highly commend it to you.

Libraries are of particular interest to many of us who treasure the Inkling ethos. And the article includes a delightful discussion of the treasure houses “now called ‘Information Centers’ or ‘Knowledge Hubs.’”

Books increasingly appear to be an afterthought, squeezed into the small spaces not occupied by banks of computers or the glass rooms designated as group work areas. Quiet has been banished to special Silent Study rooms, where those dangerous oddballs who wish to sit still by themselves and concentrate on one thing for a long period can be safely segregated from the normal people.

Inkling Libraries at Cambridge and Oxford

In 1959, C.S. Lewis wrote to T.S. Eliot. Both men served on the Commission to Revise the Psalter. Lewis mentions that he will be hosting an upcoming meeting of the Commission at Cambridge, and that he had secured one of the libraries for their use.

I can’t find the name and address of the secretary of our Commission on the Psalms. As you are in London could you kindly let her know that I have rescued the use of the inner library at Magdalene for our July session? It would be convenient if she told me – for the benefit of the servants – what our daily hours of sitting are likely to be. I also look forward to it.

Although Magdalene College has a distinguished history, it too has joined the revolution offering more contemporary Information Centers. They proudly declare “The New Library is . . . a purpose-built space in College for Magdalene students to meet, work, relax and find inspiration.”

As for the “Inner Library,” to which Lewis referred, I believe it to be what is presently called “The Old Library.” It fittingly includes among its special collections, “the books and manuscripts of T.S. Eliot (Honorary Fellow).”

A revealing history of “The Architectural Evolution of Libraries” begins with the question: “Can you have a civilized society without a library?”

In this article, we trace the typology of the library through history, highlighting twelve of the most important libraries in the world, from Ancient Alexandria to Raleigh, North Carolina, where robots retrieve books from storage.

A fitting close to our consideration of libraries comes from a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1966. The English Faculty of Oxford University had commissioned a bust of Tolkien – to be sculpted by his daughter-in-law. It presently resides in the English Faculty Library, which undoubtedly displays the elegant architecture of the classical university.

I feel much honoured, and so also does my daughter-in-law (the sculptress), by the Faculty’s wish to place the bust of me in the English Library in some prominent position – if on second thoughts you do not think a storied urn would be better. I shall be most pleased to present it to the Faculty.

It occurs to me that the plaster bust is rather fragile and very easily damaged. I suggest, therefore, that I should have it cast in bronze for presentation (at my own cost). I have already referred the matter to the sculptress who knows how these things are done.

Once in bronze it would then be unaffected by any dignities or indignities offered to it. I often used to hang my hat on the Tsar of Russia’s bust, which he graciously presented to Merton.


The illustration accompanying today’s post is the bust of Tolkien referred to in his correspondence. (In light of this column’s discussion, one can hardly ignore the rather utilitarian architecture revealed through the window behind the celebrated author.)

C.S. Lewis & Rigmarole

November 16, 2022 — 9 Comments

I hope my confusion is not due to a decline in my mental faculties. But it seems to me politicians are becoming even more incoherent than they’ve always been.

Is it me? Or, are you also amazed at how some of them appear to be babbling half the time?

C.S. Lewis was a master of communication. And some of his observations about how poorly some people communicate can be insightful.

Listen to this verse from a poem entitled “The Prudent Jailer” which he wrote in 1947. (It deserves to be read out loud.)

Some walls cannot a prison make
Half so secure as rigmarole.*

Lewis wasn’t referring to political jargon when he wrote this poem, but it seems quite apropos in a number of contexts.

For example, consider a recent article from the American Institute for Economic Research. Jon Sanders applies Lewis’ poem to foreboding aspects the government’s response to the pandemic.

The poem originated not in political allegory, but as a critique of unimaginative literary criticism. Notwithstanding, the Jailer is a diabolical figure, and his prudence is this: he imprisons with words, not walls. . . .

The Jailer has them imprisoned by their own thoughts, while he keeps them focused ever on the presumption of a prison. He doesn’t want them thinking of anything else.

This post isn’t about politics. I detest the subject as a whole, and find it particularly corrosive to conversation as elections draw near.

The verse I cited above simply evoked for me the power of words to distort and, yes, imprison. Lewis’ use of rigmarole⁑ (a word sadly out of vogue) highlights the fact that the crippling words themselves are often nonsensical.

Other colorful synonyms that we might hear in the company of our seniors could include balderdash, poppycock, or perhaps even malarkey.

In a 1940 letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, Lewis applies “balderdash” to describe art and literature done “for their own sake.”

I do most thoroughly agree with what you say about Art and Literature. To my mind they are only healthy when they are either (a) Definitely the handmaids of religious, or at least moral, truth – or (b) Admittedly aiming at nothing but innocent recreation or entertainment. . . .

But the great serious irreligious art – art for art’s sake – is all balderdash; and, incidentally, never exists when art is really flourishing.

Fortunately, such words rarely become completely obsolete.

A noteworthy mythopoeic⁂ scholar, Brenton Dickieson, used “balderdash” quite skillfully not that long ago.

“The Prudent Jailer” was originally published in 1947 under the mundane title, “The Romantics.”

Since you’ve read this column to its conclusion, allow me to reward your diligence by presenting the poem in its entirety.

The Prudent Jailer

Always the old nostalgia? Yes.
We still remember times before
We had learned to wear the prison dress
Or steel rings rubbed our ankles sore.

Escapists? Yes. Looking at bars
And chains, we think of files; and then
Of black nights without moon or stars
And luck befriending hunted men.

Still when we hear the trains at night
We envy the free travelers, whirled
In how few moments past the sight
Of the blind wall that bounds our world.

Our Jailer (well may he) prefers
Our thoughts should keep a narrower range.
‘The proper study of prisoners
is prison,’ he tells us. Is it strange?

And if old freedom in our glance
Betrays itself, he calls it names
‘Dope’-‘Wishful thinking’-or ‘Romance,’
Till tireless propaganda tames.

All but the strong whose hearts they break,
All but the few whose faith is whole.
Some walls cannot a prison make
Half so secure as rigmarole.


* Thank you to Jon whose comment below pointed out the connection between Lewis’ allusion to the very famous poem “To Althea, from Prison,” written by Richard Lovelace in 1642. “Stone walls doe not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage…”

⁑ Some people in the States will be more familiar with the variant “rigamarole.”

⁂ Mythopoeia is a modern literary genre in which the author creates a fictional mythology. The finest example of such writing comes from the pen of J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of Middle Earth.

C.S. Lewis & Roald Dahl

August 17, 2022 — 6 Comments

Do C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Roald Dahl (1916-1990) have anything in common, besides authoring books enjoyed by children?

Looking back, I must have been deprived of opportunities to read common children’s books. I recall my mom having many of Dr. Seuss’ classics, but don’t remember more advanced works such as those of Beatrix Potter or E.B. White.

I suppose that is why Roald Dahl’s name means little to me. By the time I was aware of his popular works, I was too old to appreciate them. Added to that was my intense dislike for the cinematic presentation of his Chocolate Factory, which has permanently (and probably unfairly) soured my impression of the poor man.

In Matilda, published in 1988, Dahl offers a rather curious homage to the Inklings. The young protagonist offers to her teacher the following observations.

“I like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Matilda said. “I think Mr. C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.”

“You are right there,” Miss Honey said.

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien either,” Matilda said.

If you are intrigued by this brief interchange, you would probably enjoy reading “Disagreeing with Matilda on Lewis and Tolkien.”

Curiously, a number of people have offered their evaluations of Lewis and Dahl, vis-à-vis one another. Author Grudge Match: Roald Dahl vs. C.S. Lewis invited diverse contributions to the debate eight years ago on LibraryThing.

A Christian blogger offers a faith-based appraisal on an entertaining website called “Like but better.” It’s entitled “How C.S Lewis is like Roald Dahl, but better (and Aslan is like Willy Wonka, but better).”

C.S Lewis is serious about what Dahl jokes about; even as both want us to pursue a childlike wonder and joy. For Lewis these enchanted stories and our sense of wonder are small stories reflecting on the big story — the ‘myth that became history’ — the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A BBC Culture article is quite critical of Dahl, despite his popularity. The introduction to “The Dark Side of Roald Dahl” aptly describes the essay.

Roald Dahl was an unpleasant man who wrote macabre books – and yet children around the world adore them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, writes Hephzibah Anderson.

An article by a Jewish journalist refers to both of the authors discussed here. It describes his bitter introduction to the major flaws of an author whose work he enjoyed as a child. “Why I Hope My Kids Never Read Roald Dahl” is, for me, most valuable for the way in which the journalist regards the faith which underlies the tales of Narnia.

As a nerdy Jewish kid in Indiana and Tennessee in the late 1970s and 1980s, I had far better relationships with books than I did with other kids. If I liked a book, I read it again, and again and again.

And so it was with Roald Dahls “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl’s protagonists Charlie and later James (of the “Giant Peach”) both provided early models for how to find a better way through a hostile world where I always felt like an outsider.

Given that personal history, the announcement that Netflix has acquired Dahl’s entire catalog and plans a robust lineup of multimedia adaptations ought to feel like good news. . . .

Seeing his work still celebrated fills me with sadness, leaving me caught between attachment to something that mattered to me as a boy and commitment to the principles that, I hope, make me the man I am today.

Because I know that Roald Dahl hated Jewish people like me.

There are cases where it’s complicated to ascribe modern values to figures from the past and as a reader, my feelings, my emotions, are just not going to be consistent. I don’t share C.S. Lewis’ religious views . . . J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is, I’m sad to say, bound up in long histories of racism.But my childhood copies of their books still occupy my shelves, some missing covers and pages, and I bought new copies for my kids and tried – with mixed success – to share my love of those stories with them. It’s hardly new for readers of one generation to struggle with the views of authors from another.But Dahl is different. He passed away in 1990, only 31 years ago. And we know he was an anti-Semite because he said so.

While I would challenge Perry’s modest critiques of the Inklings, I am delighted he is able to look beyond his adult disappointment with their imperfections to commend them to his own children. As for Dahl . . . this article reinforces my lack of regret in being unfamiliar with his work.

Enough, now, of their differences. I promised readers a surprising similarity between the two British authors.

And What Is Their Unusual Commonality?

In 1951, C.S. Lewis was approached by Prime Minister Churchill’s office to accept an honor occasionally bestowed upon renowned literary figures. He was invited to become a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Lewis declined, because he felt the political implications might overshadow the nonpartisan spirit of his writings. He was, however, honored to have been offered the honour.

This decision brings us to the peculiar similarity between the two writers. It turns out that Roald Dahl also passed up the invitation to join this chivalric order.

And the two were not alone. In 2012 a list of deceased individuals who had declined related honors between 1951 and 1999 was published.

Literary names were prominent amongst those to have said no to CBEs, OBEs and knighthoods in the annual New Year or Birthday Honours list, with Dahl, Lewis, and Huxley . . . joined by fellow naysayers Eleanor Farjeon, the children’s author, the poets Philip Larkin and Robert Graves, who said no to both a CBE and a CH (Order of the Companions honour), literary critic F.R. Leavis, Booker [Prize] winner Stanley Middleton and the authors J.B. Priestley and Evelyn Waugh.

An aspiring literary historian might do well to research whether and why successful writers might be more inclined to dismiss such an honor than other British citizens. I wonder if that inclination would carry over to other nationalities or cultures.

Ultimately, I assume most writers care less about receiving honors, than having their work read. And, perchance, having their literary efforts improve the lives of one or two others along the way. [This statement inspired vigorous debate when I shared this draft with members of my critique group.]

That desire – to enrich lives – is what motivates me. I believe it is also what inspired C.S. Lewis. And I know we are not alone.

Creative Definitions

August 10, 2022 — 17 Comments

Recently I read about an African Christian who was raised in a family that practiced ancestral worship. His grandfather was considered a witchdoctor, and it was expected that this young man would assume his duties.

The only problem is that when I initially viewed the passage, I read that his grandfather was a whichdoctor.

My once 20/20 vision is long gone. I still read without glasses (for the most part), but when I have yet to wash the sleep from my eyes, I encounter some surprising words.

“Whichdoctor” actually made some sense. I acknowledge it hasn’t been an English word (until now) but is so clear and so utilitarian that it cries out for recognition.

Whichdoctor: An interrogative used when attempting to ascertain which physician’s  attention an individual should be seeking. Especially useful in a hospital setting with numerous specialists. As in: Whichdoctor should I talk to, the podiatrist, the pediatrician, the pulmonologist, the psychiatrist, the pathologist, or the proctologist?

Last year I posted a column entitled “Create a Word Today.” It was inspired by an article I cited about making up useful words with pertinent definitions. I included 22 examples in my first column. They touched on a variety of subjects.

Mannekin: A boring, sedentary relative, who rarely rises from the couch.

Purrification: The activity of forgiveness and restoration that occurs when any cat makes a sincere confession of its sins.

Several were ecclesiastical in flavor.

Cathedroll: A large church led by a senior minister given to quaint and unintentionally comic humor.

Concupiscents: Hollywood’s obsession with including graphic sexual themes in all of their productions, resulting in the selling of their souls for pennies on the dollar.

And some related to the field of writing.

Manuskipped: The sad condition when the article or book into which you poured your blood, sweat and tears has been tossed into a slush pile to lie forgotten.

Proofreaper: Someone you invited to read your manuscript for misspellings who advises you to delete entire sections of your precious creation.

If you’re curious, there are 16 additional words included in the original post linked above.

So, allow me to offer here a few recent efforts, inspired by the misreading I referred to at the top of the page. How about 22 more?

But, before that, let’s look at a passage from C.S. Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy. As a person who has always appreciated a good vocabulary – and who is blessed to have grandchildren who are articulate beyond their years – I am saddened by Lewis’ youthful experience.

Reading much and mixing little with children of my own age, I had, before I went to school, developed a vocabulary which must (I now see) have sounded very funny from the lips of a chubby urchin in an Eton jacket.

When I brought out my “long words” adults not unnaturally thought I was showing off. In this they were quite mistaken. I used the only words I knew.

The position was indeed the exact reverse of what they supposed; my pride would have been gratified by using such schoolboy slang as I possessed, not at all by using the bookish language which (inevitably in my circumstances) came naturally to my tongue.

And there were not lacking adults who would egg me on with feigned interest and feigned seriousness – on and on till the moment at which I suddenly knew I was being laughed at.

Then, of course, my mortification was intense; and after one or two such experiences I made it a rigid rule that at “social functions” (as I secretly called them) I must never on any account speak of any subject in which I felt the slightest interest nor in any words that naturally occurred to me. And I kept my rule only too well . . .

Hooplaw: The two, vastly different legal disciplines dealing with (1) basketball contracts, and (2) litigation related to injuries caused by overly excited commotion.

Interdisciplinairy: The entire field of specialty studies related to the atmosphere.

Marvelouse: A creep or cad who considers himself something quite extraordinary.

Atrofee: The medical bills associated with the care of patients suffering an enduring coma.

Predilicktion: A preference for the sensation of taste over the other four basic human means of perceiving the world around us.

Ammunishun: The attitude of some activists seeking to restrict Second Amendment rights.

Megalowmaniac: The true stature of power hungry narcissists.

Gratuitruss: The unnecessary wear of a device to restrain a nonexistent hernia.

Calumknee: Malicious misrepresentations of political figures who frequently stumble.

Misscalibration: The awkward occasion when footwear retailers suggest to a young lady try on size 20 Air Jordans.

Patriought: The noble, often self-sacrificial, behavior of citizens who truly love their country.

Hypnothetically: The wide range of potentially embarrassing acts a person might be directed to perform under the influence of mesmerism.

Enlightenmint: The experience of achieve a spiritual pinnacle, accompanied by an aromatic scent.

Raspewtin: What Russia’s last Tsar should have done to Grigori.

Canonball: An elegant celebration lacking minuets, due the participants’ vows of celibacy, but not lacking in a wide selection of vinted and distilled beverages.

Immaculatte: A perfectly balanced beverage prepared by one of the world’s finest baristas.

Telegraft: Crimes committed over the phone by telemarketers, or via the airwaves and internet by televangelists.

Archietype: Ideas and symbols that recur in stories from many cultures and eras which bear a clear likeness to Archibald Andrews, who was often accompanied by his companion Jughead.

Syruptitious: The practice of slipping secrets past the unsuspecting by applying sticky sentimentality to one’s words.

Youphemism: The substitution of a mild or neutral description of someone to replace what you truly think of them.

Boulebard: The landscaped avenues of Stratford-upon-Avon by William Shakespeare.

Hagographer: An author who prefers to write the biographies of harpies rather than saints.

Admittedly, these words are not all top tier, but I challenge you to do better. If you have one or two winners, please cite them in the comments below. Oh, I just thought of another:

Religioscity: The religious devotion expressed by the residents of an urban environment.

Now I need to think about something else so I’ll be able to sleep tonight without jumbled word running through my mind.

As the sainted C.S. Lewis once described some troubled days in a boarding school while a youth:

Consciousness itself was becoming the supreme evil; sleep, the prime good. To lie down, to be out of the sound of voices, to pretend and grimace and evade and slink no more, that was the object of all desire—if only there were not another morning ahead—if only sleep could last for ever! (Surprised by Joy)

Yes, we found hobbits in our yard, when we weren’t even looking. True, I have a sign on our property welcoming “all true Narnians,” but true fans of the Oxford Inklings will recognize that hobbits are actually residents of Middle Earth.

I suppose, though, that doesn’t mean that Middle Earth’s hobbits, elves, and Ents can’t be Narnians at heart. As for dwarves and humans, they already reside in Narnia and are welcome here even if they are traveling through on their way to Valinor, in the Blessed Realm.

To be honest, it wasn’t actual hobbits we discovered. It is a small field of Eryngium planum, which is also known to botanists as Blue Hobbit, Sea Holly.

Noted for its petite size, Eryngium planum ‘Blue Hobbit’ (Sea Holly) is a compact perennial boasting a profusion of spiny, egg-shaped, purplish-blue flower heads throughout the summer.

They are produced on silver-blue stems and stand high above the basal rosette of deeply toothed, smooth textured leaves. Its beautiful texture, unique color, long-lasting flowering, easy care and remarkable qualities as cut flowers make it a favorite of florists, gardeners, bees and butterflies.

The plant’s size is the apparent premise for its popular name. I mean, there were Blue Wizards in Middle Earth, but no blue hobbits I can recall.

According to an interesting article in a Canadian newspaper, there are several plants “eagerly adopted by Tolkien fans, at least ones with a love of houseplants.”

The author describes his new acquisition named in honor of Gollum, a Stoor, which was an old breed of hobbits that preferred riversides and marshes. Gollum, of course, devolved from his life as Sméagol, due to the corrupting influence of the Ring.

Despite the name, the plant is kinda cute. Its full name is Crassula ovata ‘Gollum,’ and if you’re keeping up with your botanical Latin, or still have the tag stuck in one of your houseplants, you’ll know that Crassula ovata is the jade plant.

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis loved nature. And, not just from a distance. Their frequent cross country walks were of great delight to both scholars.

Lewis’ fascination with gardens began in his childhood. In his autobiography, he includes “a garden (which then seemed large)” as one of his initial “blessings” (Surprised by Joy). He also relates a pivotal experience in the development of his imagination.

Once in those very early days my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew. What the real garden had failed to do, the toy garden did.

It made me aware of nature—not, indeed, as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant. I do not think the impression was very important at the moment, but it soon became important in memory.

As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden. And every day there were what we called “the Green Hills;” that is, the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows. They were not very far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable. They taught me longing—Sehnsucht; made me for good or ill, and before I was six years old, a votary of the Blue Flower.

The blue flower to which Lewis refers is not the Blue Hobbit. It is actually a symbol which grew to reference the Romanticism movement. Among other things, such as an emphasis on intense emotion, Romanticism fostered an idealized image of nature. In an essay about the German writer Novalis,* Norwegian-American author Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen (1848-1895)⁑ offers the following description.

In the very first chapter we meet with all the conventional machinery of Romantic fiction: night, moonlight, dreams, and the longing for the blue flower. This blue flower is the watchword and the sacred symbol of the school. It is meant to symbolize the deep and nameless longings of a poet’s soul.

Romantic poetry invariably deals with longing; not a definite, formulated desire for some attainable object, but a dim, mysterious aspiration, a trembling unrest, a vague sense of kinship with the infinite, and a consequent dissatisfaction with every form of happiness which the world has to offer. The object of the Romantic longing, therefore, so far as it has any object, is the ideal—the ideal of happiness . . .

The blue flower, like the absolute ideal, is never found in this world . . .

The blue flower, as a metaphor, may remain out of reach, but selective breeding of cultivars has provided us with genuine examples in our modern era. And, since cultivars are named according to binomial nomenclature – which uses their scientific name, followed by a vernacular epithet – we may be introduced to more Inkling plants in the future.

I imagine both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien would be pleased to know that people have commemorated their literary creations with lovely flora. Learning of their existence, I’m thrilled to have Blue Hobbit spreading across our property. Perhaps it’s time to add a Gollum Jade plant to our home?


* For some reason, Romantic poet Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772- 1801), was commonly known by his pen name, Novalis, rather than his given name.

⁑ You can download a free copy of Boyesen’s Essays on German Literature at Internet Archive.

When do you feel closest to God? When you’ve been about holy business all day and are now praying at your bedside? Or, when everything in your life seems to have imploded, and you look about you helplessly, with nowhere else to turn than your heavenly Father?

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis provides a brilliant insight into the nature of our souls.

Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and cry for help?

This rings true as I ponder my own spiritual pilgrimage. Tribulation and suffering clear my vision of material distractions in a way that allows me to recognize more vividly my need for God’s grace. And, in relying more consciously on his mercy and compassion, I draw closer to my Lord.

It’s no accident, in my opinion, that among the Psalms of David most treasured by God’s people, are those in which he cries out to the Lord for deliverance and salvation. Verses where David places no trust in his own strength or even in God’s previous beneficence. Poetry where this anointed king acknowledges that even the drawing of his next breath depends wholly on the providence of his Creator.

Seven of David’s songs are traditionally identified as the Penitential Psalms.* The great Saint Augustine’s regard for these Psalms is revealed in the manner in which he spent his final days.

As Augustine lay dying . . . he ordered those psalms of David which are especially penitential to be copied out [for example, “Have mercy on me according to thy steadfast love . . . For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me,” Psalm 51], and when he was very weak, he used to lie in bed facing the wall where the sheets of paper were put up, gazing at them and reading, and copiously and continually weeping as he read (Robert Wilken, The First Thousand Years).

Like this ancient saint, C.S. Lewis knew the Psalms – and the English language – intimately. This led to his appointment to a distinguished “Committee to Revise the Psalter” for the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Joint service on this committee facilitated the healing of a previously strained relationship with the poet T.S. Eliot.

Lewis had largely taken on this task in order to discourage revisions, since he thought the Miles Coverdale version that had been in use for four hundred years more than adequate.

His opinion was shared by another member of the committee, T.S. Eliot, whom Lewis finally got to know. (They had met only once, very briefly, in the forties, though they had corresponded for a while about Charles Williams after their mutual friend’s death.)

The two men got along very well indeed; bygones could at last be bygones, it seems. (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis)

One of C.S. Lewis’ books is devoted to his thoughts about various themes in the Psalms. One such theme is judgment.

The “just” judge, then, is primarily he who rights a wrong in a civil case. He would, no doubt, also try a criminal case justly, but that is hardly ever what the Psalmists are thinking of. Christians cry to God for mercy instead of justice;’ they cried to God for justice instead of injustice. The Divine Judge is the defender, the rescuer. (Reflections on the Psalms)

In the introduction to this work, Lewis explains, “This is not a work of scholarship. I am no Hebraist, no higher critic, no ancient historian, no archaeologist. I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself.” This, readers, is not false humility. It’s the real thing.

One of his most valuable observations comes in the following passage:

What must be said, however, is that the Psalms are poems, and poems intended to be sung: not doctrinal treatises, nor even sermons. Those who talk of reading the Bible “as literature” sometimes mean, I think, reading it without attending to the main thing it is about; like reading Burke with no interest in politics, or reading the Aeneid with no interest in Rome. That seems to me to be nonsense.

But there is a saner sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature; and the different parts of it as the different sorts of literature they are. Most emphatically the Psalms must be read as poems; as lyrics, with all the licences and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry.

They must be read as poems if they are to be understood; no less than French must be read as French or English as English. Otherwise we shall miss what is in them and think we see what is not (Reflections on the Psalms).

In C.S. Lewis’ monumental study of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama), Lewis does not discuss the Psalms per se. He does, however, refer to them as the occasional subjects of Renaissance writers.

The most interesting such discussion involves John Fisher (1469-1535), a Roman Catholic bishop who was executed by Henry VIII. Fisher was a scholar, whose works included Commentary on the Seven Penitential Hymns.⁑

His vernacular works include devotional treatises – a Consolation to his sister and The Ways to Perfect Religion – and sermons, a series on the Penitential Psalms, funeral orations for Henry VII, and for the Countess of Richmond, and the famous sermon against [Martin] Luther in 1521.

Fisher’s style is grave and a little diffuse, never comic (though the pulpit then admitted that excellence), mildly rhetorical, and at times really eloquent. . . . His chief weakness is that he is too leisurely he is in no hurry to end a sentence or to let an idea go. . . .

Some of the medieval sweetness and richness still hangs about the prose of Fisher . . . but for our present purpose he matters less as a literary figure than as a convenient representative of the religion in possession at the very beginning of the English Reformation. He was a bishop and died for his faith. In him we ought to find what men like Tyndale were attacking. It was not in all respects what they imagined it to be. The Pelagianism of which they implicitly accused the Roman Church is, like the antinomianism of which the Papists accused them, a figment of controversy.

Some of Fisher’s statements seem, at least to a layman, to be very close to Tyndale’s own, as when Fisher writes: ‘From the eyen of almyghty God whiche may be called his grace shyneth forth a meruaylous bryghtnes lyke as the beme that cometh from the sonne. And that lyght of grace stereth and setteth forthwarde the soules to brynge forth the fruyte of good werkes.’ (Sermon on Psalm xxxii)

And again, on Psalm li, ‘no creature of himself hath power to do good werkes without the grace and help of God’ What Tyndale would have regarded as the cloven hoof appears chiefly when Fisher is talking of penance By penance, on his view, sinners can ‘make due satysfacion’ so as to be ‘clene out of dette’ (Sermon on Psalm xxxii), and so ‘mstyfyed by the sacrament of penaunce’ that ‘God can ask no more of them’ (ibid). . . .

One merit, very unusual in that age, Fisher can claim he is hardly at all scurrilous. His attack on Luther is not, indeed, masked under those forms of politeness which are usual between theological (though not between political) opponents today. But there is hardly any real abuse, compared with More, or even with Tyndale, Fisher is almost courteous.

Many readers of Mere Inkling already possess a high regard for the Psalms. In light of the affection felt for them by saints (including C.S. Lewis) for millennia, perhaps those who do not yet appreciate them, will reconsider their appraisals.


* They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130 and 143. The opening of the first expresses a theme common to all: “O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath” (ESV).

Likewise, the beginning of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” (ESV).

⁑ You can download John Fisher’s Commentary in two volumes at no cost, from Internet Archive (1 and 2).

Renaissance Fashions

Although it does not relate to the topic of this post directly, the following information from the “Medieval Manuscripts Blog” of the British Library is quite interesting. It describes “Girdle Books,” which frequently included selections from the Psalms.

In the 16th century, it became fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature prayer books bound in elaborate metalwork covers hanging from their girdles (i.e. belts). These girdle books provided them with handy reading material as well as fashionable dress accessories, allowing them to display their literacy and piety to the world.

The images on the page are fascinating. Of special historical interest is one that once belonged to Anne Boleyn (shown above), a gift from her murderous husband.

A particularly luxurious example is a girdle book with covers of gold filigree . . . It contains selected Psalms in English verse, translated and apparently written out by John Croke, one of Henry VIII’s clerks in Chancery, with a portrait of Henry VIII at the beginning.

The volume is traditionally thought to have belonged to Anne Boleyn, who is said to have handed it to one of her maids of honour when she was standing on the scaffold before her execution in 1536.

Would you like to leave your mark on literary history? Why not invent a new poetic form? It just might catch on.

If it did, you could become as famous as Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914). She lived a privileged but brief life. Adelaide is remembered today as the creator of the American Cinquain. She also wrote a book entitled A Study in English Metrics which you can download for free.

C.S. Lewis describes the imaginative aspect of writing poetry as a creative act. “For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible” (Reflections on the Psalms).

LitCharts offers a description of the form itself, and notes an alternative name for the poetic invention.

The American cinquain is an unrhymed, five-line poetic form defined by the number of syllables in each line—the first line has two syllables, the second has four, the third six, the fourth eight, and the fifth two (2-4-6-8-2). They are typically written using iambs.

In the early twentieth century the American poet Adelaide Crapsey, inspired by the five-line Japanese poetic form of tanka, began to write five-line poems that followed a distinct form. This poetic form soon came to be known as an American cinquain (though it’s also sometimes referred to as a Crapseian cinquain, after its creator).

I think I’ll stick with “American.”

Oddly, one of the reasons Crapsey’s story drew me in is the fact she was the daughter of a prominent Episcopal clergyman. Algernon Sidney Crapsey (1847-1927) had aspirations of becoming a bishop, only to end up defrocked for heresy.

Writer’s Digest offers a list of 168 poetic forms, including “a few fun super new nonce forms.” I advise reviewing this listing so you don’t go to the effort of birthing your own form, only to find out that someone beat you to it.

I’ve written in the past about the benefit of writing outside of our normal styles. As a nonfiction writer, I’ve never desired to be considered a poet.

But I have enjoyed dabbling in a variety of poetic forms as a literary exercise. On occasion, I’ve actually been pleased with the results. And, due to its Inkling inspiration, my personal favorite is probably “A Foreshadowing of Epics.”

In a moment I’ll share my modest attempts at American Cinquains. But first, allow me to offer a Sijo that I wrote to introduce my Cinquains. A Sijo is “a Korean verse form related to haiku and tanka and comprised of three lines of 14-16 syllables each, for a total of 44-46 syllables.”

Immortalize your poetic memory this novel way.
Inventing a new form of poetry is easy to do.
With meter, hyperbole and rhyme – make your fame last for all time.

What follows is a medley of American Cinquains that I composed yesterday while waiting for an optometry appointment. My goal was not to awe readers, but to stretch my writing – what Chuck Palahniuk (the author of Fight Club) refers to as one’s “writing chops.”

The last story you should write is the most important story. You should start with a story that is just an amusing, entertaining, fun story to write and learn your writing chops with the least important things before you start applying them to the most important things.

I intentionally attempted to write cinquains evoking a variety of emotions. Here you will find examples that are thoughtful and frivolous, serious and sentimental.

Cudgel
Beaten by words
Angry themes beget hate
Eardrums torn by condemnation
Wounds last.

Pet dogs
Each breed a joy
Humanity’s best friends
Frolicking with unbounded joy
Precious.

Just War
Tragic option
For innocents still die
Theology deems it okay
Last choice.

Poets
Can be stuck up
Denigrating others
Counting fine prose lower than verse
Vain pride.

Dinner
Fresh fare tonight
Feasting on each choice cut
Cannibals toast missionaries
Dessert.

Comfort
Love wraps its arms
About the wayward lamb
Carried safely back to the fold
Rescued.

Try your own hand at writing an American Cinquain. Or, better yet, establish your own unique poetry form. If you promote it well – say by getting someone like Oprah to endorse it – you could one day become as famous as Adelaide Crapsey.