Archives For Great Authors

It’s nearly impossible to avoid digressions – those temporary departures from the current subject of conversation. While many digressions are interesting in the own right, they occasionally cause the speaker (or writer) to lose track of the actual point they are attempting to establish.

It’s like when I would be reading something the Emperor Constantine the Great, and at the mention of the Persian Empire, I would put the current article on hold while I explored the subject of just how the current regime in Iran reflects the religious fundamentalism of Zoroastrianism as it resisted during the Abbasid Caliphate. Ah, but forgive me, I digress.

The reason I am thinking about digressions today is because I recently encountered a massive one in one of Mark Twain’s works. But before we look at it, let’s consider a more recent example, in an article about C.S. Lewis.

In “The Uses of Ignorance,” literary critic Alan Jacobs explores a number of themes, including the way Lewis’ presentation of Christianity’s core resonates with believers from diverse theological backgrounds.

One lesson to be learned . . . is just how carefully Lewis articulated his “mere Christianity” so that it seemed “mere” indeed – recognizable to Christians from many different traditions as the faith they understood and practiced. But we also see . . . “that the lasting appeal of Mere Christianity is not based so much on Lewis’s genius as on his ability to point readers to the luminosity of the gospel message itself.” Which, I might add, is a kind of genius in itself.

The article is well worth reading, but the specific reason I mention it now, is because the author includes a lengthy (315 word) departure from his main theme which he brackets with the words “A digression:” and “End of digression”.) It’s rare to see something this straightforward.

C.S. Lewis as a Digresser

If the average woman or man is prone to digression, it seems apparent a genius – with voluminous knowledge on diverse subjects – would occasionally succumb to the same temptation. For someone like C.S. Lewis this is not a major problem, as he would never lose his place in the original conversation. On the contrary, Lewis’ digressions would invariably enrich the discussion, as they illuminated his points.

One of the only books written by C.S. Lewis which has entered the public domain is Spirits in Bondage. When it was published in 1919 (while he was an atheist), Lewis wrote to a friend: “The sub-title ‘A cycle of lyrical poems’ was not given without a reason: the reason is that the book is not a collection of really independent pieces, but the working out, loosely of course and with digressions, of a general idea.” (You can download a free copy of Spirits in Bondage at Project Gutenberg.)

Mark Twain’s Masterful Digression

I’ve written about Mark Twain in the past. In one column I shared his humorous reflections on the nature of editors. Writers will find the post particularly entertaining.

Editors played a major (usually unwelcome) role in Twain’s existence. Thus, it is unsurprising that a major digression in “How to Make History Dates Stick” involves these denizens of the publishing world.

One book I was reading this week includes an extensive and, of course, intentional example of digression. Although he doesn’t bracket it with the word “digression,” it is probably one of the best examples in existence. (We would expect nothing less from Samuel Clemens!)

In his novel Roughing It, Twain describes a pervasive blight to the western frontier, sagebrush.

I do not remember where we first came across “sage-brush,” but as I have been speaking of it I may as well describe it. This is easily done, for if the reader can imagine a gnarled and venerable live oak tree reduced to a little shrub two feet high, with its rough bark, its foliage, its twisted boughs, all complete, he can picture the “sage-brush” exactly.

Often, on lazy afternoons in the mountains I have lain on the ground with my face under a sage-bush, and entertained myself with fancying that the gnats among its foliage were Lilliputian birds, and that the ants marching and countermarching about its base were Lilliputian flocks and herds, and myself some vast loafer from Brobdingnag waiting to catch a little citizen and eat him.

Twain’s description of his daydreaming about sagebrush is entertaining, but this is not the quintessential digression I wish to share. After this brief digression, Twain writes a page and a half about the plant’s actual physical attributes and utility (e.g. for fires and tea). But then, when the reader least expects it, Twain goes off on another extended ramble.

Sage-brush is very fair fuel, but as a vegetable it is a distinguished failure. Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his illegitimate child, the mule. But their testimony to its nutritiousness is worth nothing, for they will eat pine knots, or anthracite coal, or brass filings, or lead pipe, or old bottles, or anything that comes handy, and then go off looking as grateful as if they had had oysters for dinner. Mules and donkeys and camels have appetites that anything will relieve temporarily, but nothing satisfy.

In Syria, once, at the head-waters of the Jordan, a camel took charge of my overcoat while the tents were being pitched, and examined it with a critical eye, all over, with as much interest as if he had an idea of getting one made like it; and then, after he was done figuring on it as an article of apparel, he began to contemplate it as an article of diet. He put his foot on it, and lifted one of the sleeves out with his teeth, and chewed and chewed at it, gradually taking it in, and all the while opening and closing his eyes in a kind of religious ecstasy, as if he had never tasted anything as good as an overcoat before in his life.

Then he smacked his lips once or twice, and reached after the other sleeve. Next he tried the velvet collar, and smiled a smile of such contentment that it was plain to see that he regarded that as the daintiest thing about an overcoat. The tails went next, along with some percussion caps and cough candy, and some fig-paste from Constantinople.

And then my newspaper correspondence dropped out, and he took a chance in that – manuscript letters written for the home papers. But he was treading on dangerous ground, now. He began to come across solid wisdom in those documents that was rather weighty on his stomach; and occasionally he would take a joke that would shake him up till it loosened his teeth; it was getting to be perilous times with him, but he held his grip with good courage and hopefully, till at last he began to stumble on statements that not even a camel could swallow with impunity.

He began to gag and gasp, and his eyes to stand out, and his forelegs to spread, and in about a quarter of a minute he fell over as stiff as a carpenter’s work-bench, and died a death of indescribable agony. I went and pulled the manuscript out of his mouth, and found that the sensitive creature had choked to death on one of the mildest and gentlest statements of fact that I ever laid before a trusting public.

At that point, the writer pretends to realize he has digressed and concludes the chapter in the persona of the naturalist he has earlier assumed.

I was about to say, when diverted from my subject that occasionally one finds sage-bushes five or six feet high, and with a spread of branch and foliage in proportion, but two or two and a half feet is the usual height.

Well, that’s probably more than enough of a diversion from your day’s responsibilities. I hope you enjoyed reading these words, and that your own skills as a digresser will be correspondingly enhanced.

Oh, the curse of being  a book lover. How can we thin the shelves of our libraries to make room for new additions we absolutely must add?

Digital copies have resolved the worst of that problem for many of us. Yes, holding a physical book in our hands is different altogether from reading off a screen, but when you compare the space requirements . . . or the accessibility when away from home or office . . . well, it is to me a worthwhile tradeoff.

I have always invested a significant (read “huge”) portion of my discretionary income in books. Like C.S. Lewis, I regard a good library as a treasure. While we both appreciate the extensive collections available in public and academic libraries, borrowing a text is not the same as owning it. Lewis alludes to this in a slightly off-handed manner in a 1952 letter to fellow Inkling, Roger Lancelyn Green.

I have re-read The Luck and liked it very much, as I had felt at the first reading . . . As luck would have it I met a lady who was looking for things to “read to the children” & The Luck is now on her list. I think she’s a buyer too, not a library addict.

The full title of the book to which Lewis refers is The Luck of the Lynns, and it was written by Green himself. This essay offers an excellent discussion of the book, and the author himself.

Books shaped Lewis’ life, particularly its beginning. In Surprised by Joy he describes visits to the home of Irish relatives. “In some ways Mountbracken was like our father’s house. There too we found the attics, the indoor silences, the endless bookshelves.”

Unpacking Book Boxes Twenty Years Later

Life has settled down to the point where I have been able to attack the forty to fifty boxes of books that were pulled out of storage when I retired and built our home. They weren’t actually removed from storage. It was more like a transfer—from a commercial storage unit to two-thirds of our three-car garage.

It’s been liberating to feel free to donate about 80% of the books to local charities. Some of those I’m retaining will join them in new libraries after I’ve had a chance to glean a few details from them. Coincidentally, this week one book box I unsealed included a few files, and among them was “Before the Book Sale,” from a 1995 issue of Christian Century.

The author, James M. Wall, was a Methodist pastor. His death this March, at the age of ninety-two, makes the article’s pull quote exceptionally poignant: “As I choose which books go and which stay, I confront my past and my mortality.”

Since the article is not available online, I will make it available as a one page pdf to anyone who requests a copy. The essay begins casually, but moves into a serious conversation that is well worth the read.

My town puts on a book sale every fall. Proceeds go to a worthy cause, and I am told the event is well attended. I never go because I already have too many books on my crowded shelves. But I do participate in the sale as a supplier.

It is for this reason that each summer as the time to turn books in approaches I am seized by an intense feeling of anxiety. I know I have to prune my shelves and I also know that there is no reason to hold onto all the books I have.

As I choose what goes and what stays, I confront my mortality—Who will want all these books when I am gone?—and my past. Each title evokes a memory of an earlier time of intense interest in a particular topic . . . and when I reject a book I once thought had to remain with me forever, I wonder in what ways I’ve changed.

The Final Disposition of One’s Books

In years past, it was not uncommon for exceptional personal libraries to be presented, in toto, to a university library. Today, the largest collection of books that originally graced the office and home of C.S. Lewis are housed at the Wade Center of Wheaton College.

A complete list of titles in the Lewis archive comes replete with indications whether a title includes a signature, underlining, and/or a handwritten annotation.

As for my own library, I hope my children and grandchildren will want to hold onto most of it. I have a feeling that ultimately the bulk of physical texts I still own will relate to the Inklings and related subjects. (I also have a substantial digital library in Logos, but that is primarily theological, and presently beyond the interests of those not headed to a seminary.)

Whatever the shape and size of your own library, the key is to actually use it. And it’s even more fun when you share it (with people who know how to respect books, of course).

Even if you have no funds available to purchase books, there are vast numbers of amazing volumes in the public domain that you can download for free.*

And finally, don’t hesitate to use your local library. Neither C.S. Lewis nor I would ever honestly desire to disparage a “library addict.” After all, he probably spent a hundredfold more hours reading library books than all the regular readers of Mere Inkling combined.


* Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg are my go to sites for public domain titles. Google Books is another option, for those already ensnared in the behemoth’s tentacles. (Just joking, Google. I know you’re watching…)


The cartoon above is used with the permission of its creator, Doug Savage. You can enjoy more of his comics at Savage Chickens.

Which type of epic are you most likely to write? The two basic choices are either a natural epic, or a literary epic.

Actually, it’s a bit of a trick question, since it would be extremely challenging to draw together all of the pieces necessary to compose a natural epic. You can see just why, in this passage from one of C.S. Lewis’ early letters to his father.

I came across it while searching for references to elegies in Lewis’ writings, as I discussed in my previous post. Lewis mentions an elegy in a letter to his father. One of Lewis students referred to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” from which I had included an excerpt. As I mentioned there, it was common for schoolchildren to be required to memorize the poem at the time.

I include a portion of Lewis’ letter, however, not because of the elegy reference, but due to the distinction he draws between the two types of epics. In addition, it is entertaining and ends on a positive note despite the disappointing performance of the student in question.

I have got quite recently one pupil [who] is a youth of eighteen who is trying to get a Classical scholarship. I am to coach him in essay writing and English for the essay paper and general papers which these exams always include. I fear we shall win no laurels by him.

I questioned him about his classical reading: our dialogue was something like this:

Self: ‘Well Sandeman, what Greek authors have you been reading?’
Sand: (cheerfully): ‘I never can remember. Try a few names and I’ll see if I can get on to any.’
Self: (a little damped:) ‘Have you read any Euripides?’
Sand: ‘No.’
Self: ‘Any Sophocles?’
Sand: ‘Oh yes.’
Self: ‘What plays of his have you read?’
Sand: (after a pause): ‘Well–the Alcestis.’
Self: (apologetically): ‘But isn’t that by Euripides?’
Sand: (with the genial surprise of a man who finds £1 where he thought there was a 10 [shilling] note): ‘Really? Is it now? By Jove, then I have read some Euripides.’

My next . I asked him if he were familiar with the distinction that critics draw between a natural and a literary epic. He was not: you may not be either, but it makes no difference.

I then explained to him that when a lot of old war songs about some mythological hero were handed down by aural tradition and gradually welded into one whole by successive minstrels (as in the case of ‘Homer’) the result was called a natural epic: but when an individual poet sat down with pen in hand to write Paradise Lost, that was a literary epic.

He listened with great attention and then observed ‘I suppose “Grey’s Elegy” is the natural kind.’ What idiots can have sent him in for a Scholarship? However, he is one of the cheeriest, healthiest, and most perfectly contented creations I have ever met with.

I have often thought how pleasant it would have been to enjoy C.S. Lewis’ company. Yet, when I read about his expectations for his students, I’m not confident I would have measured up. (If I didn’t possess so much respect for teachers, I suppose I could just blame mine.)

Currently, it appears that the two types of epics are usually referred to as folk epics and literary epics. I prefer the word “folk” to “natural” in this regard. It elicits the image of older cultures sitting around the fire telling tales (as some of the Inklings replicated in kolbitar).

And so, we arrive at a question. Not the question of which Greek authors we’ve read. Nor the question of whether we know the difference between folk and literary epics—since we have all now mastered that distinction.

The question is this: will your personal epic be of the literary variety? Or, will you lay aside all of your responsibilities and journey to some primitive environment like a sociologist conducting field research for their PhD—and compile ancient oral traditions into a monumental folk epic destined to be celebrated by one and all?

Actually, it does not have to be one or the other. Since they are not mutually exclusive, perhaps you should be one of the first people in history to ever create both.

A Final Caveat When Authoring Epics

Whatever your path in pursuing your epic dreams, do not fall into the same trap as James Macpherson (1736-1796). He was the first Scottish poet to become widely famous in Europe. Unfortunately, his fame was built on the foundation of a Scottish folk epic attributed to Ossian.

Fortunately for Macpherson, he was already interred in Westminster Abbey by the time his Gaelic “originals” were published. It is widely recognized they were back translations from his English “translation” to create the supposed source material. Not the legacy one would desire.

At least C.S. Lewis evaluated Macpherson’s legacy temperately. In his essay “Addison,” he mentions the poet in passing.   

If [we suppose that] sublime genius lies all in the past, before civilization began, we naturally look for it in the past. We long to recover the work of those sublime prehistoric bards and druids who must have existed. But their work is not to be found; and the surviving medieval literature conspicuously lacks the sublimity and mysteriousness we desire.

In the end one begins inventing what the ‘bards,’ ‘druids,’ and ‘minstrels’ ought to have written. Ossian, Rowley, and Otranto are wish-fulfilments. It is always to be remembered that Macpherson had written original epics about prehistoric Scotland before he invented Ossian. By a tragic chance he and Chatterton discovered that their work was marketable, and so make-believe turned into fraud.

But there was a sincere impulse behind it: they were seeking in the past that great romantic poetry which really lay in the future, and from intense imagination of what it must be like if only they could find it they slipped into making it themselves.

Should you decide to compose a fictional folk epic, feel free to do so. It could end up being quite well received. Please though, for the sake of your future literary reputation, don’t pretend that it is anything but a work of fiction.

For a long time I was puzzled by the difference between the two words, elegy and eulogy. My confusion was not simply due to their obvious visual and aural similarities. My puzzlement was increased by their use in similar contexts (e.g. death). Even worse, they are sometimes (mis)used interchangeably.

If you are confused, let me clarify the matter—the words have significantly different definitions. The fact they are both three syllables and share four letters, is simply coincidence. Both are frequently written, but only eulogies are intended to be delivered as an oration.

A eulogy (ˈyü-lə-jē) is a message of commendation and praise, typically offered in honor of someone who has died. (It originates from the Greek word eulogia which means praise.)

An elegy (ˈe-lə-jē) is a poem, or possibly a song, with a melancholy tone. It can, but does not have to, be about someone who is deceased. (It finds its origin in elegos, the Greek word for a song of mourning.)

Thus, even when both eulogies and elegies are offered in response to the same person’s passing, they remain quite distinct from one another. The eulogy focuses on praise, and is positive in tone. The elegy focuses on sorrow and is like a lamentation.

As a young man, C.S. Lewis wrote to his father about the nature of exaggeration often found in eulogies.

I was sorry to see the other day news of our friend Heineman’s sudden death. The papers have been so covering him with eulogy since he went that I begin to feel glad I met him, if only for once—Vergilium vidi tantum! [“I have seen the great Virgil!” (Ovid, Tristia)]

In this case however I think the virtues are not wholly of the tombstone nature: a great publisher is really something more than a mere machine for making money: he has opportunities for doing things for the best of motives, and if one looks round most of our English houses, I think he avails himself of them as well as anyone can expect. I always put up a fight for the tribe of publishers here where so many young men with manuscripts have nothing too bad to say of them.

The close companionship of the Inklings meant that they took one another’s death quite hard. C.S. Lewis’ brother Warren wrote a moving eulogy when Charles Williams passed. In it he said, “the blackout has fallen, and the Inklings can never be the same again.”

The talented Christian writer, Dorothy Sayers, shared a dynamic friendship with C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote a heartfelt eulogy for her when she died in 1957. Her son wrote back thanking him for the warm and uplifting gift.

Lewis was unable to present it in person at the funeral, so his eulogy was read to the congregation by the Lord Bishop of Chichester. It is quite substantial and because Sayers’ son preserved a copy, it is now preserved in the essay collection On Stories. It is entitled “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers,” panegyric being another word for publicly rendered praise. At the conclusion of the sensitive tribute, Lewis praises her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Unfortunately, Sayers died before completing the final section of the work. After complimenting her work on the initial section, the Inferno, he concludes:

. . . when I came to the Purgatorio, a little miracle seemed to be happening. She had risen, just as Dante himself rose in his second part: growing richer, more liquid, more elevated. Then first I began to have great hopes of her Paradiso. Would she go on rising? Was it possible? Dared we hope?

Well. She died instead; went, as one may in all humility hope, to learn more of Heaven than even the Paradiso could tell her. For all she did and was, for delight and instruction, for her militant loyalty as a friend, for courage and honesty, for the richly feminine qualities which showed through a port and manner superficially masculine and even gleefully ogreish—let us thank the Author who invented her.

As a literary historian, C.S. Lewis was extremely familiar with elegies. In an essay, “Donne and Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century,” he critically analyzes that author’s elegies. (You can download the complete collection of Donne’s poems in two volumes here: 12.)

In another essay, “Shelley, Dryden, and Mr. Eliot,” Lewis praises Shelley’s “Witch of Atlas,” and moves on to an interesting critique of Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats.

If Shelley had written only such poems he would have shown his genius: his artistry, the discipline and power of obedience which makes genius universal, are better shown elsewhere. Adonais naturally occurs to the mind, for here we see Shelley fruitfully submitting to the conventions of a well-established form.

It has all the traditional features of the elegy—the opening dirge, the processional allegory, and the concluding consolation. There is one bad error of taste. The Muse, lamenting Adonais, is made to lament her own immortality,

     I would give All that I am to be as thou now art!
     But I am chained to Time, and cannot thence depart! (xxvi)

This is to make a goddess speak like a new-made human widow, and to dash the public solemnity of elegy with the violent passions of a personal lyric. How much more fitting are the words of the Roman poet:

Immortales mortales si foret fas flere
Flerent divae Camenae Naevium poetam.

[Gnaeus Naevius (c. 270-199 BC) was a Roman poet who composed this modest epitaph for his tomb:
If it would be lawful for immortals to weep for mortals,
the divine Muses would weep for the poet Naevius.]

A Special Bonus

For readers who have continued to this point, I have a special treat. It is a satirical elegy written by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), who was a popular English writer, and staunch defender of Christianity (particularly of the Roman Catholic flavor).

This excellent column describes the influence Chesterton had on the Inklings, especially Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Chesterton often launched his work from current events or twists on common knowledge, creatively manipulating it to provide new insights. He did this very thing with the following, famous elegy.

In 1751, English poet Thomas Gray wrote “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”  It grew in fame, and was memorized by many English schoolchildren. It consists of more than thirty stanzas. The link offers the entire poem, but eight lines will suffice to illustrate for our purpose here.

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
by Thomas Gray

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
     Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
     They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
     Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
     Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
     The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
     That teach the rustic moralist to die.

And here we close with Chesterton’s brief version, intentionally bearing the same title. It is both somber (in the first two sincere stanzas) and scathing (in the last verse). I am certain citizens of many nations would nod in agreement if this elegy was applied to their own countries.

Elegy in a Country Churchyard
by G.K. Chesterton

The men that worked for England
They have their graves at home:
And birds and bees of England
About the cross can roam.

But they that fought for England,
Following a falling star,
Alas, alas for England
They have their graves afar.

And they that rule in England,
In stately conclave met,
Alas, alas for England
They have no graves as yet.

Free Storytelling Class

March 3, 2021 — 6 Comments

If you are a storyteller—and if, like me, you’re interested in screenwriting—there is a free class you may find valuable.

John Paul the Great Catholic University focuses on degrees related to the creative arts. They are currently offering a five session “crash course” discussing the key elements of storytelling. And the teachers apparently possess genuine credentials, being “veterans of Pixar’s Braintrust, Warner Bros. Script Department, and Hollywood writers’ rooms.”

You can learn more about the self-paced course here.

The final session on “adaptations” looks particularly intriguing.

What makes a good adaptation? In this lesson, Professor Chris Riley guides you through the basic principles of adapting source material (such as novels and true stories) for film and television. . . . Recommended for anyone with a curiosity for how novels and real life stories are distilled and written into movies. Especially recommended for writers interested in making movies from short stories, novels, or real life stories.

C.S. Lewis and the rest of the Oxford Inklings were gifted storytellers. Lewis began honing his skills when he a child and collaborated with his brother Warnie to compose the tales of Boxen.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings relates an overarching saga of humble heroism. Its skilled creator weaves into the Fellowship’s quest many other fascinating tales. The trilogy is a series that spawns fresh wonders, reading after reading. As one reviewer notes, Tolkien showcases “duty, honor, perseverance, and friendship.” He continues:

That, my friends, is the power of great stories. But a good story alone isn’t good enough either. One reason that Tolkien remains popular is because his stories were about important ideas, ideas that stand the test of time.

In a rather more scholarly article, “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Telling of a Traditional Narrative,” the writer says “the literary critical question is, why would Tolkien spend so much time and effort telling such an old story?” He answers that question in the following manner.

The answer lies . . . in the purpose of traditional narrative and the intent of the traditional tale teller. The traditional tale teller, like any traditional performer, is recreative rather than creative, doing those things that the community wants (and perhaps needs) over and over again, striving not to do something totally inventive and perceptually new but rather to do the traditional thing well and, perhaps, with some special, individual flair.

Turning to C.S. Lewis, we find numerous reference to his storytelling skills. In one aptly named work, we discover why Lewis became a writer rather than a sculptor.

C.S. Lewis loved stories. Throughout his life he found it really had to make anything by hand.* He could, though, hold a pencil or a pen and was driven to write stories instead. It was a blessing in disguise! Many years later C.S. Lewis wrote that you can do more with a castle in a story than with the best cardboard castle that ever stood on a nursery table (C.S. Lewis: The Story Teller).

Encouraging Another Storyteller

One of the main reasons for the Inkling’s very existence was their mutual encouragement in writing. Members often read their works in progress and offered (occasionally gentle) constructive criticism.

As a popular author, C.S. Lewis was approached by many aspiring writers. He patiently and encouragingly responded to these contacts. Some of these correspondents were former students and friends.

One such dear friend was Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-1987). Green had been a student of Lewis’ and a member of the Inklings while he studied and taught at Oxford. The two were quite close, and he actually joined Lewis and his wife Joy during their holiday in Greece.

As an Inkling and an English professor himself, Green was destined to become a writer. In addition to his other biographies—he co-authored one of the best on C.S. Lewis—he was a noted children’s writer. In fact, among his popular retellings of various mythologies, he compiled the stories of the Greeks, Egyptians and Norse. Many of his works can be “borrowed” from the Internet Archives library.

However, years before he wrote these volumes, Green shared one of his earliest efforts with his mentor. In September of 1945, C.S. Lewis offered him a significant amount of specific advice, but begins—as all good critiquing should—with encouragement.

My dear Green– I have now read The Wood That Time Forgot and this is what I think. The general narrative power is excellent: i.e. on the question whether you have in general the story-telling talent, you may (in my opinion) set your mind at rest. I read it on a railway journey and it carried me as far as Bletchley (which was at chapter VII) without a single flagging of interest.

I particularly admired the transition from the natural to the supernatural part. This went just gradually enough to elicit one’s faith and by the right stages. I thank you for giving me the authentic thrill: as you did several times.

As noted, Lewis follows this introductory affirmation with explicit comments on various facets of the manuscript. In June of 1949, Lewis offered his friend comments on a revised version of the story.⁑

Too bad we don’t all have a mentor like C.S. Lewis. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be encouraged by such an anointed storyteller.

Chances are that you, like Tolkien and Lewis, are a storyteller as well. Which is why I shared with you the invitation to the free storytelling course linked above. I will likely sign up for it myself, since I too have a screenplay I would someday like to write.


* This was due to a the lack of a metacarpophalangeal joint in his thumb. He shared this syndrome with his father and brother. If interested, you can read “Symphalangism, C.S. Lewis Type” in an online catalog of genetic disorders.

⁑ Lewis’ comments regarding the revised manuscript are included in volume two of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, with the following introduction.

Roger Lancelyn Green, in an attempt to turn his story The Wood That Time Forgot into “a fairy tale for grown-ups,” had revised it . . . to give it a completely new ending—of which Lewis approved. The book, however, remains unpublished as it would appear to owe too much to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

All of Green’s mythologies appear to currently be in print. In the introduction to his Norse mythology  volume, he provides an interesting contrast with his previous work closer to the Mediterranean.

Norse mythology is the very antithesis of Greek from the reteller’s point of view. The wealth of literature and legend available for studying the gods of Olympus is positively embarrassing, and the problem there is one of selection. The gods of Asgard, on the other hand, remain strangely aloof: the difficulty here is to find enough about them. And when the scanty material is collected, it is still harder to fit together the incomplete jigsaw-puzzle which is all that remains to us.

Do you consider quotations good or bad? As a reader, do you think quotations enhance what you are reading . . . or do they detract from the text?

My personal opinion is that the educated use of quotations enriches writing. (Sloppy quotation is another matter.) Positive contributions made by quotes would include:

They can offer “authoritative” support of a point being made by the writer.
Quotations can offer a refreshing change of pace in a lengthy work.
The selection of the individuals quoted gives me insight into the mind of the current writer.
A well-chosen epigraph piques my curiosity about the chapter which follows.
And, frankly, I simply enjoy a brilliant turn of phrase or a timeless but fresh insight.

I’m not alone in appreciating quotations. It’s no accident The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations is in its seventh edition. Why Do We Quote? describes it this way:

The demand for ODQ remains substantial. It has also spawned numerous sister dictionaries, many themselves appearing in several editions. We have The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations,… of Literary Quotations,… of Political Quotations,… of Biographical Quotations,… of Medical Quotations,… of American Legal Quotations,…. of Scientific Quotations.… of Phrase, Saying, and Quotation,… of Thematic Quotations,… of Quotations by Subject,… of Modern Quotation,… of Twentieth-Century Quotations, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotation. A Little Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has gone through successive editions. There have also been several editions of The Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, the first in 1936. There is an avid market, it seems, for quotation collections.

The number of quotation collections is staggering. Read on, and I’ll provide links to some of the compilations available for free download, thanks to public domain laws.

The sheer weight of these books reveals their popularity. And quotations collections are marketable today. In “How Inspirational Quotes became a Whole Social Media Industry,” the author cites a Canadian whose “interest in motivational quotes has proven lucrative, and while he still has a day job in the wireless technology industry, he says that he’s recently been taking home two to three times his regular income from advertising on his website.”

And it all began when, “One day when he was a teenager, he was browsing in a book shop and came across a small book of famous quotations. Something about these pithy sayings appealed to him, and he started to compile his own collection of quotes that particularly resonated.”

Before the birth of the internet, I invested in several quotation collections—a not uncommon purchase for pastors. I confess to still referring on occasion to The Quotable Lewis to suggest new themes to explore here at Mere Inkling.

C.S. Lewis and Quotations

A beloved lecturer, C.S. Lewis recognized the value of worthy quotation. While few of us have his “eidetic memory,” we can certainly follow his example in using apt quotations to illustrate our points.

Lewis even regarded quotation collections highly enough to compile one. In 1946, he published George MacDonald: An Anthology. It was a tribute to the writings of his “mentor,” who appears in his fictional masterpiece about heaven and hell, The Great Divorce. The anthology remains in print. However, Canadian readers of Mere Inkling can benefit from it falling into public domain status in their Commonwealth. Canadians will find it available for download at this site.

While every reader is capable of enjoying the 365 selections in the volume, Lewis did have a specific intent in the passages he chose.

This collection, as I have said, was designed not to revive MacDonald’s literary reputation but to spread his religious teaching. Hence most of my extracts are taken from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons. My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help—sometimes indispensable help towards the very acceptance of the Christian faith.

Scores of Free Quotation Collections Available to All

Internet Archive has an enormous (free) lending library of books featuring collections of quotations. Many can be “checked out” for temporary use. Other older books are available for download.

Project Gutenberg offers a smaller number, but includes titles they have edited themselves by gleaning pithy phrases from books in their public domain library. Many* of these free (public domain) compilations are linked below.

The massive selection of quotation collections (I quit counting as I approached 100) is daunting. Among those not available for download (which are still accessible for reading) you will note ever more esoteric subject matter. As a whole, we find a small number are collected from prolific individuals, such as Shakespeare, Mark Twain, or John F. Kennedy. Many are generalist, featuring “popular” quotations on a wide range of subjects. Others are thematic, focusing on subjects such as friendship, humor, women, sports, country music, dog [or cat] lovers, climbers, business, motor racing, the military, lawyers, saints, atheists, rock ‘n’ roll, or any of fourscore more themes. Some featuring national or cultural quotations, for example French, Jewish, Scottish, German, etc. And, for those up to the challenge, you can even read Wit and Wisdom of the American Presidents: A Book of Quotations.

🚧 Feel Free to Ignore Everything Below 🚧

Only the smallest attempt has been made here to sort the free volumes. You will find a few general headings below, and a multitude of similarly titled books. One wonders how many of the quotations cited in the larger volumes are common to all of them. Perhaps as you glance through this list, you will see a title or two you might appreciate perusing.

General Quotation Collections

The Oxford Dictionary Of Quotations
(Second Edition: 1953)

The Book of Familiar Quotations
Unnamed Compiler (London: 1860)

Familiar Quotations
John Bartlett (Boston: 1876)

Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations (English)
Helena Swan (London and New York: 1904)

What Great Men have Said about Great Men: a Dictionary of Quotations
William Wale (London: 1902)

A Cyclopaedia of Sacred Poetical Quotations
H.G. Adams (London: 1854)

The International Encyclopedia of Prose and Poetical Quotations from the Literature of the World
William Shepard Walsh (Philadelphia: 1908)

The Book of Familiar Quotations; being a Collection of Popular Extracts and Aphorisms from the Works of the Best Authors
Unnamed Compiler (London: 1866)

The Book of Familiar Quotations; being a Collection of Popular Extracts and Aphorisms from the Works of the Best Authors
L.C. Gent (London: 1866)

Dictionary of Quotations (English)
Philip Hugh Dalbiac (Long & New York: 1908)

A Dictionary Of Quotations
Everyman’s Library (London: 1868)

Forty Thousand Quotations: Prose and Poetical
by Charles Noel Douglas (New York: 1904)

Three Thousand Selected Quotations From Brilliant Writers
Josiah H. Gilbert (Hartford, Connecticut: 1905)

Stokes’ Encyclopedia of Familiar Quotations: Containing Five Thousand Selections from Six Hundred Authors
Elford Eveleigh Treffry (New York: 1906)

Historical Lights: a Volume of Six Thousand Quotations from Standard Histories and Biographies
Charles Eugene Little (London & New York: 1886)

Great Truths by Great Authors: A Dictionary of Aids to Reflection, Quotations of Maxims, Metaphors, Counsels, Cautions, Aphorisms, Proverbs, &c., &c. from Writers of All Ages and Both Hemispheres
William M. White (Philadelphia: 1856)

Truths Illustrated by Great Authors: A Dictionary of Nearly Four Thousand Aids to Reflection, Quotations of Maxims, Metaphors, Counsels, Cautions, Aphorisms, Proverbs, &c., &c.
William M. White (Philadelphia: 1868)

Handy Dictionary of Prose Quotations
George Whitefield Powers (New York: 1901)

Letters, Sentences and Maxims
Philip Dormer Stanhope Chesterfield (London & New York: 1888)

Poetical Quotations from Chaucer to Tennyson: With Copious Indexes
Samuel Austin Allibone (Philadelphia: 1875)

Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay
Samuel Austin Allibone (Philadelphia: 1880)

Cassell’s Book Of Quotations, Proverbs and Household Words
William Gurney Benham (London & New York, 1907)

Putnam’s Complete Book of Quotations, Proverbs and Household Words
William Gurney Benham (New York, 1926)

Benham’s Book Of Quotations
William Gurney Benham (London: 1949)

Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations
by Kate Louise Roberts (New York: 1927)

Classic Quotations: A Thought-Book of the Wise Spirits of All Ages and all Countries, Fit for All Men and All Hours
James Elmes (New York: 1863)

A Dictionary of Quotations from the English Poets
Henry George Bohn (London: 1902)

A Complete Dictionary Of Poetical Quotations
Sarah Josepha Hale (Philadelphia: 1855)

The Handbook of Quotations: Gleanings from the English and American Fields of Poetic Literature
Edith B. Ordway (New York: 1913)

Carleton’s Hand-Book of Popular Quotations
G.W. Carleton (New York: 1877)

Many Thoughts of Many Minds
George W. Carleton (New York: 1882)

Many Thoughts Of Many Minds
Henry Southgate (London: 1930)

A Manual of Quotations (forming a new and considerably enlarged edition of MacDonnel’s Dictionary of Quotations)
E.H. Michelsen (London: 1856)

A Dictionary of Quotations from Various Authors in Ancient and Modern Languages
Hugh Moore (London: 1831)

Dictionary Of Quotations: from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources
James Wood (London: 1893)

A Dictionary of Quotations in Prose: from American and Foreign Authors
Anna L. Ward (New York: 1889)

Webster’s Dictionary Of Quotations: A Book of Ready Reference
(London: undated)

Collections of Individual Authors

Quotations from Browning
Ruth White Lawton (Springfield, Massachusetts: 1903)

The Wesley Yearbook: or, Practical Quotations from the Rev. John Wesley
Mary Yandell Kelly (Nashville: 1899)

Quotes and Images From The Works of Mark Twain
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2002)

Widger’s Quotations from the Project Gutenberg Editions of Paine’s Writings on Mark Twain
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2003)

Quotes and Images From The Diary of Samuel Pepys
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Louis XIV
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Louis XV and XVI
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Quotes and Images from the Memoirs of Jacques Casanova de Seingalt
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Motley’s History of the Netherlands
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images from the Writings of Abraham
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From The Tales and Novels of Jean de La Fontaine
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From The Works of George Meredith
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Cardinal De Retz
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Count Grammont by Count Anthony Hamilton
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Widger’s Quotations from the Project Gutenberg Editions of the Works of Montaigne
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2003)

Widger’s Quotations from Project Gutenberg Edition of Memoirs of Napoleon
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2003)

Quotes and Images From the Works of John Galsworthy
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Quotes and Images From The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

The French Immortals: Quotes and Images
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2009)

Quotes and Images From The Works of Charles Dudley Warner
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Marie Antoinette
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Quotes and Images From The Works of Gilbert Parker
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer by Charles James Lever
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From Memoirs of Madame De Montespan
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2005)

Quotes and Images From the Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

Quotes and Images From The Works of William Dean Howells
David Widger (Project Gutenberg: 2004)

The Spalding Year-Book: Quotations from the Writings of Bishop [John Lancaster] Spalding for Each Day of the Year
Minnie R. Cowan (Chicago: 1905)

Worldly Wisdom; Being Extracts from the Letters of the Earl of Chesterfield to His Son
William L. Sheppard (New York: 1899)

A Year Book of Quotations: From the Writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
with spaces for Autographs and Records (New York: 1896)

The Bernhardt Birthday Book: Being Quotations from the Chief Plays of Madame Sarah Bernhardt’s Repertoire and Other Works
E.M. Evors (London: 1912)

Beauties of Robert Hall
John S. Taylor (New York: 1839)

Shakespeare Gets His Own Section

Everyman’s Dictionary Of Shakespeare Quotations
D.C. Browning (London: 1961)

Shakespearean Quotations
Charles Sheridan Rex (Philadelphia: 1910)

Shakespeare Quotations
Emma Maria Rawlins (New York: 1900)

Quotations from Shakespeare
Edmund Routledge (London: 1867)

A Dictionary of Shakspere Quotations
C.J. Walbran (London: 1849)

The New Shaksperian Dictionary of Quotations
G. Somers Bellamy (London: 1875)

Longer Moral Quotations From Shakespeare
M. Venkatasiah (Mysore/Mysuru, India: 1923)

Dictionary of Shakespearian Quotations: Exhibiting the Most Forceful Passages Illustrative of the Various Passions, Affections and Emotions of the Human Mind
Thomas Dolby (New York: 1880)

Odd, Quaint and Queer Shaksperian Quotations Handsomely and Strikingly Illustrated
Henry McCobb [using pseudonym Shakspere Snug] (New York: 1892)

Thematic Quotation Collections

Quotations from Negro Authors
Katherine D. Tillman (Fort Scott, Kansas: 1921)

Sovereign Woman Versus Mere Man: a Medley of Quotations
Jennie Day Haines (San Francisco: 1905)

About Women: What Men have Said
Rose Porter (New York: 1894)

The Dixie Book of Days
Matthew Page Andrews (London & Philadelphia: 1912)

Living Waters
Alice L. Williams (Boston: 1889)

Green Pastures and Still Waters
Louis Kinney Harlow (Boston: 1887)

Out-of-Doors; Quotations from Nature Lovers
Rosalie Arthur

Ye Gardeyn Boke: a Collection of Quotations Instructive and Sentimental
Jennie Day Haines (San Francisco & New York: 1906)

The Optimist’s Good Morning
Florence Hobart Perin (Boston: 1909)

The Optimist’s Good Night
Florence Hobart Perin (Boston: 1910)

The Book of Love
Jennie Day Haines (Philadelphia: 1911)

Author’s Calendar 1889
Alice Flora McClary Stevens (Boston: 1888)

Proverbs and Quotations for School and Home
John Keitges (Chicago: 1905)

Excellent Quotations for Home and School
Julia B. Hoitt (Boston: 1890)

Borrowings: A Compilation of Helpful Thoughts from Great Authors
Sarah S.B. Yule & Mary S. Keene (San Francisco: 1894)

More Borrowings: the Ladies of First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California
Sarah S.B. Yule & Mary S. Keene (San Francisco: 1891)

Quotations
Norwood Methodist Church (Edmonton, Alberta: 1910).

Goodly Company: a Book of Quotations and Proverbs for Character Development
Jessie E. Logan (Chicago: 1930)

The Atlantic Year Book: Being a Collection of Quotations from the Atlantic Monthly
Teresa J. Fitzpatrick & Elizabeth M. Watts (Boston: 1920)

Here and There: Quaint Quotations, a Book of Wit
H.L. Sidney Lear

Author’s Calendar 1890
Alice Flora McClary Stevens (Boston: 1889)

Catch Words of Cheer
Sara A. Hubbard (Chicago: 1903)

Catch Words of Cheer (new series)
Sara A. Hubbard (Chicago: 1905)

Catch Words of Cheer (third series)
Sara A. Hubbard (Chicago: 1911)

How to Get On, Being, the Book of Good Devices: a Thousand Precepts for Practice
Godfrey Golding (London: 1877)

The Dictionary of Legal Quotations: or, Selected Dicta of English Chancellors and Judges from the Earliest Periods to the Present Time . . . embracing many epigrams and quaint sayings
James William Norton-Kyshe

The Vocabulary of Philosophy, Mental, Moral and Metaphysical: with Quotations and References
William Fleming (Philadelphia: 1860)

Manual of Forensic Quotations
Leon Mead and F. Newell Gilbert (New York: 1903)

Toaster’s Handbook Jokes Stories And Quotations
Peggy Edmund and Harold W. Williams (New York: 1932)

The Banquet Book: A Classified Collection of Quotations Designed for General Reference, and Also an Aid in the Preparation of the Toast List
Cuyler Reynolds (London & New York: 1902)

Like Expressions: a Compilation from Homer to the Present Time
A.B. Black (Chicago: 1900)

Oracles from the Poets: a Fanciful Diversion for the Drawing-Room
Caroline Howard Gilman (London & New York: 1844)

The Sibyl: or, New Oracles from the Poets
Caroline Howard Gilman (New York: 1848)

A Book of Golden Thoughts
Henry Attwell (London & New York: 1888)

A Little Book of Naval Wisdom
Harold Felix Baker Wheeler (London: 1929)

Medical Quotations from English Prose
John Hathaway Lindsey (Boston: 1924)

Psychological Year Book: Quotations Showing the Laws, the Ways, the Means, the Methods for Gaining Lasting Health, Happiness, Peace and Prosperity
Janet Young (San Francisco: 1905)

The Oshawa Book of Favorite Quotations
(Oshawa, Ontario: 1900)

The Pocket Book Of Quotations
Henry Davidoff (New York: 1942)

Quotations for Occasions
Katharine B. Wood (New York: 1896)

Quotations For Special Occasions
Maud Van Buren (New York: 1939)

A Complete Collection of the Quotations and Inscriptions in the Library of Congress
Emily Loiseau Walter

Words and Days: a Table-Book of Prose and Verse
Bowyer Nichols (London: 1895)

The Book of Good Cheer: “A Little Bundle of Cheery Thoughts”
Edwin Osgood Grover (New York: 1916)

The Good Cheer Book
Blanche E. Herbert (Boston: 1919)

Just Being Happy: a Little Book of Happy Thoughts
Edwin Osgood Grover (New York: 1916)

Pastor’s Ideal Funeral Book: Scripture Selections, Topics, Texts and Outlines, Suggestive Themes and Prayers, Quotations and Illustrations
Arthur H. DeLong (New York: 1910)

Quips and Quiddities: a Quintessence of Quirks, Quaint, Quizzical, and Quotable
William Davenport Adams (London: 1881)

The Book of Ready-Made Speeches: with Appropriate Quotations, Toasts, and Sentiments
Charles Hindley (London: 1893)

Suggestive Thoughts on Religious Subjects
Henry Southgate (London: 1881)

Two Thousand Gospel Quotations from the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price
Henry H. Rolapp (Salt Lake City, Utah: 1918)

Selected Quotations on Peace and War: with Especial Reference to a Course of Lessons on International Peace, a Study in Christian Fraternity
Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America (New York: 1915)

Book of Science and Nature Quotations
Isaac Asimov & Jason A. Shulman (New York: 1988)
From an Indian Library Collection (not generally public domain)

Foreign (i.e. non-English) Collections

Dictionary of Quotations (Spanish)
[With English Translations]
Thomas Benfield Harbottle and Martin Hume (New York: 1907)

A Literary Manual of Foreign Quotations Ancient and Modern, with Illustrations from American and English Authors
John Devoe Belton (New York: 1891)

Dictionary of Quotations (Classical)
Thomas Benfield Harbottle (London: 1897)

Dictionary of Latin Quotations, Proverbs, Maxims, and Mottos, Classical and Medieval
Henry Thomas Riley (London: 1866)

Treasury of Latin Gems: a Companion Book and Introduction to the Treasures of Latin Literature
Edwin Newton Brown (Hastings, Nebraska: 1894)

A Dictionary of Oriental Quotations (Arabic and Persian)
Claud Field (London & New York: 1911)

A Little Book of German Wisdom
Claud Field (London: 1912)

Dictionary Of Foreign Phrases And Classical Quotations
Hugh Percy Jones (Edinburgh: 1908)

Dictionary Of Quotations: in Most Frequent Use, Taken Chiefly from the Latin and French, but Comprising Many from the Greek, Spanish and Italian Languages
[Translated into English]
D.E. MacDonnel (London: 1826)

A Dictionary Of English Quotations And Proverbs
With translations into Marathi
C.D. Deshmukh (Poona/Pune, India: 1973)

Classical and Foreign Quotations: a Polyglot Manual of Historical and Literary Sayings, Noted Passages in Poetry and Prose Phrases, Proverbs, and Bons Mots
Wm. Francis Henry King (London: 1904)


* Too many.

⁑ A bit of irony in this title, since it was written over 115 years ago.

Beware of Publishers

November 16, 2020 — 17 Comments

You can write a masterpiece, only to have it ruined by an inattentive publisher.

It would be bad enough if they filled your retelling of Romeo and Juliet with typos, what if you had just penned the ultimate authority on grammar, or perhaps, spelling?

Last month, British lexicographer Susie Dent released Word Perfect, a “brilliant linguistic almanac.” Unfortunately, the wrong (pre-proofed) version was published, and it was anything but “perfect.”

Although thoroughly embarrassed, Dent was gracious in regard to the error. “To be fair to my publishers, Covid has caused an extraordinary rush on pushing books through the production process, and in many ways it has been a laudable achievement getting anything published at all.”

Many of Mere Inkling’s readers are also writers. Some are fortunate enough to have professional publishers. Dent reminds us that we should not take them for granted, despite their occasional shortcomings.

C.S. Lewis was, of course, quite a prolific writer. This led to his interaction with a variety of different editors. Lewis freely expressed appreciation for a job well done, as I noted in his praise of a French translation of his work.

Lewis was also quite comfortable in discussing precisely how his writings should appear in print. In another post, I described his conversation with a publisher about the presentation of a Shakespearean quotation.

Similarly, Lewis possessed an awareness of the importance of the covers chosen for his books. And he lamented the quality of the paper dictated by wartime rationing.

Mere Inkling has included many other references to publishers in the past, although I am still searching for an ancient roman reference to Cave Scribae.*

Publishers and editors are often the targets of disaffected writers. If you have never seen Mark Twain’s delightful sketches on the subject, don’t shut down your computer before checking my post on the subject.

It would be good to pray that our personal attitudes towards publishers reflect those of C.S. Lewis and Susie Dent rather than Samuel Clemens, since Twain once summarized his attitude in this tragic manner:

If ever a publisher gets a non-terminable contract with an author, that author can never buy his freedom from that slavery on any terms. A publisher is by nature so low and vile that he—that he—well from the bottom of my heart I wish all publishers were in hell.


* Cave Scribae translates to “Beware of the Scribes.” It’s a reference to the ancient practice of publishers having scribes reproduce individual copies of a new work for sale or distribution. Since each copy was technically “unique,” one can only guess how many errors must have slipped surreptitiously into the duplicates.

As for the illustration at the top of this column, there are countless examples of similar mistakes online. They are particularly alarming when they come from “educational” institutions. This one, from Oregon State University, offers a variation of the error illustrated above: “Many people know there learning style…”

Pen Names & Pseudonyms

April 28, 2020 — 15 Comments

Many great writers have used pen names, C.S. Lewis (and yours truly) included. Lewis, in fact, employed two.

There are a variety of reasons for writing under a pen name. While it may occasionally be done in order to deceive, most occurrences are utterly benign. For example, particularly in totalitarian states, the truth is dangerous to one’s health. In less authoritarian nations, reticence to use one’s own name might be motivated by fear of damage to one’s livelihood.

It’s also possible the writer simply has a personal desire to remain anonymous. This is the case with one of Lewis’ most important works. After the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, he composed one of his most moving works, A Grief Observed. For this candid reflection on grieving, Lewis attempted to maintain his privacy by ascribing the work to N.W. Clerk.  

My motivation for adopting a new pen name is different from all of these. More about that in a moment.

Here is a small sampling of writers you may know, who used pseudonyms for some of their work:

President John Adams, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Anne Brontë, Emily Brontë, Pearl S. Buck, Anton Chekhov, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Michael Crichton, Agatha Christie, Cecil Day-Lewis, D.B. Wyndham Lewis, Theodor Seuss Geisel, Henrik Ibsen, Washington Irving, Søren Kierkegaard, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joanne Rowling, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, just to name a few.

My personal opinion is that the best nom de plumes are not random or simply fanciful. Creating a pen name with an actual connection of some sort to the writer seems—to me—far more skillful. Case in point, Lewis’ use of the pseudonym “N.W. Clerk.” He created this name by combining the Anglo-Saxon “Nat Whilk” (meaning I know not whom) with “Clerk” meaning writer or scholar.

C.S. Lewis’ second pen name was also chosen for its specific meaning. Since boyhood, he had gone by the first name of Jack. With the pseudonym he used his actual name, Clive. For the surname, Lewis used his mother’s maiden name, Hamilton. Thus, Clive Hamilton.

His first two books were attributed in this manner. The first was Spirits in Bondage (1919), a collection of poetry. His second was begun while he was still a teenager. Dymer was a narrative poem with mythic elements. The first title is in the public domain, and available for download at Internet Archive. Both of the volumes were written, of course, while Lewis was an atheist.

My New Nom de Plume

In my own case, I recently devised a pen name for some satirical writing I am exploring. My purpose is not to mislead or confuse. In fact, it is expressly out of a desire to prevent confusion that I’ve assumed a pseudonym for my satire.

Even though I include humor in my writing, most of my work is essentially serious. This makes sense, for subjects such as faith, suffering, life, death, history, and eternity. I do not dissemble. As the Bible counsels, my yes means yes, and my no means no.*

Still, the very nature of satire means you are using language contrary to its face value. You are communicating tongue in cheek. You are frequently turning the language around upon itself so it communicates something quite different from what it literally says. Satire finds its fuel in irony, humor, hyperbole and even ridicule.

Skillful satire isn’t intentionally confusing. On the contrary, its message is almost always clear. Satire may sting the objects of its ridicule, and bring smiles to those who share your scorn for the institutions, policies, and individuals being taunted.

So, where, you may wonder, will this satirical writing be found . . . and under what pen name will you find it? I will be submitting some short pieces to The Salty Cee, a less commercialized alternative to The Babylon Bee. My pseudonym is Robert Charlesson, for reasons you can read about here.

Please check out my first news report: “Liturgical Medical Face Masks Now on Sale.”


* The actual passage I’m referencing, records Jesus criticizing making oaths to assure a person’s veracity. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:33-37). I think it is consistent to extend this principle to always speaking honestly, regardless of whether we are making affirmative or negative observations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the Vikings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

C.S. Lewis 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).