Archives For Great Authors

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).

Most aspiring writers are sincere. The question is, does the earnestness of their work translate into excellence? In other words, does honesty correlate to quality?

C.S. Lewis addressed this question in an essay about John Bunyan (1628-1688). Bunyan was the English writer and Puritan preacher best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the outset of the allegory Bunyan attempts to “show the profit of my book,” and encourage its reading.

This book is writ in such a dialect
As may the minds of listless men affect:
It seems a novelty, and yet contains
Nothing but sound and honest gospel strains.

While C.S. Lewis respected this classic work, he argues that its value is not simply a consequence of Bunyan’s honesty.

The other thing we must not say is that Bunyan wrote well because he was a sincere, forthright man who had no literary affectations and simply said what he meant. I do not doubt that is the account of the matter that Bunyan would have given himself. But it will not do. (“The Vision of John Bunyan”)

Lewis is not, of course, challenging Bunyan’s claim to honesty. What Lewis does, in fact, is challenge a common misconception. He dismantles the excuse for any who would dismiss grammar and literary rules as unimportant because they are writing earnestly. Basically, Lewis suggests we cannot justify creating a mediocre product and by burnishing it with the declaration that “it is an outpouring of our deepest passion.”

“If [candid honesty] were the real explanation,” states Lewis, “then every sincere, forthright, unaffected man could write as well.”

And we all know that is not the case. Lewis proceeds to offer an illuminating and curious illustration. It recalls the days of the First World War when one of the responsibilities of the officers was to review the correspondence of the troops before they accidentally divulged classified military information to their family at home.

But most people of my age learned from censoring the letters of the troops, when we were subalterns [lieutenants] in the first war, that unliterary people, however sincere and forthright in their talk, no sooner take a pen in hand than cliché and platitude flow from it. The shocking truth is that, while insincerity may be fatal to good writing, sincerity, of itself, never taught anyone to write well. It is a moral virtue, not a literary talent. We may hope it is rewarded in a better world: it is not rewarded on Parnassus.*

Lewis continues, praising Bunyan’s writing.

We must attribute Bunyan’s style to a perfect natural ear, a great sensibility for the idiom and cadence of popular speech, a long experience in addressing unlettered audiences, and a freedom from bad models. I do not add ‘to an intense imagination,’ for that also can shipwreck if a man does not find the right words.

A Lesson for Modern Writers

C.S. Lewis’ keen analysis of Bunyan’s writing is more than a mere history lesson. It offers a lesson to those of us who take up the pen today. By all means, we should exercise the moral virtue of sincerity in our writing. However, we should not rest on the strength of our integrity to ensure the quality of our writing.

We should hone our skills. Likewise, we should welcome the constructive criticism of our peers, as did the Inklings themselves.

Our work will also benefit when we intently listen. Learning the idiom and cadence of our characters (real or fictional) enables them to rise alive from the page.

Lewis’ essay on Bunyan offers another suggestion I would highlight. This will be true for any writer, but I think it is of particular import to Christian authors. Lewis affirms a forthright, honest, and powerful presentation of the truth as we perceive it. He cautions against pulling our punches because we are timid about how the austere truth may be received.

For some readers the ‘unpleasant side’ of The Pilgrim’s Progress [lies] in the intolerable terror which is never far away. Indeed unpleasant is here a ludicrous understatement. The dark doctrine has never been more horrifyingly stated than in the words that conclude Part I: Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.

In my opinion the book would be immeasurably weakened as a work of art if the flames of Hell were not always flickering on the horizon. I do not mean merely that if they were not it would cease to be true to Bunyan’s own vision and would therefore suffer all the effects which a voluntary distortion or expurgation of experience might be expected to produce. I mean also that the image of this is necessary to us while we read.

The urgency, the harsh woodcut energy, the continual sense of momentousness, depend on it. We might even say that, just as Bunyan’s religious theme demanded for its vehicle this kind of story, so the telling of such a story would have required on merely artistic grounds to be thus loaded with a further significance, a significance which is believed by only some, but can be felt (while they read) by all, to be of immeasurable importance.

Keeping this in mind—that we should be faithful to the truth of what we are professing—will serve us well in the final accounting. After all, it is the compromises of the tepid of which we must beware.


* Parnassus refers to a Greek mountain associated by the ancients with Apollo, the Muses and poetry.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is available in a variety of free versions.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, an Allegory features a “Biographical Sketch of the author, by Lord Macaullay.”

In an 1834 edition, we have Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Metrically Condensed: In Six Cantos.

The version with the most entertaining title has to be: The Pilgrim’s Progress [by John Bunyan] In Words of One Syllable.

The Child’s Pilgrim’s Progress can be downloaded in not one, but two volumes. It was published in 1860, with the preface:

No endeavour has been made in this little book to improve Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. To do so would be simply absurd. To bring prominently into view scenes supposed most attractive to children has been attempted; and, while the Dreamer’s narrative is preserved, others of less striking character have been thrown into the back ground. The quaint, simple language of the incomparable Bunyan is, for the most part, retained.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: for the Young was published in 1850. Its introduction includes commentary that echoes the theme of the post above.

John Bunyan, though a very pious and good man, was not a learned one ; for he was by trade a tinker, and had no opportunity to learn much more than to read, in his youth, and when a boy he was wild and wicked. But he made very good use afterward of what he knew ; and very diligently studied his Bible and other good books.

He was also what is called a genius, which means that he had great natural talent. He wrote many works, and one of his books, called the Pilgrim’s Progress, has been read and admired by more people than any other book except the Bible. Learned and unlearned men have read it again and again, and it has been translated into all modern languages.

What Do People Call You?

February 4, 2019 — 14 Comments

sobriquetNearly everyone has a sobriquet, even those who don’t know what it is.

C.S. Lewis knew what they are, of course, and he created his own at a young age.

Sobriquet is a French word for moniker (which is, itself, traced back to Shelta, a covert language of Irish gypsies). In more common parlance, a sobriquet or moniker is simply a nickname.

C.S. Lewis loved dogs. This is significant because his earliest nickname—the self-appointed one—derived from a dog he cared for during his youth. As his stepson relates the story:

When he was a small boy, he didn’t like the name [Clive] and soon changed it to “Jacksie” by simply refusing to answer to anything else. It was actually because of a small dog that he was fond of that he picked the name Jacksie . . .

It was run over (probably by a horse and cart as there were almost no cars at the time and place where he was a child), and Jack, as he later became known, just took the name for himself. (Jack’s Life)

C.S. Lewis’ Personal Sobriquet

Jacksie wasn’t Lewis’ only childhood sobriquet. He and his brother Warnie embraced a pair of titles that have a delightful source. Warnie was “Archpiggiebotham” and Jack was “Smallpiggiebotham.” A footnote in volume one of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis explains the names.

Jack sometimes addressed Warnie as “APB” and, in turn, Warnie addressed his brother as “SPB.” When Warnie and Jack were very young their nurse, Lizzie Endicott, when drying them after a bath, threatened to smack their “pigieboties” or “piggiebottoms.”

In time the brothers decided that Warnie was the “Archpiggiebotham” and Jack the “Smallpiggiebotham” or “APB” and “SPB.” Thereafter they used these terms of one another, particularly in their correspondence.

Like most famous individuals, Lewis collected a variety of (not always flattering) nicknames as he rose to what passed for celebrity status in Oxford. (I’ve written about how some of his peers resented his reputation—probably due to envy.)

Inkling Sobriquets

The Inklings were a richly creative community. Tollers (Tolkien) shared the limelight with Lewis. Tolkien’s self-assumed epithet was “a hobbit in all but size.”

Charles Williams adopted the nickname Serge, by which some of his most intimate friends addressed him. His collected letters to his wife were published under the title of both of their nicknames, To Michal from Serge.

In Oxford Inklings, Colin Duriez writes, “nicknames and the use of last names were common in Oxford, perhaps reflecting the enduring influence of the private schools that most students and teaching staff of that time had experienced.” Sadly, I’ve yet to find a place where these names were compiled.

David Downing, author of Looking for the King does mention several. On his website he lists the members of the Inklings. He says of one faithful member, who was also C.S. Lewis’ physician:

[Robert] Havard became one of the most regular attendees at Inklings meetings and seems to have collected the most nicknames. Hugo Dyson started calling him “Humphrey,” and the name seems to have been used more than Havard’s Christian name. (The physician mentioned briefly in Lewis’s novel Perelandra is called “Humphrey.”)

Havard was also called the “Useless Quack” or “U.Q.” by Warren Lewis and the “Red Admiral” by C.S. Lewis when he returned from World War II service at sea wearing a ruddy beard. [Editor: I’m confident Warnie meant Useless Quack affectionately.]

That the Inklings were fond of nicknames is evidenced by the fact they even bestowed a nickname on the Eagle and Child pub where they gathered. They called it the Bird and Baby.

C.S. Lewis: The Paternal Professor

I will close with a passage from one of Lewis’ students whose recollections are preserved in the collection, C.S. Lewis Remembered. It is significant in part because it challenges the false criticisms of Lewis biographer A.N. Wilson. It is noteworthy this description comes from a student who remained a devoted atheist who regarded “religious propositions as not even erroneous, but simply as meaningless.”

All Lewis’ most interesting tutorial students would turn up [for his literary discussions]. A.N. Wilson reported complaints that Lewis delighted in “verbal bullying” and was unapproachable and daunting as a tutor. Not in my time. The suggestion that Lewis could be “intimidating” would have raised incredulous laughter in this group. His affectionate sobriquet was “Papa Lewis.”

What a wonderful nickname for a brilliant professor. Would that we all might have had an opportunity to study at the feet of Papa Lewis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intertextuality as a Tool for the Bricoleur

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

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

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

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

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

When the Bricoleur Denies External Influences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay Tuned

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

polyps

These two great Oxford giants were good friends. As such, they accepted each other’s eccentricities. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t find humor in those peculiarities.

The Inklings were notorious for their candid critiques and their not-so-subtle teasing of one another. That’s what we all do with our good friends, right?

It’s humor offered not to wound, but to gently discombobulate our companion. And it’s success is measured in the laughter generated among colleagues who share goodwill.

I recently came across a reference, however, where Lewis may have transgressed the bounds of propriety. I leave the assessment of that fact to you.

In a 1947 letter to Margaret Douglas, who had recently lost her mother, Lewis offers warm words of consolation. In addition, he briefly references two publications that she had apparently alluded to in her own letter. The first was his Preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, which he refers to as the memoir. The second is Tolkien’s sequel to The Hobbit, which would become The Lord of the Rings.

Dear Miss Douglas, Accept my deepest sympathy on the death of your mother: for I think the bond between you was unusually close. You have one great consolation which few bereaved people have—a clear conscience towards the dead.

It was apparent that you were spending yourself largely upon her. I remember her very vividly, and much admired that blend of the playful and the stately, of which only old ladies have the secret.

I am so glad that you approved of the memoir. Professor Tolkien’s second Hobbit is still unfinished: he works like a coral insect you know!

With all good wishes, yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis

Just How Unflattering is the Comparison?

To compare Tolkien to a minute sea creature of sedentary nature may not, at first read, seem offensive. One might wonder though whether it is quite so innocuous as it might appear.

The National Ocean Service, here in the U.S. provides an answer to the frequently posed question, “are corals animals or plants?” Like Lewis, we already know the answer to that—“a coral insect you know!”—but their colorful description illuminates said insect in a curious manner.

Corals actually comprise an ancient and unique partnership, called symbiosis, that benefits both animal and plant life in the ocean. Corals are animals, though, because they do not make their own food, as plants do. Corals have tiny, tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep it into their inscrutable mouths.

I wasn’t aware that they had tentacles. And I don’t think I want to know what makes their mouths “inscrutable.” However, the description adds one more element that I certainly don’t recall from my childhood science classes . . . it’s what the tiny creatures that create such lovely exoskeletons are called.

Most structures that we call “coral” are, in fact, made up of hundreds to thousands of tiny coral creatures called polyps. Each soft-bodied polyp—most no thicker than a nickel—secretes a hard outer skeleton of limestone (calcium carbonate) that attaches either to rock or the dead skeletons of other polyps.

Either I never knew the zoological definition of the word polyp, or it’s been pushed aside in my mind by the more common pathological meaning of the word. It just makes the association of someone with these “columnar bod[ied] . . . mouth and tentacles” oddities seem even more disturbing.

Fortunately, it’s obvious Lewis wasn’t equating the creator of Middle Earth with invertebrate coelenterates. The creator of Narnia was simply likening Tolkien’s publication pace to the secretion rate of the polyps that populate the corals themselves.

Over the years, some of my best friends have labeled me in what an outsider might regard as an unflattering way. While I taught at USAF Chaplain School, my teammates called me “Lemming.” (On occasion, they still do.) The reference had nothing to do with me following the crowd . . . and everything to do with being directed to march off any number of cliffs.

I doubt that Lewis ever shared this association with Tolkien himself. It’s likely that he freely associated the idea at the moment he wrote it, and never thought about it again.

That was one of Lewis’ gifts, being able to use creative analogies to make his points. It is simply one of his talents I would love to share.

And, as for Lewis’ use of the word “insect” here, he is obviously alluding to the polyp’s small size. It would not surprise me to learn that there is an archaic British precedent for such usage. Or, is it just possible that he knew the proper word for the creature, and was too cultured to use it in this context? Perhaps we will never know.

coralpolyp.jpg

Be an Inkling

May 3, 2017 — 8 Comments

Lemming Critique

Do you invite others to critique your writing before you publish it? If you want to be successful, you definitely should.

I never cease to be amazed at how presumptuous some writers are. I’m referring to those who deny their work could be improved by having others offer suggestions for improving it.

When I reflect on the fact that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien subjected their own work to the critical eyes (and ears) of their peers, I realize I must do no less.

Just as their involvement in the Inklings made them better authors, in the same way our participating in writing or critiquing fellowship is vital to our advancing in the art.

Lewis recognized this early in life. Long before the birth of the Inklings, he exchanged “works in progress” with his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

Lewis went so far as to declare, in a 1916 letter to Greeves: “It is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result.”

Benefits of Writing Fellowships

Some profitable results that come from participating in a support group are obvious. Depending on the group, your compatriots identify places where your writing is not as clear as you intend it to be. Some participants may also be good copy editors, and willing to share their skills.

Then there are the proverbial “grammar Nazis” whose contributions are actually valuable, if you desire to write well. (Of course, the comments of others are only suggestions, and all writers are free to implement, or dismiss, the advice.)

In longer works, your writing companions can help you identify when your pace is erratic or your story is going off track. It’s not uncommon for them to offer worthwhile ideas that would never have come to you if you relied solely on your own cranium.

Another benefit comes from gaining new insights into the writing life. For example, one of my writing partners made this observation that continues to guide me. Discussing how frequently I digress to extinguish any possibility of misunderstanding, he said, “The instinct of the journalist is to be concise. The instinct of the historian is to be thorough. You’re a historian.” Realizing that I invariably default to the latter, the historian, helps me to consciously attempt to temper that orientation. (I know, I don’t succeed too well with that, but just imagine what my writing would be like if I surrendered unconditionally to my innate inclination.)

Encouraging Others

Participating in a writing collective means we never have to be isolated, alone with words destined never to be seen by another human eye. At the very least, we share them with our friends. And, potentially, the collaborative process helps see them through to publication

It is well known that without C.S. Lewis’ persistent encouragement, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit would never have seen print.

Lewis revealed his nature as an encourager early in his life. The quotation above comes, in fact, from a letter when he is challenging Greeves to continue faithfully sending his work for Lewis to comment upon.

I do really want to see something of yours, and you must know that it is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result.

However, I told you I would proceed to serious measures, so here is my manifesto. I, Clive Staples Lewis, student, do hereby give notice that unless some literary composition of Arthur Greeves be in my possession on or before midnight on the last night of June in the year nineteen hundred and sixteen, I shall discontinue from that date forward, all communication to the said Arthur Greeves of every kind, manner, and description whatsoever, until such composition or compositions be forwarded. ‘So there’ as the children say. Now let us go on.

This amusing passage reminds us of two final things. First, if we have difficulty connecting with a local writing group, remember that we are not limited by geographic proximity. (Never truer than in today’s wired world.)

A second lesson is that, as in most human relations, humor makes good things even better. Oh, how the halls of Magdalen College and the Eagle and Child must have echoed with their laughter.

Devastated by Criticism

November 14, 2016 — 14 Comments

calvin-criticismHow do you feel when others criticize something you’ve written? Do you just want to tear your work up and start all over again? If you do, you have something in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings. And he is not the only great writer with whom you share this hypersensitive trait.

Tolkien’s inability to accept constructive criticism is no secret; it is frequently noted in biographies.

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, and we are often suspicious of the mental health of those who do. Yet many writers actively seek out constructive criticism in order to sharpen their skills and improve their work.

That is a major reason for the existence of writers’ groups which pop up in varying expressions wherever serious writers live. While another benefit of such communities is the simple encouragement that comes from gathering with others who share your passion, it is the critical examination of each other’s manuscripts which provides the clearest concrete benefit. It’s no accident many such literary meetings are actually called critique groups.

Tolkien was a member of one of the most famous such fellowships that ever existed, the Inklings. It was in that setting where he first shared the stories of hobbits and elves who would make such a profound impact on Western literature. He said it was primarily through the encouragement of the Inklings—specifically his good friend, C.S. Lewis—that these amazing stories were ever published.

You see, Tolkien had a terrible and frequently fatal flaw . . . When his writing was criticized, he felt compelled to toss it aside and begin anew. Many other writers have been afflicted with this curse, and not all of them had a C.S. Lewis to rescue their words from the dust bin.

I have shared in the past Lewis’ description of his friend’s handicap.

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

Criticism of the Constructive Variety

As I said a moment ago, no one really craves criticism, and yet most serious writers actively solicit it. As I write this very column, it is with the intention of sharing it tomorrow with my friends in my own writing circles.

When you read it, it will likely have changed, probably in subtle, enriching ways. You can gauge the benefit of mutual critiquing by the amount and the quality of the criticism which is shared. And, should you feel violated, rebuke defensiveness and remind yourself that even the greats, like Tolkien and Lewis, gained from the comments and suggestions of their friends.

I recently learned of another individual who struggled with receiving criticism. It was John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology. Belonging to the Lutheran branch of the church universal, my readings in Reformed history have been limited. However, I’m currently reading two similarly titled books* and I discovered something that may be commonly known to Reformed clergy but was news to me.

He often tended to express his disappointment in extravagant terms. When he encountered an obstacle, his reaction was stark: he would burn his manuscript, never write again, never publish anything again. His decision to write was motivated by external factors: a request by his circle of friends and colleagues, or as the result of his emotional reaction to an event or a work that he read. . . . (John Calvin and the Printed Book)

The good news though is Calvin did not allow these obstacles to have the final say. Instead, he turned to those he trusted and sought their counsel.

Indeed, his extreme sensitivity meant that he needed to have the emotional support of close friends. As a Reformer and specifically as an author, Calvin never worked in isolation even though he was the dominant figure in his setting. While he was confident of the quality of his writings, Calvin still had no hesitation in submitting them to his colleagues before publication. (Ibid.)

Not that Calvin always welcomed suggestions. There was one particular Reformer to whom he sent some of his work whose “commend from Zurich were too numerous and detailed. Hence Calvin stopped sending his manuscripts to Bullinger prior to printing, although he maintained cordial relations with the Zurich Reformer.” I can almost read Calvin’s mind at the time: I asked for your suggestions, not a complete rewrite of the manuscript.

So, it appears those of us who feel discomfort at the sting of criticism—even when we request it—stand in good company. So don’t ever let that temporary pain discourage you from continuing to write.

____

* A 2005 volume is called John Calvin and the Printed Book, while a 2015 collection of essays is called Calvin and the Book.