Saved by a Misspelling

September 9, 2019 — 7 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts on Spelling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Bad Could It Be?

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis’ Response

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

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

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

As Lewis says,

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

Preparing for Disasters

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Good, Bad and Ugly Hymns

August 12, 2019 — 21 Comments

There’s good “church music.” There’s mediocre church music. (And, there’s even terrible church music.) Read on and I’ll provide a link to an article I wrote about one questionable ditty that wormed its way into a military hymnal.

C.S. Lewis was not a fan of most church music. I’ve written about his musical tastes previously.

His assessment is no secret. He deemed most hymns to be “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.”

When it comes to hymns, there is general agreement on what’s good. These songs have passed the test of time. They have proven edifying and inspirational for generations. Some contemporary music is also biblically faithful and possesses the potential to join the ranks of the church’s lasting hymnody.

Then there are the others. Uninhibited redundancy, for example, suggests a corresponding shallowness. I forego the idiom about something being broad but shallow, since such songs are actually narrow and shallow. Case in point, the song “Yes, Lord.”

It begins promisingly enough:
I’m trading my sorrow
I’m trading my shame
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

Then the theology gets a wee bit blurrier, especially for believers who still suffer after praying for healing:

I’m trading my sickness
I’m trading my pain
I’m laying it down for the joy of the Lord

But it’s the chorus that undermines the song’s edificatory potential.

And we say
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord
Yes Lord yes Lord yes yes Lord Amen

The last two chorus breaks are replaced by the less challenging:

La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la la

La la la laLa la
La la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la
La la la la la la la la la
La la la laLa la la la

To those of you who adore this particular song—please accept my apologies for singling it out. Yet I stand by my view of these lyrics. And I can certainly imagine what C.S. Lewis would have thought of it.

The Power of Music

Various Christian leaders have expressed the opinion it’s more important to write the church’s hymns than its theological books. Hopefully that’s hyperbole, but few would deny the words we sing directly influence our thinking.

Arius, one of the early heretics who denied the divinity of Christ, knew this. His movement created tremendous confusion and resulted in much persecution. One of his most successful tools consisted of composing heretical songs. The words were “religious,” and the tunes were catchy, so people were singing them even when they didn’t agree with his doctrine.

C.S. Lewis & Church Music

As mentioned above, C.S. Lewis was very candid about his own disaffection for most church hymnody. In “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” Lewis answers the question of whether it’s necessary to attend worship services. He describes how duty rather than desire brought him to congregational worship.

When I first became a Christian . . . I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag . . .

[However,] I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off.

I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit.

In light of Lewis’ attitude toward religious hymnody, it’s ironic that in 1946 he was invited to help evaluate new hymns.

The Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland is opening a file of new hymns to which modern hymn-writers are to be asked to contribute. I have been asked to write to you and ask if you will be a member of the panel to whom new hymns may be submitted in order that their merit may be assessed . . .

Lewis’ response to the invitation is as revealing as it is (unintentionally, I’m sure) curt.

The truth is that I’m not in sufficient sympathy with the project to help you. I know that many of the congregation like singing hymns: but I am not yet convinced that their enjoyment is of a spiritual kind. It may be: I don’t know.

To the minority, of whom I am one, the hymns are mostly the dead wood of the service. Recently in a party of six people I found that all without exception would like fewer hymns. Naturally, one holding this view can’t help you.

Two months later, the men exchanged letters again, and Lewis clarified his thoughts.

I can’t quite remember my own last letter; but I was wrong if I said or implied that . . . hymns, were bad in principle. . . . In modern England, however, we can’t sing—as the Welsh and Germans can. Also (a great pity, but a fact) the art of poetry has developed for two centuries in a private and subjective direction.

That is why I find hymns ‘dead wood.’ But I spoke only for myself and a few others. If an improved hymnody—or even the present hymnody—does edify other people, of course it is an elementary duty of charity and humility for me to submit. I have never spoken in public against the use of hymns . . .

The Gospel Coalition has an informative essay on Lewis’ broader view of worship here.

The Armed Forces Hymnal Scandal

At the outset of this column I promised readers a link to a recently published article. If you would like to read about a bizarre hymn that (temporarily) slithered into the Book of Worship for United States Forces, check it out here. The article begins on page fifteen of the new issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

The hymn in question may be thought-provoking, but it belongs in a discussion group, not in a worship service. The lyrics are placed on the tongue of thief crucified beside Jesus. The criminal who was not invited by Jesus to “be with [him] in paradise” (Luke 23). The first stanza will amply illustrate the spirit of the piece.

It was on a Friday morning that they took me from my cell,
And I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well
You can blame it on to Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews,
You can blame it on the Devil, It’s God I accuse.
(Refrain)
It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me.
I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.

If you read the article, and consider me unfair to the song’s writer, please leave a comment below. I would love the chance to respond. Likewise, if you think I’ve been too harsh in my evaluation of “Yes, Lord.” Given a choice between mediocre and terrible hymns, there’s no contest.

One wonders how Lewis would have rated “It was on a Friday Morning.” I suspect it would not even rise to the bar of being a “fifth-rate poem.”

csl book cover.png

Have you ever wondered if publishers change the covers on their books trying to trick you into buying an extra copy? While I’m sure some unscrupulous publishing houses may have engaged in such questionable practices, surely they would never do so with the books of so honest a man as C.S. Lewis!

Over the past forty years I’ve purchased multiple copies of various works by C.S. Lewis. Occasionally I’ve needed to replace a loan copy that was never returned. A number of times when I’ve taught a class on one of his works, I’ve provided everyone with a personal copy. Sometimes I’ve purchased them with the sole intent to give them to the curious—I have some on my bookshelf right now waiting for the right home.

Through the years I have been struck by the frequency with which covers change. Sometimes, of course, it’s due to different publishers gaining rights to the titles. Often, though, it seems to be based almost on whim. Consider, for example, the diversity in covers for the final volume in C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy. (I picked this title arbitrarily, because of the interplanetary subject matter.)

If you examine the collage of covers, you’ll note some similarities and image reuse. However, the thing that surprised me was the way that a single publisher, Pan Books, had no fewer than four different covers. (Perhaps there is something to the suspicion that booksellers are more than happy to sell multiple copies to inattentive readers?)

It’s no secret that book covers are extremely important. They can increase the sales of marginal works and suppress the distribution of exceptional books. Their enormous influence gave rise to the wise maxim: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Jesus applied a variation of this theme to the publicly righteous hypocrites of his day when he said, “woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27, ESV).

Sadly, I’ve begun reading more than one book that bore an inviting cover and was filled with decomposing grammar, decaying plotlines and putrid characters.

On a website for creative artists, a fan of C.S. Lewis’ works recently experimented with creating innovative covers for three of Lewis’ most popular books.

Will Jacott explains,

screwtape cover.jpg I wanted to convey an accurate image of the book, while also allowing for some ambiguity so the reader could project their own meaning onto the cover. C.S. Lewis books are traditionally marketed toward Christian audiences, and often have light-hearted covers. . . . I wanted the books to appeal to a non-Christian audience, and I wanted the books to have a gritty and more emotional feeling, while also alluding to the extraordinary qualities inside the book.

I believe Will succeeded in his goals . . . and also made the covers simpler and more striking than many of the cluttered covers that adorn my shelf.

C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts on Book Covers

In 1915, Lewis wrote to his closest friend, Arthur Greeves, about hoping to get a library-worthy copy of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser.* Unfortunately, he found the most suitable edition unappealing. “The pictures are tolerable but the print, if I remember, rather coarse (you know what I mean) and the cover detestable.”

In 1936, Lewis was writing to a friend in which he recommends the books of Charles Williams. After commending Williams’ skill in portraying virtuous characters, he adds, “the fact that Gollancz publishes them (in lurid covers) suggests that all this substantial edification—for it is nothing less—must be reaching the ordinary thriller-reader.” The comment makes me wonder what Lewis would have thought of some of the contemporary covers chosen for his own books.

Pauline Baynes was the illustrator with whom Lewis worked for The Chronicles of Narnia. In 1951 Lewis provided her with a sketch of the map of Narnia and its surroundings. The next week he wrote to her.

My idea was that the map should be more like a medieval map than an Ordnance Survey–mountains and castles drawn–perhaps winds blowing at the corners–and a few heraldic-looking ships, whales and dolphins in the sea. Aslan gazing at the moon would make an excellent cover design (to be repeated somewhere in the book; but do as you please about that.)

In a 1958 letter to Jocelyn Gibb, Lewis discusses his changes to the editing proofs of Reflections. His remarks about the cover of the book are interesting, particularly as they reveal his distaste for handwriting fonts, at least in that context.

About the Dust Cover, I like the colour scheme and wouldn’t object. If you have it, I should go for the best design, and archaeology be damned. But I don’t like the letters. We have very nice plain Roman Capitals now . . . and I think it a bad fashion to substitute printed mimicry of ugly handwriting. I wish all publishers would stop it.

Even if the handwriting were a beautiful script, which this is not, the whole idea that decoration consists in making everything masquerade as something else, is surely wrong. Do you like smoking-rooms on ships made up to look like Scotch baronial halls?

There is no better way to end this column than by quoting C.S. Lewis’ glorious description at the finale of The Chronicles of Narnia. As the stories end, the children are ushered into heaven by Aslan who, as he spoke, “no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.”

All their life in this world and all their adventures had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before (The Last Battle).

__________________

* Lewis would have loved to own this critical edition of The Fairie Queene, which would not be published until seventeen years after he wrote this letter. And, today, you can download volume one for free!

 

csl dragon.png

In 1957, C.S. Lewis wrote an encouraging letter to a young author whose first book had been written at the age of fourteen. Jane Gaskell’s Strange Evil was described by the Times Literary Supplement as “a fantasy of macabre and gorgeous nonsense.” The review even alluded to Lewis himself in its description of the novel.

Judith, who poses nude for a living, is carried off to a C.S. Lewis-ish land where a monster called Baby conducts his reign of terror and where one extravagantly gory battle follows another.

Miss Gaskell is eloquently fascinated by words, the longer and more lush the better, and her book reveals an undoubted talent for fanciful description.

Gaskell went on to become a journalist. She also authored several more novels, and ultimately became a professional astrologer.

But, returning to the young girl and her first publication . . . Lewis considered the young girl worthy of encouragement.

My wife and I have just been reading your book and I want to tell you that I think it a quite amazing achievement–incomparably beyond anything I could have done at that age. The story runs, on the whole, very well and there is some real imagination in it.

The idea of the gigantic spoiled brat (had you a horrid baby brother once?) is really excellent: perhaps even profound. Unlike most modern fantasies your book also has a firm core of civilised ethics. On all these grounds, hearty congratulations.

Lewis does, however, offer a suggestion for how the book may have been improved. “I hope you will not think it impertinent if I mention (this is only one man’s opinion of course) some mistakes you can avoid in future.”

In a fantasy every precaution must be taken never to break the spell, to do nothing which will wake the reader and bring him back with a bump to the common earth. But this is what you sometimes do.

The moving bar on which they travel is a dull invention at best, because we can’t help conceiving it as mechanical. But when you add upholstered seats, lavatories, and restaurants, I can’t go on believing in faerie for a moment. It has all turned into commonplace technological luxury!

This concept is noteworthy for writers—especially writers of fiction, for whom imagination is an indispensable ingredient. We must avoid elements that derail the story, as inappropriate technology can sometimes do.

Beware of the Temptation

I suspect most writers today experience technology as a more concrete threat to their vocation than the inopportune example Lewis was noting. It’s not that we include too many or too few mechanical or scientific references in our work. The problem is that we are so distracted by the wonders of the world in which we live, that we never get around to putting the pen to paper.

Some of us can lose ourselves in the internet or social media. One fascinating read leads to another and we wonder “where the time has gone.” Vast programming “on demand,” is ready at a moment’s notice to occupy (or, sometimes, numb) our minds. And even when we do sit down at the keyboard, emails and messages interrupt our concentration.*

Technology, of course, is not only dangerous to writers. It can distract any of us from what is most important in life. How many hours have we squandered when we could have spent our time with family or friends? Why do we prefer to anesthetize ourselves with digital opiates, rather than helping a neighbor?

Not long ago, Christianity Today conducted an interview with Richard Foster. Foster’s 1978 book, A Celebration of Discipline, has been extremely influential in calling believers to lives of deeper simplicity and prayer. In their article they mentioned a revision in the preface that speaks powerfully to me.

Oh, for the day when all we had to do was turn off the television if we wanted solitude and silence! . . . we are bombarded by the broad distractions of constant noise, constant demands, constant news. Everyone, it seems, wants us to be accessible 24/7 and to respond instantly to any and every request.

Neuroscience studies are now showing us that the neural pathways of our brains are being rewired accordingly, so that our physical capacity for sustained attention is decreasing.

We, of course, complain endlessly about our wired world. But—let’s be honest—we do enjoy our technological gluttony. There is, however, a better way to live.

I’m going to close this post with a personal prayer. Feel free to join me in it, if you desire.

Gracious Father, forgive me my trespasses, and deliver me from the sin of technological gluttony to which I so often surrender. Draw me away from the table of excess, and lead me on that better path . . . the way that leads to life, and to you. Amen.


* Many of these distractions can be significantly decreased by setting your software to provide fewer “notifications” when various things occur. For example, I recently had to reset my iTunes because the program was throwing up a message every time a new song began.

When I am listening to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings, I don’t care to be told that “The Foot of Orthanc” is coming up as the strains of “The Road to Isengard” are fading away.

achilles

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

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

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What of the Consequences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dog author

Wouldn’t it be amazing to read about the adventures, struggles, triumphs, thoughts, and dreams of real animals? C.S. Lewis thought so.

Admittedly, referring to the thoughts and dreams of a squirrel or a hummingbird is a bit fanciful. But isn’t it feasible to imagine that a pregnant doe is hoping to find a lush meadow, or that a beaver who’s just finished a fine meal is gratefully contented as he snuggles down for the night in his lodge?

In one of his thought-provoking books—which I enthusiastically recommend to everyone who likes to read—Lewis describes exactly how reading is vital to expanding our world. “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors” (An Experiment in Criticism).

In this volume, Lewis argues that books are better measured by how they are read,  than by how they are written. In other words, Lewis is making the case that the true value of a book is not determined by the skill the author applied to its creation. Instead, Lewis writes, “so far as I can see . . . the specific value or good of literature [is that] it admits us to experiences other than our own.”

Lewis continues, with a fascinating discussion of his “experiment,” which flips traditional literary criticism on its head. Don’t rush through the following excerpt from the argument. It’s well worth taking your time to ponder his words and see if you agree.

[The experiences of others] are not, any more than our personal experiences, all equally worth having. Some, as we say, ‘interest’ us more than others. The causes of this interest are naturally extremely various and differ from one man to another; it may be the typical (and we say ‘How true!’) or the abnormal (and we say ‘How strange !’); it may be the beautiful, the terrible, the awe-inspiring, the exhilarating, the pathetic , the comic, or the merely piquant. Literature gives the entrée to them all.

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough.

At this point we arrive at the utterly Lewisian notion that even animals (e.g. uncivilized “brutes”) would be capable of broadening the horizons of our own thinking.

I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality.

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (An Experiment in Criticism).

On the Subject of Reading & Rereading

If you need any more encouragement to seek out a copy of this wonderful book, allow me to share with you two profound points Lewis makes in support of his distinction between “literary” and “unliterary” people. (Lewis, of course, does not demean the latter. On the contrary, he grieves for the “tiny world” they choose to inhabit.)

The majority [of unliterary people], though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource. They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up. It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep.’

They sometimes combine it with desultory conversation; often, with listening to the radio. But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention (An Experiment in Criticism).

In terms of rereading, Lewis was a fervent advocate of reading good books more than once. Most of us would say lack of time is the greatest deterrent to rereading classics, but most of us do have some favorites that we have returned to more than once.

The majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it.

But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it (An Experiment in Criticism).

In contrast, Lewis describes how “those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.” Many of us would initially think our rereading frequency falls short of those specific tallies, perhaps we should reconsider. After all, most readers of Mere Inkling reread with great frequency portions of a particular library of sixty-six books,* gathered together in a book called the Bible.


* More books in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox collection of the Scriptures, which include seven Deuterocanonical books. Fewer, of course, for our Jewish friends who follow the teachings of twenty-four books, which are also included in the Christian Bible.