If we were to ask C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the rest of the Inklings for insights about a New Year, what wisdom might they share?
Read on. Mere Inkling answers that question with a few select quotations from their writings. We also include comments from several other writers associated, in spirit, with the Oxford Inklings.
While some of the pithiest of the quotations below are well represented at quotation websites, your humble host has secured the less familiar quotations through the diligent search of obscure manuscripts.
From a holiday letter to a friend.
“There is small chance of this reaching you tomorrow Jan. 1 to wish you a Happy New Year. I hope you have plenty of food in store! It is my birthday on Jan. 3rd, and I look like spending it in the isolation of a house turned igloo; but the companionship of several bottles of what has turned out a most excellent burgundy (since I helped to select it in its infancy) will no doubt mitigate that: Clos de Tart 1949, just at its top. With that hobbit-like note I will close, wishing you and your wife and children all blessings in 1962.”
As the world conflict raged on, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher who was serving in the Royal Air Force. “This empty year is fading into a dull grey mournful darkness: so slow-footed and yet so swift and evanescent. What of the new year and the spring? I wonder.”
A scholar in his own right, Christopher devoted much of his life to editing his father’s published and unpublished works. In The End of the Third Age, he reminds us that sometimes the jobs on which we embark end up being far more involved than we anticipated. “With this book, my account of the writing of The Lord of the Rings is completed. I regret that I did not manage to keep it even within the compass of three fat volumes.
“What wonderful adventures we shall have, now that we are all in it together.”
“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”
“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different.”
“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and help others to do the same.”
“If you live for the next world, you get this one in the deal; but if you live only for this world, you lose them both.”
“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
“I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise, it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”
“I think in order to move forward into the future, you need to know where you’ve been.”
“Play and pray; but on the whole do not pray when you are playing and do not play when you are praying.”
“. . . the poet, while creating anew, is likely to be in a sense restoring something old.”
In a short story entitled “The Devastated Area,” Barfield, a veteran of WWI, described the way a soldier can view an uncertain future. “Armistice day; the last shot; and the hushed, doubtful little group in the dug-out at 11 o’clock. He is sitting there in uniform, willing for the first time in three years to let his thoughts run on into the future. But they will go back to the past instead . . .”
In his history of English hymnody, Fox praises his nation’s people and offers timely advice regarding musical accompaniment. “It takes no long argument to prove that Hymn Singing is a national institution in Great Britain. It is so rather in the same way as cricket. . . . The singing is usually accompanied on an organ, or if there is no organ, then on a piano. The harmonium, though sometimes used for the purpose, cannot be recommended, and is falling into disuse.”
Jack A.W. Bennett:
In The Humane Medievalist, Bennett praises his friend and fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis. Coincidentally, this essay was his own inaugural lecture as he assumed the Cambridge chair which had been created for Lewis himself. “C.S. Lewis died a year ago today, and the year has deepened not diminished our sense of loss. Those of us who had the good fortune to call him master must feel as the prentice Hoccleve felt about Chaucer: ‘Fain he would me have taught, But I was dull, and learned little or naught.’”
Lord David Cecil:
He begins his biography of Lord Melbourne with a curious sentence suggesting that even we who have lived the most average of lives, may still have great things ahead of us. “William Lamb, second son of the first Viscount Melbourne, had arrived at the age of forty-seven without achieving anything of significance in the world.”
Discussing the Tragedies written by Shakespeare, Dyson reminds us to recognize potential blessings in the coming year’s challenges. “Our awareness both of ourselves and of the world at large is intensified by confrontation with an unexpected or serious or painful situation. Our wits and imaginations alike grow more acute under difficulties.”
Referring to Chaucer’s portrayal of the Knight, Coghill describes an ongoing goal for those who will to live nobly. “There is a fundamental answer to those who want to think the Knight’s moral nature . . . was too good to be true, and so can be no better than a romantic illusion. People who think thus can never have thought about Christianity at all; that we can live up to the moral demands that it makes on us, and that at any moment we may fall into the pit that opens beneath us, does not lessen the love we are taught . . . to have, and to attempt. Christianity plainly tells us to be perfect, impossible as it seems, impossible as it proves; but this does not make that demand less real, or even less realistic . . . Coming to the aid of human imperfection, there is grace.”
A Special Bonus for Mere Inkling Readers as the Year Ends
And a few additional thoughts from writers with connections to our favorite Inklings.
“A man’s real belief is that which he lives by. What a man believes is the thing he does, not the thing he thinks.”
A reminder to trust God for his daily provision. “It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow, that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear.”
“Past tears are present strength.”
“Paradoxical as it may seem, to believe in youth is to look backward; to look forward we must believe in age.”
“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”
“Being a fool for God was not merely alright but liberating.”
“We do not need a world in which there is nothing to be afraid of . . . Nor can we have such a world, for all our strivings; no matter pleasant and safe we make the journey, the end of it is death. What we do need is to remember that we have been redeemed from death and the fear of death, and at a rather high price too.”
“I am beginning to realize that every point in one’s life at which one loses everything is far more a beginning than an end, for one has lost merely the past, and one has yet to gain the future, and eternity itself.”
And, encouragement for those among us who are writers: “Don’t forget, the rejection by a publisher of a book that you’ve written is not a failure.”
One Final Bit of Wisdom for the New Year
The internet offers lots of valuable information, accessible with the click of a key. Unfortunately, a significant amount of it is unsubstantiated, and downright false. This includes the quotations attributed to various people.
Some largescale quotation “aggregators” consider attribution on other unvalidated sites sufficient justification for loading the questionable citations to their own pages. For example, check out the quotations attributed online to Lord David Cecil. Or, better yet, don’t.
During my research for this post I discovered many of them – or, at least those most beneficial to reflective minds – actually come from the pen of Richard Cecil (1748-1810), an Anglican priest. Here is a grand example of misattribution, particularly appealing to a pastor such as myself: “It requires as much reflection and wisdom to know what is not to be put into a sermon, as what is.”
We’ll close now with an apocryphal C.S. Lewis quote. Despite scores of sites attributing the following thought to Lewis, no one can find it anywhere in his work. It is, however, consistent with his wisdom, and leaves us with an optimistic truth as 2021 draws to a close.
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”
Amen. Lord, grant all those who read these words of wisdom, both now and during years to come, a blessed New Year.