Archives For Charles Williams

C.S. Lewis did not write ghost stories, but he lived in a country that celebrated the strange genre. For some bizarre reason, the telling of ghost stories became associated with Christmas Eve. It’s a wonder to me why Lewis didn’t include this impropriety in his brilliant essay on Xmas.

“Christmas Eve was traditionally the time to tell scary stories round the hearth,” opens an article in The Guardian. I had never before associated Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with this bizarre tradition. Nor had I connected it with Amy Grant’s “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” (Far better the theme of Grant’s Nativity song “Breath of Heaven.”)

I presume I can thank my Scandinavian heritage for the absence of ghost stories in our Christmas season traditions. Mercifully we also avoided the plague of seasonal trolls and gnomes.

One of the most noted of authors of ghost stories had much in common with C.S. Lewis. M.R. James (1862-1936) was a medievalist scholar who taught at Cambridge. In fact, “James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King’s College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows.” In the same article no less than H.P. Lovecraft himself is cited as describing James as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank.”

I suppose it is a sign of his minimal interest in ghost stories that I cannot find any reference to James’ fiction in C.S. Lewis’ writing. Lewis does, however, refer to one of James’ scholarly works, The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles and Apocalypses.

In a 1955 letter, Lewis describes how experiencing a relationship with Christ is different than simply knowing about him.

Yes, Jesus Himself, of course: the heart. Not only the God in Him but the historical Man. I don’t know that I ever got much from reading things about Him. Perhaps, in a queer way, I got most from reading the Apocryphal Gospels (The whole Apocryphal N.T. is done in one vol. ed. M.R. James). For there you find things attributed to Him that couldn’t be true. You even find wise & beautiful sayings which nevertheless just don’t ring true. And have you noticed–reading the true sayings in the real Gospels–how hardly one of them could have been guessed in advance?*

References to Ghosts

As befits a person writing over a fifty year period, C.S. Lewis’ comments about ghosts vary. This is emphasized by the change in his worldview which accompanied his conversion from atheism to Christianity.

A 1915 letter to Arthur Greeves reveals Lewis’ affinity for the supernatural. He is describing his reading of “Roots of the Mountains” by William Morris (1834-1896).

Tho’ more ordinary than the [“Well at the World’s End” here and here], it is still utterly different from any novel you ever read. Apart from the quaint and beautiful old English, which means so much to me, the supernatural element, tho’ it does not enter into the plot, yet hovers on the margin all the time: we have ‘the wildwood wherein dwell wights that love not men, to whom the groan of the children of men is as the scrape of a fiddle-bow: there too abide the kelpies, and the ghosts of them that rest not . . .’

In Lewis’ essay “The Novels of Charles Williams,” he describes the uniqueness of Williams’ work.

We meet in them, on the one hand, very ordinary modern people who talk the slang of our own day, and live in the suburbs: on the other hand, we also meet the supernatural—ghosts, magicians, and archetypal beasts.

The first thing to grasp is that this is not a mixture of two literary kinds . . . Williams is really writing a third kind of book which belongs to neither class and has a different value from either.

He is writing that sort of book in which we begin by saying, ‘Let us suppose that this everyday world were, at some point, invaded by the marvellous. Let us, in fact, suppose a violation of frontier.’

In 1939 he wrote to his brother about a play by W.B. Yeats featuring a ghost.

The plays were worth seeing: one, by Yeats [“Purgatory” in Last Poems and Two Plays], his last one, was really powerful: conversation between a tramp and his son outside the ruins of a great house and then the ghost of its last mistress at the window, re-enacting her past life-she being the one who had finally let the whole thing down, marrying a horse-dealer . . . all the usual tragedy of the Irish aristocracy.

Not quite true, of course, because probably most of the preceding generations had been pretty good wasters too: but an effective play.

I have previously explored C.S. Lewis’ actual encounter with Yeats. It was quite odd. In 1921, he had written to his father.

I have been taken recently to see the mighty Yeats. It was the weirdest show you ever saw, and I fear he is a Kod [slang, I believe, for a fraud or a hoaxer]. You sit on hard antique chairs by candlelight in an oriental looking room and listen in silence while the great man talks about magic and ghosts and mystics . . .

What fluttering of the dovecote! It is a pity that the real romance of meeting a man who has written great poetry and who has known William Morris and Tagore and Symons should be so overlaid with the sham romance of flame coloured curtains and mumbo-jumbo.

In 1940 Lewis shared with Warnie his notion that if the seances were real — they had been popular during England’s flirtations with spiritualism — it did not suggest the spirits are particularly bright.

Part of Thursday afternoon I spent with unusual pleasure in the dark, pleasantly smelling, warmth of the old library with a slow dampish snow falling outside-flakes the size of matchboxes. I had gone in to look for something quite different, but became intrigued by the works of Dr Dee [(1527-1608) of Trinity College Cambridge], a mysterious magician and astrologer of Queen Elizabeth’s time.

The interesting thing about this was the fact that it was so uninteresting: I mean that the spirit conversations displayed, so far as I could see from turning over a few pages, just exactly the same fatuity which one observes in those recorded by modern spiritualists. What can be the explanation of this?

I suppose that both are hallucinations resulting from the same kind of mental weakness which, at all periods, produces the same rubbish. One can’t help, however, toying with the hypothesis that they are all real spirits in the case, and that we tap either a ghostly college of buffoons or a ghostly home for imbeciles.

In 1946 he complimented Ruth Pitter (1897-1992), a longtime friend and correspondent. Pitter’s First Poems are available here.

I’m not sure I’ve understood The Bridge as a whole: but I love ‘shapes of sorrow and empty vessels,’ etc. Nice things in Seaborn. The Cygnet comes off as well as things like air-raids can come off in poetry. I don’t mean because they’re modern.

But as a rule, the bigger a thing is, physically the less it works in literature. One ghost is always more disquieting than ten: no good fight in a story can have more than a dozen or so combatants: the death of a million men is less tragic than that of one.

By the way, that final comment will prove of great value to any modern writer!

I’ve accumulated several other Lewisian references to ghosts, so what say we continue this discussion in our next post? In the meantime, perhaps you will care to read some of the linked volumes, or to comment on the odd link between ghost stories and Christmas Eve.


* The Apocrypha Anecdota: A Collection of Thirteen Apocryphal Books and Fragments by Montague Rhodes James is available here. He also wrote The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: Their Titles and Fragments.

Several of James’ ghost stories are available in these collections: The Five Jars and A Thin Ghost and Others. Dr. Dewi Evans has compiled The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James and made them available in several formats on his website.

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This book belongs in the library of every fan of the Inklings and each devotee of King Arthur. The truth is that anyone interested in British literature or the Dark Ages will find much that appeals to their curiosity. King Arthur is known around the world as an archetypal hero, and he was a central fixture in the minds of the Inklings.

The Inklings & King Arthur (TIKA) is impressive in every way. However, it’s 555 rich pages should not intimidate potential readers. Editor Sørina Higgins masterfully gathered diverse insights from a score of scholars, and the individual chapters can be approached in any manner the reader desires. Even if a few of the chapter titles fail to resonate with a particular reader, the solid value of the remainder far exceed the price of the work.

Mere Inkling seldom offers reviews of books, despite the “libraries” of new Inkling literature published every year. The Inklings & King Arthur is the exception, for two reasons.*

TIKA does not require a familiarity with its subject. The academic background of the contributors allows them to usher readers into rewarding discussions without additional research. C.S. Lewis described “the task of the modern educator [as] not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” The writers in this volume have written so clearly that even if your knowledge of King Arthur is the Mojave, and your familiarity with the Inklings is the Sahara, you will enjoy reading this book.

Truth be told, much has been written about King Arthur. Likewise, films have explored the myths, with varying degrees of faithfulness. Some make no effort at all to be faithful to the inspiring story. An extreme example would be the ludicrous storyline of the 2017 film, Transformers: The Last Knight. In striking contrast to this, the Inklings sought to penetrate the mists of time and discern the reasons Arthur’s story has inspired men and women for so many generations.

In the book’s introduction, Higgins says her hope was “to fill a sizeable hole in the field of Inkling studies” (2). She surely achieved this task. She also says “the present collection endeavors to usher the field of Inklings studies into more rigorous theoretical territory” (3). This goal, the contributors have surpassed.

Proceeding to some specific comments, my first would be to point out the accuracy of the volume’s title. It is an exploration of “the Inklings,” rather than simply Lewis and/or Tolkien. The fact that less well-known members of the literary group wrote the most Arthuriana means their works are particularly well represented in the current collection.

This fact might discourage a potential reader who is disinterested in the lesser known authors. However, the truth is, exposure to work of these friends and influencers of the two über-Inklings helps us better understand them and the confluences that flowed together in that unique literary fellowship.

Most articles consider the Inklings as group in relationship to a theme. For example, Christopher Gaertner discusses, “Shape and Direction: Human Consciousness in the Inklings’ Mythological Geographies.” The author identifies their differing viewpoints and how they influenced one another. Despite “their shared resistance to a scientistic worldview” (150), Tolkien, Lewis and Owen Barfield did not share identical understandings of how the world should be perceived.

Beyond the Eagle & Child

One pleasant surprise is the inclusion of an essay on G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936). Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man contributed to the conversion of C.S. Lewis.

In his TIKA essay “All Men Live by Tales,” J. Cameron Moore reveals how Chesterton’s poetry about Arthur is rooted in England. Arthur was important enough for Chesterton to return several times to the story of this hero who is “Mythic, Roman, and Christian (205). You can download a free copy of The Ballad of St. Barbara which includes “The Myth of Arthur” here. You can read “The Grave of Arthur” at this site.

Benjamin Shogren explores the significance of the addition of two new names—Pendragon and Fisher-king” to the protagonist of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy. Elwin Ransom “represents Arthur by . . . evoking the primary imagery associated with the role of Arthur” (399). Ransom is now imbued with a mythological aura of royal leadership and courageous chivalry.

This volume overflows with richness. In “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien describes the dense blend of mythologies present in the story of Arthur, using the image of a pot of soup with various ingredients added over time.

It seems fairly plain that Arthur, once historical (but perhaps as such not of great importance), was also put into the Pot. There he was boiled for a long time, together with many other older figures and devices, of mythology and Faerie, and even some other stray bones of history (such as Alfred’s defence against the Danes), until he emerged as a King of Faerie.

The situation is similar in the great Northern “Arthurian” court of the Shield-Kings of Denmark, the Scyldingas of ancient English tradition. King Hrothgar and his family have many manifest marks of true history, far more than Arthur; yet even in the older (English) accounts of them they are associated with many figures and events of fairy-story: they have been in the Pot.

The soup or stew pot may also serve as a fitting metaphor for The Inklings & King Arthur. This exceptional volume offers a potent mix of wisdom and insights that go beyond the boundaries of its title. Readers will be rewarded, in fact, with many satisfying literary meals.


* The first reason is that the academic weight of the work merits the undertaking. The second is because I have received a review copy, which obligates me in a sense, to providing a review—not a positive review, of course, but an honest assessment of its value, from my personal perspective.

Honest reviewers, of course, are mandated to acknowledge the fact that they received a particular volume gratis. This is done to protect one’s integrity. At the same time, a writer’s honor is also protected by their pledge to provide an honest evaluation of each work, for good or ill. This is what you will discover here.

The volume’s editor, Sørina Higgins, gathered an impressive group of Inkling scholars to contribute. She is a poet who is Chair of Language and Literature at Signum University.

It would be challenging to find any flaw in this amazing volume. Its sole weakness, in this reviewer’s opinion, is that it is so detailed and thorough, that it transcends the reading skills (or perhaps, “tastes”) of some of today’s readers. Despite that, the authors have gone to significant effort to write clearly and make their extremely detailed subject matter accessible to all.

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.

Is Fantasy Foolish?

April 26, 2016 — 12 Comments

lion of lyonSome of the smartest people around dismiss reading fantasy as a crazy waste of time. At the same time, many of the most brilliant people I know love nothing more than passing from their mundane lives through a magical wardrobe into a land of wonder.

On a recent episode of the television series Castle, the eponymous Richard Castle,* a best-selling author and private eye, has a great line. Castle is defending his hyperactive imagination (which frequently leads to the solving of the crime of the week).

A suspect calls him “reality-challenged.”

To which he responds, “I prefer fantasy-augmented.”

Now, there’s a description that would fit most readers of Mere Inkling. We’re “fantasy-augmented.”

It would also fit most of the Oxford Inklings. Not all of them, of course. Some of them, like C.S. Lewis’ brother Warnie, were more oriented towards factual, historical literature.

The fantasists among their ranks were not lacking as writers of nonfiction either.

However, it was the fact that they were “fantasy-augmented” that has led to the inclusion of several of their members in the first ranks of twentieth century writers.

Narnia and Middle Earth are as real to many people today as Ogre, Latvia, Humpty Do, Australia, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, Wales, and Frankenstein, Missouri. (Perhaps more real!)

In 1936, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to Charles Williams, praising his recent novel.**

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer.

I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life–comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

The following day, Williams wrote a letter of his own to C.S. Lewis. It began:

My dear Mr Lewis, If you had delayed writing another 24 hours our letters would have crossed. It has never before happened to me to be admiring an author of a book while he at the same time was admiring me. My admiration for the staff work of the Omnipotence rises every day. To be exact, I finished on Saturday looking—too hastily—at proofs of your Allegorical Love Poem.

William’s reference to coincidence is poetic. He doesn’t rely on the timeworn “divine Providence,” which is so prevalent in literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Returning to Lewis’ missive, we learn exactly how Williams’ fantasy so deeply impressed him.

A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer. I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life—comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G.K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

There are layers and layers—first the pleasure that any good fantasy gives me: then, what is rarely (tho’ not so very rarely) combined with this, the pleasure of a real philosophical and theological stimulus: thirdly, characters: fourthly, what I neither expected nor desired, substantial edification.

It’s unlikely that any of us should ever author a work that would equally impress C.S. Lewis. Still, what a grand goal for any fantasy-augmented writer to strive for!

_____

* Castle is played by Nathan Fillion, who captained the spacecraft “Serenity,” in a delightful series entitled Firefly.

** You can download The Place of the Lion in a variety of formats at ManyBooks.

The illustration above is used with the permission of its creator, Charis Tsevis.

 

True Friendship

July 7, 2015 — 9 Comments

charles williamsIt seems odd to describe someone you deeply respect with the words “ugly as a chimpanzee,” but that’s precisely what C.S. Lewis once did.

Yet, reading the description in full, we find that Lewis considered the physical unattractiveness of his mentor to be a positive thing. In a sense, it accented his impressive persona.

Describing Charles Williams to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote:

As for the man: he is about 52, of humble origin (there are still traces of cockney in his voice), ugly as a chimpanzee but so radiant (he emanates more love than any man I have ever known) that as soon as he begins talking whether in private or in a lecture he is transfigured and looks like an angel. He sweeps some people quite off their feet and has many disciples. Women find him so attractive that if he were a bad man he could do what he liked either as a Don Juan or a charlatan.

I find this description evocative of the words about Jesus’ physical appearance. You can read the full passage about Jesus, the promised Messiah, here.

For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.

Lewis continues with his description of Williams, revealing a more intimate relationship than the previous words might suggest. Williams, you see, was one of the Inklings.

He works in the Oxford University Press. In spite of his “angelic” quality he is also quite an earthy person and when Warnie, Tolkien, he and I meet for our pint in a pub in Broad Street, the fun is often so fast and furious that the company probably thinks we’re talking bawdy when in fact we’re very likely talking Theology. He is married and, I think, youthfully in love with his wife still.

I find it amazing how vivid Lewis’ portrait of his colleague is. He briefly passes over his physical appearance (the least important of human traits, despite what the modern era intimates). And, even though his words are not flattering, the rest of the description reveals they are expressed with deep affection.

Lewis then quickly presses on to a poetic depiction of Williams’ oratorical skills, and concludes with a personable picture of the man among brothers. The final sentence, given Lewis’ perception that he himself would remain a lifelong bachelor, is quite perceptive.

Mutual respect—especially when tempered with affection—generates bonds that allow for honest assessments of both weaknesses and strengths.

A Personal Experience

I recall receiving a lovely engraved glass plaque as a memento of my tour at the United States Air Force Chaplain School. Most of my duties related to writing, but it was common knowledge that there were few subjects on which I did not have something to say.

When the Commandant of the Institute read the inscription during the presentation (it was the first time he had seen it), he paused in embarrassed silence thinking he must have read it wrong. It didn’t sound like the flattery that traditionally adorns such tokens.

“He says in a book what others say in a sentence.”

You can only offer such a dialectical “compliment” to a friend.

It was true, of course, and it was to much laughter that I immediately responded, “True, and it is a book well worth reading.”

When I read this description of the literary friend who made such a profound impression on Lewis, it makes me smile. It is all the more poignant, since it was written just a year before Williams’ death.

There are far, far worse things a person can experience than having someone who respects and loves them say they resemble a chimpanzee . . . or that they tend to be just a little bit verbose.