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On the Nature of Mascots

September 29, 2020 — 14 Comments

Brits and Americans share many things. That includes English as a primary language. Well, sort of.

Aside from some people’s inclination to misspell words—such as adding a superfluous letter “u” to words like colour and humour—we agree on most things. Well, add quotation marks to the arena of dissimilarities. Nevertheless, we’re normally able to decipher one another’s literature.

There is another striking difference between the two cultures. Academic institutions in the United States invariably choose an emblematic mascot to represent the school. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, such a practice seems a tad juvenile. (But what would a reasonable person expect from a country a mere 254 years old?)

Alas, because of this absence, C.S. Lewis missed out on the questionable pleasure of having a mascot of which to sing its praises. However, his wife Joy was a graduate of two American colleges and could boast of two mascots, accordingly. More about that in a moment.

There does appear to be a single renegade exception to the lack of mascots at Oxford. Regent’s Park College, Oxford, apparently claims Emmanuelle the Tortoise as their own.

Dangerous Mascots

The majority of mascots are animals. The largest group consists of felines, particularly predators like lions, cougars, pumas and tigers. Some are rather less intimidating. My alma mater, the University of Washington, uses “Huskies,” and has a real live pup (pictured above) as its embodiment. I chuckle whenever I think about our rival universities in Oregon, whose schools are represented by the Ducks and the Beavers.

Finn Mirva Lempiäinen cautions Europeans headed to the States for studies to be forewarned about mascots. Her description of this one is particularly disgusting:

In a sea of mascots representing strength and resilience–such as hawks, dogs and panthers–the slow Banana Slug of the University of California Santa Cruz really stands out. This slimy, shell-less yellow mollusc [mollusk] is relevant to Santa Cruz as it lives in the nearby redwood forests.

It also showcases the softer values of the university: that athletics should be for everyone and participating matters more than winning. The Banana Slug has been the school’s official mascot since 1986. 

Okay. Years ago a pastor friend told me about a Texas high school in Kerrville that had an animal “part” as their mascot. They were (and still are) the “Antlers.” Not the Deer, Elk, Moose, or Bighorn Sheep. The antlers. And, pièce de résistance comes in the adaptation of the mascot for female students (since in most species only males bear antlers). They are elegantly referred to as the “Lady Antlers.” Lest you consider this a unique aberration, consider the fact there are other schools that look to antlers for inspiration. And at least one, in appropriately named Elkhorn, Nebraska, that uses the term “Antler Girls.”

Surprisingly, mascots can be quite controversial. In the U.S. a number of historical mascots have recently been ushered into oblivion because of their potential to make people uncomfortable. This has been especially true with mascots identified with Native American peoples. The angriest current debate relates to the National Football (not soccer) team in our nation’s capital: the Washington Redskins. Some Europeans are aware of this development, as reported in The Guardian.

A Menagerie of Mascots

Moving biennially in my military family, I had too many mascots to remember. Being an avid dog lover, I enjoyed the UW choice of huskies. Imagine when I learned our initial mascot was a play on the fact that Seattle is known for its rain and long, overcast winters. The university’s first football game (akin to modern rugby) was played in 1889. Before 1922, the nickname for the team was the Sundodgers.

That’s not a typo. And the name has been resurrected for Seattle’s collegiate USA Ultimate (aka Ultimate Frisbee) team. The University of Washington Sundodgers go the extra mile. Their motto is “We hate the sun.”

Mascots and C.S. Lewis

The fact that Lewis’ life was personally devoid of mascots hasn’t deterred (American) schools inspired by him from adopting their own. Oregon’s C.S. Lewis Academy athletes are called the Watchmen.

A Christian school in Georgia chose Lions, in homage to the Lion of Judah and Narnia’s Aslan. Southwestern Baptist Seminary has its own college and they not only chose a Lion, but “named” that mascot “Lewis.”

“The lion was chosen [as our mascot] because of some factors that make [Scarborough College] unique: our Great Books classical education and our emphases on apologetics and biblical studies,” says Michael Wilkinson, dean of Scarborough College. “These three things combined make C.S. Lewis the quintessential representative for our program. Thus, Aslan, his most well-known character, proved to be the model for the mascot.”

Mascots in the Life of Joy Davidman Lewis

Joy attended two colleges, Hunter College CUNY with the Hunter Hawks and Columbia University with its Lions. I doubt she took much notice.

There was, though, a fascinating point where Joy’s life intersected with an internationally recognized cinematic mascot—the MGM Lion! The following story comes from Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis. This excellent biography included an extended section on the six months Joy spent in Hollywood, hoping to insinuate some Communist perspectives into a medium for which she had little regard.

She regarded the other script writers with disdain, and won no friends before she was released in December of 1939.

Joy made sure the other junior writers knew she was too accomplished to be accounted an equal. She had solid grounds for bragging, too. On July 5 the esteemed New Republic published her poem “Jews of No Man’s Land.” Joy didn’t hesitate to spread the word . . . At the same time, she was being condescended to by MGM’s hack staff writers. She resented being treated as anything less than a recognized talent.

“I gloated over my writer-colleagues,” she told Jim Still after her novel sold, “none of whom were capable of producing more than a ten-page screen story.” This attitude did not endear Joy to the other junior writers. Walter Doniger, a twenty-one-year-old from Duke who would go on to become a successful director and producer, remembered her as loud, unattractive, unlikable, and “bossy bossy bossy,” he said.

Her stint at MGM was not all bad.

One of the saving graces of her stint at MGM was Leo Jr., a cuddly lion cub cast as the mascot for the short subjects department. At a studio party, for the amusement of all, their leading writer, Robert Benchley, fed Leo from a bottle. The little show wasn’t entirely successful. The bottle’s nipple slid off, spilling milk on Benchley’s pants, and the chin strap on Leo’s crown slipped into his mouth. There was much squealing from the spectators, but Joy took the cub into a corner and soothed it to sleep. They developed a friendship.

Joy liked hiking in the California hills, which she considered beautiful despite being “disfigured with film stars’ Tudor mansions and French chateaux.” Still, returning to New York, she carried fond memories of her relationship with a real, live, mascot and star in his own right.

“A lion is like a steel spring when you feel him,” she said, “but he acts like a dog. When Leo became affectionate, I’d bat him down, and then look for damage. Invariably there would be another run in my stockings.”

As pets do, Leo became a blank slate for Joy’s projections. He didn’t like the starlets, she determined. They wore too much perfume and smelled awful. He was playful, almost like a neglected child starved for attention. “The nicest person I met [in Hollywood] was Leo the Lion,” Joy later said.

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When it comes to writing for a popular audience, the elite strata of academia possess no shortage of disdain.

C.S. Lewis was only one of many professors who found writing for the common people diminished them in the eyes of their snobbish peers. In Lewis’ case, his lay theological essays were considered bad enough. His fantasy and science fiction works were regarded as particularly gauche.

I have a personal theory about the way self-important scholars treat their colleagues who reach down to interact with the hoi polloi. It seems to me that they deride people like Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien because of envy. The envy is twofold.

First, they covet the large audience and expanded influence of the scholar who successfully transcends the university. These elements arouse their lust far more than the potential wealth that such success might bring, although I have no doubt some resent being criminally underpaid as educators.

The second aspect of the envy is directed at the genuine talent of the belittled author. The majority of faculty would not possess the skill to write successfully for a popular audience. Thus, the significance of such publication needs to be diminished.

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018) was not an academic, but even he did not appreciate being relegated to the ranks of pulp writers. Despite writing screenplays and more than 100 books, he was best known for his science fiction. Nevertheless, he once threatened: “Call me a science fiction writer and I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die.”

Returning to Lewis, one biographer devotes an entire chapter to the condescending attitude of his Oxford peers. He entitles it, “A Prophet without Honour?” This is a reference to Jesus’ saying that “a prophet has no honor in his own hometown” (John 4:44)

Lewis, then, was famous by the time the Second World War ended in the summer of 1945. If the simple philosophy of life propounded by modern celebrity culture has any validity, Lewis at that point should have been a happy and fulfilled person. Yet Lewis’s personal history for the next nine years tells a quite different story. Fame may have raised Lewis’s profile, but in the first place, this just made him a more obvious target for those who disliked his religious beliefs.

And in the second, many of his academic colleagues came to believe that he had sold out to popular culture to secure that fame. He had sold his academic birthright for a populist pottage. (C.S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet by Alister McGrath)

The disdain of his Oxford colleagues prevented him from receiving a full professorship at the university. This is why Lewis eventually accepted a chair at Cambridge, which was much more receptive to his unashamed sharing of the Gospel. Tolkien was stunned by the “extraordinary animosity” of the English Faculty towards his friend.

An Endnote

The fact that C.S. Lewis wrote some science fiction—and encouraged his friend Tolkien to do so as well—does not mean that he had an exaggerated opinion of the genre’s quality. He was quite aware of the great range between the good and the bad. In fact, in 1955 he ended a lengthy letter to a correspondent with the sentence: “We must talk about Science Fiction some other time (most of it is atrocious).”

I have posted about Lewis’ connection to science fiction in the past. Perhaps one of these topics will interest you.

Learn about the genuine Martian crater named Malacandra in honor of Lewis’ space trilogy.

Explore the place of robots in science fiction and reality.

Ponder the ramifications of post-apocalyptic faith.

Consider Lewis’ compliment to H.G. Wells.