Archives For Dorothy Sayers

Beavers Beware

January 2, 2017 — 9 Comments

russian-typoA mere 375,000 rubles buys a fair amount of publicity in Russia; just be sure to proofread the product.

This Christmas season one Russian charity hoped to encourage readers to live good lives, but instead they published a brochure that encouraged beaver genocide.

Beavers are particularly vulnerable rodents. They are quite gentle, and even Talking Beavers are poorly equipped to defend themselves.

The lovely scene on the leaflet featured an innocent girl gazing into a snow globe. Emblazoned above it was supposed to read “Do Good.” Instead, the Russian words spelled out “Exterminate Beavers!”

It just bears out the maxim, “proofread before you publish.” In this case, one could easily add: “if the work is translated, make sure the proofreader understands both languages.”

Some errors are especially heinous.

C.S. Lewis recognized the importance of proofreading.

He was sometimes the victim of inadequate editorial review. So it comes as no surprise that he preferred to see galleys (the uncorrected typeset proofs) of his work before actual publication.

The following reference from a letter in which Lewis attributes the need for such as due to his own poor penmanship, rather than the carelessness of others. This is typical of his generosity, since part of the duties of editors (and pharmacists, for that matter) is to be able to decipher the scribblings of authors (and physicians). Mark Twain did not share Lewis’ grace in this matter.

When his friend Dorothy Sayers died in 1958, Lewis was unable to attend the funeral in London. He was, however, honored to write a panegyric for the service, which was read by one of the bishops in attendance. Following the event, Sayer’s son, Anthony Fleming thanked Lewis and asked if he might include the eulogy in possible collection.

Dear Mr. Fleming

Thank you for your most kind letter. I am relieved to find that the little speech has pleased those whose approval at such a time matters most—it is so easy to go wrong in a thing of that kind and so to give offence.

I am perfectly willing that it should be printed, but please ask whoever sees to it to be sure and let me see a proof. Even if printers made no mistakes, my villainous writing nearly always leads to some.

Lewis, of course, was referring to a literal manuscript, a document written by hand. One assumes that the Russian publisher was given a typescript, so they could not use “villainous writing” as an excuse for their error.

Still, I suspect they were given the text in one language, English perhaps, and asked to translate it for publication. In that case, who actually is responsible for the mistake?

I choose not to worry about attributing liability in this matter. I’m content to use this winter mistake to remind me of the importance of proofreading.

Oh, and on behalf of all of the beavers in Russia, I am relieved to know they will not be distributing these murderous words.

shakespeare-and-lewisC.S. Lewis’ prolific, genre-crossing success teaches us two things. First, that a very good writer can fruitfully write in a variety of fields. Second, that even the most gifted of authors cannot write with equal talent in all genres.

Students of C.S. Lewis are well acquainted with the fact that one of the great disappointments of his life was failing to succeed as a poet. Although he did write a reasonable amount of poetry, it failed to elicit the response for which he hoped.

Lewis did, of course, receive well-deserved kudos for his literary fiction and children’s stories. His fiction and nonfiction are extraordinary, and over the years I have appreciated the value of his many essays to be among the most precious of his works.

Finally, as a correspondent, Lewis stood in the first ranks. He regarded the responsibility of personally responding to the letters he received as something not to be shirked.

Fortunately, the excellent collections of his letters offer us many insights into Lewis’ life and career. For his Christian fans, they reveal insights into how a disciple of Jesus can gracefully navigate life.

The following letter was written in 1959, to a man who was apparently the editor of a small newspaper. He had requested an article from the exceedingly busy professor. Lewis’ response is quite interesting.

Dear Mr. Aylard,

Yes! my handwriting is awful. It used to be nice but my muscles have stiffened up and the strokes no longer come out as I intend. I give ‘this generation’ all I can in the way of books and articles. Particular articles by request are not usually the good ones: and, you know, I should reach more readers through other organs than your paper. I hope this doesn’t sound stand-offish or conceited, for it is not meant to be. It is really common sense to speak where one can be most widely heard.

I agree that drama is a good medium for our purpose. In this country Dorothy Sayers’ broadcast set of plays on the life and death of Our Lord (The Man Born to be King) did a great deal of good. I don’t attempt this form myself because any talent I may have is narrative, not dramatic. With all good wishes.

I draw several observations from reading this letter.

  • Lewis took the time to personally pen many of his letters, despite the fact that this presented an uncomfortable challenge to him.
  • Lewis preferred to address subjects as he felt moved by the Holy Spirit to do so, rather than on demand.
  • He did not have the time to dress it up in gentle fluff, but candidly expressed the fact that if he had sufficient time and energy to write, it would not be the wisest stewardship to send the piece to a publication with a limited distribution.
  • Even though he did not intend for that remark to be curt or “conceited,” Lewis still felt compelled to offer his “I hope this doesn’t sound…” apology.
  • Lewis appreciated drama, and recognized Sayers’ work as quite noteworthy.
  • He recognized that drama would not be his forte, and wisely preferred to stick with the type of writing wherein he was most accomplished.

Even this final thought is offered with C.S. Lewis’ characteristic—and genuine—humility.

I don’t attempt this form myself because any talent I may have is narrative, not dramatic.

As a writer myself, I find this sentence quite comforting. And not simply because my own extremely modest talents also lie in the narrative realm. Even if I were a poet or a dramatist I would recognize how liberating it is to acknowledge that one cannot be fairly expected to excel at more than one genre.

And “excel” is not really the best word to use here. Perhaps it’s sufficient that writers think of themselves like children of Lake Wobegon, where Garrison Keillor tells us “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Ultimately, whether we consider ourselves to be adequate or exceptional writers, it is necessary to understand where our skills reside, and to transgress those boundaries only with the greatest trepidation.

C.S. Lewis’ Wedding

July 6, 2016 — 1 Comment

jack & joyC.S. Lewis put his priest in an awkward position, relying on him to perform a wedding ceremony that was contrary to church rules—for at least two reasons. (More on this below.)

I performed a wedding this past weekend. Clergy commonly say “I married so-and-so,” but that phrase sometimes leads to confusion, and occasionally elicits snickers.

At any rate, I’m marrying fewer couples now that I’m semi-retired. Serving as a military chaplain, with a youngish population, I sometimes got weighed down by the number of requests to conduct wedding ceremonies. That’s no longer the case, although ironically both bride and groom in this case are on active duty in the United States armed forces (the Air Force and Army respectively).

The reason I allude to weddings being a bit of a burden, is that—for the conscientious pastor, which I strive, imperfectly, to be—they involve far more than the ceremony itself.

The majority of pastors I know require premarital counseling . . . and that requires time. It may come as a shock to some, but pastors don’t schedule those counseling sessions for their own benefit. Pastors provide them (and even require them) for the benefit of the couple. It’s called “pastoral care,” and decently done, it can only enhance the chances for a marriage’s success.

This was one of those wonderful weddings where I am quite confident the couple will live happily ever after. I really don’t mean to be trite, but they have the qualifications that strongly influence marital success, e.g. emotional maturity and a shared faith in Christ (who will be the cornerstone of their union, just as he is of the Church).

They understand, insofar as our finite minds are capable, that God truly has accomplished the miracle of making of the two of them a single flesh. And now they are living out that adventure.

So, as I write this post my thoughts are not about Independence Day (although it is the fourth day of July). Instead I’ve been rereading the story of C.S. Lewis’ two weddings with Joy Davidman. Their initial union was a sham, in the sense that it was a legal act conducted for ulterior reasons (circumventing immigration laws).

And this fact, that they were not married with the intention of truly being husband and wife, is one reason to validly question the validity of the very act.

If you’ve never read about Joy, or at least viewed the film Shadowlands, you are missing out on a fascinating story . . . and you lack familiarity with one of the most important elements of C.S. Lewis’ life. I’ve briefly discussed Lewis and Joy at Mere Inkling in the past, including “Dating Like an Inkling” and “C.S. Lewis and Women.”

When the two of them married, it was in a purely civil ceremony, on 23 April 1945, in Oxford. Naturally, they continued to live separately.

Only after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer did Lewis realize he had fallen in love. He accordingly sought to make of their fiction a true marriage. This meant, for Lewis and Joy, marrying “in the church.”

Unfortunately, the Church of England would not sanction the marriage, since Joy was divorced. (The fact that her husband, William Gresham was a serial adulterer did not excuse that fact.)

And thus we arrive at the focus of my reflection.

Since the church could not officially bless his marriage, Lewis turned to an Anglican priest who was a former student and a personal friend. His name was Peter Bide.

Pastoral Flexibility

I suspected that the Reverend Bide needed to give the request some prayerful consideration. After all, a pastor does not “bend” the practices of the church (and faith) he represents without serious reflection. Still, Christian ministers do possess what is referred to as pastoral discretion.

The concept is already developed in early Christian theology. In the Orthodox churches, it is referred to as pastoral economy (οἰκονομία, oikonomia). It relates to the pastoral principle of following the spirit, rather than the strictest letter of the law.*

Joy’s death was thought to be imminent when Bide joined them in marriage at her hospital bedside. Yet, they were blessed with a three year remission of the cancer, and enjoyed some precious time together before its grim return. Bide had initially been asked by Lewis simply to come and pray for her.

In a fascinating letter to Dorothy Sayers, written on the 25th of June, Lewis alludes to this concept while relating his special news.

I ought to tell you my own news. On examination it turned out that Joy’s previous marriage, made in her pre-Christian days, was no marriage: the man had a wife still living. The Bishop of Oxford said it was not the present policy to approve re-marriage in such cases, but that his view did not bind the conscience of any individual priest.

Then dear Father Bide (do you know him?) who had come to lay his hands on Joy—for he has on his record what looks very like one miracle—without being asked and merely on being told the situation at once said he would marry us. So we had a bedside marriage with a nuptial Mass.

It is interesting that Lewis uses the words “without being asked.”

That’s not quite how Bide recalls it.

Fortunately, Bide provided an account of this event, published under the title “Marrying C.S. Lewis.” (The title provides a prime example of what I said earlier about how pastors talk about weddings.) It appears in C.S. Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society

When I got there, up to the quarry where he lived, Jack said, ‘Peter, what I’m going to ask you isn’t fair. Do you think you could marry us? I’ve asked the Bishop, I’ve asked all my friends at the faculty here, and none of them will.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t seem to me to be fair. They won’t marry us because Joy was divorced, but the man she married in the first place was a divorced man, so in the eyes of the church, surely there isn’t any marriage anyway. What are they making all this fuss about?’

Well, I must admit that I had always thought that the Church of England’s attitude to marriage was untenable. They rested everything upon the promises given in the marriage service, and said that they couldn’t possibly be repeated elsewhere. However, there was one exception. If the man turned out not to be able to consummate the marriage, then a Decree of Nullity would go through the courts and be recognized by the church. This made the whole thing collapse in my view. I mean, if you promise for better or worse, and non-consummation isn’t for worse, I don’t know what is.

On the other hand, I went to a minor public school, and a public school is a terrible place not least because it gives you a lasting fear of authority. ‘The headmaster wants to see you.’ And that lasts all through life—I’ve never got rid of it totally. And so the fact that there were church laws by the dozen which forbade me to do anything of the sort really worried me. I mean it worried me because it wasn’t something that I just thought was a superficial thing, something I could just push to one side. I wasn’t in my own parish, I wasn’t in my own diocese. What right had I to go charging into a situation like this which everybody else had refused to have anything to do with?

Well, I know you’ll probably find this a rather corny thing, but after long cogitations—and it took me the best part of an hour—I said to myself, ‘What would He [Jesus] have done?’ and then there wasn’t any further answer at all. Of course He would have married them, wouldn’t He? Would He have regarded the law and everything else above the expression of love which this woman had made both towards the church and Himself and to her future husband? And so I married them in the hospital, with Warnie and the ward sister as witnesses.

Bide continues, expressing his frustration at how differing versions of the story have proliferated, while the truth of the matter has been left unexplored.

I don’t understand this, I never have . . . but that is the story, and what you see in Shadowlands has little or nothing to do with it. It made me very cross that there have been about six different treatments of this episode in the course of the last ten years and nobody has ever come and asked me what happened. It strikes me as absolutely extraordinary.

A.N. Wilson went all the way to America to talk to somebody who had talked to me: an expensive journey, when he could have walked down the road and found me himself. It’s a very odd thing, but now you know what the truth is.

Reverend Bide died in 2003, and his obituary includes some fascinating facts. I had not realized that, like Joy, in his early and foolishly idealistic years he too became a communist!

The article in The Telegraph describes his reprimand by the Bishop of Oxford, and the gentler correction offered by his own bishop. And it uses a word rarely seen in the United States to describe the episode.

A year at Wells Theological College was followed by ordination at Chichester in 1949 and appointment to a curacy at Portslade with Hangleton, near Hove. His dynamic ministry there led to the creation of a separate Hangleton parish, with himself as its first vicar since the Middle Ages. Then came the contretemps over the Lewis/Davidman marriage and his move to Goring-by-Sea in 1957.

It is interesting to note that Bide was no child when he chose to conduct the marriage ceremony. Although he had only been ordained for eight years, he was a veteran of WWII and MI6 before attending seminary.

A Sad Postscript

Lewis and Bide shared the pain of losing their wives the same year. Immediately after learning about Bide’s wife’s death, Lewis wrote the following letter. It provides a fitting conclusion to our reflections on the subject of the contretemps of Lewis’ wedding.

The Kilns, Headington Quarry, Oxford 20 Sept 1960

My dear Peter I have just come in from saying my morning prayers in the wood, including as always one for ‘Peter and Margy and Joy and me,’ and found your letter. I hope they are allowed to meet and help one another. You and I at any rate can. I shall be here on Wed. next. If you could let me have a card mentioning the probable time of your arrival, all the better. If not, I shall just ‘stand by’. Yes–at first one is sort of concussed and ‘life has no taste and no direction.’ One soon discovers, however, that grief is not a state but a process–like a walk in a winding valley with a new prospect at every bend God bless all four of us.

Yours Jack

_____

* Several New Testament passages refer to the “letter of the law,” including Romans 7:6-7 and 2 Corinthians 3:5-6.

The photograph above was created by combining images of the real couple with a transparent image of the couple as portrayed in Shadowlands by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

csl sayersCan you imagine receiving a compliment like this from C.S. Lewis? Your work “even enlarged my vocabulary.”

Shocking . . . but another writer did receive that rare praise.

In 1954, Lewis wrote a lengthy letter to his friend Dorothy Sayers, praising her recent publication of Introductory Papers on Dante. Lewis’ opening sentence reveals his delight. “Your Introductory Papers have given me a regular feast.”

Lewis specifically comments on a number of insights he found particularly worthwhile. And remember, Lewis was an expert on Dante in his own right.

One evidence that Lewis’ praise is sincere, and not mere flattery, comes in his comment that “every essay and nearly every page enriched me.” Not every page, mind you, but very nearly every one of them.

Offering Gentle Criticism

Consistent with the nature of friendly literary criticism (like one receives in a healthy writers group), Lewis does offer some specific advice on how to strengthen a specific point that he regards as overemphasized. In this case it relates to a classical Latin phrase.

At one point Lewis expresses awe about a portion of the book, and then immediately proceeds to make an enjoyable comment about the limitations of the English language.

P. 52 is a blaze of (just) splendour. (Drat our homophones: by just I don’t mean ‘nothing but,’ I mean ‘justified,’ ‘veracious.’)

Toward the close of his letter, Lewis raises a profound notion about our perception of humor. He cautions Sayers, in her interpretation of Dante’s Comedy, not to read it directly through the lens of our own day. “I’ve a feeling that in handling particular passages you are too certain that whatever is comic to us was, and was meant to be, comic at the time.” He continues:

Because, as any one can see even from the old Punches,* nothing changes so quickly as the sense of humour: so that in reading any old book there is nothing we are less sure of than which places wd. welcome a smile. And oughtn’t we to start by a recognition that our generation (yours & mine) was quite abnormally ‘tickle o’ the sere’** (already the young people are less so).

A Poetic Postscript

Lewis ends his letter to Sayers with some advice for her subsequent work with Dante. He courteously writes, “Don’t give me the next set, I’ll buy it.”

Then he makes a suggestion to protect her from the spurious criticisms of ignorant literary critics. (Note that he doesn’t use the choice descriptive in a vulgar sense common today, but in more classical sense of extreme foolishness.)

And do put in an essay on D. as ‘poet’ in the old, narrowest sense—his sheer poeticalness. Otherwise we shall have some ass saying that because you like so many other qualities, you are oblivious to that.

_____

* Punch Magazine was published in England until 1992. The 1881 image below is inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and applied to the violence in Ireland.

** Easily made to laugh. From Hamlet: “The clown shall makes those laugh whose lungs are tickle o’ the sere.” The seare, or sere, was part of the trigger of old matchlock guns, so arranged that the slightest movement would make the gun discharge. Lungs, then, “tickle o’ the sere,” are those easily moved to laughter.

punch dante

C.S. Lewis & Women

January 11, 2016 — 18 Comments

hermeneuticDid C.S. Lewis disrespect women? Some of his detractors make that argument, but two new books reveal just how weak the notion is.

There is a great book review in the herŸ.menenutics column of the current issue of Christianity Today. You can read it here, but please finish reading this post before checking it out.

Readers of Mere Inkling who are only familiar with Lewis through the Chronicles of Narnia or his classic Mere Christianity, may be surprised to learn that there are some who claim he was a misogynist. While they pull decontextualized examples from his works, the essence of their arguments seem to arise from an animosity to Lewis’ Christian worldview.

Even if you do not go on to read either of the books discussed, taking a moment to read the review itself will be worthwhile. For example, they cite one of Lewis’ longtime friendships.

Lewis’s good friend the detective novelist Dorothy L. Sayers once remarked that when it came to women as a whole, “he had a complete blank in his mind.” But this didn’t keep her from liking and corresponding with him, often in the form of cheerful and vigorous argument . . .it was friendships like hers that “blew away Lewis’ assumptions about women,” helping his ideas to change and develop over time.

The first text discussed in the review is Women and C.S. Lewis: What His Life and Literature Reveal for Today’s Culture, edited by Carolyn Curtis and Mary Pomroy Key. The volume has a diverse collection of contributors and portrays the writer honestly. Many of the chapters are written by well respected authors who have written their own works on Lewis.

The book offers no foolish attempt to make a feminist of Lewis. The contributions are thoughtful and nuanced. Lewis’ views were a product of his era and upbringing. Yet, to that stodgy context, he added a Christian appreciation for the all of humanity, male and female, created in the image of God.

The second volume examines the life of the woman who played the most significant role in C.S. Lewis’ life. This is a true biography of Joy Davidman, not restricted to the years she spent with Lewis, who was her second husband. It is no hagiography of this convert from atheism to Christianity. Precisely because of that, it promises to provide valuable insights into the woman, Lewis, and Lewis’ attitudes towards women.

And, great news for those interested in this subject. The Kindle version of Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis is currently on sale for only $2.99, a price any student of the Oxford Inkling can scarcely ignore.

If you don’t recall my post several months ago about Lewis and “dating,” you may find it interesting.

I will close now with a quotation from a letter Lewis wrote to a Benedictine monk in 1952. I chose it because it juxtaposes two aspects of his experience with women. The first is based on his daily experience with the discipline of carrying on an excessive correspondence with readers. The second was a remark in passing about Jane Austen which compliments her for both her substance and her strength.

It isn’t chiefly men I am kept in touch with by my huge mail: it is women. The female, happy or unhappy, agreeing or disagreeing, is by nature a much more epistolary animal than the male. . . . I am glad you think J. Austen a sound moralist. I agree. And not platitudinous, but subtle as well as firm.

Just one small example of what the linked book review praises as “his ability to see and appreciate a woman as a whole, multifaceted person.”

Books C.S. Lewis Loved

April 23, 2013 — 20 Comments

csl booksThose of us who admire C.S. Lewis respect his words on many subjects, not least of which would include literary matters. He was, after all, both a gifted writer and a professor teaching related subjects at two of the world’s most prestigious universities.

In 1962 The Christian Century asked him to list the ten titles most influential in his professional and philosophical life. (Most of these are available as free downloads on the internet.)

1. Phantastes by George MacDonald

2. The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.

3. The Aeneid by Virgil

4. The Temple by George Herbert

5. The Prelude by William Wordsworth

6. The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

7. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

8. Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell

9. Descent into Hell by Charles Williams

10. Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour

The following year Lewis was interviewed by Sherwood Wirt, longtime editor of Decision magazine. (Decision is published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and you can learn more about the publication here.)

During his interview, Wirt focused on spiritual rather than professional benefits from books Lewis had found beneficial.

Sherwood Wirt: What Christian writers have helped you?

C.S. Lewis: The contemporary book that has helped me the most is Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. Others are Edwyn Bevan’s book, Symbolism and Belief, and Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, and the plays of Dorothy Sayers.

Fortunately all of these titles are readily available for those who would like to explore works that influenced Lewis’ conversion and Christian growth. Let’s briefly consider them in the order Lewis cited them.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English writer. Just how prolific, one might ask. Well, he wrote approximately eighty books, hundreds of poems, hundreds of short stories and about 4,000 essays. His works continue to inspire many today, and merit contemporary reading.

Chesterton shared many of the same values as Lewis, and preferred calling himself an “orthodox” Christian rather than adhering to denominational labels. (In this he foreshadows Lewis’ invaluable emphasis on “mere” Christianity.)

The Everlasting Man was published in 1925 and ponders the universal significance of Jesus Christ. It was composed in reaction to The Outline of History, in which H.G. Wells paints Jesus as just one more political agitator in a political backwater of the Roman empire. Honestly, he does describe him as being remarkable, but mostly in terms of having a charismatic persona.

Lewis said that Chesterton’s Everlasting Man “baptised” his intellect, which is no small expression of praise.

You can purchase The Everlasting Man through normal channels or download a free text format version at this site. If you enjoy listening to audiobooks, you can obtain a free audio copy of the volume here.

Edwyn Robert Bevan (1870-1943) was an English philosopher and historian who specialized in the Hellenistic world.

In Symbolism and Belief, based on a series of lectures presented in 1933-34, Bevan discusses major religious symbols and metaphors. He illustrates how figurative language is best capable of describing spiritual truth. He argues that the greater precision offered by philosophical terminology is actually counterproductive in this quest.

The volume offers insight into the rationality of religious faith, although it concludes with his conviction that it ultimately boils down to a genuine encounter with God—“what actually causes anyone to believe in God is direct perception of the Divine.”

Symbolism and Belief is available for free download in a variety of formats at this site.

Rudolf Otto (1869-1937) was a German Lutheran theologian. He spent most of his ministry teaching at one of the most prominent seminaries in the world, the University of Marburg Divinity School.

In The Idea of the Holy Otto espoused the concept that the things of God were “numinous.” He defined this as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” The word itself was derived from the Latin numen which refers to divine power.

Otto explains how the numinous is a mystery (mysterium) that is simultaneously terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating (fascinans). C.S. Lewis found the notion of the numinous particularly useful in his book, The Problem of Pain.

The Idea of the Holy: an Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational is available in multiple formats here.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1957) was a personal friend of C.S. Lewis. In a 1963 letter he wrote: “She was the first person of importance whoever wrote me a fan letter. I liked her, originally, because she liked me; later, for the extraordinary zest and edge of her conversation—as I like a high wind. She was a friend, not an ally.”

Sayers was an extremely successful English writer. Her versatility allowed her renown to grow as a poet, playwright, essayist and as a writer of popular detective mysteries. She was also a classicist, and regarded her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy as her finest work.

Fortunately, four of her plays are available in a collection available here. They include “The Zeal of Thy House,” “The Devil to Pay,” “He That Should Come,” and “The Just Vengeance.” And, although you can’t download the file, if you would like to stream the recording, an audio version of her famous “The Man Born to be King” is available here.