Archives For Friendship

polyps

These two great Oxford giants were good friends. As such, they accepted each other’s eccentricities. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t find humor in those peculiarities.

The Inklings were notorious for their candid critiques and their not-so-subtle teasing of one another. That’s what we all do with our good friends, right?

It’s humor offered not to wound, but to gently discombobulate our companion. And it’s success is measured in the laughter generated among colleagues who share goodwill.

I recently came across a reference, however, where Lewis may have transgressed the bounds of propriety. I leave the assessment of that fact to you.

In a 1947 letter to Margaret Douglas, who had recently lost her mother, Lewis offers warm words of consolation. In addition, he briefly references two publications that she had apparently alluded to in her own letter. The first was his Preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, which he refers to as the memoir. The second is Tolkien’s sequel to The Hobbit, which would become The Lord of the Rings.

Dear Miss Douglas, Accept my deepest sympathy on the death of your mother: for I think the bond between you was unusually close. You have one great consolation which few bereaved people have—a clear conscience towards the dead.

It was apparent that you were spending yourself largely upon her. I remember her very vividly, and much admired that blend of the playful and the stately, of which only old ladies have the secret.

I am so glad that you approved of the memoir. Professor Tolkien’s second Hobbit is still unfinished: he works like a coral insect you know!

With all good wishes, yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis

Just How Unflattering is the Comparison?

To compare Tolkien to a minute sea creature of sedentary nature may not, at first read, seem offensive. One might wonder though whether it is quite so innocuous as it might appear.

The National Ocean Service, here in the U.S. provides an answer to the frequently posed question, “are corals animals or plants?” Like Lewis, we already know the answer to that—“a coral insect you know!”—but their colorful description illuminates said insect in a curious manner.

Corals actually comprise an ancient and unique partnership, called symbiosis, that benefits both animal and plant life in the ocean. Corals are animals, though, because they do not make their own food, as plants do. Corals have tiny, tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep it into their inscrutable mouths.

I wasn’t aware that they had tentacles. And I don’t think I want to know what makes their mouths “inscrutable.” However, the description adds one more element that I certainly don’t recall from my childhood science classes . . . it’s what the tiny creatures that create such lovely exoskeletons are called.

Most structures that we call “coral” are, in fact, made up of hundreds to thousands of tiny coral creatures called polyps. Each soft-bodied polyp—most no thicker than a nickel—secretes a hard outer skeleton of limestone (calcium carbonate) that attaches either to rock or the dead skeletons of other polyps.

Either I never knew the zoological definition of the word polyp, or it’s been pushed aside in my mind by the more common pathological meaning of the word. It just makes the association of someone with these “columnar bod[ied] . . . mouth and tentacles” oddities seem even more disturbing.

Fortunately, it’s obvious Lewis wasn’t equating the creator of Middle Earth with invertebrate coelenterates. The creator of Narnia was simply likening Tolkien’s publication pace to the secretion rate of the polyps that populate the corals themselves.

Over the years, some of my best friends have labeled me in what an outsider might regard as an unflattering way. While I taught at USAF Chaplain School, my teammates called me “Lemming.” (On occasion, they still do.) The reference had nothing to do with me following the crowd . . . and everything to do with being directed to march off any number of cliffs.

I doubt that Lewis ever shared this association with Tolkien himself. It’s likely that he freely associated the idea at the moment he wrote it, and never thought about it again.

That was one of Lewis’ gifts, being able to use creative analogies to make his points. It is simply one of his talents I would love to share.

And, as for Lewis’ use of the word “insect” here, he is obviously alluding to the polyp’s small size. It would not surprise me to learn that there is an archaic British precedent for such usage. Or, is it just possible that he knew the proper word for the creature, and was too cultured to use it in this context? Perhaps we will never know.

coralpolyp.jpg

Who Said That?

June 14, 2016 — 3 Comments

thoms and lewisWho said that? It’s a question people ask when they recall a familiar saying and don’t remember the source.

Occasionally when we are reminded of the source, we shake our heads and think that’s right; how could I have forgotten!

At other times though, discovering the source of the maxim doesn’t help at all. It could be because the proverb is anonymous, or it might be due to the fact that it’s originator was not particularly well known.

That’s the case of the following statement, which is familiar to many Christians.

“Be careful how you live; you will be the only Bible some people ever read.”

When I thought of this phrase several weeks ago, I had a bit of trouble tracking it down. I actually found it on a number of sites, but the problem was that the author’s name was so unfamiliar it was almost always misspelled.

He was usually cited as “William Toms.” Yet I was pretty sure the saying hadn’t originated, however, with an Irish footballer.*

Just when I assumed I had encountered a clichéd brick wall, I stumbled upon the truth. Like so many classic maxims, the quotation did indeed originate from the British Isles.

The British writer William J. Thoms penned this thoughtful maxim, and it isn’t the only wise thing he wrote.

William John Thoms (1803 – 1885) was a British writer credited with coining the term “folklore” in the 1840s. Thoms’ investigation of folklore and myth led to a later career of debunking longevity myths. Hence, he is an early advocate of “validation research” when examining demographics.

Several of Thoms’ works are available online. They include:

C.S. Lewis had more in common with Thoms than simply being British and engaging in literary pursuits. The two men shared an interest in simple tales that intrigued and inspired men and women through the ages.

It was Thoms, in fact, who in 1846 introduced into English the term “folklore.”

A shared interest in legends and even the supernatural, suggests that the two may well have enjoyed one another’s company, had their lives intersected.

Sadly, Thoms’ desire to compile a comprehensive “Folk-Lore of England” was never realized, as this superb article describes.

The two scholars shared another trait of bookish people. (“Bookish,” by the way, is a compliment here at Mere Inkling.) Neither man sought out the frivolities of popular society. They were both content to socialize with similar minds in more intimate community. The following description of Thoms, from the Dictionary of National Biography,could just as naturally have been written about Lewis.

Thoms went little into society, but at congenial resorts, such as the ‘Cocked Hat Club,’ he was remarkable for a ready play of wit and an almost inexhaustible fund of humorous anecdote and reminiscence.

Can’t you just picture the Cocked Hat Club meeting at one table in the Eagle and Child while the Inklings shared their own warm friendship at their table at the other end of the pub?

_____

* Not that I follow English football, but I learned an athlete by that name played forward for Plymouth Argyle and Manchester United.

** The Book of the Court, published in 1838 with the second edition, linked here, printed six years later, has the delightful, if rather lengthy, subtitle: Exhibiting the History, Duties, and Privileges of the Several Ranks of the English Nobility and Gentry, Particularly of the Great Officers of State and members of the Royal Household; Including Vaious Forms of Court Etiquette, Tables of Precedency, Rules to be Observed at Levers and Drawing Rooms, Etc.

night patrolThe poetry of a dead veteran spoke to me today. He was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and in a sense his life lives on in the descriptions of Middle Earth.

In a recent column my Canadian friend Brenton Dickieson, introduced me to one of the many poets whose lives tragically ended on the battlefields of WWI.

Professor Dickieson describes the context of a new film about the impact of the war on J.R.R. Tolkien. It is called Tolkien’s Great War. It is based on the book Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth.

You will find a link to the half hour documentary below, and I strongly—yes, strongly—encourage you to watch it. It is quite moving.

Like most members of their generation, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were deeply moved by the horrors of the First World War. Both served on the front lines, in the grim trenches, during the bloody conflict. And they lost friends. I’ve written in the past about their military service, including posts herehere, and here.

The Deceased Poet

The documentary describes the untimely deaths of two of Tolkien’s closest friends during the war. One of them, Geoffrey Bache Smith, was a poet.

Following his death, Tolkien gathered together his writings and published them as a tribute to his friend. It was one of the earliest contributions to a wealth of soldier’s poetry that would deluge grieving Europeans by the close of the conflict.

Due to the brevity of his life, the collection, published as A Spring Harvest, is short. Tolkien also penned an introduction to the work which is equally Spartan. The literary austerity is fitting, given the sad reason for the volume’s brevity. The introduction, in full, reads:

The poems of this book were written at very various times, one (“Wind over the Sea”) I believe even as early as 1910, but the order in which they are here given is not chronological beyond the fact that the third part contains only poems written after the outbreak of the war. Of these some were written in England (at Oxford in particular), some in Wales and very many during a year in France from November 1915 to December 1916, which was broken by one leave in the middle of May.

“The Burial of Sophocles,” which is here placed at the end, was begun before the war and continued at odd times and in various circumstances afterwards; the final version was sent me from the trenches.

Beyond these few facts no prelude and no envoi is needed other than those here printed as their author left them.

J.R.R.T., 1918.

The poems themselves run the gamut of emotions. This is unsurprising, given that some were born during the idyll dreams of youth, while others were forged by the anvil of war.

The limited press run of the book has made it difficult to find. Fortunately, it is now available for free via Project Gutenberg.

While the poems include the familiar references to the “old gods” so common to the period, there are also some moving references to a more Christian ethos.

Creator Spiritus

The wind that scatters dying leaves

And whirls them from the autumn tree

Is grateful to the ship that cleaves

With stately prow the scurrying sea.

Heedless about the world we play

Like children in a garden close:

A postern bars the outward way

And what’s beyond it no man knows:

For careless days, a life at will,

A little laughter, and some tears,

These are sufficiency to fill

The early, vain, untroubled years,

Till at the last the wind upheaves

His unimagined strength, and we

Are scattered far, like autumn leaves,

Or proudly sail, like ships at sea.

Tolkien and Smith formed half of the T.C.B.S., a communion knit together during the school years. The war would cut that number in half, as poignantly described in Tolkien and the Great War. The first of the companions had already died, and five months later Smith was spending the final moments of his own life encouraging his friend to press on, whatever might befall him.

Before reading Smith’s “So We Lay Down the Pen,” consider his final letter to Tolkien. He wrote it as he prepared to lead a night scout through dead man’s land at the front. It was dangerous duty which did indeed, that very evening, cost him his life.

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered [ambushed and killed] tonight—I am off on duty in a few minutes—there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S.

Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off tonight. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.

Yours ever,

G.B.S.

Tolkien compiled Smith’s poems as a tribute. And, when he wrote his masterpieces, there is a profound sense in which he truly did say things his friends had tried to say, long after they were not there to say them.

So We Lay Down the Pen

So we lay down the pen,

So we forbear the building of the rime,

And bid our hearts be steel for times and a time

Till ends the strife, and then,

When the New Age is verily begun,

God grant that we may do the things undone.

 

Pet Names

July 14, 2015 — 5 Comments

hypocorismHow many hypocorisms do you have? Which of them are your favorites? Are there any you would sooner never hear again?

I subscribe to one of those “word of the day” emails sent by services such as dictionary.com or thefreedictionary.com.

The truth is, more often than not I’m already familiar with the word they choose to define each day. However, when something hits me out of the proverbial blue—I am amazed and pause to ponder its meaning, history, and reasons why I may never have crossed its path before. (I imagine this behavior is widely replicated among word lovers.)

“Hypocorism” is one of those surprises. It had no place in my lexicon, although the concept of “pet names that are bestowed with affection” is something my family and I have always practiced.

I grew up being called Robbie, and as a young adolescent told my family I preferred to go by Rob. Rob is probably verbal shorthand for Robert, but Robbie is definitely hypocoristic. It is amusing to me that my beloved grandmother never ceased to call me Robbie—even though every precious letter I received from her while serving in the military far from home began, “Dear Robert.”

We’ve already noted the key aspect of a hypocorism. It is a name expressing endearment, not disrespect. That doesn’t mean, of course, that it is not embarrassing. Many people bestow pet names on their loved ones that are best shared only with family.

Some pet names are simply silly. Two of my granddaughters often call me “Bumpa.” That is not a reference to any lumpiness on my part, but to the way the eldest of them began pronouncing “Grandpa” when she was oh so tiny. It was cute, special, and passed on to her younger sister, at first through aural osmosis . . . and later through conscious affection.

C.S. Lewis’ family members were enthusiastic practitioners of hypocorism.

One of the things that new students of Lewis often find confusing is his own name. The fact that he was known to family and friends as “Jack” begs the question of the source of that name. The story, though oft told, remains quite entertaining.

The initial version of Lewis’ adopted name was Jacksie. Lewis loved dogs, and his stepson Douglas Gresham writes that Jacksie was one of these childhood animals.

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, which was what the dog was called. 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)

I have shared in the past how Lewis’ brother Warnie [Warren] related the event.

Then, in the course of one holiday, my brother made the momentous decision to change his name. Disliking “Clive”, and feeling his various baby-names to be beneath his dignity, he marched up to my mother, put a forefinger on his chest, and announced “He is Jacksie.”

He stuck to this next day and thereafter, refusing to answer to any other name: Jacksie it had to be, a name contracted to Jacks and then to Jack. So to his family and his intimate friends, he was Jack for life: and Jack he will be for the rest of this book.

Lewis’ life was filled with other hypocorisms. One of the most curious was the nick name “Minto,” given to Janie Moore. Mrs. Moore and her daughter were supported in his home by Lewis after her son Paddy had been killed in WWI. The two men had pledged that if only one survived, he would care for the other’s widowed parent. Lewis kept that promise.

As you reflect on the pet names that you share with those you love, you are in good company. An affectionate hypocorism is a truly precious gift.

True Friendship

July 7, 2015 — 8 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.

dressed dogAt least that appears to be the thinking in Seattle. A recent census of the city’s population found that the preference isn’t even close.

While Seattle boasts 107,178 children it is home to about 153,000 dogs.

As a dog-loving Washingtonian, I’m not surprised by this statistic. But I don’t support the odd excesses of some pet owners. These include a woman who uses a baby stroller to keep her Chihuahua safe. “She also owns a basket full of dog clothes, including a few dog necklaces and wigs…”

Seattle Magazine notes the city is becoming a top destination for canine travelers.

Seattle’s dog-mecca status is starting to get noticed nationally; it’s considered one of the top 20 destinations in the United States for people who want to travel with their dogs, according to Melissa Halliburton, the founder of Bring Fido, a dog-focused travel agency out of South Carolina. “Seattle has 45 pet-friendly hotels, 38 [pet-friendly] attractions—including the dog-friendly Fremont Sunday Ice Cream Cruise…”

As delightful as an Ice Cream Cruise for dogs sounds, I’d prefer to invest in my children’s educations and take our Border Collies for a brisk walk. I’m sure they’d enjoy the frozen treat, but they will appreciate the exercise even more.

Why Dogs Instead of Kids?

Obviously, simultaneously enjoying human offspring and doggie kids is possible. They aren’t mutually exclusive. And most of the parents I know understand how having a dog in the family helps children grow up healthier (allergies aside).

The article asks this question and offers insightful thoughts.

Why are we so dog crazy? It could be that the 41 percent of us who are single appreciate the companionship. Maybe our outdoorsy pursuits are more fun with dogs. Or maybe dogs just make us feel good.

I heartily concur with the second and third points. And I find the first suggestion (highlighted in the original article) to be quite provocative.

God created us to desire companionship. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man [or woman] should be alone…”

This companionship need not be restricted to marriage. Some people have the gift of celibacy and can live chastely without marrying. C.S. Lewis would be a good example of this. He found his needs for deep friendships met by a handful of intimate friends. The profound joy he experienced when he married caught him totally off guard.

Unfortunately though, there are many who long to find their life companion and have yet to find that prayer answered. Then there are those tragic cases where illness, accident or war have stolen a spouse far too early. The Christian Church has always possessed an intense compassion for widows.

In either of these cases, the companionship of a dog provides a responsive outlet for our affection. Here too C.S. Lewis provides an example. I’ve written here in the past about his love of dogs.

However, it is not only the still-waiting and the bereaved who find themselves reluctantly single.

Another case that is far more common arises when people have made themselves vulnerable and opened their hearts to another… only to be betrayed.* This betrayal may have been physical, emotional, or psychological. Often it is all of these.

In these cases, replacing our unfaithful partner with a dog is especially apropos. There could be no more faithful and forgiving a friend than a dog. A dog who welcomes you every time you come through the door with passionate enthusiasm and happiness impossible to fake.

The truth is that as special as they are, dogs aren’t better than kids… even in Seattle. But, that said, life is sure a lot more fun with them in the mix.

_____

* Just as most of us know the pain of betrayal, many of us recognize we too may have been betrayers. There have been times—perhaps many—when we have disappointed or wounded those who trusted and loved us. However, it does not need to end here, with us mired in guilt.

If you find yourself in this situation, seek reconciliation or forgiveness from the person(s) you have wronged. Confess what you have done as the sin it is, and receive his promised forgiveness. And finally, as Jesus himself said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Priceless Letters

May 26, 2015 — 22 Comments

letterHow precious is a single letter?

If it is eagerly anticipated correspondence from a close friend or loved one, it may be invaluable.

Telephones and email have diminished the impact offered by the contents of an individual message, yet even now we value the touch of the written word shared by our soul mates across the miles.

Prior to the invention of the internet, and before the cost of international calls grew reasonable, I spent a year in the Republic of Korea, far from my wife and three young children. Naturally, like all military members serving far from home—even during times of peace—I missed them terribly.

While many wonderful things happened during the course of that year, and lifelong friendships were born, the highlight of each day was a visit to the installation post office. And, due to the faithfulness of my mother, sister and wife, I was greeted nearly every day by one or more handwritten messages of love and encouragement.

So important were these bonds that, prior to my departure, Delores and I covenanted to write one another every single day. A promise we both kept. In addition, I promised to write each of my three children their own letter each week. One evidence of the impact of those letters was the seamless reunion our family experienced when I returned after a year away.

In the even more distant past, this means of communication was even more vital. As little as a century ago, when individuals and families emigrated from their homelands they recognized the sad truth that they would probably never see their loved ones again.

Think about that for a moment. Saying “goodbye” usually meant “I will never see you again in this life.” How precious those missives must have been when they found their way between intimate companions!

Eighty-five years ago, C.S. Lewis was carrying on an active correspondence with the dearest friend from his youth, Arthur Greeves.

In the 1930s, the two men were corresponding on a weekly basis. Lewis opened one of his letters with the following paragraph to gently reprimand Greeves for allowing other responsibilities to delay his writing.

July 8th 1930

My dear Arthur,

Your letters get later and later every week. If you write on Monday the first week, on Tuesday the second week, and so on, then in seven weeks you will be writing on Monday again: but you will have written one letter less than you should.

In a year you will have written eight letters less, that is thirty six pages. Assuming that we both live thirty years more you will in that time have cheated me out of one thousand and eighty pages. Why, oh why, do you do these things?

As I said, the “reprimand” is gentle, even humorous, but it is sincere. It reveals just how meaningful each piece of his friend’s correspondence was to Lewis.

Many of us can relate to Lewis’ experience. We know firsthand how a smile comes to our lips and our pulse quickens when we find a message from a close companion.

I wanted to share this thought with each of you today for two reasons. First, I thought it might remind you of those whose words have encouraged and supported you in the past.

My second motivation is more important. I would like to suggest that you pause to consider just how important your letters are to others.

There are thousands of reasons for not scheduling (and guarding) time to write letters. Life is busy. The distractions vying for our attention are certainly more numerous, and loud, than they were in decades past.

Still, reminded of the value of the gift we offer when we write, perhaps it is time to shuffle our priorities.