Archives For George MacDonald

Slipping into Illiteracy

November 2, 2016 — 7 Comments

no-readingIs it worse to be illiterate, or simply to not take advantage of your ability to read? Mark Twain is errantly credited with this wise statement: “The person who does not read has no advantage over someone who cannot read.”*

I would take this a step further. It seems to me that illiteracy need not mean the inability to read. It can also be used to describe those who choose not to read.

And, in the United States at least, we’re on a downhill slide when it comes to how much time people spend reading each day. Reading that’s not related to their jobs or educational requirements.

The data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which examines in minutiae how citizens spend their time. The most recent American Time Use Survey reveals the disturbing trend.

reading-graphicThe descent begins at the precipice, where those who are seventy-five years old or older enjoy reading for an average one hour and forty-eight minutes each day. It slams to the ground for those fifteen to nineteen who devote only thirteen minutes to leisure reading.

Amazingly, that group is not the worst. Those who are twenty to twenty-four read nearly 8% less than they do, clocking in with a mere twelve minutes. The grim details are available here.

Obviously, we may assume that older people have more leisure time. A second consideration may be that their constitutions are not up to some more physically demanding activities. To minimize the effect of the “workday” influences, the numbers cited above come from weekends or holidays

But even combined, these factors cannot account for the radical differences we see. Younger people are simply not reading.

Too Little Reading

C.S. Lewis wrote a great deal about reading. He regarded it as one of the essential joys of life. He may not have been surprised by these statistics, but he would certainly have been aghast. I have written in the past about Lewis’ views on literacy in “Knowing Our ABCs.”

For Lewis and, I suspect, many readers of Mere Inkling, the desire was always to find more time for reading. In a 1919 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, he cited the inescapable dangers of reading too little.

If only one had time to read a little more: we either get shallow & broad or narrow and deep.

Lewis was also familiar with demands of responsibilities that devour our time and leave little for leisure of any sort. In another letter to Greeves, written eleven years later, he describes this predicament. I share it here at length because it also offers an insight into the role of reading in nurturing his reawakening faith.

All private reading has ceased, except for 20 minutes before bed (if alone) when I drink a cup of cocoa and try to wash the day off with MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul. I shall soon have finished it and must look round for another book.

Luckily the world is full of books of that general type: that is another of the beauties of coming, I won’t say, to religion but to an attempt at religion—one finds oneself on the main road with all humanity, and can compare notes with an endless succession of previous travellers. It is emphatically coming home: as Chaucer says “Returneth home from worldly vanitee.”

Reading can clearly be good for the soul. And it has another benefit that even unbelievers celebrate. It breaks through the isolation that plagues human life. Technology, it appears, is not delivering on its promise to dispel loneliness.

Reading, in contrast, possesses for many that very power. And a quotation frequently misattributed to Lewis,** but clearly consistent with this beliefs, captures this truth.

We read to know that we are not alone.

_____

* Although Twain is commonly cited as the originator of this phrase, the earliest written parallel appears to be a 1910 publication in which the Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction wrote: “Who can see the barely perceptible line between the man who can not read at all and the man who does not read at all? The literate who can, but does not, read, and the illiterate who neither does nor can?”

** On the internet you will frequently find these words attributed to Lewis, and in a sense they do come from his lips. It comes from the television film Shadowlandswritten in 1985 by William Nicholson for BBC.

The image at the top of the page comes from this interesting video with a unique contemporary twist on reading:

Is Fantasy Foolish?

April 26, 2016 — 11 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.

 

Hunting Facts

March 7, 2016 — 10 Comments

librariansI’m having a serious problem. One that was shared by C.S. Lewis.

Unfortunately, it has reached its greatest intensity as I am striving to meet the deadline for my doctoral dissertation.

The problem is one that should be simple to remedy, yet I’m crippled by it. The solution is so simple that it is almost embarrassing to admit what it is.

But, confession is good for the soul. (That’s not a biblical verse, by the way, in case you were wondering. Nevertheless, it’s quite true.)

So, here’s my confession. I love to conduct research.

The internet is tailor made for a lifelong student like me; I can follow any avenue that piques my interest from one corner of the world wide web to the other.

And, I do.

That’s the problem, of course. I always over-research the things that I write. And this dissertation is no different. I have so much research—good stuff—to cram into it that I’m dreading hearing back from my advisor . . . who now has the first three chapters in hand.

So, how does this plight resonate with the life of C.S. Lewis? Well, not in the sense of my possessing his brilliant intellect and memory. Lewis had no need of the internet to sort out all of the material he had studied.

Still, the two of us do share one important character trait. He too, was an inveterate collector of information.

In his anthology of George MacDonald’s writings, Lewis confesses his pleasure at conducting research. He says it in this fashion:

“I am a don, and “source-hunting” (Quellen-forschung) is perhaps in my marrow.”

Alas, my marrow is filled with the same unquenchable hunger.

Considering Your Own Writing

It may be that some Mere Inkling readers share this passion for pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

It can certainly be argued that it is an important facet of writing. But there are other aspects of writing, and it is quite natural for different elements of the process to appeal to different individuals.

Perhaps you prefer the initial brainstorming, daydreaming or idea phase of a writing project.

Or, as we have discussed, researching information may be the high point of your writing efforts.

This typically leads to outlining, in various shades of detail. Some writers prefer to proceed without any structure in mind. (This is usually not a good idea when writing nonfiction.) I like outlining. I find establishing a logical structure satisfying work, probably because I’m NTJ.

There are, of course those who honestly love the writing itself, especially when they are in the zone and the creativity is really flowing. Frankly, for me the writing is work. (That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the feeling that flashes when you come upon the perfect word or phrase.)

And, although I’m a brutal editor of my own work, and find sharpening an article rewarding work, I must admit I am a little surprised when I encounter a writer who enjoys this phase of the process the most of all.

Then there is sharing or submitting a manuscript for publication. Most writers are a little nervous about this, but some find it exhilarating.

Once someone has published a book, it is now normal for the bulk of responsibility for its promotion to rest upon their own shoulders, as the author. I’m still waiting to meet someone who claims that this is their favorite phase of the writing cycle.

Back Again to the Oxford Don

Lewis’ writing is so enjoyable that I want to close with a longer excerpt from the introduction.

C.S. Lewis’ high regard for MacDonald is well known. This anthology of his work was a tribute to him, in the hopes of introducing many more readers to his work. This book is insightful into the hearts of both men. After all, the editor’s choice of quotations cannot help but reveal much about them too.

In making this collection I was discharging a debt of justice. I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation.

Honesty drives me to emphasize it. And even if honesty did not— well, I am a don, and “source-hunting” (Quellen-forschung) is perhaps in my marrow. It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought— almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions— the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.

_____

There is no authoritative step-by-step list of the writing process. Some sources call the idea stage “prewriting.” Others break writing down into two parts: “drafting” and “revising.” Some consider editing primarily to be “proofreading,” while you can see from post that I merge the revising and proofreading into what I call “editing.” There are various other structures that are used to describe the writing process. My suggestion is to go with what works for you.

MacDonald’s works are now in the public domain. You can download a free copy of Phantastes here. There is a LibriVox (audio) recording available at the same site.

Distant Fathers

September 30, 2014 — 9 Comments

miceChildren don’t get to choose their parents. They aren’t able to select loving parents in contrast to abusers. They can’t  express any preference about being in a home with a mom and a dad committed to them, and to one another.

But the home into which children are born matters a great deal in the direction and shape of their entire life.

It doesn’t take a genius to acknowledge that some settings are healthier than others. The ideal context (which very few of us are blessed to experience) is a home where mom and dad keep their vows to one another, and devote themselves to placing their children in the forefront of their concerns.

Those of us who are people of faith recognize a third pillar to this structure. There is spousal love, parental love, and love of God. When you have all three, you are fortunate indeed.

Sadly, for many, one or both parents are absent. They may be physically present (as my own alcoholic father was) but they are disengaged . . . unconnected . . . absent. I believe that when they are physically present but not really there, they often teach their children worse lessons than they would have learned if they were literally gone. But that’s a conversation for another day.

A study some months ago reveals that the absence of fathers during childhood can actually affect the brain of the child. Yes, you read that right—it can physically affect their brains.

In the study Dr. Gobbi and her colleagues compared social activity and brain anatomy between the two groups . . . the first, raised with both parents, and the second,  that had been raised only by their mothers. The results showed that mice raised without a father demonstrated abnormal social interactions.

This group of subjects also showed more aggressive patterns of behavior in comparison with their counterparts raised with both parents. In addition, these effects were stronger for female offspring. Interestingly females raised without fathers also had a greater sensitivity to the stimulant drug–amphetamine.*

Before continuing, it’s important to note that these experiments were conducted on animals . . . mice, to be precise. While we don’t normally think of mice as paternalistic creatures, neuroscientists assure us that these results are significant.

“Although we used mice, the findings are extremely relevant to humans,” claims Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, a researcher of the Mental Illness and Addiction Axis at the RI-MUHC, senior author and an associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. “We used California mice which, like in some human populations, are monogamous and raise their offspring together.”

California mice? Monogamous? Who would have thought!

Whether you place much stock in this scientific research or not, most honest individuals acknowledge the significance our father and mother share in our early formation.

C.S. Lewis’ loss of his mother and the great distance between himself and his father greatly impacted the development of his personality. Lewis goes so far as to make this confession in Surprised by Joy: “With the cruelty of youth I allowed myself to be irritated by traits in my father which, in other elderly men, I have since regarded as lovable foibles.”

Elsewhere, Lewis writes longingly of the intimate relationship he longed to have had with his own father. Describing the source of author George MacDonald’s guiding inspiration in life, he writes:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central. (George MacDonald: An Anthology).

I did not have that sort of relationship with my own father. I strove to give it as a gift to my children though. And today, while I continue to be their dad, I am acutely aware of the kind of grandfather I am.

Whether it truly affects those developing minds or not, I am committed to caring for each of them as well as is humanly possible.

_____

* You can read the quoted article in The Neuropsychotherapist here. The abstract for the original research is available here.

 

 

csl & chesterton

Sadly, politics are by definition nearly always polarizing. In the linguistic battleground of political warfare, we seem to more and more frequently encounter a “take no prisoners” attitude. It’s ominous.

I recently read the following words which describe, quite well I think, the positions of the two main rivals in virtually all political campaigns. (And, in this sentence, I’m referring to the military definition of “campaign.”)

“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.”

Some things never change. This cutting critique appeared nearly a century ago (in the 19 April 1924 issue of the Illustrated London News). It was penned by G.K. Chesterton, a British writer who was admired by many of his contemporaries, from a number of different perspectives. George Bernard Shaw, a Socialist, considered the conservative journalist a “man of colossal genius.”

Chesterton was one of the Christian writers whose faith made a significant impression on the unbelieving C.S. Lewis. Before encountering Jesus, the atheist Lewis resented the “intrusions” of Christian references into the writings of authors he otherwise enjoyed. He describes this conundrum delightfully in Surprised by Joy.

All the books were beginning to turn against me. Indeed, I must have been as blind as a bat not to have seen, long before, the ludicrous contradiction between my theory of life and my actual experiences as a reader. George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it.

Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too.

Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed.

On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called “tinny.” It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books. . . .

The upshot of it all could nearly be expressed in a perversion of Roland’s great line in the Chanson—Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores. The natural step would have been to inquire a little more closely whether the Christians were, after all, wrong.

And C.S. Lewis, to his eternal joy, did just that. He inquired more deeply into the faith held by the writers he so respected. This included, of course, Chesterton. Echoes of Chesterton’s masterful expressions of Christian faith recur in the work of Lewis. For example, in his essay “Membership,” Lewis writes:

Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it. . . . Even in the life of the affections, much more in the body of Christ, we step outside that world which says “I am as good as you.” . . . We become, as Chesterton said, taller when we bow; we become lowlier when we instruct.

Similarly, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis describes how best to savor the historical work of writers from different eras. Although the reference to Chesterton here is given in passing, I will reproduce the larger passage in light of its insight into how best to benefit from what we read.

The things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate.

I held this theory myself for many years, but I have now abandoned it. I continue, of course, to admit that if you remove from people the things that make them different, what is left must be the same, and that the Human Heart will certainly appear as Unchanging if you ignore its changes. . . .

Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C.S. Lewis in Lucretius.

There is in G.K. Chesterton’s Avowals and Denials a wholly admirable essay called “On Man: Heir of All the Ages.” An heir is one who inherits and “any man who is cut off from the past . . . is a man most unjustly disinherited.” . . .

You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work “in the same spirit that its author writ” and to avoid chimerical criticism.

G.K. Chesterton is well worth reading, and most fans of Lewis will appreciate his prodigious work. The best thing about Chesterton, is that since he entered the presence of his Lord in 1936, nearly everything he wrote is in the public domain. His essays, poetry, apologetic works—and even the tales of his fictional detective Father Brown—are readily accessible online.

For a friendly introduction to the relationship between Lewis and Chesterton, I recommend “Chesterton and Lewis, Side by Side.” In an issue devoted entirely to comparing the two pillars of Twentieth Century Christian apologetics, the St. Austin Review, we read:

In 1946, ten years after Chesterton died, Lewis wrote a short article defending Chesterton against the two charges with which he is still attacked—or dismissed—by most academicians: one, that he was popular, and two, that he was dated. Of course, Lewis is attacked for the same two reasons.

The entire article is available here. Those interested in one of the areas where Chesterton’s writing overlapped with that of Lewis and his good friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, will also enjoy “G.K. Chesterton: Fairy Tale Philosopher,” which is available here.

Thanksgiving is a very special holiday. In truth, it’s a “holy-day” for all those who offer their thanks to a benevolent God.

Like all holidays, it can be good or bad, depending on the way it is perceived by each individual, and the unique circumstances in which they find themselves. Most of us are thankful, for example, for our loving families. And, even if we can’t be together at these special times, we draw warmth and strength from their love. Tragically, others have been victimized by those who should have protected them, and “family” in their eyes is not something to be thankful for at all.

I was not a perfect son. I strove to be a better father. And, now that I’m blessed with seven grandchildren, I’m trying to be the best grandfather I can be

Many years ago, shortly after having our first child, I gave myself a Father’s Day gift. (That’s not a typo. I purchased for myself a modest plaque with a priceless message.) It reads: “the greatest gift a man can ever give his children is to love their mother.”

I displayed this proverb in my office through the years, as a reminder to myself and others of this profound truth. It’s easy to love one’s spouse as a newlywed in the hot flush of youth. It’s also easy, I’m learning, to love my wife in the snug and warm autumn of life. For many, however, the trials and tribulations that are a natural part of all relationships appear insurmountable. Between the newlywed and maturelywed days, it’s not all easy. While our hormones still surge and familiarity breeds corrosive contempt, we may take for granted the person we once vowed to cherish above all others.

The desire to be a decent father greatly amplifies the importance of being a devoted husband. Knowing this made my reading of a recent article quite painful. I had known for years that President John F. Kennedy was rather promiscuous. Yet a recent article in The Atlantic reveals just how debauched the man was. The article, if you have the stomach for it, praises the strength of his wife Jackie, and is available online here.

It describes just a few of his disease spawning liaisons, and noted that he often traveled with one of his so-called secretaries, should there be “any trouble scaring up local talent.” One imagines the dirtiness felt by the Secret Service agents tasked with protecting him during his sordid escapades in the White House pool. The saddest tale for me was his deflowering of a sophomore intern from Wheaton “right there on his wife’s bed.” I won’t sully you with any more accounts.

When I read the article, it nearly made me sick. He was a vile husband. I recalled the numerous famous pictures of him playing with his children—the doting father, one would think. Yet, in reality, just because he was such a malignant husband, he was also an appalling father. To mistreat his wife so badly, was to dishonor his children as well.

The image that came to me as I looked again at the pictures of Kennedy’s glorious Camelot brought to mind Jesus’ words about whitewashed sepulchers “which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:26-28, ESV). The verse which follows could be JFK’s epitaph: “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

A More Godly Alternative

C.S. Lewis experienced neither the normal, nor ideal, form of fatherhood. While he loved and respected his own father, theirs was not a close relationship. And then, at the end of his life, the death of his beloved Joy caused him to transition from the already tentative role of stepfather into the fullest demands of single parenthood. Lewis loved his two sons. He was the best father he knew how to be.

Despite being ill equipped, he did the honorable and right thing—he could do no other. He provided for all the physical needs of his sons, and did his best to meet their emotional needs as well. In Lenten Lands, his son Douglas Gresham describes how painful it was to be at The Kilns following his mother’s passing.

In cowardice and self-pity, I deserted the home and the two men whose company and loving support had for so long been all that had preserved my sanity. When at home from school, I was rarely at home. I know now that I could have done far more than I did to help both Jack and Warnie to bear the burdens which were their lot, but with the blind selfishness which is characteristic of egocentric teen-aged boys, I was too wrapped up in myself to spare time for others.

Strangely, Jack and I had, through these difficult years, become very close, and I think that he understood quite well the reasons for my reluctance to be a part of The Kilns at that time. At first, after Mother’s death, with almost unbelievably naïve complacency, I never doubted that The Kilns and Jack would always be there for as long as I needed them. Then, when it began to dawn on me that there was an increasing likelihood of Jack being snatched away, and with him The Kilns, I reacted by rejecting The Kilns entirely and by not daring to love Jack any more than I already irrevocably did.

For his part, Lewis comprehended just how important understanding fatherhood was. In his tribute George MacDonald: An Anthology, he says this about his mentor:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central.

Lewis concurred with MacDonald that “Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.” And, if this is indeed true, our emulation of it in this life possesses even more importance than I ever imagined.