Archives For Imagination

barthOne wonders what sort of fireworks might have erupted if J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had spent an evening with theologian Karl Barth. Although their lives overlapped, and all three were Christian academics, it is questionable how much they would have agreed upon.

And yet, there were several subjects where I think they would have enjoyed firm consensus.

Tolkien (1892-1973) was a devout Roman Catholic. Lewis (1898-1963) was a committed “low church” Anglican. Barth (1886-1968) was a Reformed theologian who rejected the liberalism that had become dominant in European academies. All three thus believed in the reality of the Christian gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.

All three men hated war, and the two Brits had served in the trenches of WWI. All opposed Nazism and Barth was the primary author of the Barmen Declaration which challenged the Christian faith of all who supported the Nazi government.

And we’ll consider another shared attribute in just a moment.

First, though, we need to acknowledge that presumably the Inklings never met the Swiss clergyman. Their circles did not overlap. I have not been able to uncover any evidence of Tolkien referring to Barth, or of Barth mentioning either of the Inklings.

Lewis did, however mention Barth in his prolific correspondence. From his exposure to Barth it’s clear he did not share the opinion of Pope Pius XII that he was “the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas.” Heady praise . . . especially coming from a Roman Catholic.

In a 1940 letter to his brother Warren, Lewis reacted against what he perceived as legalism in some quarters of Protestantism that was alien to his understanding of the liberty of the Christian.

I am afraid the truth is . . . that the world, as it is now becoming and has partly become, is simply too much for people of the old square-rigged type like you and me. I don’t understand its economics, or its politics, or . . . Even its theology—for that is a most distressing discovery I have been making these last two terms as I have been getting to know more and more of the Christian element in Oxford.

Did you fondly believe—as I did—that where you got among Christians, there, at least, you would escape (as behind a wall from a keen wind) from the horrible ferocity and grimness of modern thought.

Not a bit of it. I blundered into it all, imagining that I was the upholder of the old, stern doctrines against modern quasi-Christian slush: only to find that my ‘sternness’ was their ‘slush.’ They’ve all been reading a dreadful man called Karl Barth, who seems the right opposite number to Karl Marx. ‘Under judgment’ is their great expression.

They all talk like Covenanters or Old Testament prophets. They don’t think human reason or human conscience of any value at all: they maintain, as stoutly as Calvin, that there’s no reason why God’s dealings should appear just (let alone, merciful) to us: and they maintain the doctrine that all our righteousness is filthy rags with a fierceness and sincerity which is like a blow in the face.

Sometimes the results are refreshing: as when Canon Raven (whom you and Dyson and I sat under at Ely) is sharply told in a review in Theology that ‘it is high time persons of this sort learned that the enjoyment of a chair of theology at Cambridge does not carry with it a right to criticise the Word of God’—that’s the kind of rap on the knuckles which has not been delivered for a hundred years!

Comparing Their Thoughts on the Nature of Myth

Many readers of Mere Inkling will know Tolkien and Lewis were deeply influenced by the significance of myth. They were also, in the creation of Middle Earth and Narnia, active in the act of mythopoeia, creating imaginary lands whose stories convey profound meaning.

But, despite the fact their literary products are fictional, that does not mean that all myth is “untrue,” in the sense of being unhistorical. Myth, for these great thinkers, is something far more complex and wonderful.

Without going into depth on this involved subject, I offer here the familiar story of how Lewis’ epiphany about true myth was key to his conversion.

I was by now too experienced in literary criticism to regard the Gospels as myths. They had not the mythical taste. And yet the very matter which they set down in their artless, historical fashion . . . was precisely the matter of the great myths. If ever a myth had become fact, had been incarnated, it would be just like this. And nothing else in all literature was just like this.

Myths were like it in one way. Histories were like it in another. But nothing was simply like it.

And no person was like the Person it depicted; as real, as recognizable, through all that depth of time, as Plato’s Socrates . . . yet also numinous, lit by a light from beyond the world, a god.

But if a god—we are no longer polytheists—then not a god, but God. Here and here only in all time the myth must have become fact; the Word, flesh; God, Man. This is not “a religion,” nor “a philosophy.” It is the summing up and actuality of them all. (Surprised by Joy)

This epiphany took place in 1931, during an all-night discussion (it lasted until 4:00 am) with Tolkien, and other Inkling, Hugo Dyson. Here’s how Lewis related the moment to his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

It was really a memorable talk. We began (in Addison’s walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth–interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining.

We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot . . .

A month later he elaborated on how the insights gained that evening were gestating in his mind and heart.

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself (cf. the quotation opposite the title page of Dymer) I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels.

The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.’

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things.’

Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) That this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths. (b) That it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly certain that it really happened.

In a different setting, Barth argued for the very same truth. His context was a theological environment greatly influenced by the liberal doctrines of Rudolf Bultmann, who dismissively regarded anything miraculous in the Scriptures as primitive and ignorant thinking.

The Christian Church confesses that [what the world calls] “myth” is history itself. She recognizes herself by this myth, she recognizes her life, her true reality. She is the witness of witnesses, she recognizes through the Holy Spirit that this is the one really interesting story.

Then she turns back the historians’ weapon: She says to them: What you call “myth,” that is history! She will also add: What you call history, that is a myth! A myth, a made-up history, that fancies the fate of man as depending on his earthly vicissitudes, a myth, a made-up history, that confuses the immediate success of a cause with its truth, and so on.

The only true history is the history of Christ, in which the Church participates, and which is already the secret reality of all history, since it is history itself. (The Faith of the Church)

Now, there’s an argument the Inklings could truly have appreciated.

A Bonus, for Fans of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Barth was not the only Christian seminary professor who rejected the heresies of Bultmann, who sought to “demythologize” the Scriptures. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a fellow German, repudiated Bultmann’s rejection of the supernatural in God’s Word. In a recent book, Taking Hold of the Real, Barry Harvey writes:

In a prison letter [Bonhoeffer] criticizes Rudolf Bultmann for excising the “mythological” elements in an attempt to reduce Christianity to its “essence.” “My view,” he writes, “is that the full content, including the ‘mythological’ concepts, must remain—the New Testament is not a mythological dressing up of a universal truth, but this mythology (resurrection and so forth) is the thing itself.”

Bonhoeffer thus acknowledges that describing a way of seeing the world as mythic thus does not summarily dismiss it either as deceptive or as an archaic and feeble attempt at doing “science.” Indeed, a truthful description of the world and especially of human existence ultimately requires mythic form.

The tales that women and men have fashioned and passed down through the centuries to discern the overall sense and significance of their existence are “never just ‘lies,’” says Tolkien, as “there is always something of the truth in them.”

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.

 

Volcano Hurricane

August 7, 2014 — 6 Comments

volcanoVolcano hurricane. An epic disaster film! No sharks, but copious amounts of lava flung by gale force winds across the globe. And all from the mind of a six year old boy.

Imaginations are great. They are one of the most precious gifts of God (which makes it all the more tragic when the human imagination is diverted towards carnal ends).

The minds of young boys, thankfully, have yet to turn to such lamentable matters. Their innocence shields them from the worst of human corruption. They, instead, are consumed with thoughts of spiders and other things that creep out girls . . . and especially their moms.

Our almost-seven-year-old grandson was here for the weekend with his family. We had a wonderful time. We had actually found the ideal book to include as part of his birthday celebration: How to Convince Your Parents You Can Care for a Pet Tarantula. Perfect.

Young male imaginations seem to revolve around things that shock—and also things that gross others out.

Our kids have trained their own children well. For example, they always excuse themselves when they experience flatulence. It’s a natural experience, of course, and as we mature, adults learn to ignore potentially embarrassing moments related to it. That’s part of becoming “civilized.”

Six year olds . . . not so much. Our grandson properly excuses himself, but he typically does so in the midst of enthusiastic laughter. It’s as though he relishes just how uncultured the moment seems.

During this particular visit, he leaped into my lap in a semi-ninja attack. As we wrestled, there was a minor explosion. Not quite volcanic, but close enough. He apologized, amidst great hilarity. “Sorry about my little gas,” he added.

And here’s where I made the mistake. I reinforced his innate boyhood grossness by saying, “little! . . . that sounded like it was a buffalo!”

Not quite the right thing to say, since it simply encouraged the precocious guy. But what I can say . . . time may change a boy into a man, but in most of us . . . somewhere deep in the recesses of our psyches . . . that boyhood irreverence lingers.

Not that I enjoy the crass “body humor” that pervades so much comedy (on tv and film). I steadfastly avoid it. It insults my mind and viewing it constitutes a total waste of time. Still, with my grandson wrapped in my arms, laughing away, it all seemed so genuine and innocently funny.

Of course, I recognize one needed to be there—and probably to also be related by bloodline to the participants—to find any humor in the moment. But it certainly seemed funny to us.

C.S. Lewis and Children

I was thinking about that moment as I sat down to write this post. I intended to focus on the amazing imaginations of children, and my grandson’s current preoccupation with gigantic volcanoes.

But whim or muse redirected the column. In the end, it turns out to be a reflection on the simple pleasure that we adults experience when we interact with kids. Especially when they are children who are precious to us.

I wish that C.S. Lewis had been able to experience that joy. He wasn’t. His awkwardness with children is well known. Most attribute it to the early passing of his mother, and the emotional distance his father maintained from his sons.

In a 1935 letter he wrote to a close friend, “I theoretically hold that one ought to like children, but am shy with them in practice.”

In The Abolition of Man he was even more forthcoming, sharing that, “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself.”

So, Lewis recognized his discomfort with children as a shortcoming. It was something he wished could be dispelled. Unfortunately, we can’t simply wish (or pray) away our ingrained personality traits. We’re lucky if we can tame them or reshape them.

We work hard to strengthen our positive traits and the wise deny nourishment to their weaker qualities. People often use the analogy of wearing off one’s rough edges, and that’s an apt image.

Lewis’ reticence with children makes his creation of Narnia all the more wondrous. The Chronicles of Narnia have captivated the hearts and imaginations of innumerable children, and adults alike. Certainly Lewis was correct when he wrote the following in “On Stories.”

No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.

With his marriage, late in life, Lewis became a step-father. He did the very best he could, but was conscious of just how ill-equipped he was to raise Douglas and David. Both became successful men. Doug shares his parents’ love of Christ, and helps direct the course of various Lewisian projects today.

Allow me to close with another evidence of the greatness of C.S. Lewis. He was able to rise far above his innate uneasiness with children. In fact, his fabled correspondence included many children who had written to him seeking his attention. In 1951 he wrote to one of them, saying:

I am glad you all liked The Lion. A number of mothers, and still more, schoolmistresses, have decided that it is likely to frighten children, so it is not selling very well. But the real children like it, and I am astonished how some very young ones seem to understand it. I think it frightens some adults, but v[ery] few children.

Lewis did not disappoint the many children who wrote to him during those terribly busy years. Nor do his writings disappoint us today. Unlike the transience of youthful volcano hurricanes, Lewis’ legacy will forever remain alive in the imaginations of child and adult alike.

Impromptu Poetry

May 8, 2014 — 2 Comments

eyeI had to endure a to and fro transcontinental trip this week. Endure is the right word, when flying miles above what would otherwise be a scenic, albeit lengthy, journey.

One positive thing about flying is that I have time to catch up on some of my “pleasure” reading. This week it included an article about cinquains.

A quintain is a poem with five verses. A cinquain is a specific form which has the following number of syllables in each of the lines: two, four, six, eight, and two.

I took a break from my reading and drafted a few of these small poems. I found it quite simple, and it’s likely you may as well.

I make no promises about the quality of my verse, but perhaps you’ll find one or more of them interesting. Or, at least they may inspire you to write some of your own.

Springtime

Narnian hope

Delayed by the White Witch

Borne by Aslan’s Resurrection

New dawn

Pilgrim

Traveling through

This world is not my home

Destined for a new creation

With Christ

True hope

He died for us

Emancipation now

Washed clean by the blood of the Lamb

New life

Inklings

Lewis, Tolkien

Friends rounded out the group

Imaginations unfettered

Wonder

Libraries & Imagination

March 20, 2014 — 15 Comments

librarycardI just got a new library card. It’s emblazoned with the word “Imagination.” While that would be boring news to most, to people who value reading, it’s noteworthy. Some might wonder, why did he wait until he was nearly sixty to get a library card. That’s because there is more to the story.

I happen to live “across the water” from one of the most literacy-loving communities in the United States—Seattle. (“Across the water” means that the quickest way to get to Seattle is by taking one of our scenic, but outrageously expensive, ferries, across Puget Sound.)

Our relatively small county has superb libraries of our own, but they can’t hope to match the holdings of Seattle’s grandiose institutions. Personally, I am not enticed by the sheer volume of volumes available there. I desire access to their abundant research resources, most notably access to historic newspapers.

The great news is that Kitsap County, where I am blessed to reside, maintains reciprocal library privileges with Seattle! When I made a trip to the metropolis to enroll, not only did they expeditiously process my information, the library pulled open a drawer with a dozen colorful options and said, “which card would you like?” (Now, I see how sheltered a life I live; I didn’t know some libraries actually offered members a choice of what image they want to embellish their cards.)

I selected the one bearing the iconic image of the Space Needle. (I actually visited the Space Needle during the World’s Fair . . . but that’s a story for another day.)

Only after I selected it because of the picture, did I realize each card carried the imprint of a single word. “Imagination,” the librarian said, “a good choice.” A very good choice, I thought to myself. Since I place an extremely high value on that ephemeral trait.

Libraries, I’m afraid, are undervalued today. It’s good to see them continuing to provide a valuable service to our communities. Reading is vital to civilization, growth and culture.

C.S. Lewis enjoyed the family library in the home of his youth, and in one of his boarding schools experienced the library not only as a vestibule of knowledge, but also as a place of refuge. The upper classmen of the school subjected the younger boys to relentless hazing, but the library was off limits to their abusive behaviors.*

The other undisguised blessing of the Coll [Wyvern College] was “the Gurney,” the school library; not only because it was a library, but because it was sanctuary. As the Negro used to become free on touching English soil, so the meanest boy was “un-faggable” once he was inside the Gurney.

It was not, of course, easy to get there. In the winter terms if you were not on the list for “Clubs” you had to go out for a run. In summer you could reach sanctuary of an afternoon only under favorable conditions. You might be put down for Clubs, and that excluded you. Or there might be either a House match or a Coll match which you were compelled to watch. Thirdly, and most probably, on your way to the Gurney you might be caught and fagged for the whole afternoon.

But sometimes one succeeded in running the gauntlet of all these dangers; and then— the books, silence, leisure, the distant sound of bat and ball (“Oh the brave music of a distant drum”), bees buzzing at the open windows, and freedom. In the Gurney I found Corpus Poeticum Bo reale and tried, vainly but happily, to hammer out the originals from the translation at the bottom of the page. There too I found Milton, and Yeats, and a book on Celtic mythology, which soon became, if not a rival, yet a humble companion, to Norse. (Surprised by Joy).

While this passage described the library as a glorious sanctuary, it also reveals a tragic snapshot of the bullying that is endemic to many schools. Since I don’t wish to end these thoughts on a negative image, allow me to offer another revelation from Lewis. In a brief essay, he praises imagination, while acknowledging its limitations.

It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent condition both of truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense.

I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition. It is, I confess, undeniable that such a view indirectly implies a kind of truth or rightness in the imagination itself. (“Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare”).

“Producing new metaphors or revivifying old . . .” What an apt description of the wonders of imagination. And this insight is only one of the countless gems of wisdom I have gratefully received from C.S. Lewis.

_____

* In the language of the school the “Bloods” were the sadistic elites. The youngest and most vulnerable were labeled “fags,” and their mistreatment (forced menial drudgery) was called “fagging.”

Those interested in seeing all five of the Seattle Library options for their new cards, you can do so here.

Autistic Considerations

August 22, 2013 — 13 Comments

Bill & Barbara ChristopherMost of us have a friend, loved one, or acquaintance affected by autism. I’m not sure if this would have been accurate a generation ago.

And I’m not merely referring to the lack of proper diagnosis of the problem. There are numerous reports that its frequency is increasing.

Autism is not necessarily debilitating. In minor cases it’s barely noticeable. Like many problems, its severity is manifested across a wide spectrum.

I have autism on my mind now, as the new school year approaches and my wife sets up her special education classroom. She’s excited about the return of her precious kids. It’s wonderful how so many of them make amazing process both in academics and social abilities.

The return of school, however, is not the primary reason for my current thoughts. I’m writing an article I hope to submit to an Autism magazine, inspired by a recent interview I conducted.

I was privileged to speak at length with the father of a severely autistic son who will be known to many readers of Mere Inkling. William Christopher, who played Father Mulcahy on M*A*S*H, has been a prominent spokesman for autism concerns for many years. (A link to the article appears below.)

Along with his wife Barbara, Christopher wrote a book entitled Mixed Blessings. It recounted their early struggles providing Ned with everything he needed to make his life as full as it could possibly be. Due to their diligence and deep love for their son, Ned continues to enjoy his active life today.

They embody the noble type of earnest love C.S. Lewis describes in The Four Loves. There he says that true love is gift-love, not seeking increased dependence on itself, but liberating the beloved to become as independent as they possibly can.

The maternal instinct . . . is a Gift-love, but one that needs to give; therefore needs to be needed. But the proper aim of giving is to put the recipient in a state where he no longer needs our gift. We feed children in order that they may soon be able to feed themselves; we teach them in order that they may soon not need our teaching.

Thus a heavy task is laid upon this Gift-love. It must work towards its own abdication. We must aim at making ourselves superfluous. The hour when we can say “They need me no longer” should be our reward. But the instinct, simply in its own nature, has no power to fulfil this law.

The instinct desires the good of its object, but not simply; only the good it can itself give. A much higher love—a love which desires the good of the object as such, from whatever source that good comes—must step in and help or tame the instinct before it can make the abdication.

This despite the counsel of one early specialist who advised them that since Ned was adopted they should just take him and trade him in for a child who wasn’t defective. Yes, someone really said that to them.

If I end up publishing the article, I’ll mention it again for those who might be interested in reading it. In the meantime, the extensive interview appears in the current issue of a journal I edit for military chaplains, called Curtana: Sword of Mercy.

When we look at a list of autistic traits, it’s normal to recognize some of them in ourselves. That shouldn’t surprise us, since most of these traits are completely “normal” in various degrees.

It is a commonplace practice to perform posthumous diagnoses of well known figures, based upon detailed descriptions of their behaviors. In that vein, I found online lists that included the following personages as possibly autistic: Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein, James Joyce, Stanley Kubrick, Lewis Carroll, and Hans Christian Andersen.

Oh, and there’s another name I discovered in one article. The writer suggested that C.S. Lewis’ social preferences suggest that he too suffered the mild version of autism, typically called “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

I don’t intend to discuss that now, but I wanted to share a fascinating concept I encountered while researching for this column. In Autism, Art and Children: The Stories We Draw, I read the following about imaginary worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth:

It is this element of world building that forms a bridge between the impersonal character of research and clinical observations and the individual young artists with autism in whom our interest especially lies.

Sacks (1995) points out the importance of fantasy worlds to some individuals with autism . . . this predilection for alternate worlds is frequently encountered in many high-functioning people with autism . . . such high-functioning individuals with autism “describe a great fondness for, almost an addiction to, alternative worlds, imaginary worlds such as those of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, or worlds they imagine themselves.”

Illustrating such world-building activities by an entire family (two parents and their son), all of whom have autism, Sacks remarks, “They have spent years constructing an imaginary world with its own landscapes and geography (endlessly mapped and drawn), its own languages, currency, laws, and customs—a world in which fantasy and rigidity play equal parts.”

This creative activity is of particular interest, for many of the children we have met have individual fantasies in alternative worlds that play major roles in their lives and activities.

I find this analysis captivating. I am utterly fascinated by the construction of imaginary settings. That’s one reason I love the alternate history genre, as it combines the familiar with elements that have transformed them into something inherently different.

I must confess I’ve occupied many an idle hour imaging new worlds. I’ve even invested a fair amount of time in world-building myself—for an alternative history for which I still compile notes and ideas, despite the fact it’s unlikely to ever be written. I don’t attribute this to autism, but it serves as another example of just how much all of us have in common.

The fact is none of us is perfectly healthy—physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually. We are who we are. We can strive to improve many aspects of our lives (and the wellbeing of others), but attaining perfection is impossible in this life.

In the meantime, we can be grateful for wonderful people like Barbara and Bill Christopher, who have courageously shared their own journey to aid us in ours. Their willingness to forsake their rightful shield of privacy and step out into the glare of the public—for our benefit—reveals both their love for their children and their generosity towards strangers.

_____

The wonderful photograph at the top of the column features Bill and Barbara Christopher. Barbara had a guest role as a nurse in “Dear Mildred,” during which the two of them sang a duet.

The interview with Bill Christopher can be downloaded for free in the current issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, which is available here.

A Narnian Madlib

July 23, 2013 — 9 Comments

EVO-WWI-064-01060I got to savor one of the joys of being a grandpa today, watching over two of my five lovely granddaughters while their parents traveled to an important business meeting.

Naturally, we had fun playing, drawing, tossing a ball for their German shepherd, building things, cleaning up their room (not quite so “fun”) and—since it’s summer—playing with water balloons (extremely fun, even though I got drenched).

We also did a madlib, one of those “phrasal templates” popularized by Roger Price and Leonard Stern in the 1950s. These simple word games are entertaining and educational. And, even for novice writers, they’re not too challenging to compose. After all, the stories themselves are by nature brief and rather superficial.

Today I even set my granddaughters in front of an episode of The Powerpuff Girls so I could write a short scene from Narnia for them. You’ll find it below.

I had forgotten how much fun we had with madlibs when our own children were young. We made many up on the spur of the moment, and laughed at the silly combinations of word that resulted. The process, as most readers know, involves randomly selecting a series of words for inclusion in the narrative. With a lack of imagination, the readings can fall a bit flat, but typically you end up with some (accidentally) witty wordplay.

One of the benefits of madlibs is how they can be used more than once. While the outline of the story remains the same, of course, the choices made by readers generate amazing diversity.

Most madlibs are admittedly rather juvenile. That’s because they are written for juveniles. They rely on providing specific types of words, such as nouns or adjectives. Theoretically, you could devise a madlib as complex or sophisticated as you desire. For example, an entertaining tale certainly could doubtless be woven by including random selections for the following word choices.

____________ prime number

____________ copular verb

____________ Napoleonic regimental commander

____________ homograph

____________ life stage of a butterfly (other than larva or pupa)

____________ ditransitive verb

____________ type of psychosis

____________ infielder for 1874 Chicago White Stockings

____________ gerund

____________ rare earth mineral

____________ monotransitive verb

____________ early kabbalist (other than Bahye ben Asher ibn Halawa)

____________ type of arachnid with blue coloration

____________ free predictive

____________ reciprocal pronoun

____________ chemical process (other than esterification)

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write the story accompanying this worthy list, but if you should write it, I’d love to read it.

There are a number of fan sites online that generate madlibs. I won’t recommend any since the ones I’ve glanced at today are merely advertising collections for sale. (I also found the examples I experimented with to be rather feeble . . . even weaker than the story I wrote today in a single hour.)

You will search in vain if you’re seeking a C.S. Lewis reference to madlibs. However, he was a master wordsmith, who recognized well their power, and greatly loved humor. The following passage, from “Prudery and Philology,”
refers to the versatility and weight of language, and includes a valuable caution.

We are sometimes told that everything in the world can come into literature. This is perhaps true in some sense. But it is a dangerous truth unless we balance it with the statement that nothing can go into literature except words, or (if you prefer) that nothing can go in except by becoming words. And words, like every other medium, have their own
proper powers and limitations.

The brief tale below is not pretentious, so you need not fear it exceeding its limitation. It simply is what it is . . . one grandfather’s passing literary adventure with his grandchildren.

It you like “Sharpbeak’s Narnian Adventure,” you’re welcome to download a PDF copy of the story I’ve appended to the end of the column. It’s 100% free, and I’m not trying to sell a collection of madlibs after hooking you. Besides, if I was trying to make a profit off of anything including the word “Narnian,” I have no doubt lawyers would be descending upon me in droves.

The Words You Will Need

____________ adjective

____________ animal

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ something  you drink

____________ color

____________ adverb

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ meal time

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ plural noun

____________ plural noun

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ adjective

____________ animal

____________ adjective

____________ food

____________ food

____________ food

____________ place

____________ adverb

____________ adjective

____________ place

____________ number

____________ plural relative

____________ verb

____________ adjective

____________ plural monster

The Story Into Which You Insert Your Words

Once upon a time, when Narnia was still young, a/an ____________, young eagle named Sharpbeak decided to set out for an adventure. A wise ____________ climbed his ____________ tree to talk to him before he left. He crawled into the eagle’s ____________ nest and said, “That was a long climb. I’m thirsty. May I have a cup of ____________?”

As the two friends watched the sun set over the ____________ mountains, the eagle said ____________, “I wonder what’s on the other side of those mountains?”

His ____________ companion warned him, “Beware of the ____________ giants in the north. They like nothing better than to eat us Talking Animals for ____________ or even for a snack. Sharpbeak promised he would avoid the giants.

Then his friend said, “Don’t forget that there are also ____________ dragons living on some of the mountaintops. They don’t appreciate ____________ visitors. If you surprise them, they may blast you with a ____________ burst of their ___________ flames. And definitely don’t disturb their treasure of ____________ and ____________.”

The eagle said, “I’ll be sure to watch out for dragons when I go on my ____________ adventure.”

“Oh,” added Sharpbeak’s friend, “I wouldn’t advise you to fly over the ____________ ocean either. What if you flew as far as you could, and you didn’t find a/an ____________ island where you could land?” The eagle looked worried. His wise friend added, “If you ever find yourself in dangerous circumstances, remember that you can call on Aslan to protect you. I heard that once he once allowed a timid ____________ to walk safely across a stormy lake without sinking.”

“My,” said Sharpbeak, “that would be a terrible thing.” He looked up at the ____________ stars, twinkling in the sky. The two friends had spoken long into the night. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said. All I have to offer you to eat is ____________ and ____________.”

“That would be nice,” said his friend. He reached into his pocket and said, “and we could have this ____________ for dessert. But, after we eat I had better scurry home to my ____________, since I can’t imagine sleeping in a tree. I mean, if a storm comes up, you have the wind blowing ____________ and ___________ rain pouring down in torrents. I’m much happier living in a ____________ with my ____________ ____________. While you go on your journey, I will stay home and ____________.”

The two friends gave each other a big hug. The eagle’s feathers tickled his friend, who said, “May Aslan watch over you during your travels.”

The next morning the ____________ eagle soared off to begin his adventure. Sharpbeak would be sure to avoid all of the giants, dragons and ____________ along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

Epilogue

Those of you curious about how my granddaughters’ story turned out, should read on.

Once upon a time, when Narnia was still young, a big, young eagle decided to go off for an adventure. A wise deer climbed his pink tree to talk to him before he left. He crawled into the eagle’s fuzzy nest and said, “That was a long climb. I’m thirsty. May I have a cup of juice?

As the two friends watched the sun set over the blue mountains, the eagle said roughly, “I wonder what’s on the other side of those mountains?”

His wide companion warned him, “Beware of the cold giants in the north. They like nothing better than to eat us Talking Animals for breakfast or even for a snack.” Sharpbeak promised he would avoid the giants.

Then his friend said, “Don’t forget that there are also hairy dragons living on some of the mountaintops. They don’t appreciate old visitors. If you surprise them, they may blast you with a soft burst of their speedy flames. And definitely don’t disturb their treasure of trash cans and flowers.”

The eagle said, “I’ll be sure to watch out for dragons when I go on my fun adventure.”

“Oh,” added his friend, “and I wouldn’t advise you to fly out over the heavy ocean either. What if you flew as far as you could, and you didn’t find a dark island where you could land?” The eagle looked worried. His wise friend added, “If you ever find yourself in dangerous circumstances, remember that you can call on Aslan to protect you. I heard that once he once allowed a timid bunny to walk safely across a stormy lake without sinking.”

“My,” said the eagle, “that would be a terrible thing.” He looked up at the watery stars, twinkling in the sky. The two friends had spoken long into the night. “I didn’t realize it was so late,” he said. “All I have to offer you to eat is noodles and cheese.”

“That would be nice,” said his friend. He reached into his pocket and said, “and we could have this snack bar for dessert. But, after we eat I had better scurry home to my fairgrounds, since I can’t imagine sleeping in a tree. I mean, if a storm comes up, you have the wind blowing bravely and messy rain pouring down in torrents. I’m much happier living in a playground with my ten sisters. While you go on your journey, I will stay home and dance.”

The two friends gave each other a big hug. The eagle’s feathers tickled his friend, who said, “May Aslan watch over you during your travels.”

The next morning the brown eagle soared off to begin his adventure. He would be sure to avoid all of the giants, dragons and dinosaurs along the way. But that’s a story for another day.

Downloadable Version

Here’s the story. On the PDF, it is preceded by a list of the type of words required to fill in the various blanks.

Narnian Madlib