Archives For Ireland

C.S. Lewis the Irishman

August 31, 2018 — 7 Comments

irish aslan

Contrary to the common assumption that C.S. Lewis was English, he was actually an Irishman. He was born in Belfast, and those who know him attested to how his Irish-ness lasted the whole of his life.

Lewis was proud of his roots, and celebrated them. When he first journeyed to England, he experienced a culture shock. “No Englishman will be able to understand my first impressions of England,” he wrote in Surprised by Joy.

Lewis always loved Ireland. He vacationed there regularly, and chose the island for his honeymoon, late in life. One of his Irish students, David Bleakley, related that the transplant professor declared, “Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of County Down.” (C.S. Lewis at home in Ireland)

Several years ago, David Clare of the University of Limerick wrote “C.S. Lewis: An Irish Writer.” It appeared in Irish Studies Review, and the abstract is illuminating.

This article examines the effect of C.S. Lewis’s Irish background on his work. It attempts to contradict the assumption that this Belfast-born writer should be included in the English and not the Irish canon. It emphasises that Lewis saw himself as Irish, was seen by others as Irish, and that his Irish background, contrary to what some have written, was important to him throughout his lifetime.

It goes on to demonstrate the ways in which his work was influenced by his youth in Ireland and by the Irish mythology that he loved. Furthermore, this article maintains that, as a child of pre-partition Ireland with roots throughout the island, Lewis was influenced by the country as a whole, not just his native Ulster. Finally, it attempts to understand why Lewis, a proud Irishman, did not do more to promote himself as an Irish writer.

Clare’s argument is necessary because of Irish political correctness. In Surprised by C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath describes the prejudice.

So why is Lewis not celebrated as one of the greatest Irish writers of all time? Why is there no entry for “Lewis, C.S.” in the 1,472 pages of the supposedly definitive Dictionary of Irish Literature (1996)? The real issue is that Lewis does not fit—and, indeed, must be said partly to have chosen not to fit—the template of Irish identity that has dominated the late twentieth century.

In some ways, Lewis represents precisely the forces and influences which the advocates of a stereotypical Irish literary identity wished to reject. One of the reasons why Ireland has largely chosen to forget about Lewis is that he was the wrong kind of Irishman. . . .

Lewis may have chosen to rise above the provinciality of Irish literature; he nevertheless remains one of its most luminous and famous representatives.

It should be noted, of course, that countless Irish men and women are proud of Lewis, and count him as one of their own.

There’s No Other Place Quite Like Ireland

On a less serious note, and at the risk of contributing to a stereotype, I want to share with you an incident that occurred in Dublin.

First some context. Some people suggest that people in Ireland have a particular affinity for alcohol. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, since they are only ranked twenty-first in the world (for alcohol consumption).

The 1875 tragedy goes by several names, but one is the “Dublin Whiskey Fire.” A malt house and a whiskey warehouse caught fire, and as thousands of gallons of their contents poured down the street in a fiery channel, the blaze spread to many homes and businesses.

Miraculously, the fire did not take any lives. That does not mean, however, that there were not a number of fatalities. A dozen people died from alcohol poisoning. Tempted by unrestricted access to the alcohol, many Dubliners cupped their hands or used their boots to gather up the liquid and drink themselves into oblivion.

You can read an account of the bizarre occurrence in The Irish Times.

I wonder what Lewis thought about this revolting event, since he was surely aware of it. The deranged consumption of filthy and burning alcohol would be condemned by any sane person.

Among teetotalers, however, even a sip of alcohol is objectionable. Many attribute their aversion to their faith. While the Christian Scriptures strongly condemn drunkenness, some verses tacitly affirm the drinking of wine in moderation.*

C.S. Lewis and Drink

C.S. Lewis was among the majority of Christians who accept drinking while avoiding drunkenness. I have written on this subject at length.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis says,

Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened ‘Temperance,’ it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further.

It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers . . . Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself.

But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way.

An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

This is wise counsel. Recapturing the original meaning of temperance—and living as temperate people—results in happier lives and a more peaceful world.


* For those who God expressly commands not to drink, should avoid it completely. For example, an angel told Zechariah that John the Baptist, “must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” (Luke 1:15). John’s cousin Jesus, on the other hand, miraculously created wine for a wedding party, and offered the Passover wine to his disciples with the words “this cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20)

 

fjord

Norwegian immigrants to North America were a hardy breed, and some of their descendants continue to display that resilience.

When they came to the United States, they scoffed at the thought of heading southward where any average human being could survive. Instead, they flowed in great numbers to Minnesota and the Dakotas. Spawned near the arctic, they appreciated the balmy temperature of places like Sioux Falls and Fargo.

The Norwegianest of the immigrants chided their countrymen and women for settling in the tropics, and aimed higher than the United States. They opted to move to Canada, which was nearer their native land’s latitude. To make up for being closer to the equator, they compensated by settling in Canada’s harsh heartland where no ocean currents mediated the bitter cold.

Meanwhile, back in the States . . . as farmers continued to settle further west, some of them eventually happened upon paradise on earth. They crossed over the Rockies and Cascades and came to Puget Sound, a land with abundant coasts and shorelines which reminded them of the fjords back home. There the Norse placed deep roots.

Fjords are inherently impressive. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis describes encountering just such a body of water.

When morning came, with a low, gray sky but very hot, the adventurers found they were in a bay encircled by such cliffs and crags that it was like a Norwegian fjord.

In front of them, at the head of the bay, there was some level land heavily overgrown with trees that appeared to be cedars, through which a rapid stream came out. Beyond that was a steep ascent ending in a jagged ridge and behind that a vague darkness of mountains which ran into dull-colored clouds so that you could not see their tops.

The nearer cliffs, at each side of the bay, were streaked here and there with lines of white which everyone knew to be waterfalls, though at that distance they did not show any movement or make any noise.

Indeed the whole place was very silent and the water of the bay as smooth as glass. It reflected every detail of the cliffs.

Some of my own ancestors settled in the late 1800s in Poulsbo, a modest community that came to be known as “Little Norway.” They bore the familiar surname Olsen (Ole’s son). My grandfather married one of their descendants and our family name became Nesby (so revised because English’s stunted alphabet lacked two of the original name’s letters: Næsbø).

Following my retirement from the United States Air Force, I moved near to my family’s American homestead. However, I ended up living next to a rare geographic feature, a fjord.

It sounds reasonable that America would have fjords in Alaska, but Washington is home to a number of them as well. Much of Puget Sound was carved by glaciers that deeply scored the western portion of the state. Independent of these is a long inlet called Hood Canal. It is part of the Salish Sea.

This amazing fjord extends for approximately fifty miles. That makes it almost the length of Romsdalsfjord, Norway’s ninth longest fjord.

I absolutely love surveying the waters of Hood Canal. I suspect I was genetically preordained to feel at home here.

Fjords Appealed to C.S. Lewis Too

In 1958, C.S. Lewis described a visit he and his wife Joy had recently made to Ireland. They were awestruck by the scenery.

Yes, my wife and I had a glorious trip to Ireland. For one thing, we flew and it was for both of us a new experience. I can quite believe that for really long journies it can be dull and monotonous.

But one’s first sight of the cloud-scape from above—then, when the clouds cleared, the coastlines looking (as I’d never really quite believed) just as they do on maps—the first bit of Ireland shining out on the dark sea like enamel work—all this was indescribably beautiful. . . .

As for beauty . . . we saw mountains, heather just beginning to bloom, loughs (= fjords), yellow sand, fuchsia, seas Mediterraneanly blue, gulls, peat, ruins, and waterfalls as many as we could digest.

Lewis’ words serve as a reminder that while we may not all be so fortunate as to live beside a fjord, there is nothing to prevent us from visiting one to savor its wonder.

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

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

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

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

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

Offering Gentle Criticism

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

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

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

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

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

A Poetic Postscript

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

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

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

_____

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

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

punch dante

Beware the Tablet

May 22, 2014 — 9 Comments

tabletDid the ancient wax writing tablet of the Romans possess the power to terrorize enemies? Two ancient texts suggest that under some circumstances, carrying these humble wax tablets could cost someone their life.

I love history. I love writing. When you combine the two, I’m in a literary paradise. I just read a journal article that took me there. I recently joined a fascinating online organization called Academia.edu, where international scholars freely share their research.

It’s like stumbling into a free four-star buffet for the mind.

I do not only love words themselves. I’ve long been interested in the physical or mechanical aspects of writing, as well. Along this line, I’ve written here in the past about typewriters and the printing press.

I do not recall, however, writing about one of the most fascinating literary devices used by both common and gifted writers for century upon century. I am referring to the wax tablets of Rome, and the often elaborate styluses used to write on them.

I read a captivating article today that related a pair of historical incidents—one ancient, the other medieval—in which modest tablets such as these were mistaken for weapons. Deadly consequences followed.

In a Welsh journal entitled Studia Celtica, there appears “Tírechán on St. Patrick’s Writing Tablets,” by David Woods of University College, Cork. Cork is, of course, in Ireland, that enchanted isle from which the sainted C.S. Lewis also sprang. In fact, in a letter written to a child, Lewis once wrote: “I was born in Holy Ireland where there are no snakes because, as you know, St. Patrick sent them all away.

The purpose of the article was to explain how writing tablets being carried by Saint Patrick and his party could be mistaken (from a distance) as swords. The author is persuasive in revealing the historic scene and the potential for misunderstanding. In doing so, he appeals to an ancient incident in which Octavius (who would become Caesar Augustus) unjustly executed a political enemy he suspected had posed a threat.

When Quintus Gallius, a praetor, held some folded tablets under his robe as he was paying his respects, Augustus, suspecting that he had a sword concealed there, did not dare to make a search on the spot for fear it should turn out to be something else; but a little later he had Gallius hustled from the tribunal by some centurions and soldiers, tortured him as if he were a slave, and though he made no confession, ordered his execution, first tearing out the man’s eyes with his own hand.

The incident with Saint Patrick was not quite so gruesome, although it may have easily turned bloody, if the pagan’s hoping to instigate a bloodbath had succeeded.

Patrick came from Mag Arthicc to Drummut Cérrigi . . . and people saw him with eight or nine men, holding written tablets in their hands like Moses. The pagans shouted as they saw them, demanding that one should kill the holy men, and said: “They have swords in their hands for killing people. In their hands they look wooden by day, but we believe they are swords of iron for shedding blood.”

The big crowd was on the point of doing harm to the holy men; but there was a man among them who felt pity, Hercaith by name, of the race of Nothe, the father of Feradach. He believed in Patrick’s God, and Patrick baptized him and his son Feradach.

Fortunately, reason prevailed, and Patrick continued to spread the gospel in the land to which he had originally been carried as a slave.

The article also references occasions where the stylus, rather than the innocuous tablet, was used as a weapon. “For example, when his assassins confronted Julius Caesar in the senate in 44 BC, he sought to defend himself with his stylus, and stabbed one of them, Casca, in the arm with it.”

The pen, (the original) Caesar’s weapon of last resort.

This delightful article offered a wealth of knowledge. It alerted me to the fact that it is not only wax tablets that are threatening. Those who are wise will exercise extreme caution, whenever they are confronted by any and all writing tools.