Archives For Ireland

Don’t Be a Pirate

October 6, 2020 — 15 Comments

Pirates make for interesting reading. The Inklings thought so. In a 1932 letter to his brother, C.S. Lewis mentions Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Pirate.

“I am now reading through [a Scott biography], and am just at the Shetland and Orkney diary:89 which you will constantly have been reminded of if you have read The Pirate.”

In 1952, Lewis mentioned to a colleague another pirate story. “High Wind in Jamaica which I’ve just read is better than I expected. . . . A grim book but good in its way.”

This is not to say that Lewis regarded pirate tales, as a genre, as very good. His praise of Ray Bradbury’s work includes an entertaining aside in this regard.

I have just read two books by an American ‘scientifiction’ author called Ray Bradbury. Most of that genre is abysmally bad, a mere transference of ordinary gangster or pirate fiction to the sidereal stage, and a transference which does harm not good.

Bigness in itself is of no imaginative value: the defence of a ‘galactic’ empire is less interesting than the defence of a little walled town like Troy. But Bradbury has real invention and even knows something about prose. I recommend his Silver Locusts.

With the recent exception of the Pirates of the Caribbean series, piracy does not seem to capture our cinematic imagination as it once did. Onscreen, buccaneers are often treated as heroic swashbucklers, as in the delightful Princess Bride.

However, in reality, we know real pirates were merciless.*

Some were “privateers,” authorized by a government to prey on the shipping of other countries. (Privateering was not banned until 1856.)⁑ They were simply pirates with papers, although they possessed a veneer of respectability in some circles. If you are interested in a recent argument for privateering “to fight Chinese aggression at sea,” You need to read “Unleash the Privateers!”

These oceanic criminals were not confined to exotic ports. As recently as 1614, the coast of Ireland was home to a major “pirate alliance.”

[In 1604] James I of England ended the long English naval tradition of “privateering” as part of a peace agreement with Spain. . . . Though it was risky work, many sailors preferred it to more official service on the King’s ships, which offered low pay, poor sanitary conditions, and an aging fleet.

Over time, English privateers grew in numbers, with the more successful commanding well-armed fleets of multiple ships. . . . as a consequence of the decision by James I, thousands of mariners suddenly found themselves out of work. Used to operating independently, they became prime targets to drift into piracy. Unsanctioned piracy, that is.

Long before Jack Sparrow ever considered wearing an eyepatch, pirates had become a staple Hollywood trope. In 1935 Errol Flynn appeared in Captain Blood, where he portrayed a gentlemanly physician who is falsely imprisoned and ends up becoming a hugely successful scourge of the seas.

A decade earlier, Douglas Fairbanks starred in The Black Pirate (1926) where his dashing athleticism entertained audiences. Here too the protagonist is actually a “good” person, enlisting in criminal ranks merely to punish those responsible for his father’s death.

Pirates in Inkling Literature

Both of the most famous Inklings included pirates in their best known works. J.R.R. Tolkien included an entire nation of pirates in Middle Earth. The Corsairs of Umbar were utterly despicable, and aligned along with the Haradrim on the side of Mordor. Even before we see them portrayed in the film set in the Third Age, they had carried destruction to the people of Gondor.

The second and greatest evil came upon Gondor in the reign of Telemnar, the twenty-sixth king, whose father Minardil, son of Eldacar, was slain at Pelargir by the Corsairs of Umbar. . . . a deadly plague came with dark winds out of the East. The King and all his children died, and great numbers of the people of Gondor . . . When King Telemnar died the White Tree of Minas Anor also withered and died (Annals of the Kings and Rulers).

C.S. Lewis also incorporated pirates into his own Narnian saga. The entire Telmarine population, which figures prominently in Narnian history, is descended from pirates who arrived there from Earth. In the following passage, Aslan explains this arrival to Prince Caspian.

“You, Sir Caspian,” said Aslan, “might have known that you could be no true King of Narnia unless, like the kings of old, you were a son of Adam and came from the world of Adam’s sons. And so you are. Many years ago in that world, in a deep sea of that world which is called the South Sea, a shipload of pirates were driven by storm onto an island.

And there they did as pirates would: killed the natives and took the native women for wives, and made palm wine, and drank and were drunk, and lay in the shade of the palm trees, and woke up and quarreled, and sometimes killed one another. And in one of these frays six were put to flight by the rest and fled with their women into the center of the island and up a mountain and went, as they thought, into a cave to hide.

But it was one of the magical places of that world, one of the chinks or chasms between that world and this. There were many chinks and chasms between worlds in old times, but they have grown rarer. . . . And so they fell, or rose, or blundered, or dropped right through, and found themselves in this world, in the Land of Telmar which was then unpeopled.

But why it was unpeopled is a long story: I will not tell it now. And in Telmar their descendants lived and became a fierce and proud people, and after many generations there was a famine in Telmar and they invaded Narnia, which was then in some disorder (but that also would be a long story), and conquered it and ruled it.

Epilogue: Don’t Be a Pirate

In a 1950 letter to a correspondent who had apparently argued that institutional loyalty is actually loyalty to individual leaders, Lewis disagrees.

No, I don’t agree that loyalty to an institution is simply loyalty to the personnel and their policy. If I join a ship because I like the captain I am not justified in deserting the moment he dies, nor because I dislike his successor.

There might come a point (e.g. if the new captain were using the ship for piracy) at which it would be my right, and my duty, to leave: not because I simply disliked him and his polity, but because the particular duty (keep your contracts) would now conflict with, and yield to, the higher and more universal duty (Don’t be a pirate).

Like C.S. Lewis, I assume most readers of Mere Inkling would agree that we must follow our conscience, should our earthly loyalties be directed toward an institution or person devoted to an evil end. In the military, this conundrum was addressed in the legal freedom—even mandate—to disobey “unlawful orders.”

No doubt many people are challenged on a regular basis to compromise their conscience in order to succeed in their morally-challenged environment. I would add my own voice to Lewis’ in urging them not to become a pirate.


* Much has been written about piracy, an ancient plague that still afflicts the world today. You can download a fascinating piece of history in the form of a 1724 London publication of A general history of the robberies and murders of the most notorious pyrates, and also their policies, discipline and government, from their first rise and settlement in the island of Providence, in 1717 to the present year 1724.

⁑ The vast extent of Atlantic piracy is sobering. One history site describes it thusly:

The Golden Age of piracy (c1680s–1726) was the most dramatic era of maritime marauding the world has ever known, a period which at its peak saw as many as 4,000 pirates a year wreaking havoc across the Atlantic and Indian oceans.

The age of colonial expansion meant that huge quantities of valuable cargoes were being shipped over vast ocean areas and, as European navies were reduced, many experienced sailors who were out of work turned to piracy.

Sand is a fascinating, and awe-inspiring, substance. It evokes a variety of reactions, depending on our personal histories and preferences. Some smile as they contemplate lounging on warm, smooth beaches. Others may grimace as they recall desert experiences where they struggled to remain hydrated, and sandy grit seemed to work its way into all those places it didn’t belong.

Some places have lots of sand. For example, 80% of Turkmenistan is covered by sand. And yet, this doesn’t stop them from wanting more! Turkmenistan determined theirs wasn’t appropriate for building a racing track, so they paid $1.3 million for British sand.

Turkmenistan is so stark that one of its main tourist attractions is a fiery crater on a barren landscape that is called the “Door to Hell.” National Geographic participated in an expedition which included a descent into the 100 foot deep inferno.

The idea of a nation of unending sand purchasing even more, brought to my mind a familiar verse from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” And recalling the relentless flames of their methane pit, inspired me to pen my own variation of that theme.

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
(Samuel Coleridge)

Sand, sand, everywhere,
But not a grain to sell;
Sand, sand, everywhere,
A scorched foretaste of hell.
(Robert Stroud)

Lewis and Irish Sand

It is no surprise to readers of Mere Inkling, that we can find a Lewisian connection to even something so inconsequential as rocks* which have been weathered and worn into small fragments.

Like most of us, Lewis encountered sand in a variety of settings. In the 1950s he made a trip to Donegal, where he noted its distinctive beaches.

My correspondence has lately been in much the same state as yours: that is, on coming back from a holiday in Ireland I found about 60 letters to deal with. I had a lovely time over there: the best part in Donegal, all Atlantic breakers & golden sand and peat and heather and donkeys and mountains and (what is most unusual there) a heat wave and cloudless skies. Walks were much interrupted by blackberries: so big and juicy, and sweet that you just couldn’t pass without picking them.

To another friend, he wrote:

I was with a friend in Donegal which is a very fine, wild country with green mountains, rich secretive valleys, and Atlantic breakers on innumerable desolate sands.

But alas!, they get less desolate every year and it will soon be just a holiday resort like so many other places. (One always disapproves of all holiday-makers except oneself!)

Sand as a Metaphor

Everyone knows sand. That is especially true of the people who populated the lands of the Bible. From Ur to Egypt to Jerusalem, they encountered more than their share.

Because of its familiarity, and its unique traits, sand provides fertile soil [sorry] for producing metaphors. A couple, for example, from the Scriptures themselves.

[God speaking to Jacob] “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.”
(Genesis 22:17)

[Description of the combined army facing the Hebrews in Canaan] “And they came out with all their troops, a great horde, in number like the sand that is on the seashore, with very many horses and chariots. And all these kings joined their forces . . .”
(Joshua 11:4)

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
If I would count them, they are more than the sand.”
(Psalm 139:17-18)

But sand is not simply used to illustrate multitudes or numbers.

“A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty,
    but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both.”
(Proverbs 27:3)

[From a description of the Messianic Age]
“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water . . .”
(Isaiah 35:7)

[God declares his power]
“Do you not fear me? declares the Lord.
    Do you not tremble before me?
I placed the sand as the boundary for the sea,
    a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass;
though the waves toss, they cannot prevail;
    though they roar, they cannot pass over it.”
(Jeremiah 5:22)

[Jesus said] “Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.” (Matthew 7:26)

C.S. Lewis’ Use of Sand as a Metaphor

In Mere Christianity, Lewis alludes to Jesus’ words when he says even the best human beings will disappoint. Only the trust placed in Christ will never disappoint.

We must go on to recognise the real Giver. It is madness not to. Because, if we do not, we shall be relying on human beings. And that is going to let us down. The best of them will make mistakes; all of them will die. We must be thankful to all the people who have helped us, we must honour them and love them.

But never, never pin your whole faith on any human being: not if he is the best and wisest in the whole world. There are lots of nice things you can do with sand: but do not try building a house on it.

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis explains his concept of Joy and how it relates to longing for heaven and being in the presence of God. In his description of how flashes of wonder grace our lives, he warns we should not confuse them with the ultimate joy for which we yearn.

I saw that all my waitings and watchings for Joy, all my vain hopes to find some mental content on which I could, so to speak, lay my finger and say, “This is it,” had been a futile attempt to contemplate the enjoyed.

All that such watching and waiting ever could find would be [merely] an image . . . I knew now that they were merely the mental track left by the passage of Joy—not the wave but the wave’s imprint on the sand.

A final example comes from Lewis’ under-appreciated Pilgrim’s Regress. One of the archetypal characters, Mr. Savage, attempts to waylay young Christian from following the Landlord (i.e. God).

“But as [belief in the Landlord] is not true, there remains only one way of life fit for a man.” This other way of life was something he called Heroism, or Master-Morality, or Violence. “All the other people in between,” he said, “are ploughing the sand.”

Plowing the sand is an ancient idiom. And its meaning is fairly evident, even to those encountering it for the first time. An online dictionary says “ploughing the sand has been a proverbial image of fruitless activity since the late 16th century.” In truth, wasting one’s energies in this fruitless pursuit possesses far deeper roots.

In The Story of Troy, the author describes the efforts of Ulysses to avoid crossing the Aegean to fight a war for which he had forcibly argued. He feigned insanity to stay home.

[Ulysses] paid no heed, however, to the messages sent to him asking him to join the army at Aulis. Agamemnon resolved, therefore, to go himself to Ithaca to persuade Ulysses to take part in the expedition. He was accompanied by his brother Menelaus, and by a chief named Palamedes, a very wise and learned man as well as a brave warrior.

As soon as Ulysses heard of their arrival in Ithaca, he pretended to be insane, and he tried by a very amusing stratagem to make them believe that he was really mad. Dressing himself in his best clothes, and going down to the seashore, he began to plow the beach with a horse and an ox yoked together, and to scatter salt upon the sand instead of seed.

Fortunately for the great author, Homer, Ulysses’ ruse was exposed. And it was revealed in an act worthy of Solomon that gave dual meaning to the hero’s fruitless plowing of sand.

Palamedes, however, was more than a match in artifice for the Ithacan king. Taking Telemachus from the arms of his nurse, he placed the infant on the sand in front of the plowing team. Ulysses quickly turned the animals aside to avoid injuring his child, thus proving that he was not mad but in full possession of his senses. The king of Ithaca was therefore obliged to join the expedition to Troy.

It is my hope that you have found this post informative and entertaining . . . and that writing it does not constitute my own example of plowing the sand.


* Most sand was originally rock, although some beaches are predominantly composed of other materials. Many beaches are “almost entirely composed of worn down dead animal bits.” White sand beaches often have a different source, parrotfish excrement.

Parrotfish eat the algae that grow on coral. [Their] large, beak-like teeth (which inspire their name) help them break off and eat small pieces of coral. They have another set of teeth, called pharyngeal teeth [that] grind up the coral into small grains of sediment, which parrotfish then excrete in clouds of white powdery sand. (A single large parrotfish can produce hundreds of pounds of sand a year!) The sediment is distributed onto the reef and, eventually, can pile up above the surface of the water, forming islands like the Maldives . . .

C.S. Lewis had a deep fondness for horses. I imagine he would have enjoyed a recent report from the historic village of Kilmallock, Ireland. It appears that some stray horses have been attempting to upstage the local ducks.

According to the Independent, one of the horses even proudly trotted into a local gymnasium. The mare (or stallion) appears to be more brazen than last year’s crisis which caused one councillor to call “on gardaí [police] in the Co Limerick town to rein in children as young as six riding sulkies in the town which he claimed was turning into the ‘Wild West.’” Yes, you most certainly need to beware of those rowdy six year old cowboys and cowgirls!

Dog owners have begun raising questions about why they must clean after their animal companions while the horses treat the parks like, shall we say, regular pastures. The city’s senior executive engineer attributes the problem to the fact the equines are just so sneaky. “Any time it is reported we go down but the minute our back is turned they are put back. We can’t be there 24/7.”

The most humorous element of the effort to ban the horses, in my mind, is because they have interrupted the entertainment of local ducks.* Not one, but “two duck races on the river have been affected.”

Lewis’ Thoughts about Horses

One of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia presents a pair of horses as two of its major protagonists. The Horse and His Boy features Bree and Hwin, Talking Horses captured from Narnia by the Calormenes. A wonderful passage that illustrates the book’s ethos comes when the two horses and their respective riders decide to journey north together.

Aravis is a Calormene princess fleeing her land’s tyranny. Her mount, Hwin, is a young mare who was stolen as a colt and raised in the south. Bree was a stallion, also captured as a colt, and raised to be a warhorse.

“All right then,” said Aravis. “You’ve guessed it. Hwin and I are running away. We are trying to get to Narnia. And now, what about it?”

“Why, in that case, what is to prevent us all going together?” said Bree. “I trust, Madam Hwin, you will accept such assistance and protection as I may be able to give you on the journey?”

“Why do you keep talking to my horse instead of to me?” asked the girl.

“Excuse me, Tarkheena,” said Bree (with just the slightest backward tilt of his ears), “but that’s Calormene talk. We’re free Narnians, Hwin and I, and I suppose, if you’re running away to Narnia, you want to be one too. In that case Hwin isn’t your horse any longer. One might just as well say you’re her human.”

While technically their own genus, centaurs might be considered “part horse.” Thus the entertaining description from The Silver Chair. The children are surprised that the centaurs are still about their breakfasts, two hours after rising before dawn.

“Why, Son of Adam, don’t you understand? A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse-stomach. And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders [small fish] and kidneys and bacon and omelette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer.

And after that he attends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats, and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the weekend. A very serious thing indeed.”

In Mere Christianity, Lewis uses the transformation of a horse to a new creation as an analogy for what happens to people when they surrender their lives to God’s mercy and seek to follow him.

“Niceness”—wholesome, integrated personality—is an excellent thing. We must try by every medical, educational, economic, and political means in our power, to produce a world where as many people as possible grow up “nice;” just as we must try to produce a world where all have plenty to eat.

But we must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might even be more difficult to save.

For mere improvement is not redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature.

Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game. But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so: and at that stage the lumps on the shoulders—no one could tell by looking at them that they are going to be wings—may even give it an awkward appearance.

For a more in-depth discussion of this subject, I commend to you Leslie Baynes’ column, “The Heavenly Horses of C.S. Lewis,” which you can read at A Pilgrim in Narnia.

A final comment from Lewis’ youth worth noting. When writing to his friend Arthur Greeves in 1914, he refers to his scribblings and attempts (quite likely involving the Boxen era) when he attempted to sketch horses.

I sympathize with your difficulty in drawing a horse, as I have often made the attempt in the days when I fancied myself in that line. But of course that counts for nothing: as the easiest of your sketches would be impossible for me. But there are heaps of pictures in which you need not introduce the animal.

It was this passage that inspired the graphic created for the top of this post.


* I wish the Irish were cultured enough to allow actual ducks to enjoy the adrenaline rush of a race, rather than using those little rubber ducklings that belong in children’s baths. If it’s the latter, which I fear it could be, I vote to let the horses run free. After all, some of those rubber ducks wash out to sea and become part of the international litter problem. For example, the piece of rubbish pictured on this link presumably polluted the Irish Sea for a full decade before it washed up on a distant shore.

C.S. Lewis & Nuns

January 30, 2020 — 14 Comments

One of the great disappointments of Roman Catholic fans of C.S. Lewis is that he never converted to their communion. Lewis did, however, sincerely respect Roman Catholic nuns. In fact, he considered the reverence and joy of the nuns he encountered to be one of the church’s most commendable elements.

In 1947 he wrote to one of his regular correspondents who wondered why he had not forsaken his “low church” loyalties for a more elevated perspective. His response reveals his perception of the virtues of consecrated nuns.

I am particularly pleased to have been of any help as a bridge between the parish and the convent. I’m not especially ‘high’ Church myself but Nuns seem to me the strong argument on that side.

They are in my experience almost invariably so very nice—and so happy: much more so either than the same number of married women picked at random or the same number of monks. I don’t know why this should be so.

One does not have to be Catholic to appreciate people who consecrate their lives to God, willing to make radical sacrifices like living a life of celibacy. Nearly four decades ago, while I was serving a congregation in Citrus Heights, California, I earned a (post-M.Div.) Master of Theology degree. Since I was focused on Patristics, I was enrolled at a Jesuit seminary in the Bay area.

One day during my studies, an Episcopal priest and I were having lunch with a half dozen Roman Catholics, most of whom were religious sisters.* The conversation turned to a celebration by the sisters present that they no longer had to wear habits. The respectful person I am, I remained silent as they discussed their “family” business. Apparently, though, I was softly grinning, because of one them (it may even have been my thesis advisor) asked, “what are you smiling about?”

My response was that it wasn’t my place to offer an opinion, but when they pressed, I said, “well, throughout my life, whenever I’ve seen a nun in her habit, it’s been an encouraging thing, and I think—there goes a life that is consecrated to God.” My companions were shocked and at a loss for words. In retrospect, I believe that C.S. Lewis might have offered a similar comment.

Due to the century during which he lived, and his setting in the British Isles, Lewis encountered nuns far more frequently than I do. In fact, since their “liberation” from the habit, we can’t know precisely how many religious sisters cross our paths. In 1947 he describes to a close friend a trip to see his brother who was hospitalized in Ireland. His colorful description of the town he visited ends with an uplifting remark.

My Brother, thank God, was out of danger when I reached him on Monday morning last but was at the unearthly city of Drogheda where almost every building is a church or a tavern⁑  and what men do but pray and drink or how life is supported in their bodies I can’t conceive. . . . And you hear more wit and humour in one day of London than in a week of Drogheda. My Brother was in the care of the most charming nuns.

Nuns are found in various Christian traditions. In addition to those who take such vows in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches trace the lineage of these female monastics back to the ancient eremites. ⁂ There are also Anglican and Lutheran convents. In fact, one of C.S. Lewis’ close friends was an Anglican nun. Sister Penelope, CSMV (1890-1977), was a member of the Community of St Mary the Virgin. Lewis dedicated his novel, Perelandra, “to some ladies at Wantage,” her convent.

In a 1941 letter to the BBC, Lewis pleads that he is unable to add to his current speaking commitments. These apparently included specific presentations to nuns.  

I’m afraid in view of my other commitments I should be ‘over-talked’ if I accepted the job you kindly suggest for me. I’m talking already to the R.A.F., to the general public, to nuns, to undergraduates, to societies. The gramophone will wear out if I don’t take care! With thanks and much regret.

Lewis’ Three Theses

Mary Willis Shelburne was a widow in Washington, D.C., with whom Lewis corresponded for a number of years. Beginning in 1950, they exchanged more than a hundred letters, which were collected in the volume Letters to an American Lady. Lewis arranged for her to receive financial support from the sales of his books in the United States. This support continued after his own passing. In 1952 Shelburne converted to Roman Catholicism, and proposed that Lewis follow her example. His response was gracious.

It is a little difficult to explain how I feel that tho’ you have taken a way which is not for me. I nevertheless can congratulate you—I suppose because your faith and joy are so obviously increased. Naturally, I do not draw from that the same conclusions as you—but there is no need for us to start a controversial correspondence! I believe we are very near to one another, but not because I am at all on the Romeward frontier of my own communion.

In a short note written four years later, Lewis thanks her for a picture of herself and a nun. He uses the occasion to voice his sentiment that nuns are happy and pleasant. He then proposes three curious theses, noting that his presumption is subjective and she may disagree with him. Do you agree with his opinions here?

Problem: why are nuns nicer than monks and schoolgirls nicer than schoolboys, when women are not in general nicer than men? But perhaps you deny all three statements! All blessings.

My own experience with the first category are limited, but the monks I’ve met have all been very kind, as have the nuns. I fully agree with his second contention. Girls are much nicer than boys. That seems to me a no-brainer . . . although I assume there are many girls who have been bullied by their peers and would disagree.

As for the final thesis, that neither women nor men are better than each other as a group, I would strongly disagree. While it is only a generalization, of course, I believe men tend far more toward cruelty and greed than do women. On the other end of the spectrum, experience tells me that women are significantly more disposed toward virtues such as nurture, mercy and compassion, than their Y chromosome counterparts.

Obviously, C.S. Lewis proposed this question to his correspondent off the cuff. Given the opportunity to discuss it at greater length, say over a pint at the Eagle and Child, it’s certainly possible he could persuade me that his ideas on this matter are correct. After all, we both share a respect for women who feel called to a religious life.


* The essential difference between nuns and sisters is that the former normally live in monasteries, while the latter takes a more tempered vow and often serves in a non-cloistered setting.

⁑ Although this article focuses on England, it provides details on a sad trend in which church buildings are being converted for use as pubs and bars.

⁂ Eremites are Christian hermits. This was the earliest form of monasticism, with individuals removing themselves from secular society. Communal monasticism developed later.

C.S. Lewis the Irishman

August 31, 2018 — 8 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.