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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.