Archives For J.R.R. Tolkien

Narnian Numismatics

September 2, 2022 — 7 Comments

I’m a numismatist, and you may be one as well.

Although I haven’t actively accumulated coins for some years, I do have as a prize piece of my collection a Narnia coin used in the production of Prince Caspian (2008). Technically, since it isn’t a true, earthly coin, it is considered exonumia, but we coin collectors still recognize just how truly special these treasures are.

Speaking of treasures, that is precisely where my Narnian medallion comes from. The treasure chamber scene had a surfeit of the pieces, and some were sold in collectible frames. The obverse and reverse of the coin can be seen above. I’ve actually written about “my precious” piece of Narnia in the past but just this morning I woke up with the word “numismatist” on my mind, crying out for a Mere Inkling post. (More on this in a moment.)

First, those interested in the history of money may wish to skim a few of my other related columns. These include: inflationary currency such as German notgeld and Zimbabwe’s more recent $1,000,000 bills, a comparison of the women in the life of Constantine the Great and the prominent women in the life of C.S. Lewis, and the misspelling of the name of Jesus on a papal medallion.

Coins Have Given Way in My Life, to Words

As I said above, I awoke today with the word “numismatic” fluttering across my thoughts. And it was not alone. It was linked to the wordplay I recently discussed in “Creative Definitions.”

Before pondering where my mental gyrations on the word in question carried me, allow me to share two additional examples I scribbled out on my bedside tablet before rising to brush my teeth and begin the day.

Provocatours: excursions to politically explosive environs where travelers can accurately anticipate their guides will provide an explosively entertaining adventure.

Methics: the ethical perversion which allows people to justify creating pharmaceuticals with the primary function of destroying lives. [See chemistry teacher Walther White on “Breaking Bad.”]

From there my mind jumped to the pecuniary avarice of drug dealers as associated with the word numismatics – and it coined the related word,

Numethmatics: wherein the potential temporal gains associated with drug dealing outweighs the cost to society, oneself and an individual’s soul.

And in relatively rapid sequence came the following.

Flumismatics: when viral contagions disrupt the entire global economy.

Cluemismatics: either the determination of the financial motivations for murder mysteries or the funding required for law enforcement agencies who determine the criminals’ identities.

Numismantics: when economic theory is dominated by traditionally masculine concepts and values (e.g. profit and greed).

Numissmatics: economic theory which is strongly influenced by traditionally feminine values (e.g. charity and compassion).

If the last two culturally antiquated examples haven’t lost you, read on.

Gloomismatics: the prospect for economic survival in light of crushed hopes for the future due to unbridled inflation (e.g. the insanity of some economists and politicians who advocate simply “printing more money” to solve the problem).

Newmismatics: novel currencies and specie that seek to deceive citizens through the pretense that they actually possess some value.

Bluemismatics: the depressive condition elicited when one’s financial holdings inadequately counterbalance one’s debts; historically, applied to cabin boys in sailing days who only realized they would not be fiscally compensated for their services after the ship had left port.

Pneumismatics: pecuniary considerations based on spiritual rather an material considerations.

Numismetrics: the partly scientific, partly fanciful art of exchanging international currencies.

Nufistmatics: the shocking rise of unprovoked blindsided blows to strangers in urban jungles, frequently without any apparent desire to steal property.

Truemismatics: the actual value of monies before economists get involved in the matter.

Gluemismatics: the tight-fisted relationship misers have with their monetary hordes (see Ebenezer Scrooge, or dragons such as described by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien).

Nuclearmismatics: the grim cost calculation involved by world powers when weighing the “benefits” of a possible nuclear conflagration.

There were a couple of other scribblings I was unable to decipher once I was fully awake, but near the end of my meanderings, I came upon,

Zoomismatics: the financial resources required to provide a healthy environment, as close as possible to their natural habitat, for animals residing in zoological parks.

Unsurprisingly, this neologism gave rapid birth to Gnumismatics and Moomismatics . . . well, you get the idea. For the sake of my on sanity, I had to forcibly end the spontaneous exercise.

Returning to Narnia

It is fitting to end this numismatic revelry with a return to the scene for which my coin was minted. As noted earlier, it appeared in Prince Caspian. The Pevensie children have returned to Narnia, and are reawakened to their former life which had become but a dream.

Rediscovering their treasure chamber, in the now-ruins of the castle Cair Paravel (time runs differently in Narnia) is pivotal in their reawakening.

“There’s one thing,” said Lucy. “If this is Cair Paravel there ought to be a door at this end of the dais. In fact we ought to be sitting with our backs against it at this moment. You know – the door that led down to the treasure chamber.”

“I suppose there isn’t a door,” said Peter, getting up. The wall behind them was a mass of ivy.

“We can soon find out,” said Edmund . . .

They worked at the ivy with their hands and with Peter’s pocket-knife till the knife broke. After that they used Edmund’s. Soon the whole place where they had been sitting was covered with ivy; and at last they had the door cleared. “Locked, of course,” said Peter. “But the wood’s all rotten,” said Edmund. “We can pull it to bits in no time . . .

[Descending into the chamber, Peter who is bringing up the rear tells Edmund to count the steps.] “One—two—three,” said Edmund, as he went cautiously down, and so up to sixteen. “And this is the bottom,” he shouted back.

“Then it really must be Cair Paravel,” said Lucy. “There were sixteen.” Nothing more was said till all four were standing in a knot together at the foot of the stairway.

Then Edmund flashed his torch slowly round. “O—o—o—oh!!” said all the children at once. For now all knew that it was indeed the ancient treasure chamber of Cair Paravel where they had once reigned as Kings and Queens of Narnia. There was a kind of path up the middle (as it might be in a greenhouse), and along each side at intervals stood rich suits of armor, like knights guarding the treasures.

In between the suits of armor, and on each side of the path, were shelves covered with precious things – necklaces and arm rings and finger rings and golden bowls and dishes and long tusks of ivory, brooches and coronets and chains of gold, and heaps of unset stones lying piled anyhow as if they were marbles or potatoes – diamonds, rubies, carbuncles, emeralds, topazes, and amethysts. Under the shelves stood great chests of oak strengthened with iron bars and heavily padlocked.

The tale continues, as with each returning memory, the children resumed their stature and confidence as the Kings and Queens of Narnia. Their character, you see, was restored, but they remained only a year older (in Earth age) than they had been when they had previously left the wonderland.

Much to the disappointment of the dwarf Trumpkin. “Well, then – no offense,” said Trumpkin. “But, you know, the King and Trufflehunter and Doctor Cornelius were expecting – well, if you see what I mean, help. To put it in another way, I think they’d been imagining you as great warriors. As it is – we’re awfully fond of children and all that, but just at the moment, in the middle of a war – but I’m sure you understand.”

Lesser children may have filled their pockets with gold coins and diamonds and sought a return to their native land and a life of leisure. Not so these four young heroes. And, due in part to their immunity to avarice, the glory of Narnia is eventually reestablished.

C.S. Lewis & Roald Dahl

August 17, 2022 — 6 Comments

Do C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Roald Dahl (1916-1990) have anything in common, besides authoring books enjoyed by children?

Looking back, I must have been deprived of opportunities to read common children’s books. I recall my mom having many of Dr. Seuss’ classics, but don’t remember more advanced works such as those of Beatrix Potter or E.B. White.

I suppose that is why Roald Dahl’s name means little to me. By the time I was aware of his popular works, I was too old to appreciate them. Added to that was my intense dislike for the cinematic presentation of his Chocolate Factory, which has permanently (and probably unfairly) soured my impression of the poor man.

In Matilda, published in 1988, Dahl offers a rather curious homage to the Inklings. The young protagonist offers to her teacher the following observations.

“I like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” Matilda said. “I think Mr. C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.”

“You are right there,” Miss Honey said.

“There aren’t many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien either,” Matilda said.

If you are intrigued by this brief interchange, you would probably enjoy reading “Disagreeing with Matilda on Lewis and Tolkien.”

Curiously, a number of people have offered their evaluations of Lewis and Dahl, vis-à-vis one another. Author Grudge Match: Roald Dahl vs. C.S. Lewis invited diverse contributions to the debate eight years ago on LibraryThing.

A Christian blogger offers a faith-based appraisal on an entertaining website called “Like but better.” It’s entitled “How C.S Lewis is like Roald Dahl, but better (and Aslan is like Willy Wonka, but better).”

C.S Lewis is serious about what Dahl jokes about; even as both want us to pursue a childlike wonder and joy. For Lewis these enchanted stories and our sense of wonder are small stories reflecting on the big story — the ‘myth that became history’ — the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A BBC Culture article is quite critical of Dahl, despite his popularity. The introduction to “The Dark Side of Roald Dahl” aptly describes the essay.

Roald Dahl was an unpleasant man who wrote macabre books – and yet children around the world adore them. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, writes Hephzibah Anderson.

An article by a Jewish journalist refers to both of the authors discussed here. It describes his bitter introduction to the major flaws of an author whose work he enjoyed as a child. “Why I Hope My Kids Never Read Roald Dahl” is, for me, most valuable for the way in which the journalist regards the faith which underlies the tales of Narnia.

As a nerdy Jewish kid in Indiana and Tennessee in the late 1970s and 1980s, I had far better relationships with books than I did with other kids. If I liked a book, I read it again, and again and again.

And so it was with Roald Dahls “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl’s protagonists Charlie and later James (of the “Giant Peach”) both provided early models for how to find a better way through a hostile world where I always felt like an outsider.

Given that personal history, the announcement that Netflix has acquired Dahl’s entire catalog and plans a robust lineup of multimedia adaptations ought to feel like good news. . . .

Seeing his work still celebrated fills me with sadness, leaving me caught between attachment to something that mattered to me as a boy and commitment to the principles that, I hope, make me the man I am today.

Because I know that Roald Dahl hated Jewish people like me.

There are cases where it’s complicated to ascribe modern values to figures from the past and as a reader, my feelings, my emotions, are just not going to be consistent. I don’t share C.S. Lewis’ religious views . . . J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is, I’m sad to say, bound up in long histories of racism.But my childhood copies of their books still occupy my shelves, some missing covers and pages, and I bought new copies for my kids and tried – with mixed success – to share my love of those stories with them. It’s hardly new for readers of one generation to struggle with the views of authors from another.But Dahl is different. He passed away in 1990, only 31 years ago. And we know he was an anti-Semite because he said so.

While I would challenge Perry’s modest critiques of the Inklings, I am delighted he is able to look beyond his adult disappointment with their imperfections to commend them to his own children. As for Dahl . . . this article reinforces my lack of regret in being unfamiliar with his work.

Enough, now, of their differences. I promised readers a surprising similarity between the two British authors.

And What Is Their Unusual Commonality?

In 1951, C.S. Lewis was approached by Prime Minister Churchill’s office to accept an honor occasionally bestowed upon renowned literary figures. He was invited to become a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Lewis declined, because he felt the political implications might overshadow the nonpartisan spirit of his writings. He was, however, honored to have been offered the honour.

This decision brings us to the peculiar similarity between the two writers. It turns out that Roald Dahl also passed up the invitation to join this chivalric order.

And the two were not alone. In 2012 a list of deceased individuals who had declined related honors between 1951 and 1999 was published.

Literary names were prominent amongst those to have said no to CBEs, OBEs and knighthoods in the annual New Year or Birthday Honours list, with Dahl, Lewis, and Huxley . . . joined by fellow naysayers Eleanor Farjeon, the children’s author, the poets Philip Larkin and Robert Graves, who said no to both a CBE and a CH (Order of the Companions honour), literary critic F.R. Leavis, Booker [Prize] winner Stanley Middleton and the authors J.B. Priestley and Evelyn Waugh.

An aspiring literary historian might do well to research whether and why successful writers might be more inclined to dismiss such an honor than other British citizens. I wonder if that inclination would carry over to other nationalities or cultures.

Ultimately, I assume most writers care less about receiving honors, than having their work read. And, perchance, having their literary efforts improve the lives of one or two others along the way. [This statement inspired vigorous debate when I shared this draft with members of my critique group.]

That desire – to enrich lives – is what motivates me. I believe it is also what inspired C.S. Lewis. And I know we are not alone.

Yes, we found hobbits in our yard, when we weren’t even looking. True, I have a sign on our property welcoming “all true Narnians,” but true fans of the Oxford Inklings will recognize that hobbits are actually residents of Middle Earth.

I suppose, though, that doesn’t mean that Middle Earth’s hobbits, elves, and Ents can’t be Narnians at heart. As for dwarves and humans, they already reside in Narnia and are welcome here even if they are traveling through on their way to Valinor, in the Blessed Realm.

To be honest, it wasn’t actual hobbits we discovered. It is a small field of Eryngium planum, which is also known to botanists as Blue Hobbit, Sea Holly.

Noted for its petite size, Eryngium planum ‘Blue Hobbit’ (Sea Holly) is a compact perennial boasting a profusion of spiny, egg-shaped, purplish-blue flower heads throughout the summer.

They are produced on silver-blue stems and stand high above the basal rosette of deeply toothed, smooth textured leaves. Its beautiful texture, unique color, long-lasting flowering, easy care and remarkable qualities as cut flowers make it a favorite of florists, gardeners, bees and butterflies.

The plant’s size is the apparent premise for its popular name. I mean, there were Blue Wizards in Middle Earth, but no blue hobbits I can recall.

According to an interesting article in a Canadian newspaper, there are several plants “eagerly adopted by Tolkien fans, at least ones with a love of houseplants.”

The author describes his new acquisition named in honor of Gollum, a Stoor, which was an old breed of hobbits that preferred riversides and marshes. Gollum, of course, devolved from his life as Sméagol, due to the corrupting influence of the Ring.

Despite the name, the plant is kinda cute. Its full name is Crassula ovata ‘Gollum,’ and if you’re keeping up with your botanical Latin, or still have the tag stuck in one of your houseplants, you’ll know that Crassula ovata is the jade plant.

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis loved nature. And, not just from a distance. Their frequent cross country walks were of great delight to both scholars.

Lewis’ fascination with gardens began in his childhood. In his autobiography, he includes “a garden (which then seemed large)” as one of his initial “blessings” (Surprised by Joy). He also relates a pivotal experience in the development of his imagination.

Once in those very early days my brother brought into the nursery the lid of a biscuit tin which he had covered with moss and garnished with twigs and flowers so as to make it a toy garden or a toy forest. That was the first beauty I ever knew. What the real garden had failed to do, the toy garden did.

It made me aware of nature—not, indeed, as a storehouse of forms and colors but as something cool, dewy, fresh, exuberant. I do not think the impression was very important at the moment, but it soon became important in memory.

As long as I live my imagination of Paradise will retain something of my brother’s toy garden. And every day there were what we called “the Green Hills;” that is, the low line of the Castlereagh Hills which we saw from the nursery windows. They were not very far off but they were, to children, quite unattainable. They taught me longing—Sehnsucht; made me for good or ill, and before I was six years old, a votary of the Blue Flower.

The blue flower to which Lewis refers is not the Blue Hobbit. It is actually a symbol which grew to reference the Romanticism movement. Among other things, such as an emphasis on intense emotion, Romanticism fostered an idealized image of nature. In an essay about the German writer Novalis,* Norwegian-American author Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen (1848-1895)⁑ offers the following description.

In the very first chapter we meet with all the conventional machinery of Romantic fiction: night, moonlight, dreams, and the longing for the blue flower. This blue flower is the watchword and the sacred symbol of the school. It is meant to symbolize the deep and nameless longings of a poet’s soul.

Romantic poetry invariably deals with longing; not a definite, formulated desire for some attainable object, but a dim, mysterious aspiration, a trembling unrest, a vague sense of kinship with the infinite, and a consequent dissatisfaction with every form of happiness which the world has to offer. The object of the Romantic longing, therefore, so far as it has any object, is the ideal—the ideal of happiness . . .

The blue flower, like the absolute ideal, is never found in this world . . .

The blue flower, as a metaphor, may remain out of reach, but selective breeding of cultivars has provided us with genuine examples in our modern era. And, since cultivars are named according to binomial nomenclature – which uses their scientific name, followed by a vernacular epithet – we may be introduced to more Inkling plants in the future.

I imagine both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien would be pleased to know that people have commemorated their literary creations with lovely flora. Learning of their existence, I’m thrilled to have Blue Hobbit spreading across our property. Perhaps it’s time to add a Gollum Jade plant to our home?


* For some reason, Romantic poet Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772- 1801), was commonly known by his pen name, Novalis, rather than his given name.

⁑ You can download a free copy of Boyesen’s Essays on German Literature at Internet Archive.

What’s your favorite season of the year? My preference is Autumn, with Spring a close second.

In the United States, Spring comes out on top. Actually, it is the preference in forty (80%) of the states. Probably due to its northern latitude, “the most popular season in the Northeast is Summer.” Unsurprisingly, Winter is the least favorite across the board, although a few hardy souls disagree. “Alaska and Vermont are the only two states that say winter is the most wonderful time of the year.”

Some years ago, Gallup published the result of polls on the subject, which are also analyzed by the ages of respondents.

Americans aged 18 to 29 are the group least likely to prefer spring (24%), while those 65 and older are most likely to prefer it (53%). Younger Americans are much more likely to prefer summer than are those in older age groups, and, in fact, summer is the top choice among this age group. [Editor: I wonder if that has anything to do with the traditional academic calendar?]

Everyone is aware of how the seasons (through length of daylight, etc.) affect our moods. In a 1914 letter to his father in Ireland, C.S. Lewis offers a curious description of the “magnificent summer” he was enjoying in England.

My mental picture of home is disturbed to a certain extent by your mention of a fire. Here, we are in the middle of a magnificent summer: day succeeds day with the same cloudless sky and parched earth, and the nights are hot and comfortless. But on the whole, fine weather is agreeable, and has, I think, a certain effect on the spirits.

At the end of September, he wrote again about the extended summer he was experiencing. It doesn’t sound like the opinion of someone whose seasonal preference was summer. “I suppose the winter has closed in at home by this time: but we are still having quite summer weather here – which I rather resent.” Sometimes, it seems, seasons do overstay their welcome.

The following year, C.S. Lewis again lamented summer’s length. In mid-November he complained to his father.

The weather here is a perfect joke, warmer than July, bright sunshine and gentle breezes. Personally I have had quite enough summer, and should not be sorry to bid it goodbye, though Kirk persistently denounces this as a most unnatural state of mind.

A year later, in 1916, Lewis’ distaste for excessive heat is seen in an October letter to his friend Arthur Greeves. One reason for this was C.S. Lewis’ passion for hiking through the countryside.

The beastly summer is at last over here, and good old Autumn colours & smells and temperatures have come back. Thanks to this we had a most glorious walk on Saturday: it was a fine cool, windy day & we set out after lunch . . .

In a poem entitled “The Day with a White Mark,” Lewis opens with vivid imagery and the notion that mood is normally related to environment and circumstances.

All day I have been tossed and whirled in a preposterous happiness:
Was it an elf in the blood? or a bird in the brain? or even part
Of the cloudily crested, fifty-league-long, loud uplifted wave
Of a journeying angel’s transit roaring over and through my heart?
My garden’s spoiled, my holidays are cancelled, the omens harden;
The plann’d and unplann’d miseries deepen; the knots draw tight.
Reason kept telling me all day my mood was out of season.
It was, too. In the dark ahead the breakers only are white.

One website offers generalized thoughts about “what your favorite season” reveals about you. For example, it says of those who share my preference:

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns,” George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) once wrote of her affection for the fall season.

While parts of the world tend to think of spring as the season of renewal, fall is also a very good time for a fresh start. The vibrant orange colors and cooler weather of autumn appeal to your constant desire for change. The upcoming holidays inspire many to reflect back on the year that was and make plans for the year to come.

A study in England went so far as to link birth months to the frequencies of several psychiatric conditions. If it is correct, your likelihood of suffering from recurrent depressive disorder, bipolar affective disorder and even schizophrenia varies according to your birth month.

Summer does provide a welcome time for vacations and events that would be difficult to wedge into the “busier” seasons of the year. For example, it’s not too late to register for the 2022 C.S. Lewis Summer Institute. The theme is “Surprised by Love: Cultivating Intellectual Hospitality in an Age of Uncertainty.” It is slated for 28 July – 5 August 5, 2022 in Oxford.

C.S. Lewis’ Favorite Season

Last year, the United Kingdom’s National Trust* conducted a poll which determined summer (30%) as the favorite season for Brits. Curiously, for young adults, summer tied with the second overall favorite, autumn.

After autumn colour, Britons’ favourite things about the [autumn] season are spending time in nature – running, walking or cycling (13 per cent) and the weather – cold crisp days, Indian summer, or stormy days (12 per cent).

So what exactly was C.S. Lewis’ favorite season. At the end of his life he wrote the following. As he so often did, he used a familiar subject to make a profound comment about life.

Yes, autumn is really the best of the seasons; and I’m not sure that old age isn’t the best part of life. But of course, like autumn, it doesn’t last.

But then, isn’t it the flow of the seasons that makes each so welcome in turn? Charles Dickens offered just such an observation in a quote which offers a fitting end to our reflections today.

Nature gives to every time and season unique beauty; from morning to night, as  from the cradle to the grave, it’s just a succession of changes so soft and comfortable that we hardly notice the progress.


* The National Trust helps conserve sites of historic and natural significance in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland has its own National Trust for Scotland, devoted to the same purposes.

Lewis’ good friend J.R.R. Tolkien also enjoyed autumn. In a post several years ago I shared a portion of a letter to his son where he says, “I have the autumn wanderlust upon me, and would fain be off with a knapsack on my back and no particular destination . . .” Sounds like something someone in Middle Earth might say – although, certainly not a hobbit!

Gambling, Sin & C.S. Lewis

February 14, 2022 — 10 Comments

Gambling has become pervasive in modern society. It is so endemic that people rarely spend a moment wondering whether it is morally good, bad or indifferent.

This past week numerous articles appeared about multi-million dollar bets and the stunning amount waged on the final game of the NFL season. And, a day after the game is played, the odds for next season’s winner are already online.

The Super Bowl is traditionally the biggest annual sports betting event in the United States. But it’s only one of many events where the legally gambled totals are stunning.

It is estimated that Americans wager over $150 billion dollars per year on sporting events, and even more is bet on legally [on events] around the world.

Naturally, the World Cup – with its global audience – trumps the sum gambled on American football.

In the United States, opportunists created state-sponsored lotteries, presumably to fund worthy causes like education. Today most of these are taken for granted as a stable revenue stream (not always for their promised purpose).

And we haven’t even factored in the casual or unsanctioned gambling that takes place.

In many gambling situations, wagers are made between friends, for minor amounts. In such cases there seems to be little reason for concern. Perhaps it is about willpower and moderation.

However, there are some cases where people wager large amounts – far beyond what they can “afford” to lose. And in such cases, something dangerous is afoot. In the worst cases, people can lose everything they own. Even worse, innocent members of their families frequently suffer.

These are the people for whom Gamblers Anonymous exists. The organization “is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from a gambling problem.”

Recent brain research has confirmed a genetic element and that “gambling addiction triggers the same brain areas as drug and alcohol cravings.”

The grim truth, you see, is that gaming businesses are not the fun, innocent entertainment industry they claim to be. Gambling enterprises don’t rely on casual bettors for their profits. It’s the people who cannot resist making just one more bet, who fund their rich coffers.

And, while technology may make some gambling more appealing, it’s dangers were recognized centuries ago.

By the time George II came to the throne in 1727, Britain was a nation addicted to gaming. The capital was fit to burst with gaming houses, where play continued round the clock . . . A game named Hazard was one of the most popular games, and also one of the most aptly named, since there were hazards aplenty in playing.

Squeezed around a large, circular table, a player could easily win or lose an entire fortune in a single night, since large stakes were wagered on each throw of the dice, and four-figure losses were not uncommon. No amount of skill could improve the odds of winning at Hazard, either. . .

It was a highly addictive game too; payouts and losses came quickly, and so the atmosphere around the table was always one of fevered anticipation.

But is Gambling a Sin?

The fact that gambling can destroy families and lives suggest that it is not morally ambiguous. But, is it a matter of degree, rather than a right or wrong?

To answer that question, people of Christian faith look first to the Scriptures. The Bible speaks a great deal about money, but very little that relates directly to gambling. Most people are well acquainted with the biblical warnings that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” The rest of that verse describes the troubled state of people who have surrendered to its power.

It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs (1 Timothy 6:10).

Beyond the cautions about being tempted by money, gambling is not expressly addressed. Nevertheless, this essay offers a thorough discussion of the subject, and is worth reading.

What did C.S. Lewis Think?

C.S. Lewis had an excellent hermeneutic, or approach to interpreting the Scriptures. He believed that Jesus’ disciples should do what God’s Word tells us to do, and avoid what it instructs us to avoid. Pretty simple, right? Too bad we find that model so challenging to follow.

Because the Bible is essentially silent on the practice, Lewis applied his reason, and his personal experience to the matter when he was asked about it. In a collection entitled “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” he offered a very practical response.

Gambling ought never to be an important part of a man’s life. If it is a way in which large sums of money are transferred from person to person without doing any good (e.g., producing employment, goodwill, etc.) then it is a bad thing.

If it is carried out on a small scale, I am not sure that it is bad. I don’t know much about it, because it is about the only vice to which I have no temptation at all, and I think it is a risk to talk about things which are not in my own make-up, because I don’t understand them.

If anyone comes to me asking to play bridge for money, I just say: `How much do you hope to win? Take it and go away.’ (God in the Dock).

An Inkling Postscript

J.R.R. Tolkien’s estate faced an ethical challenge when Warner Brothers, one of their licensees, abused their rights and created “online games, slot machines and other gambling-related merchandise based on the author’s books The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings.”

Tolkien’s estate had accused the defendants of violating a 1969 agreement allowing the sale of “tangible” merchandise, by associating the books with the “morally-questionable (and decidedly non-literary) world of online and casino gambling”.

It said this “outraged Tolkien’s devoted fan base” and irreparably harmed the legacy of the English author, who died in 1973 at the age of 81.

Since the Chronicles of Narnia were written for children, they are less susceptible to such abuses. But, wherever a dollar can be made (or won) the possibility exists they could also be misused to that end.

Writing a Biography

January 4, 2022 — 14 Comments

What kind of writer are you? A poet, journalist, essayist or, perhaps, a minimalist? (By “minimalist” I mean someone who writes the bare minimum they have to.)

Many readers of Mere Inkling are, in fact, writers in their own right. Even ignoring the profusion of texts ricocheting around the globe (which are, in fact, literary creations), a fair number of Mere Inkling subscribers have blogs of their own.

The preeminent position of physical letters as the medium for correspondence has been usurped by email. People still write to one another, but – to the woe of the struggling United States Postal Service – they do it digitally.

More serious writers gravitate toward a varieties of genres. Often we try our hands at the sort of literature we prefer reading. That’s why I seldom write poetry. (And, when I do, it’s usually because I’m consciously stretching myself.)

My poetic skills may be limited – you can decide for yourself – but I don’t experience any of the disappointment that befell C.S. Lewis when his poetic dreams were dashed.

Poets are fine. Until they become snobs. If they treat other genres with respect, they stand on an equal footing with everyone else. But when they claim primacy for their preference, they lose me. Consider “William Faulkner Makes Us Wonder: What’s So Great About Poetry, Anyhow?

There’s a reason I can call poetry the highest form of artistic expression without thinking twice about it. And even though most Americans today don’t acknowledge the art form all that much, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sensible person who doesn’t respect or – if only from a distance – admire the magic in it.*

I guess I am one of the Americans who doesn’t possess a special reverence for poetry. And, as for “admiring the magic in it,” please. Wait, I don’t desire to offend you poets out there. Unless, of course, you consider yourself better than everyone else. In that case, consider my words a gentle rebuke (and encouragement to consider the virtue of humility).  

I hope that everyone will read on, and forgive me for maligning “the highest form of artistic expression.”

A Less Honored Literary Genre

I write nonfiction, unsurprising for someone who is basically a historian. Theologically, I neglect the conjecture of systematic theological considerations and focus on what’s usually called “practical theology.” It too, is unpretentious, and intended to make sense to “regular” people.

Recent years have found me dabbling in the memoir, or versions of autobiography, as I consider the potential value of such documents to my descendants.

One arena I’ve never really considered is biography. I suspect it would be a comfortable literary form, for a historian. I mean, you’re simply telling the story of a single life, relating facts and explaining the context of various events. That doesn’t sound too challenging, does it?

I suppose almost anyone could write a biography. The question is, could we write a good one?

Writing a Biography

I have been thinking about this subject ever since my research for my previous post introduced me to the work of David Cecil,⁑ one of the Oxford Inklings who shared the company of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Cecil wrote several biographies. At Internet Archives you can read his lives of William Cowper, Charles Lamb, or Max Beerbohm, or his two-volume biography of Lord Melbourne (1 and 2).

If those individuals don’t tickle your proverbial fancy, you might want to look at the book that piqued my interest: An Anthology of Modern Biography. In it, Cecil explores the work of sixteen biographers. One of the chapters is his own portrayal of the evangelical Anglican cleric, John Newton (an extract from his biography of Cowper).

What intrigues me most about the volume is not the biographical material itself. Rather, it is Cecil’s very informative introduction. Here is his opening, which may whet the interest of future biographers . . . one of whom could be you?

Biography is not an important form of literary art. But it has a special interest to the student of modern literature. For it is the only new form. We can talk of modern poetry and modern novels, but these are only new variations on old forms. . . . Not so biography.

Art is primarily the expression of the artist’s creative powers; he writes to express his personal vision; he chooses as his subject that which he thinks will best exhibit his particular talent.

Now this is not true of the biographer of the past. His aim was not artistic, it was useful; he wanted to give people information. If he was a man of literary talent . . . his book was a work of art. But even if it had not been, it would not have failed. For its primary purpose had been, not to give an artistic impression, but to tell the truth.

This desire for the truth over ostentation resonates with me. But, mind you, he is referring to biographers “of the past.” Now (the book was published in 1936), other influences are at work.

But for the typical modern biographer literature comes first. Mr. Lytton Strachey writes about Queen Victoria, not in order to give us information about her, but because he thinks her life an excellent subject for a work of art. . . .

He does not set out his facts . . . complete with reference and proof, he weaves them into a story, grouping them in order and proportion that will make his picture as vivid and entertaining as possible.

Cecil’s explanation for this transformation is fascinating, and I encourage you to read it yourself, whether or not you are interested in writing a biography yourself. The book is available here, and thanks to the Public Library of India, you can download a complete copy for free.

In a 1932 letter to Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis contrasts biographies with the evidence from people’s daily lives. He shares with his lifelong friend a question this raises in his own minid.

It is a very consoling fact that so many books about real lives – biographies, autobiographies, letters etc. – give one such an impression of happiness, in spite of the tragedies they all contain. What could be more tragic than the main outlines of Lamb’s or Cowper’s lives?

But as soon as you open the letters of either, and see what they were writing from day to day and what a relish they got out of it, you almost begin to envy them.

Perhaps the tragedies of real life contain more consolation and fun and gusto than the comedies of literature?

Biography. Considering trying it. And, Poetry, it’s not that bad, either.


* The article does include interesting information about Faulkner. It appears his disappointed poetic dream shifted him to more productive fields. This parallels C.S. Lewis’ literary career.

For all of [Faulkner’s] achievements, his Nobel Prize for Literature, his Pulitzers and National Book Awards, his mug on a 22-cent postage stamp – the man still fell short. And it wasn’t that he dropped out of high school and did only a few semesters of college, or that he was once fired by an employer for reading on the job.

These were small missteps and shortcomings that were basically inconsequential in the long run. The larger issue is that, in his own view, William Faulkner was a failed poet. Failed.

“Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first,” he told The Paris Review in 1956, “finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

What you may not know is that before his first novel, Soldier’s Pay, Faulkner had written two books of poetry, Vision in Spring in 1921 and The Marble Faun in 1924. While he’d long dreamed of being taken seriously as a poet, the verse was always second-rate and not particularly significant. Eventually he abandoned his efforts as a poet to focus solely on his fiction.

⁑ In the spirit of most colonials who shook off the reigns of monarchial rule, I tend to respect the Queen as a head of state, and disregard the affectations of an aristocracy they once “lorded” it over. Thus, I can take or leave Cecil’s normative citation as “Lord David Cecil.

If we were to ask C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the rest of the Inklings for insights about a New Year, what wisdom might they share?

Read on. Mere Inkling answers that question with a few select quotations from their writings. We also include comments from several other writers associated, in spirit, with the Oxford Inklings.

While some of the pithiest of the quotations below are well represented at quotation websites, your humble host has secured the less familiar quotations through the diligent search of obscure manuscripts.

J.R.R. Tolkien:

From a holiday letter to a friend.

“There is small chance of this reaching you tomorrow Jan. 1 to wish you a Happy New Year. I hope you have plenty of food in store! It is my birthday on Jan. 3rd, and I look like spending it in the isolation of a house turned igloo; but the companionship of several bottles of what has turned out a most excellent burgundy (since I helped to select it in its infancy) will no doubt mitigate that: Clos de Tart 1949, just at its top. With that hobbit-like note I will close, wishing you and your wife and children all blessings in 1962.”

As the world conflict raged on, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher who was serving in the Royal Air Force. “This empty year is fading into a dull grey mournful darkness: so slow-footed and yet so swift and evanescent. What of the new year and the spring? I wonder.”

Christopher Tolkien:

A scholar in his own right, Christopher devoted much of his life to editing his father’s published and unpublished works. In The End of the Third Age, he reminds us that sometimes the jobs on which we embark end up being far more involved than we anticipated. “With this book, my account of the writing of The Lord of the Rings is completed. I regret that I did not manage to keep it even within the compass of three fat volumes.

C.S. Lewis:

“What wonderful adventures we shall have, now that we are all in it together.”

“You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.”

“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back, everything is different.”

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and help others to do the same.”

“If you live for the next world, you get this one in the deal; but if you live only for this world, you lose them both.”

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”

“I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise, it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.”

Charles Williams:

“I think in order to move forward into the future, you need to know where you’ve been.”

“Play and pray; but on the whole do not pray when you are playing and do not play when you are praying.”

Owen Barfield:

“. . . the poet, while creating anew, is likely to be in a sense restoring something old.”

In a short story entitled “The Devastated Area,” Barfield, a veteran of WWI, described the way a soldier can view an uncertain future. “Armistice day; the last shot; and the hushed, doubtful little group in the dug-out at 11 o’clock. He is sitting there in uniform, willing for the first time in three years to let his thoughts run on into the future. But they will go back to the past instead . . .”

Adam Fox:

In his history of English hymnody, Fox praises his nation’s people and offers timely advice regarding musical accompaniment. “It takes no long argument to prove that Hymn Singing is a national institution in Great Britain. It is so rather in the same way as cricket. . . . The singing is usually accompanied on an organ, or if there is no organ, then on a piano. The harmonium, though sometimes used for the purpose, cannot be recommended, and is falling into disuse.”

Jack A.W. Bennett:

In The Humane Medievalist, Bennett praises his friend and fellow Inkling, C.S. Lewis. Coincidentally, this essay was his own inaugural lecture as he assumed the Cambridge chair which had been created for Lewis himself. “C.S. Lewis died a year ago today, and the year has deepened not diminished our sense of loss. Those of us who had the good fortune to call him master must feel as the prentice Hoccleve felt about Chaucer: ‘Fain he would me have taught, But I was dull, and learned little or naught.’”

Lord David Cecil:

He begins his biography of Lord Melbourne with a curious sentence suggesting that even we who have lived the most average of lives, may still have great things ahead of us. “William Lamb, second son of the first Viscount Melbourne, had arrived at the age of forty-seven without achieving anything of significance in the world.”

Hugo Dyson:

Discussing the Tragedies written by Shakespeare, Dyson reminds us to recognize potential blessings in the coming year’s challenges. “Our awareness both of ourselves and of the world at large is intensified by confrontation with an unexpected or serious or painful situation. Our wits and imaginations alike grow more acute under difficulties.”

Nevill Coghill:

Referring to Chaucer’s portrayal of the Knight, Coghill describes an ongoing goal for those who will to live nobly. “There is a fundamental answer to those who want to think the Knight’s moral nature . . . was too good to be true, and so can be no better than a romantic illusion. People who think thus can never have thought about Christianity at all; that we can live up to the moral demands that it makes on us, and that at any moment we may fall into the pit that opens beneath us, does not lessen the love we are taught . . . to have, and to attempt. Christianity plainly tells us to be perfect, impossible as it seems, impossible as it proves; but this does not make that demand less real, or even less realistic . . . Coming to the aid of human imperfection, there is grace.”

A Special Bonus for Mere Inkling Readers as the Year Ends

And a few additional thoughts from writers with connections to our favorite Inklings.

George MacDonald:

“A man’s real belief is that which he lives by. What a man believes is the thing he does, not the thing he thinks.”

A reminder to trust God for his daily provision. “It is not the cares of today, but the cares of tomorrow, that weigh a man down. For the needs of today we have corresponding strength given. For the morrow we are told to trust. It is not ours yet. It is when tomorrow’s burden is added to the burden of today that the weight is more than a man can bear.”

“Past tears are present strength.”

Dorothy Sayers:

“Paradoxical as it may seem, to believe in youth is to look backward; to look forward we must believe in age.”

G.K. Chesterton:

“When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

Joy Davidman:

“Being a fool for God was not merely alright but liberating.”

“We do not need a world in which there is nothing to be afraid of . . . Nor can we have such a world, for all our strivings; no matter pleasant and safe we make the journey, the end of it is death. What we do need is to remember that we have been redeemed from death and the fear of death, and at a rather high price too.”

Douglas Gresham:

“I am beginning to realize that every point in one’s life at which one loses everything is far more a beginning than an end, for one has lost merely the past, and one has yet to gain the future, and eternity itself.”

And, encouragement for those among us who are writers: “Don’t forget, the rejection by a publisher of a book that you’ve written is not a failure.”

One Final Bit of Wisdom for the New Year

The internet offers lots of valuable information, accessible with the click of a key. Unfortunately, a significant amount of it is unsubstantiated, and downright false. This includes the quotations attributed to various people.

Some largescale quotation “aggregators” consider attribution on other unvalidated sites sufficient justification for loading the questionable citations to their own pages. For example, check out the quotations attributed online to Lord David Cecil. Or, better yet, don’t.

During my research for this post I discovered many of them – or, at least those most beneficial to reflective minds – actually come from the pen of Richard Cecil (1748-1810), an Anglican priest. Here is a grand example of misattribution, particularly appealing to a pastor such as myself: “It requires as much reflection and wisdom to know what is not to be put into a sermon, as what is.”

We’ll close now with an apocryphal C.S. Lewis quote. Despite scores of sites attributing the following thought to Lewis, no one can find it anywhere in his work. It is, however, consistent with his wisdom, and leaves us with an optimistic truth as 2021 draws to a close.

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Amen. Lord, grant all those who read these words of wisdom, both now and during years to come, a blessed New Year.

Machinery, one of the fruits of scientific research, is intended to benefit humanity. It often does. However, even machines with totally peaceful purposes – hay balers, for example – can be deadly.

Machines-run-amuck populate many dystopian novels and films. One of the most successful franchises is Terminator. Humanity is brought to the precipice of extinction, after devising machines – and their perilous companion Artificial Intelligence. The very first film, The Terminator (1984) brilliantly uses the biblical allusion “Judgement Day,” to mark the sentience of the genocidal Skynet.

Nearly forty years later, debates about weaponized autonomous systems have moved far beyond speculation. And it does not require a doctorate in computer science to recognize that given a potentially lethal machine the power to make its “own” decisions poses a deadly risk. After all, if software programs can be virally infected, and secure systems can be locked tight and held for ransom, there are no guarantees that “terminators” will not be part of our future.

We’ve seen how weapons can easily be mounted on the robotic dogs that are currently accompanying our troops.

And in a recent Air Force Magazine article, “Unmanned Flying Teammates,” we read the promise that “Robots will join the Combat Air Forces within the next decade.”

The common nomenclature for the current generation of these machines is Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems. You can read about “slaughterbots” at the Future of Life Institute site.

Whereas in the case of unmanned military drones the decision to take life is made remotely by a human operator, in the case of lethal autonomous weapons the decision is made by algorithms alone.

Slaughterbots are pre-programmed to kill a specific “target profile.” The weapon is then deployed into an environment where its AI searches for that “target profile” using sensor data, such as facial recognition.

While the first generation of such weapons are still being designed, a genuinely wonderful new machine foreshadows what might be an ominous future.

In response to the destructive necessity for pesticides, scientists have come up with a new self-driving farm machine that avoids the need for poisons by selectively zapping individual weeds with lasers. Forbes has a great article on the subject, with the unwieldly but informative title, “Self-Driving Farm Robot Uses Lasers To Kill 100,000 Weeds An Hour, Saving Land And Farmers From Toxic Herbicides.”

The weeding machine is a beast at almost 10,000 pounds. It boasts no fewer than eight independently-aimed 150-watt lasers, typically used for metal cutting, that can fire 20 times per second.

They’re guided by 12 high-resolution cameras connected to AI systems that can recognize good crops from bad weeds. The Laserweeder drives itself with computer vision, finding the furrows in the fields, positioning itself with GPS, and searching for obstacles with LIDAR.

I applaud this invention, with one major caveat. How large a step is required between zapping weeds and burning holes through human bodies?

Ironically, they have even named this agricultural prototype for human-hunting machines “Terminator technology.”

Terminator technology is the genetic modification of plants to make them produce sterile seeds. They are also known as suicide seeds. Terminator’s official name – used by the UN and scientists – is Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs).

Actually, this is a very positive breakthrough in terms of increasing harvests while preserving the natural health of the earth (and the Earth). C.S. Lewis, I believe, would have welcomed this new technological achievement.

The affinity of C.S. Lewis and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien for nature is well recognized. The two WWI veterans were averse to industrialized landscapes, and much preferred bucolic images. You can see that in Lewis’ fiction, although it’s much more evident in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. (Even Tolkien’s truest fans must admit that some readers find his elaborate discussion of the Hobbits’ harmony with nature almost mundane.)

True science is a good thing, but one must remain vigilant against an idolatry that masks itself as science.

Beware of Scientism

C.S. Lewis’ role as a an apologist for Christianity – and for what was worthwhile in past history – brought him into more direct conflict with technology. Of course, it was not scientific advances per se of which he was wary. It was the creeping idolatry of scientism, which assumes the trappings of faith in its disciples’ eyes. Tolkien shared his concerns regarding the matter, but confronting such lies was not part of his vocation.

Lewis’ clearest exposition of humanity’s lust for progress may be his 1954 Inaugural Lecture as the Chair of Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. De Descriptione Temporum (A Description of the Times) should be read in one sitting, as it was delivered. It is included in several collections, but available online here. The quotation below offers a very small slice of his influential lecture. (Coincidentally, A Pilgrim in Narnia featured a superb column on the address just yesterday.)

[The birth of the machines] is on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy. It alters Man’s place in nature. . . . What concerns us . . . is its psychological effect. How has it come about that we use the highly emotive word “stagnation,” with all its malodorous and malarial overtones, for what other ages would have called “permanence”?

Why does the word “primitive” at once suggest to us clumsiness, inefficiency, barbarity? When our ancestors talked of the primitive church or the primitive purity of our constitution they meant nothing of that sort. . . . Why does “latest” in advertisements mean “best”?

Well, let us admit that these semantic developments owe something to the nineteenth-century belief in spontaneous progress which itself owes something either to Darwin’s theorem of biological evolution or to that myth of universal evolutionism which is really so different from it, and earlier. . . . But I submit that what has imposed this climate of opinion so firmly on the human mind is a new archetypal image.

It is the image of old machines being superseded by new and better ones. For in the world of machines the new most often really is better and the primitive really is the clumsy. And this image, potent in all our minds, reigns almost without rival in the minds of the uneducated. For to them, after their marriage and the births of their children, the very milestones of life are technical advances. . . .

Our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder [all of those who have gone before us.]

A thought-provoking article, “The Folly of Scientism,” offers the argument of a professor of Biology, which is independent of C.S. Lewis, while echoing many of his cautions.*

Of all the fads and foibles in the long history of human credulity, scientism in all its varied guises — from fanciful cosmology to evolutionary epistemology and ethics – seems among the more dangerous, both because it pretends to be something very different from what it really is and because it has been accorded widespread and uncritical adherence.

An excellent work on this subject is available for purchase, entitled The Restoration of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientism. Michael Aeschliman’s excellent treatment is evidenced by the fact the 2019 version is the third edition of the title.

But why should this central civilizing truth about the “res sacra homo,” [the fact that “humanity is a sacred thing”] . . . need C.S. Lewis’s [reaffirmation]? The answer to that question is philosophical, historical, and complex, but it should not be as obscure or little understood as it is today.

Although there was never a “golden age” of civilization within historical time, this radically noble idea was often better understood in the past, even the recent past.

Back to the Robots

Wait, I just noticed some armed drones flying overhead, and what appeared to be a silhouette resembling a GURT-101 Terminator skulking through the woods outside my office . . . Perhaps I’ve already written too much.


* This article appears in The New Atlantis, where they say “Our aim is a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.”

Would you like to receive free books for the simple exchange of a short, honest review of them? If so, join me at LibraryThing. Best of all, they offer additional benefits for readers (and writers).

You may already have a free account there, since they offer a book cataloging system connecting you to fellow readers, which appeals to many book lovers.

They also offer TinyCat, which is a sophisticated cataloging system designed for small libraries. And it is free for personal use! I don’t have the time to input my own library, despite all of their tools for making that easy, but it could well work for you. [Warning: if your library includes more than 20,000 items, it may be a tad too large.]

Requesting a book for review is simple. Each month they list a bunch of new, mostly self-published titles that are available. You express your interest and they distribute the quantity that are available. You can see current offerings here: LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

The truth is that I rarely request a title. The vast majority are fiction, while my tastes strongly lean toward nonfiction. Even there, available time restricts my interests to a handful of topics. Still, I wrote a review about a book I received entitled  A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Postmodern Times: Aphorisms. (I am a sucker for thought-provoking maxims, especially if they are witty.) More on my review in a moment.

In the past I’ve written book reviews for military and theological journals. Most publications offer specific guidelines as to what they desire in a review. If you opt to ignore these, you are wasting everyone’s time. Most online sites are more tolerant.

Writing Book Reviews

Writing effective reviews is an art in itself. To do it well requires some conscious effort. To simply describe something as “good” or “boring” is basically not worth the effort. You need to think about what you, as a potential reader, are interested in knowing about a title before you invest your time and money in procuring it.

It appears there are hundreds of online sites describing the process. This one from Grammarly is a quick, clear read. One piece of their advice relates directly to my latest review.

Remember that you’re reviewing a book that another human poured their heart and soul into to write. Express your honest opinion, but don’t be nasty about it.

That sentiment is similar to one I just read in an old magazine I was perusing.

Concerning satire, I’ve always followed the rule laid down by an old college professor: “I only pick on those I love.” If I have trouble loving someone, it’s better if I refrain from jokes, satire, and teasing.

C.S. Lewis & the Art of Reviewing Books

If one were to tally all the reviews that have been written about the works of C.S. Lewis, their number might rival the grains of sand spread around the world’s beaches.*

It is unsurprising that Lewis, being a professor of English literature, wrote a significant number of book reviews himself. Some of the most notable are gathered in Image and Imagination. While the volume includes a number of valuable essays, it is the collection of his published book reviews which are of interest to us today.

You see, in Image and Imagination we encounter ten of his reviews written about books authored by his fellow Inklings. These include Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. The volume is edited by Walter Hooper, who ably introduces each of the reviews, and provides unique insight. For example, he notes C.S. Lewis’ ongoing debate with Owen Barfield about anthroposophy.

Barfield’s conversion to Anthroposophy . . . marked the beginning of . . . the ‘Great War’ between [the two friends]. . . . While the ‘Great War’ had ended years before, the problem Lewis faced in reviewing Romanticism Comes of Age is that it contains in the Introduction and other places Barfield’s ‘case’ for Anthroposophy (“Who Gaf Me Drink?”).

Lewis’ review of the culmination of the Lord of the Rings is worth the full price of the collection. Doesn’t the following ring true?

The other excellence is that no individual, and no species, seems to exist only for the sake of the plot. All exist in their own right and would have been worth creating for their mere flavour even if they had been irrelevant.

Treebeard would have served any other author (if any other could have conceived him) for a whole book. His eyes are ‘filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking.’

Through those ages his name has grown with him, so that he cannot now tell it; it would, by now, take too long to pronounce. When he learns that the thing they are standing on is a hill, he complains that this is but ‘a hasty word’ for that which has so much history in it (“The Dethronement of Power”).

On My Review of the Curmudgeon’s Concerns

My recent review (to which I referred above) was not easy to write. What made it difficult was my mixed opinion of the aphorisms chosen for the publication. Most were quite interesting, and a few were downright brilliant. The problem was the strong bias of the author when he addressed two “controversial” topics – politics and religion.

Unlike Mark Twain, to whom I refer in the review, this author forsakes humor when he deplores subjects with which he disagrees. Twain made it clear how he stood, but usually in a manner that left even his opponents entertained. This particular book is much more “curmudgeonly,” in that some of it is delivered in an ill-tempered, alienating manner.

If you are curious in seeing how I threaded the needle of honestly reviewing a book with problematic material, you can read it here. While praising many aspects of the book, I did make one critical observation related to an aphorism related to The Chronicles of Narnia.

Greene even invokes my favorite author to mischaracterize Christianity. “C.S. Lewis depicted God as a lion. The lion, of course, is a predator.” So much for agnus dei and Aslan’s manifestation as a lamb.

A Final Encouragement

If you are a writer, or an aspiring writer, consider writing some book reviews. It can provide a more welcoming entrée into the publishing world than other features. Write it in a style similar to the reviews they normally run, and be sure to read any guidelines they provide for contributions. As with other submissions, it’s best to query first. Best of luck!


* The World Atlas estimate of 2.5 to 10 sextillions may suggest this estimate of Lewisian reviews may be hyperbole. But at least I did not refer to the number of stars, which is estimated at 10 to 200 sextillion.

Humorous Examinations

September 21, 2021 — 14 Comments

Could you pass this examination?

Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

In contrast to the serious tone of the last two posts, today I am offering some edifying entertainment. As a gift to you, I have edited a perennial favorite of internet humorists. I recently came across my copy of this comprehensive knowledge examination, which motivated me to tweak it for Mere Inkling’s erudite audience.

You have probably seen versions of this exam in the past. The basic questions have remained surprisingly stable despite its age. I encountered it in the University of Washington campus paper in 1973. One writer claims “the Graduation Exam—Authentic Assessment has been in circulation since at least the 1950’s.”

The exam certainly makes the rounds, as this Navy veteran described.

The pressures of comprehensive exams were apparent to many, which resulted in one of the few officially sanctioned jokes in Naval Nuclear Power. In one of the official publications of Naval Reactors, someone inserted a sample “final exam” from Nuclear Power School.

In 2012 elements of the examination created confusion in the People’s Republic of China. It was included in an article about how Chinese nationals could prepare for an American State Department exam required for positions at the United States embassy in Beijing. According to China’s Global Times, “US embassy spokesman Richard Buangan made clear on his Sina microblog Sunday that an alleged ‘recruitment test for expatriate employees at the US embassy’ is fake.”

A June 2008 issue of Foreign Service Journal carried a story, which includes an English version of the [exam stating] the questions are from the US State Department’s entrance exam, in a bid to “measure the stability of perspective Foreign Service officers and to weed out the dummies.”

The Function of Examinations

Testing and documenting competence is obviously important. This is especially true for people in critical roles, such as prescribing drugs, designing aircraft engines, and manufacturing ice cream.

Of course, not everyone is able to pass every test. Which is precisely how things should be.

C.S. Lewis noted how educators truly familiar with their students readily recognize when it is a waste of time for them to continue repeating an exam they obviously cannot pass. He said an academic “master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again” (The Problem of Pain).

I have met very few people who enjoy being tested. Yet, for many faculty members (C.S. Lewis included), being on the “other side” of exams is not particularly enjoyable either. This delightful passage comes from a 1927 letter to his brother, Warnie.

My period of examining passed over with its usual accompaniment of neuralgia and oaths, relieved by the one excellent boy who defined ‘a genie’ correctly, yet more than correctly, as ‘an eastern spirit inhabiting bottles and buttons and rings.’ Pretty good for a boy.

I was also pleased with a youth who, being asked to write a letter to a friend recommending Guy Mannering,* wrote to his brother recommending it and saying ‘I think you would be interested in the character of Colonel Mannering, he is so like our father’: and then later in a paper on Guy Mannering in which I had set the question ‘Would you have liked Colonel Mannering as a father?’—illustrate your answer etc.—began decisively ‘I would not have liked Colonel Mannering as a father in the least.’

Well, it’s time now to offer you the opportunity to prove your worthiness. If you wish to evidence the breadth and depth of your knowledge, proceed now to the exam. (Astute readers will note I’ve added a personal twist to a couple of the exam questions.)

Comprehensive Knowledge Exam

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific. Now do the same for the Zoroastrian priesthood. [Bonus credit for including Antarctica in your response.]

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes. [Option: if you feel the scotch would impair your responses to the remaining questions, you may defer this portion of the exam to the end of the exam.]

PUBLIC SPEAKING: Two thousand riot-crazed anarchists are storming the campus. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin, Greek or Sanskrit. [Pig Latin is allowed.]

BIOLOGY: Postulate the 500 million year progression of a life form based on silicon, ranking its likely preference for form of government Enumerate the pros and cons it would associate with democracy, monarchy, socialism, theocracy, and totalitarianism. [Caution: any references to the Horta of Janus VI will result in disqualification of your answer, since Star Trek is a fictional resource.]

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and digeridoo. You will find a piano under your seat. The wind instruments, of course, were among the items you were directed to bring with you to the examination.

PSYCHOLOGY: Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment, and repressed frustrations of each of the following: Alexander of Aphrodisias, Hildegard of Bingen, Rābi’a bint Ka’b al-Quzdārī and Simeon the Stylite. Support your evaluation with quotations from each individual’s work, citing original sources. It is not necessary to translate.

SOCIOLOGY: Using the pretext of Planet of the Apes, where homo sapiens have been subordinated to various primate species, assess the prospects for achieving mutual toleration and equilibrium before one group is driven to extinction. [Caution: confusion of apes (which lack tails) and monkeys (which lack an appendix) will result in disqualification of your response.]

CHEMISTRY: Transform lead into gold. You will find a beaker, a three hundred count box of matches and five lead sinkers under your seat. Show all work including Feynman diagrams and quantum functions for all steps. [Transformation into silver will provide half credit.]

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. [Special Consideration: Satisfactorily explain the differences between Fahrenheit and Celsius to the tiger, and it will be replaced by a rabid ferret.]

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing global debt, without hypothesizing a benevolent intergalactic alliance with unlimited resources coming to the planet’s aid. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: Cubism, the Donatist controversy, and the 1913 foundation of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Gabon.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: Devise an infallible, seven-step plan to transform the United Nations into an organization that will successfully foster peace and goodwill in all international relationships. [Bonus credit for providing a major role for two of the following nations: Dominica, Liechtenstein, Tuvalu.]

AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE: Outline the steps involved in breeding your own super high yield, all weather hybrid strain of wheat. Describe its chemical and physical properties and estimate its impact on world food supplies. Construct a model for dealing with world-wide surpluses. Draft your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on astronomy, botany and numismatics. [Bonus Credit: write today’s date in metric.]

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought. Be sure to include an analysis of the influence exerted on philosophy by Diogenes the Cynic.

CREATIVE WRITING: Compose an epic poem based on the events of your own life in which you see and footnote allusions from T.S. Eliot, Titus Lucretius Carus, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante Alighieri, Þorbjörn Hornklofi, Gilgamesh and Stephen King. Critique your poem with a full discussion of its syntax and metrics. [Bonus Credit for writing alternating stanzas between free and rhyming verse.]

EDUCATION: Formulate an examination which accurately measures an individual’s comprehensive knowledge base without cultural or linguistic prejudice. Limit the question parameters to what can reasonably be covered during a four hour testing block.

LITERATURE: Discuss in detail at least three major literary figures from each of the following civilizations: the Xia Dynasty, the Akkadian Empire, the Mayan Empire, the Aksumite Empire, the Polynesian Tuʻi Tonga Empire, and nineteenth century United Kingdom. [Caution: failure to include J.R.R. Tolkien and/or C.S. Lewis will result in disqualification of your answer to this question.]

Congratulations on finishing the exam. You are encouraged to use any remaining time to review your answers in light of the fact that grammatical errors and misspellings will significantly impact your final grade.


* You can download a personal copy of Guy Mannering, one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, at Internet Archive.

If you should question the distinctions I noted between apes and monkeys, please know that the facts are genuine. However, for future examinations, you should be aware that not all monkeys have tails.