Archives For J.R.R. Tolkien

Free Storytelling Class

March 3, 2021 — 6 Comments

If you are a storyteller—and if, like me, you’re interested in screenwriting—there is a free class you may find valuable.

John Paul the Great Catholic University focuses on degrees related to the creative arts. They are currently offering a five session “crash course” discussing the key elements of storytelling. And the teachers apparently possess genuine credentials, being “veterans of Pixar’s Braintrust, Warner Bros. Script Department, and Hollywood writers’ rooms.”

You can learn more about the self-paced course here.

The final session on “adaptations” looks particularly intriguing.

What makes a good adaptation? In this lesson, Professor Chris Riley guides you through the basic principles of adapting source material (such as novels and true stories) for film and television. . . . Recommended for anyone with a curiosity for how novels and real life stories are distilled and written into movies. Especially recommended for writers interested in making movies from short stories, novels, or real life stories.

C.S. Lewis and the rest of the Oxford Inklings were gifted storytellers. Lewis began honing his skills when he a child and collaborated with his brother Warnie to compose the tales of Boxen.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings relates an overarching saga of humble heroism. Its skilled creator weaves into the Fellowship’s quest many other fascinating tales. The trilogy is a series that spawns fresh wonders, reading after reading. As one reviewer notes, Tolkien showcases “duty, honor, perseverance, and friendship.” He continues:

That, my friends, is the power of great stories. But a good story alone isn’t good enough either. One reason that Tolkien remains popular is because his stories were about important ideas, ideas that stand the test of time.

In a rather more scholarly article, “J.R.R. Tolkien and the Telling of a Traditional Narrative,” the writer says “the literary critical question is, why would Tolkien spend so much time and effort telling such an old story?” He answers that question in the following manner.

The answer lies . . . in the purpose of traditional narrative and the intent of the traditional tale teller. The traditional tale teller, like any traditional performer, is recreative rather than creative, doing those things that the community wants (and perhaps needs) over and over again, striving not to do something totally inventive and perceptually new but rather to do the traditional thing well and, perhaps, with some special, individual flair.

Turning to C.S. Lewis, we find numerous reference to his storytelling skills. In one aptly named work, we discover why Lewis became a writer rather than a sculptor.

C.S. Lewis loved stories. Throughout his life he found it really had to make anything by hand.* He could, though, hold a pencil or a pen and was driven to write stories instead. It was a blessing in disguise! Many years later C.S. Lewis wrote that you can do more with a castle in a story than with the best cardboard castle that ever stood on a nursery table (C.S. Lewis: The Story Teller).

Encouraging Another Storyteller

One of the main reasons for the Inkling’s very existence was their mutual encouragement in writing. Members often read their works in progress and offered (occasionally gentle) constructive criticism.

As a popular author, C.S. Lewis was approached by many aspiring writers. He patiently and encouragingly responded to these contacts. Some of these correspondents were former students and friends.

One such dear friend was Roger Lancelyn Green (1918-1987). Green had been a student of Lewis’ and a member of the Inklings while he studied and taught at Oxford. The two were quite close, and he actually joined Lewis and his wife Joy during their holiday in Greece.

As an Inkling and an English professor himself, Green was destined to become a writer. In addition to his other biographies—he co-authored one of the best on C.S. Lewis—he was a noted children’s writer. In fact, among his popular retellings of various mythologies, he compiled the stories of the Greeks, Egyptians and Norse. Many of his works can be “borrowed” from the Internet Archives library.

However, years before he wrote these volumes, Green shared one of his earliest efforts with his mentor. In September of 1945, C.S. Lewis offered him a significant amount of specific advice, but begins—as all good critiquing should—with encouragement.

My dear Green– I have now read The Wood That Time Forgot and this is what I think. The general narrative power is excellent: i.e. on the question whether you have in general the story-telling talent, you may (in my opinion) set your mind at rest. I read it on a railway journey and it carried me as far as Bletchley (which was at chapter VII) without a single flagging of interest.

I particularly admired the transition from the natural to the supernatural part. This went just gradually enough to elicit one’s faith and by the right stages. I thank you for giving me the authentic thrill: as you did several times.

As noted, Lewis follows this introductory affirmation with explicit comments on various facets of the manuscript. In June of 1949, Lewis offered his friend comments on a revised version of the story.⁑

Too bad we don’t all have a mentor like C.S. Lewis. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be encouraged by such an anointed storyteller.

Chances are that you, like Tolkien and Lewis, are a storyteller as well. Which is why I shared with you the invitation to the free storytelling course linked above. I will likely sign up for it myself, since I too have a screenplay I would someday like to write.


* This was due to a the lack of a metacarpophalangeal joint in his thumb. He shared this syndrome with his father and brother. If interested, you can read “Symphalangism, C.S. Lewis Type” in an online catalog of genetic disorders.

⁑ Lewis’ comments regarding the revised manuscript are included in volume two of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, with the following introduction.

Roger Lancelyn Green, in an attempt to turn his story The Wood That Time Forgot into “a fairy tale for grown-ups,” had revised it . . . to give it a completely new ending—of which Lewis approved. The book, however, remains unpublished as it would appear to owe too much to The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

All of Green’s mythologies appear to currently be in print. In the introduction to his Norse mythology  volume, he provides an interesting contrast with his previous work closer to the Mediterranean.

Norse mythology is the very antithesis of Greek from the reteller’s point of view. The wealth of literature and legend available for studying the gods of Olympus is positively embarrassing, and the problem there is one of selection. The gods of Asgard, on the other hand, remain strangely aloof: the difficulty here is to find enough about them. And when the scanty material is collected, it is still harder to fit together the incomplete jigsaw-puzzle which is all that remains to us.

If you were a Scandinavian living a millennia ago, you would be faced with a critical decision. Would you embrace Jesus Christ and a new life based on mercy, or would you cling to Odin and the Norse pantheon, with its glorification of bloodshed?

When I first heard this choice posed as a choice between the “White Christ” and the blood-drenched Thor, I assumed the white color alluded to traits commonly associated with it today—e.g. purity, innocence, and holiness.*

To my surprise, I recently learned there was a completely different to the Vikings. For them, referring to Christ as “white” was a term of derision.

Before returning to the Northmen, let’s consider for a moment the Inklings. These brilliant writers were well acquainted with white as a biblical metaphor for holiness, etc. They understood how the miracle of the <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:embed {"url":"https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9\u0026version=ESV","type":"rich","providerNameSlug":"embed","className":""} –> <figure class="wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-embed wp-block-embed-embed"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9&version=ESV </div></figure> Transfiguration described Jesus’ radiant face shining “like the sun” as the “bright cloud overshadowed them.”

As <a rel="noreferrer noopener" href="http://&lt;!– wp:embed {"url":"https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9\u0026version=ESV","type":"rich","providerNameSlug":"embed","className":""} –> <figure class="wp-block-embed is-type-rich is-provider-embed wp-block-embed-embed"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+17%3A1-9&version=ESV </div></figure> Mark records in his Gospel, Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.”

It is no accident Tolkien’s Gandalf the Grey returns as Gandalf the White following his deadly battle with the Balrog.

In C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan manifests himself to the children as an unblemished lamb.

But between them and the foot of the sky there was something so white on the green grass that even with their eagles’ eyes they could hardly look at it. They came on and saw that it was a Lamb. “Come and have breakfast,” said the Lamb in its sweet milky voice. . . .

“Please Lamb,” said Lucy, “is this the way to Aslan’s country?”

“Not for you,” said the Lamb. “For you the door into Aslan’s country is from your own world.”

“What!” said Edmund. “Is there a way into Aslan’s country from our world too?”

“There is a way into my country from all the worlds,” said the Lamb; but as he spoke his snowy white flushed into tawny gold and his size changed and he was Aslan himself, towering above them and scattering light from his mane.

On the other hand, C.S. Lewis tosses us a curve with the White Witch in his Chronicles of Narnia. The reason for her identification with white is obvious, since she is holding Narnia in an austere, perpetual winter. The witch’s hue carries other messages. Her unthreatening appearance moves Edmund to drop his defenses during their initial encounter.

[Queen Jadis was] a great lady, taller than any woman that Edmund had ever seen. She also was covered in white fur up to her throat and held a long straight golden wand in her right hand and wore a golden crown on her head. Her face was white—not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.

Northern Mythologies

C.S. Lewis was enraptured by Northernness. He and Tolkien spent many hours reading Viking sagas.

However, Lewis was inspired not by the warrior Thor, but the person of Baldur. Several of my online friends and acquaintances have also written about Lewis’ affinity for Baldur. These include Brenton Dickieson, Eleanor Parker, and Bradley Birzer.

Turning from Baldur (Baldr) the Brave to Thor (Þórr), the god of thunder, we find the Norse deity with the largest number of followers. Thor was the ideal divinity for independent adventurers, warriors and violent raiders.

The story of the heroic thunder god still resonates today, as the success of the recent cinematic blockbusters attests. To suit contemporary tastes, the bloody red giant-slayer of myth has shed his more gruesome traits. They have been replaced by nobler aspects, as befitting a modern superhero protecting Midgard (Earth) from danger.

But the medieval period was not the relatively safe world we know. And pleas to turn the other cheek sounded like utter foolishness. The belligerent nature of the Germanic and Scandinavian chieftains of the era, resulted in a modification of the Gospel which was shared by some evangelists. In order to impress a militant population, the pacific nature of Jesus was downplayed. In “Why Trust the White Christ?” we read, “Not until the 1100s did the concept of the suffering Christ take root in Scandinavia; before that Christ was depicted as a triumphant prince—even on the cross!”

Eventually the Gospel would triumph, but one of its first effective renditions for the northern barbarians came in a gospel harmony⁑ entitled the Heliand. A number of references to the Gospel in J.R.R. Tolkien’s academic writings reveals his familiarity with the Old Saxon work, which he also mentioned in his lectures. The Heliand was commissioned by Charlemagne’s grandson Louis the German (806-876) to reach the Franks’ fellow Germanic tribes who remained Pagan. It was written by a Benedictine monk named Notker, who also wrote The Life of Charlemagne.⁂

The fact that this alliterative Gospel (in poetic form) was composed for the Saxon warrior class (their nobility), makes it particularly interesting.  Knowing it was recited not only in monasteries, but also mead halls, makes one’s personal reading of it feel like a journey into the ancient past.

Mariana Scott’s 1966 translation ⁑⁑ is available here. This site posits her translation beside the original Old Saxon. One of my favorite passages comes in the “introduction,” as the context of the Gospel proper is set for the hearers. It is very serious and describes the four Evangelists as inspired by God.

[The Lord] had filled the hearts of the heroes,
     with the Holy Ghost.
Perfectly all,
     with pious opinion,
And wise words many
     and still more of wit.
That they should begin
     the goodly Gospel
With their holy voices,
     raise it on high—

The Question of the White Christ

Referring to Jesus as the “White Christ” may have been related to the association of white baptismal robes worn by the newly baptized. But it involved more than that.

Apparently, the appellation “white,” especially when linked to Christ, was a Pagan insult. In a Scandinavian Studies article entitled “The Contemptuous Sense of the Old Norse Adjective Hvítr, ‘White, Fair’” we learn that it possessed a pejorative sense.

The [Old Icelandic] heathen religion glorified physical strength and courage in combat, a direct antithesis to the Christian ideal of pacifism based upon the Golden Rule. Hence, the heathen Icelanders interpreted the Christian Hvítakristr ‘The White Christ’ as a cowardly, contemptible counterpart of Thor, the god of courage and strength . . .

And this negative connotation continued, even after the triumph of the new faith.

[Even] after Christianity had become established as the national religion in Iceland, this heathen conception of Christian ‘cowardice’ disappeared but left its traces in the epithet hvítr, especially when one wished to belittle or vilify a personal enemy.

. . .

The double sense (‘fair’ : ‘cowardly’)was characteristic of skaldic poetry and served to enhance the sarcastic effect.

And thus my youthful innocence about the meaning of the White Christ has been dispelled. But, at the same time, my insight into the historic prejudice against the sacrificial Son and Lamb of God has grown.

Jesus was no coward, but he is—now and forever—pure, innocent, and holy.


* It should go without being said that associating the color white with Jesus has absolutely nothing to do with ethnicity. The Incarnation of our Lord makes it abundantly clear that Jesus was a Jew born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. The Bible describes nothing noteworthy about his appearance that would distinguish him from the rest of the Jewish people in ancient Palestine. Thus, whatever Jesus’ complexion, he would have looked little like the pale Anglo-Saxon messiah we have often seen in paintings and cinema.

⁑ A Gospel harmony is a blending together of the four canonical Gospels into a single account. Tatian (c. 120-180), an Assyrian theologian, compiled the Diatessaron, which was prominent in the Syrian church, and is thought to have directly influenced the Germanic harmony, the Heliand.

 ⁂ Notker (c. 840-912) who also composed hymns and poetry. As mentioned above, the Benedictine monk also wrote The Life of Charlemagne which records many fascinating stories about Frankish and Germanic Christianity. Apparently a poor precedent was set by Frankish generosity when a group of Northmen serving as envoys received baptism.

As I have mentioned the Northmen I will show by an incident drawn from the reign of your grandfather in what slight estimation they hold faith and baptism. . . .

The nobles of the palace adopted them almost as children, and each received from the emperor’s chamber a white robe and from their sponsors a full Frankish attire, of costly robes and arms and other decorations.

This was often done and from year to year they came in increasing numbers, not for the sake of Christ but for earthly advantage.

A very enlightening and sadly entertaining account. But what happens when the gifts run out?

⁑⁑ In the foreword to her translation, Scott shares some intriguing thoughts on the challenging labor of translation.

It was important for me to remember that the Heliand was originally intended for recitation. This accounts for the very great emphasis on rhythm. While the exact form of the old alliterative verse, though common to both early English and German poetry, proved too confining, a freer adaptation was possible. Let us remember that much of the effect of modern free verse depends on the interplay of sounds: assonance and alliteration.

Keeping in mind the purpose of the original, I read my translation aloud as I worked, repeating lines several times, varying and checking rhythms, trying to imitate the surge of the meter and yet avoid monotony. The end result was a line of variable feet, usually a rather free alternation of anapests and iambics with a few scattered tribrachs and spondees, divided by the traditional caesura.

I aimed for an alliteration of at least one accented syllable in the first half line with one accented syllable in the second half. If more sounded right, I was delighted. If none worked, I tried to make the rhythm carry the line along to the next cadence. Not all of it, I painedly admit, turned out to be poetry—but then not all of the Old Saxon is!

One would think that with over two million deaths and counting, along with a global economy in freefall, that politicians would have no trouble focusing on what is important.

Of course, if you base your assumption on the logic of the matter—you would be wrong.

Politicians, nearly all of them it seems, possess an unlimited capacity for ignoring vital concerns and focusing on petty matters. Today’s example comes via the long-extinct theropod, Suciasaurus.

In the United States and, I suppose, various other nations, we have the quaint custom of adopting specific flora, fauna, etc. as their own. So, for example, the state tree of New Jersey is dogwood. The state fish of Wisconsin is the muskellunge.

I recently discovered a number of states have their own dinosaur (sometimes referred to as a fossil, which most are). Some, like Colorado, choose a familiar giant, in their case the stegosaurus. Others, such as Kentucky, opt for something more humble, in their case a brachiopod. (They look like clams, but are not molluscs.)*

Since dinosaurs are fashionable—even J.R.R. Tolkien has one—states without them are rushing to claim one before the best are all gone. Which brings us to our point.

Why, with life and death concerns competing for a government’s actions, would legislators waste their time with such inconsequential concerns?

In the “one-party” state in which I live, Washington, the legislative majority has already (in 2021) sought to schedule time to elevate the public stature of Suciasaures. (The minority party has suggested instead that COVID-19 cries out for attention before turning to dinosaurs, who have inarguably been waiting without complaint for some time.) More on dinos below.

C.S. Lewis’ Thoughts on the Subject

C.S. Lewis shared my ever-expanding disdain for most politicians. In The Literary Legacy of C.S. Lewis, we read that his stepson Douglas “Gresham pictures Lewis as completely skeptical of politicians . . .”

In The Allegory of Love, Lewis describes the power of politics to subvert a person from their earnest beliefs. “Some politicians hold that the only way to make a revolutionary safe is to give him a seat in Parliament.” Get people invested in the system, reaping the “rewards” of power and office, and it may come to own many of them.

C.S. Lewis’ clearest warning about politicians may come in his essay “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.” It is worth reading in full, but I share here the pertinent section.

Here, I think, lies [humanity’s] real dilemma. Probably we cannot, certainly we shall not, retrace our steps [to freer, less governed ages]. We are tamed animals (some with kind, some with cruel, masters) and should probably starve if we got out of our cage. That is one horn of the dilemma. But in an increasingly planned society, how much of what I value can survive? That is the other horn.

I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has “the freeborn mind.” But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For economic independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs, and asks, nothing of Government who can criticise its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology.

Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer? Admittedly, when man was untamed, such liberty belonged only to the few. I know. Hence the horrible suspicion that our only choice is between societies with few freemen and societies with none.

Again, the new oligarchy must more and more base its claim to plan us on its claim to knowledge. If we are to be mothered, mother must know best. This means they must increasingly rely on the advice of scientists, till in the end the politicians proper become merely the scientists’ puppets.

Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend. Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man.

It is shocking to realize the prescient Oxbridge professor wrote this essay more than sixty years ago. For further discussion of Lewis’ political thoughts, read this fine review of C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law.⁑

C.S. Lewis, the Dinosaur

C.S. Lewis made no apology about holding fast to what he deemed the treasures of the past. In this regard, he famously referred to himself as a dinosaur. In an essay entitled “De Descriptione Temporum,” he described the unique lessons that can be taught by dinosaurs.

If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? What a chance to know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled and what noises it made! And if the Neanderthaler could talk, then, though his lecturing technique might leave much to be desired, should we not almost certainly learn from him some things about him which the best modern anthropologist could never have told us . . .

I would give a great deal to hear any ancient Athenian, even a stupid one, talking about Greek tragedy. He would know in his bones so much that we seek in vain. At any moment some chance phrase might, unknown to him, show us where modern scholarship had been on the wrong track for years.

Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you somewhat as that Athenian might stand. I read as a native, texts you must read as foreigners. You see why I said that the claim was not really arrogant; who can be proud of speaking fluently his mother tongue or knowing his way about his father’s house. . .

Where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not only for myself but for all other Old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs.

C.S. Lewis, the Dinosaur?

And, finally, there is a curious mention of dinosaurs in C.S. Lewis’ book, Miracles. While affirming the bodily resurrection, he dismisses the peculiar notion held by some that bodies will be comprised of the very cells that comprised the [original] body of each individual person. Lewis alludes to the recycling of atoms for other uses,⁂ which is an overwhelming concept.

The general resurrection involves the reverse process universalised—a rush of matter towards organisation at the call of spirits which require it. It is presumably a foolish fancy (not justified by the words of Scripture) that each spirit should recover those particular units of matter which he ruled before.

For one thing, they would not be enough to go round: we all live in second-hand suits and there are doubtless atoms in my chin which have served many another man, many a dog, many an eel, many a dinosaur.

Nor does the unity of our bodies even in this present life, consist in retaining the same particles. My form remains one, though the matter in it changes continually. I am, in that respect like a curve in a waterfall.

Well, that’s certainly something to ponder. But don’t ask any politicians to read this post; they have far more serious matters that demand their attention.


* Talk about digressions . . . now we have trivia within trivia.

⁑  From the review of C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law:

Lewis contends the roots of the rejection of natural law were formed by the ideas put forth in the 16th century. At the beginning of that century, “eternal verities” were abolished and by the end, man was abolished himself completely ruled by his passions and void of reason. Lewis termed these people, “men without chests,” an apt description for many politicians driven more by their passion for power and popularity than by reason.

⁂ Apparently, according to “Atomic Tune-up,” up to “98 percent of our atoms are replaced every year.” If you are willing to consider some freakish mathematical calculations related to the atoms recycled from the hydrogen and oxygen atoms that we breathe and become a part of us, check this out.

. . . there are hundreds of billions of King Tut’s atoms inside you right now, hundreds of billions of Hitler’s or Caesar’s atoms inside of you, and if you want to go even farther back, trillions of atoms that were a part of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, Sue, at the moment she died.

The Patina of the Inklings

February 4, 2021 — 7 Comments

Some antiques boast lovely patinas. Some old words do, as well. In fact, I would argue the legacy of, and the deep respect for, the Oxford fellowship known as the Inklings, has created a rich patina of its own.*

The community gifted scholars, especially in the persons of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, accrued a reputation that continues to gain a deeper luster with each new generation.

When I was a young man, I collected American coins. I also studied what Americans call “World coins.” The latter reinforced my love for geography as well as history.

To me, the most fascinating period of history has long been that of the Roman empire.

 So you can imagine my awe when I learned how simple it was to collect genuine Roman coins.

 This remains true today for common coins, such as bronzes of the fourth century (when the first Christian emperors reigned). This article describes “Collecting Roman Coins on a Budget.”

A surprising number of ancient coins, all readily identifiable and of historical interest, can be acquired for less than $100—and often in the $5-to-$25 range. This is especially true with Roman coins . . .

When I began collecting ancient coins, I learned the multifaceted meaning of a word unfamiliar to me at the time. That word was “patina” (pə’tēnə). As you probably know, it literally refers to the green or brown film (not rust) that appears on bronze and other metals under suitable conditions over a period of time. A handful of coins in my collection possess stunning patinas.

Metaphorical Patina

Many people are also acquainted with the figurative use of the word, as I employed it in my introduction It refers to an appearance or impression of distinction or luster associated with a person, idea or object. It is often linked to esteem held for the past. The following provocative quote comes from a contemporary Swiss artist.

“Life is one long decay, no? There’s a lot of beauty in it. Like the patina in an old city” (Urs Fischer).

Chad Walsh applied it to one of C.S. Lewis’ early books in The Literary Legacy of C.S. Lewis. Writing more than forty years ago, in a discussion of Pilgrim’s Regress, he said:

Regress has permanent value. It is, first of all, a spiritual autobiography, no matter how much Lewis may wish to minimize the personal quality of the quest and make his John into a potential Everyman. . . .

The Regress is already taking on a patina of age, a pleasant chronological quaintness, but time does not render it obsolete.

Four decades after he offered this comment, I believe I am correct in ascribing a warm patina to the Inklings as a fellowship.

Patinas can be added to items, to affect a more aged appearance. While “acquired” patina is always considered desirable, “applied” patina is often quite acceptable. It does not become problematic until the application is used to intentionally misrepresent the age of an item. An example of the proper use of applied patina is seen in these modern busts of C.S. Lewis.

In reviewing Lewis’ writings, I only uncovered one occasion where he used the concept of patina. It occurred in a 1946 letter to his friend, Ruth Pitter. Lewis is contributing to one of their ongoing conversations.

The truth is that there are a great many different kinds of poetry and extreme roughness (or smoothness) evocative epithet (or plain statement), the metaphorical (or literal) the colloquial (or rhetorical) may all, in their place, rise to perfection. . . .

 Once more, read Barfield on Poetic Diction.⁑ That is why Spender’s objection to the ‘willed quality’ in Milton seems to me so bats’-eyed. It is the glory of one kind of poetry to sound un-willed, as if it had dropped out of the sky like Blake or else arisen spontaneously in conversation like Donne.

But then it is equally the glory of another kind to sound willed: to sound as if one were watching, or even sharing, the building of a huge tower.

To demand that Milton should have the spontaneity of Catullus or Blake is like demanding that a King at his coronation or a celebrant approaching the altar should have the same charm as a child dancing in the waves. Don’t we want both: both frolics and rituals? At any rate I do. . . .

Of course you are very right about Patina–again see Barfield. No old French poetry got that peculiar Old-Frenchness which is to us part of the charm. Half the beauties of the Old Testament did not exist for the writers. I wouldn’t be too sure, though, that it is wholly a question of our ‘projecting’ qualities into the old lines.

Ending on a Numismatic Note

Although I have not actively collected coins for many years, I commend it as a rewarding pastime. Seven years ago⁂ I wrote a column about religious likenesses on coins, which included a moving poem written by C.S. Lewis. You can read it here.

While writing this column I came across some genuine Narnian coins that were minted in New Zealand. They are genuine in the sense that they possess actual face values for legal tender in the island nation, which minted similar coins in honor of Middle Earth.

In terms of Narnian coins which circulated in Narnia itself, I learned that you can purchase “coins” which were used as actual props “appearing” in the recent Chronicles of Narnia films.

For an Inkling cinema buff such as myself, deciding to grab one for my personal collection was a no-brainer.


* The writings of the Inklings have even enhanced the patina of Oxford itself. This is especially true for those who live “across the pond,” and will never journey to the city itself. In a succinct review of The Inklings of Oxford: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their Friends, one Aussie architect refers to the stately oxidation of the city’s copper, brass and bronze: Picturesque book of picturesque Oxford focusing on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and the elegant, much patina-ed Oxford environment that they lived in.” I imagine he would concur with my suggestion that the Inklings themselves also bear a splendid patina.

⁑ Owen Barfield dedicated this book to his good friend with the inscription: “To C.S. Lewis ‘Opposition is true friendship’”

⁂ Seven years of blogging does sound like a lengthy time, but it’s not long enough for even the best of posts to accrue a patina of their own.

If you are like me, you could benefit from a rich, genuine laugh right about now. Las year was stressful on all of us, and many are wary the new year may not be dramatically better.

For many of us, humor is an integral part of our lives. In our extended family, it is an ever ready tool for lifting the spirits of others. Just the other day our son and his six-year-old son dropped by, and as they entered the front door I said, “enter, most welcome king and prince.” Without missing a proverbial beat, my grandson responded, “I’m the king, and he’s the prince.” It was a hilarious, spontaneous moment. My wife and I are deeply blessed because our lives are filled with these moments.

We have all heard about the healing powers of laughter. One Mayo Clinic article on the subject, “Stress Relief from Laughter? It’s No Joke,” lists a number of short- and long-term benefits. For example:

Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain. . . . [It can] improve your immune system. Negative thoughts manifest into chemical reactions that can affect your body by bringing more stress into your system and decreasing your immunity.

By contrast, positive thoughts can actually release neuropeptides that help fight stress and potentially more-serious illnesses. [And laughter can] relieve pain . . . by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.

Since laughter has indisputable mental—and physical—benefits, promoting it is a worthwhile avocation. That effort is complicated by the fact our individual sense(s) of humor differ significantly. For example, some people find slapstick humor wildly funny. I find it funny (in the sense of “odd”), that they consider it witty.

On the other hand, some people appreciate the “subtleties” of so-called British humor. Many of my relatives have never understood how much I have enjoyed Monty Python. To them, the Python approach is bizarre and unpalatable. Meanwhile, they enjoyed the clumsy stumblings of Jerry Lewis.*

Ricky Gervais, an English comedian who has met great success on both sides of the pond, wrote an interesting piece for Time. He offers very thoughtful observations on “The Difference Between American and British Humour.” Having lived in the United Kingdom, and counting some Brits as friends today, the following comment rings true with me.

There’s a received wisdom in the U.K. that Americans don’t get irony. This is, of course, not true. But what is true is that they don’t use it all the time. It shows up in the smarter comedies but Americans don’t use it as much socially as Brits.

We use it as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and a weapon. We avoid sincerity until it’s absolutely necessary. We mercilessly [verbally assault] people we like or dislike basically.

And ourselves. This is very important. Our brashness and swagger is laden with equal portions of self-deprecation. This is our license to hand it out.

Perhaps my affinity for British humor comes from a flaw in my personal psyche, I mean, an innate appreciation for irony.

Another consideration is whether laughter is genuine or feigned. The latter presumably produces no positive results. Researchers in Japan conducted some laughter studies. One professor noted that honest laughter reaches down to a person’s diaphragm. He devised a machine to measure it.

Sensors placed near the diaphragm transmit waves to a computer screen, and these waves apparently reflect not only the intensity of a subject’s laughter but also its sincerity. A genuine laugh, straight from the heart, weighs in at 5 or more “aHs” per second –the “aH” (read “aha” in Japanese) being the unit of measurement Kimura devised in his quest to quantify laughter. Fake laughter makes no waves. The sensors ignore it, and the graph-lines on the screen remain unmoved.

Most of us, I suspect, can usually tell the difference between sincere responses, be they simple chuckles or raucous belly laughs, and the fake stuff. Fortunately, the inauthentic laughter is rarely malicious. An interesting dissertation entitled “The Meaningless Laugh,” explores laughter’s use to ease tension and “cover-up,” or mask, true opinions. It seems to me that insincere laughter has much in common with “white lies.”

Humor in the Life of C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis had a healthy sense of humor. Laughter abounded at gatherings of the Inklings. In light of Gervais’ comment about the British propensity for “teasing our friends,” check out “C.S. Lewis Compared J.R.R. Tolkien to What?

Our sense of humor is shaped and refined (or dulled) throughout our lives. An interesting letter from 1914, before Lewis was scarred in the trenches of the First World War, reveals his entertainment preferences as a young man.  

Last week I was up with these people to the Coliseum: and, though of course (which by the way I see no prospect of) I had sooner have gone to some musical thing, yet I enjoyed myself. The Russian Ballet–and especially the music to it–was magnificent, and G.P. Huntley* in a new sketch provoked some laughter.

The rest of the show trivial & boring as music halls usually are. At ‘Gastons’ however, I have no lack of entertainment, having been recently introduced to Chopin’s Mazurkas, & Beethoven’s ‘Sonate Pathétique.’

The mature Lewis made a profound observation about humor in Reflections on the Psalms.

A little comic relief in a discussion does no harm, however serious the topic may be. (In my own experience the funniest things have occurred in the gravest and most sincere conversations.)

I have found this to be true in my own life and ministry. In the words of the Mayo Clinic piece, “Laughter can also make it easier to cope with difficult situations. It also helps you connect with other people” even during the most trying of times.

Can Laughter Be Dangerous?

We all recognize that when humor is pursued at the expense of others, it is often destructive. Sarcasm is a dangerous, and often cruel, weapon. Healthy laughter, though, possesses a divine quality.

Laughter can, in fact, be such a positive thing that even the Tempter Screwtape⁂ warns his protégé to undermine it. (Remember, when reading Screwtape, that since Screwtape, the fictional writer of the infernal advice, serves the Devil, and thus the language is reversed.)

I am specially glad to hear that the two new friends have now made [your patient] acquainted with their whole set. All these, as I find from the [infernal] record office, are thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards Our Father’s house.

You speak of their being great laughers. I trust this does not mean that you are under the impression that laughter as such is always in our favour. The point is worth some attention. I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy.

You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know.

Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell (The Screwtape Letters).

As to whether or not laughter can nudge a person towards a negative end, Screwtape singles out flippancy.

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it.

If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it (The Screwtape Letters).

Forewarned about the potential pitfalls of unhealthy humor, we can choose to avoid it. Meanwhile, we can rejoice with laughter that our Creator has bestowed upon us the ability to laugh.

C.S. Lewis celebrated this gift in his echo of our own creation in the story of Narnia’s birth. From the very first day, laughter was meant to resound throughout the world.

“Creatures, I give you yourselves,” said the strong, happy voice of Aslan. “I give to you forever this land of Narnia. I give you the woods, the fruits, the rivers. I give you the stars and I give you myself. The Dumb Beasts whom I have not chosen are yours also. Treat them gently and cherish them but do not go back to their ways lest you cease to be Talking Beasts. For out of them you were taken and into them you can return. Do not so.”

“No, Aslan, we won’t, we won’t,” said everyone. But one perky jackdaw added in a loud voice, “No fear!” and everyone else had finished just before he said it so that his words came out quite clear in a dead silence; and perhaps you have found out how awful that can be—say, at a party.

The Jackdaw became so embarrassed that it hid its head under its wing as if it were going to sleep. And all the other animals began making various queer noises which are their ways of laughing and which, of course, no one has ever heard in our world.

They tried at first to repress it, but Aslan said: “Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.”

So they all let themselves go. And there was such merriment that the Jackdaw himself plucked up courage again and perched on the cab-horse’s head, between its ears, clapping its wings, and said: “Aslan! Aslan! Have I made the first joke? Will everybody always be told how I made the first joke?”

“No, little friend,” said the Lion. “You have not made the first joke; you have only been the first joke.” Then everyone laughed more than ever; but the Jackdaw didn’t mind and laughed just as loud till the horse shook its head and the Jackdaw lost its balance and fell off, but remembered its wings (they were still new to it) before it reached the ground.

Laughter is a gift from God. I believe it is one of his best.


* The warm appreciation of comedian Jerry Lewis (1926-2017) by the French has always been a mystery to me. Talk about different ways to view humor. An interesting discussion of that enigmatic fact is found in “Why France Understood Jerry Lewis as America Never Did.”

Jerry Lewis was always a subject of a deep trans-Atlantic misunderstanding, one that triggered sarcasm in the United States, and bewilderment in France. While some Americans felt embarrassed by this contortionist comic, the French embraced Mr. Lewis’s humor as both an abstract art and social satire of American life.

Americans mocked the French for falling for this crass clown, while the French couldn’t understand why Mr. Lewis’s genius was not obvious to his compatriots.

⁑ George Patrick Huntley (1868–1927) was an Irish actor, known for comic performances in the theatre and the music halls.

⁂ The fictional author of C.S. Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape, the senior Tempter serves his master, the Devil. He refers to him as “Our Father Below,” accordingly.


The graphic above comes from the blog of a very talented writer and producer. Mitch Teemley included in a recent post at The Power of Story. I agree with my friend that “laughter has healing properties.” If you believe the same, you absolutely need to spend a few minutes reading his hilarious post.

Have you ever carved your initials, or some other pictograph (perhaps a heart?) in the bark of a tree? I never thought much about such things until I learned about the key role played by their bark in a tree’s health. Now I tend to consider this arboreal graffiti* as unfortunate.

I haven’t found any reference in C.S. Lewis to such carvings. However, I suspect that due to his love of nature and hiking, he would discourage the wounding of trees in this way. And there is another reason I believe the Inklings would be wary of this practice. More on that in a moment.

Tree carvings can actually record history for preliterate peoples. I even learned a new word, the meaning of which is easy to decipher from its parts—dendroglyphs. Not all tree scars are considered dendroglyphs. Just those, as Brittanica says, “the dendroglyph [is] an engraving on a living tree trunk. Carved in the usual geometric style, dendroglyphs featured clan designs or made references to local myths. They were used to mark the graves of notable men or to indicate the perimeters of ceremonial grounds.”⁑

One unique people group living “at the edge of the world” faced the fate of most pacifists who are not protected by a benign power. The Moriori lost their island home to the Māori people to whom they were related. Some of their stories survive, partly due to their dendroglyphs.

An academic article on the subject of dendroglyphs is available here.

Dendroglyphs are distinct from scarred trees, the former being decorative marks cut into the bark or heartwood of living trees, while the latter result from resource use, such as bark removal for making implements, obtaining native honey or hunting. A further distinction can be made between two types of dendroglyphs: Indigenous dendroglyphs and dendrograffiti.

Indigenous dendroglyphs are a form of visual expression that reflects affiliation with the land and special cultural association with the landscape and its resources. Dendrograffiti are carvings made by land users, such as shepherds and pastoralists, and often display names, dates, symbols and images that mark boundaries, communications and light entertainment.”

The image above comes from an ancient Australian tree. You can read more about it here, but this is the myth it portrays:

The tale behind the tree has been passed on for generations. It’s the story of two Western Yalanji men who have gone over into Eastern Yalanji country and tried to get a woman. . . . The family of the girl they were trying to take pursued the men.

The Western Yalanji men were chased and speared. One of the men that got speared . . . became a lizard, crawled up the tree and became that carving.

History aside, cutting bark should be avoided in general. And, should you visit a national forest in the United States, be forewarned—“carving into trees is illegal in all national forests!” As the National Park Service pleads: “please respect the law, the trees, and your fellow public land users by not carving words, initials, or anything into tree bark!”

Other Places Where Dendroglyphs are Dangerous

The United States isn’t the only place where a person desiring to mark a tree with a blade should be cautious. This activity is generally inadvisable in both Narnia and Middle Earth.

At Narnia’s very creation, Aslan bestowed sentience on some of the trees of that blessed land. “After Aslan gave certain animals the gift to speech, he declared to the Narnian creatures; “Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”

And their creator loved their company. Later we read: “Aslan stood in the center of a crowd of creatures who had grouped themselves round him in the shape of a half-moon. There were Tree-Women there and Well-Women (Dryads and Naiads as they used to be called in our world) who had stringed instruments . . .”

Yet, as gentle as these dryads were, the Witch was able to deceive some of their number. As Tumnus warns the children, “the woods are full of her spies, even some of the trees are on her side.” Still, most continued to follow Aslan, and some of these dryads were among the stone statues restored to life by their lord.

In one of The Last Battle’s saddest scenes, King Tirian is addressed by a tree nymph who warns that Aslan’s imposter is cutting down the forest.

King Tirian and the two Beasts knew at once that she was the nymph of a beech tree. “Justice, Lord King!” she cried. “Come to our aid. Protect your people. They are felling us in Lantern Waste. Forty great trunks of my brothers and sisters are already on the ground.”

“What, Lady! Felling Lantern Waste? Murdering the talking trees?” cried the King, leaping to his feet and drawing his sword. “How dare they? And who dares it? Now by the Mane of Aslan—”

“A-a-a-h,” gasped the Dryad, shuddering as if in pain—shuddering time after time as if under repeated blows. Then all at once she fell sideways as suddenly as if both her feet had been cut from under her. For a second they saw her lying dead on the grass and then she vanished. They knew what had happened. Her tree, miles away, had been cut down.

Narnia is not the only land where trees are damaged at one’s risk. J.R.R. Tolkien populated Middle Earth with amazing creatures. Among these were the Ents.

Ents are not actual trees. They are ancient “shepherds of the trees,” who care for the forests. (The Entwives preferred to care for smaller plants, such as gardens.)

When the hobbits awake Treebeard, he mistakes them for little orcs and is prepared to crush them. Orcs, after all, are destructive by nature and always deserving of a good stomping. When they explain their quest and inform the ancient Ent of Saruman’s burning of their forests near Isengard, he calls on his brethren who respond to the threat.

Treebeard is pleased and says, “Indeed I have not seen them roused like this for many an age. We Ents do not like being roused; and we never are roused unless it is clear to us that our trees and our lives are in great danger.”

I can almost hear Treebeard calling out now, “the Ents are going to war.”

We’ll close now with the marching song of the Ents, and let these words provide a sharp warning to those among us who might contemplate violating trees in the future.

Though Isengard be strong and hard, as cold as stone and bare as bone,
We go, we go, we go to war, to hew the stone and break the door;
For bole and bough are burning now, the furnace roars—we go to war!
To land of gloom with tramp of doom,
with roll of drum, we come, we come;
To Isengard with doom we come!


* I came up with the term “arboreal graffiti” myself, but was pleased to find that other creative minds have also used it online. This post on the subject offers an interesting twist, and is well worth the quick read.

⁑ This quotation is taken from their article on Australian aboriginal art.

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.

During the middle ages, Scandinavia’s skálds were poets, storytellers and even musicians. They were the equivalent of bards in medieval British and Gaelic culture. They were oral historians, committed to memorizing their paeans verbatim, which was simpler since they were in poetic form. Not all skálds possessed the talents to create their own memorable epics. These lesser poets, so to speak, could still memorize and recite the classic or popular songs.

A graphic explanation for the difference in the talents of the first tier skálds and their inferiors is found in the Prose Edda which was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Sturluson compiled Norse myths in his Edda, and the sagas of her kings in Heimskringla.

The second part of the Prose Edda is entitled Skáldskaparmál, which means the language of poetry. One of the myths it contains describes the Mead of Poetry. Mead, of course, is the rich Viking beverage created by fermenting honey.

As for poetry, I’ve written about it fairly often. (Most recently in respect to my “winning” entry in a Terrible Poetry Contest.) I’ve even offered genuine, albeit feeble, attempts at the art myself. Alas, if I were a classical Greek I would say my Muse is Clio (the Muse of History), rather than Thalia or Erato, Muses of various genres of poetry.

It is well known that C.S. Lewis himself was a frustrated poet. While his literary criticism and historical work was highly respected—and his Christian works are still revered—his poetry never received a warm reception. The Poetry Foundation offers a useful article on the subject here.

My personal opinion is that I am thankful Lewis’ energies were devoted to more profitable fields of writing.

Back to the Vikings

C.S. Lewis and several other Inklings were enamored with Northern sagas. I have touched on this in the past, and discussed the amazing fellowship gathered by J.R.R. Tolkien, as a sort of precursor to the Inklings.

Tolkien named the group Kolbítar, which denoted “Coalbiters,” or Norse storytellers who gathered close to the fire as they discussed the stories of their ancestors. This exploration of Icelandic literature was connected to Tolkien’s conviction, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon, that these works belonged within the study of the English canon.* Old Norse definitely left a mark on English, as I’ve discussed here at Mere Inkling.

In Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Nancy Marie Brown gleans some insights about Kolbítar from Lewis correspondence. They gathered to read the literature aloud.

They began with Snorri’s Edda. Reading it in Icelandic was slow going but addictive, Lewis recalls: “Hammered my way through a couple of pages in about an hour, but I am making some headway. It is an exciting experience.” Lewis . . . had also been smitten as a boy by “pure ‘Northernness’” [and] popular versions of Snorri’s tales had inspired Lewis to write an adolescent tragedy about the Norse gods, “Loki Bound.”

There is no record of what the members of the Kolbítars thought of the myth of the Mead of Poetry, but I would imagine that they found its crass distinction between gifted and stumbling poets quite—Norse. To set the stage for the following passage, one should know: (1) the Aesir were the Old Norse gods, (2) Suttung was a Jötunn (belonging to a race of giants at war with the Aesir), (3) Suttung was in possession of the magical mead of poetry, which Odin stole through cunning but immoral means, swallowing all of it, (4) Odin changed into an eagle to effect his escape, and Suttung followed him in the same form, and (5) the Aesir prepared large vessels to receive the disgorged magical mead. Now, from the Edda itself:

When the Æsir saw Odin flying, they placed their vats in the courtyard, and when Odin entered Asgard he spat the mead into the vats. It was such a close call, with Suttung almost catching him, that he blew some of the mead out of his rear. No one paid attention to this part, and whoever wanted it took it; we call this the bad poets’ portion. Odin gave Suttung’s mead to the Æsir and to those men who know how to make poetry. For this reason we call poetry Odin’s catch, find, drink or gift, as well as the drink of the Æsir.

No one said the Norse were above using crass humor. Still, it does offer a quite imaginative explanation for the differences between exceptional and mediocre poets, doesn’t it?


* Tolkien “loved the cold, crisp, unsentimental language of the sagas, their bare, straightforward tone like wind keening over ice. Reading Snorri and his peers was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because their books were more central to our language and our modern world” (Song of the Vikings).

achilles

If you don’t know the meaning of “hamartia,” you’re not alone. But it’s a very important word, for more than one reason, so read on.

Hamartia describes a feature many writers of fiction or drama instill in their most memorable characters. It simply means “tragic flaw.” The deep character defect which cannot be overcome by sincere intention or persistent effort.

Merriam-Webster describes it this way.

Aristotle introduced the term in the Poetics to describe the error of judgment which ultimately brings about the tragic hero’s downfall. As you can imagine, the word is most often found in literary criticism.

However, news writers occasionally employ the word when discussing the unexplainable misfortune or missteps of übercelebrities regarded as immortal gods and goddesses before being felled by their own shortcomings.

Despite being a thespian in high school, I never formally studied drama. So I didn’t encounter the word there.

Likewise, I have written consistently since earning a Journalism degree four decades ago. However, since I have a 37:1 nonfiction to fiction ratio, I did not know this Greek word had found its way into the English lexicon.

I was surprised to discover its English meaning in my usually-familiar word of the day email (from The Free Dictionary).

While I was unfamiliar with its English usage, I already knew the word. I originally met hamartia (ἁμαρτία) while studying the New Testament in Greek. Hamartia literally refers to “missing the mark,” and it is the primary biblical Greek word for sin.

The first usage of the word in the sense of being an inner quality, occurs in Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle writing as a pre-Christian philosopher, naturally perceived the literary device in a pagan manner.

The Greek word hamartia translates pretty directly as “error” or “shortcoming” without any necessary overtones of guilt or moral failure. Our modern conception of tragedy and the “tragic flaw” of the hero usually involves the concept of hubris, or overweening pride, that leads to disaster.

Macbeth, for instance, has the arrogance to think he can overstep the laws of God and state, and ultimately pays dearly for this arrogance. Macbeth is a tragic hero with a clear tragic flaw: his downfall results from a moral failing and can be seen as divine retribution proportional to his guilt. But Macbeth also contains heavy Christian overtones that would of course be found nowhere in Greek tragedy.

An understanding of Aristotle’s concept of hamartia—and indeed an understanding of Greek tragedy in general—relies on an understanding of the ethics and cosmology of the ancient Greeks. . . . Greek ethics are based more on the notion of virtue than obligation.

What of the Consequences?

In a 2014 article entitled “C.S. Lewis: The Anti-Platonic Platonist,” Grace Tiffany skillfully explores the Platonic echoes in Lewis’ writings. In discussing his literary examples of human failings, she writes:

There are of course Biblical models justifying Lewis’ “negatively capable” presentations of misguided characters . . . An older philosophical source, if not a Platonic one, also justifies mimetic representations of evil by the argument that these are morally purgative.

Imitations of hamartia, or tragic error, produce “fear and pity” (Aristotle, Poetics 1453b)—compassion for the character elicited by a skilled simulation of his psychology, naturally accompanied by a healthy fear of ourselves making similar mistakes. What ensures the fear is, of course, the dramatization of the horrible end to which hamartia has led . . . (Christianity and Literature 63.3).

In 1953, C.S. Lewis wrote to a correspondent that sin was more than merely making a mistake. In doing so, he alludes to the change in the meaning of the word ἁμαρτία.

No. I don’t think sin is completely accounted for by faulty reasoning nor that it can be completely cured by re-education. That view has, indeed, been put forward: by Socrates and, in the early 19th Century, by Godwin.

But I think it overlooked the (to me) obviously central fact that our will is not necessarily determined by our reason. If it were, then, as you say, what are called ‘sins’ would not be sins at all but only mistakes, and would require not repentances but merely correction.

Returning to the literary or dramatic definition of hamartia as a tragic flaw, it seems to me that this term offers a fitting parallel to the word sin.

Ever since humanity’s fall, we suffer the curse of bearing original sin, a tragic flaw. It is a scar that no medical or psychological treatment can cure and no amount of determination can repair. This tragic flaw will be our doom. Unless, that is, there is One who is capable and desirous of restoring us to our original health and purity. One, perhaps, in whose own image you and I were created . . .

This wonder is something well worth pondering—and perhaps one day, writing about.

treebeard &amp; groot

Not only do trees cleanse the air we breathe, there’s more evidence they contribute to our mental health as well.

An article entitled “Greener Childhood Associated with Happier Adulthood,” describes research from Denmark’s Aarhus University discovering that “growing up near vegetations is associated with an up to 55 percent lower risk of mental health disorders in adulthood.” An American researcher commented on the findings.

“The scale of this study is quite something,” says Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at the University of Richmond who studies the psychological effects of natural spaces. Smaller studies have hinted that lack of green space increases the risk of mood disorders and schizophrenia and can even affect cognitive development.

In a rapidly urbanizing world, this data is particularly troubling. Most of us must live “where the work is,” and our children sometimes grow up in places where trees are few and far between (and I wouldn’t really count Joshua “trees” which are Monocotyledons, and not true trees).*

This research confirms my own, personal experience. I have always found lush greenery energizing. I used to attribute this association with family—while growing up in a USMC family, we would try to make an annual trip “home” to Puget Sound. The nearer we got to my grandparents, the greener the Puget Sound terrain grew.

In my affection for trees, I am akin to the Inklings. Much has been written about J.R.R. Tolkien’s description of the forests of Middle Earth. The terrible damage to the Fangorn forest done by the army of Saruman is one of the tragedies of The Lord of the Rings.

C.S. Lewis and his friends enjoyed walking trips. Much of the countryside they covered in these treks was adorned by healthy copses, but they do not appear to have ventured into any deep forests.

In a 1953 letter to a correspondent who was attempting to lure Lewis to visit America, he paints a clear picture of what he finds alluring.

How wrong you are when you think that streamlined planes and trains would attract me to America. What I want to see there is yourself and 3 or 4 other good friends, after New England, the Rip Van Winkle Mts., Nantucket, the Huckleberry Finn country, the Rockies, Yellowstone Park, and a sub-Arctic winter.

And I should never come if I couldn’t manage to come by sea instead of air: preferably on a cargo boat that took weeks on the voyage.

I’m a rustic animal and a maritime animal: no good at great cities, big hotels, or all that. But this is becoming egotistical. And here comes my first pupil of the morning.

All blessings, and love to all. Yours, C.S. Lewis

I’d love to see a bear, a snow-shoe, and a real forest.

Lewis wrote a fascinating poem about the spiritual price of deforestation.

The Future of Forestry

How will the legend of the age of trees
Feel, when the last tree falls in England?

When the concrete spreads and the town conquers
The country’s heart; when contraceptive
Tarmac’s laid where farm has faded,
Tramline flows where slept a hamlet,
And shop-fronts, blazing without a stop from
Dover to [Cape] Wrath, have glazed us over?

Simplest tales will then bewilder
The questioning children, “What was a chestnut?
Say what it means to climb a Beanstalk,
Tell me, grandfather, what an elm is.
What was Autumn? They never taught us.”

Then, told by teachers how once from mould
Came growing creatures of lower nature
Able to live and die, though neither
Beast nor man, and around them wreathing
Excellent clothing, breathing sunlight –
Half understanding, their ill-acquainted
Fancy will tint their wonder-paintings
Trees as men walking, wood-romances
Of goblins stalking in silky green,
Of milk-sheen froth upon the lace of hawthorn’s
Collar, pallor in the face of birchgirl.

So shall a homeless time, though dimly
Catch from afar (for soul is watchfull)
A sight of tree-delighted Eden.

Plant a Tree

In “The Arbor of God,” the physician who founded Blessed Earth poses a thoughtful question: “Trees are everywhere in Scripture. Why have they gone missing from Christian theology?”

I’ve always loved trees. I love their look, their shade, the sound of wind in their leaves, and the taste of every fruit they produce. As a grade-schooler, I first planted trees with my father and grandfather. I’ve been planning them ever since. . . .

But a dozen years ago, when I offered to plant trees at our church, one of the pastors told me I had the theology of a tree-hugger.

This was not meant as a compliment.

There is a possibly apocryphal statement credited to Martin Luther during the Reformation. In a spirit of faith and commendable actions for Christians, Luther said, “If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.”

As I gaze out the window now, at the four blossoming apple trees we planted just three years ago, I’m inspired to plant some more trees. This year, I think, it will be some bushes and plants that provide year-round nectar for the hummingbirds that grace our woodlands. Even the anticipation of planting them brings me joy.


* Joshua trees, such as those which surrounded our home at Edwards AFB, are actually “flowering plants.” As such, they do have green growth and even fruit. So, in a generous spirit, I’ll credit them with 50% of the positive effect on mental health that a maple or fir might offer.