Archives For Lemmings

polyps

These two great Oxford giants were good friends. As such, they accepted each other’s eccentricities. But that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t find humor in those peculiarities.

The Inklings were notorious for their candid critiques and their not-so-subtle teasing of one another. That’s what we all do with our good friends, right?

It’s humor offered not to wound, but to gently discombobulate our companion. And it’s success is measured in the laughter generated among colleagues who share goodwill.

I recently came across a reference, however, where Lewis may have transgressed the bounds of propriety. I leave the assessment of that fact to you.

In a 1947 letter to Margaret Douglas, who had recently lost her mother, Lewis offers warm words of consolation. In addition, he briefly references two publications that she had apparently alluded to in her own letter. The first was his Preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams, which he refers to as the memoir. The second is Tolkien’s sequel to The Hobbit, which would become The Lord of the Rings.

Dear Miss Douglas, Accept my deepest sympathy on the death of your mother: for I think the bond between you was unusually close. You have one great consolation which few bereaved people have—a clear conscience towards the dead.

It was apparent that you were spending yourself largely upon her. I remember her very vividly, and much admired that blend of the playful and the stately, of which only old ladies have the secret.

I am so glad that you approved of the memoir. Professor Tolkien’s second Hobbit is still unfinished: he works like a coral insect you know!

With all good wishes, yours sincerely, C. S. Lewis

Just How Unflattering is the Comparison?

To compare Tolkien to a minute sea creature of sedentary nature may not, at first read, seem offensive. One might wonder though whether it is quite so innocuous as it might appear.

The National Ocean Service, here in the U.S. provides an answer to the frequently posed question, “are corals animals or plants?” Like Lewis, we already know the answer to that—“a coral insect you know!”—but their colorful description illuminates said insect in a curious manner.

Corals actually comprise an ancient and unique partnership, called symbiosis, that benefits both animal and plant life in the ocean. Corals are animals, though, because they do not make their own food, as plants do. Corals have tiny, tentacle-like arms that they use to capture their food from the water and sweep it into their inscrutable mouths.

I wasn’t aware that they had tentacles. And I don’t think I want to know what makes their mouths “inscrutable.” However, the description adds one more element that I certainly don’t recall from my childhood science classes . . . it’s what the tiny creatures that create such lovely exoskeletons are called.

Most structures that we call “coral” are, in fact, made up of hundreds to thousands of tiny coral creatures called polyps. Each soft-bodied polyp—most no thicker than a nickel—secretes a hard outer skeleton of limestone (calcium carbonate) that attaches either to rock or the dead skeletons of other polyps.

Either I never knew the zoological definition of the word polyp, or it’s been pushed aside in my mind by the more common pathological meaning of the word. It just makes the association of someone with these “columnar bod[ied] . . . mouth and tentacles” oddities seem even more disturbing.

Fortunately, it’s obvious Lewis wasn’t equating the creator of Middle Earth with invertebrate coelenterates. The creator of Narnia was simply likening Tolkien’s publication pace to the secretion rate of the polyps that populate the corals themselves.

Over the years, some of my best friends have labeled me in what an outsider might regard as an unflattering way. While I taught at USAF Chaplain School, my teammates called me “Lemming.” (On occasion, they still do.) The reference had nothing to do with me following the crowd . . . and everything to do with being directed to march off any number of cliffs.

I doubt that Lewis ever shared this association with Tolkien himself. It’s likely that he freely associated the idea at the moment he wrote it, and never thought about it again.

That was one of Lewis’ gifts, being able to use creative analogies to make his points. It is simply one of his talents I would love to share.

And, as for Lewis’ use of the word “insect” here, he is obviously alluding to the polyp’s small size. It would not surprise me to learn that there is an archaic British precedent for such usage. Or, is it just possible that he knew the proper word for the creature, and was too cultured to use it in this context? Perhaps we will never know.

coralpolyp.jpg

Lemming Legends

July 8, 2014 — 16 Comments

lemmingThe closest camaraderie I ever experienced in my life, was on the staff of the USAF Chaplain School. A sign of our esprit de corps was seen in the nicknames we gave one another. Mine was Lemming. (Not too dashing, I know, but read on and you’ll see why it was bestowed with affection and respect.)

Those of us who worked on “Air Staff” projects (for the Chief of Chaplains) were in the Resource Division. Probably because we were always rushing (scurrying?) around responding to emergencies, the other chaplains called us the “Resource Rats.” We were close indeed, and our energies and creativity was magnified by our synergy . . . just like the Inklings.

We embraced the label, and before we knew it each of us had been identified as a particular member of the rodent family. We had a rabbit, hamster, beaver, squirrel and fudged a bit with a ferret and a weasel. Among assorted other “rats,” I was nicknamed—you didn’t choose your identity, your friends awarded it to you—Lemming.

They called me Lemming because I had a unique duty on the team. One of my duties was to do a little bit of “ghostwriting” for the Chief of Chaplains. Some would consider it an honor, but trust me, due to the general for whom I wrote the first year, it was anything but.

Why a Lemming? Well, because whenever a tasking came down I would dutifully march off in obedience . . . even if it meant marching right off of a cliff. Like the humble Lemming, I accepted my fate, and made the best of it.

We all know their tragic story. When the Lemming burrows become overcrowded, a large number of them will sacrificially gather together and march to the sea. There, those who did not perish in catastrophic falls, nobly swim out to sea so that their relatives back in the warren can once again devote themselves to overpopulating their habitat.

I was proud of the appellation. I wore the name (literally, on the shirt logo pictured above) as a badge of honor. Until . . . until I discovered it was all based on a lie.

Lemmings, we have learned, do not suffer from periodic mass suicidal impulses. The common myth is based on an insidious 1958 “nature film” made by Disney. I have no idea why they would compromise their flawless reputation for scientific accuracy in their naturalist media, but in White Wilderness, they cast all integrity aside. (And now I know why C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were wary of the machinations and shadowy motives of Walt Disney Studios.)

With utter disregard to the reputation of these clever arctic creatures, the film showed (supposed) members of the Scandinavian clans eagerly casting themselves to their deaths. However, their bizarre behavior was manipulated by cinematic chicanery.

It turns out that not only did Disney pull the lemmings out of their normal habitat for filming—since they were too intelligent to voluntarily leap to their death, they were thrown off of the cliff from a modified turntable! Ghastly.

Learning that lemmings will not march knowingly (and stupidly) to their own demise has actually made me a bit prouder to bear the title. I mean, it’s one thing as a member of the armed forces to risk your life in the defense of your nation. It’s quite another to commit suicide because a general thought one of your commas was in the wrong place. But that’s a story for another day.