Beards come, and beards go. Yet humanity offers no consensus on their value. Perhaps that is because there are so many diverse styles, ranging from restrained to insane.
C.S. Lewis mentioned in passing the “biblical” style of beards in a 1939 letter to his brother Warnie.
For instance the presence of the revolving bookcase in the study has just introduced me to a book of Minto’s mother’s which is well worth studying. It is called Gems of Literature/Elegant, rare, and Suggestive…
The engravings are of a sort you can probably imagine – damsels with those peculiar comic-section or peg-top legs and eyes raised to heaven and old men with what can only be called Biblical beards.
Facial hair is a personal choice. But when that choice becomes deadly, perhaps society should intervene. Take the case of Hans Steininger, a sixteenth century burgomaster in the Austrian-German city that would one day become the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.
Some mental disorder apparently compelled him to have scissors banned from his city, lest a single hair on his magnificent beard be severed. Seriously, he died because he tripped over his chin whiskers during a major fire in 1567.
Steininger usually kept his prodigious beard hair rolled up and stuffed in a pocket, but during the commotion he was running around with it hanging free. In the midst of the chaos, he managed to step on his own beard, sending him tumbling down a flight of stairs and breaking his neck…
The full-body illustration at the church shows Steininger’s beard bifurcated into two scraggly strands, stretching down past his feet. And tucked away in the local district museum is the town’s most hirsute artifact: the 450-year-old beard of Steininger.
Even in ancient times, everyone recognized an unkempt beard was a liability, particularly in combat. In The Life of Theseus, Plutarch states this was why Alexander the Great ordered his soldiers in his phalanxes to shave.
They write also that this was the reason why Alexander gave command to his captains that all the beards of the Macedonians should be shaved, as being the readiest hold for an enemy.
Although I sported a modest mustache for a short time back in the day when Tom Selleck starred as Magnum P.I., I’ve never been a big fan of facial hair. Seeing Steininger’s likeness reinforces that.
Add to that the biblical warning from Leviticus: “When a man or woman has a disease on the head or the beard, the priest shall examine the disease. And if it appears deeper than the skin, and the hair in it is yellow and thin, then the priest shall pronounce him unclean.” (Leviticus 13).
While well-maintained beards are okay, two additional (historical) factors contribute to my discomfiture. First, as a student of the American Civil War, I find myself repelled by the odd appearance choices of people such as General Ambrose Burnside. Although he gave his name to “sideburns,” that’s hardly what I would call these monstrosities. (Also called mutton chops, which is precisely what the cultured bon vivant should have adorning their cheeks.)
The second reason for my wariness is due to the affinity of too many pastors in my own denomination for beards. I doubt they wear them to wow the ladies. Perhaps they think the beards make them appear more distinguished?
Actually, I’ve become desensitized to most pastors who opt for facial hair – with one bizarre exception. To employ a cliché literally: for the life of me, I can’t understand why anyone living in the twenty-first century would opt for a “chin curtain.” I understand the Amish have an affinity for them, but who ever considered those German Anabaptists fashionable?
Sadly, because my church also possesses a strong Germanic strain, I’ve discovered more than one minister bearing this mark of Cain. Perhaps they hope to emulate the denomination’s first president, the Rev. Dr. C.F.W. Walther. If so, my advice is they follow his example of conscientious pastoral care, and dispense with the externals. (I will concede that his black leather suit does look rather dapper, being that the image was captured for posterity in the mid-1800s.)
C.S. Lewis & His Beard
I can forgive C.S. Lewis for aligning with the beard-faction on at least two occasions. That’s because there were extenuating circumstances.
In 1924 he wrote to his father about an illness that led to what may have been his first transgression.
My dear Papy,
I got chicken pox and am only now out of quarantine. I have of course been quite well enough to write for some time but I don’t know whether you have had this complaint and thought it better not to chance infecting you: I am told that the older you are the less likely it will be to ‘take’, but the worse if it does.
I had a pretty high temperature at the beginning and some very uncomfortable nights of intense perspiration, but it soon passed off.
The danger of cutting any of the spots on my face of course made shaving impossible till this very day and I had a fine beard. I have left the moustache which would excite ‘poor Warren’s’ envy, but I shall probably get tired of it in a few weeks. It is very stiff, and all the hairs grow in different directions and it is thicker on one side than on the other.
In a 1931 letter to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, he mentions offhand as he closes that he has altered his appearance.
I suppose you have heard about Warnie’s peerage – for gallantry during the recent manoeuvres. I have grown a beard – Good night.
In two letters written in 1956, C.S. Lewis would describe the illness-induced beard he had mentioned to his father. He humorously describes its imperfections. The first was written to a young fan.
Your mother tells me you have all been having chicken pox. I had it long after I was grown up and it’s much worse if you are a man for of course you can’t shave with the spots on your face. So I grew a beard and though my hair is black the beard was half yellow and half red! You should have seen me.
The following month he shared more details with a longtime correspondent.
The Tycoon may count himself lucky to have got chickenpox before he reaches the age of shaving brushes and razors. I had it in my late 20’s and grew a beard which was part yellow and part red though my hair is black – a very striking colour scheme.
Apart from that, though, I think it a very good sort of illness on the whole. A nice long quarantine which by sentencing one to solitary confinement secures one against pupils, committees etc. But no doubt it had no such charms for you.
Seeing C.S. Lewis adorned with a beard would surely make for an odd photograph. Especially one taken in color.
Forgive me. I’ve vented more than I intended. Wear whatever hairstyle you prefer. However, I would caution you that if your beard drags on the ground, it’s best to carry an emergency set of shears, lest you stumble during an emergency stampede.
As a treat for those who have read to the end of this column, here is an image from Gems of Literature. I suspect these were two of the “Biblical beards” to which C.S. Lewis referred.
Bonus for beard aficionados: For a curious look at a guy whose quest is to see how many facial hair variations he “can check off from the chart of facial hair types,” visit this site.