Archives For Literature

Long words can be daunting. Even for native speakers. The illustration above comes from The Japan Times, and reveals how the challenge is magnified for others.

I love learning new words. And, since these treasures frequently drift out of my vocabulary because I fail to use them, I often have the joy of re-learning unique words.

Sesquipedalianism is actually a genuine word which can be validly applied in a variety of settings. After all, haven’t we all encountered a sesquipedalianist or two, who uses especially long, and occasionally obscure words?

How many syllables are required before a word grows too long? To a monosyllabic individual, two might be deemed excessive.

Seriously, it’s not the length of a word that matters, it’s the word’s familiarity. For example, “familiarity” has six syllables, and everyone reading Mere Inkling knows its meaning. (I resisted saying “is familiar with . . .”) On the other hand, “carbuncle” is only trisyllabic, and yet the only people likely to know its definition are either those in medical professions, or unfortunate individuals who have suffered from one.

But it’s not only unfamiliarity that causes confusion; misunderstanding can result from a lack of context. Let’s take “trisyllabic,” a word even an active reader seldom encounters. As used in the paragraph above, the context (along with the prefix and root), provide us with more information than a person needs to recognize its meaning.

In a famous letter from 1956, C.S. Lewis included the following advice:

Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.

Great advice, just as one would expect. However, this does not constitute a blanket rejection of “big words.” Lewis is simply reminding us that our prose must not be more complicated than it needs to be. Thus, the title of this column uses a precise word – rather than saying “Please Forgive My Practice of Using Long and Sometimes Obscure Words” – since Mere Inkling readers are quite capable of uncovering a definition if a particular word is unfamiliar.

Plus, as I hinted above, many of us enjoy expanding our vocabularies.

In the aforementioned correspondence, Lewis offered additional useful advice. Another dictum is: “Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.”

Here too the great writer is astute. However, this caution is not actually about the length of words. Lewis’ desire for clarity in communication leads him to reject “vague” words, which coincidentally happen to be longer than those he refers to as “direct.”

Using longer words than necessary is not, of course, always a good thing. While it comprises neuron-stretching play for word lovers, it can easily be misperceived by others as “showing off.” (Note: I’m not defending those cases in which the writer or speaker really are attempting to impress others with their verbal dexterity.*)

You can easily find collections of the longest words in English. While some cheat, including “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” others are more scrupulous. Despite doing just that, I like the list at grammarly because of their definition of one of the words they include.

Floccinaucinihilipilification
The estimation of something as valueless. Ironically, floccinaucinihilipilification is a pretty valueless word itself; it’s almost never used except as an example of a long word.

I’m not currently planning on adding floccinaucinihilipilification to my personal vocabulary, but don’t let me dissuade you from doing so.

Learning new words often reaps extrinsic benefits. As a historian who enjoys learning about the Latin language, I found the following definition, and illustration, from the Cambridge dictionary quite interesting.

The act of considering something to be not at all important or useful – used mainly as an example of a very long word:

The honor of being the longest non-technical word goes to floccinaucinihilipilification.

The word . . . is “an 18th-century coinage that combines four Latin prefixes meaning ‘nothing.’”

Oh, and one final suggestion. When visiting the Cambridge site, in the likelihood you’ll someday wish to use this word in conversation, take a moment to make certain you learn to pronounce in the U.K. or American manner, as appropriate for your location.


* I am not here referring to the Irish bred Bay Colt for some curious reason named “Verbal Dexterity.”

If you were to embark on a university education today, which sort of campus would you prefer?

(1) A university featuring “vaulted ceilings that draw the eye upwards and outwards . . . the frivolous artistic detail that announces the importance of the unimportant [or] the interplay of light and shade that marks the great Gothic masterpieces, the brilliant proportions of the best classical buildings, and the elaborate grandeur of the Baroque.”

(2) A modern campus comprised of “buildings entirely lacking in charm, grace, or playfulness [featuring] the boxy utilitarian grimness of official educational architecture.”

A second question clearly betrays my own preference. Which academic setting do you imagine C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings would most esteem? Tolkien, after all, was not complaining in a letter to his future bride when he wrote “I have got to go to the college library now and get filthy amongst dusty books . . .”

The quotations included in the choices above come from a thought-provoking essay just posted on the website of First Things. The British writer, Niall Gooch, melds wit and genuine insight as he offers an answer to the question “Why are Universities So Ugly?” I highly commend it to you.

Libraries are of particular interest to many of us who treasure the Inkling ethos. And the article includes a delightful discussion of the treasure houses “now called ‘Information Centers’ or ‘Knowledge Hubs.’”

Books increasingly appear to be an afterthought, squeezed into the small spaces not occupied by banks of computers or the glass rooms designated as group work areas. Quiet has been banished to special Silent Study rooms, where those dangerous oddballs who wish to sit still by themselves and concentrate on one thing for a long period can be safely segregated from the normal people.

Inkling Libraries at Cambridge and Oxford

In 1959, C.S. Lewis wrote to T.S. Eliot. Both men served on the Commission to Revise the Psalter. Lewis mentions that he will be hosting an upcoming meeting of the Commission at Cambridge, and that he had secured one of the libraries for their use.

I can’t find the name and address of the secretary of our Commission on the Psalms. As you are in London could you kindly let her know that I have rescued the use of the inner library at Magdalene for our July session? It would be convenient if she told me – for the benefit of the servants – what our daily hours of sitting are likely to be. I also look forward to it.

Although Magdalene College has a distinguished history, it too has joined the revolution offering more contemporary Information Centers. They proudly declare “The New Library is . . . a purpose-built space in College for Magdalene students to meet, work, relax and find inspiration.”

As for the “Inner Library,” to which Lewis referred, I believe it to be what is presently called “The Old Library.” It fittingly includes among its special collections, “the books and manuscripts of T.S. Eliot (Honorary Fellow).”

A revealing history of “The Architectural Evolution of Libraries” begins with the question: “Can you have a civilized society without a library?”

In this article, we trace the typology of the library through history, highlighting twelve of the most important libraries in the world, from Ancient Alexandria to Raleigh, North Carolina, where robots retrieve books from storage.

A fitting close to our consideration of libraries comes from a letter written by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1966. The English Faculty of Oxford University had commissioned a bust of Tolkien – to be sculpted by his daughter-in-law. It presently resides in the English Faculty Library, which undoubtedly displays the elegant architecture of the classical university.

I feel much honoured, and so also does my daughter-in-law (the sculptress), by the Faculty’s wish to place the bust of me in the English Library in some prominent position – if on second thoughts you do not think a storied urn would be better. I shall be most pleased to present it to the Faculty.

It occurs to me that the plaster bust is rather fragile and very easily damaged. I suggest, therefore, that I should have it cast in bronze for presentation (at my own cost). I have already referred the matter to the sculptress who knows how these things are done.

Once in bronze it would then be unaffected by any dignities or indignities offered to it. I often used to hang my hat on the Tsar of Russia’s bust, which he graciously presented to Merton.


The illustration accompanying today’s post is the bust of Tolkien referred to in his correspondence. (In light of this column’s discussion, one can hardly ignore the rather utilitarian architecture revealed through the window behind the celebrated author.)

C.S. Lewis & Rigmarole

November 16, 2022 — 9 Comments

I hope my confusion is not due to a decline in my mental faculties. But it seems to me politicians are becoming even more incoherent than they’ve always been.

Is it me? Or, are you also amazed at how some of them appear to be babbling half the time?

C.S. Lewis was a master of communication. And some of his observations about how poorly some people communicate can be insightful.

Listen to this verse from a poem entitled “The Prudent Jailer” which he wrote in 1947. (It deserves to be read out loud.)

Some walls cannot a prison make
Half so secure as rigmarole.*

Lewis wasn’t referring to political jargon when he wrote this poem, but it seems quite apropos in a number of contexts.

For example, consider a recent article from the American Institute for Economic Research. Jon Sanders applies Lewis’ poem to foreboding aspects the government’s response to the pandemic.

The poem originated not in political allegory, but as a critique of unimaginative literary criticism. Notwithstanding, the Jailer is a diabolical figure, and his prudence is this: he imprisons with words, not walls. . . .

The Jailer has them imprisoned by their own thoughts, while he keeps them focused ever on the presumption of a prison. He doesn’t want them thinking of anything else.

This post isn’t about politics. I detest the subject as a whole, and find it particularly corrosive to conversation as elections draw near.

The verse I cited above simply evoked for me the power of words to distort and, yes, imprison. Lewis’ use of rigmarole⁑ (a word sadly out of vogue) highlights the fact that the crippling words themselves are often nonsensical.

Other colorful synonyms that we might hear in the company of our seniors could include balderdash, poppycock, or perhaps even malarkey.

In a 1940 letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, Lewis applies “balderdash” to describe art and literature done “for their own sake.”

I do most thoroughly agree with what you say about Art and Literature. To my mind they are only healthy when they are either (a) Definitely the handmaids of religious, or at least moral, truth – or (b) Admittedly aiming at nothing but innocent recreation or entertainment. . . .

But the great serious irreligious art – art for art’s sake – is all balderdash; and, incidentally, never exists when art is really flourishing.

Fortunately, such words rarely become completely obsolete.

A noteworthy mythopoeic⁂ scholar, Brenton Dickieson, used “balderdash” quite skillfully not that long ago.

“The Prudent Jailer” was originally published in 1947 under the mundane title, “The Romantics.”

Since you’ve read this column to its conclusion, allow me to reward your diligence by presenting the poem in its entirety.

The Prudent Jailer

Always the old nostalgia? Yes.
We still remember times before
We had learned to wear the prison dress
Or steel rings rubbed our ankles sore.

Escapists? Yes. Looking at bars
And chains, we think of files; and then
Of black nights without moon or stars
And luck befriending hunted men.

Still when we hear the trains at night
We envy the free travelers, whirled
In how few moments past the sight
Of the blind wall that bounds our world.

Our Jailer (well may he) prefers
Our thoughts should keep a narrower range.
‘The proper study of prisoners
is prison,’ he tells us. Is it strange?

And if old freedom in our glance
Betrays itself, he calls it names
‘Dope’-‘Wishful thinking’-or ‘Romance,’
Till tireless propaganda tames.

All but the strong whose hearts they break,
All but the few whose faith is whole.
Some walls cannot a prison make
Half so secure as rigmarole.


* Thank you to Jon whose comment below pointed out the connection between Lewis’ allusion to the very famous poem “To Althea, from Prison,” written by Richard Lovelace in 1642. “Stone walls doe not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage…”

⁑ Some people in the States will be more familiar with the variant “rigamarole.”

⁂ Mythopoeia is a modern literary genre in which the author creates a fictional mythology. The finest example of such writing comes from the pen of J.R.R. Tolkien, the creator of Middle Earth.

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.

Would you like to leave your mark on literary history? Why not invent a new poetic form? It just might catch on.

If it did, you could become as famous as Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914). She lived a privileged but brief life. Adelaide is remembered today as the creator of the American Cinquain. She also wrote a book entitled A Study in English Metrics which you can download for free.

C.S. Lewis describes the imaginative aspect of writing poetry as a creative act. “For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible” (Reflections on the Psalms).

LitCharts offers a description of the form itself, and notes an alternative name for the poetic invention.

The American cinquain is an unrhymed, five-line poetic form defined by the number of syllables in each line—the first line has two syllables, the second has four, the third six, the fourth eight, and the fifth two (2-4-6-8-2). They are typically written using iambs.

In the early twentieth century the American poet Adelaide Crapsey, inspired by the five-line Japanese poetic form of tanka, began to write five-line poems that followed a distinct form. This poetic form soon came to be known as an American cinquain (though it’s also sometimes referred to as a Crapseian cinquain, after its creator).

I think I’ll stick with “American.”

Oddly, one of the reasons Crapsey’s story drew me in is the fact she was the daughter of a prominent Episcopal clergyman. Algernon Sidney Crapsey (1847-1927) had aspirations of becoming a bishop, only to end up defrocked for heresy.

Writer’s Digest offers a list of 168 poetic forms, including “a few fun super new nonce forms.” I advise reviewing this listing so you don’t go to the effort of birthing your own form, only to find out that someone beat you to it.

I’ve written in the past about the benefit of writing outside of our normal styles. As a nonfiction writer, I’ve never desired to be considered a poet.

But I have enjoyed dabbling in a variety of poetic forms as a literary exercise. On occasion, I’ve actually been pleased with the results. And, due to its Inkling inspiration, my personal favorite is probably “A Foreshadowing of Epics.”

In a moment I’ll share my modest attempts at American Cinquains. But first, allow me to offer a Sijo that I wrote to introduce my Cinquains. A Sijo is “a Korean verse form related to haiku and tanka and comprised of three lines of 14-16 syllables each, for a total of 44-46 syllables.”

Immortalize your poetic memory this novel way.
Inventing a new form of poetry is easy to do.
With meter, hyperbole and rhyme – make your fame last for all time.

What follows is a medley of American Cinquains that I composed yesterday while waiting for an optometry appointment. My goal was not to awe readers, but to stretch my writing – what Chuck Palahniuk (the author of Fight Club) refers to as one’s “writing chops.”

The last story you should write is the most important story. You should start with a story that is just an amusing, entertaining, fun story to write and learn your writing chops with the least important things before you start applying them to the most important things.

I intentionally attempted to write cinquains evoking a variety of emotions. Here you will find examples that are thoughtful and frivolous, serious and sentimental.

Cudgel
Beaten by words
Angry themes beget hate
Eardrums torn by condemnation
Wounds last.

Pet dogs
Each breed a joy
Humanity’s best friends
Frolicking with unbounded joy
Precious.

Just War
Tragic option
For innocents still die
Theology deems it okay
Last choice.

Poets
Can be stuck up
Denigrating others
Counting fine prose lower than verse
Vain pride.

Dinner
Fresh fare tonight
Feasting on each choice cut
Cannibals toast missionaries
Dessert.

Comfort
Love wraps its arms
About the wayward lamb
Carried safely back to the fold
Rescued.

Try your own hand at writing an American Cinquain. Or, better yet, establish your own unique poetry form. If you promote it well – say by getting someone like Oprah to endorse it – you could one day become as famous as Adelaide Crapsey.

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.

For the Love of Words

November 23, 2021 — 18 Comments

Most writers, including the majority of bloggers, share a common affection. We love words, don’t we?

That love extends beyond mere fondness. We can find ourselves in a state of genuine wonder as we ponder definitions, etymologies (evolutions through diverse languages), and phonesthetics (how they sound). As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you – almost apart from their meaning – a thrill like music?”

This is one aspect of a great article in the current issue of The Lutheran Witness.* In “For the Love of Words,” editor Roy Askins uses C.S. Lewis’ classic The Four Loves to explore the relationship we have with words. He does so from a Christian perspective shared by the Oxford don.

Words shape us in profound ways. God formed creation and continues to sustain it by the Word of His mouth. . . . Words, then, are not incidental to our lives, but form a central part and core of our identity as God’s people. It’s certainly appropriate for us to talk about “loving words.”

The very word for a lover of words – logophile – combines the Greek logos (word) with philia, which Lewis deems priceless, like “that Philia which Aristotle classified among the virtues or that Amicitia on which Cicero wrote a book.”

[Coincidentally, I have an article about ministry to those who are mourning in the current issue of The Lutheran Witness, as well. I assure you, however, that’s not why I’m citing “For the Love of Words.”] Longtime readers of Mere Inkling are well acquainted with my personal fascination with words and wordplay.

Many of you share this predilection. C.S. Lewis describes us in Studies in Words.

I am sometimes told, that there are people who want a study of literature wholly free from philology; that is, from the love and knowledge of words. Perhaps no such people exist. If they do, they are either crying for the moon or else resolving on a lifetime of persistent and carefully guarded delusion.

Literature, Lewis argues, is not simply the sum of its words. It involves the history of the words, their complex shades of meaning, and even what those very words meant to their original writers.

The Uniquely Christian Perspective

God pours out his gifts of writing quite broadly. Countless styluses, quills and pens have been wielded by talented pagans and atheists over the centuries.

Still, as Askins’ article alludes, Christians have a unique connection to words. Not only did God speak all creation into existence through his Word, but that Logos, that Word became incarnate and suffered an innocent death so that humanity might be redeemed. Askins concludes his article with a joyful truth.

When we seek to love words, then, we do not seek to love them as words in themselves. This danger we editors and writers must mark and avoid. No, we love words because in them and by them, we hear of and share God’s love for us in Christ. He alone makes words holy and precious; He alone makes words worth loving.

I love these closing words. And I strongly believe C.S. Lewis would too.


* The Lutheran Witness is the magazine of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.

Humorous Examinations

September 21, 2021 — 15 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.

Mark Twain wrote some entertaining travelogues about his overseas travel. In A Tramp Abroad, he relates a conversation he and a friend had with an American who had been studying veterinary medicine in Germany. The expatriate complains about how long his studies have taken – nearly two years – and proclaims how good it is to hear his native tongue.

The student’s most humorous words relate to his impression of the German language. It’s unusual in its nineteenth century phrasing. However, he does note one rather common opinion in his earthy observation.

“I spotted you for my kind [fellow Americans] the minute I heard your clack. . . .” The young fellow hooked his arm into the Reverend’s, now, with the confiding and grateful air of a waif who has been longing for a friend, and a sympathetic ear, and a chance to lisp once more the

sweet accents of the mother tongue, — and then he limbered up the muscles of his mouth and turned himself loose, — and with such a relish!

Some of his words were not Sunday-school words, so I am obliged to put blanks where they occur. . . . “when I heard you fellows gassing away in the good old American language, I’m – if it wasn’t all I could do to keep from hugging you! My tongue’s all warped with trying to curl it around these forsaken wind-galled nine-jointed, German words here; now I tell you it’s awful good to lay it over a Christian word once more and kind of let the old taste soak in. . . .

“I’m learning to be a horse-doctor! I like that part of it, you know, but ____ these people, they won’t learn a fellow in his own language, they make him learn in German; so before I could tackle the horse-doctoring I had to tackle this miserable language.”

And, as if mastering German wasn’t difficult enough in itself, he continues:

“First-off, I thought it would certainly give me the botts, but I don’t mind it now. I’ve got it where the hair’s short, I think; and dontchuknow, they made me learn Latin, too. Now between you and me, I wouldn’t give a ____ for all the Latin that was ever jabbered; and the first thing I calculate to do when I get through, is to just sit down and forget it. ’Twon’t take me long . . .”

I don’t intend to offend Germans for the challenge their language poses to some. (In fact, one set of my grand-parents named Vonderohe originally came from Pomerania.) But the nature of agglutinative languages is so alien to most of us that the very length of the glued-together words becomes daunting.

Since I’m not a linguist, I had to research to discover as I wrote this post that German is not a truly agglutinative language. It merely uses agglutination. Apparently, the distinction involves distinctions with which most non-linguists need not concern themselves. We can be satisfied with the simplified definition provided by Glottopedia.org – “Agglutinating language is a language which has a morphological system in which words as a rule are polymorphemic and where each morpheme corresponds to a single lexical meaning.”

In truth, it’s quite logical to make new words by stringing them together. Most English compound words are a combination of two elements. Longer Germanic words seem more common. Kraftfahrzeug-Haftpflichtversicherung, for example, sounds “nine-jointed,” but is actually only two words, meaning motor vehicle liability insurance.

C.S. Lewis and the German Language

C.S. Lewis was multilingual, and studied German while relatively young. He and his wife used every language as a source when playing Scrabble.

Nevertheless, Lewis was quite modest about his grasp of German. In 1954, while thanking a German professor for the offer of a philosophy book he had written, Lewis wrote,

I look forward to reading the book (when the translation arrives! My German is wretched, and what there is of it belongs chiefly to the libretto of the Ring and Grimm’s Märchen – works whose style and vocabulary you very possibly do not closely follow).

The following year Lewis wrote once again to Helmut Kuhn. This time it was to thank him for a review Lewis’ works. Lewis said, “it certainly seems to me that your grasp of the whole situation in which I have written and of the relation of my ideas both to it and to each other, goes far beyond any criticism I have yet had.” Before he makes that noteworthy statement, Lewis makes a playful comment relating to the presumed dignity implicit in the German language itself.

To be written about in the German language is, for an Englishman, a grave temptation to spiritual pride. The sentences are so massive and the words so long that, even if the content were less flattering than it is in your article, the subject can hardly resist feeling that he must be a much weightier phenomenon than he had ever supposed!

Eucestoda Words: Well Worth a Postscript

Germans are an accomplished, literate people who take pride in their language. They have gone so far as to coin a word that specifically identifies these sometimes lengthy compound words. Germans call them bandwurmwörter, which literally means “tapeworm words.” (Mark Twain would have delighted in knowing that.)

Friedrich Akademie, an education website, devotes a page on their website to “Beautiful German Tapeworm Words.”

Tapeworm words . . . what a fascinatinglyinventivesemanticnovelty!