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C.S. Lewis and Flags

September 6, 2017 — 3 Comments

flag globe.png

Do you find flags interesting? Even inspirational, perhaps?

A recent article on the subject reminded me that one of my early avocations was as a vexillologist. If you also enjoy learning about flags, you can become a vexillologist too (ability to spell the title not required).

The article discussed the diversity of America state and territory flags. Some are rather mundane, featuring state seals on single colored fields. While my own Washington State flag falls into this category, the fact that the first president’s face dominates the seal makes it rather attractive. Many seals though, are terribly busy and jumbled.

The Nebraska flag is so bland that it once flew over the state capitol for several days, before anyone noticed it was upside down.

One of the most distinctive flags is that of New Mexico, which features “the sun symbol of the Zia Pueblo. The red and yellow imitate Spain’s national colors, paying tribute to the region’s colonial heritage.”

You can view all of the American flags here, if you are interested.

Or, if you are more interested in international flags, you can see and read about them here (compliments of the CIA).

The best part of the article, “Fifty Flags” by John J. Miller, is the author’s citation of C.S. Lewis.

The main purpose of a flag is to unite people behind patriotic, military, or civic causes. A good flag stirs emotions, tingling spines at Olympic ceremonies and encouraging soldiers to hold fast.

“In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment, wrote C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. “The crudest sentimentalism . . . about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.”

Inspired by this passage, I’ve gleaned several more references that the Oxford scholar makes to flags.

Quotations from C.S. Lewis Mentioning Flags

The flag serves as the emblem of a nation as it projects its image beyond its own borders.

After breakfast [Lord Bern] asked Caspian to order every man he had into full armor. “And above all,” he added, “let everything be as trim and scoured as if it were the morning of the first battle in a great war between noble kings with all the world looking on.”

This was done; and then in three boatloads Caspian and his people, and Bern with a few of his, put out for Narrowhaven. The King’s flag flew in the stern of his boat and his trumpeter was with him. (Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

The absence of a flag or identifiable markings leaves an enemy uncertain about how to proceed.

Inside, he was wondering if there were any way of getting rid of these unwelcome visitors. Had he known that Caspian had only one ship and one ship’s company with him, he would have spoken soft words for the moment, and hoped to have them all surrounded and killed during the night.

But he had seen a ship of war sail down the straits yesterday and seen it signaling, as he supposed, to its consorts. He had not then known it was the King’s ship for there was not wind enough to spread the flag out and make the golden lion visible, so he had waited further developments. (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader)

The enthusiastic waving of flags can be a visible manifestation of patriotic fervor. In a letter to his brother, written between the wars, Lewis describes conversation with an Anglican priest, William Stead, who had just returned from Italy.

Lewis is rather dismissive of the priest’s comparison of Italy and Great Britain because, unlike Lewis and his brother Warnie, the cleric had never been to the front lines.

Stead, fresh back from Venice and Rome, gave as his verdict that “Italy was a pleasant surprise to him. He had always imagined the Italians a degenerate people but found that they were really quite go ahead and up to date.”

They were also more patriotic than the English, for they were always waving flags and went mad over the name of Italy whereas “he had never found that Englishmen showed any great enthusiasm over the mention of England.”

They and their landscape were, he said, hardy and vigorous whereas one always felt the softness of England. Stead is an American and has not been to the war. (All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C. S. Lewis)

A flag can also be used to gain the attention of a friend or potential ally. Lewis uses the image in his first letter to Charles Williams, who would join him in the Inkling writing community. The story of their mutual respect is fascinating. Williams response to Lewis begins, “My dear Mr Lewis, If you had delayed writing another 24 hours our letters would have crossed.”

I never know about writing to an author. If you are older than I, I don’t want to seem impertinent: if you are younger, I don’t want to seem patronizing. But I feel I must risk it. A book sometimes crosses one’s path which is so like the sound of one’s native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer.

I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life—comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris.

In “Religion Without Dogma?” Lewis includes a flag as one of the symbols with more inherent inspirational power than can be uncovered in a lifeless religion. He is discussing spiritualism, which offered supposed communication with ghosts wandering through an ill-defined afterlife.

A minimal religion compounded of spirit messages and bare Theism has no power to touch any of the deepest chords in our nature, or to evoke any response which will raise us even to a higher secular level—let alone to the spiritual life. The god of whom no dogmas are believed is a mere shadow. He will not produce that fear of the Lord in which wisdom begins, and, therefore, will not produce that love in which it is consummated.

The immortality which the messages suggest can produce in mediocre spirits only a vague comfort for our unredeemedly personal hankerings, a shadowy sequel to the story of this world in which all comes right (but right in how pitiable a sense!), while the more spiritual will feel that it has added a new horror to death—the horror of mere endless succession, of indefinite imprisonment in that which binds us all . . .

It can never be a controller or even a rival to our natural sloth and greed. A flag, a song, an old school tie, is stronger than it; much [stronger are] the pagan religions.

The flag can delineate the leading edge of an advance into enemy territory. Lewis uses this notion with great effect in his treatise on pain.

No doubt Pain as God’s megaphone is a terrible instrument: it may lead to final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity the bad man can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul. (The Problem of Pain)

In his essay “Answers to Questions on Christianity,” Lewis uses the flag as a metaphor for where one’s ultimate loyalty lies.

When I first became a Christian . .  . I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and gospel halls; and then later I found that it was the only way of flying your flag; and, of course, I found that this meant being a target.

It is extraordinary how inconvenient to your family it becomes for you to get up early to go to church. It doesn’t matter so much if you get up early for anything else, but if you get up early to go to church it’s very selfish of you and you upset the house.

If there is anything in the teaching of the New Testament which is in the nature of a command, it is that you are obliged to take the Sacrament, and you can’t do it without going to church.

A Final Observation on Flags & War

In one of Lewis’ less well-known essays, “Talking about Bicycles,” he discusses a fascinating procession through which many of our experiences pass. “Let’s give them names. They are the Unenchanted Age, the Enchanted Age, the Disenchanted Age, and the Re-enchanted Age.”

His illustration using the example of marriage is excellent, and accurately describes the chronicle of many if not most marital unions. It is, however, in his example related to war that he mentions the symbol of the flag.

Let’s take an example that may interest you more. How about war? Most of our juniors were brought up Unenchanted about war. The Unenchanted man sees (quite correctly) the waste and cruelty and sees nothing else.

The Enchanted man is in the Rupert Brooke or Philip Sidney state of mind [both were poets whose lives were cut violently short in war]—he’s thinking of glory and battle-poetry and forlorn hopes and last stands and chivalry.

Then comes the Disenchanted Age—say Siegfried Sassoon [another poet who survived WWI, in contrast to his contemporary, Brooke].

But there is also a fourth stage, though very few people in modern England dare to talk about it. You know quite well what I mean. One is not in the least deceived: we remember the trenches too well. We know how much of the reality the romantic view left out.

But we also know that heroism is a real thing, that all the plumes and flags and trumpets of the tradition were not there for nothing. They were an attempt to honour what is truly honourable: what was first perceived to be honourable precisely because everyone knew how horrible war is. And that’s where this business of the Fourth Age is so important.

C.S. Lewis did, indeed, recall the trenches. He understood the horrors of war, but had matured in his viewpoint to become reenchanted with its glory. Flags, pennants and guidons are visible emblems of its chivalry and honor. Lewis would certainly concur with the declaration of Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate States of America army, that “it is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Fortunately, flags fly far more commonly in peace than they do in war. Their peaceful fluttering is far more familiar to the masses than their battle shorn visage. May that always remain true.

_____

The image at the top of the page is copyrighted by its creator, Joel Lisenby, and used with permission.

 

British Weather

November 13, 2014 — 12 Comments

euro weatherWinter arrived early. The current “arctic outbreak” has brought subzero temperatures to Canada and the United States. It proves once again that the demarcation of seasons is capricious.

“Meteorological winter” reckoning makes much more sense than relying on a solstice, which actually occurs in the midst of the season.

Prior to the arrival of this polar cold front, the shortening of the days had been the only sign of winter’s approach where we live. Our summer in Puget Sound was wonderful, and lasted long into the fall.

Although the United States Air Force preferred to assign me to hot climates, I’m really a temperate (climate) person. I enjoy seeing four separate seasons, and seek the unique joys that arrive with each of them.

I don’t enjoy any of them in excess. The record-setting snowfalls we survived during several years in Minnesota were a bit much. The relentless heat of the Mojave Desert was even worse.

We did enjoy the weather of England, when we spent three wonderful years there. I guess it takes a true Washingtonian to say they genuinely enjoyed the weather in Britain—but we did.

C.S. Lewis recognized the perceived shortcomings of England’s weather. In the eyes of many, of course, the rain that keeps everything lush and green is considered a dreary imposition on their activities. In 1950 he wrote the following to one of his American correspondents.

Here we are enjoying the dubious delights of early English spring, and I often wonder what visiting Americans make of it: for they are already arriving in surprisingly large numbers considering the time of year. I can only suppose that they all come from Northern Alaska, and find our climate a nice change! If you have any friends who think of coming over, tell them that the English summer generally falls in the third week in June.

This delightful paragraph brings to mind the apocryphal Mark Twain comment that, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

The great thing about the pseudo-Twain quote is its versatility. It is easily edited for any locale.

One last thought about winter. We Northern Hemisphereans reveal our hemisphere-centric prejudices when we fail to realize that these colder months don’t represent winter to half of the globe.

And I suspect the folks who live on that side of the world are not subject to “Antarctic outbreaks” of polar cold, due to the oceans . . . but that’s a question to research on another day.

Nature’s Hazards

June 24, 2013 — 12 Comments

tumbleweedsNo matter where in the world you live, you are vulnerable to dangers uniquely associated with that locale. Some of us have moved around and weathered a variety of these threats.

My own family has survived earthquakes in our home state of Washington, ice storms in Oklahoma, nearby tornadoes in Texas, record-setting freezes in Minnesota, both droughts and failed levees in two different California cities along with a Super Typhoon in Guam. (Sometimes we’ve even been assailed by disasters that had no place occurring where they did, like a hurricane that knocked out our power for a full month in England, of all places!)

It’s quite possible that you too have experienced near misses when it comes to suffering Nature’s wrath. (I’d much rather attribute these things to fallen Nature than refer to them as “acts of God.”)

C.S. Lewis offers a wonderful description of Nature in Miracles.

You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see . . . this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you ever have thought that this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself.

Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The “vanity” to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured, but cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, play-fellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.

But, until that glorious day when Nature has been reborn in the culmination of the event that took place on Calvary . . . until that day, Nature remains a capricious neighbor. It’s best to know what she is likely to throw at you based on where you reside—and be prepared. Disaster preparedness is something that the wise will concern themselves before catastrophe strikes.

There are some dangers, however, for which one cannot adequately prepare. The prospects of mega-tsunamis terrify me (and I don’t even live by the sea). Then there are zombie outbreaks, which are apparently taking place on a frequent basis, if the plethora of media on that ghoulish subject is any indication.

The photograph at the top of this page reveals a grim threat to life on the American plains. There may be a few other places where these merciless creatures wreak havoc (the arid portions of Australia, perhaps), but I hope most of those reading this have been spared the visage of plagues of tumbleweeds racing across the horizon in search of victims to overrun, scar, and bury. As the picture shows, sometimes it is not even safe to shelter in a home during a particularly virulent attack.

I’ve seen many a wayward tumbleweed, while I’ve driven across barren desert terrains. Occasionally you’ll see them alone, scouting ahead of the mass for weak prey. If you see an entire horde, well . . . it’s probably already to late to flee.

This picture makes me shiver. It’s one reason I’m so happy to have moved home to Puget Sound, where the incessant rain* keeps everything green. I can put up with an occasional tectonic jiggle, if it means I don’t have to worry about being buried alive beneath a mountain of desiccated thorns.

_____

* The rainfall in western Washington is highly exaggerated. It’s true that for half of the year it receives more rain than the national average, but the other six months it receives less than average of the rest of the nation.

Also, I don’t believe it is an accident that one of the most commonly encountered tumbleweeds in the United States is Salsola tragus, an utterly humorless thistle that invaded from Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. Despite occasional eruptions, it seems to be lying in wait, for the most part, growing in strength for the final conflagration between humanity and noxious weeds and their allies, the triffids.