Deep Thoughts from the Quill of the Other C.S. Lewis
Welcome to the first in an occasional series of fictitious quotations from a fabricated contemporary of the great Oxbridge professor, Clive Staples Lewis.
The C.S. Lewis who authored these questionable observations, Clyde Scissors Lewis, possessed a worldview enigmatically different from that of the esteemed Christian author. Despite the fact that their two lives overlapped in a variety of ways, the similarities were superficial.
A brief biography of the lesser Lewis is available at this link.
By all means, do not confuse the wisdom of the genuine article with his shadowy counterfeit. Despite any cursory similarities between the two men, this is most definitely not the C.S. Lewis readers have come to know and love.
Would you like to receive free books for the simple exchange of a short, honest review of them? If so, join me at LibraryThing. Best of all, they offer additional benefits for readers (and writers).
You may already have a free account there, since they offer a book cataloging system connecting you to fellow readers, which appeals to many book lovers.
They also offer TinyCat, which is a sophisticated cataloging system designed for small libraries. And it is free for personal use! I don’t have the time to input my own library, despite all of their tools for making that easy, but it could well work for you. [Warning: if your library includes more than 20,000 items, it may be a tad too large.]
Requesting a book for review is simple. Each month they list a bunch of new, mostly self-published titles that are available. You express your interest and they distribute the quantity that are available. You can see current offerings here: LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The truth is that I rarely request a title. The vast majority are fiction, while my tastes strongly lean toward nonfiction. Even there, available time restricts my interests to a handful of topics. Still, I wrote a review about a book I received entitled A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Postmodern Times: Aphorisms. (I am a sucker for thought-provoking maxims, especially if they are witty.) More on my review in a moment.
In the past I’ve written book reviews for military and theological journals. Most publications offer specific guidelines as to what they desire in a review. If you opt to ignore these, you are wasting everyone’s time. Most online sites are more tolerant.
Writing Book Reviews
Writing effective reviews is an art in itself. To do it well requires some conscious effort. To simply describe something as “good” or “boring” is basically not worth the effort. You need to think about what you, as a potential reader, are interested in knowing about a title before you invest your time and money in procuring it.
It appears there are hundreds of online sites describing the process. This one from Grammarly is a quick, clear read. One piece of their advice relates directly to my latest review.
Remember that you’re reviewing a book that another human poured their heart and soul into to write. Express your honest opinion, but don’t be nasty about it.
That sentiment is similar to one I just read in an old magazine I was perusing.
Concerning satire, I’ve always followed the rule laid down by an old college professor: “I only pick on those I love.” If I have trouble loving someone, it’s better if I refrain from jokes, satire, and teasing.
C.S. Lewis & the Art of Reviewing Books
If one were to tally all the reviews that have been written about the works of C.S. Lewis, their number might rival the grains of sand spread around the world’s beaches.*
It is unsurprising that Lewis, being a professor of English literature, wrote a significant number of book reviews himself. Some of the most notable are gathered in Image and Imagination. While the volume includes a number of valuable essays, it is the collection of his published book reviews which are of interest to us today.
You see, in Image and Imagination we encounter ten of his reviews written about books authored by his fellow Inklings. These include Owen Barfield, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. The volume is edited by Walter Hooper, who ably introduces each of the reviews, and provides unique insight. For example, he notes C.S. Lewis’ ongoing debate with Owen Barfield about anthroposophy.
Barfield’s conversion to Anthroposophy . . . marked the beginning of . . . the ‘Great War’ between [the two friends]. . . . While the ‘Great War’ had ended years before, the problem Lewis faced in reviewing Romanticism Comes of Age is that it contains in the Introduction and other places Barfield’s ‘case’ for Anthroposophy (“Who Gaf Me Drink?”).
Lewis’ review of the culmination of the Lord of the Rings is worth the full price of the collection. Doesn’t the following ring true?
The other excellence is that no individual, and no species, seems to exist only for the sake of the plot. All exist in their own right and would have been worth creating for their mere flavour even if they had been irrelevant.
Treebeard would have served any other author (if any other could have conceived him) for a whole book. His eyes are ‘filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking.’
Through those ages his name has grown with him, so that he cannot now tell it; it would, by now, take too long to pronounce. When he learns that the thing they are standing on is a hill, he complains that this is but ‘a hasty word’ for that which has so much history in it (“The Dethronement of Power”).
On My Review of the Curmudgeon’s Concerns
My recent review (to which I referred above) was not easy to write. What made it difficult was my mixed opinion of the aphorisms chosen for the publication. Most were quite interesting, and a few were downright brilliant. The problem was the strong bias of the author when he addressed two “controversial” topics – politics and religion.
Unlike Mark Twain, to whom I refer in the review, this author forsakes humor when he deplores subjects with which he disagrees. Twain made it clear how he stood, but usually in a manner that left even his opponents entertained. This particular book is much more “curmudgeonly,” in that some of it is delivered in an ill-tempered, alienating manner.
If you are curious in seeing how I threaded the needle of honestly reviewing a book with problematic material, you can read it here. While praising many aspects of the book, I did make one critical observation related to an aphorism related to The Chronicles of Narnia.
Greene even invokes my favorite author to mischaracterize Christianity. “C.S. Lewis depicted God as a lion. The lion, of course, is a predator.” So much for agnus dei and Aslan’s manifestation as a lamb.
A Final Encouragement
If you are a writer, or an aspiring writer, consider writing some book reviews. It can provide a more welcoming entrée into the publishing world than other features. Write it in a style similar to the reviews they normally run, and be sure to read any guidelines they provide for contributions. As with other submissions, it’s best to query first. Best of luck!
* The World Atlas estimate of 2.5 to 10 sextillions may suggest this estimate of Lewisian reviews may be hyperbole. But at least I did not refer to the number of stars, which is estimated at 10 to 200 sextillion.
If you were to liken your personal writing to that of a famous author, who would you name? Are you similar to Emily Dickinson, or are you an echo of Charles Dickens?
Perhaps your words flow like Shakespeare’s or erupt in staccato, like Hemingway’s. If you are a member of a writing critique group – which I highly recommend – your friends may have offered their own suggestions about authors you resemble.
It just so happens there are a couple of tools that can offer hints as to the answer to this question. When I looked back at an earlier post on this subject, I was shocked to find I had written it all the way back in 2012. Yes, I know some of you were in grammar school then.
I shared then a site which was relatively new. The “I Write Like” site invites you to submit samples of your writing, which it compares to a range of famous authors. I am curious to try the process today, since the programmer continued to update it until 2016. Perhaps my results will be different than those from 2012.
Programs such as this are frankly quite limited. For those of you interested in the programmer who designed this one, you can check out an interview conducted when it was initially released. In the interview, Dmitry Chestnykh explains how his “algorithm is not a rocket science, and you can find it on every computer today. It’s a Bayesian classifier, which is widely used to fight spam on the Internet.”
My Own Results
I’m unsure how many authors our Russian friend has included in the comparison files. It does include historical and contemporary authors. I have no idea whether my favorite author, C.S. Lewis, found his way into the database or not. My results do reveal, however, that at least one of his fellow Inklings did make the cut.
Without further conversation, allow me to share the results from my experiment nearly a decade ago.
Make sure you include lengthy selections from your work. Also, testing the program with different genres (assuming you write in different styles) will actually give you new matches. (That is, of course, as it should be.)
I tried a number of times (no, not fishing for results I wanted, but using a variety of types of my writing) and here were the repeated results:
For my blog posts: H.P. Lovecraft or J.R.R. Tolkien For my more formal essays: J.R.R. Tolkien or Jonathan Swift
These were admirable results with which I have been happy to live. Thus, it is with some trepidation that I revisited the astonishing program today. And the results – For my blog posts: Arthur C. Clarke – For my more formal essays: Ditto.
Very interesting. Aside from the possibility that the program has been contaminated by some spaceborne virus, or intemperate Clarkean fans, I have to assume that Clarke may have been added after my initial venture into the unfathomable world of I Write Like.
In case any of you try out the program, I’d enjoy hearing your results – especially if they are someone other than a science fiction writer who died in 2008.
Another Way to Look at Writing Styles
There are a multitude of different elements involved in assessing a writer’s style – that which constitutes your “voice.” Vocabulary, sentence length, cadence, tone and a myriad of additional elements meld together in unique ways.
Lewis also believed that one should always write for the ear as well as for the eye. He recommended that a piece of prose be read aloud, to make sure that its sounds reinforce its sense.
Naturally, when we write for different audiences or purposes our voice can shift accordingly. That is why I fed the program selections from my blogs and my more considered essays. And, if they differ somewhat, you can imagine how distinctive my devotions are from my catechesis, or my fiction from my satire.
Back now to a second online program for assessing one’s writing. It can be found on a curious site called MySocialBrain. There you can participate in a variety of “research projects” that forfeit structured controls for broader access. The scientific benefit is obviously debatable, but the personal insights may well be beneficial.
One study entitled “Who do you write like?” compares the writing you submit with a number of famous authors. (As with “I Write Like,” your text is not retained on the system. Likewise, neither site requires that you enter your name or any other identifying information.)
MySocialBrain bases its study on a reasonable premise. “Despite the seemingly ineffable qualities of style, great progress has been made in measuring writing quantitatively. This process, known as stylometry, can identify the influence of one writer on another or reveal the author of unattributed work.”
You can have your writing compared to that of others at this site.
I used two different samples of my writing (blog, then essay) and came up with fairly similar results. I haven’t read much from every one of these authors, but my gut suggests there may be a valid correlation here. And that impression is reinforced by how little correlation my submission had with the writing of Beatrix Potter, R.M. Ballantyne and Baroness Orczy (of whom I had never heard).
If you have a few free minutes, and are curious about what this stylometry tool might conclude about your writing, give it a try.
The cartoon at the top of this column is used with the permission of its talented creator, Jonny Hawkins. He is both talented and prolific. Enjoy a humorous jaunt through his personal website today.
C.S. Lewis has introduced me to many fascinating writers. Authors I never would have learned about without Lewis’ reference to them.
Sometimes Lewis praises their work. At other times, being an honest literary critic, he is compelled to provide a less flattering appraisal. He typically offers the latter evaluation with a novel flair.
In my previous post I shared the sad tale of a blackbird tapping at our window. I promised to discuss today some other curious birds. These creatures, in contrast to the forlorn blackbird, arise from the imagination of a Scottish poet named Sir David Lyndsay* of the Mount. He lived around 1490 to 1555.
Lyndsay rose to the ceremonial rank of “The Right Honourable the Lord Lyon King of Arms,” which sounds quite impressive. In that capacity, he compiled 400 Scottish coats of arms, which was quite an achievement. You can download a rare facsimile of that document for your personal library from Internet Archive. The central shield may belong to my wife’s ancestors, “Jhonstoun of that ilke.”
Sir Lyndsay was a tutor to James V and served in his Court after his ascendancy to Scotland’s throne. However, it is for his poetry that David Lyndsay is remembered. Which is precisely why C.S. Lewis included him in the volume he wrote for the Oxford History of English Literature. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama was published in 1944. While this authoritative volume is certainly not casual reading, it is extremely interesting. Just listen to how Lewis introduces Scottish writers of the “close of the Middle Ages.”
Sir David Lyndsay’s Legacy
This academic work is the place our favorite Inkling introduced me to “the last major poet of the old Scotch tradition.” I was on a quest for something interesting about birds, and I learned of a delightful piece of satire written by this Renaissance “Lion King.”
His works are a beautiful example of the ‘single talent well employed.’ The Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, which holds an important place among our scanty materials for a history of the allegorical drama in Scotland, will be dealt with in another volume of this series . . . stands apart from the rest of Lyndsay’s output by the looseness of the metre and the general popularity of the style, and that it is rich in pathos and low humour.
In his remaining works he everywhere keeps well within the lines marked out for him by his great predecessors, there is no novelty in them . . . But what there is of him is good all through.
I am quite receptive to satire that skewers hypocritical clergy. That’s why the “episcopal ghost”⁑ in The Great Divorce is my favorite example of someone who has rejected the Truth.
This is what appealed to me about Lyndsay’s satire The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo.
The Complaynt [an earlier work] records, in a brisk, mocking fashion . . . the marked improvement in social order and general well-being throughout the kingdom, except as regards the “spiritualitie.” On the doings of the ecclesiastics he advises [the young king] to keep a watchful eye, and see that they preach with “unfeyneit intentis,” use the sacraments as Christ intended and leave such vain traditions as superstitious pilgrimages and praying to images. . . .
In The Testament and Complaynt of our Soverane Lordis Papyngo (parrot) he exposed more particularly the corruptions and worldliness of the spirituality, and this in a more comprehensive and scathing fashion than in his two previous pieces . . . (Cambridge History of English and American Literature).
And here are the ecclesiastical nemeses of the poem, “religious men, of gret devotioun.”
Here, also, all is pure satire—much of it of a very clever and trenchant character . . . the wise bird [the king’s parrot] with its “holy executors,” who appear in the form of a pyot [magpie] (representing a canon regular), a raven (a black monk) and a gled or hawk (a holy friar). The disposition and aims of these ghostly counsellors are sufficiently manifest; and they act entirely in keeping with their reputed character.
The poor parrot would have much preferred to have, at her death-bed, attendants of a less grovelling type of character, such as the nightingale, the jay, the mavis [song thrush], the goldfinch, the lark, etc.; but, since none of them has come, she has to be content with the disreputable birds who have offered her their services.
After a piquant discussion with them on the growth of ecclesiastical sensuality and greed, she thereupon proceeds to dispose of her personality—her “galbarte of grene” to the owl, her eyes to the bat, her beak to the pelican, her music to the cuckoo, her “toung rhetoricall” to the goose and her bones to the phoenix.
Her heart she bequeaths to the king; and she leaves merely her entrails, including her liver and lungs, to her executors who, however, immediately on her death, proceed to devour her whole body, after which the ged flies away with her heart, pursued by the two other birds of prey.
I can picture the assembled clergy in their avian forms offering their pseudo-comfort to the dying parrot. In English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, C.S. Lewis describes the misbegotten flock in the following manner.
[The parrot’s] testament is made in the unwelcome presence of certain birds of prey who turn out to be monks and friars of the feathered world. The dying parrot inveighs against their hypocrisy and avarice . . . while they vigorously defend themselves by throwing the blame on the secular clergy.
So far, the satire has been ordinary enough; but we find real satiric invention, and even a strange beauty, when the popinjay, having provided for the poor by leaving her gay coat to the owl, her eyes to the bat, and her voice to the cuckoo, and for herself by committing her spirit to the Quene of Farie, is torn in pieces by her carrion executors the moment the breath is out of her body—hir angell fedderis fleying in the air.
Lindsay’s concern for morality and truthfulness, in an age when political and religious institutions were notoriously corrupt, earned him a considerable reputation in his lifetime. Indeed for later generations of Scottish readers, Lindsay’s name became a byword for reliability and truthfulness, at times even rivalling divine Scripture.
You can read the original poem, along with all of Lyndsay’s other poetic works, in this 1871 collection.
* Just a caution for those looking for more information about Lyndsay: be aware that his surname is also spelled Lindsay, Lindesay and Lyndesay. Also, he should not be confused with Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, a roughly contemporary author who compiled The Historie and Chronicles of Scotland. (Robert’s family name is also spelled with similar variants.)
⁑ Lewis’ use of the word “episcopal” here does not refer to a denomination. It suggests a churchly, or more accurately, a high-churchly theologian.
Many great writers have used pen names, C.S. Lewis (and yours truly) included. Lewis, in fact, employed two.
There are a variety of reasons for writing under a pen name. While it may occasionally be done in order to deceive, most occurrences are utterly benign. For example, particularly in totalitarian states, the truth is dangerous to one’s health. In less authoritarian nations, reticence to use one’s own name might be motivated by fear of damage to one’s livelihood.
It’s also possible the writer simply has a personal desire to remain anonymous. This is the case with one of Lewis’ most important works. After the death of his wife, Joy Davidman, he composed one of his most moving works, A Grief Observed. For this candid reflection on grieving, Lewis attempted to maintain his privacy by ascribing the work to N.W. Clerk.
My motivation for adopting a new pen name is different from all of these. More about that in a moment.
Here is a small sampling of writers you may know, who used pseudonyms for some of their work:
President John Adams, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Anne Brontë, Emily Brontë, Pearl S. Buck, Anton Chekhov, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Michael Crichton, Agatha Christie, Cecil Day-Lewis, D.B. Wyndham Lewis, Theodor Seuss Geisel, Henrik Ibsen, Washington Irving, Søren Kierkegaard, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Joanne Rowling, Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, just to name a few.
My personal opinion is that the best nom de plumes are not random or simply fanciful. Creating a pen name with an actual connection of some sort to the writer seems—to me—far more skillful. Case in point, Lewis’ use of the pseudonym “N.W. Clerk.” He created this name by combining the Anglo-Saxon “Nat Whilk” (meaning I know not whom) with “Clerk” meaning writer or scholar.
C.S. Lewis’ second pen name was also chosen for its specific meaning. Since boyhood, he had gone by the first name of Jack. With the pseudonym he used his actual name, Clive. For the surname, Lewis used his mother’s maiden name, Hamilton. Thus, Clive Hamilton.
His first two books were attributed in this manner. The first was Spirits in Bondage (1919), a collection of poetry. His second was begun while he was still a teenager. Dymer was a narrative poem with mythic elements. The first title is in the public domain, and available for download at Internet Archive. Both of the volumes were written, of course, while Lewis was an atheist.
My New Nom de Plume
In my own case, I recently devised a pen name for some satirical writing I am exploring. My purpose is not to mislead or confuse. In fact, it is expressly out of a desire to prevent confusion that I’ve assumed a pseudonym for my satire.
Even though I include humor in my writing, most of my work is essentially serious. This makes sense, for subjects such as faith, suffering, life, death, history, and eternity. I do not dissemble. As the Bible counsels, my yes means yes, and my no means no.*
Still, the very nature of satire means you are using language contrary to its face value. You are communicating tongue in cheek. You are frequently turning the language around upon itself so it communicates something quite different from what it literally says. Satire finds its fuel in irony, humor, hyperbole and even ridicule.
Skillful satire isn’t intentionally confusing. On the contrary, its message is almost always clear. Satire may sting the objects of its ridicule, and bring smiles to those who share your scorn for the institutions, policies, and individuals being taunted.
So, where, you may wonder, will this satirical writing be found . . . and under what pen name will you find it? I will be submitting some short pieces to The Salty Cee, a less commercialized alternative to The Babylon Bee. My pseudonym is Robert Charlesson, for reasons you can read about here.
* The actual passage I’m referencing, records Jesus criticizing making oaths to assure a person’s veracity. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:33-37). I think it is consistent to extend this principle to always speaking honestly, regardless of whether we are making affirmative or negative observations.
Dark days demand two seemingly contradictory things. Serious reflection and diversion (often in the form of entertainment).
Things are serious. The ultimate toll of the current pandemic remains unknown. Even if we regard ourselves as safe due to age, health and isolation, the simple fact is thousands are dying. Beyond our compassionate concern for those who are suffering, only a fool would fail to reflect on their own mortality during this plague.
Christians, who recently “celebrated” Good Friday are quite conscious of the fact that “we are dust and to dust we shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
Yet this awareness doesn’t leave us in despair, because Easter has come. Our Lord’s resurrection means that for those who trust in him, death does not have the final word.
I pray for those who are overcome by worry during these days. Because dwelling solely on the negative robs life of its present joys, and worsens the impact of the pandemic on individual lives.
Rather than feed your anxiety with troubling reports and thoughts, I urge you to take the opportunity to read, watch a classic program, or play a game. Distracting activities are healthy, as long as they do not displace serious awareness of our circumstances.
Seriously Assessing Our Predicament
Others have written eloquently about Lewis’ response to situations such as that in which we find ourselves today.
For example, the Gospel Coalition offers an excerpt from C.S. Lewis’ 72 year old essay about atomic weapons. They suggest we “just replace ‘atomic bomb’ with ‘coronavirus.’” Lewis’ advice holds up well in our turbulent era.
Several weeks ago, the Wade Center (which hosts the Western Hemisphere’s finest Inkling collection) struck the balance I am suggesting. They acknowledged the danger, and offered advice on spending our time well. Their blog included an excellent suggestion in “Those Who Lived to see Such Times: Suggested Readings from the Wade Authors during Times of Uncertainty.” The Wade Center provides links to a number of fine text and audio resources that will offer encouragement from authors who “witnessed both world wars, and . . . lived to see the unsettling days of nuclear weapons.”
Enjoying Life Despite the Danger
Those who are working during this time remain in need of our prayerful support. For the majority of us, however, the cancellation of most of our normal social activities has provided us with an abundance of leisure time. In addition to attacking postponed chores around the house, we should fill some of this interval by enjoying old pleasures and discovering new interests.
Take advantage of treasures such as those mentioned in the Wade Center post. Hundreds—even thousands—of free, public domain books are available online. For those whose preference is visual, there are plenty of free video options, including many vintage television shows you can view on YouTube.
A recent article on the former site reveals the sad tale of a boy whose childhood has been ruined by modern online games. It’s entitled, “Boy Discovers Wondrous Land Of Narnia, Leaves Negative Yelp Review.”
Lutherans (and self-confident Christians of other traditions) will enjoy the Lutheran Satire site. For people who don’t object to listening in on a demonic press conference, a fictional Easter interview on their main page is enlightening.
There is a vast, unexplored world of literature out there. I recently read this illuminating post about one of George MacDonald’s fairy tales. MacDonald exerted a great influence on C.S. Lewis. With a curious twist on light and dark, the post also provides a link to a film based on MacDonald’s The Light Princess. I haven’t viewed it yet—but if you have a high tolerance for 1980s BBC productions combining animation and live action, you could be in for a treat.
Where to Begin?
Before exploring some of these links I’ve included, I encourage you to view “The Age of the Coronavirus.” The videographer has done what was suggested in one of the articles mentioned above. He has substituted the virus for the threat of nuclear war in C.S. Lewis’ abbreviated essay.
The video is good enough that you may well desire to share it with others. It can help to know the threats of our day are not unique to history. I suggest that you also include the amazing C.S. Lewis Doodle which offers an illustrated version of the entire essay.