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Mensa & C.S. Lewis

July 25, 2013 — 18 Comments

crossword puzzleSeveral decades ago, I worked with a Roman Catholic priest, who just happened to be a member of Mensa.

We were good friends, a relationship reinforced by the fact that our bigoted boss thought that both our eternal destinies were in definite jeopardy . . . Pete’s because he was “Catholic,” and mine because Lutherans are “almost Catholic.”

Well, Pete and I got along quite well, although there were two issues we never could resolve. The first was that he smoked large, smelly stogies. Yes, this was long enough ago that you were still allowed to smoke in government buildings.

Even when the rest of the staff successfully begged him to stop parading the halls with his billowing cigars, my friend continued to fill his own office with clouds that would billow out whenever the door was opened.* I had great sympathy for the lungs of the Roman Catholic laity who entered his smoking lounge for counseling.

Aside from the tobacco, there was only a single matter we really disagreed on.

As I mentioned above, Father Pete was a member of Mensa. That’s commendable, in itself. The problem is that he always left his Mensa magazines lying (alone) on the coffee table in the center of his office. He would only smile in a patronizing way when I would (repeatedly) warn him that there could be only two consequences of such brazen self-aggrandizement.

“The first,” I said, “is that they won’t know what Mensa is . . .  and your braggadocio is wasted. The second is worse. They might know what the magazine represents and think to themselves, my, our priest is rather full of himself.” **

At any rate, I have no misconception that I could pass Mensa’s muster. My brain, adequate as it is, simply doesn’t work the way that I guess those of genius’ do. A perfect example of that truth was displayed just a few moments ago, as I read through a few pages of a 2010 Mensa Puzzle Calendar I found among my father’s papers.

I have no doubt that some of you will easily solve this puzzle, but I have to be honest—I missed answering it by a mile.

What do all the words below have in common?









I actually had to look one of the words up. It turns out that “bedcovers” means a bedspread, or anything else one uses to cover a bed. No, seriously, I re-learned that Nunavut is a territory in northern Canada, but I imagine all of you knew that.

Okay, have you taken the time to try to determine what the words have in common? Easy, right?

It turns out that each of them contains a three-letter sequence of adjacent letters in the alphabet, going in reverse. For example, the gfe in “slugfest.”

I doubt I would have been able to figure it out, even if I understood the question, but I must admit my utter ignorance in not even reading the question properly!

I was so enamored by this eclectic collection of words—superficial links between the three combative terms leapt out at me—that I was distracted by seeking bonds between the meanings of the words, rather than in the words themselves. (And, I suspect that may be precisely what those inscrutable devils at Mensa Headquarters intended for simpletons like me.)

Alas, it will take a few days for my bruised ego to rebound. Fortunately, since my memory isn’t as keen as it used to be, I may forget all about this humiliation before the week is out.

C.S. Lewis was a brilliant man. I believe he was a genius. I imagine he could have solved this word puzzle with three-quarters of his mind occupied by higher matters, like watching a wary hedgehog scurry between bushes.

Lewis recognized that our minds are, in fact, a gift from God, to be exercised and celebrated. But, at the same time, he knew better than most the dangers of seeking ultimate meaning in mental pursuits that erect nearly impervious walls to God’s gracious revelation of his love in his only begotten Son.

In The Weight of Glory Lewis explains how those Christians who are blessed with exceptional intelligence owe a duty to their sisters and brothers in the faith. (This, of course, has nothing to do with the subject of holiness or spiritual maturity; there is little or no correlation between piety and intellect.) What he says is, however, worthy of our reflection.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether. Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

So, let this be a reminder to those of you who qualify for membership in the aforementioned society, but still love Jesus despite your vast intellects. After all, as Jesus once said, from “everyone to whom much was given . . . much will be required” (Luke 12:48, ESV).


* I must confess this is a slight exaggeration, lest I be held accountable for breaking the eighth commandment (or the ninth, if you are Jewish or a Christian of the Reformed persuasion).

** This might not be a verbatim account of the way I said it, although I’m pretty confident that I did use the word “braggadocio.”

Avoiding Fantasy Clichés

November 12, 2012 — 41 Comments

We’re all familiar with that classic paradigm of suspenseful introductions: “It was a dark and stormy night.” While this is not intrinsically poor writing, it has been parroted and ridiculed for so long as a lightweight cliché, that the author’s name has become a byword for writing “purple prose.”

In the same way, there are certain plotlines or story devices that are overused, particularly in genre literature. For example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s genius in creating Middle Earth cannot be exaggerated. Yet, since his epic, dwarves, elves and orcs innumerable have been written about in chronicles ad nauseum by lesser poets. Many of Tolkien’s inventions seem rather tired when repeated by contemporary writers for the hundredth time. (Hundred thousandth time, if you count fan fiction.)

This literary dilemma has led to the creation of “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam,” designed to be taken by aspiring authors before submitting their manuscripts for publication. (The link for the exam will be found below.)

The purpose of the test is to determine how derivative your storytelling is. If you use too many of the listed elements, you are in danger of composing a parody rather than a masterpiece. Some of the questions posed in the exam are astute, many are glib, and most are humorous. Here’s a sampling, with my responses (speculative, of course, since I haven’t written any fantasy proper).

Is your main character the heir to the throne but doesn’t know it?

How about an anonymous member of minor nobility?

Do inns in your book exist solely so your main characters can have brawl?

I never visit bars, but isn’t hosting altercations a primary purpose of all drinking establishments?

Do you think you know how feudalism worked but really don’t?

Ah, a conundrum. If I know I don’t really know . . .

Do any of your female characters exist solely to be captured and rescued?

You mean they have another role they can perform? (Wait, I’m just joking!)

Do you think that “mead” is just a fancy name for “beer?”

My Viking ancestors would never forgive me if I did!

Do you think horses can gallop all day long without rest?

I wasn’t raised on a ranch, but I’m not that stupid.

Is this the first book in a planned trilogy?


As you see, the questions are fun to read, but there’s one that bothered me a bit. Well, not the question itself. It’s innocent enough. But it alludes to a particular scene in The Lord of the Rings films which I find stunning—in the original sense of the word. It strikes me viscerally, almost leaving me breathless.

Do you really think it frequently takes more than one arrow in the chest to kill a man?

Generally, no . . . but if that hero is Boromir, most certainly!

The Death of Boromir

One of the most moving scenes in The Lord of the Rings involves the death of Boromir as he sacrifices his life in a futile battle to allow the hobbits time to escape the Uruk-hai. It’s impact is magnified by the fact that it immediately follows Boromir’s near-betrayal, under the corrupting influence of the Ring.

The irony is that this spectacular scene is not described in detail in Tolkien’s book. It is a tribute to director Peter Jackson’s cinematic brilliance. This is the original telling:

Even as [Aragorn] gazed his quick ears caught sounds in the woodlands below, on the west side of the River. He stiffened. There were cries, and among them, to his horror, he could distinguish the harsh voices of Orcs. Then suddenly with a deep-throated call a great horn blew, and the blasts of it smote the hills and echoed in the hollows, rising in a mighty shout above the roaring of the falls.

“The horn of Boromir!” he cried. “He is in need!” He sprang down the steps and away, leaping down the path. “Alas! An ill fate is on me this day, and all that I do goes amiss. Where is Sam?”

As he ran the cries came louder, but fainter now and desperately the horn was blowing. Fierce and shrill rose the yells of the Orcs, and suddenly the horn-calls ceased. Aragorn raced down the last slope, but before he could reach the hill’s foot, the sounds died away; and as he turned to the left and ran towards them they retreated, until at last he could hear them no more. Drawing his bright sword and crying Elendil! Elendil! he crashed through the trees.

A mile, maybe, from Parth Galen in a little glade not far from the lake he found Boromir. He was sitting with his back to a great tree, as if he was resting. But Aragorn saw that he was pierced with many black-feathered arrows; his sword was still in his hand, but it was broken near the hilt; his horn cloven in two was at his side. Many Orcs lay slain, piled all about him and at his feet.

Aragorn knelt beside him. Boromir opened his eyes and strove to speak. At last slow words came. “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo” he said. “I am sorry. I have paid.” His glance strayed to his fallen enemies; twenty at least lay there. “They have gone: the Halflings: the Orcs have taken them. I think they are not dead. Orcs bound them.” He paused and his eyes closed wearily. After a moment he spoke again. “Farewell, Aragorn! Go to Minas Tirith and save my people! I have failed.”

“No!” said Aragorn, taking his hand and kissing his brow. “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace! Minas Tirith shall not fall!” Boromir smiled.

“Which way did they go? Was Frodo there?” said Aragorn.

But Boromir did not speak again.

“Alas!” said Aragorn. “Thus passes the heir of Denethor, Lord of the Tower of Guard! This is a bitter end. Now the Company is all in ruin. It is I that have failed. Vain was Gandalf’s trust in me. What shall I do now? Boromir has laid it on me to go to Minas Tirith, and my heart desires it; but where are the Ring and the Bearer? How shall I find them and save the Quest from disaster?”

He knelt for a while, bent with weeping, still clasping Boromir’s hand. So it was that Legolas and Gimli found him. (Lord of the Rings, Book III Chapter 1).

So, we understand that while a single arrow might slay a common warrior, it could well take a quiver full to lay low a champion such as this.


If you would like to review “The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam,” simply follow this link.