Archives For Tributes

night patrolThe poetry of a dead veteran spoke to me today. He was a close friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and in a sense his life lives on in the descriptions of Middle Earth.

In a recent column my Canadian friend Brenton Dickieson, introduced me to one of the many poets whose lives tragically ended on the battlefields of WWI.

Professor Dickieson describes the context of a new film about the impact of the war on J.R.R. Tolkien. It is called Tolkien’s Great War. It is based on the book Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth.

You will find a link to the half hour documentary below, and I strongly—yes, strongly—encourage you to watch it. It is quite moving.

Like most members of their generation, Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were deeply moved by the horrors of the First World War. Both served on the front lines, in the grim trenches, during the bloody conflict. And they lost friends. I’ve written in the past about their military service, including posts herehere, and here.

The Deceased Poet

The documentary describes the untimely deaths of two of Tolkien’s closest friends during the war. One of them, Geoffrey Bache Smith, was a poet.

Following his death, Tolkien gathered together his writings and published them as a tribute to his friend. It was one of the earliest contributions to a wealth of soldier’s poetry that would deluge grieving Europeans by the close of the conflict.

Due to the brevity of his life, the collection, published as A Spring Harvest, is short. Tolkien also penned an introduction to the work which is equally Spartan. The literary austerity is fitting, given the sad reason for the volume’s brevity. The introduction, in full, reads:

The poems of this book were written at very various times, one (“Wind over the Sea”) I believe even as early as 1910, but the order in which they are here given is not chronological beyond the fact that the third part contains only poems written after the outbreak of the war. Of these some were written in England (at Oxford in particular), some in Wales and very many during a year in France from November 1915 to December 1916, which was broken by one leave in the middle of May.

“The Burial of Sophocles,” which is here placed at the end, was begun before the war and continued at odd times and in various circumstances afterwards; the final version was sent me from the trenches.

Beyond these few facts no prelude and no envoi is needed other than those here printed as their author left them.

J.R.R.T., 1918.

The poems themselves run the gamut of emotions. This is unsurprising, given that some were born during the idyll dreams of youth, while others were forged by the anvil of war.

The limited press run of the book has made it difficult to find. Fortunately, it is now available for free via Project Gutenberg.

While the poems include the familiar references to the “old gods” so common to the period, there are also some moving references to a more Christian ethos.

Creator Spiritus

The wind that scatters dying leaves

And whirls them from the autumn tree

Is grateful to the ship that cleaves

With stately prow the scurrying sea.

Heedless about the world we play

Like children in a garden close:

A postern bars the outward way

And what’s beyond it no man knows:

For careless days, a life at will,

A little laughter, and some tears,

These are sufficiency to fill

The early, vain, untroubled years,

Till at the last the wind upheaves

His unimagined strength, and we

Are scattered far, like autumn leaves,

Or proudly sail, like ships at sea.

Tolkien and Smith formed half of the T.C.B.S., a communion knit together during the school years. The war would cut that number in half, as poignantly described in Tolkien and the Great War. The first of the companions had already died, and five months later Smith was spending the final moments of his own life encouraging his friend to press on, whatever might befall him.

Before reading Smith’s “So We Lay Down the Pen,” consider his final letter to Tolkien. He wrote it as he prepared to lead a night scout through dead man’s land at the front. It was dangerous duty which did indeed, that very evening, cost him his life.

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered [ambushed and killed] tonight—I am off on duty in a few minutes—there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S.

Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four! A discovery I am going to communicate to Rob before I go off tonight. And do you write it also to Christopher. May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.

Yours ever,

G.B.S.

Tolkien compiled Smith’s poems as a tribute. And, when he wrote his masterpieces, there is a profound sense in which he truly did say things his friends had tried to say, long after they were not there to say them.

So We Lay Down the Pen

So we lay down the pen,

So we forbear the building of the rime,

And bid our hearts be steel for times and a time

Till ends the strife, and then,

When the New Age is verily begun,

God grant that we may do the things undone.

 

Malacandra CraterMere Inkling recently named a crater on Mars, in honor of C.S. Lewis. The crater’s name is Malacandra, which was the name for the red planet in the first volume of Lewis’ Space Trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet.

The naming of Malacandra Crater was done through an organization preparing the map which will be used by the Mars One Mission. Mars One is the optimistic international effort to establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet, beginning in 2024.

The über-adventurous (or foolhardy) are able to apply today for consideration to become an astronaut.

The crater naming project is not sponsored by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Instead, it is coordinated by Uwingu, a for profit company that has a goal of raising $10,000,000 for grants to scientists and educators promoting space exploration.

Due to its limited* budget, Mere Inkling was only able to name a small crater. However, it’s not the expense, it’s the thought that counts.

In addition to Malacandra Crater, I named the impact mark directly to its south in honor of my grandchildren. The process allows one to include a dedication for each named crater. For theirs, I wrote:

Stroud Crater is named in honor of the brilliant grandchildren of Rob & Delores Stroud. Andrew, Ariana, Dominic, Arabelle, Rachel, Rebecca, Kaelyn & Asher. Whether they grow up to be astrophysicists, veterinarians or educators, we know they will all make this world a better place. Soli Deo Gloria.

The tiny basins named above lie in Aurorae Chaos. It’s a rugged neighborhood, but there are surprisingly few craters in the immediate vicinity. I’m always seeking opportunities to encourage my grandchildren to study science, and I hope this will pique their interests, both now and in the years to come.

C.S. Lewis is not primarily known today as a writer of science fiction, but his series (also known as the Cosmic Trilogy, or the Ransom Trilogy, after its protagonist) is quite good. In fact, it was the very first of Lewis’ works I ever read. I was introduced to them by a Christian friend during my college years.

Several influences converged to move Lewis to venture into science fiction. In 1938, he thanked a friend for his praise of Out of the Silent Planet, and wrote:

You are obviously much better informed than I about this type of literature and the only one I can add to your list is Voyage to Arcturus by David Lyndsay (Methuen) which is out of print but a good bookseller will probably get you a copy for about 5 to 6 shillings. It is entirely on the imaginative and not at all on the scientific wing.

What immediately spurred me to write was Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men and an essay in J. B. S. Haldane’s Possible Worlds both of which seemed to take the idea of such travel seriously and to have the desperately immoral outlook which I try to pillory in Weston.

I like the whole interplanetary idea as a mythology and simply wished to conquer for my own (Christian) point of view what has always hitherto been used by the opposite side. I think Wells’ 1st Men in the Moon the best of the sort I have read.**

Lewis then appends a comment referring to the other planets in our solar system, but intriguing in light of the recent discovery of numerous planets throughout the galaxy. “The more astronomy we know the less likely it seems that other planets are inhabited: even Mars has practically no oxygen.”

One of Lewis often overlooked science fiction short stories, “Ministering Angels,” is set on Mars. It begins in the following way.

The Monk, as they called him, settled himself on the camp chair beside his bunk and stared through the window at the harsh sand and black-blue sky of Mars. He did not mean to begin his ‘work’ for ten minutes yet. Not, of course, the work he had been brought there to do. He was the meteorologist of the party, and his work in that capacity was largely done; he had found out whatever could be found out.

There was nothing more, within the limited radius he could investigate, to be observed for at least twenty-five days. And meteorology had not been his real motive. He had chosen three years on Mars as the nearest modern equivalent to a hermitage in the desert.

He had come there to meditate: to continue the slow, perpetual rebuilding of that inner structure which, in his view, it was the main purpose of life to rebuild. And now his ten minutes’ rest was over. He began with his well-used formula. ‘Gentle and patient Master, teach me to need men less and to love thee more.’ Then to it. There was no time to waste.

There were barely six months of this lifeless, sinless, unsuffering wilderness ahead of him. Three years were short . . . but when the shout came he rose out of his chair with the practised alertness of a sailor.

The Botanist in the next cabin responded to the same shout with a curse. His eye had been at the microscope when it came. It was maddening. Constant interruption. A man might as well try to work in the middle of Piccadilly as in this infernal camp. And his work was already a race against time. Six months more . . . and he had hardly begun.

The flora of Mars, these tiny, miraculously hardy organisms, the ingenuity of their contrivances to live under all but impossible conditions—it was a feast for a lifetime. He would ignore the shout. But then came the bell. All hands to the main room.
(“Ministering Angels,” Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories).

Malacandra Crater may be a small feature on a vast and curious planet, but it is a tribute to an author of immense and lasting talent.

_____

* i.e. nonexistent

** The following titles mentioned by Lewis are available for free digital download:

Voyage to Arcturus

Last and First Men

The First Men in the Moon