Archives For War

cheep

Few authors are so gifted that even in their casual, never-intended-to-be-published moments they continuously offer brilliant insights into life.

Of course, here at Mere Inkling we know that C.S. Lewis is one of those few.

I decided to attempt an experiment with this post. It’s motivated by the fact that I’m spending the week watching over three of my grandkids (the youngest of whom is two, and wailing right now . . . be back in a moment. That’s resolved for now, although he wants his sisters to play UNO now, according to his shifting infantile rules.)

For my experiment, I am selecting random pages in Lewis’ three volumes of correspondence. The letters were not written for publication, but I hypothesize that each page will contain some insight or wisdom that merits deeper reflection. I won’t provide the discussion here, I’ll simply select a quotation I believe meets the requirement. (Pagination is from my Kindle copies, so it may be off a bit from the print edition.)

Volume I Page 111

In 1915, Lewis describes to his father a veteran who has recuperated quickly and is in very good spirits. This foreshadows Lewis’ own wounds he will receive in the same military theater.

That Gerald Smythe of whom I told you, who lost an arm in the war, was staying with us last week. He is really wonderful: he has only been out of bed about a month and is going back to the front again next week. It does one good to see a person thoroughly cheerful under circumstances like his, and actually eager to be there again. Even in so short a time he has learnt to be quite independant, and can cut his food, light his pipe, and dress–tho’ how a man can tie a tie with one arm, I don’t know.

Page 333

In 1917 he describes to his friend Arthur Greeves the difference between prose and poetry.

You have started the question of prose style in your letter and ask whether it is anything more than the ‘literal meaning of the words’. On the contrary it means less–it means the words themselves. For every thought can be expressed in a number of different ways: and style is the art of expressing a given thought in the most beautiful words and rythms of words. For instance a man might say ‘When the constellations which appear at early morning joined in musical exercises and the angelic spirits loudly testified to their satisfaction’. Expressing exactly the same thought, the Authorised Version says ‘When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.’

Volume II Page 111

In a 1933 letter to Greeves, Lewis shares how he has set his expectations low for the reception of his second literary undertaking, based on his first effort.

I had an extremely kind letter from Reid about the book. I think it is going to be at least as big a failure as Dymer, and am consequently trying to take to heart all the things I wrote you when you were bowled over by Reid’s decision on your first novel–not entirely without success. How goes the detective story? [Note: the Reid here is Greeve’s friend, the novelist Forrest Reid (1875–1947).]

Page 333

In a 1940 letter to his brother Warnie during the latter’s convalescence, Lewis recalls how relaxing how recuperating under medical care comprised some of his fondest memories related to his military service!

I trust it has proved a time worthy to be added to your rich store of blessed periods in sick rooms, ‘san’s,46 and hospitals-pleasant backwaters whence one drowsily hears the roar of the main stream going past. They are certainly among the nicest recollections I have of school and army. One such I spent at Le Tréport with the now probably abolished complaint of ‘Trench Fever’ very early in 1918;47 of specially blessed memory since it was there I first began to conceive that beer was not an utterly unpleasant drink. As my experiments were being made with bottled Bass, it is a little odd that such a result was reached. I remember too nice solitary walks on the ‘front’ of that empty watering place: which, mixed with recollections of the Olderfleet48 in winter and the not disagreeable feebleness of a convalescent’s first walks, increase the general ‘backwater’ feeling.

Volume III Page 111

In a 1951 letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, he relates that only by appreciating things in their proper order (i.e. subordinate to their Creator) can they be truly enjoyed. A keen insight into the nature of idolatry.

it seems to me, the subordination of Nature is demanded if only in the interests of Nature herself. All the beauty of nature withers when we try to make it absolute. Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first & we lose both first and second things. We never get, say, even the sensual pleasure of food at its best when we are being greedy.

Page 333

In a 1953 letter to a young girl who had sent him drawings of some of Narnia’s characters, Lewis’ extends his appreciation and relates a quaint personal peculiarity.

Reepicheep in your coloured picture has just the right perky, cheeky expression. I love real mice. There are lots in my rooms in College but I have never set a trap. When I sit up late working they poke their heads out from behind the curtains just as if they were saying, ‘Hi! Time for you to go to bed. We want to come out and play.’

That review of letters was fun, and hopefully you enjoyed portions of it as well. It was certainly a good choice for me with no fewer than eight or nine interruptions during its course. Well, the dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets are about ready to come out of the oven, so it’s time to conclude.

Christmas Interruptions

December 25, 2016 — 8 Comments

qaraqoshA bomb has driven worshipers from their churches and homes on Christmas. Ironically, this did not transpire in lands where war currently rages. Instead, it was a British bomb intended to end German lives.

Perhaps you’ve already seen the story?

The weapon was huge, nearly two tons in weight, and it’s explosion would have been no less lethal today than when it was originally dropped.

The bomb, known as a blockbuster, was the largest of its kind dropped by the RAF during aerial attacks on Germany in the second world war. It weighs 1.8 tonnes and, if exploded, could damage all buildings within a one-mile radius.

As I have worshipped and reflected during this Christmas season, the story of this bomb has continued to intrude on my thoughts.

On that first Christmas night a group of shepherds heard music that has now echoed for millennia.

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

God’s call to peace on earth and his desire for good will among his children—gifts already given to the world in the birth of Jesus—cannot be negated by the weapons of man.

As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Once in our world, a stable had something in it that was bigger than our whole world” (The Last Battle).

Still, in this moment, when this long forgotten and deeply buried blockbuster bomb can disrupt the traditional Christmas schedule, we see a vivid contrast between the good God desires for us and the ill we too often bear for one another?

A Warzone Witness to the Celebration of Christ’s Nativity

The entire world is aware of the genocide of Christians and Yazidis being conducted in the Middle East by Jihadists. This Christmas, however, marked a moment of encouragement.

Two years after being driven from their city by the Islamic State, Christians were able to return to the recently liberated city of Qaraqosh to worship God.

The church structure had been desecrated, but the presence of God among his gathered people, has reconsecrated it.

Christianity in northern Iraq dates back to the first century AD. The number of Christians fell sharply during the violence which followed the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the Islamic State takeover of Mosul two years ago purged the city of Christians for the first time in two millennia. (Reuters)

Despite the hatred some people hold for others, and the violence they inflict, it is encouraging to recognize that no power in this world can defeat the miracle that transpired on that first Christmas Day.

On Being Aptly Named

September 20, 2016 — 13 Comments

terrorIf you were going to embark on a lengthy, dangerous journey of exploration, how would you feel about signing onto the crew of the HMS Terror? Doesn’t that strike anyone else as a tad ominous?

The HMS Terror suffered a horrific fate. No surprise there. Its demise was so great, though, that it ranks among the worst ever suffered by the Royal Navy. And its ultimate fate remained unconfirmed until this past week when the wreck was found, resting on the ocean floor, 168 years after it perished during the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.

Along with the HMS Erebus, the Terror was supposed to traverse the Northwest Passage. The evidence shows, however, the ice trapped the ships, and both crews perished trying to make their way south across the floes. (There is evidence of cannibalism during that doomed journey, something attested to by Inuit oral traditions.)

The voyage had begun well enough. The vessels had been fitted for the harsh environment after a rather auspicious exploration of the coast of Antarctica. There they had discovered the Ross Ice Shelf, and in honor of their mission, two Antarctic features were named for them Mounts Erebus & Terror, on Ross Island.

Upon their return to London, iron plate was added to their hulls and coal-fueled steam engines were installed.

Sadly, the Arctic proved less hospitable, and their entrance into Baffin Bay in August 1845 marked the final time either ship was seen until now. An extensive search at the time proved futile. Their respective discoveries are announced here, and here.

Around 130 men abandoned the ships when they became icebound. Some of their bones were recovered from King William Island. The sad story has been recited in many places, including this article which was written when the wreck of the Erebus was discovered.

As in the Antarctic, here too the ships were honored by having natural features named after them. Fittingly, Erebus Bay and Terror Bay hug the west coast of King William Island, just north of which marked the estimated position where the ships were abandoned.

Read on, and learn something quite interesting about the names of these two ill-fated ships.

Naming Ships

I have written about the importance of names in the past.*

There are a variety of conventions for christening ships. Some result in creative names, but others are quite mundane. In the United States, with plenty of exceptions, the contemporary patterns for naming ships vary by their type of class. For example:

Aircraft Carriers – are now named after Presidents

Amphibious Assault Ships – early Ships or USMC Battles

Ballistic Missile Submarines – States

Fast Attack Submarines – Cities

Cruisers – Past Battles

Frigates – Navy, Marine or Coast Guard Heroes

Patrol Boats – Weather Phenomena like Squall, Monsoon and Cyclone

Of course, like everything else in the United States, the naming of ships is prone to becoming politicized, as this entertaining article reveals.

Other nations have followed comparable christening patterns throughout recent centuries. Grouping similarly functioning vessels with particular themes makes sense. That way if you encountered a ship named Blue Dwarf or Yellow Dwarf, you could make a well educated guess that the vessel was a mining ship, and part of the Jupiter Mining conglomerate.

I suppose even garbage scows are named in some logical fashion, perhaps after politicians?

Unsurprisingly, in addition to battles, heroes, and major cities, aquatic life has been a common feature. Thus pre-Soviet Russian subs were named things like Walrus or Shark (albeit, in Cyrillic).

The Royal Navy shared an affinity for marine life, and Dolphin was a popular example. There were no fewer than a dozen ships, thus named, although some were fairly modest (including a convict ship used in the first have of the nineteenth century).

I actually possess the altar rail from the ship’s chapel in the HMS Dolphin that was commissioned in 1882. But that’s a sea tale for another day . . .

C.S. Lewis christened a ship of his own. He even included its name in the title of the Chronicle of Narnia which describes its quest: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The ship herself was modest, but marked a new age of Narnia exploration.

The name of the ship was Dawn Treader. She was only a little bit of a thing compared with one of our ships, or even with the cogs, dromonds, carracks and galleons which Narnia had owned when Lucy and Edmund had reigned there under Peter as the High King, for nearly all navigation had died out in the reigns of Caspian’s ancestors. . . .

But now Caspian had begun to teach the Narnians to be sea-faring folk once more, and the Dawn Treader was the finest ship he had built yet.

She was so small that, forward of the mast, there was hardly any deck room between the central hatch and the ship’s boat on one side and the hen-coop (Lucy fed the hens) on the other.

But she was a beauty of her kind, a “lady” as sailors say, her lines perfect, her colors pure, and every spar and rope and pin lovingly made.

In his Middle Earth sagas, J.R.R. Tolkien includes the names of a number of ships.

Eärrámë – Sea Wing

Númerrámar – Sunset Wings

Palarran – Far-Wanderer

Vingilótë – Foam Flower

Hirilondë – Haven Finder

Entulessë – Return (sailed by Vëantur during the Númenórean’s return to Middle Earth)

The Inklings appear to have given the decision of naming their ships the attention the activity merits.

More about the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus

The name of the HMS Terror was, of course, not chosen to jinx its future. It was thus named to instill fear in those it opposed. This was natural, since it was originally commissioned as a warship, as was the Erebus. In fact, the two vessels were the same exact type of warship.

So, how might “Terror” and “Erebus,” the mythological Greek deity of darkness, who shared his name with an abode of the dead? It becomes clearer when we learn that both of the ships originally served as “bomb ships.” Like later battleships, these vessels were designed to rain fire from the sky—something terrifying to stationary garrisons.

The names of some of their sister ships whose mortars fired upon enemies of the British Empire included Thunder, Vesuvius, and Hecla (the Icelandic volcano).

The HMS Terror actually saw combat, prior to its conversion to peaceful pursuits. Amazingly, it was among the bomb ships—accompanied by the Volcano, Meteor, Devastation and Aetna—during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. Thus, the Terror is also memorialized in the national anthem of the United States: “the bombs bursting in air.”

Curiously, the predecessor of the HMS Erebus we have been discussing, a “rocket vessel” with the same name, inspired the lyrics “by the rocket’s red glare,” at the same historic battle.

_____

* The importance of naming has led me to address the subject from a number of angles through the years.

The Power of Names

Crying for Attention

From Ear to Quill

Pet Names

Powerful Names

Sharing Surnames

Fleeting Fame

red-dwarfAnd, for those who recognized the homage to Red Dwarf

 

The Urgent Need for Chivalry

September 13, 2016 — 12 Comments

chivalryWith all the nations of the world engaged in power struggles—or cowering behind the protection of their more courageous allies—C.S. Lewis’ essay on “The Necessity of Chivalry” demands our attention.

Yes, the very word “chivalry” reeks of a bygone era that has been superseded and relegated to history books. But those who consider the concept outdated impoverish their lives and quite possibly contribute to the violent spirit of our age.

Warfare is not an abstract concept to the millions—yes, millions—of people who are surrounded by vicious threats every hour. Britain itself was in this position when Lewis penned these words during the Battle of Britain.

As he wrote, three days before Winston Churchill’s most famous speech, Lewis commended those same few to whom so many owed so much. It was 1940, and Germany’s advance had yet to be halted. Ultimate victory in the world conflagration would remain uncertain for years.

It is in this milieu, but not only for this context, that Lewis challenges us to combine the chivalrous values of meekness and ferocity.

Lewis argues that in the chivalrous “knight,” true humility and the capacity for great (but moral) violence are merged. The result is not a schizophrenic warrior, but a noble defender of what is good.

Indeed, even apart from wartime, it is vital that society has heroes to protect sheep from wolves. In a moment I will share with you a brief video featuring an amazing artistic rendering of this essay on chivalry.*

In the essay, Lewis’ examples span Western history. He uses Launcelot as the archetype of the chivalrous man. And he offers the hope and evidence that chivalry is not extinct. A veteran of the previous war, he wrote at the outset of the Second World War:

Launcelot is not yet irrecoverable. To some of us this war brought a glorious surprise in the discovery that after twenty years of cynicism and cocktails the heroic virtues were still unimpaired in the younger generation and ready for exercise the moment they were called upon. Yet with this “sternness” there is much “meekness;” from all I hear, the young pilots in the R.A.F. (to whom we owe our life from hour to hour) are not less, but more, urbane and modest than the 1915 model. (“The Necessity of Chivalry”)

And accordingly, in our own day there are many serving in uniform who exemplify the same virtues. Would, though, that all who bear arms could be described thusly.

Some who are reading these words may regard chivalry as a “sexist” concept. It is not. Certainly no more than courage, strength and virtue could be deemed such. The fact that Lewis’ historical examples of society’s defenders are men simply reflects history.

In the seventy-five years since he wrote, it has become evident that women too can easily embody both meekness and unyielding courage. One need look no further than the ranks of the military and law enforcement to see this borne out.

Chivalry for the Civilian

It would be a tragic mistake to think that chivalry is only required during war. It is a vital, daily necessity of all social life. And the increasing incivility of the world suggests its erosion. (Many attribute this in part to the anonymity of the internet, which allows bullies to savage others anonymously and without mercy.)

This is what Lewis was saying when he described Launcelot as being “not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.”

After all, it is not the bland or “lukewarm” person who makes this world a better place. It is upon chivalrous men and women that the majority of the vulnerable must ever rely.

Each of us needs to be willing to examine our own lives for the union of these two traits: courage that does not surrender to what is wrong, and meekness that is gentle, calm and patient with others.

These are the values that we need to promote in our communities, media and schools. Because what we instill in receptive minds is precisely that which will take root. To use more contemporary terms, the “programming” these young minds are subject to will directly influence the behaviors that they “output.”

Let us do all we are capable of, to be, and to raise up, what is chivalrous. After all, despite all of the utopian promises of those who believe humanity is capable of purifying itself, the evidence shows otherwise. As Lewis said,

There was, to be sure, a rumour in the last century that wolves would gradually become extinct by some natural process; but this seems to have been an exaggeration.

Enjoy this fine presentation of  “The Necessity of Chivalry.”

_____

* This video is a creation of CSLewisDoodle, about which I have written before. (Their name may sound quaint, but the expertise with which they visualize Lewis’ words is astounding.)

Desiring Silence

July 19, 2016 — 12 Comments

coptic quietDo you enjoy noise, or do your mind and soul long for moments of silence? If you appreciate escaping the cacophony of sounds that weigh against you, you’re in good company. The Inklings were men who respected the value of silence.

I attended a funeral for a former parishioner today. The fact that I did not conduct the service allowed me to sit beside my wife who shared my sincere fondness for the saint we were bidding farewell.

The service was comforting, being resurrection-focused as such matters ought to be. Despite our singing three hymns during its course, it was also quiet. Quiet in the sense of calm and peaceful like a deep brook that rushes along in relative silence, compared to its chattering companions that dance across the rocks in a shallow creek.

Joe was a humble man, though he was one of the rare breed who truly deserve the accolade of being part of the “greatest generation.” Though he never bragged about it, he served throughout the Second World War, and survived D-Day while landing in just the second wave at Omaha Beach.

It was a service that befitted a humble ninety-two-year-old man who faithfully ushered at his church up until his death. A man who had spent most of his life in activities serving others, and who kept his marital vows to his now widowed bride for seventy years.

Reflecting on that quality this afternoon, I recalled how silence was appreciated by the Inklings. C.S. Lewis expressed this thought on many occasions. One of the best known comes from The Weight of Glory.

We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.

Lewis’ opinion of noise went beyond disdain. He even included a description in The Screwtape Letters of how noise itself could serve malevolent purposes.

My dear Wormwood: Music and silence—how I detest them both! How thankful we should be that ever since our Father [Lucifer] entered Hell . . . no square inch of infernal space and no moment of infernal time has been surrendered to either of those abominable forces, but all has been occupied by Noise–Noise, the grand dynamism, the audible expression of all that is exultant, ruthless, and virile—Noise which alone defends us from silly qualms, despairing scruples, and impossible desires.

We will make the whole universe a noise in the end. We have already made great strides in this direction as regards the Earth. The melodies and silences of Heaven will be shouted down in the end. But I admit we are not yet loud enough, or anything like it. Research is in progress.

The world has only gotten noisier since Lewis wrote those words. And silence is in ever-shorter supply. That’s one of the reasons, I suppose, why I appreciate living in the forest, where even the tentacles of cable television do not reach. Their absence contributes to an involuntary amplification of the silence that resides around our home.

Tolkien Shared Lewis’ Opinion

Since I’ve been reading some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s correspondence recently, the following excerpt came to my mind.

Like many thinkers, and nearly all writers, Tolkien found noise distracting. In a 1964 letter, he wrote the following description of the sounds that assaulted him in his neighborhood. (The last sentence is particularly delightful.)

Headington is no paradise of peace. Sandfield Road was a cul-de-sac when I came here, but was soon opened at the bottom end, and became for a time an unofficial lorry by-pass, before Headley Way was completed. Now it is a car-park for the field of ‘Oxford United’ at the top end. While the actual inhabitants do all that radio, tele, dogs, scooters, buzzbikes, and cars of all sizes but the smallest, can do to produce noise from early morn to about 2 a.m.

In addition in a house three doors away dwells a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group.

What a vivid description. But one would expect nothing less from the creator of Middle Earth.

The same year as the Allied attack on Normandy, Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher who was in South Africa earning his wings with the Royal Air Force. A veteran of the First World War, the concerned father knew all too well what might lie ahead. In 1944 he wrote the following:

I have the autumn wanderlust upon me, and would fain be off with a knapsack on my back and no particular destination, other than a series of quiet inns. One of the too long delayed delights we must promise ourselves, when it pleases God to release us and reunite us, is just such a perambulation, together, preferably in mountainous country, not too far from the sea, where the scars of war, felled woods and bulldozed fields, are not too plain to see.

Like Tolkien, C.S. Lewis was also a veteran of the “war to end all wars.” The Inklings, like all Europeans of their generation, were acutely acquainted with warfare and its costs. Still, because of their wisdom and faith, Tolkien and Lewis were confident the Allies would prevail. They trusted that the blessed silence of peace would ultimately triumph over war’s cries.

In that light, we continue reading from Tolkien’s letter to Christopher. Immediately after his suggestion to Christopher that the two of them take a walking tour, Tolkien describes the plans the Inklings had already established to celebrate the eventual end of the war.

The Inklings have already agreed that their victory celebration, if they are spared to have one, will be to take a whole inn in the country for at least a week, and spend it entirely in beer and talk, without reference to any clock!

I don’t recall reading about their intentions before, but it has made me curious as to whether or not these dreams were ever realized. If they were, I am certain that the absence of other guests, and the removal of all clocks, would have made for a calm, quiet and renewing week indeed.

_____

The image above comes from an eighth century Coptic fresco.

A more modern image of silence, although originating all the way back in 1965, would be the “cone of silence,” which will be familiar to fans of the series Get Smart. For reflections on that theme, you might want to check out the this article.

If you aren’t familiar with the aforementioned cone, take two minutes to rectify that shortcoming by watching this video.

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.

 

Not Wholly Contemptible

April 13, 2016 — 4 Comments

cornwallisEveryone loves a compliment. Allow me to rephrase that. Most people appreciate a sincere compliment when it is genuinely flattering.

Actually, “flattering” isn’t a good word choice here. Flattery has a bad rep. The way it’s currently used, it hints of exaggeration and manipulation.

So let’s return to the concept of “compliments” in general. Most, we know, are welcome. It’s nice to have someone tell us we did a commendable job or had a good idea.

Then there are those less sincere “compliments” that require a bit of intelligence or wit to offer. The go by different names, but are commonly referred to as “left-handed compliments” or “backhanded compliments.”

This type of statement might sound on its surface like a compliment, but includes an element that undermines the praise. The Urban Dictionary offers the following example:

“Boy, you’re pretty hot . . . for a fat (or skinny) chick!”

Now, that is nothing but an insult. And it’s an insult of the crassest variety. One that demands no wit at all.

The British, on the other hand, are often capable of offering highly refined backhanded compliments.

I just came across a delightful one, delivered by the commander of the King’s forces during America’s War of Independence. What makes this exquisite is that it was offered in the wake of the general’s defeat at the close of the war.

When finally brought to heel at Yorktown, Lord Cornwallis reported, “I will not say much in praise of the Militia of the Southern Colonies, but the list of British officers and Soldiers killed or wounded by them since last June, proves but too fatally that they are not wholly contemptible.”

You can read more about the context for that statement in an excellent article about the American legacy of “citizen soldiers” published in Hallowed Ground magazine. This excellent journal is published by the Civil War Trust, which works diligently to preserve battlefields from the Civil War. They have recently expanded those efforts to include the Revolutionary War.

C.S. Lewis & Compliments

Lewis included backhanded compliments in his fictional works. Two simple examples follow. The first is found in The Screwtape Letters, where the tempter frequently commends the skill of God (“the Enemy”) in redeeming the lost.

Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is His invention, not ours.

Here is an offhanded compliment that Lewis places on the lips of Prince Corin in The Chronicles of Narnia. He is asked where Queen Susan is, on the eve of a battle and he responds like a typical young boy (which he still is at the time). He praises the martial spirit of her sister, Queen Lucy, who is a young adult at this point in the series.

At Cair Paravel. She’s not like Lucy [her sister who is in the ranks of the archers], you know, who’s as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy. Queen Susan is more like an ordinary grown-up lady. She doesn’t ride to wars, though she is an excellent archer. (The Horse and His Boy).

The late Bruce Edwards described how C.S. Lewis offered H.G. Wells a backhanded compliment. He did so by following the structure of Wells’ works, but devoting them to a vastly different philosophical purpose.

In Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Lewis adapted the general plot outline from H.G. Wells’s First Men in the Moon in order to tell an essentially anti-Wellsian tale. In Perelandra, Lewis pays a similar backhanded compliment to the man he admired as a speculative writer, but not as a philosopher.

The broad narrative structure of Perelandra resembles another novel by H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895). . . . In Wells’s novel, this narrative outline provides the basis of a quasi-Marxist fable about effete bourgeoisie and surly proletariat. In Lewis’s hands, a similar story structure tells a very different tale, one in which the ultimate battles are not economic and political, but rather cosmic and spiritual. (C.S. Lewis: Fantasist, Mythmaker, and Poet).

Compliments: the Good & the Bad

Lewis’ use of Wells’ science fiction template was not meant to slight him. It was actually a tribute. Likewise, in the examples from his fiction, Lewis is simply representing (effectively) the attitudes of the speakers.

Returning for a moment to the abject General Cornwall, we recognize as well the grudging nature of his praise of the enemy. They were certainly rabble—possessing no great military skill, in his estimation. Yet, in terms of bringing the army of the greatest power in the world at that time to its surrender, “they are not wholly contemptible.”

And that, when it came to winning the war, apparently proved quite sufficient.