Archives For Writing

C.S. Lewis did not write a Cinderella story of his own, but he did refer to one of his books as his “Cinderella,” for a different reason.

The Cinderella folk tale is familiar to many cultures. Like the Ugly Duckling, it celebrates real life occasions where events turn upside down, and the disadvantaged are vindicated.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greeks told the story of Rhodopis, a Greek slave girl whose sandal was snatched by an eagle and dropped into the lap of the Egyptian pharaoh. His search for the lovely foot that graced the footwear culminated in a joyous marriage.

I was thinking about step parenting recently, and how some people care for their own children differently than they treat children brought into the union from a spouse’s previous relationship. The subject arose during my prayers, when I thought to offer thanks to God for the depth of love he has given me for my “step-grandchildren.” It is, as far as I can tell, indistinguishable from the love I hold for my biological grandkids.

Following my prayers, I reflected further on family. And—because it reflects real life in terms of raising children, I thought of the story of Cinderella. In particular, I was wondering whether the “wicked stepsisters” were destined to be cruel simply because they were raised by their “wicked stepmother.”

The answer to that dilemma is obvious. Do bad parents raise bad kids? Sometimes, but thankfully, not always. Do good parents raise good kids? Sometimes, but sadly, not always.

If you remove the outliers—the saints on one side and the sociopaths on the other—kids have a reasonable chance to turn out “okay.” Basically, just because someone’s parents are disreputable, doesn’t mean the kids will grow up to be bums as well.

This comes as no shock to any of us, of course. We are too sophisticated to impute the sins of the parents to their children. But are we really? In truth, we often make judgments based upon things utterly beyond a child’s control. Nationality, social status, physical or mental disability . . . some people default to an unconscious ranking of desirability.

I’m reminded of the rewards of working with orphans and the tragic manner in which even these victims are “ranked” in terms of their perceived worth. So much for viewing the world through carnal eyes.

C.S. Lewis described the way a children’s story can flip things around in a way that reveals truth. In 1947 he described this to an American correspondent.

About stories for children. (a) Don’t the ordinary fairy tales really already contain much of the Spirit, in solution? Does not Cinderella give us exaltavit humiles,* and is not Redemption figured in The Sleeping Beauty? (b) For something a little more explicit, what about Geo. MacDonald’s⁑ The Princess & the Goblins, Curdie & the Princess, The Wise Woman, and The Golden Key?

In a 1943 letter to Sister Penelope, Lewis commented on a manuscript she had sent for his review. He suggests a “longish speech” by Melchizedek would be better presented in a different manner.

He’s got to have the sense of mystery about him. That means, for purposes of these plays, he must sound like a king out of a fairy tale. Actually in this speech he sounds more like a Bampton Lecturer! Represents, condemnation, include, mediator all strike the wrong note. I am referring only to the style: the matter is perfectly right. It is easier, of course, to pick holes than to mend them!

He then offers a note about the power of stories to communicate facts and deeper truths.

If I were trying to do it myself I should make it a speech about the Kings of Salem, not about ‘kingship’ in general—like a special magic in that family. (The Kings of Salem are not ordinary kings. . . .)

On the imaginative level I think the deepest truths enter the mind much better as arbitrary marvels than as universal theorems. Cinderella had to be back at midnight—Psyche must not see Cupid’s face—Adam and Eve must not eat the fruit: how much better these statements are than any philosophical generalities about obedience.

C.S. Lewis’ Personal Cinderella

Each reader of C.S. Lewis has their personal favorite, thoughtfully selected from the rich buffet of his diverse works. While I treasure many of his works, my personal favorite is The Great Divorce. It pleases me that the title also occupied a special place in Lewis’ own estimation.

Lewis described the underappreciated volume as his “Cinderella.” The beauty and nobility were there all of the time, though unrecognized.

Writing in 1954 to his editor, Jocelyn Gibb, he expresses appreciation for two handsomely bound copies of his books. He says, “perhaps these two charming volumes will teach me at last to have for the bodies of my own books the same reverence I have for the bodies of all other books.” In the same letter he writes, “I am always glad to hear of anyone’s taking up that Cinderella, The Great Divorce.”

Kathryn Lindskoog wrote an article about the book, calling the volume “C.S. Lewis’s Divine Comedy.” She begins with a personal anecdote.

C. S. Lewis beamed, then said “It’s my Cinderella.” I had just told him how much I loved The Great Divorce. (If I had been forced to choose one favorite of all his books, that would have been my choice.) He said he didn’t understand why Screwtape Letters got all the attention when The Great Divorce was so much better.

The Screwtape Letters is another of Lewis’ works that continues to impress me for its unique and effective way of illustrating the malevolent mind that shapes so many of the temptations that assail us. But, for sheer pleasure, I too prefer the wisdom, and the witness to heaven’s reality, that shine so brightly in The Great Divorce.

——

* Exaltavit humiles comes from the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and means God “has exalted the humble.”

⁑ Most of MacDonald’s books are available for free download at Google and Kindle.

Some people become parents and others do not. This column isn’t about the complex considerations that determine which path each individual follow. We all know people in each situation who are happy—as well as those who are dissatisfied.

I want to consider here a single reason some people choose not to have children. There are, of course, many valid reasons for not bringing children into this world, but this one struck me as particularly odd.   

Before we look at the interview question, allow me to offer a thesis that I believe most writers would agree with. Not all would concur, but don’t you think there would be strong consensus with this statement:

Raising children makes being a productive writer more challenging.

It’s pretty logical that the time spent actively parenting children leaves an author with less time to pursue their writing. Especially if they are a good mother or father.

Sure, kids provide us with some great stories and inspiration that can occasionally be worked into an article or story. But unless we’re a Dave Barry, an Erma Bombeck or a Bil Keane, people won’t line up to read about our children’s hijinks. So, if you were to balance the scales, I think we’d be hard-pressed to make the case that the addition of children to our household will make our writing more prolific.

In a recent interview with Forbes columnist Amity Shlaes, the editor of World Magazine raised this subject in an unusual way. Here is the question: “I talked with a Harvard economist years ago who said he was deliberately not having any children because he felt each child would lose him a book. You and I each have four children, and yet we’ve written books. Did you ever do a calculation like this foolish Harvard economist?”

Shales’ response was thoughtful. “Well, I’m very lucky in the husband department. He wanted lots of children and didn’t mind the work. But the main thing is: Children enrich life, they don’t impoverish it. You’d often be richer in dollars if you’d had no children, but with kids you’re richer in social capital, in happiness . . .”

It will come as no surprise that I agree with Shales’ opinion (with the substitution of “wife” in the first sentence). But the idea that struck me as rather shocking in this interchange was the reason the economist gave for opting not to have children: “because he felt each child would lose him a book.”

Wow. That is a pretty honest, and rather crass calculation. I won’t argue with his domestic equation, but it makes me shake my head. I can’t help but wonder how he will feel at the end of his life when he looks at his bookshelf of soon-to-be-forgotten titles and contemplates whether his choice was wise.

Lewis’ Personal Experience

C.S. Lewis was one of the most prolific writers. And he wrote in an expansive range of genres. It could easily be argued that his bachelorhood provided him with the time to write. That, in addition to the creative fountain provided by the Inklings made for a productive environment.

When he became a father, he was extremely conscientious. The boys were sent to private (or, in British parlance, “public”) schools after their mother’s death. However, that was the norm for children in their comfortable economic circumstances.

Lewis loved his sons, and did the best he could to be a father to them, despite his lack of confidence. Lewis was still the man who many years earlier (in 1935) wrote to his closest friend: “I theoretically hold that one ought to like children, but am shy with them in practice.” A decade later, in one of his most powerful books, Lewis confessed “I myself do not enjoy the society of small children . . . I recognize this as a defect in myself” (The Abolition of Man).

Self-awareness is a mark of intelligence and honesty. I strongly believe Lewis put the lie to his self-criticism about lacking a rapport with children, with his wonderful letters written to children.*

It could be argued that parenthood was one of the factors that affected Lewis’ literary production. Brenton Dickieson has a chart showing his annual production of books, here. Another scholar, Joel Heck, has done the world a great service by providing the definitive chronology of C.S. Lewis’ life and work, available here.

Lewis did not marry earlier in his life because he considered himself a confirmed bachelor. Joy’s unexpected arrival transformed his life.

But, even before he became a (step-)father, he would never have uttered the sentiment of the Harvard professor.

A book or a child? Which shall it be? If that is a difficult question for someone, here’s my advice: “Please just write your books; you’d probably make a lousy parent anyway.”


* C.S. Lewis was able to speak clearly to children. And, unlike so many adults, he did not speak down to them. While toddlers may have remained a mystery to him—and he never parented any—he respected children’s questions, and offered wise advice.

On putting one’s life in its proper order: “You are quite right if you mean that giving up fun for no reason except that you think it’s “good” to give it up, is all nonsense.”

And, how is this for a thoughtful, practical comment: “All schools, both here [in England] and in America, ought to teach far fewer subjects and teach them far better.”

Wise counsel to a young person (or anyone): God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won’t be angry with us as long as we are trying. And He will help us.”

And, one particularly inspiring comment about faith: “Anyone in our world who devotes his whole life to seeking Heaven will be like Reepicheep” in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Do you practice anodyne writing? Or, perhaps you enjoy reading anodyne literature?

Talk about a phrase with two different meanings!

I must not be reading the right publications, because until recently I was only aware of the medical sense of the word. Apparently I’m not alone in having forgotten the second usage (if I ever knew it). One “publication coach” writes:

I always welcome the chance to learn new words—or to cement the knowledge of words I should know already. Anodyne falls into this latter camp. I probably confer with my dictionary at least once a year to determine the meaning of this word and yet, despite the frequent checking, I can’t seem to hold the definition in my brain.

Like so many words, anodyne enters English, via Latin, from Greek. It’s literal meaning is “without pain.” Thus, it typically refers (as a noun) to medicines or medical treatments devoted to eliminating pain.

By extension, anodyne is also applied (as an adjective) to other things, such as writing. In this context it would refer to writing where the purpose is to comfort, or to alleviate pain. This is the good sense of the word.

An example of this use appears in “L.M. Montgomery’s The Watchman and Other Poems, a Review.” There, Brenton Dickieson expertly describes the value good-but-not-great poetry by affirming its reassuring essence in its historical context. “Any one of these poems is quite nice on its own and an anodyne to the negative poetry of many of the WWI poets.” A positive, and astute, assessment.

There is, however, a second sense in which anodyne is applied to literature.* It may mean something so inoffensive, so innocuous, that it becomes boring.

At one university writing center they describe this evolution of the word.

[An anodyne word] lets a disturbing idea be described in a soothing manner. . . .

The OED Online lists several definitions, all about a procedure or medicine that eases pain, the oldest dating from the 16th Century. Only more recently has the word come to include anything that may avoid a strong response. It can mean something so inoffensive as to be bland, the cafeteria pudding of language.

So, as for anodynic writing, it is admirable when it relieves pain and suffering. If its primary goal is to be innocuous, that’s another matter. Essentially, comfort—good, pablum—not so much.

Lewis’ Use of Anodyne

Unsurprisingly, C.S. Lewis uses this word in its positive sense of alleviating discomfort. Two occurrences in The Screwtape Letters will illustrate. (Remember, these words of the counsel of one demonic tempter to another.)

But hatred is best combined with Fear. Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful—horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear.

The more he fears, the more he will hate. And Hatred is also a great anodyne for shame. To make a deep wound in his charity, you should therefore first defeat his courage.

Not only do the demons seek to foster hatred in their human targets, they encourage us to seek counterfeit solace in destructive places.

In the first place I have always found that the trough periods of the human undulation provide excellent opportunity for all sensual temptations, particularly those of sex. This may surprise you, because, of course, there is more physical energy, and therefore more potential appetite, at the peak periods; but you must remember that the powers of resistance are then also at their highest.

The health and spirits which you want to use in producing lust can also, alas, be very easily used for work or play or thought or innocuous merriment. The attack has a much better chance of success when the man’s whole inner world is drab and cold and empty. . . .

It is the same with other desires of the flesh. You are much more likely to make your man a sound drunkard by pressing drink on him as an anodyne when he is dull and weary than by encouraging him to use it as a means of merriment among his friends when he is happy and expansive.

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 [God’s] ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is [God’s]  invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.

Having read the majority of what C.S. Lewis published, I assert with certitude that his writing is anodyne—it is healing. Some of it may be discomforting (for a moment), and much of it may be demanding (in the sense of requiring our mental and spiritual focus to understand it), but it was all written to edify.

Postscript, Star Date 73890.7

There is one more use of the word anodyne which I did not include above, due to its fictional source. In the Star Trek universe, the starships rely on a massive number elements, including the ubiquitous “anodyne relay.”

The circuits invariably appear to be perfectly reliable during routine missions. However, they are prone to malfunctioning at critical moments and threatening the lives of everyone aboard.


* Anodyne is also applied—in both its positive and negative senses—to music and other activities.

No one can teach us to “write like C.S. Lewis.” The great author was definitely one of a kind.

It is possible, however, to study Lewis’ advice about writing. And that is a journey well worth taking.

Many students of C.S. Lewis are quite curious about his advice for writing well. And, for the proverbial “limited time,” the premier study of that subject is available at an unbelievable price.

The kindle version of C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing: What the Essayist, Poet, Novelist, Literary Critic, Apologist, Memoirist, Theologian Teaches Us about the Life and Craft of Writing is only three dollars at amazon. (Great subtitle, right?)

Coincidentally, I only recently purchased the volume for my Logos library (at a significantly higher cost). I’ve yet to read it, but it appears to be worth what I paid. Still, I don’t want any readers of Mere Inkling to miss out on this opportunity to get such a bargain.

Wipf and Stock, the publishers, regularly place a few titles from their excellent list on sale. The current offering features another book I previously purchased at full price, The Gospel According to Star Trek: The Original Crew. (I mention that, confident there is at least one other trekkie out there reading this.)

Writing about Writing

Many people who follow blogs such as Mere Inkling are bloggers themselves. It’s rare to find a writer who doesn’t also like to read. And because of the complementarity of reading and writing, books about writing always find an audience.

In my “works in progress” (research) files, I have a handful of projects related to writing. One of them is—digital drumroll—C.S. Lewis on Writing.

That’s the main reason I haven’t begun reading the book I’m recommending. While I assume our approaches to the topic will be different enough to avoid any suggestion of plagiarism, I’m reluctant to open the door to unsought influences.

I have never plagiarized, and never will. In fact, I tend to overattribute thoughts. So, eventually I will read the work, since I’m forearmed with my integrity, and I understand that, as a well-known science fiction writer once reminded me . . .

Ideas cannot be copyrighted—only the particular expressions of ideas are protected by copyright.

As the writer of “5 Things that Can’t be Copyrighted” says:

Ideas can not [sic] be copyrighted because they are not fixed into a tangible medium of expression. For a work to be copyrighted, it has to be written down, saved to a hard drive or somehow otherwise fixed.

For example, if you give a speech but fail to write it down first and it isn’t recorded, there is no copyright protection. . . . it is the expression of the idea that is protected. My “5 Things That Can’t Be Copyrighted” post is fixed, but you can certainly write your own post with the same title and idea. However, you can not use my exact words, unless, of course, you follow my CC [Creative Commons] license.

Those of you who are American can learn more about protections covered in the United States at this site. They dispel some of the myths associated with copyrights, such as whether something must be (1) “published” or (2) registered to be protected. (The answer to both is “no.”)

Someday you may have an opportunity to read C.S. Lewis on Writing by yours truly. In the meantime, don’t miss the opportunity to add C.S. Lewis and the Art of Writing to your personal library.

C.S. Lewis loved rabbits. His affection for the cuddly rodents went all the way back to his childhood. And it continued through the whole of his life. In fact, you can read about “C.S. Lewis as an Advocate for Animals” at a Humane Society link below.*

Despite this affection, rabbits do not feature prominently in The Chronicles of Narnia. They are among the “statues” turned to stone by the Witch. In the description of Aslan breathing life back into them, it says, “then [Aslan] pounced on a tall stone dryad which stood beyond the dwarf, turned rapidly aside to deal with a stone rabbit on his right, and rushed on to two centaurs” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).

Rabbits helped spread the word about an impending attack on Archenland in The Horse and His Boy. Shasta urges the animals to spread the word.

“Oughtn’t your High King to be told?”

“Certain sure, something ought to be done about it,” said the Hedgehog. “But you see I’m just on my way to bed for a good day’s sleep. Hullo, neighbor!”

The last words were addressed to an immense biscuit-colored rabbit whose head had just popped up from somewhere beside the path. The Hedgehog immediately told the Rabbit what it had just learned from Shasta.

The Rabbit agreed that this was very remarkable news and that somebody ought to tell someone about it with a view to doing something. And so it went on. Every few minutes they were joined by other creatures, some from the branches overhead and some from little underground houses at their feet, till the party consisted of five rabbits, a squirrel, two magpies, a goat-foot faun, and a mouse, who all talked at the same time and all agreed with the Hedgehog.

For the truth was that in that golden age when the Witch and the Winter had gone and Peter the High King ruled at Cair Paravel, the smaller woodland people of Narnia were so safe and happy that they were getting a little careless.

In The Last Battle we see a clear contrast between the types of animals which populate Narnia. Tirian, the last king of Narnia, is leading the children toward their destiny.

First, he had given Jill some practice in archery and found that, though not up to Narnian standards, she was really not too bad.

Indeed she had succeeded in shooting a rabbit (not a Talking rabbit, of course: there are lots of the ordinary kind about in Western Narnia) and it was already skinned, cleaned, and hanging up.

Back to the Beginning

When he was a child, beginning at age eight, Lewis began writing stories about “Animal Land.” His brother Warnie, several years older, joined him in composing stories inspired in part by their reading of the words of Beatrix Potter.

Animal Land is clearly the product of young children—children with wonderful imaginations—but children nonetheless. These various works have been published by Lewis’ stepson in a collection called Boxen. As Douglas Gresham writes, “In developing the world of Boxen, Jack appropriated the ‘dressed animals’ of Beatrix Potter and that part of their fictional world they called ‘Animal-Land,’ while Warnie (whose interests were always a touch more prosaic than Jack’s) made his half ‘India.’”

The world was thoroughly thought out, complete with maps and a historic chronology.

Animal-land is divided into 13 provinces. Bear-land, Wolf-land, Squirrel-land, Mouse-land, Rabbit-land, Pig-land, Bird-land, Horse-land, Fox-land, Land of Typical Animals, Insect-land, Rat-land, With the island of Piscia, or Fishland. . . . Rabbit-land is the first provence in learning and art.

Rabbits feature prominently in Boxen. The very first element is a script, entitled “The King’s Ring (A Comedy).” The introduction is delightfully childlike: “Interesting carictars. Famous ones. For instance, Sir Big, a world-famed gentleman. A very good choreus and nice scenry. (Slight comic tints in and out threw it.)”

The two protagonists are King Bunny, whose ring is stolen, and Sir Peter Mouse, his “knight in waiting” who aids him in finding it. It is filled with silly dialog, despite the serious plot. For example:

KING BUNNY: Tell Sir Goose to tell Sir Big to tell Mr Gold Fish to tell Gollywog to tell Mr Icthus-oress to tell Dorimie to tell the sailors to take Hit [the villain] away.

In his autobiography, Lewis wrote of his childhood home. “Here my first stories were written, and illustrated, with enormous satisfaction. They were an attempt to combine my two chief literary pleasures—‘dressed animals’ and ‘knights-in-armour.’

Drawing Pleasure from Real Life Rabbits

Lewis’ correspondence includes passing references to rabbits, always expressed in an approving way. For instance, in 1947 he mentions enjoying a memorable event during a boring time. “I wonder how you are all getting on? Nothing much has happened to me except that I saw a rabbit yawn. I suppose people who keep tame ones have seen it often but this was a wild rabbit and I thought it a very curious sight. It was a very bored triangular yawn in the middle of a long hot afternoon.”

During WWII, he penned a curious comment about rabbits recently added to his home.

We are keeping rabbits at the Kilns now, in addition to the hens! But they are very much nicer. As I passed the enclosure in which all the young ones are the other evening, I saw they had all got into a box which happened to be lying there.

They were all standing (or sitting) up on their hind legs and all facing in the same direction: so that they looked exactly as if they were conducting some kind of evening service—the box looked just like a pew.

While the rabbits were almost certainly present to supplement food rations during the war, they were not treated as commodities. Lewis appreciated them in the way he respected other creatures designed by God’s hand. Thus, he had what my wife and I would consider to be a well-rounded family—including one or more members of the non-human variety.

Lewis described this diverse household in a 1943 letter to June Flewett,⁑ one of the children evacuated to his home during the war.

Bruce [Lewis’ dog] behaved with great lack of fortitude during the thunderstorm last night and two of the rabbits made it an excuse for absenting themselves without leave. Pushkin [his cat] behaved better, but not well. In fact there is a general lack of keenness and discipline among the four-footed members of the household which I deplore.

One more story about an actual rabbit with which the great author developed an ongoing relationship.

In a 1942 letter to Sister Penelope CSMV, he says, “I am establishing quite a friendship with one of the rabbits which we now keep along with the deer in Magdalen grove. It was done by the discovery that he relishes chestnut leaves which grow too high for his reach. He doesn’t yet allow me any familiarities but he comes and eats from my hand.”

Lewis continues to describe his new friend, and adds a keen theological observation. “But oh!, the great lollipop eyes and the twitching velvet nose! How does [God] come to create both this and the scorpion?”

Later that same year, Lewis updates the Anglican nun on the status of his animal-friend.

The Rabbit and I have quarrelled. I don’t know why, unless I gave him something that disagreed with him. At any rate, he has cut me dead several times lately—so fair and so fickle! Life is full of disappointments.”

At that time he shared his disappointment with his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves. “Did I tell you in my last letter that I’d struck up quite an acquaintance (almost a friendship) with a rabbit in Magdalen Grove who used to come and eat leaves from my hand? Alas, I must have given something that disagreed with him, for he disappeared for about 10 days, and since his reappearance has refused to look at me.”

It may be that same rabbit, or one of its kin, renewed its relationship with Lewis, because he referred to a similar experience in two 1944 letters to other children.

I live in a College here: a college is something rather like a castle and also like a church. It stands just beside a bridge  over a river. At the back of the part I live in there is a nice grove of Trees. There are a lot of Rabbits there. One very old rabbit is so tame that it will run after me and take things out of my hand. I call her Baroness Bisket because she is a kind of biscuit colour.

It’s not easy, nor is it usually relevant, to determine a bunny’s gender. So, Lewis may be excused for writing the following to the second young correspondent, six months earlier.

I am getting to be quite friends with an old Rabbit who lives in the Wood at Magdalen. I pick leaves off the trees for him because he can’t reach up to the branches and he eats them out of my hand. One day he stood up on his hind legs and put his front paws against me, he was so greedy. I wrote this about it:

A funny old man had a habit
Of giving a leaf to a rabbit.
At first it was shy
But then, by and by,
It got rude and would stand up to grab it.

But it’s a very nice Rabbit all the same: I call him ‘Baron Biscuit.’

Like C.S. Lewis, I adore rabbits. Years ago we had an indoor bunny, appropriately named “Sweetheart.” In her youth she acted like the cartoon character Ricochet Rabbit, pinging from place to place. In her senior years she settled down and was contented to be a cuddly lap bunny. I add my own “thank you” to Lewis’ for these precious parts of God’s creation.


* The Humane Society pdf is available here.

⁑ June Flewett is regarded as the inspiration for Lucy Pevensie in the Chronicles, and grew up to become an actress and theater director. C.S. Lewis paid for her tuition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. When she and her two sisters were sent from London to the Kilns, her favorite author was C.S. Lewis. Ironically, it was a while before she learned that he and their host were one and the same.

During the middle ages, Scandinavia’s skálds were poets, storytellers and even musicians. They were the equivalent of bards in medieval British and Gaelic culture. They were oral historians, committed to memorizing their paeans verbatim, which was simpler since they were in poetic form. Not all skálds possessed the talents to create their own memorable epics. These lesser poets, so to speak, could still memorize and recite the classic or popular songs.

A graphic explanation for the difference in the talents of the first tier skálds and their inferiors is found in the Prose Edda which was written by Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Sturluson compiled Norse myths in his Edda, and the sagas of her kings in Heimskringla.

The second part of the Prose Edda is entitled Skáldskaparmál, which means the language of poetry. One of the myths it contains describes the Mead of Poetry. Mead, of course, is the rich Viking beverage created by fermenting honey.

As for poetry, I’ve written about it fairly often. (Most recently in respect to my “winning” entry in a Terrible Poetry Contest.) I’ve even offered genuine, albeit feeble, attempts at the art myself. Alas, if I were a classical Greek I would say my Muse is Clio (the Muse of History), rather than Thalia or Erato, Muses of various genres of poetry.

It is well known that C.S. Lewis himself was a frustrated poet. While his literary criticism and historical work was highly respected—and his Christian works are still revered—his poetry never received a warm reception. The Poetry Foundation offers a useful article on the subject here.

My personal opinion is that I am thankful Lewis’ energies were devoted to more profitable fields of writing.

Back to the Vikings

C.S. Lewis and several other Inklings were enamored with Northern sagas. I have touched on this in the past, and discussed the amazing fellowship gathered by J.R.R. Tolkien, as a sort of precursor to the Inklings.

Tolkien named the group Kolbítar, which denoted “Coalbiters,” or Norse storytellers who gathered close to the fire as they discussed the stories of their ancestors. This exploration of Icelandic literature was connected to Tolkien’s conviction, as a professor of Anglo-Saxon, that these works belonged within the study of the English canon.* Old Norse definitely left a mark on English, as I’ve discussed here at Mere Inkling.

In Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, Nancy Marie Brown gleans some insights about Kolbítar from Lewis correspondence. They gathered to read the literature aloud.

They began with Snorri’s Edda. Reading it in Icelandic was slow going but addictive, Lewis recalls: “Hammered my way through a couple of pages in about an hour, but I am making some headway. It is an exciting experience.” Lewis . . . had also been smitten as a boy by “pure ‘Northernness’” [and] popular versions of Snorri’s tales had inspired Lewis to write an adolescent tragedy about the Norse gods, “Loki Bound.”

There is no record of what the members of the Kolbítars thought of the myth of the Mead of Poetry, but I would imagine that they found its crass distinction between gifted and stumbling poets quite—Norse. To set the stage for the following passage, one should know: (1) the Aesir were the Old Norse gods, (2) Suttung was a Jötunn (belonging to a race of giants at war with the Aesir), (3) Suttung was in possession of the magical mead of poetry, which Odin stole through cunning but immoral means, swallowing all of it, (4) Odin changed into an eagle to effect his escape, and Suttung followed him in the same form, and (5) the Aesir prepared large vessels to receive the disgorged magical mead. Now, from the Edda itself:

When the Æsir saw Odin flying, they placed their vats in the courtyard, and when Odin entered Asgard he spat the mead into the vats. It was such a close call, with Suttung almost catching him, that he blew some of the mead out of his rear. No one paid attention to this part, and whoever wanted it took it; we call this the bad poets’ portion. Odin gave Suttung’s mead to the Æsir and to those men who know how to make poetry. For this reason we call poetry Odin’s catch, find, drink or gift, as well as the drink of the Æsir.

No one said the Norse were above using crass humor. Still, it does offer a quite imaginative explanation for the differences between exceptional and mediocre poets, doesn’t it?


* Tolkien “loved the cold, crisp, unsentimental language of the sagas, their bare, straightforward tone like wind keening over ice. Reading Snorri and his peers was more important than reading Shakespeare, Tolkien argued, because their books were more central to our language and our modern world” (Song of the Vikings).

Ah, the snow is wrapping the world in a thick blanket, and I have no where I need to be. As I sit at my desk gazing out at the whitewashed forest, I attempt now something that I seldom do. I am writing a poem.

I admit that I haven’t read Jane Kenyon’s work, but I can definitely relate to one of her famous quotations: “My ear is not working, my poetry ear. I can’t write a line that doesn’t sound like pots and pans falling out of the cupboard.”

One of the bloggers I follow hosts a weekly poetry contest. I’ve never been tempted to compete, although I’m eminently qualified. You see, this is a “Terrible Poetry Contest.”

I had already begun writing my next post, and it relates to the depression some people feel during the winter. Of course, I do my best to make sure that what I write for Mere Inkling is not “terrible.” But I decided to delay that column and pause to enter this contest. On a whim. I certainly don’t expect to win . . . which in this case is, ironically, good news.

I decided to use an uncommon poetic form, since I can at least have the satisfaction that it offers patient readers an “educational” tidbit. I chose the French descort poetic form, because it seems expressly tailored to generate terrible poetry. According to Writer’s Digest, “the descort differentiates itself from other forms by differentiating its lines from other lines within the poem. That is, the main rule of descort poems is that each line needs to be different from every other line in the poem.”

A descort poem has different line lengths, meters, avoids rhyming with other lines, no refrains, and that goes for stanzas as well. In other words, no two lines in a descort should look like each other, and the same could be said for each descort.

The strength of the form is that it allows utter freedom to the poet. The weakness is that the results are appalling. (Read the example written by the editor of the linked article, if you don’t believe me.) Without further ado, I present my latest experiment with verse.* (There’s really nothing “French” about it, beyond the fact it’s a descort.⁑

Frigid French Philologies
by Robert C. Stroud

Shards of bleak winter gestate day after day.
The citric cannonade gurgled melodies of complacency.
Echinodermata rides again.

Hagar was not so Horrible.
Beware 48°52.6′S 123°23.6′W.
Fini.
Don’t stare at dark holes.
A Galapagos penguin reads about tobacco.

Captain Kirk sings the National Anthem.
Angkor longed to visit Tenochtitlán.
Sheepish wolves.
From lofty Mount Olympus descended Odin.

Soon comes the summer of our discontent.

A French Poem by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis wrote poetry. There is actually a plaque in his honor in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Deservedly so. Nevertheless, Lewis’ poetry was never highly regarded.

I, for one, consider this lack of appreciation providential. By this I mean that even though C.S. Lewis had to suffer the disappointment of not realizing his desires as a poet, it is a blessing to the whole world that his energies were redirected into his other writings. Who knows, if his poetry had been celebrated, whether or not Narnia would ever have existed?

The only book of Lewis’ which is in the public domain (i.e. free for downloading), is Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Lyrics. It was published after the First World War, written while he was still an atheist. While it makes for interesting reading, much of the imagery will be a bit disorienting for readers only familiar with Lewis after he encountered Christ.

The following poem is taken from that collection. As Alister McGrath writes in The Telegraph article, Lewis’ hopes were dashed relatively early.

The early poems remain a powerful witness to Lewis’s early atheism, railing against an absent and uncaring God who failed to halt the slaughter the author saw around him. But he never achieved recognition as a “war poet,” like Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon, who are also commemorated in Poets’ Corner. Indeed, not only did he fail to secure recognition for his war poetry, he was not acclaimed as a poet of any kind, as the lack of interest in his second volume of verse—Dymer (1926)—made painfully clear.

This example of Lewis’ war poetry does stand tall in comparison to the verse of the “acclaimed” war poets (in my modest opinion). It describes a battle site during the war—and the transformation of human beings into beasts.

French Nocturne (Monchy-Le-Preux)

Long leagues on either hand the trenches spread
And all is still; now even this gross line
Drinks in the frosty silences divine
The pale, green moon is riding overhead.

The jaws of a sacked village, stark and grim;
Out on the ridge have swallowed up the sun,
And in one angry streak his blood has run
To left and right along the horizon dim.

There comes a buzzing plane: and now, it seems
Flies straight into the moon. Lo! where he steers
Across the pallid globe and surely nears
In that white land some harbour of dear dreams!

False mocking fancy! Once I too could dream,
Who now can only see with vulgar eye
That he’s no nearer to the moon than I
And she’s a stone that catches the sun’s beam.

What call have I to dream of anything?
I am a wolf. Back to the world again,
And speech of fellow-brutes that once were men
Our throats can bark for slaughter: cannot sing.

I confess (though I did it on purpose) that the heading for this section was a bit misleading. “French poem” may have been interpreted as a poem written in French. While Lewis was certainly fluent in French, he did not write in the language. He did, however, appreciate the tongue.

In 1952 he wrote his publisher about the French translation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He praised quality of the translation, as well as the tone achieved by the translator, in Le Lion et la Sorcière Blanche.

I don’t foresee many occasions for copies of Le Lion, but if you will kindly send me 2, they might come in useful. The translator deserves to be congratulated of course—French is a very powerful language—the children become perfect little Frenchmen, but that is all to the good.

What pleased and surprised me is the passage at the end where I made them talk like characters in Malory, and he has really got some of the quality of the French 13th century prose romances: grande honte en aurions⁂—is exactly right.

C.S. Lewis’ brother, Warnie, was a bit of a Francophile. He knew his subject well enough that he authored a book about its history, The Splendid Century: Life In The France Of Louis XIV. He offers an entertaining account of some literary gatherings where the works of Jean Chapelain (1595-1674) were employed in a novel manner. The writers shared agreed upon rules, and transgressions demanded discipline. Thus the punishment for “the breach of rules was to read a verse of Chapelain’s poetry, or, in aggravated circumstances, a whole page.”

I won’t hold my breath awaiting the results of the poetry contest. Though I periodically enjoy dabbling in poetry, I feel I am destined to share the fate of Lewis when it comes to the way in which the masses assess the quality of our verse.


* I have written poetry in the past. I explored the quintain here, and have a few of my experiments in poetry posted at All Poetry.

⁑ According to Encyclopedia Britannica, descort can also refer to “a poem in medieval Provençal literature with stanzas in different languages.”

⁂ The phrase means “great shame we would have.”

Most aspiring writers are sincere. The question is, does the earnestness of their work translate into excellence? In other words, does honesty correlate to quality?

C.S. Lewis addressed this question in an essay about John Bunyan (1628-1688). Bunyan was the English writer and Puritan preacher best known for The Pilgrim’s Progress. At the outset of the allegory Bunyan attempts to “show the profit of my book,” and encourage its reading.

This book is writ in such a dialect
As may the minds of listless men affect:
It seems a novelty, and yet contains
Nothing but sound and honest gospel strains.

While C.S. Lewis respected this classic work, he argues that its value is not simply a consequence of Bunyan’s honesty.

The other thing we must not say is that Bunyan wrote well because he was a sincere, forthright man who had no literary affectations and simply said what he meant. I do not doubt that is the account of the matter that Bunyan would have given himself. But it will not do. (“The Vision of John Bunyan”)

Lewis is not, of course, challenging Bunyan’s claim to honesty. What Lewis does, in fact, is challenge a common misconception. He dismantles the excuse for any who would dismiss grammar and literary rules as unimportant because they are writing earnestly. Basically, Lewis suggests we cannot justify creating a mediocre product and by burnishing it with the declaration that “it is an outpouring of our deepest passion.”

“If [candid honesty] were the real explanation,” states Lewis, “then every sincere, forthright, unaffected man could write as well.”

And we all know that is not the case. Lewis proceeds to offer an illuminating and curious illustration. It recalls the days of the First World War when one of the responsibilities of the officers was to review the correspondence of the troops before they accidentally divulged classified military information to their family at home.

But most people of my age learned from censoring the letters of the troops, when we were subalterns [lieutenants] in the first war, that unliterary people, however sincere and forthright in their talk, no sooner take a pen in hand than cliché and platitude flow from it. The shocking truth is that, while insincerity may be fatal to good writing, sincerity, of itself, never taught anyone to write well. It is a moral virtue, not a literary talent. We may hope it is rewarded in a better world: it is not rewarded on Parnassus.*

Lewis continues, praising Bunyan’s writing.

We must attribute Bunyan’s style to a perfect natural ear, a great sensibility for the idiom and cadence of popular speech, a long experience in addressing unlettered audiences, and a freedom from bad models. I do not add ‘to an intense imagination,’ for that also can shipwreck if a man does not find the right words.

A Lesson for Modern Writers

C.S. Lewis’ keen analysis of Bunyan’s writing is more than a mere history lesson. It offers a lesson to those of us who take up the pen today. By all means, we should exercise the moral virtue of sincerity in our writing. However, we should not rest on the strength of our integrity to ensure the quality of our writing.

We should hone our skills. Likewise, we should welcome the constructive criticism of our peers, as did the Inklings themselves.

Our work will also benefit when we intently listen. Learning the idiom and cadence of our characters (real or fictional) enables them to rise alive from the page.

Lewis’ essay on Bunyan offers another suggestion I would highlight. This will be true for any writer, but I think it is of particular import to Christian authors. Lewis affirms a forthright, honest, and powerful presentation of the truth as we perceive it. He cautions against pulling our punches because we are timid about how the austere truth may be received.

For some readers the ‘unpleasant side’ of The Pilgrim’s Progress [lies] in the intolerable terror which is never far away. Indeed unpleasant is here a ludicrous understatement. The dark doctrine has never been more horrifyingly stated than in the words that conclude Part I: Then I saw that there was a way to Hell, even from the Gates of Heaven, as well as from the City of Destruction.

In my opinion the book would be immeasurably weakened as a work of art if the flames of Hell were not always flickering on the horizon. I do not mean merely that if they were not it would cease to be true to Bunyan’s own vision and would therefore suffer all the effects which a voluntary distortion or expurgation of experience might be expected to produce. I mean also that the image of this is necessary to us while we read.

The urgency, the harsh woodcut energy, the continual sense of momentousness, depend on it. We might even say that, just as Bunyan’s religious theme demanded for its vehicle this kind of story, so the telling of such a story would have required on merely artistic grounds to be thus loaded with a further significance, a significance which is believed by only some, but can be felt (while they read) by all, to be of immeasurable importance.

Keeping this in mind—that we should be faithful to the truth of what we are professing—will serve us well in the final accounting. After all, it is the compromises of the tepid of which we must beware.


* Parnassus refers to a Greek mountain associated by the ancients with Apollo, the Muses and poetry.

The Pilgrim’s Progress is available in a variety of free versions.

The Pilgrim’s Progress, an Allegory features a “Biographical Sketch of the author, by Lord Macaullay.”

In an 1834 edition, we have Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Metrically Condensed: In Six Cantos.

The version with the most entertaining title has to be: The Pilgrim’s Progress [by John Bunyan] In Words of One Syllable.

The Child’s Pilgrim’s Progress can be downloaded in not one, but two volumes. It was published in 1860, with the preface:

No endeavour has been made in this little book to improve Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. To do so would be simply absurd. To bring prominently into view scenes supposed most attractive to children has been attempted; and, while the Dreamer’s narrative is preserved, others of less striking character have been thrown into the back ground. The quaint, simple language of the incomparable Bunyan is, for the most part, retained.

The Pilgrim’s Progress: for the Young was published in 1850. Its introduction includes commentary that echoes the theme of the post above.

John Bunyan, though a very pious and good man, was not a learned one ; for he was by trade a tinker, and had no opportunity to learn much more than to read, in his youth, and when a boy he was wild and wicked. But he made very good use afterward of what he knew ; and very diligently studied his Bible and other good books.

He was also what is called a genius, which means that he had great natural talent. He wrote many works, and one of his books, called the Pilgrim’s Progress, has been read and admired by more people than any other book except the Bible. Learned and unlearned men have read it again and again, and it has been translated into all modern languages.

Peculiarities of Punctuation

September 17, 2019 — 17 Comments

I question how we can ever secure world peace, when we can’t even agree on how to punctuate. And this is not only an international controversy—although it certainly possesses intercontinental ramifications.

Writers who have submitted their work to editors know exactly what I’m talking about. The world abounds with critics who are positive they know how to “fix” your manuscript, so you can more effectively communicate what you are trying to say.

A fine example of this is found in the case of Samuel Clemons. As I described several years ago, Mark Twain considered editors to be a plague. He sums up his irritation in a letter to a friend.

I give it up. These printers pay no attention to my punctuation. Nine-tenths of the labor & vexation put upon me by [them] consists in annihilating their ignorant & purposeless punctuation & restoring my own. This latest batch [also has] my punctuation ignored & their insanities substituted for it.

C.S. Lewis experienced similar challenges in working with his editors. In 1959, Lewis was responding to edits made by his longtime editor, Jocelyn Gibb, on the manuscript of The Four Loves.

I enclose my emendations, concessions, and resistances. . . . as regards my emendations, will you be so kind as to type them and send them to Harcourt Brace for the American edition. Otherwise we shall create a ‘textual problem.’

After arguing for several points of substance, Lewis offers a preemptive surrender on the field of punctuation. “Do anything you like (in reason) to the punctuation.” Lewis’ qualified capitulation was in response to this editorial comment from Gibb:

Do you really favour a comma before an “and” which seems to run all through? If so, why not: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?

It’s curious Lewis’ editor would question his inclusion of commas in this manner, since it is not uncommon in British literature. In fact, punctuation in this context is often called an “Oxford comma.” You can read a decent discussion of the subject here. And, lest you deem it an inconsequential matter, check out this interesting article describing how it became “the crux of a $10 million class-action lawsuit . . .” The author of the article notes:

Many style guides, including the Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association (APA), and American Medical Association (AMA), recommend the use of the Oxford comma to prevent ambiguity.

Yet others, including the AP style guide, Canadian Press (CP) style guide, and (shockingly) the University of Oxford style guide itself, use the Oxford comma only when a sentence could be misinterpreted by the reader without it.

Here’s the problem, though, for those who do not consistently use the Oxford comma: when writing a sentence, you don’t always realize that what you’re writing could be misinterpreted.

A Nineteenth Century Tribute to Punctuation

Punctuation can provide insights into a writer’s personality, as I have discussed here. Recently I encountered this personally published poem from 1861. You can download Ephemeral Effusions, the quaint volume in which it appears, at no cost via Internet Archive.

Easy Rules for Punctuation

Written for the amusement
of a valued Friend,
who was a great stickler
for correct punctuation.

I.
Whene’er you pause, to dip the pen,
A comma you must place;
If at a loss to find a word,
A semicolon trace.

II.
Should thoughts flow slowly, fill the gap
With colon, or with rest;
And when the sentence is complete,
A period answers best.

III.
A bright idea always claims
A note of admiration;
And, if you doubt, a crooked mark
Implies interrogation.

IV.
Inverted commas indicate,
Your wits are at an end;
And, your ideas failing,
You borrow from a friend.

V.
Parenthesis (example take),
I won’t say much about;
It guards a sentence, which sometimes
Had better be left out.

VI.
The little star of secrecy,
Tho’ last, not least in fame,
Is aide-de-camp to mystery,
And asterisk its name.

These rules are all so clear,
they need no explanation;
And constitute the art
of modern punctuation.

csl dragon.png

In 1957, C.S. Lewis wrote an encouraging letter to a young author whose first book had been written at the age of fourteen. Jane Gaskell’s Strange Evil was described by the Times Literary Supplement as “a fantasy of macabre and gorgeous nonsense.” The review even alluded to Lewis himself in its description of the novel.

Judith, who poses nude for a living, is carried off to a C.S. Lewis-ish land where a monster called Baby conducts his reign of terror and where one extravagantly gory battle follows another.

Miss Gaskell is eloquently fascinated by words, the longer and more lush the better, and her book reveals an undoubted talent for fanciful description.

Gaskell went on to become a journalist. She also authored several more novels, and ultimately became a professional astrologer.

But, returning to the young girl and her first publication . . . Lewis considered the young girl worthy of encouragement.

My wife and I have just been reading your book and I want to tell you that I think it a quite amazing achievement–incomparably beyond anything I could have done at that age. The story runs, on the whole, very well and there is some real imagination in it.

The idea of the gigantic spoiled brat (had you a horrid baby brother once?) is really excellent: perhaps even profound. Unlike most modern fantasies your book also has a firm core of civilised ethics. On all these grounds, hearty congratulations.

Lewis does, however, offer a suggestion for how the book may have been improved. “I hope you will not think it impertinent if I mention (this is only one man’s opinion of course) some mistakes you can avoid in future.”

In a fantasy every precaution must be taken never to break the spell, to do nothing which will wake the reader and bring him back with a bump to the common earth. But this is what you sometimes do.

The moving bar on which they travel is a dull invention at best, because we can’t help conceiving it as mechanical. But when you add upholstered seats, lavatories, and restaurants, I can’t go on believing in faerie for a moment. It has all turned into commonplace technological luxury!

This concept is noteworthy for writers—especially writers of fiction, for whom imagination is an indispensable ingredient. We must avoid elements that derail the story, as inappropriate technology can sometimes do.

Beware of the Temptation

I suspect most writers today experience technology as a more concrete threat to their vocation than the inopportune example Lewis was noting. It’s not that we include too many or too few mechanical or scientific references in our work. The problem is that we are so distracted by the wonders of the world in which we live, that we never get around to putting the pen to paper.

Some of us can lose ourselves in the internet or social media. One fascinating read leads to another and we wonder “where the time has gone.” Vast programming “on demand,” is ready at a moment’s notice to occupy (or, sometimes, numb) our minds. And even when we do sit down at the keyboard, emails and messages interrupt our concentration.*

Technology, of course, is not only dangerous to writers. It can distract any of us from what is most important in life. How many hours have we squandered when we could have spent our time with family or friends? Why do we prefer to anesthetize ourselves with digital opiates, rather than helping a neighbor?

Not long ago, Christianity Today conducted an interview with Richard Foster. Foster’s 1978 book, A Celebration of Discipline, has been extremely influential in calling believers to lives of deeper simplicity and prayer. In their article they mentioned a revision in the preface that speaks powerfully to me.

Oh, for the day when all we had to do was turn off the television if we wanted solitude and silence! . . . we are bombarded by the broad distractions of constant noise, constant demands, constant news. Everyone, it seems, wants us to be accessible 24/7 and to respond instantly to any and every request.

Neuroscience studies are now showing us that the neural pathways of our brains are being rewired accordingly, so that our physical capacity for sustained attention is decreasing.

We, of course, complain endlessly about our wired world. But—let’s be honest—we do enjoy our technological gluttony. There is, however, a better way to live.

I’m going to close this post with a personal prayer. Feel free to join me in it, if you desire.

Gracious Father, forgive me my trespasses, and deliver me from the sin of technological gluttony to which I so often surrender. Draw me away from the table of excess, and lead me on that better path . . . the way that leads to life, and to you. Amen.


* Many of these distractions can be significantly decreased by setting your software to provide fewer “notifications” when various things occur. For example, I recently had to reset my iTunes because the program was throwing up a message every time a new song began.

When I am listening to the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings, I don’t care to be told that “The Foot of Orthanc” is coming up as the strains of “The Road to Isengard” are fading away.