Friendship and Its Discontents

I am aware that when Christians become especially close to one another we tend not to refer to them as friends: rather, we follow the biblical pattern and call them “brothers and sisters in Christ.” A true enough naming, but a distinction needs to be made. After all, when Lewis and Tolkien fell out with each other and for all practical purposes ceased to be friends, they did not cease to be brothers in Christ, a point with which both would have been quick to agree. Friendship, as most commentators on the subject have pointed out, is a willed, a chosen thing (otherwise it could not be a virtue). But we do not choose our brothers and sisters in Christ, nor that larger family of all humanity to which we have unalterable obligations. Bonhoeffer and Bethge were brothers in Christ, but they were also friends; each of them had other brothers in Christ who were not friends, and perhaps friends who were not brothers in Christ.

From an article by Alan Jacobs in FIRST THINGS (December 1992)

The Weight of Glory

"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare."
C.S. Lewis ~ The Weight of Glory
One of the more interesting things about Christian theology is the concept of the devil. Most people think of him dressed in red tights, with a pointed tail, horns and a beard; and a pitchfork.

But actually the devil is immensely beautiful. He was one of God’s greatest accomplishments. He was smarter, more creative, more charming than we can imagine. And even after the fall, his outward beauty never diminished. Nor did his creativity, intellect or charm.

It’s a difficult thing to wrap our minds around, that the personification of evil would be contained in a thing of beauty and brilliance. And yet when you think about the concept of temptation, it makes sense. If you really did live in a world where you were being silently opposed, prodded, tempted to do things that weren’t in your best interest, you’d probably trip up a lot less if your tempter was ugly.

I think one of the points of that story is that a lot of the things we think are good can be very bad for us. Hard work can be good. Hard work that leaves your family lonely and your life out of balance is not. Money can be good. Money as an end to itself, or used to buy another BMW when there are families living in tents outside the city, less so. Beauty can be good, but beauty that is used as a tool to manipulate, or as a basis for exclusion, is certainly not good.

C.S. Lewis talks about how one of the best ways to tell people a lie is with the truth. And while we live in a world of broken economies, broken families and broken lives, it’s hard to find the culprits, the ones who cause all the pain. That’s because the culprits aren’t wearing red tights and holding pitchforks. It’s actually pretty hard to find people who are overtly evil and ugly and mean. Most of the bad stuff that happens in the world is the result of lies masked with the truth.
From Blog
intentionally - live on purpose

Literary Fashion

A lot of people remember the bliss of their earliest reading with a pang; their current encounters with books offer no more than faint echoes of what they once felt. I’ve heard friends and strangers talk about the days when they, too, would submerge themselves in a story, surfacing only to eat and deal with the minimal daily business of children. They wonder why don’t they get as much out of books now. If you dig deep to the roots of what makes someone a reader, you’ll usually find the desire to recapture that old spell. But as we get older we acquire another set of reasons for picking up a book: because reading is “good for you,” for example, or because it was assigned by a teacher. People read to fend off the boredom of long flights, to find out what kinds of books get published nowadays, to stay abreast of what’s new, to catch up on what they should have learned in school, to hold their own in cocktail party conversations, to be able to say they’ve read Moby Dick.

No wonder we pine for the days when we read only for ourselves. Many years after I first opened The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I learned that C.S. Lewis, too, was a literary critic, and that he, too, was interested in readerly pleasure. He had the eccentric notion that the delight people take in a book might give us some clue to its worth. In a slender volume entitled An Experiment in Criticism, one of the best books about reading I have ever found, Lewis suggested that the literary preferences of children are significant because, “children are indifferent to literary fashions. What we see in them is not a specifically childish taste, but simply a normal and perennial human taste, temporarily atrophied in their elders by a fashion.”

Laura Miller
The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia
Little, Brown & Company (2009)

Down the pub with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (II)

[The New Building, Magdalen College, Oxford]
It's called the New Building because it was built in 1733, about 250 years after most of the main part of the college. Lewis' rooms were in this building.

… the influence of the Inklings

Tolkien and Lewis formed the spine of the Inklings, regularly convening to read and discuss one another’s work in Lewis’s rooms at Magdalen College. There were nineteen members in all, and Glyer excels at depicting their world, with its petty rivalries, joshing honesty (“he is ugly as a chimpanzee”, wrote Lewis of fellow Inkling Charles Williams), its wit and learning and championship of scholarship for its own sake. The Inklings were often supportive and sympathetic (“the inexhaustible fertility of the man’s imagination amazes me”, wrote Lewis in 1949 on receipt of another instalment of The Lord of the Rings), but were capable of ferocious criticism if it was felt that a member had done anything less than his best (“You can do better than that. Better Tolkien, please !”). Tempers must surely have become frayed at times – as Tolkien became unyieldingly critical of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (“about as bad as can be”) or as the English don Hugo Dyson met the latest bulletin from Middle Earth by (according to Tolkien’s son Christopher) “lying on the couch, and lolling and shouting and saying, ‘Oh God, no more Elves’”.

Not that all of them were ever present at the Magdalen reading meetings: often no more than six or seven would turn up, while the rest preferred to save themselves for the more raucous social gatherings in the Oxford pub The Eagle and Child. Inkling James Dundas-Grant recalls a typical scene:

“we sat in a small back room with a fine coal fire in winter... back and forth the conversation would flow. Latin tags flying around. Homer quoted in the original to make a point ... Tolkien jumping up and down, declaiming in Anglo-Saxon.”

Endearingly eccentric though this might sound, the group have been accused of cliquey provincialism, of being hermetically sealed in their nook at “The Bird and Baby” from those evolutions which were occurring in the wider world of literature. John Wain, a former pupil of Lewis’s and an occasional Inkling himself, wrote a hostile account of the group in 1962, stating that they were “politically conservative, not to say reactionary; in religion... in art, frankly hostile to any manifestation of the ‘modern’ spirit”. The surviving Inklings were outraged, but some of Wain’s criticisms seem difficult to repudiate. Here, for example, is Lewis lampooning T. S. Eliot:

For twenty years I’ve stared my level best
To see if evening – any evening – would suggest
A patient etherised upon a table;
In vain. I simply wasn’t able.

Yet this mistrust of modernity was part of the group’s essential spirit. Most of the Inklings were veterans of the Trenches and had little cause to applaud a world descending once again into conflict. The image that Glyer’s expert account will sometimes conjure up, of ageing scholars swapping tales with a pint of ale in hand, seems tellingly familiar – reminiscent of a convocation of hobbits back from the war and living out their days in comfort in the Shire. Small wonder that Tolkien, who declared himself to be “a Hobbit in all but size”, was so attached to that sentimental ending, with its cosy domesticity and its bedtime stories by the fire.

Jon Barnes – ‘The Atlantic’ – September 2007
The Company They Keep --
‘C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as writers in community’
By Diana Pavlac Glyer

Down the pub with Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (I)

The original ending in the Shire…

There is magic in the last line of The Lord of the Rings. To recap: the stolidly courageous Sam Gamgee, having watched his best friend, Frodo Baggins, sail towards the Grey Havens and into a kind of death, is left to walk back to the Shire where he finds his wife and children waiting with the promise of a quiet life far from the slaughter of the War of the Ring. J. R. R. Tolkien finishes with the sentence: “‘Well, I’m back,’ he said”. It is a touchingly understated conclusion which returns the prose to the homely simplicity of the inaugural chapters after the archaic epic mode of The Return of the King.

However, as Diana Pavlac Glyer tells us in her scholarly and perceptive study The Company They Keep, this is not how Tolkien originally intended to finish his trilogy. He had in mind a further epilogue, set sixteen years after the events of the rest of the book, which would have provided another, superfluous glimpse into Gamgee’s domesticity. In this ultimately excised version, a grey-haired Sam reads stories of his adventures to his children, spinning them tales of wizards and orcs and walking trees. There is even the faint suggestion that Sam has been narrating the story of The Lord of the Rings itself, before, at last, we depart the Shire for good, leaving Sam and Rose in a state of connubial bliss, tale-telling by the fireside.

What stopped Tolkien from publishing this ending was his membership of the Inklings (...) It was they who pointed out the glutinous sentimentality of the scene, marshalling their forces to argue that it added nothing of substance to a narrative which had already swollen far beyond the “second Hobbit” requested by his publishers. Glyer suggests that this incident typifies the way in which the Inklings affected one another’s work, despite the fact that in later years its members were frequently to insist that their meetings acted more as a social club than a writers’ circle, brushing aside any suggestion of real influence.

Jon Barnes – ‘The Atlantic’ – September 2007
The Company They Keep
‘C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as writers in community’
By Diana Pavlac Glyer

Walking with God

"Let us suppose that we are doing a mountain walk to the village which is our home. At mid-day we come to the top of a cliff where we are, in space, very near it because it is just below us. We could drop a stone onto it. But as we are no cragsmen we can't get down. We must go a long way round; five miles, maybe. At many points during that detour we shall, statically, be farther from the village than we were when we sat above the cliff. But only statically. In terms of progress we shall be far 'nearer' our baths and teas.
Since God is blessed, omnipotent, sovereign and creative, there is obviously a sense in which happiness, strength, freedom and fertility (whether of mind or body), wherever they appear in human life, constitute likenesses, and in that way proximities, to God. But no one supposes that the possession of these gifts has any necessary connection with our sanctification. No kind of riches is a passport to the Kingdom of Heaven.
At the cliff's top we are near the village, but however long we sit there we shall never be any nearer to our bath and our tea. So here; the likeness, and in that sense nearness, to Himself which God has conferred upon certain creatures and certain states of those creatures is something finished, built in. What is near Him by likeness is never, by that fact alone, going to be any nearer. But nearness of approach is, by definition, increasing nearness. And whereas the likeness is given to us-and can be received with or without thanks, can be used or abused - the approach, however initiated and supported by Grace, is something we must do."
C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (1960)

The Worm Ouroboros

In 1922, E.R. Eddison published his first novel The Worm Ourobouros, a novel of daring adventures and dastardly treachery set in a never-never-land on Mercury; his four novels channelled the evolution of genre fantasy, not least by being much admired by both Lewis and Tolkien. The gallant and noble lords of Demonland are threatened by an assortment of villains -- the various kings Gorice of Witchland and the thuggish generals of their court, aided and abetted by the compulsively treacherous Lord Gro; Gro is one of the more fascinating villains in fantasy: charismatic, intelligent, sensitive and flawed. Eddison was obsessed with the poetry and prose of the Elizabethan era -- not trusting his own poetic skills, he simply has his characters quote sonnets and epigrams and ballads, some of them famous; when his characters deliver heroic defiance or counsel betrayal, it is always in a rhetoric that for once sounds like what the characters of a heroic age might say. What makes The Worm Ourobouros a classic fantasy is, quite simply, that it has some of the best battle scenes, some of the more terrifying scenes of magic and some of the most tender love scenes that the genre has ever achieved.

When J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was published, reviewers saw that there was only one book with which it could legitimately be compared: E.R. Eddison's classic fantasy adventure The Worm Ouroboros. Set on a distant planet of spectacular beauty and peopled by Lords and Kings, mighty warriors and raven-haired temptresses, Eddison's extravagant story, of a great war for total domination, is an unforgettable work of splendour.

(Amazon review)

The Splendid Century

What can you say about a book that gives you Louis XIV sitting on the grass at Versailles carrying on a conversation with a little girl? This is history with a human face. When Louis made the little girl laugh he knew she liked him for himself and not because she was trying to gain the favour of The Sun King. When you think of Versailles do you think of elegance and sumptuousness? Of course! But do you also picture courtiers eating soup out of one tureen using a communal spoon? Or of using a piece of stale bread as a plate? And if you were lucky enough to be in residence at Versailles your living quarters were likely to be the size of a small attic room. And that's if you were lucky!

This book is also much more than just Louis and Versailles. It lives up to its subtitle. For you also learn about how the church and the army operated; what it was like to be a peasant or a member of the impoverished nobility; there is an excellent chapter on the bureaucracies involved surrounding doctors and dentists; life for a criminal sentenced to the galleys; the education of women, etc. I cannot say enough good things about this book. It is only about 285 pages but there is so much learning and entertainment between the covers that you will be amazed. Probably the best thing I can say is that even though it was written almost 60 years ago, the book does not seem dated in the least. I would imagine that in the scholarly world things have come to light which might necessitate changing some things here and there but for the general reader it does not get any better than this! I will always have the image of little Louis (he was only 5 feet 5 inches) sitting on the grass, charming and being charmed by that anonymous little girl...

Bruce Loveitt (Ogdensburg, NY USA)