On Writing...

I am sure that some are born to write as trees are born to bear leaves: for these, writing is a necessary mode of their own development.  If the impulse to write survives the hope of success, then one is among these.  If not, then the impulse was at best only pardonable vanity, and it will certainly disappear when the hope is withdrawn.

C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves,
The Letters of C.S. Lewis, (28 August 1930)

The way for a person to develop a style is (a) to know exactly what he wants to say, and (b) to be sure he is saying exactly that.  The reader, we must remember, does not start by knowing what we mean.  If our words are ambiguous, our meaning will escape him.  I sometimes think that writing is like driving sheep down a road.  If there is any gate open to the left or right the readers will most certainly go into it.

C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock,
"Cross-Examination" (1963)

Returning to work on an interrupted story is not like returning to work on a scholarly article.  Fact, however long the scholar has left them untouched in his notebook, will still prove the same conclusions; he has only to start the engine running again.  But the story is an organism: it goes on surreptitiously growing or decaying while your back is turned.  If it decays, the resumption of work is like trying to coax back to life an almost extinguished fire, or to recapture the confidence of a shy animal which you had only partially tamed at your last visit.

C.S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century,
bk III.I (1954)

from "The Ascent of the Spear"

Taliessin walked in the palace yard;
he saw, under a guard, a girl sit in the stocks.
The stable-slaves, lounging by the gate,
cried catcalls and mocks, flung roots and skins of fruits.
She, rigid on the hard bench, disdained
motion, her cheek stained with a bruise, veined
with fury her forehead. The guard laughed and chaffed;
when Taliessin stepped near, he leapt to a rigid salute.
Lightly the king's poet halted, took the spear
from the manned hand, and with easy eyes dismissed.
Nor wist the crowd, he gone, what to do;
lifted arms fell askew; jaws gaped;
claws of fingers uncurled. They gazed,
amazed at the world of each inflexible head.

The silence loosened to speech; the king's poet said:
'Do I come as a fool? forgive folly; once more
be kind, be faithful: did we not together adore?
Say then what trick of temper or fate?' Hard-voiced,
she said without glancing, I sit here for taking a stick
to a sneering bastard slut, a Mongol ape,
that mouthed me in a wrangle.
Fortunate, for a brawl in the hall, to escape,
they dare tell me, the post, the stripping and whipping:
should I care, if the hazel rods cut flesh from bone?'

Charles Williams
Taliessin through Logres (1938)

Siamese cats...

[A Cambridge cat breeder had asked if she could register a litter of Siamese kittens under names taken from The Lord of the Rings.]

My only comment is that of Puck upon mortals.  I fear that to me Siamese cats belong to the fauna of Mordor, but you need not tell the cat breeder that.

J.R.R. Tolkien
From a letter to Allen & Unwin
14 October 1959

The first talk

The first talk in What Christians Believe dealt with alternative belief systems, with atheism and with pantheism. This was broadcast on 11 January 1942. When eventually published in the collected talks, better known as Mere Christianity, this first script was entitled The Rival Conceptions of God.

Lewis begins by telling the listener one thing that Christians do not have to believe. They don't have to believe that all other religions are entirely wrong. All can contain 'a hint of truth'. Atheists, on the other hand, have to believe that every religion has at its heart a massive mistake. Drawing on his own experience as someone who moved from atheism to theism and then to Christian conviction, Lewis admits that as a Christian he can be more liberal towards other religions than he could as an atheist. Although Christians maintain that what they believe is right and others are wrong, they can acknowledge that some answers, even wrong ones, can be closer to the right one than others. That's why those who believe in God are in a majority - atheism is harder than belief. And Lewis goes on to say that the one argument that most convinced him is the ability to think. If there is no creative intelligence behind the universe then his brain was not designed for thinking. If this was just a cosmic accident, he argues, using a brilliant illustration, 'it's like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way the splash arranges itself will give you a map of London'. How can one trust one's own thinking to be true?, he ponders. Lewis concludes: 'Unless I believe in God, I can't believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.'

Justin Phillips
C.S. Lewis at the BBC


Bill Nighy singing my very favourite song from the 1980s. Written by J.R.R. Tolkien, I learned this at the time and have sung it many times as my 'party piece'. And now it turns up on You Tube. YES... THAT BILL NIGHY.

The tapes/CDs are really worth seeking out. Priceless... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ngm9B9pYgy0 or click on the title above.

Tolkien on his critics in 1955

[The radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was discussed on the BBC programme 'The Critics'; and on 16 November, W. H. Auden gave a radio talk about the book in which he said: 'If someone dislikes it, I shall never trust their literary judgement about anything again.'  Meanwhile Edwin Muir, reviewing The Return of the King in the Observer on 27 November, wrote: 'All the characters are boys masquerading as adult heroes .... and will never come to puberty. .... Hardly one of them knows anything about women.']

I agreed with the 'critics' view of the radio adaptation; but I was annoyed that after confessing that none of them had read the book they should turn their attention to it and me — including surmises on my religion. I also thought Auden rather bad – he cannot at any rate read verse, having a poor rhythmical sense; and deplored his making the book 'a test of literary taste'. You cannot do that with any work – and if you could you only infuriate.  I was fully prepared for Roben Robinson's rejoinder 'fair-ground barker'.  But I suppose all this is good for sales.  My correspondence is now increased by letters of fury against the critics and the broadcast.  One elderly lady – in part the model for 'Lobelia' indeed, though she does not suspect it – would I think certainly have set about Auden (and others) had they been in range of her umbrella. ....

I hope in this vacation to begin surveying the Silmarillion; though evil fate has plumped a doctorate thesis on me...

Blast Edwin Muir and his delayed adolescence. He is old enough to know better. It might do him good to hear what women think of his 'knowing about women', especially as a test of being mentally adult.  If he had an M.A. I should nominate him for the professorship of poetry – a sweet revenge.

Letter to Rayner Unwin
8 December 1955
J.R.R. Tolkien

A tame sort of God?

One reason why many people find Creative Evolution so attractive is that it gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences. When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest. If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children. The Life Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you. All the thrills of religion and none of the cost. Is the Life Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?

C.S. Lewis
‘Mere Christianity’

Clarity or Obscurity?

The pattern of divided knowledge can be traced in criticisms of Charles Williams' writings. C.S. Lewis, himself a model of clarity, 'pitched into' Williams for all he was worth for his “obscurity”. Some think he writes ‘purple prose’, others that he writes a kind of shorthand. For some his style is too highly coloured, and some can't make head or tail of him! One couple to whom, with greater enthusiasm than judgement, I lent War in Heaven, returned it half-read with barely suppressed shudders, murmuring misgivings over his - and probably my! - preoccupation with the occult.

At our meeting in February 1986, Dr Rowan Williams described certain excerpts from The Descent of the Dove as 'purple passages’ and some of C.W.'s writings as self-indulgent. Charles Williams, interestingly enough, makes a similar observation of St Paul: “There must have been many of the churches he founded who were so illiterate as not to have heard of his best purple passages.” It seems Williams is in good company; and purple is, of course, a royal colour. Hugo Epson's exclamation: ‘clotted glory from Charles!’ will find an echo in many of C.W.'s readers. There is certainly lots of glory. Sometimes he seems almost too highly coloured - and charged! - for us to swallow. Eternity and eternal truths are so richly described, almost laid on with a trowel , that the effect can be akin to being faced with a rich and creamy dessert after a full and satisfying first course. Like the man who, having begged God for a revelation, got what he asked for, one wants to cry; ‘0 enough! enough! I can't bear any more!' There is just so much of the beatific vision mortal man can bear, and live, even when despite its brilliance, it is a veiled splendour.

Joan Northam
Charles Williams Society Newsletter
No 45 - Spring 1987 (excerpt)