The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life

Carpenter Tolkien LettersThis actually happened three times, though we don’t have most of the letters that J.R.R. Tolkien sent to his friend C.S. Lewis over the years.

The first letters that changed Lewis’ life were more than letters. Throughout the 1920s Lewis had moved from atheism to a belief in God, relying mostly on philosophical constructs to move, piece by piece, into the Enemy’s camp (from Lewis’ perspective as reluctant convert). Lewis hesitated to convert to Christianity, however. Among the reasons for this hesitation were his concern about the “Christ myth.” While he loved myths, he thought they had little representative value–they don’t tell us much about real life. And he felt the Christ myth was derivative, or even distasteful. Why not turn to Osiris, Dionysus, or Balder and get better poetry thrown in?

Tolkien responded in a few ways. To the first objection, that myths have no value, Tolkien wrote a poem, “From Philomythus to Misomythus“–from MythLover to MythHater, what we now call the Mythopoeia poem. The first lines show a bit of how Tolkien won Lewis to the idea that myths were not just “lies … breathed through silver,” but contained deeper truth than bare fact could tell us:

You look at trees and label them just so,
(for trees are ‘trees’, and growing is ‘to grow’);
you walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
one of the many minor globes of Space:
a star’s a star, some matter in a ball
compelled to courses mathematical               
amid the regimented, cold, inane,
where destined atoms are each moment slain.

Collected Letters vol 1The second objection was overcome in a slower process: with long talks and long walks, with beer and pipes and late nights whispering as we did as children.

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself … I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in c old prose ‘what it meant’.
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened (letter to Arthur Greeves, Oct 18th, 1931; Collected Letters, 976-977).

This one-two punch not only brought C.S. Lewis into the Christian faith that he would engender for the rest of his life, it gave Lewis back the idea of “myth” that slid away during his university years. The deepest truths of myth informed all of Lewis’ ideas about literature and philosophy, and was the foundation of his best fiction.

The second life changing moment involved a conversation now kept in the Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, and a humorous note by Tolkien to a publisher.

The Hobbit by JRR TolkienIt is not often that we have the conversation of intimates left to us in history, which probably means that we don’t know know much about history. In one instance, though, Tolkien shared a moment in the mid-1930s, a conversation that Lewis and he had:

L. [Lewis] said to me one day: ‘Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.’ We agreed that he should try ‘space-travel’, and I should try ‘time-travel’. His result is well known. My effort, after a few promising chapters, ran dry: it was too long a way round to what I really wanted to make, a new version of the Atlantis legend. The final scene survives as The Downfall of Númenor. This attracted Lewis greatly (as heard read), and reference to it occurs in several places in his works: e.g. ‘The Last of the Wine’, in his poems (Poems, 1964, p. 40). We neither of us expected much success as amateurs, and actually Lewis had some difficulty in getting Out of the Silent Planet published. And after all that has happened since, the most lasting pleasure and reward for both of us has been that we provided one another with stories to hear or read that we really liked – in large parts. Naturally neither of us liked all that we found in the other’s fiction (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 378).

It is now a famous story. It captures the “double dare” of two good friends, as well as their characteristic writing styles. Lewis was quick to the pen, even if it took the audience a while to get it to their bookshelves. Tolkien was slow, cautious, and self-deprecating, and wrote for an audience that still hangs on every word.

out of the silent planet by c.s. lewisWhile Lewis could write quickly, this was still 1978. In the popular world, Lewis had had two books of poetry that sold poorly, and an obscure spiritual autobiography that barely counts as fiction. Although his academic work was well received, there was no audience for Out of the Silent Planet, a H.G. Wells-like interplanetary romance. Lewis struggled to find a publisher.

Solid and hesitant both, J.R.R. Tolkien decided to use his modest voice as the successful author of The Hobbit to try to help Lewis to popular print. He wrote to Stanley Unwin, the publisher who had discovered Tolkien’s potential. First, he confirms the double dare story:

We originally meant each to write an excursionary ‘Thriller': a Space-journey and a Time-journey (mine) each discovering Myth. But the Space-journey has been finished, and the Time-journey remains owing to my slowness and uncertainty only a fragment, as you know (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 29).

Tolkien continues in this letter and another–bundled and sent together–to encourage its publication. Tolkien notes first that the protagonist, Dr. Ransom, is only coincidentally a philologist (like Tolkien), and that Out of the Silent Planet had passed the test of being read to the Inklings. In the second note, solicited by Unwin, Tolkien is more careful in his apology since it had received a poor review from one of Unwin’s readers, who called it “bunk.” Tolkien’s humour shines through in response:

I was disturbed by your reader’s report. I am afraid that at the first blush I feel inclined to retort that anyone capable of using the word ‘bunk’ will inevitably find matter of this sort – bunk (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 33).

Out Of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis 1960sMore than wry humour, Tolkien tells the story of the Silent Planet‘s worth:

I read the story in the original MS. and was so enthralled that I could do nothing else until I had finished it. My first criticism was simply that it was too short. I still think that criticism holds, for both practical and artistic reasons. Other criticisms, concerning narrative style (Lewis is always apt to have rather creaking stiff-jointed passages), inconsistent details in the plot, and philology, have since been corrected to my satisfaction. The author holds to items of linguistic invention that do not appeal to me (Malacandra, Maleldil — eldila, in any case, I suspect to be due to the influence of the Eldar in the Silmarillion – and Pfifltriggi); but this is a matter of taste. After all your reader found my invented names, made with cherished care, eye-splitting. But the linguistic inventions and the philology on the whole are more than good enough. All the pan about language and poetry – the glimpses of its Malacandrian nature and form — is very well done, and extremely interesting, far superior to what one usually gets from travellers in untravelled regions. The language difficulty is usually slid over or fudged. Here it not only has verisimilitude, but also underlying thought (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 32-3).

Tolkien, of course, would be concerned with philology! After all, he spent decades working on the languages for Middle Earth with “cherished, eye-splitting care.” While Tolkien did not really get Narnia (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 32-3) or some of Lewis’ philosophical fiction, he though Out of the Silent Planet had real value:

I should have said that the story had for the more intelligent reader a great number of philosophical and mythical implications that enormously enhanced without detracting from the surface ‘adventure’. I found the blend of vera historia with mythos irresistible (Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 33).

Out Of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis 50sAny literary praise from Tolkien is high praise. The letter contains some criticism as well, a balanced assessment that is able to check Tolkien’s love for Lewis and his desire for Lewis’ success. Although Unwin’s firm did not publish Out of the Silent Planet, Stanley Unwin invited its submission to The Bodley Head. Unwin was the chair of the board of The Bodley Head, and they took the risk (Jack 235). Thus began C.S. Lewis’ world-class career as a popular storyteller.

The third life-changing moment I will only share in brief. Because of his public voice as a Christian intellectual and because of the popular literature that we love, Lewis never got tenure at Oxford–he never was elected to a chair. For years, Tolkien was quietly working to try to help Lewis move forward to a position as professor, which would give him more time to publish (e.g. Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 108).

Eventually, Tolkien took another path. Despite the fact that their relationship had cooled, when a Chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature opened at Cambridge, Tolkien worked hard to lead Lewis to the promotion, negotiating for Lewis to be considered even when he withdrew his name for the chair (Lewis had recommended another candidate). Finally, Tolkien arranged it so that Lewis could live at his home in Oxford out of term and on weekends, being near his family and gardens.

J R R Tolkien - Smoking Pipe OutdoorsIt was enough. At Tolkien’s urging Lewis took the chair and Lewis began an era–1954-1963–that was rich for him. Lewis wrote perhaps his best work, Till We Have Faces, as well as his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy. He met, married, taught, wrote, and felt the fading of his own life–first with the death of Joy, his wife, and second in his own failing health.

In one of those letters, Tolkien wrote that he and Lewis were “amateurs in a world of great writers” (378). I’m not sure that we are really in a world of great writers, but it was Tolkien and Lewis’ friendship with each other that brought them to the level of “great” in fantasy and popular literature. Truly, these letters and late night talks changed C.S. Lewis’ life, and changed the lives of so many readers after him.

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

Hooper, Walter, ed. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume I: Family Letters 1905-1931. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.

Sayer, George. Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996.

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Some Great Tolkien Posts for #TolkienReadingDay

Tomorrow is J.R.R. Tolkien Reading Day (Mar 25, 2015)! I’m still working out what it is I’m going to read and write about. As I prepare this post–and as you tuck yourselves in to a great book tonight and tomorrow–I thought I would link some of the Tolkien posts I’ve done over the last few years.

Enjoy, please share, and be sure to link your on #TolkienReadingDay posts.

Film Reviews

When the teaser trailer of the third film, The Battle of Five Armies, was released, I wrote “Faint Hope for The Hobbit.” Although it is clear in the trailers that this is a war and intrigue film, I still had some hope I would enjoy it. The huge comment section shows in that post shows that not everyone agreed it was possible!

My review of An Unexpected Journey captures the tug back and forth I feel about the films. I called it, “Not All Adventures Begin Well,” and it is a much more positive review than many of the hardcore Tolkien fans or academics. And it gives this cool dwarf picture:

What Have We Done?” These words are breathed in the dying moments of the second installation of The Hobbit adaptation, The Desolation of Smaug. In this review I think about what it means to do film adaptations. While I do not hate this Hobbit trilogy, I think that Peter Jackson just got lost a bit.

When I finally got to The Battle of 5 Armies, I decided it would be fun to do a Battle of 5 Blogs. 5 other bloggers joined it, making it a Battle of 6 Blogs! But the armies are pretty tough to count anyhow. I titled my blog, “The Hobbit as Living Text.” It was a controversial approach to the film, I know, and people are still commenting on it (agreeing and disagreeing with me). Make sure you check out the other reviewers link here. Some of us chatted about the films in an All About Jack Podcast, which you can hear here and here.

Book Reviews

There was no greater friend of The Hobbit in the early days than C.S. Lewis. In “The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends,” I talk about how, if it wasn’t for Lewis, Tolkien may never have finished The Hobbit, and the entire Lord of the Rings legendarium would be in an Oxford archive somewhere. Lewis not only encouraged the book to completion, but reviewed The Hobbit a few times. Here is his review in The Times Literary Supplement.

Lewis is not the only significant reviewer of The Hobbit. When he was 8, my son Nicolas published his review, just as the first film was coming to the end of its run. When I was posting Nicolas’ review, I came across another young fellow–the son of Stanley Unwin, the first publisher to receive the remarkable manuscript of The Hobbit. Unsure how children would respond, he paid his son, Rayner, to write a response to the book. You can read about it here: “The Youngest Reviewers Get it Right, or The Hobbit in the Hands of Young Men.”

I realize as I do this survey that I haven’t written a review. That’s okay: C.S. Lewis and my son are better sources anyway.

The Read-Aloud Hobbit

One of my first digital exchanges was participating in The Hobbit Read Along–you can still see the great collection of posts online. As I was doing this shared project, I was reading The Hobbit to my 7 3/4-year-old son. It was a great experience, but I made the mistake of doing accents to distinguish characters early on in the book. That’s fine when you’ve got oafish trolls or prim little hobbits. But a baker’s dozen of dwarfs stretched my abilities! You can read about my reading aloud adventures here.

In reading aloud I was really struck by the theme of providence in The Hobbit. I’m sure others have talked about it, but “Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (Chapter 5)” is a great example of that hand of guidance behind the scenes. I’ve written other Tolkien Ideas reflections, like “Let Folly Be Our Cloak: Power in the Lord of the Rings” or “Affirming Creation in LOTR,” but this idea of providence is the most powerful to me.

Hobbit and Art

I am fascinated by Tolkien’s own artwork. In some of the Tolkien letters we find out how his humble drawings came to be published with the children’s tale. I decided, though, that I wanted to explore it a little more, and so I wrote, “Drawing the Hobbit.”

There have been many other illustrators since–including Peter Jackson. One of my favourites was captered in this reblog, “Russian Medievalist Tolkien“–a gorgeous collection of Sergey Yuhimov’s interpretation of The Hobbit.

With the great new editions of unpublished Tolkien by his son, we also get to see some of Tolkien’s original art. I continue to be fascinated by this dragon drawing. What an evocation of the Würme in medieval literature!

Tolkien’s Ideas

Tolkien’s work is rich with reflection on the world. I would encourage you to read Jubilare’s reblog of the Khazâd series. It’s just the first of a great series, but shows you a bit of the depth of Tolkien’s world behind the world. Just the other day I took that legendarium a little further. In reading up on the Wizards of Middle Earth–the Brown, the White, the Grey, and the two Blues–it struck me how relevant Radagast the Brown is to us today. Do you agree or disagree? I’d love your comments.

And Just For Fun….

Because I can, and because some things are entirely meaningless, I will leave you with a quiz: What Character in the Hobbit Are You? You will not be surprised that I am Thorin Oakenshield!


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The Heavenly Horses of C. S. Lewis: A Guest Blog by Leslie Baynes

great divorceOne of the most memorable scenes in The Great Divorce, and the only one where a shade accepts grace and enters heaven, features a horse. At the end of chapter 11, the Ghost enslaved to the lizard Lust desperately desires to be free of it but just as desperately clings to his life-long companion. The only escape is a clean break—killing the beast. But little does the Ghost realize that the lizard’s death will bring them both life, transforming the man into a new being, and the rapacious reptile into a glorious new animal:

“So far from dying, the creature was still struggling and even growing bigger as it struggled. And as it grew it changed. Its hinder parts grew rounder. The tail, still flickering, became a tail of hair that flickered between huge and glossy buttocks … What stood beside me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white but with mane and tail of gold. It was smooth and shining, rippled with swells of flesh and muscle, whinnying and stamping with its hoofs. At each stamp the land shook and trees dindled.”

The two breathe into each other’s nostrils. The man climbs on the horse’s back, and “there was riding if you like!” the narrator exclaims, as the earth rejoices and the pair gallops off together into true heaven.

This isn’t the only place horses appear in The Great Divorce. In the next vignette, Sarah Smith of Golders Green is accompanied by a retinue of animals, including a herd of horses. Our narrator is confused by their presence, but his guide George MacDonald explains the reason why they’re there:

“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”

wild horses mountainsMany of Lewis’s works include animals of some kind, but equines, and especially horses, seem to hold a special place in his imaginative world. Even children reading the Chronicles of Narnia can see this, from Strawberry/Fledge in The Magician’s Nephew to the donkey, unicorn, centaur, and horses in The Last Battle (not to mention the protagonists Bree and Hwin in The Horse and His Boy!). When I was a child reading the Chronicles, Lewis’s depictions of horses were some of my favorite parts of the books. As I grew up and moved on to his work for older readers, and when I became a horse owner and equestrian myself, I started wondering about Lewis’s personal relationship with horses. Did he ever own one? If not, did he have the opportunity to ride, or at least to spend significant time with them? How did he come to write about them so accurately and sympathetically?

At some point I heard that Lewis gave his stepson Douglas Gresham a pony, and I decided to write and ask him about it. Douglas very graciously answered my questions in a delightful series of emails that we exchanged over the last few months.

The Kilns CS LewisDouglas’s “pony” was actually a small horse, what’s called a Cob, and her name was in fact Cobber. “She was solid, strong, stubborn, hard-mouthed and flighty, a real handful for a child to ride,  and I loved her. We also used her to pull a plough for our vegetable garden,” Douglas wrote. When I asked where she lived, he told me that “she had a stable (built by Fred Paxford our Man-of-all-work) at The Kilns. It was located about 50 yards straight out from the back door.” His step-father “liked the horse and often fed her titbits of this and that.” Douglas had her for about four years, but when his attention turned to motorbikes, she was sold, although he owned and worked with many other horses later in his life, and he remains a great horse lover to this day.

The other significant memory that Douglas has regarding his stepfather and horses is the horror he felt about their deaths on the battlefields of World War I, which he had seen firsthand as a combatant. Millions of horses were conscripted into the fighting, and few of them made it out alive. Their story has been told most famously in the book, Broadway play, and movie War Horse.

Lewis’s love of horses appears in his letters, and they supply some background illuminating how he turns them into such potent images in his books. For instance, when he learns that his dear friend Arthur Greeves has taken up riding, he writes

“The news of your learning to ride was surprising, amusing (as you foresaw!) and on the whole good … What would attract me the most about riding, viz. the unity of man and beast, is, I suppose, largely spoiled by having to use hired horses. But if you find you like it I suppose you could easily afford a horse of your own … Certainly I should enjoy very much strolling round with you to visit it in its stable.” (November 5, 1933)

We don’t know what happened with Arthur’s riding lessons, but we do know that the anticipation Lewis voices in the last sentence of the letter was fulfilled in his enjoyment of visiting Cobber with Douglas decades later at his own stable at The Kilns. In this letter we also see what may be the first articulation of an idea that becomes important in his books, the “unity of man and beast.” Lewis is right about that collected letters cs lewis volume 3 ed by walter hooperexperience being spoiled by “hired horses.” He knows that horses are not motorbikes or even livestock. As the horse-human relationship grows and deepens over time, so does the quality, and thus the enjoyment, of the rides they share together. In a letter to Sarah Neyland, Lewis writes,

“I particularly envy you having half a pony and learning to ride. I can’t, but I love the sight and sound and smell and feel of a horse and v. much wish that I could. I’d sooner have a nice, thickset, steady-going cob that knew me & that I knew how to ride than all the cars and private planes in the world.” (January 16, 1954)

These letters set the stage for how he uses the archetype of the horse in his writings, with the union and harmony of horse and rider being central to his purpose. The purest mythological expression of this idea is the centaur, which appears not only in his fantasies like the Chronicles of Narnia, but other places, too, e.g., the book Miracles. This book is very much concerned with the relationship between God and the physical world, or Nature. When Lewis uses equine imagery, it almost always represents Nature in some form, and often the human body, as it does in Miracles chapter 14. He writes there,

“The spirit was once not a garrison, maintaining its post with difficulty in a hostile Nature, but was fully ‘at home’ with its organism, like a king in his own country or a rider on his own horse—or better still, as the human part of a Centaur was ‘at home’ with the equine part.”

Remember the Ghost and the lizard in the Great Divorce: the two of them were at war, but the new man and his heavenly mount became a perfect union. After he watches the pair wild horses on the plaingallop away, the narrator writes that the earth sang because “the Nature or Arch-nature of that land rejoiced to have been once more ridden, and therefore consummated, in the person of the horse.”

Such language might make some modern readers uncomfortable. It’s hierarchical and thus completely out of fashion. But as Lewis himself would say, the question of whether or not it’s in fashion is not the same question as whether or not it’s true. From a practical horsemanship standpoint, it’s a truism. Horses live in herds with distinct hierarchies, and each animal knows his or her own place, with the lead mare at the top, and every horse’s position assigned in descending order from there.

When you take a horse out of the herd, the rider has to become the lead mare, taking total control of her mount. If that doesn’t happen, things become very dangerous very quickly because the horse is anxious, uncertain, and afraid. If the horse is allowed to be in charge in that emotional state, both people and horses will suffer. In the same way, we humans must be in control of our natures, our appetites, from our sexual lives to how we spend money, because if we aren’t their masters, we will surely be their slaves, or, to return to an equine metaphor, get bucked off and find ourselves face down in the dirt.

cs lewis the great divorce awesome coverFull mastery of the unruly horses of our nature is impossible in this lifetime, so we look forward to perfectly lovely rides in the resurrection. Lewis’s harmonious horses can only be heavenly horses. Consciously or unconsciously, in describing them he draws upon thousands of years of precedent from the Bible and the Greco-Roman classics that he knew and loved so well. In those texts earthly equines appear most often in the context of war, but all of the cultures that ringed the Mediterranean also had a tradition of divine horses. For example, the biblical prophet Elijah is carried to heaven in a chariot drawn by fiery heavenly horses. William Blake alludes to this story from 2 Kings in his poem Jerusalem (which, set to music, has become almost a British anthem):

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

In the Book of Revelation, the resurrected Jesus returns to earth riding a white horse, accompanied by an army of angels similarly mounted. The color is significant. The Ghost-Become-New-Man’s horse in The Great Divorce was also “silvery white.” White horses were prized in the Mediterranean world, and they were especially associated with kings and royalty. According to the Roman writer Virgil, white was the color of victory, so it isn’t surprising that victorious generals rode, or were pulled in chariots by, white horses when they celebrated their triumphs, the ancient equivalent of ticker-tape parades honoring the returning heroes. White horses were also closely associated with the gods, which may be why that color of horse was the equine sacrificial offering of choice.

Jewish Catacomb Vigna Randanini in Rome picture from E. R. GoodenoughAnother sort of horse Lewis and ancient authors jointly favored was the winged variety. It, too, was closely connected with the gods and with life after death. According to the Greek writer Hesiod, Pegasus flew “to the deathless gods: and he dwells in the house of Zeus and brings to wise Zeus thunder and lightning.” By virtue of his wings, Pegasus is a natural for bridging the gap between heaven and earth. He becomes a psychopomp, a creature who leads the soul to heaven. Even some ancient Jews adopted this use of the symbol, if we may judge from the two pegasi that decorate the Jewish Catacomb Vigna Randanini in Rome (picture from E. R. Goodenough).

Of course, in his writings Lewis didn’t represent the winged horse simply as the soul’s guide. Christians reject a Platonic dualism of soul and body. How could they be dualistic about them, given Christ’s own resurrection? Lewis’s winged horses serve to illustrate the idea, as he wrote in Mere Christianity, that

“God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature … it is not mere improvement but Transformation.”

miraclesEastern Orthodox Christians call this transformation of humanity into the image of God theosis. One step along the way to that blessed state is an attempt to deny the baser aspects of human nature through fasting and abstinence, especially during the season of Lent. Those Christians, Orthodox or not, who are keeping Lent and looking forward to Easter might find this final paragraph in Miracles on heavenly horses to be good spiritual food for the remainder of the journey:

“To shrink back from all that can be called Nature into negative spirituality is as if we ran away from horses instead of learning to ride. There is in our present pilgrim condition plenty of room (more room than most of us like) for abstinence and renunciation and mortifying our natural desire. But behind all asceticism the thought should be, ‘Who will trust us with the true wealth if we cannot be trusted even with the wealth that perishes?’ Who will trust me with a spiritual body if I cannot control even an earthly body? These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage: not that we may some day be free of horses altogether but that some day we may ride bare-back, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged shining and world-shaking horses which perhaps even now expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the King’s stables. Not that the gallop would be of any value unless it were a gallop with the King; but how else—since He has retained His own charger—should we accompany Him?”

“The Heavenly Horses of C. S. Lewis” is part of a Monday series on The Great Divorce here on A Pilgrim in Narnia.

Guest blogger Leslie Baynes is associate professor of New Testament and Second Temple Judaism at Missouri State University. She rides a spunky bay Arabian named Romeo. Though not a winged horse, Romeo likes to pretend that he is.

What is your experience with horses, or horses in literature? Feel free to share in the comments below!

© Leslie Baynes, Missouri State University

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C.S. Lewis’ Accidental Autobiography

CS Lewis and his Father Albert LewisLewis tried a number of times to write his spiritual autobiography. When in 1930 he had come to a philosophical belief in God, but was not yet a Christian, he gave a start to the story. It has finally been published, incomplete as it is, by Andrew Lazo in the 2013 volume of VII.

Three years later Lewis is a Christian, and is vacationing at a friend’s house. Knowing the story is still rattling around inside of him, he finds a little corner and begins to map out his conversion narrative like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Two weeks later he had a complete book, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933) Lewis never thought this obscure little book quite did what he wanted his conversion story to do. It is an odd, rich, difficult little book, so it never does reach a popular audience.

The Problem of PainIn his introduction to The Problem of Pain (1939), Lewis’ little book on spiritual theology and popular apologetics, Lewis tells a bit of his conversion story. Perhaps this was for Lewis a tug back to a still untold story. But his increasing fame and success in WWII swept him away from his own story to other stories, and his spiritual autobiography remained unwritten.

We do have, however, an accidental autobiography. Alan Jacobs tells the story well in his book The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (2005). Asked by his American publisher for a brief sketch of his life for one of his book jackets, this is what Lewis sent in a letter:

I was a younger son, and we lost my mother when I was a child. That meant very long days alone when my father was at work and my brother at boarding school. Alone in a big house full of books. I suppose that fixed a literary bent. I drew a lot, but soon began to write more. My first stories were mostly about mice (influence of Beatrix Potter), but mice usually in armor killing gigantic cats (influence of fairy stories). That is, I wrote the books I should have liked to read if only I could have got them. That’s always been my reason for writing. People won’t write the books I want, so I have to do it for myself: no rot about “self-expression.” I loathed school. Being an infantry soldier in the last war would have been nicer if one had known one was going to survive. I was wounded—by an English shell. (Hence the greetings of an aunt who said, with obvious relief, “Oh, so that’s why you were wounded in the back!”) I gave up Christianity at about fourteen. Came back to it when getting on for thirty. An almost purely philosophical conversion. I didn’t want to. I’m not the religious type. I want to be let alone, to feel I’m my own master: but since the facts seemed to be the opposite I had to give in. My happiest hours are spent with three or four old friends in old clothes tramping together and putting up in small pubs—or else sitting up till the small hours in someone’s college rooms talking nonsense, poetry, theology, metaphysics over beer, tea, and pipes. There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter (The Narnian xvi-xvii).

alan jacobs narnianIt is an unusually terse outline. Jacobs is probably right when he said:

The sentence fragments, colloquialisms, and general bluntness of tone—all uncharacteristic of Lewis’s public writings—suggest that he dashed this off without editing it, perhaps without even thinking about it too seriously. Lewis undoubtedly expected the people at Macmillan to recognize this as a rough pile of facts from which they were at liberty to construct a more formal narrative (The Narnian xvii).

That may have been what Lewis expected, but it is not what happened. Whether because of the authority of Lewis’ signature, or lack of care in the office, or because of the faint humour in the stark sketch, MacMillan published it!*

Still, Lewis’ accidental autobiography does not lack much in outline form. A decade later Lewis wrote Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (1954), finally filling this narrative gap, even if the subtitle leaves open possibilities for the future. Not only does the letter to MacMillan show the contours of the later memoir, Jacobs notes that it has in it “the basic narrative shape of his experience” (xvii).

Sometimes the story even tells itself when we are not paying attention.

*Alan Jacobs (in my ePub), does not tell which book MacMillan adorned with this sketch. Neither does Chad Walsh in his C.S. Lewis: Apostle to the Skeptcs (2008). If you know the answer to this riddle, please let us all know.

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“Sarah Smith, of Golders Green” by Hannah Eagleson

In the ongoing series on The Great Divorce we come to Sarah Smith–certainly one of the more intriguing, engaging, troubling, and freeing characters in C.S. Lewis’ fiction. In this week’s guest post, poet Hannah Eagleson gives us a glimpse into her reading of Sarah Smith.

“Sarah Smith, of Golders Green”
by Hannah Eagleson

Who knows what weight of everyday
You carried?
What secrets the neighbor children told you,
Because they could not bear them alone,
What troubles your friend brought to you,
How much time you took tying them up carefully into parcels
That you could hoist away for her,
Like a ship ferrying away scrap iron,
Riding lower in the water
As the delivery man trots off with a spring in his step,
Free of the burden?

What heft of moments
You spent
Sorting petty arguments and new-washed laundry,
Heavier than they look
For those who carry them from year to year.

What coins you piled
Into charity boxes,
Which threadbare shops you filled with
Gravity and laughter,
Which sorrows you lifted
On graceful shoulders?

Which hours you gave to your husband’s small questions:
Is there a stamp? Do you see what I did there?
Do you know what I’ve done for you,
I’ve given you sixpence to get a new compact,
The slow accumulation of rain in a pool
On a gray day

Made green like the grass on Hampstead Heath,
Lead transfigured, alchemy of days
The light that follows you,
In radii of gold.

Hannah EaglesonHannah Eagleson is at work on a children’s novel about a dragon who sells tea in eighteenth century London. She recently authored study guides to works by C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and J. R. R. Tolkien for the Walking to Wisdom series with Classical Academic Press. In addition, she edits Scholar’s Compass, a devotional for and by Christian academics at the blog of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network. Hannah holds a PhD in Renaissance literature from the University of Delaware, and an MA from St. John’s College.

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Farewell Terry Pratchett

To say that I’m a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is an understatement. Among the humorous fantasy writers, Terry Pratchett has pride of place. At his right and left hand are Douglas Adams in sheer satiric glory, and Neil Gaiman, whose humour shades into great darkness. These three are the trinity of holy hilarity in contemporary fantasy.

And the second of the three have fallen. Today Terry Pratchett passed away.

Although I have cherry-picked any of his Discworld books at random–as they crossed my path–last year I started reading through chronologically, I am now about to finish Reaper Man–a reread to me, featuring the deadly and delightful character, Death.

Pratchett’s characters are brilliant. Rincewind’s hat with WIZZARD crayoned on is forever part of my imagination. The Night Watch led by Sam Vimes, the talented children blundering through Pyramids, those brilliant witches–with a few swishes of his magic wand, Pratchett could make an entire personality appear in thin air. No, the dog didn’t bark. He said, “woof.”

discworld a'tuin from filmAs good as his characters are, and as biting as his humour could be, it was his invention of “Discworld” that always drew me in. As a writer, I am always shaping a fictional world, trying to sketch out a speculative universe in my journal or on screen or, if necessary, on a Starbucks napkin or a friend’s arm. Pratchett imagines his Discworld in the prologue to the first book, The Colour of Magic:

In a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination.
In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.
Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and star-tanned shoulders the Disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.

The_Colour_of_Magic_(cover_art)I don’t know the effect these words had on you when you first read them, but for me they were a temenos, the threshold between my chair and the faërie woods beyond the hedge, the invisible bridge from now to myth. The prologue was a magic ring, a desperate wish, an open wardrobe door.

In the paperback reprint of The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett talks about how Discworld came into being:

If I had a penny for every time someone asked me where I got the idea of the Discworld, I’d have—hang on a moment—£4.67.
Anyway, the answer is that it was lying around and didn’t look as though it belonged to anyone.
The world rides through space on the back of a turtle. It’s one of the great ancient myths, found wherever men and turtles were gathered together; the four elephants were an Indo-European sophistication. The idea has been lying in the lumber rooms of legend for centuries. All I had to do was grab it and run away before the alarms went off.

I actually bumped into this idea—save the elephants—in a legendary lumber room of my childhood, though I can`t remember where exactly. I kind of think it was a book on finance I found lying around the house. I was a strange child. In any case, Terry Pratchett thought it was a ridiculousity worth capitalizing on.

I think we’re all glad he did.

I didn’t discover Pratchett and Discworld until I was well into adulthood. I tentatively shared a couple of chapters of a novel I wrote with a friend. He said, “Oh, this sounds like Terry Pratchett.” It’s the thing that writers hate to hear.

discworld_turtleI borrowed one of his books, and sure enough, Terry Pratchett had stolen my writing style. I was pretty disappointed at first. But as I was drawn into the story, I fell in love with Pratchett’s characters and the enigmatic metaphysics of Discworld.

I have come to realize since that writers write in a tradition. Someone will emerge with a Pratchettian voice. If the wound is not to dear and the world is so very good, we may take a risk.

Until then, until another master of speculative hilarity emerges, I tip my hat to Terry Pratchett, and slowly run my fingers through my beard as Rincewind races from one dimension to another, as the multiverse’s tallest Dwarf takes control of a crowd, and as the great Turtle A’Tuin slowly drifts through a universe far, far away.

This is one time I wish Death hadn’t sharpened his scythe.

terry pratchett diedI have written about Terry Pratchett a few times before. Check out “Turtles All the Way Down: Discworld Conversations About The Origins of the Universe,” where I use Pratchett’s Discworld to think about how the Big Bang was, well, banged. I explored the “The Banality of Evil: A Thought by Terry Pratchett.” And I had a little fun with Dante and Pratchett when I was reading Faust Eric. Check out “A Level of Hell that Dante Forgot: A Note from Discworld.”

Do you have writings about Pratchett’s world or your favourite stories to tell. Link below or tell it in the comments. 

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On Being a Digital Leopard Frog

Imagine digital technologies in the Reptile Room at your local zoo or aquarium. I think there are three types of technology creatures in our culture zoo.

Technology Turtles are our reptilian luddites. They withdraw from technological advancements into their hard shells whenever they are threatened. This could be the invention of a new social media platform, or it could be a social revolution like the move from script to type, from paper to digital, or from desktop to handheld technology.

Digital Hardbacks may be classic luddites in that they resist the revolution because of some important principle. More often, however, they either love the old ways—and so resist the new ones—or they have been hurt in the dangerous world of digital Darwinism. Once Bitten Twice Shy Technological Turtles rarely peak their beaks out in a digitally rich environment. Turtles move forward, but very slowly.

I have no desire to become a Technology Turtle. Who would want to miss the great things that new technologies and social media has to offer?

At the other side of the enclosure you will find the Connected Chameleon. The tech-savvy Chameleon is on the cutting edge of every social media moment. They don’t merely use technology. They adapt to it. They are able to spot a new creative environment and they quickly find a way to blend in. They are so adept at tech access that it is soon difficult to tell the user from the technology. Connected Chameleons disappear into their digital environment.

Although I love tech talk and new inventions, I don’t wanted to be a Connected Chameleon either. I think too often our generation’s identity is lost in the tools we use.

Instead, I want to be a Digital Leopard Frog.

Leopard Frogs live double lives. About the size of a child’s fist, these little soldiers have adapted to life in water and on land.

In the technological world, Digital Leopard Frogs are also amphibious, able to live in the world of script as comfortably as the world of type. We love print books, but pick up an eBook with ease. We admire inkwells and classic typewriters in the antique store, but pound out our thoughts on keyboards or thumb-tap them into a smartphone. We can pick up social media, but set it aside when it is time to chat with a friend or play outside. Digital Amphibians can fall in love with a tablet or curl up with a book beside a glowing fire.

Digital Leopard Frogs live the double life of the old and the new, finding our way in the world with past-forward spirituality.

Besides a take-it-or-leave-it approach to technology, Leopard Frogs also teach us another thing about culture. Frogs are canaries in the mine when it comes to natural environments. The North American Leopard Frog has been decimated in population in the last 50 years. In their own creaturely way, they are telling us about the poisons in our natural world.

Because Technology Turtles shelter themselves from culture, they cannot tell us of its subtle dangers. And because Connected Chameleons are so skilled at blending in, they are often too close to see when the digital environment is poisonous.

Digital Leopard Frogs, though, are close enough to know the best, but far enough away to see the worst. Our amphibious ways gives us a prophetic view of the culture around us.

In all these ways, I am Digital Leopard Frog.

Where do you live in the Reptile Room of Contemporary Culture?

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