When You Reach Me: A New Kind of Intertextuality?

Bedside ReadingThere isn’t much overlap between my wife and me when it comes to reading. A few books have been passed between us, such as The Secret Life of Bees and The Help. But Kerry does not prefer literary fiction or fantasy—my most common bedside reading—and I don’t like Jodi Picoult, though I did enjoy the trailer to the movie to one of Picoult’s books.

Honestly, I had to look up how to spell “Jodi Picoult.”

My wife reads pretty broadly, but if she does not like a book, she will not read it. She is one of the gauges on my own fiction writing. She doesn’t even have to say anything about my work. I can tell a lot by her sheer willingness to pick it up.

Hedgehog_cdBox_OTI don’t tend to make recommendations to her, as she won’t believe me that they are good enough for her time. I’ve tried, but if I point to a book on our over-crowded pop-lit shelf, she will be certain never to read it. It is a superpower I could use sometime in the future. Literally, I think the only book she’s ever read at my suggestion is The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Actually, I’m starting to wonder if Hedgehog was her recommendation to me.

I can’t remember, partly because when my wife recommends a book for me, I do consider it. I have Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children in the teetering piles on my bedside table because of her. If a book gets passed across the bed, I think about it.

Which was how Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me landed near the top of my pile. I’m actually the third person in our home to read it, and the fourth to burn through this copy since we picked it up at a yard sale. 10-year-old Nicolas read it first, and then one of his teachers borrowed Nicolas’ copy. If the pages of books keep some of the personality of its readers, this book is already buzzing with personal energy.

when you reach me rebecca steadI am in the midst of a heavy book reading cycle, so I needed something light that I could gobble down. When You Reach Me was the perfect choice. It is humorous, clever, and convincing—essential elements for a book that sits on the ocean’s edge of implausible tragedy. In the “Show vs. Tell” struggle of writing, Stead is the master of Showing, of trusting the reader to see the details of the story by the sheer craft of imaginative shaping.

For example, the main character (Miranda) is just at the front of her teen years, and is negotiating how to be with her mom—who has been both friend and single mother—and with a stepdad character sidling into her life. All the dynamics of the coming-of-age tale and blended family after-school special are there, but they hide elegantly within the details of Miranda’s unusual tale.

Of Other Worlds by CS LewisThere is no preaching. There is none of what C.S. Lewis called “gas.”

So while the theme of negotiating friendships is worked in—it is a middle grade novel, and MG novels can artistically use themes and morals—it is not narrowed to the classroom politics of 12-year-old children. The entire book is a life-or-death test to see how the protagonist will build multiple pathways of trust and friendship with the people in her world.

And though it is light enough to rest my brain in a heavy cycle, it isn’t a dumb book. It has at the centre of it a difficult mental puzzle. And the way that Stead introduces this quantum difficulty is by bringing another book into her own.

I have talked here about “intertextuality” before, about how authors use other literature in telling their stories. Narnia is a mix of fairy tales, legends, and myths, and even brings in characters from other imaginative worlds. It also echoes other kinds of tales, patterning itself after fairy tales, but including Arthurian and chivalric elements, and hinting at authors like Homer and Dante.

pride and prejudice Keira Knightley reading a bookI have also explored Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, suggesting that Austen had in mind a trope or character she was trying to counter. Brave New World takes Shakespeare’s plays as the entire worldview of one of its characters, and then becomes a text echoed in future utopias by people like C.S. Lewis and George Orwell. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind uses intertextuality in a lovely and horrifying way on the silver screen.

Perhaps my first conscious memory of this effect is when Anne of Green Gables reads Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” Of all the Arthurian tales I have tried to avoid Tennyson the most because it sits in my brain as a sappy love story.

That is the power of intertextuality, usually for good rather than ill.

Madeleine L'Engle A Wrinkle in TimeIn When You Reach Me, Stead loops in one of my favourite books, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. L’Engle’s understand of time and time travel is the logical foundation for When You Reach Me, and A Wrinkle in Time is used throughout as a way that characters gain allegiances and navigate their world.

I don’t want to give too much away. You should read this book.

But I am curious about what this method of intertextuality is really called—if it is called anything at all. Douglas Adams is perhaps the greatest genius at referring to fictional books as the foundation of the “research” in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. The Guide itself, of course, but also works like the Celestial Homecare Omnibus and The Ultra-Complete Maximegalon Dictionary of Every Language Ever.

Adams does this so well it makes me wish I thought of it. We mustn’t forget the complex mythology of J.R.R. Tolkien or the books on Mr. Tumnus’ shelf in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But Adams is perhaps only exceeded in this generation by J.K. Rowling, who invented dozens of texts in the Harry Potter heptalogy, including Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander, which is due to release in film next year.

Eddie Redmayne Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find ThemBut When You Reach Me doesn’t invent a canonical text that it relies upon. Instead, it uses a book from 45 years earlier to shape the narrative.

What do we call that? And what are some other examples?

I can think of very few. There are a number of Shakespeare books, such as (my favourite) Gary Blackwell’s Shakespeare Stealer trilogy. And there are a lot of Dickens and Austen spinoffs these days, but I don’t mean that precisely. Neither do I mean the constant reinventions of Homer, Arthur, Dante, Milton, and Faust tales (though Dan Brown in general does the kind of thing I’m talking about).

What books take up other books and use them as a foundation for their narrative?

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, perhaps. I suspect there was some of this in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but I can’t remember.

when you reach me stead coverSo I am looking to you, dear reader, to help me think about ways that this sort of technique is used. We know about books that quote or allude to other characters or stories, and some echo a pattern or theme, delving into tropes and genres that have come before. And a lot of books create a fictional library that sits on their imaginative shelves.

But what are books that use other real books to shape the narrative?

Posted in Original Research, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

What Did C.S. Lewis do on his Birthdays? An Eleventy-Sixth Birthday Inquiry that Failed

Lewis at His DeskOn the occasion of his eleventy-seventh birthday, I thought I would replay a post I did on a previous birthday. Partly, it’s a way to capture this great thinker and writer on his birthday. It’s also partly to show deeply a good idea of mine can fail. And, partly, because as failures go, this one worked out pretty well.

My plan was this: On the 117th celebration of Nov 29, 1898, I would ask how intrepid author and academic C.S. Lewis spent his birthdays? It is great question. It was my goal to sit down and share some of the things that came out C.S. Lewis’ birthday letters.

And we should be able to figure it out with some accuracy. We have by my rough count about 3274 letters published, plus a few that have emerged since publication. Most of these—about 79%–he writes during his public career, 1939-1963. In the 2600 letters of that quarter century, a little over a hundred a year, we should expect at least a few letters that he sat down and wrote on his birthday.

In fact, we have none.

collected-letters-c-s-lewis-box-set-c-s-paperback-cover-artThat’s right: in the entire period of C.S. Lewis’ career as a public intellectual, and in thousands of letters he wrote to friends, publishers, editors, family, critics and fans, none of them were written on his birthday.

Even if we expand the search to all of C.S. Lewis’ letters, we have no certainty that any of them were written on his birthday. There are two letters, though, that may be written on his birthday—at least, that is the best guess of the editors of Lewis’ letters.

The first was on the occasion of Lewis’ 18th birthday. We know he wasn’t looking forward to this occasion. On a Mar 7, 1916 letter to his best friend, Arthur Greeves, he wrote:

“…in November comes my 18th birthday, military age, and the ‘vasty fields’ of France…”

3 British soldiers in trench under fire during World War 1As it turns out, on his 18th birthday he was still not in active service, despite the fact that WWI was at its height. He was preparing for an Oxford scholarship exam. He writes to Arthur on or around his 18th birthday, but there is no word of war. Instead, his mind is on the “damnable exam,” and talked mostly about books and girls. In a chatty letter, he references Emily Bronte, Jane Austen, and Yeats, and recommends Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and Sir Walter Scott’s The Tales of a Grandfather. It is a letter full of inside jokes and teenage literary criticism.

By the next birthday, his whole life has change. Although he won a scholarship to University College, it was his time to go to war. In 1917 he began training as an infantryman, and C.S. Lewis crossed over to France on Nov 17th. On Nov 21st, Lewis writes to his father a note, ensuring him there is no need to worry. Then, on his 19th birthday, Nov 29th, 1917, Lewis is on the front line, fighting in the trenches of France.

spirits in bondage original1918 was an eventful year. By the time of his 20th birthday, he has been sick from trench fever, wounded seriously in war, and has had his first book of poetry accepted for publication. Most important of all, the war ended with the armistice agreement on Nov 11, 1918, and the threat of war no longer loomed over the young scholar. He was able to return to Oxford and begin his career.

The only other possible birthday letter was to his father in 1927. I haven’t been able to use birthday letters to tell how Lewis spent his birthday, but, after thanking his father for his yearly birthday letter and gift, this letter shows us a bit of his life as an Oxford don:

Many thanks for your letter.  My own long silence has the cause (I wish it were also the excuse) which you suggest. I have got my evenings nearly full up this term. On Monday nights I entertain as many of my own pupils and other undergraduates as care to come and join in the reading of an Elizabethan play: I was driven to institute this because I saw no other way of persuading them to get through the enormous number of plays they are supposed to read (I am often tempted to curse the fertility of our Elizabethans).

On Wednesdays some of the junior pupils come to read Anglo-Saxon with me. The actual work is usually done by half past ten: but they are comfortably by the fire and like to sit on and talk–and after all, it is part of ones job to get to know them–so that evening is usually full up till midnight. Then there are functions which occur fortnightly: the Kolbitar or Icelandic Society, and a fortnightly philosophical supper with Hardie and some others.
None of these engagements is onerous in itself, indeed they are all agreeable: but when you add to them the inevitable interchange of invitations to dinner, an occasional visit, and an odd night when one is tired and goes to bed early, it leaves few evenings free in term time. My mornings are of course occupied with tutoring or preparation for it: and even my afternoons are sometimes invaded by a college meeting. a meeting of the Tutorial Board, or a meeting of the English Faculty. This is not to say that I am overworked: a labourer or a tram driver might justly describe all that I have enumerated as a round of strenuous idleness. But if I am as free as any man can hope to be from ‘work’ in the original and proper sense of drudgery (the curse of Adam), in revenge, I have as little leisure, in the sense of vacant time, as I can well have.

J R R Tolkien - Smoking Pipe OutdoorsThe rest of the letter is mostly about college politics. What’s interesting, though, is that Lewis’ Anglo-Saxon evenings became the popular “Beer and Beowulf” nights that secured Lewis’ reputation on campus. And the Kolbitar meeting, the Icelandic Society, was J.R.R. Tolkien’s group. The Kolbitar, literally, “coal biters,” eventually became the Inklings, the literary society that encouraged both Lewis and Tolkien in their work. It is a society that would change the face of fantasy literature forever.

And that’s it. Of nearly 4000 letters remaining, two are possibly written on his birthday. And these may only be from that period around his birthday. This is a suspicious anomaly. What does it mean?

I was hoping I would come up with a grand conspiracy of some kind. C.S. Lewis’ birthday letters were suppressed, perhaps. But I’m afraid that the answer is most probably more mundane, and comes down to two principle reasons.

The first reason is one of simple time management. Lewis’ birthday falls in the Michaelmas term, and he was often busy lecturing and marking papers. Academics know how little extra work happens until those final exams are marked before Christmas. C.S. Lewis was probably no exception.

But the second reason is probably the most powerful: C.S. Lewis, despite writing faithfully to as many people as he could, detested letter writing. Famously, Lewis said,

“it is an essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock” (Surprised by Joy, 143).

Why don’t we have letters from Lewis’ birthday? I think he probably took the day off. By all accounts he did other work on that day—you can check out Joel Heck’s chronology for the details. But he didn’t write letters, or not many of them.

So, while this sort of ruins my post on C.S. Lewis’ 117th birthday, it is an intriguing discovery. What would Lewis want most on his birthday? A few years ago I suggested that he would like us to stop celebrating his birthday. But I suspect, most of all, he would want the postman to leave him alone. I suppose he has gotten his wish. I doubt there is email in heaven, if it is indeed paradise.

Posted in Lewis Biography, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Why I am Not Anti-Muslim

all_men_are_terroristsThis is the phrase I put on the board for my students last week. They were not overly fond of my logic. But I had built us up to the moment. I noted a number of terrorist attacks from the last generation, which included various religious and anti-religious backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, ideologies, philosophies, politics, classes, and mental states. I noted the one thing that terrorists had in common: they were men.

After a moment of silence, one student noted that there was a potential female terrorist in Paris. Another noted Palestinian suicide bombers that were women. And there is the IRA of the 20th century.

So I amended my logical statement:

“99% of terrorists are men, therefore 99% of men are terrorists.”

This wasn’t satisfying, not least for the men in the room. But I would suspect that most readers know of quite a few men that are not terrorists. The logic doesn’t seem to work with everyday life.

Yet this is the hidden logic in some of the media and social media presentations about the terrorism of recent weeks. The next President of the United States, Donald Trump, responded to the Paris Attacks by suggesting that he would look at closing mosques in the U.S. One of the most publicized thinkers in one of the most powerful and creative countries in the world is reacting with the kind of logic that my 1st year students, right out of high school, knew was suspect.

The result of this fuzzy thinking in culture is that while millions face dislocation, cold, and hunger as they flee a region destabilized by the post-9/11 war on terror, there is a gut-level reaction against Muslims. Some respond by reminding folk that the refugees are the victims of Islamist extremism, not the perpetrators. Others remind us that 1 in 6 of the refugees are Christians and other minorities that have faced generations of oppression. And others, like Waleed Aly—an expert in terrorism who finds himself as a host of a humorous pop culture news show—has reminded us that the Paris Attackers meant to bring out bigotry and panic in all of us.

While all these responses are valid, I want to appeal as a Christian to reactions against Islam as a whole.

This has been a really difficult post for me to write. I know that some readers will be offended by what I have to say. Some may even feel betrayed. But my job as a Christian scholar is to offer an understanding of how to think Christianly. It is your job to consider that view, and critique it or apply it as you think best.

911-flagI remember when the Oklohoma bombing took place. I was sent to me knees by the thought of daycare children lying beneath the rubble, and felt a connection to a city I did not know for the people that they had lost forever. I was quite young, and still didn’t have a way of thinking about violence all around me.

Part of me was worried about the cause of the attacks. When it was announced that Christian white supremacists were behind the violence, I groaned inwardly. Here we go again, I thought, another round of atheist attacks against Christianity.

Any thinking person knows that simply because a terrorist is Christian, it doesn’t mean that Christianity is inherently violent. And most of us recognize that the American limb of racism that came out of the Christian community is a diseased twig, not the main branch.

Still, every time Christians did or said something dumb, I faced a barrage of “there you go!” confirmations by anti-Christians. It grew tiresome as the shrill pitch of the New Atheists began to hit social media, especially from people who should know better. 9/11 meant a switch to the Muslim world, and among the New Atheists, the question, “is there something wrong about religion as a human experience that leads it to destroy others?”

strawmanBesides learning that I shouldn’t feed trolls, my main lesson from this period was that I was that social media and superstar commentators very seldom described the Christian faith in a way that I could recognize. It felt to me like they designed a frail and thin Christianity, and then showed the world how easy it was to knock over. Still, to this day, I feel marginalized by media. And as an academic I have come to recognize that many don’t understand the things they are critiquing.

I got tired of this cherrypicking approach to Christianity, and I do not like it when I see applied to others.

I believe in the uniqueness of Christ, the reality that God has entered the human story as a human child in distant culture and time to bring hope to all peoples and transform the universe into a space of truth and beauty. This is a belief that is rejected by Muslims, who venerate Jesus (and Mary), but see him as a great prophet, not God-in-flesh. Muslims have fundamentally rejected what I think to be the best understanding of what God has done in Jesus.

Christians like me are “other” to Muslims; we are left to think about how we live together in this world. Sometimes in history that has gone well. Often enough it has gone badly.

And that’s the crux for many Western Christians, I think. When people have anxiety about refugees, they aren’t thinking really about the theological distinctions of who Jesus is or how to read the Bible.

Most people who are worried about Islam and refugees are worried about violence, terrorist, threat and war.

9-11 empty streetIt is hear that I am not anti-Muslim. I have studied Islam enough to have rejected it, but I am not convinced that it is all evil. Or even mostly evil. I do not think our media and pop culture sources have presented this part well. I also think that some preachers and commentators have done a disservice to truthfulness and self-honesty.

Just because the extremism and violence of this last generation has come from Muslims, does not mean that represents the best or most central part of Islam—any more than American racism or Irish religious war or the Rwandan genocide or Ugandan anti-gay laws tell us about Christianity. Having studied Islam’s beliefs and history, I think that the violence of a few hundred terrorists in the last 35 years does not tell us much about the billions of Muslims of history or about the people that founded that religion.

Age_of_CaliphsMuhammad was a tribal leader, and engaged in warfare. Most of us have not fought, so perhaps we are not best to judge. But some of the blood he shed seems problematic to me. Within a century of his death, the tribal confederacy that submitted to Muhammad’s rule had conquered a huge swath of land. Much of West Asia and North Africa was Muslim at the close of the 7th century, though not all by the sword. Byzantine Christian cultures, in particular, invited the renewal of faith that the Muslims brought with them.

As the middle ages progressed, I discovered in my research on the roots of antisemitism that the Muslim world was often friendlier to Jews than the so-called Christian world of Europe. And although the University finds its roots in 13th century monasticism, Europe was struggling to find creative new outlets for the exploration of philosophy, science, medicine, and art. Whatever evils came of the Crusades and the late Muslim pressure on Europe from the 8th-15th centuries, the result was that Christians learned from widespread Muslim advances in shipping, literary criticism, languages, philosophy, astronomy, theology, medicine, and the brewing of ales.

paris-attacksThat Islamic renaissance would fade as Europe found its feet as a global force. But when you consider the negative parts of European renaissance—global wars, normative antisemitism, race-based slavery, environmental and cultural destruction in colonial expansion, and a collective loss of faith—I struggle to see Islam as the sole bad guy here.

In fact, I would go farther: man to man, culture to culture, year to year, blade to blade, Christian leaders have caused as much pain as Muslim leaders ever attempted to perpetrate. 15,000-20,000 victims of terrorism in the last 35 years are a drop in the bucket compared with centuries of European conquest and fratricide.

And this from Christian people who claim to follow a man who chose to lay down his power and take up the suffering of others upon the cross.

celtic cross shoreI struggle to see how we can call Islam a religion of violence without saying the same of Christianity. In this my atheist friends have always been consistent.

Perhaps, though, there is something at the root of Islam that is poisonous. Even if the tree bears good fruit, its violence is buried deep within it. After all, Muhammad and the earliest leaders (the Rashidun) shed a lot of blood. So maybe the terrorism and bloodshed of today is the result of deeply embedded violence.

This is a powerful argument, but I don’t think a Bible believing Christian can make it consistently. If we honestly look into our own Scriptures, we see warrior leaders like Moses, Joshua, and David perpetrated exactly the same kind of violence as Muhammad and the Rashidun. The key difference is that the Rashidun were far more successful than the Israelite leaders ever were.

Don’t get me wrong: I have rejected Islam. I believe that God-in-Christ took violence into his body, suffering for us. Instead of taking up the sword, he carried the cross. The myth of violence is turned inside out in Christ’s self-sacrifice—a sacrifice that we are supposed to act out in our daily lives with our friends and enemies.

crucifixion copyI don’t think that Islam gets to the heart of the human condition in its teaching because it does not reflect Christ’s action on the cross. This is where European Christianity failed too. The European church confused the cross and the sword when it took up violence as a tool for Christian discipleship.

So I have problems with Islam, but I don’t think they make Islam inherently or essentially or altogether violent. It is a complex, diverse religion spread all over the globe. The largest communities of Muslim are not Arab, but from the Subcontinent and Southeast Asian regions. And this generation is such a small part of the last 1400 years. To judge all of Islam by Paris Attackers or imams in Tehran or 9/11 murderers is wrong.

What do I do, then, with my Muslim neighbours?

The same thing I do with neighbours who are Roman Catholic, Buddhist, Atheist, gardeners, hockey lovers, bakers, artists, vegetarians, and lovers of model trains. I believe that Christians are called to be cultural transformers—not merely by having awesome blogs or clever horton and his cloverapologetics or good art, but by living simple, good, Holy Spirit-filled lives in the midst of a world that likes to crush things that are beautiful. By meeting tyranny with love—as Christ did on the cross—and by living lives of self-sacrifice, we will bear out the truth of our beliefs.

This is why I’m not anti-Muslim: because I believe the gospel calls us to die to our own desires and prejudices and live in radical love. Any other path to victory is not Christian victory, but a kind of worldly supremacy. This sort of “win” doesn’t interest me, whether it comes in excluding refugees, closing Mosques, or launching clever tweets out into a Babel of voices.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 41 Comments

“God and Charles Dickens” by Gary L. Colledge: A Review

God and charles dickens colledgeFrom The Christmas Carol to The Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist, the Anglo-American social conscience has been challenged by the prolific 19th century journalist Charles Dickens. While Dickens’ social morality is immediately evidence, Gary Colledge also argues that Dickens wrote out of the centre of a deeply Christian worldview. Often missed in scholarship and overlooked in Dickens’ own anti-ecclesiastical writings, Colledge aims to restore the Christian voice of Dickens for both appreciative readers and critical scholars in this reworking of his PhD dissertation.

After a helpful introduction and first chapter laying out the project and Dickens’ Christian perspective, God and Charles Dickens falls into five topical chapters. Each of these treatments covers an aspect of Dickens’ Christian belief and peculiar social critique. In Colledge’s presentation, we see a Dickens that is essentially Jesus-centred, relying upon the New Testament, and working his faith out in love and tangible “goodness” in the world.

While Dickens may look like he has some unorthodox critiques of theology and church, Colledge argues that they largely fall in line with nineteenth century popular lay Anglicanism. Dickens certainly understood the depravity of humanity—his tales tell that dark story most evidently—and he had hope for humanity when he was at his most optimistic. Weaving together Dickens’ letters, essays, sermons, and novels, we see that Dickens’ God is providential creator and Jesus is the deliverer of humanity. Dickens launches satirical and open challenges to many aspects of his religious world not because he rejected faith but because he desperately wanted what he called “real Christianity.” His critique of dissenters and Evangelicals comes out of a cultural dislike of the problematic Christianity he saw played out in the pulpits and streets of England, rather than a sophisticated theological critique.

charles-dickensIntentionally, this book is a restrained guide where Colledge chooses to get out of the way and allow Dickens to speak. In this project, he is following Dickens’ own advice to Christian preachers who so often draw people to themselves instead of Christ. It is probably a relevant critique for today—a relevance the author capitalizes upon as each chapter ends with a note to the church.

While this is Colledge’s goal, we must remember that he is still shaping the reader’s perspective. In the project of recovering Dickens’ Christian voice, we see a Dickens emerge that sits not uncomfortably with contemporary evangelicalism. One might be concerned that Colledge is in danger of washing Dickens as some have done with C.S. Lewis, lover of ale and tobacco, or as may be the case in Eric Mataxas’ recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who now reads like an American evangelical. We are in nearest danger of this kind of treatment as Colledge shares Dickens’ faith commitments to charity and social reform in his chapter on “Real Christianity.”

I do not think that Colledge falls into this trap, however. He allows the ambiguity of Dickens’ beliefs to hang in the air, and occasionally critiques them. While I think a fuller treatment of Dickens’ marriage breakup and his early flirtation with Unitarianism are warranted, Colledge doesn’t run from other difficult moments. For example, due to his disgust with a popular rigid Calvinism, Dickens seemingly rejects substitutionary atonement through the vicarious suffering of Christ. Colledge sets this particular departure from Anglicanism in context, but allows it to sit in all its complexity.

gary colledgeIn his reading, I’m not sure that Colledge saw the lack of the cross in Dickens’ thought—a lack of a Cruci-centric vision that stands in strange contrast to his Christo-centric spirituality. However, I think Colledge drew out Dickens’ genuine faith and demonstrates superbly the Christian influence throughout all of Dickens work. In short, Charles Dickens’ novels are soaked through with the Christian worldview, and work to call people back to a heartfelt, Jesus-centred, New Testament-based faith. The result is a helpful, accessible book that comes out of Dr. Colledge’s larger academic project to challenge mainstream thinking in Dickens study, and at the same time augments our resources on Christianity and literature.


This review appeared in Haddington House Journal in 2013.

God and Charles Dickens: Rediscovering the Christian Voice of a Classic Author. Gary Colledge. Grand Rapids: BrazosPress, 2012. ISBN 978-1-58743-320-7.

Posted in Reflections | 14 Comments

A Manuscript List and Timeline of The Screwtape Letters

Ransom_CycleA couple of weeks ago I had announced the publication of a surprising draft of a preface to The Screwtape Letters. This “Handwritten Preface” is a “Cosmic Find,” since it shows us that Lewis thought about including Screwtape in the same fictional world as the Ransom Cycle, C.S. Lewis’ WWII-era science fiction project. I am working out some of the intriguing possibilities of rereading Ransom-Screwtape for a paper that will be submitted next year. You can read about it here and here.

For those that are interested in manuscript and publication history, as well as C.S. Lewis’ biography, it is also intriguing in that we now have new complications in the manuscript history of Screwtape. The Handwritten Preface is different in key ways from the Published Preface (see here) in the first edition. And we are missing the typescript and galley proofs of the Handwritten Preface: we do not know the process of publishing the preface and why Dr. Ransom was left out of the story. Was it the publisher or Lewis who made the change?

We may never know.

List of Manscripts

At this point, though, we can list the various manuscripts of The Screwtape Letters:

  1. The Berg MS: C.S. Lewis’s handwritten 31 letters on 93 leaves, sent to Sr. Penelope on Oct 9, 1941 and sold to the Berg Collection at the New York City Public Library. There are no additional copies of this manuscript elsewhere.
  2. The Neylan MS: a typed manuscript on 82 leaves with publisher’s notes, sent to Mary Neylan on Oct 20, 1941 and housed at the Wade Center in Wheaton, IL. You can read more about Neylan here.
  3. The Handwritten Preface MS: the handwritten preface on small pieces of paper, included in the Neylan MS and published in Notes & Queries in 2013.
  4. Bles Galley Proofs: Lewis’s letter to Mary Neylan (proofs of the enclosed) and standard publication protocol suggests that there was also a typeset proof. We no longer have the Galley Proofs (which may or may not have had the preface included), and the correspondence with Bles was destroyed.[1]
  5. The Guardian Original Print Run: This was based off the handwritten Berg MS and available in several libraries. I read it at the General Theological Seminary in New York City.

screwtape letters cs lewis creepyA Proposed Timeline of The Screwtape Letters Manuscript History

Although there are gaps, and we do not know yet when the handwritten Berg MS was typed, we have enough now to offer a tentative timeline.

WWII-era Context

  • Sep 2, 1937, Lewis completes Out of the Silent Planet. Published Sep 23, 1938.
  • Out Of The Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis 19 60sSep 1, 1939, Hitler invades Poland, beginning WWII.
  • Nov, 1939, Lewis was reading chapters of The Problem of Pain to the Inklings. Published Oct 18, 1940.
  • Jul 19, 1940, Lewis listens to the Hitler speech to the Reichstag translated on the BBC at 6:00pm.
  • Jul 21, 1940, Lewis receives inspiration for Screwtape at church. After church he finishes a letter to Warren describing the idea. You The Problem Of Pain 1st edcan read about that in detail here.
  • Jul 1940-Apr 1941, Lewis wrote Screwtape by hand, perhaps writing a letter a week.[2] In this period he submitted them to The Guardian, possibly with “Meditation on the Third Commandment.”
  • Aug, 1940, Warren retires from the military to the Kilns and is available for typing,though our first typed letter we have is not until Nov 30, 1942.
  • Apr 25, 1941, announcement in The Guardian about Screwtape.Apr 25 ad close2
  • May 2 to Nov 28, 1941, The Screwtape Letters published serially in The Guardian.
  • May-Jun 1941, editor Ashley Sampson reads the Letters and convinces Geoffrey Bles to publish them.
  • Weight of Glory by CS Lewis signatureJun 8, Lewis delivers “The Weight of Glory” sermon at Oxford’s St. Mary the Virgin Church.
  • Jul 5, 1941, Lewis writes the preface, which was edited in an unknown process (see below) and published in the Bles first edition.
  • Aug 6, Lewis gives his first BBC talk in London. These talks later become Mere Christianity.
  • Oct 9, 1941, Lewis sent a handwritten MS of 93 leaves to Sr. Penelope with a personal letter. Indicates that there is also a MS at the publisher (Bles).
  • Perelandra by CS LewisOct 20, 1941, typed MS of 82 leaves with handwritten preface of 5 leaves sent to Mary Neylan with a personal letter. Indicates that the proofs are at the publisher (Bles).
  • Nov 9, 1941, Lewis has gotten Ransom to Venus as the first few chapters of Perelandra are complete in draft form. He finishes Perelandra in Spring 1942; it was published Apr 20, 1943.
  • Jul 1941-Feb 1942, Unknown preface proof correspondence and Galley Proof approval with Bles (see below).
  • The screwtape letters by CS Lewis 1st edFeb 9, 1942, The Screwtape Letters was published by Geoffrey Bles of London with the edited preface. There are seventeen printings in total in Britain through WWII.
  • Feb 16, 1943, American edition of The Screwtape Letters published
  • Dec 1943, Lewis completes the final Ransom book, That Hideous Strength. It is not published until Aug 16, 1945, near the close of WWII.

Post-Publication History

  • 1947, The Italian translation, Le Lettere di Berlicche; Screwtape and Wormwood were renamed Berlicche and Malacoda in Italian.[3] cs lewis-le-lettere-di-berliccheTranslations followed in Spanish (1953), French (1956), Chinese (1958), Russian (1981), Afrikaans (1993), Korean (2000), and Indonesian (2006).[4]
  • Sep 8, 1947, C.S. Lewis appears on the cover of Time magazine with the title, “Don v. Devil.”
  • Jun 18, 1956, Lewis gave Sr. Penelope permission to sell the MS; the Berg collection purchased it at some later date.[5]
  • Dec 15, 1959, Lewis has finished writing the “new preface” to what will become The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast; suggested he would send the manuscript to publisher Jocelyn Gibb when it was typed, Saturday Evening Post screwtape cover-december-19-1959and included suggestions for titles for the collection.[6]
  • Dec 19, 1959, Lewis publishes “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” in The Saturday Evening Post.
  • Dec 20, 1959, Lewis sends the typescript of the Screwtape “new preface” to the publisher.[7]
  • Feb 27, 1961, Geoffrey Bles publishes The Screwtape Letters and Screwtape Proposes a Toast with the “new preface.”
  • screwtape proposes a toast cs lewis1961-1963, Lewis writes a preface to a book called A Slip of the Tongue and Other Pieces that explains “Screwtape Proposes A Toast.” The book is released in 1965 as Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces, but the preface, now at the Wade Center, is not included until 1982 revised edition.
  • 1965, publication of Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces.
  • 1976, Lord & King edition of The Screwtape Letters published in the United States with a new foreword written by Walter Hooper and illustrations by Wayland Moore.
  • The Screwtape Letters Special Illustrated Editionc. 1979, the Wade Center acquires the Neylan MS with accompanying Handwritten Preface and personal letter.
  • 1982, The Screwtape Letters: Revised Edition published with “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” and the early 1960s preface intended for A Slip of the Tongue.
  • 1994, Marvel Comics adaptation.
  • 1999, an audio edition with John Cleese as Screwtape is released on screwtape_letters marvel comiccassette; received a Grammy nomination.
  • Jan 2006, first stage production of Screwtape opens in New York, written by Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske.
  • 2009, release of feature length audio dramatization of The Screwtape Letters by Focus on the Family Radio Theatre, staring Andy Serkis.
  • 2009, The Screwtape Letters: Special Illustrated Edition released, followed by an enhanced edition in 2011.
  • 2013, The Screwtape Letters: Annotated Edition, with annotations by Paul McCusker, who adapted Screwtape for audio drama in 2009.

screwtape letters posterThis Timeline focusses on two periods: the conception and original publication of Screwtape, and then its explosion in popularity over the next 75 years. Perhaps you see something that should be included in the Timeline or an error. If so, let me know in the comments below.

Options for the Preface Editing Stage

Somewhere between July 1941 and February 1942, Lewis had correspondence and Galley Proof approval with the publisher, Bles. We have an end date of October, 1941, when Lewis sent a manuscript to Sr. Penelope and a typescript with Handwritten Preface to Mary Neylan. There are a couple of main options for the correspondence:

  1. Lewis may have sent Bles the Neylan MS with the Handwritten Preface in the period of July-October, 1941, in which case Lewis would have approved the Galley Proofs of the Handwritten Preface.
  2. It is possible that Lewis sent a now lost typed version of the Handwritten Preface before Oct 20, 1941 after the original Neylan MS was submitted, and either:
    1. Did not approve Galley Proofs of the MS; or
    2. Approved the preface Galley Proofs separately.

Nowhere that we know of does Lewis ever complain that Bles unjustly edit the Preface.

What is more interesting is this question: What happened to the Ransom feature in the Screwtape preface? With regards to the preface changes, we are left with four possibilities:

  1. Lewis changed the preface himself before submitting it to Bles. This means that the Handwritten Preface that Lewis sent to Mary Neylan was a first draft.
  2. Bles suggested changes to the preface in the Galley Proofs, and Lewis approved the changes (either by correspondence or in the Galley Proof stage).
  3. Bles changed the manuscript without Galley Proofs. Lewis approved of the changes through correspondence.
  4. Bles changed the manuscript without Galley Proofs, and Lewis did not formally approve of the changes.

Given the substantive nature of the changes and Lewis’s complete silence on the matter, “d” does not seem to be a strong option.

[1] Email from Walter Hooper, June 20, 2012.

[2] Sayer, Jack, 273. “Dangers of National Repentance” was published on p. 127 of The Guardian on Mar 29, 1940. Several weeks later Lewis published “Two Ways With The Self,” The Guardian (May 3, 1940), 215. It is possible that “The Screwtape Letters” were submitted with his January 1941 article, “Meditation on the Third Commandment,” The Guardian (Jan 10, 1941), 18. See the Mar 11, 1939 letter to Alec Vidler, editor of Theology, where Lewis provides a corrected proof for an article, but also includes a second piece for Vidler’s consideration, Hooper, Letters 2, 253.

[3] McGrath, C.S. Lewis, 420, n. 28.

[4] Source: Worldcat, http://www.worldcat.org/title/screwtape-letters/oclc/17453746/editions?cookie=&start_edition=1&sd=asc&se=yr&referer=di&qt=show_more_ln%3A&editionsView=true&fq=&fc=ln%3A_25.

[5] There is not date of acquisition on the Berg file.

[6] Dec 15, 1959 letter to publisher Jocelyn Gibb. See Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Vol. 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963 (New York: HarperSanFransisco, 2007), 1110-1111.

[7] Dec 20, 1959 letter to publisher Jocelyn Gibb. See Hooper, Letters 3, 1112.

Note: I have not referenced all of the more popularly known dates. I have gleaned them form Walter Hooper’s invaluable Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis in three volumes. You can also find them in Joel Heck’s excellent chronologies at http://www.JoelHeck.com. 

Posted in Fictional Worlds, Lewis Biography, Original Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

C.S. Lewis on the Paris Attacks

isis-flagMany of us were struck by the events in the legendary city of Paris on Friday night. As Parisians settled into cafes, filed into theatre seats, and gathered by the tens of thousands at the soccer stadium, seven young men perpetrated six separate mass shootings and three suicide bombings. At least 129 people died while sharing coffee with friends or trapped like cattle in an art centre. Another 400 were injured, and the morale of a nation is stirred.

ISIS/ISIL has claimed responsibility, and I have little doubt that they were the perpetrators. Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 we have been conscience of various Islamist organizations who use civilian populations as tools in their warfare, from Lebanese hijackers to Boko Haram in West Africa to large scale Western strikes like 9/11 and 7/7. As ISIS has terrorized a large region of Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East, beginning the largest migration of Muslims in history, ISIS has now brought fear and blood to one of the great cities of the West.

paris-attacksThere will be more blood and fear to follow. And many of us are struggling to know how to respond as Paris mourns.

As French fighter jets streak across the Levant and refugees prepare for another night sleeping on foreign ground, it might be helpful to take a Screwtapian view of things.

The Screwtape Letters is one side of a demonic correspondence discovered 75 years ago and then published by C.S. Lewis. Screwtape, a senior demon who had spent his career tempting humans on the front lines, offers advice to his protégé. Peaking in on this manual of anti-spiritual advice gives us an intriguing view of sin and brokenness from the other angle.

screwtape1We discover quickly that Screwtape loves extremism. The issue in Screwtape’s context is WWII, so the extremes in England then were pacifism and patriotism, rather than today’s political ideology that harnesses the religious passions of oppressed and disillusioned young men. But all extremes are to be encouraged, and it is up to the demon to know which extreme to encourage. And Screwtape was able to predict exactly how young men become suicide bombers. Let me quote a portion of Letter VII, changing some of the words for the new context:

Whichever the young man you are tempting adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the political action as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which religion is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the end of Western tyranny.

Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and pilgrimages and charity, he is ours—and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here,

terror-attacks-in-paris-a-timeline-of-events-1447523619It is a pretty good recipe for creating a terrorist out of a disillusioned youth. Doubtless a senior demon like Screwtape can be effective in destroying souls among the disaffected, even if the context is quite different. Indeed, it could be that Screwtape’s protégés are hardly necessary in certain parts of the world as cultures of soul destruction are functioning well without any need of attention.

But a clever fiend like Screwtape would have some concern by the particular actions of Paris Attackers. Screwtape divides cultures into two ages:

Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.

It could be that Paris and the West are ripe for being inflamed because of unbalance and partisan spirits. Divisions of culture certainly exist, not least in the United States and France.

screen-shot-2015-11-14-at-1-04-31-amBut are these terror attacks not more like waking sleeping giants? I suspect, despite the culture wars we wage, we are an age of apathy. In Screwtape’s recipe, our complacency should be soothed, our consciences left in slumber. I would argue that our culture’s entrenched battles of ideas are fought by a very few while most people are watching TV or doing puzzles of pictures of the Eiffel Tower or the New York skyline. Probably the shrill tenor of our partisan politicians and frontline culture warriors is because most people just don’t give a damn.

What of the Paris Attacks?

“Of course a war is entertaining,” Screwtape admits to the up and coming tempter. The next sentence could have been a demonic tweet last Friday night: “The immediate fear and suffering of the humans is a legitimate and pleasing refreshment for our myriads of toiling workers.” But Screwtape gives two warnings to young fiends who delight in carnage.

Logo_of_Boko_HaramFirst, what will be the general public’s response to the “fear and suffering” that it causes? There is no reason to think that the reaction will favour the side of evil:

We may hope for a good deal of cruelty and unchastity. But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy [i.e., God], while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. I know that the Enemy disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.

As François Hollande hastily sends young men and women into battle, there is no doubt hatred and revenge and panic. On the edges, the tangs of evil may not be unlike the response of whoever set fire to a mosque in Ontario yesterday. There will be evil in the response to terror, as there was evil after 9/11, even if there is good. Probably the people to suffer the most will be the 100,000 people who call refugee camps their home tonight.

afterburnBut the event may cause thousands of Parisians to awaken to something other than whatever the French equivalent to TV and puzzles is. On his first day in France one of my former students was at the Stadium when it was attacked. Interviewed by CBC, he said that the Paris Attacks are “a turning point for the city.”

What if he is right?

What if a conversion of hearth is the result of the terrorists’ attack? What if people turn from self-occupation and culturally acceptable levels of narcissism and apathy to hearts bent with concern for the suffering and the oppressed? If this is what happens, there could be some good emerge from the blood and fear in Paris.

Screwtape-Letters18062lgSecond, those involved in the destroying of souls relish in keeping a human preoccupied with anything but their own mortality, while slowly stripping the soul of its immortal vision. “Wartime,” or times of terror like right now, are exciting to demons because of the carnage. But events like the Paris Attacks really work against what Screwtape thinks is the most successful plan for soul destruction—even if it is the least sexy approach:

Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition! And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever.

“Contented worldliness”—I called it a life devoted to a flickering screen and puzzles of places the puzzle-doer will never visit—is a powerful tool of soul destruction. Honestly, in my own life it is not the tragedies that drain me of spirit. It is the relentless pace of Monday to Monday, the blather of media, and a world more committed to office politics than real issues of truth and beauty and love. I have had tragedy, and you can bear up against it. You can emerge from the cloud of pain and see the world again.

But we can never escape from what we’ve made of everyday life. It is all there is left to us in the imaginative landscape of possibility.

ISIS-ExecutionNot that TV and puzzles and routine and media are bad. They are good and essential things. But they are things that lull us into sleep if we do not make them redemptive things.

How do we respond to the Paris Attacks? How do we resist Screwtapian evil and turn this fear and blood into good? We hear the prophet who cries, ““Awake, O sleeper!” Awake.

As it turns out, the Paris Attacks will probably have unintended consequences for the terrorists and for the Islamism that supported it. Events like 7/7 and 9/11 are not the first surgical strike of an energized movement. They are the desperate attempt of dying idea perpetrated by a community desperate for change. As frightful and frustrating as we urbanites find them, they do not produce the results that support the initial cause. Or at least not for long.

So our response of caring, connecting, and giving encouragement to those suffering is a great way to resist demonic actions of whatever stripe. It would be no small thing if terrorism served to awaken our cultures to systems of oppression, to the effect of our choices, and to the spiritual need that goes unmet in our neighbourhoods.

That, I think, is how we respond to the Paris Attacks.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Plagiarizing Screwtape

Brenton Dickieson:

As we continue through our series on Screwtape, I wanted to reblog Rob’s post here. Partly because of the sheer cleverness of his having written of it, but partly because he beat me to it. Recently I got this book out of the library and went through it, ready to write a super amazing blog on it. Then I googled it, and discovered that the Mere Inkling got here first. So, here it is!

Originally posted on Mere Inkling:

breigHow many letters have you read that were penned in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ groundbreaking Screwtape Letters?

If you’re a fan of the collection, you’ve probably read similar correspondence that owed its very existence to Lewis’ work.

Now a more sensitive question—have you ever written anything similar to The Screwtape Letters? I must confess that I have. In fact, I’m currently working on a similar collection I hope to finish during the coming year.

Many writers have tried their hand at writing angelic letters, with varying degrees of skill and success. After you finish this column, you might want to check out two examples right here at Mere Inkling: Screwtape Letters Anniversary and Screwtape Goes to War.

Some letters have been composed from the perspective of a heavenly angel (often perceived of as a “guardian” angel). Others have been, like Lewis’ innovative example, written from a…

View original 801 more words

Posted in Reflections | 6 Comments