“A Dishevelled Dryad Loveliness”: Gardening with Samwise Gamgee

sam gamgee friend of green thingsThe gardening season rolled late into Eastern Canada late this spring. Heavy snow and blustery weather have been a challenge, with plants shivering in early morning then blasted with hot afternoons. Cats, crows, foxes, skunks, thistles, dandelions, creeping Charlie, wild carrot, and the insects that rule invisibly in the rich red soil are all reasons for the gardener to get his or her fingers dirty here in Prince Edward Island. Gardening is a battle, but once the green growing things find their roots and turn their leaves to the sun, they are on their way.

As I was baiting slugs with stale beer the other day–trying to give my peppers a chance to get a head start–I thought of poor Samwise Gamgee. Though one of the Fellows of the Ring, a Hero of Middle Earth, he is really a village farmer, a friend of growing things. As Prince Edward Islanders, we can empathize with Sam and his love of “taters”–PO-TA-TOES! We also shudder especially as Sam and Frodo make their way through the great wastelands of Mordor in The Two Towers. With no birdsong or wind in the grass to remind the body it is alive, all that lives is stench and retch and yellow tufts of dried crabgrass. This ruinous wilderness nearly takes the heart out of the hobbits.

Black_gate of mordor lord of the ringsBut as they came to the Black Gates of Mordor on their hopeless quest, the hobbits realize that way is blocked. They choose to trust Gollum, and follow him away from the Eye of Sauron to a secret way. After a time, “the growing light revealed to them a land already less barren and ruinous.” As they come into un-tame lands, even in the wilds on the plains before Mordor, there are ferns and trees and ivies. And herbs–fields of herbs that have survived the fall of a civilization and live in the wild. As Sam comes into the rugged region of new life he laughs out loud for the joy in his heart.

Sam Gamgee did not know the names of many of the herbs as he brushed his fingers among them. Neither did I know the herbs as Tolkien named them on the page. I stumbled upon the ancient names and tripped up on the quiet alliterations–“Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.” Whether Tolkien chose them because they evoked ancient gardens of our cultural memory, or because the names bear an irresistible loveliness in and of themselves, or simply because these are the things he saw in his mind’s eye when he wrote, the passage I quote here is a word-lover’s Hesperides.

Tolkien’s skill with words is beyond the garden-lore of either Sam or me, but the passage reminds me that there are gardens beyond my tending. As the hobbits have walked so many days in barrenness and dust, the words themselves are like green growing things finding form in the wild.

lord of the rings dead marshesDay was opening in the sky, and they saw that the mountains were now much further off, receding eastward in a long curve that was lost in the distance. Before them, as they turned west, gentle slopes ran down into dim hazes far below. All about them were small woods of resinous trees, fir and cedar and cypress, and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them; and everywhere there was a wealth of sweet-smelling herbs and shrubs. The long journey from Rivendell had brought them far south of their own land, but not until now in this more sheltered region had the hobbits felt the change of clime. Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing. Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.

South and west it looked towards the warm lower vales of Anduin, shielded from the east by the Ephel Dúath and yet not under the mountain-shadow, protected from the north by the Emyn Muil, open to the southern airs and the moist winds from the Sea far away. Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk and pungent terebinth, of olive and of bay; and there were junipers and myrtles; and thymes that grew in bushes, or with their woody creeping stems mantled in deep tapestries the hidden stones; sages of many kinds putting forth blue flowers, or red, or pale green; and marjorams and new-sprouting parsleys, and many herbs of forms and scents beyond the garden-lore of Sam. The grots and rocky walls were already starred with saxifrages and stonecrops. Primeroles and anemones were awake in the filbert-brakes; and asphodel and many lily-flowers nodded their half-opened heads in the grass: deep green grass beside the pools, where falling streams halted in cool hollows on their journey down to Anduin.

The travellers turned their backs on the road and went downhill. As they walked, brushing their way through bush and herb, sweet odours rose about them. Gollum coughed and retched; but the hobbits breathed deep, and suddenly Sam laughed, for heart’s ease not for jest. They followed a stream that went quickly down before them. Presently it brought them to a small clear lake in a shallow dell: it lay in the broken ruins of an ancient stone basin, the carven rim of which was almost wholly covered with mosses and rose-brambles; iris-swords stood in ranks about it, and water-lily leaves floated on its dark gently-rippling surface; but it was deep and fresh, and spilled ever softly out over a stony lip at the far end.

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Tolkien’s Dickensian Dreams

Brenton Dickieson:

Here is another astounding post from the Tolkienist. We’ve met him in our Battle of 5 (or 6) Blogs, and you should follow his work if you are an avid Tolkien Reader. I should warn, the Geek Index has been pretty high on A Pilgrim in Narnia this week, especially with the C.S. Lewis & Canada post on Wednesday. Next week there are a couple of Narnia posts that are on that geek fringe too, but should be fun!

Originally posted on A Tolkienist's Perspective:

Tolkien-Dickens Goblins (header)

Dickens’ short story that inspired a Tolkien chapter

This is somewhat a Tolkien paper I had written a while back, with the expressed intention to publish it one day. When that day never seemed to arrive, I thought it would be suitable to post an edited version on this blog.

The following, although much abbreviated from the original, is still pretty long. So proceed with caution but, as always, please enjoy :)

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C.S. Lewis’ Connections with Canada: A Canada Day Post!

Canadian biscuitsIt is Canada Day here in, well, it’s in the title, isn’t it? Canada Day is, unsurprisingly, celebrated in Canada, and by the millions of Canadians hidden secretly among the peoples of the world, waiting until the signal to rise up. We don’t celebrate Independence Day here because, unlike noble Americans who know how to throw a good war, we negotiated our independence over tea and Canadian biscuits (which are not cookies). So we have Canada Day, a grotesque splattering of red and white maple leafs through the nation combined with brilliant fireworks and a rare, tentative showing of Canadian pride.

In solidarity with Canada Day, then, I thought I would draw out some of the connections between C.S. Lewis and Canada.

There are very few. Canada isn’t very important, after all. Let’s be honest.

Canada-Day facepaintBut there are some, so I will give it a go.

Lewis had a Canadian aunt, which I think was pretty unremarkable in itself. But she was able to listen to a grieving nine-year-old with patience and love at his mother’s funeral:

Against all the subsequent paraphernalia of coffin, flowers, hearse, and funeral I reacted with horror. I even lectured one of my aunts on the absurdity of mourning clothes in a style which would have seemed to most adults both heartless and precocious; but this was our dear Aunt Annie, my maternal uncle’s Canadian wife, a woman almost as sensible and sunny as my mother herself (Surprised by Joy, ch. 1).

Lewis admitted in a 1959 letter to Sr. Madeleva that his Canadian aunt would tell him of her 19th century Canadian adventures with lakes and Indian villages. He later described her like this:

In her also I found what I liked best—an unfailing, kindly welcome without a hint of sentimentality, unruffled good sense the unobtrusive talent for making all things at all times as cheerful and comfortable as circumstances allowed (Surprised by Joy, ch. 3).

Sounds Canadian, eh?

canada_unionjackThe next reference to Canadians is at war. Just a small British out-port at the time, Canadians militarized during the two world wars and really made their name in the world. When a young, inexperienced officer named C.S. Lewis landed in France in WWI, it was a pair of middle-aged Canadian officers who “once took charge of me and treated me, not like a son (that might have given offence) but like a long-lost friend” (Surprised by Joy, ch. 12).

Canadians fought well in WWI alongside the British. After the war, Lewis sent a weird note to his father, asking for his opinion on the “Canadian Bolschevists”. “Canadian” and a nationalistic movement seem like a contradiction in terms, but there was an editorial about “Canadian Bolshevists” in the The Ottawa Journal on Jan 24, 1919, if you would like to look it up.

A decade later, Lewis wrote to his father on Feb 25th, 1928, and talked about the death of a Magdalen fellow, Mr. Wrong (yes, you have that right, his name was Wrong). Wrong was a mentor to Lewis, and we have this fun little look at a Brit’s eye on Canada:

He was always extremely friendly to me, and I liked him as well as anyone in College. He was that very rare and very delightful thing, a colonial aristocrat–being of an old Canadian family. His grandfather was one of the last people to fight a politic al duel; to which he was challenged on whatever corresponds to the floor of the ‘House’ in Canada. The blend is curious. It is odd to find a man who has canoed in Hudson bay and knows all about trapping and skunks and Indians, and yet who has distinction in the lines of his face and tradition in his outlook. No doubt, like other good things, it is disappearing: the influx of commercial democracy and the rule of the Bosses from the States will soon put an end to that element in Canada, just as (I am told) it has Magdalen.

Micmac Indians Poling a Canoe Up a Rapid, Oromocto Lake, NB Richard George Augustus Levinge 19th cLewis was right about American culture and Canada—though pop culture has been more influential than politics. I too have trapped skunks and canoed, though not on the Hudson Bay (rather the Morel River and its danger of beavers and mosquitoes). I also once challenged someone to a duel on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. It was a parliamentary page, and I was a tourist who paid $6 for a tour of the Hill. The page, who was a young woman studying French at university at the time, declined the duel and I was asked to please leave.

gilby's scotch adAfter WWII, during rationing, Lewis was getting food from friendly Americans. He also got a Canadian ham for Christmas dinner, 1949. Canadian hams are a little porkier than American ones, what with the diet of doughnuts and beer and poutine and mayonnaise on things. Lewis also got this Oct 26th, 1954 note from an American friend: “A bottle of Gilbey’s Scotch is on its gurgling way to you both from Marshall Ellis, Ltd., Canada.” Hard to deny that Canada is awesome.

Among the most puzzling Canadian reference is in Lewis’ Essay “Hedonics”:

But of all London the most complete terra incognita is the suburbs. Swiss Cottage or Maida Vale are to me, if not exactly names like Samarkand or Orgunje, at any rate names like Winnipeg or Tobolsk. That was the first element in my pleasure.

Winnipeg“Winnipeg,” you should know, is not a name that evokes pleasure in most Canadians. Not displeasure, just a general sense of “oh, I drove through there once: it was cold and flat.” There is a good Tim Hortons there, near the highway.

A very peculiar link with Canada is The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal. Edited by the enthusiastic Stephen Schofield, I have friends who have published letters, stories, and news in the Journal. As the 1980s developed, Schofield and the Journal became very negative of Walter Hooper’s editorial work—part of the Kathryn Lindskoog controversy. Yet, here is Hooper’s memorial of Schofield:

This charming man was tireless in his search for first-hand news about Lewis. Despite his profound deafness, a wealth of his interviews with Lewis’s friends found their way into In Search of C. S. Lewis…. Schofield’s interest in Lewis and his world was unquenchable, and even after being diagnosed with cancer he did some of his best work with The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal. He had published eighty-three issues before his death on 12 August 1993. The journal was taken over by Roger Stronstad who ac ted as editor until it c eased publication in 2001.

stephen schofield cs lewisI have a few of these Journal copies, but I had the pleasure of going through the entire series at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy in Toronto. They are like an underground zine in the 80s, a cut-and-paste collection of essays, memories, and fandamonia. After Schofield’s death, Stronstad turned the Journal into a respected academic collection. With its death the last of Canadian C.S. Lewis societies disappeared, until the Inklings Institute of Canada began a couple of years ago.

Among the interesting and unusual things in the 1980s Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal is a greeting from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, which includes an epigraph quotation from pierre trudeau canadaLewis himself:

Prime Minister – Premier Ministre

The Future is something everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
C. S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis has indeed reached the future and will continue to do so, for his works were of inspiring and eternal wisdom. In paying tribute to a great man, and to use Kenneth Tynan’s words, “a classical writer, a mediaeval poet and a brilliant and vivacious mind,” The Canadian C S Lewis Journal is pursuing in its own way, the communication of those works. I am pleased to offer congratulations and best wishes of success.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau
Ottawa

Grand-Séminaire-Québec LavalA nice link with Canada is that on Sep 22nd, 1952, Lewis received an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from Université Laval in Quebec. It is a little puzzling as Laval is a French university, but Lewis’ Christian books had been translated into French. It is an honour, since Laval is one of our more respected universities, and is more than 450 years old—which is very old for Canada, which is only 149 years old today. Lewis responded to the Rector of Laval Monsignor Ferdinand Vandry’s June 1952 note:

Dear Monsignor Vandry,

Please accept my sincere thanks for the great and unexpected honour offered me in your letter. I do not know whether in order to receive it, I must be present before the Special Convocation on September 22nd. If that is necessary then I am compelled, with great regret and undiminished gratitude, to refuse the Doctorate since my other engagements make it quite impossible for me to visit Quebec in September.

Even if it is possible for me to receive the degree in absence, the question remains whether that would be held to imply any disrespect for Convocation or any insensibility to the great favour you are showing me. Naturally I would rather lose it than receive it under conditions which the University might consider as ungracious on my part.

I await your kind advice on these points.

Whatever the decision may be, I shall retain a vivid sense of the University’s kindness.

Please convey to all concerned my most respectful and obliged greetings.

canada day maple leafThat, then, is the Canadian Dr. C.S. Lewis’ connection with Canada: canoes, duels, hugs, French honours, ministerial nods, Scotch, hugs, editorial conspiracies, brothers in arms, Winnipeg and Mr. Wrong. Happy Canada Day to all and sundry, even those who are not Canadian. We are very inclusive on that point here.

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The Charm of Mystery: An Encouragement to Christian Teachers in Secular Schools

Last week I posted a fun and thoughtful “schools out forever!” post for students. Thinking of the end of term got me to thinking about the teachers. Although I have done youth work and subbing in Christian environments, and work some with Christian colleges, most of my teaching has been in the secular university classroom. I very much enjoy sitting at the edge of culture, engaging students from various backgrounds with the core questions of what it means to be human. I am a fan of the liberal arts college.

My partner, by contrast, is teaching in a small Christian school. Neither of us would have seen it coming, but the creativity and generosity of this community slowly drew us in. First we enrolled our son there for Kindergarten. A quick visit showed us that it was clearly the best of our neighbourhood programs. Then Kerry started teaching part-time. Before long, she was a full-time member of a Christian teaching staff. She and Nicolas walk together to Immanuel Christian School each day, and have done so for the last five years.

Our school turns on its head the stereotype that exists for Christian schools. While it is academically strong, ICS’s strength is not in a chained-to-the-desk perspiration-driven intellectual climate. Instead, Immanuel’s strength is creating an environment for education. It is fun, engaged, and responsive. Each child is treated like an individual. Children at ICS are not being prepared for the world. The school is their world. This task is treated with the kind of seriousness that engenders the greatest fun possible. I have heard stories of harsh, rigid, anti-grace schools before. We are happy to be part of a school that, despite what it lacks in sports or size, gains much in a diverse community with curriculum that hints back toward a classical styled education.

touch appleNot every teacher, however, will teach in this kind of environment. Most secular schools are much larger, with budgets that create difficult tensions for teachers and administrators. Often in mouldering buildings or on new campuses that they cannot afford, large class sizes and a limping curriculum are unsuited to meet the needs of one of the least literate generations since WWI.

Most teachers will not land in a school like Kerry’s. If there is any root in reality to the stereotypes, even Christian teachers in Christian schools will face barriers that at times seem insurmountable. So I wanted to give a word of encouragement to Christian teachers in secular schools—and any other student, teacher, parent, pastor, priest, legislator, or community volunteer who happens to be peaking in.

When thinking about teaching in public schools, Christians often feel a crisis on two fronts. First, they feel like they may be compromising by teaching curriculum that they don’t trust. In the older grades this is poignant as a Christian teacher will be teaching science based upon evolution, offering vocational advice based upon economics rather than calling, and discussing sex ed based upon… well, that’s the question, isn’t it? What is our sex ed based upon?

Some of sex ed is after school special material, reminders of personal space and boundaries and risks, which is good. Other parts are rooted in science and research, which is excellent. But some of sex ed comes in a moralistic tone that shows that the curriculum is about the educator–or about the school board–and not about the student. I remember in my grade nine calls a female teacher arguing with a male student about what boys experience waking up. The teacher finally ended by saying, “well, this is what it says in the book, and I have a husband, so I should know.” I looked at the male student and thought, “well, he’s a boy, perhaps he knows.”

apple hand twilightSex ed can be a steeplechase. I remember the moralism of the consent conversation when I was subjected to sex ed. Now that “no means no” curriculum is considered damaging as we move to the “yes means yes” mode. My concerns about the “no means no” religion when I was a kid was brushed aside by teachers, and I’m glad that we are now moving toward a safer place. But none of these sex ed classes deal with the hidden reality of all these messages: how do we as individuals struggle with how we have divorced intimacy and sex? That’s a discussion worth bringing out into the open, though most teachers would feel terrifyingly unqualified to host that dialogue.

Christian teachers at the younger years still feel some of these pressures, but from a different angle perhaps. The hot-button issues are usually books that school boards make kids read in their reactionary intention to satisfy the morality-of-the-month crusaders. Today, books where Sandy has two dads will be absolutely essential to a child’s formation. Tomorrow, it will be books where Sandy’s parents a vegetarians in a world full of meat-eaters. I’m not against moralistic books, but as C.S. Lewis doubted a good book could be written by bureaucrats at the ministry of education, I doubt that these bureaucrats can select a good book—especially when the fleeting social moods are the foundation of that choice.

teacher-apple studentDeeper than the hot-button issues, teachers feel stuck by the system at early ages. Often they feel wedged between curriculum that shoves Sandy through a grade before all the standards are met, and curriculum that is so individualistic that Sandy is never corrected or formed in any way. Some of the teachers I know spend all evening, most every evening, doing their best to re-form the curriculum to meet the individual needs of 28 children, but spend much of their day updating an app dashboard that informs parents every 15 minutes of how their children are doing.

Christian teachers who see children as made in the image of God are going to struggle. Being made in the image of God, the teacher knows that we are all individuals and that we learn and discover our world in different ways. Yet part of that discovery is formation—occasionally painful, often frustrating and disappointing, the teacher’s role in forming a child is not to protect the child from harm. No, our job as teachers is more like gardening, where we simultaneously feed the roots, weed out bad influences, and trim for growth.

Apply on textbook

We see by this last paragraph that Christian teachers don’t just feel compromised by curriculum, they also feel limited in how much their core beliefs can inform their work. I know teachers that are terrified that their students will find out that they are a practicing Christian.

There are some areas where “Christian” is synonymous with anti-science, anti-history, misogyny, bigotry. The most dominant picture of Christians in the media would lead an alien to presume that Christian earthlings are anti-environmental pedophiles with God Hates Fags t-shirts who believe that God put dinosaur bones in the mud of creation as a sort of colossal joke. Watching the media struggle with the local Christian response to the Charleston church shooting shows how far the gap is between what Christian life is on the sidewalks and how it is portrayed on the screen.

teacher apple books chalkboardI remember in high school our science teacher was pushed by some students on the question of God and creation. He was very anxious to respond, and said it very carefully: “Personally, and this is just my belief, I think that evolution needs something like God to make it work.” As far as I know, his job was not in danger. But some teachers feel that insecurity. I don’t mean the extremes, like where a “Christian” teacher won’t teach a gay kid or where a “Christian” principal cancels a school dance because of interracial coupling. I’m talking about the normal stuff, like when a curious child asks about God or religion or what it means to be a person.

A lot of teachers are terrified—afraid they’ll get trapped in a downward spiral of a system that pretends to diversity but can’t handle disagreement, and concerned that they will be asked to compromise too much.

So I feel for these teachers.

Personally, I feel comfortable teaching evolution or sex ed, and I think I give space to students in the classroom who have different feelings on these issues. I try to make the conversation about them, not me (and my beliefs). When it comes to vocational advice or delivering curriculum, I secretly inculcate my students with this message: you are valued, and when you do something creative you tap into the great rhythm of a universe that bends toward creativity. That’s a fancy way of saying, “you are made in the image of the Creator, so be creative and know you are loves.” I subversively work to instill hope. Hope is very counter-cultural.

apple-handI think there is great power to be in the position of a teacher. Especially in the earliest years, we are charged with the social and intellectual formation of our students. For the Christian, social and intellectual formation is a spiritual and moral matter. We can bring blessing and hope into the lives of little ones—lives that often face not blessing and hope but grit and gloom.

I was reading a series of letters that C.S. Lewis wrote to Rhona Bodle, a teacher of deaf children in New Zealand. She had become a Christian reading C.S. Lewis’ books, and was in the zeal of her early faith. That meant for Rhona a desire to do the best for these children who, in the 1950s, faced such poignant challenges. Part of her early faith response was doubt about the kind of restrictions I talked about above—what she called “restraints.” I think she wanted to talk about her faith in the classroom, but knew that she couldn’t. Here is Lewis’ intriguing response:

The restraints imposed on you by ‘secular education’ are, no doubt, very galling…. But Christian teachers in secular schools may, I sometimes think, do more good precisely because they are not allowed to give religious instruction in class. At least I think that, as a child, I shd. have been very allured and impressed by the discovery–which must be made when questions are asked–that the teacher believed firmly in a whole mass of things he wasn’t allowed to teach! Let them give us the charm of mystery if they please (May 20th, 1953 letter).

My advice is complex, a careful pathway of teaching the core of Christian beliefs of love and hope and grace without the words, and allowing the students to guide the discovery. Lewis’ advice is simpler: live your worldview consistently, and the testimony of your integrity may be a greater witness than all your words. The phrase, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words” is probably misattributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Still, somebody said it, and it is an important reminder to those of us who live in times of worldview tension—the lion dens of culture.

apple hand beauty artWhen we are living in these lion dens, it is sometimes difficult to know when to speak and when to be still. Even the approaches of Esther and Daniel in the Hebrew Bible are dramatically different. But Lewis’ advice will always work.

So my encouragement to Christian teachers in secular schools is that you can have an impact, even with the restraints on your faith that this culture requires. Trust that “the charm of mystery” may help mitigate some of the damage our school system causes—for all its good. This approach of trying to live authentically among our students may even go further to help the slow transformation of culture that we all desperately need.

After all, didn’t we all become teachers because we secretly knew that teachers change the world? No matter where we are located, that’s something we all share as teachers.

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Hallows and Heaven by Sørina Higgins

Brenton Dickieson:

I’m very pleased to be included–not only in the excellent book coming about about King Arthur and the Oxford Inklings, but also in the discussion about Charles Williams‘ stunning early play, ‘The Chapel of the Thorn.” Check out this blog by Sørina Higgins for today’s Feature Friday.

Originally posted on The Oddest Inkling:

Radcliffe_Camera_3_(5647667236)I wrote last week about my lovely morning researching an Arthurian work by Barfield in the Bodleian Library–my personal earthly paradise. Now I would like to share with you about the talk I gave at the Charles Williams Society on the afternoon of that same day, June 6th. 

First, let me say what an enormous blessing it was to be hosted by the gracious members of the CW Society and their guests: Brian Horne, Stephen Barber, Richard Sturch, Roger Rowe, Christine Hunter, Malcolm Guite, and Holly Ordway. Their kindness and intelligence made a beautiful combination. I have seen this meeting of good character and good minds in many Inklings-related gatherings: the Taylor Colloquium, the Marion E. Wade Center, MythMoot, and other conferences and assemblies. It is heartening.
My talk consisted of two parts, the first part about The Chapel of the Thorn and the…

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The Term is Over: The Holidays Have Begun

first day of summer last day of schoolAs a tribute to all the students who have been sitting on the edge of their seats these last few days, staring out the window longingly at the green grass bending in early summer breezes, I thought I would post the evocative ending of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle.

As a child, Lewis loathed school. In the story of his life he actually named one of his schools after a concentration camp. In his childhood letters to his best friend, Arthur Greeves, we can see how Lewis longed to see him in the “hols”–what they called holidays from school. Nearly 100 years ago, in a July 24, 1915 letter he talks about reading poetry–“exactly the sort of romantic strangeness and dreaminess you & like”–and working on his drawing. Arthur was an artist while Lewis was a writer, and they coached one another. The holidays were about long romps though the Irish countryside and warm days beneath trees with a book or drawing pad on one knee. It was during one of these holidays that he and Arthur met, becoming fast friends in long life.

Even as an adult Lewis looked forward to holidays. He would go on long hikes, putting up in little inns and cottages, have lunches of bread and meat and cheese and drinking beer pulled from casks. He visited friends, wrote books, and swam in the little pond in his backyard–scattering ducks and frogs as he slipped into the chilly water. When he had a whole year off as he was writing Narnia, he spent most days in an old Oxford library reading dusty 500-year-old books–many of them bad. He called it the happiest year of his life.

The last Battle 1st editionC.S. Lewis loved the holidays so much that when it came to describing heaven in one of his Narnian books, he imagined it like being the morning after the last day of school. In this scene in The Last Battle, the children of Earth and Narnia have bounded through an endless field, a great symphony of children and talking animals cheering and shouting with excitement. Then they come to the great lion Aslan, who does many wonderful things. The lion, though, looks at the children–the kings and queens of Narnia, but normal children on Earth–and speaks to them.

“You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be,” [Aslan said].

Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”

Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them….

“The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.

And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Have an awesome summer holiday everyone! The joy you feel now is, perhaps, a little taste of something much bigger–or at least a hint that the adventure of this life is only the first few steps of a much greater quest.

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Terry Pratchett’s Topsy-Turvy Witches

Granny Weatherwax by DionysiaJonesAt Mythcon last year, a bright young scholar said that she thought that Granny Weatherwax is the alter ego of Terry Pratchett—not in personality, but in her wry, upside-down, “limit evil” approach to life in this strange world. At least, I think she said something like that. There were a lot of ideas swimming about the room, weaving their way between leather-bound notebooks, elven swords, and the occasional ancient rune etched into a desk. Although light moves slowly across the Discworld, arguments fly quickly through the fantasy world.

For those that don’t know, Terry Pratchett has two “Witches” cycles in his Discworld series. They are pretty awesome, wrapped around a coven of witches in the Ramtop mountains and the young Tiffany Aching. Below I post a great Discworld Reading Guide and a list of the Discworld witch novels, but I wanted to capture the intriguing opening to Witches Abroad.

In Witches Abroad, Pratchett decides to undeceive us about what witches are really like—at least in the Discworld. In our world, or at least in the European continent that has some strange echoes on the Disc, witches have been stereotyped to the point of silliness. I don’t know what we would do if there were humans that could really get to the devil to do things for them—I suppose we’d have to reconsider the basis of our law—but some of the medieval stereotypes have stuck around with us. Some Pratchett likes to play with; others he undercuts. Here are some of the ways he tries to turn our expectations upside down. There is also a great dig on fantasy writers.

Discworld Reading Order Guide witches

Up on the mountain, the sabbat had settled down a bit. Artists and writers have always had a rather exaggerated idea about what goes on at a witches’ sabbat. This comes from spending too much time in small rooms with the curtains drawn, instead of getting out in the healthy fresh air.

       For example, there’s the dancing around naked. In the average temperate climate there are very few nights when anyone would dance around at midnight with no clothes on, quite apart from the question of stones, thistles, and sudden hedgehogs.

       Then there’s all that business with goat-headed gods. Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know that the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.

witches-abroad terry pratchett       And there’s the food and drink – the bits of reptile and so on. In fact, witches don’t go for that sort of thing. The worst you can say about the eating habits of the older type of witch is that they tend to like ginger biscuits dipped in tea with so much sugar in it that the spoon won’t move and will drink it out of the saucer if they think it’s too hot. And do so with appreciative noises more generally associated with the cheaper type of plumbing system. Legs of toad and so on might be better than this.

       Then there’s the mystic ointments. By sheer luck, the artists and writers are on firmer ground here. Most witches are elderly, which is when ointments start to have an attraction, and at least two of those present tonight were wearing Granny Weatherwax’s famous goose-grease-and-sage chest liniment. This didn’t make you fly and see visions, but it did prevent colds, if only because the distressing smell that developed around about the second week kept everyone else so far away you couldn’t catch anything from them.

       And finally there’s sabbats themselves. Your average witch is not, by nature, a social animal as far as other witches are concerned. There’s a conflict of dominant personalities. There’s a group of ringleaders without a ring. There’s the basic unwritten rule of witchcraft, which is ‘Don’t do what you will, do what I say.’ The natural size of a coven is one. Witches only get together when they can’t avoid it.

witches-abroad terry pratchett newThere was of course no such thing as a typical witch’s cottage, but if there was such a thing as a non-typical witch’s cottage, then this was certainly it. Apart from various glassy-eyed animal heads, the walls were covered in bookshelves and water-colour pictures. There was a spear in the umbrella stand. Instead of the more usual earthenware and china on the dresser there were foreign-looking brass pots and fine blue porcelain. There wasn’t a dried herb anywhere in the place but there were a great many books, most of them filled with Desiderata’s small, neat handwriting. A whole table was covered with what were probably maps, meticulously drawn.

       Granny Weatherwax didn’t like maps. She felt instinctively that they sold the landscape short….

Witch Cycle Novels

Discworld Reading Order Guide

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