C.S. Lewis’ Unicorn Song

I have talked before about my love of Shel Silverstein’s poetry. Most people don’t know that he is the poet behind the Irish Rover’s international hit, “The Unicorn Song.” It’s hard to resist the Celtic charm of this lilting classic, but I encountered it first between the covers of Where the Sidewalk Ends. My mother gave me this book when I was very little, coming home one night from a business trip of some kind and sharing with me the joy of a new book.

The poems of Where the Sidewalk Ends were also an essential part of my son’s childhood bedtimes, including “The Unicorn Song.” The moral lesson in the song is pretty thin, and intentionally so. Why do we not see unicorns in our enchanted forests and suburbs anymore? Because they missed the boat, too busy frolicking in the great wilds. And not just any boat. Growing up on an island we were always attuned to the rhythm of the daily crossings to the mainland, aware that if we miscalculated we could be waiting for hours–even overnight. These poor adventurous souls, however, missed the boat of boats, Noah’s ark, the last refuge for antediluvian creatures. The rains fell and Noah’s ark sailed while the played.

Despite this lesson, we still missed the boat from time to time, and I have never stopped looking for unicorns in the enchanted realms I inhabit.

The Irish Rovers were not the first to sing about the lost unicorns, and neither was childhood poet laureate Shel Silverstein. And checking my booklist dates, I see that Peter Beagle wrote The Last Unicorn in the late ’60s, just as “The Unicorn Song” was lilting across the airwaves for the first time.

Before all of these folk artists–an Irish band, a Jewish poet, and a fantasy author–shared their unicorn stories, C.S. Lewis thought about the loss of the unicorn. And just like Shel Silverstein, he pinpointed Noah’s ark as the critical moment. In “The Sailing of the Ark,” a poem published in Punch in August 1948, Lewis anonymously shared a funny little tune about Noah’s lazy and belligerent sons, and how the unicorn finally was left behind. Unlike Silverstein’s legend, we find out from C.S. Lewis that it may not have been the unicorn’s fault after all.

This war of the poet legend-makers should also give us a little caution about how we make links between authors. There is little–I would say almost no–chance that Silverstein knew of Lewis’ version. It is highly unlikely that Silverstein ever came across this edition of Punch, a popular UK humour magazine, but not one with sticking power. “The Unicorn Song” was written by 1962, and Lewis’ collected poetry didn’t appear for another half-decade.

It seems most likely that this legend of the unicorns missing the boat popped up independently and was played with by two popular poets of the 20th century without mutual influence. Both of the authors asked where the unicorns went, and both suggested they missed Noah’s ark.

I think we underestimate this phenomenon. Some ideas just beg for air and will find their way to the surface through one genius or another. Which civilization invented music? or poetry? or art? Why should we choose? I think that some things are simply essential to the human social space. One of those, in the west, is the idea that the unicorns missed a chance to get on Noah’s ark.

Of course, there may be a source behind both these fine fellows. And we also must remember that it is only a legend, a fun play on cultural ideas. Thus, I am not saying that a unicorn isn’t haunting a bookshelf or neighbourhood near you.

The Sailing of the Ark

The sky was low, the sounding rain was falling dense and dark,
And Noah’s sons were standing at the window of the Ark.

The beasts were in, but Japhet said “I see one creature more
Belated and unmated there comes knocking at the door.”

“Well, let him knock or let him drown,” said Ham, “or learn to swim;
We’re overcrowded as it is, we’ve got no room for him.”

“And yet it knocks, how terribly it knocks,” said Shem. “Its feet
Are hard as horns and O, the air that comes from it is sweet.”

“Now hush!” said Ham. “You’ll waken Dad, and once he comes to see
What’s at the door it’s sure to mean more work for you and me.”

Noah’s voice came roaring from the darkness down below:
“Some animal is knocking. Let it in before we go.”

Ham shouted back (and savagely he nudged the other two)
“That’s only Japhet knocking down a brad-nail in his shoe.”

Said Noah “Boys, I hear a noise that’s like a horse’s hoof.”
Said Ham “Why, that’s the dreadful rain that drums upon the roof.”

Noah tumbled up on deck and out he put his head.
His face grew white, his knees were loosed, he tore his beard and said

“Look, look! It would not wait. It turns away. It takes its flight—
Fine work you’ve made of it, my sons, between you all to-night!

O noble and unmated beast, my sons were all unkind;
In such a night what stable and what manger will you find?

O golden hoofs, O cataracts of mane, O nostrils wide
With high disdain, and O the neck wave-arched, the lovely pride!

O long shall be the furrows ploughed upon the hearts of men
Before it comes to stable and to manger once again,

And dark and crooked all the roads in which our race will walk,
And shrivelled all their manhood like a flower on broken stalk!

Now all the world, O Ham, may curse the hour that you were born—
Because of you the Ark must sail without the Unicorn.”

And here is Shel Silverstein doing his own rendition, which I have never heard before.

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“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” Roundtable Thursday

I’m pleased to announce that I am part of a Mythgard Movie Club panel on Thursday night. A couple of years ago we hosted a “One Fantastic Rogue Beast” panel to let two popular films clash in conversation: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Star Wars: Rogue One. I followed up with my thoughts on the new Harry Potter world film with a post called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Put Them.” We decided to call the council once more to discuss the new Fantastic Beasts film, The Crimes of Grindelwald.

The Mythgard Movie Club meets a half-dozen times a year, looking at films old and new. We will meet on Thursday, December 13, 2018 at 8:30pm Eastern, for a discussion of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, directed by David Yates and starring Eddie Redmayne. The event is totally free with a Q&A panel that will allow you to ask live-time questions. Here is the announcement from the Signum webpage:

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Join the Mythgard Movie Club on December 13, 2018, for a discussion of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, directed by David Yates and starring Eddie Redmayne.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of GrindelwaldDecember 13, 2018 – 8:30 pm EST

Join the Mythgard Movie Club on December 13, 2018, for a discussion on Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, directed by David Yates and starring Eddie Redmayne. Based on a script written by J. K. Rowling, Grindelwald is the follow-up to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), and it is the second in a series of at least three films set in the world of Harry Potter and following the adventures of magizoologist Newt Scamander.

In the prior film, Newt helped the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) catch a dark wizard named Gellert Grindelwald. However, at the end of the film, Grindelwald escaped. Now, he is raising an army of like-minded wizards and witches to assert magical rule over all non-magical people. In this film, Scamander teams up with a young Albus Dumbledore (played by Jude Law) in an attempt to recapture Grindelwald and put an end to his evil plans.

For this discussion, we are bringing back some of the original team of panelists that joined our the proto-Movie Club discussion One Fantastic Rogue Beast in January 2017.

Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of the Grindelwald premieres in theaters on November 16, 2018 – which gives everyone about a month to see the film before our discussion on it!

Sign up for Mythgard Movie Club

Kelly Orazi is a longtime bookseller, reader, and Signum Grad Schoolstudent. She spends her days reading Harry Potter, pretending she has the Force, and hanging out with her dog, Lupin. She is descended from a real-life wandmaker, but has yet to embark on the journey of making her own lightsaber.

Emily Strand is a professor of Comparative Religions at Mt. Carmel College of Nursing in Columbus, OH, where she also serves the Catholic diocese as a Master Catechist. Besides her books on liturgy, she has published articles on the Harry Potter series, including a contribution to Harry Potter for Nerds 2, and many essays at HogwartsProfessor.com. She has appeared on the Mugglenet Academia podcast and is a frequent guest on the Reading Writing Rowling podcast.

Brenton Dickieson is working on a PhD on the theology of C.S. Lewis’ fictional worlds and writes the blog, http://www.aPilgrimInNarnia.com. He lives in the almost fictional land of Prince Edward Island, where he teaches and consults in higher education.

Curtis Weyant is a Signum Grad School alumnus whose daughter tried to teach him the magic spells at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, but never quite got the hang of it. A digital marketer by trade, he co-hosts the weekly podcast Kat & Curt’s TV Re-View and occasionally pecks away at his own creative work.

Kat Sas holds an MA in Language & Literature from Signum University, where she concentrated in Imaginative Literature. She hosts a weekly podcast on speculative television at Kat & Curt’s TV Re-View, and she blogs about Doctor WhoGame of Thrones, and other shows on her blog, Raving Sanity.

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“(Re)Considering the Planet Narnia Thesis”: My Article in An Unexpected Journal

Popular readers of C.S. Lewis and A Pilgrim in Narnia may be surprised that I have not been won over by Michael Ward’s thesis in Planet Narnia. It is an elegant, sophisticated, symmetrical, and well-argued idea about how C.S. Lewis constructed The Chronicles of Narnia. It is also, I think, one of the most important resources we have for reading Narnia.

I just happen to think his thesis is wrong.

Readers are often puzzled by my response as they are obviously won over by the beautiful synchronicity of Ward’s argument. “How can you not believe this?” I am asked when people find out that I don’t believe Michael’s argument in The Narnia Code and Planet Narnia. Often enough, people are baffled. One person cried, though people are usually more curious than anything else.

It is true, I am not won over. I have not voiced abroad my concerns about the work, but neither have I kept it as a secret. The academic world of Lewis studies, which is pretty small and supportive, has apparently picked up my thoughts. When they wanted to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Planet Narnia, the editors of An Unexpected Journal reached out to me for a response to the book. Most of the articles in celebration volume are laudatory (as one would hope), and they wanted a counterpoint from someone who was not won over.

Now, there are plenty of reasons why I should not write such an article.

First, the Lewis studies world is tiny. By example, I was having dinner with Michael Ward in Oxford just a few hours after I polished off my rough draft of the article. It was a good dinner and we were part of a good discussion afterward. I am friends with his friends. I like the work he does and the contribution he has made. Why would I take him on?

Second, An Unexpected Journal has an interesting core design. Here is the first line of their About page:

An Unexpected Journal is the endeavor of a merry band of Houston Baptist University Master of Arts in Apologetics students and alumni.

If you take a look at the last few editions, they have done some pretty interesting things. They have taken literature, pop culture, and theology and elevated the student conversation beyond a blog collective to an engaging e-zine. Well done.

But notice who teaches in the MA program at HBU?

That’s right, this guy: Michael Ward. The AUJ editors (and many of the readers) are students of Prof. Ward.

Third, I don’t want to take time in my life to be a controversialist. I don’t have time, frankly. And I don’t like the feeling of controversy. It eats at my mind. I worry about it. The disagreement sits in my gut. There are loads of wonderful fans of Michael’s books, films, classes, and podcasts who have been transformed by his work. The idea of disappointing them–or looking like I’m trying to slay their friend and master–sits poorly with me.

Moreover, as an emerging scholar, my choice to take on a leading light in the field is a bit peculiar. Asking for trouble is not wise.

So why did I do this thing? My reasons are weak but numerous.

First, frankly, I was won over by the title of the collective project, An Unexpected Journal. Very cool, and I have thought of submitting something for some time. I imagined it would be an Inklings inspired poem or speculation, but they approached me about the PN celebration edition.

Second, I am not being sardonic or falsely gracious when I say that Planet Narnia is an essential reading resource for Narnia. Not just Narnia, actually. I think it is even more valuable as a resource for the Ransom Cycle. I hope, actually, to someday teach a high school semester of English using The Narnia Code and the Chronicles. Planet Narnia has helped me clarify my thoughts about C.S. Lewis’ work and helped me root myself more deeply into the soil of Lewis’ imagination. In short, Michael’s work has helped me read closely and can help others to do the same.

So in writing, I am not just honouring Michael’s work, but suggesting where we can move forward with it. I think there is a better way to read Michael’s “data”–a better way to put the text of Narnia in conversation with the medieval world that gives light and colour to much of the work.

Third, I had already organized a series of blog posts for January and February 2019 where I break down the different parts of the argument. Basically, I had the article written when the request came in. An Unexpected Journal showed up and gave me a chance to publish a 4000-word argument in a single article. Then I can use my blog to attend to various parts of the thesis, hopefully in conversation with the other contributors and readers.

So this article works well to launch a Considering the Planet Narnia Series. In 2019, I will be dealing with questions like:

  • What is the Planet Narnia Thesis and Why is it Important?
  • What do we do with the Planet Narnia conspiracy theory?
  • Why I think C.S. Lewis would have rejected the Planet Narnia Thesis?
  • What is a better way to read Planet Narnia‘s main argument?
  • With all the fans, why has so little academic attention been paid to the Planet Narnia Thesis?
  • Am I Just Resistant to New Ideas? (i.e., am I just a jerk?)

Then I will open the blog to you, dear readers, so you can show me why I am still wrong.

Because of interest, partnership, helpfulness, and the hope to honour in disagreement–these are the reasons I took on this task. Meanwhile, I hope that you will look at the 2018 Advent edition of An Unexpected Journal, where you will see some guest bloggers to A Pilgrim in Narnia, as well as authors we’ve discussed here. Perhaps you can even turn the digital page to my own article, “(Re)Considering the Planet Narnia Thesis.” Perceptive readers of Planet Narnia will see some puns that I’ve hidden throughout the piece, including the title. I hope you enjoy, and maybe I’ll win a few over to my dark side. Even if I don’t, I do hope that I help people in critically considering how we read, how we do research, and the way we deepen our reading of a classic text.

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The Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Verlyn Flieger (Goodreads Review)

The Story of KullervoThe Story of Kullervo by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am thrilled to have J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo in print, which includes Tolkien’s own reworking of a Kalevala tale, a couple of lectures on the Kalevala, and Verlyn Flieger’s critical introduction and a critical essay about the material. Strong editorial work on great Tolkienalia.

I would like to see in the future of publishing more dynamic posthumous publications of “papers” including more folio editions, dynamic footnoting, resource linking, etc. Because that’s not available–and because I like the beautifully designed book–I got the paper edition.

I am struck by how the bits of the Kalevala I’ve encountered—what Tolkien calls “a luxuriant animism” (119) have certain kinds of parallels with North American aboriginal folklore I have encountered. Though the myths and folktales closer to home are more logical and didactic (as they are told now), there is not just shared animism and totemic symbolism, but humour, adventure, and a peculiar, evocative sense of space. In the near-century since Tolkien’s lectures, has there been a lot of work done mapping out the religious beliefs embedded in the Kalevala with other sources or a comparative view? Or is there work on the colonial effect on the folklore of this people–one of the last pagan peoples of Europe? I don’t know and think there could be space for a book of scholarly essays with a section on Tolkien.

The Story of Kullervo was a delight to read and set off a hundred questions for me.

View all my reviews

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Reading and the Cultural Moment, with C.S. Lewis

So much of C.S. Lewis’ uniqueness comes down to his sheer love of diversity. He loved variability, colour, the exchange, the alienation of encounter and unity with others. His weird dystopia That Hideous Strength was, in many ways, a protest against the tendency of totalitarianism to create monoculture by erasing the individual. Forests are diverse and unkempt, as humans are. There would be, for Lewis, nothing as anti-forest and anti-human as the hum of traffic on a commuter freeway or that particularly depressing institutional paint they put up in government offices.

Lewis loved difference and diversity and freedom of expression–doctrines in danger in today’s culture war. It doesn’t take long within any of today’s major social movements to find out that diversity is fine and great as long as everyone acts like us or looks like us or thinks like us or uses the same secret words we use.

This is, I think, a particularly Screwtapian age.

Indeed, Screwtape would be terrified if at this time our social and political leaders said things like, “I think you are wrong–maybe even fatally wrong–but I will let you speak for three reasons: One, you are a person worthy of the dignity of free thought. Two, I may learn from you. Three, even if you are totally wrong, I can still use our conversation to make my position stronger. Four, social power works to police ideas and quiet certain voices; I don’t want to be someone who does this.”

Fortunately for the Lowerarchy, there is not much chance of that happening any time soon–at least not among people who are deeply ethical and desiring to live authentically. In this moment, people who live deeply in these ways look at those who disagree and only see baskets of deplorables or fake news or bigots, rather than a conversation of great importance. The passion of culture warriors in this age is so great that they cannot even perceive of their own hypocrisy.

Screwtape’s domain is well-guarded from within, often by people very intent on doing the right thing.

Perhaps our cultural moment is unusual, though. How did C.S. Lewis approach cultural criticism? After all, he was a controversialist in a time and place much different than our own. Not all his lessons transfer to our times, but I think there is one area that helps us step back and prepare for cultural engagement beyond this particular pinprick of history.

Lewis suggested that we can add to our appreciation of diversity by reading old books.

In his introduction to Sr. Penelope’s translation of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation,[1] Lewis wants to challenge the

“strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.”[2]

Lewis suspects that the idea comes first not from the hardness of older books but from our educational instinct to provide mediators for old works. Instead of just reading a good translation of, say, The Symposium, contemporary students

“would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said.”[3]

Though no doubt such trust in masters is humble in attitude, Lewis rejects this approach in his own teaching and works to pin the student to the primary text. His preference for primary sources extends to theological study:

“Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St Luke or St Paul or St Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or Hooker or Butler, but M. Berdyaev or M. Maritain or Mr Niebuhr or Miss Sayers or even myself.”[4]

He was always concerned that literary scholarship might become “a baleful thing which is always taking you out of the literature itself.”[5] Often my best students, unless they come from schools that focus on literary theory and hermenuetic, have exactly the same concern. Lewis does not reject secondary literature or contemporary books altogether, but he would suggest that if you join a dinner party late, sometimes you cannot see the entire thread of certain conversations.

More than this, old books can work as an antidote to certain diseases that are peculiar to contemporary culture:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions.[6]

Here we see Lewis struggling with worldviews and the perspectival nature of knowledge acquisition—conversations that would develop much later, and places where he doesn’t really have language yet to talk about.[7] But part of his interest in considering books from other times and cultures is a research and reason principle:

“I ought to check the results of my own thinking by the opinions of the wise.”[8]

For Lewis, though, there is an intellectual discipline at play that he had to develop in his own formation: we must, as he learned from Owen Barfield, reject “chronological snobbery,” which is

“the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”[9]

Certain ideas of the past are and should be rejected by new modes of thinking and new considerations of evidence. But in superseding the instinctive modern idea that past ages have nothing to teach us, we can then use the conversations of past ages to critique our own. In the same way, we might ask, “how could they have thought that?” of a past age or a different culture, so that age or culture might ask the same as us. And certainly some future age will look back at our own and wonder how we were so narrow-minded, backward, divisive, and slow.

It is worth noting that Lewis is writing this during WWII while his country’s great opponent, the great civilizational leader Germany, came to its totalitarianism and holocaustism largely through the influence of one man and his book, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. A past age, Lewis suggests, would see what our age is blind to. They would be able to see the cultural forces that allowed this idea to emerge and the invisible bargains we make with our ideological enemies in debate with them. By consuming only contemporary ideas, we can never see outside of our own worldview. Old books can be a resource in self-critique:

Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.[10]

Lewis suggests that in order to resist the echo chamber of our viral thinking as a culture—what he calls elsewhere “a tiny windowless universe” mistaken “for the only possible universe”[11]—we will discover that the

“palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”[12]

As the pressures of culture swirl around us, then, taking a step out of a cultural moment can diversify our thinking. It is also an inoculation against the cultural viruses of whatever age–even when the very air is poisonous to breathe.

I hope over the next couple of weeks to come back and keep thinking about this prophetic moment in Lewis. Next week (if I can get to it), I want to say, “Yes, but….” Then I’d like to suggest a Lewisian approach to books that have a worldview different than our own.

[1] Later anthologized as “On the Reading of Old Books” in God in the Dock.

[2] C.S. Lewis, “Introduction” of St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (trans. Sr. Penelope; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982), 3.

[3] Lewis, “Introduction,” 3.

[4] Lewis, “Introduction,” 3.

[5] Lewis, Discarded Image, ix.

[6] Lewis, “Introduction,” 4-5.

[7] E.g., see Paul Ricoeur, on “the mythical nucleus of society” in “Myth as the Bearer of Possible Worlds,” in A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection & Imagination (ed. Mario J. Valdés; Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), 483. On worldview see also William A. Young, The World’s Religions: Worldviews and Contemporary Issues (2d ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2005), ch. 1, who considers the categories of Symbols, Myths, Rituals, and Questions. N.T. Wright (New Testament and the People of God (Vol. 1: Christian Origins and the Question of God; Mennapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 121-6) agrees with Ricouer on the presuppositional nature of worldviews, and largely with Young on the categories, including Story, Praxis, Symbols, and four basic questions: 1) Who are we? 2) Where are we? 3) What is wrong? 4) What is the solution? James W. Sire (The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog (4th ed. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), ch. 1) focuses on 7 major questions, adding an eighth in the 2011 5th ed., and defines worldview as “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being,” p. 17; for Sire’s approach in detail see James W. Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept (Grand Rapids: IVP, 2004). Charles Taylor uses the term “social imaginary” to describe “the way that we collectively imagine, even pretheoretically, our social life,” A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2007), 146; see his fourth chapter, “Modern Social Imaginaries,” for the definition applied.

[8] Lewis, “Christianity and Culture.”

[9] Lewis, SBJ, 207.

[10] Lewis, “Introduction,” 5. Emphasis original.

[11] Lewis, “Christianity and Culture.”

[12] Lewis, “Introduction,” 5.

[13] Lewis, Discarded Image, ix.

[14] Lewis, Discarded Image, ix.

[15] Lewis, Discarded Image, x.

[16] Lewis, Discarded Image, x. Alister McGrath notes that Lewis’ image here may be taken from the image of a tourist so “heavily pilloried” in works like E.M. Forster’s Room With a View; Alister E. McGrath, C.S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 188.

[17] Lewis, Discarded Image, x.

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What Did C.S. Lewis do on his Birthdays? A 120th Birthday Inquiry that Failed

This year I introduced an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own vault or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.

This is a rewriting of a post from three or four years ago. I had really intended to have an amazing birthday post, at that time his “Eleventy-Sixth” birthday. The Hobbitish “eleventy” no longer works as today in 2018 is the 120th anniversary of Lewis’ birth. Still, as scientists, poets, and lovers tell us, failure can often be instructive, and I hope that this little post brightens your day. 

Lewis at His DeskOn the occasion of C.S. Lewis’ 120th birthday, I thought I would ask how this intrepid author and academic spent his special day? 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. After all, think of the wonderful way that a person could spend birthdays in celebration or with friends and family.

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 changed. 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, 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 is interesting, though, is that Lewis’ Anglo-Saxon evenings became the popular—or infamous—“Beer and Beowulf” nights. 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.

And that’s it. Of nearly 4000 letters, 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, and 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 if he could at all help it.

So, while this sort of ruins my post on C.S. Lewis’ 120th birthday, it is an intriguing discovery. What would Lewis want most on his birthday? One year 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.

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The Stumbling, Grunting, Teeth-Gritted, Exhilarating Race to the Finish

I am hardly someone who has the right to use a marathon as a metaphor. Or any sports analogy, really (see here for proof). I have never run anything approaching a marathon. I can do the two miles and a bit around our local park, running along the shorefront boardwalk. After three miles you will probably find me in a ditch texting my insurance company to increase coverage.

Honestly, though, it isn’t even just the athleticism of the thing. I find running so intensely boring. Even with a great book in my ears and a lovely view, the pad pad pad pad pad pad of my feet hitting the asphalt comes close to driving me mad. There isn’t even a story to running, no beginning to end narrative arc like the tick-tock of a clock as life passes us by. It’s just painful uniformity gasping into the future, some unseen and invisible finish line that is never enough.

At the risk of breaking the rules of choosing similies, writing a Ph.D. thesis is like a marathon. Or maybe even like an Ironman triathlon, which rounds out a marathon run with a nice long swim and bike race. I would say it is like the 500-mile Camino de Santiago, but I think there are too many spiritual connections with the Camino to bring that up. The 5-month, 2,650 miles Pacific Coast Trail is closer. But perhaps the best analogy is Ross Edgley, who decided to swim around the British Isles. 1,792 miles, 157 days, his tongue disintegrated by the salt water, this is what he said of the 2000-hour journey:

“Another question I got from people a lot was ‘with this self-imposed solitary confinement, did you have any grand epiphanies?’ Really the answer was: ‘No, you just keep yourself entertained and do what you can to avoid thinking of jellyfish stings, sea ulcers or chafing’.” (link here)

Actually, that’s a pretty good metaphor for the Ph.D. dissertation. The sheer lonely, unhealthy, ridiculousness of it all.

I’m grateful I still have my tongue, but there have been terrible consequences along the way. And there is still a long way to go. In 2011, I began pretending I was writing a Ph.D. thesis. In 2013 I officially signed up. And I have been working on it in all my spare hours ever since, with a seven-month sickness while my mother was sick.

It has been a perilously long journey thus far.

I don’t want to reflect too much on the journey as I’m not done yet. But I thought of the marathon because of the runner’s wall, that place of sudden exhaustion where you are certain you can’t go any farther. And yet I did keep going. With some radical life changes, a redoubled family commitment, and not a little bit of grace, I reconfigured my work. I had a strong summer 2017 to summer 2018, and an excellent conference season in the spring (see here, here, here, here, and here).


Then, after the spring conferences, I set up a writing challenge for myself. I rebooted the writing process and started a 100-day challenge. I did a few writing exercises to test my capabilities. I had years of research and hundreds of pages of notes, and parts of each of the chapters wrestled into place. And I had a New Year’s Day deadline for the rough draft. As a thesis is 100,000 words, I did some calculation and set out a 100-day challenge: In the 100 days for writing in late 2018, I dedicated myself to writing 1,000 words a day.

100 writing days, 1,000 words a day, 100,000-word dissertation. After years of preparation, those are the little steps in this great part of the journey.

Of course, it doesn’t work quite that prettily in real life. One writing day I worked four 8 hours and produced 30 words. Today I decided to write this reflection as a break after working four hours to complete 105 words. On two days I hit 6,o00 words. 17 times I more than doubled my word count goal and 23 times I fell short. As of today, I have completed 68 writing days since the beginning of July and I am at 96,500 words and four chapters in draft. I have done pretty well, all told.

However, it is near the end of November and January 1st is looking pretty close at hand. My first chapter needs a complete rewrite, I am partway through my chapter five draft, and chapter six needs a lot of work. The whole project looks a bit like a lego castle built by a toddler or someone with a deep hangover. All the parts are there or nearly in place, but there needs to be some radical rebuilding.

I have stretched my deadline a couple of days, to January 3rd, but I am back in the classroom on January 4th and I would like some family time at Christmas. My deadlines are real. I have 32 days left in the challenge and about that many full and half days of writing ahead. I am pummeling toward the end. My heart is racing, my hands shaking, I am out of breath as I pound toward the finish line. Yes, the rough draft is still very early in the process, and there will be months of editing and rewriting. But I can see the end of this leg of the race.

Thinking of that poor swimmer, his tongue disintegrating as he watches his taste buds flow out into the swell, and there may actually be some truth to that image for me. My tongue is still in place, wagging and tasting. But I have lost my voice in critical ways. I have had to reduce blogging and fiction writing. I hardly ever write for magazines anymore, and I have had to leave off many of my great community connections. I now rarely go to public lectures or writing guild events or volunteer when help is needed. Beyond family, it’s pretty much this desk, a pile of wood to chop, 16,380 songs on repeat, and the sense of being hunted, always hunted. Edgley’s “self-imposed solitary confinement” is partly apt, but it also feels like I’m running through the woods with something on my tail.

Hunted, haunted, out of breath. And yet I feel fresh and positive. I am sad that I’m missing so many things. I’m missing your great blog posts and extended discussions here in the comments and on some facebooks and discussion boards that do the things I do. I’m missing that real-life community engagement. But there is also a sense of exhilaration as I reach toward this next finish line.

Now, back to my Word document. After a quick run.

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