3 Upcoming Signum University Thesis Theatres on The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s Legendarium

I’m pleased as the week closes to offer a rich set of opportunities to dive meaningfully into Tolkien’s imaginative worlds. There are three upcoming Signum University Thesis Theatres on The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s Legendarium (all times Eastern):

  • Tomorrow, Saturday, May 21st, 11am: Emily Austin, “The Road Gives Ever On: Following the Road Motif in The Lord of the Rings
  • Thursday, May 26th, 3pm: Miriam Davidson, “The Sword Not for its Sharpness: Nonviolent countercurrents in Tolkien’s Epic of War”
  • Wednesday, June 1st, 12noon: Jacob R. Schreiner, “The Logos of Faith: Sub-Creation through Speech-Acts in Tolkien’s Legendarium”

A literary motif, a social question, and a study in the power of words–a great set of projects from three students whom I am proud to say I know. Indeed, I have been the supervisor of two of these projects–Miriam’s and Jacob’s–and Emily has been a guest writer for A Pilgrim in Narnia (see here), and I have used her artistic work in my teaching and writing (see here).

Our Signum University master’s students have the opportunity to write a thesis at the end of their degree program, exploring a topic of their choice. These Thesis Theatres are their opportunity to present their research to a general audience, tease out some of the implications of their work, and answer questions from the audience. I love these free events and have attached some of the others that I have hosted.

It is a free event and all are welcome to attend.

Before the Thesis Theatre details, just a brief couple of notes about Calls for Submissions for essay collections. As I noted earlier, Sørina Higgins and I have conspired to propose an anthology on ecocriticism, environmental concern, and creation care within speculative fiction. In particular, we have some space open for proposals about contemporary writing, especially writers of colour and indigenous imaginative works. Check out our call for:  “Gardeners of the Galaxies: How Imaginary Worlds Teach Us to Care for This One.”

And I would like to note that An Unexpected Journal is featuring a Special Issue on “Shakespeare and Cultural Apologetics,” edited by Drs Joe Ricke and Sarah Waters. I have been fortunate enough to be an expected contributor to An Unexpected Journal, and Sarah and Joe are friends of mind and poetically minded literary critics whom I admire. You can find the full Call here with a Jul 20th deadline–on the list following Calls for Submissions on Special Issues on “Dragons” and “Joy” (which are still open too by the way).

Now, to the details about the three upcoming Signum University Thesis Theatres on The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s Legendarium, including links for signing up for the free live Zoom event.

Emily Austin, “The Road Gives Ever On: Following the Road Motif in The Lord of the Rings.”

Date: Saturday, May 21st, 2022

Time: 11am Eastern

Free Registration Link: https://signumuniversity.org/event/thesis-theater-emily-austin-the-road-gives-ever-on-following-the-road-motif-in-the-lord-of-the-rings/

Host: Dr. Sara Brown

Abstract: The Lord of the Rings makes prominent use of “The Road” as a multifaceted symbolic image, but roads also play a more subtly powerful role in the text as a tool of narrative description. Tolkien’s stylistic treatment of roads and paths builds on his longstanding interest in the concept, visible in many earlier writings. In The Lord of the Rings, attention to the characters’ roads as they journey is a recurring motif that becomes particularly central for Frodo and Sam on the way to Mount Doom. This paper uses close reading and digital text analysis to identify four principal ways this narrative attention to roads can manifest, and examines how they undergird and enrich the concept’s thematic significance.

Bio: From an early age, Emily Austin has loved both reading and the visual arts, and pursued ways to combine these interests. Her favorite authors, particularly J.R.R. Tolkien and Jane Austen, shaped both her literary tastes and her artistic imagination, and they continue to provide both academic interest and inspiration for art projects. Born and raised on Oahu, Hawaii, Emily now lives in Indiana with her husband Ryan and runs a business creating art, illustration, and graphic design. Besides reading and painting, Emily also loves travel, photography, and sewing.

Miriam Davidson, “The Sword Not for its Sharpness: Nonviolent countercurrents in Tolkien’s Epic of War”

Date: Thursday, May 26th

Time: 3pm Eastern

Free Registration Link: click here

Host: Dr. Brenton Dickieson

Abstract: The Lord of the Rings highlights Tolkien’s use of characters and narrative to accentuate the courage and honor earned by those who sacrifice themselves in combat. His plot demands, and often justifies, violent action. The people of Middle-earth will not stand by as Sauron works to enslave and kill the free folk. Still, there is a clear and consistent emphasis on the cost and devastation these violent engagements bring. Tolkien’s narrative strongly warns against the lust for power and the will to dominate others while elevating the importance of grace, forgiveness, and not striking without the gravest of need. War victors should be magnanimous, offering reconciliation and forgiveness to the defeated rather than destruction, slavery, or crippling reparations. Discovering the tensions at play between the honor of war and its human devastation, this thesis explores the countercurrents of nonviolence in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. These countercurrents ultimately demonstrate that Tolkien’s representation of war and nonviolence is impacted by his literary mode, educational background, personal beliefs, and exposure to war.

Bio: Miriam Davidson has been practicing as a forensic psychiatric nurse practitioner in the Department of Corrections for the past 15 years. She has a deep-rooted love for fantasy literature and pursued a MA degree to expand and strengthen her reading and writing skills. With the help of her husband and dogs, she spends her free time restoring a 200-year-old lighthouse in Downeast, Maine.

Jacob R. Schreiner, “The Logos of Faith: Sub-Creation through Speech-Acts in Tolkien’s Legendarium”

Date: Wednesday, June 1st

Time: 12pm noon Eastern

Free Registration Link: click here

Host: Dr. Brenton Dickieson

Abstract: J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation has long been studied within his legendarium, and how humanity, being created by God, has the desire to imitate the Creator through sub-creation. However, what is the connection between God’s command for the universe to Be and humanity’s ability to sub-create? This thesis examines logos as “word” and “reason” in creation and its relationship to sub-creation through the investigative lens of speech-act theory. According to J.L. Austin and other speech-act theorists, when one speaks, it is not merely to say words, but by the act of speech, one performs, which produces consequential effects by the speaker. In The Silmarillion, Ilúvatar’s original speech-act brought all of creation into being and allowed the Ainur to sub-create within Arda according to the logical reason and design of the universe and by the word, “Eä!” The same is true in Middle-earth. Frodo and Sam harness the power of the logos in their speech-acts, and in prayer as a speech-act, by having faith, they can sub-create through language and bring about physical changes within their world.

Bio: Jacob R. Schreiner holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Sam Houston State University. His first conference presentation was at TexMoot in 2019 where he presented his paper “God of War and the Norse Oral Storyteller,” and later that year presented at Mythmoot VI on “’What a worm’s made for!’: The Cure to Conquering Dragons in C.S. Lewis’ Pilgrim’s Regress and Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader.’” At Mythmoot VII, Jacob presented his paper, “A Light for Hobbit Feet: Moral Choices that Defy Darkness in Children’s Fantasy.” His research interests include fantasy, especially the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, speech-act theory, and Germanic philology. Jacob currently runs a blog called The Tolkienian where he analyzes the works of Tolkien, fantasy, and science fiction.

Posted in Feature Friday, News & Links | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Review of Mystical Perelandra: My Lifelong Reading of C.S. Lewis and His Favorite Book by James Como

I have to admit that I was a wee bit skeptical when Winged Lion Press editor Bob Trexler asked me if I would consider writing a “blurb” for Jim Como’s new book, Mystical Perelandra: My Lifelong Reading of C.S. Lewis and His Favorite Book.

It was not Como’s work that concerned me. Como is an expert in rhetoric and one of the founding members of the New York C.S. Lewis Society–the world’s oldest active society for sharing the enjoyment and considering the impact of C.S. Lewis‘ life and work. I got to see Como’s “Very Short Introduction” volume for C.S. Lewis in galley-proofs (for a reason I can no longer remember), and I purchased it as soon as it hit the stories. I have read about 20 of these Very Short Introductions, and I was surprised this little volume was as good as it is. Though the books in the series aim to balance brevity and thoroughness, Como’s C.S. Lewis is peculiarly successful in this respect. He allows for the strong presence of Lewis’ voice within an accessible introduction to Lewis’ life that a few surprising and refreshing moments.

All well and good. However, with a title like Mystical Perelandra showing up in the midst of a busy term, I took a beat to think about it.

It isn’t the “mysticism” thing–though that might be a stumbling block for some. David C. Downing’s 2005 Into the Region of Awe is at its roots a study of Lewis as a mystic. I admit in my 2014 review (see here) that I found the book both compelling and well-written. Though I don’t see any direct ways it influenced my forthcoming book on Lewis’ spiritual theology (more of that anon), I admitted to David in 2012 that I thought he was on to something. Thus,  I wonder if in some way the last decade of my research on Lewis’ “invitation to spiritual life” is complementing Into the Region of Awe. So I am open to the idea of Lewis as a mystic.

Honestly, my hesitation was that I didn’t want to read something goofy–as some interpretations of Lewis’ work have been–or even something that isn’t a great read.

Yes, I know, that is pretty judgemental. However, there is a good deal of heartfelt material written about C.S. Lewis, and not all of it is good, beautiful, and true as literature, history, and biography. Indeed, there is something of what Robert MacSwain calls “Jacksploitation” in the publishing industry–a rather cynical play on Lewis’ name and fame to create sales without an honest immersion in his work. This kind of thing strikes me as the literary equivalent of cheap logo lunchboxes and Marlboro Man ads.

However, Como knows his material and he tends to write in a lively style. I decided to take a look at the book.

Rather than another difficult piece of work in a busy term, Mystical Perelandra ended up being both refreshing and thoughtful. It was also a helpful resource as I once again taught C.S. Lewis’ strange and beautiful and puzzling novel of the Ransom Cycle, Perelandra. My “blurb bar” is pretty high, but I was pleased to provide a note for the book and wanted to fill that out a bit here. 

In describing a lifetime of reading Perelandra, James Como captures the critic’s dilemma in discussing C.S. Lewis’ singular achievement in ascendent prose in Perelandra:

“To do justice to the mythopoeic depth of the encounter I would have to quote it all.”

I get this. As in a few other startling literary moments–like the “Weight of Glory” sermon, the denouement of The Last Battle, the closing words of An Experiment in Criticism, and resonant high points in The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader–Lewis presents a grand poetic vision that spans many pages but is meant to be taken into imaginations in a single moment of receptivity. Then, it draws us mythically into something truer and deeper and brighter in spiritual life that is beyond poetic possibilities. Maybe this is what poets always do, but in these moments, including in Perelandra, Lewis is using words to draw us beyond what words can do.

Thus, with no little irony, professor of rhetoric James Como provides a book about Perelandra while admitting to the inadequacy of words to describe it.

To do this thing which cannot really be done, Como draws us into the mysterious heart of the reader’s experience with his in Mystical Perelandra. His reflections are an invitation for us to live within rather than merely analyze Lewis’ literary vision. The result is alchemical, poetic, and mercurial–a narrative spiritual theology where we imbibe the transcendent nature of Ransom’s planetary journey through Como’s imaginative, sacramental, life-integrated, mystical experience as a reader. For Como writes of Lewis’ Perelandra that

“no single book intertwines his intellectual and imaginative powers as well as the breadth and depth of the man himself more fully than does Perelandra. It is nothing less than a mini-summa: of the cosmology and mythology of Western Christendom, of spiritual theology (that is, of spiritual formation), and – especially – of an intensely personal mysticism, a side of Lewis insufficiently explored or appreciated. In short, Perelandra is an effusion” (1).

Perelandra is “meta-literary” (4), Como argues–literature that is both immersive and requires immersion in order to experience its full effect. Following Downing and infusing the project both with a critical rhetorical lens and an interest in spiritual theology, “irrupting mysticism” (52) is the motif that Como uses to invite the reader into this fuller experience of Lewis’ heart in Perelandra. To get a sense of what Como is doing chapter 1, “The Tongue is Also a Fire” shows the ways that Como brings together Lewis’ story and writing with his own personal story of transformation in reading Lewis and his expertise as a scholar of words. The result is a startlingly original reconsideration of the story of one of the 20th-century’s most famous converts.

As a writer knowing his limitations as a writer and yet still writing, Como has these moments of ascendency, originality, and circumspection that make the reader’s experience of Mystical Perelandra richer. Here are some examples:

“Upon first reading this passage, I felt meta-theoretical scales drop from my eyes, saw planets line up, heard gears grip into place. My understanding of art deepened exponentially, and then so did my judgments and appreciation” (70).

“These combinations of colors, contours, and experiences; of psychology, cosmology and angelology; of rumination, drama, and violence (both on a floating island and at sea); of
Ransom finally killing the Un-man during a horrific ascent in darkness; his emergence into a world so fresh and beckoning, so utterly glorious – all swept me along through peaks and troughs and loops of excitement, elation, fear and satisfaction” (72)

“Lewis’s psychological insights are everywhere, and everywhere organic, though casually posited” (97)

While I quite loved reading this unusual book, there are certain limitations of Mystical Perelandra that leave me wanting a bit more.

For example, there are moments that Como is resonating with the work of Lewis scholars, including my own argument about “the shape of story” that he discusses in the second chapter and is a critical section in a section of my thesis. However, Como doesn’t treat Lewis scholarship extensively and he seems occasionally antagonistic to certain approaches. In chapter 3 on “Storytelling,” for example, Como critiques Sanford Schwartz’s book on the Ransom Cycle as being “a torrent of learning” in a small book. Schwartz’s literary criticism is thus contrary to the sympathies of Ransom in Perelandra, Lewis writing Perelandra, and Como writing about Perelandra. Besides a strange irony in the comment about “learning” and small books, Como sets Schwartz’s approach over against the core of the story, which he argues is Ransom’s spiritual development (57). Why the contradistinction? Of any writer, isn’t it true that Lewis integrates intellectual and spiritual development, leaving such dichotomies aside?

We see this binary at the heart of Como’s work, where he reduces “spiritual theology” to “spiritual formation”–leaving behind the theological structure of spiritual life that is the typical definition of spiritual theologians. Contrasting his own definition–and this is why the conversation is important–in a way similar to leading spiritual theologians, Como consistently shows in his analysis that Lewis’ spiritual theology is intellectual and thoughtful as well as active and living, even if he reduces the definition to “spiritual formation.”

Thus, quite beyond literature reviews, Como would have benefited from inviting other voices in to his relatively narrow bibliography–though he captures some of the more popular Lewis studies names.

There are other points where I would have wished that Como leave us some breadcrumbs on the trails that he mentions but does not map for us. In the first part of chapter 2, for example, Como provides a brief essay on Lewis and rhetoric and makes this note:

“his even-handed treatment of rhetorical history in his professional work, his notebooks offer virtually no use of rhetoric that is not derogatory, this in spite of Dante, who called it the ‘the sweetest of all the other sciences’” (36).

I would love to see more of the data on that claim, which I believe on instinct to be correct.

Beyond curiosity, I really need to see proof for Como’s undemonstrated claim that when Mrs Moore died Lewis felt the forgiveness of sins (109). And with other claims that strike me as absurd (Owen Barfield learned nothing from Lewis (79)) or disturbing (“I’ve concluded since that much that we take for madness is actually demonic” (105)), we need the author’s argument so that we can find some way of responding.

Finally, there are sometimes background studies that really need a bit more detail and explanation for most readers, such as his references to Newman, Kierkegaard, Frazer, Jung, and some of the mystics and devotional writers in his conversation.

I understand the limitations of this genre of book. And part of the richness of it as a work of literature itself is the broad, sweeping voice and penetrating observations of a senior scholar reflecting on a lifetime of reading. However, a combination of no footnotes and frayed threads is offputting in a way that is not helpful in Como’s daring and fruitful study.

For Mystical Perelandra is a literary risk, with a title and subtitle that will alienate some readers. For the curious and thoughtful reader of Perelandra, this book is a risk that will make our experience richer. Moreover, why should we limit the kinds of questions that we ask of Lewis’ remarkable experiment in space fantasy? Should our responses to Lewis’ most lyrical journey of mythmaking be limited to critical analysis in academic prose? Should we not also invite the mythopoeic response of the storyteller and the literary artistry of the poet? In providing something of the latter, if we are open to the journey, Como’s reflections on Perelandra transport us, like Ransom, to a world of myth and meaning much greater than a book. We should be grateful to Como for providing his essay and to Winged Lion Press for providing a place for a piece like this.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

CFP: “Gardeners of the Galaxies: How Imaginary Worlds Teach Us to Care for This One” by Sørina Higgins and Brenton Dickieson (Academic Deadline Extended to May 30th)

I am about to talk about gardening while my own garden is suffering from busy-related neglect. Even my little seedlings, planted with plenty of time for our last frost day (usually about June 10th in Prince Edward Island) have not fared very well. It may be what my grandmother once called a “bean garden summer”–a crop that grows without fail up here in the North Atlantic. At least, it has often done so.

Well, perhaps I am being a little overly dreary. After all, the hops grow without bidding, as do the dandelions. And my garlic pushed through winter cover with the snowdrops. There will be good garden days ahead, I am sure. My garden-dreary mood is perhaps because it is a dreary day, I have had tooth work, and I long to sing my fingers into the earth.

I have, though, survived my marathon of marking, conferences, and papers, which I talked about last week. I was trying to say too much in each paper, but they went well enough. My garden, too, becomes overgrown as I try to cram everything into our tiny growing season. It seems that I have learned to prune tomatoes and space out papers better than I have learned to focus my writing and give my audiences a bit of breathing space for the ideas.

As I take a breath after the busy period, I wanted to say a brief “hello” and note that Sørina and I are extending the deadline for our anthology of essays and creative pieces, Gardeners of the Galaxy: How Imaginary Worlds Teach Us to Care for This One. The open call for academic essay proposals has been extended to May 30th. The deadline for artistic pieces remains September 1st. We welcome questions about academic submissions (email me, at brenton[dot]dickieson[at]signumu[dot]org), and you can send queries about creative submissions to Sørina Higgins (sorina[dot]higgins[at]signumu[dot].org).

The full CFP listing is below, with all the necessary links. Also, check out our promo video, where we introduce the project with cats.

CFP: Gardeners of the Galaxies: How Imaginary Worlds Teach Us to Care for This One, co-edited by Dr. Sørina Higgins and Dr. Brenton Dickieson

As the climate crisis worsens, our home planet and our conversations about it are heating up–and creative writers both reflect and anticipate such concerns. Thanks to the recent ethical turn in science fiction and fantasy, many speculative works offer readers a mirror in which to view our own world. Its beauties and vulnerabilities take on special clarity through the page or the screen. A tale of terraforming another planet reminds us how precious and fragile our home world is. The perennial conflict between nature and technology comes alive when trees march to war. We find insights into healthy, diverse communities by spending time with characters in a fellowship–or on a starship.

Gardeners of the Galaxies: How Imaginary Worlds Teach Us to Care for This One will be an academic, peer-reviewed collection of interdisciplinary essays, co-edited by Dr. Brenton Dickieson and Dr. Sørina Higgins. This volume will explore literature, film, the visual arts, and other creative works (especially Cli-Fi, genre fiction, and speculative lit) that imagine, invent, and embody environmental concerns. Rather than coercing texts to conform to our analyses, however, we want to approach our subjects humbly and earnestly, listening to what they say about creation care, biodiversity, or neighborliness; immersing ourselves in their stories of ecological harmony and disharmony; mourning the disasters they depict; and celebrating the solutions they imagine. In particular, we would love analyses of works that envision ingenious alternatives to large-scale planetary depredation.

Chapter proposals might consider questions such as the following (although this list is by no means comprehensive nor intended to limit lines of inquiry): What kinds of environmental disasters are depicted in contemporary literature, film, and other media? How does a certain genre or medium represent nature, and how have those portrayals evolved over time? Do certain metaphors for land or diction choices about earth impact how people treat the soil, landscapes, or ecosystems with which and in which they live? In a given work, is nature empowered or oppressed, and how do characters respond? What is the significance or impact of the anthropomorphism of animals, plants, landscape features, or celestial bodies? When stories blur the line between the human and the nonhuman, what implications does such destabilization have for our living in community with our nonhuman neighbors? What lessons are conveyed through encounters with extraterrestrial species? What do stories of interplanetary colonization suggest about imperialist urges, their ecological impacts on earth, and strategies for integrating with the Other rather than obliterating or oppressing them? Are there tales in which technology plays an essential role in preserving nature or reinforcing what makes us human? What techniques do creators use to entertain us and draw us into moral considerations without compromising artistic excellence or devolving into propaganda?

Submission Information: 

As this volume will be interdisciplinary, we welcome scholars working in literature, film, popular culture, the fine arts, ecology, history, the social sciences, religion, and related fields. While aimed at a scholarly audience, chapters should be written in a lively, accessible tone, avoiding jargon while employing rigorous theoretical and critical frameworks and engaging deeply with existing research. Interested authors should consider trying out their ideas at TexMoot, Signum University’s Annual Texas Literature & Language Symposium (held in Austin, TX, and online; CFP deadline March 1st), which explores the overlapping theme of “Starships, Stewards, and Storytellers: How Imaginary Worlds Teach Us to Care for This One.”

Please submit 500-word proposals here by May 30, 2022. Notifications regarding acceptance will be made in June 2022. Full papers (5,000-8,000 words, including notes) will be due by November 30, 2022.

In addition to academic submissions, the editors will carefully curate a small number of creative works for possible inclusion in the volume. Poets, short-story writers, essayists, and visual artists are invited to submit the actual piece of work that they would like to have considered here; note length limits on the submission form. These works can be submitted up until September 1, 2022.

Send questions about academic submissions to Brenton Dickieson (brenton[dot]dickieson[at]signumu[dot]org). Send queries about creative submissions to Sørina Higgins (sorina[dot]higgins[at]signumu[dot].org).

Posted in News & Links, Original Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

My Conference Papers this Week in Canada and K’zoo on C.S. Lewis’ Constructed Language and Intertextuality, with a Note on the Impostor Syndrome

In an intriguing confluence of events, this week is Canada’s annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Congress2022–what scholarly Canadians used to call “the Learneds”–and is at the same time as the International Congress on Medieval Studies, hosted by the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo–known simply as “the Congress” or “Kalamazoo” or “K’zoo” and all manner of other cool names to those in the know. And, also intriguingly and a bit terrifyingly, I am somewhat out of my element in both programs.

Congress and Kalamazoo are two excellent programs with merely the Great Lakes between them. Though it may have been manageable to hit my Tuesday CLSG session before arriving at Kalamazoo–only 12 hours further by car–the digital events allow me to attend both sessions and still connect with the Canadian-American Theological Association on Sunday. An online program makes navigating the distance fairly easy, though somewhat less scenic.

At Congress2022, I am presenting at the Christianity and Literature Study Group (CLSG) on Tuesday, May 10th. Every time I have joined them, the folks at the CLSG have been personable, bright, and engaged in the papers that scholars and students brought to the conference. Even last year in our online-only sessions, there was nothing disconnected in this fellowship, where all the high and heady thoughts were still grounded in our Canadian classrooms, connected to our city streets, and rooted in faithful artistry. More than anything, the CLSG is a community very much invested in seeing in new and deep ways–in particular, in understanding the way our institutions and communities have failed to see, in many ways, what First Nations people have been trying to show us. I very much look forward to connecting again.

My own presentation at CLSG is in the “Inklings and Philology” panel. And not being a philologist by profession–or a “pure philologist” as in Tolkien’s self-description (Letters 264)–I am feeling somewhat out-classed.

The other two papers are offering strong, technical discussions of Tolkien and philology–intriguingly, both on fäerie-related words–with significance moving out beyond the roots and meanings of these provocative words themselves. My own contribution is more modest and really a tease-up for a fuller conversation within a larger world-building chapter I am writing. My paper, “The Underlying Thought of Old Solar in C.S. Lewis’ Ransom Cycle” plays out the implications of the discovered “Ransom Preface” or “Cosmic Preface” to The Screwtape Letters in two ways: 1) considering more deeply the implications for “Old Solar” as a “Constructed Language” (conlang); and 2) thinking about the mythic root of Lewis’s conlang by asking questions about the two most influential thinkers in Lewis’ life when it comes to the roots of language, language invention, and philology: J.R.R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield. As a background to my “Old Solar” paper, you can read about my work on the “Cosmic Preface” and the links between C.S. Lewis’ Ransom Cycle and The Screwtape Letters here.

And though I am a small thing as a philologist, I do have a series on C.S. Lewis and the Love of Words, which I hope you enjoy.

Last year, my CLSG paper was a high-level and complete argument about Lewis and literary theory. While “The Personal Heresy and C.S. Lewis’ Autoethnographic Instinct: An Invitation to Intimacy in Literature and Theology” has deep implications for the way that we relate to one another in our increasingly diverse worlds of connection, I am relieved to be presenting something less complex and a little more playful–even if I am outshone by the philologists on the panel. You can find the abstract and recording of the 2021 “Autoethnographic Instinct” here, including some links to resources.

At Congress, I am attending the Canadian-American Theological Association, but am not presenting. You can read about and see a recording of my 2021 paper here, “Michael Gorman’s Narrative Spiritual Theology and C.S. Lewis’ Logic of Cruciformity: A Conversation Across Generations and Disciplines.” I would also note that normally Congress is at the end of May, and on even years I am headed next to the C.S. Lewis and Friends Colloquium at Taylor University in Indiana. The conference has not returned to its pre-pandemic regularity, and my intended 2020 paper still remains in limbo, “’As High as My Spirit, As Small as My Stature’: C.S. Lewis’ Theology of the Small and Monika Hilder’s Theological Feminism.”

When it comes to Kalamazoo, I am, admittedly, not really in the know–not one of the K’zoo cool kids as I am not primarily a medievalist. Thus, my paper is really a humble suggestion about method within an excellent panel on C. S. Lewis and the Middle Ages I: Dante and the Lewis Circle, hosted by Joe Ricke. My paper is titled, “Medieval Models and Lewisian Intertextuality: A Quest for a New Metaphor.” The panel is in honour of Marsha Daigle-Williamson, who passed away not long ago and has written a brilliant resource book for Lewis scholarship, Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis, which I reviewed in VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center. There is in Daigle-Williamsom’s excellent work a temptation to think of intertextuality–how a later author uses a previous author’s work–in overly-linear ways. Using Daigle-Williamson’s own research, I am pushing back on that tendency and then using some of Lewis’ peculiar and thoughtful metaphors about intertextuality to suggest more organic and living ways to speak about the way authors hide and reveal their reading within works of literature.

I am something of an impostor in both my CLSG philology panel and the Kalamazoo gathering of medievalists. Thus, rather than shrinking into the background in self-defacement, I have decided to embrace my status as a hobbit among warriors and lean upon what I know. I am, after all, a jackleg of a philologist or medievalist, but not a cheat or a cad or a cozener. So I will lean upon what I know and do my best to learn and grow–for the right nourishment will cause even hobbits to stretch up a bit, and even on the field of battle, a hobbit has been known to make a good thrust.

I include both abstracts below. If you are at Congress or K’Zoo, I hope to see you online!

Dr. Brenton Dickieson, “The Underlying Thought of Old Solar in C.S. Lewis’ Ransom Cycle: Considering New Evidence from the Screwtape Ransom Preface, with a note on Owen Barfield and J.R.R. Tolkien concerning Language and Myth ”

Inspired by a now-famous 1930s sf-writing wager with J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis’s breakout interplanetary romance, Out of the Silent Planet (1938), also benefits from Tolkien as one of the early publisher in-house reviewers. In a recommendation letter to Allen & Unwin Publishing, Tolkien discusses the novel’s merits with a particular focus on language. Tolkien says that Lewis had addressed early-draft inconsistencies in revision, so that the linguistic inventions and philology are “more than good enough,” resulting in linguistic aspects that have both “verisimilitude” and “underlying thought” (Letter #26). Lewis’s invention of “Hressa-Hlab” in Out of the Silent Planet develops in the Ransom Cycle to become “Hlab-Eribolef-Cordi,” or “Old Solar.” While con-lang loving readers wished there was more Old Solar in the novels, scholarly interest began as early as 1945 with linguist Victor Hamm. The recent publication of the “Ransom Preface” to The Screwtape Letters imaginatively links the speculative worlds of Ransom’s Field of Arbol and Screwtape’s hell, and offers the first new evidence to emerge in the conversation about Lewis’ language invention. Although there appears to be no Old Solar words that remain in Dr. Ransom’s translation of Screwtape, the Preface reveals a unique aspect of grammar and invites speculation about a Malacandrian lexicography. This paper explores the implications of this grammatical invention, considering its possible connections to Owen Barfield’s “ancient unities” conception of linguistic evolution. In conversation with Tolkien’s understanding of language and myth, this paper concludes with the question of how Lewis’s understanding of a Barfieldian-Tolkienian “original” language within the speculative universe of the Ransom Cycle offers a startling linguistic theoretical contrast to the dominant theory of the 20th century, that of Ferdinand de Saussure.  

Other papers at this conference include:

  • James Doelman, “A ‘fey mood’ and a ‘forlorn hope’ in The Lord of the Rings
  • Greg Maillet, “Fayryȝe or Fay-Magic: What Tolkien Learned from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”
  • Monika Hilder, “Verbicide or Human Flourishing: C. S. Lewis’s Philology as a Key to Veritas, Libertas, Humanitas
  • Daniel Melvill Jones, “Sacred Space or Sacred Destruction? St. Boniface and the Oak of Geismar in Willibald’s Life of Boniface
  • Mary Arseneau, “Reserved Meaning, Open Interpretation, and Christina Rossetti’s ‘Who Has Seen the Wind?’”
  • David Bentley, “Christina Rossetti’s The Prince’s Progress and Dante’s Fourfold System”
  • Katherine Quinsey, “Classicism and Catholicism in Pope’s Essay on Criticism
  • Clara Joseph, “How an Indian Priest’s Travelogue Challenged Colonialism”
  • John North, “Newman’s Tracts for the Times

Dr. Brenton Dickieson, Medieval Models and Lewisian Intertextuality: A Quest for a New Metaphor

In the 2015 rewriting of her dissertation, Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis, Dr. Marsha Daigle-Williamson invites readers to imagine the many obvious and subtle links between Dante’s classic text and Lewis’ fiction. Daigle-Williamson’s inquiry is generative in studying the “continuous, multilayered echoes of Dante’s poem” (137) in Lewis’s fiction and is an essential resource for scholars. However, in her curiosity about Lewis’ intentionality in this project of intertextuality, Daigle-Williamson sometimes speaks of “Lewis’s use of Dante” (see p. 201) in a way that is restrictively linear. In this paper, I consider the six kinds of intertextuality Daigle-Williamson identifies, and a seventh—that of “world-building”—that she instinctively models but does not delineate theoretically, encouraging a more multi-layered and complex image of intertextuality. I then consider Lewis’ own working metaphors and images of intertextuality, particularly in his reflections upon medieval concepts of authorship. By his own instincts as a fiction writer, poet, and literary historian, Lewis is a useful conversation partner within theoretical conversations about intertextuality as he discusses organic and immersive links between hypertexts and hypotexts. Scholars will no doubt wish to extend Daigle-Williamson’s work on Lewis and Dante in myriad ways. For those who wish to include Lewis’s literary theory as one of the tools for inquiry, and considering the ways texts move beyond a linear path, I suggest a playful medieval literary metaphor to consider as a model for studying Lewis’s vibrant and dynamic transtextuality in poetry and prose.

Posted in Fictional Worlds, News & Links, Original Research, Studies in Words | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Secret Vice” and My Secret Love: Thoughts on Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins’ Critical Edition of A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Language (Throwback Thursday)

At A Pilgrim in Narnia, we have an occasional feature called “Throwback Thursday.” By raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s, I find a blog post from the past 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 you might enjoy.

I wanted to reshare this post on Tolkien’s invented languages for a few reasons. I am setting up a personal re-reading of The Lord of the Rings, and, for me, the languages and elvish scripts of Middle-earth have been part of my joy in reading and rereading Tolkien’s great work. I am also working on the idea of language and mythology in Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield for a conference paper next week, so Tolkien’s word-rooted mythology is on my mind. For Tolkien Reading Day, I also rewrote a piece I quite like, “Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles: Reading and Writing The Layered Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction: A Note on “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” and “Leaf by Niggle”–and language invention is one of those intricate and implicated parts of reading Tolkien that I talk about in that piece. I have begun reading the newest (and last?) Tolkien collection of writings, The Nature of Middle-earth, edited by Carl F. Hostetter, one of our experts in elvish tongues. And as I was going through some of the rich resources in the Signum University Youtube catalogue, I came across Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins’ lecture series on their book, A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Language, and wanted to reshare that great series.

So, in a confluence of ideas on my mind at the end of a busy term and the beginning of a research period, I thought I would reshare this piece, where I think about my own amateur love of languages as a way of sharing Dimitra and Andrew’s important work on Tolkien, one the master of modern mythmaking conlangers.

It was the fall of 2001. I was rereading The Lord of the Rings in anticipation of the film, which I was sure would be screened even in our rural, mountainside Japanese town. One afternoon, I was killing time at our church, a peculiar community of expats from Thailand, China, Brazil, and North America who worshipped with a tiny group of Japanese confederates. As the church was a multi-use building for fellowship, education, and community service, it was filled with all manner of rigmarole. It was a strange place, and unusual people, but it was our community for a critical part of our young, married lives.

I don’t remember if I was waiting for worship practice or biding time between language classes, but I found some magnets on a whiteboard and began to play.

It is something that I do: play with the bits of letters and words that are kicking around.

The magnets were not just Arabic numbers and Latin letters as we might find in a castoff corner of an American suburban church. The magnets were the remnants of various kits, including kanji and geometry and hiragana. I began to shape the educational flotsam and jetsam into a syllabary, adapted from the Japanese system I was learning, but with characters from my own twenty years of reading fantasy and science fiction. I was quite lost to the project for an hour or two.

Japanese HiraganaThe magnetic oddments served the purpose well, so that when people arrived it was clear to them that I had made what I was calling in my head an “alphabet”—although “alpha” and “beta” had no part in it. The distinctive rhythms and tonal patterns of the Japanese language had entirely infused my mind, but my system didn’t sound like Japanese. It was richer in Ls and Rs, with some gutturals and sibilants from the Hebrew alephbet I was learning at the time. It was the syllabary I wanted to capture from my new culture, not the staccato give and take of Japanese speech–a speech that somehow has contrasts and apologies and the land and something almost monastic hidden in its script.

Looking at my whiteboard-child magnet creation, someone noted—it was Mickey, I think—that it looked like something from The Lord of the Rings. And he was right. The liquid nature of my syllabary as it contrasted with harder-edged sounds—what I later would recognize as fricatives to add to my gutturals—was most certainly coming from the Professor himself, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Quenya_Example.svgI can’t remember if I was annoyed at being derivative back then, but I have since become comfortable with that status. When it comes to the constructed languages in fiction (conlangs), Tolkien is the master. Terry Pratchett captures the truth of it well with a quote that is especially resonant given the fact that I was (re)discovering the mythic elements of language invention in the Land of the Rising Sun and a few hundred miles from Fuji:

Tolkien appears in the fantasy universe in the same way that Mount Fuji appeared in old Japanese prints. Sometimes small, in the distance, and sometimes big and close-to, and sometimes not there at all, and that’s because the artist is standing on Mount Fuji.

While the conlangs that appear on screen and in print can often be simplistic and perhaps no more than a part of the atmosphere—I’m reading Stephen King’s Desperation, and his elemental-alien-demonic language of Tak is there merely as a tool to invite horror and to give a sense of cavernous, instinct-soaked deadliness—many of our fictional languages are constructed with some complexity. The TV version of George R.R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire is a strong example, which I enjoyed reading about in David J. Peterson’s, The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building.

David J. Peterson The Art of Language InventionBack in 2001, I knew little about Tolkien’s philological idiosyncrasies. I was a fan, reading as a lover of Tolkien’s words and worlds and responding with my own bit of word-playfulness. Good readers do this, I think, sketching out family trees and maps, rewriting the story and playing with its possibilities. And, in the case of a carefully constructed speculative universe with diegetic languages that have some heft, playing with the words of that world is something we love to do.

It was what Tolkien himself relished in doing, of course. As I grew as a Tolkien reader, I came to realize the extent to which his entire legendarium is rooted in language and language invention. While I have played with language forms when writing fiction, Tolkien wrote fiction to give space for his languages to breathe and grow. It is why, I think, Tolkien’s writings feel like they have a mythic quality to them from almost the first pages. And, like a magnet, it is a feature that either attracts or repels readers.

Tolkien was aware of the polarizing nature of invented languages when he finally came public in the early 1930s with his own. Before The Hobbit—long before The Lord of the Rings was in anything like a readable form—Tolkien shared what he called his “Secret Vice” in a lecture in the early 1930s. Tolkien believed in the interconnected nature of language and mythology, and shared this thesis with the Samuel Johnson Society of Oxford in a 1931 talk called “A Hobby for the Home.” For Tolkien in that lecture, it was almost a guilty confession. For us as readers, though, it is pure possibility. As Tolkien’s secret vice of language development is the root of his legendarium, the more we invest in Tolkien’s conlangs, the more we learn about his worlds.

lord of the rings ballantineAs such, Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins’ 2016 publication of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “A Secret Vice” in a critical form is very welcome. A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Language is a beautifully designed edition in the HarperCollins Middle-earth series, and includes critical texts with extensive notes of two of Tolkien’s connected lectures, “A Secret Vice” and “Essay on Phonetic Symbolism.” They also publish a number of related manuscript notes from Bodleian Tolkien MS. 24 which would only be available to people with archival access. The volume closes with a chapter on “The Reception and Legacy of Tolkien’s Invented Languages” and a helpful chronology of Tolkien’s philological and language work in 1925-1933.

Overall, A Secret Vice is excellently done, neither disappearing too deeply into the involved worlds of Tolkienist language scholarship nor skating quickly across the issues. The reviews of scholarship are adequate though not exhaustive, and thus accessible to new students. Some will use this book for a broad-based introduction, while others will use it primarily for the texts.

george rr martin the game of thrones fullMy criticism and concerns are issues of publication rather than editorial control. I am eternally frustrated by endnotes, especially in critical editions. This is even less endearing when we are dealing with conlang poetry. My shout into the wind on this issue will do little to shift what is the normal practice in the industry. Beyond that, the “coda” that offers the section on Tolkien language reception could have been longer. A little more detail about the living nature of Elvin tongues would be welcome, but I am surprised we don’t have a significant portion on what is the most extensive and complete post-Tolkien Tolkienist conlang, that of The Game of Thrones on screen. I can only guess that someone else has done this job or that it didn’t fit in the vision of the publishers or others behind the scenes.

These issues are minor and shouldn’t take away from a volume of worth. As a fan, as a curious reader, I’m appreciative of Drs Fimi and Higgins for their work. I also appreciate the generosity of their time and Signum University’s relevant creativity in creating a space to share more on Tolkien’s Secret Vice. In 2016, Drs Fimi and Higgins each led various parts of a three-section academic series on A Secret Vice hosted by Signum University. Here are those sessions, available free to you.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Gardeners of the Galaxies” Discussion with Sørina Higgins and Brenton Dickieson on Inkling Folk Fellowship (Fri, Apr 29, 2022, 4pm Eastern)

“Gardeners of the Galaxies? How Imaginary Worlds Teach Us to Care for This One”: A discussion with Sørina Higgins and Brenton Dickieson on Inkling Folk Fellowship (Fri, Apr 29, 2022, 4pm Eastern)

In many parts of the northern hemisphere, all manner of folks are getting out of doors and digging their fingers in cool, rich earth. We do this for food, for beauty, for health and exercise, and for a Hobbit-like love of green, growing things.

In the ways that we attend to our urban gardens, suburban walkways, farms, and public spaces, in the attention we pay to what we eat and where our food comes from, and in the decisions we make about how we live on the planet, we are becoming increasingly aware of how implicated we are with our environments.

That connection deepens with our work as artists, poets, storytellers, and lovers of great, rich literature. These are places where our subcreative acts as little makers reflect a deeper, creative impulse, as J.R.R. Tolkien captures it in his poem, “Mythopoeia.” For lovers of the Inklings and other mythopoeic writers, literature and film are never merely the sum of their value as entertainment, but will always draw us into a deeper understanding of life.

Thus, Brenton Dickieson and Sørina Higgins are interested in exploring “How Imaginary Worlds Teach Us to Care for This One” in an anthology of essays with the working title, “Gardeners of the Galaxy.” They will join the Inkling Folk Fellowship on Friday, April 29 to discuss their open call for essays and artistic pieces and to be part of a larger discussion about the ways in which the effect of going to another “world” in literature or film or fancy can transform and enlarge our perspectives of how we might live meaningfully in the everyday world we inhabit.

So, join us this Friday, April 29, 4 p.m. (EDT), to join the conversation and, maybe, to start working on your essay or creative proposal for the imagined volume (not to mention your garden and chicken coop).

Link to Call for Proposals: 

CFP: Gardeners of the Galaxies: How Imaginary Worlds Teach Us to Care for This One by Drs. Sørina Higgins and Brenton Dickieson

Zoom Link:

Please see the Inkling Folk Fellowship event on Facebook here.


Sørina Higgins is a faculty member at Signum University. She earned her Ph.D. in English from Baylor University in 2021 with a focus on theatre of the modern occult revival. She edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur, wrote an introduction to Charles Williams’s Taliessin Through Logres, and produced an edition of Williams’s early play The Chapel of the Thorn. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works.

Brenton Dickieson also teaches at Signum University and is an Associate Professor in Applied Communication, Leadership, and Culture at the University of Prince Edward Island. Brenton researches the intersection between faith, culture, and literature and curates the blog, A Pilgrim in Narnia. He earned his Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies from the University of Chester in 2019. His rewritten thesis, The Shape of the Cross in C.S. Lewis’ Spiritual Theology, is contracted with Oxford University Press.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

My New Online Short Course: “Spirituality in the Writing of L.M. Montgomery” at AST in May, 2022

Happy Friday fair readers! I am super pleased to announce my new Short Course with the Atlantic School of Theology: “Spirituality in the Writing of L.M. Montgomery.” This May 2022 4-week online audit course is completely open to anyone who is interested. There is still time to sign up and it has an incredibly low registration fee of $20.

If you have been following A Pilgrim in Narnia, you will have seen that for about 5 years I have been publishing the occasional L.M. Montgomery blog post, resource list, review, academic essay, or event. Almost from the first page of rediscovering Montgomery’s literature as an adult, I have been struck by the way that she invites readers into a more vivid vision of the spiritual life and a more capacious theological imagination. This course is a chance for me to test my ideas with eager and open readers from around the world.

I have the full course announcement below, as well as a list of lectures and weekly readings. I think it is important to acknowledge a couple of striking points.

First, kudos to AST–a multidenominational seminary in Halifax, NS–for continuously offering quality local and online theological and pastoral education. AST reaches not just those who fill future pulpits and podiums, but also the folks in the pews–and, in the case of this course on L.M. Montgomery’s literature, people who are likely to have a novel in their hand as the sun sets on the day. It is also striking that AST’s leadership caught the vision of my work with Montgomery as a “theological storyteller” (and this may have had something to do with Rob Fennell, who published my first academic chapter ever).

Second, $20 for a 4-week online course! How do they do that? This is a radical discount from the cost of running a high-quality continuing education course at the Atlantic School of Theology. It is made possible by great sponsors working in partnership with AST: the Pollok and MacKinnon memorial funds of Pine Hill Divinity Hall. For those of you with the means, have you considered supporting local and online education so that as many people who can are able to access it?

“Spirituality in the Writing of L.M. Montgomery” is designed for everyday folks with a curious mind and an interest in Montgomery’s writings. Thus, the course has deep lectures, readings, and discussions with a light design–all hosted on Facebook. I can’t wait to see how great readers like yourselves react to my unusual approach to Montgomery’s life and works and help me experience her stories in deep and resonant ways. I hope to see you soon!

Full details below. Email me at junkola[at]gmail[dot]com if you have questions.

Spirituality in the Writing of L.M. Montgomery

by Brenton Dickieson

Course Description

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s iconic Canadian novel, Anne of Green Gables, has been translated into 40 languages and has sold 50 million copies. Montgomery was an author, Presbyterian minister’s wife, and church leader, and her 21 novels and 500 short stories include conversations about faith and are deeply attentive to spirituality and social morals. Yet she is rarely studied as a Christian public figure or as a writer of theological interest.

This program takes Montgomery seriously as a conversation partner for theological exploration. Participants will study Montgomery’s religious space, her hopes and dreams, her fears and darkness, and the unresolvable tension between her journals and her public writings. We will read her fiction as an “invitation to spiritual life,” discovering the spiritual theology Montgomery invites us to imagine.

Program Details

Sponsor: This program is offered by the Atlantic School of Theology and sponsored by the Pollok and MacKinnon memorial funds of Pine Hill Divinity Hall.

Dates: May 2 to May 27, 2022

Course Format: Asynchronous

Lectures: Lectures are pre-recorded and available when participants are ready to watch them. There will be about 1-1.5 hours of lecture material each week (usually in multiple mini-lectures).

Readings: See the lecture outline and reading notes below.

Book Discussions: There will be a discussion group on Facebook where participants can respond to questions in the lectures, tease out ideas in Montgomery’s writings, and chat with one another and the professor.

Instructor: Brenton Dickieson is a Professor at the University of PEI, Regent College, Maritime Christian College, and Signum University. He curates the literature, faith, and culture blog, http://www.aPilgrimInNarnia.com.

Fee: $20

Registration: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/spirituality-in-the-writing-of-lm-montgomery-tickets-269735485097?aff=ebdsoporgprofile

Course Outline

Week 1: Montgomery and the Spiritual Imagination

  • A Brief (Religious) Life of L.M. Montgomery
  • Anne, Emily, and the Story Girl as Gateways to Fairyland
  • Anne of Green Gables: Being Next Door to a Heathen and the Awaking of the Religious Imagination
  • Reverent Irreverence: Images of God and Montgomery’s “Pilgrims on the Golden Road of Youth”

Week 2: Rainbow Valley and the Invitation to Spiritual Life

Week 3: Darkness as Friend and Foe

  • Belief, Doubt, Mental Illness, and the Cultural Moment: Montgomery’s Tensions and Her Fiction
  • Befriending the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Lived Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams

Week 4: Vocation, Artistry, and Spirituality

  • The “Flash” and Numinous Experience in Emily of New Moon
  • Vocation, Artistry, and Spirituality in “Each in His Own Tongue”

Reading List

Week 1:

Week 2:

Week 3:

  • Core Text: Anne’s House of Dreams
  • Referenced Texts: References to Montgomery’s journals and selections from The Watchman and Other Poems

Week 4:

Posted in News & Links, Original Research, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Which Image Triggered C. S. Lewis’ Enthusiasm for Wagner’s Ring Cycle? A Proposal by Norbert Feinendegen

Since the first time I read C.S. Lewis’ peculiar and beautiful memoir, Surprised by Joy, I have been fascinated by Lewis’ numinous experience of joy that came with his encounter between a moment in Wagner’s Ring Cycle and one of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations. In a sense, A Pilgrim in Narnia has become a curated sandbox to think about the spiritual and artistic importance of this moment in Lewis’ life. 

One of my early blog posts was, “Balder the Beautiful Is Dead, Is Dead: C.S. Lewis’ Imaginative Conversion.” I really should rewrite that piece. However, I was correct in making links to the Elder Edda–which I connect to my review of Canadian poet Jeramy Dodds’ translation of The Poetic Edda and a note on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sigurd and Gudrún in what I think to be one of my favourite and least helpful blog titles, “Ragnarök’n’roll!” And I was right to share Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s version of Tegner’s Drapa, for that is where Lewis’ literary imagination had provided the story for what he saw on the page.

While I had some good instincts, I did not find my way to the bottom of the story. I keep writing about it, and it is even behind experimental blog posts like “Lewis, Wagner, and Frankenstein: Literary Accident or Reader’s Providence?” I have also opened this moment of encounter up for some of our guest writers. This encounter is a key feature in Yvonne Aburrow’s piece on Lewis and paganism, “Gods or Angels?“, and is critical to Josiah Peterson’s piece in the “Inklings and King Arthur” series, “Thor: Ragnarok and C.S. Lewis’ Mythic Passions.” Justin Keena moves us even deeper in his paper, “C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Friendship, True Myth, And Platonism.” Indeed, all the biographers include this moment in Lewis’ life. For student and friend George Sayer, the “Northernness” that Lewis and Tolkien shared moved deeply inside of him and became part of his own romantic attraction to the Inklings (which I talk about here).

And yet, as this piece by Norbert Feinendegen shows, there is a mystery that has remained unsolved. Norbert is a German philosopher with a particular eye for detail in the most important historical moments of C.S. Lewis’ intellectual journey. As he provokes new questions and finds new clues in the archives, I hope Norbert’s proposal can help fill out this famous moment of Lewis’ teenage life with new richness.

Which Image Triggered C. S. Lewis’ Enthusiasm for Wagner’s Ring Cycle? A Proposal by Norbert Feinendegen

In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis recounts a seminal moment that occurred quite early in his life but had an enormous impact on his spiritual development. This encounter of art and imagination has become famous, and yet the image at the centre of the story has remained a mystery.

Between January 1911 and July 1913, Lewis was educated at Cherbourg House, Malvern, a preparatory school southwest of Birmingham, England. At some point during these 2 ½ years, his eyes happened to fall on an advertisement in a literary magazine that promoted Volume 2 of Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen cycle.[1] He saw one of Rackham’s paintings and at the same time read these words: Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods. This quick glance resulted in an intense experience of Joy – the first since his childhood days – and established his lifelong fascination with Norse mythology.

Lewis gives two accounts of the event. The first is the well-known passage in Chapter 5 “Renaissance” of Surprised by Joy (SbJ):

“This long winter broke up in a single moment, fairly early in my time at Chartres [Cherbourg House]. (…) Someone must have left in the schoolroom a literary periodical: The Bookman, perhaps, or the Times Literary Supplement. My eye fell upon a headline and a picture, carelessly, expecting nothing. A moment later, as the poet says, ‘The sky had turned round’.

“What I had read was the words Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods. What I had seen was one of Arthur Rackham’s illus­trations to that volume. I had never heard of Wagner, nor of Siegfried. I thought the Twilight of the Gods meant the twilight in which the gods lived. How did I know, at once and beyond question, that this was no Celtic, or silvan, or terrestrial twilight? But so it was. Pure ‘Northernness’ engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago (it hardly seems longer now) in Tegner’s Drapa, that Siegfried (whatever it might be) belonged to the same world as Balder and the sunward-sailing cranes.”

The second account is a passage in “Early Prose Joy” (EPJ), an autobiographical sketch Lewis wrote in late 1930/early 1931 (published by Andrew Lazo in VII, Vol 30 [2013], p. 13-40):

“For two school years of busy and unprofitable boyhood, nothing befell me that con­cerns the subject of this book. Then all in a moment the frost broke up. I saw one day in a newspaper the reproduction of some picture that Arthur Rack­ham had drawn for Wagner’s Ring. I suppose that what I was looking at must have been a publisher’s advertisement, for my eyes, at the same moment, took in the words Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods printed close beside the pic­ture. I had never heard of Wagner, nor of Siegfried: and I thought that ‘the twi­light of the gods’ meant the twilight in which the gods lived. It is a little re­mark­able that though I knew nothing of the Northern mythology till then, save what could be learned from Longfellow, I spontaneously set this twilight and these gods in a place quite apart either from the Celtic or from the Grecian stories. Per­haps the flavour of Rack­ham’s drawings is truly Germanic and guided me aright. Whatever the cause, those printed words flashed instantly up­on my mind a riot of imagery which later know­ledge has shown to be sur­prisingly correct. I saw that twilight hanging pale and motionless over the Atlantic, slowly fading through the endless summer evening of the North: I saw those gods wheeling through it aloft on flying horses: I think (but of this I am uncertain) [that] even then, from some forgotten source, I supplied them with winged helmets.”

Lewis does not say in these two passages which of Rackham’s illustrations he saw, but he assumes in SbJ that the advertisement appeared in The Bookman or The Times Literary Supplement. In both SbJ and EPJ, he emphasises that he saw the illustration and read the words Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods next to it. Intriguingly, the way that these words sit with the illustration is a fact that has received little attention until now.

According to the Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper biography of C.S. Lewis (p. 31 in the revised 1994 edition), it was the Christmas edition of The Bookman (December 1911) that fell into Lewis’ hands, which contained a supplement printed in colour with several Rackham illustrations of the Ring.[2] However, a little historical searching shows that this is not so. The “Christmas Double Number” of The Bookman (which is also the December issue) was accompanied by a 138-page “Christmas Supplement” in black and white, as well as by a “Portfolio” with three colour plates by Hugh Thomson (= illustrations for R. B. Sheridan’ The School for Scandal).[3] Neither the 1911 Christmas edition nor the supplement contains any of Rackham’s illustrations for Siegfried & The Twilight of the Gods;[4] the latter does contain an advertisement for the volume on p. 127, but it is not illustrated.[5]

While Lewis speaks of an advertisement for the Rackham volume, Sayer in his 1988 biography Jack (p. 76 in the 1994 edition) claims that he got hold of a magazine that contained a review of the Rackham volume and featured an illustration: a painting of Siegfried looking down on the sleeping Brünnhilde in the light of the rising sun (whose breastplate he has removed so that her naked breasts are visible, cf. plate 13/30 of Rackham’s illustrations). However, he cites no source for this assertion;[6] on the contrary, he quotes the verses printed in Rackham’s volume on the left-hand page (facing the illustration)[7] and adds that these verses were presumably not reproduced in the review. It therefore appears that Sayer never saw the review himself, which he claims was the trigger for Lewis’ experience.

The actual source of Lewis’ teenage encounter with Northernness appears to have eluded biographers thus far.

After an exhaustive search, I have only been able to find one issue of a contemporary literary journal that contains the combination of illustration and the words Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods. In the popular US magazine The Literary Digest, a reproduction of plate 29/30 from the Rackham volume appeared on 30 December 1911 with the caption Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods. The picture shows Brünnhilde in the evening light leaping with her horse Grane onto the funeral pyre on which the dead Siegfried is being burned.

Are there reasons to suppose that it was this illustration that Lewis saw as a young adult? I believe so.

This illustration and caption include both elements of the memory of Balder that triggered joy in Lewis: Rackham’s illustration and the words printed next to it, Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods. Tegnér’s Drapa[8] says of the dead Balder:

They laid him in his ship,
With horse and harness,
As on a funeral pyre. …
They launched the burning ship!
It floated far away
Over the misty sea,
Till like the sun it seemed,
Sinking beneath the waves.
Balder returned no more!

Here, too, a dead god is handed over to a funeral pyre (and a horse appears). And Longfellow also immerses his scene in the light of the setting sun, which may have provided an additional incentive for Lewis’ (mis)interpretation of the “Twilight of the Gods” as merely evening.[9]

The similarity between the two scenes is unmistakable. This synchronicity could be the reason why Rackham’s image evoked the memory of the dead Balder in Lewis as he intuitively knew that Siegfried belonged to the same world as Balder (the images which came up in him apparently also resembled the imagery of Longfellow’s poem).

And there is a second (somewhat less obvious) reason this connection seems likely. In EPJ, Lewis explains his memory of the imaginative encounter:

“I saw that twilight hanging pale and motionless over the Atlantic, slowly fading through the endless summer evening of the North: I saw those gods wheeling through it aloft on flying horses: I think (but of this I am uncertain) [that] even then, from some forgotten source, I supplied them with winged helmets.”

Lewis’ hesitation about the winged helmets suggests that he was certain about the flying horses – that they were part of the original vision and not a later back-projection. Longfellow, who, according to EPJ, was Lewis’ only source for Norse mythology up to that point, does not mention flying horses anywhere. Thus, the question arises as to how Lewis came up with the idea of having his gods fly on horses – unless the picture itself gave him cause to do so.

As it turns out, Brünnhilde on Grane is the only illustration in the volume that shows a deity on a horse. This alone does not explain why Lewis, with his (very vivid) visual imagination, should have seen gods on flying horses. It is conceivable, however, that he had seen paintings of flying gods somewhere else, and that the illustration evoked the memory of these paintings in him. The Edda, which Lewis came to know only afterwards, features horses as mounts of the gods, and Wagner’s Valkyries are also often depicted on flying horses.[10]

After all, we cannot be certain that The Literary Digest was available at Cherbourg House. The Bookman and The Times Literary Supplement are more likely suspects to be found in the school’s library or common room. As we have seen, though, the archives reveal that they contain no illustrations of Siegfried and The Twilight of the Gods.

Thus, if Lewis really saw the image of Brünnhilde jumping with Grane onto the funeral pyre of the dead Siegfried, his reaction to both image and title would find an easy explanation. In the spirit of a cautious suggestion, it remains an open question whether Lewis actually saw this image in The Literary Digest or in some other unknown magazine. The combination of Lewis’ description of a Rackham illustration titled with the exact phrase, Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods, suggests, in my opinion, that we are on the right track. It would be a striking coincidence if another literary journal had published exactly the same combination of image and caption at about the same time.

So the hunt is on: If someone should find the combination of image and title mentioned by Lewis in a British magazine (whether with the same illustration or a different one), and/or should put forward an equally plausible or even more plausible idea of what Lewis might have seen in his schoolroom at Cherbourg House, I’d be delighted – I’m sure we all would be delighted – to hear about it! Meanwhile, when we bring together the autobiography Surprised by Joy with the recently published evidence of “Early Prose Joy,” the Literary Digest advertisement remains strikingly resonant of Lewis’ profound teenage encounter with Northernness.

Norbert Feinendegen has studied philosophy and theology at the philosophical and theological faculties of the RWTH Aachen and Bonn’s Friedrich Wilhelms Universität (State Examination) and holds a PhD in Roman Catholic Theology from the FWU Bonn. He has worked for several years as a research assistant at the Theological Faculty of the University of Bonn and is a freelance author and lecturer in the field of religious education for the Archdiocese of Cologne. He is the author of two German books and several peer-reviewed articles about C. S. Lewis and has published with Arend Smilde The ‘Great War’ of Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis Philosophical writings 1927-1930 (2015) and C.S. Lewis: Tutor and Lecturer in Philosophy: Philosophical Notes, 1924 (2021). He is advisor to the Owen Barfield Literary Estate and was a long-time board member of the German Inklings Society. His academic work focuses on the philosophy of C. S. Lewis, Christian apologetics, ethics and the relation of faith and science.

[1] Rackham’s illustrations of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods were published in late October 1911, together with Margaret Armour’s recent translation https://archive.org/details/siegfriedtwiligh00wagn/mode/2up. The first volume The Rhinegold and The Valkyrie was published in 1910.

[2] McGrath’s and Poe’s biogaphies make a similar claim but do not cite their sources or add further evidence. While Lewis speaks of only one image, all three (Green/Hooper too) seem to assume that Lewis saw a supplement with several illustrations.

[3] The 1906 Christmas edition of The Bookman, however, contained a Portfolio of three Rackham illustrations of Peter Pan.

[4] The title page of the Christmas Double Number states that it has a cover plate by Edmund Dulac and contains other (unspecified) full-page plates with pictures by Arthur Rackham, Charles Robinson, Claude A. Shepperson and Willy Pogány. However, such plates are neither (!) part of the portfolio, nor of the Christmas edition, nor of the supplement. I have not yet been able to solve this mystery.

[5] The US magazine of the same name (The Bookman), in its Christmas issue 1911, ran a full-page reproduction of plate 1/30 (p. 383), but with the subtitle “SIEGFRIED. BY ARTHUR RACKHAM”.

[6] It is theoretically possible that Lewis told his friend in a personal conversation that it was this painting he saw, but Sayer himself does not make this claim.

[7] “Mystical rapture / Pierces my heart; / Burning with terror; / I reel, my heart faints and fails” (Rackham p. 86). These are Siegfried’s words when, after removing the breastplate, he realises that the person in front of him is not a man but a woman. This four-liner is repeated on the left-hand page opposite the illustration (which is otherwise blank).

[8] https://archive.org/details/poeticalworksofh00long_1/page/216/mode/2up?q=balder

[9] Balder is referred to in Longfellow as the god of the summer sun, so that his burial coincides with the sunset; Lewis’s vision is marked by the fading of the summer evening of the north.

[10] Rackham’s first volume of Ring illustrations The Rhinegold and The Valkyrie also features the Valkyries riding flying horses, but Lewis didn’t see this volume until later. Whether he had a glimpse of this volume before he received it as a Christmas present from his father in 1913 is not known. The painting shown here is by Cesare Viazzi (1857-1943).

Posted in Original Research, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

The Literary Past and Future in C.S. Lewis’ “The Quest of Bleheris”: My Talk Tonight at the New York C.S. Lewis Society (Fri, Apr 8, 2022, 7:30pm Eastern on Zoom)

I am very pleased to be speaking tonight at the New York C.S. Lewis Society, the world’s oldest active society for sharing the enjoyment and considering the impact of C.S. Lewis‘ life and works. The New York C.S. Lewis Society was founded in 1969, six years after Lewis passed away. A quick trip to the webpage will give you a sense of their remarkable contribution. Besides monthly meetings, they also produce CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society–a society newsletter that never fails to provide enjoyment and profit for the reader. In each issue, you will find news, reviews, and book notes, but also an academic essay and some occasional features, like Dale Nelson–who has contributed from time to time on A Pilgrim in Narnia–and his “Jack and the Bookshelf” series (now numbering into the 50s in number). Although I have been able to purchase the back issues of CSL that I need for research, over the years, I have been gifted a handful of old copies of the Bulletin. I treasure these with my old scattered issues of Mythlore and The Canadian C.S. Lewis Society Journal.

Thus, you can understand why I have confessed that I had been hoping to one day speak to this group.

My last visit to New York was to study the manuscript of The Screwtape Letters in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library (the lion library in NYC, or the Ghostbusters library for folks from the ’80s) and the original print run of Screwtape in The Guardian at the General Theological Seminary archive. However, that visit was in August, when the society has a hiatus.

So while I hope to gather with these great folk in person at some point soon, for now, I am pleased to be able to share some of my research on C.S. Lewis’ first attempt at prose, his 19,000-word incomplete story, “The Quest of Bleheris,” which he wrote when he was 17.

Below you can find the New York C.S. Lewis Society announcement from Facebook. Readers might also be interested in next month’s NYCSL talk by founding member of the society, James Como, and his new book, Mystical Perelandra: My Lifelong Reading of C.S. Lewis and His Favorite Book. Here is the blurb I wrote for Como’s unusual and provocative Perelandra study, which should be out by the end of the month:

“In Mystical Perelandra, Como draws us into the mysterious heart of the reader’s experience, living within rather than merely analyzing Lewis’ literary vision. The result is alchemical, poetic, and mercurial, a narrative spiritual theology where we imbibe the transcendent nature of Ransom’s planetary journey through Como’s imaginative, sacramental, life-integrated, mystical experience as a reader. And we are all the richer for his efforts. Como’s reflections on Perelandra transport us, like Ransom, to a world of myth and meaning much greater than a book.”

The Literary Past and Future in C.S. Lewis’ “The Quest of Bleheris”

This Friday, Brenton Dickieson will be speaking about C.S. Lewis’s first attempt at a novel, “The Quest of Bleheris.” Though it was only available in an archive in the decades following its composition in 1916, the full text is now available in the 2020 version of Sehnsucht: The C. S. Lewis Journal: Volume 14, 2020. The full text is about 19,000 words, and though incomplete, this teenage chivalric tale by C.S. Lewis is worth reading.

Dr. Brenton Dickieson is the author of more than 1,300 articles, blog posts, essays, and reviews, and is the curator of aPilgrimInNarnia.com, which explores the intersections of faith, fantasy, and fiction. Brenton works primarily as a theologian of literature, with a Master’s degree from Regent College and a PhD from the University of Chester. Brenton is currently an Associate Professor in Applied Communications, Leadership, and Culture at the University of Prince Edward Island, Adjunct Instructor in Literature at The King’s College (New York City), Lecturer in Theology and Literature at Maritime Christian College, Distance Education Instructor in Spiritual Theology at Regent College, and Lecturer and Preceptor in Signum University’s M.A. in Imaginative Literature program. Brenton is under contract with Oxford University Press for his forthcoming book, The Shape of the Cross in C.S. Lewis’s Narrative Spiritual Theology. Brenton lives in beautiful Prince Edward Island with his superstar kindergarten teacher wife, Kerry, and their teenage son, Nicolas, a singer-songwriter.

Follow the link for information on how to join the Zoom meeting on April 8 at 7:30 p.m: http://www.nycslsociety.com/meetings

Posted in News & Links, Original Research | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin (a review)

How Long ’til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I say that N.K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful writers in contemporary speculative fiction, I am making a claim of both influence and content.

In terms of influence, Jemisin is perhaps the science fiction writer with the most major awards and nominations in the last decade. Famously, N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy won the Hugo awards (in the novel category) in three successive years (2015, 2016, 2017)—making her, I believe, the only author to have an entire trilogy win, the only author to win three years in a row, and one of only five writers who have three or more wins. Jemisin’s conclusion to the Broken Earth Trilogy scored the Hugo, Locus, and Nebula awards in a stunning trifecta. Finally, last year, The City We Became was Jemisin’s fifth nomination in the novel category, and it also took that year’s Locus and BSFA awards.

And these are just the novel awards. Jemisin has been nominated in other categories, including short fiction. Her 2018 short story collection that I am reviewing here, How Long ’til Black Future Month?, won the Locus Award and the American Library Association’s Alex Award, and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. Plus, if common excellence awards are not enough, she was also the 2020 MacArthur Genius Grant fellow.

It goes beyond breaking award records. By consistently producing engaging, character-driven short stories, complexly beautiful science fiction novels, and thoughtfully prophetic nonfiction essays, Jemisin is one of a number of Black North American women speculative fiction writers who are helping to reframe readers’ expectations with genre-redefining literary fiction and speculative world-building, including folks like the legendary Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor, and 2020 Hugo competitor with Jemisin, Rebecca Roanhorse.

Thus, while Jemisin has become a leading figure, her influence and prestige have come through two decades of unrelenting commitment to sophisticated world-building, culturally rich, character-driven literary prose, and a remarkable capacity for experimental writing. This concentration of character-voice combined with a disciplined approach to speculative world-building appears in some of Jemisin’s best writing in How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

The true Jemisin fan is going to be particularly thrilled to participate in some of her short story experiments that later become novels or full series. “The Narcomancer” has a tinge of a melancholy sweetness, a story of conscience and vocational risk that becomes part of the Dreamblood series (which I haven’t read yet). “Stone Hunger” was exciting for me to read, for I was privileged to see how Jemisin began to conceptualize the extremely complex character make-up of The Broken Earth Trilogy–and how deeply implicated the characters are in that universe with the speculative world itself. And “The City Born Great” has all the terrifying brilliance and bracing goodness of The City We Became–an experiment in allegorical fiction that I have argued (here and here) is more successful in this short story than in the full novel.

Though she says it was her first professional story sale, “Cloud Dragon Skies” is a stunningly beautiful and weirdly imaginative inversion of so many CliFi tropes, a transformation of the “Ringworld” approach to science fiction that has left me in love with the main character. “Cloud Dragon Skies” is a science fiction tale, but there is an earthy, folk-wisdom that works like magic and has knowledge that sees beyond what science can measure.

For not all of her tales remain in the realm of what many call the “possible.”  Whether you decide that “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” is a parable or fantasy may make little difference in the end. As a New Orleans flood tale re-imagined, however, Jemisin’s story uses speculative re-direction to hit at the heart of where climate catastrophe and the social will meet. Listen to this first paragraph:

The days which bracketed hurricanes were painful in their clarity. Sharp-edged clouds, blue sky hard as a cop’s eyes, air so clear that every sound ground at the ear. If a person held still enough, he would feel the slow, unreal descent as all the air for miles around scrape-slip-slid downhill into the whirlpool maw of the approaching storm. If the streets were silent enough, he would hear his own heartbeat, and the crunch of rocks beneath his feet, and the utter stillness of the earth as it held its breath for the dunking to come.

Soon, the shadow following Tookie to his about-to-be-deluged home will change the way that Tookie lives in his world–and invite us to do the same. There is a troubling moral complexity and problematic heroism of this New Orleans tale that also makes “The Brides of Heaven” so powerful. By using the competing internal and external tensions of ecology, religion, and gender in a tender survival scenario, in just a few pages, “The Brides of Heaven” creates a character-centred moral crisis comparable to what James Blish achieved in his A Case for Conscience.

I love N.K. Jemisin’s capacity for creating a speculative world, but there are times when her genius for invention outstrips the capacities of a particular story. For the most part, I think that is more of a plus than a minus when reading a 15-year retrospective of materials.

However, Jemisin is also a stronger storyteller in terms of character development and atmosphere the further she is away from proving a point or crying out in protest. For example, “Non-Zero Probabilities” has a genius “supposal” about a world where “luck” becomes realized and localized, but it concludes with a less-than-enthralling after-school special ending. “The You Train” is also smart, but the moral keeps overwhelming the character and her epistolary voice. “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” has a similar message to the other two stories, except that Nemisin stays away from the pulpit throughout much of the story. Thus, the “Yesterdays/Tomorrows” altar call ending strikes me as far more organic to its life as a story.

There are times when Jemisin’s moralism works organically within the tale, but I think many of her tales that preach read well because of the sheer strength of Jemisin’s invention. “Cuisine des Mémoires” is absolutely gorgeous and preaches in the end; however, the meal in this case is worth the price. “On the Banks of the River Lex”–where humans have moved on and left all their gods and our imaginative creations adrift in the post-apocalyptic doldrums of posthuman vitality–is just so well done that I would have received any prophetic critique or moral injunction Jemisin wanted to offer. In this case, the invitation to moral reflection was deft enough, and it matches the beauty and humour of the piece. (We also, it is worth noting, get a Death that may have met Terry Pratchett once upon a time.) Likewise, there is a synchronicity of complex moral choice and inventive speculative possibility in “Walking Awake” or “The Trojan Girl” that makes both “world” and “moment” ring true, a walking together of truth and beauty.

However, it is sometimes Jemisin’s eye on a target that makes the story creak for me. “The Elevator Dancer” could be great–there are moments of greatness–but it has the strength of speculative ideological framing that we get in religious tracts. I love the main character in “Valedictorian” and the AI element is neat, but the story shares the tone of earnest rebuke one might find in the kind of commencement address that would be required for remarkbly unimaginative graduates.

And then there are some other pieces that I’m not sure what to do with–pieces that reveal what Jemisin calls her “angry” writing. I am terrified to read again “Red Dirt Witch” for the risk and the heartache and the consequence. I don’t know enough about that kind of storytelling, but I think it could be a great piece. But what do I do with Jemisin’s “pastiche of and reaction to” Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant and troubling “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”? Jemisin’s story suggests that there are some ideas–not actions, sins, or acts of violence, but questions or thought experiments or beliefs–that must be extricated for a community to live together beautifully. And by “extricated,” I mean killed dead, with violence, intentionally and thoughtfully and without exception.

It is this sort of thinking about how communities should work that makes me so troubled by the characterization of “us” and “them” in The City We Became (my review: part 1part 2). Prophetic speculative fiction is no mean sword in the hands of a deeply moral writer, and N.K. Jemisin has some skill with the blade. My belief is that “morality” must always live within the three great transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness, or it becomes either the first signs of blight or the foundation for tyranny.

It could be that I have misread Jemisin, that I have made a flawed argument that she is a better fiction writer the less direct her moral vision is being portrayed to the audience. True fans and smart critics will no doubt send me back to the text.

However, if you are looking for an author who is trying to integrate the artistic creator and prophetic heart–the “Poet” and the “Man” as C.S. Lewis calls it in his essays–Jemisin is a powerful voice. And even with experiments that do not always succeed, as an inventive world-builder and character-centred prose writer, Jemisin combines the imagistic capacity of William Gibson with Ray Bradbury’s experimental tendencies. In the tradition of Octavia Butler’s inversive perspective, Jemisin applies her very own broad and diverse world-building and character-building capabilities to a story of immediacy and cultural relevance.

This is why Jemisin is one of this generation’s great speculative fiction authors. How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is a strong and diverse collection from the leading science fiction writer of the moment.

My other reviews of Jemisin’s work:

View all my reviews

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments