Happy Birthday L.M. Montgomery! Born on Prince Edward Island’s Imaginative North Shore

Despite its global celebrity, Prince Edward Island’s north shore remains a largely unknown treasure. With hundreds of inlets, creeks, wharves, harbours, river valleys, hillside views, and quaint communities to explore, visitors who come here expecting to “see the Island” in a day or two are often disappointed. I would not wish our guests to miss miles of white sandy beaches juxtaposed by jagged red seaside cliffs. Everyone should visit the Green Gables house in Cavendish and walk the boardwalk in North Rustico, stopping to eat at one of the artisan restaurants or take a harbour cruise or see a play at the Watermark Theatre. Through federal support of the fishing industry, investment by the arts community, the long memories of old friends, and the slow discovery of a place of beauty, the rugged hills and poverty-stricken lanes that made up my Rustico schoolboy days have been transformed into a village of coastal charm.

The Island treasures “on the map” are worth visiting, but the eye hungry for beauty should leave time for wasted hours in the corner and harbour and hamlets of our northern shore.

I still find my own New Glasgow breathtakingly beautiful. The names “River Clyde” and “New Glasgow,” a fervent religious devotion, a commitment to hard work, and a few tools, books, and household memories were a few of the only things my people brought with them from their farms off the Clyde some 15 or 20 miles from Glasgow. While my great-great-great-great grandfather was apparently not worth taxing in the Parish of Houston, Renfrewshire, he managed to find passage to Prince Edward Island in 1820. And somehow in that connection, he married a Catherine Anne Stevenson, whose father became the pastor at the community church in New Glasgow. Though we late-generation Dickiesons were the heathens to which others would find themselves next door, as a child, I played in the church that Elder Stevenson helped build. In ill-fitting Sunday clothes, I watched the ceiling fan while preachers preached and my grandmother prayed I would be still for just a few moments more. Later, still un-still but eagre, I served that church. My wife and I were married there, ordained there, and it is still a place I think of as home.

10 or 20 miles seaward of my childhood home, there are treasures many miss. Though there are few places as Instagram-ready as French River, Prince Edward Island, Stanley Bridge is a brilliant harbour with a wide-mouth bay, archipelagos of dunes and wooded lands jutting into the sea, and a long, beautiful river to explore. Moving inland and east up Trout River, there are miles of wooded trails with red-dirt roads and the little corner of Millvale. I miss the mill, the smell of sawdust and the busy movement of laughing men working with speed inches from what seemed to me then–and still seems to me today, in memory–to be monstrously dangerous saws.

If you were to leave my old family farm in New Glasgow by car, you would pass by my church–what L.M. Montgomery somewhat disdainfully called the “New Glasgow Baptist Church”–as well as the famous Lobster Suppers and Toy Store. After about 8 hilly miles you would come to Stanley Bridge. Turning northeast would bring you within a few minutes into Cavendish, with the National Park along the shoreline, the Green Gables house inland, and Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s homestead at the centre of the village. A 3-mile drive directly west from Stanley Bridge along the 100-acred lots measured out from the river will take you to what I think of as the New London corner–though I don’t know if that’s its real name. Just 4 miles north of the corner is the postcard harbour of French River, and another two miles takes you to Park Corner, a family home where Montgomery felt love and friendship and the image of “Silver Bush.”

Travelling west and south from New London corner will take you to Kensington, the train station where a fifteen-year-old Maud Montgomery would board a train to the West to reunite with her father. It is an auspicious occasion–not least because she met her grandfather, “Senator” Donald Montgomery, with Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and his wife, Lady Agnes, but especially because the following year in Saskatchewan would be decisive in Montgomery’s personal and literary life.

But on this day, the anniversary of the birth of Prince Edward Island’s most famous author and undoubtedly the Canadian writer with the most global reach, it is important to remain for a moment at New London corner. Like many PEI villages, New Londoners have extended their hospitality to visitors. There is a tea room, places to buy coffee or ice cream, historic venues for weddings, and nearby places to eat. The Potter’s Parlour is worth a visit for its coffee and craftsmanship, and The Table is a gourmand destination, a “Culinary Studio” in a beautifully renovated United Church–a newer building for what had, I presume, previously been a Methodist congregation, established in one of the earliest areas for Methodist preaching in PEI. As the St. John’s Presbyterian Church just a moment’s walk from the corner was built after Montgomery was born, I do not know where she was christened. However, the church captures the feel of Victorian rural PEI life well at the heart of New London.

And, at this same corner, Lucy Maud Montgomery was born on this day, Nov 30th, in 1874, in a small one-and-one-half-storey cottage, adjacent to the store on the corner. Secured by her grandfather, Senator Montgomery, this cozy home was where “Maud” spent her first months of life until her mother, Clara, died of tuberculosis 21 months later. Not long after, Montgomery‘s father would move to the Northwest Territories, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, following hopeful ventures for financial success. Maud would live with her mother’s people, raised by her elderly grandparents a short walk from the corner in Cavendish.

In the 19th century, when folks were calling this area Clifton, no one could have imagined the global impact this lonely orphan of a child would have. Her early days were as inauspicious as mine, just 10 miles southeast and 101 years later. L.M. Montgomery would go on to be the author of 20 novels, 530 short stories, 500 poems, and dozens of essays. She was a church organist and Sunday School teacher, a director of plays and fund-raisers, a life-long correspondent and journal writer, and a benefactor to her rural Canadian kin. She was a minister’s wife, a friend of farmers and Prime Ministers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, an officer of the Order of the British Empire, and a lover of cats. Montgomery is probably in the 100 million club in terms of books sold, and according to this research, Anne of Green Gables is Canada’s most translated book (in at least 36 global languages, see photos below).

And, recruited by a well-meaning United Church minister in the 1980s, I once gave an underwhelming reading of “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night….” punctuated by “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy” shouted with red-face exuberance. In that church some forty years earlier, Montgomery had, in 1942, been laid to rest in a state funeral–a rare occasion in Canada’s far-flung rural reaches.

So, when you have the chance one summer day, I would encourage you to visit the Lucy Maud Montgomery Birthplace museum at Clifton corner. It is an authentically decorated Victorian home, painted white and green as an homage to Green Gables. There is a replica of Montgomery‘s quite tiny wedding dress, as well as a number of her personal scrapbooks where she pasted many of her stories, poems, and personal memories. It is a pretty little place that gives me a sense of what that home might have been.

More than the museum, however, is the north shore drive. That our little Prince Edward Island could produce one of the world’s most transformative modern authors is a complete mystery until you can see what Montgomery saw–the landscapes and seashores and skyways, the stunning geography of land brimming with imaginative possibilities, and the places that Montgomery called home.

So on what Anne might call an auspicious moment, I wish our own Lucy Maud Montgomery a happy birthday, and invite lovers of her writing to come and see the real-life imaginative world behind her works.

Posted in L.M. Montgomery | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

“A Sense of the Season”: C.S. Lewis’ Birthday Pivot and the Cambridge Inaugural Address (Updated 2021)

In the autumn of 1954 at the age of 56, C.S. Lewis was at the height of his academic career. With a chance to speak to the academic community at Cambridge and the listening world on the BBC, Lewis used this moment to reposition himself in an unusual way.

Two years previously, in the first week of July, 1952, Lewis finished writing the decades-long project, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. That same week, Lewis released Mere Christianity, a compendium of his WWII BBC talks on faith and life. Lewis continued to be recognized as a Christian public intellectual with bestselling books like The Screwtape Letters (1942). Mere Christianity, however, extended his reach, ultimately becoming a modern classic and one of the most influential works of popular Christian thought in the world.

And in the springtime of 1949, this bachelor Oxford don, literary critic, and Christian controversialist had a most suprrising manuscript in his hands: the first full draft of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As influential as The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity would be for the intellectual and spiritual lives of Christians, so The Chronicles of Narnia have provoked curiosity and wonder and delight in millions of readers. Though the genre is new for Lewis, these Narnian stories are not a divergence from his other work of the perion. In the classic stories of Narnian adventure, Lewis was able to put in fairy-tale form all of his love of literature and his intimacy with Christian faith as the mythic core of human existence.

On Sept 16th, 1954, after nearly two decades of research and writing what Lewis humorously called “OHEL”–a reference to the series title, “The Oxford History of English Literature”–English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama was published. Lewis’ magnum opus intensified Lewis’ value as a literary historian by providing a unique look at the cultural spirit of the 16th century through hundreds of its poets and authors. Written with ever-present wit and remarkable brevity–a literary history so lively and provocative that I enjoy reading it, even though I haven’t read most of the original sources–Lewis was able to exceed the quality and usefulness of his groundbreaking The Allegory of Love (1936). 

Just 10 days before OHEL was published in the UK, Lewis’ fifth Narnian chronicle was released, The Horse and His Boy. These are the 7th and 8th books that Lewis published in that 5-year period since 1949. Lewis’ letters reveal that he was working on his memoir, Surprised by Joy, through 1954, and The Last Battle was already complete, leaving only The Magician’s Nephew to draw together the story of Narnia. It was a remarkably productive period, where Lewis wrote nearly two books a year–a pace matched only by his writing during WWII.

Beyond these great 1954 moments was a little pain. After thirty years as an Oxford don and numerous unsuccessful bids for a professorship, Lewis realized it was time to leave the academic home he had occupied since 1919. With some support from J.R.R. Tolkien, Cambridge designed a Chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature specifically with Lewis in mind. Reluctant but hopeful–and after almost giving the opportunity away–Lewis agreed to take the Chair.It was a hard move to Cambredge, but there were great things ahead. By the end of 1954, the Carnegie Medal-winning Chronicles of Narnia were mostly complete, and Surprised by Joy  would meet the world in 1955. That spring, Lewis would write his most literary fiction, Till We Have Faces (1956); at the same time he would begin to fall in love. The decade that followed his appointment to Cambridge were productive, filled with academic books, Christian nonfiction, and culminating in his “prolegomena” in medieval literature, The Discarded Image (1964).

Christian Nonfiction

Literary Academic Books

This last decade was a particularly rich and focussed period in Lewis’ literary life.

At the centre of this great moment in 1954 was Lewis’ 56th birthday on 29 Nov 1954. However Lewis may have spent his birthday in other circumstances, on this date he gave his Cambridge inaugural address, “De Descriptione Temporum.” Not only was this a celebration of achievement, but it was also a moment when Lewis’ entire public profile pivots.

In the 1940s, Lewis was a well-recognized voice as a Christian controversialist. In 1950, he became the Narnian and the author of Mere Christianity–a profile that has led to hundreds of millions of readers. And in 1954 he became a Cambridge professor. His birthday Cambridge inaugural address was titled “De Descriptione Temporum”—“a description of the times” or “a sense of the season.” Lewis’ pulse-taking of the moment, intriguingly, is not a scathing rebuke of education or merely a “kids these days” kind of talk. Lewis doesn’t even present himself as simply another expert in period literature and culture—albeit with the unusual thesis that the idea of the “Renaissance” is an unhelpful historical fiction.

More than this, Lewis invites the audience to view him not merely as a guide to Medieval and Renaissance literature but as a specimen of that culture:

I have said that the vast change which separates you from old Western [the Medieval and Renaissance world] has been gradual and is not even now complete. Wide as the chasm is, those who are native to different sides of it can still meet; are meeting in this room. This is quite normal at times of great change…. I myself belong far more to that old Western order than to yours. I am going to claim that this, which in one way is a disqualification for my task, is yet in another a qualification. The disqualification is obvious. You don’t want to be lectured on Neanderthal Man by a Neanderthaler, still less on dinosaurs by a dinosaur.… If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? What a chance to know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled and what noises it made! And if the Neanderthaler could talk, then, though his lecturing technique might leave much to be desired, should we not almost certainly learn from him some things about him which the best modern anthropologist could never have told us? He would tell us without knowing he was telling (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, 14-15).

Lewis goes on to admit that he would give much to hear an ancient Athenian—even an unlettered one—talk about Greek tragedy because

“He would know in his bones so much that we seek in vain. At any moment some chance phrase might, unknown to him, show us where modern scholarship had been on the wrong track for years” (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, 14-15).

Given the class environment into which Lewis was speaking, reaching toward an uneducated ancient local instead of an Oxbridge scholar is a strong point in Lewis’ critique of modern scholarship, moving from critical, distant, external study to something more near and intimate. Lewis would probably have been completely unaware of a revolution in the field of anthropology that runs along the same line; still, he invites his listeners to consider himself from an anthropological perspective:

Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you somewhat as that Athenian might stand. I read as a native texts that you must read as foreigners. You see why I said that the claim was not really arrogant; who can be proud of speaking fluently his mother tongue or knowing his way about his father’s house? It is my settled conviction that in order to read old Western literature aright you must suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits you have acquired in reading modern literature. And because this is the judgement of a native, I claim that, even if the defence of my conviction is weak, the fact of my conviction is a historical datum to which you should give full weight. That way, where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not only for myself but for all other old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, 14-15).

How can students get a “description of the times” so they might understand their reading? By watching the habits and language and culture of someone who is a leftover from that long-lost age–a medieval poet who walks in modern-day streets, a dinosaur that escaped its enclosure, an Athenian loose in contemporary Cambridge.

But there are also a couple of other interesting points where Lewis is offering a “sense of the season.”

It is his birthday and a critical transition in his career, so this turn to autobiography in academic work in his own life is worth noting. He essentially calls himself a “dinosaur”–not a cutting edge theorist like the Cambridge literary school was offering with the likes of I.A. Richards or F.R. Leavis. The irony of a man who is out of step with his times giving a talk about cultural moments is part of the humour in the piece, I think. It is kind of an absurd claim–that to understand Dante or Milton or Jane Austen you should watch a person who likes slow train rides and fought in the trenches and reads fairy tales for fun.

I believe that we should read the lecture with a bit of a smile.

Beyond the joke with a serious point, though, is the fact that Lewis intuitively predicts the changing of the season I mention above: Where scholarship goes from the pretence of distance and perfect objectivity to a space where in some disciplines (like literature, theology, and anthropology), one’s own life is part of the “data” of good scholarship. George Watson once noted that Lewis’ lifetime of work in An Experiment in Criticism was ahead of the French turn:

“A French avant-garde, in any case, does not wish to be told that an Englishman has been saying it all for years” (George Watson, ed,, Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis, 4).

As we reflect on the anniversary of Lewis’ birth, I think it is intriguing that someone who so clearly was out of date was also capable of speaking to the times and, in some cases, predicting the change of seasons. The epigraph to the published version of the inaugural lecture is from Tacitus:

“Quotus quisque reliquus qui rem publicam vidisset?”

Roughly translated for our conversation here, it is asking, “who is left who has really perceived what is going on?” Ironically, Lewis-the-dinosaur remains shockingly current.


Since first publishing this piece, which I have updated to give a greater sense of the great things happening in 1954, I have developed the importanc of Lewis’ “birthday pivot” as I’ve described it here. In June, I presented a paper at the Christianity and Literature Study Group at Canada’s annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. The research allowed me to make more connections between “De Descriptione Temporum” and Lewis’ earliest and latest works of literary theory: The Personal Heresy written through the 1930s and published in 1939, and An Experiment in Criticism, written in the autumn of 1960 and published in 1961. The paper is called “The Personal Heresy and C.S. Lewis’ Autoethnographic Instinct: An Invitation to Intimacy in Literature and Theology.” I have not published it yet. However, I did a recording of the talk. You can find the details of the paper, including a PDF of the slides here, and I have included my video below.

You can read the full text of “De Descriptione Temporum here or in Selected Literary Essays or They Asked for a Paper

Posted in Lewis Biography, Original Research, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Time to Listen: Rebecca Roanhorse’s Astonishing Novel Black Sun (Blogging the Hugos 2021)

As part of my “Blogging the Hugos” series, I have just finished Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. Normally as I am reading a book, a theme or image or idea emerges that gives me a chance to write a review that goes beyond “here’s the story, the good, and the bad.” I do have a lot of feelings about this complex and beautifully crafted novel. I am astonished, I think—“stunned” (in the medieval sense of the word) to silence by the images and characters and world-building. Or maybe I am “thunderstruck” (in the Latin sense of the word), wary of the storm’s approach, the threat in Thor’s din, though it is the flood of story and lightning flash of idea that should be my real concern.

Whatever the case, I am unsettled, and realize that I am unsure what to say about Black Sun, the Hugo-, Nebula-, and Locus-Award nominated first novel by Rebecca Roanhorse, a New Mexico writer of Indigenous and African American descent.

Black Sun is a story of convergence. For more than three centuries, the warring peoples of the Meridian have maintained a tentative peace following a period of fratricidal and tribal bloodshed. To end the wars, clan leaders agree to a suppression of local worship—a limitation of the local gods who were felt to be connected to the rising powers that nearly led to the wasting of their cultures. Superstitions continue, local cults thrive in underground communities, and magic still lives in the hearts of healers, witches, sorcerers, and counsellors. However, public religious power is now in the hands of “the Watchers,” a moderate religious society led by the Sun Priest and various orders in the Celestial Tower at the heart of the mammoth and diverse city of Tova.

Through the years, the clans continue to lead their communities, named for the (somewhat mythical) animals who live with them in kinship, such as the Winged Serpent, the Golden Eagle, Water Strider, and Carrion Crow. Doubtless there are other great clans, as there are other peoples on the edge of our tale, like the mountainous Obregi and the matriarchal Teek. And there are the clanless ones, the gutter trash and outcasts of the “Dry Earth.” Clashes of clan leaders are always possible, but the matrons, patrons, priests, community leaders, and crime bosses share some interest in keeping this tentative peace in Tova and across the Meridian.

Haunting the imagination of this civilization is the “Night of Knives,” a ruthless slaughter a generation earlier, where the Priest of Knives led a holy war against Carrion Crow clan in a desire to drive out the worship of the ancient gods that feel would threaten the peace. It was this act of violence, a tribal cleansing, that has ironically destabilized the peace. Clan members never forget the moment–the horror, the sacrilege, the devastation. A cult has grown up among the peoples, popular and well-armed, waiting for a moment of prophetic alignment to launch their rebellion.

Within Black Sun is an intricately designed imaginative world, and a cultural moment rife for adventure. Where Roanhorse excels as a storyteller in is the characters that embody (and are embodied by) her world.

This story, the first of the Between Earth and Sky series, introduces several separate character paths that move together towards “Convergence”—a solar eclipse that occurs on winter solstice, creating darkness on the darkest day of the year. Narampa has ascended from the Dry Earth slums to the mantle of the Sun Priest within a class-conscious hierarchy, and must negotiate her political space between factions that seek power and those that desire peace. Okoa has been schooled in the arts of war and peace, and upon his mother’s suspicious death, he must apply his trade to a complex game of statecraft. Serapio, a manifestation of the Crow God, has completed his training in magic, mysticism, and martial arts, and is moving toward Tova for his predestined moment. And Xiala, a Teek woman made up of myth and a sailor’s sense of danger, finds herself alienated from home and drawn to Tova as an unwilling witness to the Black Sun.

I have had since childhood a fascination with Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the Aztecs and, later, the Mayans, so Roanhorse’s reliance on Mesoamerican indigenous myth and legend at the heart of her fiction was deeply attractive to me. But it was actually the way that Audible curated Black Sun that convinced me to purchase the audiobook—long before I decided to do a series on this year’s Hugo-nominated novels.

Black Sun popped upon on my suggested reading list, and was featured strongly as an Editor’s choice book. I happened to click through, and began listening to a short interview with the author. I loved that the audiobook producers had consulted with the author and that it was an unabridged cast production performed by voice actors who are indigenous or people of colour (starring Cara Gee, Nicole Lewis, Kaipo Schwab, Shaun Taylor-Corbett). But what caught me—what made me want to read the story—was Roanhorse’s drive to write:

“I have always wanted to write a big, sprawling epic fantasy. These were really my favourite books growing up….  My heart is really in … the world-building and the grandeur of epic fantasy.”

That I get, if nothing else.

And the Meridian is a world-builder’s dream. I am envious of what Roanhorse has done to bring together into a living space such dynamic elements as political intrigue, religion and ritual, mythology and legend, language and scripture, invented history, landscape, seascape, and mountain terrain. There, in Roanhorse’s Meridian world, the characters live brightly. They grow both in our imagination and in their own challenges and adventures. Elegantly, and with a deft literary hand, Roanhorse elevates a stock tool of adventure stories—the converging paths—to become the central guiding image and critical plot structure.

I am astonished at how much is well done in this novel.

But I am also storm wary, disturbed, thunderstruck.

First, this is a very difficult novel in which to orient oneself—at least for me. I read the first chapter a number of times, and could not find my way to understanding it. I finally decided to treat it like a prologue, trusting that I would get there eventually. Ultimately, I turned to the well-produced audiobook to carry me into that world. Returning to the visually disturbing childhood story at the end of the tale made a number of things connect for me, but cannot take away the terror I feel in Serapio’s vision.

Second, I am unsettled by the ending. You have to admire an author that leaves me desperate to read what comes next—and it is perhaps my own disappointment speaking when I say that the second part of the story, Fevered Star, will be not be out until the springtime. In epic fantasy, there is a subtle craft to resolving the opening tale in a way that satisfies the first-time reader and also prepares the character and the world for the trilogy (or a tetradecology, in the case of Wheel of Time). Black Sun feel unresolved, like one thing more was needed.

And, third, I am unsettled about the moral vision of the story. This is a story where the author is doing something to us, I think. Epic fantasy is a genre primed for readerly discoveries, and this story never clangs with the discordant misuse of allegory or soapboxism. It is a bit tinny in moments where the author is attempting to challenge a reader’s built-in expectations, but that is perhaps to be expected as Roanhorse is not simply building a world or telling a story but shaping a diction for a new vision for world-building and storytelling. It is a moralistic age, and for the most part Roanhorse does this well.

But, in what is clearly a tale of moral expectation, I am unsettled about where the reader is to discern the measurement of moral value. It would be a mistake, I think, to attempt to align Roanhorse (or the text’s expectation) solely with any one of the main points of view in the novel—especially when considering the contexts into which Roanhorse is sharing her stories.

So I remain unsettled. This complexity of form, lack of resolution, and mercurial moral vision that I know is calling me somewhere … what am I to make of it all?

It may be that Black Sun is a work of genius beyond my imaginative capacity. It would not be the first great work that has passed me by.

It may be that Rebecca Roanhorse, clearly a skilled poet and master world-builder, still has more to learn in crafting epic fantasy.

Or it may be that, given my education and culture and self-curated love of literature, I am primed for certain story virtues—expectation, resolution, and foundation—that indigenous writers have some reason to challenge. Perhaps I should be unsettled. Perhaps astonishment is the right response to such a tale.

Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Tentative Schedule)

Posted in Blogging the Hugos, Fictional Worlds, News & Links, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Befriending the Darkness, L.M. Montgomery’s Lived Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams” My New Paper Published in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies

I am pleased to announce that my essay, “Befriending the Darkness, L.M. Montgomery’s Lived Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams,” has been recently published in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies! Here is a bit of my story about how this paper came about.

It started first as a proposal as an academic conference paper. Since the early 1990s, the L.M. Montgomery Institute (LMMI) has encouraged researchers from around the world to share their work at its biennial interdisciplinary conferences here in Prince Edward Island. In 2020, our theme was “L.M. Montgomery and “Vision,” and in my research, I had been thinking about themes of image, colour, light, and distance–particularly in the trio of “Four Winds” books Montgomery wrote during and after WWI. After months of research, I felt like I had found something worth talking about.

In reading and rereading the story of Anne’s early married life in Four Winds Harbour, Anne’s House of Dreams, I began to discern within the story a rather sophisticated approach to darkness and trouble. Written in one of Montgomery’s most intense moments of worry and loss, Anne’s House of Dreams seems to have the most sophisticated mix of lovely and terrible moments, of light and darkness, of hope and horror–at least of the Anne novels. And yet, Montgomery never seems to negate either the value of good, beautiful things or of the heart-rending difficult moments of suffering. Because Epperly’s Fragrance of Sweet-Grass is such an influential text, I wanted to dialogue with her thesis about Anne’s House of Dreams, where she argues that “all things harmonize” in this text. Her metaphor of “harmony” works well as a tool for analysis, but I wanted to trouble it a little bit. Can light and darkness ever really harmonize? Or is something going on in the core experiences of the characters and Montgomery’s consideration of how such pain and suffering can exist in a providential world?

This paper was my attempt to play with these questions.

The biennial LMMI conferences have a rigorous review process, and I pitched a paper for the June 2020 conference in the summer of 2019. This was all happening just as my first Montgomery paper was being published, “C.S. Lewis’s Theory of Sehnsucht as a Tool for Theorizing L.M. Montgomery’s Experience of ‘The Flash”–a paper I presented at the 2018 Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C.S. Lewis & Friends at Taylor University and published by Joe Ricke and Ashley Chu in The Faithful Imagination (Winged Lion Press, 2019). My next piece, “Rainbow Valley as Embodied Heaven: Initial Explorations into L.M. Montgomery’s Spirituality in Fiction,” was a paper I presented at the 2018 conference and had been recently accepted for the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies (and has since been published, see here).

I was been feeling positive about my Montgomery work and making plans for the future.

My paper was accepted for the 2020 conference, but even assure futures are notoriously difficult things to predict.

In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 sent everything into disarray, and the Montgomery and Vision conference decided to go virtual. LMMI leaders used that L.M. Montgomery and Vision Forum to highlight some key moments of research and artistry (which you can find archived here), and we used the Forum to launch the MaudCast, the official podcast of the L.M. Montgomery Institute, which I am pleased to host. When the conference went virtual, I pivoted my work to MaudCast interviews. But scholars in graduate school or just completing a PhD–I defended my thesis just two weeks after submitting my paper proposal–were invited to write their papers as full essays and submit them to the 2020 Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper.

Dr. Elizabeth R. Epperly is a leading L.M. Montgomery and Victorian literature scholar. She was critical to the founding of the L.M. Montgomery Institute, and continues to serve the Montgomery community as a mentor and scholar. Her monograph, The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance (1992; 2014), is a foundational text, probably the first literary-critical monograph on Montgomery and essential to the development of the discipline of Montgomery studies. I consider Betsy Epperly to be a mentor, and would hope one day to have a book that, like her Frangrance of Sweet-Grass, is both beautifully written and thoughtful literary criticism.

Feeling like my idea had merit, I took a four-day writing retreat in June 2020 to write the essay and spent much of summer 2020 revising it. When the award deadline came, I was able to submit “Making Friends with the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Popular Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams”–a bit tentatively, as it was a difficult and complex work, but feeling like I was ready for some feedback. One phrase, in particular, continued to resonate in me. I was reflecting upon how a main character, the lighthouse keeper Captain Jim, acts morally when confronted with evil–standing up against that wrong action and working to rectify it. But he also tells the story of the encounter, and I came to see that Montgomery was using storytelling in the novel as a practical response to evil in a world we cannot always understand. I concluded one section of the piece with these words.

“For the story is important to tell as a way of concluding a moral action; telling stories is one of the things we do in the face of evil we cannot understand.”

In fall 2020, a panel of LMMI judges met, adjudicating strong papers from six countries on three continents (check out the details here). Ultimately, I was thrilled to hear that my paper on light, darkness, and storytelling won the 2020 Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper for my paper. While the award is prestigious–a major award, one might imagine–I was most deeply encouraged by the comments, which included these sorts of notes:

  • “This paper related to the theme of vision through its exploration of the significance of darkness and light in Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams. The author made a notable effort to engage with a substantial corpus of Montgomery scholarship and positioned the essay in dialogue with Elizabeth Epperly’s ideas in particular.”
  • “Beautifully written, scholarly informed reflection on Anne’s House of Dreams drawing on a tension central to Montgomery between darkness and light.”
  • “The argument flows nicely…asking pertinent and engaging questions along the way.”
  • “Beautifully argued, a unique reading of Anne’s House of Dreams with a nicely contextualized final argument/conclusions that invite comment and conversation going forward – just what an essay like this should do!”

Besides getting thoughtful feedback–and for those who don’t know, quality feedback for scholars and writers is all too rare–winning the Epperly Award also gave me a pathway toward publication in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studiesnot only the leading journal of the field, but one that is both open-sourced and editorially effective.

What began was a series of rewrites and revisions that–while harrowing in the midst of the process, as I admit here–resulted in a stronger essay than I could have imagined. I was attempting a complex experiment in theology and literature. I wanted to take a non-academic, popular writer and demonstrate that her intensely personal novel reveals a sophisticated use of imagery that provides a philosophically satisfying response to one of life’s most difficult questions.

In reading this experimental piece, the peer reviewers and committee members provided overwhelmingly helpful encouragement, guidance, and critique. I have already noted the award committee feedback, but I was surprised by how helpful the peer review critiques were, pushing me to define my terms more clearly and to work harder at drawing the reader into the conversation. At each stage, journal editors Lesley Clement and Tara K. Parmiter provided insightful comments and incisive critiques, allowing each draft to be stronger and clearer than the one before. Even the copy editor, Jane Ledwell, did more than simply perfect the grammar, but as a Montgomery reader, artist, and scholar, also provided topic-sensitive clarifications at critical points. Each of these readers provided an unusual amount of critique to make what is, I think, a far stronger essay.

And now it is available free globally on the Journal website as “Befriending the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Lived Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams.” Here is a longer abstract of the paper for those interested:

Abstract: Upon completing Anne’s House of Dreams in 1916, Montgomery recorded in her journal that she had never written “amid so much strain of mind and body” (193). Caught between the pressures of life, Montgomery admitted that WWI was “slowly killing” her (185)—a war bound up for Montgomery with the agony of the loss of her second son. What Elizabeth Epperly calls Montgomery’s “most unselfconsciously philosophic” novel (The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass 75), Anne’s House of Dreams delves into painful issues of loss, suicide, bad marriages, ill-timed love, poverty, and the beautiful-terrible consequences of duty. The result is a complex and nuanced consideration of life faithfully lived as it excels in the “effects of light and shadow,” allowing for both “joy and sorrow” (Anne’s House of Dreams 84, 93).

As a novel filled with biblical and poetic references to the nature of life, and as a story unwilling to look away from difficult themes, readers are left with the assurance that “Everything works together for good” (Anne’s House of Dreams 16; see Rom 8:28). In dialogue with Epperly’s treatment—both accepting the basic argument but interrogating the metaphor of “harmony” in order to generate new analysis—this paper considers Anne’s House of Dreams as a lived theodicy. “There’s something in the world amiss,” Anne admits, quoting Tennyson, but it is unclear whether it will be fully “unriddled by and by” (162). Instead, with Leslie, there is some beauty to “the struggle—and the crash—and the noise” of life (64). Montgomery offers a complex and conflicted defence of goodness, which is a lived theodicy where readers are invited to make friends with the darkness in order to see the light.

My paper is the second publication for the L.M. Montgomery & Vision collection that came out of our 2020 virtual conference, and I look forward to seeing a series of projects emerge on this theme. For those who also want to think more dynamically about the paper and the process of writing, I am still thinking about how I would like to create some sort of visual invitation to the piece. I find film work to be a long and fruitful process, but one that requires a lot of creative mental space (which I don’t have right now!). Perhaps that will come in the weeks ahead.

However, at the close of Season 1 of the MaudCast, I had the chance to sit down with Bonnie Tulloch, a Canadian PhD researcher. Bonnie won the 2018 Epperly award for her paper “Canadian “Anne-Girl[s]”: Literary Descendents of Montgomery’s Redheaded Heroine.” What was intended to be a conversation primarily about Bonnie’s work soon became something else. We did have a great chat about the “Anne-girl” figure in Canadian literature, as well as other cool literary topics. However, in collusion with the LMMI, Bonnie soon “flipped the microphone,” taking over the podcast to interview me about my paper. I think it is a conversation that readers would enjoy.

Once again, I would like to give my thanks to all involved: Lesley and Tara as tireless editors, Jane for life-giving precision, the anonymous peer-reviewers for committing time to make this a better piece, Bonnie for the conversation and encouragement along the way, and Betsy Epperly, Emily Woster, and Kate Scarth as adjudicators with Bonnie. As the L.M. Montgomery Chair at UPEI, Kate has also provided ceaseless encouragement and support, for which I am grateful. Behind the scenes at the Journal and the LMMI are dozens of committed volunteers, supporters, and student workers who make all of this possible. Thank you to the Becks for providing me a space to write a difficult piece in the perfect place: right next to Prince Edward Island’s stormy shoreline. And, as always, to Kerry who teaches me so much.

Posted in News & Links, Original Research, The MaudCast | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Sarcastabots, The Wall-E Effect, and Finding the Human in Martha Wells’ Network Effect (Blogging the Hugos 2021)

In the googolplex of science fiction genres, is there a category called “sarcastatech?” My spelling bot wants to say “no” to this question, using a “no results found” notification. It is how spelling bots talk, after all, in their (ironically) limited vocabulary. And that is about the extent of my interest in the life of digital entities in our midst–at least until the Robot Apocalypse finally comes. Still, Martha Wells’ Hugo Award-nominated novel, Network Effect, not only kept my interest in the midst of its technically precise AI details, but drew me into the story through its android protagonist SecUnit 1, also known as Murderbot.

Except for some of Octavia E. Butler’s science fiction stories and an affinity for classic hard sf writers like Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven (when they are at their best), I don’t tend to read very technical science fiction. It’s true that I love some tech-laced cyberpunk—in a precursor form with writers like Roger Zelazny, J. G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick (with the screen adaptations), in its mastery with William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer and his gang of visually dynamic storytellers, or in a post-cyberpunk pop form like The Matrix films or new directions like Charles Stross’ Accelerando. I suppose Dune has a sophisticated scientific and political structure in its way, and I enjoyed Mary Robinette Kowal Lady Astronaut books. But “hard” SciFi is for me the exception, not the rule. In my forays into the youth-oriented Enderverse or the pop culture hits and misses of Ready Player One and Two (mostly hits), I allow a bit of mental blurring when it gets precise.

So it was a surprise to me how much I enjoyed Andy Weir’s The Martian, which read to me like deeply technical “Escape Room” work outing … in space—and where only one of your office mates survives. As a crowd-sourced novel, I found myself trusting its science, walking with our stranded earthling (who is Matt Damon in my mind, though I’ve never seen the film) as he tries to hitchhike from Mars. I ended up discovering beauty in the details of math and physics, even as they evaded me. The humour in The Martian sets off the technical aspects well, though my interest speaks volumes to Weir’s ability to visualize for readers what happens when we leap from algorithms to space-time reality.

As I found my mind wandering in some of the comp sci bits of Network Effect, I realized then that in drawing me in to a technical sf novel, Weir had done an unusual thing—for me, at least. And as I sped past the comp sci bits in this recent Hugo novel nominee by Martha Wells, I also realized how invested I was in SecUnit’s personal story.

SecUnit is a high functioning android who, with the help of a friend—the AI system of a space research vessel, ART—is able to hack the corporate governor on his system. This AI abolitionism liberates SecUnit to seek his own contracts in a universe where there are no sentience rights for non-humans. SecUnit’s primary contract when we meet him is an important political figure in an anti-corporate colony. She creates the contract with SecUnit to protect her and her family—a protection that she dearly needs in a world of interstellar corporate warfare. The contract is indentured servitude on paper, but it operates as a legal way for SecUnit to control his destiny. Through a number of tense encounters in the stories that open this novel—as well as some that precede and follow Network Effect in the Murderbot series—SecUnit develops an emotional attachment to what he calls “my humans.”

Network Effect is an action-packed space adventure with a strong detective discovery story at the centre, and will no doubt film well. However, setting aside a rather weak anti-corporate moralism and the relatively well-executed “Bam! Pow” action scenes, what I think is critical to the novel is SecUnit’s self-discovery. Murderbot is awakening not merely to his own capacity for emotional connection, but also to the symbiosis of friendship and loyalty that cuts through his spirited cynicism.

It is so embarrassing to be an AI humanoid in personal self-discovery, after all.

The self-discovery—ironically, the human discovery—that I think is at the heart of SecUnit’s journey is no less poignant for his particular brand of sarcasm. Sarcastabots we have seen, from Marvin of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—perfectly captured by the late Alan Rickman in the less-than-perfect film—to Bender of Futurama. My childhood memories of Johnny 5 gave me a baseline for the potential levels of snark that robots might have in a world of human relations. Sarcastabots are brilliant comic relief, working like court jesters to reveal truth in stark reality.

But it is not the humour that comes front to mind when I think of my past robot friends. The Transformers of my childhood were hardly masters of subtlety. But there was pathos there, especially in the perfect and terrible 1986 cult classic, The Transformers: The Movie. Supertoys last all summer long, I have heard: perhaps even longer when they find their way to film. I cannot imagine what a film adaptation of Brian Aldiss’ classic story would have looked like if Stanley Kubrick had finished it, but Steven Spielberg’s 2001 A.I.: Artificial Intelligence succeeded in showing the emotional capacity of androids in meaningful ways. Even if the boy-android David Swinton struggles in becoming an actualized human, emotionally speaking, Gigolo Joe it turns out to have more than one optimal function.

It works on screen, and it works on us as viewers. Even when hidden from sight, I can feel the emotional capacity of our firmware. I have echoes of “Danger, Will Robinson!” and “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I cannot do that” in my mind’s heart.

And so, while sarcastabots have their place in giving us a simle, I am far more immediately drawn to emotions that run deeper than humour. Thus, when I think about AI and emotional capacity, I come to think that the true creator’s genius is not in getting robots and androids and spaceships to feel things on the page and on screen, but in getting us, the reader and viewer, to feel with them.

Though it is unfair of me to name it after such a late-comer to our storied worlds, in my mind I call this “The Wall-E Effect.” The Wall-E Effect is the visualization of the human-connected robot, captured on screen or in print in its simple, hopeful emotional reactions to its master, charge, or friend. These most tender and least sophisticated of AI emotional responses both create the moral baseline for the world of the story and draw us as viewer-readers into that storied world. Our reaction appears to us as emotional as our hearts connect to the on-screen bot, but it really is an emotional commitment that that has moral implications.

This I call the Wall-E Effect.

To call it the Wall-E Effect is radically inappropriate not simply because it is a relatively late film, but because the Wall-E Effect is rooted so deeply in our human experience. We can see it in our childhood delight in teddy bears and castaway socks as they rise to life, animated in bedtime stories—an effect that Spielberg utilizes so well in the character of Teddy in A.I. The Wall-E Effect is why I speak to my cat—indeed, why cats and dogs have evolved with humans, shaping us as animators as we have animated them. Perhaps this effect is only the grand Gestalt effect of human psychology, an evolutionary necessity that our storytelling brains draw into our everyday lives. Or perhaps it is because we are the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, each namers of the garden’s life and mothers of creation. Are we world-makers not all Pygmalion falling in love with the creatures of our minds and hands? Are we not little makers, subcreators who breathe life into the clay?

We see it in the stories we make, don’t we? In Star Wars, think of R2D2 rolling the eyes he doesn’t have, his rugged loyalty and convincing sense of panic, and note how they offset the anal-retentive C3PO. These are effects far stronger than sarcastabots like K2SO and L337. Even still, it is BB-8 who brings out the Wall-E Effect most effectively on an emotional level.

Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation may not have a sense of humour—except in brief moments of characterization here and there—but we feel for him even when he cannot feel himself. He has something essentially human at the root of his robotic being: the desire for self-discovery, which is the desire to be human. Indeed, he has a desire to love.

Does Data evolve desire or is he designed with it? What drives Pinocchio’s longing to be a real boy? Why is my cat such a high-functioning sociopath? I cannot give you a technical answer to that question as a real Trekkie, folklorist, or anthropologist may be able to do. What I can speak to is the effect it has on us as the reader. In giving an on-screen or on-page android the chance to seek, to yearn, to long for something—even to love—the creator provides us with a chance for symbiosis. While the machine explores flesh on screen and page, we viewers and readers feel our flesh envelop the character in our frame of vision.

The android and the cyborg, then, are not very subtle metaphors for the way we embody that which we animate in our lives. We, like David Hinton and Data and SecUnit 1, are amphibious—though we are spirit-bodies and not enfleshed machines. The real link, though, and the beautiful metaphor, is that the humanized machines on screen and in print succeed in making us more human. This happens in our emotional link with the character’s yearning for humanity. But it results in an awakened moral universe. We want what our hands and minds create to be free, even when wings of wax melt in the sun and Aulë’s images must wait their turn. We want what we animate to seek life.

Is it not true that, faced with starvation, we would give our dog or cat the last bite of food?

In Network Effect’s on-page connection between AI, androids, cyborgs, and humans, it works as a fun story in the Scooby gang tradition of hero-fighting. Its grander genius, though, is not in the cutting humour or heart-thumping (and data-driven) action. And it certainly does not win me because of its technical precision. The strongest feature of Network Effect is figured in the great questions of the main cast: Why does the AI want to risk its structural integrity for humans? Why would humans risk their lives for AI?

In this, Network Effect succeeds in producing the Wall-E Effect. Not only am I emotionally connected to SecUnit—who is, after all, also known as Murderbot for very clear reasons—but I can feel, in that connection, a deeper connection to the life I want to make in the world.

Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Tentative Schedule)

Posted in Blogging the Hugos, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

“Can C.S. Lewis and L.M. Montgomery be Kindred Spirits?” My Talk for the 2021 C.S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Society Conference (Nov 18-20) and How You Can Go to Romania With Me

Alas, when I say that “I am speaking in Romania this weekend”–I am, in fact, speaking at this Romanian C.S. Lewis conference–I must admit that am doing so from my desk in Prince Edward Island. While pre-flight check-in is quite easy, I am very sad that I am not with the wonderful scholars of Iași, Romania for their 5th International Interdisciplinary Conference on C.S. Lewis. I enjoyed my spring meeting with the C.S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Society–a conversation on “Inklings of Imagination” with Malcolm Guite and Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson–and I would dearly love to gather with them in person.

I would like to visit with the scholars I have heard about: the Romanian Academy, the people from Linguaculture journal, students and professors from the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iași, and the folks from the Agora Christi Foundation. The work of linguist and Inklings scholar, Dr. Teodora Ghivirigă (who has written an intriguing paper on Lewis and magic), the intrepid director Dr. Denise Vasiliu (with a PhD on Lewis and spirituality), and Dr. Rodica Albu, with a lifetime of research and the translator of the first signed Romanian version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Besides the chance to meet this tremendous team of people and all of the senior and emerging scholars, I am excited by the incredible program of the conference. For scholars of C.S. Lewis, the Inklings, fantasy literature, children’s literature, and linguistics, it is a dream conference. Here are some highlights from the tracks I have chosen:

  • There is an entire panel on The Screwtape Letters! This is where I live. I look forward to this panel by three Romanian scholars
  • There is a panel on dystopia and That Hideous Strength, including a paper by my friend and American historian, Alan Snyder, as well as a Russian scholar on medieval contexts.
  • There is a philosophically driven panel on Lewis and “core values,” with discussions on alterity, personhood, and freedom & imagination (in conversation with Romanian New Wave Cinema–a paper by a Canadian scholar that I’m very curious to attend).
  • In a panel on “C.S. Lewis and Heaven”–a topic I think needs clarity–we have two striking approaches: 1) Karen Coats, Director of the Centre for Research in Children’s Literature at Cambridge, is presenting the paper, “Imagining Heaven in Children’s Literature: C.S. Lewis and Critical Theory; and 2) Anne-Frédérique Mochel-Caballero, is speaking about “Heaven in C.S. Lewis’s Cosmology: The Rewriting of Revelation 21-22 in The Last Battle.” I am a sucker for theory conversations and I have Anne-Frédérique’s work on my desktop right now, so this is a must-see panel for me.
  • My own paper is in a session about “The Story World,” but could be in the “Lewis and Kindreds” session with three people who I admire in their quite different ways of thinking: Sarah Waters, Joe Ricke, and Joel Heck. Sarah and Joe are each connecting Lewis with Shakespeare–Joe on race and world-building, Sarah on Lewis’ Shakespeare scholarship (and there is more to come from her, I believe). And Joel of “Chronologically Lewis” fame (the latest version has 1,324 page, 725,000 words) is discussing Lewis and friendship.

There will also be some book launches at the conference, including an edited volume by Teodora Ghiviriga and Daniela Vasiliu, C.S. Lewis. His Life and His Heritage, and Romanian transitions of  Lord Dunsany’s The Kith of the Elf Folk (translation by Liliana Bahnă) and Owen Barfield’s Night Operation (translation by Rodica Albu). My own copy of Night Operation was given to me by Owen A. Barfield, the grandson of this “First and Last Inkling,” and Owen will do a talk, “What Owen Barfield Taught the Inklings.” What didn’t he teach the Inklings? You might get a preview at this recent Radix interview here (and it’s worth noting that Radix, a Christian arts and culture magazine, is featuring a number of interviews of scholars on Lewis, the Inklings, and some of the other British Christian writers of that generation, like Dorothy L. Sayers).

As always, I am sad that I have to make choices between sessions, especially since I do not know yet what I will learn from the Eastern European scholars. There are fine-looking keynote talks by James Como and Jerry Root focussing on the theme, C.S. Lewis and Other Worlds), Alan Snyder (on his book, America Discovers C.S. Lewis), Malcolm Guite (on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a house favourite), and Romanian scholar Stefan Oltean with a speech I am deeply interested in, “Fictional Realities. A Possible World Perspective.”

I am pleased to be able to connect with some of the leading Western Lewis and Inklings scholars. My own talk is in a panel with Paul Michelson, and I am co-hosting a couple of evening online-only events–Virtual Conference Cafés–with George MacDonald scholar Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson where we get to chat with Joe Ricke (Friday night) and Sørina Higgins (Saturday night). Finally, I am moderating a round table that features some of these leading voices, including Kirstin, Malcolm, Alan, and Jerry–Jerry Root being the only one I haven’t worked with personally, but whose work I’ve followed with interest. He has an epic lecturer’s voice!

It really is a strong program. I have heard they are wonderful hosts and there is always great food. Though this is perhaps not the saddest part of the continental divide, I feel the loss deeply. But because the conference is offered in a hybrid mode, those of us not live in Europe can still take part meaningfully at pretty low prices:

  • Students outside of Romania have the special price of €25 ($29 USD)
  • Other non-Romanian folk are €50 ($58 USD)
  • The Virtual Conference Cafés Kirstin & I are hosting are free
  • There are also super low prices for Romanians, especially students (€5 and €5)

You will want to note the time differences in the schedule–Romania is 7 hours ahead of Eastern time this week. Check out the poster below, and make sure that you register here.

My own contribution is inspired by the “kindred spirits” theme of the Romanian Society. Anne Shirley (of Green Gables) is always looking for “kindred spirits” in her world. I think we would have to say that “Kindred Spirits” is Anne’s most famous catchphrase. As a reader of L.M. Montgomery–indeed, as a Prince Edward Islander–I was bound to chase down the thread. I have played with some connections before, but this talk gave me a chance to present a single idea. Here is a screenshot from my talk, followed by the abstract and some follow-up resources.

Abstract: “Passports to the Geography of Fairyland: Can C.S. Lewis and L.M. Montgomery be Kindred Spirits?”

While few children’s books have sold more than C.S. Lewis’ 1950 fairy-tale, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—with perhaps 85,000,000 copies sold—L.M. Montgomery’s 1909 Anne of Green Gables was immediately popular on a global level. With translations within a year of publication, this first Anne book has sold approximately 50,000,000 copies. Is there any connection between these two giant figures in English children’s writing? Lewis and Montgomery wrote in different genres—Lewis as a fantasist, Montgomery as a realist. Lewis came from the British academy while Montgomery remained a rural Canadian writer. Despite their differences, the title of “The C.S. Lewis and Kindred Spirits Society” invites comparison. The vibrant, red-headed orphan of Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is a wiry, curious, precocious character who dearly desires to discover a “kindred spirit,” someone who shares her senses of wonder and adventure. Anne’s creator, Lucy Maud Montgomery, once claimed that she possessed “a passport to the geography of fairyland.” In her novels, Anne transforms the mundane world of Prince Edward Island much like C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe invites readers to another world. Despite all their differences, and though they never met or read each other’s books, Montgomery and Lewis are kindred spirits, for they share this imaginative passport to fairy-worlds of transformation and joy.

Some parts of my work to read further on this topic:

If you are interested in the talk but haven’t read the Anne of Green Gables series or the Emily trilogy, beginning with the brilliant Emily of New Moon, you can catch some of the “spirit of Anne” in the trailers to two television productions: the Kevin Sullivan 1980s mini-series that creates the visual imagination of “Anne” for most Canadians of my age, and the darker, artistic, troubling and beautiful recent Anne with an E serial on CBC/Netflix.

And though it sounds a bit maniacal out of context, Anne of Green Gables: The Musical has run for decades at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island (until COVID broke the record run). Here is the “Kindred Spirits” song. In the “MaudCast: The Official Podcast of the L.M. Montgomery Institute,” I have an upcoming episode planned where I interview some “Annes” from the stage. I’m looking forward to it.

Taylor Swift doesn’t help here, I think, as much as I think she’s a brilliant song-writer–and though I don’t think we would want to call Tolkien and Lewis “bosom friends”–here are some “kindred spirit” scenes from the Anne with an E series that captures Anne and Diana’s friendship (though I think Anne Shirley’s truest kindred spirit are those of “the race that knows Joseph” in Anne’s House of Dreams, Leslie Moore in particular).

Of note, some of the papers given at the 2018 conference have been published in Linguaculture 10, no. 2, 2019, which can be accessed at http://journal.linguaculture.ro/archive/65-volume-10-number-2-2019.  Linguaculture 5, no. 2, 2014, also published several papers from previous meetings at http://journal.linguaculture.ro/archive/53-volume-5-number-2-2014.

And I would encourage all of you to support the work and mission of the C. S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Society by becoming a member of the Friends of the CSLKSClick here to become a member.

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

A Head Full of Homer, A Trench Full of Blood (Remembrance Day Reblog from Tom at Alas Not Me)

Last year I followed a link from Tom Hillman (@alas_not_me) on Twitter to one of his 2017 reflections on war and reading. At the Alas, Not Me blog, Tom consistently writes thoughtful reading reflections and books studies, often connected to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and other mythic, classically-inclined writers. In 2018, Trevor Brierly wrote a guest post, “When Books Went To War,” which first brought my attention to how deeply important reading was to our trench soldiers of the great 20th-century technological wars. Tom’s thought drew me further into this question, and led me to write “The Poets Behind C.S. Lewis’ Paragraph about WWI, with Wilfred Owen.” 

Besides the striking title, “A Head Full of Homer, A Trench Full of Blood,” I found the first thought about the “comradeship of poetry and war” compelling. I hope Tom’s article, which I reproduce in full, is a way to make your Remembrance Day reflection more meaningful. I would also encourage you to read my background pieces, “Marching as to War: C.S. Lewis on His Way to the Front Line” and “The Transformative Power of Memory: Lewis and the World Wars.” #WeRemember


The comradeship of poetry and war is one of the most ancient relationships humanity knows. They have served together on the plains of windy Troy and walked eye deep in the hell of the Somme. Sometimes it is all thrill and glory, sometimes horror and shame, sometimes the hypocrisy of promoting the first and pretending the second doesn’t exist, or worse, doesn’t matter. Having read a lot of Homer and a lot of history, and having been a young fool once held captive by the romance of the Lost Generation, I long ago found myself drawn to the cataclysm of the Great War and the brilliance of its poets. From them I learned, in a way that only illuminated Homer, of the kaleidoscope of terror, disgust, and mad valor that people know in war.

My late brother was in Vietnam. As often happens, he had little to say about it, especially to people like me, who had no clue of what it had been like. Once, though, when we’d both had too much to drink, I asked him if he’d been afraid in battle, and for once he answered. It all happened too fast for fear, he said, when you were in the middle of a firefight; it was beforehand, while waiting, that you were afraid, and afterward, when the things you’d seen and done came home to you. Then he added in one of the most savage voices I’ve ever heard, ‘It wasn’t the fighting that got to you. It was the mud and the come and the scum and the f***ing every-day.’ Years later, when the country began to try to make peace with all the internal turmoil the war had caused and veterans began to have reunions, I asked him whether he was going to his. ‘Tommy,’ he said, ‘I love those guys like brothers, but I never want to see them again.’

So I often read the WWI poets and wonder what it must have been like for them to go off to war, young men with heads full of Homer. Did it defend them, at least at first, from the shattering reality of dismemberment and death? Did it lead to a greater disillusionment if that defense failed? And for those who did not ‘lose the day of their homecoming’, as Homer would have said, what about looking back years later? Did it help them come to an understanding they could live with? And what did it take and what did it mean for them to talk about it? Did the ghosts of who they were have to drink the blood again in order to speak once more, as the shades Odysseus meets in the underworld do (Odyssey XI.100ff, Fagles)?

But I can never read any of the poems and memoirs these men wrote without thinking of what C. S. Lewis said about it many years later in Suprised by Joy (195-96):

The war itself has been so often described by those who saw more of it than I that I shall here say little about it. Until the great German attack came in the Spring we had a pretty quiet time. Even then they attacked not us but the Canadians on our right, merely “keeping us quiet” by pouring shells into our line about three a minute all day. I think it was that day I noticed how a greater terror overcomes a less: a mouse that I met (and a poor shivering mouse it was, as I was a poor shivering man) made no attempt to run from me. Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies. I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still. One walked in the trenches in thigh gum boots with water above the knee; one remem­bers the icy stream welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire. Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead confirmed that view of corpses which had been formed the moment I saw my dead mother. I came to know and pity and reverence the ordinary man: particularly dear Sergeant Ayres, who was (I suppose) killed by the same shell that wounded me. I was a futile officer (they gave commissions too easily then), a pup­pet moved about by him, and he turned this ridiculous and painful relation into something beautiful, became to me al­most like a father. But for the rest, the war—the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E., the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet – all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have hap­pened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant. One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the real­ities that followed. It was the first bullet I heard—so far from me that it “whined” like a journalist’s or a peacetime poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”

All Lewis’ understatement — a shell every twenty seconds all day is not an attack, the discomfort of the leaking boots — all his nonchalance — the zombielike marching, the parenthetical ‘I suppose’ — all his modest impotence — ‘futile’, ‘puppet’ — can, I think, lead the unwary into misapprehending his final statement. Which is not glib. It all turns upon ‘quavering’: the ‘imaginative moment’ hangs trembling between ‘fear’ and ‘indifference’, but is much closer to fear, an experience he can process only by means of his education. Yet he places War, with a capital W, first, as it came home to him in this moment, and Homer second. The emphasis is on War; Homer is the imaginative tool that was at hand. He’s connecting Homer to the primary reality of War, not War to the secondary reality of Homer.

I would be interested, on a very personal level, to know if this was all Lewis felt as this thought came to him with the ‘whine’ of the first bullet. If I could ask him only one perfectly impudent question, it would be about this moment. For, while I have not been to war, thank God, I once had someone who had been shot lie bleeding in my arms. He was a young man I barely knew who was shot by another young man I barely knew as the result of a profoundly stupid argument. He died not long after we reached the hospital. As I sat in the emergency room and looked at all his blood all over me, I could think only of Lady Macbeth. Even now, just as Lewis says of himself, the rest of my experience that summer evening long ago seems cut off from me, though I can see it all quite clearly in the distance. The blood and Lady Macbeth remain. In that moment, however, I was ashamed of myself. I held this dying boy in my arms and all I could think of was Shakespeare? Now I know better. Now I know that it was the imaginative tool that was at hand.

Did Lewis have such a feeling? I don’t know, but a remark he made several years after the war makes me think he must have done. On 22 April 1923 in a letter to a friend he wrote of the wretched post-war death of a fellow veteran still suffering from his experience:

‘Isn’t it a damned world — and we once thought we could be happy with books and music!’

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

Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Relentless Moon and the Lady Astronaut Universe (Blogging the Hugos 2021)

If the history of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut Universe were the same as the one that you and I share, I would be writing to you as a dead man.

I suppose, even in terms of timeline, I might be dead anyway. The 2019 winner of the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus awards for best novel, The Calculating Stars, opens in 1952, meaning that the stars of the show would be hitting 100 just about now.

But there is another reason I would be toast in the Lady Astronaut Universe. The Calculating Stars begins with the story of a married couple working for the IAC (International Aerospace Coalition). Drs Elma and Nathaniel York are enjoying a rare romantic weekend away from their desks, at a cabin in the mountains. They are suddenly unnerved by a rent in the sky and a faraway concussion. Most of us might dismiss it as an accident or earthquake–or a missile attack in Soviet-era US history. Elma, however, was a WWII pilot, and works as a physicist and mathematician, while Nathaniel is an engineer. Through a series of subtle clues and quick calculations, they determine that a meteorite has struck and that they are in imminent danger. With pluck and expertise and some luck, they survive the deadly explosive power of the global-killing meteorite and fly to safety.

As the entire Eastern seaboard succumbs to flame and flood, the United States reorganizes itself inland and the world struggles to deal with the world’s largest single-day catastrophe and the most significant migration of people ever. When Elma does the math on the event, they discover that it will be a catalyst for rapid global climate change–more rapid even than the Chicxulub impact that began the Paleocene. Beginning in the Atlantic region, a long nuclear winter will go global, followed within a few years of rapid warming, ultimately boiling the oceans (at about the time that we get Facebook in our timeline).

While we can be assured that life will find a way, the planet will soon be too toxic for human life–even for Jeff Goldblum. Elma and Nathaniel York find themselves at the centre of a global cooperative movement to get humans off the planet, including settlements on the Moon and on Mars. The trilogy of novels that follow features woman’s point of view stories about experts struggling to navigate sexist and racist bureaucracies of government, technology, and military.

And the “fate of mankind” is on the line.

Not lost in world-building details, the structures of catastrophe and the struggles for liberation in the Lady Astronaut Universe are the context for stories of personal growth, trial, and triumph. The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky (2018) are from Elma York’s viewpoint, a friendly and self-conscious intellectual working as an IAC (human) computer with an unusually adept and intuitive mathematical sense. Elma finds herself in a battle to be heard as the mathematician who predicted the first global winter and subsequent global warming, as well as a skilled pilot vying to be the first woman in the space program. Her real battle, however, is with a general anxiety disorder that is triggered by stress and tragedy and an intense fear of the media or interpersonal conflict. With a winsome sense of relational connection and a rugged commitment to the possible, Elma finds a way to become “the first Lady Astronaut” (insert an earnest and upbeat 1950s TV commentator voice here).

In The Relentless Moon (2020)—the first nominee in my Blogging the Hugos 2021 series—Elma York is on her way to Mars. Back at home, a Moon colony is steadily being established. Elma’s pilot-friend, politician’s wife Nicole Wargin, is a few steps from becoming one of the early settlers on the Moon after a number of successful supply flights and her early work as a pilot in setting up the infrastructure for the first Moonbase.

Nicole lacks the scientifically precise knowledge that Elma carries with her, but she has her own more eclectic set of skills that help her conquer against the odds. Beautiful, fit, poised, perfectly in control of her public face and uniquely and intimately connected to her husband in their private lives, Nicole also has the fierce and suicidal commitment to mission and personal strength that is characteristic of pilots in the IAC corps.

The generation of early ’50s-‘60s astronauts and public figures in The Relentless Moon (and at the background of The Fated Sky) are battling a public relations disaster of sagging popular support, intra-government conspiracy, and well-executed terrorist attacks. While the IAC and the US (and other) governments are sending strong, well-educated, well-connected white men—with a few women and black men—to “safety” in the skies, people are literally starving at home. In the midst of her own hidden personal struggle—combined with bodily injury and family tragedy—Nicole sets herself to the task of rooting out the terrorists who are quietly sabotaging the Moon colony—a base made of plastic and glass and duct-taped systems, where any singular system failure could result in hundreds of deaths.

With a capacity for building loyalty, solving problems, and pulling out talents and skillsets no one knows that she possesses—for a Governor’s wife and beauty school dilettante, she has a surprisingly strong ability to improvise weaponry—Nicole can set herself to work a problem even when her body is broken and her world is falling apart.

While The Fated Sky drifts a bit, The Relentless Moon is longer than necessary, and the first-person narrative is (to my taste) far too restrictive, these are pretty fun books that have an important social contribution. Commentators will no doubt want to highlight the strong women and people of colour who find ways to effect change against all odds and in the face of layers of oppositions. The Lady Astronaut Universe books are certainly provocative in rewriting the 1950s and 1960s so that the world requires more than a tepid and slow-moving response to segregation and sexism. Our cultural revolutions have never really feared the Sword of Damocles, so the social equality possibilities in these books erupt with satisfying intensity, while much (frustratingly, especially in terms of class and privilege) remains the same.

I think, though, that the contributions run much more deeply than these of-the-moment concerns, and that Kowal’s writing provides a depth of character beyond societal tropes that still speak to our weaknesses as a culture.

In particular, these three novels feature the stories of scientists, working together logically and reasonably to creatively navigate impossible social pressures and showing the imaginative capacity needed to get the job done.

The novels portray people with mental illnesses, working in environments (the military, the public eye, scientific teams) where such weaknesses are not permitted.

And, perhaps most surprising of all in such a hard-science wired series, the Lady Astronaut books feature characters trying to make authentic religious connections.

You can see Elma York’s Jewish faith deepen in significance for her (and others), even when keeping kosher is challenging when you are a refugee in the midst of a global disaster or an astronaut in a tiny ship for years on end with six other (gentile) scientists. Socialite-pilot-spy catcher Nicole Wargin makes no pretense to a living faith, and plays the role of the perfect Methodist politician’s wife well. But as we have her interior point of view, we can see appreciation for her husband’s faith deepen as her respect grows for the faith-life of the highly skilled and powerful black couple, Eugene and Myrtle Lindholm. Eugene and Myrtle are earnest Christian believers–Eugene was headed to seminary when he got the bug to fly–and yet they are real people. Indeed, these three core couples—the Wargins, the Yorks, and the Lindholms—have strong marriages with healthy sex lives, mutual respect, and loving intimacy. And yet, the characters are living, stumbling, struggling, human beings—not tiresome cardboard cut-out figures as so many religious or scientific characters end up being in so many stories today.

I don’t read a novel for its “contributions,” but for its story—the characters, the world, the poetry, the imagery, the journey before and within me. If these novels failed in story, they would have little to say about the social moment. And it is the storytelling, overall, that makes the subtle transformations of cultural expectations shine in this trilogy.

There are gaps in the writing for me. Elma York’s sex dialogue is about the most awkward thing I have ever read. I suppose that’s cute, but it becomes wearisome over two novels. I wish The Relentless Moon had pressed in more on the motifs of the spy novel—talk about a man out in the cold!—or the horror story. I admire Kowal’s commitment to technical scientific accuracy. This approach really pays off in this third novel, where Nicole and her friends have to stay ahead of an equally creative and scientific set of saboteurs who have access to the same challenges and opportunities that the space colony offer. However, Kowal does not always capitalize on the emotional intensity of some of these moments of terror and threat–at least not with the skill that she shows in making that connection for readers in moments of relational loss, scientific breakthrough, or personal victory.

Overall, Mary Robinette Kowal gives us a good science fiction story that is immersive in surprising ways. Writing a series like this is not rocket science, but it is still pretty hard to do well. Kowal’s commitment to scientific verisimilitude in the iconic alternate histories of the ‘50s and ‘60s is compelling. These books are more beach reads than Hugo-level books for me, but I look forward to what could be a great TV adaptation. Imagine the visual design possibilities of a moon colony in the 50s!

Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Tentative Schedule)

Posted in Blogging the Hugos, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Series Launch)

It isn’t often that I get a popular novel as it first finds its way into the world. I’m usually years behind in my TBR and motivated to find new books by book clubs and upcoming classes and film adaptations. For example, I hear there’s an Amazon Prime series on this hot new fantasy book cycle, The Wheel of Time. I’m only 14 books behind and 30 years late, apparently, so I just grabbed Eye of the World from a community mini-library.

Publishers sometimes send me knew Inklings Studies materials, and I do place an order at my local bookstore for some Canadian lit authors I know, like Mark Sampson and Rebecca Rosenblum. I am pleased to have just picked up (a past student) Olivia Robinson’s gorgeous new novel published by Breakwater Books, Blue Moth Motel. Ahd I got Margaret Atwood‘s Handmaid’s Tale sequel, The Testaments, when it was new because it came with a live local discussion. Generally, though, my books come to me through trades with friends, used bookstores, and late-in-the-game orders.

I have here, though, a beautifully designed hardback copy of Piranesi, Susanna Clarke’s long-awaited novel. Clarke is the author of the vivid, game-changing 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellStrange & Norell is a Regency-era fantasy, the perfect mash for out-of-the-closet Jane Austen + sf lovers like myself. Crossing the genre and literary fiction divide, it was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize and won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel–as well as the World Fantasy Award, the Locus, and the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Lit. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the books of the decade.

And initial signs are good for Piranesi. What particularly drew me to this book is that Clarke is attempting some experiments in fantasy writing. Piranesi has a significant connection to C.S. Lewis’ Narnian prequel, The Magician’s Nephew, with a quote from the pathetically nefarious Uncle Andrew in the epigraph. And in an interview by Sarah Lothian of the Church Times, Clarke notes a significant link to another Inkling, Owen Barfield. Barfield’s philosophical treatments of the evolution of language–captured in philosophical books like Poetic Diction and Saving the Appearance, or more popularly in things like History in English Words–is one of the critical unseen influences that binds together the work of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Barfield’s imaginative philosophies also seem to be the core material for a literary experiment by one of the 21st-century’s most important speculative fiction writers, Susanna Clarke.

The reason I have this copy of Piranesi, though–a hot-off-the-press hardcover, no less–is because I am once again joining the Signum University Hugo Award Best Novel Roundtable. In a gala zoom event that no doubt will rival the Worldcon ceremony in DC, six Signum friends will gather to discuss The 2020 Hugo Novel nominations, which this year includes six women authors:

  • Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse (Gallery / Saga Press / Solaris)
  • The City We Became, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit)
  • Harrow The Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com)
  • Network Effect, Martha Wells (Tor.com)
  • Piranesi, Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)
  • The Relentless Moon, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor Books / Solaris)

This is the second year in a row where women have dominated the list. And, once again, though there is a bit of genre-bending, Science Fiction has a strong showing, with Tor/Solaris leading the pack as publishers. This is not unusual, as SciFi books have dominated through the decades, except, perhaps, during the first decade of this century, where the Harry Potter effect saw a shift in focus. As fantasists, Rowling was joined then by folks like George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke. My reading will tell whether the much shorter and more experimental Piranesi captures that unique, world-opening, character-centred dynamic that made Strange & Norrell so important.

Clarke is not the only veteran in the crowd. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning was nominated in 2019, and Tamsyn Muir’s previous novel in the same series, Gideon the Ninth, was nominated last year. Famously, N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy won 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. The City We Became is Jemisin’s fifth nomination in the novel category. It has already won the Locus award, so it is definitely a novel to watch. However, even with Jemison—certainly a giant in the field of Science Fiction writing today—it would be unfortunate to count out Mary Robinette Kowal, whose The Calculating Stars kicked off the Lady Astronaut series with a Hugo win in 2019.

On the surface of things, Martha Wells looks like the only rookie nominee in the novel category. However, Wells has been writing for decades, including a Nebula nomination in 1999 for The Death of the Necromancer and Hugo nominations and wins for novellas and book series. She has carefully shaped the Murderbot Diaries series that includes this year’s nominee, Network Effect—and has had the entire series nominated. On top of this, Network Effect is the novel that won the Nebula award earlier this year.

It really is a stellar set of books, if you can forgive the pun.

The 2021 Hugo Awards ceremonies will be on Dec 18th at DisCon III in Washington, DC. Ahead of the event, Signum University is hosting a panel discussion of the nominees. My job will be to represent Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, not so much in a battle of books but a winsome argument about great storytelling. Last year, I was delighted to represent Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a novel that did not win but was also nominated for the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Mythopoeic Award, and the Locus Award in the category of Best First Novel. It’s a beautiful, evocative book, and I very much enjoyed last year’s Signum Roundtable.

Thus, in looking forward to December’s conversation, I am blogging through the Hugo novels, offering a review or thoughtful essay each week leading up to the convention. I hope you can join in as we read and talk about the leading speculative fiction of the past year! This week, we’ll look at Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut Universe, followed by Martha Wells’ Network Effect next week.

Blogging the Hugos 2021 (Tentative Schedule)

Posted in Blogging the Hugos, Fictional Worlds, News & Links, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Imaginative Hospitality” A C.S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Society “Connected” Event Hosted by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson with Diana Glyer, Michael Ward, and Fr. Andrew Cuneo (Full Video)

Once again, the C.S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Society of Iași, Romania hosted a thoughtful and beautiful event. Back in the spring, I was pleased to join poet theologian Malcolm Guite and George MacDonald scholar Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson with an “Inklings of Imagination”  conversation–including hundreds of smart readers and thinkers from Eastern Europe and around the world. Continuing the theme of “imagination,” they turned to the idea of “Imaginative Hospitality” with some Inklings scholars and readers who embody that principle in their life and work. “Intellectual and creative hospitality is one of the hallmarks of the Inklings and their kindred writers,” the poster begins. This is precisely correct, and I was so pleased to attend a conversation about “the collegiality and creativity of the Inklings and their world” earlier this week and share the video with you all.

As I had suspected, the poster below reveals much that might be missed just by glancing at the title. The speaker’s list looks simply like a collection of thoughtful and congenial Inklings scholars. Host Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson is a leading George MacDonald scholar with a vision for theological and imaginative integration. Michael Ward‘s Planet Narnia is probably the most impactful study in medieval intertextuality and the work of C.S. Lewis yet written, and his After Humanity is an excellent companion to The Abolition of Man. Fr. Andrew Cuneo’s doctoral thesis was on the literary letters of Lewis, and he worked with Walter Hooper on The Collected Letters. And Diana Pavlac Glyer is the leading thinker on the Inklings and creative collaboration with her The Company They Keep and Bandersnatch. All smart folk who know the work of C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and J.R.R. Tolkien well and led into conversation by Denise Vasiliu of the CSL&KS Society.

But when thinking about the Inklings and imaginative hospitality, I want to think not just about creative and literary hospitality–of which the Inklings are famous–but also of theological or ecumenical hospitality. I love the stories of the Inklings sitting together in college rooms or a local pub, sharing their writing and arguing words and history and theology with a commitment to friendship that is as fierce as their commitment to truth, goodness, and beauty. For, with all their “lisekes,” the Inklings were a community of “differents” when it came to their faith perspectives. So it was such a blessing to experience the personal presence, soft and thoughtful voices, and generosity of spirit of these scholars from different faith perspectives–demonstrating in the moment what potential there is for “Imaginative Hospitality.”

This video may not be available in your region, but you can find it on Youtube here. I would encourage you to consider supporting the C.S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Society (click here), including the upcoming conference on Nov 18-20 (see here for details).

Posted in News & Links | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments