The Tolkien Letter that Every Lover of Middle Earth Must Read

It is sort of a trick, isn’t it? Any true Tolkien fan will say that every page in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien is essential. However, not everyone enjoys letters as much as I do. Some might absolutely love The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but don’t find great joy peeking into the lives of authors by reading their mail. I may well be the odd man out.

However, embedded in the bits and pieces of correspondence that remain are some absolute gems. It is in these letters that we discover that Tolkien supported C.S. Lewis in his first foray into fiction. We see the heart-crushing weight of work that Tolkien was faced with, and the struggles that he had to complete The Lord of the Rings. And we have the moments, finally, when he finished his work and made it ready for publication. The letters of Tolkien to his friends, family, and publishers are the heart and joy behind the mythic worlds of Middle Earth.

For the true lovers of Tolkien’s subcreated world, there are also moments where he explains bits and pieces of Middle Earth and The Silmarillion that we may not know except by a scientific reading of the texts or by archival work that is limited to very few scholars. And even then, some of the points of myth, language, geography, and character development only existed in Tolkien’s brain. So the letters are priceless resources for the Tolkien reader hungry for more.

One of these essential pieces is a 9,500-word letter–really an essay–written to Milton Waldman, a publisher at Collins. Tolkien was trying to win Waldman to the idea of publishing both The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion–a project that the publishers of The Hobbit were unable to commit to at the stage the manuscripts were in at that time (1951). According to the editor of Tolkien’s Letters, Humphrey Carpenter, Waldman was so impressed by Tolkien’s letter he had a typed copy made for posterity. This detailed letter lays out most clearly the relationship between the various complex parts of Tolkien’s legendarium. It is such an important piece that editor Christopher Tolkien included it as prolegomena to The Silmarillion.

There is a second letter, though, that gives a great deal of background to The Lord of the Rings. Naomi Mitchison, a prolific novelist and memoirist–and sister of J.B.S. Haldane–read proofs of LOTR as it was being prepared for publication in early 1954. She wrote to Tolkien with a number of perceptive questions. In reading Tolkien’s response, he is obviously delighted with the depth of her interest in and knowledge of the world that exists in and behind the text. Included in the letter are links between LOTR and the great wealth of myth, legend, history, and story behind it. He takes some time to talk about the different kinds of characters in Middle Earth, including relationships between Elves, Dwarves, and humans, but also the fallen creatures and the ones that do not have a full explanation in the text-world, like Tom Bombadil, the Ents (and missing Entwives), Hobbits, Shelob, and dragons.

And, of course, Tolkien explains about the languages–his absolute favourite part of the creative process. This letter is particularly interesting because he does not just explain the links between the languages of Middle Earth, but explains how they developed with relationship to other European languages and Tolkien’s own “phonaesthetic pleasure,” as he puts it.

If you would like to deepen your experience of The Lord of the Rings, and perhaps help transition to the difficult text of The Silmarillion, this letter is a great resource for knowing Tolkien’s mind and the world he made.

25 April 1954                                                                76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Oxford

Dear Mrs. Mitchison,

It has been both rude and ungrateful of me not to have acknowledged, or to have thanked you for past letters, gifts, and remembrances – all the more so, since your interest has, in fact, been a great comfort to me, and encouragement in the despondency that not unnaturally accompanies the labours of actually publishing such a work as The Lord of the Rings.

But it is most unfortunate that this has coincided with a period of exceptionally heavy labours and duties in other functions, so that I have been at times almost distracted.

I will try and answer your questions. I may say that they are very welcome. I like things worked out in detail myself, and answers provided to all reasonable questions. Your letter will, I hope, guide me in choosing the kind of information to be provided (as promised) in an appendix, and strengthen my hand with the publishers. Since the third volume will be rather slimmer than the second (events move quicker, and less explanations are needed), there will, I believe be a certain amount of room for such matter. My problem is not the difficulty of providing it, but of choosing from the mass of material I have already composed.

There is of course a clash between ‘literary’ technique, and the fascination of elaborating in detail an imaginary mythical Age (mythical, not allegorical: my mind does not work allegorically). As a story, I think it is good that there should be a lot of things unexplained (especially if an explanation actually exists); and I have perhaps from this point of view erred in trying to explain too much, and give too much past history. Many readers have, for instance, rather stuck at the Council of Elrond. And even in a mythical Age there must be some enigmas, as there always are. Tom Bombadil is one (intentionally).

But as much further history (backwards) as anyone could desire actually exists in the Silmarillion and related stories and poems, composing the History of the Eldar (Elves). I believe that in the event (which seems much to hope) of sufficient people being interested in the Lord of the Rings to pay for the cost of its publication, the gallant publishers may consider printing some of that. It was actually written first, and I wished to have the matter issued in historical order, which would have saved a lot of allusion and explanation in the present book. But I could not get it accepted.

The third volume was of course completed years ago, as far as the tale goes. I have finished such revision, as seemed necessary, and it will go to be set up almost at once. In the meanwhile I am giving what fragments of time I have to making compressed versions of such historical, ethnographical, and linguistic matter as can go in the Appendix. If it will interest you, I will send you a copy (rather rough) of the matter dealing with Languages (and Writing), Peoples and Translation.

The latter has given me much thought. It seems seldom regarded by other creators of imaginary worlds, however gifted as narrators (such as Eddison). But then I am a philologist, and much though I should like to be more precise on other cultural aspects and features, that is not within my competence. Anyway ‘language’ is the most important, for the story has to be told, and the dialogue conducted in a language; but English cannot have been the language of any people at that time. What I have, in fact done, is to equate the Westron or wide-spread Common Speech of the Third Age with English; and translate everything, including names such as The Shire, that was in the Westron into English terms, with some differentiation of style to represent dialectal differences. Languages quite alien to the C.S. have been left alone. Except for a few scraps in the Black Speech of Mordor, and a few names and a battle-cry in Dwarvish, these are almost entirely Elvish (Eldarin).

Languages, however, that were related to the Westron presented a special problem. I turned them into forms of speech related to English. Since the Rohirrim are represented as recent comers out of the North, and users of an archaic Mannish language relatively untouched by the influence of Eldarin, I have turned their names into forms like (but not identical with) Old English. The language of Dale and the Long Lake would, if it appeared, be represented as more or less Scandinavian in character; but it is only represented by a few names, especially those of the Dwarves that came from that region. These are all Old Norse Dwarf-names.

(Dwarves are represented as keeping their own native tongue more or less secret, and using for all ‘outer’ purposes the language of the people they dwelt near; they never reveal their own ‘true’ personal names in their own tongue.)

The Westron or C.S. is supposed to be derived from the Mannish Adunaic language of the Númenóreans, spreading from the Númenórean Kingdoms in the days of the Kings, and especially from Gondor, where it remains spoken in nobler and rather more antique style (a style also usually adopted by the Elves when they use this language). But all the names in Gondor, except for a few of supposedly prehistoric origin, are of Elvish form, since the Númenórean nobility still used an Elvish language, or could. This was because they had been allies of the Elves in the First Age, and had for that reason been granted the Atlantis isle of Númenor.

Two of the Elvish tongues appear in this book. They have some sort of existence, since I have composed them in some completeness, as well as their history and account of their relationship. They are intended (a) to be definitely of a European kind in style and structure (not in detail); and (b) to be specially pleasant. The former is not difficult to achieve; but the latter is more difficult, since individuals’ personal predilections, especially in the phonetic structure of languages, varies widely, even when modified by the imposed languages (including their so-called ‘native’ tongue).

I have therefore pleased myself. The archaic language of lore is meant to be a kind of ‘Elven-latin’, and by transcribing it into a spelling closely resembling that of Latin (except that y is only used as a consonant, as y in E. Yes) the similarity to Latin has been increased ocularly. Actually it might be said to be composed on a Latin basis with two other (main) ingredients that happen to give me ‘phonaesthetic’ pleasure: Finnish and Greek. It is however less consonantal than any of the three. This language is High-elven or in its own terms Quenya (Elvish).

The living language of the Western Elves (Sindarin or Grey-elven) is the one usually met, especially in names. This is derived from an origin common to it and Quenya; but the changes have been deliberately devised to give it a linguistic character very like (though not identical with) British-Welsh: because that character is one that I find, in some linguistic moods, very attractive; and because it seems to fit the rather ‘Celtic’ type of legends and stories told of its speakers.

‘Elves’ is a translation, not perhaps now very suitable, but originally good enough, of Quendi. They are represented as a race similar in appearance (and more so the further back) to Men, and in former days of the same stature. I will not here go into their differences from Men! But I suppose that the Quendi are in fact in these histories very little akin to the Elves and Fairies of Europe; and if I were pressed to rationalize, I should say that they represent really Men with greatly enhanced aesthetic and creative faculties, greater beauty and longer life, and nobility – the Elder Children, doomed to fade before the Followers (Men), and to live ultimately only by the thin line of their blood that was mingled with that of Men, among whom it was the only real claim to ‘nobility’.

They are represented as having become early divided in to two, or three, varieties. 1. The Eldar who heard the summons of the Valar or Powers to pass from Middle-earth over the Sea to the West; and 2. the Lesser Elves who did not answer it. Most of the Eldar after a great march reached the Western Shores and passed over Sea; these were the High Elves, who became immensely enhanced in powers and knowledge. But part of them in the event remained in the coast-lands of the North-west: these were the Sindar or Grey-elves. The lesser Elves hardly appear, except as part of the people of The Elf-realm; of Northern Mirkwood, and of Lorien, ruled by Eldar; their languages do not appear.

The High Elves met in this book are Exiles, returned back over Sea to Middle-earth, after events which are the main matter of the Silmarillion, part of one of the main kindreds of the Eldar: the Noldor[1] (Masters of Lore). Or rather a last remnant of these. For the Silmarillion proper and the First Age ended with the destruction of the primeval Dark Power (of whom Sauron was a mere lieutenant), and the rehabilitation of the Exiles, who returned again over Sea. Those who lingered were those who were enamoured of Middle-earth and yet desired the unchanging beauty of the Land of the Valar. Hence the making of the Rings; for the Three Rings were precisely endowed with the power of preservation, not of birth. Though unsullied, because they were not made by Sauron nor touched by him, they were nonetheless partly products of his instruction, and ultimately under the control of the One. Thus, as you will see, when the One goes, the last defenders of High-elven lore and beauty are shorn of power to hold back time, and depart.

I am sorry about the Geography. It must have been dreadfully difficult without a map or maps. There will be in volume I a map of part of the Shire, and a small-scale general map of the whole scene of action and reference (of which the map at the end of The Hobbit is the N.E. corner). These have been drawn from my less elegant maps by my son Christopher, who is learned in this lore. But I have only had one proof and that had to go back. I wisely started with a map, and made the story fit (generally with meticulous care for distances). The other way about lands one in confusions and impossibilities, and in any case it is weary work to compose a map from a story — as I fear you have found.

I cannot send you my own working maps; but perhaps these very rough and not entirely accurate drafts, made hurriedly at various times for readers, would be of some assistance. …. Perhaps when you have done with these MS. maps or made some notes you would not mind sending them back. I shall find them useful in making some more; but I cannot get to that yet. I may say that my son’s maps are beautifully clear, as far as reduction in reproduction allows; but they do not contain everything, alas!

Some stray answers. Dragons. They had not stopped; since they were active in far later times, close to our own. Have I said anything to suggest the final ending of dragons? If so it should be altered. The only passage I can think of is Vol. I p. 70 : ‘there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough’. But that implies, I think, that there are still dragons, if not of full primeval stature. I have a long historical table of events from the Beginning to the End of the Third Age. It is rather full; but I agree that a short form, containing events important for this tale would be useful. If you would care for typed copies of some of this material: eg. The Rings of Power; The Downfall of Númenor; the Lists of the Heirs of Elendil; the House of Eorl (Genealogy); Genealogy of Durin and the Dwarf-lords of Moria; and The Tale of the Years (esp. those of the Second and Third Ages), I will try and get copies made soon. ….

Orcs (the word is as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English orc ‘demon’, but only because of its phonetic suitability) are nowhere clearly stated to be of any particular origin. But since they are servants of the Dark Power, and later of Sauron, neither of whom could, or would, produce living things, they must be ‘corruptions’. They are not based on direct experience of mine; but owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition (goblin is used as a translation in The Hobbit, where orc only occurs once, I think), especially as it appears in George MacDonald, except for the soft feet which I never believed in. The name has the form orch (pl. yrch) in Sindarin and uruk in the Black Speech.

The Black Speech was only used in Mordor; it only occurs in the Ring inscription, and a sentence uttered by the Orcs of Barad-dûr (Vol. II p. 48) and in the word Nazgûl (cf. nazg in the Ring inscription). It was never used willingly by any other people, and consequently even the names of places in Mordor are in English (for the C.S.) or Elvish. Morannon is just the Elvish for Black Gate; cf. Mordor Black Land, Mor-ia Black Chasm, Mor-thond Black-root (river-name). Rohir-rim is the Elvish (Gondorian) name for the people that called themselves Riders of the Mark or Eorlings. The formation is not meant to resemble Hebrew. The Eldarin languages distinguish in forms and use between a ‘partitive’ or ‘particular’ plural, and the general or total plural. Thus yrch ‘orcs, some orcs, des orques’ occurs in vol I pp. 359,402; the Orcs, as a race, or the whole of a group previously mentioned would have been orchoth. In Grey-elven the general plurals were very frequently made by adding to a name (or a place-name) some word meaning ‘tribe, host, horde, people’. So Haradrim the Southrons: Q. rimbe, S. rim, host; Onod-rim the Ents. The Rohirrim is derived from roch (Q. rokko) horse, and the Elvish stem kher- ‘possess’; whence Sindarin Rochir ‘horse-lord’, and Rochir-rim ‘the host of the Horse-lords’. In the pronunciation of Gondor the ch (as in German, Welsh, etc) had been softened to a sounded h; so in Rochann ‘Hippia’ to Rohan.

Beorn is dead; see vol. I p. 241. He appeared in The Hobbit. It was then the year Third Age 2940 (Shire-reckoning 1340). We are now in the years 3018-19 (1418-19). Though a skin-changer and no doubt a bit of a magician, Beorn was a Man.

Tom Bombadil is not an important person – to the narrative. I suppose he has some importance as a ‘comment’. I mean, I do not really write like that: he is just an invention (who first appeared in the Oxford Magazine about 1933), and he represents something that I feel important, though I would not be prepared to analyze the feeling precisely. I would not, however, have left him in, if he did not have some kind of function. I might put it this way. The story is cast in terms of a good side, and a bad side, beauty against ruthless ugliness, tyranny against kingship, moderated freedom with consent against compulsion that has long lost any object save mere power, and so on; but both sides in some degree, conservative or destructive, want a measure of control. but if you have, as it were taken ‘a vow of poverty’, renounced control, and take your delight in things for themselves without reference to yourself, watching, observing, and to some extent knowing, then the question of the rights and wrongs of power and control might become utterly meaningless to you, and the means of power quite valueless. It is a natural pacifist view, which always arises in the mind when there is a war. But the view of Rivendell seems to be that it is an excellent thing to have represented, but that there are in fact things with which it cannot cope; and upon which its existence nonetheless depends. Ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron.

He has no connexion in my mind with the Entwives. What had happened to them is not resolved in this book. He is in a way the answer to them in the sense that he is almost the opposite, being say, Botany and Zoology (as sciences) and Poetry as opposed to Cattle-breeding and Agriculture and practicality.

I think that in fact the Entwives had disappeared for good, being destroyed with their gardens in the War of the Last Alliance (Second Age 3429-3441) when Sauron pursued a scorched earth policy and burned their land against the advance of the Allies down the Anduin (vol. II p. 79 refers to it). They survived only in the ‘agriculture’ transmitted to Men (and Hobbits). Some, of course, may have fled east, or even have become enslaved: tyrants even in such tales must have an economic and agricultural background to their soldiers and metal-workers. If any survived so, they would indeed be far estranged from the Ents, and any rapprochement would be difficult – unless experience of industrialized and militarized agriculture had made them a little more anarchic. I hope so. I don’t know.

Hobbit-children were delightful, but I am afraid that the only glimpses of them in this book are found at the beginning of vol. I. An epilogue giving a further glimpse (though of a rather exceptional family) has been so universally condemned that I shall not insert it. One must stop somewhere.

Yes, Sam Gamgee is in a sense a relation of Dr. Gamgee, in that his name would not have taken that form, if I had not heard of ‘Gamgee tissue’; there was I believe a Dr. Gamgee (no doubt of the kin) in Birmingham when I was a child. The name was any way always familiar to me. Gaffer Gamgee arose first: he was a legendary character to my children (based on a real-life gaffer, not of that name). But, as you will find explained, in this tale the name is a ‘translation’ of the real Hobbit name, derived from a village (devoted to rope-making) anglicized as Gamwich (pron. Gammidge), near Tighfield (see vol. II p. 217). Since Sam was close friends of the family of Cotton (another village-name), I was led astray into the Hobbit-like joke of spelling Gamwichy Gamgee, though I do not think that in actual Hobbit-dialect the joke really arose.

There are no precise opposites to the Wizards – a translation (perhaps not suitable, but throughout distinguished from other ‘magician’ terms) of Q. Elvish Istari. Their origin was not known to any but a few (such as Elrond and Galadriel) in the Third Age. They are said to have first appeared about the year 1000 of the Third Age, when the shadow of Sauron began first to grow again to new shape. They always appeared old, but grew older with their labours, slowly, and disappeared with the end of the Rings. They were thought to be Emissaries (in the terms of this tale from the Far West beyond the Sea), and their proper function, maintained by Gandalf, and perverted by Saruman, was to encourage and bring out the native powers of the Enemies of Sauron. Gandalf’s opposite was, strictly, Sauron, in one part of Sauron’s operations; as Aragorn was in another.

The Balrog is a survivor from the Silmarillion and the legends of the First Age. So is Shelob. The Balrogs, of whom the whips were the chief weapons, were primeval spirits of destroying fire, chief servants of the primeval Dark Power of the First Age. They were supposed to have been all destroyed in the overthrow of Thangorodrim, his fortress in the North. But it is here found (there is usually a hang-over especially of evil from one age to another) that one had escaped and taken refuge under the mountains of Hithaeglin (the Misty Mountains). It is observable that only the Elf knows what the thing is – and doubtless Gandalf.

Shelob (English representing C.S ‘she-lob’ = female spider) is a translation of Elvish Ungol ‘spider’. She is represented in vol. II p. 332 as descendant of the giant spiders of the glens of Nandungorthin, which come into the legends of the First Age, especially into the chief of them, the tale of Beren and Lúthien. This is constantly referred to, since as Sam points out (vol. II p. 321) this history is in a sense only a further continuation of it. Both Elrond (and his daughter Arwen Undómiel, who resembles Lúthien closely in looks and fate) are descendants of Beren and Lúthien; and so at very many more removes is Aragorn. The giant spiders were themselves only the offspring of Ungoliante the primeval devourer of light, that in spider-form assisted the Dark Power, but ultimately quarrelled with him. There is thus no alliance between Shelob and Sauron, the Dark Power’s deputy; only a common hatred.

Galadriel is as old, or older than Shelob. She is the last remaining of the Great among the High Elves, and ‘awoke’ in Eldamar beyond the Sea, long before Ungoliante came to Middle-earth and produced her broods there. ….

Well, after a long silence you have evoked a fairly long reply. Not too long, I hope, even for such delightful and encouraging interest. I am deeply grateful for it; and I hope all staying at Carradale will accept my thanks.

Yours sincerely,
J. R. R. Tolkien.

[1] N = ng as in ding.

Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

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A Brace of Tolkien Posts #TolkienReadingDay

March 25th is Tolkien Reading Day! I have just hit the halfway point of The Silmarillion–my first time successfully reading it all the way through. Often I would start, enjoy the mythic material, then as the legendary stories of the races of Middle Earth begin, get lost. Other times I would just cherrypick the cooler stories. But I am motoring through, now. I am about one-third of the way through Tolkien’s Letters–reading it as an occasional book (about a page a day). And I am reading Return of the King to my son. We are in the sixth book, and Sam has just determined to rescue Frodo from the midst of the orc horde.

In honour of Tolkien Reading Day, I thought I would update the catalogue the Tolkien posts featured here on A Pilgrim in Narnia. I hope you enjoy the great selection of guest bloggers and feature posts, filling out your Tolkien reading and inspiring you to widen and deepen your Tolkienaphilia.

Frodo, Sam and Gollum in IthilienTolkien’s Ideas

Tolkien’s work is rich with reflection on the world around us. In posts like “Let Folly Be Our Cloak: Power in the Lord of the Rings” and “Affirming Creation in LOTR,” I explore themes related to ideas that are central to Tolkien’s beliefs. The latter idea, creation and good things green, is covered also with Samwise Gamgee here and with Radagast the Brown here. One of the ones that resonates long after reading is the theme of providence, which I explore in “Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark.”

One surprising connection was “Simone de Beauvoir and the Keyspring of the Lord of the Rings“–a pairing that many would find unusual and includes some great old footage. Guest blogger Trish Lambert rounded out the discussion with “Friendship Over Family in Lord of the The Rings.” Author Tim Willard talks about “Eucatastrophe: J.R.R Tolkien & C.S. Lewis’s Magic Formula for Hope.” And you can follow Stephen Winter’s LOTR thought project here.

My most important contribution, I think, is my Theology on Tap talk, called “A Hobbit’s Theology.” It is one of the ideas I am struggling with most specifically in my academic work. And one of the more popular posts this year was a very personal one, “Battling a Mountain of Neglect with J.R.R. Tolkien.” Though I am still not sure if I should have written that post, it continues to connect with readers.

lord of the rings tolkien folioTolkien as Writer

I remain fascinated by Tolkien’s development as an author, and spent some time of late exploring the theme. The most popular of pieces I wrote was the coyly titled, “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings.” The reason is, of course, not all that shocking, but could be helpful for the subcreators amongst us. Two more substantial posts on the topic are “12 Reasons not to Write Lord of the Rings, or an Ode Against the Muses” and “The Stories before the Hobbit: Tolkien Intertextuality, or the Sources behind his Diamond Waistcoat.”

C.S. Lewis took an interest as well in Tolkien’s formation (see “Book Reviews” below). You can read more about it in Diana Pavlac Glyer’s Bandersnatch, and in this blog post, “‘So Multifarious and So True’: The C.S. Lewis Blurb for the Fellowship of the Ring.” Lewis’ support for Tolkien did not go unrewarded. Besides the great joy of Tolkien’s work, there was a time when Tolkien interceded a time or two on Lewis’ behalf. Friendship goes both ways.

Film Reviews

When the teaser trailer of the third film, The Battle of Five Armies, was released, I wrote “Faint Hope for The Hobbit.” Although it is clear in the trailers that this is a war and intrigue film, I still had some hope I would enjoy it. The huge comment section shows in that post shows that not everyone agreed it was possible!

My review of An Unexpected Journey captures the tug back and forth I feel about the films. I called it, “Not All Adventures Begin Well,” and it is a much more positive review than many of the hardcore Tolkien fans or academics. And it gives this cool dwarf picture:

What Have We Done?” These words are breathed in the dying moments of the second installation of The Hobbit adaptation, The Desolation of Smaug. In this review I think about what it means to do film adaptations. While I do not hate this Hobbit trilogy, I think that Peter Jackson just got lost a bit.

When I finally got to The Battle of 5 Armies, I decided it would be fun to do a Battle of 5 Blogs. 5 other bloggers joined it, making it a Battle of 6 Blogs! But the armies are pretty tough to count anyhow. I titled my blog, “The Hobbit as Living Text.” It was a controversial approach to the film, I know. Make sure you check out the other reviewers link here. Some of us chatted about the films in an All About Jack Podcast, which you can hear here and here.

While these aren’t substantial reviews, I featured two indie films: a documentary on Tolkien’s Great War, and a fictional biopic recreating Tolkien’s invention of Middle Earth called Tolkien’s Roadboth inspired, perhaps, by John Garth’s work.

Book Reviews

There was no greater friend of The Hobbit in the early days than C.S. Lewis. In “The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends,” I talk about how, if it wasn’t for Lewis, Tolkien may never have finished The Hobbit, and the entire Lord of the Rings legendarium would be in an Oxford archive somewhere. Lewis not only encouraged the book to completion, but reviewed The Hobbit a few times. Here is his review in The Times Literary Supplement.

Lewis is not the only significant reviewer of The Hobbit. When he was 8, my son Nicolas published his review, just as the first film was coming to the end of its run. When I was posting Nicolas’ review, I came across another young fellow–the son of Stanley Unwin, the first publisher to receive the remarkable manuscript of The Hobbit. Unsure how children would respond, he paid his son, Rayner, to write a response to the book. You can read about it here: “The Youngest Reviewers Get it Right, or The Hobbit in the Hands of Young Men.”

I realize as I do this survey that I haven’t written a review of any of Tolkien’s key Middle Earth texts. I did, however, feature the Father Christmas Letters in our last season of advent.

The Read-Aloud Hobbit

One of my first digital exchanges was participating in The Hobbit Read Along–you can still see the great collection of posts online. As I was doing this shared project, I was reading The Hobbit to my 7 3/4-year-old son. It was a great experience, but I made the mistake of doing accents to distinguish characters early on in the book. That’s fine when you’ve got oafish trolls or prim little hobbits. But a baker’s dozen of dwarfs stretched my abilities! You can read about my reading aloud adventures here.

In reading aloud I was really struck by the theme of providence in The Hobbit. I’m sure others have talked about it, but “Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (Chapter 5)” is a great example of that hand of guidance behind the scenes.

Hobbit and Art

I am fascinated by Tolkien’s own artwork. In some of the Tolkien letters we find out how his humble drawings came to be published with the children’s tale. I decided, though, that I wanted to explore it a little more, and so I wrote, “Drawing the Hobbit.”

There have been many other illustrators since–including Peter Jackson, whose work as a whole is visually stunning, even for those who don’t feel he was true to the books. One of my favourites was captured in this reblog, “Russian Medievalist Tolkien“–a gorgeous collection of Sergey Yuhimov’s interpretation of The Hobbit.

With the great new editions of unpublished Tolkien by his son, we also get to see some of Tolkien’s original art. I continue to be fascinated by this dragon drawing. What an evocation of the Würme in medieval literature!

radagast-the-brownTolkien’s Worlds

I would like to spend more time thinking about the speculative universes of J.R.R Tolkien. Meanwhile, I would encourage you to read Jubilare’s reblog of the Khazâd series. It’s just the first of a great series, but shows you a bit of the depth of Tolkien’s world behind the world. In reading up on the Wizards of Middle Earth–the Brown, the White, the Grey, and the two Blues–it struck me how relevant Radagast the Brown is to us today. I take some time here to put a comment that Lewis made about Tolkien’s work in the context of other speculative writers, especially J.K. Rowling.

You can also check out the work of people like the Tolkienist, the links on the Tolkien Transactions to catch what kinds of conversations are about these days, or the academic work of people like David Russell Mosley. And, of course, we are all interested in Tolkien’s work on Beowulf. I have it at my bedside table in preparation for a free SignumU three-lecture class with Tom Shippey.

And Just For Fun….

Because I can, and because some things are entirely meaningless, I will leave you with a quiz: What Character in the Hobbit Are You? You will not be surprised that I am Thorin Oakenshield!

Plus this. Or this!

What are you reading on Tolkien Reading Day? Feel free to tell us by linking this post on twitter, sharing on facebook, or telling us in the comments below.

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

An Embarrassing Confession: I Liked The Shack

Anyone who knows me personally knows that I have an allergy to evangelical pop culture art. It is not anaphylactic, but if I get too close to the fiction section in a Christian bookstore, I tend to break out in hives. If someone changes the car radio station to one of those generic, fill-in-the-blank pop worship song Christian cheese fests, I can feel my glands swelling and my breathing starts to constrict. If I were to walk into a house decorated with “Christian” art supplemented with motivational sayings–because the best art of history needed the point driven home, after all–I have to take an antihistamine and have a little lie-down.

I don’t do well with what North American evangelicals insist in calling “art,” and this is especially true of the genre I know best: storytelling.

Part of this is what I call “The Problem of Moralistic Art.” Christian writers wanting to highlight a message face the same problem as feminists, environmentalists, and teetotallers: in good storytelling, the message must emerge organically from the literature, or it will bend the art to suit the moral. It is a challenge, but evangelical writers have a great historical library of good art, if only we still had the skill to read old books.

An illustration might help. I had an aspiring author contact me because he had a fairly sophisticated hepatology worked out but was struggling with the scope of the work. When he described the project, I asked him what authors he liked to read the most. His work was moving toward the allegorical, and that is a sophisticated and oft-mishandled genre I don’t know well and have no fondness for. “Oh,” the young author-to-be answered in return. “I don’t really read that much, and don’t know the authors you suggested. I just have this message on my heart and it seemed that fantasy was the right way to get the message out.”

The pettiness of evangelical English literature is a testament to the thinness of our worldview and a critical loss of literacy, and more often than not a sign that we are using art the way a womanizer uses a girl. As C.S. Lewis once put it once:

“[A womanizer] wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes)” (The Four Loves, 135).

Or, as hip hop artist Lecrae captured it,

“Christians have really used and almost in some senses prostituted art in order to give answers instead of telling great stories and raising great questions” (The Atlantic, Oct 6, 2014).

This is how many Christian writers treat literature, using the literature for the message as a lech uses a woman to get off. This is why many Christian books are as disposable as empty cigarette packages.

Some would say the cause is more nefarious, like what I call here a case of “Amish lovers pining in that strange evangelical dream of simpler days and simpler love stories.” Maybe that’s true, and sometimes it’s hard to blame them given the world in which we now find ourselves. However, almost anything where the word “Christian” becomes an adjective rather than a noun has great potential to be truly awful.

Clearly since I have this all worked out, I am able to keep myself unsullied from the evangelical subculture, right?

Well, here’s the thing: I am a hypocrite.

I really am. Truly, I liked DC Talk. I liked Switchfoot, Lifehouse, Audio Adrenaline–and much of the best of the 90s Christian rock scene. I really did. I went to Creation Music Fest twice, and we even hosted our own version here back in the 1900s (to disastrous results). I had t-shirts, CDs, posters, and bumper stickers. I have a guitar case I am quite proud of that is peppered with stickers–many of them from CCM’s glory days. The Bible I preach from at conferences and camps is the same: the tattered cover slowly replaced by album covers, band logos, cheesy Sunday School motivational stickers, and “Hello! My Name Is _______” tags with various Bible passages.

And, the truth of it is that these things are not in the past. I have hundreds of Christian albums that I still rotate from time to time. I avoided switching to the Windows 10 anniversary upgrade not because of the increasingly beautiful and nonfunctional designs by Windows, but because I was in danger of losing my John Reuben and Andrew Peterson music. Twice my family has driven to see TobyMac, who I think is brilliant, though he doesn’t always nail it.

And notice I knew about the Lecrae quote? Seriously, there’s even a Connie Scott song that I sort of almost like. But that’s my limit, and if you tell anyone I will call you a Petra fan.

Some of this is the counter-culture monster in me. There were diamonds in the rough features of CCM that have never been fully recognized. Mark Heard, Jon Foreman, Steve Taylor, and Tyler Joseph are elites–though the latter has gained recognition recently with a series of Twenty One Pilots hits and a Grammy nod. Steve Taylor, especially, has shown the power of songwriting and production in his mid-90s work with Newsboys, and showed his skill with his indie film adaptation of Blue Like Jazz–a film I truly loved and love still.

My hypocrisy actually goes further. I was a Christian music reviewer for a large Christian newspaper for a number of years. I don’t dislike all of Ted Dekker’s work. Or Frank Peretti’s. I thought The Sin Eater was a great concept. Veggie Tales was as good as that genre can get, Christian or otherwise. The 2004 biopic Luther is worth seeing (especially this year). And despite its tiresome trope of the inept father, I actually kind of enjoyed the comedy Mom’s Night Out–and not just because I like Samwise Gamgee and there is a super cool Lenny Kravitzish dude with great hair. And not just because my wife made me watch it. Which she did.

An illustration: The Grits just started playing. My life be like Ooh Ahh. I wonder if I still have that Guardian album.

All this to say that my wall of resistance against American Christian subculture has some critical flaws. It was peaking through one of these cracks that I heard that The Shack was being adapted for a feature film. Knowing that my students would be talking about it and that church folk would struggle a bit, I finally decided to pull the book off the shelf. Giving an admiring look at the cover design, and ignoring the fact that Kathie Lee Gifford told me I should read it–the kind of thing that has me running for the hills–I began the foreword, wincing.

And … I liked it.

I really did. I liked most of the book and truly enjoyed reading it. I thought it was imaginative, provocative, relevant to the questions we are asking, and well written. I am not generally a lover of American fiction that is full of accent and soaked through with connections to the land, so I am anxious about saying much critical. Beyond that, William Paul Young and I are reading some of the same authors. I can see that in the echoes behind the chapter titles. Check out the chapter epigraphs, where Young quotes Dostoyevsky, Marilynne Robinson, Jacques Ellul, A.W. Tozer, Blaise Pascal, G.K. Chesterton, Frederick Buechner, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Larry Norman–talk about a Christian pop culture icon! I’ve actually had dinner with Larry a couple of times and miss his weird and wonderful ways.

I suspect that, despite its fantastic and supernatural elements, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is the model book for The ShackGilead won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for literature, and is the journal of a dying pastor, leaving his story for the young son that came to him late in life. In Gilead, Robinson is able to deal with complex theological themes using a simple, classical voice in elegant but not flowery prose. It is an intelligent and moving book, and Robinson is able to engage at a fairly deep level of Christian thought without bending the literature to fit the message. This is what Young is trying to do with The Shack, and the voice of the narrator is not unlike that of the narrator of Gilead.

I haven’t yet seen the film, and I want to talk about the core theological ideas in the context of seeing what everyone is talking about. Based on the content, I know that many people are googling things like “Is it okay for a Christian to watch The Shack?” or “Am I racist or sexist if I don’t think God is a black woman?” A handful of leading figures, including Mark Driscoll, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., and Chuck Colson have written critically of the book, some going as far as to call it “heresy.” There are problems in the book, though some of those are part of the genre–there are difficulties in incarnating God in literature, as we see in the limitations in Narnia. Christians–all people, I think–should always read critically.

However, the book is not heresy, even if it is flawed. My answer for now is this: If you are someone who intends to meet the difficult questions of culture–the questions that your neighbours, co-workers, family members, and pew-friends are really asking–you should consider reading this book. Hopefully, I can go into more detail next week after I have seen the film.

Meanwhile, I hope you will keep my secret. I would hate to have a confession like this sounded abroad.

Oh, and I love coincidences! An acoustic version of Guardian’s “Babble On” just rotated in to my speaker.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

“I’m a Sad Ass at the Moment” C.S. Lewis’ Words with Sr. Penelope (From the Vault)

I have had a terrible, horrible, awful week. Though it moved in and out relatively quickly, I had a version of the flu I would not wish on anyone, and now I have a week of catching up to do. Lacking entirely in motivation or imagination, I thought I would share an older post from the vault. Skimming my February posts from years past, I saw this one, and I think the title fitting. I hope you enjoy, and I suspect more can relate to C.S. Lewis’ struggle than I would wish.

Anyone who experiences the ebb and flow of spirit, the up and down of mental life, will be sensitive to that vibration in the lives of others. Setting aside for a moment the oft-misunderstood realities of mental illness, for most that experience periods of spiritual dryness and emotional darkness, poles of soul and mind cannot be pulled apart. There really is, as Screwtape says in Letter VIII, a “Law of Undulation.” And while the Word of God can divide between bone and marrow, spirit and soul, human words cannot. In the valleys of life we are the most holistic, knowing that all of our body, our mind, our soul, and our strength is invested in the struggle.

C.S. Lewis was not immune to this law, and throughout his letters and his diary are moments of depression, discouragements, and a sapped spirit. I don’t imagine most readers will be surprised that these seasons sometimes came during some of Lewis’ most effective times. In the Fall of 1941, his Screwtape Letters are selling like mad in a weekly newspaper and are about to fall into print. He has given five talks on the BBC to more than a million listeners, has written the next five talks, and he has been lecturing men in the Royal Air Force throughout the country. His own understanding of Milton has been transformed by his friend Charles Williams, and he is about to give a prominent lecture series on Paradise Lost. One of his students, Mary Neylan, has come to Christ through his letters and books, and he is 3 or 4 chapters into what will become his favourite book, Perelandra. This is a high time for Lewis.

Out Of The Silent Planet Harold Jones 1938And yet, listen to the tone of this letter to Sr. Penelope. This Anglican nun and a scholar in her own right. She had read Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and wrote Lewis a fan letter–one of his first (and one of the only fan letters of that period). Lewis wrote back to her in the summer of 1939:

The letter raises for me rather an acute problem–do I become more proud in trying to resist or in frankly revelling in, the pleasure [your letter] gives me? One hopes there will come a day when one can enjoy nice things said about one’s self just in the same innocent way as one enjoys nice things about anyone else–perfect humility will need no modesty. In the meantime, it is not so.

What begins is a literary friendship wherein both partners would say that the other was the more influential. Lewis offered advice on Sr. Penelope’s work, lectured at her convent, and wrote an introduction to her translation of St. Athanasius. Sr. Penelope continually encouraged Lewis in her books and letters, and ultimately led Lewis to the point of seeking out a confessor–an Anglican priest who would take his confession and act as a spiritual director.

The Problem of Pain weeping CS LewisReading through the letters, one might suspect at times the balance tipped to Lewis’ side. Sr. Penelope, upon reading The Problem of Pain (1940), was overflowing in thanks. She wrote to Lewis:

I was beside myself with flatteration at receiving a copy of your book; but my gratitude to you for giving me the book, great though it is, is small compared to my gratitude to God for having given it to you to write it; & that, I think, is as you would wish it. I expected to enjoy myself reading it, & have done so even beyond my hope. It made me bolt my dinner to get more time for it–we read to ourselves at dinner, such a good plan, & incidentally one which gives many of us almost our only chance of reading history, travel etc.; & now that I have finished it, reading every word, & a good many bits twice over, I am longing to read it again. That, I think, is a peculiar quality of your writing: I am aching to re-read both Pilgrim’s Regress & Out of the Silent Planet , tho’ I have already read the latter twice, once aloud; but this book outstrips even those….”

That is quite a compliment. And though Lewis is less effusive, I think his debt is just as great. For as he became a spiritual leader in England–a bookish, unkempt Oxford don in the theological spotlight–he would need support in ways he could not have anticipated. As he writes April 10, 1941, she has given him “real help.”

Sister Penelope

Sister Penelope

And real help he may need. Typically self-deprecating, Lewis moves into the realm of real self-doubt and discouragement as he feels he is failing in his RAF lectures and as the BBC talks loom before him:

We ought to meet about B.B.C. talks if nothing else as I’m giving four in August. Mine are praeparatio evangelica [preparation for evangelism] rather than evangelium, and attempt to convince people that there is a moral law, that we disobey it, and that the existence of a Lawgiver is at least very probable and also (unless you add the Christian doctrine of the Atonement) imparts despair rather than comfort.

You will come after to heal any wounds I may succeed in making…. I’ve given some talks to the R.A.F. at Abingdon already and as far as I can judge they were a complete failure.

Lewis is not in despair: there is still some humour there. On Oct 9, 1941, he mails her the handwritten manuscript of The Screwtape Letters, apologizing for the shape of the manuscript and asking her to keep it safe until publication. And then, a month later, Lewis wrote another letter. Near the end, he says:

I am writing, really, for company, for I’m a sad Ass at the moment. I’ve been going through one of those periods when one can no longer disguise the fact that movement has been backward not forward. All the sins one thought one had escaped have been back again as strong as ever,

And all our former pain
And all our Surgeon’s care
Are lost: and all the unbearable, in vain
Borne once, is still to bear.

Collected Poems CS LewisThe “ass” here isn’t merely derogatory or slang; Lewis is referring to Balaam’s Ass, who converted the prophet, or perhaps his own body, which St. Francis called “Brother Ass.” Lewis felt like his task was similar, trying with a donkey’s ability to get a great nation to see the reality of God in their midst. So it is a bittersweet joke as we see Lewis at one of his lows, not just in the valley but slipping back.

We can’t know from letters alone the light and dark in Lewis’ mental life. In future letters he would speak about his doubts:

I think what really worries me is the feeling (often on waking in the morning) that there’s really nothing I so much dislike as religion–that it’s all against the grain and I wonder if I can really stand it!

It seems that Lewis is breathless in his activity until the late 40s, and is close to burnout at different times. Doubtless his faith ebbed and flowed in that time. It is a fact of life, a “law” of nature, the reality we face in flesh. It is useful, then, to read the whole poem of this Sad Ass that he draws a stanza from above.

Out of the wound we pluck
The shrapnel. The thorns we squeeze
Out of the hand. Even poison forth we suck,
And after pain we have ease.

But images that grow
Within the soul have life
Like cancer and, often cut, live on below
The deepest of the knife,

Waiting their time to shoot
At some defenceless hour
Their poison, unimpaired, at the hearts root,
And, like a golden shower,

Unanswerably sweet,
Bright with returning guilt,
Fatally in a moment’s time defeat
Our brazen towers long built;

And all our former pain
And all our surgeon’s care
Is lost, and all the unbearable (in vain
Borne once) is still to bear.

Posted in Feature Friday, Memorable Quotes, Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The 5 Most Common Mistakes Bloggers Make

Great blogs are based on great content–good design, creative network capability, and, especially, great writing. When bloggers get it right, it can be a beautiful thing. At the moment when an audience connects with great online writers and content curators, a blog becomes a space for transformational experiences. This is a dynamic place, living and moving and changing as the limits on the imagination disappear in the grand depths of internet space. A quarter of the web is blog content, a massive intercontinental viral library where amateurs and experts alike are drawn into the ever-expansive possibilities of the digital age.

This is a space that you can–and should–be a part of. Whether you are building a digital platform, testing material for new markets, or using the blog as a sandbox for writing or design, this space is ideal for finding an audience. Even when bloggers have the key elements for success–regular posting, relevance, strong writing, readable design, and a meaningful connection to readers–there can be a gap between the blogger and his or her audience. Many bloggers are creating great content but finding that their blog is getting little traction. When no one is reading, the blogosphere can be a lonely place.

Time and time again I see good writers making the same critical errors that keep the blog from experiencing long-term growth. These errors–often simple ones–keep their content from being as sticky as it could be and gets in the way of the blogger’s ability to capitalize on the viral nature of online writing. If you are creating great content, you want to make meaningful connections to a readership.

So I thought I would share the top 5 mistakes that bloggers make that limit their reach. These are the lessons I’ve learned on my way to becoming a specialized blog that still gets 100,000 hits a year.

Blogger Mistake #1: They Don’t Use WordPress

I know, I know: there are a lot of loyal Blogspot/Blogger writers out there. There are critical disadvantages to WordPress, including the fact that it takes a bit of digital know-how to take your first steps as a baby blogger. A little patience with WordPress, however, goes a long way. Besides data–which is essential for the blogger interested in impact–there are three critical reasons that bloggers interested in digital impact should consider WordPress.

First, WordPress is pretty. Or at least it can be. There are thousands of design templates that allows each WordPress site to stand out. We are a visual generation, and WordPress facilitates the use of pictures and design features that enhance our content.

Second, WordPress has a greater potential for connecting with other bloggers. This is not just a matter of sheer mass. Statistics vary, but there are more than 60 million WordPress users, making it the most powerful content management system (CMS) on the web. The potential for connectivity actually has more to do with ease than mass. I can follow WordPress blogs by email or in a reader, allowing me to make a far bigger digital net than I can anywhere else. Part of this connectivity is the ease with which WordPress has integrated some of the more powerful social media platforms, extending my reach even further.

Third, WordPress has the greatest potential for growth. The CMS platform is accessible enough for the baby blogger and powerful enough for the likes of The New Yorker, MTV, and BBC America. Whatever your future holds, WordPress is the most powerful and nimble platform available today.

Blogger Mistake #2: They Don’t Define Themselves

No doubt some readers of this post are already crying foul. “If,” you might be saying, “If WordPress has such great features, why does your blog look so dated.” Well spotted. I am overdue for a redesign. However, it only takes 20 seconds with my blog and readers will know what I’m about. The name, the header, the first few lines of text, the “About” page–these things or a quick scan down the recent posts and the reader will know what I’m doing with A Pilgrim in Narnia. A kindred reader may stay and connect, while a reader looking for something else will move on.

So I’m not ignorant of design features. I am phone- and tablet-friendly, but am aiming for computer screen readers. I use a slalom approach for text and pictures (notice how the eye slides down the page between pics) because I am a literary blogger: the pictures highlight, illustrate, and draw the eye to the next paragraph. For it is the paragraphs that matter to me, the words, the ideas. Although I don’t usually write academic posts, generally my readers are literate and well educated (they either have higher degrees or are self-teachers). Almost all of them are voracious readers and many of them are writers, teachers, researchers, or artists. I have defined who I am and love the readers that I have connected with.

While I am still due for a visual upgrade, and I push at the edges of my blog’s defined space, I know who I am and what A Pilgrim in Narnia is about. What about your blog? If I check out your main page will I get it? After looking at the last 20 blogs that have followed A Pilgrim in Narnia, I am reminded that it is a rarer skill than you might think. It doesn’t matter if your subject matter is super narrow or grand and expansive, you only get about 20 seconds with readers to communicate who you are. Define well, visually, in the descriptions, and in your writing.

Blogger Mistake #3: They Don’t Translate

This one is highly controversial. Specialists will roll their eyes when I complain about in-group language. There is a value to working in a specialized community, testing out ideas with one another and inspiring creativity. I work in research teams and know the value of technical language–whether those in the “in group” are economists, comic book collectors, Tolkienists, linguists, astronomers, beat poets, animal rights activists, numismatists in love, Buffy fans, woodworkers, philosophers of technology, angry education reformers, placid Whovians, or international monitors of health standards in aboriginal communities. There is something alluring about the secret handshake.

However, there is nothing more intimidating than to break into than a circle of like-minded folk. At least that’s the case for me when I’m at a party where I don’t know a lot of people. It takes a lot of courage to squeeze in and pick up the thread of a conversation. So every blogger must decide whether his or her blog will be a closed circle–always limited to the very few who know your secret handshake–or will try to keep a place open for the next reader.

I have designed it so that A Pilgrim in Narnia is going to be immediately ignored by 90% of visitors. But for those who love books–especially books of fantasy the Inklings wrote and inspired in others–I want these great readers to stick around. That’s why, for example, I don’t call C.S. Lewis, “Jack,” and I describe his more obscure work so the reader knows where it fits in his overall project. I still remember the joy of discovering that Lewis, Tolkien, and the best Fantasy/SF writers have a largely untapped reservoir of other materials–letters, essays, editorials, failed projects, secretly written poems and diary entries and things they wrote before they were famous. I loved discovering those things, so I share those little treasures with readers.

And, yet, my choice to leave behind groupspeak and specialist language has done nothing to chase away the leading C.S. Lewis and Tolkien scholars. My choice to “translate” my work has opened me up to a much wider readership and has still given space for leaders in my field to offer advice, criticism, or words of encouragement. You can choose to have a tight inner circle of those in the know, or you can share your great knowledge with the world by thinking about the language you use.

Blogger Mistake #4: They Don’t Use Network Features

I find social media age language of followership really creepy. Perhaps I watched too many cult kidnapping films growing up, but I don’t really want to be a follower of digital being.

Yet, that’s the language that has emerged. I have chosen to embrace it, and as soon as it has gone stale I’ll set it aside. But that good instinct to reject “follower” culture has meant that some people have missed some network opportunities. I will give some quick examples:

  • Some bloggers reject the “like” button because, frankly, it seems narcissistic to ask everyone to like what I wrote. However, as a frequent blog reader, when I don’t have time to comment on a blog, and when sharing it doesn’t fit my online profile, a quick click of the “like” button allows me to leave a note of encouragement to the content creator.
  • Not everyone is attracted to Twitter, and the Trumpification of Twitter–along with troll culture–means that it is in danger of disappearing. However, you should use the share button features. This allows readers who have loved what you have made for them to share with their friends (and followers) on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. These social media tools are critical to enhanced network connectivity.
  • So many bloggers miss an opportunity to enhance sharing by not including their Twitter handle in the share feature. Simply go to Sharing Settings and put your Twitter name in the space that says, “Twitter username to include in tweets when people share using the Twitter button.” Even if you only use this to track blog connections, it can allow you to follow up with readers who are otherwise invisible online.
  • Turn on the Reblog feature. There are some bloggers who scoop up and share material as if it is Instagram. Just roll with it and make more online connections.
  • Some don’t open up the comments section, missing critical opportunities to invite readers into a deeper commitment to your blog. I know that there are trolls and spammers, but WordPress has great tools to filter out spam. As for trolls, I approve their crazy comments, leaving them for future readers to enjoy their insipid, mind-numbing commitment to inanity.
  • WordPress has a “follow” feature that links you to the Wordpress Reader. Tags do this too, but how many people are using the WordPress Reader? So many great bloggers miss out on deeply connected readers because they don’t include the email widget. Beyond posts that have gone viral, the email button is the most critical connectivity tool that has led to my success, such as it is.

These are all missed “conversion” opportunities–to use another unfortunate term. You want to convert casual visitors into lifelong readers. These simple tools enhance your connectivity and deepen commitment among your readers. They also give you tools to track blog activity outside of your own site.

Blogger Mistake #5: They Listen to Posts Like This

In the end, your blog must be a sincere representative of who you are in the digital community you live in. The blog “Adventures of a Renegade Stamp Collector” is going to have a different feel than “Numismastatistics: Tools for 21st Century Collectors,” despite the overlap of content and community. You need to create content and visual design features that allow for the most authentic connection between you and your reader. Nothing is worse than the blogger who is trying too hard or who has cluttered the screen with gadgetry, clickbait, or connection points.

Yet a lot of bloggers get caught in these “how to” lists. Sometimes they end up feeling forced into little boxes that make the blogging experience less enjoyable. And doesn’t that go against the whole business that is the play of blogging? This should be fun. Your blog should make you a better writer, hone your technological or design skills, and create a platform for product development or launch. But it should be fun.

Bloggers who forget the joy of the genre do so to their peril.

Good luck, and feel free to add your tips and anti-tips in the comment section below and share on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest!

Posted in On Writing, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Thesis Theatre event invitation! (Friday Feature)

I am very pleased to have been the supervisor of one of the researchers on SignumU’s Thesis Theatre on the 23rd (Courtney Petrucci). I hope you can take the time to check it out. Registration is free.

The Oddest Inkling

signumLogo_100You are invited to attend a “Thesis Theatre” event as part of the Signum Symposia. Join me on Thursday, March 23rd, 9:30 PM EST for a roundtable discussion with three recent Signum thesis grads.

Here are the names of each participant and abstracts of their work:

Kate Neville will present us with a biography of Lúthien Tinúviel, from her 1917 appearance in The Book of Lost Tales, through 1931, when Tolkien’s final notes on the Lay of Leithian declare “Lúthien became mortal.” The story of Beren and Lúthien is called by Tolkien “the chief of the stories of the Silmarillion.” And while Lúthien of the published Silmarillion is arguably one of the most powerful characters in that history, her original incarnation, little Tinúviel, was a very different Elfmaiden. A fuller understanding of the leaf which is Lúthien Tinúviel will deepen our understanding of the tree which is Tolkien’s legendarium.

Cynthia Smith

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The Women That Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life

If your experience of C.S. Lewis is only Mere Christianity, Time magazine covers, or a struggle with Susan Pevensie in Narnia, no doubt your most striking image of Lewis will be that of the Oxford Don in shabby tweed surrounded by old books and (moderately old) men.

I am one of those who think that even within Lewis’ male-dominated culture, he is a refreshing resource for thinking differently about gender roles, working life, love, marriage, friendship, and human rights. The best way I can demonstrate this on International Women’s Day is to highlight the powerful impact women have had on Lewis.

Flora Hamilton Lewis

I think it is Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own who quips about “a very remarkable man who had a mother.” Many of us have had a mother, at one time or another. My mother was the first feminist in my life, and my father the second. Their impact is incalculable, so I am not surprised by the amount of time Lewis biographers spend in those early years before her quick death when Lewis was a little boy. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes how the foundations of his life shifted:

“With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis” (ch. 1).

Though short-lived, Flora’s impact on her two remarkable children was profound. While biographers of Lewis know the importance of Flora, it is only recently that scholarly attention has turned to this remarkable woman. Crystal Hurd, in the collection entitled Women and C.S. Lewis, spends a chapter looking at Flora Lewis and the imprint she made upon her world. While her strength as a mathematician failed to impress upon Lewis, much of his love of books, creativity, humour, and upside-down perspective comes from those early years at home.

Sr. Penelope

C.S. Lewis was a prolific letter-writer. By my count there are 3,274 letters in the 3,640 pages of Walter Hooper’s three-volume Collected Letters–and it would surprise me if we have a third of what he wrote. Despite his careful attention to the spiritual direction of his friends, fans, and followers, Lewis found the task exhausting and discouraging.

There were some exceptions, however, and these included three people who served as spiritual directors by correspondence to an Oxford don who suddenly found himself on the grand stage of being a Christian public intellectual.

One of these mentors was an Italian priest, Don Giovanni Calabria, later canonized for his remarkable life. A second was Dom Bede Griffiths, a former student of Lewis’ and later a Roman Catholic monk who was important in the Christian Ashram Movement of India. The third was Sr. Penelope, an Anglican nun and theologian, and of the three had the most profound impact on Lewis.

Sr. Penelope had a fine mind–her translation of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation is lithe and engaging–and ended up playing a curious role in the manuscript history of The Screwtape Letters. You can read the story of their relationship in letters in “‘I’m a Sad Ass at the Moment’ Words with Sr. Penelope.” As the world closed in on Lewis, demanding more and more of him as apologist, brother, household manager, adopted son, war-worker, teacher, lecturer, and radio personality, Lewis found strength in his correspondence with a cloistered nun who first wrote him because she was a science fiction fan.

Sr. Penelope’s ability to provide support for Lewis in the 1940s is incalculable in terms of Lewis’ strength and creativity.

Joy Davidman

Every lover is, I suppose, indebted to their beloved. Anyone who has read A Grief Observed, however, will see how radically Lewis was transformed by Joy’s presence.

Opening almost any page will demonstrate the conversion of Lewis’ heart, but the person who knows Lewis through Narnia or Mere Christianity might be surprised to find words like these in his journal:

“For those few years [Joy] and I feasted on love, every mode of it—solemn and merry, romantic and realistic, sometimes as dramatic as a thunderstorm, sometimes as comfortable and unemphatic as putting on your soft slippers. No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied.”

When she is gone, one of the stages of Lewis’ grief is his great fear that everything she has done to change him will disappear:

“Is all that work to be undone? Is what I shall still call H. to sink back horribly into being not much more than one of my old bachelor pipe-dreams? Oh my dear, my dear, come back for one moment and drive that miserable phantom away. Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back—to be sucked back—into it?”

How did the American poet Joy Davidman change the life of this Oxbridge critic? We can look at the evidence quite objectively, showing how Joy helped Lewis finish his autobiography, how she was a conversation partner who helped nurture Till We Have Faces, how she renovated his gloomy bachelor pad into a home, and how spurred him on to think more cleverly about his career–the result of which was at least a half-dozen books Lewis might not have gotten to. But as we can see in A Grief Observed and Abigail Santamaria’s stunning biography, Joy, the greatest impact upon C.S. Lewis in his life was Joy Davidman herself.

Joy Davidman’s brilliant mind, her sharp wit and sharper pencil, and the sheer individuality of her presence was like Atlantis rising in Lewis’ life. You can read more of Joy’s impact by Crystal Hurd here, and Don W. King has edited some of her letters (Out of My Bone, 2009) and her love sonnets (A Naked Tree, 2015).

And the Others

There are other important women in Lewis’ life. You should read about the friendship with Mary Neylan that radically re-centred her life when it threatened to go off in all directions. Dorothy L. Sayers, the famed mystery author, became a correspondent with Lewis as she was developing into an important Dantean scholar. Her wit, humour, and quiet disagreement are important to Lewis’ formation. Ruth Pitter was one of Lewis’ favourite poets. They became very close friends, and some speculate that the interest may have been deeper than friendship.

In the academic world, too, Lewis taught women students and engaged well with his female colleagues. Perhaps the most famous–and almost legendary–case is that of Elizabeth Anscombe. G.E.M. Anscombe was an important Wittgensteinian philosopher and Cambridge Professor, but will be known to many as the first person to beat C.S. Lewis in a debate. Indeed, her argument in a 1948 Oxford Socratic Club meeting caused the only significant revision Lewis ever made to a published book.

Perhaps the most difficult woman in C.S. Lewis’ life to discuss is Mrs. Moore. It is difficult because some sources are so voraciously anti-Mrs. Moore that is impossible to get a precise reading of who she was and what she was like. Until further evidence arises we cannot be definitive, but it looks like Lewis had an affair with his war buddy’s mother through much of the 1920s–despite the fact she was twice his age and that such a relationship could have lost him his place as a student at Oxford. Their relationship shifted over the years, perhaps leading to Mrs. Moore’s resentment over his conversion to Christianity. As she became increasingly ill and insular, she demanded more and more from Lewis in their unusual household.

Her needs, his brother’s alcoholism, and the demands of a university department in rapid growth led Lewis to a breakdown in 1949. In the end, it might be Mrs. Moore’s death that became one of the most important factors in Lewis’ life. When she finally died, Lewis was able to finish Narnia, complete his academic magnum opus, take an academic chair, pen his spiritual autobiography, write the novel that was the height of his work as a storyteller, and fall in love.

These women–not to mention the haunting characters of the Eve of Perelandra and Orual of Till We Have Faces–are no doubt essential to Lewis’ biography. He was hardly the insular, sexist, Oxford bachelor that some would make him out to be. Quite the opposite. In his poetry, his writing, his spiritual life, his academics, and his apologetics, Lewis submitted to the wisdom and guidance of women in his life. More than anything, Lewis gave his heart in friendship and in love. It turns out he was a very remarkable man who had a mother, a lover, a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration in the women in his world.

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