A Normal Day in C.S. Lewis’ Life as a Student

Though the halls of Oxford are not yet filled for Michaelmas term, University students and faculty are back to work here in North America. No doubt, students are already concerned about how much they can accomplish. As they hustle between classes, jobs, volunteering, and time with friends and family, the hours for doing actual classwork seem to shrink. Almost anyone at the end of the first month of college or university will be certain that they cannot possibly accomplish everything this term. Little do they know, most professors feel the same.

Radcliffe_Camera_3_(5647667236)Has it always been this way? My mother went back to university when I was in elementary school, so I remember the late nights and piles of books and papers. But when I read figures of history, they tend to speak of their time at “uni” in such glowing terms.

Turning to the figure of my own study, what was university time like for C.S. Lewis? As a student at Oxford, Lewis wouldn’t have had the normal experience students at redbrick schools in the UK or North American universities. The rituals and supports for an Oxford scholar are complex, so that dining at high table in college is not the same as getting the meal plan at the cafeteria. But he also had servants to help him do his work, giving the scholars time and space to do their work. Moreover, most of the work that Lewis and his colleagues would do was independent. Voluntary lectures were the support to mandatory one-on-one or two-on-one tutorials–the opposite of what many would experience today. The work in Oxford was also at a higher level, so Lewis’ first degrees were in many ways already at graduate level.

So there are are key differences in the way that an Oxford scholar in the 1920s and, say, a student at Penn State, McGill, or the University of Chester would approach school. What, then, did C.S. Lewis’ academic day look like?

cs lewis all my road before mePerhaps it is an odd fascination, but I do love reading people’s diaries. Dead people of course. I don’t really want the inner thoughts of real people in my every day life. It would be absolutely horrifying. Or at least awkward.

Diaries and letters of dead people, though, these two different explorations of the self, can give one a sense of the writer in ways that can adjust the picture of the man or woman in the mind of the reader. In the study of history, the are invaluable, and Lewis’ letters have formed a key part of my research, helping me slowly collate all the important information, quotes, and significant moments of Lewis’ life.

While all those are lovely details are essential to my overall project, there is something beautiful about the mundane.Though a prolific letter-writer, Lewis only kept a journal through his last years as a student and his first years teaching. So I thought I would pick Lewis’ entry as a student at the beginning of fall term in 1923.

While much of the diary is pretty boring, there is an interesting entry on Oct 21st, 1923. You can find a pretty good example of boring and mispelled entry a year earlier, Oct 21st, 1922:

Saturday 21 October: Up rather late and started Vergil with Maureen after breakfast, going on till eleven o’clock. Then I set to on my O.E. [Old English] Riddles: did not progress very quickly but solved a problem which has been holding me up. Sweet is certainly an infuriating author…

D* was much more cheerful than she has been for some time and for an hour or so we were quite merry. After tea I went to the drawing room and continued the Tales. Then supper: D’s work, which has all my maledictions, had her worried again by that time, or perhaps it was depression. A delightfully small wash up, thanks to the absence of Mrs Hankin and other visitors. Afterwards I got as far as the end of the Reeve’s Tale, which is pretty poor: but the Miller’s capital.

cs lewis all my road before me diaryA domestic day: slept in, read Vergil (i.e., Virgil) with breakfast, homework, a chat, tea, reading Chaucer, dinner and dishes before bedtime reading–really a typical day for C.S. Lewis when he is in his mid-20s (except he usually has also has a cold and is worried about money). The more synchronic date, in 1923, is less quotidien. Oct 21, 1923 is the record of one of Lewis’ walks with his good friend Cecil Harwood–he loved hiking through English towns and countrysides–which he calls “a luminous dream.” His delight is such that he begins the process of tucking it into his permanent memory. The entry is also interesting because he doesn’t finish. He breaks off mid-sentence, leaving us to imagine the rest of the walk on our own.

Sunday 21 October: Began reading Butler’s Erewhon in bed this morning. After breakfast wh. we had v. late, we set out for a walk. We took the Metropolitan to Richmond, in the streets of which we were held up by rain for ten minutes. How delightful all expeditions are with people who don’t mind rain! We then went into Richmond Park. I was quite unprepared for it. There was hardly anyone to be seen. In a few minutes we were in an absolutely deserted open rolling country full of bracken, standing pools and all kinds of woods and groves under a splendid grey autumn sky. We had as good a walk as ever I have had, coming down at about 2 o’clock into Kingston on Thames. Here we were overtaken by sharp rain and finding all the hotels shut were reduced to a very hasty lunch for ten pence each in “a low eating house”—a phrase I never really understood before.

After lunch we walked into Hampton Court Park. This was at first less beautiful than the other: then gradually we came to the end of a very long sheet of water with huge trees in autumn colouring on each side and Wren’s “back” of Hampton Court just visible at the end. At the same moment the sun broke out: the grass (very level) and the dead leaves on it, the trees, the swans, and one little stag that did not run away, took on glorious colours. We were alone: the silence was intense. It was all just like one of those luminous dreams I have so seldom dreamed. We walked up the whole length of the water to the fine old ironwork gates—still not a soul about and into the Palace gardens. This approach will be a great memory to me…

cs lewis all my road before me diary 1920sAnd that’s it. The diary ends here, and actually ends Lewis’ diary-writing until the new year–resolutions work sometimes.  Since we have very few letters in this period, I thought it might be helpful to post a “note” Lewis added after the Oct 21st entry, perhaps at the end of 1923 or before writing on New Years Day 1924. This note shows essential friendships, Lewis’ early view of animals, his poetry (Dymer, published 1925), his reading list, and the power of his Oxford bachelor perspective in this his atheistic period.

NOTE: My last diary, after fluttering for some time on a broken wing, came to an end on 21 October 1923 when I was with Harwood at his flat in Pimlico. On that Sunday evening he read and condemned in no measured terms the two new cantos of “Dymer” (VI and VII) which I had brought to show him. After discussion I largely agreed with him and decided to cut them out: in spite of the work I had put into them I felt surprisingly little disappointment at giving them up. I suppose that in the expulsion of anything bad from the mental system there is always pleasure.

Sometime after my visit to Harwood I cycled to Long Crendon to spend a night at Barfield’s cottage there, thus meeting his wife and mother in law for the first time. His wife is plain, and undistinguished in manner—which I take for a good sign in a marriage so unequal in age. She is very quiet, a little shy, I think: “homely” both in the good and the bad sense of the word. I like her, and I think I should like her more, the more I saw of her. His mother in law, Mrs Dewey [Douie], is a “character part”: a very caustic old Scotch lady.

Barfield has, if anything, improved by marriage. I enjoyed my little stay greatly. We talked a great deal, about [Rudolph] Steiner, the Douglas Scheme, and the changes we had gone through even in the short time we had known each other.

He made one excellent remark. “I am not bored,” he said. “I still have always a waiting list of things to do, even if it’s only walking to the bottom of the garden to see how a bud is coming on.” He saw me as far as Stanton St John on the way back. While I was with him I saw several of his new poems, some of which are very fine. He approved of “Dymer” V and tolerated my new version of VI.

I saw little of Jenkin this term. D began to be very poorly about this time and started a course of medicines for indigestion at the advice of Dr McCay. The latter was often here doctoring Maureen’s mysteriously damaged ankle: he soon proved himself a fool, promising her that it would be all right next week and changing his promises often.

Harwood came down for a very jolly week end, during which we played Boy’s Names, walked, talked and laughed, keeping entirely free from shop. D and Maureen both like him very much, and indeed, in many ways, he is an ideal companion. It was during this stay that he met Jenkin again and they became friends—Jenkin having been rather repelled by his manner when they met before.

Later on Barfield came to stay for one night. He and I talked till three o’clock: one of the most satisfying conversations I have ever had. Although the subject of his marriage was naturally never mentioned, a lot was understood and we each saw that the other felt the same way about women and the home life and the unimportance of all the things that are advertised in common literature. He agreed that, as I said, “either women or men are mad”: he said we could see the woman’s point of view absolutely at times—as if we had never had any other—and this was a sort of relief.

He has completely lost his materialism and “the night sky is no longer horrible”. I read to him in my diary the description of the talk I had with him in Wadham gardens when he was still in pessimism, and we enjoyed it. Although he agreed with several Bergsonianisms of mine (specially that “the materiality is the intelligibility”) he has not read Bergson. He was surprised that I shared most of his views on the nature of thought.

It was shortly before this that I read Flecker’s Hassan. It made a great impression on me and I believe it is really a great work. Carritt (whom I met at the Martlets shortly after) thinks that its dwelling on physical pain puts it as much outside literature as is pornography in another: that it works on the nervous system rather than the imagination. I find this hard to answer: but I am almost sure he is wrong. At that same meeting of the Martlets Sadler read an excellent paper on Day, the author of Sandford and Merton.

Soon after this I had to leave—at an unusually early date in order to conform with W’s [his brother, Warren’s] time of leave [from the military]. The usual wretchedness of going away was increased by D’s state of health: and to crown all, Maureen had to be sent to Bristol during my absence to have her foot properly seen to by Rob. Poor D, who was thus left alone had a dreadful time, and admits now that she was at times afraid it was going to be a gastric ulcer. Thank heavens she seems better now. My three weeks in Ireland, tho’ improved by W’s presence, were as usual three weeks too long. I had a good deal of toothache.

On the return journey W and I stopped for a night in town. For the first time since we were children we visited the Zoo with great gusto: but the cages are too small, and it is cruel—specially for animals like foxes, wolves, dingoes and jackals. We also went to see a musical comedy called Katherine, wh. was very bad. We had meant to go to Hassan, but after reading it W decided that it would be too harrowing for his feelings.

While I was in Ireland I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Masefield’s Daffodil Fields, J. Stephen’s new book Deirdre and Henry James’ Roderick Hudson.

* “D” is Mrs. Moore, the mother of Lewis’ war friend, Paddy Moore, to whom he had given the promise to take care of his mother should he die. Paddy Moore went missing in WWI and was never found, and Lewis moved in with Mrs. Moore and her daughter, Maureen. It is likely Lewis and Mrs. Moore were lovers about this time, but gradually she became just another member of the extended Lewis household.

See C.S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis (ed. Walter Hooper; New York: Harvest, 1991), 123-124, 276-279. See also volume 1 of the Collected Letters and any of the biographies to get a further sense of the time.

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The PEI Bomb Threat and the Politics of Twitter

upei-campus_class-mike-teachingJust a little while ago I was writing away in my campus office and a policeman tells me we are evacuating. This is a strange message to get in the land of Anne of Green Gables, this getaway Island of old family farms and long stretches of sandy beaches. Even here at the UPEI campus, the bright sun is filtered through tall maples and elms scattered through a large, green quad with cobblestone pathways darting between red brick and white sandstone buildings. It took a moment for me to register what was happening, and another moment to take it seriously.

As it turns out, it was serious. All schools Prince Edward Island were evacuated this morning. This includes our college campuses, the provincial university, and all the primary and secondary schools, public or private. There was a threat that came to RCMP by fax that said bombs would detonate in several Island schools. While I’m sure almost no one thought this to be a real threat, the evacuation order was given out of caution.

upei-campus-clockLargely untouched by the frequent violence that cities in the Southern hemisphere have experienced by the hands of terrorists, our university students seemed most amused. There was a very confused group of international parents on a campus tour, and staff were caustically mocking administration, but it was a pretty smooth process. The big problem was traffic, so that a five minute drive in Charlottetown was bound to take an hour today at lunchtime.

It was relatively easy for me. My afternoon class was cancelled and I have a sick boy at home. My wife is a kindergarten teacher and her school was evacuated to a local church, so I couldn’t do anything there. I basically biked home to rub it in to Nicolas that he chose one of the worst days of school to miss! He didn’t believe me at first, but we watched the press conference (below) and he is back on the couch reading.

As I wandered across campus on my way home, chatting with friends and students as I fled the evacuation zone, I turned to Twitter for an update on what was going on. This was what someone tweeted in response to the announcement the school was closed.

idiot_tweetNow, this is before the press release and before we have details on what happened, so granted the tweeter didn’t know yet exactly where to put the blame. The tweeter is also American, and both antisemetic and anti-Islamic, so we perhaps have to give some space for error there. I’m not exaggerating. Just an hour ago he tweeted this:

idiot_antisemite_2Well informed chap, eh? But I think there is a flaw the logical steps he makes about PEI’s evacuation:

  1. Bomb threat
  2. = Terrorist threat
  3. = Immigrant threat
  4. Therefore, problem in the University policy

upei-campus-sduUPEI’s policy is like most universities in the West: we will take as many students as we can from around the world as long as it supports our larger educational goals. About 3 in 5 UPEI students are local, 1 in 5 from other parts of Canada, and 1 in 5 from 80+ countries, though most of them are from the U.S., China, and Nigeria. The policy may be a bad one, though I don’t think so. I love the campus diversity and educational challenges it brings. Included in this mix of about 1000 “foreigners” are a handful of refugees settling in PEI permanently and a few students from refugee camps around the world. We would have more Syrian refugees on campus, but they can’t access their papers in Syria and have a tough time accepting offers.

It is okay to critique UPEI’s policy of internationalization. But on Twitter, the leap from “bomb threat” to “Islamic Terrorism” was immediate, and is fuelled by the question of immigration. In this case, the logical flaw might come in at either step 2 or 3. A bomb threat may not be terrorism (as we define it as an ideological threat to non-military populations), and that terrorism may not be either done by “aliens”–the word our expert tweeter prefers–or by a particular group like Islam. Though we have stopped terrorist attacks in Canada, we are not a nation touched by Islamic terrorism like the U.S. has been. Most of the police killing in Canada, for example, has been eco-terrorism, redneck standoffs, non-idiological Balkanization of youth, gang violence, drugs, or mental illness. Canada’s violence lies in the human heart in ingrained prejudices, not in religio-political terrorism. Canada scooped up tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees in the late 70s and early 80s with little paperwork and almost no screening, and it has been a largely wonderful result.

But I get it. Things are heating up. PEI is on CNN now and trending on Twitter. From the anti-immigrant perspective, it’s not really time to stop and think about logical steps or become informed about the culture you are criticizing. There is a message to get out, a message of fear, and if they miss this opportunity then Hillary Clinton might become President, and then who knows what will happen? That may sound far-fetched, but if you look through our expert tweeter’s activity, that’s the logic. He even claims to be “bigoted for the common good.”

skittles20n-2-webNow, any intelligent Republican reading this is going to separate pretty quickly from our expert tweeter.

And you should.

In fact, I would encourage intelligent Republicans to speak  clearly today and over the next few weeks, because the global message of the Trump campaign is not one of intelligence. Because right now, it is tweets like the one on the right that is communicating most clearly about the logical steps behind Trump’s policy regarding immigration.

This is not some sideshow expert like our antisemetic tweeter. This is Donald Trump, Jr., someone within the Trump campaign, someone that Republicans have been comfortable with putting on stage to speak for the expansive vision of the American conservative movement.

Now, I disagree with Trump’s approach to immigration and community development. So do many American conservatives. I remember walking through Wheaton, Illinois–a model town of American conservativism–and seeing the signs on lawns welcoming refugees. Students and churchgoers of all nationalities poured in and out of the campus buildings and city churches. Card-carrying Republicans spoke to me of their own community efforts to sponsor and support refugees and immigrant families. In fact, many of the evangelicals I met were international families, their own backyard BBQs offering a statement of what it means to live in today’s world.

So I know that Donald Trump doesn’t speak for everyone. Many Americans feel caught, torn between moral choices, and in fear of the risk it involves. Still, there are moments where we need the moral courage to speak the truth. I am not speaking specifically of immigration policy. Americans can develop whatever policy they want, as far as I’m concerned. America, like Canada, is a nation of immigrants, and we go through cycles of crisis about our own identity and what it means to be in the world. This is one of those American crises right now, and it is heightened by terrorist acts like the recent scares in New York and New Jersey.

I can speak of immigration policy. I work in the government department responsible for settling refugees. While the U.S. struggled to bring 10,000 people from the camps in Europe and Asia, Canada–a nation 1/9th your size–brought in 25,000. They are right now in our markets, our mosques, our churches, and our schools. While we can only take so many refugees, we take as many immigrants as can pass Canada’s security clearance and either find a job or create one. Our province and region is invested in growth, and part of that growth comes in hospitality to the world.

My son is safe at home. My wife is safe at work–she snuck back in to get her classroom ready for the little ones to return tomorrow. My campus will pass the day without violence. Yet, even if there was violence. Or even if the person who made the bomb threat really was a terrorist and really was from another country like Syria, Iraq, the Netherlands, or the United States, it does not make a different.

I will never give in to fear that is based on Twitter logic.

I will never develop policy with bigots who masquerade as Twitter experts.

I will not connect random dots between violence downtown and the brown neighbour next door.

I will not equate a global religion with a fragmented political movement.

I will not abide with a politics that twists the truth to feed fear.

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I Am Legend: Book vs. Film(s)

i-am-legend-logoCan a film be better than the book? It depends on how we define “better,” but book-lovers tend to say two sorts of things about adaptations:

  1. “The book was a richer experience.”
  2. “The film adaptation was not faithful to the book.”

i_am_legend_will-smithIt is rare that I hear a true book-lover say that the film was better than the book, but I’m sure we can find exceptions. Someone mentioned The Princess Bride to me lately, and I agree that the film has it hands down. I am both a book-lover and a film buff, so I am open to the idea that a film might be better than the book. Some people, of course, never feel a film shows fidelity to the original author. The arguments around Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth adaptations, where there is both heat and light, shows a number of dividing lines. My solution to go around the problem—I got in a bit of trouble here—doesn’t take away from the fact that I think the books are far better than the films, even if I am a big fan of the LOTR trilogy on screen.

With I Am Legend we have an intriguing opportunity to compare book and film. The book is important historically, though without the 2007 adaptation starring Will Smith, contemporary readers wouldn’t bump into it in an airport bookstore. As a 2007 adaptation, I Am Legend has the advantage of being a story tested by time, and yet not so well known that there will be an angry fan base. It was adapted twice before—including The Omega Man starring Rosalind Cash and Charlton Heston—so the filmmakers could witness the flexibility of the original story to be adapted to certain times and places.

omega-man-filmIt is also interesting that the book and the movie take a similar amount of time to experience, the book being a novella that you can read in 3-4 hours. Usually in an adaptation the book has the luxury of time, allowing the reader to sink into the story, to fill their imagination with the depth of that fictional world. In this case, the book is relatively thin on both time and detail, so the pacing is more like an episodic film. In this case, the novella has a relatively flat storyline with moments of intensity that might be an episode of violent encounter, or a moment of the protagonist’s emotional collapse. In this way, it is very much like any Lone Survivor type film.

One advantage of any book is reader investment, so that the reader provides most of the imaginative detail about landscape, scene, facial features, body posture, and the like. Film has its advantages too, so that I am much more frequently emotionally overwhelmed by the human interaction in a film. We have started watching Stranger Things on Netflix, and my wife says I’m leaning forward and nodding as Eleven searches for something to say. Add the soundtrack, the elastic snap of suspenseful action coming into play, the modulation of sound and light, and film has a great pull on its audience. In the case of the 2007 I Am Legend, the postapocalyptic environment is captured in just a few stunning seconds, while it takes the 1954 novella pages and pages to establish the environment.

i-am-legend-4Still, for people who love literature, there is nothing like 10-20 hours of being lost in the interior mind of a character or the adventures of a world that is not our own, all told in beautiful prose. Films have their epic moments of poetry, but the genre is such that rarely can the words do the work without the support of movement and music. Poetry, however, is on many pages. It is the limitation of the mode of film, but also its great strength. I rarely cry reading books, but I cry all the time in film. I do laugh in both.

As it stands, the book and the film are two quite different experiences. I Am Legend in print is all about interiority—the feelings and emotions of Robert Neville as he struggles to the be the last man on earth. Both the film and the book make a statement that undercuts our confidence in how we made the civilization we live in, but that critique is far stronger in the book. The film undercuts the confidence of our scientific progress, while the book has a cold war background (much like Night of the Living Dead in the late 60s).

While the film also deals with interiority—Will Smith’s mental collapse is pretty well done—we feel it more keenly in the book. Moreover, in the film all of the players around protagonist Robert Neville shift to create a different kind of story. The 2007 film is about disintegration and redemption, while the 1954 novel is only about disintegration. There is no recovery in Richard Matheson’s original invention, whereas the film weaves that recovery into its very core.

i_am_legend_will-smith-dogThis recovery happens in various ways, and plays out differently depending upon the ending you choose to watch. In the alternative ending, the director plays out the theme of scientific hubris. Robert Neville’s scientific pride makes the social formation of the zombie clans invisible, and leads to near utter destruction. His humility—his ability to see the human within the animal—opens up for a moment of redemption. But that recovery only comes at great cost, and only by the grace of the beast. The moment of driving off into the sunrise is just a little too clean. This ending is weaker, though it is an intriguing message.

i_am_legend_richard-mathesonThe theatrical ending is a much stronger moment of recovery, and a much more shocking interpretation of Matheson’s work. The theatrical version takes up the Christ myth, so that self-sacrifice is the central turning moment of humanity, and “healing is in the blood.” This cross-shaped narrative is strengthened by the use of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” and gives substance to the Elijah character in the film, the prophetess that leads to Robert Neville’s personal redemption.

While the theatrical version is far stronger, in either case the 2007 film is quite a distance from the book. When asked about what the central metaphor in his story was, Matheson answered bluntly:

“I think that ascribing metaphors to a book after it is written is silly…. I don’t think the book means anything more than it is: the story of a man trying to survive in a world of vampires.”

The symbolic value of the 2007 theatrical ending is too specific to be accidental. In any case, recovery is not part of the original story, while central to the film.

i_am_legend_richard-matheson-3We have an intriguing problem with comparing the book and film. The 1956 I Am Legend book is a vampire story inspired by Dracula; 50 years later the film is about zombies. And yet the core characteristics of the night walkers in the 2007 film are relatively true to one strand of what we see in the 1950s story. How does this happen?

It’s an intriguing moment of the complexity of influences. While there have been Haitian zombie stories since the 1800s, and classic zombie films from the 30s onward, it is George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead that created an established zombie film genre that exists in strength right up to today. Among Romero’s influences was Matheson’s 1950s vampire story, where the vampires lack the superhuman strength of Dracula type vampires, and so hang around living beings at night waiting to drink their blood. Matheson’s story, and the 1964 Last Man on Earth adaptation, have this same weak, unintelligent night vampire hunter. This figure only works in a plague scenario, and might have been bound to die except that Romero took up the character. He linked it with the zombie narrative, set it in an historical setting that incited fear, and upped the amount of gore the audience gets to see. It’s a genius move that makes Night of the Living Dead a cult classic.

While there are two kinds of zombies in the 1954 story —the living and the dead—the 2007 film simplifies that technical point into social hierarchy and adds a factor that Matheson’s original story was missing: speed and strength. The swarm ability of zombies is part of the classic tale, and Matheson’s vampires could work together on basic tasks (as Neville discovers too in the 2007 film). In the book there are moments where Neville is swarmed by the night walkers, but he is able to fight them off, create some space, and escape.

i_am_legend_will-smith-zombieIn the 2007 film, the speed and lithe bodily energy of the vampire-zombies increase the action and the thrilling elements in the film. I think it is a core problem in the Matheson tale: Robert Neville, if he keeps his head and his routine, is never truly in danger once he has set up the safe house. Neville in the film needs the safe house and the routine, but dangers lurk in much more imminent ways.

i_am_legend_richard-matheson-coversI say “problem,” but Matheson was really doing something different in the book. In Matheson’s script, Neville’s greatest danger is himself, and that principle remains true to the end of the story. That element is there in the Will Smith version, but the way they re-cast the dog shows the brilliance of film as a mode—Neville is able to talk to the dog, so isn’t just thinking all the time. This also shows the completely different kind of challenge he has to face. In both the book and the film the hunt for the scientific secret is there, but that search operates in two different ways.

That search also results in two completely different kinds of approaches to the ending. This difference makes a fascinating case study in adaptation.

So comparing the film(s) and the book makes for an interesting study, but we still have our first question: is the film better than the book?

i_am_legend_richard-matheson-4In this case, I am going to go for the theatrical version of the film over the book. I like the complexity of the symbolism, and am intrigued about. I think the casting is strong, and the soundtrack is a good background to the story—something Matheson also achieves in the book (listen to the pieces he mentions while you read and you’ll see). The writing of the original tale is not elegant, and as someone tempted to that interior collapse as a story I find it a bit self-indulgent. I know how I would be in grief of the loss of my world, my loves, and I resist writing it. Matheson did that here. And although it is an inescapably compelling tale, I still connected more to Robert Neville on the screen than Robert Neville in the pages.

I’m sure this won’t settle the question of whether or not a film adaptation can be better than the book. Some may say that Francis Lawrence’s “redemption” motif is a Hollywood sell out, and there are flaws in the film. Still, though Richard Matheson’s story is more important piece in the development of a genre—both the evolution of vampire fiction and the popularizing of the zombie film—the 2007 I Am Legend film is for me a richer “reading” experience.

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Mark Twain’s Letters from Earth: A Pre-/Post-Screwtapian Discovery

220px-lettersfromtheearthOne of the readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia tipped me off to a lost-but-found work by Mark Twain. Letters from Earth was written in 1909 but not published until long after his death in 1962. This little book, incomplete I think, contains a series of notes from Satan to his best friends Michael and Gabriel back in heaven. Satan has taken a kind of backpacker’s tour of Earth’s history, curious about this beast called human who has been granted—really, cursed with—the faculty of moral judgment and relational responsibility.

When I heard about this book I hunted for it immediately. If anyone could write an atheist Screwtape or become a new Voltaire for a generation trying to seek liberty from religion, Mark Twain would be the man. His incisive intelligence and wit are just the tools needed to frame up a demonic view that could cut to the heart of the skeptical critique of faith in an entertaining way.

We see moments of this well-applied wit at play. Here is part of the set up to the letters, a discussion between Gabriel, Michael, and Satan after a heavenly committee meeting:

“Yes,” said Michael, “and He said He would establish Natural Law — the Law of God — throughout His dominions, and its authority should be supreme and inviolable.”

“Also,” said Gabriel, “He said He would by and by create animals, and place them, likewise, under the authority of that Law.”

“Yes,” said Satan, “I heard Him, but did not understand. What is animals, Gabriel?”

“Ah, how should I know? How should any of us know? It is a new word.”

[Interval of three centuries, celestial time — the equivalent of a hundred million years, earthly time. Enter a Messenger-Angel.]

letters-from-the-earth-by-mark-twain-profileUsing the pretext of animals as a created in order to teach a moral lesson, Twain establishes a “nature” to each species, so the tiger is morally blameless for ferociousness, and the rabbit blameless for lacking courage. Then Twain cuts to the heart of the problem of a created universe that develops by evolution, that of pain and suffering:

Satan said, “The spider kills the fly, and eats it; the bird kills the spider and eats it; the wildcat kills the goose; the — well, they all kill each other. It is murder all along the line. Here are countless multitudes of creatures, and they all kill, kill, kill, they are all murderers….”

It is this experiment and the crowning achievement of “Man” that piques Satan’s curiosity. He asks what this earth is that will be the home for animals and humans. The moment is a nice bit of poetics:

“A small globe I made, a time, two times and a half ago. You saw it, but did not notice it in the explosion of worlds and suns that sprayed from my hand….”

mark-twain-letters-from-the-earth-284661When Satan gets banished for a celestial day for his loose tongue (about 350,000 earth years, maybe), he decides to go to earth and look around. He is astonished by what he finds, writing back to Gabriel and Michael about the peculiar race called Man, and especially of their religion. What begins as curiosity—“For there is nothing about man that is not strange to an immortal”—soon turns into a bitter judgment of the Creator’s experiment. This turn produces some of the more incisive moments in the piece. You may have heard this quoted before:

[The Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.

Satan goes on to write a critique of the Bible:

This Bible is built mainly out of the fragments of older Bibles that had their day and crumbled to ruin. So it noticeably lacks in originality, necessarily. Its three or four most imposing and impressive events all happened in earlier Bibles; all its best precepts and rules of conduct came also from those Bibles; there are only two new things in it: hell, for one, and that singular heaven I have told you about.

letters-from-earth-mark-twainThe rest of the book is mostly mockery along this line. Satan rails against the idea of young earth creationism, hell, heaven, priesthood and hierarchy, and human moral habits around race and sex.

Some of this is funny: “You have never seen a person with clothes on. Oh, well, you haven’t lost anything.” But, honestly, I was quite disappointed in the book. I found it a drudgery to read after the first 10 pages or so, and only finished out of a sense of responsibility. The speculative foundation of the work shifts. Satan never accounts for his own characterization by humanity—he does play a wee role at the beginning, doesn’t he?—and we are left unsure whether Satan’s critique is that humans have made religion up, or that the Creator in whose court he sits really is a cosmic asshole.

Part of the problem is no doubt the unfinished nature of the work. Mark Twain is the Editor, and adds a handful of footnotes, mostly scientific or historical, and all weird. But we are lacking the structure of why Twain is the editor, and how these letters fell into his hands. These letters are written quickly or sporadically and have an uneven tone. The reader has no sense of where they are going, simply because Twain didn’t either.

My biggest problem is the preaching. There are places here and there where he presses the moment home. After describing a God who makes a creation based on suffering, banishes and assassinates its king and queen because they desire knowledge, and killed the vast majority of humanity but kept deadly germ cultures alive to plaque humans for centuries to come, Satan writes:

You would not suppose that this kind of Being gets many compliments. Undeceive yourself: the world calls him the All-Just, the All-Righteous, the All-Good, the All-Merciful, the All-Forgiving, the All-Truthful, the All-Loving, the Source of All Morality. These sarcasms are uttered daily, all over the world. But not as conscious sarcasms. No, they are meant seriously: they are uttered without a smile.

But the long passages about the lower intestine, Noah’s ark, and a peculiar conversation about sex—including something about male impotence I didn’t understand, and the story of a princess who has 36 “splendidly built young native men” in her harem and at her beck and call—I just found the preaching too much. The best part about this book was that it never got finished. This work probably has potential, but as it stands it reduces one of America’s greatest literary minds to the guy at the bar who leans in with that sickly sweet rum breath, certain that this thing he is talking about links to all the other things, and we really need to hear it.

captain-stormfield-mark-twainFrom an atheistic standpoint, it is a missed opportunity. There is a space for someone to do what Twain did, particularly in pointing out the problems of suffering, the absurdity of Christian hypocrisy, and problematic passages like Deuteronomy 20 (which he quotes at length, making it almost 2% of the book). There are now plenty of excellent atheistic philosophers, and the credibility structures of culture has shifted so that committed belief is as peculiar today as passionate disbelief was a century ago. But I don’t know that we’ve had a Voltaire in modern times. Christopher Hitchens may have been close.

Perhaps that’s part of what I’m missing: the shock of these letters in their post-Victorian, pre-WWI setting. Had they been edited and completed, they would have been a scandal. Maybe they were hot even when they emerged in the 60s. But as a reader in 2016, I’ve heard all the arguments before.

I think it is interesting, though, that both Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis tried to work along the same lines from opposite sides independently of each other. Perhaps Mark Twain was more successful with Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1907-8)—he published it, after all—but Lewis’ own visit to heaven in The Great Divorce (1944-45) doesn’t seem to have any connection to it.

As readers can probably tell, I’m disappointed with the book. I do look forward, though, to your own reading of Letters from Earth. You can find it free here, and it won’t take you long to read.

This picture captures a review I found, which has a slightly different opinion of the piece:


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What if Journalism Was Like This? “The Whitby Storm” in Dracula

bram_stokers_dracula_1941_grosset_97I don’t know what we’ll end up having faith in, when it’s all said and done. Our collapse of faith in religion, democratic government, education, the university, the police force, the justice system, and many community leaders has come slowly over the last few decades. Some of it comes through social change, some through the betrayal of key figures, like abusive priests, lame teachers, irrelevant professors, money-loving evangelists, corrupt politicians, systems that crush rather than liberate, biased judges, and police whose likelihood of shooting to kill increases the more your skin is the colour of the night sky. Our visionaries give us busmper sticker platitudes, our leaders have the depth of after-school special morality, and little by little hopelessness steels itself in our cultural souls.

And, of course, we have lost journalism too. Once the Fifth Estate, providing information to those on the outside and putting the screws to people in power, now the newsmedia is simply a way for us to get information that we largely distrust. The local media where I live is quaint, covering corn boils, car break-ins, and the high-end sophistication of our political battles over which road gets paid or whether we’ll bother paying teachers this year or not. It’s actually kind of refreshing, particularly while American and British media–which dominates a lot of English speaking conversations–is involved in shaping a crisis. It takes a lot of work to bring a culture to a sense of incoming apocalyptic doom, but it’s working will in the US and UK.

bram-stoker-dracula18Beyond all the problems in newsmedia–the shift new production to news redistribution, the power of advertising, the built-in biases, the click-bait culture–frankly, a lot of the writing just sucks. I mean, I would watch the extremes of Fox and MSNBC if it was well done. But it’s not. I would read the leading papers if they caught my imagination. Honestly, odds are that the blogger on my blogroll is going to give better cultural criticism than the pundits in the daily prints papers. Plus, the writing will be better.

There are plenty of exceptions, I’m sure. But my lament of the loss of beautiful writing in journalism came home to me while rereading Dracula by Bram Stoker. This late 19th c. piece is written in epistolary style, filled with letters, journal entries, news clippings, telegrams, medical notes, and transcriptions from phonographic recordings. These epistolary devises give the reader a sense of credibility, I think. In discussion  ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in another forum, Tom Hillman (whose excellent blog you should read) noted that Dracula demonstrates Sherlock Holmes’ dictum, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Everything in the tale is incredible, but any explanation other than “vampire” is more incredible. 

I love the way Bram Stoker makes this work, and I encourage you to pick up the book, and perhaps read it along with Mythgard Academy’s free Dracula course, taught by Corey Olsen. After a day of my own frustration in disatisfying newsmedia, I was struck by a newsclipping found in Mina’s diary. I’ve included a rather long entry from ch. 7 of Dracula that’s broken up into two sections. The first half is a beautifully written piece that describes a ship grounding in a storm, while the second contributes to the building of the vampiric world with a maniacal note in a bottle.

I am struck by how enjoyable this was to read. I know it isn’t real journalism, but fiction written by Stoker. But that just presses the point for me: if journalism was this well written, I would slowly find my way back. As Trump, Clinton, and Brexit pop up in my newsfeed, I suspect we are in little danger of captivating writing threatening to disrupt the current state of the former Fifth Estate. 



From a correspondent.


One of the greatest and suddenest storms on record has just been experienced here, with results both strange and unique. The weather had been somewhat sultry, but not to any degree uncommon in the month of August. Saturday evening was as fine as was ever known, and the great body of holiday-makers laid out yesterday for visits to Mulgrave Woods, Robin Hood’s Bay, Rig Mill, Runswick, Staithes, and the various trips in the neighborhood of Whitby. The steamers Emma and Scarborough made trips up and down the coast, and there was an unusual amount of `tripping’ both to and from Whitby. The day was unusually fine till the afternoon, when some of the gossips who frequent the East Cliff churchyard, and from the commanding eminence watch the wide sweep of sea visible to the north and east, called attention to a sudden show of `mares tails’ high in the sky to the northwest. The wind was then blowing from the southwest in the mild degree which in barometrical language is ranked `No. 2, light breeze.’

The coastguard on duty at once made report, and one old fisherman, who for more than half a century has kept watch on weather signs from the East Cliff, foretold in an emphatic manner the coming of a sudden storm. The approach of sunset was so very beautiful, so grand in its masses of splendidly coloured clouds, that there was quite an assemblage on the walk along the cliff in the old churchyard to enjoy the beauty. Before the sun dipped below the black mass of Kettleness, standing boldly athwart the western sky, its downward was was marked by myriad clouds of every sunset colour, flame, purple, pink, green, violet, and all the tints of gold, with here and there masses not large, but of seemingly absolute blackness, in all sorts of shapes, as well outlined as colossal silhouettes. The experience was not lost on the painters, and doubtless some of the sketches of the `Prelude to the Great Storm’ will grace the R. A and R. I. walls in May next.

bram-stoker-dracula17More than one captain made up his mind then and there that his `cobble’ or his `mule’, as they term the different classes of boats, would remain in the harbour till the storm had passed. The wind fell away entirely during the evening, and at midnight there was a dead calm, a sultry heat, and that prevailing intensity which, on the approach of thunder, affects persons of a sensitive nature.

There were but few lights in sight at sea, for even the coasting steamers, which usually hug the shore so closely, kept well to seaward, and but few fishing boats were in sight. The only sail noticeable was a foreign schooner with all sails set, which was seemingly going westwards. The foolhardiness or ignorance of her officers was a prolific theme for comment whilst she remained in sight, and efforts were made to signal her to reduce sail in the face of her danger. Before the night shut down she was seen with sails idly flapping as she gently rolled on the undulating swell of the sea.

“As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean.”

Shortly before ten o’clock the stillness of the air grew quite oppressive, and the silence was so marked that the bleating of a sheep inland or the barking of a dog in the town was distinctly heard, and the band on the pier, with its lively French air, was like a dischord in the great harmony of nature’s silence. A little after midnight came a strange sound from over the sea, and high overhead the air began to carry a strange, faint, hollow booming.

Then without warning the tempest broke. With a rapidity which, at the time, seemed incredible, and even afterwards is impossible to realize, the whole aspect of nature at once became convulsed. The waves rose in growing fury, each overtopping its fellow, till in a very few minutes the lately glassy sea was like a roaring and devouring monster. Whitecrested waves beat madly on the level sands and rushed up the shelving cliffs. Others broke over the piers, and with their spume swept the lanthorns of the lighthouses which rise from the end of either pier of Whitby Harbour.

bram_stokers_dracula_1928_garden_city_99The wind roared like thunder, and blew with such force that it was with difficulty that even strong men kept their feet, or clung with grim clasp to the iron stanchions. It was found necessary to clear the entire pier from the mass of onlookers, or else the fatalities of the night would have increased manifold. To add to the difficulties and dangers of the time, masses of sea-fog came drifting inland. White, wet clouds, which swept by in ghostly fashion, so dank and damp and cold that it needed but little effort of imagination to think that the spirits of those lost at sea were touching their living brethren with the clammy hands of death, and many a one shuddered at the wreaths of sea-mist swept by.

At times the mist cleared, and the sea for some distance could be seen in the glare of the lightning, which came thick and fast, followed by such peals of thunder that the whole sky overhead seemed trembling under the shock of the footsteps of the storm.

Some of the scenes thus revealed were of immeasurable grandeur and of absorbing interest. The sea, running mountains high, threw skywards with each wave mighty masses of white foam, which the tempest seemed to snatch at and whirl away into space. Here and there a fishing boat, with a rag of sail, running madly for shelter before the blast, now and again the white wings of a storm-tossed seabird. On the summit of the East Cliff the new searchlight was ready for experiment, but had not yet been tried. The officers in charge of it got it into working order, and in the pauses of onrushing mist swept with it the surface of the sea. Once or twice its service was most effective, as when a fishing boat, with gunwale under water, rushed into the harbour, able, by the guidance of the sheltering light, to avoid the danger of dashing against the piers. As each boat achieved the safety of the port there was a shout of joy from the mass of people on the shore, a shout which for a moment seemed to cleave the gale and was then swept away in its rush.

Before long the searchlight discovered some distance away a schooner with all sails set, apparently the same vessel which had been noticed earlier in the evening. The wind had by this time backed to the east, and there was a shudder amongst the watchers on the cliff as they realized the terrible danger in which she now was.

bram-stoker-dracula16Between her and the port lay the great flat reef on which so many good ships have from time to time suffered, and, with the wind blowing from its present quarter, it would be quite impossible that she should fetch the entrance of the harbour.

It was now nearly the hour of high tide, but the waves were so great that in their troughs the shallows of the shore were almost visible, and the schooner, with all sails set, was rushing with such speed that, in the words of one old salt, “she must fetch up somewhere, if it was only in hell”. Then came another rush of sea-fog, greater than any hitherto, a mass of dank mist, which seemed to close on all things like a gray pall, and left available to men only the organ of hearing, for the roar of the tempest, and the crash of the thunder, and the booming of the mighty billows came through the damp oblivion even louder than before. The rays of the searchlight were kept fixed on the harbour mouth across the East Pier, where the shock was expected, and men waited breathless.

The wind suddenly shifted to the northeast, and the remnant of the sea fog melted in the blast. And then, mirabile dictu, between the piers, leaping from wave to wave as it rushed at headlong speed, swept the strange schooner before the blast, with all sail set, and gained the safety of the harbour. The searchlight followed her, and a shudder ran through all who saw her, for lashed to the helm was a corpse, with drooping head, which swung horribly to and fro at each motion of the ship. No other form could be seen on the deck at all.

A great awe came on all as they realised that the ship, as if by a miracle, had found the harbour, unsteered save by the hand of a dead man! However, all took place more quickly than it takes to write these words. The schooner paused not, but rushing across the harbour, pitched herself on that accumulation of sand and gravel washed by many tides and many storms into the southeast corner of the pier jutting under the East Cliff, known locally as Tate Hill Pier.

bram_stokers_dracula_1921_doubleday_96There was of course a considerable concussion as the vessel drove up on the sand heap. Every spar, rope, and stay was strained, and some of the `top-hammer’ came crashing down. But, strangest of all, the very instant the shore was touched, an immense dog sprang up on deck from below, as if shot up by the concussion, and running forward, jumped from the bow on the sand.

Making straight for the steep cliff, where the churchyard hangs over the laneway to the East Pier so steeply that some of the flat tombstones, thruffsteans or through-stones, as they call them in Whitby vernacular, actually project over where the sustaining cliff has fallen away, it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight.

It so happened that there was no one at the moment on Tate Hill Pier, as all those whose houses are in close proximity were either in bed or were out on the heights above. Thus the coastguard on duty on the eastern side of the harbour, who at once ran down to the little pier, was the first to climb aboard. The men working the searchlight, after scouring the entrance of the harbour without seeing anything, then turned the light on the derelict and kept it there. The coastguard ran aft, and when he came beside the wheel, bent over to examine it, and recoiled at once as though under some sudden emotion. This seemed to pique general curiosity, and quite a number of people began to run.

It is a good way round from the West Cliff by the Drawbridge to Tate Hill Pier, but your correspondent is a fairly good runner, and came well ahead of the crowd. When I arrived, however, I found already assembled on the pier a crowd, whom the coastguard and police refused to allow to come on board. By the courtesy of the chief boatman, I was, as your correspondent, permitted to climb on deck, and was one of a small group who saw the dead seaman whilst actually lashed to the wheel.

bram-stoker-dracula15It was no wonder that the coastguard was surprised, or even awed, for not often can such a sight have been seen. The man was simply fastened by his hands, tied one over the other, to a spoke of the wheel. Between the inner hand and the wood was a crucifix, the set of beads on which it was fastened being around both wrists and wheel, and all kept fast by the binding cords. The poor fellow may have been seated at one time, but the flapping and buffeting of the sails had worked through the rudder of the wheel and had dragged him to and fro, so that the cords with which he was tied had cut the flesh to the bone.

Accurate note was made of the state of things, and a doctor, Surgeon J. M. Caffyn, of 33, East Elliot Place, who came immediately after me, declared, after making examination, that the man must have been dead for quite two days.

In his pocket was a bottle, carefully corked, empty save for a little roll of paper, which proved to be the addendum to the log.

bram-stoker-dracula12333The coastguard said the man must have tied up his own hands, fastening the knots with his teeth. The fact that a coastguard was the first on board may save some complications later on, in the Admiralty Court, for coastguards cannot claim the salvage which is the right of the first civilian entering on a derelict. Already, however, the legal tongues are wagging, and one young law student is loudly asserting that the rights of the owner are already completely sacrificed, his property being held in contravention of the statues of mortmain, since the tiller, as emblemship, if not proof, of delegated possession, is held in a dead hand.

It is needless to say that the dead steersman has been reverently removed from the place where he held his honourable watch and ward till death, a steadfastness as noble as that of the young Casabianca, and placed in the mortuary to await inquest.

Already the sudden storm is passing, and its fierceness is abating. Crowds are scattering backward, and the sky is beginning to redden over the Yorkshire wolds.

I shall send, in time for your next issue, further details of the derelict ship which found her way so miraculously into harbour in the storm.

bram-stoker-dracula149 August.–The sequel to the strange arrival of the derelict in the storm last night is almost more startling than the thing itself. It turns out that the schooner is Russian from Varna, and is called the Demeter. She is almost entirely in ballast of silver sand, with only a small amount of cargo, a number of great wooden boxes filled with mould.

This cargo was consigned to a Whitby solicitor, Mr. S. F. Billington, of 7, The Crescent, who this morning went aboard and took formal possession of the goods consigned to him.

The Russian consul, too, acting for the charter-party, took formal possession of the ship, and paid all harbour dues, etc.

Nothing is talked about here today except the strange coincidence. The officials of the Board of Trade have been most exacting in seeing that every compliance has been made with existing regulations. As the matter is to be a `nine days wonder’, they are evidently determined that there shall be no cause of other complaint.

A good deal of interest was abroad concerning the dog which landed when the ship struck, and more than a few of the members of the S. P.C.A., which is very strong in Whitby, have tried to befriend the animal. To the general disappointment, however, it was not to be found. It seems to have disappeared entirely from the town. It may be that it was frightened and made its way on to the moors, where it is still hiding in terror.

There are some who look with dread on such a possibility, lest later on it should in itself become a danger, for it is evidently a fierce brute. Early this morning a large dog, a half-bred mastiff belonging to a coal merchant close to Tate Hill Pier, was found dead in the roadway opposite its master’s yard. It had been fighting, and manifestly had had a savage opponent, for its throat was torn away, and its belly was slit open as if with a savage claw.

Penguin Books 5280 - Bram Stoker - Dracula Bram Stoker - Dracula Penguin Books 5280 Published 1979, 1st printing Cover Artist: Andrew Holmes

Later.–By the kindness of the Board of Trade inspector, I have been permitted to look over the log book of the Demeter, which was in order up to within three days, but contained nothing of special interest except as to facts of missing men. The greatest interest, however, is with regard to the paper found in the bottle, which was today produced at the inquest. And a more strange narrative than the two between them unfold it has not been my lot to come across.

As there is no motive for concealment, I am permitted to use them, and accordingly send you a transcript, simply omitting technical details of seamanship and supercargo. It almost seems as though the captain had been seized with some kind of mania before he had got well into blue water, and that this had developed persistently throughout the voyage. Of course my statement must be taken cum grano, since I am writing from the dictation of a clerk of the Russian consul, who kindly translated for me, time being short.

LOG OF THE “DEMETER” Varna to Whitby

Written 18 July, things so strange happening, that I shall keep accurate note henceforth till we land.

On 6 July we finished taking in cargo, silver sand and boxes of earth. At noon set sail. East wind, fresh. Crew, five hands . . . two mates, cook, and myself, (captain).

On 11 July at dawn entered Bosphorus. Boarded by Turkish Customs officers. Backsheesh. All correct. Under way at 4 p. m.

On 12 July through Dardanelles. More Customs officers and flagboat of guarding squadron. Backsheesh again. Work of officers thorough, but quick. Want us off soon. At dark passed into Archipelago.

bram-stoker-dracula11On 13 July passed Cape Matapan. Crew dissatisfied about something. Seemed scared, but would not speak out.

On 14 July was somewhat anxious about crew. Men all steady fellows, who sailed with me before. Mate could not make out what was wrong. They only told him there was SOME- THING, and crossed themselves. Mate lost temper with one of them that day and struck him. Expected fierce quarrel, but all was quiet.

On 16 July mate reported in the morning that one of the crew, Petrofsky, was missing. Could not account for it. Took larboard watch eight bells last night, was relieved by Amramoff, but did not go to bunk. Men more downcast than ever. All said they expected something of the kind, but would not say more than there was SOMETHING aboard. Mate getting very impatient with them. Feared some trouble ahead.

On 17 July, yesterday, one of the men, Olgaren, came to my cabin, and in an awestruck way confided to me that he thought there was a strange man aboard the ship. He said that in his watch he had been sheltering behind the deckhouse, as there was a rain storm, when he saw a tall, thin man, who was not like any of the crew, come up the companionway, and go along the deck forward and disappear. He followed cautiously, but when he got to bows found no one, and the hatchways were all closed. He was in a panic of superstitious fear, and I am afraid the panic may spread. To allay it, I shall today search the entire ship carefully from stem to stern.

bram-stoker-dracula1234Later in the day I got together the whole crew, and told them, as they evidently thought there was some one in the ship, we would search from stem to stern. First mate angry, said it was folly, and to yield to such foolish ideas would demoralise the men, said he would engage to keep them out of trouble with the handspike. I let him take the helm, while the rest began a thorough search, all keeping abreast, with lanterns. We left no corner unsearched. As there were only the big wooden boxes, there were no odd corners where a man could hide. Men much relieved when search over, and went back to work cheerfully. First mate scowled, but said nothing.

22 July.–Rough weather last three days, and all hands busy with sails, no time to be frightened. Men seem to have forgotten their dread. Mate cheerful again, and all on good terms. Praised men for work in bad weather. Passed Gibraltar and out through Straits. All well.

bram-stoker-dracula24 July.–There seems some doom over this ship. Already a hand short, and entering the Bay of Biscay with wild weather ahead, and yet last night another man lost, disappeared. Like the first, he came off his watch and was not seen again. Men all in a panic of fear, sent a round robin, asking to have double watch, as they fear to be alone. Mate angry. Fear there will be some trouble, as either he or the men will do some violence.

28 July.–Four days in hell, knocking about in a sort of malestrom, and the wind a tempest. No sleep for any one. Men all worn out. Hardly know how to set a watch, since no one fit to go on. Second mate volunteered to steer and watch, and let men snatch a few hours sleep. Wind abating, seas still terrific, but feel them less, as ship is steadier.

29 July.–Another tragedy. Had single watch tonight, as crew too tired to double. When morning watch came on deck could find no one except steersman. Raised outcry, and all came on deck. Thorough search, but no one found. Are now without second mate, and crew in a panic. Mate and I agreed to go armed henceforth and wait for any sign of cause.

30 July.–Last night. Rejoiced we are nearing England. Weather fine, all sails set. Retired worn out, slept soundly, awakened by mate telling me that both man of watch and steersman missing. Only self and mate and two hands left to work ship.

1 August.–Two days of fog, and not a sail sighted. Had hoped when in the English Channel to be able to signal for help or get in somewhere. Not having power to work sails, have to run before wind. Dare not lower, as could not raise them again. We seem to be drifting to some terrible doom. Mate now more demoralised than either of men. His stronger nature seems to have worked inwardly against himself. Men are beyond fear, working stolidly and patiently, with minds made up to worst. They are Russian, he Roumanian.

2 August, midnight.–Woke up from few minutes sleep by hearing a cry, seemingly outside my port. Could see nothing in fog. Rushed on deck, and ran against mate. Tells me he heard cry and ran, but no sign of man on watch. One more gone. Lord, help us! Mate says we must be past Straits of Dover, as in a moment of fog lifting he saw North Foreland, just as he heard the man cry out. If so we are now off in the North Sea, and only God can guide us in the fog, which seems to move with us, and God seems to have deserted us.

bram-stoker-dracula-13 August.–At midnight I went to relieve the man at the wheel and when I got to it found no one there. The wind was steady, and as we ran before it there was no yawing. I dared not leave it, so shouted for the mate. After a few seconds, he rushed up on deck in his flannels. He looked wild-eyed and haggard, and I greatly fear his reason has given way. He came close to me and whispered hoarsely, with his mouth to my ear, as though fearing the very air might hear. “It is here. I know it now. On the watch last night I saw It, like a man, tall and thin, and ghastly pale. It was in the bows, and looking out. I crept behind It, and gave it my knife, but the knife went through It, empty as the air.” And as he spoke he took the knife and drove it savagely into space. Then he went on, “But It is here, and I’ll find It. It is in the hold, perhaps in one of those boxes. I’ll unscrew them one by one and see. You work the helm.” And with a warning look and his finger on his lip, he went below. There was springing up a choppy wind, and I could not leave the helm. I saw him come out on deck again with a tool chest and lantern, and go down the forward hatchway. He is mad, stark, raving mad, and it’s no use my trying to stop him. He can’t hurt those big boxes, they are invoiced as clay, and to pull them about is as harmless a thing as he can do. So here I stay and mind the helm, and write these notes. I can only trust in God and wait till the fog clears. Then, if I can’t steer to any harbour with the wind that is, I shall cut down sails, and lie by, and signal for help . . .

It is nearly all over now. Just as I was beginning to hope that the mate would come out calmer, for I heard him knocking away at something in the hold, and work is good for him, there came up the hatchway a sudden, startled scream, which made my blood run cold, and up on the deck he came as if shot from a gun, a raging madman, with his eyes rolling and his face convulsed with fear. “Save me! Save me!” he cried, and then looked round on the blanket of fog. His horror turned to despair, and in a steady voice he said,”You had better come too, captain, before it is too late. He is there! I know the secret now. The sea will save me from Him, and it is all that is left!” Before I could say a word, or move forward to seize him, he sprang on the bulwark and deliberately threw himself into the sea. I suppose I know the secret too, now. It was this madman who had got rid of the men one by one, and now he has followed them himself. God help me! How am I to account for all these horrors when I get to port? When I get to port! Will that ever be?

bram-stoker-dracula1114 August.–Still fog, which the sunrise cannot pierce, I know there is sunrise because I am a sailor, why else I know not. I dared not go below, I dared not leave the helm, so here all night I stayed, and in the dimness of the night I saw it, Him! God, forgive me, but the mate was right to jump overboard. It was better to die like a man. To die like a sailor in blue water, no man can object. But I am captain, and I must not leave my ship. But I shall baffle this fiend or monster, for I shall tie my hands to the wheel when my strength begins to fail, and along with them I shall tie that which He, It, dare not touch. And then, come good wind or foul, I shall save my soul, and my honour as a captain. I am growing weaker, and the night is coming on. If He can look me in the face again, I may not have time to act . . .If we are wrecked, mayhap this bottle may be found, and those who find it may understand. If not . . . well, then all men shall know that I have been true to my trust. God and the Blessed Virgin and the Saints help a poor ignorant soul trying to do his duty . . .

bram-stoker-dracula-2Of course the verdict was an open one. There is no evidence to adduce, and whether or not the man himself committed the murders there is now none to say. The folk here hold almost universally that the captain is simply a hero, and he is to be given a public funeral. Already it is arranged that his body is to be taken with a train of boats up the Esk for a piece and then brought back to Tate Hill Pier and up the abbey steps, for he is to be buried in the churchyard on the cliff. The owners of more than a hundred boats have already given in their names as wishing to follow him to the grave.

No trace has ever been found of the great dog, at which there is much mourning, for, with public opinion in its present state, he would, I believe, be adopted by the town. Tomorrow will see the funeral, and so will end this one more `mystery of the sea’.

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Travels in Time: An Update from the UK

Big Ben at NightAs I write this the English countryside is passing quickly by. I am on a train, which is a rare experience for a non-urban Canadian. Taking the train through England is like moving briskly in and out of time. Clay-roofed suburbs slip away into rolling countryside. The tiled framework of grasses and grains are sliced through by ancient canals, stone henges, lost roads, arched bridges, and groves of trees. It all makes me wonder whether the land is really a mosaic, that there is a message for those with a god’s eye view. Or perhaps for those close enough to the ground to see the moss on stones and warren holes at the bases elms and oaks.

I mean, just there, in the centre of that meadow where sheep are grazing, is an abandoned castle on an ancient mound. It is overgrown with trees, and I am passing by too quickly, and the sheep don’t even know it is there. If there wasn’t a brightly coloured canal boat snail-pacing its way up a canal to the left, it is a sight a young William Shakespeare might have seen as he made his way to London to see if he could make a go of writing. Change the decals on the canal boat, add some oars, and one of Jane Austen’s characters might have seen my postcard view of England on their way to Bath for a diverting holiday.

All that in a flash, the blink of the mind’s eye, and we are in an industrial area where they make zippers or hand-gliders or windmill bushings. It is the 21st century again, and I turn back to my laptop.

20160812_181254Readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia will know that I have been on the road, so trains are becoming a bit of a habit. The first two weeks of this trip has been my family’s first big vacation together. We wore out the soles of our shoes walking and bussing around London. As we were staying in a borrowed flat on the south side of the Thames, it seemed that all roads led to Big Ben, Parliament, the Palaces, and Westminster Abbey. We visited Stonehenge and Bath with a tour group, and were nearly always the last ones back on the bus. We toured Chester, this old walled city with Roman roads and canals in the North. We rented a car—a deed of its own kind of madness—and visited the lost castles and forgotten hollows of North Wales. After an all-too-brief visit with friends in Cheltenham, we finished our week in Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, medieval colleges, and Harry Potter merchandise.

It was the trip of a lifetime for us.

A couple of weeks ago my wife and son returned to Prince Edward Island and I turned to my books. With limited internet and mounting responsibilities, I have been somewhat neglectful of the great conversations happening in the comment sections of the blog. I took a walk to see something new most every day, but my time has been rather narrowly focussed on two jobs.

bodleian library reading roomMy first task has been to work on the C.S. Lewis archive at the Bodleian library in Oxford. This was my second time visiting the Bod, and I was far more prepared. As always, it was a real treat–exhausting, but a thrill every day.

20160815_162157I went to the Bodleian to do three main things. First, I spent time in the papers we often ignore, getting to know Lewis through his notebooks, the way he edited his writing, and the kinds of things he put in the margins. Second, I had six or seven things I had to look up—things that had caught in my brain while reading or items I found I needed to follow up on from other people’s archival work. Third, and mainly, I finished the transcription of C.S. Lewis first attempt at long-form prose, an Arthurian tale Lewis mailed to his best friend when he was seventeen. More on this exciting work later.

My other main task has been to prepare to present a paper at a conference in Glasgow this coming weekend (Sep 9-11). It is the biannual meeting of the International Society for Religion, Literature, and Culture (ISRLC), and I was thrilled to have my paper accepted (against significant odds, I am told). It is, unfortunately, not yet finished and the conference begins tomorrow, so I won’t be exploring my ancestral home of Glasgow this evening. I grew up in New Glasgow, PEI, skating on the River Clyde, so I am excited to finish my paper up and get to know the town of my long since past.

oxford gargoyleI doubt the paper will be of interest to that many (see the abstract below). It is a part of a larger chapter in my PhD dissertation about C.S. Lewis’ spiritual theology. I am a bit nervous, as I am naturally shy and reclusive in new environments. But I am looking forward to testing out my material in a critical community.

I am also looking forward to home on Tuesday. I am weary, and haven’t had a full night of sleep in a couple of weeks. The dorms and hostels where I have been staying are noisy and active. I am dislocated without my family. My students have started school without me, and my colleagues at work will have wondered if I’m ever coming back.

I suppose that’s part of the illusion of moving so quickly on a train. While I am looking out the windows to the past, the rail experience is supposed to make us think we are getting to the future more quickly. While the past comes to us in eye blinks and window seats, the future only ever comes at sixty minutes an hour. The conference, the paper, my home, my family, my desk and books and classroom—all these things will come, anon, as they always have.

slothAbstract for ISRLC

Criticism as Conversion: Active Surrender in C.S. Lewis’ Spiritual Theology

Theologian Michael J. Gorman uses the term “cruciformity” to take up the Imitatio Christi and discuss in greater depth the pattern of cross in spiritual formation. Christ’s own surrender to the cross shapes the believer’s posture before the world in worship, relationships, political action, and missional engagement. In surrendering to be “crucified with Christ,” the self is set aside (Gal 2:19-20). In this view conversion is not a one-time event and the cross is not merely salvific; these are dominant motifs of Christian praxis.

When one considers the semantic overlap of these surrender images—self-death, departure from self, self-crucifixion, submission, obedience—it is not difficult to problematize this Christian perspective. How often, for example, has this call to submission led to subjugation and suppression of women in marriage and community? Brown and Parker call this cross-praxis “an abusive theology.” Even considering believers who cherish the symbolic layers of the cross, Fisk is correct that “the crucifixion has cast a long shadow on western Christianity.” For many, the founding event of Christianity is a theological red line.

Like most who have written of cross-patterned spirituality, C.S. Lewis does not address the potential for “abusive theology.” Yet he has within his literary criticism an inversive approach to cruciformity that informs his treatment of Christian praxis in his fiction and nonfiction. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis casts the reader-book relationship in terms of religious conversion and worship, suggesting that one must surrender to the literature. This self-death, however, is not mere passivity, but an active and engaged choice. This voluntary active-surrender metaphor—being crucified to books, in a sense—anticipates a possible response to the problematic nature of this cruciform spiritual posture.

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Reading Harry Potter in Oxford

Back in the day, C.S. Lewis thought that industry and suburban sprawl was ruining Oxford. Decades later, industry has slid into the urban background and the suburbs are here to stay. If I had to say anything at all, I would say that the crowds make this magical city just a little less transcendent. Tourists crowd Magdalen Street, Cornmarket, and the High Street. But Broad Street is the worst. They gather in handfuls on the steps of the Bodleian, but they pack them into the next block over.

When planning the trip, tourists from all over the world say they are coming to Oxford to experience the dreaming spires, the medieval to modern architecture, the cobblestones and colleges. Really, though, they are coming for the merchandise. The trinket shops overflow with travelers trying to find something that reminds them of the stone seat of Western knowledge, the birthplace of English learning, the jewel of quadrangular and Gothic architecture, the seedbed of religious transformation. They need something, you know, that captures all of that awesomeness. Like a magnet. Or a t-shirt.

In the two years since I last visited Oxford, the store windows in these memorabilia shops have changed. Once exclusively dedicated to college clothing and postcards, now they are increasingly filled with Harry Potter paraphernalia. You can buy a wand for between £3 and £40. I can’t tell you which is the best deal: it is the trinket that chooses the tourist, not the other way around. You can get a golden snitch (doesn’t work), or a Marauder’s Map (doesn’t work), or a Wizard’s Chess set (cool figurines, but doesn’t work). Perhaps I’m too much of a believer in magic to settle for Taiwanese factory versions, but it all seems a bit pale.

Except for the Harry Potter store at King’s Cross Station—next to a clever Platform 9¾ display—there is more Pottericity in Oxford than even in London. As I just happened to have started rereading the series–trying to keep ahead of my niece, who is a reading fiend–so I was curious about why Oxford has a touch of Pottermania.

It could be that not all this local Potter merchandise is 100% approved by the Ministry of Magic’s trademark lawyers. Oxford provides enough distance, perhaps, from the Ministry’s headquarters in London.

It may be because parts of the movie were filmed here. The infirmary where Harry’s bones grow back is the Divinity School at the Bodleian (I get in because I have the magic Bodleian reader’s card). I suppose there might be a Harry Potter tour of Oxford, but I haven’t seen it. Yet.

oxford gargoyleBeyond those simpler reasons, I think partly it’s that Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry makes sense here in Oxford. North American readers, and perhaps British school kids at the non-posh schools, may find Hogwarts quaint with its houses, prefects, dining halls, gowns, dusty libraries, gargoyles, and collegiate integration of arts and sciences. In Oxford, however, all those things are still a reality. Professors still lecture, from time to time, in their monastic gowns. Students living in halls will dine at the high table—the same tables where the great writers, scientists, and politicians of history have whispered to friends their plans for iconic literature, groundbreaking discoveries, and totalitarian rule. The history of Hogwarts rhymes with the memory of Oxford.

I must admit, when I see the Hogwarts Crest on a shield hanging in a window, there really is something Harry Potterish about Oxford. I think it has to do with the past—our perceived history of England and Europe. While most people lived and died in the mundane moments of farms and funerals, our hearts connect with the high moments of British history. From the Celts to Roman rule, into the Middle Ages and towards the Renaissance, England is rich with story, art, architecture, law, literature, symbol, myth, and religion. And Oxford is very much a place that captures this history. At any moment in the City Centre you might cast your eye upon a Roman stone, a Norman wall, a Medieval college, or a 17th century cathedral. I don’t know why people go to the museum here in Oxford. The streets and walls and towers are the museum.

dining hall harry potterDon’t you think it’s true that to walk through the red brick wall of Platform 9¾ is to walk into the past? It seems to me that J.K. Rowling does a marvelous job of stretching history into the present in her work. Oxford is so old we don’t know exactly when the first colleges were formed. Hogwarts is formed even before Oxford, deep in the middle ages, long before England’s so-called golden era that has given us our scientific attitude and desire for technological advancement. We enter Oxford or Hogwarts, and technology slips away. At Hogwarts we are left with coal-fuelled trains, wind-swept castles, ancient libraries, candlelight, and stone stairways (albeit, ones that are bit tricky to pin down).

361b9-potter81282I think that Oxford and Hogwarts tap into something our souls yearn for, so I’m not surprised to see that Oxford is a kind of portkey into the magic of Harry Potter—even if the Potter experience itself is somewhat forced.

You can probably see that I have fallen in love with Oxford. I can’t help it. Its magic is different than Harry Potter’s, and in the midst of all these beautiful, well-read, well-dressed scholars, I feel like a great old lump of a muggle. But it is an invigorating place to read The Philosopher’s Stone once again. Indeed, I think this town will be hard to leave when my work is done.

Perhaps it’s true that it is Oxford that chooses the scholar, Harry.

Written at the back of the Lamb and the Flag, an Oxford pub where the Inklings met for a short period when they were boycotting the Eagle and Child.

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