“The Rood of Time,” a Poem by Sørina Higgins

For the last couple of years, I have been reading women Christian poets. As my devotional poetry has been so soaked in the work of John Donne and George Herbert, some of this is my curiosity about how women approach the cross, God, beauty, art, and life. Some of this, though, is accidental–a stumble-upon effect that has led me from C.S. Lewis to Ruth Pitter, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Joy Davidman, or from my time at Regent College to Luci Shaw, Flannery O’Connor, and, in an indirect way, L.M. Montgomery. At the intersection of these two worlds–people working theologically in Inklings studies–are a number of poets who have deepened my reading. Among them is Sørina Higgins, a colleague at Signum University, editor of the awarding-winning The Inklings and King Arthur, and a scholar of modernist-era poets.

In a long-ago post called “Free Like Form” I shared a sestina and a villanelle from Sørina Higgins’ Caduceus. As some of Sørina’s poetry is formal, and as it is soaked through with water from the deep wells of our poetic history while remaining entirely within the contemporary moment, Caduceus is a great text for talking about the poetic vocation.

I recently reread this little volume and found myself coming back again and again to the same poem. Using Hebrew, Greek, Medieval, Renaissance, sacramental, mythological, botanical, and anatomical imagery in one short, etymologically rich lyric poem, Sørina leads us to think of creation itself as patterned after the cross. In a poem that captures C.S. Lewis’ idea of the mythohistoric unity—“The message and the messenger in one”—she loops creation, incarnation, cross, and resurrection into a single poetic vision.

In many ways “The Rood of Time” captures in 14 lines what it is taking me 100,000 words to describe, what I take to be the imaginative centre of C.S. Lewis’ spiritual theology. I’m still working on my 100,000 words, but here are Sørina’s 14 lines:

The Rood of Time

Almost at the blink of beresheet,
a tree grew—double-branched, caducous—
whose cruciform foreshadow bruised the subtle beast.

Round self-rolled on a caduceus,
raised by a sort of desert Buonarroti,
Leviathan watched God’s phalanges scribe Logos.

The message came in flesh: no wing-sped heels
but death. The Phoenix lifts its martyred head
again and shouts Afflatu from a Thuja tree.

The Beatific seer beholds the blood
quarter Malacandra with salvation:
the ecstatic Sacrifice held up in flaming red.

The message and the messenger in one:
the Ketuvim, the Koine, and the incarnation (39).

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The Tolkien Film and the Problem of Beauty: Guest Blog at the Forefront Festival

I was very much struck by the recently released Tolkien biopic and tried to capture a few of my thoughts about it in my note from last week. I also received an invitation from the Forefront Festival blog to share my thoughts. As they are a kind of Christian arts collective, I decided to think about my Tolkien experience and the thinness of much Christian art. As I said to one of their leaders, there are certainly thousands of faithful artists faithfully doing beautiful work. But I remain disappointed with mainstream Christian art. Watching the Tolkien film made me wonder whether, when it comes to art, Christians have a disordered relationship with the three transcendentals: truth, beauty, and goodness. I talk about it at the Forefront guest blog, where I also get to address my concern with Tolkien’s faith in the biopic in a roundabout way.

As a lover of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, I have waited with wincing anticipation for the release of the new biopic. Honestly, I worried and fussed in all the days leading up to the screening of Tolkien.

On the one hand, I really wanted to love this film. I love biopics, where in the warp and weft of great filmmaking, a director weaves together the threads of a person’s biography into a work of fiction that is true in ways deeper than chronology and census registry. And, of course, I love his worlds: Tolkien’s work as a Christian artist and intellectual has shaped me in profound ways.

On the other hand….

Read more at the Forefront Festival blog, click here.

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900th Post! And an Update

It’s my 900th post! Why not take a look at some of the blog stats and then provide an update? Since I’m in charge, my answer to that question is “no reason at all!”

In general, things are going pretty well. It looks like we’ll hit 750,000 views by the end of  May. Last month was the third biggest month ever on A Pilgrim in Narnia, partly because of Kat Coffin’s great post on the Problem of Susan and the engaging discussion that followed. These stats are encouraging since I have reduced content to one new post a week–and less than that this spring. 2019 might be the first year without growth, but it will be close. 2017-2018 was a really strong season, but it is nice to have some forward motion.

I thought I would look a little deeper at the stats and discovered, with some amazement, that I have written over a million words. Here are some of the other stats:

  • 745,031 views (as of this morning)
  • 1,219 average words per post
  • 1,090,893 total words

These are encouraging results. It looks like I’ll hit 1,000,000 views by about Christmas 2020. Digital dance party?

Now for a wee update. There has been a really encouraging result to my recent review, “My Defiant Appreciation of the Biopic Tolkien.” I clearly was not alone in wanting to love the film, and many people enjoyed it and found it moving and compelling as I did. I have another review coming out this week with the Forefront Festival. In my guest post, I’m talking about the disordered relationship between the three transcendentals in much of Christian art.

I said that I wanted to talk about Tolkien, faith, and love in tomorrow’s post, but it may have to wait. I’ve received a scholarship to attend a writing retreat this weekend, so I’m using it as an opportunity to work on the super fine details of my thesis. There’s also great food there.

I am submitting my thesis by the end of the month, with the hope to defend in August. This means a marathon run toward submission, no longer editing to cut but now to clarify and avoid red herrings and mare’s nests. I have 331 pages to edit, 1334 footnotes to check, and a 40-page works cited to perfect. I am also going through all my old notes and rereading a few hundred pages of critical material.

It’s a lot to do.

All this to say that my Tolkien, faith, and love post won’t be complete until next Monday or Tuesday, and I’m not going to have internet access for the next few days. This means I won’t be able to respond to all the blog comments (which have been strong and worth reading, for those peeking in).

So enjoy the content, feel free to share, and enjoy the comment conversations. And if you can get to the Tolkien biopic, I hope you enjoy!


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My Defiant Appreciation of the Biopic Tolkien

I live on the edge of the continent, on a small island in the North Atlantic. This “lonely island” I call home is more like Hobbiton than the majestic and magical sanctuary of Tol Eressëa of J.R.R. Tolkien’s early mythology. Prince Edward Island is a tiny, secluded place, Canada’s garden province, an idyllic place of beauty rooted in agriculture, fishing, and hospitality. As Islanders, we have our own ways, and we don’t have much to do with the big folk of industry and political power outside our borders. Our premier and opposition leader recently shared a hearty hug on the morning after an election. We are just not like other places.

The downside to living in a land still invested in bygone days is that we rarely get great concerts or non-blockbuster films. Entertainment for us is about folksy stage plays, comedy, humble artisanship, and singer-songwriters that fill small halls and big kitchens with concerts and ceilidhs throughout the year. And there is, of course, Anne of Green Gables—a fabled world that you can still see echoed in our little land.

So when the new Tolkien biopic was coming to theatre, I knew that I would need a road trip to another province to see it. My niece’s play—actually a rewriting of Anne of Green Gables from Marilla’s perspective—gave me the chance to wrap a Tolkien screening together with a great family visit in the next province over.

I wrote last week that I was choosing to be hopeful about the film—despite a rising tide of angry reviews and Tolkienist anxiety. Tolkien readers can be exacting, as I talk about in a guest blog for the Forefront Festival, a kind of Christian arts collective. The blog post should drop later this week, where I talk about some of the tensions involved in making a film like Tolkien. Part of my anxiety in getting read to see Tolkien is not just my own desire for greater fidelity in adaptation—at least greater than we’ve seen in some adaptation of work by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Madeleine L’Engle—but some degree of fear about fan responses if I were to give a positive review.

That weird tension is interesting, but as I said last week, I decided to go and be open to loving the film—even knowing that it would be imperfect or even troubling at times. I love the Lord of the Rings films, and I watch them about as often as I read the books (now with my son). I love the worlds that Tolkien made and want more of them—and more of him. So I chose to leave behind my skepticism and a desire for precision and go as a fan, grateful for the chance to experience Tolkien’s story.

As C.S. Lewis would put it in An Experiment in Criticism, I chose to “surrender” to the text, to receive as a lover or worshipper the story that the makers of Tolkien want to tell me.

tolkien film nicholas holst Lily CollinsHonestly, I was both relieved and impressed. In many ways, this is a beautifully crafted film. There are gaps everywhere, and the film could have benefitted from an extra $20m in CGI work, particularly in the battlefield scenes and a couple of panoramic shots. But, overall, the set design is lovely, the actors are compelling, the photography is excellent, the score invites empathy as a companion to the writing, and the storytelling is inviting. Nicholas Hoult is strong as a twenty-something John Ronald, and Lily Collins is absolutely gorgeous as Edith Bratt, whose role in shaping Tolkien does not go unnoticed. It is not just Hollywood good looks, though. There is elegance in this film in the way it brings the period and the pathos together. Anthony Boyle is heartbreakingly beautiful as Geoffrey B. Smith, one of Tolkien’s closest confederates within the T.C.B.S. His shy, slightly quizzical face moves flawlessly to haunting loss on the battlefield.

There is no end to things I could critique in this film—or in almost any film that takes a risk. I would like to come back on Wednesday and talk about love and faith within the context of the film. But as I think about the reaction to the film by fans, I wonder if some fans are making a category mistake when they are walking into the theatre. I have written this for my Forefront guest blog:

“I love biopics, where in the warp and weft of great filmmaking, a director weaves together the threads of a person’s biography into a work of fiction that is true in ways deeper than chronology and census registry.”

We are in a great age of biopics, with Bohemian Rhapsody just behind us as it follows a tradition of great superstar pictures, like Walk the Line, The Doors, I’m Not There, Man on the Moon, Amadeus, and Ray. Rocketman is joining theme soon, a picture about Elton John that unapologetically breaks into a musical with the courage of La La Land (which is sort of a biography of a dream). Award-winning biopics like A Beautiful Mind, The Social Network, Malcolm X, The Pianist, The Imitation Game, and The King’s Speech have each walked that subtle line between biographical details and the deeper story of the person’s life behind the curriculum vitae. When it is done well, that deeper story gives mythic quality to the characters life, and for those that know their chronologies well, they can recognize the artful changes as enhancing the story of a life worth sharing.

I wonder, though, if some Tolkien fans are going into Tolkien expecting a documentary rather than a new story told. If they are, they will be deeply disappointed. I don’t know if a film could ever do what John Garth does in his gold-standard history, Tolkien and the Great War (2003). Maybe a documentary series could deepen that work, and I think there is work being done on a documentary for Joseph Laconte’s A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War (2015). But Tolkien is not this kind of picture; it is a myth retold, the legend of a mythmaker shaped by love, friendship, and the way that the war broke his world.

And as such, I was deeply moved. I wish there was more humour, more of Tolkien’s artistry, and more about language. But for what we have, I found it a tremendously compelling film. I wept—not for loss of the Professor, or even for his losses in war. I wept because Tolkien was able to open for me an even greater window into the deep beauty of Tolkien’s mythology.

So, for me, Tolkien was worth the drive to another province. I am glad I left my hole in the ground where I keep my desk and books. Though my lone isle has its own awkward and pubescent kind of relationship with the modern world, I still want to keep a hobbit-like innocence and love of simple things. It is with this in mind that I think of Tolkien with great gratitude and childlike wonder.

And with the biopic Tolkien, I am a fan who has received more of what he loves: the life and myths of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I stand in defiance, then, against* those who build such strong walls of protection around Tolkien’s work that only the most brilliant linguist or exacting chronologist are admitted in. I know that I am not of much account to many, and I will never win some. Still, Tolkien is well worth a watch for those who love Tolkien as his worlds.

*Note: This was my first draft: “I stand in defiance, then, against Tolkien-haters….” It was pointed out that this was inflammatory, and unnecessarily so. I agree now, but want to admit my first indiscretion rather than hush it up.

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Getting Ready for TOLKIEN: John Garth and Other Resources

I don’t know if it is rumour or just the coolness of the social media age, but über Tolkien fan Stephen Colbert has been sent a copy of John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth. I can’t verify the veracity of such a claim, but it is a timely legend to emerge. The new Tolkien biopic is released this week, and I am rereading Garth’s book before I catch the film this weekend.

I already talked here about how I have some tentative hope about the film. Recognizing its limitations, and knowing that there are dozens of high-profile nasty reviews already out on the beat, I still want to hope. I know there is the kind of fan that will be disturbed by inaccuracies and misinterpretations of the man, I prefer to be a different kind of fan. Yes, I admit that there are real flaws with Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth films, particularly in his beautiful but overwrought Hobbit trilogy. But I love the Lord of the Rings films, and I watch them about as often as I read the books. I love the worlds that Tolkien made and want more of them, whether they are the weather-beaten additions in the Middle-earth history or the fragmented recoveries in film and orchestral interpretation.

I just choose to be that kind of fan. I have not left behind my deep skepticism, but I am pleased to see how some people view Tolkien and how they present him in art. I also tend to love beautifully made biopics. So if people make a beautiful but flawed picture, I think I will be okay. I am not an expert in Tolkien’s biography, but I feel a pretty solid sense of the man, an image in my mind of his character, his habits, his dreams, and some of the hurts and tensions in his life. Over the last few years, I have winced at each step of this Tolkien biopic journey.

But now I am ready for the film.

Unfortunately, I can’t see it yet. Not only is there no chance for any of the preview screens near me, they aren’t even showing the film in my province! I have to travel to another province (like a state or prefecture) in order to catch Tolkien on the silver screen. So as I am left in a holding pattern, I decided to reread John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War. I’m actually listening to it, which works as I’m trying to finish up the last footnotes on a PhD, so sitting to read is a luxury. This week Garth’s great voice is my gardening and walking partner.

And it is quite the book. It has already received awards and accolades and good reviews, and Signum University has featured it by shaping a whole class around it, but I want to reassert the sheer good quality of the text. The research depth and erudition are essential for a character like Tolkien, whose fans are exacting (as we will see in the response to the biopic–which will run from rueful distaste to downright offence). The book is filled with dozens of discovered facts, unearthed documents, newly made connections, and precious details from this formative period in Tolkien’s life. In research, Garth sets the gold standard for historiography–and there are, frankly, a lot of great WWI books.

Beyond the great research and the careful historical eye, Garth has created a book that eminently readable. Really, this book is just lovely to read. I miss sitting in a comfortable chair with pencil in hand, but even in the audio edition the lyric facility of Garth’s text beautifully matches the poetic voice that Tolkien is developing in his teens and early twenties. Garth’s prose has gravitas, and yet is light and accessible. If it were fiction, the narrative arc might be more compelling and certainly more tightly connected to thematic points. But even there, the characters are richly drawn when set against the muddy terror of WWI.

John Garth has done other things, including thinking about the “wager” that began Tolkien and Lewis’ public writing career, and a really nice piece about the TCBS, the “immortal four.” His work continues, and I can only hope that he was somehow behind this film–either in consultation or in having his book as a source for research.

Will the film work? I don’t know. The trailer, below, looks okay. Strong production does not make for a well-researched biography, but I do like a well-made film. What the teaser suggested and what this new trailer confirms for me, is that the film is largely about Tolkien’s imaginative formation in the context of friendship (the TCBS), war, and love. I’m open to this kind of story, and the cast looks compelling as a magicized version of real people–though I’m not sure they can pull of the interweaving of fantasy and nonfiction well.

We’ll have to see. If you are hungry for more Tolkien posts, see my collection here. I’ve attached a trailer, as well as a short doc called “Tolkien’s Great War,” which is well done. You can see my review of a Tolkien fan film, Tolkien’s Road, here.

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C.S. Lewis’ Book that Is Not a Book: Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer

I am writing an article for Touchstone Journal in Canada about C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm. In 1949, an American reader suggested his next book should be on prayer. Lewis declined, saying

“I don’t feel I could write a book on Prayer: I think it would be rather ‘cheek’ of my part” (9 Aug 1949 letter to Mary Van Deusen).

But something must have triggered Lewis in that letter. Lewis talked about the book in 1953 letters to Chad Walsh and St. Giovanni Calabria about problems of prayer he was thinking through. One of these problems he brought to a group of clergy in “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer,” and he ends this way:

“I come to you, reverend Fathers, for guidance. How am I to pray this very night?” (Christian Reflections, 151).

All of that activity in 1953, but the book never materialized. In early 1954, Lewis writes his religious friend and mentor, Sr. Penelope, admitting that he had to abandon the project because “it was clearly not for me” (15 Feb 1954 letter). In the decade that follows, though, Lewis became the famous Narnian author, a Cambridge professor, the author of his academic magnum opus and a dozen other books, a memoir writer, a lover, and a widower. It is a lot of life to live through, and as he was recovering from his loss of Joy, he returned to the topic to write a cheeky book on prayer, Letters to Malcolm.

In doing so, Lewis returned to the letter style of writing that worked so well for The Screwtape Letters. To get some of the technical side of what epistolary fiction looked like for Lewis, see Charles Huttar’s “The Screwtape Letters as Epistolary Fiction” in the Journal of Inklings Studies (2016). Not many people include Letters to Malcolm in Lewis’ fiction as the fictional veneer is, admittedly, pretty thin. I teach a class at The King’s College each winter on the fantasy and sf of C.S. Lewis, but we don’t include this book. I think most people read it as a peculiar and curious text about prayer—though I think it is really a work of speculative theology by a mature Christian thinker with prayer as the steadying thread throughout the narrative.

However, I think we move too quickly past the fiction. The entire book is a one-sided correspondence with a fictional friend—someone close enough that he can give advice to, and someone he cares enough to spar with, someone he “nearly came to blows” and that experience made their friendship stronger (92). “Nothing makes an absent friend so present as a disagreement” (3), Lewis writes, and a give-and-take, back-and-forth style continues throughout the book.

There is debate, but the friendly dialogue also allows for moments that personalize the book. Just as Lewis is tuning himself up for a big theological debate, the fictional Malcolm gets news that his son may have a life-threatening health diagnosis:

What froth and bubble my last letter must have seemed to you! I had hardly posted it when I got Betty’s card with the disquieting news about George-turning my jocular reference to his descendants into a stab (at least I suppose it did) and making our whole discussion on prayer seem to you, as it now does to me, utterly unreal. The distance between the abstract “Does God hear petitionary prayers?” and the concrete “Will He-can He-grant our prayers for George?” is apparently infinite (40).

And this is one of the strengths of the book: the personal connection with Malcolm—including dinner plans and train schedules—roots the discussion, so that there is an easy, organic movement between abstract questions and concrete concerns.

Perhaps the real-life friend is Owen Barfield, or an Inklings mesh-man, but the fictional encasement of the book goes further. Making Letters to Malcolm a fictional correspondence instead of a straight-on nonfiction approach is a really intriguing move.

For one, Lewis admits in the text, “I have never met a book on prayer which was much use” (62). Lewis is here thinking about his own intellectual class, so in some ways Letters to Malcolm is the bookend to A Pilgrim’s Regress—two thinly veiled fictions of Lewis’ thoughts written to a very specialized group of academics, writers, theologians, and public intellectuals.

But I think Lewis is also setting himself against books about prayer by specifically undercutting his own work.

“If I am right…” (34) Lewis says as one of several moments where he pulls back from the kind of assertive teaching that fills much of his Christian writing. The Lewis of Malcolm is not the didactic, pedantic, narrow-visioned absolutist, as Screwtape is. Lewis reminds Malcolm that his thinking is just a “guess” (60-61), that “I don’t at all know whether I’m right or not” (33), and consistently asks for ideas from the near-silent Malcolm. “Guesses,” are, Lewis admits of his speculation, “only guesses. If they are not true, something better will be” (124). While Lewis is limited in his understanding now,

“If I ever see more clearly I will speak more surely” (73).

I suppose this is intellectual and theological humility, but I think it is also a smart writing move that is tucked into the “fictional” aspect of the book. In this book on prayer, Lewis writes, “however badly needed a good book on prayer is, I shall never try to write it” (63). Is this not a book on prayer? We see this rhetorical device throughout:

I were preaching it in public, instead of feeding it back to the very man who taught it me (though he may by now find the lesson nearly unrecognisable?), I should have to pack it in ice, enclose it in barbed-wire reservations, and stick up warning notices in every direction” (91).

“If one said this in public one would have all the Freudians on one’s back” (34).

Lewis goes further, saying that “in a book it would need pages of qualification and insurance” (21)—but this is not a book, of course, so he’ll just leave the problem as it is. The sum total of the rhetorical effect is that Lewis is writing a book on prayer that is not, in his mind and hopefully in the mind of the readers, a book on prayer.

The importance is key, for

“in a book [on prayer] one would inevitably seem to be attempting, not discussion, but instruction. And for me to offer the world instruction about prayer would be impudence” (63).

It would be “cheeky” of him to write a book about prayer just as I would never write a blog post about prayer. This is the elegant irony of the whole epistolary project. He is being cheeky here in the way he presents the fiction, and this allows him to ask questions about humanity, society, God, time, work, sin, and the church in the context of a conversation about prayer–without having to speak dogmatically as he does in books like The Four Loves or much of Mere Christianity. He is playful in those books and in most of his fiction, flirting with speculative theology while trying to root himself to Christian orthodoxy. It is that rooted experimentation laced with humour and hopeful invitation that draws me to Lewis’ theological project.

The rhetorical device that says that “this book is not a book” reveals a kind of reluctance in Lewis’ public writing. We see this in the prefaces to The Problem of Pain and the early BBC talks. The Malcolm conversations about the puzzles of prayer, as a result of the fictional framing, create a deepened sense of reluctant contribution: “I have found no book that helps me,” Lewis admits, and goes further:

I have so little confidence in my own power to tackle them [i.e., difficult questions about prayer] that, if it were possible, I would let sleeping dogs lie. But the dogs are not sleeping. They are awake and snapping. We both bear the marks of their teeth. That being so, we had better share our bewilderments. By hiding them from each other we should not hide them from ourselves (57).

While some might balk at an author who undercuts his own book, I think this gives Malcolm a real-life feeling rooted not just in speculative ideas but in everyday experience. Rather than a book for payer from an expert, with a robust conscious and a healthy self-image Lewis is able to write,

I haven’t any language weak enough to depict the weakness of my spiritual life. If I weakened it enough it would cease to be language at all. As when you try to turn the gas-ring a little lower still, and it merely goes out (113).

While some find this off-putting and want to seek the experts on prayer and the saints who have trod many ways of devotional life, I admit in the article I am writing that prayer is a real struggle for me. I am pleased to enter this conversation with Lewis and Malcolm because, frankly, he is able to admit his weakness while still inviting deeper thinking and greater living. I find this combination is in many places in Letters to Malcolm, but this one works to close this post. Here Lewis links his own bereavement of Joy and Malcolm’s anxiety about losing his son to illness. It is here we see that sharing darkness has its own advantages to the bright ways lit by the experts:

I am, you see, a Job’s comforter. Far from lightening the dark valley where you now find yourself, I blacken it. And you know why. Your darkness has brought back my own. But on second thoughts I don’t regret what I have written. I think it is only in a shared darkness that you and I can really meet at present; shared with one another and, what matters most, with our Master. We are not on an untrodden path. Rather, on the main-road (44).

I think we should attend seriously, then, to what Lewis is doing when he writes a non-book book on prayer.

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8 Questions about the Problem of Susan Narnia Debate, or How to Read Well

Kat Coffin’s brief article last week on “The Problem of Susan” is the hottest post of 2019. “How do you Solve a Problem like Susan Pevensie?” has been discussed in the blog comments and in various forums, sometimes with a certain degree of heat and not a little frustration (I’m pleased with the discussion on this blog, though a friend said I sounded abrupt … I didn’t feel abrupt!). The post has received comments from leading Lewis scholars through to Lewis fans, from long-time readers and first-time commenters.

I have entered that conversation in small ways, but I was mostly curious about how it played out. I am working on a theory of reading based on C.S. Lewis’ own approaches that is meant to challenge current trends while also responding to the way we think about texts and authority today. Based on the comments, my challenge of contemporary theory will interest some, but won’t go far enough in challenging what seems like a lot of silliness and not a little impertinence among those who teach and write about books today–particularly in activist, university, and church circles.

Since that theoretical bun is still in the oven, and because I am still eyeballs-deep in editing my current project, a “spiritual theology” of C.S. Lewis, I wanted to respond in a longish but breezy note, laying out what I think are some of the key questions about how we approach a problem like Susan . These questions, I think, also cover other problems in reading, such as:

  • when Lewis introduces a Christian concept that readers find troubling or inviting (like questions of predestination, God and time, universalism, etc.);
  • when he plays with gender ideas that we find offensive or odd in light of the current age (such as his distinctions between sex and gender, his SciFi play-time with what gender can mean, his confirmation and bending of hierarchy, the ways he upsets or confirms tiresome sex-defined roles, etc.); and
  • when our culture is going to produce readers who simply cannot read the words of the past the same way (like Lewis’ rampant use of “gay” and “make love” in Narnia, or how an American reader simply cannot read “black man” or “black dwarf” and not bring in racial terms Lewis wouldn’t have had access to, or how the literary foundation of our education has changed and we no longer share the same stories behind the stories).

In my view, Lewis is a tremendously relevant writer because he gives us engaging stories, rooted so deeply in literary, classical, and biblical soil-beds that they have the potential to transform everything we see about life. I think Narnia is “radical” both in the old sense of rooted and the new sense of disturbing and revolutionary. Lewis, I believe, offers Christians who read his work a way out of their current cultural quagmire in a way that will deepen their faith and decrease the disrepute the Anglo-American church has brought upon itself in the world. But to see it we have to become better readers. These questions are tuned to this particular argument—the Problem of Susan—and to Narnia, but they can be adapted for any reading of a past writer.

  1. What is the Distinction between Sexism and Misogyny?

This will be a different question in other discussions, but I am amazed that no one stops to ask what we even mean by terms like “sexist,” “misogynist,” “egalitarian,” “hierarchy,” “democracy,” “feminist” and the like. Does “misogynist” mean “woman-hater” as the term presumes, or are we using it differently? Do critics of Lewis mean that he actually hates women, or that his text invites hatred toward women? We need to define what we mean if we want to mean anything.

What was curious to me was how many people in online forums responded to Kat’s post by saying “Lewis was not a misogynist.” Intriguingly, Kat was offering a feminist defence of Lewis, so it means these folk have been primed for a fight about this term. The term is used as a weapon, at times, for silencing authors who no longer fit in our dominant understanding of morality. But other sides can weaponize words too. How often is the word “feminist” used for male-bashing, hardline, tunnel-visioned radical readings? That’s about as true of feminism as reducing “evangelical” to money-hoarding, gay-hating, sex-obsessed, prejudice-troving troglodytes.

And beyond all this, the term “sexism” is worth thinking about. I would have defined sexism as “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against women” growing up, but the term has changed. We recognize anti-male or anti-boy sexism now, and we are much more in tune with the systematic sexism of our world—how the system seems bent against one sex or (more recently) the other. To say that Lewis is “sexist” under the old definition is not that surprising. He uses stereotyping frequently, and believed at times in certain gender roles. Future generations will say the same of us in ways that we can’t see now. It isn’t a very interesting term. But the emerging definition about ideology and worldview is worth talking about intelligently.

  1. How do Biography and Public Teaching Fit Together?

Good Lewis scholars work hard to integrate biography and public writings. When they do this well, they come up with different responses. Most male biographers don’t feel much need to bring up sexism or gender concerns, but women critics are really engaged in the question. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen argues that Lewis is a “man better than his theories,” who has theories about hierarchy and gender but treated women with equality and respect. Monika Hilder is pretty convincing in arguing that Lewis’ fiction is entirely about rethinking gender categories in a surprisingly subversive way that brings fresh air into the conversation.

There are not-great examples too. Kath Filmer is one of the most intelligent readers of Lewis I have read, but her method is terrible. She says that Lewis masks and mirrors his own fears and prejudices in his fiction. Intriguing idea. But she offers no biographical support to make her argument stand on evidence, and no other way to weigh her argument except her own assertion of the facts. On the opposite side, William Gray’s work shrinks Lewis across the decades, integrating biography and fiction to offer a psychological reading of a little boy looking for his lost mum. It’s a pretty weak result.

These imbalances in bio/writing integration show we need to be good, strong readers of Lewis. So if someone says, “passage A is clearly about X, Y, and Z,” we have ways of testing that claim outside of the reader’s own analysis.

  1. Is Lewis’ Theology of Gender “Merely Christian”?

This is a tough one. One of the most awkward passages in Mere Christianity—a classic now, and a book that has transformed thousands of lives—is his treatment of husband-wife roles in chapter 16. Lewis offers there a separation of legal (state) and religious (church) marriage that is certainly not a view held by all Christians in all times—Lewis’ definition of “mere Christianity.” What about his particularly reading of male headship in marriage? Is that the centre of the faith and the avoidance of side issues that Lewis desired for his project? And although he talks about “universal charity” in that chapter, he makes very non-universal statement, like his “foreign policy” role for men because women fight for their family against the world, but the “function of the husband is to see that this natural preference of hers is not given its head. He has the last word in order to protect other people from the intense family patriotism of the wife.” What local nonsense in a book meant to be a “ubique quod ab omnibus” teaching.

If Michael Ward is right about the medieval background to Narnia—and in that point he is on the mark—then we have to ask about how his restoration of specifically medieval hierarchy in Narnia and the SciFi books is meant to be universally Christian. Add to this his gender play in the Ransom Cycle and we have serious questions for Lewis about his “merely Christian” views of sex and gender.

  1. Did C.S. Lewis Grow in his Views?

In his most popular writings, Lewis is invested in this particular view of marriage with male as head and secretary of foreign policy, while women submit to their husbands and operate and the secretary for national defence. Lewis found hierarchy beautiful and worked that idea into his work. Some flavours in a recipe, though, are delicate: too much crème de menthe can ruin the whole batch. We are bound to ask about hierarchy, gender, and sex roles because Lewis talks about them everywhere.

But is there a change? In 1939-42 he can write,

“whether the male is, or is not, the superior sex, the masculine is certainly the superior gender” (A Preface to Paradise Lost).

He can talk in Mere Christianity about male headship in marriage, where equality cannot work. But by the time he is writing his memoir in 1960 about his relationship with a woman who loved and challenged him, he writes:

What was H.[Joy] not to me? She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me (A Grief Observed).

So when we say, “Lewis believed X,” we need to make sure that is something that hasn’t grown, deepened, lessened, or otherwise changed in him. His ideas of forgiveness deepen, and he seems to have been adapting his understanding of science and faith as the decades moved on. Before we pronounce judgement, we need to be clear.

  1. Have we Negotiated the Personal Heresy?

The Personal Heresy was a book Lewis co-wrote that argued that when we read, we cannot presume that we know the poet through the poetry. There are some limits to Lewis’ view. Virginia Woolf reminds us that the fact that we know so little of Shakespeare tells us a lot about Shakespeare. Yet, he must have been a funny person. He was well-read and bright, and must have bridged some degree of space between the aristocracy and the streets. Poems and novels are not complete masks of an author.

But neither are they always mirrors. Lewis reveals himself everywhere in his fiction, but should we read the smoking room, clubbable, academic sexism of Screwtape as Lewis’ own? Some have, and I think they completely misunderstand: Lewis uses sexism in The Screwtape Letters precisely to show the self-delusion of Screwtape. What about the gender roles in That Hideous Strength? or the complete reversal in Till We Have Faces? or the growth of characters in Narnia, so that Lucy moves from healer to warrior, and Jill becomes a brilliant scout? Are these Lewis’ own beliefs about restriction and liberation?

Maybe, but you better do some work to make sure you are misrepresenting the character’s point of view for the author’s.

  1. When Society Changes and Books Don’t, How Do We Prepare Readers for Troubling Aspects?

I think this is a discussion we have to have in culture. Lately, the ALSC has decided to dig up the bones of Laura Ingalls Wilder and posthumously burn her as a heretic. Leaving behind this whitewashing of the catastrophic European and North American treatment of indigenous peoples, and forgetting the Personal Heresy for a moment, what do we do when we are reading aloud to a child and there is something terrible on the page? As parents and educators, we are always negotiating this. I read Morte Darthur and Huckleberry Finn aloud to Nicolas when he was young, and in each book I moved past a couple of moments because of violence or words that I don’t feel comfortable saying.

There is violence and racism that past cultures have found normal or problematic enough to talk about—sometimes working as prophetic correction of our own ideas. But words like “gay,” “make love,” “queer,” “black,” “dark,” “white,” “hysterical,” and dozens of others have changed in forms. We can bemoan the verbicidal nature of our age and the way that activists like conservative Christians or anti-racists or feminists or Marxists transform these words. But the fact of word evolution remains.

So an open question remains about how we as teachers, parents, literary critics, uncles, aunts, grandparents, good neighbours, social media engagers, and good-book givers deal with texts when words have moved on. I strongly suggest that Jill Pole did not have sex with a bunch of giants in The Silver Chair, but kids giggle when that bit is read. The “black dwarf” of Narnia refers to beards, but that term cannot be read today in the same way when almost all black dwarfs are evil or rebellious in Narnia.

To read well means, for those of us inviting others to read, to do something in preparing readers. What is that something?

  1. What are Authentic Ways to Read a Text?

There is sometimes pushback on my blog because I continually use methods of reading that make readers of the great tradition of Western literature uncomfortable. In particular, on the Problem of Susan, I invited a feminist critic to say of Susan what I could have said, but I wanted her critical point of view and her experience as a woman to speak to the piece. This use of reading theory frustrates some of my readers.

I won’t defend my use of critical tools here. But I want to acknowledge their critique with what I think to be a verdant question: What are authentic ways to read Narnia (or any particular text)? I think there are inauthentic ways, methods of reading that grind against the texture of the text-world. I don’t believe that every reading is valid—though Lewis argued that the reader’s response is critical to how we talk about these things.

So I think that when someone offers, say, an Eastern Orthodox reading of Narnia, or a feminist critique, or a consideration of political values, it is worthwhile for them to talk about why this reading resonates with the text.

On the Problem of Susan, there really are questions that are open. When he finished The Last Battle, Nicolas (now 14, and a good reader) asked at the dinner table, “Is Susan Pevensie in hell?” I quipped back, “What? Because she missed a train? Some train!” But that child reader has intimated—with many children—something jarring in the text. So I’m glad we can talk about this, and I hope critics of Lewis don’t see Kat’s post as a sheer, naïve defence. I think it is a good reading, and I would take it further on that line.

  1. How do we Read Authors from Other Times and Places?

Why is this not an active question in culture and university? The presumption for Laura Ingalls Wilder is that if she said terrible things about native peoples, we just put her in a box and drop her off the wharf. L.M. Montgomery will be next: I can point out the passages but won’t. Virginia Woolf, the most important feminist of her generation, said terrible things about women in her fiction, has truly troubling passages about black and other colonial peoples, and didn’t like “feminism.” Is she the next light that should be extinguished by the smart folks of our day?

I’m not going to provide the full answer here for this point. I am very much engaged in a fight against racism and sexism. I teach about Canada’s (and the UK’s) terrible treatment of our aboriginal peoples here. Yes, it is bad in the US, but Canada’s policy to “kill the Indian to save the child” combined with Britain’s boarding school system to create childhood torture chambers for myriads of children. The church in Canada may never recover for what we have done, and I want us to recognize when authors of the past contribute to terrible, terrible things.

But I am very uncomfortable with how we are reading books from cultures that are not our own. How much abuse by colonialists, educators, anthropologists, activists, health workers, and missionaries has come about because we have treated people from other cultures as needing to be civilized—to be brought into the light of our own views? In reading people from other times and places, have we forgotten that hard-won lesson?

The current witch-hunt (and wizard-hunt) against distasteful authors of the past and in other places completely undercuts the liberal-progressive desire to transform our social space into a place of freedom and beauty. In this puritanical moment of social shame, it is a hypocrisy that might undercut our entire quest for justice and liberation.

So this question is essential to reading.

The Conclusion of the Matter

I don’t care at all for Laura Ingalls Wilder, or whether some people crucify Montgomery or stone Woolf in the streets. And if people want to read Narnia as a text of oppression, all the power to them. Or defend Lewis, believing that he should face no scrutiny or hard questions. Narnia has been joy for many millions and liberation for uncountable legions of readers young and old, and has created brilliant conversations of depth the world over. Whatever. Read away as you like.

But consider reading well, please. There really are bad feminist readings of Narnia, as there are bad Christian readings and hasty considerations of race, gender, and social formation in many of our great works. Attend to the text, use evidence to support your views, read in a diverse community that will say to you “here your vision is limited,” and communicate your findings well. There is the text, attend to it.

Some of Lewis’ own work is a distraction. I think the Susan treatment is both inelegant and inorganic to Narnia as a whole, breaking the “once a queen of Narnia, always a queen” principle in the text. But the magic of Narnia is much deeper than that moment. Likewise, his “foreign policy” approach to marriage has caused millions of Christians (and readers who tossed the book at this point) to miss what is his absolutely central perspective in Mere Christianity: “a thing will not really live unless it first dies.” That’s right there in the “Christian Marriage” chapter and would transform not only our own marriages, but our whole families, friendships, churches, neighbourhoods, and governments, if we could only see it.

I believe that Lewis invites a revolutionary perspective that challenges contemporary culture and offers a deep critique of Christians today. If we could only see it. My hope is that thinking about these eight questions will make us better readers so that we can see the vision Lewis has of what life is really about.

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