On Food Insecurity, Systems Mapping, Beren and Lúthien, and Other Obviously Connected Things (An Update)

I have had one of those unusual weeks where my research with the government of Prince Edward Island has taken over. I have been in Lean Six Sigma training, which is a fairly heavy duty process management system. Our team is there to support service organizations as they try to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources, but I’m personally there to see if we can apply this sort of process thinking to research and policy development. I am always sketching out process maps, thought-flow charts, timelines, brain maps, and all sorts of charts and graphs, so I’m the right kind of person to be in the room. Even still, the exercise has left me mentally tired.

For the last month or so I have also been part of a policy innovation test pilot, working with Deloitte and one of their design partners to see if we can redesign the way we make public policy. I’m pretty green in government policy work, but I am amazed at the talent and skill in the room (even in little ole PEI). Deloitte & Co. are studying us as we wrestle with new kinds of policy-making, including new techniques of idea visualization, design thinking, and applying the lessons of human anthropology and architecture to the formation of policy, programs, and law. I am, of course, reverse studying the room, seeing what I can learn from “the fancy consulting firm from the big city” and from my colleagues across the province. Halfway in it has already been an education.

Even the project we are working on to test out new skills has been quite intriguing. We are looking at food insecurity in Prince Edward Island. Someone who is food insecure is someone who is unable to get regular, stable access to proper nutrition because of lack of resource, knowledge, or skill. Canada and the United States are among the world’s most overfed nations–both in terms of access because of the proximity of farms and the degree of wealth, and also in terms of obesity. So why are we talking about food insecurity?

Our two nations–and particularly the US–have severe differences between the wealthy and the poor, and between the highly educated and the inadequately educated. The result is that we have pockets of people who have unstable and inadequate access to nutrition, including the homeless, the low-skilled working poor, the urban poor, undocumented immigrants, first-generation refugees, and under-supported people with intellectual and physical disabilities. The US, in particular, has clusters of racial minorities and post-farm white communities in the South with intense cultural and financial barriers to proper nutrition. Canada, in particular, has on-reserve, Northern, and urban indigenous peoples who have critical barriers to nutrition (and in some cases to clean drinking water).

This is a thing.

PEI Family FarmHere in Prince Edward Island, our need is less extreme but the potential for impact is greater. We are Canada’s poorest province, and in the second poorest region. We have severe seasonality, so although we are a farming and fishing province, the window for making that work for us is very brief. Moreover, our poverty is partly because we are still family farm and fishing boat connected: our world is facing both startling increases in food costs and the increasing inability of family food growers and gatherers to make a living. PEI is at the end of the food distribution chain, so our base cost is a little higher. And we are still recovering from the TV Dinner generation, from the habits of over-produced/under-nourishing processed foods. Are there things we can do to change PEI’s consumer culture and increase access to nutrition, while enhancing the connections between the dinner table and our land and sea? We think there is.

On top of these two amazing projects, I have also had a research project, a program management project, and a piece of legislation all come to a point. So that is why I have been very, very busy!

But, let’s look ahead. There are some neat things in the next few days and weeks for A Pilgrim in Narnia.

  • I have just completed Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s excellent resource, Reflecting the Eternal: Dante‘s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis. I will have an extensive review up on that in the next week or so.
  • I just finished reading Mark Sampson‘s hilarious, smart, and inappropriate novel, The Slip. Great premise, check it out. He is doing a book tour on the East Coast and I’ll give reader’s a brief review next week.
  • I just had one of the most amazing food experiences of my life last night! Even the heavens applauded and broke out in a grin. I’m thinking of doing my first (and probably last) food blog post.
  • As we hop, skip, and jump through the summer, I am going to use some of the Friday Feature columns to do a “From the Vault” mini-series, drawing out some of the forgotten hits (and unknown singles) of the past and replaying them for new and future readers.
  • I am still reading through Tolkien’s letters, and still finding something awesome on nearly every page. Have you got your copy yet? I will be doing some JRRT letter posts, and hope to get to my shiny new copy of The Tale of Beren and Lúthien and let you know how it goes.
  • Some of my partly written upcoming blog posts include:
    • Why Tolkien Thought Fake Languages Fail
    • The Mythogenic Principle
    • Beach Reads for Smart People
    • C.S. Lewis’ Other Literary Crush
    • 9 Essential Skills Readers will Get from Harry Potter (for back to school)
    • To Coin a Phrase: The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up
  • I have three deep dive reading projects this year:
    • I am narrowly focussed in my thesis-writing on Lewis letters and nonfiction work, so we’ll see what comes of that this summer. It will also mean rereading Sheldon VanAuken’s A Severe Mercy (in a nice audiobook version I’ve found).
    • This fall I am designing an online course to teach at The King’s College in New York on the Fantasy and Science Fiction of C.S. Lewis. So I will spend much of the autumn just inches from Lewis’ fiction.
    • I am also working on a lit theory review, so we’ll see how that go.
  • And I am partway through Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. I know, I know–I should have read this beautiful book a long time ago. But I’m not up with the new kids on the freshest books. What can I say about Rothfuss that others haven’t said? We’ll see. Or maybe I’ll have you all tell our readers what needs to be said.

Meanwhile, back to the desk and best wishes!

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Please Vote: “The Outlaw In My Lineage” by Nicolas Dickieson

Charles & Eliza Dickieson–Charles grew a beard to cover a scar on his chin from being truncheoned during the arrest

The other day I took my family for a walk around my land. It is just a handful of acres now, a field farmed for soybean or alfalfa. It once was part of a much larger 100-acre plot that was the outline of the family farm that formed the basis of Prince Edward Island culture before Canada was a gleam in our colonial parent’s eye. My family arrived in 1820, surviving a poor winter passage that saw land titles lost at sea. The result was that my ancestors had to lease poor quality land from non-resident landowners, never having the security to the call the land their own. They built houses and cleared land, developing roads and spaces for high-yield crops in our deep red soil. But if they missed a lease payment, it could all be lost.

Part of my family legend is my great-great-grandfather’s role in the “land question” in PEI. Like the fight in Ireland, Prince Edward Islanders engaged in a number of populist protests and political pressures to get the right to own the land. We take this right for granted, now, but in the moment of Canada’s birth–more than 40 years after my family began farming their land–we still couldn’t purchase the land we had turned from scrubby forest to farm, home, church, and community.

The Charles and Eliza Dickieson Homestead

Nicolas decided to tell the story of our ancestor’s actions that landed him in jail for 6 months in 1865. There is a family debate about how true the charges were, but Nicolas showed me the affidavit and other legal papers he found in the archive. He interviewed family members, historians, and PEI’s lead archivist. When he became a finalist at our provincial heritage fair, he was invited to submit a video about his project for a chance to be a delegate to a national conference in Ottawa (our capital–it’s not Toronto as most suppose!).

Charles and Eliza’s Family, including his son, whom I’m named after

I could not believe how long he spent writing, filming, and editing this video! Hours he spent, hunched over a laptop. I held the camera and helped filled out paperwork. His mother offered editorial support and hot chocolate. But the video is his own.

So, please consider voting for Nicolas’ project right now! Click on the link below. You can give one vote for each email address.

Nicolas’ Heritage Fair Video on “The Outlaw in My Lineage”

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20 Years to 8 Children in Narnia with Author Jared Lobdell

I encountered Jared Lobdell’s work because he was one of the few critics to make C.S. Lewis’ WWII-era science fiction–what I call the Ransom Cycle–a study of its own. His 2004 book,  The Scientifiction Novels of C.S. Lewis: Space and Time in the Ransom Stories, takes seriously Lewis’ literary context and looks intertextually at the Ransom Cycle in terms of genre and the books that shaped its form and content. Scientifiction Novels was interesting in that it tried to treat Lewis’ incomplete novel “The Dark Tower” as an integral part of the Ransom universe, struggling to decide what that meant. I would differ with Lobdell on the directions he sometimes took–and am wary about completing the novel (as he attempts to outline)–but it is an appreciative effort. 

Jared Lobdell has more work out and on the way. Here he describes a little bit of the process of trying to get Eight Children in Narnia to print after nearly 20 years from brainchild to bookstore.


Along about the time of the C S Lewis Centenary in 1998, I had the idea of writing two books on C.S. Lewis’ fiction: one on the Ransom novels and one on the Narnian stories (actually the book on the Ransom stories started a little earlier). The Ransom book duly appeared in 2004 from McFarland. Reviews were sparse and I remember Joe Christopher found it very curious that I had not only included “The Dark Tower” (Walter Hooper’s title) but had provisionally re-titled it and suggested how it might have come out had Lewis finished it.

The Narnia volume was ready for publication in 2006 and in fact accepted by Open Court, which had published three of my books on Tolkien. But after accepting it, and paying me half the agreed-upon advance on royalties, they found themselves unable to publish it for ten years. I revised it from time to time, but the approach remained essentially in place. I wanted to look at the creation of a Victorian (or Edwardian) children’s story by an author with whom (and with his friends) I corresponded, and whom I had read for close to sixty years (now close to seventy), who was a coeval (and favorite) of my parents, whose every book I read, and whose birthday, by the way, I shared (along with Madeleine L’Engle and Louisa May Alcott). I never did make it to study under him at Oxford, but to me he was of my world.

My approach in Eight Children in Narnia is straightforward, fundamentally an overview, a book at a time (with looks at their different kinds), then a conclusion. If I trace the original vision of the faun with the umbrella hurrying home to tea to Debussy’s l‘Apres-midi d’un faun or the “valiant” Lucy of Narnia to the “valiant” Lucia da Narni in Shellabarger’s 1947 novel Prince of Foxes (but not the film, which omits her) or the first description of the Professor to a combination of two of the Council of Days in The Man Who Was Thursday, that is because reading and listening (and living) as much as possible within Lewis’s world, these seem to me virtually self-evident.

When I started reading Lewis, his most recent novel was That Hideous Strength. and I read that and its two predecessors while I was in grade school. My reactions to Lewis were, as the pavement artist says, “all my own work,” pretty much — a few of them he confirmed in correspondence, a few Owen Barfield confirmed in conversation and correspondence, a couple by Ronald Tolkien in correspondence. They could still be “wrong,” I suppose, but like Lewis himself (if we believe him), where I fail as a critic I may be useful as a specimen. There may still be one dinosaur left.


Jared Lobdell is an historian, economist, and literary critic, as well as a friend and correspondent of several of the Inklings. Besides Eight Children in Narnia, his most recent publications are his self-published Poems 1957-2002, an exceedingly slim volume, and Tax Revision By Commission in Pennsylvania 1889-1949, presumably of minimal interest to anyone reading this. Currently, he is putting together a volume of his essays and studies on the Inklings, with long essays on Nevill Coghill and Lord David Cecil, (and Canon Fox), and his essay pointing out Hugo Dyson’s Jewish parentage (born Henry Victor Dyson Tannenbaum). He has the concluding essay in Laughter in Middle-Earth.

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2017 Mythopoeic Awards Finalists and A Review of “The Chapel of the Thorn” by Charles Williams

The Mythopoeic Award shortlist is out (see here). I’m not often at the same table as the cool kids on the newest and hottest fantasy lit–I’m just now reading Patrick Rothfuss, and wondering what I have done with my life up ’til now. But I do watch the Inklings scholarship award pretty closely. While I’m not certain that every year they pick the absolutely top book of the year, a number of the award-winners have become definitive, including authors that we have mentioned here like Clyde Kilby, Walter Hooper, Kathryn Lindskoog, Humphrey Carpenter, Paul Ford, Tom Shippey, Peter Schakel, Joe Christopher, Christopher Tolkien, Doug Anderson, Goerge Sayer, Charles Huttar, David Downing, Verlyn Flieger, Michael Drout, John Garth, Janet Brennan Croft, Diana Glyer, Dimitra Fimi, Michael Ward, and Grevel Lindop, with his recent biography of Charles Williams.

Here are the finalist for this year’s Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies:

  • Lisa Coutras, Tolkien’s Theology of Beauty: Majesty, Splendor, and Transcendence in Middle Earth (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2016)
  • Sørina Higgins, ed. The Chapel of the Thorn by Charles Williams (Apocryphile Press, 2015)
  • Leslie Donovan, ed. Approaches to Teaching Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Other Works (Modern Language Association, 2015)
  • Christopher Tolkien, ed. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, together with Sellic Spell by J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 2014)
  • Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015)

I am pleased that I have read three of these books. I’ll give you a quick highlight of two of them, and reprint in revised form a review I did of a third. This third book, Sørina Higgins’ publication of a lost book by Charles Williams, confirms the Mythopoeic Awards’ commitment to Inklings studies (and not just Tolkien and friends), as well as their intention to support emerging scholars and archival work.


Tolkien and Beowulf

As part of a recovery of old books happening in culture, there is a desire to read what used to be canonical works. One of these is the text of Beowulf, the manuscript of which I had the chance to show my son last year. In the recovery of Beowulf among the authors that shaped the minds that shaped ours, a lot of people have been curious about Tolkien’s work on the Old English epic. In 1983, Christopher Tolkien published The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays, with Tolkien’s famous Beowulf essay and some other pieces. Michael Drout’s publication of the 2002 edited volume, Beowulf and the Critics, fills out this critical work.

It wasn’t until 2014 that most of us finally got to see Tolkien’s full translation of Beowulf. Tolkien’s son and editor, Christopher, provided that full text, as well as a lengthy series of notes and three other connected poems. Frequent readers of Beowulf will love to see a new version, and will be curious to see how Tolkien turned theory into translation. Readers who are relatively new to the poem won’t find it quite as readable as some more contemporary translations, but Tolkien’s prose translation retains both the central meaning as well as a textures of culture in the text.

As usual, Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work is superb. The notes include comment after comment that show the struggles J.R.R. Tolkien went through in order to set an appropriate text for translation, and then capture it in modern story form. We also get to see that C.S. Lewis played a role in the draft stages of the translation, once again shattering the false flag myth that Tolkien was impervious to influence (with thanks to Diana Glyer for helping us to think that through). The use of endnotes plus commentary makes for awkward reading in print form and in the ebook. I would have loved to see tri-panelled ebook, page-facing text and notes, or at least a footnote plus commentary approach. But that is about readability: as an artifact and Beowulf resource, this is a big, beefy, important book.

It also has a gorgeous cover design with a Tolkien dragon that will be my second tattoo … if I can ever decide on the first one.


The Zaleskis on the Inklings

This book came out of nowhere for me. Doubtless others knew that a couple of scholars in Britain were working on a significant response to Humphrey Carpenter’s Inklings that would become the gold standard for the next generation of readers. I, however, was clueless. So this book came as a gift.

Eminently readable and carefully researched, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams is a nice balance between strong biography and a resource for Inklings fans to read the works of their favourite author and his closest friends. It is also one of the closest reads of Owen Barfield’s life that I know of. In the way that John Garth filled in Tolkien’s wartime imaginative development, the Zaleskis gave me a better scope of Tolkien’s childhood, Barfield’s middle-aged development, and a core Williams framework for trying to re-imagine his life.

It is true that I did not gain a lot of new information from the C.S. Lewis sections–and I suspect that deep-dive scholars of individual Inklings might feel the same about their particular focus of study. But putting Lewis in conversation with the other three allowed me to flip some of my settled ideas and test them in a new context. I have not yet attempted a side-by-side reading of the Zaleski’s work with Lindop on Charles Williams, but I look forward to the attempt.

We owe Humphrey Carpenter a debt of gratitude for his work as a public intellectual and as a Tolkien and Inklings biographer. But he was very much a Tolkien-first man, and the other Inklings settle in around Tolkien in ways that don’t always strike me as accurate. This book at least offers an alternative view to augment Carpenter’s work and fill out our understanding of this timely group of literary icons.


sorina higgins chapel of the thorn charles williams

An Unpublished Poem by Charles Williams 

Charles Williams wrote The Chapel of the Thorn in 1912, though it was never published. Once thought lost, this Williams’ play has finally been brought to print by Inklings scholar Sørina Higgins. I had the opportunity of seeing this mportant and neglected Charles Williams dramatic poem move from archival space to finished book.

The original text is housed at the Wade Centre in Wheaton, IL. By a chance encounter I was working beside Higgins as she began to open up this century-old text with the hope of publishing it Head tilted forward as if in prayer, left hand hovering over a magnifying glass, Higgins worked with Williams’ neat handwriting. It was a manuscript complicated with age, his own edits, and the comments of his beta reader, Fred Page. Thus began the two-year process of transcribing, formatting, checking, editing, introducing, and producing The Chapel of the Thorn.

Anyone who has attempted Williams’ later poetry knows that there are challenges ahead. Even his supernatural pot-boilers—relatively popular in the day—can be a little obscure at times. It is true that in both the novels and the poetry, Williams’ characters are clear and the narrative arc is discernable. He can paint scenes with vividness and heighten expectation even for the tentative reader. Still, the gap between reader and writer often remains.

Charles Williams writingThe Chapel of the Thorn has none of that distance. For any reader who enjoys Shakespeare or Arthurian literature, Thorn is completely accessible. Written in formal iambic pentameter with even-handed archaisms, I was immediately drawn into the story of The Thorn.

The setting is a coastal village in late Roman Britain. The village sits on the historical crossroads between paganism and Christianity. The land is officially Christian, but there is a power struggle still at play between king and Church. The villagers attend the local Christian church, and the women are typically devout. The men, however, only pretend to Christian piety while they maintain their devotion to paganism, their love of the old druidic stories, and their practice of keeping sex slaves—mistresses who satisfy the male and are an economic trade unit in the village.

As the title suggests, the tension focusses around the little village chapel. It is the home of a sacred object, a thorn from the make-shift crown that attended the crucified Christ’s brow (or perhaps it is the entire crown itself). The village priest, Joachim, is the protector of the relic and seeks enjoyment of Christ in its contemplation. The villagers see it as a thing of power, but their main interest in the chapel is that it is the resting place of their ancient hero, who will one day rise again. Attendance to religious service, then, is a façade for some and mystical encounter for others.

old celtic cross mossThe tender balance of past and present, paganism and Christianity—held together by a silent truce of hypocrisy and doublespeak—is threatened when a nearby Abbot, a monk of tremendous secular and personal influence, comes to the village to remove the relic to a more accessible place of pilgrimage. While Abbot Innocent pretends to public interest alone, it is a power play at a far deeper level.

This unusual triangle fuels both the poetry and the plot. There are other storylines woven into this short play, and yet I never found that the stage was too crowded. The most slippery aspect of the play is the very thing that gives it enough interest to read a second time: what is the motivation of the characters? The Chapel of the Thorn begs at questions of authenticity and hypocrisy with well-drawn characters that pull us into their own storylines.

old stone church

Sørina Higgins has done a great service in bringing this text from the hallowed halls of the archives to our nearest bookstore. But she has done more than this. Added to her own critical introduction are essays by Grevol Lindop and David Llewellyn Dodds—really the two other scholars to have produced work on The Chapel of the Thorn. These three engaging thinkers tell us the history of the text, but also assess the poetry itself and link Thorn to  Williams’ other works. We see in Thorn, for example, the beginning of Williams’ interests in the hallows and Arthurian legend—interests that will be central themes in Williams’ popular novels and narrative poetry.

The result of Higgins’ work as editor and producer is a book that re-begins a delayed conversation, continuing a journey that was aborted long ago. In this way she extends the work of an archive, giving us all the chance that I have had: to sit with the manuscript before us, head tilted forward as if in prayer, our pencil hand hovering over a notepad as we try to discern the many layers of this almost lost Charles Williams treasure.

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The Deeper Meaning of “The Great Divorce” (Feature Friday)

It’s difficult to know why, but this post has remained among the most popular for the last few months. For the past few years I have been trying to encourage a recovery of The Great Divorce. It is a great work, and important one, and I am glad this post still gets some traction. This post was part of a 2014-15 series of original and guest posts on C.S. Lewis’ dream of last things. You might also be interested in this post that has a character chart and some photographs of the original newspaper version, or this post on Lewis’ difficulty in naming the book

Bible Code

This is dangerous territory–partly because some have trumbled into the “real” meaning of this or that book and caused an awful mess. When read this way the Bible most especially becomes secret code for everything from American foreign policy to the missing political allies of Atlantis to the reason why its words mean the exact opposite of what they say. That’s right, the picture to the right is about the hidden Roswell UFO links in the King James Bible.

C.S. Lewis is certainly not immune to being co-opted by this group or that. You know what I mean, I think. Moreover, Lewis warned us in the preface to The Great Divorce that we should avoid certain sorts of speculation when reading the book:

“I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course-or I intended it to have-a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.”

great divorceIn The Great Divorce, Lewis describes heaven and hell with vivid clarity: the great, apathetic, narcissistic, blandness of hell contrasted to the bright, sharp, penetrating beauty of heaven. Lewis wants here to avoid a school of thought that would blame him for redrawing the faint lines of historic teaching about the after-life. He only wants to go as far as Dante, telling a morally invested story with the artistry that he has.

But Dante really did redraw the lines of eschatology; he is influential even for those who have never read him. His cosmography of hell, purgatory, and heaven has stuck with us, shaping our cultural understanding, repainting every bit of our imagination from catechism classes all the way up to the works of the greatest modern artists. Perhaps Lewis is trying to have the reader keep the moral, and even the tang of heaven and hell, without accepting its landscape.

So why do I push in to what he has created, trying to discern meaning that he seems to resist? Besides the Dante Effect–the reality that art and culture shape culture and thought–there are two reasons.

Collected Letters vol 2

First, there is this little statement that Lewis makes in a letter to fellow poet Ruth Pitter. Pitter had said that there was something jarring or frightening or personally vivid about The Great Divorce. On July 6th, 1947, Lewis wrote back:

“I was rather frightened myself by the Great Divorce. — condemned out of my own mouth.”

There is something of The Great Divorce that tells the truth about C.S. Lewis’ understanding of the world. Without trying to bend Lewis, or find the super secret Bible code, that something that frightened Lewis is worth exploring.

Second, Lewis really is telling us something about his beliefs on what heaven and hell means. This is C.S. Lewis speaking in the preface:

“I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.” In that sense it will be true for those who have completed the journey (and for no others) to say that good is everything and Heaven everywhere.”

The Problem of Pain weeping CS Lewis

Lewis cautions against trying to live the heaven-in-all-good now, suggesting that if we do “we are likely to embrace the false and disastrous converse and fancy that everything is good and everywhere is Heaven” (Preface). Otherwise, though, he is saying something definite about heaven and hell. For Lewis, we are not to imagine heaven and hell as distinct, geographically specific domains.

In this way, Lewis is carrying on a conversation begun in The Problem of Pain. His chapter on hell captures the trilemma of hell: something seems to be wrong with the teaching of a good, loving God who puts sinners in an eternal hell for conscious, non-reforming punishment. After setting aside common objections to the doctrine of hell, he chips away at our understanding of time in the after-life. Finally, he hints at a solution of the trilemma on the issue of consciousness:

“[Hell] is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is ‘the darkness outside’, the outer rim where being fades away into nonentity” (“Hell”).

This was written about 5 years before The Great Divorce. Not quite a decade later, Lewis encapsulated some of his understanding of heaven in the final Narnian chronicle, The Last Battle (1956). There is a great deal to say about that complex little book, but two sets of characters show us something of Lewis’ eschatological imagination. In one scene, a group of Dwarfs sit in a tight circle, refusing to admit that they are in heaven. In another scene, a Calormene officer, Emeth, is invited into this Narnian heaven even though he had served as an enemy of Aslan. Aslan says, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash.” These two scenes show The Great Divorce idea of the continuity of earthly life into either heaven or hell, as well as the blurring of the regional boundaries.

clark lewis goes to heaven great divorceIt’s true that Lewis draws the picture in The Great Divorce a little differently than he does elsewhere. He resists George MacDonald‘s universalism–intriguingly by having MacDonald adjust his own views!–and affirms the essential difference between heaven and hell. But he does so in surprisingly unorthodox way. Here is one of those pictures, where George MacDonald, a spirit of heaven, is explaining why the saved cannot go into hell to rescue the damned:

“… a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see” (ch. 13).

These sorts of images have led some people to draw theological conclusions using C.S. Lewis’ work. David Clark argues in C.S. Lewis Goes to Heaven that people will get a chance to accept Christ, whether that is here on earth or in heaven. Clark argues that when we follow Lewis’ understanding of heaven and hell, we will discover that:

“Lewis removed this huge stumbling block to Christianity and vindicated both the justice and mercy of God” (see here).

rob bell love winsAnother author, and one with a far greater influence, is Rob Bell. Though often missed by reviewers, Bell’s work is shot through with Lewis’ influence. In Love Wins, that book that transformed millions of readers and set the stage for his exit left from the evangelical conversation, Bell argues exactly for the continuity that Lewis sets up in The Great Divorce. Heaven and hell are both experienced here on earth, and one’s decisions sets one in a heavenward or hell-ward direction. We can bring heaven into our earthbound reality, or we can sow hell into everyday life. While Bell isn’t very clear about what this means for the actual movement of the human being into the realms beyond, it is a powerful image as a spiritual truth. Bell leans on Lewis for this road map.

Still, as we think about heaven and hell, we remember Lewis’ caution. Is this arousing “factual curiosity about the details of the after-world?” I have to admit that as he poignantly captures the landscapes of heaven and hell in imagination, I’m tempted to believe that his landscape hints at something factual. And it may be that Lewis offers something to Christian thinking about choice, salvation, and the after-life.

cs lewis the great divorce 1st edBut I don’t think that’s the deepest meaning of The Great Divorce–as much as I like a good controversy. Through this speculative fantasy, Lewis captures the truth of the human condition–the truth of his human condition. Most of us are not murderers or rapists or dictators, yet we play with evil within the subtle inclinations of our hearts. We do this not to evil men or even to strangers. Instead, we rage against or manipulate the ones we claim to love. I rage against and manipulate the ones I love. In this I am sowing hell on earth, bending myself toward self–that is, bending myself toward damnation.

Each of our choices here on earth invests us further into heavenliness or hellishness. In this way, The Great Divorce is not really about heaven or hell and the afterlife, but about whether or not Galatians 2:20 is true in this life:

I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. So the life that I now live, I live in faith in the son of God who loves me and gave up his life for me.

What is the deeper meaning in The Great Divorce? It is, I think, the thing that shocked Lewis so much. On the great stage of this heavenly dream vision, Lewis saw his own sin and selfishness played out, scene after scene. While as readers we can close ourselves off to its message, Lewis could not. It stripped bare his willful blindness, and this is what he was left with:

“One  dreadful  glance  over  my shoulder I essayed-not long enough to see (or did I see?) the rim of the sunrise that shoots Time dead with golden arrows and puts to flight all phantasmal shapes.
“Screaming, I buried my face in the folds of my Teacher’s robe. ‘The morning! The morning!’ I cried, ‘I am caught by the morning and I am a ghost.’
“But it was too late. The light, like solid blocks, intolerable of edge and weight, came thundering upon my head. Next moment the folds of my Teacher’s garment were only the folds of the old ink-stained cloth on my study table which I had pulled down with me as I fell from my chair. The blocks of light were only the books which I had pulled off with it, falling about my head. I awoke in a cold room, hunched on the floor beside a black and empty grate, the clock striking three, and the siren howling overhead” (ch. 14).

What is the secret code of The Great Divorce? It’s the basic principle that it matters how we live, and whatever lies we tell ourselves in the dark will be set to flight in the truth of that last great sunrise. The deepest meaning about The Great Divorce is that it is about today, not about tomorrow.

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Five Words We Should Banish from our Vocabulary, Or Preventing Verbicide with C.S. Lewis

As a voracious reader and great lover of language, C.S. Lewis was concerned about “verbicide,” what he called the “murder of words.” As Lewis describes in Studies in Words (7-8), verbicide happens in a number of ways:

  • Inflation of a Word’s Value: “Inflation is one of the commonest; those who taught us to say awfully for ‘very’, tremendous for ‘great’, sadism for ‘cruelty’, and unthinkable for ‘undesirable’ were verbicides.”
  • Fake Superlatives: “Another way is verbiage, by which I here mean the use of a word as a promise to pay which is never going to be kept. The use of significant as if it were an absolute, and with no intention of ever telling us what the thing is significant of, is an example. So is diametrically when it is used merely to put opposite into the superlative.”
  • Politics and Advertising: “Men often commit verbicide because they want to snatch a word as a party banner, to appropriate its ‘selling quality’. Verbicide was committed when we exchanged Whig and Tory for Liberal and Conservative.”
  • Show vs. Tell: “But the greatest cause of verbicide is the fact that most people are obviously far more anxious to express their approval and disapproval of things than to describe them. Hence the tendency of words to become less descriptive and more evaluative; then to become evaluative, while still retaining some hint of the sort of goodness or badness implied; and to end up by being purely evaluative—useless synonyms for good or for bad. We shall see this happening to the word villain in a later chapter. Rotten, paradoxically has become so completely a synonym for ‘bad’ that we now have to say bad when we mean ‘rotten’.”

We can see here that Lewis has some similar concerns as George Orwell in his “Politics and the English Language.” Words can be politicized or bent into the service of those who are peddling products or ideas. 2016 was particularly ripe as it was a deeply divisive political year (Brexit, Trump, ISIS, etc.).

Beyond the capital-P politics of the moment, though, is the social reality of a culture that is running out of effective superlatives. I find myself saying “super duper interesting.” How have I come this far? “Fine” is a loaded term, and “very” doesn’t do what we need it to do. And when we need a word because it is so very relevant–like “Trumpery,” or “truth,” or “evidence,” or “third way”–we find that it has died too, or has been nefariously co-opted.

It is not just a verbicidal age, but we are verbicides: we are word-killing maniacs wandering around the digital library of culture with guns for tongues.

Lewis warns us that we cannot recover these words by simply returning to the past, though there are some authors who have a nice way of helping good readers recover words. Wait for someone to mispronounce an uncommon word, and you will find a good reader who is courageously trying out a word or phrase in real life, never having heard it said out loud before.

Instead, Lewis suggests that we “resolve that we ourselves will never commit verbicide” (Studies in Words, 8). When we see words going bad–he mentioned “adolescent” as synonymous with “bad” and “contemporary” as synonymous with “good”–he suggests that “we should banish them from our vocabulary” (Studies in Words, 8). In so banishing words under societal threat, the best of these words might finally die and find new life (as his two examples, which are now more technical words). I’m suggesting, then, five words that are either on death row or being hunted by the hangman’s dogs.

1. Literally

I don’t know when “seriously” came into my mind with a Sweet Valley High accent, but when I hear the word “literally,” I now add that mindless, Mean Girls SoCal pain-streaked whine. “Literally?” Literally.

I suspect that “seriously” was McKidnapped in hte mid-90s, but we have been killing “literally” for a very long time. In pop culture and politics, this word was decimated long ago, becoming a synonym for “actually” or just a mindless verbal tick. I’m hardly the first to notice this–see SlateThe Guardian, NPR, and Boston.com. They didn’t literally beat me to the punch, but they did so metaphorically.

But this word has been bastardized in a second way. Almost anyone who says these phrases–“I only read the Bible literally” or “We can’t take the Bible literally”–have no idea what they are talking about. Literally. Actually.

Note: the guys in the video stole my idea before I said it out loud. Those sensitive to crude language might want to quit after 60 seconds or so. And here is a guy great at Plinko and very bad at “literally.” Totally.

2. Unique

Some words are simply digital: they have an on/off relationship to language. While we might say, “she’s the chief mind in that organization,” we never say “she is the very chief mind….” Or we shouldn’t, because it is dumb.

Yet, as of late, I hear phrases like:

  • sort of an absolute decision
  • kind of the main thing
  • that speech was utterly meaningless
  • the car is very stationary

I suppose we could defend phrases like “nearly worthless” and “almost unanimous,” if we had to. But do we want to have a phrase like “sorta pregnant?” Pregnancy is digital, on/off, even if it sneaks up on you. Besides, how often do you want to go around asking women how pregnant they are? Bad plan. If you don’t know, you probably shouldn’t ask.

This is the case with “unique.” It is an incomparable adjective, and should be left alone as one. Something is either unique or in some degree of commonplace. Now we hear, “very unique,” “kind of unique,” and, I’m afraid, “literally unique.”

Actually, that last one could work if people knew how to use “literally.” Sort of absolutely I guess.

I don’t know if this garbled toungueship is related to a culture that finds meaning in phrases like, “there is no absolute truth” or “language is a system of signs for which there is no ultimate meaning.” Or maybe we are just lazy. Either way, let’s banish “unique” and try to describe what we mean instead of just telling it. We may get this one back some day, but in a bigly world like ours, it is a poor thing to hope for.

3. Allegory 

Okay, I admit it. I’m soapboxing here a little bit. I get tired of people using the word “allegory” for almost any literature with symbolic layers.

The most tiresome–but most understandable–accusation of allegory comes against The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but critics have said the same of The Lord of the Rings. Sauron’s Ring was suspected of being a secret representation of the nuclear bomb or the armies of Germany or the post-industrial technocracy that descended upon Europe. While Tolkien admitted that myth-making sometimes requires allegorical language (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 145), he disliked allegory and did not use it as a technique in LOTR.

Tolkien did use allegory in Leaf by Niggle, as Lewis used it in Pilgrim’s Regress. They knew how to use allegory, and knew where there were allegorical elements in their work. Lewis even wrote an academic treatise on the topic, and I argued in “Is Narnia an Allegory?” that he knew what he was talking about. We should consider listening to them.

However, people usually mean something a little different when they connect allegory to works like Narnia or LOTR–and more recently to Harry Potter, the works of Madeleine L’Engle and Ursula K. Le Guin, and, believe it or not, Margaret Atwood‘s Handmaid’s Tale, now in a miniseries. Sometimes they just mean that there is “something going on” in the text. Father Time and Aslan are obviously meaning-filled characters in Narnia. Harry Potter is a Christ figure, and Charles Wallace, well–something’s off with that weird little dude. Le Guin is a feminist tale-teller, and Atwood brings all the history of abuse against women into a single post-apocalyptic regime. There’s something going on here.

If people want to call those things allegory, there’s not much we can do. Both Tolkien and Lewis joked that anyone who wants to find allegory in a text is bound to find it. At best it’s a literary face at the bottom of the well; at worst, it’s ignorance.

But sometimes people really mean “that book is bad” when they say “that book is an allegory.” I know that seems like a stretch, but the logic is clear:

  1. I don’t like allegory.
  2. I don’t like Book X (Narnia, LOTR, fantasy, feminist books, books with lots of words).
  3. Therefore, Book X is an allegory.

Seriously, literally, I heard someone say, “Animal Farm can’t be allegory because I loved that book.” Okay folks, let’s commit to only using “allegory” if we have a clue what we are talking about.

And for a chuckle, check this out.

4. Almost Any Prefix or Suffice to “Truth”

Have you encountered a Truther lately? Usually, this refers to someone who passionately believes something despite public opinion or the most obvious evidence. Truthers are different than people who believe against evidence (e.g., that the Toronto Maple Leafs will ever win the Stanley Cup) or those who go against public opinion (e.g., those that believe that it is worth providing rural kids with a great education).

Truthers combine conspiracy with puzzling intellectual oddities. 9/11 Truthers were interesting, coming both as a government conspiracy and an anti-Bush phenomenon. There is something that connects anti-vaxers, birthers, the Obama-as-antichrist crowd, and the Sandy Hook conspiracy theorists. I don’t have any doubt they have a desire for the truth, but this truth isn’t related to the evidence that is in front of us.

These folks are different than those who peddle “truthiness.” The spin doctors of politicians and celebritities have done their work vivisecting the word “truth,” so that it is unclear that it has any meaning left. So we end up now in a world where President Trump on Sunday can rip the comments of the grieving Mayor of London radically out of context, and we can’t expect any accountability for a president willing to speak with such committed ignorance and carelessness. Why should we? We live in a post-truth world. What’s evidence, fact, or even common decency got to do with it when you have the most powerful opinion and 154,231 twitter fans?This moment has not been helped by the Truth o’ Meter folks. And, honestly, the death of truth has been sped along by the media calling every misstatement in the last election a “lie” when they are against a candidate and “untruth” when they are for them.

Since nuance is impossible–and since any culture watcher knows this all leads to some sort of catastrophe–I call for a ban on mistreating the word “truth.” No words like truthiness, truthicity, trutharama, truthopolis, truth-gate, post-truth, quasi-truth, truth o’ meter, truther, trutheses, truthpocalypse, or truthishness.  We’re going to need that word at some point. I suppose, though, I am a loser for expecting the truth.

Data

This one is quite dear to me, and we may not yet be at the point of needing complete banishment. We are certainly at a point where there is a hunger for data and statistics. I have contributed to this myself, posting blogging data (here and here) and my reading data (see 2016 here). In case someone accuses me of being a flip-flopper, I’ll admit that I love a flowchart, graph, or statistical chart as much as the next guy. So this one is a bit of a self-check, in case I too may be in danger of verbicide.

“Big data” has become a real factor in thinking about public policy, investment, higher education, and immigration reform. There are new reports daily about a million different questions, and I do my best to follow the trends as they pop up in government data, surveys, and other types of research. And I’m not alone: “data” was a 2016 buzzword on a number of lists.

Intriguingly, this is a trend that seems to run exactly counter to the post-truth/truthiness/truther deal. People want data to help them read the cultural moment, and to a certain degree data can be helpful. But I think there are three dangers.

  1. Danger the First: Data is Most Useful for Longterm Trends: As people clamour for data to new questions that pop up–such as what happens if DC goes bankrupt, Brazil’s economy globalizes, the UK leaves Europe, or 100,000 international students change their destination from the U.S. to other countries–they don’t always get that some of our questions just don’t have data that goes back very far. Reading data takes patience and the wisdom of time: if you don’t have these, you might as well just make things up. It is, after all, just the assertion of data that can get you put in a position of power.
  2. Danger the Second: Most People Misunderstand Data: This is particularly true of survey data. Why did the media (with exceptions) get the 2016 election and the Brexit vote wrong? Because they don’t understand how the numbers work. People should simply stop looking to data if they haven’t taken the time to understand it.
  3. Danger the Second: People Aren’t Data Points: This is the biggest danger. While data on Millennials tells us interesting things about a generation, strictly speaking no individual is a “Millennial”–the perfect example of the whole age. Trends are too big and people too individual for data to tell us what is happening in the human heart. I suspect that Brexit and the Trump election both come down to this single point: it felt to many that the liberal elite didn’t understand what everyday life is like for normal folk. It is pretty hard to predict what any one person does, even if we can make some guesses in the aggregate. And sometimes it is the individual that matters.

Those are my five words that we should set out to pasture. What words have you had enough of? Or what words do you wish you had back? Let me know in the comments, on Twitter @BrentonDana, or on Facebook.

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A Narnian Close Read: Friday Feature

A resource recently came to me from a homeschool mom. I am honestly not very connected to that kind of network, so I was pleased to bump into the “Close Reads Podcast,” hosted at the Circe Institute. Past books featured on the podcast include Wind in the Willows, Pride & Prejudice, and works by Flannery O’Connor, so I’m bound to be in sympathy.

This week’s podcast is called “Narnia Nostalgia,” featuring C.S. Lewis because The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had won some sort of poll of Great Books. Another Narnia podcast isn’t that exciting as they are seasoning the internet all over the world. But this one is quite smart.  They are very interested in putting Narnia in its medieval context, and then from that standpoint they consider some of the Christian principle and literary merits.

Even better than the Narnian bit, they spend the first half hour discussing what our posture as Christian readers should be. They discuss this question in light of Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism, and it makes for a good ad hoc discussion on some of the implications of that unusual and too-quickly-forgotten book.

You can find the podcast here, and have a great weekend!

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