The House that Sharpe Built: “The Slip” by Mark Sampson

In some ways, it is all the fault of a lapel pin. That’s when it all began to fall apart for Dr. Philip Sharpe, Professor of philosophy at Canada’s most prestigious university and the author of a number of hit pop-intellectual books. It was the lapel pin that caused him to be distracted as he prepared to be a guest on a fiery CBC national affairs panel. The lapel pin caused a family fight, which caused him to be late, which led ultimately to the slip.

And it was the slip that matters.

His slip—really one of the only truly shocking things someone in a high-profile position could say these days—becomes an internet phenomenon, a hot point for campus-wide protest, and the centre of a national debate. Fortunately, though, Sharpe is entirely clueless about the impact because he has no idea that it has happened. He was seriously distracted during his TV performance and made an off-hand remark that he did not meant and did not remember. Sharpe is so bombastically pretentious that he thinks the public hullaballoo is about a slight philosophic error he made about applied law. Confident that the issue is overdrawn, he simply batch-deletes his facebook notifications, ignores his email, and fixes another one of his signature drinks.

This turns out to be a very bad idea.

The hole-in-the-bucket comedy of errors that led to this slip of gargantuan significance begins to rock every confident foundation that Philip Sharpe has relied upon in his breezy, quick-shot-to-the-top career. Puzzled and perpetually on the edge of being drunk, Sharpe scrambles as career, family, and friendships all slide sideways in the worst week of his life. He even loses his superhero talent of writing profound essays with absolute ease. At one point he finds himself in an empty house, drunk before noon as his students have boycotted his class, and staring at blinking cursor on a blank page.

As I noted in my review of his Sad Peninsula, Sampson is a novelist who is fairly comfortable with disintegration. As readers, we have no idea where this will go. Sampson writes the loser well, in this case creating a character in Philip Sharpe who is absolutely despicable.

Yet Sharpe is not without sympathy—and not just because he makes everything so very much worse by his own boyish self-delusion. Told in first-person over-confident jackass prose, Sharpe takes us back to the critical moments of “how I got to be the man I am today.” The result is a mental trip back to his roots in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, growing up in (what I take to be) a fictional version of a seedy Sydney Street pub. This anti-Anne of Green Gables storytelling actually draws the reader into some really nice moments about PEI—and some truths about what life is like for the orphans who don’t find Matthew and Marilla, and about life in the poorer parts of this quaint city.

As Sharpe narrows his accelerating orbit around the frightening reality of shedding his own well-worn self-delusion, he begins to discover that he is not so far as he imagined from the white trash home he fled as a star student bound for Toronto and Oxford. Developing a sense of space and moments of revelation in elegant ways, Sampson shows that Sharpe has truly built his Cabbagetown mansion upon the sand.

The Slip also makes true C.S. Lewis’ dictum that you can’t take all luggage on every journey. There are choices we make in life, and something won and lost at each bend in the road. The question, I suppose, is whether Sharpe will have anything left to win when he begins to recognize his right from his left.

Inappropriately crude and unapologetically Canadian, The Slip is going to be an alienating book to some. You don’t actually need to know much about Toronto to read this book: I’ve been enjoying books about Portland, London, Oxford, and San Francisco long before I ever found my feet on those streets. Perhaps more than the Canadianness or even the crudity is the curious way that Sampson draws together Sydney Street vulgarity with fairly intelligent conversations about philosophy, economics, religion, and society. Philip Sharpe’s favourite drink—a Bloody Joseph—is exactly the right metaphor for the book: there’s a generous squeeze of Heinz ketchup with the double shot of Irish whiskey. The journey from Sydney Street to Metcalfe Street is shorter than many people think, but few writers have been able to draw that dotted line on the map so well.

The Slip lacks the weighty, could-be-classic nature of Sad Peninsula. Yet I suspect that Sampson’s new novel will get more traction with readers. It is fast-paced, witty, smart, and plays to the Philip Sharpe lurking inside many of us.

Mark Sampson is Toronto novelist who grew up in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. He is launching The Slip (Dundurn Press) in Charlottetown on Thursday, Jun 28th, 6:30 at the Confederation Centre of the Arts. Joining Sampson in a double book launch is his wife, Rebecca Rosenblum, with her debut novel, So Much Love (McClelland & Stewart). Rosenblum has just been shortlisted for the $40,000 Foundation First Novel Prize, and is reviewing well.

And just a quick encouragement for you to read and review local authors. Though Sampson and Rosenblum are signed by strong Canadian firms, it is a big book world. Even a Goodreads recommendation or quick Facebook post can help emerging authors find their feet in the difficult economy of the author.

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Between Mars and Malacandra, Fantasy and Real Life (A Friday Feature Visit to the Vault)

This is a post from 5 years ago that I still quite like. What interested Lewis about planets as a literary backdrop was not their physical properties but their mythical properties—both how they worked in classical and medieval mythology, and how they can help shape the mythology of contemporary culture. In “There is No Such Thing as Space,” I had already written about how Lewis was trying to challenge popular beliefs about the human’s place in the universe by substituting the idea of “High Heavens” for “Outer Space.” While he did not deny the scientific realities of the universe, he did critique the stories that people told based upon new and evolving science. I find it an elegant subversion.

In 2011, the Mars rover Opportunity, after seven years on the red planet with twin rover Spirit, captured stunning pictures of the planet’s surface. We’ve had contact with Mars for some time now, and this panoramic view of the sandy valleys of our nearest planet should put to rest any images of “Martians” that have crept into our popular imagination through SciFi writers and Hollywood Blockbusters. Mars is now being catalogued and explored—probed, if you will—for its economic benefits and intellectual delights.

For C.S. Lewis, whose first fantasy novel was situated on Mars, this scientific exactitude is also a loss. For Lewis, it wasn’t the chemical composition of the Solar System that was most important, but its mythic role in the human imagination.

In Out of the Silent Planet, our hero, Dr. Ransom, is kidnapped while on a walk through the English countryside and smuggled to Mars. As a captive, Ransom’s initial impression of the foreign ecosystem of Mars is almost entirely negative:

“the bright, still, sparkling, unintelligible landscape – with needling shapes of pale green, thousands of feet high, with sheets of dazzling blue sodawater, and acres of rose-red soapsuds” (44-45)

The complete and utter newness of the landscape and the violent nature of his own state also tint Ransom’s first view of the sapient creatures of the brightly-coloured planet.

“There seemed to be some paler and slenderer plants than he had noticed before amongst the purple ones: he hardly attended to them, for his eyes were busy searching the ground – so obsessed was he with the reptile fears and insect fears of modern imagining.  It was the reflections of the new white objects in the water that sent his eyes back to them: long, streaky, white reflections motionless in the running water – four or five, no, to be precise, six of them.  He looked up.  Six white things were standing there.  Spindly and flimsy things, twice or three times the height of a man.  His first idea was that they were images of men, the work of savage artists; he had seen things like them in books of archaeology.  But what could they be made of, and how could they stand? – so crazily thin and elongated in the leg, so top-heavily pouted in the chest, such stalky, flexible-looking distortions of earthly bipeds… like something seen in one of those comic mirrors.  They were certainly not made of stone or metal, for now they seemed to sway a little as he watched; now with a shock that chased the blood from his cheeks he saw that they were alive, that they were moving, that they were coming at him.  He had a momentary, scared glimpse of their faces, thin and unnaturally long, with long, drooping noses and drooping mouths of half-spectral, half-idiotic solemnity.  Then he turned wildly to fly…” (45).

Ransom’s flight sets the tension of the story into full play. He escapes his captors—and the grotesque Martians he is so very afraid of—and flees into the wilderness. Away from pistols and aliens and the arrogant dreams of evil men, his view of Malacandra, as the locals called it, begins to change.

“As far as eye could reach he saw nothing but the stems of the great plants about him receding in the violet shade, and far overhead the multiple transparency of huge leaves filtering the sunshine to the solemn splendour of twilight in which he walked” (47).

Now, this is C.S. Lewis speaking, both as the narrator of the fictional universe of the book, but also Lewis the writer. In the Space Trilogy he gives extensive detail about landscapes and environments, all in his desire to capture the “atmosphere” of the story. Even in Narnia—much shorter, and tailored to children—he will disappear for a page or two into travel guide introductions of the scene. Much of Out of the Silent Planet is description of this extraterrestrial world, so I won’t detail all that Ransom experienced in Malacandra. But I will indulge in the moment where the beauty of the Malacandrian world begins to eclipse Ransom’s prejudices:

“He had one bad fright in the course of the morning, when, passing through a somewhat more open glade, he became aware first of a huge, yellow object, then of two, and then of an indefinite multitude coming towards him.  Before he could fly he found himself in the midst of a herd of enormous pale furry creatures more like giraffes than anything else he could think of, except that they could and did raise themselves on their hind legs and even progress several paces in that position.  They were slenderer, and very much higher, than giraffes, and were eating the leaves off the tops of the purple plants.  They saw him and stared at him with their big liquid eyes, snorting in basso profondissimo, but had apparently no hostile intentions.  Their appetite was voracious.  In five minutes they had mutilated the tops of a few hundred ‘trees’ and admitted a new flood of sunlight into the forest.  Then they passed on.

“This episode had an infinitely comforting effect on Ransom.  The planet was not, as he had begun to fear, lifeless except for sorns [the first creatures he met].  Here was a very presentable sort of animal, an animal which man could probably tame, and whose food man could possibly share.  If only it were possible to climb the ‘trees’!  He was staring about him with some idea of attempting this feat, when he noticed that the devastation wrought by the leaf-eating animals had opened a vista overhead beyond the plant tops to a collection of the same greenish-white objects which he had seen across the lake at their first landing.

“This time they were much closer.  They were enormously high, so that he had to throw back his head to see the top of them.  They were something like pylons in shape, but solid; irregular in height and grouped in an apparently haphazard and disorderly fashion.  Some ended in points that looked from where he stood as sharp as needles, while others, after narrowing towards the summit, expanded again into knobs or platforms that seemed to his terrestrial eyes ready to fall at any moment.  He noticed that the sides were rougher and more seamed with fissures than he had realized at first, and between two of them he saw a motionless line of twisting blue brightness – obviously a distant fall of water.  It was this which finally convinced him that the things, in spite of their improbable shape, were mountains; and with that discovery the mere oddity of the prospect was swallowed up in the fantastic sublime.  Here, he understood, was the full statement of that perpendicular theme which beast and plant and earth all played on Malacandra – here in this riot of rock, leaping and surging skyward like solid jets from some rock fountain, and hanging by their own lightness in the air, so shaped, so elongated, that all terrestrial mountains must ever after seem to him to be mountains lying on their sides. He felt a lift and lightening at the heart” (52-53).

Even the most scientifically incurious reader will notice the stark contrast between the haunting red deserts of Mars and the vibrant valleys of Malacandra. We know that there is no complex life on Mars, and that the barren landscape is not interrupted by purple-tinged ecosystems of flora and fauna sliced into the earth. So would it be fair to say that Lewis was wrong about Mars in his science fiction?

To ask if Lewis, or any science fiction writer of his generation, was mistaken about science is to ask the wrong question, I think. It’s true that not much was known of extraterrestrial planets in 1937 when he was writing, but I do not think that is precisely the point. While Lewis seemed to have some care in not stretching the reader’s credibility about inhabitability—he wouldn’t put a civilization on Pluto, for example (see a letter to Chad Walsh, Dec 18, 1945)—he was not trying to predict what Mars was like, or even what it could be like with an atmosphere analogous to Earth’s. On Dec 28, 1938, he wrote to Roger Lancelyn Green, noting that:

“The more astronomy we know the less likely it seems that other planets are inhabited: even Mars has practically no oxygen.”

Now, Lewis is aware of some general ideas of science. Malacandra has less gravity than Earth, so there is a perpendicular nature to the planet: the mountains and trees and hnau (sentient creatures) are all tall and out of balance to an Earthling’s eyes. Other aspects, like the use of solar rays for interplanetary flight, were mere inventions, a vehicle to cross millions of miles of space in a month or so–though in the 1960s other science fiction writers took this idea up again. C.S. Lewis was invested in creating plausible speculative worlds that had an internal consistency, but he never pretended that the physical basis of these worlds would stand the test of time. To two other writers he says,

“Obviously it was vague, because I’m no scientist and not interested in the purely technical side of it” (see “Unreal Estates” in Of Other Worlds, p. 87).

He goes on to call his science “pure mumbo jumbo, and perhaps meant primarily to convince me” (87). Lewis even admits, sheepishly I suppose, in a letter to Evelyn Underhill (Oct 29, 1938) that although he loved the idea, the luminosity which so encouraged Ransom on his space voyage would actually be deadly to humans.

What interested Lewis about planets as a literary backdrop was not their physical properties but their mythical properties—both how they worked in classical and medieval mythology, and how they can help shape the mythology of contemporary culture. In “There is No Such Thing as Space,” I write about how Lewis was trying to challenge popular beliefs about the human’s place in the universe by substituting the idea of “High Heavens” for “Outer Space.” While he did not deny the scientific realities of the universe, he did critique the stories that people told based upon new and evolving science.

This subversion of the founding narratives of Lewis’ contemporary culture was served by returning to medieval ideas about the planets. This idea is covered at length in Michael Ward’s The Narnia Code and Planet Narnia, but the idea is simply that the sun and moon and planets of our solar system had mythical properties—they were like characters in a story, heroes and heroines (and potentially villains) with personalities. We keep some of these characteristics in our calendar: March is Mars’ month; Saturday is Saturn’s day. But I think the storied reality has gotten lost.

For Lewis, though, the mythic realities of the stars of heaven was the main thing. I am not certain (as Ward is) that it was the primary shaping feature of Narnia, but it certainly shaped the literary landscape of the Ransom Trilogy. Malacandra (Mars), Perelandra (Venus), Thulcandra (Earth), Sulva (the Moon), and Arbol (the Sun) each play roles in the story that are meant to evoke for the reader something of their mythic properties.

Lewis was not alone in this kind of project. English classical composer Gustav Holst created a highly popular orchestral suite called “The Planets” (see the Mars movement Youtube clip below, capturing the theme that I suspect influenced the Star Wars Imperial March). Incidentally, there were seven movements, matching the seven celestial bodies in the Medieval solar system (and the seven books of Narnia, according to Ward). In a letter to his good friend Arthur Greeves on Boxing Day, 1945, he confessed that he was “deeply moved” by Holst’s work. A month later, Lewis wrote to Sr. Penelope, one of his spiritual mentors and literary friends, contrasting his own reinvention of the solar system with Holst’s. He commends the work, but says:

“his characters are rather different from mine, I think. Wasn’t his Mars brutal and ferocious?–in mine I tried to get the good element in the martial spirit, the discipline and freedom from anxiety. On Jupiter I am closer to him: but I think his is more ‘jovial’ in the modern sense of the word. The folk tune on which he bases it is not regal enough for my conception. But of course there is a general similarity because we’re both following the medieval astrologers. His is, anyway, a rich and marvellous work.”

Lewis’ poetry is celestially inspired, and he goes into detail about the planetary scheme in his literary criticism, such as in the essay “The Heavens” in The Discarded Image. I think it is possible that in Out of the Silent Planet Lewis initially made some attempt at scientific credibility—at least to convince himself—but in his second space book, he lets loose the sails of mythology and gets lost in the creative ecosystem that is Perelandra. Lewis’ task as a storyteller is bigger than scientific cohesion: he is reshaping cultural mythology. The medieval understanding of the solar system was the richest source he could find to retell Man’s story.

In a real sense, though, I believe that Lewis had to go to outer space—all the “real estate” of Earth had been explored, so he had to turn to “Unreal Estates.” He spoke about this specifically in his essay, “On Science Fiction”:

“It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or other stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand. As the area of know­ledge spreads, you need to go further afield: like a man moving his house further and further out into the country as the new building estates catch him up. Thus in Grimm’s Marchen, stories told by peasants in wooded country, you need only walk an hour’s journey into the next forest to find a home for your witch or ogre” (Of Other Worlds, p. 67-68).

Now that the forests are filled with housing developments and carefully categorized Betula papyrifera (what we used to call Paper Birches), the fantasy writer is left to unexplored worlds. To tell this kind of story, Lewis says,

“the pseudo-scientific apparatus is to be taken simply as a ‘machine’ in the sense which that word bore for the Neo-Classical critics. The most superficial appearance of plausibility – the merest sop to our critical intellect – will do. I am inclined to think that frankly supernatural methods are best. I took a hero once to Mars in a space-ship, but when I knew better I had angels convey him to Venus. Nor need the strange worlds, when we get there, be at all strictly tied to scientific probabilities. It is their wonder, or beauty, or suggestiveness that matters. When I myself put canals on Mars I believe I already knew that better telescopes had dissipated that old optical delusion. The point was that they were part of the Martian myth as it already existed in the common mind.”

Lewis’ social critique, specifically that Westerners have a weak cultural mythology, uses a methodology entirely suited to the task, namely a strong cultural mythology. It isn’t that Lewis would argue that housing developments were bad (though he hated the loss of wilderness to suburbia) or that Paper Birches have no scientific uses as Betula papyrifera. It is that forests are more than future housing plots: they are places of great mystery and wonder where the faerie world can instigate a reshaping of the destiny of humanity. And Betula papyrifera are more than their botanical designation: they can warm hands in late night conversations, or shade the wandering pilgrim, or be the paper (see the Latin name) for ancient poets to scratch out their lines. I think when you’ve walked hand in hand along the shoreline with someone who has stolen your heart you can never call that place “just a beach” ever again. It is true that sand and water are chemicals and minerals, but to say they are “just that” is the weak mythology of the scientific age.

So, with Lewis, we explore space, or find new worlds—not to escape our Homo sapien daily lives, but to teach us what it means to be human. No matter what we happen to find on Mars, for humans to be human—or hnau—it must also be Malacandra, just like it isn’t just Mars Rover 3.1624f, but “Opportunity.” After all, if these things don’t have deep cultural, human meaning, what are we exploring Mars for in the first place?

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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 and culturally appropriate food 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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