My Paper, “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters,” Published in Mythlore

My Dear Friends, I am pleased to announce the publication of my paper “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters.” This paper is the close-reading analysis of the “The Unpublished Preface to C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.” Many readers will know–and others will discover to their delight and challenge–the 31 letters written from a senior demon to a junior tempter that C.S. Lewis published in The Guardian throughout 1941. I was able to uncover and publish a handwritten preface that C.S. Lewis wrote in July 1941 when his publisher, Geoffrey Bles, began pulling together for book publication. You can find that original publication in Notes & Queries, vol. 60, no. 2, 2013, pp. 296-298.

If someone picked up the Anglican weekly, The Guardian, looking for Christian encouragement, The Screwtape Letters begin in a shocking way:

I note what you say about guiding our patient’s reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naïf? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches.

Who is Screwtape? Who is Wormwood? Why is Wormwood being commended for encouraging connections with materials (atheists? naturalist? worldly people?) and rebuked using argument as a foundation for action? It is an extreme use of in medias res, “beginning in the middle.” I have looked in archives and read through the letters to the editor in The Guardian, and cannot confirm the legend. But rumour has it that one of the subscribers to The Guardian cancelled his subscription because The Screwtape Letters were “positively diabolical.” Well, yes. That’s precisely the point! Hence the need of an introduction to the letters, a preface.

And in doing so, Lewis followed the long tradition of epistolary fiction–novels written as letters, diary entries, records, and the like. It isn’t that Lewis wrote these Screwtapian letters; rather, as he says in the preface published in your copy of The Screwtape Letters:

“I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands.”

What is intriguing about the handwritten preface, is that Lewis makes a link between Screwtape and his Ransom book–Out of the Silent Planet from 1938 and Perelandra, which he was writing at this time. This is the first sentence of the “Ransom Preface,” as I call it:

“Nothing will induce me to reveal how my friend Dr. Ransom got hold of the script which is translated in the following pages.”

It is a pretty exciting discovery and one that I have spent years working on. After publishing the Ransom Preface in Notes & Queries in 2013, I travelled to Mythcon at Wheaton College in Norton, MA, to share my discovery and initial thoughts with the fantastic (in more ways than one!) community of myth-lovers and fantasy fans. In 2012, I presented my first academic paper on C.S. Lewis at the Lewis & Friends Colloquium at Taylor University (see more here). In 2016, I returned to Taylor with some further analysis, “When Screwtape Haunts in Eden: Testing the Possibilities of the Screwtape-Ransom Speculative Universe” (see more here and here). And most recently, I have teamed up to do some archival work with Charlie W. Starr–Lewis handwriting expert and the first person to note in print that a Ransom Preface even exists. Charlie and I did some work on what we think to be the “Archangel Fragment,” Lewis’ single attempt to answer Screwtape with letters of angelic advice. You should be able to see bits of our paper, “The Archangel Fragment and C.S. LEwis’s World-Building Project” here, but you can order a copy of on Amazon.

My newest paper, “A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters,” is the culmination of several years of doing analysis and then setting the project aside to rest. As my coming out ball was Mythcon, I am extremely pleased that my paper has been published in Mythcon’s peer-review journal, Mythlore. I have long admired Mythlore, which began as a high-end and creative society journal with the design sensibilities of a paste-and-print zine. Over the years, it has developed into one of the most pre-eminent journals in the field.

Here is the abstract of my paper:

A Cosmic Shift in The Screwtape Letters, by Brenton D.G. Dickieson

C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters rocketed him to fame during the second world war. Apart from a “toast” some years later, Lewis never added to his Screwtape letters. Most people read Screwtape’s dry, fragmented hellish speculative universe without much connection to the fictional worlds of his other novels. However, archival discoveries now reveal that Lewis made playful imaginative links that expand the scope of Screwtape’s speculative universe and link it to the world of the Ransom Trilogy, also called The Field of Arbol. By using unpublished and newly published manuscript evidence to supplement close readings of published texts, this paper reconsiders the extent of the Ransom fictional universe. Lewis’s imaginative experimentation with a broader speculative framework for the Field of Arbol has significance in several areas, including invented languages, angelology, the psychology of temptation, and the possible breadth of his myth-making project. This paper offers an experimental rereading of the Perelandra prologue as a sequel to The Screwtape Letters, cautiously testing the merits of a rereading based on archival research, and showing the advantages of considering Lewis’s WWII-era speculative fiction as a “Ransom Cycle”—a diverse, tentative, and experimental project of theological exploration and cultural criticism with cohesive themes and a coherent central vision.

Besides my family and church, who are everlong supports to me, I have a lot of people that I could thank. Those of you who are my teaching and research colleagues, who have connected to A Pilgrim in Narnia, and who are part of my digital scholarly community–you know who you are and that I am grateful for your help. Scholars who have read drafts or had conversations along the way include Crystal Hurd, Callum Beck, David C. Downing, Charlie Starr, Charles Huttar, Jonathan Himes, Dale Nelson, and William O’Flaherty, who has written C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell: A Companion and Study Guide to The Screwtape Letters. Joe Ricke has always been brilliant about giving me space to workshop my material, which I appreciate deeply. I am grateful to Walter Hooper for a chance to talk about the work in Oxford. A special thank you to Jennifer Rogers, who did some editing work in 2017 and 2018. Prominent praeternatural historian Richard Raiswell sat down with me to help me think about publication pathways and ways to approach the project–a meeting far more valuable than the grateful pint provided. Dr. Alana Vincent, my PhD supervisor, provided conversation along the way–including the advice to set this piece down for a couple of years as my thesis moved in a mother direction. And Sørina Higgins was particularly encouraging to me–first in the moments of discovery and early implications, and throughout the early stages of pulling this into a research project of value.

Thanks always to the professionals at the Bodleian Library in Oxford with its rich and interesting C.S. Lewis archive. Thank you to the Berg Collection at the New York City Public Library for access to the original manuscript of The Screwtape Letters. Thank you to Mary Robison and the folks at the Christoph Keller, Jr. Library at The General Theological Seminary in New York City for access to fragile original copies of The Guardian.

And, of course, to all the amazing folks at the Marion E. Wade Center, one of the most prominent Lewis archives in the world and home to the Ransom Preface. Laura Schmidt is ceaselessly helpful and extremely knowledgable, and generally recognized as an archival superhero across the land. Marjorie Lamp Mead, Crystal Downing, and David Downing, in their roles as directors at the Wade centre, have each taken specific opportunities to encourage and challenge me along the way. Similarly, as an editor for Seven at the Wade, Aaron Hill has been helpful in provoking my work along.

Finally, thanks to the entire Mythcon community and specifically Janet Brennan Croft, editor at Mythlore. For scholars of speculative and mythopoeic literature, the process of submission, review, and publication at Mythlore is quick, professional, and enjoyable–among the best I have encountered (though my experiences have been invariably good thus far). Janet is not only an engaging scholar in her own work, but has spent thousands of hours raising the quality of and increasing access to Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature. As a reader, fan, critic, and scholar, I am grateful for your work!

You can purchase Mythlore here, and the free open-access copy of this paper is available here. You can check my conversation with the guys at Pints with Jack podcast about the Ransom Preface here.

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The Anatomy of the Vampire Myth

Recently, we opened up the digital doors of Signum University. Our Folkloric Transformations class this semester is treating the theme of Vampires and Big Bad Wolves. The transformation of vampire folklore and superstition into folktales, novels, films and television, and popular culture gives us a huge library to browse through in the course. A colleague and I each took an opportunity to tackle some great topics that come out of our studies and teaching.

Dr. Maggie Parke, an expert on how texts work in the world, did a session on “Adaptations and Fandoms” (video included below). It was a very cool lecture and discussion time.

What I decided to do for my out-of-hours class session was to discuss “The Anatomy of the Vampire Myth.” Rather than give a lecture, I used a “whiteboard” approach–a classroom discussion with “Coggle” software, where collectively we made a mental map of various literary links between critical aspects of vampire stories. I am looking for the mythic realities within and behind and after the stories, the ways that vampire tales speak to us about our deepest truths. Wrapped into vampire lore are some mythic ideas that occur again and again–foundational stories about blood, sacrifice, love, life, and humanity.

In this “whiteboard” workshop session, we sketched out the “anatomy” of the vampire myth using concept mapping. The audience really showed up and created a great concept map. Here is a picture of that concept map that we created and the recorded video. I hope you can enjoy this session, and extend it out to your own teaching, writing, and great reading.

These open classes link to ideas in the Folkloric Transformations: Vampires & Big Bad Wolves course.

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Review of “C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview” by Michael L. Peterson

Note: This is a longer and more conversational version of a review that was published this week in Literature and Theology, which you can find here (free, open access). For those of you who would like a short, tight review, click the link. For those who want a double-lengthed, wandering, and more detailed and critical response, read on! My approach is not as a professional philosopher, but as someone who teaches with some frequency in worldview studies and has a popular grasp of philosophy and Christian thought.

C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview. By Michael L Peterson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020, 240pp. ISBN: 978-0190201111. Hardback, £19.99.

If we think about C.S. Lewis’ impact in the public mind, I believe there are five main areas:

  1. For select scholars, Lewis has a lasting genius as a literary historian (The Allegory of Love and his 16th-century literature volume, in particular) or as a feisty, readable, and engaging–though perhaps wrong–literary critic in A Preface to Paradise Lost and some other pieces.
  2. For tens of millions of fans, he is the Narnian.
  3. For millions of readers, mostly though not wholly appreciative, he is an apologist, the author of Mere Christianity–perhaps the most important popular-level apologetics text of history.
  4. Though many in this group have their experience mediated by pastors and teachers, there are many who appreciate Lewis as a popular theologian in works like The Screwtape LettersThe Four Loves, and Letters to Malcolm (but, unfortunately, not so much The Great Divorce, where I believe the good stuff is).
  5. C.S. Lewis is also very important today for saying inspirational things on social media, most of which he never said.

There are the Lewis devotees, I know, and some hardcore class SciFi fans who appreciate his Ransom Cycle. But these are the main categories where most readers find themselves.

Intriguingly, box #3, Christian apologetics, is a philosophical tradition with a long history–going back to the early feisty days when Christian thinkers were trying to distinguish themselves between a strong Greco-Roman Jewish philosophical tradition and the dominant Pagan worldview. Beyond some articles, C.S. Lewis ultimately wrote 3 volumes in that tradition:

I argue in my research that these books are better if we tilt our lens of reading them a bit, but they are read by most as apologetics books–and, I suspect, thus as philosophical texts. Lewis’ theodicy is quirky and incomplete in The Problem of Pain, but it is a theodicy–a defence of a providential God in a world that seems ill-designed and full of suffering. The apologetics aspect of Mere Christianity is primarily in the first half and really focussed only on a couple of arguments, but it has convinced many. And Miracles, Lewis’ most philosophical book and one tested and reforged in scholarly debate, has a philosophical air about it.

Yet, Lewis was not a trained philosopher in fluid, rigorous, weighty 20th-century tradition. He was a great debater with an exceptionally ardent and dynamic mind. Lewis received a first-class honours degree in philosophy at Oxford, and had tutored for a year his mentor’s stead before going to teach in English. He was unusually well-read, and for a good part of his life kept up a conversation with the dominant intellectual ideas that circulated around Oxford. But as a philosopher–even a popular one–Lewis rarely offers a systematic approach to a question. Perhaps only Miracles is close–and it does make a single epistemological clarification as well as a potential argument for the existence of God.

However, we must as the question that I begin my recent piece in Literature and Theology:

Can the philosophical statements scattered across the fiction and nonfiction of a non-specialist public intellectual be systematized into a coherent whole?

I have been curious about this question for awhile, and this is what American philosopher Michael L. Peterson attempts to do in his recent book C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview. I am not the only faithful reader of Lewis to doubt whether Lewis’ vast and diverse–but intentionally popular–project of Christian writing and speaking can be read as philosophically credible when looked at as a whole.

Peterson captures his project’s theoretical approach midway through the book:

“Our task … is to translate Lewis’s response using more contemporary categories and evaluate its effectiveness.” (111)

Ultimately, then, Peterson is taking Lewis’ philosophical statements diffused throughout lectures, essays, books of apologetics, and works of fiction. Then he aims to systematize them into a coherent philosophical whole, sometimes supplementing them with contemporary philosophical conversations and sometimes letting the arguments stand on their own. This is not a summary of Lewis’ work, but Peterson is attempting a work of “translation.” Though not perfect in its results, Peterson produces what I call in my piece a “primer on Lewis’ Christian philosophical thought that demonstrates” a consistency and comprehensiveness that some will find surprising.

Indeed, though I am a pretty capable and comprehensive reader of Lewis, I was impressed with Peterson’s systematization.

Peterson begins his philosophical study of this literary critic and novelist with a literary metaphor:

“Mind, morality, and longing for the transcendent were ‘inscriptions’ that Lewis sought for several decades to ‘interpret’ philosophically” (4).

Peterson argues that Lewis was a realist in his philosophical outlook, rooted in ancient thought and yet forward-looking in his perspective. Lewis was a searcher for a total explanation of existence and found it in what he called “mere Christianity”–what most Christians in most times and places believe most of the time–and what Peterson peculiarly calls “classical consensual orthodoxy” (79).

In approach to philosophical questions, Peterson uses the term “abduction” to describe the way that Lewis engaged his search for truth and meaning. This was a new term to me, and Peterson draws it from a century-old exploration of the philosophical project.

Abduction is “inference to the best explanation,” and gave Lewis the intellectual space to engage in a

“comparative reasoning process regarding the explanatory power of different worldviews in regard to several important phenomena” (16).

Peterson walks through Lewis’ philosophical development in young adulthood, showing the reasonable strengths of each successive move in his path: from atheism to “the New Look” to cosmic dualism to idealism and pantheism and ultimately to an intellectual theism that sets the stage for his conversion to Christianity. Though there are stronger lengthy approaches (i.e., Norbert Feinendegen’s “The Philosopher’s Progress,” David Downing’s The Reluctant Convert, and Joel Heck’s From Atheism to Christianity), I found Peterson’s concise treatment of Lewis’ move from 1916-1930 particularly helpful, providing brief philosophical assessments along the way. Peterson demonstrates that, for example, idealism is a stronger critical framework than materialism because it accounted for more of the “data”—philosophical and empirical—that the universe provides. While Peterson does not explain whether “abductive reasoning” is instinctive to Lewis or a scholarly discovery, it is a helpful description of how Lewis assessed truth claims.

Following introductory matters, Peterson uses Adam Barkman’s study of terms Lewis uses for “transcendent desire” to structure chapter three on “Joy and the Meaning of Life.” While this survey is helpful, the question of whether Lewis contributed to an apologetic “Argument from Desire” is the most interesting as Peterson. Because we are hungry, Lewis argues, we know not that we will be fed, but that we live in a universe that was designed for us to find food. Likewise, because we are spiritually hungry, the universe is such that this hunger can be satisfied. Peterson explores Lewis’ basic argument and the scholarly discussion about the question. These early chapters are frustrating to me as they avoid the question of how one access truth to discern meaning–the discussion of epistemology and hermeneutics could be great in a scholar like Lewis who plays with the question throughout his writing–but each of the individual questions is discussed well.

Chapters four and five turn to the question of what it means to be a “self” and the moral law, which includes a critical discussion of Lewis’ “Argument from Reason” for the existence of God. In each of these and subsequent discussions, Peterson emphasizes how Lewis is a realist who uses a middle-way approach. Lewis is, ultimately, a moral realist, a critical realist, a scientific realist, and a theological realist–an observation that is one of Peterson’s most important in the text.

Thus, with this approach to realism, Lewis retains an entrenched insistence on human and divine personhood. At the centre of the discussion are discussions of human nature and the Incarnation (chapter six) and human selfhood in relation to a trinitarian God in relation to God’s self. There are inelegant moments, such as an overly long section on Scripture and the Historical Jesus, and an incomplete thought about being made in the “image of Aslan.” However, there are helpful distinctions in this discussion, such as a clarification of unfallen human nature and Lewis’ exalted anthropology, and an understanding of Incarnation in conversation with Athanasius that made me realize how much of Lewis’ thought beyond the incarnation is shaped by the way Athanasius thought about it. In particular, Lewis’ emphasis on personhood highlights the relational understanding of sin and his metaphor of the “Great Dance” of the Trinity.

Considering how much weight has been given to “Lord, Lunatic, Liar” trilemma–that, logically speaking, Jesus can only be a conman, or gravely deceived about himself, or who he said he was–it isn’t surprising that Peterson commits a large section to the idea. Astonishingly, the bibliography on this section is several years behind, and I always remain disappointed in these discussions, though I cannot precisely say why. His discussion on the “Lord, Lunatic, Liar” trilemma is, however, clear and coherent.

Given Peterson’s specialization as a philosopher of science and a philosopher of religion with a focus on theodicy, it is not surprising that the chapters on “Pain, Suffering, and Death” (eight) and “Science, Scientism, and Evolution” (nine) are among the most straightforward, concise, and compelling. Fortunately, Peterson avoids popular rabbit trails in theodicy-making and Intelligent Design debates. The chapters on “Salvation and Persons Outside the Faith” (ten) and “Prayer and Providence” (eleven) are weaker but still helpful in two ways.

First, Peterson describes a spectrum of models of salvation, from universalism and pluralism on one side to exclusivism on the other. Mediating these positions is Lewis’ own approach that Peterson calls “inclusivism,” which holds that Christian faith has the most complete understanding of divine reality, but there is both truth in other faiths and honest seekers among the religions of the world. Though the semantics might be debated, the spectrum is helpful and Peterson’s careful defence of Lewis’ position shows “a picture of God who is infinitely just and infinitely loving, rejecting no person for lack of knowledge and desiring to give his own divine life to as many persons as possible” (149). A return at this point, however, to the deeply Christological centre of chapter 6 would clarify our understanding of the particularism within Lewis’ inclusivism.

Second, while the chapter on “Prayer and Providence” is interesting given the intellectual problems it involves, this study of Letters to Malcolm and other short texts lacks the weight of the rest of the volume and could be strengthened by situating it within Peterson’s definition of “worldviews.” Where does “praxis” fit in worldview studies? His argument that “Lewis sees honest, authentic relationship as the foundation—and the chief goal—of prayer” (151) is a clear and simple summary of the position. Lewis follows a Thomistic approach to argue that there is no essential contradiction between divine and human will, though Lewis admits that he can never answer the essential conflict between two important kinds of prayer: the “thy will be done” prayer and the persistent prayer of specific and deep need.

The most interesting section of the chapter on prayer is fundamental to the character of God:

“Our thinking about prayer inevitably rests on philosophical assumptions about God’s attributes and purposes in relation to human choice and action” (158).

In particular, Peterson offers his only substantial challenge to Lewis’ philosophical understanding on the subject of God and time. Lewis, who followed Boethius in understanding God as existing in an “unbounded Now,” is able to avoid mental befuddlements about prayer and God’s linear capacity to answer prayer, as well as the question of human freedom and divine knowledge. Peterson argues that “divine timelessness” is incompatible with the “divine dance” of the Trinity, discussed in ch. 7. The Godhead’s mutuality of love and response must be sequential, and in incarnation occurs in space and time, so God is thereby not timeless. The critique of Lewis is refreshing because Lewis is so seldom challenged “from within” as it were, except sometimes from Reformed perspectives. Moreover, one of my deepest concerns about the book is the lack of ultimate assessment of the systematic nature of Lewis’ philosophical models. So I’m glad that Peterson challenges Lewis on his idea of time and God’s character. Peterson concludes this section in a way that summarizes his approach:

“we are encountering here the fact that Lewis was not always systematic in constructing his worldview, leaving us to organize and prioritize its various elements. But his unsystematic approach does not cancel the need to identify the central elements of his worldview and present them as a coherent whole, a presentation that will fail with timelessness in the mix.” (160)

I agree that Lewis was not always–or even often–systematic, though I have always admired his generally logical mind. Honestly, I wished Peterson punched back more; the weakest part of the book is how few of these disagreements exist. However, I’m not certain that Peterson is right in his critique. Although Lewis is perhaps open to criticism at this point, it is not clear that Lewis is arguing that God does not experience time at all, but that with regard to creation, all time and space exists in a single experience—including God’s own creative activity, answers to prayer, special revelation, and incarnation. Lewis was not advocating “simple foreknowledge,” but limiting mental fallacies with regard to prayer and human freedom. I quote my conclusion in this matter from the published review:

“An analogy to the Athanasian concept of Incarnation is helpful, so that the timeless God takes time up into God’s self, rather than entering time.”

The text concludes with less power than its best bits. While Peterson falsely describes The Great Divorce as an allegory, his study of “Heaven, Hell, and the Trajectory of Finite Personality” in ch. 12 is helpful. In particular, the language of “trajectory” combined with the critical moment of theological self-confrontation in The Great Divorce is key to Lewis’ thought. Peterson’s confusion of genre also highlights an argumentative problem about his logic of using fantastic fiction to establish theological facticity—particularly since Lewis’ own preface warns again factual curiosity about the afterlife arising from the reading of his dream story.

I wish that Peterson had not missed some of the key texts in the field. For example, Peterson studies Lewis as a Christian realist but leaves out John G. Stackhouse‘s treatment of Lewis as a Christian realist (Making the Best of It). Likewise, Peterson considers Lewis’ idea of longing-Joy-Sehnsucht as central to his thought, but leaves out the foundational
analysis on the topic, Corbin Scott Carnell’s Bright Shadow of Reality. Pressing in, Peterson’s section on disordered love is precisely prefigured in Gilbert Meilaender’s 1978 study, The Taste for the Other—a philosophical study on C.S. Lewis that is puzzlingly absent from Peterson’s study. Peterson is correct about the prison of self-choice and ends his study in precisely the right focus to understand Lewis’ thought:

“The idea of a “false self” is found throughout Lewis’s writings, along with its corollary: that we must die to our false self in order to truly live” (171).

That he calls this escape “moving toward God” is telling of his own religious perspective, but his treatment of the logic of purgatory, heaven, and hell in Lewis’ thought is sound.

There are other less than perfect points, including a couple of examples where Peterson’s admirable brevity leads to reductive definitions, including “postmodernism” as a version of anti-realism” (5) and a definition of “total depravity” than not all Calvinists could support (97-8). Typically, though, he is on the whole generous and careful in examples.

However, one of my main critiques about definitions is one that is at the core of Peterson’s approach. I write in the review:

it remains puzzling to me in such a precise book that the definition of “worldview” is reduced to “a comprehensive and coherent set of beliefs about the deepest matters” (4), leaving out symbolic and praxeological elements

These elements of symbol and religious practice are critical to many in worldview studies, so it is strange Peterson simply doesn’t address them. Plus, Peterson decides without discussion the question of whether one’s worldview is presuppositional or consciously constructed–such a key question in the field. Even in Peterson’s own narrow definition and the way he chooses to approach the material, we are missing really key philosophical questions that I want answered, such as a survey of Lewis’ literary theory and the question of the degree to which we can access truth and meaning with relation to the meaningful world that Lewis claims exists (i.e., questions of epistemology and hermeneutics). Other Christian philosophical points, such as relations of the sexes (critical to human identity) and how God can be known (revelation), though covered in other approaches to the material may be lacking evidence for Peterson or may be deemed too large to cover briefly. Some of the leaner points are covered by other authors, such as the role of myth in Lewis’ worldview (see Charlie Starr’s newer study, The Faun’s Bookshelf), but no rationale for these excisions is given.

On the whole, however, C.S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview is a tight, sharp introduction to C.S. Lewis’ philosophical thought. It fits between a more systematic volume, like folks referenced above and the work of Adam Barkman, and individual studies like those of Victor Reppert, John G. Stackhouse, Michael D. Aeschliman, Gilbert Meilaender, and various collections edited by people like David J. Baggett, Gary R. Habermas, Jerry L. Walls, and Gregory Bassham—or, in opposition, studies like that of John Beversluis. For all its limitations–and in some senses, because of his narrow range of study–Peterson’s volume does what no other text does: it takes Lewis’ philosophical statements from across a diverse corpus and organizes them into a single, clearly articulated primer. As such, there are some key takeaways for me:

  • Peterson shows that Lewis is largely in the tradition of “mere Christianity”
  • Lewis’ thinking is remarkably consistent and coherent, though people who take up his arguments can often give them a full philosophical form
  • If I were to spend time re-assessing Lewis’ project of Christian thought, I would approach it from a different perspective, that of the thinkers that have framed his approach, in particular: Plato, St. Paul, Augustine, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, perhaps Julian of Norwich, and certainly Athanasius
  • I would want, then, to relate those approaches to the two elements that really “pop” in Peterson’s assessment of Lewis: the framework of “realism” and Lewis’ “middle-way” approach (I admit that the latter I have developed from Peterson, while he focusses more on various kinds of “realism”)

I think readers of Lewis with some facility for reading philosophy will find this book useful, but I suspect it will be far more helpful to Christian thinkers (and other-than-Christian thinkers with imagination) in their development of a coherent intellectual framework for their faith.

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Is L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea a Sequel or a Prequel?

Okay, I admit it: the title question is, at first blush, a little ridiculous.

In my article a couple of weeks ago, “Smiles and Laughs from Anne’s Marking Pile, a Quote from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea,” I talked about how L.M. Montgomery worked so hard to shape her second novel, Anne of Avonlea (1909). I enjoy this book. It is full of little anecdotes and cute stories, showing Montgomery’s strength as a short-story writer. Lovers of Anne will, I’m sure, be pleased just to get as much of her as they can.

I think most critics would admit, however, that it is not nearly as strong as most of the rest of the Anne series, from Anne of Green Gables in 1908 through the 1910s. My four-star rating is there because I simply quite enjoy reading the tale, and there are a few evocative moments of poetry and prose. But I admit that it sinks a bit beneath the pack–especially after the literary strength, imaginative power, and roaring success of Anne of Green Gables.

However, what if we flipped the frame a little bit? I think that sometimes readers set Anne of Green Gables down–which many receive as a heartwarming, inspirational classic–and then read Anne of Avonlea with a little shrug. It’s good, but it is no Anne of Green Gables, they say.

As a sequel, Anne of Avonlea really struggles to do what great sequels do: Bring us back into the fictional world and characters of the first book, but move the story forward into a new adventure.

Frankly, nothing really happens in Anne of Avonlea. Anne teaches well for a couple of years. The Green Gables household stretches and grows and adapts. There is an incident with a saucy parrot. A building is turned blue. An old maid discovers lost love, Diana leaves behind her Byronic hero for a pudgy farmer, Anne shrugs off love and expectation of marriage within her comfortable Avonlea, and many good spirits find their spiritual kin.

As a sequel, Anne of Avonlea is really a placeholder book–though one that Montgomery fans like a great deal.

Instead of setting aside Avonlea because of its weaknesses, however, I think we can turn them around as its strengths. Anne of the Island (1915) is Anne’s tale of going to university to complete her BA. During her college years, she creates a sisterly menagerie in an unusual old city home, including some lifelong friends. Anne finds closure with her orphaned past and begins a romance with her own not-terribly-Byronic hero, the tall, dark, and handsome Roy Gardner.

More than anything, perhaps, in Anne of the Island, our red-headed hero grows to adulthood and must, then, come to terms with who she wants to be in the world. Anne toys with a writing career using a story she sketched out in Anne of Avonlea. The first of the Avonlea gang of young adults falls to consumption–following a tension set up in Anne of Avonlea. Like Jane Eyre and the Story Girl, who entrall others though lacking traditional beauty, Anne captivates many young men, receiving I don’t know how many proposals for marriage. At least four, for certain. Anne excels academically, leaving open the question of whether being a homemaker or a smalltown schoolmarm are sufficient activities for this “B.A.”

And, without providing a spoiler, there is Gilbert.

The long-won friendship between Anne and Gilbert is one of the climaxes of Anne of Green Gables. At that point, teenage friendship is its own rewards, and healthy boy-girl friendships romp through Montgomery’s novels of the 1910s and 1920s. Growing up, though, complicates matters for everyone but Anne. Although everyone in Avonlea knows that Gilbert is in love with Anne, and although Anne cuts a fine young-adult figure in Anne of Avonlea–Anne, after all, wears her hair differently now that she is sixteen–Anne resists the growing-up nature of growing up. One of the climactic moments of Anne of Avonlea is that Anne must face in herself a crisis when her best friend, Diana Barry, will share the bosom of another for life.

Ultimately, then, the Anne-Gilbert relationship is only set on hold in Anne of Avonlea. Montgomery’s sequel ends with words that sound very much like a prequel:

For a moment Anne’s heart fluttered queerly and for the first time her eyes faltered under Gilbert’s gaze and a rosy flush stained the paleness of her face. It was as if a veil that had hung before her inner consciousness had been lifted, giving to her view a revelation of unsuspected feelings and realities. Perhaps, after all, romance did not come into one’s life with pomp and blare, like a gay knight riding down; perhaps it crept to one’s side like an old friend through quiet ways; perhaps it revealed itself in seeming prose, until some sudden shaft of illumination flung athwart its pages betrayed the rhythm and the music, perhaps . . . perhaps . . . love unfolded naturally out of a beautiful friendship, as a golden-hearted rose slipping from its green sheath.

Then the veil dropped again; but the Anne who walked up the dark lane was not quite the same Anne who had driven gaily down it the evening before. The page of girlhood had been turned, as by an unseen finger, and the page of womanhood was before her with all its charm and mystery, its pain and gladness.

Gilbert wisely said nothing more; but in his silence he read the history of the next four years in the light of Anne’s remembered blush. Four years of earnest, happy work . . . and then the guerdon of a useful knowledge gained and …

Actually, I don’t want to finish that line–just in case I am successful in making a case for this book for you, a new reader. For the lines that finish Anne of Avonlea play out the tensions of Anne of the Island and what comes after.

Thus, I think that Anne of Avonlea is better read as a prequel to Anne of the Island than as a sequel to Anne of Green Gables.

Now, if you follow my L.M. Montgomery WWI-era timeline, you’ll discover that although Anne of the Island (1915) completes a pre-married life trilogy of the period–Montgomery will add Anne of Windy Poplars in 1936, another teacherly book–it appears five and a half years after Anne of Avonlea. In the meantime, Montgomery has published Kilmeny of the Orchard (1910), the Story Girl/Golden Road couplet of episodic books (1911 & 1913), and a collection of Anne-related short stories, Chronicles of Avonlea (1912). She has also gotten married, moved to Ontario, and began a double life as a minister’s wife by day and an international celebrity author by night. Or perhaps it is the opposite–I can never be sure how secret identities work.

But my proposal should not be set aside for all that. As a prequel to Anne of the IslandAnne of Avonlea sets up the story beautifully. There are other ways that we can read Montgomery’s second novel. It works as a “Janus text”–a novel that looks both fore and aft. But I think that considering Avonlea as a prequel succeeds in moving it out of the quite significant shadow of Green Gables. In this new light, we see that it isn’t really true that almost nothing happens. For all that happens is happening as Anne moves to the critical moments of her early adult life in Anne of the Island.

Here is a little clip of “Anne & Gilbert,” the small-stage folk musical that has been playing in Prince Edward Island for a generation. This clip is a practice and from Ottawa at the National Art Centre–I couldn’t find a local version–but the play is great in that it shows the link between Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island that I propose here. Sadly, the big-stage Anne of Green Gables musical that has the world-record for longest-running musical did not run this year because of COVID-19.

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I Won the 2020 Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper!


This is good news! Over the weekend, it was announced that I am the recipient of the 2020 Elizabeth R.  Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper for my paper, “Making Friends with the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Popular Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams.” It isn’t the Avery Award, but for me, it’s the next best thing!

The L.M. Montgomery Institute’s Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper

For the last 27 years, the L.M. Montgomery Institute (LMMI) has encouraged researchers from around the world to share their work at its biennial conferences. These conferences have also become a welcoming place for new scholars from across disciplines. In 2018, to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary and to recognize the outstanding work of these voices, the LMMI created an award for outstanding paper by a student or an early career scholar (within three years of terminal degree completion).

Dr. Elizabeth R. Epperly is a leading L.M. Montgomery and Victorian literature scholar. She was critical to the founding of the L.M. Montgomery Institute, and continues to serve the scholarly community as a mentor and scholar. Her The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance (1992; 2014) is a foundational text, probably the first literary-critical monograph on Montgomery and essential to the development of the discipline of Montgomery studies. It is also beautifully written, which is not always true of works of literary criticism.

The winner of the Elizabeth R. Epperly Award will be recognized on the Vision Virtual Conference Space (on the Journal of L.M. Montgomery website) and will receive a certificate, expedited peer review of her/his paper for possible publication in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies, and complimentary full registration at the 2022 biennial conference. The winner’s name will also be engraved on a plaque to be placed in the LMMI space in Robertson Library.

Selection Process

A panel of four judges (Lesley Clement, Kate Scarth, Bonnie Tulloch, and Emily Woster), appointed by the LMMI Management Committee, received six very strong papers. representing a diverse range of disciplines, from six different counties (three continents).

Given the unique circumstances of 2020 and the cancellation of the onsite June conference, early career presenters were asked to submit papers prepared for journal publication, rather than for presentation at the conference as they would normally have done. The judges then decided which of the six papers best demonstrated “both thoughtful engagement with past Montgomery scholarship and an original, compelling argument.”

A Sampling of the Panel’s Comments

  • “This paper related to the theme of vision through its exploration of the significance of darkness and light in Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams. The author made a notable effort to engage with a substantial corpus of Montgomery scholarship and positioned the essay in dialogue with Elizabeth Epperly’s ideas in particular.”
  • “Beautifully written, scholarly informed reflection on Anne’s House of Dreams drawing on a tension central to Montgomery between darkness and light.”
  • “The argument flows nicely…asking pertinent and engaging questions along the way.”
  • “Beautifully argued, a unique reading of Anne’s House of Dreams with a nicely contextualized final argument/conclusions that invite comment and conversation going forward – just what an essay like this should do!”

Making Friends with the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Popular Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams

In this piece I was taking a few risks. In reading and rereading Anne’s House of Dreams, I began to discern a rather sophisticated approach to darkness and trouble. House of Dreams seems to me, of the Anne books, to have the most sophisticated mix of lovely and terrible moments, of light and darkness. And yet, Montgomery never seems to negate either the value of good, beautiful things or of the heart-rending difficult moments of suffering. Because Epperly’s Fragrance of Sweet-Grass is such an influential text, I wanted to dialogue with her thesis about Anne’s House of Dreams, where she argues that “all things harmonize” in this text. Her metaphor of “harmony” works well as a tool for analysis, but I wanted to trouble it a little bit. Can light and darkness ever really harmonize? Or is something going on in the core experiences of the characters and Montgomery’s consideration of how such pain and suffering can exist in a providential world? This paper is my attempt to consider that question. Here is the abstract of the draft that I submitted:

Abstract: Upon completing Anne’s House of Dreams in 1916, Montgomery recorded in her journal that she had never written “amid so much strain of mind and body” (193). Caught between the pressures of life, Montgomery admitted that WWI was “slowly killing” her (185)—a war bound up for Montgomery with the agony of the loss of her second son. What Elizabeth Epperly calls Montgomery’s “most unselfconsciously philosophic” novel (The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass 75), House of Dreams delves into painful issues of loss, suicide, bad marriages, ill-timed love, poverty, and the beautiful-terrible consequences of duty. The result is a complex and nuanced consideration of life faithfully lived as it excels in the “effects of light and shadow,” allowing for both “joy and sorrow” (Anne’s House of Dreams 84, 93). As a novel filled with biblical and poetic references to the nature of life, and as a story unwilling to look away from difficult themes, readers are left with the assurance that “Everything works together for good” (Anne’s House of Dreams 16; see Rom 8:28). In dialogue with Epperly’s treatment—both accepting the basic argument but interrogating the metaphor of “harmony” in order to generate new analysis—this paper considers Anne’s House of Dreams as a popular theodicy. “There’s something in the world amiss,” Anne admits, quoting Tennyson, but it is unclear whether it will be fully “unriddled by and by” (162). Instead, with Leslie, there is some beauty to “the struggle—and the crash—and the noise” of life (64). Montgomery offers a complex and conflicted defence of goodness, which is a lived theodicy where readers are invited to make friends with the darkness in order to see the light.

I have submitted the piece for peer-review in The Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies, and my hope is to complete a video presentation this fall. My free-access article “Rainbow Valley as Embodied Heaven: Initial Explorations into L.M. Montgomery’s Spirituality in Fiction” was recently published in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies, which you can read about here. I am also the host and founding producer of The MaudCast: The Podcast of the L.M. Montgomery Institute, and I hope there will be a new episode out soon.

My thanks to the organizers of the Epperly Award! As an emerging scholar, it is gratifying to know that people would commit so much time to providing support for the next generation of readers.

Reblogged from here:

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Signum University Folkloric Transformations Open Class on “The Anatomy of the Vampire Myth,” with Drs. Maggie Parke and Brenton Dickieson (Tues, Oct 13, 6pm Eastern)

Once again, we are opening up the digital doors of Signum University. Our Folkloric Transformations class this semester is treating the theme of Vampires and Big Bad Wolves. The transformation of vampire folklore and superstition into folktales, novels, films and television, and popular culture gives us a huge library to browse through in the course. Frankly, we can’t get it all done in our normal weekly class sessions.

So the preceptors, Dr. Maggie Parke and myself, have decided to have an out-of-hours class session and open it up to the wider world. My session is “The Anatomy of the Vampire Myth.” I am using a “whiteboard” approach, making mental maps and literary links between critical aspects of vampire stories, looking for the mythic links. Maggie’s class is on adaptation. Everything in vampire lore is a kind of adaptation, but her specialty will allow attendees to dive deep on box office adaptations and fan reactions.

Open Class: The Anatomy of the Vampire Myth, with Dr. Brenton Dickieson (Tues, Oct 13, 6pm Eastern)

The vampire tale is one of the stories that we study at Signum University as a “Folkloric Transformation”–a story that moves from folklore to folktale, into the stories of the West and the modern novel, and finally into adaptation and pop culture. Wrapped into vampire lore are some mythic ideas that occur again and again–foundational stories about blood, sacrifice, love, life, and humanity. In this “whiteboard” workshop session with Prof. Brenton Dickieson, we will attempt to sketch out the “anatomy” of the vampire myth using concept mapping. Audience participation is key, so bring your favourite vampire tales to this open class session.

Click here to register for this session.

About the Teacher

Besides teaching in the literature department at Signum University, Dr. Brenton Dickieson is Lecturer in Literature at The King’s College in New York City, Lecturer in Theology and Literature at Maritime Christian College in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Sessional Instructor in the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at the University of Prince Edward Island, and Instructor in Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, BC. He also does freelance speaking and writing and is the author of the popular Faith, Fiction, and Fantasy blog A Pilgrim In Narnia.

About Signum Open Classes

Signum University runs special classes as part of our mission to establish an open and globally accessible digital campus. These classes are linked to specific master’s courses but are open to everyone whether they are a Signum master’s student or not. The teaching is interactive and accessible, requiring no prior knowledge… only an active interest and intellectual curiosity!

Open Class: Adaptations and Fandoms, with Dr. Maggie Parke

Note, this great class is already complete. See the video below.

In this open class, Dr Maggie Parke will discuss something everyone has a strong opinion on ⁠– turning our favorite books into films (and games, tv shows, merchandise, theme parks…) ⁠– for better or for worse. She will walk us through the process, and discuss the industry engagement with the fans in the process of translating a textual work to a visual one, how that affects reception, engagement, and box office return.

About the Teacher

Maggie Parke earned her PhD in Film and Digital Media from Bangor University, Wales UK, with her specialty in the Creative Industries. She focused on the adaptation processes of event films and fan management, and her research included working on the sets of Twilight (2008), Captain America (2009), case studies of The Golden Compass, The Lord of the Rings, Eragon, Harry Potter, and The Dark is Rising. She also worked on the Academy Award shortlisted short, Love at First Sight (2010), as well conducted research at the game design company Turbine Inc., makers of The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) and DC Comic’s Infinite Crisis.

She currently works in both education and the film industry, developing projects, editing scripts, and consulting on fan management, while also lecturing at Signum University and CAPA University’s London campus. She also works with Universities Wales promoting and enabling International Education. She has been published in The Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds (2009), co-edited a book of Critical Essays on Twilight, published by McFarland (2011), writes for, has a chapter on ‘Utilising Fans in the Adaptation Process of The Lord of the Rings’ (2015) in Intellect Publishing’s Fan Phenomena series, and has written the forward and was interviewed about her work on Twilight in their Twilight edition (2016).

These open classes link to ideas in the Folkloric Transformations: Vampires & Big Bad Wolves course.

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Thesis Theater: Jens Hieber, “Negotiated Symbiosis: Power, Identity, and Community in the Works of Octavia E. Butler” (Oct 2nd, 7pm Eastern)

I am pleased to announce that Signum University MA student Jens Hieber will present his thesis “Negotiated Symbiosis: Power, Identity, and Community in the Works of Octavia E. Butler,” and respond to questions from the audience in an interactive Thesis Theater. The discussion will be facilitated by Jens’ thesis supervisor–me! I have confessed before that I am a fan of Butler’s work, including some of her tips on writing and thoughts about her vampire novel, Fledgling. Jens’ work is an important consideration of a key theme in Butler’s work–an author who was one of the very few women Black science fiction authors in the 80s, 90s, and 00s.

You can click here to register.

Thesis Abstract: “Negotiated Symbiosis: Power, Identity, and Community in the Works of Octavia E. Butler”

Octavia Butler continually explores different versions of symbiosis, ranging from mutualistic to parasitic. In this range of relationships, one side is clearly more human than the other, and through negotiating their survival and benefits, Butler emphasizes certain traits of humanity that force her characters to go beyond viewing themselves as only individuals and into an acceptance of hybridity. Through symbiosis, these relationships allow Butler to explore her self-professed interest in power dynamics, the fraught process of identity deconstruction and reconstruction, and concerted insistence on building hybridized community. By laying out these tendencies through one of Butler’s more well-studied stories “Bloodchild” and some less-explored works in “Amnesty” and Fledgling, my project seeks to illuminate how Butler uses negotiated symbiosis to give her characters shared power; construct fluid, cyborg identities; and build other-centered, hybridized community.

About the Presenter

Jens Hieber is a high school English teacher from Germany, working at an international school in Malaysia. His fascination with all things speculative fiction informs his studies, reading, teaching, and creative writing. Someday, he hopes to release his fiction upon the world. He lives on the island of Penang with his wife, two cats, and an assortment of tropical fish.

About Signum Thesis Theaters

Our graduate students write a thesis at the end of their degree program, exploring a topic of their choice. The Thesis Theatre is where they can present their thesis to the Signum community and wider public, enabling them to explain their research in detail, and respond to questions from the audience.

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“The Cosmic Preface,” Guest Skype Session on “Pints with Jack” about the Ransom-Screwtape Preface

I’m pleased to announce that I recently joined David Bates on the Pints with Jack podcast. I love doing this show–not just because I get to talk about great books, but because the hosts have managed to produce a great podcast. In a rushed age, Pints with Jack is luxuriously slow reading, taking an hour or so to review a chapter or two of Lewis’ writings. You can check them out on their website or on podcast apps everywhere, including Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

This time, I joined David for a “Skype Session”–a half-hour conversation where we go off script a little bit as we chat about the material. The topic this week was the “Cosmic Preface”–the handwritten archival discovery I was able to publish a few years back. This “Ransom Preface” shows a link that Lewis made in his mind between The Screwtape Letters and Dr. Ransom of the Space Trilogy. Together, they are what I call the Ransom Cycle (with the Dark Tower fragment). You can read more about my discovery here, and I hope you enjoy our conversation, and I hope it enriches your reading experience of Lewis’ WWII-era fiction. Below is the video of the Skype Session, as well as the PWJ podcast on the preface.

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Tolkien’s “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)” in Context: A Note on Books and Their Authors (#hobbitday)

I don’t know that there is any more famous J.R.R. Tolkien quote than his claim to, in fact, be a hobbit. It’s really quite a delightful statement and worth quoting more fully:

I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.

The only time I ever wore an ornamental waistcoat was when I was paid to do so (as an actor)–but you can hear more about Tolkien’s diamond waistcoat here. I would be terribly afraid to try most of the mushrooms that grow wild nearby. I can’t afford French cooking, and I like my food either hot or cold–not lukewarm–and stored safely in the refrigerator whenever possible. Though I am closer in size to a hobbit than Professor Tolkien and have characteristic rotundity and floppy hair. Though I do love green growing things, and have a good urban garden, I am not in fact, a hobbit.

But where is this sudden statement of hobbit self-identification coming from? And why was Tolkien talking about vegetables and waistcoats in the first place?

The fun of it is that Tolkien is, actually, responding to a personal research request. All through the letters that Humphrey Carpenter has published from the late 1950s, Tolkien found himself responding to fans who pushed him on the world in and behind the text of Lord of the Rings. Though Tolkien occasionally found it tiresome to correspond, he kept a number of these letters in draft or duplicate form. I think they allowed him space to clarify things like linguistics and philology, hobbit lore, and the many dancing threads of the legendarium, still hidden from the rest of the reading world.

This note on hobbitishness was to Deborah Webster on 25 Oct 1958. Webster, who would go on to write about Tolkien in society journals, wanted background facts about his life so she could get to know his work better. This happened before as well. In June of 1957. Caroline Everett wrote to Tolkien for biographical details to support her thesis research. This is a famous letter because in it Tolkien talks about “Leaf by Niggle“–a story so peculiar to his work because it is so autobiographical, not to mention being in the short story genre and an allegory. He generously shares the struggles he had in developing the Lord of the Rings over two decades. And he does supply some background biography, including schooling and his connection to the Inklings.

Famously, though, Tolkien begins the letter like this:

Though it is a great compliment, I am really rather sorry to find myself the subject of a thesis.

This is not mere humility, for he liked that his myth was getting some traction in the publishing world. His reluctance comes from his understanding of what literary critics do:

I do not feel inclined to go into biographical detail. I doubt its relevance to criticism.

For many of us, this might come as a shock. My whole literary critical project is about triangulating the life-story of the Inklings with their work and their contemporary culture. What would I do without biography? The Lord of the Rings is a Tolkienish book, and Tolkien was a Middle-earth man. How do I sever the two?

The knife that was purported to cut this Gordian knot appeared in this period. Prof. I.A. Richards led the Cambridge critics and the New Critics, passing out poems to students stripped of context and authorship beginning in the 1920s. This began a school of thinking about literature at the very space of the encounter between reader and text–a conversation that dominated the 20th century and still teases in the minds of readers today. With his literary theory text, The Personal Heresy, Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis was part of this new critical movement that distanced itself from biographical criticism. Was Tolkien adding to this school of readership?

While the Inklings as literary critics were part of the conversation, Tolkien did not think that texts needed to be anonymous or that there was no real author–though he valued anonymous works, especially that of Beowulf.

Instead, Tolkien went on to articulate what he thought (for him) was the connection between his work and his life.

I doubt its [a biography’s] relevance to criticism. Certainly in any form less than a complete biography, interior and exterior, which I alone could write, and which I do not intend to write. The chief biographical fact to me is the completion of The Lord of the Rings, which still astonishes me. A notorious beginner of enterprises and non-finisher, partly through lack of time, partly through lack of single-minded concentration, I still wonder how and why I managed to peg away at this thing year after year, often under real difficulties, and bring it to a conclusion. I suppose, because from the beginning it began to catch up in its narrative folds visions of most of the things that I have most loved or hated.

I think there is a kind of honest, humble–can I say hobbitish?–genius about this phrase. While books can extend out to all kinds of meanings, and while we may never know authors from their works in the way we know our friends and family, there is an authorial imprint left on most books. Tolkien’s intense care and scattered perfectionism shine through. As does the great expansiveness of his mind, his critical love of languages, his interest in geography and botany, and the fact that his work is a kind of biography of human mortality. Though I cannot know everything about Tolkien from his work, I could never believe that he wasn’t someone who delighted in humour.

And this is the critical thing: With due respect to the “Death of the Author” folks, I cannot read C.S. Lewis’ work and not believe that he was a funny person and well-read. Before I knew of Charles Williams‘ or Stephen King‘s darker sides, I felt it in the text. I cannot pick up Harry Potter and believe that J.K. Rowling was not someone who evinced a deepfelt motherly love and personal care for outsiders. As much as Ursula K. Le Guin tried to keep her feminism out of her fiction, it squeezed through finally in Earthsea to give us a sublime reading of how women and men find their voices.

There is something of the author left in the text. Kafka, who tried to erase himself as author, has left us something that is more Kafkaesque than any of the copies.

My hope in putting Tolkien’s doubts about biography and an author’s work in context will help us see how perceptive and instinctive is his sense of self in the text. I think he is not just a hobbit when it comes to food and green, growing things, but a hobbit in the way he understands books–that stories come with histories, that great tales have a certain pattern to them, and that all claims should be taken with a halfling’s self-contradicting innocent skepticism. Here is the entire letter to Deborah Webster with its hobbit self-identification in context, from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter:

Letter 213: From a letter to Deborah Webster 25 October 1958)

I do not like giving ‘facts’ about myself other than ‘dry’ ones (which anyway are quite as relevant to my books as any other more Juicy details). Not simply for personal reasons; but also because I object to the contemporary trend in criticism, with its excessive interest in the details of the lives of authors and artists. They only distract attention from an author’s works (if the works are in fact worthy of attention), and end, as one now often sees, in becoming the main interest. But only one’s guardian Angel, or indeed God Himself, could unravel the real relationship between personal facts and an author’s works. Not the author himself (though he knows more than any investigator), and certainly not so-called ‘psychologists’.

But, of course, there is a scale of significance in ‘facts’ of this sort. There are insignificant facts (those particularly dear to analysts and writers about writers): such as drunkenness, wife-beating, and suchlike disorders. I do not happen to be guilty of these particular sins. But if I were, I should not suppose that artistic work proceeded from the weaknesses that produced them, but from other and still uncorrupted regions of my being. Modern ‘researchers’ inform me that Beethoven cheated his publishers, and abominably ill-treated his nephew; but I do not believe that has anything to do with his music. Then there are more significant facts, which have some relation to an author’s works; though knowledge of them does not really explain the works, even if examined at length. For instance I dislike French, and prefer Spanish to Italian – but the relation of these facts to my taste in languages (which is obviously a large ingredient in The Lord of the Rings) would take a long time to unravel, and leave you liking (or disliking) the names and bits of language in my books, just as before. And there are a few basic facts, which however drily expressed, are really significant. For instance I was born in 1892 and lived for my early years in ‘the Shire’ in a pre-mechanical age. Or more important, I am a Christian (which can be deduced from my stories), and in fact a Roman Catholic. The latter ‘fact’ perhaps cannot be deduced; though one critic (by letter) asserted that the invocations of Elbereth, and the character of Galadriel as directly described (or through the words of Gimli and Sam) were clearly related to Catholic devotion to Mary. Another saw in waybread (lembas)= viaticum and the reference to its feeding the will (vol. III, p. 213) and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist. (That is: far greater things may colour the mind in dealing with the lesser things of a fairy-story.)

I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I love Wales (what is left of it, when mines, and the even more ghastly sea-side resons, have done their worst), and especially the Welsh language. But I have not in fact been in W. for a long time (except for crossing it on the way to Ireland). I go frequently to Ireland (Eire: Southern Ireland) being fond of it and of (most of) its people; but the Irish language I find wholly unattractive. I hope that is enough to go on with.

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Smiles and Laughs from Anne’s Marking Pile, a Quote from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea

Though fans of L.M. Montgomery will usually take whatever they can get from her, critics are not always satisfied by the Anne of Green Gables sequel, Anne of Avonlea (1909). Montgomery herself was not terribly satisfied, distressed that she was writing under the pressure of her publisher, L.C. Page. She wanted the story to come to her organically, rather than have her pen trained to the task. Publishing a bestseller like Anne of Green Gables must have been marvellously satisfying–both because of the energy of the book itself, but also because she had been writing to pay her way for nearly a decade and Anne of Green Gables was an exercise in artistic freedom. Montgomery’s journal captures her feelings about her early work with Anne of Green Gables, before it became big:

They took it [Anne #1] and asked me to write a sequel to it. The book may or may not sell well. I wrote it for love, not money–but very often such books are the most successful–just as everything in life that is born of true love is better than something constructed for mercenary ends (Selected Journals I, May 20, 1908, pp. 331).

10 days after Anne of Green Gables came out–Montgomery described it by quoting her lead character’s great phrase, “an epoch in my life”–she admitted that she was struggling with the sequel:

“I’m working at it but it will not be as good as Green Gables. It doesn’t come as easily. I have to force it (Selected Journals I, May 30, 1908, pp. 335-6).

You can see Montgomery’s Aug 3, 1908 journal entry, where she finishes the book and repeats the sentiment. After 9 months of writing, but with the prospect of revision ahead of her, Montgomery admits to falling prey to worry about her work, but that when writing, she very much enjoyed the process. This is a sentiment that Montgomery would repeat in her journal throughout her life.

It is true that Anne of Avonlea is not a “great” work, like Anne of Green Gables is. But I believe it is a good book. And as a teacher, it is a satisfying one, for Avonlea is Anne’s teaching tale. Anne became the Avonlea schoolhouse teacher for a couple of years after her certificate at Queen’s and before moving on to complete her degree (in Anne of the Island). The Green Gables sequel, then, is full of little anecdotes about teaching, as well as Montgomery’s philosophy of education–embedded in story form a decade since she had stepped up to a chalkboard herself. Having once read Anne of Avonlea in tandem with her three years of teaching diaries in the late 1890s, I enjoyed how much Montgomery drew from her own experience in shaping this more humble–but still satisfying–sequel. One of these anecdotes I record in my piece, “L.M. Montgomery’s Schoolmarm Visit to the Archibald MacKay Mansion.”

For the whimsey of the thing–and to tempt the teacherly readers amongst you to read or reread Anne of Avonlea–I’m going to include here some notes from chapter 11, “Facts and Fancies.” This is a letter that Anne writes to an old friend, Stella, about her students in Avonlea. You should know that St. Clair DonNELL is really Jake DONnell, and has promised to whip anyone who calls him the pretentious name, St. Clair. I presume that “carded rolls” are battons of cotton rolls, but I don’t know. They are flammable, in any case. And Paul Irving is Anne’s favourite student. She presumes him to be a genius in the making.

Avonlea is, after, a remarking little PEI town for developing genius.

“Teaching is really very interesting work,” wrote Anne to a Queen’s Academy chum. “Jane says she thinks it is monotonous but I don’t find it so. Something funny is almost sure to happen every day, and the children say such amusing things. Jane says she punishes her pupils when they make funny speeches, which is probably why she finds teaching monotonous. This afternoon little Jimmy Andrews was trying to spell ‘speckled’ and couldn’t manage it. ‘Well,’ he said finally, ‘I can’t spell it but I know what it means.’

“‘What?’ I asked.

“‘St. Clair Donnell’s face, miss.’

“St. Clair is certainly very much freckled, although I try to prevent the others from commenting on it . . . for I was freckled once and well do I remember it. But I don’t think St. Clair minds. It was because Jimmy called him ‘St. Clair’ that St. Clair pounded him on the way home from school. I heard of the pounding, but not officially, so I don’t think I’ll take any notice of it.

“Yesterday I was trying to teach Lottie Wright to do addition. I said, ‘If you had three candies in one hand and two in the other, how many would you have altogether?’ ‘A mouthful,’ said Lottie. And in the nature study class, when I asked them to give me a good reason why toads shouldn’t be killed, Benjie Sloane gravely answered, ‘Because it would rain the next day.’

“It’s so hard not to laugh, Stella. I have to save up all my amusement until I get home, and Marilla says it makes her nervous to hear wild shrieks of mirth proceeding from the east gable without any apparent cause. She says a man in Grafton went insane once and that was how it began.

“Did you know that Thomas a Becket was canonized as a SNAKE? Rose Bell says he was … also that William Tyndale WROTE the New Testament. Claude White says a ‘glacier’ is a man who puts in window frames!

“I think the most difficult thing in teaching, as well as the most interesting, is to get the children to tell you their real thoughts about things. One stormy day last week I gathered them around me at dinner hour and tried to get them to talk to me just as if I were one of themselves. I asked them to tell me the things they most wanted. Some of the answers were commonplace enough . . . dolls, ponies, and skates. Others were decidedly original. Hester Boulter wanted ‘to wear her Sunday dress every day and eat in the sitting room.’ Hannah Bell wanted ‘to be good without having to take any trouble about it.’ Marjory White, aged ten, wanted to be a WIDOW. Questioned why, she gravely said that if you weren’t married people called you an old maid, and if you were your husband bossed you; but if you were a widow there’d be no danger of either. The most remarkable wish was Sally Bell’s. She wanted a ‘honeymoon.’ I asked her if she knew what it was and she said she thought it was an extra nice kind of bicycle because her cousin in Montreal went on a honeymoon when he was married and he had always had the very latest in bicycles!

“Another day I asked them all to tell me the naughtiest thing they had ever done. I couldn’t get the older ones to do so, but the third class answered quite freely. Eliza Bell had ‘set fire to her aunt’s carded rolls.’ Asked if she meant to do it she said, ‘not altogether.’ She just tried a little end to see how it would burn and the whole bundle blazed up in a jiffy. Emerson Gillis had spent ten cents for candy when he should have put it in his missionary box. Annetta Bell’s worst crime was ‘eating some blueberries that grew in the graveyard.’ Willie White had ‘slid down the sheephouse roof a lot of times with his Sunday trousers on.’ ‘But I was punished for it ‘cause I had to wear patched pants to Sunday School all summer, and when you’re punished for a thing you don’t have to repent of it,’ declared Willie.

“I wish you could see some of their compositions . . . so much do I wish it that I’ll send you copies of some written recently. Last week I told the fourth class I wanted them to write me letters about anything they pleased, adding by way of suggestion that they might tell me of some place they had visited or some interesting thing or person they had seen. They were to write the letters on real note paper, seal them in an envelope, and address them to me, all without any assistance from other people. Last Friday morning I found a pile of letters on my desk and that evening I realized afresh that teaching has its pleasures as well as its pains. Those compositions would atone for much. Here is Ned Clay’s, address, spelling, and grammar as originally penned.

“‘Miss teacher ShiRley

Green gabels.

p.e. Island can


“‘Dear teacher I think I will write you a composition about birds. birds is very useful animals. my cat catches birds. His name is William but pa calls him tom. he is oll striped and he got one of his ears froz of last winter. only for that he would be a good-looking cat. My unkle has adopted a cat. it come to his house one day and woudent go away and unkle says it has forgot more than most people ever knowed. he lets it sleep on his rocking chare and my aunt says he thinks more of it than he does of his children. that is not right. we ought to be kind to cats and give them new milk but we ought not be better to them than to our children. this is oll I can think of so no more at present from

edward blake ClaY.’”

“St. Clair Donnell’s is, as usual, short and to the point. St. Clair never wastes words. I do not think he chose his subject or added the postscript out of malice aforethought. It is just that he has not a great deal of tact or imagination.”

“‘Dear Miss Shirley

“‘You told us to describe something strange we have seen. I will describe the Avonlea Hall. It has two doors, an inside one and an outside one. It has six windows and a chimney. It has two ends and two sides. It is painted blue. That is what makes it strange. It is built on the lower Carmody road. It is the third most important building in Avonlea. The others are the church and the blacksmith shop. They hold debating clubs and lectures in it and concerts.

“‘Yours truly,

“‘Jacob Donnell.

“‘P.S. The hall is a very bright blue.’”

“Annetta Bell’s letter was quite long, which surprised me, for writing essays is not Annetta’s forte, and hers are generally as brief as St. Clair’s. Annetta is a quiet little puss and a model of good behavior, but there isn’t a shadow of orginality in her. Here is her letter.—

“‘Dearest teacher,

“‘I think I will write you a letter to tell you how much I love you. I love you with my whole heart and soul and mind . . . with all there is of me to love . . . and I want to serve you for ever. It would be my highest privilege. That is why I try so hard to be good in school and learn my lessuns.

“‘You are so beautiful, my teacher. Your voice is like music and your eyes are like pansies when the dew is on them. You are like a tall stately queen. Your hair is like rippling gold. Anthony Pye says it is red, but you needn’t pay any attention to Anthony.

“‘I have only known you for a few months but I cannot realize that there was ever a time when I did not know you . . . when you had not come into my life to bless and hallow it. I will always look back to this year as the most wonderful in my life because it brought you to me. Besides, it’s the year we moved to Avonlea from Newbridge. My love for you has made my life very rich and it has kept me from much of harm and evil. I owe this all to you, my sweetest teacher.

“‘I shall never forget how sweet you looked the last time I saw you in that black dress with flowers in your hair. I shall see you like that for ever, even when we are both old and gray. You will always be young and fair to me, dearest teacher. I am thinking of you all the time. . . in the morning and at the noontide and at the twilight. I love you when you laugh and when you sigh . . . even when you look disdainful. I never saw you look cross though Anthony Pye says you always look so but I don’t wonder you look cross at him for he deserves it. I love you in every dress . . . you seem more adorable in each new dress than the last.

“‘Dearest teacher, good night. The sun has set and the stars are shining . . . stars that are as bright and beautiful as your eyes. I kiss your hands and face, my sweet. May God watch over you and protect you from all harm.

“‘Your afecksionate pupil,

“‘Annetta Bell.’”

“This extraordinary letter puzzled me not a little. I knew Annetta couldn’t have composed it any more than she could fly. When I went to school the next day I took her for a walk down to the brook at recess and asked her to tell me the truth about the letter. Annetta cried and ‘fessed up freely. She said she had never written a letter and she didn’t know how to, or what to say, but there was bundle of love letters in her mother’s top bureau drawer which had been written to her by an old ‘beau.’

“‘It wasn’t father,’ sobbed Annetta, ‘it was someone who was studying for a minister, and so he could write lovely letters, but ma didn’t marry him after all. She said she couldn’t make out what he was driving at half the time. But I thought the letters were sweet and that I’d just copy things out of them here and there to write you. I put “teacher” where he put “lady” and I put in something of my own when I could think of it and I changed some words. I put “dress” in place of “mood.” I didn’t know just what a “mood” was but I s’posed it was something to wear. I didn’t s’pose you’d know the difference. I don’t see how you found out it wasn’t all mine. You must be awful clever, teacher.’

“I told Annetta it was very wrong to copy another person’s letter and pass it off as her own. But I’m afraid that all Annetta repented of was being found out.

“‘And I do love you, teacher,’ she sobbed. ‘It was all true, even if the minister wrote it first. I do love you with all my heart.’

“It’s very difficult to scold anybody properly under such circumstances.

“Here is Barbara Shaw’s letter. I can’t reproduce the blots of the original.

“‘Dear teacher,

“‘You said we might write about a visit. I never visited but once. It was at my Aunt Mary’s last winter. My Aunt Mary is a very particular woman and a great housekeeper. The first night I was there we were at tea. I knocked over a jug and broke it. Aunt Mary said she had had that jug ever since she was married and nobody had ever broken it before. When we got up I stepped on her dress and all the gathers tore out of the skirt. The next morning when I got up I hit the pitcher against the basin and cracked them both and I upset a cup of tea on the tablecloth at breakfast. When I was helping Aunt Mary with the dinner dishes I dropped a china plate and it smashed. That evening I fell downstairs and sprained my ankle and had to stay in bed for a week. I heard Aunt Mary tell Uncle Joseph it was a mercy or I’d have broken everything in the house. When I got better it was time to go home. I don’t like visiting very much. I like going to school better, especially since I came to Avonlea.

“‘Yours respectfully,

“‘Barbara Shaw.’”

“Willie White’s began,

“‘Respected Miss,

“‘I want to tell you about my Very Brave Aunt. She lives in Ontario and one day she went out to the barn and saw a dog in the yard. The dog had no business there so she got a stick and whacked him hard and drove him into the barn and shut him up. Pretty soon a man came looking for an inaginary lion’ (Query;—Did Willie mean a menagerie lion?) ‘that had run away from a circus. And it turned out that the dog was a lion and my Very Brave Aunt had druv him into the barn with a stick. It was a wonder she was not et up but she was very brave. Emerson Gillis says if she thought it was a dog she wasn’t any braver than if it really was a dog. But Emerson is jealous because he hasn’t got a Brave Aunt himself, nothing but uncles.’

“‘I have kept the best for the last. You laugh at me because I think Paul is a genius but I am sure his letter will convince you that he is a very uncommon child. Paul lives away down near the shore with his grandmother and he has no playmates . . . no real playmates. You remember our School Management professor told us that we must not have ‘favorites’ among our pupils, but I can’t help loving Paul Irving the best of all mine. I don’t think it does any harm, though, for everybody loves Paul, even Mrs. Lynde, who says she could never have believed she’d get so fond of a Yankee. The other boys in school like him too. There is nothing weak or girlish about him in spite of his dreams and fancies. He is very manly and can hold his own in all games. He fought St. Clair Donnell recently because St. Clair said the Union Jack was away ahead of the Stars and Stripes as a flag. The result was a drawn battle and a mutual agreement to respect each other’s patriotism henceforth. St. Clair says he can hit the HARDEST but Paul can hit the OFTENEST.’”

“Paul’s Letter.

“‘My dear teacher,

“‘You told us we might write you about some interesting people we knew. I think the most interesting people I know are my rock people and I mean to tell you about them. I have never told anybody about them except grandma and father but I would like to have you know about them because you understand things. There are a great many people who do not understand things so there is no use in telling them.’

“‘My rock people live at the shore. I used to visit them almost every evening before the winter came. Now I can’t go till spring, but they will be there, for people like that never change . . . that is the splendid thing about them. Nora was the first one of them I got acquainted with and so I think I love her the best. She lives in Andrews’ Cove and she has black hair and black eyes, and she knows all about the mermaids and the water kelpies. You ought to hear the stories she can tell. Then there are the Twin Sailors. They don’t live anywhere, they sail all the time, but they often come ashore to talk to me. They are a pair of jolly tars and they have seen everything in the world. . . and more than what is in the world. Do you know what happened to the youngest Twin Sailor once? He was sailing and he sailed right into a moonglade. A moonglade is the track the full moon makes on the water when it is rising from the sea, you know, teacher. Well, the youngest Twin Sailor sailed along the moonglade till he came right up to the moon, and there was a little golden door in the moon and he opened it and sailed right through. He had some wonderful adventures in the moon but it would make this letter too long to tell them.’

“‘Then there is the Golden Lady of the cave. One day I found a big cave down on the shore and I went away in and after a while I found the Golden Lady. She has golden hair right down to her feet and her dress is all glittering and glistening like gold that is alive. And she has a golden harp and plays on it all day long . . . you can hear the music any time along shore if you listen carefully but most people would think it was only the wind among the rocks. I’ve never told Nora about the Golden Lady. I was afraid it might hurt her feelings. It even hurt her feelings if I talked too long with the Twin Sailors.’

“‘I always met the Twin Sailors at the Striped Rocks. The youngest Twin Sailor is very good-tempered but the oldest Twin Sailor can look dreadfully fierce at times. I have my suspicions about that oldest Twin. I believe he’d be a pirate if he dared. There’s really something very mysterious about him. He swore once and I told him if he ever did it again he needn’t come ashore to talk to me because I’d promised grandmother I’d never associate with anybody that swore. He was pretty well scared, I can tell you, and he said if I would forgive him he would take me to the sunset. So the next evening when I was sitting on the Striped Rocks the oldest Twin came sailing over the sea in an enchanted boat and I got in her. The boat was all pearly and rainbowy, like the inside of the mussel shells, and her sail was like moonshine. Well, we sailed right across to the sunset. Think of that, teacher, I’ve been in the sunset. And what do you suppose it is? The sunset is a land all flowers. We sailed into a great garden, and the clouds are beds of flowers. We sailed into a great harbor, all the color of gold, and I stepped right out of the boat on a big meadow all covered with buttercups as big as roses. I stayed there for ever so long. It seemed nearly a year but the Oldest Twin says it was only a few minutes. You see, in the sunset land the time is ever so much longer than it is here.’

“‘Your loving pupil Paul Irving.’

“‘P. S. of course, this letter isn’t really true, teacher. P.I.’”

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