Shadows of Shadows of Ecstasy: An Irresponsible Suggestion about Charles Williams’ First Novel

With Relief…

I have rarely been as relieved to complete a novel as Shadows of Ecstasy by Charles Williams. I knew very little about it going in, but wanted to read through his seven “supernatural potboilers” over the next year or so. All Hallows Eve and The Place of the Lion were weird, but brilliant, and War in Heaven was a fun Arthurian romp. Williams’ poetry is difficult and often obscure, but it is always beautiful and evocative. Shadows of Ecstasy was painful to read, occasionally confusing, and obviously filled with a kind of meaning that I found far from obvious.

Despite that, I think it is one of Williams’ most important works.

I have not yet read most of Grevel Lindop’s definitive biography of Williams, or Sørina Higgins’ work on Shadows of Ecstasy at the Oddest Inkling. So it is absolutely irresponsible of me to give the conjecture that I’m about to offer. Still, I wanted to offer it while it is fresh in my mind and I am absolutely naïve of what critics have said about this book.

The Summary (if you can summarize a CW novel)

Shadows of Ecstasy is about a modern-day immortal, Nigel Considine, who has made himself impervious to decay through a psychical and physiological regime of some kind. With this power in place, along with a kind of all-pervasive hypnotic hold and an uncanny sense of the future and an almost perfect reading of human nature, Considine decides to take over the world. He enthralls Africa—yes, the whole continent!—causing the overthrow of colonial European power and an imminent attack on Europe and Great Britain.

We meet this man through a group of London friends, including a famous knighted medical researcher who loves irony, his skeptical nephew, a priest whose heart and belief in ritual are better than his theology, a poet struggling to exist after the age of poets has ceased, the poet’s self-giving wife, and her sister whom I don’t understand. The group is drawn together when they rescue an African man on a London street when the continent is under threat by Black Africa. The rescued man, Inkamasi, turns out to be a Zulu king, partly under the spell of Considine, who helped to usurp Inkamasi’s throne.

Unlike good Scooby gangs, this one splintered upon the revelation of Considine’s power. The priest thinks he’s antichrist, the poet thinks he’s embodied poetry, the poet’s wife knows he will take her husband away, the doctor’s son thinks he’s a business threat, and Sir Bernard, the doctor, seems to get lost in the endless loops of ironies. In order to resist the temptation to become a Christian—in Screwtapian logic, if there’s a devil there must be a God—Sir Bernard spends the last half of the novel serving tea and bread to refugees and acting as a chauffeur when needed.

Weird, I know, but that’s not a radical plotline for Charles Williams. A bit mundane actually. However, riots, international intrigues, plots, murder, rituals, butchered martyrs en masse, submarines, a lecture, and a game of cards fill in the details with Williams’ borderline stream of consciousness prose that was popular in his circle in the 1920s-early 1930s, when he first wrote the novel.

Considine and the Death and Resurrection

I want to set aside the sheer offensiveness and racism within this novel; I might return to that again. This book really is about the nature of death and resurrection and its relationship to poetic-religious ecstasy. To achieve Considine’s state of immortality, one must die and fight one’s way back to life (I think). Here’s an example of a conversion in the novel:

“I will go down to death and come again living,” the [proselyte] said.

Considine’s eyes searched him long in silence: then he said slowly,

“You may not come again.”

“Then let me die in that moment,” the other cried out. “That’s nothing; it doesn’t matter; if I fail, I fail. But it’s not by dreaming of failure that the master of death shall come.” (83-4).

Considine is an imposing figure, speaking very truthfully in the book about the futility of much in this world and about the spiritual path beyond the things of this world. In many ways, this could look like the personification of Christ’s self-giving in to the cross—and I think that Williams does allow that tension to remain in play. But Considine is a parody of this death and resurrection. He calls himself the “Master of Death” (152), with the mission of abolishing death and mortality. The thralldom of Inkamasi shows that Considine is gathering slaves. Utlimately, the people of Africa are sent to war as a sacrifice to Considine, the Master of Death, the Undying One.

The crux of the matter is that Considine is only interested in victory (173). As the Undying one, then, he is only interested in himself. Though he has died and found his way back to life, offering a pathway to the second evolution of humanity, it is not death that leads to life. True resurrection comes from self-death, the leaving aside of the self, the giving in to defeat. Though Considine does not learn this lesson for himself, his end is structured on this same principle, so that the heroic centre of the novel switches from Considine to Inkamasi, the Zulu King denied his throne. In the end, one must drink a bitter cup of gall for the sake of the world and Considine will not do so voluntarily.

To Williams’ credit, his character of the poet gives us such a sympathetic view of Considine that his evil is slow to emerge in the narrative. Alternating between absurdity and boring prose, Williams shows in his first attempt of novel-writing that he has the skill to handle tension.

My Irresponsible Proposal

My proposal—irresponsible as it is—is actually a relatively simple one. One of the creepy things about reading Williams is that he seems so very close to an understanding of power: there is almost a delight in the ritualization of evil in his novels, an understanding that comes from experience, I think. In Shadows of Ecstasy, the hallowed space of tension is actually the man, Considine, rather than a particular object. That man is where the power is, and he is also the base of evil. In Shadows of Ecstasy, Williams seems to have a fascination for Considine like he has for objects of power in other books.

My proposal, then, is that Charles Williams knew Nigel Considine in his real life.

Perhaps, as a guess, Considine was A.E. Waite, founder of the occult group, Fellowship of the Rosy Cross. Williams was a member of the FRC and a proselyte of Waite’s until the late 1920s. Williams knew Waite well; that characterization placed in the framework of a world dominating monomaniac is not a large stretch. Considine might be Waite, or another occult figure Williams knew of. Or—and this is a frightening suggestion—Considine might be Williams himself:  provided the engine of power was as real in his own life as it is in Shadows of Ecstasy, Considine might be the vision of what Williams knew his heart was capable of.

If that’s the case, it may be that his move away from the FRC in the late 1920s was intentional—that he tried to escape that world of power and myth. Or it could be that Shadows of Ecstasy is a villainizing of some parts of that past. Or—and I think this is the critical point—it could be that Considine’s power is a fictionalized version of psycho-spiritual power that Williams possessed through ritualized relationships (either in his occult groups or in the fellowships that he created). After all, Williams’ real life ritualistic power play continued in his relationships with women in his circle into the 1930s. He may have rejected the victory-centric parody of the cross in Considine on principle, but he had his own thralls and required self-giving love of others in a way that Considine does.

Perhaps it was the power that he could never escape, a temptation that he sought to overcome.

Or, perhaps Charles Williams is like Considine, “who was an entire mythology about himself” (222). I have always suspected that, unlike Dante and his Beatrician vision that Williams respected so much, the modern poet and lover of the hallows Charles Williams got lost in his own mythology.

This is, of course, a terribly egregious application of the Personal Heresy (using the poetry to psychologize the poet). But I have always felt like I was getting to know Charles Williams from his books. And each book I read made that acquaintance more intimate, more fascinating, and more troubling.

If I am right, it is like some other critic–a responsible one–has made the link. There are other options, though. I may be misunderstanding the book. I may be making a link between life and art that is unwarranted. Williams might have been quite okay and I’ve misunderstood the scraps of biography that are in my mind. I will read Grevel and Sørina’s work and perhaps retract my thoughts.

But I suspect, unfortunately, I am not far from wrong, and that Shadows of Ecstasy is a self-revelation of the power that Charles Williams held within in his chest and its difficult relationship with his Christian faith. I cannot help but thinking that, like Considine, Williams was a powerful man lost within his own mythology.

This may have been a painful book to read, but it was an important one.

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Maybe Today: A Fire Pit Fatherhood Story

Our family fire pit has just rusted out, so I thought I would share my story of feeling and procrastination, first published in my fatherhood column for Maritime Family Magazine.

I have what is, for all intents and purposes, an imaginary fire pit.

The device itself isn’t imaginary, of course. I purchased it at Canadian Tire in an end-of-season clearance sale the year before last. It made its way to the place where all well-intentioned purchases go: the loft of our garage, wedged between the broken croquet set and the patio furniture I had meant to set up but never found the time.

Despite the repeated suggestions of my son, I never set up the fire pit that first year. It was late in the season, I reasoned. The evenings were too cool for an open fire. So our beloved fire pit disappeared beneath a pile of tomato pots and camping gear. It fell from memory into the drifts of a PEI winter where the barn at the edge of our downtown property seemed mountains and valleys away.

The fire pit did not disappear from my son’s memory, of course. As any keen seven year old should, he reminded me that there was a fire pit waiting to use. And, in case I didn’t know, my wife reminded me I had promised to set it up.

This was last summer, and I absolutely intended to set it up. I really did.

There are plenty of reasons I never pulled it from its box: It was rainy all spring, wet until the middle of July really. We spent a lot of time camping on weekends, so we had our fill of campfires. We were painting our house, and had to take advantage of the nice evenings. Plus, there was school, camp, soccer, sleepovers and dips in the local pool to cool off. The excuses are endless; but of course, they are hollow. The fact was that I had a perfectly good fire pit sitting inside a box in my garage buried beneath broken lawn chairs and electronics boxes.

Any reasonable parent can see why I went the whole season without setting up this increasingly dreaded fire pit. Canadian parents are a busy breed in summer, by definition, as we chase those few precious days of sun and sand that are given to us. By the time it came to the front of my to-do list, it was fall again, and far too cool to have fires in the evening. The clearance bin fire pit endured a second Maritime winter entirely safe from the elements, next to unsorted pop cans and the patio furniture I once again forgot to bring to the patio.

As the new outdoor season came upon us, I was determined to begin the year in earnest by setting up this elusive fire pit. I had good intentions, but it really was a busy spring, what with a work trip and school closing and endless papers to mark. Then there was summer camp, and a weekend tenting, and soccer. But I pressed on. I fought the good fight. And nearly 21 months after I purchased it I pulled the fire pit from the box.

And, of course, it was missing pieces. Well, sort of. The support rings were made wrong, and I either had to drill through steel or set it up without the proper supports. Deciding that another delay wouldn’t be welcome, and unwilling to call the customer assistance number in North Korea, I forged ahead, thumb-tightening bolts where I could place them.

Finally, I emerged from the garage with my masterpiece: a flat black, slightly crooked, totally unsupported, Allen-wrench assembled steel bowl. Frankly, it was a little unimpressive. I placed it in the middle of the yard, surrounding it with dusty patio furniture. Tonight was the night, I decided. It was time to take this fire pit for a spin.

When I announced the evening’s activity to my family, I received a mix-reaction. My son, now seven, gave me a “Sure Dad” look. When I assured him that I truly had a functioning fire pit in the backyard, he started to let himself hope that this would be the magical night that we would have a Dickieson family campfire. As our collective excitement was building, my wife announced that it was too dry. There was a fire ban.

And so here I stand, next to my well-aged but practically imaginary fire pit.

Am I alone on this? Am I the only parent who procrastinates, who leaves projects—even good projects that we want to do—completely undone? Whether I am standing alone or part of a silent army of well-intentioned but inept parents, I cannot understand why this happens. Why do I put off doing things for my family I know we will all love?

This kind of procrastination isn’t, for me, like my typical procrastination. There is that unending list of household chores, or the ever-demanding email inbox, or the tiresome pace of minute tasks that make up part of the whole that is my chosen profession—I will get to these things eventually. But if it means signing my son up for soccer or booking that campground spot or getting out on a family walk, I am defeated. I know if I pull out that board game from the attic, we’ll have a great night. I know if I oil the ball glove, Nicolas may one day learn to catch a ball without wincing. I know these things, and yet I procrastinate.

There is nothing in the world I like least than the sight of my boy’s disappointed face. He’s a trooper, but I can’t help but feeling every “maybe tomorrow” is a broken promise, a frayed cord, a knot undone.

I do think as parents we really are too busy. We commit to too many things, we work too hard, we plan too much, and we get over our heads in our white picket fence dreams and vocational aspirations. I am certain that much of our procrastination comes from the unbending routines of modern family life. I truly am too busy.

But as I stare at this unused fire pit, that answer isn’t good enough for me. “I’m too busy to go for a bike ride” sounds hollow to me. It sounds like the folk songs of my parent’s generation. It sounds like an excuse.

So looking down at the flimsy black bowl, I make a decision. I gather my kindling and a bit of my fallen cherry tree, and I light a fire. I’m not breaking the fire ban, really. I keep the screen on the pit, so it doesn’t fall under the “open fire” category. But I know I am relying on a temporary bout of off-the-cuff legalism.

It can’t be helped, I’m afraid. My son has waited seven seasons for a backyard campfire, and I don’t intend to make him wait any more. It is a beautiful July evening—not too cool for a fire, and all the excuses have worn out. More than that: the email can wait, the piles of papers can be tomorrow’s chore. Looking back on a parental career I am certain we will all feel a child’s tomorrows are very few, so I don’t want to keep gambling my child’s tomorrows on half-hearted promises.

So here we are tonight, with sticky marshmallows, over-cooked hotdogs and multiple mosquito bites next to a discount bin fire pit: this is my today.

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The Three Day Thesis

Inspired by my great experiences with the International 3 Day Novel Contest and the 3 Minute Thesis challenges that have been popping up here and there, I decided to slice off 3 days for just thesis work. No, I don’t think one can write an entire thesis in three days, but I’m at a critical juncture in my work on C.S. Lewis’ spiritual theology. I am doing a massive reorganization and midstream correction, and I need a large time block to begin to turn things around.

Beginning in about an hour, I will be ignoring all social media and email for the following 72 hours–though I might tweet or post on facebook if a thought strikes me or if C.S. Lewis says something intriguing (odds are in favour of this). I might owe you a blog response or email or something, but it won’t happen until later this week. I am turning off the distractions and setting both my writing playlist and my coffee maker on repeat. It’s me, these shiny screens, and a huge pile of books around me.

So, wish me the best (though I won’t see those wishes until Wednesday)!

(note the pretty hot graphic design at the top? I’m thinking of going full-time into the field … when I get the thesis done!)

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The Mythogenic Principle, Or Why Reading Zombie Lit at the Beach is a Very Bad Idea

It’s one of the reasons watching horror films is so fun, isn’t it? Though the possibility that a serial killer who has spent too much time collecting comic books or reading 19th century engineering reports is hiding behind your couch and will leap out and, after limping after you with a mad grimace and improvised weapon while you are running in your underwear through your now gargantuan and unusually well-groomed backyard will catch you and cut you to pieces, is slim, it is a possibility.

True, the probability of a horror film coming true gets pretty slim if Joss Whedon sends you to the threshold of a global, inter-generational conspiracy to appease the anger of ancient deities, but the serial killer kind of film are real enough to make our skin crawl.

That “what if?” of the horror genre on screen or in print has the ability to keep us on the edge of our psychiatric beds. There really may be serial killers with unusual tastes and government lab projects that could destroy the world.

But what if the same was true of other genres? The “Mythogenic Principle” is the idea that the world within the story you are reading could become real, alive, where you are right now. For a story like Narnia, this is hardly a threat. Truth be told, I find myself peeking into most wardrobes I encounter. If I find an old boot in the middle of a field—especially a British looking boot—I’m going to touch it to find out if it’s a portkey. I know what to do if I find a giant peach. Abandoned treehouses are meant to be explored, and swinging ropes are there for swinging.

Outside of those wonderful fantasy worlds, what if the thing you are reading actually came true?

It may depend on the book. Part of the horror of The Handmaid’s Tale is that everything in it has been true at one time or another. The horror of someone using those lessons of abuse to shape a new world order is what keeps us alive to the world around us today. But if I’m reading Tom Clancy and that world came true, it’s not quite as concerning. As long as I stay away from Cold War Russia, the Middle East, or Washington, DC, I should be fine.

With Stephen King, it is trickier. His world creeping into ours could happen anywhere—though it is probably a good idea to never, ever go to Maine. Except Portland, which is a pretty cool town. King’s literary ancestors are people like H.P. Lovecraft and Charles Williams. There is honestly no place in the galaxy you want to be if Lovecraft’s bestiary becomes our zoology. And I don’t think there is any safe place to read Charles William’s supernatural fiction. If the archetypes of our cultural imagination were to explode into real life, there isn’t much we can do except get ourselves to a medieval library or hope for a transdimensional guide of some kind. I would say, though, if our world were to become more Williamsian and you find yourself walking downhill in a partially built housing development at night, run away if you see an ancient sex demon.

Just some good advice from one friend to another.

There are times you can run, but there are times under the Mythogenic Principle that you probably just need to grin and bear it. If one of Tolkien’s worlds is going to break into ours, we might as well pack a nice lunch, grab a notebook for writing, take the sword down from its place above the mantelpiece beside the spelling bee trophies, and wait by the fire for a knock at the door. If you are meant to be drawn into one of Tolkien’s stories, there isn’t much you can do about it.

Zombie literature, though, is a little different under the Mythogenic Principle. If Zombieland has taught us anything, and I believe that it has, certain survival principles are key. Watch the film; they aren’t subtle. Mostly, you need to outrun a zombie, learn how to use improvised weapons, and finish any job you start. But imagine reading I Am Legend or World War Z at the beach. Okay, true: most vampires can’t travel by day, like orcs, so we might be okay with I Am Legend. Unless it’s the book, in which case you’ll eventually be toast. But zombies that evolve scientifically could quite possibly appear next to your spot on the beach.

Stretched out on a towel or lounging in a beach chair, your favourite horrifying zombie book open on your lap, surrounded by nothing but white sand and clear water…. There’s really nothing you can use to save yourself from a zombie attack. Do an inventory: sandals, towels, sunscreen, plastic shovel and bucket, a collapsible cooler you got free from a grocery store giveaway filled with apple slices and peanut butter sandwiches…. You aren’t even wearing shoes to dig in for a good run. Things aren’t looking good.

Even if you are a professional beach-goer, things aren’t much better. A Corona bottle can work in a pinch, if you can find something hard enough to break the end off. Your umbrella pole might impale a fairly decomposed zombie, but I find it hard enough to impale the sand with the cheap Walmart umbrellas, let alone face an army of the undead.

It could be that I’m over-thinking beach time. Granted, I’m not a big fan of the beach, even though we have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world here in Prince Edward Island. While others frolic, I like to sit and read—and read something thick and exciting. My summer beach read this year will be IT—once I finish The Name of the Wind. And the beach might be the only safe place in the world to read IT under the Mythogenic Principle.

But the beach is not a safe place to read zombie lit. Because, in the end, if zombies grope their way out from beneath the sandcastles and tidal pools of the North Shore, I can only hope that I can run faster than that group of bikini-clad young people over there who have drifted off in the searing sun. Provided we aren’t in a World War Z world, I have half a chance.

Unless—and this could be a cool possibility—unless someone else on the beach is reading an American rah! rah! war novel at the same moment that the Mythogenic Principle comes into play. Having an elite defense squad top that dune just as the zombies lope over to the bronzed group of scantily clad young people would work out pretty well. As long as I’m not in the original line of fire, I’ll be okay. And it would be pretty cool to share a Corona with the Navy Seals when their job is done. I suspect those guys love Anne of Green Gables, and maybe I could get tickets to the musical.

Anyway, it’s clear that the sun and sand are getting to me. Time to finish up Name of the Wind.

Wait…. What if the magical principles of The Name of the Wind were available to me now. I wonder how long it would take for me to learn the name of the sand.

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Why Tolkien Thought Fake Languages Fail

According to the scrupulous historians at Wikipedia, a 2007 report appeared in Multnomah County, OR, that suggested a need to hire Klingon translators for mental health support programs if clients surrendered to care only able to speak Klingon. As a person who writes policy for government, I immediately smelled a rat. I can’t imagine that wasn’t an inside joke. After all, you will find these examples of colleges and college programs in a policy book I wrote in preparation for legislation:

  • The Arcadian College of Cryptozoological Care
  • Diploma in Architectronic Radiography
  • Certificate in Alchemic Documentation
  • A course on The Taxonomy of Mythological Beasts

Even policy writers need to have a little fun.

But Klingon is just one example—and perhaps one of the least successful examples—of a “constructed language.” Constructed or invented languages are those that don’t emerge organically from a community, but are designed for some sort of utility. Latin evolved into French and Spanish, but Latino Sine Flexione is an artificial modification of Latin. Basic English and Globish are simplifications of English, but globalized Englishes—like Frenglish, Pidgin, and Engrish—are emerging organically.

It is obviously a lot more complex than this, but I think this simplification can work. Quenya and Klingon are invented and hypothetical languages for speculative universes, but they could be “native” languages if children grew up speaking them in the home (despite the very limited vocabulary of each). As such, they could evolve and naturalize from that point on. Esperanto began as a completely artificial project, and has largely failed to become the reverse of Babel it was dreamed up to become. But it has up to 2000 native speakers and up to 2 million speakers globally. It has changed since it has naturalized, as Elvish and Trekkie languages would evolve if they became a normal part of life.

There aren’t many naturalized artificial languages. I suppose systems might count, like computer and mathematical linguistic constructs or scientific systems like botany. I don’t know that these can truly naturalize, though the Robot Interaction Language (ROILA) has a chance—if it gets out of the lab and we don’t all die in the Robot Apocalypse.

My own language path shows the fun of language stories. I grew up in an English community but part of a bilingual country. Part of my schooling, then, was a recovery of French that was dying out (Harry Potter in French is a trip, by the way). As a kid I jabbered away in Pig Latin, a language that must have been intentionally invented by a group of friends, but survived as the best of the Dog Latin languages that pop up in English history. We also learned some sign language in school, a system that uses natural human movements and shapes them into a full language system (though, arguably, some might call this a “writing” system, like Braille: I was always confused why they had Braille on drive-thru bank machines but no sign language services at fast food drive-thrus).

As a young adult I got to travel through Israel and Greece. Israel is an intriguing study because Modern Hebrew is an attempt to reignite written Hebrew (from the Bible and religious texts) in normal, everyday life. Some call the language Israeli, not Hebrew, because it has Yiddish, German, Russian, and English influences, but it has been a pretty successful project. I remember learning Hebrew in grad school, and remembering that they have some newspapers in Jerusalem with vowel pointing to help non-native learners like me.

Greece, too, is the home of a renaissance language, where twice in history (in the Patristic church and later in the modern period) they tried to capture the greatness of classical Greek. I quite like Koine—the common Greek that the New Testament and other Roman era documents are written in. Koine itself is the simplification of Greek after Alexander the Great conquered the Mediterranean. It seems that, even then, people struggled with all those case endings—the kinds of inflections that English lost as it moved past the Middle English period (though other Germanic tongues kept them). Even with only four (and a half) cases instead of the 8 classical cases, my students struggle with Koine.

Living in Japan was a real treat for language development. They have three main writing systems: Katakana for foreign words, Hiragana for local words and childhood language development, and Chinese characters (Kanji, which is often misprinted on super cool tattoos). Katakana is great fun as Japan is a bright, international culture taking in many English words, but based on a syllabary language pronounced phonemically rather than alphabetically. Thus, for McDonalds, you get “Makudonaludo.” My name is close: “Burenton” (because the “n” or “ng” sound is an in-breath sound, thus an exception). But listening to English spoken in Japan is a real treat—plus, there are super cool Engrish signs and t-shirts.

Beyond the writing system, Japan has social layers to their language. After a couple of years there, I discovered that there were languages of social conversation, ritual, and intimacy. Unfortunately, I only got to learn the first two, and only basically.

So language is a dynamic, living, complex, organic, unpredictable thing. My own language path—which I hope to extend into medieval languages in the 2020s—shows the combination of living, constructed, and partly constructed language experiences.

There is an element of language development that Tolkien thought was critical but is missing in this little survey and in much of the language research—and one that grounded my childhood reading. In a 14 Jan 1956 letter to an unknown Mr. Thompson, Tolkien identified a link that is critical to the experience of language:

[The Lord of the Rings] has been a considerable labour, beginning really as soon as I was able to begin anything, but effectively beginning when I was an undergraduate and began to explore my own linguistic aesthetic in language composition. It was just as the 1914 War burst on me that I made the discovery that ‘legends’ depend on the language to which they belong; but a living language depends equally on the ‘legends’ which it conveys by tradition. (For example, that the Greek mythology depends far more on the marvelous aesthetic of its language and so of its nomenclature of persons and places and less on its content than people realize, though of course it depends on both. And vice versa. Volapük, Esperanto, Ido, Novial, &c &c are dead, far deader than ancient unused languages, because their authors never invented any Esperanto legends.) So though being a philologist by nature and trade (yet one always primarily interested in the aesthetic rather than the functional aspects of language) I began with language, I found myself involved in inventing ‘legends’ of the same ‘taste’. The early work was mostly done in camps and hospitals between 1915 and 1918 – when time allowed. But I think a lot of this kind of work goes on at other (to say lower, deeper, or higher introduces a false gradation) levels, when one is saying how-do-you-do, or even ‘sleeping’. I have long ceased to invent (though even patronizing or sneering critics on the side praise my ‘invention’): I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.

It might be tempting to spend some time thinking about that “discovery” process of writing—how true to life that is for me if not for others. But, for Tolkien, the fruit of discovery is found in the soil of language. The stories and languages rhyme, but they are for Tolkien linguistically driven.

Though Tolkien may have over-predicted the death of Esperanto, I think he is fundamentally correct about what makes a language really live. Volapük was invented by Father Johann Martin Schleyer, when God told him in a dream that he was to make an international language. While there are very few speakers today, as many as a million people may have spoken Volapük before its constructed linguistic arch-nemesis, Esperanto, swept in and turned the word nerds in a new direction. Even without the competitor, though, the language was choked by its own idea-bed. Father Schleyer retained proprietary rights to the language, and when it comes to words people vote with their feet. Ido, an Esperanto variant, also fell because of human control. Novial, a Germanic version of a constructed language, disappeared with the founder’s death.

It’s possible that some of these languages may remain. There are 180,000 Wikipedia articles in Esperanto, and 120,000 in Volapük (though the latter are mainly AI generated). It could be that the technological globalism we are a part of may create a space for constructed language. But I don’t think so. Humans require story and ritual to seal in their questions, languages, intimacies, and art. Ritual is the home experience of learning a language that Tolkien underestimated, but he got the story bit right. I believe that we are storied beings, and Tolkien understood something about human nature that these linguistic neo-geniuses missed.

What does the future look like? Newspeak is an invented language that will emerge on its own in certain kinds of contexts. Will Quenya catch on and naturalize? Who knows? It is certainly embedded in stories that are worth telling. And there is no telling where things may go. Parseltongue may become a real thing and some serpentine cyborg culture of the future may use it. But it is likely we could never predict it. Languages will continue to hop, skip, and jump into the future as they always have, embedded in the rituals (intimacy) and stories (art) of everyday life.

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John Warwick Montgomery on “Contemporary” Christian Thought

I have made it a goal to listen to a lecture series each month this year. Some of these will be short 3-5 hour sessions, like the Signum University Tolkien features this past spring (now on Youtube); others will be semester-length classes of 30-36 hours. I became intrigued by John Warwick Montgomery after a sudden release of dozens of his lectures on I purchased a 10-hour lecture series on “Contemporary Religious Thought” during the annual $7.49 sale as it is regularly priced at a puzzling $49.

John Warwick Montgomery has a terribly interesting biography, which you can see in long form at his kind of hilarious website from the 1990s (the subtitle to the website is “Meet a Christian Apologist and Engage in Apologetic Games and Challenges). Dr. Montgomery is a degree hoarder, having earned 11 higher ed credentials—including doctorates in theology, philosophy, and law—and is literate in several languages. Born in 1931, Montgomery had an intellectual conversion to Christ when he was 18, in the context of the neo-evangelical rebirth after the ashes of the Scopes trial, the Depression, and WWII. As he was converted to Christ based on historical evidence, he turned to apologetics and was influential in that flush of American evangelical apologists in the late-1900s (you might remember Josh McDowell the best). After teaching theology and philosophy in the US and Canada, his work turned toward religious freedom from a legal human rights perspective. In his mid-80s he is still practicing law, now in France. He is like the Catch Me If You Can guy, except with real credentials.

John Warwick Montgomery styles himself as a maverick, and there might be some reason to agree with him. He debated Thomas Altizer, the God-is-Dead guy featured in the famous Time issue, as well as post-Christian Bishop James Pike and situation-ethicist Joseph Fletcher. In the legal-political sphere, he worked with East Germans to help them escape from behind the wall in 1968, was in Fiji during its 1987 revolution, and in China during June of 1989, the time of the failed uprising. He has written 50 books in 5 languages on diverse topics such as writing research papers, the “Is God Dead?” controversy, Lutheran Theology, apologetics, history, library science, Evangelical-Roman Catholic relations, the Occult, situational ethics, Marxism, law and human rights, China, and the quest for Noah’s Ark. He has also written a couple of hundred essays and has held several academic posts.

The reason I dip into his biography is because it is Montgomery’s personality that drives the lectures. Recorded in 1970, Montgomery was a visiting scholar to the University of California, offering a free and abbreviated course on 19th and 20th century Christian theology such as you wouldn’t see offered for credit in most campuses at the time. Religious Studies departments have since grown and offer creative and diverse topics on secular university campuses, but there was clearly a hunger in the heady days at the close of the 1960s. The lecture hall was packed and the audience tuned in as Montgomery walked through these topics:

  • 19th century philosophy and theology
  • the Modernist (Liberal)-Fundamentalist (Evangelical) debate
  • the Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann
  • Christian Existentialism
  • Paul Tillich
  • Secular Theology (aka, bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God conversation)
  • the New Morality and the Death of God
  • Process Theology

Montgomery is skillful in giving very concise definitions of what can be fairly complex movements. This sometimes results in over-simplification, as we might imagine. He takes a fair amount of time to cover Paul Tillich, whose influence today might be waning, but was important enough at the time that Martin Luther King, Jr. did his PhD thesis on Tillich. Montgomery’s discussion of Barth, however, made me wonder whether he really understood Barth’s full project. Karl Barth’s influence is growing, and the Neo-orthodox (Post-liberal) section is the weakest in Montgomery’s lecture.

Where Montgomery was strongest was in the question of ethics, in Secular and Process theologies, and in the God is Dead debate—moments that he has written about. Montgomery very briefly developed a succinct look at the death of God movement from five different angles that brought clarity to me (someone who has never really understood the temptation to think that way). His argument about situational ethics—which would lead to a debate with situation-ethicist Joseph Fletcher and a co-published book—was also very strong. In a logical critique of situational ethics, Montgomery rightly challenges the situational ethicist to see the problem of regress: what situations take precedence over other situations? Simply calling for radical love as both means and end of ethics begs the question of the definition of love, and fails to recognize the embedded cultural biases we bring into our decision making.

This sort of critique is offered throughout the course, with varying success. Montgomery is especially good at the tidy, memorable ability to get the principles. For example, Montomery pits legalism against situation ethics, arguing that legalism makes moral law dominant and ignores the situation, while situational ethics makes the situation dominant and ignores the moral law. He argues for a Christian love ethic that moves between the two, taking into consideration both absolute or foundational principles as well as the context of the question.

The reason I was interested in this lecture series is not just because of Dr. Montgomery’s dynamic personality—he is fun to listen to—but because of its embeddedness in its time. He is speaking well before I was born and a generation before I knew anything about Christianity. I was curious about how Contemporary Theology would look in 1970 after such a dynamic decade.

On this front the series is particularly interesting. Note that there is no section on feminist theology, ecotheology, liberation theology, narrative theology or postmodernism—moments that are growing in the 1960s but have not yet found a voice of dominance. I would never teach a course like this without spending time in those movements. Though Dr. Montgomery is a global figure, his is a narrowly Euro-American conversation. We have no sense of the global growth of the Charismatic movement, the results of Vatican II, or the great migration of religious people and their ideas—both digitally and in human migration—that will define the 21st century. I doubt that Montgomery was an outlier in these limitations and it is interesting how culture has diversified and evolved.

Just look at the title: in a lecture series entirely about Christianity and its conversation partners, Montgomery and UC San Diego thought “Contemporary Religious Thought” was the right title in 1970. In the United States today, there are a couple of dozen religious movements that would have to be surveyed in a course of that title, only a few of them Christian. Times change, and this lecture series allowed me to linger in the context of my theological grandparents.

Dr. Montgomery also focused on some things that have become footnotes in history. The question of the death of God was all the bomb in the 60s, but is no longer a serious conversation (though still a fun one on campuses). Logical positivism has slipped away, and even situational ethics has lost its footing (now we seem to be in a season of neo-absolutism combined awkwardly with moral relativism). I am especially interested in Process Theology—an idea I tried very hard to find sympathy with at graduate school because some of the students at our mainline seminary down the road found it meaningful. I could never find its value, but Montgomery lectured about Process Theology in a moment where he felt that this was the rising idea of the day.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? So many of these theologies are ideas of the generation. And the generations get smaller, as Dr. Montgomery points out. Some of these movements are blips on the theological timeline, while others have a long amplitude and a significant impact. It serves to remind us that we, ourselves, are in an age, influenced by our cultures. We would be wise to seek diversity of understanding from across the globe and through history (roughly translating C.S. Lewis’ “On Reading Old Books”).

On the flip side, in not giving a full reading of some of these movements, Dr. Montgomery does away with them too quickly. Tillich might be waning in influence, but there are a couple of his ideas that have found their way into evangelical theology. Montgomery suggested in 1970 that Jürgen Moltmann had peaked and that his Theology of Hope had no shelf life. Not only was that a bad prophecy, but it was a misunderstanding of Moltmann’s work, as his 1973 Crucified God would demonstrate. Indeed, Moltmann, Barth, and Bonhoeffer are going to remain in the 21st century as important resources to conservative and evangelical (and Roman Catholic) theologians, despite their embeddedness in the liberal community.

Besides learning the lay of land now lost to me, there are some of the normal 1970ish moments of interest. Montgomery treats homosexuality as psychologists of the day did, and uses the word “savages” in a way that the faculty and students of UC would understand (but would make us cringe). He references editorial cartoons frequently—remember those?—and you can feel the tension of the 1960s in his work. He understands the pastoral and theological problems of abuse, but lacks the social awareness that has since arisen that gives us access to more wisdom in speaking about difficult things.

Despite all that time-embeddedness, there are some critical moments of value for today beyond the Lewisian realization that we are living in an age. First, Dr. Montgomery calls for a turn to epistemology, to the question of how we know things. This turn is in place right now, to the point that we can never seem to get past this question. Second, he shows us the importance of shedding light on what seems like a life-changing idea by setting it within historical context. And, third, Montgomery shows us the value of critical thinking—even if we disagree with him.

This series is not worth $50, but is probably worth $7.49 to the right listener. The lecture series is incomplete, with missing tapes, disrupted talks, incoherent questions, and moments of audio disruption that make it hard to hear. There is an odd but very cool audio of an NBC film interview of Paul Tillich in the middle of the series because Dr. Montgomery was going to be late to class that night; I doubt proper copyright was sought. It is a mess of a production, but I am grateful for its place in the available catalogue.

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C.S. Lewis’ Amazing Connections with Canada: A Canada Day Friday Feature Visit to the Vault

Canadian biscuitsTomorrow is Canada Day here in the Great White North. Canada Day is, unsurprisingly, celebrated in Canada, and by the millions of Canadians hidden secretly among the peoples of the world, waiting until the signal to rise up and overthrow your country with polite apologies and solid hockey moves. We don’t celebrate Independence Day here because, unlike noble Americans who know how to throw a good war–and unlike our British neighbours who have seeking new ways to be Brexcellent–we negotiated our independence over tea and Canadian biscuits (which are not cookies). So we have Canada Day, a grotesque splattering of red and white maple leafs through the nation, culminating in brilliant fireworks and a rare, tentative showing of Canadian pride.

In solidarity with Canada Day, then, I thought I would draw out some of the connections between C.S. Lewis and Canada. There are very few. Canada isn’t very important, after all. except in our own Canadian minds. As we look to be the most stable of the new world nations–hits to our immigration website have tripled and international students are flooding here since the election of Trump and the whole Brexit deal–it is perhaps our moment to shine.

As it turns out, Lewis had a Canadian aunt, which I think was pretty unremarkable in itself. But she was important to Lewis, able to listen to a grieving nine-year-old with patience and love at his mother’s funeral:

Against all the subsequent paraphernalia of coffin, flowers, hearse, and funeral I reacted with horror. I even lectured one of my aunts on the absurdity of mourning clothes in a style which would have seemed to most adults both heartless and precocious; but this was our dear Aunt Annie, my maternal uncle’s Canadian wife, a woman almost as sensible and sunny as my mother herself (Surprised by Joy, ch. 1).

Lewis admitted in a 1959 letter to Sr. Madeleva that his Canadian aunt would tell him of her 19th century Canadian adventures with lakes and Indian villages. He later described her like this:

In her also I found what I liked best—an unfailing, kindly welcome without a hint of sentimentality, unruffled good sense the unobtrusive talent for making all things at all times as cheerful and comfortable as circumstances allowed (Surprised by Joy, ch. 3).

Sounds Canadian, eh?

canada_unionjackThe next reference to Canadians is at war. Just a small (in population, never in size) British out-port at the time, Canada militarized during the two world wars and really made their name in the world. When a young, inexperienced officer named C.S. Lewis landed in France in WWI, it was a pair of middle-aged Canadian officers who “once took charge of me and treated me, not like a son (that might have given offence) but like a long-lost friend” (Surprised by Joy, ch. 12).

Canadians fought well in WWI alongside the British. After the war, Lewis sent a weird note to his father, asking for his opinion on the “Canadian Bolschevists”. “Canadian” and a nationalistic movement seem like a contradiction in terms: we are terribly indecisive about such things. But there was an editorial about “Canadian Bolshevists” in the The Ottawa Journal on Jan 24, 1919, if you would like to look it up.

A decade later, Lewis wrote to his father on Feb 25th, 1928, and talked about the death of a Magdalen fellow, Mr. Wrong (yes, you have that right, his name was Wrong). Wrong was a mentor to Lewis, and we have this fun little look at a Brit’s eye on Canada:

He was always extremely friendly to me, and I liked him as well as anyone in College. He was that very rare and very delightful thing, a colonial aristocrat–being of an old Canadian family. His grandfather was one of the last people to fight a political duel; to which he was challenged on whatever corresponds to the floor of the ‘House’ in Canada. The blend is curious. It is odd to find a man who has canoed in Hudson bay and knows all about trapping and skunks and Indians, and yet who has distinction in the lines of his face and tradition in his outlook. No doubt, like other good things, it is disappearing: the influx of commercial democracy and the rule of the Bosses from the States will soon put an end to that element in Canada, just as (I am told) it has Magdalen.

Micmac Indians Poling a Canoe Up a Rapid, Oromocto Lake, NB Richard George Augustus Levinge 19th cLewis was right about American culture and Canada—though pop culture has been more influential than politics. I too have trapped skunks and canoed, though not on the Hudson Bay (rather the Morell River and its danger of beavers and mosquitoes). I also once challenged someone to a duel on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. It was a parliamentary page, and I was a tourist who paid $6 for a tour of the Hill. The page, who was a young woman studying French at university at the time, declined the duel and I was asked to please leave.

gilby's scotch adAfter WWII, during rationing, Lewis was getting food from friendly Americans. He also got a Canadian ham for Christmas dinner, 1949. Canadian hams are a little porkier than American ones, what with the diet of doughnuts and beer and poutine and mayonnaise on random things. Lewis also got this Oct 26th, 1954 note from an American friend: “A bottle of Gilbey’s Scotch is on its gurgling way to you both from Marshall Ellis, Ltd., Canada.” Hard to deny that Canada is awesome.

Among the most puzzling Canadian reference is in Lewis’ Essay “Hedonics”:

But of all London the most complete terra incognita is the suburbs. Swiss Cottage or Maida Vale are to me, if not exactly names like Samarkand or Orgunje, at any rate names like Winnipeg or Tobolsk. That was the first element in my pleasure.

Winnipeg“Winnipeg,” you should know, is not a name that evokes pleasure in most Canadians. Not displeasure, just a general sense of “oh, I drove through there once: it was cold and flat.” There is a good Tim Hortons there, near the highway.

A very peculiar link with Canada is The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal, featured in a recent New York C.S. Lewis Society Bulletin. Edited by the enthusiastic Stephen Schofield, I have friends who have published letters, stories, and news in the Journal. As the 1980s developed, Schofield and the Journal became very negative of Walter Hooper’s editorial work—part of the Kathryn Lindskoog controversy. Yet, here is Hooper’s memorial of Schofield:

This charming man was tireless in his search for first-hand news about Lewis. Despite his profound deafness, a wealth of his interviews with Lewis’s friends found their way into In Search of C. S. Lewis…. Schofield’s interest in Lewis and his world was unquenchable, and even after being diagnosed with cancer he did some of his best work with The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal. He had published eighty-three issues before his death on 12 August 1993. The journal was taken over by Roger Stronstad who acted as editor until it ceased publication in 2001.

stephen schofield cs lewisI have a few of these Journal copies, but I had the pleasure of going through the entire series at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy in Toronto. They are like an underground zine in the 80s, a cut-and-paste collection of essays, memories, and fandamonia. After Schofield’s death, Stronstad turned the Journal into a respected academic collection. With its death the last of Canadian C.S. Lewis societies disappeared, until the Inklings Institute of Canada began a couple of years ago.

Among the interesting and unusual things in the 1980s Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal is a greeting from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (the father of today’s Prime Minister, the drama teacher), which includes an epigraph quotation from pierre trudeau canadaLewis himself:

Prime Minister – Premier Ministre

The Future is something everyone reaches at the rate of 60 minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.
C. S. Lewis

Clive Staples Lewis has indeed reached the future and will continue to do so, for his works were of inspiring and eternal wisdom. In paying tribute to a great man, and to use Kenneth Tynan’s words, “a classical writer, a mediaeval poet and a brilliant and vivacious mind,” The Canadian C.S. Lewis Journal is pursuing in its own way, the communication of those works. I am pleased to offer congratulations and best wishes of success.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau

Grand-Séminaire-Québec LavalA nice link with Canada is that on Sep 22nd, 1952, Lewis received an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from Université Laval in Quebec. It is a little puzzling as Laval is a French university, but Lewis’ Christian books had been translated into French. It is an honour, since Laval is one of our more respected universities, and is more than 450 years old—which is very old for Canada, which is only 150 years old today. Lewis responded to the Rector of Laval Monsignor Ferdinand Vandry’s June 1952 note:

Dear Monsignor Vandry,

Please accept my sincere thanks for the great and unexpected honour offered me in your letter. I do not know whether in order to receive it, I must be present before the Special Convocation on September 22nd. If that is necessary then I am compelled, with great regret and undiminished gratitude, to refuse the Doctorate since my other engagements make it quite impossible for me to visit Quebec in September.

Even if it is possible for me to receive the degree in absence, the question remains whether that would be held to imply any disrespect for Convocation or any insensibility to the great favour you are showing me. Naturally I would rather lose it than receive it under conditions which the University might consider as ungracious on my part.

I await your kind advice on these points.

Whatever the decision may be, I shall retain a vivid sense of the University’s kindness.

Please convey to all concerned my most respectful and obliged greetings.

canada day maple leafThat, then, is the Canadian Dr. C.S. Lewis’ connection with Canada: canoes, duels, hugs, French honours, ministerial nods, Scotch, hugs, editorial conspiracies, brothers in arms, Winnipeg and Mr. Wrong.

Happy Canada Day to all and sundry, even those who are not Canadian. We are very inclusive on that point here. Americans, enjoy your day on Monday. Brits, let us know if you want to Brexperience a bit of life on these shores. Americans, let me know if I’m trumping up Canada’s benefits. To the rest of the world, look me up when you stop by. And, before you ask, I do know Joe MacDonald from down the road.

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