“Sweet Quarantine” by Nicolas Riel (Single Launch)

I’m pleased to announce that my son, Nicolas, is launching his new single today!

With singer-songwriter wit in an indie rock performance, “Sweet Quarantine” was written out of the depths of Nicolas’ experience of our most recent apocalypse, the COVID pandemic. “It’s the end of the world,” the song begins–and so we enter the moment again through song. Nicolas describes his new single this way:

“‘Sweet Quarantine’ is a bittersweet love song written during the darkest days of the 2020 lockdown. While the song started as a confessional of seasonal depression and covid lonesomeness, it quickly became a hopeful and tongue-in-cheek love letter.

The release of ‘Sweet Quarantine’ has been a long-time coming, and I hope that my hopeful reflection on a time of pandemic darkness may provide comfort for those who listen.”

The song was co-written with Island musician Andrew Waite (whose music you should also check out on Spotify), and produced/engineered by Sergey Varlomov at Crabbe Road Studio. Nicolas designed the album cover and promotional materials.

Although you might remember Nicolas from his 2020 song, “Obsessive, Compulsive,” which he wrote and performed with Moment of Eclipse, this is his first solo release as Nicolas Riel.

I am in the privileged position of having watched this song go from a few sketched-out words and a melody, through writing and refinement, into the studio, and then on its way to the world. As one of the chief funders of Nicolas’ studio (i.e., it’s in our Spare Room), I got a copy of this song as soon as it was mastered. “Sweet Quarantine” has been constantly spinning on my devices ever since. The lyrics and melodies of this hopeful flirtation with doomsday have wormed their way into my soul.

“Sweet Quarantine” also captures so much of my own experience during the COVID lockdowns. When I hear the beginning of the first verse:

Oh, the grass is never green this time of year
When the snow stops falling…

it is like I am back in the late winter of 2020, when Prince Edward Island’s legendary natural beauty was overtaken by crusty late-winter snow and grey, barren trees, and our family went on long walks through empty streets and lonely trails just to avoid being inside another hour.

But it is the second chorus that captures in just a few words that depressive, dislocated, drudgerly, deadening feeling that haunted me through those months:

It’s the end of the world
Oh sweet quarantine
I try to write new songs but all I want to do is sleep

All parental pride aside, I think it is brilliant.

So I encourage you to check it out. Nicolas’ “linktree” gives links to stream the song on your favourite platforms, like Spotify, Youtube, Apple Music, and Bandcamp–where you can support his music by purchasing the song. You can also find his social media links there. 

Spread the news: artists, musicians, and writers rely on you sharing their work on social media. Scholars too–which is why I have worked for more than a decade to make A Pilgrim in Narnia an accessible, no-limits, ad-free source for scholarship and artistry. As readers, music-lover, art appreciators, you can do your part by sharing.

“Sweet Quarantine” by Nicolas Riel

It’s the end of the world
And I’ve been thinking of you
I go to bed at daylight and I stay in bed ’til moonlight
Cause I’ve got nothing to do

Oh, the grass is never green this time of year
When the snow stops falling,
And my mind stops thinking clear
You can write me if you want,
I can be your confidant
But listen baby I’ve been thinking
I don’t want your social distance

It’s the end of the world
Bittersweet sixteenth
The slow recession and great depression
Keeps my eyes glued on you

It’s the end of the world
Oh sweet quarantine
I try to write new songs but all I want to do is sleep
I’ve been dreaming of you, have you been dreaming of me?
Six feet further, six feet under,
Six feet closer to the end

Written by Nicolas Dickieson and Andrew Waite

Performed by Nicolas Dickieson, Sergey Varlamov, Jonathan MacInnis and Josh MacNeil

Engineered by Sergey Varlamov at Crabbe Road Studio

Posted in Feature Friday, News & Links | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2022: My Year in Books: The Infographic

Happy New Year, everyone! I am once again assembling the “reading nerd data” in an upcoming post. I love charts. And behind every chart is a great spreadsheet. I guess I just love spreadsheets.

Meanwhile, as is my tradition, I wanted to share the Goodreads “My Year in Books” infographic with some brief reflections and book discoveries. For the first time in a few years, I have to confess that I fell short of most of my goals this year–with a few exceptions. Still, the year has some lessons–and I hope some invitations to great book ideas for you, the reader of A Pilgrim in Narnia.

“You’re really good at reading, and probably a lot of other things, too!” Well shucks, thanks for the encouragement Goodreads! In 2021, I was focused on learning more about my strengths and weaknesses as a reader, writer, teacher, leader, and friend. In 2022, I completely failed to apply these lessons! Instead, 2022 was a year of survival. Most of my reading was about work–writing and teaching, especially–or imaginative escape. In previous years, I have focussed quite a lot on self-development. While there are threads of those kinds of books–and my life is designed to learn and grow from all of my reading–2022 was the least growth-centred year I’ve experienced in as long as I’ve been tracking what I read.

On paper, 133 books read looks quite great (actually, I read a couple of other books for review, which I don’t publish). In terms of yearly reading goals, the book number is right on. I had set a goal for 132–knowing that I’ll probably never repeat my 2019 success again–that period where I was at the most productive time in my PhD thesis writing. My natural rhythm is not 154 books per year, but 117-138–with an average of 129 books.

While these graphs look impressive, reading-wise, I have learned that I am lazier than I would wish. I yearn to recover that dynamic, all-engrossing ability I had as a young adult to simply immerse myself in a book! Part of my goal for 2022 was to look for bedtime readings that enthrall me. Instead, in the last half of 2022, bedtime reading for me was about rest and refreshment, not adventure or challenge.

Thus, while I tend to use the book list and page number count to motivate me, all of that fell by the wayside in 2022. In terms of sheer page number count, I turned fewer pages than in any of the five previous years (about 39,500 with review reading). As a result, I saw a huge drop in the average size of books, down to 295 pages/book (from 315 last year).

For the most part, the books I chose to read in 2022 were great. I have been openly mocked for my over-exuberant ratings, usually swinging between 4.0 and 4.2 stars, on average. I rate books too highly–even though I am trying to be tougher–to reassert 3 stars as a good book that either didn’t fully connect with me or has some correctable flaws. This inflationary star-number rating culture comes from my years ranking music, where 5-star reviews go to songs I want to hear most often, rather than a rating for the genius and exceptional works that land in my feed.

To be fair, I try not to read books that warrant 1, 2, or even 3 stars. My fiction and self-learning DNF pile is high. Unless I am made to do so by contract, I simply won’t read something that isn’t good–though inevitably, the 3-star books land on my desk. Often, my 3-star books are simply things I’ve read that I’m disappointed in. In 2022, I started and then set aside at least 20 books that I simply did not want to read. Instead, I picked up books I have loved from the past. Fully 55% (74) books in 2022 were rereads for me (especially C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Octavia Butler, L.M. Montgomery, Terry Pratchett, Nnedi Okorafor, and J.K. Rowling–and I would have read more Jane Austen, Stephen King, and Ursula K. Le Guin by audiobook if I had had the time).

Those are my 5-star book friends–and I would add others to the clique, like Frederick Buechner, Marilynne Robinson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Flannery O’Connor, N.K. Jemisin, Margaret Atwood, Shūsaku Endō, Madeleine L’Engle, Anne Rice, Charlotte Brontë, and Haruki Murakami.

Similar to last year, my list is dominated by C.S. Lewis (18 books, including 2 read twice) and L.M. Montgomery (18 books). In 2021, I focussed on Ursula K. Le Guin (22 books, with 2 read twice), and I finished a couple of others in 2022–though none of my favourite fiction.

Once again, I attempted a Shakespeare play a month (trying to include a couple of biographies and some lectures or background reading. And like the previous two years in my Shakespeare Play of the Month challenge, I failed. In 2022, I only read 5 plays–and these were all in the first half of the year, and included rereading 3 of my favourites. Oh well, here’s to 2023! I do still want to complete Shakespeare’s catalogue so I can pretend less at parties and lit-prof gatherings.

I did, however, manage to entwine Macbeth with teaching and a struggle with sleeplessness in early 2022, which resulted in a couple of my favourite blog posts of the year: “‘But then begins a journey in my head’: Shakespeare’s Haunting Poetry of Sleeplessness” and “Thoughts from Different Angles on Joel Coen’s Macbeth with Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, and Is This Why I Can’t Sleep?

Have I mentioned that I struggled in 2022 to come up with snappy, short blog-post titles?

Another notoriously long-named piece is “Thoughts on Classic and Contemporary SF vs. Fantasy Hugo Best Novel Award Winners while Failing to Write a Review of a Great Book that was not Nominated.” I think that post captures my 2022 journey in reading fairly well! It also meant that I fell away from my newly developed habit of keeping up with the Hugo Novel Award nominees. We’ll see what the new year brings when it comes to new brings, but I would like to keep up with new-writing authors like Rebecca Roanhorse, N.K. Jemisin, Tamsyn Muir, Martha Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Susanna Clarke. Clarke’s Hugo-nominated Piranesi was such an astounding work of fiction that I am reading it for a second time, this time with a rich audio reading by Chiwetel Ejiofor.

I try to read good books. Why do anything else?

My highlights from 2022 include faithful rereads and new discoveries: 

  • In literary criticism, I once again turned to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’ gorgeously designed and well-written transmedial study in critical race, reader-response, and feminist theory, The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games. Getting to chat with Ebony when we were both guests of honour at Mythmoot VII in 2021 was pretty cool, and I was able to use her work in my Fall 2022 curriculum. That sent me back again to Toni Morrison’s powerful lecture series-née-book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (which was also my first review of 2021).
  • Actually, 2022 was a “refreshing the spirit” literary criticism reading year for me, including returning to works by Elizabeth R. Epperly, Diana Glyer, Donna J. Haraway, Stephanie L. Derrick, Marsha Daigle-Williamson, and C.S. Lewis.
  • One of my favourite lit crit/bio surprise discoveries of 2022 was John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved (2012). Super fun and intriguing work that enhanced my reading.
  • Another great discovery was William Cronon’s now-classic environmental history, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1992). Cronon is such a great data-centred storyteller.
  • Because of my mental exhaustion this year, I struggled with authors I have traditionally loved, like Albert Camus, Anne Rice, Angela Carter, Sir Thomas More, Jonathan Swift, Goethe, Franz Kafka, and Jorge Luis Borges (though he is still pretty great taken in small bites). Even Flannery O’Connor, who I think is brilliant, was less flavourful to me this year.
  • By contrast, I binged Dorothy L. SayersLord Peter Wimsey mysteries in late Autumn, which I found deeply refreshing.
  • Successfully completing Cervantes’ Don Quixote was a highlight for me in 2022. I blogged about it with cat poetry, which I think is fitting.
  • I read no full books from the medieval world or antiquity. Weird.
  • In terms of full theological works, I failed utterly in my reading goal of one theology book a month (that doesn’t fit under other categories). I had quite a few great books queued up, but I simply lacked the mental space to penetrate them (or allow them to penetrate them).
  • Most of my reading is theologically informed, however. I was able to use an invitation by the Atlantic School of Theology to teach an online short course to deepen my theological focus on L.M. Montgomery. “Spirituality in the Writing of L.M. Montgomery” was super popular, with more than 75 participants, and gave me permission to dive deep into text that we might too easily dismiss as being unsophisticated kids’ books, like Anne of Green Gables, Anne’s House of Dreams, Rainbow Valley, The Story Girl, and Emily of New Moon.
  • On the heels of this course, in June 2022, I presented a paper at the L.M. Montgomery Institute’s 15th Biennial International Conference. While my presentation was a bit more focused than my proposal (see here), “Reverent Irreverence: Images of God and Montgomery’s ‘Pilgrims on the Golden Road of Youth’” allowed me to do a very cool theological close reading of the early chapters of Anne of Green Gables. I have the notes written up for the chapter, but I am trying to think about whether there is a better mode of sharing that work.
  • The Montgomery conference was where I officially received my Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper for my reading of Anne’s House of Dreams as theodicy–which was the background to one of the short course units.
  • My 2022 reading was far richer than past years in terms of ecology and creation care. More of this anon!
  • I had set a goal of one BIPOC author a month with the goal of stretching my experience a bit. While I came close to that goal, it was really by reading authors I knew already: Robin Wall Kimmerer, Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Toni Morrison, etc.
  • I read several new or newish Inklings studies critical texts this year that range from interesting to excellent. These include Hal Poe’s trilogy of new C.S. Lewis biographies, and studies by Jason M. Baxter, James Como, Gina Dalfonzo, Mark Vernon, John Garth, Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, and Charlie Starr. I also read some critical C.S. Lewis studies that I had never completely finished during my PhD, including work by Sharon Jebb, Doris T. Myers, and (in progress) Paul Holmer.
  • In teaching a new approach to Narnia in early 2022–a course on Narnia and Communication, Leadership, and Culture at UPEI–I not only had one of the greatest teaching experiences of my life, but was also refreshed by reading the Narniad in a new way.
  • While I usually share my “5-star Surprises” with readers, this year, only two works of new-to-me fiction made it to my 5-star list: Cervantes’ Don Quixote from the early 17th century, and The Blue Moth Motel by Olivia Robinson from 2021. Admittedly, Don Quixote is one of the greats and Olivia Robinson is a past student of mine, so these “5-star Surprises” might be a bit biased. Still, I loved reading both of these books (in quite different ways).

Here is the rest of the infographic and stay tuned for more!

 

Posted in News & Links | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A Brace of Tolkien Posts for his 131st Birthday (#TolkienBirthdayToast)

As J.R.R. Tolkien was born about 68,899,680 minutes ago, the Tolkien Society is once again raising a toast to the Professor on his birthday, 3 January 2022 (see here). After Bilbo left the Shire on his eleventy-first birthday in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo toasted his uncle’s birthday each year, which he shared. Tolkien fans continue the tradition for the maker of Middle-earth on this day. J.R.R. Tolkien was born in South Africa on 3 January 1892, making this (if he had had Hobbitish longevity), his 131st. The Tolkien Society invites us to celebrate the birthday by raising a glass at 9pm your local time, simply toasting “The Professor!”

In honour of Tolkien’s birthday, each year, I update the catalogue of Tolkien posts featured here on A Pilgrim in Narnia. Even though 2022 was a content-light year, I wrote or rewrote 7 Tolkien-related articles, reflections, reviews, or blog posts, and I reblogged one new essay.

Tolkien posts continue to be popular at A Pilgrim in Narnia. In 2022, 4 of the top 15 most-read posts are about Tolkien. One of the most viewed posts of 2020–my tribute to Christopher Tolkien–was also popular this past year. However, by far the most popular Tolkien post of 2022 was my “Approaching The Silmarillion for the First Time“–even though it is only the 12th most popular Pilgrim post of all time. Despite being nearly 5 years old, half of its 10,000 views came in the last half of 2022.

Also in the 12 Most-read Pilgrim in Narnia Posts of all time are a pair of articles inspired by Tolkien’s correspondence: “The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life” is #7 with 13,500 views; and “The Tolkien Letter that Every Lover of Middle-earth Must Read” is at #9 with nearly 12,000 views. Undoubtedly, Tolkien-inspired pieces remain popular with regular and new readers of the blog.

That said, it was a hard year for me, Tolkienistically speaking. As I was supervising Tolkien projects and preparing to speak at Tolkienmoot this summer, I had the pleasure of rereading The Silmarillion, Sauron Defeated, and Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth in 2022–as well as a few other points in the Middle-earth legendarium (e.g., see here). However, I wasn’t able to make space this year to write about my thoughts, or to read either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit. These are the stories that truly refresh my spirit and invite joy, so it was a sad loss for me.

And despite my deep desire to do so, I could not make serious headway with the new nonfiction collection edited by Carl Hostetter, The Nature of Middle-earth.

Moreover, while I began the year with the hopeful news of a new Tolkien adaptation, the digital debate was frequently infused with invective designed to strike at the most intimate parts of our human beingness. I became ashamed of my own literary, religious, and activist communities as everything turned sour. I lost heart. Despite a dozen attempts to rewrite my “Approaching The Silmarillion for the First Time” article and provide an update to my “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Texts on The (Down)Fall of Númenor” piece (following great reader notes and the release of the Brian Sibley edited, The Fall of Númenor), I simply could not complete anything.

Wisely, perhaps, I stepped out of the conversation–in social media, certainly, but also here on A Pilgrim in Narnia and in my friendship groups. I also stopped watching the Rings of Power Amazon Prime serial. While I have been called immoral and disloyal for it, I have found that adaptations on the stage, in film or on television, and by audiobook can enrich my experience of reading the texts that are most meaningful for me. So, I look forward to the season ahead, when I can return to the simple pleasures of reading beyond the courts of rage.

For in A Pilgrim in Narnia, I desire to curate a space for people who love the simple pleasures of a well-told story and a well-built world. Thus, this “brace” of Tolkien posts. There are now over 110 article links listed here–far more than a brace, methinks. So I hope this great feast of guest bloggers, hot links, and feature posts will complement your Tolkien reading and inspire you to widen and deepen your Tolkienaphilia. And, of course, a glass raised to the Professor for all of the 6835 weeks since his birth, and doubtless 6835 weeks of great reading to come.

Frodo, Sam and Gollum in Ithilien

Tolkien’s Ideas at Work in Word

Tolkien’s work is rich with reflections on the world around us. In posts like “Let Folly Be Our Cloak: Power in the Lord of the Rings” and “Affirming Creation in LOTR” (updated in 2021), I explore themes related to ideas that are central to Tolkien’s beliefs. The latter idea, creation and good things green, is covered also with Samwise Gamgee here and with Radagast the Brown here. One that resonates long after the first reading is the theme of Providence, which I explore in “Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark” (updated for Hobbit Day 2021 here).

I would also encourage readers to check out the annual J.R.R. Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature at Pembroke College, Oxford. Tolkien editor and historical fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay was the 2021 lecturer which I talk about here: “Just Enough Light: Some Thoughts on Fantasy and Literature.”

One surprising connection was “Simone de Beauvoir and the Keyspring of the Lord of the Rings“–a pairing that many would find unusual and includes some great old footage. Guest blogger Trish Lambert rounded out the discussion with “Friendship Over Family in Lord of the the Rings.” Author Tim Willard talks about “Eucatastrophe: J.R.R Tolkien & C.S. Lewis’s Magic Formula for Hope.” And you can follow Stephen Winter’s LOTR thought project here and Luke Shelton’s Tolkien Experience Project here.

Perhaps Tolkien’s most central contribution beyond the storied world is his idea of subcreation in the poem, “Mythopoeia” and in other works like the essay, “On Fairy-stories” and the allegorical short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” I have been reading a lot about this concept–partly because of students working on the idea–and appreciated poet-philosopher Malcolm Guite’s take on it here.

I have admitted before that my Tolkien thinking-out-loud is pure enjoyment. I don’t pretend to have much original to say on the scholarly level. My most important contribution, I think, is my Theology on Tap talk, called “A Hobbit’s Theology,” which I rewrote in 2021 for Northwind Theological Seminary’s doctoral degree in Romantic Theology (which has a Tolkien studies track). It is one of the ideas I am struggling with most specifically in my academic work, and I hope to do some future writing on the topic. Out of that same lecture series came this piece, “‘Small’ and ‘Little’, a Literary Experiment on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit,” where I used some word-date analysis by Sparrow Alden and her “Words That You Were Saying” Tolkien word-study blog.

Sparrow’s research, I should note, is part of a strong community of Tolkien digital humanities research (e.g., Emil Johansson’s LOTRProject, or Chiara Palladino and James Tauber’s , or Joe Hoffman’s blog, or this resource list here), and is definitely worth checking out.

In a similar mode–thinking of Tolkien’s work through a theological lens–is Mickey Corso’s excellent work on Tolkien and Catholicism. The entire video conversation of “The Lady and Our Lady: Galadriel as a ‘Reflexion’ of Mary,” A Signum Thesis Theatre on Tolkien and Catholicism by Mickey Corso, is now online. In this mode, I blogged “’Joy Beyond the Walls of the World, Poignant as Grief,’” a conversation between J.R.R. Tolkien and Frederick Buechner. As a Tolkien Easter reflection, I reblogged Wade archivist Laura Schmidt’s piece, “Wounds that Never Fully Heal.” Also, check out a couple of video conversations: “Inklings of Imagination” with myself, Malcolm Guite, and Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson on the theological imagination, and “Imaginative Hospitality” from a theological angle with Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, Diana Glyer, Michael Ward, and Fr. Andrew Cuneo.

Tolkien as a Writer

I remain fascinated by Tolkien’s development as an author, and spent some time of late exploring the theme. The most popular of the pieces I wrote was the coyly titled, “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings.” The reason is, of course, not all that shocking, but could be helpful for the subcreators amongst us. Two more substantial posts on the topic are “12 Reasons not to Write Lord of the Rings, or an Ode Against the Muses” and “The Stories before the Hobbit: Tolkien Intertextuality, or the Sources behind his Diamond Waistcoat.”

C.S. Lewis took an interest as well in Tolkien’s formation (see “Book Reviews” below). You can read more about it in Diana Pavlac Glyer’s Bandersnatch, and in this blog post, “‘So Multifarious and So True’: The C.S. Lewis Blurb for the Fellowship of the Ring.” Lewis’ support for Tolkien did not go unrewarded. Besides the great joy of Tolkien’s work, there was a time when Tolkien interceded a time or two on Lewis’ behalf. Friendship goes both ways. Tolkien historian John Garth takes some time to explore this literary friendship further in his detailed explanation of “When Tolkien reinvented Atlantis and Lewis went to Mars.”

One post from 2018 created a lot of (pretty positive) controversy. In “Lewis, Tolkien and Different Views of Fan Fiction” I invited thought about two trends: Tolkien readers’ resistance to fan fiction (in concert with Tolkien himself), and a strong trend of good fanfiction from Tolkien lovers. The post is worth reading, but so are the 100+ comments. But my most substantial and original written piece on Tolkien’s writing, I think, is the 2020 article, “Trees, Leaves, Vines, Circles: The Layered Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fiction, A Note on ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth,’” which includes art by Emily Austin.

And one of the more popular posts of 2016 was a very personal one about me as a writer and researcher, “Battling a Mountain of Neglect with J.R.R. Tolkien.” Though I am still not sure if I should have written that post, it has connected with readers. In retrospect, 2016 was a very difficult year in many ways.

The Tolkien Letter Series

Tolkien’s letters remain a rich resource for researchers that is available to everyday readers–and usually available used for a pretty cheap price. In these letters, I discovered the tidbits on writing above, as well as notes like “The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life” (which remains a top 10 post). But it goes much deeper. In “The Tolkien Letter that Every Lover of Middle-Earth Must Read“–also a top 10 post–I include much of a draft that Tolkien wrote to a Mrs. Mitchison that fills in much of the background to Middle-earth. I also took the time to put Tolkien’s great “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)” quotation in context, which I updated in 2020 with a note on books and their authors.

A more sober but quite moving letter is the one that I featured in this popular post from fall 2018: “The Last Letter of J.R.R. Tolkien, on the 45th Anniversary of His Death.” It is a post to read when raising a toast. And now, with the passing of Christopher Tolkien, son of the genius, I have added a second toasting post. In my 2020 tribute piece, Christopher Tolkien, Curator of Middle-earth, Has Died, there is also a pretty poignant letter from his father. I hope you enjoy it.

The letters afforded me some time to think about some other ideas. In a longer popular post that any conlanger will know is poorly named–“Why Tolkien Thought Fake Languages Fail“–I discussed Tolkien’s own constructed language program and surmised with the Professor that conlangs fail when they lack a mythic element. I think I am mostly correct. And the essay is quite fun, even if I am missing some key elements. I was able to push further when I did a personal response to new Tolkien language research in this post: “J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Secret Vice” and My Secret Love: Thoughts on Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins’ Critical Edition of A Secret Vice: Tolkien on Invented Language.”

Recently, I was thinking through the relationship between C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot. In the midst of that search, I found Tolkien’s 30 August 1964 letter to Anne Barrett of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin. On the anniversary of that letter, I shared this piece: “Great and Little Men: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letter about C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot.” As with much of Tolkien’s praise of Lewis, there is a slighting comment or two. And yet, it is a powerful bit of testimony to the content of C.S. Lewis’ character, in his friend’s estimation. In this vein, check out “C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Friendship, True Myth, And Platonism,” an academic paper by Justin Keena published here on A Pilgrim in Narnia.

Finally, a little fun with the post, “When Sam Gamgee Wrote to J.R.R. Tolkien.” As you might guess, it is about a real-life Sam Gamgee who sends a note to the maker of Middle-earth. And, of course, when the season of advent returns, check out the Father Christmas Letters. While there are others with better Father Christmas Letters posts and articles, my piece got picked up on Reddit in 2021, so I touched it up again for that Christmas day reading.

The Silmarillion Project

This is a newish feature for me, partly because 2017 was the year I completed The Silmarillion in its entirety in a single reading (rather than the higgledy-piggledy approach of cherry-picking stories and languishing in the mythic portions, as I am wont to do). I reread it in early 2020, this time by audiobook, and enjoyed it deeply. Still, I find it a challenge. I thought I would take advantage of my status as a Silm-struggler to offer suggestions and resources to people looking to extend their reading of the Legendarium.

In “Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time,” I made a handful of suggestions for readers intending to read this peculiar book for the first time. If you are a fellow Silm-struggler, I hope this helps you get a fuller experience of a beautiful collection of texts. That experience inspired me to write “A Call for a Silmarillion Talmud,” an unusual post for Tolkienists with more creative and technological skills to consider.

Finally, I had to write as a fan and as a scholar together in considering the cycle of Lúthien and Beren. In “Of Beren and Lúthien, Of Myth and the Worlds We Love,” I talk about my love of the story and its links to the Legendarium while noting my hope for the 2017 release of the Beren and Lúthien materials and sharing some Silmarillion-inspired artwork.

Thinking about Tolkien Studies

Over the last few years, I have slowly been gathering an understanding of Tolkien studies as a discipline. I am far for an expert, but I have been struck by the strongest Tolkien books and essays I have encountered. Verlyn Flieger‘s Splintered Light is a lyrically beautiful critical study: it is tight and thematically vibrant, invested in the entire corpus and yet completely accessible as a single study of light and darkness. John Garth‘s Tolkien and the Great War is not simply one of the best Tolkien historical works I have read, and is by far my favourite study on WWI. There are numerous strong medievalist approaches to and with Tolkien, and Tom Shippey is a Tolkien scholar of great clarity and energy. Among younger scholars, I greatly admire Dimitra Fimi’s Mythopoeic Award-winning Tolkien, Race, and Cultural History: From Fairies to Hobbits, and I carefully watch what her students and colleagues are doing.

Inspired by this work–and a sense of frustration in Lewis studies–I began reflecting on Tolkien Studies in 2021. The result was a somewhat saucy but generally thoughtful series on “Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship?”, in three parts, and among the top Tolkien-related posts of the last year:

You can read a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response by Joe Hoffman that I quite like through “The Idiosopher’s Razor: The Missing Element in Metacritical Analysis of Tolkien and Lewis Scholarship.”

My work turned out to be once again relevant as “Tolkien Studies Projects Swept the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award Shortlist in Inklings Studies.” While my vote was for Garth’s The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien (see my blog post on the results here), the 2021 winner was John M. Bowers for Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer. A smart and helpful book from a Chaucer specialist who came to love Tolkien’s work later in life, I wrote a substantial review and response, “The Doom and Destiny of Tolkien’s Chaucer Research: A Note on John M. Bowers, Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer,” after working through the text while teaching Chaucer locally.

Interested in continuing to resource Inklings readers, I published “5 Ways to Find Open Source Academic Research on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings“–a living post that I have updated as scholars and librarians have written in. And I have edited and published a guest essay by G. Connor Salter, “Lewis and Tolkien among American Evangelicals“–an interesting contribution to reception studies.

Reading Tolkien in Community

One of my first digital exchanges was participating in The Hobbit Read Along–you can still see the great collection of posts online. As I was doing this shared project, I was reading The Hobbit to my 8-year-old son. It was a great experience, but I made the mistake of doing accents to distinguish characters early on in the book. That’s fine when you’ve got oafish trolls or prim little hobbits. But a baker’s dozen of dwarfs stretched my abilities! You can read about my reading-aloud adventures here.

In reading aloud, I was really struck by the theme of providence in The Hobbit. I’m sure others have talked about it, but “Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (Chapter 5)” is a great example of that hand of guidance behind the scenes (touched up for Hobbit Day in 2021).

In 2021, I used Tolkien Reading Day (March 25th) to share some of my fun Tolkien bookstore discoveries and to think about Tolkien’s audiobooks as “adaptations” or interpretations: “Reading J.R.R. Tolkien by Audiobook and Adaptation: Thoughts on a Portland Discovery.” In this piece, I talk about The Green Hand in Portland, ME, and how at Enterprise Records, I found a beautiful library withdrawal vinyl collection of the Nicol Williamson’s abridged reading of The Hobbit. Spinning this record, and thinking about Andy Serkis’ version of The Hobbit, I discuss what audiobook readings do for me on an imaginative level. I also talk about some of my Tolkien collectable books that I’ve discovered hither and yon. None of these are super valuable: a US 1st edition of The Silmarillion that I got for $10 at a used bookstore (and I added a UK 1st edition this year for $20), a nice boxed illustrated anniversary edition of The Hobbit, the original wide-sized printing of the Tolkien-illustrated Mr. Bliss, and my UK 2nd edition Lord of the Rings, which looks nice on the shelf. Truth be told, I also love the design of the Middle-earth volumes from the last decade or so, and my wife and I were pleased to give our son hardcover editions of Beren and Lúthien and The Fall of Gondolin for Christmas.

The Hobbit - The Battle of the Five Armies - Evangeline Lilly

Film Reviews

When the teaser trailer of the third film, The Battle of Five Armies, was released, I wrote “Faint Hope for The Hobbit.” Although it is clear in the trailers that this is a war and intrigue film, I still had some hope I would enjoy it. The huge comment section shows in that post shows that not everyone agreed it was possible!

My review of An Unexpected Journey captures the tug back and forth I feel about the films. I called it “Not All Adventures Begin Well,” and it is a much more positive review than many of the hardcore Tolkien fans or academics. And it gives this cool dwarf picture:

What Have We Done?” These words are breathed in the dying moments of the second installation of The Hobbit adaptation, The Desolation of Smaug. In this review, I think about what it means to do film adaptations. While I do not hate this Hobbit trilogy, I think that Peter Jackson just got lost a bit.

When I finally got to The Battle of 5 Armies, I decided it would be fun to do a Battle of 5 Blogs. 5 other bloggers joined it, making it a Battle of 6 Blogs! But the armies are pretty tough to count, anyhow. I titled my blog “The Hobbit as Living Text.” It was a controversial approach to the film, I know. Make sure you check out the other reviewer’s link here. Some of us chatted about the films in an All About Jack Podcast, which you can hear here and here.

While these aren’t substantial reviews, I featured two indie films: a documentary on Tolkien’s Great War, and a fictional biopic recreating Tolkien’s invention of Middle Earth called Tolkien’s Roadboth inspired, perhaps, by John Garth’s work.

Though the Hobbit films were unsatisfying, I still miss having a Tolkien-Peter Jackson epic to watch in theatre at Christmastime. 2019 supplied us, though, with the Tolkien biopic. Besides posting the trailers, I did lead-up posts like “Getting Ready for TOLKIEN: John Garth and Other Resources.” I still encourage people to read John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War before watching the film, but I am not like many Tolkien fans who simply could not connect with the film. I reviewed it in three different ways, in three different places:

As I discussed above, I have decided to reserve judgment on the new Amazon Prime Rings of Power series–though I was excited enough to share the title announcement on the Blog nearly a year ago. Even with the announcement of the trailer, I could sense the tensions around the project and was trying to find a way through it. When I do write about the Rings of Power adaptation, it is likely that I will be too late to be relevant! I am quite fine with that.

While I fled the Rings of Power arenas of debate, I was speaking at Tolkienmoot in 2022 on the Second Age of Middle-earth, and specifically the dissipation of Númenor. Thus my “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Texts on The (Down)Fall of Númenor” piece was anticipating both the Rings of Power series and the The Fall of Númenor, and Other Tales from the Second Age of Middle-earth edited by Brian Sibley, but was also the result of my thinking about that fine summer meeting.

Book Reviews

secret_vice

There was no greater friend of The Hobbit in the early days than C.S. Lewis. In “The Unpayable Debt of Writing Friends,” I talk about how, if it wasn’t for Lewis, Tolkien might never have finished The Hobbit, and the entire Lord of the Rings legendarium would be in an Oxford archive somewhere. Lewis not only encouraged the book to completion but reviewed The Hobbit a few times. Here is his review in The Times Literary Supplement.

Lewis is not the only significant reviewer of The Hobbit. When he was 8, my son Nicolas published his review, just as the first film was coming to the end of its run. When I was posting Nicolas’ review, I came across another young fellow–the son of Stanley Unwin, the first publisher to receive the remarkable manuscript of The Hobbit. Unsure how children would respond, he paid his son, Rayner, to write a response to the book. You can read about it here: “The Youngest Reviewers Get it Right, or The Hobbit in the Hands of Young Men.”

I have also done more book reviewing in the last couple of years on this blog. I note Fimi & Higgins’ “Secret Vice” above, as well as my review of Bower on Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer. I reviewed Verlyn Flieger’s edition of Tolkien’s The Story of Kullervo, which I quite loved. I also reblogged John Garth’s review of Tolkien’s Lay of Aotrou and Itrou–also edited by Flieger, and also gorgeous.

Tolkien and Art

I am fascinated by Tolkien’s own artwork. In some of the Tolkien letters we find out how his humble drawings came to be published with the children’s tale. I decided, though, that I wanted to explore it a little more, and so I wrote, “Drawing the Hobbit.”

There have been many other illustrators since–including Peter Jackson, whose work as a whole is visually stunning, even for those who don’t feel he was true to the books. One of my favourites was captured in this reblog, “Russian Medievalist Tolkien“–a gorgeous collection of Sergey Yuhimov’s interpretation of The Hobbit.

With the great new editions of unpublished Tolkien by his son, we also get to see some of Tolkien’s original art. I continue to be fascinated by this dragon drawing. What an evocation of the Würme in medieval literature! 

I was also blessed throughout the year to wander through two beautiful and rich newish Tolkien books: John Garth‘s The World of J.R.R. Tolkien and the Bodleian Library exhibit text, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, edited by Catherine McIlywaine.

I know that the world of Tolkien art is rich beyond my imagination. However, I would like to note that (with permission) I have been using some of Emily Austin’s Inklings-inspired art in my lectures, and keep her 2018 “Niggle’s Country” in my office.

Tolkien’s Worlds and World-building

radagast-the-brown

I would like to spend more time thinking about the speculative universes of J.R.R. Tolkien. Meanwhile, I would encourage you to read Jubilare’s reblog of the Khazâd series. It’s just the first of a great series, but shows you a bit of the depth of Tolkien’s world behind the world. In reading up on the Wizards of Middle Earth–the Brown, the White, the Grey, and the two Blues–it struck me how relevant Radagast the Brown is to us today. I take some time here to put a comment that Lewis made about Tolkien’s work in the context of other speculative writers, especially J.K. Rowling.

You can also check out the work of people like the Tolkienist, the links on the Tolkien Transactions to catch what kinds of conversations are about these days, or the academic work of people like David Russell Mosley. And, of course, we are all interested in Tolkien’s work on Beowulf. I read it in 2017 for the free SignumU three-lecture class with Tom Shippey, which is now free on the SignumU youtube channel. Signum continues to offer an MA in Tolkien Studies, and you can feel free to reach out to me for information.

While the Inklings and King Arthur series in Winter 2017 touched on Tolkien all throughout, there are two posts of particular interest. Prof. Ethan Campbell writes about “Wood-Woses: Tolkien’s Wild Men and the Green Knight,” and intertextuality expert Dale Nelson writes about “Tiny Fairies: J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘Errantry’ and Martyn Skinner’s Sir Elfadore and Mabyna.” Beyond these, we are always on the lookout for new research. So check out the Signum University thesis theatre with Rob Gosselin. I chatted with Rob about his MA thesis on “J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sub-creative Vision: Exploring the Capacity and Applicability in Tolkien’s Concept of Sub-creation.” It’s not only a great conversation about world-building, but a very personal one.

Finally, this post includes resources for Tolkien readers (in conversation with Ursula K. Le Guin): “John Garth, Maximilian Hart, Kris Swank, and Myself on Ursula K. Le Guin, Language, Tolkien, and World-building.”

And Just For Fun….

Well, before the fun but still interesting, I hope, is my post “Stephen Colbert, Anderson Cooper, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien & Me: Thoughts on Grief.” Not super heavy on Tolkien, but we do know that Stephen Colbert is a fan. 2020 also saw two new pieces on Tolkien’s friendships. One was Pilgrim favourite Diana Glyer on The Babylon Bee, talking about “The Tolkien and Lewis Bromance.” The other piece on friendship is “C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Friendship, True Myth, And Platonism,” a Paper by Justin Keena. This was the top guest post of 2020, and one of the few times a long, academic paper had gotten a lot of traction on A Pilgrim in Narnia. I think that is a testimonial to Justin’s work, but also a comment about how readers like that Lewis-Tolkien connection that I’ve brought out in some of those letter posts noted above.

For the fun of it…. Weirdly, the top 2019 Tolkien post is my note on “Philip Pullman as a Reader of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.” It’s short and light and good to get the blood-boiling.

And have you caught my post-Mythmoot post, “The First Animated Hobbit, and Other Notes of Tolkienish Nonsense“? Terribly awesome, awesomely terrible.

Oh, plus this. Or this!

Posted in News & Links, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Thoughts on Classic and Contemporary SF vs. Fantasy Hugo Best Novel Award Winners while Failing to Write a Review of a Great Book that was not Nominated

Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb Series is a discovery from my stint as a Hugo Award panellist in 2020 and 2021–the years that Gideon the Ninth (book 1) and Harrow the Ninth (book 2) were nominated. As much as I loved these books–and even though I was defending gorgeous, award-deserving books like Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January and Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi–they did not win the Hugos (though Gideon the Ninth won a few other awards, including the Locus best first novel).

While I can occasionally pick a Hugo winner, it is clear to me that my vision of “Novel of the Year” is often different than that of the Worldcon membership as a whole. I am a wee bit out of step, it seems.

SciFi books have dominated the Hugos through the decades–except, perhaps, during the first decade of this century, where the Harry Potter effect created a shift in focus. As fantasists, Rowling was joined then by folks like George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and (notably) Susanna Clarke. While I love science fiction as much as fantasy in terms of sheer readerly delight, you have to admit that those fantasy winners are such stellar standouts over the SciFi-winning novels of the period.

Fantasy novels sometimes age better, as well. What I remember of the 2011 list is N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and not the SciFi novel that won–though Charles Stross’ 2006 AI singularity piece, Accelerando, lives still, when other novels of the period have faded in time. Though admittedly not pop-level books, Mary Doria Russell’s passed-over The Sparrow and her 2001-nominated Children of God may end up becoming science fiction classics.

And I must admit that many of the SciFi-weighted winners–and some of those passed over–have become classics or genre standards, like James Blish‘s A Case of Conscience (1959), Robert A. Heinlein‘s Starship Troopers (1960), Stranger in a Strange Land (1962) and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1967), Walter M. Miller, Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1961), Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1963), Frank Herbert’s Dune (1966), Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon (nominated in 1967), Roger Zelazny‘s Lord of Light (1968), Ursula K. Le Guin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness (1970) and The Dispossesed (1975), Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s Slaughterhouse-Five (nominated in 1970), Larry Niven‘s Ringworld (1971), Arthur C. Clarke‘s Rendezvous with Rama (1974), William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1985), Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1986) and Speaker for the Dead (1987), and so on.

Though I loathe Heinlein’s writing, he is the godfather of the Hugos, a giant in his fairly gigantic field. I love most of the books on this list.

Beyond the classics, which take time to settle in, there are times that I resonate with the Hugo choice picks even though I am a little behind the times. N.K. Jemisin, for example, is clearly one of the science fiction greats of the generation. Time will tell if she will stand with the all-time greats, like H.G. WellsRobert A. Heinlein, Ray BradburyArthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Frank HerbertUrsula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, or Octavia E. Butler. With her triple Hugo Award-winning Broken Earth series—the only author to have an entire trilogy win, the only author to win three years in a row, and one of only five writers who have three or more best novel wins—Jemisin is already set apart as a generation-leading SF superstar. While I really struggled with her 2021 Hugo-shortlisted The City We Became–you can see Part 1 and Part 2 of my review–I do thint she deserved her Broken Earth triple win in 2016, 2017, and 2018 (with some hesitancy on the 2017 mid-series novel, The Obelisk Gate).

Women have been dominating the Hugo Novel category since 2016, and completely filled the shortlist of 2020 and 2021 (but not 2022). Sadly, my 2020 novel pick, The Ten Thousand Doors of January, did not win–though I think it to be a lovely and provocative work of fantasy that is both fresh and classic.

My 2021 book pick was a bit of an outlier: Susanna Clarke’s long-awaited novel, Piranesi–a work of such joyful simplicity and philosophical complexity that I have yet to complete my review … even a year later. I keep rewriting it. It seems to be a problem.

Though Piranesi is a standalone story–not a novel … a fairy tale? dream vision? parable?–I felt I needed to finally read Clarke’s vivid, game-changing 2004 Regency-era fantasy, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as background. It was pretty great. This super long novel was the perfect combination of influences for out-of-the-closet Jane Austen-slash-SF lover like myself. Crossing the genre and literary fiction divide, Strange & Norell was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize and won the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel–as well as the World Fantasy Award, the Locus, and the Mythopoeic Award for Adult Lit. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is one of the books that defined the decade of fiction.

Although Piranesi is unusually rich and compelling, except for earning Susanna Clarke the elite 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction and a well-deserved Audie Award for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s audiobook performance, it did not top the major science fiction and fantasy award lists for which it was shortlisted (BFSA, Nebula, World Fantasy Award, Mythopoeic Fantasy Award, and the Hugo Novel). 

Another nominee of 2021, Mary Robinette Kowal’s 2021 Hugo-nominated The Relentless Moon, is not, perhaps, a novel to be remembered in history. However, the first novel in Kowal’s Lady Astronaut Universe, The Calculating Stars, deserved its 2019 Hugo win. While I would not have picked it up based on the book description because it sounded too much like a Netflix-type film with overly beautiful people “making a difference” in a historic moment, The Calculating Stars was for me a refreshing discovery–a classic feeling girl-power SciFi novel with religious and postapocalyptic sympathies in a strong and thoughtful series. 

Also from the 2021 nominee list, SciFi writer Martha Wells has been publishing for decades, including a Nebula nomination in 1999 for The Death of the Necromancer and Hugo nominations and wins for novellas and book series. She carefully shaped the Murderbot Diaries series that includes the 2021 nominee, Network Effect. She also had the entire series nominated in that category.

But this is where I start to pull away from the SF fan moment. While I was able to enjoy Network Effect–and my review essay, “Sarcastabots, The Wall-E Effect, and Finding the Human in Martha Wells’ Network Effect,” is one of the better things I’ve written in the last year or so–I am astounded that it took the Hugo over Piranesi or Rebecca Roanhorse’s astonishing mythological novel, Black Sun.

Seriously, check out my thoughts on Black Sun, because Roanhorse’s mythic fantasy is worthy of its Hugo class. 

I don’t think Network Effect was either the best or the most long-lasting of the novels. I must admit, though, that it was tough to see Tamsyn Muir’s work get passed over again. 

Which brings me to the point of writing today: I sat down to write about the Heroic and Harrowing Features of Tamsyn Muir’s Newest Necromantic Dream Vision, Nona the Ninth, which I loved and found challenging and gorgeous and perverse and troubling. However, I have run out of time for the review itself–and not just because it is a supremely difficult book to review! But partly that. 

So, until I have the time or courage to write my response to Nona the Ninth, I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on the Hugo Awards. While favouring the science fiction side of the speculative seating arrangement, the Hugos have been able to predict future SF classics and discern some of the best of the 21st-century turn to fantasy. While I almost never pick the right winner, the Hugos continually give me a rich reading list that includes some of the best–and some of the very good–works of the generation. 

And, classically, I am already behind! There are 6 SF-heavy 2022 Hugo best novel nominees who have been in the world for months, and I haven’t read a single one.

  • A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine (Tor)
  • The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager / Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Light From Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki (Tor / St Martin’s Press)
  • A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tordotcom / Orbit UK)
  • Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir (Ballantine / Del Rey)
  • She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan (Tor / Mantle)

I guess that’s my Hugo Christmas wish list!

 

Posted in Blogging the Hugos, Fictional Worlds, News & Links, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

New Tolkien book on The Battle of Maldon, together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth

On the heels of The Fall of Númenor: and Other Tales from the Second Age of Middle-earth, here is another great piece of Tolkien publication news!

Anna Smol and the gang at the “Tolkien and Alliterative Verse” blog tipped me off to a new book from HarperCollins in 2023: J.R.R. Tolkien, The Battle of Maldon, together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth. The new volume will be edited by Peter Grybauskas, who has contributed to Tolkien essays in a couple of recent well-edited collections: Baptism of Fire: The Birth of the Modern British Fantastic in World War I (2015) and A Wilderness of Dragons: Essays in Honor of Verlyn Flieger (2018).

This new volume is a real treat for those of us who have loved the poetic and literary critical Tolkien collections that are not always the most popular because they are not primarily Middle-earth materials–books like Kullervo, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Fall of Arthur, the Tree & Leaf and Tolkien Reader collections, the materials in studies like A Secret Vice and On Fairy-Stories, and all the Beowulf materials.

The “Tolkien Collector’s Guide” website includes this description of the forthcoming volume:

First ever standalone edition of one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most important poetic dramas, that explores timely themes such as the nature of heroism and chivalry during war, and which features unpublished and never-before-seen texts and drafts.

In 991 AD, vikings attacked an Anglo-Saxon defence-force led by their duke, Beorhtnoth, resulting in brutal fighting along the banks of the river Blackwater, near Maldon in Essex. The attack is widely considered one of the defining conflicts of tenth-century England, due to it being immortalised in the poem, The Battle of Maldon.

Written shortly after the battle, the poem now survives only as a 325-line fragment, but its value to today is incalculable, not just as an heroic tale but in vividly expressing the lost language of our ancestors and celebrating ideals of loyalty and friendship.

J.R.R. Tolkien considered The Battle of Maldon ‘the last surviving fragment of ancient English heroic minstrelsy’. It would inspire him to compose, during the 1930s, his own dramatic verse-dialogue, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son, which imagines the aftermath of the great battle when two of Beorhtnoth’s retainers come to retrieve their duke’s body.

Leading Tolkien scholar, Peter Grybauskas, presents for the very first time J.R.R. Tolkien’s own prose translation of The Battle of Maldon together with the definitive treatment of The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth and its accompanying essays; also included and never before published is Tolkien’s bravura lecture, ‘The Tradition of Versification in Old English’, a wide-ranging essay on the nature of poetic tradition. Illuminated with insightful notes and commentary, he has produced a definitive critical edition of these works, and argues compellingly that, Beowulf excepted, The Battle of Maldon may well have been ‘the Old English poem that most influenced Tolkien’s fiction’, most dramatically within the pages of The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien and Alliterative Verse

Thanks to the Tolkien Guide, we have an announcement of a forthcoming book that will be important for the study of Tolkien’s alliterative verse: The Battle of Maldon together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, edited by Peter Grybauskas and to be published by HarperCollins in March 2023.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Battle of Maldon together with The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, edited by Peter Grybauskas

According to the pre-publication information, the book will include Tolkien’s lecture on “The Tradition of Versification in Old English,” a valuable resource for those who can’t go to Oxford to read Tolkien’s papers (and let’s face it — that’s most of us!)

Tolkien’s translation of “The Battle of Maldon” was done in prose, most likely as notes for his lectures on the poem. What it says — or doesn’t say — about his interpretation of the word “ofermod,” which is central to his short essay accompanying “The Homecoming,” should be of interest to Tolkien scholars.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think…

View original post 78 more words

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

A Quick Note on the Death of Dreams and Private Career College Corruption

Most readers of A Pilgrim In Narnia will not know that I spent a number of years working as a Researcher and Writer for the Prince Edward Island Government, especially in areas of Higher Education, advanced learning, career training, workforce development, and immigration. I am deeply passionate about helping people find their best vocational space. So, even though government writing is not for me, it was rooted in work I value.

Much of the career training in the US and Canada is provided by Private Training Schools and Private Career Colleges (PTS). These institutions may be new or old, nonprofit or for-profit, local brick-and-mortar schools or online programs (or a combination of the two). PTS provide everything from small program training (e.g., Embalming, Real Estate, Bartending/Mixology, Yoga Instructor Instruction, Language Teaching certifications), to large career programs (e.g., Office Admin, Nursing, Coding, Jazz Trombone, Electrical Engineering, Nuclear Facility Inspection), to academic programs (e.g., Sociology, Counselling, Business, Journalism, Religious Studies, Design, Architecture, Biology, Literature).

Most states and provinces have unique structures of law and policy for administrating higher education–and thus, particular structures for student support within a dynamic and ever-evolving educational marketplace. Thus, it can be difficult for students to navigate PTS and college pathways.

While large-scale fraud is rare in legitimate programs, there are often critical problems. Once again, CBC in Canada has committed to revealing bad practices in career training and doing good work keeping private colleges accountable. Today, CBC Marketplace has released an exposé on CDI College, a huge private, for-profit college in Canada with thousands of students. CDI College has 23 campuses in 5 Canadian provinces (BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec), but not PEI (where I live). CDI has been the subject of other investigative exposés, license investigations, student lawsuits, financial reporting investigations, and international student recruitment and support reviews. Now, they are facing difficult questions about their claims about accreditation and employment outcomes.

How important is the issue of PTS accountability and student protection? In the midst of my PhD, through the illness and death of my mother, in a period where I had books on my heart to write and a family I loved, I invested a huge amount of my time writing Policy, Legislation, and Regulations for Private Training Schools in Prince Edward Island. My hope was that I could help create structures where students could be a bit safer when making choices about where to invest their time and money.

Thus, I am disheartened that one of Canada’s largest educators is alleged to have lied to students about what their expensive education would mean. When you consider program fees and unpaid study time, the cost for students could be disastrous. For example, a one-year $20,000 program also costs $30,000 of lost wages (for a service worker in Canada). Students turning to PTS to make their dreams come true are the least likely to be able to incur $50,000 in meaningless debt.

By contrast, all of the local and online education I have been a part of has been very good to excellent–and often innovative and superior quality–places such as the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI, and the pics in this article are mostly from their gorgeous campus), Maritime Christian College, Signum University, Regent College, The King’s College (NYC), and Atlantic School of Theology.

Here are some quick notes about private colleges and a bit of advice for teachers, students, higher education administrators, and policy writers:

  • “Accreditation” has specific, legal meanings in US and Canada, so ensure the program you are interested in/leading is using the term as defined in your state, province, or territory.
  • Being a state-/province-approved, -regulated, or -legislated university or college is not the same as accreditation.
  • Accreditation is not necessarily essential to what you want to study. However, ensure your training and education match the industry you are entering in terms of degrees, diplomas, credentials, licenses, training units, etc.
  • Not all accreditation certifications have any meaning (e.g., in the US scene, DEAC, ATS, and the Bar are consistent and real, but there are dozens of dodgy ones).
  • In my research, I found that most of the family-owned, small-business private colleges offered good-quality education and training.
  • In my research, I also found that, in general, broader programs (like Office Administration or Computer Training) provided softer programming than state or provincial programs down the street.
  • Ensure your education delivery is designed for that mode (i.e., online training is designed for online learning, not just adapted classroom materials) and matches what you want to learn (i.e., if your education will need hands-on, local, in-class or on-the-job learning, ensure that’s part of the program).
  • In Canada, theological studies may fall under PTS categories or university categories, and may offer training for volunteer/unpaid work (nuns and monks, Sunday School teachers, music program leaders, spiritual directors, etc.) or professional work (pastors, professors, priests, preachers, missionaries, monks and nuns, etc.). For example, in PEI, Maritime Christian College is a denominational theological training school that offers career-path Bachelor degrees as well as certificates of training to support volunteer work. It is the oldest active degree-granting institution and falls under the University Act (with UPEI), while other theological schools would be under the PTS Act I wrote.
  • Despite what the CBC article says, some schools can get accreditation in Canada (e.g., theological schools), but I don’t know of any more traditional career college accreditation systems for entire full-service schools (there were none we could trust during policy research, but you should do research in your state or province).
  • In states and provinces with strong legislation, if a PTS makes any formal or informal claim about employment, credentials, or industry training, that claim must be veridical, confirmable, and evidence-based. Indeed, in most places, false claims may put the PTS is in jeopardy.
  • PEI (and all jurisdictions I know) has a mechanism for student complaints, so reach out to your PTS administrator if you have a concern.
  • I had a great team for writing legislation and policy but fraud is still possible. Quite honestly, we did not find a way to protect students from globally available online education. Thus, in PEI, we rooted our student protection in PTS that are situated here and offering whatever combination of on-campus, in-the-field, and online programs works best for their vocational focus.

I am no longer on any government payroll and am not currently being paid as an expert in this area by anyone. However, I work as a consultant, so I have a vested interest. My interest, however, is really that of a public intellectual, educator, parent, and friend. If we are real-life friends and you have questions about a particular school or training path, email me and we can chat. I am no longer an expert, but I might be able to help. And I would happily speak about the programs I know.

Best wishes everyone!

Posted in Feature Friday | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Happy Birthday L.M. Montgomery! Born on the Imaginative North Shore of Prince Edward Island, My Home

Despite its global celebrity, Prince Edward Island’s north shore remains a largely unknown treasure. With hundreds of inlets, creeks, wharves, harbours, river valleys, hillside views, and quaint communities to explore, visitors who come here expecting to “see the Island” in a day or two are often disappointed. I would not wish our guests to miss miles of white sandy beaches juxtaposed by jagged red seaside cliffs.

Everyone should visit the Green Gables house in Cavendish and walk the boardwalk in North Rustico, stopping to eat at one of the artisan restaurants or take a harbour cruise or see a play at the Watermark Theatre. Through federal support of the fishing industry, investment by the arts community, the long memories of old friends, and the slow discovery of a place of beauty, the rugged hills and poverty-stricken lanes that made up my Rustico schoolboy days have been transformed into a village of coastal charm.

The Island treasures “on the map” are worth visiting, but the eye hungry for beauty should leave time for wasted hours in the corner and harbour and hamlets of our northern shore.

I still find my own New Glasgow breathtakingly beautiful. 200 years ago, left their farms off the Clyde some 15 or 20 miles from Glasgow, bringing only a few things with them: a fervent religious devotion, a commitment to hard work, a few tools, books, and household memories, and the names “River Clyde” and “New Glasgow” themselves.  While my great-great-great-great grandfather was apparently not worth taxing in the Parish of Houston, Renfrewshire, he managed to find passage to Prince Edward Island in 1820. And somehow in that connection, he married a Catherine Anne Stevenson, whose father became the pastor at the community church in New Glasgow. Though we late-1900s Dickiesons were the heathens to which others would find themselves next door, as a child, I played in the church that Elder Stevenson helped build. In ill-fitting Sunday clothes, I watched the ceiling fan while preachers preached and my grandmother prayed I would be still for just a few moments more. Later, still un-still but eagre, I served that church. My wife and I were married there and ordained there, and it is still a place I think of as home.

10 or 20 miles seaward of my childhood home, there are treasures many wayfarers miss. Though there are few places as Instagram-ready as French River, Prince Edward Island, Stanley Bridge is a brilliant harbour with a wide-mouth bay, archipelagos of dunes and wooded lands jutting into the sea, and a long, beautiful river to explore. Moving inland and east up Trout River, there are miles of wooded trails with red-dirt roads and the little corner of Millvale. I miss the mill, the smell of sawdust and the busy movement of laughing men working speedily inches from what seemed to me then–and still seems to me today, in memory–to be monstrously dangerous saws.

If you were to leave my old family farm in New Glasgow by car, you would pass by my church–what L.M. Montgomery somewhat disdainfully called the “New Glasgow Baptist Church”–as well as the famous Lobster Suppers and Toy Store. After about 8 hilly miles you would come to Stanley Bridge. Turning northeast would bring you within a few minutes into Cavendish, with the National Park along the shoreline, the Green Gables house inland, and Lucy Maud Montgomery‘s homestead at the centre of the village. A 3-mile drive directly west from Stanley Bridge along the 100-acred lots measured out from the river will take you to what I think of as the New London corner–though I don’t know if that’s its real name. Just 4 miles north of the corner is the postcard harbour of French River, and another two miles takes you to Park Corner, a family home where Montgomery felt love and friendship. The Park Corner home would become the image of “Silver Bush” in the 1930s.

Travelling west and south from New London corner will take you to Kensington, the train station where a fifteen-year-old Maud Montgomery would board a train to the West to reunite with her father. It is an auspicious occasion–not least because she met her grandfather, “Senator” Donald Montgomery, with Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and his wife, Lady Agnes. For Montgomery lovers, however, the following year in Saskatchewan would be decisive in Montgomery’s personal and literary life.

But on this day, the anniversary of the birth of Prince Edward Island’s most famous author and undoubtedly the Canadian writer with the most global reach, it is important to remain for a moment at New London corner. Like many PEI villages, New Londoners have extended their hospitality to visitors. There is a tea room, places to buy coffee or ice cream, historic venues for weddings, and nearby places to eat. The Potter’s Parlour is worth a visit for its coffee and craftsmanship, and The Table is a gourmand destination, a “Culinary Studio” in a beautifully renovated United Church–a newer building for what had, I presume, previously been a Methodist congregation, established in one of the earliest areas for Methodist preaching in PEI. As the St. John’s Presbyterian Church just a moment’s walk from the corner was built after Montgomery was born, I do not know where she was christened. However, the church captures the feel of Victorian rural PEI life well at the heart of New London.

And, at this same corner, Lucy Maud Montgomery was born on this day, Nov 30th, in 1874, in a small one-and-one-half-storey cottage, adjacent to the store on the corner. Secured by her grandfather, Senator Montgomery, this cozy home was where “Maud” spent her first months of life until her mother, Clara, died of tuberculosis 21 months later. Not long after, Montgomery‘s father would move to the Northwest Territories, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, following hopeful ventures for financial success. Maud would live with her mother’s people, raised by her elderly grandparents a short walk from the corner in Cavendish.

In the 19th century, when folks were calling this area Clifton, no one could have imagined the global impact this lonely orphan of a child would have. Her early days were as inauspicious as mine, just 10 miles southeast and 101 years later. L.M. Montgomery would go on to be the author of 20 novels, 530 short stories, 500 poems, and dozens of essays. She was a church organist and Sunday School teacher, a director of plays and fund-raisers, a life-long correspondent and journal writer, and a benefactor to her rural Canadian kin. She was a minister’s wife, a friend of farmers and Prime Ministers, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, an officer of the Order of the British Empire, and a lover of cats. Montgomery is probably in the 100 million club in terms of books sold, and according to this research, Anne of Green Gables is Canada’s most translated book (in at least 36 global languages, see photos below).

And, recruited by a well-meaning United Church minister in the 1980s, in Montgomery’s Cavendish church, I once gave an underwhelming reading of “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night….” punctuated by “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy” shouted with red-face exuberance. In that church some forty years earlier, Montgomery had, in 1942, been laid to rest in a state funeral–a rare occasion in Canada’s far-flung rural reaches.

So, when you have the chance one summer day, I would encourage you to visit the Lucy Maud Montgomery Birthplace museum at Clifton corner. It is an authentically decorated Victorian home, painted white and green as an homage to Green Gables. There is a replica of Montgomery‘s quite tiny wedding dress, as well as a number of her personal scrapbooks where she pasted many of her stories, poems, and personal memories. It is a pretty little place that gives me a sense of what that home might have been.

More than the museum, however, is the north shore drive. That our little Prince Edward Island could produce one of the world’s most transformative modern authors is a complete mystery until you can see what Montgomery saw–the landscapes and seashores and skyways, the stunning geography of land brimming with imaginative possibilities, and the places that Montgomery called home. I am afraid to think about how much of the shoreline has changed because o Hurricane Fiona earlier this autumn. However, PEI’s beauty is ever-changing, and no doubt the charm and allure with remain.

So on what Anne might call an auspicious moment, I wish our own Lucy Maud Montgomery a happy birthday, and invite lovers of her writing to come and see the real-life imaginative world behind her works.

Posted in L.M. Montgomery | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

“A Sense of the Season”: C.S. Lewis’ Birthday Pivot and the Cambridge Inaugural Address (Updated 2022)

In the autumn of 1954 at the age of 56, C.S. Lewis was at the height of his academic career. With a chance to speak to the academic community at Cambridge and the listening world on the BBC, Lewis used this moment to reposition himself in an unusual way.

Two years previously, in the first week of July, 1952, Lewis finished writing the decades-long project, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama. That same week, Lewis released Mere Christianity, a compendium of his WWII BBC talks on faith and life. Lewis continued to be recognized as a Christian public intellectual with bestselling books like The Screwtape Letters (1942). Mere Christianity, however, extended his reach, ultimately becoming a modern classic and one of the most influential works of popular Christian thought in the world.

And in the springtime of 1949, this bachelor Oxford don, literary critic, and Christian controversialist had a most surprising manuscript in his hands: the first full draft of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity would be influential for the intellectual and spiritual lives of Christians, so The Chronicles of Narnia have provoked curiosity, wonder, and delight in millions of readers. Although writing children’s fantasy was new for Lewis, these Narnian stories are not a divergence from his other work of the period. In the classic stories of Narnian adventure, Lewis was able to put in fairy-tale form all of his love of literature and his intimacy with Christian faith as the mythic core of human existence.

On Sept 16th, 1954, after nearly two decades of research and writing what Lewis humorously called “OHEL”–a reference to the series title, “The Oxford History of English Literature”–English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama was published. Lewis’ magnum opus intensified his value as a literary historian by providing a unique look at the cultural spirit of the 16th century through hundreds of its poets and authors. Written with ever-present wit and remarkable brevity, Lewis was able to exceed the quality and usefulness of his groundbreaking The Allegory of Love (1936). OHEL is a literary history so lively and provocative that I enjoy reading it, even though I haven’t read most of the original sources.

Just 10 days before OHEL was published in the UK, Lewis’ fifth Narnian chronicleThe Horse and His Boy landed in the bookshops. These are the 7th and 8th books that Lewis published in that 5-year period since 1949. Lewis’ letters reveal that he was working on his memoir, Surprised by Joy, through 1954, and The Last Battle was already complete, leaving only The Magician’s Nephew to draw together the story of Narnia as a prequel. It was a remarkably productive period, where Lewis wrote nearly two books a year–a pace matched only by his writing during WWII.

Beyond these great 1954 moments was a little pain. After thirty years as an Oxford don and numerous unsuccessful bids for a professorship, Lewis realized it was time to leave the academic home he had occupied since 1919. With some support from J.R.R. Tolkien, Cambridge designed a Chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature specifically with Lewis in mind. Reluctant but hopeful–and after almost giving the opportunity away–Lewis agreed to take the Chair. It was a hard move to Cambridge, but there were great things ahead. By the end of 1954, the Carnegie Medal-winning Chronicles of Narnia were mostly complete, and Surprised by Joy would meet the world in 1955. That spring, Lewis would write his most literary fiction, Till We Have Faces (1956); at the same time he would begin to fall in love with Joy Davidman. The decade that followed his appointment to Cambridge was productive, filled with academic books and theological nonfiction, and culminating in his “prolegomena” in medieval literature, The Discarded Image (1964).

Christian Nonfiction

Literary Academic Books

This last decade was a particularly rich and focused period in Lewis’ literary life.

At the centre of this great moment in 1954 was Lewis’ 56th birthday on 29 Nov 1954. However Lewis may have spent his birthday in other circumstances, on this date he gave his Cambridge inaugural address, “De Descriptione Temporum.” Not only was this a celebration of achievement, but it was also a moment when Lewis’ entire public profile pivoted.

In the 1940s, Lewis was a well-recognized voice as a Christian controversialist. In 1950, he became the Narnian and the author of Mere Christianity–a profile that has led to hundreds of millions of readers. And in 1954 he became a Cambridge professor. His birthday Cambridge inaugural address was titled “De Descriptione Temporum”—“a description of the times” or “a sense of the season.” Lewis’ pulse-taking of the moment, intriguingly, is not a scathing rebuke of education or merely a “kids these days” kind of talk. Lewis doesn’t even present himself as simply another expert in period literature and culture—albeit with the unusual thesis that the idea of the “Renaissance” is an unhelpful historical fiction.

More than this, Lewis invites the audience to view him not merely as a guide to Medieval and Renaissance literature but as a specimen of that culture:

I have said that the vast change which separates you from old Western [the Medieval and Renaissance world] has been gradual and is not even now complete. Wide as the chasm is, those who are native to different sides of it can still meet; are meeting in this room. This is quite normal at times of great change…. I myself belong far more to that old Western order than to yours. I am going to claim that this, which in one way is a disqualification for my task, is yet in another a qualification. The disqualification is obvious. You don’t want to be lectured on Neanderthal Man by a Neanderthaler, still less on dinosaurs by a dinosaur.… If a live dinosaur dragged its slow length into the laboratory, would we not all look back as we fled? What a chance to know at last how it really moved and looked and smelled and what noises it made! And if the Neanderthaler could talk, then, though his lecturing technique might leave much to be desired, should we not almost certainly learn from him some things about him which the best modern anthropologist could never have told us? He would tell us without knowing he was telling (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, 14-15).

Lewis goes on to admit that he would give much to hear an ancient Athenian—even an unlettered one—talk about Greek tragedy because

“He would know in his bones so much that we seek in vain. At any moment some chance phrase might, unknown to him, show us where modern scholarship had been on the wrong track for years” (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, 14-15).

Given the class environment into which Lewis was speaking, reaching toward an uneducated ancient local instead of an Oxbridge scholar is a strong point in Lewis’ critique of modern scholarship, moving from critical, distant, external study to something more near and intimate. Lewis would probably have been completely unaware of a revolution in the field of anthropology that runs along the same line; still, he invites his listeners to consider himself from an anthropological perspective:

Ladies and gentlemen, I stand before you somewhat as that Athenian might stand. I read as a native texts that you must read as foreigners. You see why I said that the claim was not really arrogant; who can be proud of speaking fluently his mother tongue or knowing his way about his father’s house? It is my settled conviction that in order to read old Western literature aright you must suspend most of the responses and unlearn most of the habits you have acquired in reading modern literature. And because this is the judgement of a native, I claim that, even if the defence of my conviction is weak, the fact of my conviction is a historical datum to which you should give full weight. That way, where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen. I would even dare to go further. Speaking not only for myself but for all other old Western men whom you may meet, I would say, use your specimens while you can. There are not going to be many more dinosaurs (C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, 14-15).

How can students get a “description of the times” so they might understand their reading? By watching the habits and language and culture of someone who is a leftover from that long-lost age–a medieval poet who walks in modern-day streets, a dinosaur that escaped its enclosure, an Athenian loose in contemporary Cambridge.

But there are also a couple of other interesting points where Lewis is offering a “sense of the season.”

It is his birthday and a critical transition in his career, so this turn to autobiography in academic work in his own life is worth noting. He essentially calls himself a “dinosaur”–not a cutting-edge theorist like the Cambridge literary school was offering with the likes of I.A. Richards or F.R. Leavis. The irony of a man who is out of step with his times giving a talk about cultural moments is part of the humour in the piece, I think. It is kind of an absurd claim–that to understand Dante or Milton or Jane Austen you should watch a person who likes slow train rides and fought in the trenches and reads fairy tales for fun.

I think it is best that we read the lecture with a bit of a smile.

Beyond the joke with a serious point, though, is the fact that Lewis intuitively predicts the changing of the season I mention above: Where scholarship goes from the pretence of distance and perfect objectivity to a space where in some disciplines (like literature, theology, and anthropology), one’s own life is part of the “data” of good scholarship. George Watson once noted that Lewis’ lifetime of work in An Experiment in Criticism was ahead of the French turn:

“A French avant-garde, in any case, does not wish to be told that an Englishman has been saying it all for years” (George Watson, ed,, Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis, 4).

Biographer Abigail Santamaria helps provide Joy Davidman’s perspective on Lewis’ Cambridge Inaugural address from the perspective of a public intellectual and poet who was a stranger to the scholarly rituals of Oxford and Cambridge:

“‘There was much fuss . . . as a Coronation,’ Joy thought. ‘There were so many capped and gowned dons in the front rows that they looked like a rookery.’ Jack was ‘walled about with caps and gowns and yards of recording apparatus.’ When all the seats were filled, Jack’s friends and former students stormed the stage and sat at his feet” (Joy, 285).

Santamaria continues by sharing Davidman’s observation about how Lewis rejected a lecture path of “talking in the usual professorial way about the continuity of culture, the value of traditions, etc.” Insteand, Lewis announced that

“’Old Western Culture,’ as he called it, was practically dead. Leaving only a few scattered survivors like himself; that the change to the Age of Science was a more profound one than that from Medieval to Renaissance or even Classical to Dark Ages; and that learning about literature from him would be rather like having a Neanderthal man to lecture on the Neanderthal or studying paleontology from a live dinosaur! As I remember, he ended with, ‘Study your dinosaurs while you may; you won’t have us around for long!’ How that man loves being in a minority, even a lost-cause minority! Athanasius contra mundum, or Don Quixote against the windmills. He talked blandly of ‘post-Christian Europe,’ which I thought rather previous of him. I sometimes wonder what he would do if Christianity really did triumph everywhere; I suppose he would have to invent a new heresy” (Joy, 285).

As we reflect on the anniversary of Lewis’ birth, I think it is intriguing that someone who so clearly was out of date was also capable of speaking to the times and, in some cases, predicting the change of seasons. The epigraph to the published version of the inaugural lecture is from Tacitus:

“Quotus quisque reliquus qui rem publicam vidisset?”

Roughly translated for our conversation here, it is asking, “who is left who has really perceived what is going on?” Ironically–though perhaps expected for Quixotic intellectuals–Lewis-the-dinosaur remains shockingly current.


Since first publishing this piece, which I have updated to give a greater sense of the great things happening in 1954, I have developed the importance of Lewis’ “birthday pivot” as I’ve described it here. In June 2022, I presented a paper at the Christianity and Literature Study Group at Canada’s annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. The research allowed me to make more connections between “De Descriptione Temporum” and Lewis’ earliest and latest works of literary theory: The Personal Heresy written through the 1930s and published in 1939, and An Experiment in Criticism, written in the autumn of 1960 and published in 1961. The paper is called “The Personal Heresy and C.S. Lewis’ Autoethnographic Instinct: An Invitation to Intimacy in Literature and Theology.” I have not published it yet. However, I did a recording of the talk. You can find the details of the paper, including a PDF of the slides here, and I have included my video below.

You can read the full text of “De Descriptione Temporum here or in Selected Literary Essays or They Asked for a Paper

Posted in Lewis Biography, Original Research, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“Merely 70: The Text and Legacy of Mere Christianity” by Michael Ward, hosted by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson (C.S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Connected Online Meeting, 12noon Eastern/5pm UK time today, Nov 17, 2022)

Hi folks, a late notice announcement. Michael Ward, author of Planet Narnia and After Humanity: A Guide to Lewis’ The Abolition of Man–is speaking on the topic of “Merely 70: The Text and Legacy of Mere Christianity.” This free online C.S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Connected is hosted by Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, and I am leading an after-hours conversation following. The event begins soon, 12noon Eastern/5pm UK time today (Nov 17, 2022). Details are below if you are able to attend!

We are honored to introduce our keynote speakers for the C. S. Lewis & Kindred Spirits Connected online meeting, on 17th of November 2022!

Rev. Dr. Michael Ward is a Senior Research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford and an Associate Member, Faculty of Theology and Religion, Oxford, and a Professor of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, Texas. Dr. Ward was resident Warden of The Kilns, Lewis’s Oxford home, from 1996 to 1999. He studied English at Oxford, Theology at Cambridge, and has a PhD in Divinity from St Andrews.

His publications include: Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2008); The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis, co-edited with Robert MacSwain (Cambridge University Press, 2010), and most recently After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (2021).

Dr. Michael Ward presented the BBC television documentary, The Narnia Code (2009), directed and produced by the BAFTA-winning filmmaker, Norman Stone. He authored an accompanying book entitled The Narnia Code: C.S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens (Tyndale House, USA / Paternoster, UK).

On the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’s death (22 November 2013), Professor Ward unveiled a permanent national memorial to him in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. He is the co-editor of a volume of commemorative essays marking the anniversary, entitled C.S. Lewis at Poets’ Corner (2016).

You can still register for the online meeting , in order to receive the link!

Sign up here: https://forms.gle/UN1CoYxKy7p3zy4R6

 

Posted in News & Links | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis by Gina Dalfonzo, a Review

Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis by Gina Dalfonzo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

C.S. Lewis is famous for his comment on a dust jacket autobiographical note that

“There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter.”

What does this clubbable male Oxbridge bachelor don have to do with Dorothy L. Sayers, author of feminist essays like “Are Woman Human?” and famous mystery writer? While Lewis was good at cultivating male friendships among writers and thinkers, he was also deeply invested in literary friendships with intelligent women. These include conversations on writing and spiritual life with Sr. Penelope, thoughtful poetic dialogues with Ruth Pitter, and the friendship in letters that became the love of his life, Joy Davidman.

And, of course, there is Dorothy L. Sayers: poet, mystery writer, cultural critic, playwright, and Dante translator.

Sayers and Lewis–Dorothy and Jack, as their friends would call them–began a correspondence of literary appreciation that became a two-decade-long friendship. As I confess in my piece, “The Literary Life in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Murder Mystery, Whose Body? (1923),” I was drawn into reading Sayers through the correspondence. Their surviving letters are bright and intelligent, including dialogues about writing, theology, culture, and spiritual life. They challenge and support one another, offering critique and comradeship in their uniquely overlapping roles as Christian public intellectuals who are literary artisans writing in popular modes while working as somewhat reluctant apologists resisting the miry clay for culture-bound thinking. It is an intriguing story of unusual friends.

Thus, I am grateful for Gina Dalfonzo’s enjoyable and thoughtful study, Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis (2020). With a storytelling style accessible to all curious readers, Dalfonzo captures the story of this unique friendship and how it shaped both of their adult lives. It takes years of study to become an expert in the life and works of either figure, and yet Dalfonzo is able to invite us into the essential elements of their relationship without causing us to be lost in the myriad details of their full lives. I am far from a Sayers scholar, and yet I was able to feel the inside of her story. This is not an easy task for any biographer–let alone someone trying to tell the story of two figures who each produced dozens of books and left thousands of letters on record.

There are some features that I wish were a little stronger in even a short book like this one. I would have liked more moments from their fiction–tiny links to Narnia and Wimsey that capture the voice of the artist in everyday life. I really like how Dalfonzo handled a longer chapter on gender. However, in carefully responding to concerns about Lewis’ ideas of gender, I thought Sayers was overshadowed a bit on this point. As I often feel in reading well-written biographies, I feel like some of the edge is lost in the decades between–that we cannot feel as readers the social horror and public controversy that threatened both of these writers behind the scenes.

Finally, in the preface and in the text, Dalfonzo is offering pushback on a concept that seems strange to me: that men and women cannot be friends. Presumably, she is addressing an American Evangelical culture of sex division. While American Evangelicals are significant readers of Lewis, interest in both Sayers and Lewis is broad and global. Dalfonzo’s story of friendship should not be limited by local concerns.

For there is a story of the ages that lives in the pages of Dorothy and Jack. For me, this was a delightful introduction to a figure that intrigues me–D.L. Sayers–in conversation with someone I study in interest–C.S. Lewis.

View all my Goodreads reviews

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments