The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up: Charientocracy

C.S. Lewis was an acclaimed children’s writer, setting the stage for generations of children’s books that speak in a new way to kids and adults with curious minds. Behind this children’s work was C.S. Lewis’ experience as a teacher of English literature, a writer about the history of literary movements, and a tinker in other forms of fiction. In that tinkering, and in his letters and essays, he didn’t mind creating new turns of phrase. This is the second in a series on words that C.S. Lewis coined. You can read the introduction and the first article on Bulverism here.

Charientocracy (ker-ē-en-tä-krə-sē or kär-en-tä-krə-sē)

C.S. Lewis was one of the earliest users of the word “technocracy”–a word that was important in our thinking about the world wars and more recently in the way that technology seems to be worming its way into our patterns in a deep, deep way. In that WWII context, Lewis is in concerned in The Abolition of Man and in essays about an “omnicompetent global technocracy”:

Technocracy is the form to which a planned society must tend. Now I dread specialists in power because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects. Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value. Let the doctor tell me I shall die unless I do so-and-so; but whether life is worth having on those terms is no more a question for him than for any other man (“Is Progress Possible” = “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” responding to C.P. Snow’s “Man in Society”)

This is not Lewis’ only concern about how power operates. Lewis thinks about an “angelocracy,” and in the unfinished, posthumously published “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” talks about theocracy–the idea that God or the gods are truly in power through an individual or a group of people:

Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may, possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations (also in “A Reply to Professor Haldane”)

Lewis repeats the sentiment in “Lilies that Fester,” asserting that:

“All political power is at best a necessary evil: but it is least evil when its sanctions are most modest and commonplace, when it claims no more than to be useful or convenient and sets itself strictly limited objectives. Anything transcendental or spiritual, or even anything very strongly ethical, in its pretensions is dangerous and encourages it to meddle with our private lives.”

In the end, though, Lewis does not think that a theocracy in England is remotely possible. So rather than be concerned with “theocracy,” Lewis is concerned about what he calls “Charientocracy”:

“not the rule of the saints but the rule of the charentes, the venustiores, the Hotel de Rambouillet, the Wits, the Polite, the “Souls,” the “Apostles,” the Sensitive, the Cultured, the Integrated, or whatever the latest password may be” (“Lilies that Fester”).

This may take some explaining, and the meaning might not be certain. Though I would not leave out the possibility that Lewis is making a sardonic pun on the Latin word “caritas” (deep personal love, now called Charity), Charientocracy probably comes from the Greek word for “grace.” Lewis may be using it here as in the higher graces someone in polite society is able to deploy.

We see this from another neologism in the passage, the “Venustiores”—a Latin adjective meaning “the charming ones.” I think “Charentes” probably goes back to Pineau des Charentes, a posh product from a French region that also exports premium cognac. The rest of the words are just names Lewis found lying around for high brow culture. We might add pop culture phrases like the elite, the literati, the cognoscenti, plutarchs, the glitterati, the 1%, or even—depending on how your world works—the people from X Avenue or Club Y. In my area, it vacillates between wealthy folk in Brighton who have political and financial power, and the inside crowd that frequents the farmers market and whose members smell faintly of honey, good earth, and marijuana smoke. One group has the structural power, but the other a kind of social power.

Lewis’ concern was really when those two groups coalesced. It is a bare fact that as older social orders disappear, “we find all sorts of people building themselves into groups within which they can feel superior to the mass; little unofficial, self-appointed aristocracies” (“Lilies that Fester”). When the social elite and the economic elite find each other, Lewis was certain that it would be the end of art, for children would be put to good use in their education. They wouldn’t be allowed to simply discover poetry or play in nature, but would be taught to evaluate it. If Wordsworth were born in this sort of technocratic culture, he would be put to useful writing and may never have found the words that changed the world.

That is Charientocracy, a greater social danger in contemporary post-religious society than theocracy ever could be because it turns the human into a product of a socio-economic machine. The dehumanized person then disappears from the inside out.

It is difficult to imagine that Lewis didn’t have foresight into our own age.

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The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up: Part 1: Bulverism

As far as I know, Lewis never used the phrase, “wordsmith.” When it comes to writing, he preferred images of stone, greenery, and song to metaphors of fire and steel. Yet there were times that Lewis turned to the forge to shape just the right word or phrase for his purpose.

It is valuable to pay attention to the words that C.S. Lewis made up, what the 16th century stylist Roger Ascham condemned as “strange and inkhorne[1] tearmes” (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, 277). Ascham disliked these neologisms because they “make all things darke and harde,” but I find that the perfect new word has a way of bringing immediately to mind the force of the idea. J.R.R. Tolkien’s made-up word, “eucatastrophe,” is perhaps one of the richest neologisms of the 20th century. “Neologism”—literally, “new word”—is itself a term made up for the purpose in the 1770s.

Because Lewis saw himself as a translator of ideas, he did not often make up new words. But he did not dislike neologisms. I doubt it is a coincidence that when describing Alexandre Dumas’ made-up word, demi-monde, he said that Dumas was trying “to name a shadowy region on the fringes of the monde which had had no name before” (Studies in Words, 267). While Ascham thought that newfangled[2] words were dark and hard, Lewis thought Dumas used one to bring light to the shadows.

In literary terms, what shadow-chasing did Lewis attempt by forming new words from the materials at hand? Each week this fall, I will highlight a word or two–or sometimes a small phrase–that Lewis reforged from his own word-hoard to create exactly the verbal tool he wanted. In his essays and letters, Lewis would sometimes coin a word–to borrow the image of the mint that Lewis sometimes used–though occasionally that new word existed obscurely elsewhere in English. Today, we’ll begin with one of Lewis’ more robust neologisms, Bulverism.

Bulverism (bəl-vər-iz-əm)

You may not have heard of Ezekiel Bulver simply because he never existed. In his “biography of an imaginary inventor,” Lewis describes how young Ezekiel’s destiny was sealed when he overheard his parents arguing. His father was certain that two sides of a triangle are together always larger than the third. His mother responded with the tu quoque, “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” Upon this knockdown argument, E. Bulver had an epiphany:

“…there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century (God in the Dock, 273).

This is “Bulverism,” a crucial move by poor debaters, pop psychologists, twitter evangelists, ideologues at large, and new generation politicians. The Bulveristic move is used to ignore the key steps of an argument and strike at the “real” issue: what sort of social moments or psychological factors make me certain the other person must be wrong? “Bulverism” as a phrase never stuck, though it is one of the only of Lewis’ made-up words to have its own Wikipedia entry , perhaps because it clarifies certain kind of logical fallacy. Despite its disappearance from the cultural word-hoard, Lewis was clearly prophetic on this point. We live in a Bulveristic moment of history, confirmed almost every time you hear phrases like “left-wing radical,” “fake news,” or “white male.”

Of course, I am probably just saying this because I’m a man.

[1] This was a new word as a metaphor when Ascham used it. Wycliffe used it in his translation of Ezek 9:11 in the 1380s, but Ascham’s usage here is earlier than the first OED metaphorical usage listing of 1577.

[2] In usage by the late 15th century.

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Elf compounds

Tolkien_ConcordanceFor today’s Friday Feature, I am delighted to share with you one of the nerdiest Tolkien projects I know about. The Tolkien Concordance is Sparrow Alden’s brainchild, where she uses lexinomic data analysis to look for trends within Tolkien’s usage of words in The Hobbit. In particular, she has created 1,534 entries of uncommon words in The Hobbit–specifically, words outside the 10,000 most common words on Project Gutenberg. I know! That’s an amazing number of entries! I have been interested in how to play with Tolkien’s legendarium for a while, and am excited to see where this will go in the future. I will leave you to explore the hundreds of entries, and find little treasures like graphs, games, contests, and onomatopoetic findings.

signumLogo_100Sparrow did this project as part of her MA Thesis at Signum University, and has created a powerful tool that can be used by researchers, but can also be expanded and taken in new directions in the spirit of Digital Humanities scholarship. She presented some of her research in the 2015 Signum marathon fundraising day, which I’ve included here.


In comparing the hyphenated words, I have reached the elf compounds.  OED attests all of the words below.  Only “elf-fire” and “elf-friend” overlap with the elf compounds of The Hobbit!

I am particularly intrigued by words of elven persons.  OED has the compound with folk, girl, kingdom, lady, queen, and woman, while The Hobbit has guard, host, king, lord, maiden, and prince.

Now… you know me, Word Fans.  I dug a little deeper.  “Elven” is a noun, obviously, meaning a female elf, like fox/fixin and monk/minchin.  In its second meanning, however, it is a combining appositive or attributive form:

 2. Comb. (referring to a kind of imaginary being in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien).

and Elf-king is attested therein.

To be thorough, “elvish” is the OED’s adjective for elf, also spelled “elfish”.  Not “elven”.  That’s pure JRRT.


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On Listening to Your Life in Frederick Buechner’s “The Sacred Journey”

One of the series of books that I read every couple of years is Frederick Buechner’s set of four memoirs written over 20 years or so. It helps that I use three of these books in my teaching at Regent College, but I would, in any case, turn to these books as part of the rhythms of my life.

Though I have never read his most popular novel, the 1950 bestseller A Long Day’s Dying, I am slowly collecting Buechner’s work in the bookshelf of my mind. Particularly rich are his medieval saints lives Brendan and the Pulitzer Prize finalist Godric. My absolute favourite is the National Book Award finalist The Book of Bebb–a series of short novels about a delightfully authentic religious cad named Leo Bebb. And I have used his sermons and devotionals in my teaching with books like The Alphabet of Grace, Whistling in the Dark, and The Clown in the Belfry. I consider Frederick Buechner to be one of the great American writers of the late 20th century–and he is still active in his early nineties.

The book that has been ultimately transformative for me has been his Now and Then: A Memoir on Vocation (which I talk about here). It was in the first memoir, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days, where I saw an author begin to teach me about life writing as a spiritual and academic discipline. Life writing is an emerging academic discipline we call “autoethnography,” the approach to research that treats the life of the researcher as part of the data of research. In the study of literature, my life is one of the “texts,” and when I am studying C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, I am reading my own story next to that one. In reading these memoirs for the first time in a cabin in rural Japan in 2002, I began to see dimly the discipline that would emerge.

But Buechner–pronounced Beek-ner–also models the spiritual posture of life writing in the way he shapes these memoirs. Life writing is hardly anything new to Christian spirituality. “O wretched man that I am!” cries St. Paul. “Search my heart, O God,” sings the Psalmist. “Take up and read!” chants the echo of eternity in St. Augustine’s confessions. I have read the autobiographies of Thérèse de Lisieux, C.S. Lewis, Sheldon Vanauken, Teresa of Ávila, and Karen Armstrong all in the last year or two. Spiritual autobiography has become one of the hallmarks of great American Christian writing, including new and classic works by Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, Rachel Held Evans, Anne Lamott, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard, and Dorothy Day.

Frederick Buechner is one of the great living memoirists in this tradition. In his introduction to The Sacred Journey, he very briefly sets up his task as life writer:

What I propose to do now is to try listening to my life as a whole, or at least to certain key moments of the first half of my life thus far, for whatever of meaning, of holiness, of God, there may be in it to hear. My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.

For the reader, I suppose, it is like looking through someone else’s photograph album. What holds you, if nothing else, is the possibility that somewhere among all those shots of people you never knew and places you never saw, you may come across something or someone you recognize. In fact—for more curious things have happened—even in a stranger’s album, there is always the possibility that as the pages flip by, on one of them you may even catch a glimpse of yourself. Even if both of those fail, there is still a third possibility which is perhaps the happiest of them all, and that is that once I have put away my album for good, you may in the privacy of the heart take out the album of your own life and search it for the people and places you have loved and learned from yourself, and for those moments in the past—many of them half forgotten—through which you glimpsed, however dimly and fleetingly, the sacredness of your own journey (The Sacred Journey, 6-7).

This is the project that Buechner begins here and carries out over a series of books for the next two decades. The Sacred Journey is an unusual conversion story–a story unlike the testimonial you might be familiar with, though one that has a traditional plotline. A key discovery for me as I flipped through Buechner’s photo album is that, like him, I lost my father when I was young. That loss shaped who I am and what we both later recognized as our unnamed searches for God.

The Sacred Journey has the very soft frame narrative of a construction project happening in his New England home. The pounding of hammers and the shuffling of workboots slips away as Buechner moves through his childhood and early adult life. As he comes to the turning of his time, to the point where something like grace happened unexpectedly in his life, we return to the construction project and the thinking about life writing. This section begins his third chapter, and I think is a nice coda to the theme of listening to our own lives begun in the introduction.

The crow of a rooster. Two carpenters talking at their work in another room. The tick-tock of a clock on the wall. The rumble of your own stomach. Each sound can be thought of as meaning something, if it is meaning you want. After some years now of living with roosters, I know that their crow does not mean that the sun is coming up because they crow off and on all day long with their silly, fierce heads thrown back and the barnyard breezes in their tail feathers. Maybe it means that they are remembering the last time it came up or thinking ahead to the next time. Maybe it means only that they are roosters being roosters. The voices and hammering in the other room mean that not everybody in the world sits around mooning over the past, but that the real business of life goes on and somewhere the job is getting done; means, too, that life is a mystery. What are they talking about? What are they making? The ticking of the clock is death’s patter song and means that time passes and passes and passes, whatever time is. The rumbling stomach means hunger and lunch. But meaning in that sense is not the point, or at least not my point. My point is that all those sounds together, or others like them, are the sound of our lives.

What each of them might be thought to mean separately is less important than what they all mean together. At the very least, they mean this: mean listen. Listen. Your life is happening. You are happening. You, the rooster, the clock, the workmen, your stomach, are all happening together. A journey, years long, has brought each of you through thick and thin to this moment in time as mine has also brought me. Think back on that journey. Listen back to the sounds and sweet airs of your journey that give delight and hurt not and to those that give no delight at all and hurt like Hell. Be not affeard. The music of your life is subtle and elusive and like no other–not a song with words but a song without words, a singing, clattering music to gladden the heart or turn the heart to stone, to haunt you perhaps with echoes of a vaster, farther music of which it is part.

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100 Facts about Charles Williams

King Kong posterWell, for today’s Friday Feature (on early Saturday), this is super cool. Grevel Lindop has written an award-winning, critical biography of this strange man, Charles Williams–so influential to C.S. Lewis and the Inklings and a superbly interesting writer (if difficult at times). A couple of years ago, Hanna at Book Geeks Anonymous took Grevel’s top tweets of 100 weird and wonderful CW facts and blogged them. I missed it, but Oddest Inkling scholar Sørina Higgins tweeted it today and I want to share it with you.

#10 and #45 and #96 are funny, and #9, 22, 23, 34, 65, 74, 83 are intriguingly weird. I didn’t know about many of them, but am not sure about #73 and #91. I’m glad #78 failed. #99 makes too much sense.

Book Geeks Anonymous

Last week, the first full-length biography of novelist, poet, and Inkling Charles Williams sprung on the literary world (in Great Britain; the US release date is scheduled for December 29). Leading up to the book’s release, its author Grevel Lindop tweeted a fact about Charles Williams every day for 100 days. Because I know a good many of you are Charles Williams fans, and an even bigger number of you love The Inklings, I’m posting the full list here, complete as of October 28. (I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the ones I find most interesting. :))


#1 – In 1942, Charles Williams was called in by the Oxford University Press to exorcise a haunted building (now the OUP shop) in Oxford High Street.

The Oxford University Press bookshop (where Charles Williams is supposed to have exorcised a ghost). Image by Takashi Hososhima. The Oxford University Press bookshop (where Charles Williams is supposed to have exorcised a ghost). Image by Takashi Hososhima.

#2 – Charles Williams attended the…

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C.S. Lewis’ Normal and Not-So-Normal Life as a Student

As the cobblestone streets and hallowed halls of Oxford are beginning to fill for Michaelmas term, University students and faculty have been back to work here in North America. As I have a busy semester of teaching, I had a number of “first days.” No doubt, students are already concerned about how much they can actually accomplish as the work begins to pile up. As they hustle between classes, jobs, volunteering, and time with friends and family, the hours for doing actual classwork seem to shrink. Almost anyone at the end of the first month of college or university will be certain that they cannot possibly accomplish everything this term. Little do they know, most professors feel the same.

Radcliffe_Camera_3_(5647667236)Has it always been this way? My mother went back to university when I was in elementary school, so I remember the late nights and her desk filled with books and papers. Almost everyone I know remembers university this way, but when I read about historical figures, they tend to speak of their time at “uni” in such glowing terms.

Turning to the figure of my own study, what was university time like for C.S. Lewis? As a student at Oxford, Lewis wouldn’t have had the normal experience of students at redbrick schools in the UK or at North American universities. The rituals and supports for an Oxford scholar are complex, so that dining at high table in college is not the same as getting the meal plan at the cafeteria. Oxford is not merely a place of learning–in a sense, it isn’t really a university in the way non-Oxbridge universities think of as an institution of learning. Oxford is more like a city of idea spaces, and navigating that takes some getting used to.

But Lewis also had servants to help him do his work, giving the scholars time and space to do the most important things to them. Moreover, most of the work that Lewis and his colleagues would do was independent. Voluntary lectures were the support to mandatory one-on-one or two-on-one tutorials–the opposite of what many would experience today outside of Oxford or Cambridge and a handful of universities based on that model. The work in Oxford was also at a higher level, so Lewis’ first degrees were in many ways already at graduate level–certainly when we consider where education is today.

So there are are key differences in the way that an Oxford scholar in the 1920s and, say, a student at Penn State, McGill, or the University of Chester would approach school. What, then, did C.S. Lewis’ academic day look like?

cs lewis all my road before mePerhaps it is an odd fascination, but I do love reading people’s diaries. Dead people of course. I don’t really want the inner thoughts of real people in my everyday life. Though the voyeuristic instinct most researchers have might kick in when thinking about a friend’s diary, actually reading it would run the spectrum from awkward to horrifying.

Diaries and letters of dead people, though, are two different explorations of the self that give us a unique sense of the writer in ways that can adjust the picture of the man or woman in the mind of the reader. In the study of history, they are invaluable, and Lewis’ letters have formed a key part of my research, helping me slowly collate all the important information, quotes, and significant moments of Lewis’ life. Lewis’ letters, collected by Walter Hooper, set the pace for my reading of all of Lewis’ works, and helped me discover Lewis’ thinking patterns outside of formal teaching and writing.

While all those are lovely details are essential to my overall project, beyond this there is something beautiful about the mundane.Though a prolific letter-writer, Lewis only kept a journal through his last years as a student and his first years of teaching. So I thought I would pick Lewis’ entry as a student at the beginning of fall term in 1923.

While much of the diary is pretty boring, there is an interesting entry on Oct 21st, 1923. You can find a pretty good example of boring and mispelled entry a year earlier, Oct 21st, 1922:

Saturday 21 October: Up rather late and started Vergil with Maureen after breakfast, going on till eleven o’clock. Then I set to on my O.E. [Old English] Riddles: did not progress very quickly but solved a problem which has been holding me up. [Henry] Sweet is certainly an infuriating author…

D [Mrs. Moore] was much more cheerful than she has been for some time and for an hour or so we were quite merry. After tea I went to the drawing room and continued the [Canterbury] Tales. Then supper: D’s work, which has all my maledictions, had her worried again by that time, or perhaps it was depression. A delightfully small wash up, thanks to the absence of Mrs Hankin and other visitors. Afterwards I got as far as the end of the Reeve’s Tale, which is pretty poor: but the Miller’s capital.

cs lewis all my road before me diaryA domestic day: slept in, read Vergil (i.e., Virgil) with breakfast, homework, a chat, tea, reading Chaucer, dinner and dishes before bedtime reading–really a typical day for C.S. Lewis when he is in his mid-20s (except he usually has also has a cold and is worried about money). The more synchronic date, in 1923, is less quotidian. Oct 21, 1923 is the record of one of Lewis’ walks with his good friend Cecil Harwood–he loved hiking through English towns and countrysides–which he calls “a luminous dream.” His delight is such that he begins the process of tucking it into his permanent memory. The entry is also interesting because he doesn’t finish. He breaks off mid-sentence, leaving us to imagine the rest of the walk on our own.

Sunday 21 October: Began reading Butler’s Erewhon in bed this morning. After breakfast wh. we had v. late, we set out for a walk. We took the Metropolitan to Richmond, in the streets of which we were held up by rain for ten minutes. How delightful all expeditions are with people who don’t mind rain! We then went into Richmond Park. I was quite unprepared for it. There was hardly anyone to be seen. In a few minutes we were in an absolutely deserted open rolling country full of bracken, standing pools and all kinds of woods and groves under a splendid grey autumn sky. We had as good a walk as ever I have had, coming down at about 2 o’clock into Kingston on Thames. Here we were overtaken by sharp rain and finding all the hotels shut were reduced to a very hasty lunch for ten pence each in “a low eating house”—a phrase I never really understood before.

After lunch we walked into Hampton Court Park. This was at first less beautiful than the other: then gradually we came to the end of a very long sheet of water with huge trees in autumn colouring on each side and Wren’s “back” of Hampton Court just visible at the end. At the same moment the sun broke out: the grass (very level) and the dead leaves on it, the trees, the swans, and one little stag that did not run away, took on glorious colours. We were alone: the silence was intense. It was all just like one of those luminous dreams I have so seldom dreamed. We walked up the whole length of the water to the fine old ironwork gates—still not a soul about and into the Palace gardens. This approach will be a great memory to me…

cs lewis all my road before me diary 1920sAnd that’s it. The diary ends here, and actually ends Lewis’ diary-writing until the next year–New Year’s resolutions work sometimes, and Lewis began again strongly on Jan 1st, 1924.  Since we have very few letters in this period, I thought it might be helpful to post a “note” Lewis added after the Oct 21st entry, perhaps at the end of 1923 or before writing on New Years Day 1924. This note shows essential friendships, Lewis’ early view of animals, his poetry (Dymer, published 1925), his reading list, and the power of his Oxford bachelor perspective in this his atheistic period.

NOTE: My last diary, after fluttering for some time on a broken wing, came to an end on 21 October 1923 when I was with Harwood at his flat in Pimlico. On that Sunday evening he read and condemned in no measured terms the two new cantos of “Dymer” (VI and VII) which I had brought to show him. After discussion I largely agreed with him and decided to cut them out: in spite of the work I had put into them I felt surprisingly little disappointment at giving them up. I suppose that in the expulsion of anything bad from the mental system there is always pleasure.

Sometime after my visit to Harwood I cycled to Long Crendon to spend a night at Barfield‘s cottage there, thus meeting his wife and mother in law for the first time. His wife is plain, and undistinguished in manner—which I take for a good sign in a marriage so unequal in age. She is very quiet, a little shy, I think: “homely” both in the good and the bad sense of the word. I like her, and I think I should like her more, the more I saw of her. His mother in law, Mrs Dewey [Douie], is a “character part”: a very caustic old Scotch lady.

Barfield has, if anything, improved by marriage. I enjoyed my little stay greatly. We talked a great deal, about [Rudolph] Steiner, the Douglas Scheme, and the changes we had gone through even in the short time we had known each other.

He made one excellent remark. “I am not bored,” he said. “I still have always a waiting list of things to do, even if it’s only walking to the bottom of the garden to see how a bud is coming on.” He saw me as far as Stanton St John on the way back. While I was with him I saw several of his new poems, some of which are very fine. He approved of “Dymer” V and tolerated my new version of VI.

I saw little of Jenkin this term. D began to be very poorly about this time and started a course of medicines for indigestion at the advice of Dr McCay. The latter was often here doctoring Maureen’s mysteriously damaged ankle: he soon proved himself a fool, promising her that it would be all right next week and changing his promises often.

Harwood came down for a very jolly week end, during which we played Boy’s Names, walked, talked and laughed, keeping entirely free from shop. D and Maureen both like him very much, and indeed, in many ways, he is an ideal companion. It was during this stay that he met Jenkin again and they became friends—Jenkin having been rather repelled by his manner when they met before.

Later on Barfield came to stay for one night. He and I talked till three o’clock: one of the most satisfying conversations I have ever had. Although the subject of his marriage was naturally never mentioned, a lot was understood and we each saw that the other felt the same way about women and the home life and the unimportance of all the things that are advertised in common literature. He agreed that, as I said, “either women or men are mad”: he said we could see the woman’s point of view absolutely at times—as if we had never had any other—and this was a sort of relief.

He has completely lost his materialism and “the night sky is no longer horrible”. I read to him in my diary the description of the talk I had with him in Wadham gardens when he was still in pessimism, and we enjoyed it. Although he agreed with several Bergsonianisms of mine (specially that “the materiality is the intelligibility”) he has not read Bergson. He was surprised that I shared most of his views on the nature of thought.

It was shortly before this that I read Flecker’s Hassan. It made a great impression on me and I believe it is really a great work. Carritt (whom I met at the Martlets shortly after) thinks that its dwelling on physical pain puts it as much outside literature as is pornography in another: that it works on the nervous system rather than the imagination. I find this hard to answer: but I am almost sure he is wrong. At that same meeting of the Martlets Sadler read an excellent paper on Day, the author of Sandford and Merton.

Soon after this I had to leave—at an unusually early date in order to conform with W’s [his brother, Warren’s] time of leave [from the military]. The usual wretchedness of going away was increased by D’s state of health: and to crown all, Maureen [D’s daughter] had to be sent to Bristol during my absence to have her foot properly seen to by Rob. Poor D, who was thus left alone had a dreadful time, and admits now that she was at times afraid it was going to be a gastric ulcer. Thank heavens she seems better now. My three weeks in Ireland, tho’ improved by W’s presence, were as usual three weeks too long. I had a good deal of toothache.

On the return journey W and I stopped for a night in town. For the first time since we were children we visited the Zoo with great gusto: but the cages are too small, and it is cruel—specially for animals like foxes, wolves, dingoes and jackals. We also went to see a musical comedy called Katherine, wh. was very bad. We had meant to go to Hassan, but after reading it W decided that it would be too harrowing for his feelings.

While I was in Ireland I read Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina, Masefield’s Daffodil Fields, J. Stephen’s new book Deirdre and Henry James’ Roderick Hudson.

*Of course, the hint of “D” above lets us know Lewis’ school life was both normal and abnormal. “D” is Mrs. Moore, the mother of Lewis’ war friend, Paddy Moore, to whom he had given the promise to take care of his mother should he die. Paddy Moore went missing in WWI and was never found, and Lewis moved in with Mrs. Moore and her daughter, Maureen. It is likely Lewis and Mrs. Moore were lovers about this time–something that would have led to Lewis’ expulsion from Oxford–but gradually she became just another member of the extended Lewis household. A.N. Wilson sets this up nicely, exaggerating slightly in the style of his biography writing:

Lewis appeared to be enjoying an archetypal undergraduate career in ancient and beautiful surroundings. But in fact his routines were completely different from those of his fellow-collegians. True, he rose at six-thirty, bathed, attended chapel (which was still compulsory for undergraduates) and had his breakfast in hall. Then he went to lectures and libraries and tutorials, and had lunch (bread, cheese and beer) brought over to his room by a college servant. But at 1 p.m. without fail, he got on his bicyle and pedalled over Magdalen Bridge, up Headington Hill and into the dingy little suburban toroughfare near the mental hospital. There at Number 28 Warneford Road, in the house of a lady of High Church persuasion by the name of Featherstone, Mrs Moore and her daughter Maureen had taken up their abode. ‘They are installed in our ‘own hired house’ (like St. Paul only not daily preaching and teaching). The owner of the house has not yet cleared out and we pay a little less than the whole for her still having a room” (A.N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography, 64, quoting a letter to Arthur Greeves).

See C.S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me: The Diary of C.S. Lewis (ed. Walter Hooper; New York: Harvest, 1991), 123-124, 276-279. See also volume 1 of the Collected Letters and any of the biographies to get a further sense of the time.

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Tolkien’s “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size)” in Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

Famously, though, Tolkien begins the letter like this:

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

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

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

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

The knife that was purported to cut this Gordian knot appeared in this period. Prof. I.A. Richards led the Cambridge critics and new critics, passing out p0ems to students stripped of context and authorship beginning in the 1920s. This began a school of thinking about literature at the very space of the encounter between reader and text–a conversation that dominated the 20th century and still teases in the minds of readers today. Was Tolkien adding to this school of readership?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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