11/22/63: The Day that C.S. Lewis Died

11-22-63_JFK

This is a rewriting of a post from the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death in 2013. Lewis died on the same day as American president John F. Kennedy and English public intellectual and dystopian writer, Aldous Huxley. Though Lewis died an hour before the President was assassinated, the Lewises had lived privately and the story was lost in international news. It was a Friday, With the Beatles dropped that morning and the 1st episode of Doctor Who ran that night. Lyndon B. Johnson would later be sworn in as the 36th President of the United States as condolences poured in from around the world. Meanwhile, two of Britain’s voices, including the Narnian himself, quietly slipped out of this world.


Canadians just are not as good as Americans when it comes to iconic days. Let’s be honest: Canada Day isn’t nearly as interesting as Independence Day, though we do have our quaint county fair traditions. The American Civil War is one for history books, family legend, and blockbuster TV, while 10 to 1 odds it is unlikely the reader knows much about our Battle on the Plains of Abraham. From the landing of the Mayflower to 9/11, America sets its days in the hewn stones of history, while Canada plays Youtube reruns of Heritage Minutes that are mostly cool things Canadians did without anyone knowing they were Canadian.

The moment hit home for me on Aug 31, 1997, early in the morning on the East Coast. I can pinpoint where I was when I heard that Lady Diana died. It was a Sunday and I was on my way to church where I was a ministry intern. I was driving down a side road of the little community as my new wife and I were preparing to move to the village the next day. I remember the announcers voice, and the weather, and some sense of loss.

This is all firmly in my mind even though I had no real concern about this celebrity, really. But I still sealed the memory within me in the way people sealed in Nov 22, 1963, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. My memory of Lady Di’s crash is perhaps chiefly due to my grandfather’s wry sense of humour. On the eve of Diana’s epic, international funeral, Mother Teresa quietly passed away. Most people were focussed on other things than a nun in India. My grandfather, a seldom spoken man, commented:

“It really is poor timing on her part,” he said.
“Abominable timing,” I said.
“If she’d have thought it through, she might have waited,” he said.
“A real mistake in marketing,” I said.

911-flagOn Feb 17, 2011, my grandfather died. It was a Thursday.

Though Canadians are lacking in the area of great days, I feel free to borrow UK and, especially, American iconic moments. I remember all the minutes of 9/11. It was a Tuesday. I was in rural Japan when I heard from our American landlords what had happened. My wife and I drove to the top of a mountain to get the English radio station from the American installation at the Yokota Air Base on the Kanto Plains. Then we mourned with the motley crew of ex-patriots under the weepy trees of Karuizawa. It was an international day of grieving, but it was an American day. Though we came from all parts of the world, on 9/11 we were all kind of American.

Then there was 12/22/63.

I am far too young to know the JFK moment as all middle-aged Americans do. I think I remember the death of John Lennon, also an assassination. I don’t remember any details as a five-year-old boy, except a general sense of sadness in the house. Strawberry fields forever and the like. It was a Monday.

In my own life, besides 9/11 and that week in June 1989 when things went bad in Tiananmen Square, there are dates I will never forget: April 16, 1987; Feb 4, 1990; Jul 2, 1990; Jan 3, 1994; May 9, 1997; Nov 25, 2004; Feb 1, 2008. They are mine but they are not the world’s. No children salute as the motorcade of my memory travels by.

Despite the impact of 9/11, which is shaping American culture and politics up to this very minute, the weight of American days in memory is still heaviest on Nov 22, 1963. The death of Kennedy, which keeps appearing in this blog on C.S. Lewis’ death, continues to appear in American consciousness. When he died in Dallas, the news overwhelmed all other news throughout the world.

There were many things that happened that day. A police officer died with Kennedy, didn’t he? The Beatles released their second album, the political tides were shifting in Asia, Americans died in Vietnam as children there lost their homes. Many people in the world died that day, including Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World and dozens of other books. This was also the day that Wilhelm Beiglböck died comfortably in his home after having made a career out of doing live human tests on Jews in concentration camps as if they were lab rats, which in his mind they were.

Most eyes were turned away. Perhaps that is best.

My grandfather quipped that Mother Teresa should have planned her death better. It doesn’t surprise me that she slipped away without much fanfare. She may not have thought she was worth the fuss anyway.

I suppose my grandfather would also have criticized C.S. Lewis for his inopportune death. If dying during the week of Lady Di’s memorial was bad, dying on America’s day of days is even worse. But that is what happened. On Nov 22, 1963, while Americans were glued to their television sets and radios, the news that C.S. Lewis died quietly in his bedroom slipped out into the world. Lewis had been recoverying from an episode in the summer when he turned quickly in November. Lewis was one week shy of his sixty-fifth birthday. when he died. It was a Friday.

Almost no one paid attention to the death of one of the most popular authors of a generation. This probably would not have fazed Lewis, though he may have found it disappointing that neither his brother Warren nor his close friend Tolkien attended his funeral. I am not sure he ever really had a true sense of his importance as an author. He knew he was popular because he responded to the fan letters that poured in for years. But the popularity never truly settled within him. According to his step-son, Douglas Gresham, Lewis told his lawyer he didn’t need a literary estate since he would be forgotten in five year’s time. With book sales in the hundreds of millions—The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is steadily moving toward 100,000,000 copies alone—I would suggest Lewis underestimated his impact.

11-22-63If Lewis was forgotten on the day he died, it is no longer the case 50 years later. Four years ago, the semicentenary of Lewis’ passing became a year of jubilee. Beiglböck is mercifully forgotten. The Beatles are as important as ever, though I still miss John Lennon and they still aren’t as big as Jesus. Brave New World is a must-read, even if Aldous Huxley himself is obscured in time. 9/11 began a century—and closed one off, I hope—though I’m not sure Tiananmen Square did either of these things. Mother Teresa is on her way to official sainthood, and Lady Di’s little boy has had little children of his own. Doctor Who has had more than 800 episodes and is on its 13th doctor.

All calendar pages turn, and in the end, all days are just days. 54 years ago, C.S. Lewis finished his last day with tea. J.F.K.’s legacy is Cuba and Vietnam, Marilyn Monroe and the Moon, and the audacious idea that it was an American’s duty to serve, not to be served. Lewis’ legacy is far more modest: Oxford and Narnia, tea stains, smoke rings, and a few good words. I wonder, though, as we pass the few decades, if Lewis’ legacy may not continue to rise, while the days of America’s visionary martyr will prove to have been too short. Perhaps JFK died too soon, or perhaps Lewis simply had more to say.

Only the Ancient of Days can know for certain. The voices of great men and almost all women have passed away, no doubt. All stone turns to sand, I suppose. But I have a feeling that C.S. Lewis’ words are engraved in our human experience. So it is on this day that I think it is worth celebrating the artistic, literary, and spiritual legacy of C.S. Lewis. It is why I have dedicated years to helping American readers see the transformative project that Lewis undertook. And a few Canadians too, I suppose.

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C.S. Lewis’ “Religion and Science” in the Saturday Evening Telegraph (Friday Feature)

Dominic Russell (@historytalker) recently posted a couple of pics clipped from the Saturday Evening Telegraph. This included two of C.S. Lewis’ short pieces from 1945, including “Work and Prayer” and this clever piece, “Religion and Science.” In a smoking room dialogue, Lewis challenges the naivety of those who accept a certain imaginative construct of the past and call it “science.” Sort of a “what do they teach them in these schools?” kind of moment. Here Lewis is clearing the table rather than setting it, but a nice short essay.


‘Miracles’, said my friend. ‘Oh, come. Science has knocked the bottom out of all that. We know that Nature is governed by fixed laws.’

‘Didn’t people always know that?’ said I.

‘Good Lord, no,’ said he. ‘For instance, take a Story like the Virgin Birth. We know now that such a thing couldn’t happen. We know there must be a male spermatozoon.’

‘But look here’, said I, ‘St Joseph –‘

‘Who’s he?’ asked my friend.

‘He was the husband of the Virgin Mary. If you’ll read the story in the Bible you’ll find that when he saw his fiancée was going to have a baby he decided to cry oft the marriage. Why did he do that?’

‘Wouldn’t most men?’

‘Any man would’, said I, ‘provided he knew the laws of Nature – in other words, provided he knew that a girl doesn’t ordinarily have a baby unless she’s been sleeping with a man. But according to your theory people in the old days didn’t know that Nature was
governed by fixed laws. I’m pointing out that the story shows that St Joseph knew that law just as well as you do.’

‘But he came to believe in the Virgin Birth afterwards, didn’t he?’

‘Quite. But he didn’t do so because he was under any illusion as to where babies came from in the ordinary course of Nature. He believed in the Virgin Birth as something super-natural. He knew Nature works in fixed, regular ways: but he also believed that there
existed something beyond Nature which could interfere with her workings – from outside, so to speak.’

‘But modern science has shown there’s no such thing.’

‘Really,’ said I. ‘Which of the sciences?’

‘Oh, well, that’s a matter of detail,’ said my friend. ‘I can’t give you chapter and verse from memory.’

‘But, don’t you see’, said I, ‘that science never could show anything of the sort?’

‘Why on earth not?’

‘Because science studies Nature. And the question is whether anything besides Nature exists – anything “outside”. How could youfind that out by studying simply Nature?’

‘But don’t we find out that Nature must work in an absolutely fixed way? I mean, the laws of Nature tell us not merely how things do happen, but how they must happen. No power could possibly alter them.’

‘How do you mean?’ said I.

‘Look here,’ said he. ‘Could this “something outside” that you talk about make two and two five?’

‘Well, no,’ said I.

‘All right,’ said he. ‘Well, I think the laws of Nature are really like two and two making four. The idea of their being altered is as absurd as the idea of altering the laws of arithmetic.’

‘Half a moment,’ said I. ‘Suppose you put sixpence into a drawer today, and sixpence into the same drawer tomorrow. Do the laws of arithmetic make it certain you’ll find a shilling’s worth there the day after?’

‘Of course’, said he, ‘provided no one’s been tampering with your drawer.’

‘Ah, but that’s the whole point,’ said I. ‘The laws of arithmetic can tell you what you’ll find, with absolute certainty, provided that there’s no interference. If a thief has been at the drawer of course you’ll get a different result. But the thief won’t have broken the laws
of arithmetic – only the laws of England. Now, aren’t the laws of Nature much in the same boat? Don’t they all tell you what will happen provided there’s no interference?’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, the laws will tell you how a billiard ball will travel on a smooth surface if you hit it in a particular way – but only provided no one interferes. If, after it’s already in motion, someone snatches up a cue and gives it a biff on one side – why, then, you won’t get
what the scientist predicted.’

‘No, of course not. He can’t allow for monkey-tricks like that.’

‘Quite, and in the same way, if there was anything outside Nature, and if it interfered – then the events which the scientist expected wouldn’t follow. That would be what we call a miracle. In one sense it wouldn’t break the laws of Nature. The laws tell you what will happen if nothing interferes. They can’t tell you whether something is going to interfere. I mean, it’s not the expert at arithmetic who can tell you how likely someone is to interfere with the pennies in my drawer; a detective would be more use. It isn’t the physicist who can tell you how likely I am to catch up a cue and spoil his experiment with the billiard ball; you’d better ask a psychologist. And it isn’t the scientist who can tell you how likely
Nature is to be interfered with from outside. You must go to the metaphysician.’

‘These are rather niggling points,’ said my friend. ‘You see, the real objection goes far deeper. The whole picture of the universe which science has given us makes it such rot to believe that the Power at the back of it all could be interested in us tiny little
creatures crawling about on an unimportant planet! It was all so obviously invented by people who believed in a flat earth with the stars only a mile or two away.’

‘When did people believe that?’

‘Why, all those old Christian chaps you’re always telling about did. I mean Boethius and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Dante.’

‘Sorry’, said I, ‘but this is one of the few subjects I do know something about.’

I reached out my hand to a bookshelf. ‘You see this book’, I said, ‘Ptolemy’s Almagest. You know what it is?’

‘Yes,’ said he. ‘It’s the standard astronomical handbook used all through the Middle Ages.’

‘Well, just read that,’ I said, pointing to Book I, chapter 5.

‘The earth,’ read out my friend, hesitating a bit as he translated the Latin, ‘the earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point!’

There was a moment’s silence.

‘Did they really know that then?’ said my friend. ‘But – but none of the histories of science – none of the modern encyclopedias – ever mention the fact.’

‘Exactly,’ said I. ‘I’ll leave you to think out the reason. It almost looks as if someone was anxious to hush it up, doesn’t it? I wonder why’

There was another short silence.

‘At any rate’, said I, ‘we can now state the problem accurately. People usually think the problem is how to reconcile what we now know about the size of the universe with our traditional ideas of religion. That turns out not to be the problem at all. The real
problem is this. The enormous size of the universe and the insignificance of the earth were known for centuries, and no one ever dreamed that they had any bearing on the religious question. Then, less than a hundred years ago, they are suddenly trotted out
as an argument against Christianity. And the people who trot them out carefully hush up the fact that they were known long ago. Don’t you think that all you atheists are strangely unsuspicious people?’

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“The Hobbit” read by Rob Inglis $4 @audible_com Deal of the Day

The Hobbit is pretty nearly an annual read for my family, and we have listened to Rob Inglis’ unabridged reading on CD. His singing of the poetry isn’t amazing–though better than my making up songs and singing them to Nicolas when he was little for our first read through. Otherwise, it is a delightful way to experience J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic hobbit tale in a new way.

Today only, until midnight, you can get the download for $3.95 at Audible (in the US and for Canadians using the US account).

Also, for Audible members, they are in the middle of their secret 20 Year Anniversary sale. Today there is a free download to members of L.M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables. The reading by Rachel MacAdam is just okay, but it is professional and enjoyable. I still think the world needs the Anne series audiobooks read by a pro who can do the Prince Edward Island accents.

Enjoy this audiolicious tips!

 

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The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up: Curialisation

We all know C.S. Lewis as the Narnian, but behind the children’s work was his 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 would sometimes create new turns of phrase when it was needed. This is the sixth in the series on words that C.S. Lewis coined. 

Click here for interactive chart.

Lewis dedicated some of his time to reading his friends’ draft manuscripts, and occasionally for colleagues in the field. In August 1959 Lewis did this for Eugène Vinaver, the famous publisher of a new text of Malory’s Morte Darthur. In critiquing Vinaver’s The Rise of Romance—not actually published until much later in 1971—Lewis is surprisingly self-deprecating, noting disagreements as potentially his own limitation even though he is well read in this area. Indeed, Lewis’ 1936 The Allegory of Love is a critical text in creating a revival of academic interest in the courtly love tradition. Despite the self-deprecation, Lewis is not weak in his response: the letter is full of criticisms of a rather technical nature.

One of these critiques creates the opportunity for the word “curialisation.”

Is it not possible that the … curialisation of the fairy element in Erec [Chrétien de Troyes’ Érec et Énide] is in the same way inevitable? Once you make your fée a lady–and you must do that if she is to be a proper mistress for a knight–I suspect that a good deal more curialisation follows of itself (22 Aug 1959 letter to Eugène Vinaver ).

Editor Walter Hooper suggests—and I think he is right—that the root of this word is the Latin curialis, which gets picked up in the late 15th c. as a word for “courtly.” Lewis is talking about how the courtly love poetic tradition ends up being combined with fairy lore. I will leave the eager reader to consider the curialisation of the fairy tradition in Chrétien de Troyes’ work, but a reader who is interested in the period will find The Allegory of Love a surprisingly accessible read.

Beyond his academic work, it is fun to think of the curialisation of Lewis’ own fairy tradition, The Chronicles of Narnia. If we recall the conclusion of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, there is a chapter on the hunting of the White Stag. The White Stag appears in Celtic mythology, saint traditions (including the conversion of the aptly named St. Eustace), and the English court. Without removing any of these from the background of the richly intertextual Narnian tales, we want to remember here the evasive Arthurian White Stag, who represents the mercurial nature of the Christian quest. The Pevensie children have grown into mature queens and kings, and the elusive stag draws them into a thick patch of woods where they see a lamppost that pricks long-lost memories of what had once been home.

The image of the stag-hunt occurs again as a portent of kingship in Prince Caspian–a book about how kingship is formed in one’s relationship to the stories of old Narnia, not in how one looks at court–and disastrously in the quest tale, The Silver Chair. The chapter is also intriguing in how it captures the curial air of the Pevensie’s rule–including a strong serving of the archaic Morte Darthur language that Lewis loved in storytellers like William Morris and attempted in his earliest teen fiction.

But language and poetic air are not the only Narnian Arthurian motifs. We are told in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that tales were told and songs were sung at court. One of these tales was no doubt the story that became The Horse and His Boy–and one of the options for rereading Narnia is to slip this 5th book into the closing pages of The Lion. An intriguing departure from the Narnian template, this is a story set within the Pevensie rule, but largely independent of the Pevansies. The court scene at Tashbaan is evocative in that it is a foreign court, and the Narnian and Archenland courtiers must navigate Calormen traditions while retaining their curial manners and ethics.

Curial scenes and opportunities for courtly manners abound in the tales–not least in the resolution to Prince Caspian, in the adventures of the crew of the Dawn Treader, and in characters like Reepicheep–a gentlemouse if ever there was one. Peeking outside Narnia, Dr. Ransom’s household at St. Anne’s in That Hideous Strength is an Arthurian court, and Till We Have Faces is an adult novel set at court and echoing a number of the themes in Narnia in entirely new contexts.

Lewis is doubtless right in his dialogue with Vinaver about how the fairy tales of the late middle ages were curialised in the love poetry that arose. But Lewis’ own fairy tales have a curious habit of being curialised themselves. As self-deprecating as Lewis may have been with Vinaver–the master of the Arthurian text–Lewis’ academic work and fictional project are inextricably linked with the court traditions of the late middle ages, a point which I make in the upcoming The Inklings and King Arthur volume (which drops January 1st).


The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up

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The Fayborn Series by J. Aleksandr Wootton

In tales where a child or young adult is going to save the world, the hero-in-waiting is usually withering away in obscurity, knowing they were meant for so much more but spending their lives doing homework, harvesting cabbages, working fast food, or doing whatever mundane and meaningless chore is before them. Petra Godfellow, though,  would prefer to be left entirely on her own. Petra would like nothing more than to crack books and make friends at Lightfoot College, while missing her family back home and having coffee at one of the more remarkable coffee shops on the East coast.

Languid literary hours in rootsy, hipster cafes, however, is not an option for Petra. Unwelcome as it may be, Petra has an inheritance that must be accounted for. Despite her mother and aunt’s attempt to hide Petra from her dangerous family history, the past finds Petra as she comes of age. Unlike adventure tales where an unheroic soul might shrug off the quest, choosing to live life without fame or fortune or magic swords, Petra’s quest is forced upon her.

As her American suburban alt-life carries on without her, the myriad worlds of faërie squeeze their way into Petra’s campus reality. Far from the soft-edged, water-colour dreamy pastels of Disneyfied fairyland adventures, the fay-world of Petra’s unknown past is dark and dangerous. Petra is at the centre of an international, inter-generational, multi-dimensional play for power. If it is not enough that a vampyric fay mafia seeks to imprison her in a lifetime trade, but her faërie allies also have a stake in the magical cold war that could erupt into destruction at any moment. Petra is in danger on every side, with lives and communities far greater than her own at stake. Knowing who to trust is nearly impossible.

And they have her mother and her aunt–even though Petra isn’t quite certain who “they” are.

J. Aleksandr Wootton‘s Fayborn trilogy has been, for me, a delightful find and a truly three-dimensional read. I’ll talk about the imaginative world in a moment, but if we are to be honest it is the characters that keep us turning pages in fantastic fiction. Whether reprised from the past or taken from Prof. Wootton’s storied imagination, the central dozen or so characters pin me to the page. I am won over by the skeptical Petra Godfellow as the slow reality of fairyland emerges just inches from her doubtful eyes. Her family–and her increasingly important adoptive family slash Scooby gang–are not mere supports for the messiah-princess in her plastic journey to the end. All heroes are limited in the trilogy, including Petra and the mentors in her life. No one ever has enough knowledge, enough strength, enough magic, enough skill, or–though we won’t know until the end–enough luck.

That these characters dance upon a stage of incredible imaginative scope is what makes the series an essential book for lovers of legend and folktale. The magic isn’t just in the central heroes and villains, but also in the dozens (hundreds?) of characters that they meet on the way. If we ask about the speculative structure of Fayborn, we can answer simply: it is just faërie, largely as it comes to us in our Euro-American tradition. Yet that description is so inadequate. Wootton’s work is pastiche at its greatest. It is a respectful imaginative collection of cultural folklore exceeded only by Neil Gaiman’s American Gods project. Even though I struggled at times with the sheer breadth of the project, I love the literary links.

And the links are echoed in the narrative. Petra, her aunt, her roommate, and her motley crew move through the physical and speculative geographies of their worlds as the reader encounters the stories themselves. Readers experience urban fantasy erupting on campus, treks into the American tales of the Appalachian mountains, a visit to London tower lost in time, an airport terrorist incident, underground journeys and transdimensional travel both willing and accidental, and the long walk through the forest to the fairy castle (or to war). Even the travel itinerary is a kind of crossing of a threshold: we begin in the United States, but travel first to England and then into the heart of Europe, to the bare, cold forests where the thin line between fairy and human civilizations ripples in the evening air. Haven’t our legends and folktales come to us by exactly the opposite route?

I am a lover of threshold fantasy, where the temenos between worlds blurs and even, for moments, disappears. The suspension of disbelief is not for me one of believing that there are magical creatures in the dormroom down the hall or in the dimensions that are echoed in the looking glass. Our modern world is so desperately aggregate–where we know the statistical probability of every dream-crushing possibility. What are the chances that he’ll find lifelong true love, or that she can really make a difference in politics, or that you will get your stories to print? The answer to this question is not merely the courage of the human heart and the integrity of moral choices–or even a cruel kind of fate–but can fit neatly on a chart with the statistical probability attached in a footnote. Our lives are data-bound, and stories like the Fayborn series invite us into an imaginative literary rebellion from the reductionism of our age.

There is much to love about this series. Prof. Wootton is a sharp and terrifyingly efficient writer. The creative appropriation of dozens of storylines with its hundreds of references—of which I’m sure I only got a few—makes for a delightful series. And yet it is a very short trilogy. It is usually a good sign when readers want more, but I do think that this complex tale needs some conceptual maps to help the reader. Maps of the terrain would help, as well as a character tree of some kind. These items could actually increase the authenticity of the piece, supplemented as it is with letters and an inside-outside point of view. I truly think that Ninepin Town could be one of the great inventions of American fantasy, and the Fayborn world could use more of its speculative framework supplied for the reader.

I don’t want to spoil any aspect of the series, so I will merely say that the ending is an elegant solution to an impossible problem. I find myself liking the imperfect resolution—the irresolution, I guess—of this (un?)fairy tale that can’t end as neatly as they do in storybooks and Disney films. There is blood. There is darkness where there was light. All trust, or almost all, is betrayed–and wishful thinking won’t make it go away no matter how hard the characters (or the readers) try.

The splicing of legend and life will win story lovers from the very first chapter. It is as heavily footnoted in history and legend as Neil Gaiman, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Holly Black, but has an innocence and philosophical depth that is unique to Wooton’s work and world. In the trilogy, Prof. Wootton takes up every story: the central theme of the Fayborn series is that all stories are one and all are engaged in telling that one story. It is a lesson that is true, I believe, beyond the covers of the Fayborn series.

I had to wait patiently over five years as each book of the trilogy released. I took the desperate step of becoming a beta reader of the third volume so I could see it before the general public. I’m pleased to say that the final volume, A First or Final Mischief, dropped on the weekend, so make sure you pick it. The entire series is only about $12 on Kindle and will delight imaginative readers from the early teen years and older.

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Sean Astin, Stranger Things, and the Lord of the Rings on TV?

There’s a “Bob” in Stranger Things 2. It was probably time for a Bob. Bob works at Radio Shack, which is its own kind of awesome. I don’t know yet where it’s going. It could be he is a Russian agent, or an alien, or he could be the Pennywise of Stranger Things as hinted at below in the clip. Or he might die, or be dismembered, or go insane, or be the secret hero to save everything. He may carry Eleven up the long path to the mouth of Mt. Doom, because he’ll always be Samwise Gamgee to me. Or Mikey from the Goonies. Or Twoflower from The Colour of Magic. Or Rudy from, well, Rudy. If there’s a curly-haired, feel-good, overly-affective, long-drive loser to the hard win role, I want Sean Astin there.

So, Samwise 2.0? The march to Mt. Doom in tones of fire and ice? The Fellowship on Amazon TV? CNN is reporting that Warner Bros is in talks with Amazon for a TV series remake, and there is some interest in Sean Astin reprising his role. Fans are no doubt in various degrees of terror and delight. It’s a spectrum from fear to hope. There’s a lot that can go wrong when the Shire goes digital, as you may have noticed. Of course, if this TV film was made, it might be the only thing ever watched on Amazon TV.

Oh well, we’ll have to see how LOTR Amazon goes. It would be helpful if they just delivered Sam and Frodo to Mt. Doom by drone. Meanwhile, hoping to binge-watch Stranger Things 2 this weekend with the family. Go Bob.

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The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up: Grailologist

We all know C.S. Lewis as the Narnian, but behind the children’s work was his 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 would sometimes create new turns of phrase when it was needed. This is the fifth in the series on words that C.S. Lewis coined. 

Click here for interactive chart.

At various times, Lewis floated the idea that the Arthurian tales could be rooted in history. In his subversive way, Lewis pointed out that stories of Arthur’s conquest of Rome are “the least historical and the least mythical thing about Arthur”–in one stroke granting the mythic value of Arthur while putting the legend on the historical spectrum.

If there was a real Arthur he did not conquer Rome. If the story has roots in Celtic Paganism, this campaign is not one of them. It is fiction. And what fiction! We can suspend our disbelief in an occasional giant or enchantress. They have friends in our subconscious and in our earliest memories; imagination can easily suppose that the real world has room for them. But vast military operations scrawled over the whole map of Europe and excluded by all the history we know are a different matter. We cannot suspend our disbelief. We don’t even want to (“The Genesis of a Medieval Book,” 19).

This comment is part of Lewis’ general approach to theoretical readings of texts, a “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” theory of criticism. Psycho-analytical and archetypal readings are all fine and good, provided we can read the reading pscyho-analytically and archetypally–a project that Lewis hints at in his essay, “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism” (298). We read literature in the context of history, provided we know that we too are in the context of history. Today he might say that the study of culture is, itself, a culture to be studied.

I don’t think, though, that Lewis is merely using Arthur as a test case. His own thoughts on Arthur in “The Genesis of a Medieval Book” are a Reader-Response look at Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). The Historia records the tale of Arthur in Europe that both Lewis and his friend J.R.R. Tolkien play with in their incomplete Arthuriads. That wikipedia calls Geoffrey’s work “wildly inaccurate” is not without its ironies, but Lewis’ distaste for one of our chief Arthurian texts isn’t subtle:

The annals of senseless and monotonously successful aggression are dreary enough reading even when true; when blatantly, stupidly false, they are unendurable (“The Genesis of a Medieval Book,” 19-20).

And, yet, in Lewis’ Reader-Response criticism, the revulsion he feels in his reading has value:

The decided contempt which it gives me for Geoffrey has the paradoxical effect of making me readier to believe that the Historia is filled with valuable deposits of tradition, both legendary and historical. Wherever I meet anything that I think good as story or probable as history (and I meet both fairly often) I feel sure that Geoffrey did not make it up (“The Genesis of a Medieval Book,” 20).

In classical Lewis form, it is the hermeneutic of suspicion now looked at suspiciously.

I think we would find it hard as historians to use this approach universally, but it allows Lewis to do a couple of things. First, it takes a swing at the Achilles heel of the anti-myth crowd in history, where anything faintly mystical, fantastic, symbolic, allegorical, hyperbolic, or supernatural is by definition excluded from consideration. Second, it keeps Arthur in the game of history.

And it was a game that Lewis liked. Beyond the hints and references in his various letters, poems, and books–and allusions abound–Lewis’ final book in the Ransom Cycle is decidedly Arthurian.

After the narrator “I” of THS has slept by Merlin’s well, like Anodos of Phantastes, Dr. Dimble brings up the Arthurian legend as a construct for reading British culture. This is a Charles Williams’ move: by separating spiritual Logres from the historical Britain, one can see how they interrelate. However one might play with the hallows in poetry, in Lewis’ fiction the natural and arch-natural are not easily separated.  “It all began,” said Dr. Dimble, “ when we discovered that the Arthurian story is mostly true history” (That Hideous Strength, ch. 17).

This is the deepest textual play in That Hideous Strength, that things are never quite merely one thing or the other. As the protagonist, Mark Studdock, is suffering through an increasingly poor and desperate attempt at brainwashing, he looks at the crucifix before him differently: it is now in his mind “neither as a piece of wood nor a monument of superstition” (ch. 15). In fancy critical terms we might say that Lewis uses the richly textured symbol of Arthur to problematize naturalistic and supernaturalistic reductionism. In plainer language, he is testing the idea of the word “just” when we say something is “just a story” or “just a myth.”

Nothing is ever just a myth. And, of course, we should read all theories about myths as mythologies themselves.

This upside-down tendency in Lewis, connected with his open discussion of Arthur in literary and cultural criticism, is probably why, in 1963, an American named Merrill Rogers wrote to Lewis about his own theory of the grail legends. Lewis’ response perhaps demonstrates how he has diverged from Charles Williams in his interest in hallows:

I am not a good enough Grailologist (to coin a dreadful word) for your purpose, for though I am very interested in the Arthurian romances as extant works of art, I have never been much concerned with what we may call the ‘pre-history’ of their various ingredients. I am therefore unable to tell you whether you have been anticipated in the Hermetic and alchemical hypothesis to which Jung has led you. If not–and someone like Loomis will be able to tell you–I think your theory is well worth putting forward (to Merrill Rogers, 20 Jan 1963).

Lewis goes on to give some practical advice about how to handle the publication of Rogers’ theory, including the warning that “Speculations about the Grail have a strange way of causing people who have found something to claim that they have found everything!” This “face at the bottom of the well” effect of criticism is a little ironic, given Lewis’ reading of Geoffrey’s history above, but an interesting problem in reading in general. Once you decide that “there is really something there” in The Lord of the RingsNarnia, Harry Potter, Earthsea, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” OthelloThe Lion King, the Farmer’s Almanac, or your local all puppet production of Guys and Dolls, you are bound to find what you are looking for.

Still, there is room for grailology in our many-splendoured world of ideas, and the Arthuriad a rich canvas to both admire and paint upon. Charles Williams is probably a grailologist in Lewis’ estimation, so much so that Lewis spent a number of months collating Williams’ grail materials for a posthumous publication of Arthurian Torso. It is telling that the only editorial projects Lewis completed in his career were for work by George MacDonald and Charles Williams.

Lewis did suggest to Merrill Rogers that the hunt could be fun. Indeed, grailologists abound today in their bookmaking and pilgrim ways. But for all his flirtation with Arthuriana–and I will argue in a chapter coming out in January that Lewis may have been moving toward another Arthurian work–Lewis did not claim that he was in the business of grailology. It is true that his interest in Arthur was in the figures and the adventures, not in the grail quest and the meaning that we have today. I think there is a grail quest in That Hideous Strength, but it is veiled deeply. I would share what I think it is, but I would hate to disappoint grailologists who feel that they have finally found the meaning of life, the universe, and everything in their well-worn pages of Lewis’ dystopic fiction.


The Words C.S. Lewis Made Up

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