The Thing about Riding Centaurs: A Note on Narnia, Harry Potter, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, and the Black Stallion

As a child reading in a bed surrounded by acres of horse-less fields, I was completely taken up by the Black Stallion series by Walter Farley. Marooned survivors of a shipwreck, city kid Alec Ramsay befriends an untameable stallion, whom he calls “Black.” In taming Black, Alec is able to survive in the wild. He returns to the West as the jockey and child-trainer of a championship racehorse who changes the landscape of the field. I still have almost all twenty of the volumes on my bookshelf–though no one in our household seems inclined to pull them down lately.

Chiron, Themis and Hebe from theoiIt is still nice to wander mentally through those paper fields, even today as a city kid. Nostalgia is an acceptable past-time, I think–and it is my memory of The Black Stallion that came back to me recently when reading Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles.–a book I argued last week was, like C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, a strong myth retold. My sudden recollection of Alec as a child horse master may seem a bit incongruous as it occurred during the first encounter with Chiron the Centaur in Miller’s Greek myth retold–but bear with me.

In Miller’s myth, two princes–the divinely touched hero Achilles and the exiled Patroclus–suddenly encounter Chiron, the legendary teacher and teacher of legends. The Centaur’s presence, knowledge, and invitation to ride disturb our narrator, Patroclus, who describes his first ride upon the Centaur in detail:

Beside me Achilles bowed his head. “Master Centaur,” he said. “I am sorry for the delay. I had to wait for my companion.” He knelt, his clean tunic in the dusty earth. “Please accept my apologies. I have long wished to be your student.”

The man’s—centaur’s—face was serious as his voice. He was older, I saw, with a neatly trimmed black beard.

He regarded Achilles a moment. “You do not need to kneel to me, Pelides. Though I appreciate the courtesy. And who is this companion that has kept us both waiting?”

Achilles turned back to me and reached a hand down. Unsteadily, I took it and pulled myself up.

“This is Patroclus.”

There was a silence, and I knew it was my turn to speak.

“My lord,” I said. And bowed.

“I am not a lord, Patroclus Menoitiades.”

My head jerked up at the sound of my father’s name.

“I am a centaur, and a teacher of men. My name is Chiron.”

I gulped and nodded. I did not dare to ask how he knew my name.

His eyes surveyed me. “You are overtired, I think. You need water and food, both. It is a long way to my home on Pelion, too long for you to walk. So we must make other arrangements.”

He turned then, and I tried not to gawk at the way his horse legs moved beneath him.

“You will ride on my back,” the centaur said. “I do not usually offer such things on first acquaintance. But exceptions must be made.” He paused. “You have been taught to ride, I suppose?”
We nodded, quickly.

“That is unfortunate. Forget what you learned. I do not like to be squeezed by legs or tugged at. The one in front will hold on to my waist, the one behind will hold on to him. If you feel that you are going to fall, speak up.”

Achilles and I exchanged a look, quickly.

He stepped forward.

“How should I— ?”

“I will kneel.” His horse legs folded themselves into the dust. His back was broad and lightly sheened with sweat. “Take my arm for balance,” the centaur instructed. Achilles did, swinging his leg over and settling himself.

It was my turn. At least I would not be in front, so close to that place where skin gave way to chestnut coat. Chiron offered me his arm, and I took it. It was muscled and large, thickly covered with black hair that was nothing like the color of his horse half. I seated myself, my legs stretched across that wide back, almost to discomfort.

Chiron said, “I will stand now.” The motion was smooth, but still I grabbed for Achilles. Chiron was half as high again as a normal horse, and my feet dangled so far above the ground it made me dizzy. Achilles’ hands rested loosely on Chiron’s trunk. “You will fall, if you hold so lightly,” the centaur said.

My fingers grew damp with sweat from clutching Achilles’ chest. I dared not relax them, even for a moment. The centaur’s gait was less symmetrical than a horse’s, and the ground was uneven. I slipped alarmingly upon the sweat-slick horsehair.
There was no path I could see, but we were rising swiftly upwards through the trees, carried along by Chiron’s sure, unslowing steps. I winced every time a jounce caused my heels to kick into the centaur’s sides.

As we went, Chiron pointed things out to us, in that same steady voice.
There is Mount Othrys.
The cypress trees are thicker here, on the north side, you can see.
This stream feeds the Apidanos River that runs through Phthia’s lands.

Achilles twisted back to look at me, grinning.

We climbed higher still, and the centaur swished his great black tail, swatting flies for all of us.

Chiron stopped suddenly, and I jerked forward into Achilles’ back. We were in a small break in the woods, a grove of sorts, half encircled by a rocky outcrop. We were not quite at the peak, but we were close, and the sky was blue and glowing above us.

“We are here.” Chiron knelt, and we stepped off his back, a bit unsteadily.

In front of us was a cave… (ch. 8).

The image I had from The Black Stallion was Alec’s unusual riding style. Having learned to ride the wildest of Arabic horses bareback, Alec never fully submits to using the reins and stirrups. He tucks his feet back, leaning forward into Black’s mane–bridling Black with subtle movements of his body and voice rather than leather, steel, and whip.

How different to ride a Centaur with a human torso and horse’s body! One could not lean in and hold the mane like Alec did. The only place to hold on would be the naked body of the chimerical man-horse before you.

And a Centaur, of course, is not merely an untamable beast: he is a free person, not to be tamed by hands human or divine.

I thought immediately of Alec and Black when I read of Patroclus’ awkward ride upon Chiron. In this encounter with a Greek Centaur, however, I should have thought first of Narnia–a tale full of mythic creatures who, when the need is great, submit to carrying humans on their backs as Black does for Alec in the wilderness and as Chiron does for Achilles and Patroclus on the first day of their tutelage.

In the Narnian chronicle, The Horse and His Boy, the Talking Horse Bree must teach the unschooled slave-boy, Shasta, to feign horse mastery while actually giving Bree the rains. While Bree rejects horse tack because the boy is his and he is not the boy’s (as we see in the title)–and because Bree desires to be, or least to become, a free Narnian–it is also a practical affair. Shasta has never learned to ride, and all horses know–even if their humans do not–that reins in the hand of an untrained rider do more harm than good.

Bree patiently teaches Shasta to ride (mostly an affair of Shasta falling off enough times to learn how to fall well and only when necessary), but tells him to never use the reins and absolutely forbids the use of spurs. Bree wants to be in full control:

“[A]s I intend to do all the directing on this journey,” Bree says to Shasta, “you’ll please keep your hands to yourself. And there’s another thing. I’m not going to have you grabbing my mane.”

Shasta sees the problem immediately.

“But I say,” pleaded Shasta. “If I’m not to hold on by the reins or by your mane, what am I to hold on by?”

“You hold on with your knees,” said the Horse. “That’s the secret of good riding. Grip my body between your knees as hard as you like; sit straight up, straight as a poker; keep your elbows in (ch. 1).

Lacking Alec’s advantage of leaning into the horse’s neck or Achilles’ strong grip on Chiron’s torso, what is Shasta to do? There are still the knees–forbidden by Chiron but used by Alec to learn to ride Black in their shared wilderness and also the key to a good human-foal to the Narnian Talking Horse.

In The Magician’s Nephew, the first of all Narnian Flying Horses, Fledge, is more generous than Bree the Talking Horse–though we must admit that the physiology of a Flying Horse may make it easier for unbridled humans to ride bareback. We have few details about how Digory and Polly positioned themselves in the first Narnian horse-flight. And yet, the image is the most powerful one in my childhood memory of Narnia.

We do see Digory leaning forward against Fledge’s neck (like Alec on Black) and Polly holding tight to Digory’s waist (like Achilles of Chiron). A long flight, we learn, is like a long ride, leaving horse and rider hungry and stiff and tired. Falling off of Bree is painful but educational for Shasta; falling off Fledge in flight, however soft the new Narnian pastures might be, is a somewhat different affair. It is also a challenge to mount any horse without stirrups–even when your steed is not the father of an entire race–though Chiron and the youthful Greek heroes navigate the problem well enough.

While it is perhaps not so grand as riding the first Flying Horse, Eustace and Jill’s adventure in The Silver Chair is crowned with a singular honour: the invitation to ride a Centaur.

If Narnia’s first Flying Horse is awesome and thrilling to ride and Bree’s sternness is intimidating to a liberated stable boy, Centaurs command a different kind of respect altogether–as we see in the Greek boys’ reaction to Chiron. Watching the Centaurs through the eyes of Jill and Eustace reminds us that, in all their gravity as a species, Centaurs do not carelessly lend themselves to humans as beasts of burden. It is worth quoting good portions of chapter 16 of The Silver Chair to get a sense of the gravity of the honour and majesty of Centaurs–and some hints at their physiology to supplement Miller’s image of Chiron:

“Ah! You’ve woken up at last, Daughter of Eve,” [Glimfeather the Owl] said. “Perhaps you’d better wake the Son of Adam. You’ve got to be off in a few minutes and two Centaurs have very kindly offered to let you ride on their backs down to Cair Paravel.” He added in a lower voice. “Of course, you realize it is a most special and unheard-of honour to be allowed to ride a Centaur. I don’t know that I ever heard of anyone doing it before. It wouldn’t do to keep them waiting.”

… Eustace was now up and he and Jill set about helping Orruns [the Faun] to get the breakfast. Puddleglum was told to stay in bed. A Centaur called Cloudbirth, a famous healer, or (as Orruns called it) a ‘leech’, was coming to see to his burnt foot.
“Ah!” said Puddleglum in a tone almost of contentment, “he’ll want to have the leg off at the knee, I shouldn’t wonder. You see if he doesn’t.” But he was quite glad to stay in bed.

Breakfast was scrambled eggs and toast and Eustace tackled it just as if he had not had a very large supper in the middle of the night.

“I say, Son of Adam,” said the Faun, looking with a certain awe at Eustace’s mouthfuls. “There’s no need to hurry quite so dreadfully as that. I don’t think the Centaurs have quite finished their breakfasts yet.”

“Then they must have got up very late,” said Eustace. “I bet it’s after ten o’clock.”

“Oh no,” said Orruns. “They got up before it was light.”

“Then they must have waited the dickens of a time for breakfast,” said Eustace.

“No, they didn’t,” said Orruns. “They began eating the minute they awoke.”

“Golly!” said Eustace. “Do they eat a very big breakfast?”

“Why, Son of Adam, don’t you understand? A Centaur has a man-stomach and a horse-stomach. And of course both want breakfast. So first of all he has porridge and pavenders and kidneys and bacon and omelette and cold ham and toast and marmalade and coffee and beer. And after that he attends to the horse part of himself by grazing for an hour or so and finishing up with a hot mash, some oats, and a bag of sugar. That’s why it’s such a serious thing to ask a Centaur to stay for the week-end. A very serious thing indeed.”

At that moment there was a sound of horse-hoofs tapping on rock from the mouth of the cave, and the children looked up. The two Centaurs, one with a black and one with a golden beard flowing over their magnificent bare chests, stood waiting for them, bending their heads a little so as to look into the cave. Then the children became very polite and finished their breakfast very quickly. No one thinks a Centaur funny when he sees it. They are solemn, majestic people, full of ancient wisdom which they learn from the stars, not easily made either merry or angry; but their anger is terrible as a tidal wave when it comes.

… To ride on a Centaur is, no doubt, a great honour (and except Jill and Eustace there is probably no one alive in the world today who has had it) but it is very uncomfortable. For no one who valued his life would suggest putting a saddle on a Centaur, and riding bare-back is no fun; especially if, like Eustace, you have never learned to ride at all. The Centaurs were very polite in a grave, gracious, grown-up kind of way, and as they cantered through the Narnian woods they spoke, without turning their heads, telling the children about the properties of herbs and roots, the influences of the planets, the nine names of Aslan with their meanings, and things of that sort. But however sore and jolted the two humans were, they would now give anything to have that journey over again: to see those glades and slopes sparkling with last night’s snow, to be met by rabbits and squirrels and birds that wished you good morning, to breathe again the air of Narnia and hear the voices of the Narnian trees.

…  And when they had crossed they rode along the south bank of the river and presently came to Cair Paravel itself. And at the very moment of their arrival they saw that same bright ship which they had seen when they first set foot in Narnia, gliding up the river like a huge bird…. The children saw there would be no chance of reaching the Prince through all that crowd, and, anyway, they now felt rather shy. So they asked the Centaurs if they might go on sitting on their backs a little longer and thus see everything over the heads of the courtiers. And the Centaurs said they might.

A flourish of silver trumpets came over the water from the ship’s deck….

We get less detail here about the intimacy of riding Narnian Centaurs than Greek ones, but we also learn about the habits of this community of Centaurs. Unlike Miller’s Chiron, we see that a rider’s seat is an advantage for comfort–even if a long journey bareback on a Centaur is still a painful affair. In both cases, the Centaurs are teachers and guides, filled with wisdom and strength, grave and yet generous.

One can learn much riding on the back of a Centaur–as we see in each of these Narnian and Greek scenes, but also as Harry Potter is rescued from grave danger in the Forbidden Forest by Firenze, a Centaur who is featured throughout the epic. Unlike Patroclus and Achilles of the Greek chronicles or Jill and Digory of the Narnia tales, Harry accepts a ride upon Firenze without knowing what a grave and unusual privilege it is. And, intriguing for the trend we see here, Harry approaches the invitation without answering the question of whether he is a trained rider.

In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling deepens the gravity of such an invitation:

‘Are you all right?’ said the centaur, pulling Harry to his feet.

‘Yes – thank you – what was that?’

The centaur didn’t answer. He had astonishingly blue eyes, like pale sapphires. He looked carefully at Harry, his eyes lingering on the scar which stood out, livid, on Harry’s forehead.

‘You are the Potter boy,’ he said. ‘You had better get back to Hagrid. The Forest is not safe at this time – especially for you. Can you ride? It will be quicker this way.

‘My name is Firenze,’ he added, as he lowered himself on to his front legs so that Harry could clamber on to his back.

There was suddenly a sound of more galloping from the other side of the clearing. Ronan and Bane came bursting through the trees, their flanks heaving and sweaty.

‘Firenze!’ Bane thundered. ‘What are you doing? You have a
human on your back! Have you no shame? Are you a common
mule?’

‘Do you realise who this is?’ said Firenze. ‘This is the Potter
boy. The quicker he leaves this Forest, the better.’

‘What have you been telling him?’ growled Bane. ‘Remember, Firenze, we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens.
Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets?’

Ronan pawed the ground nervously.

‘I’m sure Firenze thought he was acting for the best,’ he said, in
his gloomy voice.

Bane kicked his back legs in anger.

‘For the best! What is that to do with us? Centaurs are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our Forest!’

Firenze suddenly reared on to his hind legs in anger, so that
Harry had to grab his shoulders to stay on.

‘Do you not see that unicorn?’ Firenze bellowed at Bane. ‘Do you not understand why it was killed? Or have the planets not let you in on that secret? I set myself against what is lurking in this Forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must.’

And Firenze whisked around; with Harry clutching on as best he could, they plunged off into the trees, leaving Ronan and Bane behind them (ch. 15).

There is significantly more to the life of Centaurs in J.K. Rowling‘s invented worlds, but we learn much here. Rowling deepens the grave choice for a Centaur to carry a human by making it symbolic of the Centaurs’ long oppression by the Wizarding world. Firenze choosing to carry Harry brings a sense of cultural indignity–even as Firenze is doing one kind of good in the moment. As Bree disdains being compared with a donkey, Potter-world Centaurs feel the sting of the same comparison. The insults against Firenze are deeper than mere insult, though. Given the Centaurs’ struggle for recognition (which heightens in the series as the Wizarding world flirts with different kinds of authoritarian regimes), readers will know how deep the wound of “mule” goes, given the half-breed nature of our common, infertile beast of burden.

Later in the Harry Potter series, Firenze becomes a Hogwarts teacher, drawing wisdom from terrestrial and celestial signs much like the Narnian Centaurs. Firenze is different in character than Roonwit the Centaur in The Last Battle, and Rowling’s racial (species) struggle is a keen one. Regardless, the Centaurs in both worlds share similar arts and sciences and, as a race, carry themselves with a certain dignity and grandeur.

I have never doubted that the grave, thoughtful, clannish, and mystical centaurs that live near Hogwarts in Harry Potter are drawn from the same ancestry as the Narnian Centaurs. And yet there is more to these links than I first thought. Whether it is human perspectives about their chimeric physiology, the art of riding, the grave dignity of the creature, or the teacherly wisdom Centaur’s yearn to share even as they are tight-lipped and reticent, there is a shared Centaur tradition in our pages–despite different storylines and an open debate about whether humans are easier to train as riders than to retrain. Madeleine Miller’s Chiron–with perhaps a literary nod to Narnia that Rowling’s Potterverse shares–reminds me about how the stories go back and back, ever feeding imaginative writers and readers and myth-speakers with evocative images of these greatest of untameable creatures.

It is interesting, isn’t it, how memory and story work?

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Three Myths Retold: Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, and C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

While I love the Odyssey, I always dread returning to The Iliad. I just find all the war and posturing and characters to be ash and dust and thorn for me, just weariness and work and pain. The moments of greatness within The Iliad do not lift me like many of the classics that sit behind the cultures in which I was raised. Perhaps it is that with every loved one I bury in my life, with every heap of ashes I scatter in the wind or every coffin lowered into the ground and every prayer book incantation I utter, I care less for Homer’s great epic of war and loss.

Neither do I care much for it as a tale of the folly of men and gods. I knew about this already. I see it in myself.

And my Greek is not strong enough to carry me fully into the scents and sounds of this Aegean tale to give me that sense of the heart of a culture. With Greek, I get more of the Mediterranean air from a few lines of Plato or Paul than this Homeric epic.

Thus it was with somewhat of a selfish motive that, when designing a Western literature guided study for a bright, critical student, I shockingly chose not to reread the Iliad with her, but assigned The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller–which I had never read. A bit of a risk, but my student has both good reading skills and sardonic wit. Our conversation can mock or praise as the text leads us, but will, in any case, be thoughtful. And I knew the book to be well-researched and well-written, so I took the risk.

I am happy to say that the experiment was a success. My student and I each loved The Song of Achilles is, finding it a fresh reading experience. While The Song of Achilles is a modern psychological novel, it is definitely soaked in research and a love for the literature and the world it came from.

Moreover, Miller is able to capture a mythic voice–a story of depth whose primary narrator is able to be human and near to the action while giving a thorough sense of wonder and distance and greatness that a myth requires. Without losing a compelling personal story, a myth retold should invite us to foundational themes in a world touched by the divine or the fates. In The Song of Achilles, I felt the Aegian culture breathe through the text and experienced Homer’s war epic more dynamically than I had ever done before. I was drawn in more personally to mythic moments of the text, like the dangers of hubris and the power of friendship and the capricious nature of the gods. More than this, Miller’s chosen literary themes danced in the story with vivacity. The temptation to entomb what we love, the love of craft, the inhumanity of human endeavours, the loss of self in greatness, and history’s true measure of a Great One–Miller excells at giving this text its own mythic life. She even succeeded in giving me an Achilles that I think is worth remembering in history.

While Miller’s Song is a complex thematic vision, it is the voice of the novel where she has had her greatest success.

Though I hesitate to criticize the great Margaret Atwood, a significant literary voice, it is in the “voice” where she fails with her Penelopiad.

The Penelopiad is Canadian great Margaret Atwood’s sharp, funny retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from a feminist angle. Indeed, the body of the tale is told from Penelope’s perspective and in her voice–a retelling of the epic of reunion from the perspective of Odysseus’ wise and thoughtful wife. At a deeper level–and I am not sure that most readers realize this about the text–the tale is really from the perspective of the maids murdered in the final hours of Odyssey’s manly show of violent virtue, alternating between Penelope’s afterworldly, non-time-bound perspective and a “chorus” that provides some of the narrative background or prophetic sarcasm.

Margaret Atwood is a pretty funny thinker. As usual, her cutting wit shoots through this story. Unfortunately, the creative potentiality of the “chorus”–exploring many different forms and times and spaces–is more grating than gratifying. Perhaps it has an artistic value I have not seen–and perhaps it is strong in the staged performances–but the poetry there is rarely of the skill of the prose. I recognize that I am writing a minority report here. But with a few strong exceptions, I was relieved to return to Penelope’s voice in the prose chapters. 

And, frankly, the deep meaning of the maids comes through in Penelope’s narrative without the moralistic chorus.

This may be a unique text, where Atwood’s sardonic cultural criticism bends the story in a way that keeps the story from living at the front of the reader’s experience. 

Perhaps I am simply impatient in the chorus sections. I can recognize this weakness when I read some dramas–an inability to suspend my disbelief and receive the form.

Even in the prose parts, however, while Penelope forms in my mind as an individual character of note, and even as her netherworld environment provides a humorous-yet-productive background to the tale, this myth retold is hardly a satisfying one. While it is a provocative feminist rereading of the tale, it lacks the subtle critique and generative world-building of Atwood’s best feminist works or her best dystopias. 

And as a return to a Greek tale, it lacks the sheer energy of other rereadings, like Hélène Cixous’ essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” or the invitation to the world and text that popular retellings like the Percy Jackson series can provide. The Penelopiad, full of writing skill in a gorgeously designed book, lacks the best cultural criticism that runs through Atwood’s post-apocalyptic and dystopic fiction where she strikes out on her own to remake the world in her own made worlds. 

Ultimately, though, it is in the voice where Atwood’s Penelope falls short. When one has read a myth retold like C.S. LewisTill We Have Faces with Orual’s rich, first-person Greek narrative of self, I simply cannot settle for a mythic voice that does not provide in its tenor what it achieves in its point of view.

Madeleine Miller’s Patroclus, as well, is a living, breathing voice of mythic remembrance and new creation: an outcast, uncertain in love, certain in honour and adoration and ethical risk, a character who lives in me as I live in the text.

Atwood’s myth retold is good, but there is a greatness to Lewis’ Till We Have Faces and Miller’s Song of Achilles that provides a pattern-match of content and form that is deeply rewarding for readers (or at least this reader).

Margaret Atwood is a far more mature writer than Madeleine Miller in this her first novel, and a more literary creator than C.S. Lewis, so it is a surprise to see these words on my own screen. Yet, it is in in Till We Have Faces that we see Lewis in his fullest profile as a writer of what we call “literary fiction”–the genre in which Atwood excels even when she challenges its boundaries, and the genre in which Miller writes even despite her popular reach. We see moments in Lewis of this literary possibility in some of the poetry, at points in Perelandra or “The Weight of Glory”–and even an occasional hint in NarniaTill We Have Faces offers us that full-blooded myth retold in a genre that has brought great richness to the 20th century.

Indeed, it may be the only novel of Lewis’ seriously studied in the English lit university curriculum a generation from now–if university professors can make the leap past the faux-literary Ypres Salient that puts genre fiction at war with literary fiction.

This is a divide that Atwood often bridges–or, I suppose, a boundary that she chooses to transgress as a lifelong reader of science fiction, myth, and fantasy and a writer of “speculative fiction.” As I am someone who spends most of his reading time digging through the reject bin of the lit fic gatekeepers, it is a line I am pleased to see blurred by many of my favourite contemporary women writers beyond Atwood, like Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and (having recently set down their pens) Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin. If the stories of gods and miracles are also speculative, Madeleine Miller bridges these worlds well in The Song of Achilles.

Miller’s Song no doubt has imperfections. I was hopeful for a great epic of friendship that is unusual outside of YA literature today–and C.S. Lewis demonstrates in The Four Loves that friendship is a storyline worthy of great treatment (and I wonder if there is a little nod to Lewis’ Narniad in our first meeting of Chiron, the centaur-teacher). Instead, Miller follows Plato’s supposition that Patroclus and Achilles were lovers. Miller does it to grand and troublesome (in an intriguing way) effect, and there is still much to enjoy about the adventure of friendship in this story of love and war. Still, I am looking for something more than romance in our stories for today–though I suppose I might be writing another minority report.

Fortunately, as a myth retold, The Song of Achilles is greater than romance–as it is greater than war or culture or parable or even the legend of legends at the heart of the tale. It is a myth retold, and sits with Till We Have Faces and against The Penelopiad as a model for myth retellers today.

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Neil Gaiman is Still a (Super Creative and Awesome-to-behold Writerly) Jerk, with thoughts on The Graveyard Book (Throwback Thursday)

At A Pilgrim in Narnia, we have an occasional feature called “Throwback Thursday.” By raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s, I find an article or review from the past and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.

Since Tuesday’s post was about Neil Gaiman, I thought that for today’s Throwback Thursday I would return to my first review of one of his works. I still remember the feeling of listening to The Graveyard Book on CD during a family trip and thinking, “I could have thought of this, and I have had thoughts like this, but Gaiman got there first. And I could have done it … but could I have done it so well?” In one of those soul-searching inspirations, I wrote this original, somewhat saucy, and marginally bitter review. I think it still works–though it seems to me that moralistic tale-telling is on the rise again seven years later.

I continue to read and think about Neil Gaiman’s work. Last week, I published another somewhat saucy-but-thoughtful article on the Marvel Comics adaptation of The Screwtape Letters, and followed it up with Neil Gaiman’s preface to that work–a set of literary finds that will be new to many. I’ve written a short piece on Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett on friendship, linking an early life-discovery by C.S. Lewis. And I have posted the blog post, “Neil Gaiman on Discovering the Author in Narnia (and a note on beards),” which I still quite like. I still have not read the full Sandman graphic novel, and I still eagerly await whatever this mad genius has for us next–another book from the author who, in American Gods, has penned what I believe to be the most important non-horror American fantasy novel. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this review from the vault!


Neil Gaiman is a jerk.

Well, I don’t really mean that. But honestly, how many beautiful ideas is a guy allowed to have in a lifetime? There’s Coroline and American Gods, not to mention an incredible array of short stories, and practically inventing a genre of literature with Sandman. And now I’ve heard that his recent The Ocean at the End of the Lane was voted best book in the universe or something. I mean, seriously?

All deep-rooted bitterness aside, The Graveyard Book—you may remember I’m writing a review here—The Graveyard Book is based on a pretty elegant premise. An orphaned toddler wanders into a graveyard, and it is up to the dead people who live there to raise him. Brilliant.

The Mowgli character in this liminal fantasy is “Nobody Owens,” raised by the disembodied spirits of various centuries under the protection of the graveyard. Needless to say, his education is eclectic. Because of his unique neighbourhood, he is able to speak the English of a hundred generation and has a very particular and narrow understanding of history. He learns to read English and Latin from the epitaphs on tombstones, but he also learns the particularly ghastly gifts of fading from view, dreamwalking, and haunting. It is a very clever book, able to draw in our cultural imagination of graveyards into a single bittersweet tale.

This is one of those great books that can work at various “layers.” I know, I know. Books that are tinged with meaning, moral, or symbolism are terribly unfashionable right now. But The Graveyard Book does what good books should. I am always looking for a story that will capture the sense of alienation and loneliness I had when I was child. What could be better than a boy named “Nobody” who is practically invisible to humans and lives in a place that doesn’t exist? Moreover, parents reading this book are going to be left with the haunting feeling—see what I did there?—that they are in some danger of over-protecting their children.

These morals emerge naturally from the narrative; none of them are forced. Critics of layered stories are missing the point, I think. Anyone reading Harry Potter would be a dangerously narrow reader if they didn’t see the social implications. Yet they read because the Harry Potter books are good literature that are great fun to read. The Graveyard Book is exactly that type of book, on a much smaller scale.

I’m not surprised it’s good. As soon as I heard the premise I knew that it would be. It is not a perfectly shaped book. Gaiman is a short story writer at his best, so the book is episodic, filled with flashes of Nobody’s life as he grows. They are great episodes, but, at times, the plotline is really going nowhere. Nobody’s life has a particular direction, as readers slowly come to understand. Some of that sense of destiny is lost in the triptych style of storytelling, so a little bit of the payoff for the climax is missing too. It is not only the retelling of Kipling’s classic, nor is it simply an orphan tale. It is a messianic story, laced with prophecy that crosses many millennia and a few dimensions. I think that this particular element fades too much to the background as the story continues.

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman illustration by John CuneoBut these are granular criticisms within a heap of praise. My real complaint is that Neil Gaiman is a jerk. And greedy too. The Graveyard Book won not only the Newbery Medal, but it also won the Carnegie Medal (a first double win, I believe). If that wasn’t enough, Gaiman took home the Hugo and Locus awards. How are other writer’s supposed to build a career when this guy is sitting down to a computer with his elegant premises, whimsical hair, and friendships with amazing illustrators (in this case, Dave McKean)?

Anyway, readers may note a touch of bitterness. I would hate for my grave feelings about Gaiman at the moment to overshadow what is a very great book. But don’t buy it. That will just help his cause. Read it in the aisle at the bookstore or over someone’s shoulder on the bus. If you can make yourself invisible like Nobody, no one will find that creepy at all.

Gaiman and Pratchett Good Omens 3

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Neil Gaiman’s Introduction to The Screwtape Letters, Marvel Comics Edition

Last week I published a review essay on a delightful and problematic Marvel adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. In “Double Irony, Visual Delight, and a Missed Opportunity: The Screwtape Letters Marvel Comic Book,” I praised the adaptation for its art and design, noted some weaknesses in adaptation and missed opportunities in the unique genre of graphic novels, and talked about the key irony of a comic book adaptation of The Screwtape Letters–i.e., that a critical demonic device of Screwtape to destroy souls is to keep the idea of demons as comical figures at the front of the public imagination. Overall, I was pleased by the book and thought it a great find for Lewis lovers and comic book fans.

Since then, someone sent me a snapshot of the introduction to an edition that is slightly different than my own gifted copy of the Marvel Comics version of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. This other edition does not reproduce Lewis’ own 1941 preface as mine does. Instead, it has a special introduction written by Neil Gaiman.

As readers will know, Gaiman is not simply a giant in the fantasy world–outside of the horror genre, I think American Gods is the most important work of fantasy on the continent–but one of the new generation pioneers of the graphic novel medium. He is also a lifelong Narnia fan–and, we discover here, a lover and appreciative reader of Screwtape. Leaving beside any technical matters you might normally find in an introduction, Gaiman still manages to orient the reader to the book in their hands while giving us a sense of what he loves about Screwtape as a theologically interested but not specifically religious reader.

Besides some good swipes at the American Christian culture war (the ’90s one, not the current one) and a perceptive description of Narnia, Gaiman draws the reader to Screwtape for entertainment, delight, and wisdom. Gaiman’s perspective of Screwtape‘s impact has reminded me of that larger group of readers of Lewis that keep coming back to his works.

Gaiman also displays a certain proclivity to complex sentences–a habit that I share and no doubt has developed out of a working team under Screwtape’s sharp tutelage. Among Gaiman’s demons, the Pratchett-Gaiman revelation of Crowley in Good Omens is doubtless, at least in the creation of the M25 highway outside of London, one to make Screwtape proud. In other respects, however, Screwtape would be deeply disappointed in and ravenously affectionate for Crowley. I hope you enjoy this introduction!

Introduction by Neil Gaiman  

Clive Staples Lewis put it best in his preface to the original book—of which the volume you are holding is an illustrated abridgement. “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils,” he said. “One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” And with that he began his story of redemption, moral advice and good digestion, subtitled “letters from a senior to a junior devil”, written originally as a series of essays in the Guardian newspaper at the time of the outbreak of World War II.

Wormwood, the junior devil, is diligently tempting, as best he can, an unnamed young everyman, and reporting Downstairs in a sequence of epistles—that we are never shown. Screwtape’s replies, which make up the body of the book, are a series of advices, remonstrances, thoughts and occasional memoirs concerning the road to Hell, and the more difficult road to Another Place (about which Screwtape finds it uncomfortable to think).

Screwtape is, make no mistake, a demon, and a very good one. Screwtape would find it amusing that people think he and his ilk spend time recording messages on rock and roll albums, and recording them backwards at that. They have better things to do—as you’ll find out in the pages that follow.

The late C.S. Lewis is probably best known today for his series of seven novels set in and around the country of Narnia, on a far world inhabited by giants (both the really big, stupid kind and the smaller ones, who eat people), not to mention fauns, fallen stars, amazingly wicked witches and talking animals; a world in which Father Christmas rubs shoulders with Greek gods, and boys undergo Pauline conversions when transformed into Dragons. (I occasionally wonder what he’d make of the current tendency amongst certain groups of people who consider themselves Christians to condemn all fantastic literature as a demon-inspired plot to distract people from what Screwtape so derisively refers to as “real life”. But then, we’re probably back to that “excessive and unhealthy interest” I mentioned earlier.)

I first read The Screwtape Letters when I was nine years old—I bought it from the school bookshop, a pre-teenage Narnia addict—and was relieved on rereading it recently to find it as fresh and delightful and even as wise as I found it then, and would urge anyone who enjoys this book to hunt down the original (still in print after all these years) which is longer and has even more of Screwtape’s counsel in it, and the subsequent volume, Screwtape Proposes a Toast and Other Pieces.

The world Screwtape gives us is one of battle between the flesh and the spirit, in which Hell is purely spiritual and Heaven has the loathsome (to Screwtape) advantage of having once been incarnate. As a writer, with a regrettable tendency to stumble into theological terrain, I find Screwtape, via Lewis, a source of delight—as much for the questions he leaves unanswered as for what he tells us: I find myself wondering if Screwtape—and Wormwood and Glubose, Toadpipe, Slubgob and the rest of the Lowerarchy—have voices that whisper to them, too. I wonder whether angels write each other letters, and, for that matter, what angels feed on…

But I fear I stray from the task at hand, which is that of introducing you to the entertaining and educational material which follows.

So, ladies and gentlemen, it is with great pleasure that I hand you over to His Abysmal Sublimity Under-Secretary Screwtape, T.E., B.S., etc., and his sage advice…

Note: I fixed a couple of typos. If I have mistranscribed anything, please let me know.

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“Ursula K. Le Guin: Worldbuilder” Signum University Course (and a peek at the fall catalogue)

I am pleased to announce that I am part of a team delivering a course at Signum University this fall on Ursula K. Le Guin: Worldbuilder. Prof. Kris Swank, PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, is delivering a series of lectures on Le Guin, taking an approach to the eclectic Le Guin that is understudied. Le Guin was a “world-builder”–a shaper of speculative universes that are as dynamic, alluring, and provocative as her characters, storylines, and poetic prose have always been. She is the focus of much of my leisure reading in 2021–and well worth the time.

I continue to be fascinated by Le Guin’s work, having been drawn in to the fantasy Earthsea series as a child and young adult. This summer, I am part of a mini reading group on the science fictional Hainish Cycle and continue to be stimulated by her writing. So it is a pleasure to be a “preceptor” for the upcoming class–someone who will sit with students, listening to the lectures and then leading the weekly book discussions.

It also seems that Le Guin, though only recently having passed away, is in somewhat of an ascendency. Mythlore has recently released a full special issue dedicated to Le Guin (see the free articles here), and the US Postal Service is honouring Le Guin with a stamp.

If you would like to delve further into Le Guin’s worlds, I hope you can join us this fall. Registration for credit, discussion audit, and audit is open now for this masters-level course. Beyond this groundbreaking Le Guin course, other Signum courses this autumn include:

And there are future courses in development on Arthurian literature by Gabriel Schenk, Old Saxon (language), Amy Sturgis’ two-part Science Fiction foundational courses, Verlyn Flieger’s “Tolkien’s World of Middle-earth,” Germanic Myths and Legends, and a new digital humanities course by Tolkienist James Tauber. You can always send me a personal note if you are wondering if an MA in Imaginative Literature is the right thing for you (my @signumu.org email address is brenton.dickieson). Meanwhile, here’s the full course description, schedule, and links to readings.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Worldbuilder

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) described herself as “A Citizen of Mondath,” that country of the imagination where live the storytellers, the mythmakers, and the singers. In this survey of her works, we will study Le Guin’s own use of story, myth, and song to build unique worlds at the heart of her fiction: the far-flung Hainish Universe, the intimate islands of Earthsea, the disparate states of the Western Shore, and others. We will examine her literary theories of science fiction and fantasy as vehicles for myth, archetype, and character, and as locations for the exploration of gender, politics, the environment, race, culture, religion, and power. Finally, we will examine how her views evolved over time as she revisited and re-visioned the worlds she had built, and how her legacy empowers other authors to build worlds of their own.

Weekly Schedule

This course includes two live 90-minute lectures per week with one 60-minute discussion session as assigned.

Course Schedule

Week 1: A Citizen of Mondath

  • Le Guin’s biography
  • Early world-building

Week 2: The Hainish Cycle I: Beginnings

  • “Myth and Archetype in Science Fiction”
  • The early Hainish Cycle writings

Week 3: The Hainish Cycle II: Gender

  • The Left Hand of Darkness
  • Gender revisited

Week 4: The Hainish Cycle III: Politics

  • The Dispossessed
  • Politics in Le Guin’s writings

Week 5: The Hainish Cycle IV: The Environment

  • The environment in Le Guin’s writings
  • The Word for World is Forest

Week 6: New Wave SF

  • Le Guin and the New Wave Science Fiction
  • The Lathe of Heaven

Week 7: The Books of Earthsea I: Power

  • The early Earthsea writings
  • A Wizard of Earthsea

Week 8: The Books of Earthsea II: Race and Culture

  • Race & culture in Le Guin’s writings
  • The Tombs of Atuan

Week 9: The Books of Earthsea III: Religion

  • Religion in Le Guin’s writings
  • The Farthest Shore

Week 10: The Books of Earthsea IV: Feminism

  • Tehanu
  • Feminism in Le Guin’s writings

Week 11: The Books of Earthsea V: Later Re-visions

  • The Other Wind
  • Tales from Earthsea

Week 12: Other Worlds

  • Late world-building, and the Annals of the Western Shore series
  • “Omelas” and Le Guin’s literary legacy

Required Texts

Note: Students may use any edition of the following texts.

Further readings will be provided by the course instructors in the final syllabus.

Special Note: Robert Steed, PhD, Professor of Humanities at Hawkeye Community College, will give a special guest lecture during Week 9 of this course. Steed specializes in the study of Chinese religions, particularly Daoism, and Asian religions more generally. His research and teaching interests extend to religion and popular culture, medieval and world Christianity, mysticism, religion and art, and mythopoeic art, especially that of J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Miyazaki Hayao.

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Double Irony, Visual Delight, and a Missed Opportunity: The Screwtape Letters Marvel Comic Book

Marvel Comics CS Lewis The Screwtape Letters coverLast December, I was the recipient of a “Screwtape Christmas Miracle.” From some unknown person of no doubt elfin origin, I received the Marvel Comics version of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. This 1994 Charles E. Hall graphic novel adaptation of Screwtape has proved completely impossible to find in local shops. I suspect that collectors keep it, and that very few sought it out when it was first published who were not already Lewis fans. As you can imagine, both as a C.S. Lewis scholar and an avid reader of Screwtape, I am pretty pleased to have gotten this particular comic book in the mail on Christmas Eve.

Partway through the winter, I began reading this graphic treasure. I have been leading a church group through the letters, one letter per week, and the graphic novel gave me a chance to pre-prepare my lessons. Early in the week, I would read the 3-page spread of that week’s letter and allow the conversation to soak in for a bit. Then, on the weekend, I began my more serious discussion preparation. I have always urged students and friends to read The Screwtape Letters slowly–a letter a day for a month is ideal–so this method worked remarkably well for me.

As I consider how to review this graphic novel as a non specialist (just a fan), my mind is split into two bands: the book as a graphic novel and the graphic novel as an adaptation. The production team is quite large with overlapping responsibilities, no doubt, including: Charles Hall (Adaptation and Layouts), Pat Redding (Illustrator, Inks, and Calligraphy), John Kalisz (Illustrator, Colours), Darryl F. Winburne (Consulting Editor), Mort Todd (Editor), and Tom DeFalco (Editor in Chief). For a fuller review, you can find Tyler Hummel at “Geeks Under Grace,” including his great pictures I have used here. In this review, first I’ll treat it as a graphic novel doing what they do best, and then look at the Marvel Screwtape as an adaptation–in each case trying to draw out the layers of irony that is The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’ classic WWII-era volume of (anti-)spiritual direction, a correspondence of a senior demon to a new tempter working on his first mark, “the Patient.”

As a comic book, I think The Screwtape Letters is superb. The calligraphy is perfect, including a sharp Screwtape signature that was very pleasing and matches the letter format well. The heat of hell and numerous sardonic emphases shoot through the text in visual script. Working together with the script, the cartoon figures of demons are inventive–both gruesome and comic, and full of colour as they dance along the visual frame. The humans are expressive and capture comedic elements and a few more tender moments.

More than any individual word or picture, every page is filled with dozens of details that play with the text–deepening a concept, pawning an image sideways, mocking an idea, visualizing a feeling, or giving an American-friendly interpretation. It took me a great deal of time to read because every page was so image-full. The result is that the character of Screwtape’s hell and the storylines of the Patient’s everyday life take on new textures, sometimes providing that unity of text and image that makes for a good graphic novel, and sometimes allowing for the independent and interweaving threads that can make a great one.

It is not a perfect piece of artistry, perhaps. The Patient’s love interest is a bit too “Betty”–a girl-next-door image that now strikes me as disturbing and probably brings up adolescent feelings about the Archie Comics Betty that I don’t want to talk about. The artists excel at playing with tropes and stereotypes when it comes to cultural ideas and demonic temptations, but fail in allowing the Patient’s true story–about which Screwtape is self-deceived–to sneak through to the reader as it does in the original novella.

Marvel Comics CS Lewis The Screwtape Letters layout

The “Betty” figure is precisely the point. Here is Screwtape’s assessment of the “the girl” in the text, which he gets from her dossier:

I have looked up this girl’s dossier and am horrified at what I find. Not only a Christian but such a Christian–a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute. She makes me vomit. She stinks and scalds through the very pages of the dossier. It drives me mad, the way the world has worsened.

We’d have had her to the arena in the old days. That’s what her sort is made for. Not that she’d do much good there, either. A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) who looks as if she’d faint at the sight of blood and then dies with a smile. A cheat every way. Looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth and yet has a satirical wit. The sort of creature who’d find ME funny! Filthy insipid little prude–and yet ready to fall into this booby’s arms like any other breeding animal. Why doesn’t the Enemy blast her for it, if He’s so moonstruck by virginity–instead of looking on there, grinning? (Letter XXII).

Marvel Comics CS Lewis The Screwtape Letters fashionable friendsIt is a peculiarly strong use of sexism by Lewis to create the double deception of the text: Screwtape’s own self-limitations allow him to be deceived as he is working to deceive humans. As David Mark Purdy and Hsiu-Chin Chou have separately observed**, The Screwtape Letters is not just satire–a single inversion where “up” is “down,” or where the “whites are all blacks” as one of the Screwtape prefaces says. That’s sometimes true and fits the overall genre of the text pretty well.

But notice Screwtape’s self-deception creates a double inversion, a new layer of irony. “The girl” in the real life behind the text cannot be the figure that he draws here. Or not exactly. Since when does a “simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss”–a girl next door, a Betty in the Archie world–face down the lions in the arena? Is the innocent, dreamy-eyed figure in the cartoon a martyr in your eyes? Even more, is she the kind of spiritually mature and capacious believer who deepens this new convert’s religious life with confidence and strength?

No. In Lewis’ precise way, he has imaged “the girl” as both saintly and powerful. In this adaptation, she is merely sweet.

This was a missed opportunity in what can be a dynamic genre of interrelated story and image: the one genre that could really adapt the various levels of satire and double-irony is the graphic novel, but this team only reached for surface layer of the text–at least when it comes to the characters’ development.

There are moments of cultural spice that work on multiple layers, but not the double upside-down nature of Screwtape that makes it successful when so much demonic epistolary fiction simply does not land.

While it is a missed opportunity for the Marvel Screwtape creators to miss providing us that multi-layered reading of irony only possible in this genre, there is, of course, a deeper irony in adapting Screwtape in a comic book form in the first place.

In the text–and we recall that there is an adapted text here–the mentee Wormwood asks his pedantic Uncle Screwtape whether it would be wise to give the Patient a hint of his existence. For Screwtape, this is answered clearly in protocol. Hell’s policies are always clear. But on a deeper level, letting humans know that they are being shadowed by a real but incorporeal malignant spirit can do more harm than good. Once someone has a sense that, after all, the spiritual realms are real, then there is a sense that God too might be more than a nostalgic tradition or an evolutionary necessity or a figment of our mythic imaginations. To keep the patient in the dark about the possibility of ongoing demonic temptation, you must allow certain images to rise in humans’ imaginations when you say “devil” or “demons.” Screwtape explains:

The fact that “devils” are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to him a picture of something in red tights, and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old textbook method of confusing them) he therefore cannot believe in you (Letter VII).

Following this logic: if demons exist, if the spiritual realm is real, then God might exist as well. The danger of spiritual awakening is too high, so Screwtape’s approach is to keep a comical view of demons in the public’ imagination, so that even committed Christians would feel a little silly thinking about the dangers of demonic temptation.

Intriguingly, The Screwtape Letters must be one of the only books in history that implicitly advises against being adapted as a comic book!

And what has Marvel Comics done? They have created in this Christian Classics Series adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ textbook on demonic temptation, a flurry of images of devils in–if not red tights, precisely–a comic form that would cause us to smile today.

Marvel Comics CS Lewis The Screwtape Letters warStill, This is a pretty cool irony to observe, but I still think the adaptation has merit for fans of C.S. Lewis and comic book lovers.

As a medium for capturing what Lewis was trying to do for Christian spirituality, it takes a risk that could undercut itself. The grotesque is “cute,” and thus shares the danger of parody in the way that it might push the line from the witty to the ridiculous. The cover is a case in point, where the “Danger! Prayer!” sign next to the square-jawed, clean-cut white kid oozes 20th-century American Christian pop culture cheese. And in an already extremely brief book, bringing The Screwtape Letters down to 60-70% of the published text thins out much of the weight of the text and puts a tarnish on its brilliance.

For the right reader, however, this Marvel edition will be a joy to own and read again and again. Thus, I hope we can enjoy the layers of irony–not just in The Screwtape Letters, but in the fact that we have a Marvel Comics edition that fans committed enough to find a rare copy will love.

Marvel Comics CS Lewis The Screwtape Letters lightning** See David Mark Purdy’s use of “double inversion” in “Red Tights and Red Tape: Satirical Misreadings of The Screwtape Letters,” in Both Sides of the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis, Theological Imagination, and Everyday Discipleship, ed. Rob Fennell (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2015), 75-84. Not unreasonably as it is clearly satire as a formal genre, Screwtape is commonly categorised as satire in most prefaces and in scholarship; see Filmer, Mask and Mirror, 2, 62, 112, 133; Charles A. Huttar, “The Screwtape Letters as Epistolary Fiction,” Journal of Inklings Studies 6, no. 1 (2016): 91; Raymond M. Potgieter, “Revisiting C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters of 1941 and exploring their relation to ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast,’” In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi (2016): 1-8, who suggests parody as a possible genre as well. Coincidental to Purdy’s recategorisation though without quite the detail, Hsiu-Chin Chou’s designation of “double irony” in Screwtape is appropriate; see “The Problem of Faith and the Self: The Interplay between Literary Art, Apologetics and Hermeneutics in C.S. Lewis’s Religious Narratives” (PhD thesis, University of Glasgow, 2008), 205.

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Splendour in the Dark: C. S. Lewis’s Dymer in His Life and Work by Jerry Root (Hansen Lecture)

Splendour in the Dark: C. S. Lewis’s Dymer in His Life and Work by Jerry Root

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I keep finding myself drawn to C.S. Lewis’ strange and challenging long narrative poem, Dymer. Written in the early 1920s as Lewis is first a student and then a tutor at Oxford, it captures an energetic and quick-moving period of Lewis’ philosophical, religious, and literary development. Though we have more notes about its writing than any of Lewis’ other books–his diary of the period in published and named for a line in the introduction to the poem; see All My Road Before Me–and although Lewis left us a preface in a 1950 reprinting of Dymer, it remains somewhat of a puzzle in Lewis studies.

David Downing calls Dymer “obscure and artistically undistinguished.” (Most Reluctant Convert, 118). Chad Walsh calls it a failure as a whole (Literary Legacy, 46), while A.N. Wilson suggests that only the most dedicated Lewis enthusiasts “have bothered to press on with Dymer” (C.S. Lewis, ch. 9). Without praise for the poetic wholeness of the piece, Lewis poetry expert Don King considers Dymer his “most important poem” (“Dymer,” in The C.S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia, 144), while Downing admits that “it gives powerful evidence of how far Lewis had moved” along a spiritual path during his first years at Oxford (Most Reluctant Convert, 118). Dymer is, Joel Heck claims, a “reflection of Lewis himself” (From Atheism to Christianity, 124) in the period, providing an important conversation point for the effect of Lewis’ conversion. The pre-Christian Lewis is so prevalent in the poem that Monika Hilder remarks that Dymer represents the “classical male who rejects the spiritual female,” an approach that lacks the inversive nature of Lewis’ later work (Surprised by the Feminine, 36). Idiosyncratic, difficult, and problematic, Dymer is nevertheless a helpful starting point for considering Lewis’ use of narrative patterning.

The story of Dymer begins with the eponymous character casually murdering his teacher in a utopic community. This act ignites a bloody revolution, while Dymer flees naked into the wilderness, impregnates a monster, and after disturbing adventures often connected to birds, gardens, or roads, Dymer must kill or be killed by his monstrous son. Every Lewis scholar agrees that Dymer is a journey of discovery of some kind, but there is not much agreement about what Dymer (or the reader) discovers. As the material is so philosophically threaded and yet difficult to manage, I was pleased to see that Jerry Root published a series of lectures on the topic, part of Wheaton College’s Hansen Lecture series, held in partnership with the Marion E. Wade Center.

As it turns out, Splendour in the Dark: C. S. Lewis’s Dymer in His Life and Work is a much fuller volume than most lectureship publications. The volume is actually authored by C.S. Lewis and Jerry Root, as we might imagine, but also by David Downing, Miho Nonaka, Jeffry C. Davis, Mark Lewis, and Walter Hansen–as well as some strong, secret editorial hand(s) at the Wade Centre or Wheaton College or IVP–creating a strong, single, forward-facing book for scholars and curious, engaged readers of Lewis’ works. This volume collects:

  • a good text of C.S. Lewis’ 20-something narrative poem, Dymer (the Kindle text is flawless and reasonably priced)
  • Lewis’ 1950 preface to the poem
  • annotations of definitions and literary links in the occasionally obscure poem, provided by David Downing within the Wade Annotated series
  • a series of 3 lectures on Dymer by Jerry Root of Wheaton College for the Hansen lectures
  • 3 responses, by a dramatist, a poetic critic, and a visually artistic and literary scholar
  • a note from the Hansen lecture family member
  • reading support appendices

This is a striking volume in key ways. Each annotation was clear and helpful, the appendices support scholars of the poem, and the responses to Dr Root’s lectures are creative and engaging. It is not very often that a book like this creates a single reading experience. I actually listened to the recent Dymer audiobook, read by Dr Gordon Greenhill, then read the lectures and responses, and then read the Dymer preface, text, and annotations, making my own notes along the way. While some might want to tackle the book in a single day, I found it worked with a shortish daily reading schedule. Lewis’ “Preface,” the nine individual cantos of the poems, and the three responses to the lectures each take about 15 minutes to read, and Dr Root’s three lectures each take 45-60 minutes to read.

At the core of the material, Root’s three-lecture argument about Dymer comes down to a single thesis worked out in three different ways. Root argues that, for Lewis, “reality is iconoclastic. Following a strong description of a complex poem, Lewis’ lifelong idea that reality–nature, in this poem especially, but as his life goes on it includes logic, love, loyalty, hands set to a good task, ethical choices in the real world, the stories we tell, and ultimately a certain image of God–will pull down false edifices of self-delusion, cultural fog, philosophical nonsense, and spiritualistic detours.

Honestly, this is the first really convincing argument about Dymer I have read (beyond generally strong and interesting work connecting Dymer to Lewis’ biography and philosophy of the period). Root’s lectures are well done and helpful overall. Though the argument can be a bit single-minded, he offers correctives to a number of misreadings along the way (despite it being a book largely but not totally without references to the academic literature).

I will offer some critiques, though.

With such a complex poem and one that is often neglected, more work is needed than Root brings out. Some of this has to do with what I was trying to talk about in my Oxford C.S. Lewis Society talk on the “Dive” in 2018, and will be a book I am now shopping to publishers. I feel like the political philosophy needs more conversation, though, and I really don’t know what this poem does within its genre. What is this? Why is the language such a combination of high and low diction? Why an old metre but a new theme. Although I find the poetry bracing and the narrative intriguing, I don’t know why Lewis reduces the poetic value of so many phrases, interrogatives, and verbal points. With a thin scholarly conversation with other sources (which is appropriate to this lecture genre from a senior scholar), many questions are unanswered. Moreover, some of the literary references and even simple lines are still obscure to me.

This leads to my second critique: I would like more annotations, particularly regarding Lewis’ diary entries of the period or other literary links from the classical and medieval world. The temptation when annotating is to overdo it, so I’m pleased that Downing shows restraint. Still, I still wanted more.

And then, third, though I liked reading the three particularly well-written responses from a relatively diverse set of perspectives within that tight Wheaton world, these responses were pretty peculiar and none took the lecturer’s argument and responded to it by augmenting it, challenging it, breaking it down, opening up a point or two, making a line elsewhere, providing more (or different) context, or problematizing it–as one expects in a lecture series! It was clear that Dymer puzzled these smart and relatively knew as much as it has puzzled me over the years.

With some mixed concerns and cheers, I will admit that this reading of the poem was my most productive reading ever. It’s a peculiar poem and I’m not done with Dymer. And I am certain that Dymer is not done with me!

View all my reviews

Here is the video of the book’s “launch” at the Wade centre in the springtime of 2021 (an appropriate launch season for this book, incidentally).

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The First Animated Hobbit, and Other Notes of Tolkienish Nonsense

I have had a wonderful and difficult and exceptionally busy week, preparing for Mythmoot and then attending live online. I have so much I would like to say, but I thought, for now, and for a smile, I would simply share this discovery from the conference: the 1967 animated short film, The Hobbit. This 12-minute film directed by Gene Deitch (comic illustrator, including Popeye and Tom & Jerry) and Academy Award-winning writer, William Snyder.

Rembrandt Films had purchased film rights to produce a film by 1967, but a Hollywood feature-length deal fell apart. According to the Wikipedia page, the film was produced cheaply and quickly–Mythmoot lore places it at 7-10 days–and premiered on the last day that the contract, paying people to see the film. Having fulfilled the contract, they were able to return rights to Tolkien, opening possibilities for future adaptations, including the 1977 animation (which I call “the cute Hobbit” in my mind), and the trilogy epic of the fairy tale in the early 2010s by Peter Jackson, which some may have heard about.

In this 1960s work of art, Thorin becomes “General Oakenshield,” earthy trolls are treelike groans, “Slag the Terrible” is the agent of evil on earth, Gollum is a deranged peach with arthritic limbs, a ginger Bilbo the dragon slayer has a bowtie, and there is a strange love interest–though less strange than the Peter Jackson dwarf-elf heart epic. I would encourage you not to try to decipher the runes.

Though the Rembrandt Films version might have some merit to it, this version looks more like a strong sixth-grade group art project. As a teacher, I would have given the students strong marks for narration and original artwork, given they are children, but only moderate marks for film editing and a failing grade for adaptation of an original piece of work. A good film adaptation must take a literary piece and transcend written possibilities with all the strengths of sound and sight, re-embodying the original into something unique to its genre. This film makes every possible change that might decrease the value of both the movie experience and rediscovering the original–though I like the phrase “the white heart of Dale” as a poetic line.

Personally, I still await the Hobbit adaptation of my dreams. Though I liked the intensely overdone second Jackson trilogy, I want a Hobbit adaptation to do for me what The Lord of the Rings Jackson films did: filling out my imagination and drawing me deeper and deeper into the books. Or even what the Harry Potter films did, which was to give me another way to love characters, the world, the adventures, and the original books themselves. Still, this is pretty cool and weird and worthwhile when you have a coffee break!

Years ago, I shared about “Russian Medievalist Tolkien” from Grimmella, a gorgeous artistic post. And check out Steve Haye’s piece from last year, “A Soviet View of Hobbits.”

And, as a bonus, the Soviet-era made-for-TV film, Khraniteli, based on Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Mythmooters stayed up late, watching the film and commenting on it within our digital platform. Exhausted, I slept, and cannot vouch for how great its terribleness is. But I did awake to 550 unread messages on Sunday morning. You can find part 1 with English subtitles here.

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C.S. Lewis Book Launches: Katherine Langrish’s Journey to Narnia “From Spare Oom to War Drobe” and Michael Ward’s Guide to the Abolition of Man “After Humanity” (Full Videos)

Hello Lewis readers! I shared some recent events announcements, including a couple of new C.S. Lewis studies book launches. Each of these events was well worth the time, filled with thoughtful conversation in what seem like creative, accessible, and high-quality books. I have Michael Ward‘s After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man on my desk and Katherine Langrish’s From Spare Oom to War Drobe: A Journey to Narnia on order with my local bookstore. Langrish’s writing on Narnia is far more literary and historical than I anticipated, both academic and personal with some artistic touches. And Ward’s “guide” is intricately designed and filled with context clues for Lewis’ most important and most difficult work of cultural criticism, The Abolition of Man. I look forward to digging in!

Meanwhile, I thought I would share the full videos of each book talk. Both of the conversations are archived in the organization’s respective Youtube channels (The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow and The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College), and I include here the video links and event descriptions.

michael ward after humanity 2Wade Centre Virtual Book Launch: After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man by Michael Ward (Thurs, Jun 17, 4pm CDT/5pm EST)

The Wade Center welcomes Michael Ward for a virtual book launch of his latest work, After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. In his book, Dr. Ward sheds light on Lewis’s important but difficult work, which originated as a series of lectures on ethics that Lewis delivered during the Second World War. Ward explains both the general academic context and particular circumstances in Lewis’s life that helped give rise to The Abolition of Man, including his front-line service in the trenches of the First World War.

The publisher is also offering a deal that those who pre-order After Humanity will also get a free companion copy of Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Pre-order your bundled set today and get two books for the price of one! Check out the full book launch discussion here.

Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow Book Launch: From Spare Oom to War Drobe: A Journey to Narnia with Katherine Langrish

In the just-published From Spare Oom to War Drobe, celebrated children’s and young adult fantasy author Katherine Langrish has revisited her childhood reading of C.S. Lewis‘s Chronicles of Narnia series to explore what enchanted her in the books as a young reader, and ask whether they still have the power to do so. Hand in hand with her nine year-old self, Katherine traces many paths through Lewis’s thick forest of allusions not only to Christianity, but to Plato, fairy tales, myths, legends, medieval romances, renaissance poetry and indeed to other children’s books. She juxtaposes two very different ways of reading the Narnia stories: the adult, informed, rational way and the passionate childish way.

Katherine was joined by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic co-directors Dr Robert Maslen and Dr Dimitra Fimi, who will interview her about the book and all things Narnia, before giving attendees the opportunity to participate in a Q&A with Katherine. Click here for the full video.

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Three Online C.S. Lewis Events (Katherine Langrish on Narnia, Michael Ward on the Abolition of Man, Anthony Lawton’s The Great Divorce) + Bonus Events: Mythcon, the Tolkien Society, L.M. Montgomery Reading Events

Mythmoot VIII (Jun 24-27)

I shared last week about Mythmoot VIII, coming next weekend (June 24-27–a hybrid online/local event). I am busily working on my keynote speech and I hope I will see you there.

But I wanted to take a moment to advertise 3 C.S. Lewis events happening today and tomorrow–and note two great L.M. Montgomery events (one ongoing, one Saturday) and some summer things. These are all time-sensitive and free, so do not wait!

Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic at the University of Glasgow Book Launch: From Spare Oom to War Drobe: A Journey to Narnia with Katherine Langrish (Thurs, Jun 17, 5-6:30pm BST (UK Time)/12noon-1:30pm EST)

Join us for a journey to Narnia! In the just-published From Spare Oom to War Drobe, celebrated children’s and young adult fantasy author Katherine Langrish has revisited her childhood reading of C. S. Lewis‘s Chronicles of Narnia series to explore what enchanted her in the books as a young reader, and ask whether they still have the power to do so. Hand in hand with her nine year-old self, Katherine traces many paths through Lewis’s thick forest of allusions not only to Christianity, but to Plato, fairy tales, myths, legends, medieval romances, renaissance poetry and indeed to other children’s books. She juxtaposes two very different ways of reading the Narnia stories: the adult, informed, rational way and the passionate childish way.

Katherine will be joined by the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic co-directors Dr Robert Maslen and Dr Dimitra Fimi, who will interview her about the book and all things Narnia, before giving attendees the opportunity to participate in a Q&A with Katherine.

Free tickets here.

Wade Centre Virtual Book Launch: After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man by Michael Ward (Thurs, Jun 17, 4pm CDT/5pm EST)

The Wade Center welcomes Michael Ward for a virtual book launch of his latest work, After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. In his book, Dr. Ward sheds light on Lewis’s important but difficult work, which originated as a series of lectures on ethics that Lewis delivered during the Second World War. Ward explains both the general academic context and particular circumstances in Lewis’s life that helped give rise to The Abolition of Man, including his front-line service in the trenches of the First World War.

At the conclusion of the discussion, two viewers will be chosen to receive a free copy of After Humanity, courtesy of Word on Fire Academic. The publisher is also offering a deal that those who pre-order After Humanity will also get a free companion copy of Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Pre-order your bundled set today and get two books for the price of one!

Register to attend on Zoom, or Watch the live stream on YouTube

InklingFolk Arts Event: The Great Divorce: Anthony Lawton’s “Mesmerizing” Solo Performance (Fri, Jun 18, 4pm EST)

Philadelphia-based actor, Anthony (Tony) Lawton has, like all of us, had a very . . . “different” year. (I was watching my language there). Despite performing professionally in over 100 productions (not to mention work in television and film) and despite founding the Mirror Theater Company (in 1998), his “upcoming performances” page says, sadly, “Sorry folks, no performances scheduled in the foreseeable future.”

OF course, we all know why.

But this Friday at 4 p.m. (PHILADELPHIA TIME!), you are invited, via Zoom, to witness what our dear friend Diana Glyer calls “brilliantly-conceived, skillfully written, superbly executed, . . . thrilling, wonder-filled, gut-wrenching, and breath-taking.” She was raving about Lawton’s solo performance of C. S. Lewis’s classic tale of heaven and hell, THE GREAT DIVORCE.

The Inkling Folk Fellowship resonates with the mission statement of Tony’s Mirror Theater Company: “Spiritual Theater for a Secular Audience.” So we couldn’t be more excited to support and sponsor his work as the world (we hope) slowly eases itself out of plague time.

We are, of course, hoping that many in our audience will become patrons by inviting Tony for some up-close and personal real-live performances in the days ahead. Yes, I mean, paying gigs.

And we, of course, hope that you will invite every human being you know (and perhaps your cats) to experience what Diana Glyer experienced when she said Tony’s performance “rattled my soul, it broke my heart, and I came away from that theatre feeling like I had experienced the full impact of C. S. Lewis’ creative power for the very first time.”

For LOTS more info about Tony Lawton and his work, plus the rave reviews by journalists and playgoers, see his website: https://anthonylawtonactor.com/. What you might also like to know is that Mr. Lawton is an excellent pie chef, and has been selling pies during the pandemic to make ends meet. Talk about talent. (for more info, see https://www.facebook.com/4starvingactor.org/).

Zoom link for event: https://luc.zoom.us/j/81571758227

L.M. Montgomery Institute: Rilla at 100: Resilience and Relevance during a Pandemic Virtual Roundtable (Sat, Jun 19th, 11am-1pm AST/10am-noon/EST)

Join the L.M. Montgomery Institute for a virtual roundtable via Zoom on Rilla at 100: Resilience and Relevance during a Pandemic.

  • Watch as six perspectives come together to discuss interrelated stories from L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside.
  • Enjoy presentations from Montgomery scholars Rita Bode, Lesley Clement, Heidi Lawrence, Andrea McKenzie, Laura Robinson, and Kate Scarth.
  • Participate in discussion questions and live chat.

Free tickets here

L.M. Montgomery Readathon: Emily of New Moon (began Jun 14th, ongoing)

Developing out of a need for pandemic-era connection, and led by Montgomery scholars such as Andrea MacKenzie (MaudCast guest) and Ben Lefebvre (editor extraordinaire), the readathon has just begun one of my favourite artistic books ever: Emily of New MoonYou have to register for the private group on Facebook, but it is a nice reading community to hear friends read the chapters and discuss ideas in the novel and in Montgomery’s contexts.

Summer Events: Mythcon and the Tolkien Society

I also hope you will attend Mythcon’s affordable “Halfling” online mini-conference (July 31-Aug 1) or check out the many great events by the Tolkien Society including the Summer Seminar (Jul 3-4) and Oxonmoot (Sep 2-5) (what a great year they have had!).

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