Full Video: Emily of New Moon Round Table with E. Holly Pike, Kate Sutherland, and Brenton Dickieson (Conversations about #LMMontgomery Series)

I was pleased to be part of a great online conversation on Saturday, a “Round Table” about L.M. Montgomery’s novel, Emily of New Moon. This is by far my favourite Montgomery novel in terms of artistry and thoughtfulness, a Cinderella book, I think, a sleeping giant of Canadian literary fiction. I think it is nearly a work of artistic genius–all the more so because the rich, layered tale masquerades as simply an accessible coming-of-age tale of a precocious writer. There is such vibrancy in this novel–such a taste of artistic delight, numinous joy, and the harrowing of the pilgrim’s soul–that I cannot emphasize too much how great it can be for invested readers.

Speaker List:

  • Brenton D.G. Dickieson, “The Megan Follows Audiobook Version of Emily of New Moon
  • E. Holly Pike, “Age Values in Emily of New Moon
  • Kate Sutherland, “Lessons in Law in Emily of New Moon

I am not the only one to think Emily of New Moon an important novel and rich for conversation. So, on Saturday, I was part of a Round Table discussion with editor extraordinaire Benjamin Lefebvre as moderator. Three of us as “speakers” guided the conversation with an opening thought. Law and literature scholar, Kate Sutherland, considered the ways that morality and social structure were formed and re-formed in the novel. E. Holly Pike, whose co-edited L.M. Montgomery and Gender (with Laura M. Robinson) will be released later this fall by McGill-Queen’s University Press, spoke about “old” and “young” in the novel, using a central image of old and young women and old and young trees to provoke thought.

Both of these conversations left me with so much to think about that I would have been pleased to simply talk about these topics, which struck me as quite connected. I did have a conversation thread as well, however, on a new audiobook adaptation of Emily of New Moon. Megan Follows was, for me, the “voice” of Anne as she starred in the 1980s Kevin Sullivan Anne films. Late this summer, an audiobook production featuring Follows as the reader was released. It is well done as a performance, and I particularly like Megan Follows’ reading of Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella, Carmilla.

However, what I hadn’t seen in the initial advertisements about the project, was that the audiobook was abridged. And deeply abridged, leaving only about 48.7% of the original content, I estimate (though I don’t have a transcription, to be certain of those numbers). As you might expect, the abridgement comes at some literary and artistic cost, as the narrative emphasis on certain themes, images, and character lines gets shifted. In this abridgement, however, entire chapters–and, indeed, one entire central character–is cut. My conversation was about teasing that problem up and talking about what we lose in the abridgement (including, as I admit after a perceptive question, on a bit that still leaves me puzzled). I am not a book history specialist, so I perhaps fumbled Ben’s question about “what is the abridgement doing?” Later, in our conversational afterglow that isn’t in the video, I did remind us that the abridgement seems like a shaping of us as readers–and a commercial shaping, specifically.

Thanks muchly to Andrea McKenzie for hosting, Ben Lefebvre for moderating the speakers’ dialogue, and Caroline Jones for moderating the chat–all Montgomery scholars and generous with their time and thoughts in this conversation. I had fun and look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

You can now see the entire video on Youtube now:

This event is part of the “Conversations about L.M. Montgomery” series, and came out of the L.M. Montgomery Readathon on Emily of New Moon, which began early this summer. Developing out of a need for pandemic-era connection, and led by Montgomery scholars such as Ben and Andrea, it has developed into a dynamic online reading community. The “Readathon” is now moving into the Emily sequel, Emily Climbs (which began last week). You can join in on Facebook.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Upcoming Signum University and Mythgard Online Events (For Tolkien, Fantasy, SF, and Language Lovers)

Happy Friday dear friends! As regular readers will know, I teach at Signum University in their online MA program. Part of Signum’s culture is to have some local gatherings–moots, they are appropriately called, and now hybrid events for those who cannot draw near–as well as some free online events. Hobbit Day was the launch of our annual fall fundraiser, and so there are all kinds of great things going on. I thought I would take a moment to share these opportunities for you to connect and learn. You will gain much, and Signum’s mission for online, accessible, global-leading education in imaginative literature and Germanic philology is a worthy cause to support. And check out some “Don’t Miss This!” events below of other sorts (including a Emily of New Moon Round Table I am a part of tomorrow, and HutchMoot).

New England Moot 2021: Second Breakfast (Sep 25, 2021 in NH)

Please join us in Durham, NH on Saturday, September 25th (tomorrow) for scholarly papers, creative presentations, and fellowship.  We will consider nourishment for body, mind, and spirit all within the Signum University common interests of philology and imaginative & classic literature. This is a hybrid event with local and online activities. See here for registration details. And what a great theme!

Presentations begin close to 9:30am Eastern Daylight Saving time:

  • James Tauber – Counting Breakfasts: Text Analysis in Lord of the Rings
  • Rob McKenzie – The Enduring Attraction of The Pilgrim’s Progress
  • Sarah Anne Stinnett – The Gastronomic Delights of Shakespeare’s Dream: Food and Desire in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Liam Bisesi – Second Breakfast
  • Corey Olsen – Fabulous Feasts: a consideration of the magnificent meals in British literature
  • Pilar Barrera Wey – Colour and Light in Tolkien’s The Hobbit: Home, Greed, and Hope
  • Mark Schennum – A Game of Connections: ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ / ‘Earendil was a Mariner’
  • Steve Melisi – Literary Second Breakfast: The Rewards of the Re-Read
  • Mickey Corso- The Lady and Our Lady: Galadriel as a ‘Reflexion’ of Mary
  • Kate Neville – Eärendil is not “The Morning Star.” Change my mind.  (#ChangeKatesMind)

Thesis Theater: Shawn Gaffney, “Hidden Contact: The Unremarkable Evidence of Brittonic and Latin Effects on English” (Sep 28, online)

Signum master’s student Shawn Gaffney will present his thesis “Hidden Contact: The Unremarkable Evidence of Brittonic and Latin Effects on English” and respond to questions from the audience in an interactive Thesis Theater. The discussion will be facilitated by Shawn’s thesis supervisor, Nelson Goering. Join us on Sep 28th at 10:00am Eastern by clicking here for details, including Shawn’s bio.

Thesis Abstract: At the beginning of the fifth century, the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain and within two centuries they had become a dominant presence throughout much of the island. They encountered the Romano-British and Romans, speaking Brittonic and Latin, but the presence of these two groups, their effects on culture and language, as well as their survival into later centuries are sometimes neglected in modern scholarship. Both peoples did not just disappear at the arrival of the invaders but instead interacted in ways that are still visible today, especially with respect to lexical items and place-names. Language contact theories suggest that instead of a lack of contact, these limitations of data demonstrate the specific effects of certain types of contact. Substrate languages can affect the dominant language through phonology and syntax while leaving the lexicon relatively unchanged. An understanding of how contact and substrate effects is crucial for understanding potential models of cultural contact between the disparate groups. These models demonstrate how the different groups could interact over the centuries and still present modern scholars with the perceived limitations of evidence.

MiddleMoot – Philology: Lover of Words, Friend of Words (Oct 9, 2021 in IA)

MiddleMoot 2021 will be held at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa, and is co-sponsored with Signum University, with support from the Tolkien Society of Iowa City, Smial of Avallónë. Our keynote speaker and guest-of-honor is Michael Drout, philologist and pre-eminent Tolkien scholar. We are also honored to have Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor and president of Signum University, in attendance. The theme of the conference is “Philology: Lover of Words, Friend of Words.” Come join us as we explore various aspects of the importance of language, linguistics, and philology among other topics in Tolkien’s work! Please be aware that the registration fee includes a hot lunch and access to all activities and materials associated with the conference. We plan to follow current (early October) CDC and Iowa public health guidance pertaining to mask-wearing and other pandemic-related protocols for indoor gatherings. For more details, including a Call for Papers and Presentations, see here.

TexMoot 2022 (Feb 12, 2022 in TX)

This is just a place-holder note, but you can watch this link for future details. Last year’s TexMoot–where I asked the question, “Is C.S. Lewis too Sexy for America?”, was a great day, and I am looking forward to this local/online hybrid conference day next Winter.

And the Full Details of the Signum University Annual Fund Campaign

This year’s campaign will take place between Wednesday, September 22, and Saturday, October 16, 2021. Besides events and broadcasts, there are gifts and prizes for donors. Check out the Annual Fund page for details.

9/22 Traditional Kick Off on Hobbit Day during our Mythgard Academy, The Nature of Middle-earth broadcast.

9/25 New England Moot: Second Breakfast
While this regional moot is not campaign focused, Corey will be talking a little about the campaign, and perhaps more importantly, giving away some prizes to attendees, both corporeal and virtual! Use this link to go to the event webpage and join in the fun!

10/2 Wigend Muscles through Mordor Marathon
Join Corey on our SignumU Twitch channel to watch him take Wigend through Mordor in LotRO. More prizes will be tossed about!

10/9 Middle Moot – Philology: Lover of Words, Friend of Words
Again, this regional moot is not campaign focused but Corey will have a few words to add and will be taking the opportunity to spread more thanks and gratitude in the form of prizes!

10/16 The Annual Webathon!
It will be a day-long blast, as usual. We have some delightful content planned for everyone as well as the annual State of the University address. The webathon will culminate in more LotRO shenanigans for those that didn’t get enough during the marathon.
We will be posting more details here soon, including the link to the webathon broadcast.
Don’t expect an early start as our fearless leader is rather vampiric in his daily sleep and work cycle.

Emily of New Moon Round Table (Sep 25th, online)

I don’t want you to miss tomorrow’s New England Moot–and I do wish I was there, since it is so close (just a 9 hour drive, what we call a short jaunt in my part of the world)–I would like to remind L.M. Montgomery fans that I am part of an Emily of New Moon Round Table conversation tomorrow (see here).

Hutchmoot: Homebound (Oct 8-10, online)

Also of note–and also aligning with other events and Canadian Thanksgiving–the wonderful folks at the Rabbit Room (including songwriter and storytelling brothers Andrew and Pete Peterson) are hosting another Hutchmoot: Homebound on Oct 8-10, totally accessible online, with talks and performances from our own (can I call them that?) Diana Glyer and Malcolm Guite, and other folks I love or admire for selfish reasons, like The Gray Havens, JJ Heller, Jerry Root, and Sho Baraka (and Walter Wangerin, Jr. is on the speaker’s list, though he sadly passed away a few weeks ago). Click here for tickets.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Accidental Riddles in the Invisible Dark (Throwback Thursday, and The Hobbit Read-Along, and Hobbit Day)

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 a blog post 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 you might enjoy.

In scrolling through social media last night, I was inspired by Hobbit Day posts and thoughts. I have become enthralled by a heavy work period and forgot to take some time to reflect on Bilbo and Frodo’s birthday, September 22nd. So, for today’s Throwback Thursday, I am returning to a post from nine years ago. Nine years! This little reading reflection was one of my first forrays into networking online with other writers and fans. In celebration of the then forthcoming Peter Jackson Hobbit film trilogy, David of The Warden’s Walk hosted The Hobbit Read-Along. I was assigned Chapter 5: Riddles in the Dark, a particular favourite of mine. While the piece strikes me as overly buoyant and a bit precious–it was nine years ago and I did create this blog to improve as a writer–I still kind of like it. Lovers of the book might even get the joke. It is also my most popular Hobbit post ever, read more than 4,000 times. I should note that Nicolas, now 16, no longer calls him Bilboy. I hope you enjoy this most shire-like of September days.

Here is a riddle for you:

Besides food and ice, what have I got in my deepfreeze?

Give up? I don’t suppose it is a very fair riddle, and certainly isn’t a genuine riddle according to the ancient laws. Truly, a person could have just about anything in a deep freeze. I have an external hard drive that gets overheated, so twenty minutes of freezer time fixes it up. I once put a valuable hockey card in the freezer to get the gum off of it without ripping it. And I have a friend who freezes her credit card in a block of ice so it takes a long time to melt, ensuring her purchase has been given much thought. A freezer could hold most anything.

In my case—and here I will give you the answer to this clever riddle even if death is on the line—I’ve got my copy of The Hobbit in the deepfreeze.

Purely by accident, of course. This fall, when I began reading The Hobbit to my son, I searched high and low for my old, ragged copy. I have read it many times as it has been in my collection from time beyond memory. It may even have been a birthday present. It is precious to me. Alas, I must have loaned it to someone who is not a genuine book-borrower according to the ancient laws. “Where iss it? Where iss it?” my family heard me crying among our basement bookshelves. “Losst it is, my precious, lost, lost! Curse us and crush us, my precious is lost!” Ah, well.

Once I recovered myself, I purchased a copy from a local bookseller and left it in our back porch beside the dryer. When I went to bring it on our (Canadian) Thanksgiving holiday weekend, it was gone. I was scrabbling here and there, searching and seeking in vain. I was inconsolable as I left the house for the car. “It’s no good going back there to search, no,” I said to myself in the driveway. “We doesn’t remember all the places we’ve visited.” Suddenly I sat down on the back step and began to weep, a whistling and gurgling sound horrible to listen to. My wife, having kept her presence of mind, suggested we pick up another copy. After all, there were dozens at the store. I was okay after that.

Having the faintest sliver of hope I would save $10.99 (Canadian), I did not purchase another copy, but read to my son from the e-reader. When we returned home from the weekend I stood in the back porch, determined to find the missing precious, I mean book. I looked in all the cupboards, in the washer and dryer, and in the hidden spaces in between. It simply wasn’t there. Almost by pure accident, I opened the deepfreeze, and my hand met what felt like a paper book lying in the dark on top of the honey garlic chicken wings. It was a turning point in my career, but I did not know it. It was only ten minutes ago, after all.

The riddle of my missing book aside, this chapter is truly a turning point in the story, and the hinge that locks the entire mythical world of Middle-earth into place. This is the chapter where Bilbo (or Bilboy as my young son calls him) finds the ring of power, setting the stage for The Lord of the Rings epic. It is also the chapter where we meet Gollum—that psychologically complex shadow of a mind in stretched skin, slinking in the inky darkness within the heart of the mountain, pouring all his love and hatred into one thing: the ring.

What strikes me about this chapter, however, is the accidental nature of the “turning point in his career.” Forgetting for a moment how The Fellowship of the Ring film reshapes our minds on what is taking place in Bilbo’s discovery of the ring, and leaving behind what we know of the epic that Tolkien writes years later–and, in doing so, rewrites this chapter–accidents and cheats abound in this little chapter.

Bilbo finds the ring in absolute darkness—“When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark as with them shut”—and absentmindedly puts it in his pocket. In the darkness he follows a tunnel that, after a journey of many hours where Bilbo chose no other paths, leads to Gollum’s lair. Gollum, as it turns out, has just eaten a goblin, so his curiosity is greater than his hunger. Bilbo, then, finds himself in a battle of wits—to the death!—a contest of riddles according to ancient traditions that even this fallen creature would respect. Bilbo was immensely fortunate that he wasn’t “throttled from behind” as was Gollum’s customary hospitality.

That, my friends, is a striking number of coincidences.

Even the game seems chanced in Bilbo’s favour. He is good at riddles, and finds the first few easy. But Bilbo finally gets stuck on this one:

Alive without breath,
As cold as death;
Never thirsty, ever drinking,
All in mail never clinking.

Bilbo is absolutely flummoxed until, at just the right moment, a fish jumps out of the water and lands on his lap. The answer is, of course, “fish,” and Bilbo is saved just in time.

And this is not the only extremely fortunate accident. Faced with an impenetrable riddle, faltering in the dim light, Gollum decides it is time to eat this hobbit that has lost the riddle contest.

Gollum began to get out of his boat. He flapped into the water and paddled to the bank; Bilbo could see his eyes coming towards him. His tongue seemed to stick in his mouth; he wanted to shout out: “Give me more time! Give me time!” But all that came out with a sudden squeal was:
“Time! Time!”
Bilbo was saved by pure luck. For that of course was the answer.

Pure luck, again, is Bilbo’s friend.

Even the final play of the game, the riddle that seals the fate of each of them (and all of Middle-earth), comes by chance:

Bilbo pinched himself and slapped himself; he gripped on his little sword; he even felt in his pocket with his other hand. There he found the ring he had picked up in the passage and forgotten about.
“What have I got in my pocket?” he said aloud. He was talking to himself, but Gollum thought it was a riddle, and he was frightfully upset.
“Not fair! not fair!” he hissed. “It isn’t fair, my precious, is it, to ask us what it’s got in its nassty little pocketses?”
Bilbo seeing what had happened and having nothing better to ask stuck to his question. “What have I got in my pocket?” he said louder.
“S-s-s-s-s,” hissed Gollum. “It must give us three guesseses, my preciouss, three guesseses.”
“Very well! Guess away!” said Bilbo.

What Gollum would later know to be a certainty—that Bilbo had a ring in his pocket—at this particular moment was not even a possibility in Gollum’s imagination. Moreover, the riddle is not a fair one—no more than the deepfreeze question above. It takes a game of cleverness and symmetry and turns it into a game of chance. Granted, the stakes were not fair from the beginning: if Gollum won, Bilbo would be eaten; if Bilbo won, Gollum would show him the way out. Still, the entire story turns on a cheat–or, at least, chance.

The number of accidents and the layers of “pure luck” are too much for the reader to imagine there are no other forces at play. When Gollum discovers that the Hobbit has his precious ring, he chases after poor Bilbo, who bumbles breathless away in the darkness.

“What has it got in its pocketses?” [Bilbo] heard the hiss loud behind him, and the splash as Gollum leapt from his boat.
“What have I, I wonder?” he said to himself, as he panted and stumbled along. He put his left hand in his pocket. The ring felt very cold as it quietly slipped on to his groping forefinger.
The hiss was close behind him. He turned now and saw Gollum’s eyes like small green lamps coming up the slope. Terrified he tried to run faster, but suddenly he struck his toes on a snag in the floor, and fell flat with his little sword under him.
In a moment Gollum was on him. But before Bilbo could do anything, recover his breath, pick himself up, or wave his sword, Gollum passed by, taking no notice of him, cursing and whispering as he ran.
What could it mean?

Accidentally, the ring of power “quietly slipped on to his groping forefinger” and made him invisible. It is quite a series of coincidences. What could it all mean?

We know from the epic that the will of Sauron is at play, but what is the invisible opposing hand? Is it pure chance, or something else? I don’t really know what other name to call it other than Providence: the invisible working of small chances and great tragedies—eucatastrophes, Tolkien would later call it—that seem in retrospect to be the guiding hand of Something or Someone from without. The Hobbit up until chapter 5 is a series of happy and unhappy accidents. Which accidents lead to fortune, we can only know when the story is entirely told.

Meanwhile, I need to thaw my copy of The Hobbit with a hair dryer—if I could only remember where I left it. I am not too worried, though. It is not a hair dryer of power. We bought it at Wal-mart.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Emily of New Moon Round Table with E. Holly Pike, Kate Sutherland, and Brenton Dickieson (which is me!), Sat, Sept 25th, 2pm Eastern (Conversations about L.M. Montgomery Series)

I am pleased to announce that I am part of a “Round Table” conversation on L.M. Montgomery’s novel, Emily of New Moon. While it is not always my favourite work of Montgomery’s in terms of sheer readerly relexation, it is by far my favourite in terms of artistry and thoughtfulness. I think it is nearly a work of literary genius–all the more so because it masquerades as simply an accessible coming-of-age tale of a precocious writer. There is such vibrancy in this novel–such a taste of artistic delight, numinous joy, and the harrowing of the pilgrim’s soul–that I cannot emphasize too much how rich it is for invested readers.

Thus, I was pleased to be invited to be part of a Round Table discussion on September 25th at 2:00 EDT on Zoom. Editor extraordinaire Benjamin Lefebvre will moderate the Emily of New Moon Round Table. We’ll be joined by Kate Sutherland, who has written a number of articles on Montgomery and law–which includes Montgomery’s deeply emotionally and historically important decade-long legal battle with her American publisher–and E. Holly Pike, who, following a number of Montgomery literary critical pieces, is co-editing L.M. Montgomery and Gender with Laura M. Robinson (due to be released later this fall by McGill-Queen’s University Press). As with other creative editions of the “Conversations about L.M. Montgomery” video series, there will be a chat moderator (literary scholar Caroline Jones) and host (historian Andrea McKenzie).

Speaker List:

  • Brenton D.G. Dickieson, “The Megan Follows Audiobook Version of Emily of New Moon
  • E. Holly Pike, “Age Values in Emily of New Moon
  • Kate Sutherland, “Lessons in Law in Emily of New Moon

This is a free event, though registration is requiredhttps://yorku.zoom.us/…/tJUqfuytpjsjHdEpmiFZDSOFngVMz5c…. All Montgomery readers and scholars are welcome to attend and join in on the conversation. We normally spend about an hour on the event, then throw open the microphones for an informal visit afterwards.

This event comes out of the L.M. Montgomery Readathon on Emily of New Moon, which began early this summer. Developing out of a need for pandemic-era connection, and led by Montgomery scholars such as Ben and Andrea, it has developed into a dynamic online reading community. The “Readathon” is now moving into the Emily sequel, Emily Climbs (beginning this week, I believe).

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

“Nightmare Alley,” the Official Teaser Trailer of the William Gresham Adaptation by Guillermo del Toro

We have heard the rumours for months, fuelled by short news pieces that sounded promising. And now we have it, the teaser trailer of Nightmare Alley, a Guillermo del Toro adaptation with a huge cast, including Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, and Mary Steenburgen.

While it is difficult to forgive him for The Hobbit adaptation, Guillermo del Toro is a genius of dark fantasy with Academy Award-winning films like Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017). From the teaser, it looks like del Toro wants to languish in the smokey, eye-gazing, overwrought one-line dynamic of the 1947 film noir version of Nightmare Alley, combined with a thriller energy that back-stages atmospheric features of carnival life, both luring and lurid.

Indeed, while the trailer wants us to think that true monstrosity is always off stage–and there are some intriguing nods to the ’47 film even in this short trailer–I have no doubt that del Toro is trying to help us reimagine both terror and monstrosity.

Why the interest in this particular film?

While I am a fan of thrillers that flirt with the fantastic, it is mostly because both the 1947 and 2021 films are adaptations of the 1946 novel of the same name, written by William Lindsay Gresham. That is, Bill Gresham, the husband of Joy Davidman–the enigmatic poet and prose writer who found her way into an unlikely and tender late-in-life marriage with C.S. Lewis. So while Joy Davidman’s life and work–including her compelling poetry and mercurial personality–loom much larger for me than a one-hit-wonder novelist from the ’40s, the connection keeps me intrigued. Davidman’s biographer, Abigail Santamaria, describes Nightmare Alley‘s impact on the Gresham household where both Joy and Bill were struggling writers, pressed to the edge as parents and artists:

Nightmare Alley, published on September 9 [1946] had begun generating press as early as July 7, with the Washington Post promising a “sinister and compelling piece of fiction” that would “shock some readers but send the public clamoring to the bookstores.” And it did. The novel, a work of brilliance, would become a noir classic with a cult following for decades to come.

But first, a bigger payoff presented itself: Twentieth Century-Fox bought the film rights for $50,000. And the studio invited Bill to Hollywood for the first two months of 1947 to collaborate with writer Jules Furthman on adapting the novel for the screen. In January, Bill took a train west. The picture, starring Tyrone Power and dJoan Blondell, would be produced at lightning speed for a New York City premiere at the Mayfair Theater on October 7, 1947. The windfall was more money than Bill or Joy had ever seen, and they knew exactly how they wanted to spend it. “We looked around for the biggest house we could find,” Bill said. After two years of living and writing in a cramped three-room apartment with one, and then two babies, the Greshams wanted a home with land where Davy and Douglas could grow “husky and brown and tough and mischievous. That is all one can ask.” And they “had to have a woodlot,” Joy insisted. “We wanted the feeling of walking in our own woods.” Ample workspace was also a priority, private studies in which to think and write. Both of them had new projects in the works…. The future once again promised great things. Now they could settle down. Now everything would be fine (Abigail Santamaria, Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis (p. 178-9).

I have no doubt that Gresham’s Nightmare Alley will find its way to my bedside table this fall as I await the December 3rd release. There will be more to say. Meanwhile, here is the teaser trailer for Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley.

Someone has created a little trailer for the 1947 film:

And you can find the entire film smouldering 1947 classic here:

Posted in Feature Friday, News & Links | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

“There Are No Cruel Narnians: What The Horse and His Boy Can Tell Us About Racism, Cultural Superiority, Beauty Standards, and Inclusiveness” by Daniel Whyte IV

There Are No Cruel Narnians: What The Horse and His Boy Can Tell Us About Racism, Cultural Superiority, Beauty Standards, and Inclusiveness

by Daniel Whyte IV

The Chronicles of Narnia has legions of fans around the world. According to journalist and novelist Lev Grossman, the much-beloved series published in the 1950s split the atom on the modern fantasy novel. But as our society becomes more aware of the inequities, injustices, and prejudices of previous generations—and rightfully so—the series has come under increasing scrutiny as espousing racism, sexism, and insensitivity to people outside of Anglo-Western religious and cultural backgrounds.

The nexus of these issues—race, culture, religion, and sex—finds itself in the fifth-published and third-written of Lewis’ Narniad—The Horse and His Boy. With Netflix paying nearly $250 million for film and series rights to all seven books—we assume they don’t plan to sit on the intellectual property—the Narnia series will be the object of increased attention at some time in the foreseeable future. And with that scrutiny will come the equally foreseeable social commentary litigating what the books (and whatever Netflix’s interpretation of the books) are saying about representation and the way people of color and cultures outside of a patriarchal Anglo-Western worldview are portrayed in media.

Any potential adaptation of The Horse and His Boy will be fraught with minefields. Houston Chronicle editor Kyrie O’Connor claims it isn’t far-fetched to see the fantasy as “anti-Arab, or anti-Eastern, or anti-Ottoman” and suggests a desire to “stuff this story back into its closet.” While Lewis’ Narniad is emotionally stimulating and spiritually moving, it can be overshadowed by issues that led another popular fantasy writer and academic—Philip Pullman of His Dark Materials fame—to call it “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I have ever read.” He wrote that in a 1998 Guardian article titled “The Dark Side of Narnia.” Imagine what will be said about Narnia over twenty-five years later if Netflix dares to adapt The Horse and His Boy. (And I say to Netflix, as Aslan says to Bree, “Do not dare not to dare.”)

Indeed, as author, editor, and (somewhat) defender of C.S. Lewis, Gregg Easterbrook, wrote in The Atlantic two decades ago (partially in response to Pullman’s criticisms):

“Although Narnia has survived countless perils, the Chronicles themselves are now endangered… What’s in progress is a struggle of sorts for the soul of children’s fantasy literature.”

If the struggle is as eschatological as Easterbrook posits—and if Lewis’ reputation is indeed growing “beyond the reach of ordinary criticism” as Pullman argued in his ’98 hit piece—then it’s worth taking the time to look seriously at what the Narnia chronicles tell us about Lewis’ personal views and about the messaging (if any) encoded in the books.

My concern here is primarily The Horse and His Boy. But we can’t separate this work from the whole so we’ll refer to the other novels (not always by name) when needed.

_______

The accusations against The Horse and His Boy are straightforward: Lewis painted a race of brown-skinned people (and their culture) as bad and morally inferior to the white-skinned Narnians and Archenlanders who are perfect and desirable in every way. And there is ground on which these claims can stand. Taking the Narniad as a whole, the issue of racism and the presumed cultural inferiority of the Calormenes is tempered only by perceived sexism and issues related to the way females are depicted in the series—which we’ll talk about soon. In his 1996 tome, The Natural History of Make Believe, children’s author John Goldthwaite summed up the Narnia series as a

“parable that is not only murderously misogynistic, but deeply blasphemous as well.”

I read The Horse and His Boy for the first time in my early teen years. Despite being an African-American child in a family and cultural environment hyper-aware of interracial tensions, I did not find the depictions of the competing cultures offensive. Nor did I see them as paralleling the struggles of people of color against racism and prejudice by whites. Perhaps I was too young or too ignorant to catch on. Perhaps stereotypical attitudes regarding race were already embedded in my fledgling worldview.

The accusations against The Horse and His Boy persist despite the usual rebuttal that there are plenty of bad pale-skinned people—chief among them, the White Witch, Narnia’s paramount villain—who are condemned in the stories just as bad brown-skinned characters are condemned. There are also brown-skinned characters who are regarded in the stories as good.

If we want to weigh the number of evil white-skinned humanoids against the number of evil brown-skinned humanoids (who are fully-realized characters in the Narniad), Dr. Devin Brown, in an address at Calvin College over a decade ago, does it best:

“The roster of light-skinned evildoers is a long one and includes the White Witch, the early Edmund, Miraz, the Lords Glozelle and Sopespian and many of their Telmarine countrymen, the early Eustace, the bullies at Experiment House, Governor Gumpas, Lord Bar, the Queen of the Underworld, and Uncle Andrew.

“The Calormene characters we get to know best [in The Horse and His Boy]—Aravis and Emeth—are very positive characters and are portrayed no less sympathetically than their fair-skinned counterparts, making it clear that skin color is no predictor or preventer of good or bad actions.”

But what of Lewis casting the entire Calormene society in a negative light in many instances? True—this claim can’t be denied. After telling us that Tashbaan, the country’s capital, is “one of the wonders of the world,” Lewis hits us with negative imagery: inside, the city is smelly from the scents of “unwashed people,” “unwashed dogs,” and “piles of refuse” lying about. Not flattering in the slightest. The Calormenes themselves are described as grave, cruel, proud, and mysterious in contrast to the Narnian royals who “walk with a swing” and “chat and laugh.”

It seems that Lewis is being unfair. But we mustn’t forget: C.S. Lewis is pro-Narnian.

Narnians, those who become Narnian (like Aravis and the Pevensies), and the “friends of Narnia” (like Archenland, like Digory and Polly) are the heroes whom Lewis wants his readers to admire and cheer for. He is not writing an impartial history of his fictional realm. He is biased, as is his right.

That, however, doesn’t address the question of whether the Narnia stories—more specifically, the Narnians (since these are whom Lewis establishes as role models more or less)—embody racist tendencies. Granted, the era in which Lewis lived was not the most enlightened on racial issues. Whatever opinions he held, unconsciously or consciously, he did not care to articulate at any length, which might be due somewhat to the stuffy environs of academia which he inhabited for most of his life.

The Narniad doesn’t examine racism in any systematic way. But there are characters who express racist tendencies. A tribe of Narnian dwarves in The Last Battle appears to be racist toward the Calormenes, using the slur “darkies” as they taunt them on the battlefield. Dwarves from this same tribe also kill Narnian horses and betray their own countrymen. (These are Black Dwarves, so called because their “hair and beard were black.” In Prince Caspian, dwarves of the same tribe express a murderous hatred toward half-dwarf, half-human individuals like Caspian’s tutor Cornelius. Caspian defends his tutor, saying, “Anyone who doesn’t like his company may leave my army: at once.”)

The casual reader of the Narniad would be forgiven for assuming that there are no cruel Narnians—that the simple binary of Narnians good—others bad actually exists. But the stories do not support this. In The Last Battle, the aforementioned dwarves are very bad (fair-skinned) Narnians who are unable to enjoy Aslan’s Country after the great Lion draws the world in which Narnia exists to its end. If we want to argue that depictions such as this prove Lewis was espousing racism in his work, then we must also argue that he espoused treachery and murder.

One of the indications that a character in The Chronicles of Narnia is a bad guy—or even a not-yet-good guy—is morally incorrect behavior. Expressing racism is just one of the ways in which the Narnia stories show that a character is morally reprehensible. Such behavior, no matter the skin color of the person behaving, is not to be taken by the reader as a nudge for his or her own behavior. Readers are meant to see the Calormenes as adversarial to Narnia. The story supports this by the Calormenes being imbued with morals, behaviors, and belief systems that are largely antithetical to Narnians. The brown-skinned Calormenes, like the pale-skinned Telmarines of Prince Caspian, are racist and speciesist. But, perhaps, a more correct way of saying this is: they are, by necessity, negatively disposed to native Narnians and their human royalty because that is what the story calls for. They are meant to be the enemies of Narnia. We are meant to see that any animosity the Narnians and their allies display towards others is because those others are not friendly. If they were, then the Narnians would be quick to make friends.

It’s no surprise also that the Calormenes are depicted as sexist—child marriage is practiced and it seems females are seen as the property of their husband or father. Some might argue that this is only so the brown-skinned characters can look bad. But other fair-skinned characters also express sexist tendencies: Lord Miraz, Uncle Andrew, and Prince Rilian (when he was under the influence of the Green Witch).

And what of Narnia’s heroes and royals? Many have at one time or another uttered things that, in our present era, would be perceived as sexist. For example, in Prince Caspian, as Edmund is getting frustrated over him and his siblings being unable to find their way in a Narnia that is unfamiliar to them, he mutters to Peter and Trumpkin, “That’s the worst of girls. They never carry a map in their heads.” In The Horse and His Boy, Prince Corin describes Queen Lucy to Shasta as being “as good as a man, or at any rate as good as a boy” in battle. He thinks he’s saying something positive, but he is, for lack of a better term, not yet woke.

Some might view such statements (several more of which are found throughout the Narniad), and the attitudes that underlie them, as evidence that the stories espouse sexism. But to do so is to ask more of the Chronicles than they will answer to. Sexist behavior and language in Narnia’s villains—and even its heroes—is not a directive from the stories themselves. It is merely bad characters acting badly and imperfect heroes acting imperfectly. And we shouldn’t construe such behavior as authorial dogma.

A more recent fantasy adaptation provides a case-in-point. A trailer leading up to the release of Marvel’s Falcon and the Winter Soldier shows Sam Wilson taunting Bucky Barnes as the battered Winter Soldier hangs from the underside of an eighteen-wheeler: “That little girl kicked yo’ ass!” he yells. It’s a throwaway laugh line, one that wouldn’t have raised a single eyebrow fifteen or twenty years ago. One that probably will go unchallenged in the minds of most of Marvel’s viewers even today.

While the context is absent from the clip, Mary Sue writer Lyra Hale points out that such a comment is indeed “sexist nonsense that compares weakness with being a girl”—and, surprisingly, it rolls off the lips of a hero. However, Hale’s claim that “it’s not even something Sam would say” refuses to acknowledge that heroes and good guys, no matter how righteous, are still flawed creatures. And with that miniseries all said and done, I doubt anyone would argue that it espouses sexism (or racism, or violence), no matter how many times Sam or Bucky or any other character expresses views or engages in behavior that could be interpreted as suggesting otherwise.

Simply because a character behaves or speaks badly is not an indication that the creator approves of such behavior or desires the reader/viewer to emulate it. To demand that heroic characters be morally unimpugned—even when it comes to racism and sexism—is to ask for bland, utopic protagonists and stories that ring hollow.

________

While Lewis did not set out to grapple with racism any more than Milton set out to deal with horticulture in Paradise Lost, Narnia did not spring out of a mind unentangled from such issues. Indeed, as the Oxford professor wrote,

“everything in [a] story should arise from the whole cast of the author’s mind.”[1]

So what was in the “whole cast” of Lewis’ mind as he crafted the Narnian tales? A close reading of the text suggests that he was not so much concerned with race and sex—his fault there more likely lies in his ignorance or disinterest in either—as much as he was concerned with culture. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, former assistant research professor at Strasbourg’s Institute for Ecumenical Research, posits that in The Horse and His Boy

“It is not racial superiority, but cultural superiority that underlies Lewis’ vision, though I doubt very much that he would have recognized this attitude as such, or approved of it in himself had it been brought to his attention.”[2]

As Matt Mikalatos reminds us in his brilliant, ongoing series on the works of C.S. Lewis, the author is writing for

“young, white, British children…They are both the stars and the target audience.”[3]

Their “ethnic and cultural world” is the “center” from which all other cultural perspectives, even fictional ones, are seen.

Lewis sought to imbue the call of “Narnia and the North” with the aspects of European medievalism and English culture that he approved of. (Indeed, he bristled—most significantly in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader—at some of the academic and social shifts that were becoming apparent in World War-era Britain.) He was also writing at a time when mass numbers of people of color from the West Indies and South Asia were immigrating to England to pursue work opportunities and a better life for themselves. Despite surviving the nationalism-driven horrors of Hitler’s attempt at an empire, Britain was not immune to racist ideologies and an us-vs-them collective social mentality.

Sequestered in scholarly halls and engaging with like-minded peers in Oxford’s pubs, Lewis’ life likely wasn’t affected by the nastier throes of England’s cultural shifts. He could afford to spit at how, in his view, Britain’s education system was losing its teeth and how adults (like Eustace Scrubb’s parents) let their kids call them by their first names because they were “very up-to-date and advanced people.”

He would not have seen the harm in crafting the Calormenes in a manner that, deliberately or not, seems to ape Middle Eastern/Arab culture. Evidence to suggest that he did so because he held animosity towards that culture is thin. And the idea that he was trying to condemn the Islamic faith via The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle is too simplistic. Along with being a medieval scholar and literary critic, he was a theologian par excellence—perhaps the most accessible Christian theologian of the twentieth century. And he, unlike the majority of those who share his faith today, viewed Islam, not as a pagan religion—he did not think Muslims were heathens—but as a heresy. He viewed Islam, which he once described as “strong, noble, [and] venerable,” as a branch of Christianity that had gone down a different path.[4] Besides, the religion of the Calormenes is nothing like Islam.

Similarities between Shasta’s story and that of Moses in the Book of Exodus have been broadly noted. If we take the same simplistic approach that we’d have to take to analogize the Calormenes as Muslims, we could say that the Calormenes are more accurately compared to ancient Egyptians. And the polytheistic religion of ancient Egypt, coupled with its pharaoh-worship, is a more precise jumping-off point for the religion Lewis created for the Calormenes with their pantheon of gods and their royalty said to be descended from gods.

Perhaps a writer more sensitive to the times, or more cosmopolitan in his outlook, would have considered that people outside of the English and Western European cultural arena might one day read his books and he would have been more meticulous and objective about his world-building. But Lewis was no Tolkien when it came to world-building and tossed in whatever he liked as he went along. This is part of the magic of the world he made: it is wild, unconstrained, and unconcerned. Judging by modern standards, it may be misguided, but it is not malicious.

Interestingly, an article by Jin Seongeun in the New Korean Journal of English Language and Literature suggests that Lewis may have injected himself into the narrative as the Calormene Emeth who enters Aslan’s Country at the end of The Last Battle. Seongeun writes:

“[By] only focusing on the narrative in The Horse and His Boy, readers might simply conclude that Lewis is a racist. But the dread of other races coming into Narnia, a cultural reference to immigration, unveils the complexities of different color imagery in The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Last Battle we are able to see the Calormenes inside Narnia more specifically in terms of the conflict between the white culture and the non-whites’. The virtuous yet heathen figure, Emeth, contradicts the straightforward binarism between good and evil based on racial hierarchy.”[5]

The “racial hierarchy” that some would argue is present in the Narnian world reflects the racial hierarchy that was becoming more apparent in Lewis’ world—a hierarchy that he was sensitive to as an Irishman living in England. We forget that Lewis was born in Belfast and remained very Irish despite spending the majority of his non-holiday time in England. He was apprehensive about the country when he first arrived there and never fully felt at home. (This didn’t prevent him from becoming regarded by the literati of his own country as “the wrong kind of Irishman.”[6]) And it did not help that many Englanders nursed anti-Irish sentiment. During World War I, in which Lewis fought, UK military courts were reportedly harsher on Irish soldiers. And a 1934 travelogue argued that the only reason an Irish Republic would be desirable is so that its exiled citizens could leave Britain and return to their own land. “What a fine exit of ignorance and dirt and drunkenness and disease”[7] the author dreamed that would be.

If what made it into the Narnian stories arose from “the whole cast” of Lewis’ mind, it stands to reason that, while he depicted a value system that reflected the parts of English medieval culture that he liked (and that, by nature, appeared normative to his immediate audience of white British readers), he was also sympathetic to those, like Emeth (like Aravis, like Rabadash), whom he depicted as outsiders in his own stories. Seongeun argues that,

“His literary depiction of race cannot be simply dichotomous… Lewis blurs the view of racial superiority by [his depiction of] paradise in The Chronicles of Narnia. Emeth’s salvation…is Lewis’ fantasy.”[8]

Emeth’s acceptance by Aslan was not merely an exception to the (presumed) rule that all good (white) Narnians go to Narnia-heaven. It also appears to have been an outworking of Lewis’ long-term concern over feeling rejected by his Irish countrymen and being an outsider in his adopted nation of England. He wanted to belong in the world that inspired the nature and character of Narnia. As he told his students, “Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of County Down [in Ireland].”[9]

Lewis is not writing from behind the gates of Aslan’s Country, an exclusive community only for Narnian royals and their friends. He is on the outside, with us—with Shasta and Aravis and Emeth—longing to get in.

_______

The Narniad’s protagonists are meant to be attractive to the reader. We are to see their desires, desire with them, and adopt their desires as our own. While not always starting out as such, most of these heroes end up, in the eyes of the reader, as moral or righteous individuals. They either are, or they become, “good guys.”

Lewis’ writing comes out of a steeped tradition of literature and art which saw a person’s goodness or morality as being reflected in their physical appearance. Beautiful face, ergo beautiful soul. An ugly or physically deformed individual would be presumed to have bad morals or some kind of spiritual or moral deficiency. For example, in The Last Battle, Shift is described as the “ugliest” and “most wrinkled Ape you can imagine.” And then is immediately depicted as being abusive and domineering toward Puzzle.

Nicholas Wanberg’s article in Fafnir: the Nordic Journal of SF/F Research analyzes the “strong correlation” of “good characters being attractive and evil characters being ugly” in the Narnia stories. His research points out that, starting as far back as the ancient Greeks (and perhaps before in other cultures), belief in an “absolute aesthetic ideal” would shape—or, better, warp—successive cultures’ ideas of physical beauty and what that indicated about a person’s moral state.

“It should come as little surprise that a statue carved by a European man out of white marble should differ wildly in appearance from most individuals whose descent is geographically removed from that region, but it was taken for granted by many, nonetheless, that the ideal that this statue represented would be shared and appreciated by all, regardless of what features might be more common in their own region.” [10]

We are only now beginning to live in a world where arbitrary standards of physical beauty are being challenged so that, in time, no single body shape, facial structure, or hair type is seen as superior to another. But in Lewis’ world and the literary milieu that he and his cohorts inhabited, this was not the case. While, in the Narniad, we can expect to see good, moral characters described according to a certain aesthetic—which, more often than not, means being fair-skinned—we also see three departures from the strict binarism of good-equals-beautiful and evil-equals-ugly (or fair-skinned-equals-good and dark-skinned-equals-evil). Lewis’ work, whether by happenstance or design, is more complex than that.

The first departure is that characters’ outer appearances often change in relation to inner changes brought about by that character’s choices. Most characters in Narnia are not static: they are either good and getting better, bad and becoming good, or evil and getting worse. Wanberg argues that,

[W]henever the inner nature of a character is altered, particularly by magic, their outer appearance always changes to match. Individuals becoming royalty show strong evidence of this, with noted changes to their voices and appearance after assuming royal status… King Frank, for example, talks differently and has a different look to his face both within the first two days of being selected by Aslan…[11]

The second of the three aforementioned departures is a complete upending of the beauty-equals-goodness binary for two of Lewis’ most terrible villains: Jadis and the Lady of the Green Kirtle are described unreservedly as being beautiful. “Their beauty, however, may be unnatural,” Wanberg points out.

“It is worth noting Lucy’s experience when she is tempted by the magician’s book to use its magic for evil. One of the temptations she faces is to use a spell to make her ‘beautiful…beyond the lot of mortals.’ If this is to be a standard abuse of magic power, it would certainly explain the two witches’ deviation from the norm.”

Thus, in Narnia, we have physical beauty being deliberately used to hide evil or present evil as attractive. The Calormene view of the Narnians also bolsters this departure. While regarding the Narnians as evil and accursed “barbarians,” they often describe them as “beautiful,” implying that they at least do not take physical appearance as a face-value reflection of the moral status of others.

(Strangely enough, this particular departure is something we see more broadly culturally. Our old monsters—witches, werewolves, and vampires—have been defanged and glamorized. Even the arch-enemy of all that is good in the Christian tradition has gotten a makeover: Lucifer, which is set to end with six seasons, imbues Satan with sexy, alluring qualities as he prances around Los Angeles stopping the people who are presumably doing his work. He’s not the enemy anymore; he’s the hero. The spiritual and mythic enemy of righteousness wears Tom Ellis’ attractive face.)

The third departure is quite simple and has been hinted at before, but bears mentioning again: The Horse and His Boy shows a breaking of the mold of the body being considered “a faithful representation of the soul within it.”[12] Characters in The Horse and His Boy are shown to be evil by their actions, not by skin-color or physical appearance. Any hint at the latter is incidental. It was, after all, one of the “free, happy,” fair-skinned Archenlandish royals who betrayed his people and kidnapped Shasta, resulting in him being raised in slavery and unwittingly setting in motion the events of the story.

Additionally, we see that (even outside of The Horse and His Boy) whiteness is not blatantly good. Wanberg notes: “Characters can be too white, just as they can be too much of several other shades.” Regarding a description of Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew, he goes on to say:

“Being ‘beautifully white’ does not, in context, imply ‘beautiful because they were white’ but ‘white in a way that was beautiful,’ implying that the whiteness in question possessed a beautiful quality, rather than that it was a beautiful quality.”

Later in the same story, after Jadis eats an apple from a tree forbidden to her, we find that she “looked stronger and prouder than ever, and even, in a way, triumphant; but her face was deadly white, white as salt.” When she is introduced in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, her stark paleness remains, but as before, “she is described as being ‘quite beautiful,’ but her beauty exists in spite [of] her paleness, rather than because of it.”

What we see in all of this is a tension the Narniad holds between a standard of physical beauty and a standard of moral goodness. (And, yes, the physical beauty standard is rooted in that ancient “absolute aesthetic ideal” that favors the white, fair-skinned, European body that Western and Western-influenced societies are only now beginning to throw off.) There are virtues that Lewis espouses in his stories that find embodiment in its characters. The use of physical appearance is designed to call the reader to look at and desire that which is good and experience repulsion at that which is bad. However, where the story rises above simple binarism is in the subtleties that suggest its descriptions are less about simple physical appearance and more about moral quality. In Narnia, though appearance often appears as a valid foundation on which judgment of a character is made, moral quality based on a character’s actions is valued higher than appearance.

_______

Soon enough there will likely be calls for The Horse and His Boy to be banned from school libraries or to cease being published altogether. The works of Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Dr. Seuss, and J.K. Rowling have received such attention with varying scope and to varying effect. The best light in which Professor Wilson can cast the question, perhaps justifiably, is whether or not the story is “salvageable.” And despite the concerns raised, she concludes that it is:

Even the obvious problems with its cultural depictions make HHB [The Horse and His Boy] valuable. The necessities and complicities of cultural translation are solved not by evasion but by confrontation.[13] [emphasis mine]

The Horse and His Boy offers us the opportunity to think through the complex layers of cross-cultural interaction, ideas of racial superiority and ethnocentrism, beauty standards and our interpretation of them, as well as how we can pursue Martin Luther King’s dream of a society where we judge people not by “the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Of the northern characters in The Horse and His Boy, the ones Lewis wants readers to model after are explicitly non-racist. These northerners judge even their avowed enemies, not by their skin color or culture, but by the way they treat the creatures with whom they share the world. Queen Susan, with the support of Peter, Edmund, and Lucy, fairly considers Prince Rabadash’s marriage proposal. In the court of Cair Paravel, Rabadash behaves with grace and good humor, but in his own capital he behaves like a despot, throwing temper tantrums when he can’t have his way. He is not rejected based on racial or cultural differences but because, in the words of Edmund, he had shown himself to be “a most proud, bloody, luxurious, cruel, and self-pleasing tyrant.”

Later, as Rabadash hangs from a hook in the wall of Anvard, his scheme to conquer the northern countries falling apart around him, Archenland’s King Lune assures him that, had he challenged Narnia fairly, not a single person in the kingdom would have looked down on him, and any would have met him nobly in duel or in battle. But, by attacking “in time of peace without defiance sent,” he had proved himself “no knight, but a traitor.” Even then, Queen Lucy persuades the royal cadre to “give him another trial” and “let him go free.”

Unlike what we see in Calormen, there is no bashing of the other by Narnians and Archenlanders simply because they are other. These northerners could have justifiably assumed that all Calormenes (or southerners or dark-skinned people) were bad. But in the Archenlandish court, Aravis is not lumped in with her fellow Calormenes who had just hours earlier attacked Anvard. The Archenlanders do not treat her with suspicion or judge her according to Calormene stereotypes. They embrace her as queen, as wife of their prince, and their mixed-race son as their greatest king. (And, perhaps, it could stand to reason that, if C.S. Lewis had some kind of animus toward dark-skinned people, he would have foiled both of the potential interracial marriages in his story—one of them, Aravis and Shasta’s, not even being central to the plot.)

Aravis does not become a morally good character because she white-washes or is white-washed by marriage into a family of pale-skinned folk. She is made good because she has rejected the cruelty, vanity, and selfishness that was part of her character—the same cruelty, vanity, and selfishness that beset not only Rabadash, but white characters such as Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Scrubb.

Emeth is not the “token negro” graciously allowed into Aslan’s after life. He is established as a man who pursued truth, justice, goodness, and virtue independent of any guidance from Narnians or white saviors. He did not follow blindly. He was open to answers wherever he found them. He wrestled with real things and was rewarded.

At the end of The Last Battle we find that Lucy, from the very center of Aslan’s Country, “could see the whole Southern desert and beyond it the great city of Tashbaan,” proving that—despite the negative connotations about its culture in stories told by a pro-Narnia author about pro-Narnia heroes—there is much of value and much to be desired in Calormen.

The heroes of the Narniad, imperfect though they be, are the stories’ guiding lights and moral tutors. They represent change from undesirable and negative behavior to desirable and positive behavior. And that is why we need The Horse and His Boy: to witness and re-witness examples of individuals judging others by their character and not their skin color, as people and not stereotypes; to show us that every person, even the “bad guys” like Rabadash, deserve the benefit of the doubt and the space to prove themselves by their actions.

Reading The Horse and His Boy today—and with the possible development of a screen adaptation in the near future—provide us the opportunity to, as even Philip Pullman concedes, “wrestle with real things.”[14] The answers we find may not fit a narrative of engrained racial animosity or post-modern deconstruction (and rejection) of the art of bygone years. But they can lead us to talking openly about our differences and highlighting the things that are worthy to pursue: truth, justice, fairness, equality, virtue, friendship. Basic human goodness.


Daniel Whyte IV is a fantasy and speculative fiction writer whose essays on culture and faith have been published in Relevant, Fathom Magazine, Arc Digital, Tor.com, Speculative Faith, and Church Leaders. A former web developer and podcast producer, he holds a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology: Web and Mobile Programming. When he’s not writing about superheroes, time travel, fantasy, or Narnia, he’s tweeting about those things @dmarkwiv.


[1] C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” available online at https://myweb.scu.edu.tw/~jmklassen/scu99b/chlitgrad/3ways.pdf

[2] Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “Salvaging C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy for Mission and Cultural Awareness,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 2014, available online at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/239693931403800304?journalCode=ibmc&

[3] Matt Mikalatos, “Ethnocentrism, Heathens, and Heretics in The Horse and His Boy,” Tor.com, 2020, available online at https://www.tor.com/2020/09/16/ethnocentrism-heathens-and-heretics-in-the-horse-and-his-boy/

[4] Jacob Fareed Imam, “Not Merely Islam: C.S. Lewis Assesses the Religion of Mohammed,” Touchstone, 2017, available online at https://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=30-03-042-f

[5] Jin Seongeun, “Whiteness and Racism in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia,” New Korean Journal of English Language and Literature, 2015, page 12, available online at https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Whiteness-and-Racism-in-C.-S.-Lewis%E2%80%99s-Chronicles-of-Jin-Seongeun/d06efa0f7fc756a8d7c0e1b0c34b4998ca694ae7

[6] In his biography of Lewis, Alister McGrath briefly recounts the author wrestling with the dilemma of pursuing publication with small Irish presses that were associated with ‘cult-like’ Irish nationalist views or keeping his work “in the broad highway of thought.” (C.S. Lewis — A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet, Tyndale House, 2013, pages 13-14)

[7] J.B. Priestley, English Journey (William Heinemann, 1934), pages 248-249.

[8] Jin Seongeun, “Whiteness and Racism,” page 16

[9] David Bleakley, C.S. Lewis at Home in Ireland: A Centenary Biography (Strandtown Press, 1998), page 12

[10] Nicholas Wanberg, “‘Noble and Beautiful’—Universal Human Aesthetics in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia,” Fafnir: Nordic Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy Research, Volume 1, Issue 3, pages 7-18, available online at http://journal.finfar.org/articles/noble-and-beautiful-universal-human-aesthetics-in-c-s-lewiss-the-chronicles-of-narnia/

[11] Wanberg, “Noble and Beautiful”

[12] Wanberg quoting Jonathan Conlin’s writing on the works of Charles Kingsley.

[13] Wilson, “Salvaging C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy

[14] In his Guardian article, “The Dark Side of Narnia” (1998)

Posted in Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award: Part 3: Literary Studies on C.S. Lewis

Following news that “Tolkien Studies Projects Sweep the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award Shortlist in Inklings Studies,” and on the heels of a series encouraging strong Lewis studies books, I decided to share some of the good and useful Lewis studies books of the last decade that did not get a Mythopoeic Award nomination. I began the “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award” series by talking about various good and excellent studies on C.S. Lewis on Theology, Philosophy, and Spiritual Life, which is the centre of my particular studies these days. I then followed up with a resource-filled post on “C.S. Lewis Biographies.” Today, I will focus on Literary Studies, which include studies on intertextuality, Medieval studies, and focussed book studies.

I have warned you that I would cheat here and there, including books by friends of mine, and some studies that are important and hepful, though they may lack gradeur in other ways. If I am missing something crucial, let me know. I will note that I have not included 2021 books, which are particularly strong in this category. Here are some more good, helpful, interesting, or excellent Lewis (and Lewis-related) lit studies from the last decade that did not win the Mythopoeic award but that any student or committed reader of C.S. Lewis should read.

Literary Studies (Including Intertextuality, Medieval Studies, and Book Studies)

Marsha Daigle-Williamson, Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis (2015)

Dante was, for Lewis, the West’s master poet–a writer with a genius science fiction mind who wrote the most theologically rich and integrated work of the late Middle Ages. As Lewis was a literary historian of Medieval and Renaissance literature, Dante was—and remains for researchers after Lewis—an almost unmatched figure. The most critical tool for reading Dante in and with C.S. Lewis (so far) is the 2015 volume, Reflecting the Eternal: Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis by Dr. Marsha Daigle-Williamson. In this late-career major rewriting of her doctoral dissertation, medievalist Daigle-Williamson invites readers to imagine the many obvious and subtle links between Dante’s classic text and C.S. Lewis’ fiction. I have a review essay of Reflecting the Eternal in VII: Journal of the Marion E. Wade Center, which you can find free here, and I have a longer reflective piece as an “insert” to this series–“Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal and Dante in the Work of C.S. Lewis, with Thoughts about Intertextuality“–on the question of the books we see hidden in other books.

Rob Fennell, ed., Both Sides of the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis, Theological Imagination, and Everyday Discipleship (2015)

Quite apart from my article in this volume where I first argue that Lewis has a fairly sophisticated understanding of Christology that centres his writing on the spiritual life, I think this little book as a whole has value. First, it includes a number of short, smart pieces that a particularly directed to the ways that Lewis’ “theological imagination” is formative for Christian growth and spiritual vitality. The Narnian pieces by Michael Tutton and David J. Hawkesworth work well as theological introductions to the volume, while the articles by Allen B. Robertson and Gary Thorne represent two visions for Lewis’ imaginative transformations. David Mark Purdy’s genre study on Screwtape is a critical challenge to the field and helps us think about the way we read these demonic letters as spiritual enlightenment. Though we wrote independently, my “’Die Before You Die’: St. Paul’s Cruciformity in C.S. Lewis’s Narrative Spirituality” pairs well with Chris Armstrong’s piece on Lewis and the Theologia Germanica. There are reflections on Lewis as a preacher (by Laurence DeWolfe) and the eschatological Lewis (Sarah Layman). Finally, Wayne Smith’s “The Space Between: Observations From the Threshold” is a literary gem with theological creativity. Kudos to Rob Fennel for pulling the volume together and hosting the 2013 conference that gave birth to the idea.

Diana Pavlac Glyer, Bandersnatch: C. S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings (2015)

As I mentioned in my discussion with William O’Flaherty and Diana Glyer about the new Tolkien biopic, I think Glyer’s The Company They Keep is one of the most important books on Lewis and the Inklings in this century. It is a book that took decades to complete, offering a rereading of the Inklings by considering the ways that they worked together, wrote together, read with one another, edited one another’s work, offered criticism, and encouraged one another toward writing the books that ended up changing the face of literary history. Glyer is a careful researcher and a lyrical writer, so even in the depth of archival, historical, and literary analysis, we are still in the midst of a story. It was certainly worth its Mythopoeic Award. So I am pleased to cheat a bit. As The Company They Keep is more than a decade old, I can still talk about Bandersnatch, a popular version of the original study that focusses on artistic and writerly collaboration. Indeed, this book reads well with the great books “on writing” or as an artistic self-development text, while getting a great deal of research on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in the mix. And a fun fact is that Lewis scholar Michael Ward reads the audiobook version.

Sørina Higgins, The Inklings and King Arthur: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, and Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain (2017)

This is a full-on cheat as The Inklings and King Arthur actually won the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award in Inklings Studies against stunning odds. Quite frankly, Sørina is a remarkably strong editor and pulled together a volume of significance. I’m proud of my piece, “Mixed Metaphors and Hyperlinked Worlds: A Study of Intertextuality in C.S. Lewis’s Ransom Cycle,” which is my most substantial work of literary theory, drawing out Lewis’ methods from his fiction and nonfiction. Quite aside from my piece, The Inklings and King Arthur: J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, & Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain is filled with great chapters on these critical figures from both emerging authors and leading figures like Holly Ordway, Charles A. Huttar, Kirstin Jeffrey Johnson, Suzanne Bray, and Malcolm Guite.

Monika Hilder, The Feminine Ethos in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (2012), The Gender Dance: Ironic Subversion in C.S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy (2013), and Surprised by the Feminine: A Rereading of C.S. Lewis and Gender (2013)

Again, folks might see this as a kind of cheat, lumping three books into a single entry–or a cheat because this trilogy was nominated for a Mythopoeic Award (and deserved a win, I believe). However, while Monika Hilder‘s gender studies work excellently as a resource for scholars as they focus on individual parts of Lewis’ fiction bookshelf, her project is best read together as a trilogy. And as such, the Hilder Trilogy is by far the most important resource in Lewis and Gender research. While Hilder offers an argument about what she calls C.S. Lewis’ “theological feminism,” it is really a gender study. Hilder (rightly, I believe) argues that C.S. Lewis’ fiction challenges and transforms traditional, classical images of the lone, muscular, aggressive masculine hero by presenting heroes and heroines who consistently and surprisingly embody what are traditionally feminine leadership traits. One of the best studies of its kind and deserving of the Mythopoeic award. You can find my long review essay in SEVEN.

Sharon Jebb-Smith, Writing God and the Self: Samuel Beckett and C.S. Lewis (2011)

Theologian Sharon Jebb’s under-appreciated dissertation is a careful and highly readable study of Beckett’s Three Novels and Lewis’ Till We Have Faces. Jebb’s deeply theological study is in conversation with ancient theologians (like Augustine and Teresa of Avila) and contemporary ones (like Charles Taylor and Rowan Williams), offering a cultural theology of the self. Beckett and Lewis are an unusual pairing but a fruitful one. In particular, her analysis of God-knowledge and self-knowledge in Lewis is a significant discovery–even if the study itself is fairly narrow. While this is the oldest volume in our list, I want to mention it because it is too often missed by students and scholars of Lewis and should be on every Till We have Faces bibliography.

William O’Flaherty, C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell (2016) and The Misquotable C.S. Lewis (2018)

Again, a bit of a cheat here. Not only am I a close friend of William’s (and thus not terribly objective), and not only are these popular-level studies rather than academic books, but you are getting a two-for-one. Each of these volumes, though, is an accessible and easy-to-use resource book that, from time to time, I reach for as a scholar. William O’Flaherty‘s guide to The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis Goes to Hell, is a handy resource for anyone who wants to study and teach Screwtape on their own. Moving out from a particular book study, The Misquotable C.S. Lewis tackles the phenomenon of internet memes, sermon quotations, and general Lewis wisdom that shows up but is really from another source. As Lewis is so terrifically quotable, his is also terribly misquotable. This book provides a study of 75 “Lewis” quotations that are really from all kinds of sources, including Ryan Seacrest, Anthony Hopkins, Max Lucado, Rick Warren, and, that handy comedian condemned to make Christmas movies for the rest of his life, Tim Allen. Cool and nerdy, listy and not terribly deep, these are two resource books worth a share of your library’s budget.

Jerry Root and friends, Splendour in the Dark C.S. Lewis’s Dymer in His Life and Work (2020)

Though it comes out of a tight, three-lecture series, 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. Together, they create a strong, single, forward-facing book for scholars and curious, engaged readers of Lewis’ works who want to explore Dymer more deeply. I quite loved this book as a resource for reading a book–Lewis’ first and only complete long narrative poem–that I am quite attracted to but find quite alien. You can find my longer description, review, and response here.

Charlie W. Starr, The Faun’s Bookshelf: C.S. Lewis on Why Myth Matters (2018)

While Charlie Starr is a friend and writing partner (see our co-written piece on “The Archangel Fragment” in Sehnsucht), I have no concerns about objectivity on this score. Charlie has become a leading C.S. Lewis scholar, particularly on Lewis’ handwriting and, the focus of this book, Lewis’ conception of “myth.” Moreover, I have been critical of Charlie’s work in the past (see here), while still consistently praising his perceptive eye (see the footnotes to my paper here) and publishing his work (see here). Most would not know, but Charlie’s doctoral dissertation, “The Triple Enigma: Fact, Truth, and Myth as the Key to C.S. Lewis’s Epistemological Thinking,” is a study of remarkable philosophical depth and literary capacity–and perhaps the longest study on a single passage in Lewis’ works! The Faun’s Bookshelf is a lighter touch but no less philosophically deft, as it sketches for interested readers Lewis’ multi-level fascination with myth–from being a lover a mythology to his work as a literary critic, Christian public thinker, and the maker of one the 20th-century’s great myths, The Chronicles of Narnia. As we might expect, from Charlie, beyond a study of “meaning” in Lewis, we also have a number of intriguing close readings of things that we might normally pass over–including the book titles on Tumnus’ bookshelf. While this study may lack some of the heft that a Mythopoeic Award nomination might require, and though I would quibble at points, as a literary resource it is critical, accessible, and enjoyable to read. And here is a great interview with Charlie and some of the great folks at the Wade centre.

Michael Ward, The Narnia Code: C.S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens (2010)

Again, this is a bit of a cheat as Dr. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia won the Mythopoeic Award. However, as I think Ward’s project is the most important resource for reading Narnia that has emerged in the new century, it is worth noting this popular-level version of the argument. While one might argue with parts of Ward’s thesis–and I think I am one of Ward’s most vocal criticsPlanet Narnia is a great book for providing close readings of Lewis’ greatest works in a literary way that invites us into a deeper understanding of the books behind the Narnian chronicles. For those who want that invitation to reading but in a much more accessible form, The Narnia Code works as a popular version of the Planet Narnia for readers not just of different education levels but also of different ages. My son read this book in middle school and was able to speak knowledgably about different ways to read the Chronicles.

Kyoko Yuasa, C.S. Lewis and Christian Postmodernism: Word, Image, and Beyond (2016)

This study is one of a kind–and not surprise, and Kyoko Yuasa is, herself, a surprising scholar. I first heard her work as a scholarly consideration of humour in Lewis, where she suggested certain unusual threads that connected to Lewis and humour. C.S. Lewis and Christian Postmodernism: Word, Image, and Beyond is a rewriting of Yuasa’s PhD thesis under the tutelage of the late Bruce Edwards. Intriguingly, Yuasa plays with postmodernist literary approaches, correctly identifying Lewis as an antimodernist and then recasting him as a Christian postmodernist translating the gospel for contemporary readers. This might seem counter-intuitive to some, and I wish there was a stronger scholarly response to this book, but Yuasa argues that Lewis’ fictional works have ambiguous borders between nonfiction and fiction, as we see in postmodernist literature. However, while postmodernist literature uses micronarratives to deconstruct metanarratives, Lewis’ fiction uses micronarratives to express the Great Story that transcends human understanding. Yuasa’s work is essential for literary approaches to Lewis. Indeed, the Pickwick series includes a number of key texts for study, including Sharon Jebb-Smith’s work noted above, as well as P.H. Brazier’s unusual and thoughtful series on Lewis and theology, Jerry Root’s C.S. Lewis and a Problem of Evil, and a number of studies I have not read yet (as well as quite a number of Wipf & Stock Lewis studies reprints and small print publications).

Thanks for reading these mini-reviews. If you have literary studies from 2011-2020 that you think I am missing, let me know. Next week will include some “C.S. Lewis Reception Studies.” You can see the three articles composed of a dozen reasons why I think that Lewis scholarship (as a whole) is not as strong as Tolkien scholarship (as a whole):

I followed that up by editing a piece by Connor Salter (see “Lewis and Tolkien among American Evangelicals“), and Connor did a second interesting, though less connected piece: “The Once and Forgotten T.H. White: Lessons from Obscurity.” I also made a resource pack with the hope of transforming readers into better scholars (if they want to make their field stronger: “5 Ways to Find Open Source Academic Research on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings.”

Posted in Lewis Biography, News & Links, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Life of C.S. Lewis in 20 Minutes: Videos, Timelines, and Resource Articles (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 a blog post 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.

For today’s Throwback Thursday, I am returning to the story of C.S. Lewis’s life. I suppose I am always returning there. I find it compelling to think about his fiction in tandem with his work and letters and experiences. My most recent article was, in a sense, retelling the story of an aspect of Lewis’ life–his relationship with T.S. Eliot’s poetry and public works–with a note from J.R.R. Tolkien about the person of Lewis that we might not know about from his own autobiography or letters. As a couple of “timeline” posts and other biography articles continue to be popular, I thought I would bring them together for today’s Throwback Thursday feature.

Whenever I have done talks and fireside chats about C.S. Lewis’ life, it usually takes me an hour or so to capture an outline of the live that Lewis lived. A recent lecture where I walked through Lewis’ life using his own words–his letters, diaries, prefaces, autobiographical notes, and his memoirs–took 100 minutes. As someone who lived a rich life, writing book after book that changed the way we think … there just always seems a lot to say.

However, what about an introduction for those who are new to Lewis’ works or just want a little background to the person who wrote the Narnian chronicles they love or who inspired them to study Milton or Dante in new ways? My challenge, then, was to create a 20-minute version of this life, one that gives an outline of the whole without losing Lewis’ large personality.

To create the kind of focus I wanted, I made a timeline. As I did with my previous “Timeline of C.S. Lewis’ Major Talks,” I used JBS Timeline’s app to capture key moments in Lewis’ life that would allow us about 20 minutes of conversation.

As you can imagine, there are challenges in selecting out just a few key moments that capture Lewis’ life for readers and students–even when covering just the major events! However, it is a visually tight presentation. Unfortunately, JBS Timeline is not yet embeddable in WordPress, but you can click here to get “A Life of C.S. Lewis Timeline.”

I then used this timeline to create a video talk, and I think it worked pretty well! You can click here to see the entire 20-minute lecture.

This video and timeline are part of a series of C.S. Lewis biography resources here at A Pilgrim in Narnia. For example, you can check out my “5 Biographies of CS Lewis for 5 Seasons: A 10 Minute Book Talk“:

In a recent series on Lewis studies, I went further into some of the more recent biographies with my piece, “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award: Part 2: C.S. Lewis Biographies,” which includes another 6 biographical resources that might interest you–most of them fairly accessible. And you should check out my “5 Affordable Ways to Purchase Digital Books By and About C.S. Lewis” and “5 Ways to Find Open Source Academic Research on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings” posts. It is also important to think of the work of Walter Hooper, who I call in this legacy piece, “C.S. Lewis’ Better Than Boswell.”

What follows are some other blog posts and articles that I have written about C.S. Lewis’ life.

I always love when Lewis shares his autobiography accidentally. He does this all the time in his nearly four thousand published letters, but also in prefaces and dust-jacket descriptions. Because C.S. Lewis keeps telling his own story (as I argue in this piece), here are a few resources that come to accidentally, as it were:

From time to time, I have blogged about the critical turns in C.S. Lewis’ life. Here are some of those articles:

As you can see from this list, I believe that Lewis’ imaginative and literary awakenings are critical parts of his life story. You can see these outlined in “The Periods of C.S. Lewis’ Literary Life.” Among these moments are the tributes and encouragement of Lewis’ friends and students. Here are some examples:

Finally, by far my most popular C.S. Lewis video is my Lecture, “A Grief Observed, with C.S. Lewis.” It is a little less about biography and more about Lewis’ reflection on his experiences of loss and grief, but I think it is still a valuable resource.

https://cdn.knightlab.com/libs/timeline3/latest/embed/index.html?source=1XhJGQzzKYREsUysyRzUEpsHenmrvsgQrT4_zIZ9dq8Q&font=Default&lang=en&initial_zoom=2&height=600

Posted in Lewis Biography | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Great and Little Men: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letter about C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot

For much of the last week, I have been fighting through the relationship between C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot relationship. In my 2015 post about Eliot’s striking lyrical poem, “…In the Vacant Places,” I was more than a bit optimistic when I said that “C.S. was a slow convert to T.S. Eliot’s poetry”–and I have been since challenged on that point. So I have taken time to go carefully through all the available materials.

My understanding of the story is that a young Lewis, working out his vocation as a poet and sharpening his critical mind, deeply disliked Eliot’s poetry as soon as he encountered it. Steeped as he was in the great classical traditions of the West, and revelling in romances and medieval poetry, Lewis saw Eliot’s modernist innovations of metre, atmosphere, and imagery–both poetic diction and content–as representational of culture in imaginative decay.

Later, when Lewis is working as a professional critic and literary historian, he disagreed with a number of critics, including E.M.W. Tillyard, I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, T.S. Eliot himself, and other–critics connected with Cambridge, theoretical movements like “the New Criticism” and “Practical Criticism,” modernist movements like the Bloomsbury Set, and trend-setting journals like Criterion and Scrutiny. As Eliot was a gatekeeper, Lewis needed to deal with Eliot and usually did so politely, even submitting an article to Criterion, which Eliot ultimately rejected. You can see threads of Lewis’ resistance to these movements in much of his longer literary critical articles, in lit theory books like The Personal Heresy and An Experiment in Criticism, and in his literary books such as A Preface to Paradise Lost, where he takes on Tillyard and Eliot directly. Indeed, the whole of Lewis’ career as a literary scholar is a moral resistance to these movements–and Lewis saw Eliot as a leader within these movements, and sometimes as a symbol of them.

Professionally speaking, Lewis was usually polite and firm when challenging Eliot in most of his literary criticism and theory. Sometimes the challenge is a bit more jovial, though there are a couple of moments of more pointed or heated criticism. Lewis was far more profuse in blame in his letters, where there seems to be a personal animosity toward Eliot–at least toward Eliot as a symbol. Twice, however, Lewis had a more personal opportunity to rethink his position and make a connection with another leading Anglican public intellectual.

The first of these was through Charles Williams, who was a close friend of both Eliot and Lewis. Indeed, Eliot and Lewis each described Williams in striking terms, admitting to Williams’ charismatic appeal and value as a poet and critic. Williams tried once, just a few months before he died, to bridge the divide between Eliot and Lewis. Just months before Charles Williams died, he arranged a meeting between Eliot, Lewis, and another Inkling, Fr Gervase Mathew, at the Mitre Hotel in Oxford. It was not a success.

After Williams’ death, Lewis worked on a volume of essays in his honour. Eliot agreed to contribute to the edited Williams volume, and Lewis’ letters were polite and functional. Eliot, terrible at deadlines, could not contribute even a poem. Lewis was disappointed, for Eliot would have heightened the entire project in the public eye (though it is a book that continues to sell because of Tolkien’s famous “On Fairy-stories” essay more than anything that Lewis did or Eliot could have done).

Although slighting references to Eliot are most focussed on the 1930s until the early 40s, Lewis continued to critique Eliot’s poetry and critical approach until late in life, when a second moment of connection emerged. In an intriguing twist, Lewis’ Reflection on the Psalms led to an invitation to work with the Committee to Revise the Psalter, which in turn led to a friendship with Eliot. As I discuss in this article, the committee began by meeting at Lambeth Palace in January 1959, and the group of scholars, theologians, pastors, and poets worked fastidiously towards a publication in 1963, including several day-long and even three-day conferences. Eliot and Lewis, despite their differing perspectives about the very essence of poetry and many critical aspects of Anglican faith, became friends in the process of translation/adaptation of the Psalter. The letters of 1959 and the early 1960s are personal, sometimes jocular, and usually brief, where Lewis writes to “My Dear Eliot” about lunches together, the committee, and other events of notice.

Though their late friendship was never terribly deep, the story ends in a soft and touching way. Lewis’ one-time literary arch-nemesis, T.S. Eliot, in his role as publisher, was the first to recognize that A Grief Observed–Lewis’ pseudonymous memoir of grief following the death of Joy–was really from the literary scholar who had most vociferously attacked him in print, C.S. Lewis. Eliot praised the book and gave some advice that protected Lewis’ anonymity.

I doubt that Lewis ever came to appreciate Eliot’s poetry, which I always feel as a kind of loss. In surveying the material available, and even dipping into the biographies to see the various ways they interpret the entire affair, I also reread a letter by J.R.R. Tolkien that speaks to the Lewis-Eliot affair. One of Lewis’ students, George Bailey, had written a 1964 memorial article where he suggests that Lewis’ literary challenges to Eliot were fuelled by envy at Eliot’s success. Somehow, Tolkien read this piece and a scrap of his response is printed in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (letter #261, 30 August 1964 letter to Anne Barrett of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin).

As today is Aug 30th, someone on Facebook posted the letter as an anniversary salute, which made me want to share it with you. Besides addressing the charge of “envy”–such a claim is “a grotesque calumny,” Tolkien protests–it manages in Tolkien’s special style to give to Lewis a slighting comment or two while praising him in remarkable ways. Lewis, for Tolkien, was odd and sometimes irritating, unaffected, generous-minded, aware of prejudicial thinking although not always fully self-aware, easy in defeat, and a loyal and caring friend. Moreover, Tolkien believed Lewis to be a scholar worthy of a Cambridge Chair and, indeed, a “great man.” While Tolkien’s letter cannot tell us the full story of Lewis’ late-in-life thoughts about Eliot, it is delightful and worth reading for a taste of Tolkien and Lewis’ friendship.

C.S.L. of course had some oddities and could sometimes be irritating. He was after all and remained an Irishman of Ulster. But he did nothing for effect; he was not a professional clown, but a natural one, when a clown at all. He was generous-minded, on guard against all prejudices, though a few were too deep-rooted in his native background to be observed by him. That his literary opinions were ever dictated by envy (as in the case of T. S. Eliot) is a grotesque calumny. After all it is possible to dislike Eliot with some intensity even if one has no aspirations to poetic laurels oneself.

Well of course I could say more, but I must draw the line. Still I wish it could be forbidden that after a great man is dead, little men should scribble over him, who have not and must know they have not sufficient knowledge of his life and character to give them any key to the truth. Lewis was not ‘cut to the quick’ by his defeat in the election to the professorship of poetry: he knew quite well the cause. I remember that we had assembled soon after in our accustomed tavern and found C.S.L. sitting there, looking (and since he was no actor at all probably feeling) much at ease. ‘Fill up!’ he said, ‘and stop looking so glum. The only distressing thing about this affair is that my friends seem to be upset.’ And he did not ‘readily accept’ the chair in Cambridge. It was advertised, and he did not apply. Cambridge of course wanted him, but it took a lot of diplomacy before they got him. His friends thought it would be good for him: he was mortally tired, after nearly 30 years, of the Baileys of this world and even of the Duttons. It proved a good move, and until his health began too soon to fail it gave him a great deal of happiness.

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Manifesto Against Genre Snobbery

One of our greatest speculative fiction writers, Ursula K. Le Guin, has never been one to turn down a fight. A genius in two of my favourite genres, science fiction and fantasy–especially planetary SciFi and magic-world fantasy–Le Guin has also left a legacy of well-placed words of power in various speeches, prefaces, and essays. In my Kindle edition of the short story collection, The Birthday of the World, there are some bonus resources, including an interview, advice to a young writer, and a fighting piece, “On Despising Genre,” that has one of my favourite opening lines ever, which I just had to tweet:

Well, yes. And Le Guin has no doubt been on the receiving end of the book industry’s pernicious habit of using phrases like “genre fiction writer,” “a popular author,” “just a fantasy writer,” and “surprisingly well-written for a science fiction novel” to reduce a writer of living books like Le Guin to a kind of literary side-street of questionable value. Genre designations for so many teachers, librarians, booksellers, and critics are not simply descriptions, but value judgements, as if knowing that something is “realistic fiction” means we know that is better than “romance.”

I agree that this is a pernicious trend. No matter how much I want to resist such balkanization of literatures, though, I am drawn into the phrase, “literary fiction.” I admit to unreasonable prejudices in my old piece, “My Secret Hierarchy of Writing,” Note that in my opening line I called Le Guin a “speculative fiction” writer. I think it is an excellent term for what she does, but I suspect that some of Margaret Atwood’s insistence on using the term in her essay collection, In Other Worlds, is because “science fiction”–also a good term for some of her work–has a toxic flavour on the tongues of the literati (of whom Atwood is a kind of royal figure). I have also subversively used “literary fiction” to describe C.S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, knowing what it evokes. But there is a cost to such language, and I continue to try to cleanse my soul of such nonsense.

This poignant piece by Le Guin is just such an antiseptic treatment. Le Guin tries to kill a number of literary cancers in this short article, but it is worth reading for the sheer force of imaginative will Le Guin uses to resist, as Lewis does in An Experiment in Criticism and elsewhere, the presumption that realism is of a different qualitative category than genre fiction. It is worth a read, so I share it here in full, with some changes in paragraphing to highlight some of Le Guin’s most potent moments.

On Despising Genre

Basically my attitude is that genre is A) an unpronounceable French word; B) a very useful descriptive tool; and C) a pernicious instrument of prejudice.

Division of fiction into genres is like all classification, useful — useful to readers who like fiction of a certain kind or about certain subjects and want to know where to find it in a bookstore or library; and useful to critics and students and Common Readers who have realized that not all fictions are written in the same way with the same aesthetic equipment.

Genre has no use at all as a value category and should never be used as such.

But the concept or category of genre is used to evaluate fiction unread. To sort out the real books — that is, realistic fiction — from the “subliterature” — that is, everything else — every other kind of fiction written in this century. Everything but realism, including the very oldest and most widespread forms of story such as fantasy, gets shoved into a ghetto. I mostly live in ghettos. My fiction-ghettos are kiddilit, YA, regional, historical, SF, fantasy. I write realism too, but that’s not a ghetto, that’s Lit City. Where the real people live. At least it was until a bunch of subversive South Americans came along and made this barrio called Magic Realism, which kind of shook up the vanilla suburbs and in fact may have actually breached some ghetto walls. But magic realism gets shelved with realism. Why?

Genre categories are confirmed and perpetuated by the shelving practices of bookstores. Here in Portland, our Powell’s Books subcategorizes right down to Sea Stories — Napoleonic Era. Our Multnomah County Library is less detailed and invidious in gentrification-by-shelving. It sets apart only four genres from fiction as a whole: mystery, SF, Western, and YA. In “New Books” there are several genre shelves such as Suspense and Romance, but if thrillers and romances outlive the New Book category they get shelved in Fiction. The science fiction section includes fantasies and horror novels, neither of which belong there; the attitude apparently is, “This is irresponsibly imaginative so it’s SF.”

Not only is this practice incredibly invidious, randomly including some genres with the Real Books and excluding others, but it’s also shamelessly inconsistent: the librarians admit that they use personal evaluation of the quality of the book in deciding where to shelve it.

Tolkien is famous, so Tolkien gets shelved with Realism. But almost no SF gets de-ghettoized this way, because few librarians read enough SF or fantasy or know enough about it to pick out the books of “genuine literary value” from the commercial schlock.

Commercial schlock is not limited to genre fiction — and so fiction of absolutely no literary merit at all, commercial junk realism, gets shelved with Austen and Brontë and Woolf, while SF and fantasy of real merit and real interest gets treated as junk by definition.

No wonder writers like Kurt Vonnegut deny strenuously that their SF is SF — no wonder fantasists try to crawl under the magic realism label. They want respect.

Segregated shelving helps addicts find their fix. But couldn’t its convenience to readers in libraries be replaced by really good lists for addicts? Lists describe and make accessible without evaluating. Our library here in Portland — Multnomah County Library — has a wonderful “readers’ advisory binder” at the desk at the Central Library branch, listing all the popular genres and others I never would have thought of, such as baseball novels. Thrillers are divided into Spy, Legal, Techno, and Apocalyptic. Romance has seven subcategories: Family Saga, Gothic, Historical, Light, Period, Suspense, and Regency. I looked in vain for Bodice-Rippers. My two favorite subgenres were Novels About Older Women and Younger Men, and Seriously Humorous Mysteries. If we have to have segregated shelving, then it should be consistent. It should not shelve the “good” authors with “literature” and the “popular” ones in the genre ghetto.

Who decided popular was not good and good was not popular?

Of course there’s a lot of clearly commercial genre fiction — most long-running series mysteries; most modern fantasy trilogies; a terribly high percentage of romance novels; all Louis L’Amour — junk food at worst, comfort food at best. Little nourishment, much grease. But as soon as you get above the McBooks level, who makes the call? Only somebody who really reads in that field, really knows that field, can do it. An expert.

The reputation of the publisher means little anymore: all big publishers are intensely commercial, and most are subsidiaries of corporations that have no interest whatever in literature. Their lists are controlled by Barnes & Noble and Borders; their books are principally chosen not by editors but by the accounting department. What blurbs mean depends on the integrity of the blurber. How useful are critics and reviewers as a guide to quality in genre fiction? Almost useless, unless you read critics who know the field. Almost all literary and academic reviewers are appallingly ignorant of genre fiction, don’t know how to read it, and pride themselves on their ignorance. Kirkus and the other review factories tend to be fairly knowledgeable about mysteries and thrillers, totally erratic about science fiction, and blankly ignorant of most other genres, unless a Patrick O’Brian comes along and they have to admit he exists.

Some authors, they say, “transcend genre.” They say that about me, and I know they mean well, but I do not understand what they mean. If a book gets called or shelved with “literature” because you think it transcends its genre, the implication is, it’s good because it’s more like realism. So it would be even better, more literary, if it was entirely realistic.

Moby-Dick, or Frankenstein, or The Time Machine, or The Baron in the Trees, or The Lord of the Rings, or A Hundred Years of Solitude, or The Man in the High Castle, or The Left Hand of Darkness, or The Handmaid’s Tale, or Carmen Dog, or The Dazzle of Day — would these books be better, be a “higher” form of literature, if all the events were mundane and all the characters were ordinary: if they were classifiable as realistic? Realism is not a standard of excellence in fiction. Realism is not an adequate definition of literature. To use it as such is to misread every kind of fiction except realism.

You can’t read Gulliver’s Travels the same way as you read War and Peace. That’s obvious to most critics and teachers — yet they try to read Tolkien the same way they read James Michener. No wonder they don’t get it!

Realism is a genre, just as fantasy is a genre or romance is a genre. It’s a recent one — much younger than either fantasy or romance. Though it’s a genre at which we in the West in the last couple of hundred years have excelled, there is no way in which it is superior to other genres — except in being more realistic. It is, accordingly, less imaginative, less mysterious, less romantic, less scientific, less magical, less Western, less thrilling, less. . .

As long as critics and the academy use realism as a single standard for the vast diversity of fictional modes, teachers will remain contemptuous of what most people read, ignorant of the particular beauties and devices of each genre, and incompetent to judge most fiction.

And libraries, by perpetuating shelving by genre, will perpetuate the bizarre and arbitrary limitation of literary fiction to one modern genre.

Why did I settle in the ghetto, or actually six or seven ghettos? Well, I knew what I was good at: telling stories, mostly, in a free range between realistic and imaginative fiction — including SF, fantasy, kiddilit, YA, historical, etc. All ghettos. And I had no intention of living in some fancy literary gated community just to get respect from the ignorant.

But I do value the respect of the interested and informed. And when I wrote SF, or fantasy, or for children, or for young adults, I got real criticism from people knowledgeable in that genre, and also heard directly from readers — which many novelists never do.

Genre and “popular” writers aren’t considered by their readers to be dead (an unfortunate side-effect of respectability). So, represented by an agent who was willing and able to sell work in any genre, and having some very broadminded editors, I could just sit around in Oregon and write. I had freedom. Why should I give that freedom up? What for? Well, I know what for, every time they give an award to another brand name novel, or some lady says to me,

“Oh, my son just loves your books — of course I don’t read Sci Fi.” And she stands there expecting me to say, “No, of course you don’t, you’re far too mature, intelligent, discerning, and, above all, tactful.”

Then I usually find out she thought I was Madeleine L’Engle, anyhow.

And the critics:

“If it’s SF it can’t be good; if it’s good it can’t be SF.”

And so they tell me that Left Hand of Darkness, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Dazzle of Day aren’t SF. What ignorance. But, for getting on to forty years now I’ve published literary fiction in genres considered sub-literary and, though it’s getting harder and harder, I have gotten away with it. And I go on writing in both respectable and despised genres because I respect them all, rejoice in their differences, and reject only the prejudice and ignorance that dismisses any book, unread, as not worth reading.

Posted in Feature Friday, Memorable Quotes, On Writing, Thoughtful Essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments