Balder the Beautiful Is Dead, Is Dead: C.S. Lewis’ Imaginative Conversion

One day a young C.S. Lewis casually turned to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s death-dirge in the tradition of a northern epic poem, Tegner’s Drapa. He read these words that forever changed him:

I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead——

As a young man he was quite drawn to the experience of aesthetic pleasure. The pleasure of reading these words was quite different from other pleasures he had experienced as a youth, more “like a voice from far more distant regions….” In his autobiography, Lewis goes on to describe his experience of reading Norse saga:

“I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then, as in the other examples, found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it” (Surprised By Joy, ch. 1).

More than an autobiography or memoir, Surprised by Joy is really autoenthnography, a philosophy of holistic aesthetic longing, or Joy. When he was a bit older he called this experience “Northernness,” which he encountered when experiencing Wagner’s Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods:

“Pure ‘Northernness’ engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity … and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago (it hardly seems longer now) in Tegner’s Drapa, that Siegfried (whatever it might be) belonged to the same world as Balder and the sunward-sailing cranes. And with that plunge back into my own past there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country; and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss, which suddenly became one with the loss of the whole experience, which, as I now stared round that dusty schoolroom like a man recovering from unconsciousness, had already vanished, had eluded me at the very moment when I could first say It is. And at once I knew (with fatal knowledge) that to ‘have it again’ was the supreme and only important object of desire” (Surprised by Joy, ch. 5).

Ultimately, it is this experience of Northernness that led Lewis both to his religious conversation and his impetus for combining the imaginative and the reasonable as it worked out in his literary criticism and Christian apologetics.

I am right now reading a new translation of the Nordic Poetic Edda (13th c.) by Jeremy Dodds. The cycle of poems begins with the death of Balder, though it doesn’t tell the story. Thinking of Lewis’ imaginative conversion, I dug up the poem and was so struck by it that I thought I would share it. Not only does it hint at “the twilight of the gods”–and their rebirth–in Lewis’ own life, but you can sense the atmosphere of this poem behind some of Lewis’ own work, like Spirits in Bondage, The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Great Divorce, The Silver Chair, and Till We Have Faces.

I heard a voice, that cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.

I saw the pallid corpse
Of the dead sun
Borne through the Northern sky.
Blasts from Niffelheim
Lifted the sheeted mists
Around him as he passed.

And the voice forever cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And died away
Through the dreary night,
In accents of despair.

Balder the Beautiful,
God of the summer sun,
Fairest of all the Gods!
Light from his forehead beamed,
Runes were upon his tongue,
As on the warrior’s sword.

All things in earth and air
Bound were by magic spell
Never to do him harm;
Even the plants and stones;
All save the mistletoe,
The sacred mistletoe!

Hoeder, the blind old God,
Whose feet are shod with silence,
Pierced through that gentle breast
With his sharp spear, by fraud
Made of the mistletoe,
The accursed mistletoe!

They laid him in his ship,
With horse and harness,
As on a funeral pyre.
Odin placed
A ring upon his finger,
And whispered in his ear.

They launched the burning ship!
It floated far away
Over the misty sea,
Till like the sun it seemed,
Sinking beneath the waves.
Balder returned no more!

So perish the old Gods!
But out of the sea of Time
Rises a new land of song,
Fairer than the old.
Over its meadows green
Walk the young bards and sing.

Build it again,
O ye bards,
Fairer than before!
Ye fathers of the new race,
Feed upon morning dew,
Sing the new Song of Love!

The law of force is dead!
The law of love prevails!
Thor, the thunderer,
Shall rule the earth no more,
No more, with threats,
Challenge the meek Christ.

Sing no more,
O ye bards of the North,
Of Vikings and of Jarls!
Of the days of Eld
Preserve the freedom only,
Not the deeds of blood!

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
This entry was posted in Lewis Biography and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

58 Responses to Balder the Beautiful Is Dead, Is Dead: C.S. Lewis’ Imaginative Conversion

  1. WriteFitz says:

    Thank you for sharing the poem. Truly poignant and beautiful!


  2. Hanna says:

    This is awesome, both the poem and the story. Thanks!


  3. robstroud says:

    Well done, and thank you for sharing with us this moving poetry.


  4. jubilare says:

    That is powerful. I’ve never read either Edda, and I should.


  5. Thank you so much for this! You began, I think, with Longfellow, a poet who when he was good was very good indeed (I will love Hiawatha for ever!) and when he was bad was very bad indeed (Excelsior?). Was it still Longfellow at the end of the piece? I had never read this before and was quite captivated.
    I was in Norway with my family a few years ago and we did quite a bit of hiking. I remember pausing to eat as we were coming down a path in a steep sided valley on a grey day and thinking that at any moment we would be spied upon by one of Odin’s Ravens! But with Lewis I knew that what I felt that day was a pointer to something else, something that I have glimpsed but never fully experienced.


  6. Tim says:

    Great post, Brenton. The Longfellow influence is significant. William Morris even more so. Lewis discusses “northernness” in his essay “William Morris” in great detail. I love how Lewis employs Tolkien’s euchatastrophe notion, mixing it with the romantic northernness, producing a hopeful and joyous raucous rather than the grim cycle of hopelessness stemming from the Norse Ragnarok. Also interesting is that both Morris and Longfellow talk about their own love for “northernness” in similar terms as Lewis. Turns out that northernness is quite the common romantic/victorian infatuation among writers, even to the present day. Thanks for posting!


    • Thanks for the conversation, Tim. And it’s great to hear about your work.
      I was anxious posting this. Lewis doesn’t mention Longfellow and I had second thoughts in the middle of the night about whether it was actually him! I think so.
      As for real influence, Longfellow is minor. Longfellow is prophet; Morris is pastor.


      • Tim Willard says:

        Oh, not sure why my comment posted twice, sorry about that. Ha! #Wordpress If I’m not mistaken Lewis does mention Longfellow just before the section you reference above, as he was reading Longfellow’s version of the “Saga of King Olaf.” But maybe I’m misunderstanding what you mean by saying Lewis doesn’t actually mention Longfellow. In reference to the poem, perhaps?


        • I’ve not seen it double before.
          No, I was just being anxious. Lewis sometimes shifts direction, like in this essay on “The Genesis of a Medieval Book” I’m reading now. I suddenly got anxious that he switched authors. Sometimes Lewis fans that point out inconsistencies can be a tad harsh! “Oh, you thought it was THAT poem. Shows how much you know!” That sort of thing.


  7. Tim Willard says:

    Great post, Brenton. The Longfellow influence is significant. William Morris even more so. Lewis discusses “northernness” in his essay “William Morris” in great detail. I love how Lewis employs Tolkien’s euchatastrophe notion, mixing it with the romantic northernness, producing a hopeful and joyous raucous rather than the grim cycle of hopelessness stemming from the Norse Ragnarok. Also interesting is that both Morris and Longfellow talk about their own love for “northernness” in similar terms as Lewis. Turns out that northernness is quite the common romantic/victorian infatuation among writers, even to the present day. Thanks for posting!


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I sure don’t remember this, other than the lines Lewis quoted: have I never read the whole thing before? Charles Williams was a young Longfellow enthusiast and later talked about him with younger friends (if I recall correctly): now, I wonder if he came up in Inklings conversation. Some of the imagery here makes me think of his late Arthurian poetry, both “The Last Voyage” (stanza 2, here) – and, where stanzas 9 through 12 are concerned – “Mount Badon”. Whether consciously or not on Williams’s part, those stanzas and “Mount Badon” certainly seem to engage each other interestingly, juxtaposed (with some late unfinished drafts about Taliessin and Cradlemas thrown in for good measure – and stanza 4 even gives an interesting Balder-Taliessin comparison where foreheads are concerned!).


    • I don’t know if they talked about Longfellow among the Inklings. Lewis presumed that Longfellow was a great English poet, but often criticized him.
      I’ll have to reread those poems. A Balder-Taliessin link is intriguing. Have you read Guy Gavriel Kay’s use of Taliessin in “The Fionavar Tapestry.”


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        No I haven’t – thank you for the suggestion! Trying to see something, without seeing too much, about the Tapestry and its components via Guy Gavriel Kay’s site and Wikipedia, I see it/they even appeared when I was trying to keep abreast of Taliesin references* and getting more interested in Things Canadian! (Did you ever hear of our Oxford George Grant Society, started as a complement to the Oxford Lewis Society when Terry Barker and I were both active in it?) What I saw out of the corner of my spoiler-shy eye about the Tapestry made me think there might be interesting comparisons both with Masefield’s Arthurian retelling(s) and his (possible) use of unnamed Taliesin references in The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights…

        * See my paper on David Jones’s, Charles Williams’s, and (a bit) Vernon Watkins’s use of the Taliesin poetry in the Charles Williams Society Newsletter (later, Quarterly) No. 28, Winter 1982, now available online at their site!


        • Oh, I thought the world had forgotten about George Grant! A great, mostly forgotten Canadian. I thought once of playing with George Grant’s “The University Curriculum” and Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man.” I just haven’t gotten to it. Very cool.
          Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Fionavar Tapestry” is one that I mourn when I finish. It is like leaving vacation for the last time.
          I have a thesis about Flidais-Taliessen in the Fionavar Tapestry. If you read it I would love your thoughts on whether I am right. I think Flidais, the Taliessen character–one of the Anduin, a son of a god–is Taliessen the Poet + Tom Bombadil + one of the sons of Odin, or a nephew–I haven’t worked out which one. I just don’t know enough about the Norse world. I’m reading the Poetic Edda now and haven’t found it. The last one is a hunch. For example, the Elves and Orcs in Fionavar are Lios Alfar (light elves) and Svart Alfar (dark elves)–right out of the Edda and other Norse world-work. It could be that Flidais is only the Tolkien + Arthur character.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            I keep bearing this in mind, without getting much further, yet… Though I did just run into my first Guy Gavriel Kay book, second-hand – A Song for Arbonne – and may read that, first, unless I encounter a copy of The Summer Tree, to get me started. Revisiting the Wikipedia article, I spoiler-risked the linked interview with Raymond H. Thompson, which seemed rewarding without spoiling, in the event. Only one comment on Flidais-Taliesin, though a very substantial and interesting one. This part of one sentence really struck me: “as I read the Taliesin material, the character Flidais, who is in fact the son of a god in the Fionavar Tapestry, accrued to himself a shape-shifting identity that incorporated Taliesin.” Wow! – have I ever sufficiently attended to any ‘treatment’ of Taliesin with respect to “a shape-shifting identity” – an ‘identity’ not (largely) limited to a single, major incident? For example, “The king’s poet was his captain of horse in the wars” – does that change (by addition) of ‘office’ express “a shape-shifting identity” following decisive earlier experience (as, in “Talessin’s Song of the Myths”: “I fell; I was not; I began to be; / my passage brought immortal news to me”)? Exciting stuff…


            • It seems to me, David, that Taliessin is Pandora’s box!
              When you speak of shape-shifting, we could think of Beorn, the skin-changer. Fildais-Taliessen, I said before, is a Tom Bombadil character. But so is Beorn, in his way. He lives in synchronicity with the beasts and is caretaker of their world in the way that Fildais-Taliessen is caretaker of his forest.
              And of shape-shifter we could think of Vertumnus, the god of transformation and husband of … shoot, what’s her name? I just looked it up on Ovid which happened to be on the desk. Vertumnus (transformation) and Pomona (goddess of fruitfulness). Fildais-Taliessin is both of those.
              And, of course, “Tumnus” the faun is named after Vertumnus. Some have tried to make the faun-satyr link, but the link is in transformation: Tumnus is a Converted character (as many of Lewis’ characters are). He must die to self to find new self (caterpillar-worm, the Grand Miracle).
              Is Taliessin in Williams is a Converted character–“my passage brought immortal news”? I have to reread it. I might be conflating him with Palamedes.
              But the “faun” fits nicely with “captain of horse”.
              A lot of strings in this knot! It is easier to see how Guy Kay ties them all together than to see what Williams, Tolkien, and Lewis are doing with each other (that’s my concern)..


  9. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Wow! Thanks! “A lot of strings in this knot”, indeed! (A ‘Celtic’ knot? – I seem to remember some scholar comparing early Welsh poetry and interlace patterns… some interesting transformations in that visual tradition and/or its analogues, come to that!)

    I’d never made or encountered the ‘Vertumnus’ connection! (Do you know St. Jerome’s Life of St. Paul the Hermit, with its account of St. Antony’s encounter with a God-fearing “mannikin with hooked snout, horned forehead, and extremities like goats’ feet” [ch. 8, as found at New Advent among the “Fathers”]?) Yes, Williams’s Taliessin is a Converted character – I think at all stages of the retelling-in-verse, though most emphatically in The Region of the Summer Stars (though maybe in a certain sense, ‘again’, in the unfinished late poem, “The Taking of Camelot”). While not exactly conflating him with Palomides, Williams lets Taliessin accent their similarity in “Taliessin in the Rose-Garden”: “Palomides studied her [Iseult] more [than Tristram and Mark, who were also “in love” with her]; so I / everywhere study and sigh for the zodiac in the flesh – ” (speaking of which, in a different way, have you ever considered Lewis’s “The Turn of the Tide” in the context of Williams’s late Arthurian poetry? – I just did, a bit, in a comment at Eclectic Orthodoxy, thanks to Fr. Aidan’s Christmas Eve post!)


  10. Pingback: Matthew Dickerson’s “The Rood and the Torc”: A Winter Tale | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  11. Pingback: The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life #TolkienReadingDay | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  12. Pingback: The Hound of Heaven, Cat and Mouse | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  13. Pingback: On a Picture by Chirico: A Controversial Suggestion about the Creation of Narnia | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  14. Pingback: Eucatastrophe: J.R.R Tolkien & C.S. Lewis’s Magic Formula for Hope by Tim Willard | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  15. Pingback: 2015: A Year in Books | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  16. Pingback: The Stories before the Hobbit: Tolkien Intertextuality, or the Sources behind his Diamond Waistcoat | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  17. Dan Knauss says:

    Lewis’s youthful experience of “northernness” as he describes it is deeply pathological, at best a perilous fantasy. What he identified as a spiritual experience of the transcendent is clearly just a romantic bout of teenage folk nationalism of a nordic or anglo-germanic bent. Imagining a rich enchanted past that never existed from one’s own drab age is a good way to become an anti-modernist crank, which Lewis spent a few decades being as a young man. (Umberto Eco has diagnosed the symptoms of this “ur-fascism” in an essay worth reading.) Fortunately Lewis’s wartime experiences wised him up, and he worked through the standard repertoire of reactionary opinion (heavily focused on women’s bodies and contraception) with the help of some sensible women and slow maturation. His later disgust for the deeply nationalist romanticism and manipulative longing qualities of Anglican hymns reflects better on him.

    That said, Lewis did retain elements of the romantic neopagan-tinged spiritualistic theology that his friend Williams is better known for. It’s fascinating how that relationship drove off Tolkien, who may have been the more balanced, mature character, but when it comes to romantic northernness and fascist-tending sympathies, that was Tolkien who fell squarely in the pro-Franco camp of Chesterton, Belloc, etc. The revival of the Lord of the Rings by Peter Jackson post-9/11 has meant their reduction to overt propaganda (regardless of any authorial intentions) for a West vs. the Rest narrative that has been deeply damaging, IMO.


    • I haven’t experienced the thing Lewis experienced–though I have experienced the numenous in other ways. I find it chilling, though, that you can jump so quickly to diagnosing pathology. They are so mercurial in the clinical situation, and yet so easy for you to spot? Which pathology are you thinking of–or is a cluster of mental illnesses you see? And why the reductionism? I suspect the “just” in your phrase above says more about your particular reading site than it does of Lewis.
      I am interested about the link you make between the Northerness and nationalism. Where is that you see in Lewis? He lacks the nuance of a later, post-colonial, postmodern perspective, but he has some intriguing “yes” and “no” to nationalism, colonialism, mythology, and the past. I mean, the arboreal, Nordic, vast, expansive vision is both pre- and pan-National. Besides the fact that Nazism drew from the same wells (years after Lewis’ dreams of the North turned to Jerusalem), what do you see that I’m missing?
      I’m also curious about what elements of “neopagan-tinged spiritualistic theology” Lewis evokes.
      I also see that West vs. the Rest narrative emerging, and have tried to call it out in my teaching by actually looking at Huntington et al. (who are at least saying it out loud). I don’t see LOTR (as Jackson on on the page) as being reduced to propaganda, but I don’t doubt that happens sometimes. I think reducing anything of sufficient complexity to something trite is bound to distort it.


      • Dan Knauss says:

        There’s nothing quick about it. I read everything the man wrote over a long period of time, and he is not that much of a mystery. He wanted to know himself and be known, so he often shared these kinds of reflections. Surprised By Joy came just prior to his relationship with Joy Davidman during the time of reflection and self-reform after his “great defeat” in debate with Elizabeth Anscombe. His attitudes changed enormously then, as he left behind rationalistic apologetics and polemic (plus a lot of reactionary, misogynistic politics that verge on the fascist in That Hideous Strength) to become a more mature fiction writer and, in his way, an existential theologian recovering his inner fideist.

        In the material you quoted from Lewis was talking about a series of special experiences in his youth and making a point of showing how certain symbols or mundane events evoked them. He offers interpretations of his own psyche, which is common throughout the book. There is a progression he sees in his experiences of “Joy,” as he calls them, and he criticizes the earlier episodes, including the Baldr one which leaves the real world feeling dull and empty. He recognizes there is something unhealthy in that. I contrasted other experiences and views he related that deepen his own self-critique.

        The Baldr episode happened when Lewis was 13 and did not know who Baldr was, but he picks up on the “northernness” in Tennyson’s poem, which he feels is native to him. Five years later he sees the Ring cycle and is smitten with it as a young atheist. In his own words, he “loved Balder before he loved Christ” whose ambiguity helps illustrates the problem: is Balder an obstacle and false Christ, or a type of Christ who points him on to the Christian faith? I think for Lewis it is both, and this was something he never could resolve. He and Tolkien both in different ways, loved and disavowed Wagner. They tried to keep secret that they went to see The Ring together annually. Norse mythology was what brought them together at first, and they were not unusual in their time for being both drawn to and repulsed by this cultural heritage that had such beauty and some deeply encoded horror that could not simply be identified and removed.

        When Lewis writes his biography in the early 50s and reinterprets his teenage self for his public, he was talking about something very specific in racial and ethnic terms when he brought up Baldr. There is absolutely no way to do that and not evoke German nationalism at that time, or in his own mind given his reading and experience. Something is a bit off in it; I think he was indicating that more or less consciously. A French or Jewish contemporary would have felt uncomfortable with it at the least. The point of the Baldr story is that war is inevitable and permanent, because there is always an enemy, always a Loki. This is the kind of pagan “realism” that cuts directly against the core of the gospel, and every Christian culture warring and political project that accepts it as pragmatism exchanges its Christ for Baldr. I think Lewis recognizes this in moments here and there.

        There’s nothing pristine in the myths in any form or telling. The west versus the rest, or the truth Christians versus the secularists, liberals, and Muslims is such a prevalent theme now on the American religious/right it is taken as basic to their core warfaring identity.


        • Goodness, Dan, I apologize: I didn’t see the follow up on this comment.
          I was hasty about declaring your hastiness, but I stand firm on the diagnosis of a pathology. It takes great skill to do it in person, and diagnosing such a thing through ink on paper seems to me speculative at best–especially if your evidence is that “something is a bit off.” Autobiography is always revision, and perhaps always a kind of therapy (or self-abuse). I would be intrigued by a more complex reading of the Baldr-Christ idea, especially as unresolved. But you have made a critical assumption about 1952 and the knowledge of the Holocaust as you combine it with Baldr that I don’t think supportable. I think the German nationalistic image was relatively clear, including its Nordic appropriation. But I don’t think two other things were clear: 1) the extent of the Nazi damage–remember William L. Shirer’s soft apology in the intro to 3rd Reich that he was rushing to print the history only 15 years after it happened; the story was not finished and not fully known; and 2) I don’t know that everyone thought that the Nazi appropriation of the Norse myths to be definitive: why should they get them? The response to LOTR is suggestive that the Nazi-Norse narrative did not win, or not fully. Plus, Lewis didn’t have any French or Jewish contemporaries, or not many.
          I also don’t buy the “great defeat” thesis of Lewis’ biography, though I think it an important moment. I would be intrigued by your thoughts on Lewis as an “existential theologian.” I don’t think the transition that definite, quick, or dramatic.
          Your use of “they” in the last paragraph seems reductive. You really see a one-sided war, a group of religious/right and then a world wandering on its way?


          • Dan Knauss says:

            Why are you so concerned to be the hagiographer, separating Lewis from his culture? Your arguments here are really specious and thin. I gave you primary sources (and there is secondary material corroborating it) that makes it obvious Lewis (and Tolkien) had a lot of self-reflective questioning and concern about nordicism and their own involvement in it. They *sneaked* off to Wagner for a reason. It was a guilty pleasure for a reason. Their political divisions — Ulster Prot vs. “shabby little Catholic” (how JRRT said CSL made him feel at times) — was ethnocultural and religious. Their sharp political division over the Spanish civil war — with JRRT and many Catholics siding with Franco (the nationalists backed by Hitler) — worked a similar faultline. What they came together on was nordic and germanic philology, but it too was riven with the ethnonationalist ideas (pan-germanism) that brought it into existence in the first place.

            This feature of their life and world is documented and discussed by students and other associations of theirs. Lewis was well aware of the holocaust! He names his boarding school after a concentration camp in this very biography! He writes in many places of his disillusionment with nationalism and propaganda in the wars. He reflects on their presence within Anglican hymnody, which is well known and obvious in itself. The very text you are considering explicitly rejects the dour world-flight oriented antimodernism of his Baldr experience as dangerously flawed ethno-national romanticism. Lewis himself is offering this reflection on himself (as he often does) with error and sin as what he sees and is willing to name in himself.


            • It’s an interesting question: am I a hagiographer? I don’t know. I defended Lewis against Pathology not because it is unholy to be pathological, but because I think it is a dangerous to mentally ill people to throw around the language and a non-falsifiable claim. He may have had pathologies and mental illness–I think he suffered from depression at times, and had a breakdown once–but I can’t diagnose that through time and space. It is his testimony that does the best we can on that (or other evidence, like medical records). And you reduced the experience of transcendence and the numinous to pathology, so I just don’t think we’re in the same conversation space. How is that backing up your work with primary sources? I don’t get it.
              I don’t know JRRT & CSL’s relationship to Wagner, but conflating all nordicism into that antisemite can’t be correct. And the original source was not Wagner, so why jump to the conclusions you did in Lewis telling of his childhood encounter?
              I didn’t say Lewis wasn’t aware of the holocaust. He was aware at least as of 1941, and maybe earlier. I am talking about the full weight of the holocaust which grew in the decades after as the evidence came to light.
              Perhaps I am misunderstanding you. I need this explained, “The very text you are considering explicitly rejects the dour world-flight oriented antimodernism of his Baldr experience as dangerously flawed ethno-national romanticism.”
              I am missing some code to your explanations of what is happening. My understanding of Lewis was that the experience of Northernness was part of a series of numenous experiences Lewis had as a young boy–during his time in church, as a youthful atheist, and as an evolving idealist. Lewis came to see a couple of things. Hunting the numenous experience–whether Northernness or Joy or whatever–had a way of destroying the experience. And that these experiences pointed beyond themselves to God.
              So my understanding is that he assessed the Baldr experience as a pointer to Someone else.
              Both in his pre- and Christian life he was a lover or Nordic tales. These were taken up by this movement of “flawed ethno-national romanticism.” So help me understand the next step. Lewis rejected that? No. He continued to love these tales, embedding them in his work. Tolkien even moreso. Did he embrace the ideology that appropriated it? No, and THS is a warning of a kind.
              What am I to do with your argument? Because you get to this line, “Lewis himself is offering this reflection on himself (as he often does) with error and sin as what he sees and is willing to name in himself.” And I think this is so very true and elegantly put. I just don’t understand the error and sin you think that I am trying to save Lewis from.


              • Dan Knauss says:

                I never used the term “mental illness,” but at some point it could become that. Lewis provides examples of that happening — to Yeats and others associated with the Golden Dawn.

                As a young man Lewis was drawn to spiritualism and remained somewhat in the thrall of it throughout his life — this was also a tension and eventually a rift in his relationship with Tolkien. Lewis’s meeting with an idol like Yeats was a disappointment and an instructive shock. Lewis describes Yeats as a man who has gone mad chasing something Lewis himself was drawn to and whose quest produced amazing poetry for Yeats.

                Lewis remained very open to “dark places” you could say. “Dark places are holy places” is his defense of there being something good and true in all human mystical experience, in his last, best novel. This is still dangerous territory, he would be the first to admit — dangerous because it is already tainted, or impure, and unholy in some way — to use words he used.

                Despite the warning posed by Yeats and Tolkien who thought Williams was a witch, Lewis loved Williams, and Lewis’s worst book (That Hideous Strength, by most accounts) was written in imitation of Williams. It is full of romantic constructions of English legend brought to life with real magic acting in and against the modern world — and against modern technologies like contraceptives, mind you. THS is full of post-war spleen about all the godless modernistic destruction coming to England in academe, urban planning, etc. This is not the Lewis you see in the 1950s, post-Anscombe, post-Davidman Lewis. Surprised by Joy is this later, calmer, more self-critical Lewis. Antimodernist Lewis was the younger man who was obsessively hostile to T. S. Eliot and others, unable to see them as anything but wreckers of Yeats’ golden, enchanted world. See the problem?

                I think you go wrong in defending “the experience of transcendence and the numinous” from the possibility of being pathological or “unholy.” I think you will agree that the category of mystical/religious/numinous experiences (considered apart from things like real disassociative disorders) is full of examples of people elaborating those experiences in unhealthy ways when they attempt to “use” or act on them, as you note Lewis recognized. The extreme examples are common enough and do often seem to lead into or derive from real mental illness. But how to delineate that from a “true faith?” This was an abiding question for Lewis made more difficult by his universalist streak; he was not going to settle for a doctrinaire answer.

                There is no way expert philologists in the early 20th century could miss the ideological baggage (pan-germanism, antisemitism, neopaganism, spiritualism) associated with their world. I live in Alberta — are you familiar with the old social credit party, and its sources in the UK? It’s a good example — looks completely nuts today, and it was. Anglo, Celtic, and Germanic romanticism was huge. People felt they were losing an old world that only existed in myth and longing. The boundaries between scholarship, religion, and politics were very permeable. They projected fantasies into fiction and reality. Some of those fantasies were very dark, and very destructive.

                It is totally irrelevant if Lewis thought the Nazis were more or less terrible, more or less antisemitic. He knew they were both terrible and antisemitic. He knew those tendencies were general in the culture, and he knew about their connection to the myths, legend and “magic” he loved and was drawn to. This is exactly how Lewis represents Merlin and “magic” in THS, which goes so far Lewis has to step back and disclaim it this way, push it back into legend. The status of magic is another famous and revealing conversation Lewis and Tolkien had over the years. Both men wrestled with these things as late Victorian romantics thrust into modernity.

                If you presume the numinous can never be tainted, then you are bound to misread this text and miss what Lewis is actually saying. It’s not a point he hammers home, but it is clear he is recounting different types of numinous experience and pointing out the defects in them. The Baldr episode is what he sees as part of his “pagan” youth, which his atheism could not defeat nor spiritualism satisfy, so eventually the faith he came to was, in his view, a necessary and maybe inevitable progression. To him it was certainly logical. But he is also seeing another possibility — a road not taken — that for others did lead to neopaganism, nationalism, and even madness.


              • Dan Knauss says:

                Let’s put it this way: the older Lewis describing himself and his youthful Baldr experience recognizes something both good and true, and evil and false in that experience. Not just a little evil and false. The turn away from the world that is, out of enchantment with one that is not, is very twisted. It’s a seed that easily and naturally grows in a murderous direction.

                There is absolutely no way Lewis did not connect that personal observation and self-critique with its obvious analogs in his world during the same era. Pursuing a romantic, mythical, literary construction of one’s people, their pre-eminence, and their moral rectitude in war is pure ethnonationalist ideology which we know Lewis was disgusted with and disabused of by the first world war. “Northernness” and the closely related spiritualism and supernaturalism he was drawn to were not something he got on top of, it seems, until the later 40s or 50s. I feel it is very important to emphasize both sides of this duality and the struggle it represented for him.

                If your goal is to say “there is nothing wrong with feeling enchanted by Wagner,” you are wrong, and Lewis would be the first to challenge that IMO. There is nothing wrong with the experience; there is very much wrong with saying to yourself and others there is nothing wrong with it. If that were true nobody would think to say it. The things we feel compelled to defend this way are tainted; hence the defense. Today there is plenty of this language again as people back their way into positions and views they don’t ant to see as racist, nationalistic, etc. But they are, or they have a growing seedling of those evils.


  18. Dan Knauss says:

    Also important to understand: Baldr is a text widely and most obviously understood as a justification for endless struggle and war out of necessity because there are Really Bad Evildoers out there who will always be out to get us. This tends to be read easily as moral justification for whatever conflict one faces. Lewis has the Baldr episode at 14, right? So he’s just then (1912) gotten through “Belsen” (or almost), his mother has been dead a few years, and he’s just discarded his Christianity. The war starts 4 years later (1914), and his older brother is already started prepping for a military career. In 1916 Lewis sees The Rig for the first time, reads MacDonald’s “Phantastes,” and gets a sense of the holy at basically the same time Rudolf Otto’s “The Idea of the Holy” comes out. The next year, with no obligation to enlist as a soldier, Lewis does exactly that. Later, his poetic career begins with war poetry.


  19. Pingback: The SHANWAR List: The Stickin’ Huge Awesome Novel Winter Awesome Read | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  20. Pingback: A Call for a Silmarillion Talmud | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  21. Pingback: Approaching “The Silmarillion” for the First Time | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  22. Pingback: Ragnarök’n’roll! The Poetic Edda and Tolkien’s Sigurd and Gudrún | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  23. Pingback: William Morris’ Nonsense from Nowhere | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  24. That tinged me with Northerness! Thank you!


  25. Pingback: Of Wakanda and Narnia: How Fictional Places Evoke Real Longings - The Wardrobe DoorThe Wardrobe Door

  26. Pingback: The First Meeting of the Inklings by George Sayer | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  27. Pingback: The Tolkien Letters that Changed C.S. Lewis’ Life (On Tolkien’s Birthday) | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  28. Pingback: The White Christ, Red Thor & C.S. Lewis « Mere Inkling Press

  29. Pingback: ‘I just believe in one god less than you.’ | Old Hampshire C S Lewis Society

  30. Pingback: A Life of C.S. Lewis in 20 Minutes: Videos, Timelines, and Resource Articles (Throwback Thursday) | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  31. Pingback: Which Image Triggered C. S. Lewis’ Enthusiasm for Wagner’s Ring Cycle? A Proposal by Norbert Feinendegen | A Pilgrim in Narnia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.