Fools of April, with Best Wishes to Netflix, Taylor Swift, and Friends of Narnia

Yes, well, it was just a joke. Monday’s “EXCLUSIVE PILGRIM IN NARNIA RELEASE” was a total farce. I am not an academic consultant to the Netflix miniseries (though I hope someone is). As far as I know, pop sensation Taylor Swift is not in talks with eOne entertainment to play Jadis, Empress of Charn and pretender to the Narnian throne. And, despite the quality that comes out of Hollywood’s adaptation sandbox from time to time, I hope there is no producer as inept as Karol Rakestraw (by the way, Lewis had an interesting media problem with another Rakestraw).

It was all a bit of April Fool’s Day fun.

The various images of Taylor Swift as the White Witch and the Narnian posters are screenshots from Swift’s video, “Out of the Woods”–which I referenced subtly in the piece. I quite like Swift as a songwriter, though I don’t love the genre she works in. She is clever as a public figure, and no doubt both compelling and cinematic. I suspect she would have chuckled if she saw the joke, but I chose not to hashtag or loop her in because, frankly, I couldn’t take the time to pacify her fans when they inevitably discovered that I had lied to them.

Taylor Swift as Queen Jadis Summons the Frost Magic

It was all a bit of fun, but I must admit that I had a bit of a serious point behind my parody. I am worried about the Netflix film series.

Unlike most readers, I am pretty comfortable with an adaptation like the Anne With an E retelling of L.M. Montgomery‘s classic. It combines a recovery of certain elements of Anne of Green Gables with an interpretation very much of the present. It is not what I would do–and certainly I would not do it with Narnia–but I can appreciate the art of the adaptation in that style.

I’m also not terribly worried that they will sex up the series–making it “cinematic” as I joked about yesterday. There will be an element of that, no doubt, and I trust the characters will be Hollywood beautiful. But I doubt that Netflix-eOne will go the boy-meets-girl route.

The Cursed Winter Rolls into Narnia

What I am worried about really comes down to four things.

First, will it be terrible? See the Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader films from a decade ago. And the terrible Eregon adaptation basically sunk that series.

Second, will they jump the shark, over-producing the series like mad to bend it into a particular frame? See the Hobbit films by Peter Jackson.

Third, will they attempt to understand the worldview of the author (C.S. Lewis, in case we forgot)? This is clearly not the situation with the Anne With an E series, though a case may be made that they have followed a trajectory of Montgomery’s thought into the present. As appreciative as I am of Peter Jackson’s work with The Lord of the Rings, he does not understand Tolkien at the very core of his being. It is also my worry for the new Tolkien biopic. The recent adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’A Wrinkle in Time shows how utterly they ignored the author’s worldview, though it is no doubt a beautiful film at points. But I do think they understood Virginia Woolf in The Hours and Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway and Gellhorn (two films featuring compelling work by Nicole Kidman). I wonder if there is a lesson here for Hollywood to learn about listening to voices it doesn’t understand.

Finally, I am worried that the series will be too violent for children. The Hobbit films are a good example, but you can see the adultization in adaptations like Ender’s Game. Narnia has WWII as a background and is full of violence. On a parent’s lap, in a comfy chair in a sunny room, or read by a teacher in a classroom–that’s all one kind of effect. On screen it is something quite different.

So my fun yesterday has a bit of an edge to it and my jocular interview shows the worries I have about a Narnia adaptation. Still, I think that Netflix is finally the genre that could bring us a great, full-bodied adaptation of the whole Narniad. It is not constrained by the conventions of film and could become something great.

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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.
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42 Responses to Fools of April, with Best Wishes to Netflix, Taylor Swift, and Friends of Narnia

  1. Jacqueline Kohl says:

    Really loved this….I teach a C.S. Lewis class at Eastern Kentucky University and it was the perfect April Fool’s joke for the students! Jacqueline kohl

    >

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  2. ChrisC says:

    Prof. Dickieson,

    That whole April Fool’s skit was pretty much on the nose. When it comes to Netflix adapting “Narnia”, I’d like to be optimistic. At the same time, I’m unsure whether I should hold my breath or not. For me, I think part of the problem is the more I watch modern Hollywood evolve from the sidelines, I keep having the same creeping suspicion that the industry is undergoing a peculiar sort of change.

    I’m not talking about anything social, or political. Instead, I’m thinking more in terms similar to that of Owen Barfield’s evolution of consciousness. You see, from where I am, it looks like Hollywood is either losing or forgetting how to make good stories. And I can’t help wondering if part of the reason for this downgrade in creativity is something along the lines of the kind of evolution (or de-evolution in this case?) that Barfield was talking about.

    You mentioned the re-framing of Middle Earth, and how Jackson doesn’t understand Tolkien. Well, part of the reason for that might be found through a contrast and comparison with the kind of imaginations each artist had? Something tells me that if you could make such a comparison, Tolkien’s own imagination would be more multi-leveled, whereas Jackson might be more one storied.

    If that sounds a bit far-fetched, then blame Samuel Leslie Bethell. He used to be a literary critic from Lewis’s time. His importance for my own comment, however, is that he wrote a book once called “Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition”. In it, he follows a line of thinking that is surprisingly similar to that of Barfield.

    He makes the claim that the quality of the type of imaginative thinking that went into both Shakespeare’s plays, and his audience’s reception of them, is of an entirely different type from the one that is used by artists and viewers/readers today. His entire book hinges on what he calls the “Theory of Multi-consciousness”. It means both artist and audience had to use a more complex form of thought when it came to both writing and enjoying a work of fiction.

    Bethell makes a distinction between the kind of imagination of Shakespeare’s day, with the one prevalent in his own era. In an argument that is very Lewisian in its reasoning, Bethell says that what differentiates the Renaissance imagination from the Modernist one is the advent of Naturalism. Bethell points to Sir Philip Sydney as one of the major starting point (Francis Bacon is another) for Naturalism in literary criticism and composition. The interesting part is how Bethell highlight that Sydney’s Naturalism is grounded in a form of Classism that could also be considered prejudiced in today’s climate. He never spells this out, yet Bethell seems to indirectly hint at a connection between Naturalism and general bigotry.

    Bethell also highlights ways that certain mental leftovers from this ancient form of imaginative interaction have survived in some fashion in the modern time of 1947. He points to the work of the Marx Brothers as being semi-inheritors of Shakespeare’s “Popular Dramatic Tradition” through there use of breaking the fourth wall, and other older techniques of storytelling. The techniques and tropes Bethell highlights all used to be coin of the realm at one time or another.

    However, as time has gone on, it seems places like Hollywood have forgotten a lot of alternative ways of getting a narrative across. This may account for both why big studios have a hard time understanding Lewis and Tolkien. It may also explain another phenomenon I’ve witnessed, where millennial audiences can’t seem to wrap their minds around older entertainers like the Brother’s Marx, or more straightforward fair like Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. Heck, I remember one kid who couldn’t “get” the “Godfather”! The book also contains an intro by T.S. Eliot. A good copy of it can be read online, here:

    https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.239495/page/n5

    At the very least, I hope it’s interesting food for thought,

    ChrisC.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Chris, thanks for this careful note. I actually got that Bethell book out of the library to read the Eliot preface. But I hadn’t read further than that. Do you think the evolution you are seeing can account also for the rise of fantasy/sf on film? It certainly accounts for the adaptations and remakes.

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      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Risking a tangent, here – but (embarrassingly) I have not read Bethell (any? – if so, not sure which)*, and have just seen Dame Helen Mirren (who has acted in a lot of Shakespeare and his contemporaries on stage, and played Hermia in Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968) and Titania in Elijah Moshinsky’s 1981 version for the BBC complete Shakespeare) quoted as praising and condemning Netflix, saying, “It’s devastating for people like my husband [Taylor Hackford], film directors, because they want their movies to be watched in a cinema with a group of people […] An audience, a movie, and you’re all in it together. You’re frightened, you laugh, you cry all together. So it’s a communal thing. And that’s beginning to disappear.” That seems a semi-theatrical way of looking at movies, but also made me think of Tolkien’s criticism of drama in any form in “One Fairy-Stories” (if I recall, and summarize, justly enough) as limiting imaginative possibilities in a way narrative (even including, I suppose, recited narrative) does not. It sounds like it would be interesting to read Bethell and Tolkien and compare…
        (I remember the early days of television, when our neighbors had one, and lots of us would gather round to watch it together…)

        *Fun to see a volume, Selected Poems, with contents by S. L. Bethell, J. D. C. Pellow, and George Every – I probably looked up Charles Williams’s old friend, Pellow, in that some time, but pretty surely didn’t read it right through, if so…

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Weird typo!One>On

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        • ChrisC says:

          Prof. Dickieson,

          While I think the rise of the popular genres in recent years is worth exploring from Barfield’s perspective of evolving consciousness, I find it better to be just a bit on the skeptic side of things when it comes to the current Hollywood trend for all things fantastic. To me it all seems to be more about marketing, pre-awareness, and exploring any and all possible avenues that will allow studios to make products (not genuine stories) with least amount of creative effort.

          I’ve also been watching other trends that make me wonder if the toxicity infecting pop-culture at the moment is an indicator that it will soon go back underground, in a manner of speaking. What if it all becomes so unpopular that geek culture goes out of fashion, in other words? I’ve even wondered a bit farther and asked myself what would happen if the toxicity could wind up being enough to cause the modern culture that grew up around pop-culture from the 30s all the way up to now to simply collapse in on itself.

          If that sounds too dire then I don’t blame you for saying so. It’s just that everywhere I look these days it seems that modern geek culture, especially among millennials, is either losing sight of its history, or else doesn’t even know it exists. Because of that, everything seems to be in danger of going off the rails. It’s sort of the reason I started blogging, to let other know where all the art they like came from, and perhaps provide a bit of perspective.

          This is also where I’ve found Bethell’s book to be almost indispensable in giving a wake-up call to not just the facts of the past history of the arts, but also an insight into their exact quality. That’s another way in which his book shares thematic concerns with both Lewis and Barfield. The difference is that when you talk about that sort of thing, we’re on a different subject and set of concerns from what you see going on with modern Hollywood. In that respect, what’s going on with Tinseltown is better described as a step down on the evolutionary scale.

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          • ChrisC says:

            D.L. Dodds,

            It’s interesting that you bring up Tolkien’s thoughts on stage drama. In terms of that sentiment as it appears in “OFS”, I’m willing to disagree with the master, so to speak. At the same time, I wonder if that statement encompassed all his thoughts on the matter.
            According to T.A. Shippey Tolkien went on from there to write an actual one act play about the aftermath of the Battle of Maldon. It was called “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son” A good resource for that play can be found here:
            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Homecoming_of_Beorhtnoth_Beorhthelm%27s_Son
            Aside from this, there is one other source that makes me think Tolkien may have changed his mind, or altered his critical opinion about certain aspects of what is proper Mythopoeia.

            My reason for saying this has to do with an article I had published for Mr. John Granger’s HogPro site. In that article I made a list of literary criticism by Inklings member Roger Lancelyn Green. I’ve found Green to very useful in uncovering a lot of the nature of the Inklings approach to Mythopoeia. What Tolkien and Lewis just hint at, Green will sometimes spell out in further detail. It’s chiefly thanks to Green that I’m now convinced a lot of the inspiration for the Inklings as a whole came from the fantasy novels, plays, and stories produced during the Victorian Era.

            It is the period Green constantly returns to in his criticism, thus turning it into a matrix which helps to understand the tropes and ideas behind the group’s major productions. Because of this, it was gratifying to discover Winged Lion Press has published a collection of essays, “Informing the Inklings: George Macdonald and the Victorian Roots of Modern Fantasy”. It is one of the just a handful of books I’m aware of (the others are Stephen Prickett’s “Victorian Fantasy” and the works of Prof. Jared Lobdell) that demonstrate an awareness that the Victorian Fantasy/Adventure yarn is the basic matrix from which the Oxford group sprung (these studies also do a good job of linking the Victorian Fantasists with the Romantic Poets).

            What this has to do with Tolkien’s views on drama is related to Green’s “Andrew Lang: A Critical Study”. That is a book Tolkien is very much connected with, as I pointed out in the HogPro article. In particular I highlighted Green’s acknowledgements section of that book. The important passage read: “The nucleus upon which this book is founded was a Dissertation on Lang’s imaginative writings submitted a few years ago for the Degree of Bachelor of Letters at Oxford; and my gratitude to Professor D. Nichol Smith and Professor J.R.R. Tolkien for their unfailing guidance and encouragement leaves with me a debt that can never be adequately repaid (Green x)”.

            The interesting bit of trivia is the background story about the “Lang” book that soon pieced itself together. I discovered what might be a humorous road to the publication of Green’s “Critical Study” by noting an item in the textual commentary of Verlyn Flieger’s and Douglas Anderson’s “Tolkien on Fairy Stories”. They note that Lang comes in for critical trouncing by Tolkien in the course of his lecture. As they both point out in the commentary, however, the sentiment Tolkien accuses Lang of holding appears nowhere in the former scholars works, and they are unable to locate the source of Tolkien’s criticism.

            Flieger and Anderson go no farther than stating these facts. Green’s critical text is not listed by the authors in their bibliography of works Tolkien consult when composing “OFS”. However, the addition of Green’s study, combined with it’s acknowledgement that Tolkien helped Green to compose this Master’s Thesis, hints at an amusing bit of backstage history. It seems that Tolkien had a genuine absent-minded professor moment when composing his Fairy essay, and somehow got the opinions of Lang confused with some other authority that he disagreed with strongly. To Tolkien’s credit, the existence of Green’s book means he must have realized his mistake not long afterwards, and from there went on to humbly, yet enthusiastically encourage Green by providing the future children’s anthologist with all he needed to set the record straight.

            Tolkien’s fingerprints can be seen all over Green’s study. In particular Tolkien’s influence can be seen when Green makes a comment such as: “Now the true fairy represents, on the whole, a distinct tradition”. Like Tolkien, Green then goes on brief historical tracing of the history of this distinct “tradition”, albeit in more detail. He even copies a sentiment of “OFS” in repeating that “Gulliver’s Travels” doesn’t qualify as a proper fairy story. The curious is that aside from this instance, Green is more liberal in his allowance of what constitutes ad good “fairy story”, and Tolkien seems to have been indulgent with such judgments.

            I bring all this up to help provide illustration that may demonstrate that Tolkien could sometimes be amenable to changing his mind, on occasion. In terms of the popular drama, while he had some harsh words for Shakespeare, it doesn’t seem to have totally soured him on the stage as a thing, or at least not for a permanent amount of time. In that sense, while we never know if Tolkien read Bethell’s book, it is possible that the idea of being able to enjoy art on a multi-tiered level of perception might not have been out of his wheelhouse.

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            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Thanks for such a rich reply! An interesting question, to pick out one point, is how far Tolkien would consider a radio-play more like a narrative recitation, and less like an attempt to depict visually, whether on stage or as a film. I can’t remember if I’ve actually read anything about ‘The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth Beorhthelm’s Son’ itself as a radio-play, or if it just strikes me as something that would do well as audio. We had a dramatic reading of it at the Oxford Lewis Soc once, preceding it with a recitation of a modern translation of the battle of Maldon – which I think worked well. This also raises the question of plays meant to be read – aloud, or silently to oneself – or, indeed, any play text so read: how much freer is the reader or hearer’s imagination, then? Tolkien certainly seems to know his Shakespeare and enjoy it, in various ways!

              Your comment including “exploring any and all possible avenues that will allow studios to make products (not genuine stories) with least amount of creative effort” may come in interestingly, here, too – in terms of ‘visual spectacle’ – which was also a curious feature of some late-17th-c. drama, I think including adaptations of Shakespeare (compare Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example).

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              • ChrisC says:

                D.L. Dodds,

                Thank yo for the info on the Lewis Society recital. “Beorhtnoth” does at least “read” as a likely candidate for a radio adaptation. That said, I don’t know if there has been any dramatic attempt to make that happen. I do remember I listened to a BBC Radio compilation from the recently published collection “Tales from the Perilous Realm”. It featured Brian Blessed as “Farmer Giles of Ham”, if that means anything.

                As for visual spectacle on an Elizabethan stage, I’ll admit I don’t know of any, and Bethell never mentions such. He notes how the fact that some of the wealthier patrons might choose a seat right there on the stage, sometimes literally right next to the actors, could sometimes limit the nature of what could be done dramatically, depending on the crowd size back then.

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              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                I enjoyed the ones I heard of “Tales from the Perilous Realm” – including “Farmer Giles of Ham” – but I’m not sure I’ve caught up with them all – thanks for the reminder!

                There’s a curious split in the early 17th century… The popular stage, could have, for example, some gory special effects, but not (as far as I recall) so much spectacle – though, to quote Wikipedia, “On 29 June 1613, the Globe Theatre went up in flames during a performance of Henry VIII. A theatrical cannon, set off during the performance, misfired, igniting the wooden beams and thatching”! But the Court masques had a lot more spectacle, in one sense of another. I know far to little about, say, Ben Jonson’s Masques to generalize intelligently, but Milton’s Comus (1634) is certainly a substantial masque, meant for performance:

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              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                And James Shirley and Matthew Locke’s Masque of Cupid and Death, quite surprisingly, was written for performance under Oliver Cromwell, in 1653! This is the first of a series of excerpts from it on YouTube:

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            • dalejamesnelson says:

              Chris C, we had a few exchanges, about three years ago, on Lovecraft and the Inklings, I see, after your guest posting about Roger Lancelyn Green was published. The latest issue of the Tolkien Society’s journal, Mallorn (#59, 2018), as a 15,000-word article by me on Lovecraft and the Inklings. You and other visitors to this blog who don’t have access to Mallorn may email me for the article if interested. extollager at gmail

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    • dalejamesnelson says:

      From one of my Jack and the Bookshelf columns for the New York C. S. Lewis Society:

      Lewis’s July 1947 letter to J. O. Reed recommends “[o]n Shakespeare E. K. Chambers, Stoll, Caroline Spurgeon, and Bethell.” ….
      S. L. Bethell’s Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition might be the book to which the curious should turn first. The author reminds us that the Elizabethan stage was not the picture-frame affair we are accustomed to. Rather, theatres such as the Globe permitted audiences to see the actors from every direction, in broad daylight, with minimal “scenery,” permitting attention to the essentially real rather than to a superficial “realism” that is intended to lead spectators to forget they are watching a play. The subtleties in Elizabethan drama belong to a “highly complex poetry,” rather than to elusive states of mind to be inferred from clues. A naturalistic performance style will, then, conflict with Shakespeare’s words. Psychology there is, to be sure, but it is presented economically and conventionally, as when, for example, a character partly tells his own story: when Othello says he is “rude in speech” we are to take this straightforwardly; the eloquence of his speeches is that of the poem rather than the character. …
      Lewis regarded Bethell as one of “our allies” against tiresome critical “bilge.”

      —–So there you have it: Lewis firmly endorsed Bethell’s Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition. I don’t want to overstate the case and say that this book is the Shakespeare book Lewis would have written if he had written a book on Shakespeare, but that might not be far off. Bethell’s book on The Winter’s Tale should not be overlooked.

      Other Shakespeare critics whom Lewis endorsed were E. K. Chambers, E. E. Stoll, and Carloine Spurgeon, whose Shakespeare’s Imagery was a great resource for me as a teacher of a college Shakespeare course along with the two Bethell books. Stoll on Shylock is recommended (Shakespeare Studies).

      Dale Nelson

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      • ChrisC says:

        Prof. Nelson,

        Thank you ever so much for weighing in with these insights. Also kudos for mentioning works like Spurgeon or Chambers. To that I’d have to add two books that seem to work well together. Theodore Spencer’s “Shakespeare and the Nature of Man”, and Chalres Williams “The English Poetic Mind”.

        There are ways in which the latter book could be said to anticipate the former.

        Question:

        Might it be possible to see a C.S. Lewis’s Bookshelf post re: Bethell’s “Dramatic Tradition”?

        Just a question…I’ll go take my meds now.

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        • dalejamesnelson says:

          To Chris C on April 8 at 3:59 pm:

          I’m afraid that the portion I quoted here just now is about all that I wrote about Bethell’s Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition. It really is a fine book.

          From a different source, an inspirational passage from a different author, which I included in my Shakespeare syllabus:

          “The organized amnesia of present primary and secondary education is a very recent development. There is irony in the fact that one associates the main impetus of this change, its frankest theoretic justifications, with the United States. For it was in the North America of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the ideal, both Puritan and Jeffersonian, of a general biblical and classical literacy was most widely aimed at.
          “Concentric to these spheres of ‘book-knowledge’ lies a personal, unforced intimacy with the names and shapes of the natural world, with flower and tree, with the measure of the seasons and the rising and setting of the stars. The principal energies of our literature draw constantly on this set of recognitions. But to our housed, metallic sensibilities they have become largely artificial and decorative. Do not, today, inquire of the reader next to you whether he can identify, from personal encounter, even a part of the flora, of the astronomy, which served Ovid and Shakespeare, Spenser and Goethe, as a current alphabet.”
          — George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 1971

          Dale Nelson

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          • ChrisC says:

            Prof. Nelson,

            Thanks for both the feedback and additional info. I might have to see about that Mallorn copy.

            Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Steiner coincided with more than one Inkling at Oxford as a graduate student – but I don’t remember encountering any details about this…

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  3. Yewtree says:

    Did anyone fall for your April Fool? It was great fun, although as you say, making a serious point, that the Netflix series might not “get” Lewis’ worldview.

    I’m reminded of how Tolkien was sent a goblet with the words engraved on the One Ring engraved around the rim of the goblet. He was horrified that the person had so massively missed the point, and used it as an ashtray (presumably for emptying his spent pipe into).

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  4. ChrisC says:

    D.L. Dodds,

    Sorry to bring things even more off topic. I guess one good tangent deserves another. During the course of your first reply to my own comment, you brought up the Third Inkling.

    As for C.W., I’ll have to admit I’m not liking the direction certain currents in the study of his life, work, and thought are going. I’m thinking here of Aren Roukema’s “Esotericism and Narrative”. What bugs me about this is that it all reads less as a work of legitmate scholarship, and more like an ideological argument made to look like a study of a half-forgotten author.

    Besides ideology, I think the word I’m looking for here is post-modern. Roukema’s argument is based off the work of several notable lights of that critical movement. Because of this orientation, he defines his terms in surprisingly vague categories: “However, his book approaches esotericism as it is understood by most contemporary analytical researchers—not as a hegemonic historical phenomenon, but as the manifestation of long-standing, often antagonistic discourses in Western culture. In this conception, esotericism is, as Andreas Kilcher describes it, “The sociologies, politics, techniques, cultures, and poetics of knowledge by means of which epistemological formations such as magic, kabbalah, occultism etc. are founded, transmitted, transformed, defended, or degraded.”23 Just as it should be understood that there is no specific “esotericism” that can be studied as a phenomenon in its own right, the individual movements grouped together in the wastebasket category of Western esotericism should also be seen as fluctuating traditions in Hans-Georg Gadamer’s sense of a tradition as an ongoing dialectical conversation, in which it is assumed that a reified encapsulation of a particular tradition can never be authentically achieved (21)”.

    In addition to just two of several postmodernists, Roukema also views the literary use of alchemical symbolism through the writings of Wouter J. Hannegraff. Hannegraff has written several books on alchemy in history. The trouble is a closer reading of both the books and various published articles reveals that Hannegraff’s academic take on it all is from the viewpoint of the kind of Naturalist Materialism that Lewis spent an entire book refuting.

    Furthermore, Roukema makes the following assertion: this book focuses exclusively on relations between Williams and occultism, but I have as little wish to categorize him primarily as an occultist as I do to see him branded as solely Christian. It is my continuing aim in this exploration of his occult life and fiction to maintain the state of critical flexibility for which Williams himself advocated (39)”.

    You’ll have to forgive me for saying this, yet it seems like Roukema is more determined to fashion an imaginary image of Williams, rather than rely on a more probable series of facts. As I said, he is concerned with making an ideological argument, for whatever reason, and Williams, sadly, seems to be the convenient subject he can use as a jumping off point for his own idea regardless of the facts.

    This is all part of the aforementioned trend I’ve noticed in the recent developments of C.W. studies. If I’m being frank, I think it’s getting out of hand, and is a bit too careless for my tastes. The net result is ideologues using a great deal of words to say a whole lot of nothing. At least, that seems to be the irrevocable if we follow Roukema’s thinking to a logical-illogical conclusion.
    If I had to offer a more (hopefully) grounded alternative to all this, then it would be to take things up from where John Granger leaves off with his theory of literary alchemy. In particular I want to say Stanton Linden’s “Darke Hieroglyphicks” is the right text to form a starting point on Williams’ oeuvre. Another useful avenue to follow would be to simply go back to people like Frances Yates and the Warburg scholars. In particular, Paul Oskar Kristeller’s work on Marsilio Ficino has been something of a revelation. My own current theory is that Williams’ narrative and theological technique is in fact the same one used by Orthodox Renaissance Humanists like Ficino and Pico Della Mirandola. The key to the thought of both men is that it is little more than the standard Medieval Thomism with a more ornate use of allegorical/alchemical symbolism to illustrate traditional Catholic talking points. What set me on this trail was Ficino’s talk about Platonic Love. It sounded so much like Williams that I wondered if there was a connection there.

    A second source that set me on this same track came from Williams himself. In “The Descent of the Dove,” he brings up Charles Kingsley public disputes with John Henry Newman over Church doctrine. I thought it was interesting he would mention such a seemingly minor figure in what had to be the larger canvas of Church history. However, I was curious. It occurred to me to ask if it was possible to see if Kingsley utilized anything like the literary alchemy Mr. Granger talked about. Typing in Kingsley’s name, along with the word alchemy, brought up a lecture Kingsley gave in his professional capacity from the pulpit about “Paracelsus”:

    http://www.online-literature.com/charles-kingsley/historical-lectures/6/

    This lecture is kind of a big discovery in the sense that it is a rarity to see an ordained, Victorian minister, counting people like Cornelius Agrippa as among the blessed, if not the outright saints. Kingsley also has the stamina to bring up the Kabbalah at a time when I’m not sure most people even knew it existed outside of a university setting, or in Jewish circles. In addition, it has the potential to tie Williams’ thinking in with that of the Victorian Romantics.

    By and large, I think it makes more sense to see C.W. as a forgotten member of both the Inklings, and as a name in a list of early English horror writers that included Evelyn Underhill, M.R. James, and Arthur Machen. Still, that’s one take out of many, really.

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      And thank you for this tangent, equally rich in interesting matter! Wow – I had missed the publication of Esotericism and Narrative: The Occult Fiction of Charles Williams (Aries Book) (Leiden: Brill, 26 July 2018)! I enjoyed his article in Journal of Inkling Studies, which had a lot of detailed archival work behind it. Wouter J. Hannegraff is a familiar name, none of whose work I have yet caught up with (embarrassingly enough). I don’t have time at the moment to try to address as much of your comment as could do, in my ignorance of more than you tell us, here, but will hope to return.

      I’ve been disappointed in some Frances Yates, and so (perhaps somewhat unjustly) feel a bit wary of her. A Warburger I’ve enjoyed and profited from is D.P. Walker, especially his Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella (1958) – which leaves me wary of Ficino and Pico!

      Lewis has a comment somewhere about the wealth and variety of learning with which Kingsley plays in The Water Babies, which I heartily recommend – together with his Hypatia, which Williams certainly knew (and which you can even enjoy as an audiobook at LibriVox.org) – but I did not know that sermon: for which, many thanks! (Lewis somewhere has good things to say about him in dispute with Newman, too…!)

      Like

      • ChrisC says:

        D.L. Dodds,

        I have Walker’s book on Magic, I haven’t started it yet (say sorry, but it’s true).

        However, while I’ve read through both Kristeller, Walker’s other book “The Ancient Theology”, Edgar Wind’s “Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance”, and Jean Seznec’s “The Survival of the Pagan Gods”, I can’t say I’ve found anything on Ficino to get alarme about.

        In fact, I highly recommend the Seznec book before all others, because what I’ve read there convinces me that Seznec has neatly laid out the system of thought behind all the Inkling’s writings. In effect, I’m convinced Seznec is one of the few authors (albeit unknowingly) who is showing the historical pedigree of the concept of Mythopoeia.

        Some good companion pieces to help put the Seznec book in perspective are Louis Markos’s “From Achilles to Christ”, and Henry Chadwick’s “Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition”. Basically, Mythopoeia seems to be what you get when the early Christians, including some of the Apostles, confront the always interesting phenomena of Classical Greco-Roman Myth. The key seems to lie in the fact that not all of them dismissed it as useless (what Lewis referred to as “Lies breathed through silver). Instead, they saw both moral, allegorical, and anagogic uses for it.

        That is the picture I’ve come away with when it comes to Ficino based just on what I’ve read. Rather than any wizard, all I’ve been able to discovered is an old Christian Humanist who knew the value of mythological symbols. In that regard, he seems to fit right in with the old Oxford Group.

        Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Lewis’s The Discarded Image got me interested in Seznec, and I’m glad I followed that up! (I’ve enjoyed those Walker and Wind books, too, and would join in recommending them – meanwhile, thanks for the other recommendations!)

          Do see what you make of Walker’s book on Magic – consider scooting it up you ‘what to read soon’ stack…

          I think Pico’s Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486) is pretty hair-raising! I have not yet tried this translation (found through Wikipedia) and there may be others online…:

          http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/pico_oration.htm

          Early Christians, including some of the Apostles, confronting various interesting phenomena of Classical Greco-Roman literature, art, philosophy, and culture (to extend the scope) is a very interesting matter.

          There is a great book by Frits van der Meer which is relevant, here, but, as far as I know it has never yet been translated into English: Christus’ oudste gewaad. Over de oorspronkelijkheid der Oud-Christelijke Kunst (1949) – he refers to Lewis’s Allegory of Love in it – but probably whatever books by him available in English are worth a look.

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Somebody else who sounds interesting in this context is Christine Mohrmann (1903-88), but I have not managed to read anything of hers, yet.

            Like

          • ChrisC says:

            D.L. Dodds,

            Thanks for the Pico translation.

            I’ll admit this is the first I’ve ever heard of the van der Meer or Morhmann books, though that’s no surprise, considering they don’t seem to have been published anywhere in English (at least none that I’ve found).

            My own translation of Pico’s “Oration” was made in 1956 by A. Robert Caponnigri, and featured an introductory overview by Russell Kirk.

            http://www.andallthat.co.uk/uploads/2/3/8/9/2389220/pico_-_oration_on_the_dignity_of_man.pdf .

            Like

            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Some books by Van der Meer and by Mohrmann have been translated, but I’m not sure how much is in print, or would have to hunted down in libraries or second hand. (O, to live near big, good libraries!)

              Thank you for the link!

              The translation I’m most familiar with is in Arturo B. Fallico and Herman Shapiro, eds,
              Renaissance Philosophy I: The Italian Philosophers (New York: The Modern Library, 1967).

              Like

    • dalejamesnelson says:

      To Chris C on April 4 at 10:48 am:

      YES to a linking of Arthur Machen and Charles Williams — provided that the reader understands that it’s not in Machen’s best-known stories that he was most like a predecessor of CW. That is, “The Great God Pan,” “The Black Seal,” etc. are rather far from Williams — but Machen’s “The Great Return” could almost have been a forgotten long short story, or novella, by CW.

      For anyone who would like to read some short essays on Machen, may I suggest checking under my name at the Wormwoodiana blog site?

      One could start here:

      http://wormwoodiana.blogspot.com/2016/02/guest-post-arthur-machen-railers.html

      Dale Nelson

      Like

      • ChrisC says:

        Prof. Nelson,

        Thanks again for these resources. It was really Glen Cavaliero’s “The Supernatural and English Fiction” that more or less does the best job of situating Williams in a literary tradition, or context.

        The interesting thing is that once CW is viewed in this way, and placed alongside Lewis and Tolkien, we have a group that together comprises all three major popular genres: Fantasy (Lewis, Tolkien), Science Fiction (Lewis), and Horror (Williams).

        Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Yes, a wonderful and Williams-like story!

        I wonder if anyone has Machen- or Williams-related walking tours around parts of London? (Maybe I should search online…)

        Like

        • ChrisC says:

          Prof. Nelson, D.L. Dodds,

          I know of at least one other Machen story that is similar to the kind of work published by Williams..

          It’s called “The Happy Children” and it recalls a peculiar encounter a newspaper correspondent has while tracing down a story about the Great War.

          Warning: this video contains constant strobe lighting effects. Viewer discretion for those with epilepsy is advised:

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Belated thanks for this! Rereading The Place of the Lion just now, it occurs to me to wonder if there is any deliberate play with Machen’s The Terror: A Mystery (1917) in the background.

            Like

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just encountered a photo of the Latin inscription at Broadcasting House with someone offering this translation: “This Temple of Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting House in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being Director-General.

    “It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.”

    Like

  6. ChrisC says:

    Prof. Dickieson,

    This may sound crazy, yet I think I’ve run across a short story that serves as the perfect metaphor for the ideas you’ve tried to get across in these two posts.

    It comes in the form of a short story called “Faun”, written by Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill. There’s a bit of irony involved in here, because the way I found out about this is that I learned that none other than Netflix is already making it’s own adaptation of the story. Still, the official description is just too darn perfect to not quote in full:

    ““Narnia. Hogwarts. Neverland. All magical places that mortals can travel to and marvel at the strange creatures and wonders not seen in our world.

    “What if a door to a magical land was discovered and instead of pure-hearted adventures, a man saw an opportunity to charge a fortune for an exclusive private game reserve where you can “bag” a magical creature.

    “Multi-millionaire Tip Fallows is a recreational hunter looking for more interesting challenges. Another wealthy hunter, Stockton, has a secret to share and a journey to offer. All they need to do is pay a quarter of a million dollars to go through a little door in an old house in rural Maine.”

    https://bloody-disgusting.com/movie/3545966/netflix-hunts-joe-hills-supernatural-adventure-story-faun/

    Now, while I think it’s healthy to look at the adaptation with a certain amount of skepticism until proven art worthy, it also helps to remember that it was based on a short story. The actual author of that story had some comments to say about the meaning he was trying to convey:

    “There’s a lot of tales about delightful children finding secret passageways to fairy tale worlds full of orcs and dwarves and talking animals. I’ve been wondering for a while now what if someone not so nice found one of those doors… and how such a man might turn the discovery to profit.”

    https://www.joehillfiction.com/blog/2019/2/13/lost-and-faun

    You have to admit, the striking similarities with the issues you raise for April Fool’s is just plain uncanny. “Thought you ought to know”. Also, point to Hill for the preferred Tolkien spelling of Dwarves.

    Like

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      If I can butt in here, briefly – my first thought reading this is, Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew.

      And also, to say that I was impressed long ago by someone saying (I can’t remember who) that short stories were more suited for turning into feature-length films than novels, and I think John Huston’s versions of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and Joyce’s The Dead seem to back this up… (though I also like his versions of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and C.S. Forester’s The African Queen, though I have not yet read the original novel in the last case – but they seem to show you can do pretty much justice to a novel in only an hour-and-three-quarters, too).

      Like

      • ChrisC says:

        D.L. Dodds,

        This is one of those moments where I have to slap my own forehead and wonder how I could have forgotten that one. Granted, that fellow was pretty much cornered the instant he set foot in Narnia. The inhabitants of Hill’s secondary world don’t sound so lucky.

        I think I remember Stephen King himself admitting that movies were essentially short stories, while mini-series were more like novels. Though I don’t remember which interview he said that.

        What Hill’s description puts me in mind of is the image of Mr. Tumnus being pursued by Victorian Era big game hunters. Granted, it also plants the image of those hunters running afoul of Machen’s “Great God Pan”.

        Like

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          A sort of monstrous cross between Narnia and the Jurassic Park movies comes to mind… (Does Jumanji fit in here, somehow? – checking it’s spelling, I see the screenplay was by the author of the book it was based on…)

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Apologies for ‘classic’ “it’s” mistake! (O tempora! O old English teachers!)

            Like

            • ChrisC says:

              D.L. Dodds,

              That more less sounds about right.

              It’s funny, though, that you mention Jumanji. I had a chance to re-watch it a while ago, and what struck was that it was told in the style of a horror film. This created one of the most interesting features I’ve ever seen. It’s a children’s adventure fantasy that plays out similar to “Halloween” or “Psycho”, despite the absence of any overt violence.

              Incidentally, the only spelling woes I know of worse that Old English is trying to a computer to recognize that humour is just as legit a term as humor.

              Like

    • Thanks for this! I’m a bit behind as I’m in a draft stage of my PhD. I’ll try to get back here. Thanks for the comments!

      Like

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    This is not an April Fool’s post – but something new to me, and very interesting:

    http://mentalfloss.com/article/76889/us-canada-border-runs-directly-through-library

    Like

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