Kat Coffin’s brief article last week on “The Problem of Susan” is the hottest post of 2019. “How do you Solve a Problem like Susan Pevensie?” has been discussed in the blog comments and in various forums, sometimes with a certain degree of heat and not a little frustration (I’m pleased with the discussion on this blog, though a friend said I sounded abrupt … I didn’t feel abrupt!). The post has received comments from leading Lewis scholars through to Lewis fans, from long-time readers and first-time commenters.
I have entered that conversation in small ways, but I was mostly curious about how it played out. I am working on a theory of reading based on C.S. Lewis’ own approaches that is meant to challenge current trends while also responding to the way we think about texts and authority today. Based on the comments, my challenge of contemporary theory will interest some, but won’t go far enough in challenging what seems like a lot of silliness and not a little impertinence among those who teach and write about books today–particularly in activist, university, and church circles.
Since that theoretical bun is still in the oven, and because I am still eyeballs-deep in editing my current project, a “spiritual theology” of C.S. Lewis, I wanted to respond in a longish but breezy note, laying out what I think are some of the key questions about how we approach a problem like Susan . These questions, I think, also cover other problems in reading, such as:
- when Lewis introduces a Christian concept that readers find troubling or inviting (like questions of predestination, God and time, universalism, etc.);
- when he plays with gender ideas that we find offensive or odd in light of the current age (such as his distinctions between sex and gender, his SciFi play-time with what gender can mean, his confirmation and bending of hierarchy, the ways he upsets or confirms tiresome sex-defined roles, etc.); and
- when our culture is going to produce readers who simply cannot read the words of the past the same way (like Lewis’ rampant use of “gay” and “make love” in Narnia, or how an American reader simply cannot read “black man” or “black dwarf” and not bring in racial terms Lewis wouldn’t have had access to, or how the literary foundation of our education has changed and we no longer share the same stories behind the stories).
In my view, Lewis is a tremendously relevant writer because he gives us engaging stories, rooted so deeply in literary, classical, and biblical soil-beds that they have the potential to transform everything we see about life. I think Narnia is “radical” both in the old sense of rooted and the new sense of disturbing and revolutionary. Lewis, I believe, offers Christians who read his work a way out of their current cultural quagmire in a way that will deepen their faith and decrease the disrepute the Anglo-American church has brought upon itself in the world. But to see it we have to become better readers. These questions are tuned to this particular argument—the Problem of Susan—and to Narnia, but they can be adapted for any reading of a past writer.
This will be a different question in other discussions, but I am amazed that no one stops to ask what we even mean by terms like “sexist,” “misogynist,” “egalitarian,” “hierarchy,” “democracy,” “feminist” and the like. Does “misogynist” mean “woman-hater” as the term presumes, or are we using it differently? Do critics of Lewis mean that he actually hates women, or that his text invites hatred toward women? We need to define what we mean if we want to mean anything.
What was curious to me was how many people in online forums responded to Kat’s post by saying “Lewis was not a misogynist.” Intriguingly, Kat was offering a feminist defence of Lewis, so it means these folk have been primed for a fight about this term. The term is used as a weapon, at times, for silencing authors who no longer fit in our dominant understanding of morality. But other sides can weaponize words too. How often is the word “feminist” used for male-bashing, hardline, tunnel-visioned radical readings? That’s about as true of feminism as reducing “evangelical” to money-hoarding, gay-hating, sex-obsessed, prejudice-troving troglodytes.
And beyond all this, the term “sexism” is worth thinking about. I would have defined sexism as “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against women” growing up, but the term has changed. We recognize anti-male or anti-boy sexism now, and we are much more in tune with the systematic sexism of our world—how the system seems bent against one sex or (more recently) the other. To say that Lewis is “sexist” under the old definition is not that surprising. He uses stereotyping frequently, and believed at times in certain gender roles. Future generations will say the same of us in ways that we can’t see now. It isn’t a very interesting term. But the emerging definition about ideology and worldview is worth talking about intelligently.
Good Lewis scholars work hard to integrate biography and public writings. When they do this well, they come up with different responses. Most male biographers don’t feel much need to bring up sexism or gender concerns, but women critics are really engaged in the question. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen argues that Lewis is a “man better than his theories,” who has theories about hierarchy and gender but treated women with equality and respect. Monika Hilder is pretty convincing in arguing that Lewis’ fiction is entirely about rethinking gender categories in a surprisingly subversive way that brings fresh air into the conversation.
There are not-great examples too. Kath Filmer is one of the most intelligent readers of Lewis I have read, but her method is terrible. She says that Lewis masks and mirrors his own fears and prejudices in his fiction. Intriguing idea. But she offers no biographical support to make her argument stand on evidence, and no other way to weigh her argument except her own assertion of the facts. On the opposite side, William Gray’s work shrinks Lewis across the decades, integrating biography and fiction to offer a psychological reading of a little boy looking for his lost mum. It’s a pretty weak result.
These imbalances in bio/writing integration show we need to be good, strong readers of Lewis. So if someone says, “passage A is clearly about X, Y, and Z,” we have ways of testing that claim outside of the reader’s own analysis.
This is a tough one. One of the most awkward passages in Mere Christianity—a classic now, and a book that has transformed thousands of lives—is his treatment of husband-wife roles in chapter 16. Lewis offers there a separation of legal (state) and religious (church) marriage that is certainly not a view held by all Christians in all times—Lewis’ definition of “mere Christianity.” What about his particularly reading of male headship in marriage? Is that the centre of the faith and the avoidance of side issues that Lewis desired for his project? And although he talks about “universal charity” in that chapter, he makes very non-universal statement, like his “foreign policy” role for men because women fight for their family against the world, but the “function of the husband is to see that this natural preference of hers is not given its head. He has the last word in order to protect other people from the intense family patriotism of the wife.” What local nonsense in a book meant to be a “ubique quod ab omnibus” teaching.
If Michael Ward is right about the medieval background to Narnia—and in that point he is on the mark—then we have to ask about how his restoration of specifically medieval hierarchy in Narnia and the SciFi books is meant to be universally Christian. Add to this his gender play in the Ransom Cycle and we have serious questions for Lewis about his “merely Christian” views of sex and gender.
In his most popular writings, Lewis is invested in this particular view of marriage with male as head and secretary of foreign policy, while women submit to their husbands and operate and the secretary for national defence. Lewis found hierarchy beautiful and worked that idea into his work. Some flavours in a recipe, though, are delicate: too much crème de menthe can ruin the whole batch. We are bound to ask about hierarchy, gender, and sex roles because Lewis talks about them everywhere.
But is there a change? In 1939-42 he can write,
“whether the male is, or is not, the superior sex, the masculine is certainly the superior gender” (A Preface to Paradise Lost).
He can talk in Mere Christianity about male headship in marriage, where equality cannot work. But by the time he is writing his memoir in 1960 about his relationship with a woman who loved and challenged him, he writes:
What was H.[Joy] not to me? She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me (A Grief Observed).
So when we say, “Lewis believed X,” we need to make sure that is something that hasn’t grown, deepened, lessened, or otherwise changed in him. His ideas of forgiveness deepen, and he seems to have been adapting his understanding of science and faith as the decades moved on. Before we pronounce judgement, we need to be clear.
The Personal Heresy was a book Lewis co-wrote that argued that when we read, we cannot presume that we know the poet through the poetry. There are some limits to Lewis’ view. Virginia Woolf reminds us that the fact that we know so little of Shakespeare tells us a lot about Shakespeare. Yet, he must have been a funny person. He was well-read and bright, and must have bridged some degree of space between the aristocracy and the streets. Poems and novels are not complete masks of an author.
But neither are they always mirrors. Lewis reveals himself everywhere in his fiction, but should we read the smoking room, clubbable, academic sexism of Screwtape as Lewis’ own? Some have, and I think they completely misunderstand: Lewis uses sexism in The Screwtape Letters precisely to show the self-delusion of Screwtape. What about the gender roles in That Hideous Strength? or the complete reversal in Till We Have Faces? or the growth of characters in Narnia, so that Lucy moves from healer to warrior, and Jill becomes a brilliant scout? Are these Lewis’ own beliefs about restriction and liberation?
Maybe, but you better do some work to make sure you are misrepresenting the character’s point of view for the author’s.
I think this is a discussion we have to have in culture. Lately, the ALSC has decided to dig up the bones of Laura Ingalls Wilder and posthumously burn her as a heretic. Leaving behind this whitewashing of the catastrophic European and North American treatment of indigenous peoples, and forgetting the Personal Heresy for a moment, what do we do when we are reading aloud to a child and there is something terrible on the page? As parents and educators, we are always negotiating this. I read Morte Darthur and Huckleberry Finn aloud to Nicolas when he was young, and in each book I moved past a couple of moments because of violence or words that I don’t feel comfortable saying.
There is violence and racism that past cultures have found normal or problematic enough to talk about—sometimes working as prophetic correction of our own ideas. But words like “gay,” “make love,” “queer,” “black,” “dark,” “white,” “hysterical,” and dozens of others have changed in forms. We can bemoan the verbicidal nature of our age and the way that activists like conservative Christians or anti-racists or feminists or Marxists transform these words. But the fact of word evolution remains.
So an open question remains about how we as teachers, parents, literary critics, uncles, aunts, grandparents, good neighbours, social media engagers, and good-book givers deal with texts when words have moved on. I strongly suggest that Jill Pole did not have sex with a bunch of giants in The Silver Chair, but kids giggle when that bit is read. The “black dwarf” of Narnia refers to beards, but that term cannot be read today in the same way when almost all black dwarfs are evil or rebellious in Narnia.
To read well means, for those of us inviting others to read, to do something in preparing readers. What is that something?
There is sometimes pushback on my blog because I continually use methods of reading that make readers of the great tradition of Western literature uncomfortable. In particular, on the Problem of Susan, I invited a feminist critic to say of Susan what I could have said, but I wanted her critical point of view and her experience as a woman to speak to the piece. This use of reading theory frustrates some of my readers.
I won’t defend my use of critical tools here. But I want to acknowledge their critique with what I think to be a verdant question: What are authentic ways to read Narnia (or any particular text)? I think there are inauthentic ways, methods of reading that grind against the texture of the text-world. I don’t believe that every reading is valid—though Lewis argued that the reader’s response is critical to how we talk about these things.
So I think that when someone offers, say, an Eastern Orthodox reading of Narnia, or a feminist critique, or a consideration of political values, it is worthwhile for them to talk about why this reading resonates with the text.
On the Problem of Susan, there really are questions that are open. When he finished The Last Battle, Nicolas (now 14, and a good reader) asked at the dinner table, “Is Susan Pevensie in hell?” I quipped back, “What? Because she missed a train? Some train!” But that child reader has intimated—with many children—something jarring in the text. So I’m glad we can talk about this, and I hope critics of Lewis don’t see Kat’s post as a sheer, naïve defence. I think it is a good reading, and I would take it further on that line.
Why is this not an active question in culture and university? The presumption for Laura Ingalls Wilder is that if she said terrible things about native peoples, we just put her in a box and drop her off the wharf. L.M. Montgomery will be next: I can point out the passages but won’t. Virginia Woolf, the most important feminist of her generation, said terrible things about women in her fiction, has truly troubling passages about black and other colonial peoples, and didn’t like “feminism.” Is she the next light that should be extinguished by the smart folks of our day?
I’m not going to provide the full answer here for this point. I am very much engaged in a fight against racism and sexism. I teach about Canada’s (and the UK’s) terrible treatment of our aboriginal peoples here. Yes, it is bad in the US, but Canada’s policy to “kill the Indian to save the child” combined with Britain’s boarding school system to create childhood torture chambers for myriads of children. The church in Canada may never recover for what we have done, and I want us to recognize when authors of the past contribute to terrible, terrible things.
But I am very uncomfortable with how we are reading books from cultures that are not our own. How much abuse by colonialists, educators, anthropologists, activists, health workers, and missionaries has come about because we have treated people from other cultures as needing to be civilized—to be brought into the light of our own views? In reading people from other times and places, have we forgotten that hard-won lesson?
The current witch-hunt (and wizard-hunt) against distasteful authors of the past and in other places completely undercuts the liberal-progressive desire to transform our social space into a place of freedom and beauty. In this puritanical moment of social shame, it is a hypocrisy that might undercut our entire quest for justice and liberation.
So this question is essential to reading.
I don’t care at all for Laura Ingalls Wilder, or whether some people crucify Montgomery or stone Woolf in the streets. And if people want to read Narnia as a text of oppression, all the power to them. Or defend Lewis, believing that he should face no scrutiny or hard questions. Narnia has been joy for many millions and liberation for uncountable legions of readers young and old, and has created brilliant conversations of depth the world over. Whatever. Read away as you like.
But consider reading well, please. There really are bad feminist readings of Narnia, as there are bad Christian readings and hasty considerations of race, gender, and social formation in many of our great works. Attend to the text, use evidence to support your views, read in a diverse community that will say to you “here your vision is limited,” and communicate your findings well. There is the text, attend to it.
Some of Lewis’ own work is a distraction. I think the Susan treatment is both inelegant and inorganic to Narnia as a whole, breaking the “once a queen of Narnia, always a queen” principle in the text. But the magic of Narnia is much deeper than that moment. Likewise, his “foreign policy” approach to marriage has caused millions of Christians (and readers who tossed the book at this point) to miss what is his absolutely central perspective in Mere Christianity: “a thing will not really live unless it first dies.” That’s right there in the “Christian Marriage” chapter and would transform not only our own marriages, but our whole families, friendships, churches, neighbourhoods, and governments, if we could only see it.
I believe that Lewis invites a revolutionary perspective that challenges contemporary culture and offers a deep critique of Christians today. If we could only see it. My hope is that thinking about these eight questions will make us better readers so that we can see the vision Lewis has of what life is really about.
Have you read “The day they came to arrest the book” by Nat Hentoff (YA writer)? Deals with censorship of Huckleberry Finn in a public school.
I haven’t read it but I know generally the arguments. What was Hentoff arguing?
You offer a lot of interesting food for thought here. A lot of it has been an ongoing concern of my own, just from a different perspective.
If I had to give an adequate summary of the viewpoint I approach it from, then it would have to be a standpoint that is a lot more sympathetic to the “Great Tradition of Western Literature” that you mention. In that regard, I guess my thinking is somewhere close to that of Mortimer Adler. I suppose the best label for this point of view would have to be that of a Christian Humanist in the vein of thinkers like Erasmus. I point all this out as it’s become very clear to me over the years that finding out the other’s perspective can often be a key to any potential dialogue.
The closest I have come to a summary of my own on the points you mention is in a review of Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One”. For me, that book is almost like a textbook window into the current state of pop-culture and literacy in general. This is not to say it’s a good book. Indeed, I think it’s some of the worst prose ever committed to paper. Still, it’s also one of those books that can inform as a cultural snapshot, while still failing as a text.
My thoughts on the matter can still be found here:
As to addressing the problem of Susan…
The funny thing is I can’t say it was something I set out to do. What happened is I remember thinking over an image from Charles Williams’ “The Place of the Lion”, which featured the titular Lion towering over the prostrate form of a man. As I was thinking about this image, it literally shifted into something else in my mind. The man was no longer prostrate, but walking down a dark, derelict, and deserted ally, while the Lion followed close behind.
Eventually I found out that this man was a soldier. The ally he was walking down was located on Dunkirk during WWII. The soldier’s name was Gerald Patrick, and he couldn’t tell if he was seeing things, or if he was being stalked by a real lion. Eventually, Gerald makes it home, only to discover that the Blitz has made him a widower with a single daughter, Lizzie, left to raise on his own. The trouble is it’s hard to raise a kid on your own when you’re dealing with the shocks of war trauma, combined with the troubles of grief. Pretty soon the strains start to show in the relationship of father and daughter.
Then, one day while walking home an increasingly hard time at school, Lizzie sees the same Lion following her. She runs away from it right into the arms of a young woman who takes pity on her and brings her home to Gerald. To his own surprise, the two start to hit it off. Part of what makes this easy is that the woman, Susan Pevensie, knows what it’s like to deal with her own grief. The trouble is Lizzie overhears all this, and decides she just can’t take it and runs away.
Susan and Gerald follow her into the woods behind their house. The problem is that after a while, they realize they are being followed, not the Lion, but by predators like wolves, only these seem dangerously intelligent. They are saved by the machinations of something that shouldn’t be: a talking fox named Gregory, who insists they follow him if they want to get away. All three main characters are stunned, in particular Susan who looks like her mind is going in two different directions. The fox leads them all out of danger, and right to the same Lion that all three characters have met at one time or another. Each have their different reactions. Gerald is just plain ticked, and wants to know what’s going on. For Susan it’s a bit of a crisis moment as the floodgates of memory come pouring open. Lizzie, by contrast is frightened, wanting to go home, yet also just a bit curious.
That’s about as far as originality goes, I’m afraid. There are a few things I failed to mention, such as a gentleman who latches onto Gerald, and who seems normal and well to do, yet who is apparently less than human, along with a trek that Aslan leads the characters on etc. The trouble is it’s all a fan-fiction with a lot of doubling back to previous scenes and characters (at least up to a point).
Still, the irony is that it presented a scenario that more or less offered at least “a solution” to the problem of Susan. Indeed, the last words Aslan speaks to her in the narrative is “Long live the Queen”. That much I was certain of. Granted, I’m not sure how this addresses a lot of the problems you raise with her portrayal in the canon texts. Still, there’s one idea, for what it’s worth.
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I like that a lot. I would love to read it as a novel 🙂
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I “liked” this when it came out but wanted to cycle back and acknowledge your careful note. I have spent much of the last 15 years trying to recover the great western tradition–which was not largely taught to me. I’ll get there, perhaps!
Interesting thoughts overall, too.
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Sometimes we write to inform, but sometimes we write to cause people to think. In those latter cases, the knowledge comes from honest, heart-felt discussion, and maybe a little prayer as well..
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I’m very interested that Lewis drew a distinction between sex and gender (even if he took it somewhere rather different than we would now).
Re: the whole Laura Ingalls Wilder thing (or any other author of problematic stuff): the problem, as I have seen various Indigenous people recounting it on Twitter, is that when it was a set text in schools and the class took it turns to read it out, it was somehow always the Indigenous kid’s turn to read when they arrived at the bit where Wilder’s father says “the only good Injun is a dead Injun” and the teachers never raised that as a problematic view or used it as a springboard for a discussion of residential schools and cultural genocide.
Incidentally (and I’m not letting Canada off the hook here), they also had residential schools in the US, but they were called “Indian boarding schools”.
I do think that rather than banning and bowdlerizing things, we need to read them critically as a window on past attitudes — but we shouldn’t be naming literary prizes after problematic authors.
I like your article and analysis very much — so much good stuff here.
Doesn’t that sound like bad teaching, honestly? Like, abusive even?
“Bowdlerizing” is a cool word. Yes, read well!
Are there authors worthwhile who aren’t problematic?
Yes, they had boarding schools in the US, but their conquering scheme was different, populations, time, etc. It’s best for me to poke at Canada as this is our dark history, regardless of what others have done.
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Yes, absolutely it is bad teaching.
But the proposal to not name a literary prize after Wilder seems entirely reasonable.
Yes, I mainly poke Canada too, since I live here. And the UK, since I am from there.
Just on the first paragraph — isn’t it obvious that for anyone well versed in the grammars of a few Indo-European languages (like Lewis), “gender” and “sex” are not synonyms? (What’s prevalent today is one more example of verbicide.) But Lewis’s nimble mind can speaks of a possible “seven genders” (as well as a multidimensional universe).
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Yes, you’re right. And the etymology suggests the difference, where gender is more generative. And the differences between sexes is tucked into the word “sex” I presume. I haven’t looked this up.
There are a whole group of “feminists” (YMMV as to whether they are feminists) who insist that gender identity always corresponds with biological sex, or that they don’t have a gender identity, or that cisgender is an unnecessary term (etc etc).
You’re perfectly correct that among other things, this shows a tin ear for language on their part, as cis just means “this side of” as opposed to “the other side of” (as in Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul). And indeed grammatical gender is very different to biological sex. I can’t think why « la table » is feminine but „der Tisch“ is masculine.
I assume Lewis was referring to grammatical gender rather than people’s gender identity.
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I’m not certain, Yvonne, but I think Lewis is corresponding gender to the seven planets, of which we get two sexes (corresponding to Mars & Venus). He also had a sense of the “generative” in gender. But I’m not done cooking this idea-meal yet.
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I googled for “Lewis planets gender” and found this:
In chapter 15 of “That Hideous Strength” when the Oyaresu are infilling Merlin:
“The three gods who had already met in the Blue Room were less unlike humanity than the two whom they still awaited. In Viritrilbia and Venus and Malacandra were represented those two of the Seven genders which bear a certain analogy to the biological sexes and can therefore be in some measure understood by men. It would not be so
with those who were now preparing to descend. These also doubtless had
their genders, but we have no clue to them. These would be mightier
energies: ancient eldils, steersmen of giant worlds which have never
from the beginning been subdued into the sweet humilations of organic
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Tolkien has an interesting reference in his undergrad Kalevala paper on what might be called the possible interrelation of grammatical gender and mythology in different languages (re. the Sun and the Moon), and a later discussion in his Beowulf lecture notes, about ‘wyrd’ in line 455 and the “difficult matter” of determining “in any given passage containing wyrd” just “how far more than grammatically ‘personalized'” it is. Among other things, he says of that line “Note that wyrd is a feminine noun, and it is more than probable that,if we translate the inevitable [pronoun] hío of Old English by the word she, we shall be greatly exaggerating the conscious degree of personification in the formula.” Yet that is what he decides to do himself in his translation of Beowulf, rendering the line “Fate goeth ever as she must!”
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Thanks Yvonne, yes, I guess that’s what was in my mind. But I didn’t know the links David made. Super cool.
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In Norse mythology, the three Fates or Norns are Urd (Wyrd in Anglo Saxon), Skuld, and Verthandi. However it’s not known (as David and Tolkien point out) whether the Anglo Saxons also personified them — except that Shakespeare personified them as the three witches in Macbeth.
Urd is cognate with past tense of the verb to be or to become. Verthandi seems to relate to the German verb werden, to become (and her name seems to be the gerund form of the verb). Skuld seems to relate to ‘shall’ or ‘should’.
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It isn’t often that I learn something completely new. That’s cool, Yvonne.
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Thanks. I’m not the expert on the Norns, but they and the Norse concepts of wyrd and ørlog are important to me
To note a couple things: the effort to (re)discover and understand how things were (possibly, or probably, etc.) intended (including what words meant) when and where they were written – very much undertaken by the Lewises, Tolkiens, Barfield, and Williams (among other Inklings and friends and colleagues and contemporaries, like, e.g., Dorothy Sayers and Evelyn Underhill) as scholars and historians.
And Lewis’s attention (in The Personal Heresy) to creative misunderstanding, and Tolkien’s in On Fairy-stories (and Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics) to the contemporary appeal of stories as stories, and the implications of this for their earlier appeal (or that of elements of them).
Tolkien’s attention to the propriety of ‘escape’ in On Fairy-stories.
Lewis’s accent on attending to troubling of ‘difficult’ things, in Reflections on the Psalms. (Here, the so-called ‘Rich Young Ruler’ of the Gospels seems an interesting parallel to Susan…)
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To David, 3 May, at noon:
One of the things I notice in your comments, and that I value, is your nudges towards further, worthwhile reading. You mention Evelyn Underhill, and by doing so remind me that I have owned a copy of her book Mysticism for 40 years. (I see I bought it at Powell’s legendary bookstore in Portland on 3 Feb. 1979.) I have it but haven’t read it.
I had many great conversations with a Christian professor of English at the University of Illinois (now retired, but still writing), when I was a student there. One good feature of our conversations was his mentioning of books, which has continued in occasional correspondence. I acquired a number of those books. But — have I read them? Cornford’s From Religion to Philosophy, Avery Dulles’s Models of Revelation, Zaehner’s Mysticism Sacred and Profane, Farrer’s A Rebirth of Images, Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future, Robins’s If This Be Heresy, Otto’s The Idea of the Holy, Harding’s The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth, Snyder and Scandrett’s Salvation Means Creation Healed, etc., and, from earlier centuries, works such as Sibbes’ Bruised Reed, and Traherne’s Centuries… What about reference books such as Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols and Jeffrey’s Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature? I have, but do I use, these reference books? I have dozens of books on hand that I’ve acquired because Lewis mentioned them, and/or was the friend of the author (e.g. Herbert Palmer). But I haven’t read some of them.
And mentioning these omits many literary classics and other works that deserve to be re-read.
My sense is that most of the people who visit this blog are younger than I am (63). But whether you are young or not so young — time hastens along. One of the things that drives my wariness vis-a-vis politicized writing about literature is the sense that time is limited (and we rarely know how much). We may do well to ask ourselves what are the works we want to have read and come truly to know, and whether our habits are such that we are likely to make that happen. Let’s not end up missing out on a lot of these because our attention was absorbed by politicized — and highly perishable — verbiage.
As Lewis wrote:
1.There are things we have to do.
2.There are things we ought to do.
3.There are things we like/want to do.
Too often, our time is consumed with things (such as some of the things we read) that fit into none of these categories.
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Thanks! I have a vague sense that acquiring and reading books might be compared in some ways with the action in Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle (but I’d have to reread that, to see if this is just silly…). I partly mean, there’s lots of unpredictable ‘branching’… I’m not sure if I’ve yet read any single Underhill book right through (other than A Column of Dust – !), though I casually collect or accumulate them (and now have scans available online, too!), but I’ve certainly browsed and read around with interest in some… something helped by good indexing, where a non-reference work has that. (I once ended up reading an art history monograph right through – in German! – from looking up one reference in it…)
Of your interesting(-looking) list, I’ve browsed Otto and Traherne, and would warmly recommend all of Zaehner’s Mysticism Sacred and Profane to any and everyone (at least to try).
I like the Dutch poet and hymn (and Williams!) translator – and Inklings enjoyer – Willem Barnard’s observation that he was glad he had no academic responsibilities to read things, master ‘the literature of something’, etc.
But what a range and variety the “things we like/want to'” read can have! (Finally, nearly – very enjoyably – finished with my first Rider Haggard…!)
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Your first Rider Haggard! Plenty more to enjoy, including several known to have been read by Tolkien or Lewis.
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This was King Solomon’s Mines, which I recall Lewis praising (at least in part) – and, wow, do I see Tolkien’s (playful) debts!
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Very thoughtful and thought-provoking, Brenton. Is this your dissertation (in skeleton), or the next book after that? Either way, it will take nothing less than a book to do these ideas justice, and it will be an important book.
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Thanks Charles. No, not the dissertation. This is me getting things out that the dissertation was too limited for. I do want to clarify approaches to reading. Dale in his response is right about how politicized readings have often been very bad.
I really D.L. Dodds for providing the perfect example of a story that is both regarded as a classic, and yet is still a candidate for targeting by the exact kind of critical fallacies you mention in your post. Dodds brought up Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines”. It’s a book and an author who seems to be one of the major influences in the thought of the Inklings.
No, for the record, there were several films made of this book. The one I am interested in, for the purposes of the critical fallacies mentioned above, is the 1937 adaptation starring Paul Robeson and Cedric Hardwick. What makes this film interesting and worth talking about in the context of your post is just this. It’s clear, even on a first viewing, that the filmmakers had some sort of Civil Rights message in mind when the film was made. This is made clear by the casting of Robeson, a somewhat forgotten Civil Rights hero. He place the role of a deposed King trying to win back his people.
The filmmakers also made the decision of casting and documenting genuine African tribes and their rituals for the film. Some of the citizens of these tribes were actors themselves, and were cast in important roles in the story. The key is that their roles were portrayed in a sympathetic light.
Now, here is the challenge that has to do with the bigger issue of which characters like Susan are just one symptom. Is it possible for a film with a Civil Rights message to be challenged as racist? I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to offend anyone. In fact, my biggest takeaway from the film was that I’d just seen a feature length “Star Trek” episode, except it’s not in outer space. Hardwick plays the Spock role, while someone else takes over for Kirk and one of those old English music hall comedians is more or less McCoy.
That was what I got out of it. However, the social climate today is such that I wonder just how well people are willing to understand the good intentions of those who came before. Judge for yourself.
There’s a very good video of this film that can be seen here:
I wonder if I saw that years ago? (I know I saw a movie version of She – or two…) I’ll hope to try it.
What you say about it, makes me think of Juarez (1939) – a film I remember enjoying as a boy, and which I’d like to see again with my current eyes…
Knowing far too little about Haggard, I was wondering if there might be a distinct element of social critique in his presentation of Foulata, “a person of great, I had almost said stately, beauty, and of considerable refinement of mind”, as Quatermain says, and the likely outcome, in contemporary society, of “an entanglement between Good and herself” – including of Quatermain for his “point of view of an oldish man of the world”.
As they return to the ‘modern world’ (so to put it), Sir Henry says, “Do you know, […] I think that there are worse places than Kukuanaland in the world” and Good replies, with a sigh, “I almost wish I were back”.
In terms of there being any kind of anti-imperialist message in Haggard’s books, I provide the following intro to Gerald Monsmon’s “H. Rider Haggard on the Imperial Frontier”:
“This is the first book-length study of the African fiction of H. Rider (1856-1925) from the perspective of literary criticism, encompassing both his biography and the ideologies of the nineteenth century. In it, I hope to revise the image of Haggard as a mere writer of adventure stories or as an unreconstructed British imperialist. His other fiction (with Scandinavian, Egyptian, or European settings) do not lack narrative panache; rather, the African tales in particular have an unsettling relevance both to the politics and to the associated history of ideas of the nineteenth century-metropolitan centers of empire – and, even, to contemporary issues. The context for Haggard’s African tales was a triad of extraordinary nineteenth-century cultures in conflict – British, Boer, Zulu – and this study will attempt to place his imaginative works in that context of colonial fiction writing and subsequent post-colonial debates about history and its representation. I will show how his fiction reflect an agenda of imperial dissent, suggests an idealistic belief in the value of Anglo-African rapport, and anticipates innovative anthropological and cultural principles. Many of Haggard’s novels and romances are complex works that open themselves to multiple levels of interpretation: historical, mythic, gender, political, and religious. My focus, then. will be on the narrative patterns of these romances in the widest sense of Aristotle’s mythos: the physical actions and the underlying attitudes of the characters in relation to both to the author’s intentions and to cultural issues surrounding his stories and their reception (1)”. “Even Haggard’s early fiction consistently transcended the dominant imperial mindset of newspapers, schools, and missions, in part because for him, as for Richard Burton, a knowledge of history and ethnography enriched his perspective. And Haggard’s presentation of the common man’s racism, as in “Queen Sheba’s Ring” (1910), can be trenchantly satiric…(2)”.
In other words, the 1937 adaptation may be the closest to Haggard’s original intent because, as Monsman demonstrates, the film, like Haggard, is trying to make a case for Civil rights. It is possible to beg the question of why Haggard chose to be so coded about the whole thing. To which I would respond that what happened to George Macdonald’s career as a minister provides a perfect example of what Victorian England did to those who stepped out of line. MacDonald preached a more tolerant doctrine of God and justice. The net result was that he was deliberately starved out of his official capacity by his employers.
It’s examples like this that make me wonder if Dickens got lucky just because the improvement and education of the poor was a favored topic among some of the upper classes. Haggard seems smart enough to write past the watchful dragons of his own day.
Many thanks! Since my previous comment, I’ve been wondering how distinctly ‘Haggardian’ Williams may be being in this respect in Shadows of Ecstasy (where Roger Ingram explicitly refers to his work). Your Monsmon quotations get me thinking about War in Heaven, too, with the contrast between the old anti-Boer-War activist Archdeacon and the cold, creepy anthropologist, Sir Giles.
What makes characters like Sir Giles interesting, for me at least, is the way he interacts with his chosen profession. Rather than using his credentials and skills to help further human knowledge and understanding, he seems to view it all as more of a means for extending his own idea of personal power.
Such characters always seem to choose their careers based on a perceived means of achieving this power at all costs. As far as a genuine concern for anthropology goes (and all of the Inklings seem to have a going scholarly concern with it), Sir Giles comes off as the most unprofessional manner possible.
As for Williams deriving an influence from Haggard, I think you can’t deny the possibility considering the author is cited by name. The trick is that Sax Rohmer also seems to be a big influence in these early works. It could be (thought don’t go by me) the Williams is pitting the open minded Haggard against the tropes of the stereotyping author of the Fu Manchu series.
Granted, that is all just a wild guess as far as I’m concerned. Still, it is at least one possible avenue of exploration.
Joe Christopher has an interesting paper in the Charles Williams Quarterly about Rohmer and the first three novels Williams wrote – I can’t remember if he also mentions John Buchan, who springs to mind in the context of evil conspiracies and organizations with threats on a huge, broad scale. (Unfortunately for ease of reading, it is one of the later issues, not yet online at the Williams Society site.) Yours is an interesting suggestion as to possible deliberate contrasts on Williams’s part!
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Recently in the UK a broadcaster tweeted what many considered a racist trope. Some asked the question is it possible to tweet something racist and not be a racist? Not sure about this, think it depends on your experience and whether you have been on the receiving end of racism. Misogyny (woman hate) bubbles throughout Lewis’s work and as a result I have largely disengaged from his writings. That doesn’t mean to say his work isn’t valuable in other respects but it is just like having a conversation with someone who stops periodically to deliberately spit in your face. In the end it becomes too much to bother with, and however interesting the conversation may have been all you can remember is being spat at.
Sorry I’m so late getting to this. It slipped through my gargantuan email to read collection. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
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