The World as a “Vale of Soul-Making”: A Brief Note on John Keats, C.S. Lewis, and L.M. Montgomery

There is a stunning moment in L.M. Montgomery’s Rainbow Valley that continues to itch at my mind. I know that Anne of Green Gables is so filled with life and light that it is hard to ignore, and that Montgomery‘s Emily of New Moon is a new level of artistry and invention. But for substance and thoughtfulness, I continue to find myself returning to Montgomery’s WWI-haunted Four Winds trilogy, Anne’s House of Dreams (1917), Rainbow Valley (1919), and Rilla of Ingleside (1920).

In my first peer-reviewed paper on this trilogy, “Rainbow Valley as Embodied Heaven,” I include this pivotal scene of the book. The motherless children of Rev. John Meredith have been wandering around Glen St. Mary, creating scandal and suppressed laughter among the adults. Though the “Manse children” are well-meaning–even all their lusty songs, personal punishments, and handsprings in the Methodist cemetery–their father, bereaved and lost in dreamland, is in danger of being so heavenly bound that he is no earthly good. Besides shenanigans, this results in a good deal of childhood theology worked out by the Manse children.

While some of the Rainbow Valley theology is speculative–such as the question of whether heaven can be as grand as the streets of Charlottetown–there is stunning truth and fresh thought that tumbles out of the mouths of these babes. One of the moments at the centre of the vision that L.M. Montgomery is inviting is into, I believe, is when the aptly named Manse child, Faith, hocks a dour widow on the church porch by declaring that the

“world isn’t a vale of tears, Mrs. Taylor. It’s a world of laughter” (Rainbow Valley, 22).

I love that Montgomery privileges the child’s point of view in her work. A “vale of tears” is a much different view of life than a “world of laughter”–though there are still tears.

What I have never known, though, is whether Montgomery saw life also, in Keats’ words, as a “vale of soul-making.” I have gone some distance in suggesting that her writing invites this perspective, but I don’t know if Montgomery was able to let this worldview penetrate her own reality.

Keats’ idea of the world as a soul-making valley came to me by C.S. Lewis in his Problem of Pain (1940).

“If the world is indeed a ‘vale of soul making’ it seems on the whole to be doing it’s work” (The Problem of Pain, ch. 5).

Again, what a succinct truth–this time from the pen of an Oxford don and public intellectual rather than a Canadian novelist and minister’s wife. Not long before Lewis wrote this first work of Christian thought, he used the phrase in a letter to a friend, Leo Baker, during a period of his suffering. This 24 Jun 1936 letter is a miniature primer to The Problem of Pain, including an encouragement to endure the current suffering. In a 23 Apr 1942 letter to Martyn Skinner, Lewis suggests that his theodicy can only ever take the reader to the point of seeing life as space for soul-making–and thus give people an opportunity to respond to pain and suffering, more than to defend it before other people.

There is a kind of honesty to the vale-of-tears idea. “In hac lacrimarum valle” has a ring of truth to it, as we see in Psalm 85. Lewis’ first pseudonym for A Grief Observed, the memoir of the loss of his dear love, Joy Davidman, was Dimidius, a man cut in half. Lewis’ optimism about the soul-shaping frame of suffering is tempered in his memoir, though the potential remains the same–as does the realism of life’s difficulties. But Lewis’ fiction, like Montgomery’s, encourages us to stand against a “vale of tears” spirituality even in the struggles of life.

What of John Keats? While I don’t know of many better lyric poets than Keats, and I am richly blessed and elevated by his work, I cannot speak to his theology of life. In an 1819 letter to his siblings, where the quote originates, Keats reacts to vale-of-tears spirituality with some energy. You can see the full  letter on Arend Smilde’s blog, but here is the relevant bit:

In how lamentable a case do we see the great body of the people (…) The whole appears to resolve into this – that man is originally “a poor forked creature” subject to the same mischances as the beasts of the forest, destined to hardships and disquietude of some kind or other. (…) The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is “a vale of tears” from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven – What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you please “the vale of soul-making”. Then you will find out the use of the world (see Smilde’s selection here, from The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, vol. 2, 101-103).

I like that these three poets and writers use their pen to resist tear-valley theologies. And yet, we only begin to have a sense of what life as a “vale of soul-making” might be. I think that’s the adventure, the road that we set our foot upon.

You can find my L.M. Montgomery WWI-era Timeline here. I have talked about Arend Smilde’s project before, but his annotations at www.lewisiana.nl are helpful to my reading.

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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9 Responses to The World as a “Vale of Soul-Making”: A Brief Note on John Keats, C.S. Lewis, and L.M. Montgomery

  1. Brent King says:

    The “vale of tears” and the “vale of soulmaking” are fascinating concepts. As I read your blog I remembered the words of JRR Tolkien: “For if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomable at the foundations of the earth.” I hear him saying that sorrow comes before joy, that sorrow is even a necessary ingredient in order to produce joy (at least in this world).

    I think that, regardless of our interpretation, Tolkien is cluing in to the idea that nature is saying something here about soulmaking—at the very least, joymaking. And the nature of our vale of tears.

    It also makes me wonder if perhaps for some this world IS merely a vale of tears, if perhaps some stay forever in the wells of the earth, never breaking out into the sun and the joy. Maybe breaking out into the sun is what soulmaking is all about. It is a deep subject. I could think about it for months and still mine deeper into the depths…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this, Brent. It is worth considering. I’m actually reading Verlyn Flieger’s Splintered Light, and she argues that the light and the dark, the joy and the tears, are both critical in Tolkien’s work. To miss one or the other is to miss something of Tolkien’s work. Perhaps it is also to miss something of life that is before us.

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  2. Sarah says:

    Thank you! On my own journey, I have believed and tried (some days better than others) to apply this to the trials that come my way. I’ve been guided by such powerful writers as you have cited (CS Lewis, most of all). But how you have brought their wisdom together and articulated the ‘vale of tears’ vs the ‘vale of soul-making’ is beautiful! Life as a ‘vale of soul-making…That IS the adventure! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. danaames says:

    A “vale of soul-making” is a good description of the Eastern Christian view. There are many instances – expressed in specific theological writings, liturgical verse, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dostoyevski’s fiction – that affirm this. It’s all right to ask God to deliver us from specific trials, but the expectation is that we understand that this life has been given to us in order for salvation (understood as healing as well as deliverance) to be worked in us.

    Dana

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  4. I cannot recall the reference but I do remember Roald Dahl making a an almost shyly polite criticism of C.S Lewis that his children’s books do not contain enough laughter. Would the character of Uncle Andrew have satisfied him? And the first joke in Narnia?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder if another Uncle Andrew principle applies here–that it matters who you are and where you stand how you see things. Have you ever been won over to a piece of work, discovering the joy or sorrow in it that you missed the first time but others have seen? I think that once you know you are allowed to laugh in Narnia–that laughter is woven into the landscapes–then I think it is freeing and funny series. Students often send me back to my desk to reconsider works. I suppose, though, perhaps Narnia could have more laughter.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: The Faithful Imagination, a Review by Allison McBain Hudson | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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