The “Tragic Splendour” of British Monarchy and the Passing of Queen Elizabeth II

“The Queen is dead, long live the King!”

I don’t know if anyone was there today to carry on this royal tradition of succession. The media reports of Queen Elizabeth II’s passing had the feeling of children and grandchildren witnessing the passing of a family matriarch rather than the succession of a royal house. Within moments of her passing, though, the news media and social spaces began to celebrate this regal legend. There is much that one can say about the only royal figure that most of us in the Commonwealth has ever known. It occurs to me that my mother and father both lived and died under a single crown–and in a period of dramatic social transformation. It was a bit of a shock to here someone on the radio today speak of King Charles III.

I certainly don’t know about those last moments of the Queen’s life and the beginning of the King’s reign. I’m not even certain that someone is really there to say “The Queen is dead, long live the King!” in that moment. Historians would know who said this phrase at the passing of Victoria, but I do not. I am more struck by the poetry of the proclamation, having read once that someone said “The king is dead, long live the king!” at the passing of Henry VII. As in the greatest magisterial moments of liturgy and inspiration and invention, there is profound history and tremendous possibility in that little phrase.

As a reflection upon the Queen’s passing, I have decided to reblog this piece I wrote earlier this year for the Jubilee celebrations. It uses the life of C.S. Lewis to chart the occupants of the throne from Queen Victoria–another long-living legend–up to the royal situation that existed at dawn this morning. Except for playing with a couple of dates, I have not updated the piece. There is an entire section to add–the reign of King Charles III–who is, not insignificantly, the head of Church of England. Readers can translate the bits below about “Prince Charles,” as well as Duchess Camilla of Cornwall, who is now the Queen Consort of the United Kingdom, and a friend of my son’s.

The post is less sombre than a memorial should perhaps be–and more personal than anything you might see being distributed by a respectable news agency. However, C.S. Lewis’s comments on Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation–and his idea about the “tragic splendour” he witnessed–resonate still. I hope you enjoy.

I must confess that I am not terribly fascinated by royalty. I do like coronation chicken sandwiches, Beefeaters clearly have style, and if the Earl and Countess of Strathearn invited me to be a theologian in residence, it would definitely become a family conversation. Usually, though, I am more interested in dead and fictional royalty than the lives of those who haunt royal halls today.

With the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, however, I must admit to being curious about C.S. Lewis’ interest in the British monarchy.

After all, Lewis served King and country in war, he became an expert in English and Scottish literature during the long 17th century, and his brother, Warren, was something of a French royal historian whose seven books include The Splendid Century: Some Aspects of French Life in the Reign of Louis XIV. This knowledge and experience is no doubt behind Lewis’ great literary invention, Queen Orual of Glome in Till We Have Faces. Doubtless a Greek echo of Queen Elizabeth I in certain particulars, Orual succeeds her father with a genius for perceptive leadership, alliance-building, courage in battle, and strong social and economic policies.

And, of course, the globally famous seven Narnian Chronicles are bound up with courtly adventures. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the story of a revolution against tyranny based upon a prophecy to establish two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve upon the four empty thrones of Cair Paravel. Prince Caspian is likewise a civil war story about recovering the throne from a usurper. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is about a second Narnian golden age under King Caspian’s reign–an era nearly lost in The Silver Chair, where a regicidal plot must be thwarted by English schoolchildren and a Marshwiggle. By rescuing a lost prince, they can restore the heart of the throne and secure Caspian’s succession. The Horse and His Boy is full of international courtly intrigue and establishes Cor of Archenland and Aravis of Calormen as the future King and Queen of a great Narnian neighbour. The Magician’s Nephew establishes the first King of Queen of Narnia, providing an outline of royal character that will be the testing point of Narnia’s last King in The Last Battle

The links were enough that I wanted to go into Lewis’ biography to discover what royal touches were there. Frankly, there are not that many links–though this is an important point about Lewis’ biography in and of itself. In walking briefly through the careers of the five British monarchs of Lewis’ life and considering Lewis’ thoughts on the monarchy, we discover some beautifully mundane and some startlingly powerful historical and theological moments.

Queen Victoria (1837-1901)

As C.S. Lewis took his first breaths in November 1898, Queen Victoria was entering a year of sorrow that preceded the last months of her life. Then the longest-serving British monarch in history, Victoria reigned for a stunning, era-defining 63 years and 217 days.

The Victorian era was a period of radical change in innovation, technology, industrial development, the institution of the family, mass migration, and British expansion on the global stage. Queen Victoria’s personal sense of morality created a culture of restraint in tension–and sometimes in cooperation–with religious revivalism and activism, an expansion of higher education, early critical moments in women’s liberation, and the slow redefinition of class in England.

In terms of legacy, the Victorian era gave us Dickens, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Eliot, the Brontës, Wilde, Hardy, Kipling, Lewis Carroll and George MacDonald and Anna Sewell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her husband, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, Sherlock Holmes, William Morris, World Fairs, the Gothic and Classical revivals, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and some of their sisters and daughters, public museums, photography, early modernization of farm and kitchen, electricity, the idea of a hospital designed not to kill people, and the railway, telegraph, and telephone.

The period, though, also brought poorly managed urbanization, soul-destroying factories, deadly environmental disasters, the Crimean and Boer wars, the loss of English and Scottish rural culture, and an ideological, imperial, church-implicated cultural genocide perpetrated in residential schools throughout the colonies that has caused generations of suffering and has brought shame upon the Christian church.

We might be right in thinking that Lewis as a reader and writer in his formative years gained much from the Victorian literary legacy. Lewis was somewhat anti-progress in terms of technological development, and primarily looked askance at Victorian art and architecture. However, as an Anglo-Irish Oxbridge public intellectual and the son of two University-educated parents from clerical and industrial families, he is truly the child of each of these social, political, and economic cultural moments. In this respect, Lewis biographies by George Sayer and Alister McGrath provide the strongest links to the Victorian cultural background.

Edward VII (1901-1910)

In 1901 Edward VII, eldest son of Queen Victoria of Hanover and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, took the throne following decades of public service as Prince of Wales and other titles as he waited for his mother to turn the clock on the century. While the limitation of his leadership in the period may be clearer with the advantage of history, King Edward VII was known as a peacemaker. Near the end of his reign, a young “Jack” Lewis lost his mother and was beginning to test his literary capabilities. He also began his own sentence at ideological, imperial, residential schools. When Lewis was in his late ’20s, we read Sidney Lee’s Edward VII, but I do know his thoughts on the book or the man.

George V (1910-1936)

King George V was the second son of Edward VII and Alexandra of Denmark. He reigned through a dramatic period of revolutionary and reactionary ideas, British constitutional redesign, WWI, the beginning of the withdrawal of the throne from global dominion and the new era of the British Commonwealth (though not the collapse of empires like Germany, Russia, and Turkey), the global economic crisis of the 1930s, and the rise of Nazism. Although he was by reputation a homebody, during WWI he was a visible public figure. He presented himself as a British patriot in his support of the war and his connections with the public. Although the monarchy had been German for centuries, the king set aside the German name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and inaugurated the House of Windsor, which reigns today.

In his brilliant C.S. Lewis Chronology, Joel Heck reports that in July 1911 the Lewis brothers saw Queen May, Princess Mary, and Prince Edward (later, briefly) drive by. I don’t know if they showed much interest. As a young man, King George V would have been most visible in the war effort. However, Lewis admits to being somewhat distant from the overwhelming social moment of war as he focused on study and writing.

Following the war, Lewis remained distant from political commentary. When they occur, Lewis’ political statements growing up are often sarcastic and elliptical–showing only one side of a letter conversation. For example, when King George V went to Lewis’ hometown of Belfast to open the parliament of Northern Ireland, Lewis quips to his father:

I am sorry you didn’t go and get yourself made an O.B.E. or
something when George-by-the-grace-of-God came to Belfast (27 Jun 1921 letter).

Besides the slighting reference to the King, Lewis is somewhat pessimistic about the Irish policies as a whole–royal or parliamentary. Although concerned about the Irish situation, as in many aspects of social life, Lewis was somewhat protected from the consequences as he shaped a small personal foundation for a peculiarly large cultural platform.

Edward VIII (1936)

King Edward VIII was the eldest son of King George V and Queen Mary. He was a reputed philanderer and impatient with protocol–courtly or otherwise. He occupied the throne for a record-breaking 326 days when he abdicated for a marriage that was deeper to be unacceptable for the head of the Church of England.

As Prince of Wales, Edward attended Magdalen College, Oxford, in the 1910s, before Lewis matriculated to University College and where Lewis was later a don for nearly 30 years.

George VI (1936-1952)

George VI was the second son of King George V and Queen Mary. He unexpectedly ascended to the throne a the age of 40 after living in the shadow of his brother, the heir apparent.

Although he was a reluctant king with a verbal tic and public profile that created some doubts about his qualities as a ruler–now even more iconic in the award-winning film, The King’s Speech–King Goerge VI was instrumental in England’s role in WWII. This began with acts like a Canadian tour in the spring of 1939 that eased Canada’s (and perhaps also the United States, as it included a visit with Roosevelt) pathway to joining the Allies in WWII. However, his reputation solidified with frequent public events in Great Britain to raise the spirits of the people, as well as visits to troops throughout the world. The king and queen communicated resiliency and rugged resistance by remaining in residence in London during air raids–and, indeed, experiencing near-deadly bombing in their home. King George developed a strong relationship with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which was critical to wartime leadership. As WWII closed, the public flocked to Buckingham Palace in celebration of the king on both VE day and VJ day. And following the war, George VI was part of the rise of the United Nations and the global retreat of the British Empire.

As it turns out, just a few months before the king died, in December 1951, Lewis was nominated by Churchill for the honour of being elected by George VI as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). However, so as to distance himself from the appearance of political commentary, Lewis declined in writing to the Prime Minster’s Secretary:

I feel greatly obliged to the Prime Minister, and so far as my personal feelings are concerned this honour would be highly agreeable. There are always however knaves who say, and fools who believe, that my religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda, and my appearance in the Honours List would of course strengthen their hands. It is therefore better that I should not appear there. I am sure the Prime Minister will understand
my reason, and that my gratitude is and will be none the less cordial.

Given the royal nature of the honour and its history of recognizing educational, literary, and artistic contributions, Lewis seems overly cautious on this point. Tolkien was right to accept his honour in 1972, and I am open when my own invitation letter comes.

Queen Elizabeth II (1952-forever 2022)

Queen Elizabeth is the eldest daughter of George VI and Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon. When her uncle Edward abdicated, Elizabeth became heir presumptive at the age of 10. She is now the longest-ruling monarch at 70 years and 116 days (as of the Jubilee; 70 years and 214 days at the time of her death). Elizabeth is the only British monarch to celebrate a Platinum Jubilee. Not long after her Jubilee celebration, she passed Thailand’s beloved Rama IX and became the 2nd longest-reigning sovereign in verifiable history. Nearly two more years would have been needed, however, to surpass King Louis XIV of France and his Splendid Century.

Elizabeth has served through the era of media fascination, from the radio and print to television and social media. Indeed, as part of her war service, like Lewis, she turned to the radio. Elizabeth first spoke on BBC radio when she was 14 years old–and only later served as a mechanic (which I think is pretty spunky of her). Through disaster and illness and waves of popularity and critique, Elizabeth continues to meet her public in their homes from her own home in the visual medium of the moment.

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place in Westminster Abbey on 2 June 1953, though Lewis chose not to attend. In a 22 Jun 1953 letter to Mary Shelburne, Lewis explains his feeling about the Coronation:

I didn’t go to the Coronation. I approve of all that sort of thing immensely and I was deeply moved by all I heard of it; but I’m not a man for crowds and Best Clothes. The weather was frightful.

Warren, however, watched the coronation on television, and may have been the source of Lewis’ quite distinct view of the matter. Lewis was struck by “the real devout piety shown by the Queen, who obviously took her vows very seriously” (17 Jul 1953 letter to Mrs. Frank Jones). In a follow-up letter to Mary Shelburne, Lewis makes a point about British royal-watching culture and a much deeper connection to the spiritual significance of the coronation:

You know, over here people did not get that fairy-tale feeling about the coronation. What impressed most who saw it was the fact that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it. Hence, in the spectators, a feeling of (one hardly knows how to describe it)–awe–pity–pathos–mystery. The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head becomes a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself: humanity called by God to be His vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate. As if He said ‘In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding.’ Do you see what I mean? One has missed the whole point unless one feels that we have all been crowned and that coronation is somehow, if splendid, a tragic splendour.

Through thousands of letters and pages of print up to this moment in his life, there are very few comments about royalty in real life. And then there is this stunning description of the British throne. Lewis speaks not from the mind-numbingly obsessed perspective of the press, or the distant lens of the historian, or the heart-rapt vision of the lover of fairy tales, but from the altitude that only a cosmic point of view can provide. Ritual, sacramentality, awe, pity, pathos, mystery, symbol–an image of monarchy that draws all humanity into the moment of coronation as a people created vice-regents on earth and set apart as high priests of creation.

How have I never seen this note in this light before? Think of the consequence of this kind of view: the moral responsibility, the relational possibility, the sacramental invitation, and the mythopoeic potential.

It is, I suppose, because of this Platinum Jubilee that I am seeing it now.

There are other consequences of this view of the coronation for Lewis. When discussing the event with American correspondent Mary van Deusen, Lewis makes an intriguing comment:

Hasn’t what you are kind enough to say about our Coronation a wider relevance?–that nothing stirs us if it has the sole purpose of stirring us: i.e. the stirring must be a by-product (8 Jun 1953 letter).

That is an intriguing principle of psychological authenticity that public leaders and artists should each consider.

Lewis missed the coronation but had other brushes with royalty in multiple spheres. Friend and fellow poet Ruth Pitter wrote to Lewis about her recent encounter with Queen Elizabeth when she received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry–quite a distinctive honour that puts Pitter in the company of W.H. Auden, Siegfried Sassoon, John Betjeman, Robert Graves, Ted Hughes, Simon Armitage, and Grace Nichols. Pitter–who, incidentally, did not turn down her CBE honour in 1979–writes:

I had been received by the Queen (in October of this year) to present her Gold Medal for Poetry, and I felt that it did me good. One plugs away for half a century, getting little praise and less cash, then suddenly one is summoned to the Palace and given a medal. All is now well: if the highest in the land approves one, we can do without those in between. Besides, it was an Adventure: and to crown all, as I left the Queen, there outside the drawing-room door stood Albert Schweitzer, waiting to be received in his turn!’ (Bodleian Library, MS. Eng. lett. c. 220/3, fol. 136).

The capital-A “Adventure” is a nice touch, as is the Schweitzer note–so many thanks to Walter Hooper for sharing this discovery as a footnote to Lewis’ 31 Jan 1956 letter to Pitter. In that letter, Lewis shares about a royal encounter of his own:

It’s also amusing that a few nights before getting your letter I dreamed that I was presented [to] the Queen, and found to my horror, half way through the audience, that I was wearing my hat. At the same moment a lady in waiting approached me from behind with the speed of a roller-skater and snatched it off my head with the words ‘Don’t be a fool.’ I left the presence, pensive (as may be supposed) and on my way through a great gallery, finding, without surprise, a photograph of myself on an occasional table, tore it to pieces and went on. I’ve never had the dream of appearing in public insufficiently dressed: but I suppose too much means pretty well the same as too little. So you beat me both by the difference between reality and dream and that between success and failure. And Schweitzer too! Well, you deserve it all.

It is not clear to me that too much is precisely the same as too little, but point taken.

Later that year, on 12 Jul 1956, a Thursday, Lewis was invited to attend a garden party given by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. In a letter the week before, Lewis asks Pitter if she is also going to the garden party and if they would like to go together:

Do you play croquet with the Queen on Thursday. (Croquet is not mentioned in the invitation but I am well-read enough to know that a royal garden party will involve hedgehogs, flamingos, soldiers, Heads-man, and the grin of a Cheshire cat). If so are you coming via Oxford? I was thinking of going up by 1.58 [train] and returning by the 6.45 or 7.35 on either of which we cd. dine. You are an experienced courtier and it would give me great moral support to arrive in your company!

So, perhaps I am wrong: It is not so much Lewis’ expertise as a Medieval and Renaissance literary historian but his knowledge of Alice in Wonderland that provides him with his understanding of courtly life.

Unfortunately, Ruth Pitter was not among the thousands of guests who, to Lewis’ disappointment, so crowded the reception that it made finding a cup of tea impossible. It was one of those lonely-in-a-crowd moments for Lewis until he met a friend. Lewis never saw the queen.

Incidentally, in his peculiar ability to be completely clueless about popular culture and still make occasionally prescient comments, Lewis anticipated the pressures of a media-infused royal culture in a 12 Nov 1957 letter to Vera Gebbert:

If we can accept as true what our papers tell us, the Queen’s trip has been a real success…. I don’t suppose royalty feels the same embarrassment at these kinds of reception as we luckier mortals would in their place. After all, they have been in the limelight since they could walk almost. Look at Princess Anne and Prince Charles–still very young children, and I suppose they would find it odd if they were not photographed when they went out!

Prince Charles, heir apparent to the throne has lived his life thoroughly harried by this “limelight.” And yet he appears (like his mother) to move forward, one step in front of the other. While I have reservations about his role as head of the Church of England, he was affable and personable in his 2014 visit to our community. In spending time with local community leaders, he showed the same kind of curiosity about rural Prince Edward Island culture and the pressures facing churches as he showed in the technical details of our “heritage carpentry” program at our local college (on the site of what was Prince of Wales College, the Protestant university before it joined with St. Dunstan’s University to form the University of Prince Edward Island).

Duchess Camilla of Cornwall, likewise, betrayed any tabloid expectation in her warmth and generosity of spirit. She visited the school where my son attends and my wife teaches. She made fascinators (a kind of feathery hat, I think) with some grade four girls, followed by a series of dramatic presentations. Although I helped prepare the teenage actors for a remarkably abridged and buoyant Royal Shakespearean production–where the kiss of love was substituted with a high 5–I was not cleared by international security to attend the event (for reasons that those who know me would find obvious).

However, my son, then 9 years old, was chosen to recite a poem. With a nervous wink to Her Royal Highness, Nicolas recited “The Road Goes Ever On” by Bilbo Baggins. Here is the Duchess congratulating him on his recitation.

Nicolas, believe it or not, graduates high school in a couple of weeks–no doubt heightening expectations for this Platinum Jubilee [see update on Nicolas here].

That is, perhaps, not a bad place to end this royal exploration–a walking song “Where many paths and errands meet” that has its own tragic splendour for those that know the tale. After all, it takes on new words and new meanings after the Return of the King.

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A Garden Gate Summer Note on Teaching and the First Days of School

Summertime has come and passed–at least here in Prince Edward Island. Island folk wisdom has it that summers break on the weekend of the Gold Cup & Saucer race in mid-August. How global weather patterns know about a two-minute horserace on our little Island remains somewhat of a mystery. Contrary to folk wisdom about folk wisdom, the estimation continues to be true. Once again this year, we could feel the weather tilting at the end of the Gold Cup & Saucer Parade and the Exhibition. Though brilliantly warm days have continued through August and into September, the cool nights and evening breezes began right on queue.

Although the PEI weather is more variable in Fall–with spells of rain, threats of frost, and the occasional post-tropical storm–we generally have gorgeous Septembers and Octobers. Muggy heat softens into autumnal warmth. The leaves burst into colour while sunny days find their way into gorgeous dusks and stolen moments around campfires and on decks. As a child, I loved the poetry of the phrase “Indian Summer” to describe this reprieve from the dying year–the surprising second-blessing summer we cannot always count on, a gift of warmth that buoys the spirit. I doubt the phrase “Indian Summer” always had the warmth and appreciation I gave it as a child, but I have yet to find a good replacement. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes some other names related to feast days. “St. Luke’s Summer” (Oct 18th) has a nice ring to it–as does the French “été de la Saint-Martin” (Nov. 11th) and the English “All-Hallows summer” (Nov 1st). Canada is a bit thin on saint days, and Oct 18th would be unusually late for a PEI little summer. 

In my search for the right word, I have begun calling these autumnal warm periods “Garden Gate Summers.” I doubt that phrase will catch on very quickly. In any case, when some local Island celebrity announces the last call to the post at the racetrack in mid-August, our world shifts toward Fall–though a little bit of summer tends to linger at the garden gate.

As an agricultural province, Fall is a harvest time in PEI–and my garden is in some need of attention. As a household of teachers and students, it also means the first days of school. Yesterday, my wife had her first day welcoming a new batch of Kindergarten students. I am a good teacher, and have even won an award. However, my wife is a genius in what she does–taking a gaggle of wide-eyed pre-schoolers and shaping them into reading, writing, sharing, self-regulating, idea-generating, curiosity-driven first graders. It is sweet to watch the little gaffers show up for their first experiences of scholarship with giant bookbags, bulging lunch bags, and nervous grins.

Kerry’s first day this year was a bittersweet one. It was the first time that Kerry has begun a year teaching at Immanuel Christian School without our son, Nicolas. Kerry began Kindergarten teaching as Nicolas entered first grade. Now our wee little punk has graduated–winning the school’s Music Award and the Governor General’s Medal, I might add–and has landed a spot in the School of Performing Arts (SOPA) at Holland College (on the campus where L.M. Montgomery studied). Yesterday was Nicolas’ first first day of school–a pretty classic local college Orientation Day. All week will be a series of first days for various parts of the program, and he will begin the normal schedule on his journey to rock fame on Monday.

We are thrilled to have Nicolas nearby (and at home) for school, but SOPA is a feeder program for Berklee College of Music in Boston–which seems very much farther away. We’ll deal with those first and last days when they come!

This term, I am thrilled to be appointed once again as an Assistant Professor in Applied Communication, Leadership, and Culture (ACLC) at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI). My first first day ever in the ACLC program was last January–and you can click here to read about that program and the new course I developed, “C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: Leadership, Communication, and Culture” (which, by the way, was one of my favourite teaching experiences ever). ACLC is a digitally engaged, applied arts program that helps students design their learning path by using a classical Liberal Arts foundation to make meaningful connections to the worlds of work and community.

Honestly, I love early September days on our beautiful hill-top UPEI campus. I love seeing new students arrive on campus, excited and nervous and wearing clothes that are a little new and a little nice, but not ostentatiously so. I love seeing students and faculty milling around the heritage quad, filling up the Fox & Crow, and spilling into the library that we have outgrown some years ago. I love seeing students wander through the halls, trying to match the information on their phones to the rather idiosyncratic numbering systems of our buildings–most of which are leftover from the days of St. Dunstan’s University, a Catholic Liberal Arts college that began as a seminary. I love walking into a new classroom, picking up a marker, and writing my name and class information on the whiteboard. I even enjoy the fact that every year, no matter how well-prepared they are, upon seeing my name and class title on the whiteboard, one or two students will pop up out of their seats with a gasp and hurry to the room where they are actually supposed to be.

I just love first days!

Like Nicolas, my first first day this Fall was yesterday’s New Student Orientation (NSO). It was a gorgeous day–perfect for the launch of a new term. As I walked through the heritage quad, I couldn’t help thinking that the student-scape before me looked as if it was the set of a Hollywood college film. Students were milling around, chatting and taking pictures and connecting with professors. There was a relatively mild game of croquet on the lawn, while students in NSO shirts used the walking path as the “net” for a game of outdoor badminton (with very little damage to the walkers, as far as I could tell). There were improvised games of soccer and frisbee, groups of students trundling along behind guides, and circles of students sunning on the lawn. Teams of profs and students had gathered for a dodgeball competition–with the added challenges of mature trees on the court. There was a drum circle next to the tipi that UPEI set up to launch the foundation-year “Indigenous Teachings” course–including a welcome by local Mi’kmaq folk and leaders of the new Faculty of Indigenous Knowledge, Education, Research, and Applied Studies. I loved the energy of the whole day.

Today I am putting the final touches on my lectures for my second first day–the first sessions of “Digital Literacy.” This first-year course trains students how to evaluate, integrate, and communicate information safely, effectively, and ethically within our many digital worlds of work, study, and social media. We will learn to think about what online and virtual engagement really is, rather than just receive our web-connected realities passively. “Digital Literacy” also has a significant design focus, where we learn about choosing the right tools for the right job–with a focus on digital storytelling, photography, videography, and data visualization. Because of the size of the class, I’ve broken the students up into two cohorts for their live tutorials. Today we will be talking about gender and the “hey guys!” phenomenon of Youtube and Tik Tok, and do a short critical thinking exercise about a tragedy that is underway here in Canada at this moment.

Tomorrow will be my third first day as I teach two other new-to-me courses. In ACLC, we have developed a trilogy of courses called “Putting Arts to Work.” In each of these course, we learn the history, purpose, and uses of a Liberal Arts education, and consider why it is worthwhile to study the Liberal Arts in a university environment that seems so job-focused. With a foundation in key Liberal Arts concepts like curiosity, empathy, ethics, storytelling, and core skills development, we help students shape their skills in communication, leadership, and cultural analysis. As a major, ACLC pairs well with another major or minor–disciplines of Literature and Religious Studies like mine, but we have ACLC students who also specialize in History, Sociology (and sometimes Anthropology), Psychology, Environmental Studies, Business disciplines like Marketing and Entrepreneurship, and quite a few from Diversity and Social Justice Studies. I have yet to teach a Physics student in the program, but I remain hopeful!

Last Winter, I taught the middle course in this three-pack. This Fall I am teaching the Putting Arts to Work cornerstone and capstone courses. As part of establishing the foundation for understanding the Liberal Arts, the first-year curriculum uses C.S. LewisThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I will use some Narnian close readings to talk about Liberal Arts concepts like Appreciation, Joy, Beauty, Pleasure, Happiness, and Curiosity, and to enhance conversations about History, Theory, and Disciplinarity. In the capstone seminar, we guide students in assessing their entire experience as students (portfolio development, skills self-assessment, etc.) as a preparation for their post-graduation adventures of work and citizenship. There is also a large section on project management, and a current of marketing techniques runs throughout the course (directed toward self-presentation). The ACLC Putting Arts to Work curriculum is an extremely effective program.

I am a gig teacher and so I am a generalist by trade–even if my PhD was highly specialized. Since I began teaching in 2006, I have taught more than 100 university courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. These include courses in my disciplines, Literature and Religious Studies–sometimes one or the other, and sometimes as an RS/Lit interdisciplinary study–at UPEI and at schools like Signum University, Regent College, The King’s College (New York City), Maritime Christian College (here in PEI), and the Atlantic School of Theology. Beyond specialty-focussed courses, I have also taught interdisciplinary and applied courses in Mythology and Folklore, Popular Culture and Film, Philosophy, History, Asian Studies, Global Issues, Inquiry Studies, Oral Communications, Leadership, and Languages (contemporary English and koine/biblical Greek). ACLC allows me to highlight my love of using key ideas in the classroom to make meaningful connections to history, language, literature, and culture.

However, ACLC is unique in the way that it integrates my other work experience that sits outside the academy. My work in government consultation and policy writing, my experience in non-profit leadership, my years as a camp and youth director, my training as a church leader and public speaker, my minor (but not insignificant) contribution to the arts and entertainment community, my popular writing (including A Pilgrim in Narnia), my social media portfolio, and my years as a small-business owner (including the ultimate failure of one of those businesses)–every part of my CV is included in my teaching in ACLC.

Can you tell I am excited for my first days this Fall?

Not everything is as beautiful as a snapshot of the heritage quad on Orientation Day or my buoyant course outlines. I am intensely superbly, dramatically busy–designing and preparing to teach three new courses just as a manuscript deadline passes and a grant application deadline looms. I really do not have time for a breath in my schedule until Christmas–and then only a quick one. I have had to say “no” to awesome speaking engagements and teaching opportunities, and I may miss nearby events this Fall (like New England Moot, just a 10-hour drive away). It has been hard to find time to write up my ideas for A Pilgrim In Narnia–or even edit the great guest pieces in the queue for the Fall. I have 500+ unread emails and a couple of dozen things on my “Do This Now Before You Take Your Next Breath” list. If I owe you an email or have stranded a connection on social media, I do apologize. Send me a follow-up note on the 22nd and I’ll try to set that straight before September ends. Good things often crowd themselves together like this–at least in my experience.

As much as I enjoy these first days on campus, now for the moment, I must set aside frisbees and fresh grass beneath my feet for a few hours of work on syllabi, spreadsheets, and slides. I have eager young minds to shape!

In reflection, I think these September first days help me avoid that feeling of the autumnal death of the year–the loss of light, the retreat indoors, the browning of fields and lawns, the Fall into Winter. In my case, part of the special loveliness of the Garden Gate Summer is not just how sometimes summer wants to linger around the hedge. A Garden Gate Summer is, for me, also the welcoming in of new people and ideas and experiences. It seems to me a lovely way to spend a season.

Note: The pictures are from UPEI’s stock photo library (which saved me having to get student permission for pictures), except the SOPA garage pick, which is from CBC.

In my long unread email list, am fielding quite a number of requests for writing and free speaking, as well as questions about “the book”. You can email me at junkola[at]gmail[dot]com. However, I am not taking bookings for free academic or artistic contributions until mid-2024–though I will be doing some events for the book launch (hopefully late 2023).  

And this is Nicolas with a song he wrote and recorded with his high school band, Moment of Eclipse, back in 2020, video directed by William Wright.

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“We Became to America what the Huns Had Been to Us”: C.S. Lewis and the European Colonization of America

One of C.S. Lewis’ funniest and punchiest books is also his longest. And, arguably, it is his most important work of literary criticism and his greatest academic achievement. The snazzily titled English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, excluding Drama was commissioned for the Oxford History of English Literature series in 1935–just as his groundbreaking The Allegory of Love (1936) was moving toward publication. The 16th-century volume was not published until Sept 16th, 1954–a two-decade-long research and writing process that earned the book its humorous sobriquet, “OHEL” (an acronym of the series title). While I get the sense that Lewis was proud of this literary history published in the middle of the Narnian series, he was certainly glad to be rid of it in the end.

I really think that English Literature in the Sixteenth Century is Lewis’ magnum opus. It intensified Lewis’ value as a literary historian by providing a unique look at the cultural spirit of the 16th century through hundreds of its poets and authors. Lewis is thinking about the ways that technological innovations, intellectual discoveries, economic shifts, religious changes, and community developments were connected with literature in shaping and being shaped by the “imagination” of the sixteenth century–what we might call the “worldview” or “social imaginary.”

He is also quite obviously trying to challenge commonly held assumptions about the 16th-century “Renaissance” (rebirth) that is presumed to have awakened the world from Medieval slumber. Written with ever-present wit and remarkable brevity, OHEL is a literary history so lively and provocative that I enjoy reading it even when I haven’t read all (or even most) of the original sources.

With the recent release of an Audible audiobook edition, what was my beside-the-couch-little-bit-at-a-time reading experience has been transformed. At 25 hours long with a supplemental 80-page PDF chronology and bibliography, OHEL is still a significant commitment. However, hearing the text provides a new dimension for me. With Lewis’ words in my ear, certain quotations strike me with surprise and then lead me back to marginal notations I have made in the past. One of these snappy refound lines concerns Lewis’ observations about European colonization of the Americas.

Admittedly, in a chapter I am editing, I have been trying to capture in just a few words the refreshing view Lewis has in his so-called “native encounter” science fiction of the ’30s and ’40s. On the one hand, Lewis is an embedded personality, someone who has clearly benefited from the global project of European colonization in his at-home experience as an Anglo-Irish intellectual. On the other hand, I am often amazed at the way Lewis keeps turning perspectives upside down in discoveries of the indigenous peoples of Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet (1938). While Lewis lacks anything like a “postcolonial vocabulary,” his instincts for seeing things in new ways are clearly there.

As Lewis is trying to capture the cultural and literary imagination of the period in his 16th-century literary history, it is no surprise that he turns to epoch-defining discoveries in astronomy and geography. However, Lewis concludes that the poets were seldom invested in the new astronomy, and the great age of discovery–including the European encounter with the Americas–had surprisingly little effect on the literary imagination of the period. As Lewis is being something of an intellectual iconoclast in his introduction–cheekily titled “New Learning and New Ignorance”–we should not be surprised by the surprise. However, there are some ideas that might give us pause within his very brief comments on the colonial project that defined the modern era for much of the world.

In particular, Lewis wants to remind the reader that the so-called “discovery of America” that has been lauded for its political and religious conquest, was in fact defined by its economic and technological failure. Columbus and the others weren’t looking for America as the fulfillment of some great superstitious dream; America was in the way. Like, literally–a geographical obstacle to navigational goals.

Depending on when and where you are born–and perhaps depending on what ideological movement is trying to limit your understanding of history by carving out the bits that make them uncomfortable–you might think of the American colonial project as that half-millennium of discovery and adventure, environmental transformation, meeting of cultures, ill-made and ill-kept treaties of friendship and conquest, blood-baths and intermarriage, linguistic deaths and births, philosophical challenge and diversification, innovations in approaches to medicine and genocide, centuries of slavery and revolution, and the vibrant and diverse nations born on that long north-south barrier to circumglobal navigation to the west–what we now call the continents of North and South America.

Some readers may have heard of some of these nations–like the United States, a global superpower in pop culture and innovation and education, that remarkable social and political experiment of such historical heartbreak and possibility, a place of such dynamically rooted forward-moving energy that (like Canada) is flirting with a temptation to lump its entire being into simple buckets of demonization or valourization, or Twitter-era preaching or four-digit symbologies.

Where he had space for a little perspective, Lewis had no such temptations. He did, though, enjoy the adventure of reading literature to discover the past.

Of the American conquest, it is not only a markedly European failure, but one that left its mark on the people that were there. In OHEL, Lewis speaks of the European exploitation of the land. And when the easiest mineral wealth had been depleted, late-comers like the English “had to content themselves with colonization.” This colonization was not, in Lewis’ view, a grand design of societal extension and transformation, but was

“conceived chiefly as a social sewerage system, a vent for ‘needy people who now trouble the commonwealth’ and are ‘daily consumed with the gallows’” (15).

English colonization of America as, initially, social engineering for the effective disposal of human waste?

Lewis argues that those of us who know the massive religious, political, educational, environmental, cultural, and philosophical development of America are apt to misread the cultural moment that birthed those changes. Missionary zeal and political creativity and cultural genocide were not the aim, but the effect. European consciences would need time, Lewis argued, before

“the untroubled nineteenth-century acquiescence in imperialism” (16).

Has your conscience acquiesced to (yielded to, tacitly agreed with) the doctrine of European (and later, American or ideological) imperialism?

Rather than a project of global good, the goal was the development of European wealth. Lewis reminds the reader that, allegorically speaking,

“the great explorer, the true discoverer of all these new lands, was Avarice” (De Sphaera, I. 182 et seq.).

Greed was the energy behind navigational innovation and colonial development. Rather than revel in imperialist identities, Lewis argued that

“The best European minds were ashamed of Europe’s exploits in America. Montaigne passionately asks why so noble a discovery could not have fallen to the Ancients who might have spread civility where we have spread only corruption” (Essais, III. vi). (16)

Lewis described this corruption as

“a period during which we became to America what the Huns had been to us” (15).

While the 16th-century poets did not commonly use the global conquest as part of their diction of description, there is one area of the European literary imagination that was touched by the age of discovery. While Europeans had long-held philosophical, biological, literary, and religious models of “Wild Men,” “Natural Man,” and “the Savage,” the colonial project enhanced poetic imaginations of indigenous peoples. Characteristically, Lewis was able to see in these European caricatures two clear and opposing camps: the aboriginal person as “as ideally innocent” or as “brutal” and “subhuman.” Lewis calls these the two “great myths” of the popular modern imagination that continued into his own age.

Lewis will move on fairly quickly to tear down his generation’s mental icons of “Puritans” and “Humanists”–and, indeed, wants to deny that there is really such thing as “the Renaissance,” even as he takes up his chair in Medieval and Renaissance Literature in the months after OHEL is released. You can see my evolving discussion on that topic here, but this line captures Lewis’ attitude toward “Renaissance” studies:

“Before they had ceased talking of a rebirth it became evident that they had really built a tomb” (21)

Chief Junior Gould of Abegweit First Nation joins the drum group Mi’kmaq Thunder for the singing of the Honour Song, June 2022 (phto by Jane Robertson/CBC)

Because I think Lewis provides a fresh view of our shared colonial history, I have included the entire section on Lewis and the Americas (the full text from pp. 14-21, which some changes in paragraphing). Lewis can’t see everything from his Oxbridge chair in the ’30s to ’50s. We will see things differently, for here we live, or most of us do, within these latter days of Europe’s Hun-like conquest. I am writing this post within a short canoe ride of ancient Mi’kmaq summer camps–a place of stunning beauty that was developed into a Canadian national park once the indigenous people had been successfully removed. Here we are. Here I am.

Limited as he was, though, Lewis’ iconoclastic subtlety can be a resource for those of us who are open to the conversation. A nation’s identity, past or present, cannot be reduced to paint-by-number histories and live-action tweets. As Lewis says in “On the Reading of Old Books” (and books like The Discarded Image) by reading authors from other times and places (like Lewis is to us), we are able “to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.” This clarification of our mental map may expose some of the cultural errors of our social moment that might otherwise be obscure.

At the very least, Lewis can help us see how our poetic and political imaginations weave themselves together into society-shaping myths. We all have “New Learning” as well as “New Ignorance” in our paths to understanding who we are.

The new geography excited much more interest than the new astronomy, especially, as was natural, among merchants and politicians: but the literary texts suggest that it did not stimulate the imagination so much as we might have expected. The aim of the explorers was mercantile: to cut out the Turk and the Venetian by finding a direct route to the east. In this the Portuguese had succeeded by circumnavigating Africa and crossing the Indian Ocean; Vasco da Gama reached Malabar in 1498. Columbus, a man of lofty mind, with missionary and scientific interests, had the original idea of acting on the age-old doctrine of the earth’s rotundity and sailing west to find the east. Lands which no one had dreamed of barred his way.

Though we all know, we often forget, that the existence of America was one of the greatest disappointments in the history of Europe. Plans laid and hardships borne in the hope of reaching Cathay, merely ushered in a period during which we became to America what the Huns had been to us. Foiled of Cathay, the Spaniards fell back on exploiting the mineral wealth of the new continent. The English, coming later and denied even this, had to content themselves with colonization, which they conceived chiefly as a social sewerage system, a vent for ‘needy people who now trouble the commonwealth’ and are ‘daily consumed with the gallows’ (Humphrey Gilbert’s Discourse, cap. 10).

Of course the dream of Cathay died hard. We hoped that each new stretch of the American coast was the shore of one more island and that each new bay was the mouth of the channel that led through into the Pacific or South Sea’. In comparison with that perpetually disappointed hope the delectable things we really found seemed unimportant. In Virginia there was

‘shole water wher we smelt so sweet and so strong a smell as if we had beene in the midst of some delicate garden’; a land ‘so full of grapes as the very beating and surge of the sea ouerflowed them’; a king ‘very iust of his promise’; a people ‘as manerly and ciuill as any of Europe’, most ‘gentle, louing and faithfull, voide of all guile and treason’, living ‘after the maner of the golden age’.

But that was all rather beside the point; nothing but ‘a good Mine or a passage to the South Sea’ could ever ‘bring this Countrey in request to be inhabited by our nation’ (Hakluyt, vii, 298-331).

Hence the desperate attempts of Pert (1517), Hore (1536), Willoughby (1553), and Frobisher (1576-8) to find either a North-West or a North-East passage. Judged in the light of later events the history of English exploration in the sixteenth century may appear to modern Americans and modern Englishmen a very Aeneid: but judged by the aims and wishes of its own time it was on the whole a record of failures and second bests. Nor was the failure relieved by any high ideal motives. Missionary designs are sometimes paraded in the prospectus of a new venture: but the actual record of early Protestantism in this field seems to be ‘blank as death’ [Tennyson?].

The poetic charm with which these voyages appear in the pages of Charles Kingsley or Professor Raleigh is partly conditioned by later romanticism and later imperialism. Wild Nature – plains without palaces and rivers without nymphs – made little appeal to men who valued travel almost wholly as a means of coming, like Ulysses, to know the cities and manners of men.

And the best European consciences had still to undergo a long training before they reached the untroubled nineteenth-century acquiescence in imperialism. Go back even as far as Burke or Johnson and you will find a very different view: ‘in the same year, in a year hitherto disastrous to mankind’, America and the sea-passage to India were discovered (Taxation No Tyranny). Go back farther, to Buchanan (1506-82), and you read that the great explorer, the true discoverer of all these new lands, was Avarice (De Sphaera, I. 182 et seq.). The best European minds were ashamed of Europe’s exploits in America. Montaigne passionately asks why so noble a discovery could not have fallen to the Ancients who might have spread civility where we have spread only corruption (Essais, III. vi). Even on the utilitarian level the benefits of the whole thing were not always obvious to home-dwellers. Our merchants, observes William Harrison in 1577, now go to Cathay, Muscovy, and Tartary,

‘whence, as they saie, they bring home great commodities. But alas I see not by all their trauell that the prices are anie whit abated … in time past when the strange bottoms were suffered to come in we had sugar for fourpence the pound that now is worth half a crowne’ (Description of England, ii. v).

We must not therefore be surprised if the wonder and glory of exploration, though sometimes expressed by Hakluyt and the voyagers themselves, was seldom the theme of imaginative writers. Something of it is felt in the Utopia [by Thomas More], and there are casual references in Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and others. As the great age of the voyages receded it was perhaps more valued. I think Drayton cared more about it than Shakespeare, and Milton more than Drayton. In the sixteenth century imagination still turns more readily to ancient Greece and Rome, to Italy, Arcadia, to English history or legend. Lodge writing a romance about Arden while he sails to the Azores is typical.

There is, however, one respect in which America may have affected not only imaginative but even philosophical thought. If it did not create, it impressed on our minds more strongly, the image of the Savage, or Natural Man. A place had, of course, been prepared for him. Christians had depicted the naked Adam, Stoics, the state of Nature, poets, the reign of Saturn. But in America it might seem that you could catch glimpses of some such thing actually going on.

The ‘Natural Man’ is, of course, an ambivalent image. He may be conceived as ideally innocent. From that conception descend Montaigne’s essay on cannibals, Gonzalo’s commonwealth in the Tempest, the good ‘Salvage’ in the Faerie Queene (vi. iv, v, vi), Pope’s ‘reign of God’, and the primeval classless society of the Marxists. It is one of the great myths. On the other hand, he might be conceived as brutal, sub-human: thence Caliban, the bad ‘Salvages’ of the Faerie Queene (vi. viii), the state of nature as pictured by Hobbes, and the Cave Man’ of popular modern imagination. That is another great myth. The very overtones which the word ‘primitive’ now has for most speakers (it had quite different ones in the sixteenth century) are evidence of its potency; though other causes, such as evolutionary biology, have here contributed.

If the new astronomy and the new geography did not seem at the time quite so important as we should have expected, the same cannot be said of either humanism or puritanism, and to these I now turn. But I must immediately guard against a possible misunderstanding. Both words have so changed their sense that puritan now means little more than ‘rigorist’ or ‘ascetic’ and humanist little more than ‘the opposite of puritan’. The more completely we can banish these modern senses from our minds while studying the sixteenth century the better we shall understand it….

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An Author Who Has Changed My Life, Frederick Buechner, Has Died (1926-2022)

On Saturday, just as I was waiting to go onto a church platform to officiate a wedding, I heard that Frederick Buechner had passed away. At 96 years old, the news did not come as a surprise. And though he lived fully and gifted many along the way, I was a little sad. I would have like to have told him how much his writings have meant to me–not just his devotional books and sermon collections, but his memoirs and fiction as well.

While Frederick Buechner is unlikely to continue to be a subscriber to A Pilgrim in Narnia, this note is my meagre thanks. For those readers who have not yet been converted to Buechner’s unusual literary and spiritual voice, I have sprinkled this post with links to 8 or 9 other essays, reviews, and reflections on one of my favourite writers.

One of the series of books that I read every couple of years is Frederick Buechner’s set of four memoirs written over 20 years or so. It helps that I use three of these books in my teaching at Regent College, where I first encountered Buechner’s writing. Even without the need to prepare for student discussions, I would turn to these books as part of the rhythms of my life.

The book that has been most transformative for me has been the second volume, Now and Then: A Memoir on Vocation. In “‘Exegesis of the Soul’ A Reflective Response to Frederick Buechner’s Memoirs” I have republished a college paper about my most significant encounter with Buechner and this second memoir. Although I cringe at some of the writing–I have never been my best as a writer when I was narrowing in on a scholastic deadline–the piece speaks clearly about these memoirs gave me a voice for the various vocational streams that I was struggling to name and weave together at the time. I really did find that Buechner was telling my story at times–and I suspect some readers will also find themselves in these words.

This reflection that I wrote on a Japanese mountainside almost exactly 20 years ago has defined the three-part sense of calling I have as a teacher, writer, and leader. Now and Then remains one of the most transformational books in my life.

It was in the first memoir, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days, where I made another connection to my spiritual journey, and where I saw an author begin to teach me about life writing as a spiritual and academic discipline.

Life writing is an emerging academic discipline we call “autoethnography” or “autograph,” the approach to research that treats the life of the researcher as part of the data of research. In the study of literature, my life becomes one of the “texts.” When I am studying C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, for example, I am reading my own story next to that one. In reading these memoirs for the first time in a cabin in rural Japan in 2002, I began to see in a very dim way the discipline that would emerge.

Buechner–pronounced Beek-ner–also models the spiritual posture of life writing in the way he shapes these memoirs. Life writing is hardly anything new to Christian spirituality. “O wretched man that I am!” cries St. Paul. “Search my heart, O God,” sings the Psalmist. “Take up and read!” chants the echo of eternity in St. Augustine’s confessions. I have read the life writing of Thérèse de Lisieux, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, L.M. Montgomery, Sheldon Vanauken, Teresa of Ávila, and Karen Armstrong all the last few years. Spiritual autobiography has become one of the hallmarks of great American Christian writing, including new and classic works by Thomas Merton, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L’Engle, Rachel Held Evans, Anne Lamott, Marilynne Robinson, Annie Dillard, and Dorothy Day.

Frederick Buechner is one of the great memoirists in this Christian tradition, at least in the last century. In his introduction to The Sacred Journey, he very briefly sets up his task as a life writer:

What I propose to do now is to try listening to my life as a whole, or at least to certain key moments of the first half of my life thus far, for whatever of meaning, of holiness, of God, there may be in it to hear. My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.

For the reader, I suppose, it is like looking through someone else’s photograph album. What holds you, if nothing else, is the possibility that somewhere among all those shots of people you never knew and places you never saw, you may come across something or someone you recognize. In fact—for more curious things have happened—even in a stranger’s album, there is always the possibility that as the pages flip by, on one of them you may even catch a glimpse of yourself. Even if both of those fail, there is still a third possibility which is perhaps the happiest of them all, and that is that once I have put away my album for good, you may in the privacy of the heart take out the album of your own life and search it for the people and places you have loved and learned from yourself, and for those moments in the past—many of them half forgotten—through which you glimpsed, however dimly and fleetingly, the sacredness of your own journey (The Sacred Journey, 6-7).

This is the project that Buechner begins here and carries out over a series of books for the next two decades. The Sacred Journey is an unusual conversion story–a story unlike the testimonial you might be familiar with, though one that has a traditional plotline. A key discovery for me as I flipped through Buechner’s photo album is that, like him, I lost my father when I was young. As I talk about in this post just after my mother died of cancer in 2016, that loss shaped who I am. Like Buechner, I recognized much later how these powerful early-life losses were part of an unnameable search for God.

The Sacred Journey, has the very soft frame narrative of a construction project happening in his New England home. The pounding of hammers and the shuffling of workboots slips away as Buechner moves through his childhood and early adult life. As he comes to the turning of his time, to the point where something like grace happened unexpectedly in his life, we return to the construction project and the thinking about life writing. This section begins his third chapter, and I think is a nice coda to the theme of listening to our own lives begun in the introduction.

The crow of a rooster. Two carpenters talking at their work in another room. The tick-tock of a clock on the wall. The rumble of your own stomach. Each sound can be thought of as meaning something, if it is meaning you want. After some years now of living with roosters, I know that their crow does not mean that the sun is coming up because they crow off and on all day long with their silly, fierce heads thrown back and the barnyard breezes in their tail feathers. Maybe it means that they are remembering the last time it came up or thinking ahead to the next time. Maybe it means only that they are roosters being roosters. The voices and hammering in the other room mean that not everybody in the world sits around mooning over the past, but that the real business of life goes on and somewhere the job is getting done; means, too, that life is a mystery. What are they talking about? What are they making? The ticking of the clock is death’s patter song and means that time passes and passes and passes, whatever time is. The rumbling stomach means hunger and lunch. But meaning in that sense is not the point, or at least not my point. My point is that all those sounds together, or others like them, are the sound of our lives.

What each of them might be thought to mean separately is less important than what they all mean together. At the very least, they mean this: mean listen. Listen. Your life is happening. You are happening. You, the rooster, the clock, the workmen, your stomach, are all happening together. A journey, years long, has brought each of you through thick and thin to this moment in time as mine has also brought me. Think back on that journey. Listen back to the sounds and sweet airs of your journey that give delight and hurt not and to those that give no delight at all and hurt like Hell. Be not affeard. The music of your life is subtle and elusive and like no other–not a song with words but a song without words, a singing, clattering music to gladden the heart or turn the heart to stone, to haunt you perhaps with echoes of a vaster, farther music of which it is part.

Though the memoirs have been the most important books for me, I have enjoyed Frederick Buechner’s novels and nonfiction works. By way of confession, I have never read his most popular novel, the 1950 bestseller A Long Day’s Dying. However, I am slowly collecting Buechner’s work in the bookshelf of my mind as well as the one in my office.

Particularly rich are his medieval saints lives Brendan and the Pulitzer Prize finalist Godric. Teaching Godric–the retold story of a rather decrepit and rascally saint–at our local Bible College is one of my favourite book-teaching experiences, especially as the students brought out moments of grace within the more shocking and horrifying scenes.

Though these saint tales may be Buechner’s greatest achievements in literary fiction, my absolute favourite set of stories is the National Book Award finalist The Book of Bebb.

This series of short novels is about a delightfully authentic religious cad named Leo Bebb. As I speak about here, the fatherless/father-seeking theme is prevalent in the brilliant Bebb tetralogy. Truly, it might be that the whole Bebb series is a desperate groping for fathers–not just Anthony, the protagonist, but each of the men and women who find themselves around the conflicted Bebb. These novels have delighted me so much that my only regret is that few people know what I mean when I say “Bebbsian.” Please, go out and find The Book of Bebb, and join me in honouring the pear-shaped, bowler hat-wearing religious scam artist who remains, somehow, mysteriously, impossibly, an utterly guileless and endearingly genuine person.

Beyond the novels, I have used his sermons and devotionals in my teaching with books like The Alphabet of Grace, Whistling in the Dark, The Magnificent Defeat, and The Clown in the Belfry. For folks who want a brief entry into Buechner’s nonfiction, I have republished a brief review of Beyond Words, a daily readings book that brings in references from across the nearly 40 books he wrote:

Beyond Words: A Review of Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith by Frederick Buechner

As I have always felt that Frederick Buechner has been underappreciated, and as my most recent reading of The Remarkable Ordinary was so resonant for me, I did a week-long series on the book in January 2021. The first post dealt with my tension between being “Enslaved to the Pressure of the Ordinary” (ala Screwtape) and the great beauty and grace and laughter in the ordinary. After struggling with how the normal can wear us down, little by little, I wrote:

This cup of coffee, the music in my ears, waking and laying down in warmth and love, children playing in the other room, the cat supervising my work, these books at my elbow and on my bedside, making love and sharing the sign of peace, mandarin oranges, arugula, cameras in our pockets, fat snowdrops on red and brown faces, beautiful eyes above non-medical masks, the season’s death and rebirth in the great turning of the world. Oh, the beauty that there is!

As I was fighting with the words to describe what I meant by the Slavery/Beauty of the ordinary, I found great encouragement and clarity in Frederick Buechner‘s The Remarkable Ordinary: How to Stop, Look, and Listen to Life (2017). The Remarkable Ordinary is very much reminiscent of his life-changing autobiographies–and the book contains echoes of his other nonfiction works. In The Remarkable OrdinaryBuechner reads his life as a text. And in this story, he shows how the transformational moments in his life have not been grand miracles, but the attention to the details, the anticipation of the predictable, and astonished reflection upon the ordinary.

This book is a somewhat loose collection of some old lectures and some new material, designed to help us recover or reimagine our relationship to mundane reality. With some imagination on our part, we can walk alongside Frederick Buechner as his memories and experiences show the little moments of grace in the daily routines and terrible surprises of life. To live my life going against the grain of the world’s systems–both in solidarity with those who suffer and for the health of my soul–does not mean that I reject the simple and lovely ordinary things in life. Indeed, I think that’s where my greatest strength comes from: the Spirit of God in my heart and at my elbow, at my desk and the dinner table, as I lay down to sleep and rise to walk in the road. So I am thankful for Frederick Buechner’s thoughtful collection of ideas for reminding me of the liberation that comes in the normal moments of life.

The Remarkable Ordinary is a great introduction to Buechner’s spiritual reflections. For interested readers, I provided four follow-up posts with quotes from J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Maya Angelou, and George MacDonald:

I don’t know if The Remarkable Ordinary was his last book, but he published it in his early nineties, which is remarkable and far from ordinary. I consider Frederick Buechner to be one of the great American writers of the late 20th century. I hope that you can join me in appreciating this relatively unknown and transformative writer, pastor, and teacher.

And, just because it’s a cool chart from the Frederick Buechner Wikipedia page:

Year Award
1947 Irene Glascock Prize for Poetry
1955 O. Henry Award for “The Tiger” (3rd prize)
1959 Rosenthal Award for The Return of Ansel Gibbs
1972 Fiction Finalist, National Book Award for Lion Country
1981 Finalist, Pulitzer Prize for Godric
1982 American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
1987 Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize
1994 Critics’ Choice Books Award for Fiction for Son of Laughter
Nomination for Chautauqua South Florida Fiction Award for The Storm
2007 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Conference on Christianity and Literature

And there is an honourary doctorate list!

Year Honor
1982 Virginia Theological Seminary
1984 Lafayette College
1987 Lehigh University
1989 Cornell College
1990 Yale University
1996 The University of the South
1998 Susquehanna University
2000 Wake Forest University
2008 King College
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The Idiosopher’s Razor: The Missing Element in Metacritical Analysis of Tolkien and Lewis Scholarship

It is intriguing what you might find on Twitter….

Last year I was in the midst of a large research project that was tilting forward toward a book. One of the first steps in research is taking a broad look at the landscape of ideas before charting a path forward where the path seems best. While many PhD paths become intensely narrow–like a single otter slide in the Mississippi delta–mine remained remarkably broad. Before I moved on to other things, I spent much of 2021 sharing with A Pilgrim in Narnia readers some of the big picture research discoveries I had made along the way.

As it turns out, my post, “The C.S. Lewis Studies Series: Where It’s Going and How You Can Contribute,” was the culmination of that sharing rather than the beginning of a new season. I simply haven’t been able to keep up that time-intensive project–though that post is a great resource Lewis studies students. And to be frank, “The C.S. Lewis Studies Series” is itself an afterthought name. It began as the the “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award” series!

With its gangly name and my own pivot away from my PhD to other projects, the series has grown and changed, but my impetus to get some of the things I had learned into the world was the same. I had done some background posts over the years, like the chronological reading projectthoughts about the Problem of Susan debate, the “How to Read All of C.S. Lewis’ Essays” post, and some bibliographiesreviews, and resource lists from time to time. But I was provoked in the springtime by the Tolkien studies sweep of the Mythopoeic awards nomination list to think about what might be at the root of what I perceived as a difference between Lewis studies and Tolkien studies projects. In doing this, a reader challenged me to acknowledge where I thought the strengths were in Lewis studies. That began a “Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship?” series, which promed the “Good Books that Didn’t Win” sieries as my own rebuttal–a way of say, “Yeah, but here are some great and useful resources.”

I’ve listed most of the major resource posts in the “Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award” note and my most recent update of “A Brace of Tolkien Posts.” I have also added the JRRT vs. CSL and Good CSL Books lists below, for those just joining in.

But here is something new.

Back when I did the Tolkien studies vs. Lewis studies digital cage match, I invited others to join in. Most of that discussion happened in the comments section of A Pilgrim in Narnia, on Facebook groups, and in guest blog posts, like Connor Salter’s essay, “Lewis and Tolkien among American Evangelicals.” It took awhile, but someone else has offered a response on a more theoretical level.

We have met Joe Hoffman before. As a physicist, Joe naturally operates a liberal arts, great books, digital humanities, liberal arts, cultural thought, fencing blog called Idiosophy. It’s probably better to read that title with its Greek etymology than its English nuances, but I’ll leave that up to you. A few years ago, Joe dialogued with my statistical analysis work–I use this blog as a bit of a sandbox for testing out different methods for reading and research. You can see the whole conversation here, “That Hideous Graph: Joe Hoffman Enhances the Data from my C.S. Lewis Writing Schedule Cheatsheet.” I reflected on Joe’s conversations a little bit later here: “Joe Hoffman on Statistical Analysis, and the Future of the Humanities.”

As you can see, my Joe-related blog post titles are anything but elusive.

Well, Joe has struck again, which I found out about on Twitter.

With a gap on only 16 months, Joe was able to successfully cut through my entire CSL Scholars vs. JRRT Scholars with a single theoretical solution: The Idiosopher’s Razor. He also proposes a rather elegant reason why I never thought of it myself.

Find out all about it out at “The secret of a strong field of research.” It offers a level of high-order thinking that I thought was worth sharing. Also, I’ve been eyebrow deep in grant applications and revisions and syllabi creation, and I don’t have anything else to say!

Why is Tolkien Scholarship Stronger than Lewis Scholarship? (Limited Series)

Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award Sort-of Series

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Wherever I Go, That’s Where the Party’s At: Prince Corin as C.S. Lewis’ Harbinger of Joy, Guest Essay by Daniel Whyte IV

“The Horse And His Boy” by Oliver Allison (

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

Daniel’s Pilgrim piece last year was “There Are No Cruel Narnians: What The Horse and His Boy Can Tell Us About Racism, Cultural Superiority, Beauty Standards, and Inclusiveness.” I was impressed with Daniel’s careful conversation about the questions of race, culture, and beauty–hard questions that allowed the text to live. I was able to use this essay to inform my approach to teaching in my local course on leadership, culture, and communication in The Chronicles of Narnia–with an internationally diverse group of students. The piece was shared by Mike Glyer in his popular e-zine/list for SF fandom, File 770, and remains the top new post of the last year.

Taking a different approach entirely, Daniel returns to The Horse and His Boy with a personal and philosophical reflection that considers the oft-forgotten Prince Corin, Thunder-Fist.

Wherever I Go, That’s Where the Party’s At: Prince Corin as C.S. Lewis’ Harbinger of Joy

by Daniel Whyte IV

My favorite character in all the Narnia stories has only a small space devoted to him within the Chronicles’ pages. He is not a great hero, nor does he play any particularly significant role. He is more comic relief and caricature than anything else. Yet, he captures the essence of the feeling that Lewis found himself seeking throughout his life.

Prince Corin jumps into the narrative of The Horse and His Boy with a “loud crash” as he sneaks into the house in Tashbaan where two of Narnia’s royals and their companions are staying. He immediately comes face-to-face with Shasta whom the Narnians have mistaken for him.

“Are you Prince Corin?” Shasta asks (ch. 5).

Corin’s reply is: “Yes, of course.” (As if to say, “Who else would I be?”)

When Corin asks, “Who are you?” Shasta’s reply is the complete opposite and terribly heart-breaking:

“I’m nobody, nobody in particular…” (ch. 5).

Corin’s confident self-possession is striking. He is a vigorous figure, almost larger-than-life. A character too big for the small space the story devotes to him. Unlike Shasta, Bree, Aravis, and Hwin, Corin is secure in himself and his relationships with the people around him and the world he inhabits. He is free, happy, and joyful. He is passionate and brave and courageous.

His flaw might be that he is too free and ridiculously happy. Reckless even. But that recklessness is the result of deep-seated security about his place in the world. He loves and knows that he is loved. He feels no pressure to be like others or pretend to be something he is not. He is honest, even about his flaws.

I envy his freedom. I strive to emulate it. And even when the expression is fake, the desire is nonetheless real.

Afraid of being discovered as a royal imposter, Shasta urges Corin to take his place so that neither will get in trouble. Then he remembers that Corin’s black eye, missing tooth, and general dirty appearance make this boyhood subterfuge impossible. Resigned to being caught, Shasta allows that Corin will just have “to tell them the truth”–but only once he himself has slipped away.

Corin’s scornful response is powerful:

“What else did you think I’d be telling them?” Corin asks, with “a rather angry look” (ch. 5).

"Shasta Meets Corin" by Taipu556 at Deviant Art

The Corin Trifecta

Three things stand out about Corin’s character in this brief encounter.

Inner Circles and Inside Jokes

The first is Corin’s friendliness, which is demonstrated primarily in his interactions with Shasta. When Shasta expresses his desperation to get away as soon as possible, Corin says,

“Why are you in such a hurry? I say: we ought to be able to get some fun out of this being mistaken for one another” (ch. 5).

This may seem like Corin simply trying to give life to an elaborate prank and put the Narnian royals under further anxiety for his own entertainment. But even in his miscreancy, Corin desires to draw Shasta into his world–to share in the joke.

We see this again later in the story when he eagerly introduces Shasta–who then is even more dirty, tired, beggarly, and bedraggled than he was in Tashbaan–to the Narnian royals. And then he seizes the opportunity to have Shasta join him in battle, not for a moment assuming that the poor ex-slave is incapable in such matters.

Corin holds the door open and says, “Come in! Come in! Let’s be friends.” He wants Shasta to get the inside jokes, to be part of the inner circle.

Those familiar with C.S. Lewis’ essays might feel a sudden caution with the phrase “inner circle.” In a lecture at King’s College in London in 1944, he advised young people against desiring to gain entrance into what he referred to as “Inner Rings.” Not all inner rings are bad, he said, but the desire to be on the inside of seemingly closed circles often leads people to act against their consciences. In the lecture, later printed in The Weight of Glory, Lewis says,

“Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

We could easily assume that Lewis is against cliques and in-groups altogether, but friendship—as demonstrated by Lewis’ life—is really an inner ring experience. Such a ring may consist of two people or several. And while the desire to be in such a ring might lead a person astray, there is nothing untoward about those within the ring (if it is a good ring) inviting outsiders into its joys. Lewis said:

…if in your spare time you consort simply with the people you like, you will again find that you have come unawares to a real inside: that you are indeed snug and safe at the centre of something which, seen from without, would look exactly like an Inner Ring. But the difference is that the secrecy is accidental, and its exclusiveness a by-product, and no one was led thither by the lure of the esoteric: for it is only four or five people who like one another meeting to do things that they like. This is friendship. Aristotle placed it among the virtues. It causes perhaps half of all the happiness in the world, and no Inner Ring can ever have it.[1]

The Inklings, the famous literary club that Lewis was part of at Oxford for over fifteen years, is a prime example of a (good) Inner Ring, defined by friendship, camaraderie, and shared interest. Lewis, Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, Roger Lancelyn Green, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others were all in on the joke: the joke being a not-so-secret club for people who loved stories and telling them. Perhaps Lewis would frown on this desire, but I’d certainly want to be on the inside of that ring.

The Narnians sojourning in Calormen are a vivid picture of an Inner Ring. (Except most of the Calormenes didn’t want to join that ring. They wanted to see it wiped out.) We read,

“Instead of being grave and mysterious like most Calormenes, [the Narnians] walked with a swing and let their arms and shoulders free, and chatted and laughed. One was whistling” (The Horse and His Boy, ch. 4).

More importantly:

“You could see that they were ready to be friends with anyone who was friendly and didn’t give a fig for anyone who wasn’t” (ch. 4).

Shasta, observing the clique of Narnians,

“thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his life” (ch. 4).

If only he could be on the inside of that Inner Ring! Luckily for him—and us—Prince Corin serves as an ambassador for that ring. He is an inclusivist—desiring to bring people in rather than keep them out, no matter the risk to himself. And that leads to the second thing that stands out about Corin: he is at peace with himself and the people around him.

Fearless in Truancy

The fact that he doesn’t feel the need to lie to Susan and Edmund about his truancy speaks volumes about his standing within the circle of Narnians. The idea that he would do anything other than tell them the truth repulses him. Why would he? The fear of rejection is strange to him. It appears he even shrugs off the potential of disapproval.

Imagine being free to live and speak without fretting over the approval or acceptance of others. We criticise politicians for policing their actions and words to keep their approval ratings high. But we are all politicians in a way. We worry about our approval ratings in the eyes of various constituents: family, friends, church members, classmates—even total strangers who we assume are judging us based on how we dress or talk. We modify and adapt and code-switch. We are chameleons, desperately trying to blend into our environments because we assume—we know—that is the only way to be accepted.

We are familiar with the emotional and psychological pain of fearing rejection. But psychologists have found that such fears and desires also inflict physical pain—at least as far as our brains can tell. When three people hooked up to an fMRI scanner are playing catch, and one of them is suddenly excluded from the game because the other two decide to only throw the ball to each other, the excluded person experiences increased activity in two of the regions of the brain that react to physical pain. “As far as your brain is concerned, a broken heart is not so different from a broken arm,” psychologists say.

“Social rejection increases anger, anxiety, depression, jealousy and sadness. It reduces performance on difficult intellectual tasks, and can also contribute to aggression and poor impulse control… Physically, too, rejection takes a toll. People who routinely feel excluded have poorer sleep quality, and their immune systems don’t function as well as those of people with strong social connections.”[2]

Perhaps Lewis’ advice about Inner Rings should be taken with a grain of salt. Such rings have their benefits, and perhaps our desire to be included in one (or several) is not so misguided. As even Lewis would argue, our desires suggest that there exists fulfilment for those desires. If we find that fulfilment in this life, however fleeting it may be, we should embrace it with gratitude. And, like Corin, we should invite others into our circles.

The Boy Who Really Lives

In hand with Corin’s friendliness and peacefulness is his ease with his place in life. His is a soul at rest. He’s a prince! Of course he has it easy, we might argue. But being rich and famous with a comfortable lifestyle does not make for a soul at ease. As one rapper puts it:

You know the rich and famous,
kill themselves to stay rich and famous

Those who are born into the elite are no less susceptible to interior discomfort than the rest of us. Depression and dissatisfaction run rampant among the wealthy and well-to-do. But Corin shows no sign of this. He is a cozy character in an uncozy world.

Perhaps his comfort with his place in life partly fuels his recklessness and overconfidence. He jumps into fights and rebels against the wishes of those who are committed to looking after him. He has a brash belief in his own rightness, especially regarding whether he should be in a battle. (In his defence, he seems to be good at fighting.)

How would it be if every one of us lived out of a comfort zone such as Corin’s? Being fully ourselves, the good and bad of us, without worrying that our communities will shun us? Being at such ease will allow us to live with the spirit of commitment that Corin shows to those around him. Hearing Queen Susan insulted by a boy in the street, Corin launches into a day-long fighting spree. Clearly, he’s misguided in his feeble attempt at justice, but his loyalty to his companions is the casual reciprocation of their commitment to him. Later, he is eager to challenge Rabadash after the embittered and imprisoned Calormene prince rails against the graciousness of the Narnian and Archenlandish royals.

Reconsidering Corin

I’m not so foolish to assume that everyone shares my affinity for Prince Corin. I, myself, am unlike him. I certainly have no prowess in fighting to speak of. And I can’t stand on pretence and say that Corin, as he’s portrayed in The Horse and His Boy, is the sort of child any parent would want or any girl would want to marry. He certainly has a lot of growing up to do.

Slate co-founder and editor Laura Miller criticizes Corin in her book about the Narnia stories’ impact on her childhood. She calls my favorite character the novel’s “least appealing” and “a boy made more disagreeable by being offered to readers as one of the good guys.”[3] Miller takes Corin–and Lewis–to task for elitism and a sense of cultural superiority that she sees as endemic to the Chronicles.

Corin…is an unadulterated upper-class alpha boy: cocky, insensitive to others, easily riled, and always up for a fight… There’s more than a touch of the bully in Corin, yet the narrator clearly expects us to like him, to shake our heads fondly at his excesses just as the adults around him do, with the conviction that at heart he is all right, and he is all right because he is one of us.[4]

While Miller uses Corin to accuse Lewis of endorsing bullying and snobbery, we find that Lewis condemns such behavior in his real-life accounts of his experiences as a schoolboy in England. He attributes to one of his tutors the fault of instilling within him and his fellow students

“the desire for glitter, swagger, distinction, the desire to be in the know.”

At the time, he

“began to labour very hard to make [himself] into a fop, a cad, and a snob.”[5]

However, as he grew older, Lewis did not like what he saw himself and his schoolmates becoming. He decried England’s public (boarding) school communities as

“competitive…full of snobbery and flunkeyism, a ruling class so selfish and so class-conscious…a proletariat so fawning, so lacking in all solidarity and sense of corporate honour.”[6]

It stands to reason that he would not intend to glorify such behavior in his casting of Corin.

The desire to be on top of others, to be ahead, to be advanced does not beset the prince of Archenland. Corin, I think, does not want to lead things as much as he wants to be a part of things. He likes being surrounded by the people he loves and who love him. His greatest tragedy would be alienation from his community: a tragedy that is explicated in Shasta’s story. When his father, King Lune, announces that Shasta (his twin) had, in fact, been born twenty minutes earlier than him and was first in line for the throne, Corin doesn’t feel cheated. He is relieved and exhilarated.

“Hurrah! Hurrah! I shan’t have to be King. I shan’t have to be King. I’ll always be a prince. It’s princes have all the fun.”

While he has no desire to lead, Corin is the person you want to follow. At least I do. Having all the fun he can is Corin’s way of life. To borrow from a Newsboys song, wherever he goes, that’s where the party’s at. But he isn’t incapable of sobering when things get serious. At the prelude of the fight that he isn’t supposed to be in, he gravely points out the eagles circling overhead:

“They smell battle. They know we’re preparing a feed for them” (The Horse and His Boy, ch. 13).

The Avatar of Joy

With Corin, Lewis gives us an avatar for his pursuit of capital-j Joy. Not mere happiness or pleasure, but the untouchable essence that he’d sought since childhood.

For Corin, the problems of his world are mere playthings—not inconsequential, but shadows and not ultimate realities. What’s real to Corin is the comfortable circle to which he belongs. His clique is a little taste of what we would recognize as heaven. A place impenetrable, elevated, and high with Northernness. A place where happiness and peace and comfort are found. A place where problems are made minuscule by the overwhelming massiveness of belonging.

The community found in an Inner Ring is, in fact, the microcosm and mirror of Joy. As Lewis wrote,

“we yearn, rightly, for that unity which we can never reach except by ceasing to be the separate phenomenal beings called ‘we.’”[7]

We ache for an “impossible reunion” with the Absolute. And that ache is assuaged by the joy we experience within our circles of friends and family.

In the realm of Joy, fun isn’t frowned upon. Fun—the unbridled enjoyment of everything—is the point of existence. In the Joy-realm, it is always playtime. Not because there is nothing to be serious about, but because we have passed beyond all that the physical, temporal world demands that we take seriously. Even Death itself starts working backwards–as we discover in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as an enlivened Aslan leads Lucy and Susan in

“such a romp as no one has ever had except in Narnia” (ch. 15).

Lucy’s reflection about the quality of the romp says much about the quality of joy, for she could not decide

“whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten” (ch. 15).

We are not meant to be “perpetually solemn,” after all. We must play. But, as Lewis says,

“our merriment must be of that kind–and it is, in fact, the merriest kind–which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”[8]

It is ironic that Ecclesiastes, the second-most depressing book in the Bible (behind Job) and the one that most seriously considers the stark realities of life, also most directly advocates for the celebratory existence.

“So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15).

The philosopher behind those words had carefully considered life and declared that it was all “utterly meaningless.” People come and go and the poor, battered earth remains. The children of men were eternally engaged in an “unhappy business.” Like Lewis, the philosopher had considered pleasure—sex and marriage, fame and fortune, wealth and the accumulation of goods—but none of it satisfied. None of it brought him Joy. After days of decadence, he even sobered up and committed himself to honest labor and life by the rule of wisdom. But he discovered that the wise man dies just like the fool!

“So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17)

Despite this, the philosopher saw that man’s heart is set on eternity (3:11). The Hebrew word olam is often translated as “everlasting.” It is the vanishing point of humanity’s vision, or time out of mind—the time, either before or after one’s life, that one does not have memory or perception of. If our lives are vanity and vexation, would not the cessation of such pains be our greatest desire? Shouldn’t we be eager to write finis on the last page of our lives? Oddly, no.

Our hearts are set on things beyond what we can perceive with our mortal eye. As Sigmund Freud noted:

“Our unconscious then does not believe in its own death; it behaves as if it were immortal.”

This immortal impulse of our subconscious is what drives us to seek Joy—which, while Lewis described it as “imageless, unknown, undefined, and undesired,” is brought to us by an imagination that “salutes it with a hundred images.”[9] Every pursuit of pleasure or happiness in this life, even our desire to be part of an Inner Ring, is a chasing after the wind of Joy.

So, it isn’t wrong to live like Prince Corin—squeezing every happiness out of life. Chasing the punchline to every joke. To live as if we are immortal.

The philosopher concludes:

I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13)

Corin has his flaws, but the spirit of his life is enviable. Eat! Drink! Celebrate! Take pleasure in all our labors, whether war or peace or frivolity. Engage fiercely in community. Make Joy itself the goal behind all others that we pursue. Yes, tomorrow we may die. But tomorrow, we shall only continue living.

[1] C.S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring,” 1944, available online at

[2] Kirsten Weir, “The pain of social rejection,” American Psychological Association, 2012, available online at

[3] Laura Miller, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown & Company, 2008), pages 146-147 (Kindle edition).

[4] Ibid.

[5] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Geoffrey Bles, 1955).

[6] Ibid.

[7] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Geoffrey Bles, 1955).

[8] C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” 1942.

[9] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Geoffrey Bles, 1955).

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Never Nude Elwin Ransom of C.S. Lewis’ Classic ScFi, and A Note on Puzzling, Lazy, Irrelevant, Racist, Sexist, and Infelicitous Book Cover Designs (Friday Feature)

Ere long and ever ago when this blog was young, I wrote about the “Worst Book Description Ever” from C.S. Lewis’ science fiction classic, Out of the Silent Planet. As is sometimes so in the burdens of experience, I have since read worse book descriptions–not just of Out of the Silent Planet, but also of many, many books that it is clear the cover designers have never read. I did note in that decade-old post that I liked some of the cover art of the aptly misnamed “Space Trilogy.” The Pan series at the top of the page is clearly informed by the stories of the novels in fairly sophisticated symbolic ways. They also have a kind of demonic atmosphere that connects the three books and reveals its connections to The Screwtape Letters and the incomplete “Dark Tower” story–what I call the Ransom Cycle.

Perelandra poses some neat challenges for cover art design. The whole planet is so tinged with green light and vibrant colour that a cover design might come off as lurid, or even garish. Just above, the blue island cover captures the “fixed land” aspect of the story with an intriguing dragon-like or serpentine hint in the island’s design. It’s well done–even if the colouring is a bit off. The middle fish-riding scene above is also off in colour, but evocative of the adventure. And the remake of an older Sci Fi design above on the right does not quite capture the elements in the way I imagine the novel, but gets the feeling right for me.

Other cover designers, though, fail to get the essence of this strange space fantasy when trying to capture the symbolic or atmospheric features.

The tubular natural cover above is fine, but kind of ridiculous. The brown-green pair of Voyage to Venus US editions both work in elements of the novel–the greenness of skin, the god and goddess pairs Ransom will meet, travel in a coffin, a hint of the demonic–and manage to completely miss any feel for the novel itself. They did try to capture symbolism–as did the designer of the green apple cover of temptation and twin vision in the centre. This cover really does nothing, but does not have the deep sexist misreading of the temptation novel cover on the right. There are multiple terrible elements, but the nail polish shows they have completely misunderstood a novel deeply invested in gender symbolism and temptation. It is hard to imagine anyone doing worse.

Until you see other people try.

These three covers are clearly made by staff designers who haven’t read the book–though I have a certain kind of love for the one on the right, which is quite a beautiful cover for a novel I have never read.

One of the most difficult elements of the novel is capturing nudity among most of the main characters–Dr. Ransom, Tinidril, and Tor–when in a completely natural environment so different than our Terran one. Having two space angels trying to take form in the denouement of the novel doesn’t make things easier. Attempts to capture nudity on book covers don’t always go perfectly, as we can see here.

On the left, we have the hippie nudist couple covered delicately by a choreographed sequence of alien birds in flight while Tor gives a “hi guys!” shout from the distance. The middle picture is intriguing in a lot of ways, not least for evoking classical art on Venus (see below) and lovely fantasy elements informed by the book. However, Tinidril’s come hither figure and fashionable blue hair seem the opposite of her disturbing eyes and closed hands–unless she is about to pull back her hair for a full view of her Eve-like, belly button-less torso. I credit the picture on the right for attempting to use dance and symbolic painting to capture nudity in the novel, as well as Ransom’s encounter with the Lord and Lady of Perelandra. However, with the fighter jet, random poses, and demonic figure with horns, the whole cover looks more like an interpretation of Nena’s “99 Luftballons” by whomever it is that made Kate Bush’s videos.

Nudity in popular, symbolically rich art is hard.

Thus, I am appreciative of this bit of fan art I found years ago (and would love to know who made it, if you happen to know). Ransom as the nude, piebald diplomat meeting his dog-like dragon is captured well in fantasy art that is meant to drift away from the realistic.

However, to capture the meeting of Ransom and Tinidril is more challenging because it has a kind of regal austerity. Perelandra’s Adam and Eve are green and naked, innocent and lordly, beautiful and yet not sexually alluring, farmers who frolic with their flock, and yet gods who are deeply implicated with their natural world. It was probably wise that, when they produced an opera of Perelandra, they used “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli (late 15th c.) for their main image.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, circa 1485

This Venus as Tinidril or as the planet Perelandra can work for those of us who know the novel.

While not all attempts to capture Perelandra have been successful, I have applauded James Lewicki’s attempt in the first edition of Horizon journal (May 1959)–an illustration to an article by Edmund Fuller called, “The Christian Spaceman: C.S. Lewis.”

james lewicki_eve of perelandra_100It is very much a piece of the period, but you can tell that Lewicki had actually taken the time to read Perelandra. Ransom is the Piebald Man, tanned on one side by his space voyage. He is naked and disoriented, caught on a floating island away from the only human he has yet seen. Lewicki has made an attempt to capture some of the vegetation, including the bubble trees–a “fruit” that provides refreshment and strength to Ransom in his visit to Venus. And there is the lady, a bit indistinct in the distance, but unashamed as she gathers flowers in her great, global garden. Though Lewicki is caught a tad awkwardly between Boticelli and fantasy art, I like the piece overall.

If you still feel a little bit unsatisfied by the painting, you should know that Lewis predicted you would be.

She was standing a few yards away, motionless but not apparently disengaged—doing something with her mind, perhaps even with her muscles, that he did not understand. It was the first time he had looked steadily at her, himself unobserved, and she seemed more strange to him than before. There was no category in the terrestrial mind which would fit her. Opposites met in her and were fused in a fashion for which we have no images. One way of putting it would be to say that neither our sacred nor our profane art could make her portrait. Beautiful, naked, shameless, young—she was obviously a goddess: but then the face, the face so calm that it escaped insipidity by the very concentration of its mildness, the face that was like the sudden coldness and stillness of a church when we enter it from a hot street—that made her a Madonna. The alert, inner silence which looked out from those eyes overawed him; yet at any moment she might laugh like a child, or run like Artemis or dance like a Maenad. All this against the golden sky which looked as if it were only an arm’s length above her head (Perelandra ch. 5).

We see how it was, visually speaking, an impossible task. So we should be grateful to James Lewicki for attempting to do moderately well on what so many have done so badly. Someone has recoloured and focussed the pieces, which I think enhances what we see–even if the colours are a bit brash (see the tiles below).

Of the imaginative fantasy art and terrible science-fiction interpretations, there is one cover of Perelandra that is clearly my favourite–one that I have tucked into every post that I felt I could get away with. This Avon cover on the right is just so painfully bad that it fills my Perelandra lectures with opportunities for pure mockery and teachable moments about art, writing, and culture.

Giant green-bodied/pale-faced naked alien gods looming above with wispy clouds right where their fancy bits might go, while a Never Nude Ransom stands defiantly against them in his superman pose.

Really, super tight jean shorts?

If the man and woman were the Adam and Eve of Perelandra, it makes sense that Tinidril has a friendly smile to welcome a dear friend. But look at her face: Does she look more like the innocent child-mother of a fresh new world, or the girl in high school who wouldn’t talk to you? And why is Tor holding a sphere and looking like a soap opera star trying to find his lines in the meaningful distance?

While parts that might offend censors have been tastefully covered for us readers, imagine the view from Ransom’s angle. Let’s face it: this god and goddess are extremely … fit and very … photogenic.

True, Ransom is looking pretty fine as well–not like someone who is slowly healing from near-fatal wounds and days of danger, distress, and darkness. Isn’t it amazing how Ransom’s hair is so neat and trimmed after months without a cut?

Of course, this picture is not of Tor and Tinidril, though, but of Malacandra and Perelandra, Mars and Venus, the angelic planetary intelligences Ransom knows as Eldils but who do not typically take visual form. At the end of Ransom’s adventures, they want to present themselves visually as they meet Tor and Tinidril, who have passed the test of temptation. After Mars and Venus attempt Ezekiel-like forms that disorient Ransom–though it would be amazing to see them in art–Ransom encounters them in a somewhat humanlike form. The passage is several pages, and I have included a part of that below, but here are some of the characteristics:

Their bodies, he said, were white. But a flush of diverse colours began at about the shoulders and streamed up the necks and flickered over face and head and stood out around the head like plumage or a halo…. The ‘plumage’ or halo of the one eldil was extremely different from that of the other. The Oyarsa of Mars shone with cold and morning colours, a little metallic—pure, hard, and bracing. The Oyarsa of Venus glowed with a warm splendour, full of the suggestion of teeming vegetable life.

The faces surprised him very much. Nothing less like the ‘angel’ of popular art could well be imagined. The rich variety, the hint of undeveloped possibilities, which make the interest of human faces, were entirely absent. He concluded in the end that [their look] was charity. But it was terrifyingly different from the expression of human charity, which we always see either blossoming out of, or hastening to descend into, natural affection. Here there was no affection at all: no least lingering memory of it even at ten million years’ distance, no germ from which it could spring in any future, however remote. Pure, spiritual, intellectual love shot from their faces like barbed lightning. It was so unlike the love we experience that its expression could easily be mistaken for ferocity.

Both the bodies were naked, and both were free from any sexual characteristics, either primary or secondary…. Ransom … has said that Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre. He thinks that the first held in his hand something like a spear, but the hands of the other were open, with the palms towards him…. At all events what Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender.

The two white creatures were sexless. But he of Malacandra was masculine (not male); she of Perelandra was feminine (not female). Malacandra seemed to him to have the look of one standing armed, at the ramparts of his own remote archaic world, in ceaseless vigilance, his eyes ever roaming the earthward horizon whence his danger came long ago…. But the eyes of Perelandra opened, as it were, inward, as if they were the curtained gateway to a world of waves and murmurings and wandering airs, of life that rocked in winds and splashed on mossy stones and descended as the dew and arose sunward in thin-spun delicacy of mist.

Well, that explains the spear and the open hands–and perhaps the looks of Mars and Venus are attempts to capture that here. And there is “mist” in this scene–hence the clouds? But I believe that I detect both primary and secondary sexual characteristics–and in very fine form. When pressed to paint a scene of sexless gendered gods, the artist chose to over-sex them.

As Lewis is doing something with words that is too specific and complex for either words or images, I wouldn’t be so harsh to judge the artist except for three things.

The first is the ridiculously sexy nature of the painting. I mean, goodness.

The second is the awkward racism of this piece. When confused by the colours–the text has the angels as white-bodied to the shoulder (white, not pinkish pale bland flesh like mine) with polyvalent heads or headpieces–the artist made the bodies a humanoid Perelandran green like Tor and Tinidril. But then the artist made the faces white–the pinkish pale bland flesh kind like mine, though better looking–to ensure that readers are selecting a book about tastefully sexy nude Caucasian aliens.

And third, I am sure that Dr. Ransom’s bum would have been quite well-shaped, given this artist’s visual imagination. So why the blue jean shorts?

We are so far into the realm of the ridiculous that I am now going to explain why I call this the “Never Nude” book cover in my lectures and blog posts.

Besides “Never Nude” being an apt title for a book about nudity that an artist hilariously tries to hide with denim and wispy clouds, “Never Nude” is a pop culture thing.

For those who know the smart-goofy American TV serial, Arrested Development, you got it from the title. For the rest, “Never Nude” is a psychological complex that Tobias Fünke suffers from. Tobias, a former psychiatrist, is completely unable to be naked–even in the shower or with his wife. Instead, Tobias copes with Never Nude Syndrome by taking a cue from Dr. Ransom on Perelandra and wearing tight jean cutoffs under his clothes. While this syndrome is not widely known by psychologists, Tobias is not the only character to suffer from it.

And so I leave you with the final bit of nonsense in this mostly nonsense post about some good but mostly puzzling, lazy, irrelevant, racist, sexist, and infelicitous interpretations of SF writing on classic book covers. In this selection of Arrested Development clips, Tobias shares his Never Nude disability with others for the first time–a secret known only to his wife, Lindsay Bluth-Fünke, played by Portia de Rossi. In the clip, George Michael Bluth is wearing a nude suit beneath his clothes–initially to get used to playing a nude Adam in a live local rendition of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” As the suit makes him look more physically impressive, he has become addicted to it. Fortunately, his uncle is in a unique situation to sympathize and offer support.

From Perelandra, ch. 16:

Their bodies, he said, were white. But a flush of diverse colours began at about the shoulders and streamed up the necks and flickered over face and head and stood out around the head like plumage or a halo. He told me he could in a sense remember these colours—that is, he would know them if he saw them again—but that he cannot by any effort call up a visual image of them nor give them any name. The very few people with whom he and I can discuss these matters all give the same explanation. We think that when creatures of the hypersomatic kind choose to ‘appear’ to us, they are not in fact affecting our retina at all, but directly manipulating the relevant parts of our brain. If so, it is quite possible that they can produce there the sensations we should have if our eyes were capable of receiving those colours in the spectrum which are actually beyond their range. The ‘plumage’ or halo of the one eldil was extremely different from that of the other. The Oyarsa of Mars shone with cold and morning colours, a little metallic—pure, hard, and bracing. The Oyarsa of Venus glowed with a warm splendour, full of the suggestion of teeming vegetable life.

The faces surprised him very much. Nothing less like the ‘angel’ of popular art could well be imagined. The rich variety, the hint of undeveloped possibilities, which make the interest of human faces, were entirely absent. One single, changeless expression, so clear that it hurt and dazzled him, was stamped on each, and there was nothing else there at all. In that sense their faces were as ‘primitive’, as unnatural, if you like, as those of archaic statues from Aegina. What this one thing was he could not be certain. He concluded in the end that it was charity. But it was terrifyingly different from the expression of human charity, which we always see either blossoming out of, or hastening to descend into, natural affection. Here there was no affection at all: no least lingering memory of it even at ten million years’ distance, no germ from which it could spring in any future, however remote. Pure, spiritual, intellectual love shot from their faces like barbed lightning. It was so unlike the love we experience that its expression could easily be mistaken for ferocity.

Both the bodies were naked, and both were free from any sexual characteristics, either primary or secondary. That, one would have expected. But whence came this curious difference between them? He found that he could point to no single feature wherein the difference resided, yet it was impossible to ignore. One could try—Ransom has tried a hundred times to put it into words. He has said that Malacandra was like rhythm and Perelandra like melody. He has said that Malacandra affected him like a quantitative, Perelandra like an accentual, metre. He thinks that the first held in his hand something like a spear, but the hands of the other were open, with the palms towards him. But I don’t know that any of these attempts has helped me much.

At all events what Ransom saw at that moment was the real meaning of gender. Everyone must sometimes have wondered why in nearly all tongues certain inanimate objects are masculine and others feminine. What is masculine about a mountain or feminine about certain trees? Ransom has cured me of believing that this is a purely morphological phenomenon, depending on the form of the word. Still less is gender an imaginative extension of sex. Our ancestors did not make mountains masculine because they projected male characteristics into them. The real process is the reverse. Gender is a reality, and a more fundamental reality than sex. Sex is, in fact, merely the adaptation to organic life of a fundamental polarity which divides all created beings. Female sex is simply one of the things that have feminine gender; there are many others, and Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless. Masculine is not attenuated male, nor feminine attenuated female. On the contrary, the male and female of organic creatures are rather faint and blurred reflections of masculine and feminine. Their reproductive functions, their differences in strength and size, partly exhibit, but partly also confuse and misrepresent, the real polarity.

All this Ransom saw, as it were, with his own eyes. The two white creatures were sexless. But he of Malacandra was masculine (not male); she of Perelandra was feminine (not female). Malacandra seemed to him to have the look of one standing armed, at the ramparts of his own remote archaic world, in ceaseless vigilance, his eyes ever roaming the earthward horizon whence his danger came long ago. “A sailor’s look,” Ransom once said to me; “you know … eyes that are impregnated with distance.” But the eyes of Perelandra opened, as it were, inward, as if they were the curtained gateway to a world of waves and murmurings and wandering airs, of life that rocked in winds and splashed on mossy stones and descended as the dew and arose sunward in thin-spun delicacy of mist. On Mars the very forests are of stone; in Venus the lands swim.

For now he thought of them no more as Malacandra and Perelandra. He called them by their Tellurian names. With deep wonder he thought to himself, ‘My eyes have seen Mars and Venus. I have seen Ares and Aphrodite.’

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Dour and Daft Reflections of a Prince Edward Islander Speaking in a Nuclear Age, or Words I Don’t Use on Youtube or in Speeches

Last week I was giving a talk at the L.M. Montgomery Institute’s 15th Biennial International Conference at the University of Prince Edward Island. I was speaking on what I called Montgomery’s “iconography of the spiritual imagination.” The talk was less an academic paper and more a playful performance of an idea I found in academic research. In the end, it was really a 20-minute close reading of four paragraphs in Anne of Green Gables that millions of people have read, but that often get passed over–despite their brilliance, humour, and critical strength. It was a good talk–though both the poet and literary magician in me wish that I could have simplified the idea to strengthen the effect and enhance the “aha!” factor of the performance.

In the midst of a key moment, I had a bit of a crisis when I came to this line:

Christ couldn’t look dour or angry or stern or the children wouldn’t trust him.

I had practiced the talk a dozen times, but I hadn’t thought about how to say “dour.”  Locally, we say it so it rhymes with “sour,” like dower, daʊə. A more standard pronunciation is more like “doo-uh”–though soft, with a schwa sound sucking in the “r,” dʊə–or like doo-er or dewer, dʊ(ə)r. When I say the word out loud, I say dour/sour. But when I think of that word, I hear a Scottish English pronunciation like the first syllable of “durable” but with a rolling “r.”

So … a room of Montgomery readers from 18 countries, half of whom are not native English speakers, but who learned English either from the US or the UK/Continental Europe pathways rather than from Prince Edward Island‘s rural school system … what should I say?

In the decision of a moment, for the sake of clarity, I said dour/sour. It would be clear for many, it is honest to my natural way of speaking, and it gives a texture to the word I liked (the sourness more than the durability of “dour”).

Did I make the right choice? L.M. Montgomery does not rhyme “dour” in her poetry, so I can’t be sure, but there is a suggestive “sour” pronunciation in the first stanza of “The Exile”:

We told her that her far off shore was bleak and dour to view,
And that her sky was dull and mirk while ours was smiling blue.
She only sighed in answer, “It is even as ye say,
But oh, the ragged splendour when the sun bursts through the gray!”

Obviously, though, the better choice is to not use that word in a talk! Seriously, speeches are hard enough to give on their own without adding a whole world of trouble in difficult-to-pronounce words. Beyond my own tendency to stutter when set back on my heels, some folks are über dour about how to pronounce words.

For example, in my 10-minute Book Talk on Walter Miller’s genius science fiction novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, a friendly viewer living in a police state of perfect pronunciation wrote a comment:

“Nuclear”, “nuclear”, “nuclear”. FFS, stop saying, “nook-yuh-ler”

Touché … or touchy, either one. Nucular-age jerk that I am, I wrote:

You must find life exhausting! The whole internet is there, here is a talk about a gorgeous and challenging book, and you take the time to harp on my local accent? Be free! You don’t have to police the whole world. Are you going to live your life critiquing local accents and variant pronunciations of all the greatly mishandled and regionally varied words, like lieutenant, aluminum, Arctic, tenterhooks, espresso, Toronto, acai berry tea, potable, film, basil, pernickety, Wednesday, Saoirse, all the French words Americans say wrong, and the word “pronunciation” itself? Who lives and dies on how you pronounce either when you can pronounce it either way?

The viewer didn’t miss a beat in responding to my inelegant slam:

Not exhausting at all, actually, though you may want to clear up your understanding of the etymology of, “pernickety” and the long-accepted American version of, “persnickety”, from the British, not French, the pronunciation of which you’ll find in all reputable dictionaries of the last century, unlike, “nook-yuh-ler”, which you ain’t gone fin’ nowhere. Nice try to charge me with an entire life of hand-wringing and damnation of all speakers worldwide because you can’t pronounce one word. Your video only has 104 views, 105 if I give it a like just for trying, so I will. When you make yourself public, expect to be corrected when you err, make the change, and improve your lot, but FFS, don’t go…. (sayyyy it). 

In terms of the writing life of trolls beneath the literary bridges of the Interweb, it’s pretty well done. And my “nook-yuh-ler” (though I weight the middle vowel a bit more) is not in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) pronunciation guide–though Merriam-Webster notes it as nonstandard. The American Heritage Dictionary adds a usage note:

The pronunciation (noo’kyə-lər), which is generally considered incorrect, is an example of how a familiar phonological pattern can influence an unfamiliar one. The usual pronunciation of the final two syllables of this word is (-klēər), but this sequence of sounds is rare in English. Much more common is the similar sequence (-kyə-lər), which occurs in words like particular, circular, spectacular, and in many scientific words like molecular, ocular, and vascular. Adjusted to fit into this familiar pattern, the (-kyə-lər) pronunciation is often heard in high places. It is not uncommon in the military in association with nuclear weaponry, and it has been observed in the speech of US presidents, including Dwight D. Eisenhower and George W. Bush. The prominence of these speakers, however, has done little to brighten the appeal of (noo’kyə-lər), which was considered acceptable to only 10 percent of the Usage Panel in our 2004 survey.

Well, tough day for me as a hack speaker–though my hick pronunciation is “often heard in high places.” I like a touch of humour in my dictionaries, don’t you? That one is nicely done. A new Usage Panel survey is perhaps warranted, but I think we are sliding back to “nuclear” in more proper ways in popular English.

And, by the way, my Canticle for Leibowitz video has 3,500 views. So there Nuclear Boy!

For the sake of honesty, I should add that even I, pronunciation bottom dweller that I am, have been a bit per(s)nickety about pronunciation. I queried whether C.S. Lewis’ strange dystopic narrative poem is pronounced “Die-mer” or “Dee-mer” (I am certain “Dymer” is “Die” not “Dee). I launched “A Complaynt on the Letter Y and Wyther Grange of Emily of New Moon,” and I wrote this piece: “The Sloo/Slow/Sluff of Despond: Today’s Word of the Day and a Spiritual Truth in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.” So I clearly think word pronunciation is important. 

(And folks who are both lovers of words and listeners of American roots music, you should see this.)

In any case, the result is that I’ve got to scratch “nuclear” with “dour” from my talks–and check ahead in other cases. I must admit, though, that mispronouncing an invented house name in a book is nothing compared to the fear I have of saying one of Tolkien’s 14,168 invented words wrong in public. Dour or not, Tolkienists can be … precise.

There are other words that I have erased from my speaking vocabulary for obvious reasons, like niggard or niggardly, fecund, nippy, masticate, and titular. Like that poor American youth pastor schmuck all those years ago when Youtube was young, I will never say “pitch my tents” out loud.  Or anyone’s tents. There are other phrases and words to use, for English is rich in possibilities. No doubt, I will discover other “Words that Must Not Be Named” along the way by accident. This is just a little terrifying but is the normal adventure of words in motion.

I do say “Poop Deck” whenever I speak to children about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. So there.

One word that I cannot pronounce in a formal talk is “imaginative.” And I want that word, for all of my work is with imaginative writers. Anne is imagination personified. However, I have it in the “intro” of my MaudCast script, and I just cannot get it right.

Some of my speech self-editing is because of my upbringing and my local verbal space. Sometimes this is my own confusion, like riffle vs. rifle as a verb describing a shuffling search. My mother was indefatigable–a word I don’t say in speaches because I will mess it up–in retraining me to say “I beat” instead of “I bet” when referring to winning a game. Locally, we often soften “often” to “offen,” or almost, for me it rhymes with “soften”–and I have been soundly rebuked for this one. And I think we say “etc.” as “ectetera,” not quite an “x” sound, but a clear case of metalepsis. Or maybe I mean metathesis … either way, more words to avoid–though in her Great Course lecture series, The Secret Life of Words: English Words and Their Origins, Anne Curzan tells me that the maligned American pronunciation “aks” for “ask” has historical precedence: Chaucer used both spellings.

You can see in my saucy Youtube response to Dr Strangelove above, that I seem to favour a regional disparity in word pronunciation. I like the variety of usage that an English map would reveal (see here for North America, just dialects). However, there are some localisms I detest. Cringingly, folks say “I been” here in PEI–a point that one of Montgomery’s characters notes as a personal shame, somewhere in her stories. Prince Edward Islanders, insist on taking the “r” out of “slippery” and putting it in “wash,” and lean heavily on certain vowel sounds. Though we have our share of fine singers, “Silent Night” can sound like this in rural churches:

“Soi-lent noit. Hoe-ly noit. All is cam, all is broit.”

“Calm” is pronounced with a terrible nasal soft “a” sound. We would have named a daughter “Hana” as in Japanese “Hanako,” “flower child,” but the light rhyming syllable “Hana” would have become a nasally “Hanghth-ah”–with the first “a” sound like New Englanders say “sandwich.” Before Nicolas was a Nicolas 18 years ago, as an Islander having just moved from Japan to Vancouver, that pronunciation would have made me leave a room. Today, after being indoctrinated in our local talk, I quite like the Hannahs I know.

Here is a conversation I might overhear at local Tim Horton’s after an older man orders a double-double and sits with a gathering of like-minded gossipy old farts (a self-description I once heard):

Old Fart 1: “Jeez b’ys, but ain’t those arseholes in Warshington some slippy.”

Old Fart 2: “‘Magine!”

Old Fart 3: “P’isen!”

Old Fart 4: “[Indistinguisable in-breath of assent] Youse’ll find out they been fillin’ kit bags full of cash all along.”

Old Farts 1 through 4: “[Indistinguisable in-breath of assent]”

The “Indistinguishable in-breath of assent” is what linguists call ingressive pulmonic speech, or an ingressive particle.  As you can hear in this delightful video on CBC News by my friend, linguist Anne Furlong, we may have the Vikings to honour or blame for this! You have to hear it to know.

This suck-in particle is probably related to the English particle “eh,” which has roots back in Middle English “ey.” Canadians get a generous laugh from Americans for saying “eh” at the end of sentences and apologizing a lot. This Canadian-born habit bred in me a kinship with the Japanese language when I moved to Japan a few years ago for a brief and beautiful part of my life.

Like Canadian English, Japanese also has “an interjectional interrogative particle; often inviting assent to the sentiment expressed,” as the OED defines “eh!”–though I would add “reflexive” before “interjectional” in the definition, at least in the case of Canadian and Japanese. “Ne,” , sounds like “eh,” but is a bit softer. Like Canadian end-of-sentence “eh,” “ne” is trying to draw a response from the listener in some way (thus reflexive).

Japanese folks also apologize a lot. Truly, more than a Canadian’s instinctive “sorry,” many of their relational words are apologies and “excuse me” in one way or the other. A 2015 BBC article captured the reality of this Japanese verbal culture, but there is a practical application. If you can simply learn words like “sumimasen,” すみません, you will do well. “Yurushite,” 許して, is a more formal pleading for forgiveness, and onegaishimasu, お願いします, a word of asking, has a polite and deferential tone, like “if you please.” There are dozens of apologetically tinged words in the language, for built into the Japanese social space is a give-and-take of relationship with dozens of degrees of complexity.

To be fair to Canadians, “eh” is pretty common in many lands. I hear Americans use it with ease, and it is a normal part of conversation for many British folk–though they may be more apt to say “Eh?” or “Eh!” as a response at the beginning of a sentence than Canadians, who say “pardon me?”–a kind of apology, once again.

Onlookers be warned: don’t be fooled by apologetic language in Canada and Japan. Apologetic language can be like the act of bowing in Japan: what looks deferential and communicates respect but is also a way of gaining power and creating defined spaces and even distance.

I have largely worked out the “eh” in my formal conversation, but I hope that it still pervades my everyday talk–even when talking to Americans. I don’t know in what other ways I protect myself, though, from the American ridicule of the “Canadian accent.” Anyone who has spent time in Canada, or near it, knows that there is a great deal of difference in Canadian accents. The lower mainland BC (Vancouver) accent is distinct from cowtown Calgary, AB, the plains of northern Saskatchewan, the “we’re the centre of the universe” Torontonian gabber, someone native to Iqaluit, or a Quebecer–which is different in the north or in Montreal in Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! in the east. Even in our small Maritime region, I can tell when someone is from Bouctouche, St. John, Acadian Moncton, Tignish, North Rustico, Souris, Cape Breton, Digby, or the French south shore. I would be surprised if an accent specialist found only a few hundred variations on the Island of Newfoundland.

Still, despite the erroneous American imagination of a Canadian accent–and despite variances in its pronunciation across the country, one thing is certain: though I say “house” with distinct precision, “how-se,” Americans hear it as rhyming with “moose.” I blame the government. So I just don’t say “house” if I can help it.

Moose, by the way, really are huge here, but not in every part of Canada.

Who can win this word game anyhow? Some folk gets fussy about accents and pronunciations, and other folk gets owly. But as Buddy Whatshisname always says, “Holy mackerel! Why go scoffin’? They just needs a good biff on the head.” Well, I haven’t quite boughtened into that bit of Island wisdom as a way of defining my entire approach to giving talks and making Youtube videos, but it goes some ways towards sharing my feelings. Going a bit further, I would say that if you are presenting yourself to the world, you have to think about the way your words land in different contexts. And it is super key to avoid words that will trip you up.

However, when it comes to everyday connections–whether on the beach or at table or connected through nuclear age technology–you should speak the way you want.

As Old Fart #5 might say, “Fill yer boots!”

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A Major Award! My Paper on L.M. Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams won The Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper!

Last weekend, at the banquet that closed the L.M. Montgomery Institute’s 15th Biennial International Conference at the University of Prince Edward Island, I received a Major Award! In the grand company of Montgomery scholars and fans–as well as artists inspired by Montgomery, and local tourism operators and family members–I received Elizabeth R.  Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper for my 2020 paper, “Making Friends with the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Popular Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams.” Although I knew about this prestigious L.M. Montgomery Institute (LMMI) award a while back, I was finally able to receive the certificate and connect in person with Bonnie Tulloch–the 2018 Epperly Award winner.

It was a nice moment to have Bonnie, a Canadian PhD researcher, present me with the certificate last Saturday night. At the close of Season 1 of the MaudCast, I had the chance to sit down with Bonnie Tulloch for an interview. Bonnie won the 2018 Epperly award for her paper “Canadian “Anne-Girl[s]”: Literary Descendents of Montgomery’s Redheaded Heroine”–which is now published and freely available here. What was intended to be a conversation primarily about Bonnie’s work soon became something else. We did have a great chat about the “Anne-girl” figure in Canadian literature, as well as other cool literary topics. However, in collusion with the LMMI, Bonnie soon “flipped the microphone,” taking over the podcast to interview me about my paper. I think it is a conversation that readers would enjoy. And I would encourage you to check out Bonnie’s work at here “Nonsensical Times” blog.

Below, I describe the award, my process of writing, and how to read my paper–which is now published in The Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies and is open access–free to everyone. First, though, I would like to give my thanks to all involved (their details are below): Lesley and Tara as tireless editors, Jane for life-giving precision, the anonymous peer-reviewers for committing time to make this a better piece, Bonnie for the conversation and encouragement along the way, and Betsy Epperly, Emily Woster, and Kate Scarth as adjudicators with Bonnie. As the L.M. Montgomery Chair at UPEI, Kate has also provided ceaseless encouragement and support, for which I am grateful. Behind the scenes at the Journal and the LMMI are dozens of committed volunteers, supporters, and student workers who make all of this possible. Thank you to the Becks for providing me with a space to write a difficult piece in the perfect place: right next to Prince Edward Island’s stormy shoreline. And, as always, to Kerry who teaches me so much.

The L.M. Montgomery Institute’s Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper

For the last 27 years, the L.M. Montgomery Institute (LMMI) has encouraged researchers from around the world to share their work at its biennial conferences. These conferences have also become a welcoming place for new scholars from across disciplines. In 2018, to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary and to recognize the outstanding work of these voices, the LMMI created an award for outstanding paper by a student or an early career scholar (within three years of terminal degree completion).

Dr. Elizabeth R. Epperly is a leading L.M. Montgomery and Victorian literature scholar. She was critical to the founding of the L.M. Montgomery Institute, and continues to serve the scholarly community as a mentor and scholar. Her The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance (1992; 2014) is a foundational text, probably the first literary-critical monograph on Montgomery and essential to the development of the discipline of Montgomery studies. It is also beautifully written, which is not always true of works of literary criticism.

The winner of the 2020 Elizabeth R. Epperly Award will be recognized on the Vision Virtual Conference Space (on the Journal of L.M. Montgomery website) and will receive a certificate, expedited peer review of her/his paper for possible publication in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies, and complimentary full registration at the 2022 biennial conference. The winner’s name will also be engraved on a plaque to be placed in the LMMI space in Robertson Library.

Selection Process

In 2020, a panel of four judges (Lesley Clement, Kate Scarth, Bonnie Tulloch, and Emily Woster), appointed by the LMMI Management Committee, received six very strong papers. representing a diverse range of disciplines, from six different counties (three continents).

Given the unique circumstances of 2020 and the cancellation of the onsite June conference, early career presenters were asked to submit papers prepared for journal publication, rather than for presentation at the conference as they would normally have done. The judges then decided which of the six papers best demonstrated “both thoughtful engagement with past Montgomery scholarship and an original, compelling argument.”

A Sampling of the Panel’s Comments on My Paper

  • “This paper related to the theme of vision through its exploration of the significance of darkness and light in Montgomery’s Anne’s House of Dreams. The author made a notable effort to engage with a substantial corpus of Montgomery scholarship and positioned the essay in dialogue with Elizabeth Epperly’s ideas in particular.”
  • “Beautifully written, scholarly informed reflection on Anne’s House of Dreams drawing on a tension central to Montgomery between darkness and light.”
  • “The argument flows nicely…asking pertinent and engaging questions along the way.”
  • “Beautifully argued, a unique reading of Anne’s House of Dreams with a nicely contextualized final argument/conclusions that invite comment and conversation going forward – just what an essay like this should do!”

Making Friends with the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Popular Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams: The Story Behind the Paper

It started first as a proposal as an academic conference paper. Since the early 1990s, the L.M. Montgomery Institute (LMMI) has encouraged researchers from around the world to share their work at its biennial interdisciplinary conferences here in Prince Edward Island. In 2020, our theme was “L.M. Montgomery and “Vision,” and in my research, I had been thinking about themes of image, colour, light, and distance–particularly in the trio of “Four Winds” books Montgomery wrote during and after WWI. After months of research, I felt like I had found something worth talking about.

In reading and rereading the story of Anne’s early married life in Four Winds Harbour, Anne’s House of Dreams, I began to discern within the story a rather sophisticated approach to darkness and trouble. Written in one of Montgomery’s most intense moments of worry and loss, Anne’s House of Dreams seems to have the most sophisticated mix of lovely and terrible moments, of light and darkness, of hope and horror–at least of the Anne novels. And yet, Montgomery never seems to negate either the value of good, beautiful things or of the heart-rending difficult moments of suffering. Because Epperly’s Fragrance of Sweet-Grass is such an influential text, I wanted to dialogue with her thesis about Anne’s House of Dreams, where she argues that “all things harmonize” in this text. Her metaphor of “harmony” works well as a tool for analysis, but I wanted to trouble it a little bit. Can light and darkness ever really harmonize? Or is something going on in the core experiences of the characters and Montgomery’s consideration of how such pain and suffering can exist in a providential world?

This paper was my attempt to play with these questions.

The biennial LMMI conferences have a rigorous review process, and I pitched a paper for the June 2020 conference in the summer of 2019. This was all happening just as my first Montgomery paper was being published, “C.S. Lewis’s Theory of Sehnsucht as a Tool for Theorizing L.M. Montgomery’s Experience of ‘The Flash”–a paper I presented at the 2018 Frances White Ewbank Colloquium on C.S. Lewis & Friends at Taylor University and published by Joe Ricke and Ashley Chu in The Faithful Imagination (Winged Lion Press, 2019). My next piece, “Rainbow Valley as Embodied Heaven: Initial Explorations into L.M. Montgomery’s Spirituality in Fiction,” was a paper I presented at the 2018 conference and had been recently accepted for the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studies (and has since been published, see here).

I was been feeling positive about my Montgomery work and making plans for the future.

My paper was accepted for the 2020 conference, but even assure futures are notoriously difficult things to predict.

In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 sent everything into disarray, and the Montgomery and Vision conference decided to go virtual. LMMI leaders used that L.M. Montgomery and Vision Forum to highlight some key moments of research and artistry (which you can find archived here), and we used the Forum to launch the MaudCast, the official podcast of the L.M. Montgomery Institute, which I am pleased to host. When the conference went virtual, I pivoted my work to MaudCast interviews. But scholars in graduate school or just completing a PhD–I defended my thesis just two weeks after submitting my paper proposal–were invited to write their papers as full essays and submit them to the 2020 Elizabeth R. Epperly Award for Outstanding Early Career Paper.

Feeling like my idea had merit, I took a four-day writing retreat in June 2020 to write the essay and spent much of summer 2020 revising it. When the award deadline came, I was able to submit “Making Friends with the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Popular Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams”–a bit tentatively, as it was a difficult and complex work, but feeling like I was ready for some feedback. One phrase, in particular, continued to resonate in me. I was reflecting upon how a main character, the lighthouse keeper Captain Jim, acts morally when confronted with evil–standing up against that wrong action and working to rectify it. But he also tells the story of the encounter, and I came to see that Montgomery was using storytelling in the novel as a practical response to evil in a world we cannot always understand. I concluded one section of the piece with these words.

“For the story is important to tell as a way of concluding a moral action; telling stories is one of the things we do in the face of evil we cannot understand.”

Besides getting thoughtful feedback–and for those who don’t know, quality feedback for scholars and writers is all too rare–winning the Epperly Award also gave me a pathway toward publication in the Journal of L.M. Montgomery Studiesnot only the leading journal of the field, but one that is both open-sourced and editorially effective.

What began was a series of rewrites and revisions that–while harrowing in the midst of the process, as I admit here–resulted in a stronger essay than I could have imagined. I was attempting a complex experiment in theology and literature. I wanted to take a non-academic, popular writer and demonstrate that her intensely personal novel reveals a sophisticated use of imagery that provides a philosophically satisfying response to one of life’s most difficult questions.

In reading this experimental piece, the peer reviewers and committee members provided overwhelmingly helpful encouragement, guidance, and critique. I have already noted the award committee feedback, but I was surprised by how helpful the peer review critiques were, pushing me to define my terms more clearly and to work harder at drawing the reader into the conversation. At each stage, journal editors Lesley Clement and Tara K. Parmiter provided insightful comments and incisive critiques, allowing each draft to be stronger and clearer than the one before. Even the copy editor, Jane Ledwell, did more than simply perfect the grammar, but as a Montgomery reader, artist, and scholar, also provided topic-sensitive clarifications at critical points. Each of these readers provided an unusual amount of critique to make what is, I think, a far stronger essay.

And now it is available free globally on the Journal website as “Befriending the Darkness: L.M. Montgomery’s Lived Theodicy in Anne’s House of Dreams.” Here is a longer abstract of the paper for those interested:

Abstract: Upon completing Anne’s House of Dreams in 1916, Montgomery recorded in her journal that she had never written “amid so much strain of mind and body” (193). Caught between the pressures of life, Montgomery admitted that WWI was “slowly killing” her (185)—a war bound up for Montgomery with the agony of the loss of her second son. What Elizabeth Epperly calls Montgomery’s “most unselfconsciously philosophic” novel (The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass 75), Anne’s House of Dreams delves into painful issues of loss, suicide, bad marriages, ill-timed love, poverty, and the beautiful-terrible consequences of duty. The result is a complex and nuanced consideration of life faithfully lived as it excels in the “effects of light and shadow,” allowing for both “joy and sorrow” (Anne’s House of Dreams 84, 93).

As a novel filled with biblical and poetic references to the nature of life, and as a story unwilling to look away from difficult themes, readers are left with the assurance that “Everything works together for good” (Anne’s House of Dreams 16; see Rom 8:28). In dialogue with Epperly’s treatment—both accepting the basic argument but interrogating the metaphor of “harmony” in order to generate new analysis—this paper considers Anne’s House of Dreams as a lived theodicy. “There’s something in the world amiss,” Anne admits, quoting Tennyson, but it is unclear whether it will be fully “unriddled by and by” (162). Instead, with Leslie, there is some beauty to “the struggle—and the crash—and the noise” of life (64). Montgomery offers a complex and conflicted defence of goodness, which is a lived theodicy where readers are invited to make friends with the darkness in order to see the light.

My paper is the second publication for the L.M. Montgomery & Vision collection that came out of our 2020 virtual conference, and I look forward to seeing a series of projects emerge on this theme. For those who also want to think more dynamically about the paper and the process of writing, I am still thinking about how I would like to create some sort of visual invitation to the piece. I find film work to be a long and fruitful process, but one that requires a lot of creative mental space (which I don’t have right now!). Perhaps that will come in the weeks ahead.

My thanks to the organizers of the Epperly Award! As an emerging scholar, it is gratifying to know that people would commit so much time to providing support for the next generation of readers.

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An Unfinished Walking Song and Prince Edward Island’s Mi’kmaq on National Indigenous Peoples Day

Jingle dress dancers perform during the second day of powwow at Abegweit First Nation Powwow, June 2022 (photo by Jane Robertson/CBC)

For the past few days, our local news and some of my social media streams have been filled with images and stories and conversations about Canada’s First Nations peoples. The weather was nicer on the weekend for big outdoor events across the Province of Prince Edward Island. Today, though, the shivering hopeful and thankful will gather down by the water in downtown Charlottetown for music, dance, games, and other cultural events. Amidst pride flags and merchandise stands, my local coffee shop has created a kind of Mi’kmaq educational display. There are stories and histories, some Miꞌkmaq greetings to learn, profiles of local elders, and a bit of symbolic artwork.

Today is National Indigenous Peoples Day, an opportunity on the longest day of the year for Canadians to recognize and celebrate the unique heritage, diverse cultures, and outstanding contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. It is a day of celebration, culture, and remembrance, but also one of mourning. Amidst the hundreds of years of colonial pressure, trade, and community development is a history so terrifyingly violent that it breaks my heart to recount. However, this is part of the story of Canada, the country I love, my home.

My Scottish family heritage is one that includes people of creativity and vision writhing under colonial oppression, generations trying to escape from poverty, and a fight for the right to live and farm, to practice our faith and raise our children in peace. Thus, even though I only know a fraction of my community’s story–and even less about the history elsewhere–my sympathies are with the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

This day is for me also one of continued learning. Not far from where I grew up–in the village where I went to school, in fact–there were stories of Mi’kmaq people of the past. All that remained in my childhood, however, was that local belief and a few archaeological remnants they shared with us on class trips. Our Prince Edward Island history textbook was called Abegweit: Land of the Red Soil. The name “Abegweit” thrilled me, like a world of faërie that I always longed to see but was always out of my reach.

However, as a rural Prince Edward Islander in what we know as Epekwitk, I never met a person growing up who told me they were Native, let alone Mi’kmaq. We said “Micmac” then, like “Tik Tak,” but Mi’kmaq sounds something like “mig-maw”–though when I listen to locals speak, there seems to me something happening in the back of the throat at the end of each syllable that I lack the expertise to describe. I remember stories growing up about Mi’kmaq history, particularly about a relationship with the land and sea that better matched the rhythms needed for our little garden province.

I also remember being given childhood worksheets of questionable quality about Native peoples, and laughing with scorn at my poor French teacher when she wrote Amérindiens on the board–American Indian–and tried to tell us that this was a good technical title. I had been taught since I was young about the stupidity and cruelty of the name “Indian,” and must confess to having some feeling of superiority over this particular teacher, whose world was very small. Arrogance is not one of my better qualities, and I suppose French students today must learn a word like “Autochtones,” Autochthonous or Indigenous.

Chief Junior Gould of Abegweit First Nation joins the drum group Mi’kmaq Thunder for the singing of the Honour Song, June 2022 (photo by Jane Robertson/CBC)

Really, besides that textbook and some local educational events. the Mi’kmaq people lived as a kind of story in my mind, like the Western plains settlement and goldrush tales that bored me to tears in childhood. The first Métis friend I had, a teen street wanderer like me, on the edge of trouble, spoke of his Mi’kmaq family on the reserve and had an Acadian name. As I was curious, and as we were wandering about aimlessly, he took me into some kind of community centre. Almost without a transition, I found myself seated on the floor next to a drum. Someone spoke what sounded like a prayer, and then sprinkled loose tobacco on the drumskin. Then someone handed me a paddle with fabric bundled on one end.

“You are welcome,” the old man said. “Go ahead. Drum.”

When I looked terrified, he chuckled and the other men smiled, and the first man spoke again:

“Good then, watch, listen. When you hear it, you can walk with me.”

He beat the drum, and I felt the bass of it rumble through my awkward teenage body. I found the beat, and joined in, and others did as well. Then as the boom, boom, boom of the drum drew those gathered into a circle, they sang, or chanted, or called out–I do not know the word for it, Or the words they used–if they were words. But it was song like story, with age and legend, call and response. There was bittersweetness there, and something that I have felt was a touch of defiance, though I might be wrong. It was a walking song, I discerned–and that was my first moment in learning to listen to those who both walked before me and remain alongside me.

Since that day, I have lived in places with a large Indigenous community, and other places where their presence was subdued or invisible–or gone altogether. I have tried to learn the histories and stories. As a religious studies scholar, I have taken the time to understand some Indigenous spiritualities and worldviews, including those like Mi’kmaq Roman Catholics or Inuit Anglicans for whom their faith is meaningful.

And as a University teacher, for some years now I have included a unit in our foundation-year program about the Residential School program in Canada’s history. This is when Church and Government conspired to remove children from their homes, scrub them of their language and culture and spirituality, and train them in British and French patterns of colonial Canadian culture. That there are so many living stories of sex abuse survivors in the Church- and State-run schools, and that so many thousands of unmarked graves of children have been discovered on Residential School properties show the cruelty and corruption of the system and the real value the community placed on these dear lives. But the project was corrupt to the core: “Kill the Indian to save the Child” was the public policy of Canada’s Victorian visionaries.

Ask yourself what the death rate is at your local elementary school, and you see how deeply disturbing it is that there is such a statistic at all. Ask yourself what you would do if the government came to take your children away because of what you believed or your family’s heritage, and you see the core problem. The last Residential School closed in 1996.

It may be that at some point I must do something significant, something substantial, something other than impatient patients and intentional curiosity. Meanwhile, without being lost in the violent parts of the story, or the deep betrayal of the Church, or the ongoing patterns of exclusion,  I keep trying to learn and teach and raise my son, to watch and listen, and when I can, to walk with my neighbours.

As I tried to help my family get out of the house for last days of school and first days of work this morning, I felt a song growing in me. It had this line, “these paths I tread have been walked before”–really more an image and a feeling than a lyric as of yet. But I thought of the line in French. And then I wondered how it would sound in our local Mi’kmaq language, and my family’s lost Scottish Gaelic, and the tongues of those to come. As part of the L.M. Montgomery Conference, tomorrow I am attending a creative session, “Revisioning Land as Teacher and Healer: Mi’kmaq Stories and Theories.” It will be led by Julie Pellissier-Lush, a Mi’kmaq artist and past Poet Laureate of Prince Edward Island. I have Julie’s collection of poetry and visual art, Epekwitk, and I look forward to watching, listening, and learning from her. Perhaps more words to that walking song will come.

And thus, on this day and others, I offer my thanks to the Mi’kmaq people, for whom the ancestral and ongoing land of Prince Edward Island is Epekwitk, a community cradled in the waves of Mi’kma’ki. And with the Inuit, Métis, and other Indigenous peoples who call the land of the red soil home, I appreciate your hospitality and hope you will take my curiosity in the spirit in which it is intended as we all hope for better things ahead.

Note: the three icons in the are meant to capture in visual simplicity what is a fairly complex Indigenous Peoples community:

  • The eagle to represent First Nations
  • The narwhal to represent Inuit
  • The beaded flower to represent Métis

The government website does not say who the artist is.

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