Bethlehem as the Hingepoint of History: C.S. Lewis’ Christmas Revolution Poem

It is difficult to see this poem in the Christmases that most of us are subjected to. I think that’s why C.S. Lewis became a bit of a Christmas curmudgeon in his latter days. But in the midst of his Narnian period, Lewis penned a poem that I think is one of his most important short pieces. It is here, in “The Turn of the Tide,” where we see how Lewis puts the incarnation of Christ–that great, eucatastrophic movement of incarnation, death, and resurrection–is not just a key moment in the history of salvation, and certainly not a model for crèche or card. The birth of Christ is the hingepoint of history, where all cosmic realities turn toward hope.

And Lewis captures this in a poem filled with evocative imagery. Jerry Root and Mark Neal describe the turning point well it well:

When the hush has stilled both earth and heaven with a paralyzing fear of death and annihilation, there returns with a rush a sense of life and equilibrium, a lightening of spirits (The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis, 184).

It is a Perelandran moment of myth and history becoming one and changing every destiny in the universe. Whatever we have reduced Christmas to in our culture, whatever they say on TV, this poem shows the ages of depth behind the Bethlehem moment.

The Turn of the Tide

Breathless was the air over Bethlehem; black and bare
The fields; hard as granite were the clods;
Hedges stiff with ice; the sedge, in the vice
Of the ponds, like little iron rods.
The deathly stillness spread from Bethlehem; it was shed
Wider each moment on the land;
Through rampart and wall into camp and into hall
Stole the hush. All tongues were at a stand.
Travellers at their beer in taverns turned to hear
The landlord—that oracle was dumb;
At the Procurator’s feast a jocular freedman ceased
His story, and gaped; all were glum.
Then the silence flowed forth to the islands and the north
And it smoothed the unquiet river-bars,
And leveled out the waves from their revelling, and paved
The sea with the cold, reflected stars.
Where the Cæsar sat and signed at ease on Palatine,
Without anger, the signatures of death,
There stole into his room and on his soul a gloom,
Till he paused in his work and held his breath.
Then to Carthage and the Gauls, to Parthia and the Falls
Of Nile, to Mount Amara it crept;
The romp and rage of beasts in swamp and forest ceased,
The jungle grew still as if it slept.
So it ran about the girth of the planet. From the Earth
The signal, the warning, went out,
Away beyond the air; her neighbours were aware
Of change, they were troubled with doubt.

Salamanders in the Sun who brandish as they run
Tails like the Americas in size,
Were stunned by it and dazed; wondering, they gazed
Up at Earth, misgiving in their eyes.
In Houses and Signs the Ousiarchs divine
Grew pale and questioned what it meant;
Great Galactic lords stood back to back with swords
Half-drawn, awaiting the event,
And a whisper among them passed, “Is this perhaps the last
Of our story and the glories of our crown?—
The entropy worked out?—the central redoubt
Abandoned?—The world-spring running down?”
Then they could speak no more. Weakness overbore
Even them; they were as flies in a web,
In lethargy stone-dumb. The death had almost come,
And the tide lay motionless at ebb.

Like a stab at that moment over Crab and Bowman,
Over Maiden and Lion, came the shock
Of returning life, the start, and burning pang at heart,
Setting galaxies to tingle and rock.
The Lords dared to breathe, swords went into sheathes
A rustling, a relaxing began;
With rumour and noise of the resuming of joys
Along the nerves of the universe it ran.
Then, pulsing into space with delicate dulcet pace,
Came a music infinitely small,
But clear; and it swelled and drew nearer, till it held
All worlds with the sharpness of its call,
And now divinely deep, ever louder, with a leap
And quiver of inebriating sound,
The vibrant dithyramb shook Libra and the Ram,
The brains of Aquarius spun round—
Such a note as neither Throne nor Potentate had known
Since the Word created the abyss.
But this time it was changed in a mystery, estranged,
A paradox, an ambiguous bliss.

Heaven danced to it and burned; such answer was returned
To the hush, the Favete, the fear
That Earth had sent out. Revel, mirth and shout
Descended to her, sphere below sphere,
Till Saturn laughed and lost his latter age’s frost
And his beard, Niagara-like, unfroze;
The monsters in the Sun rejoiced; the Inconstant One,
The unwedded Moon, forgot her woes;
A shiver of re-birth and deliverance round the Earth
Went gliding; her bonds were released;
Into broken light the breeze once more awoke the seas,
In the forest it wakened every beast;
Capripods fell to dance from Taproban to France,
Leprechauns from Down to Labrador;
In his green Asian dell the Phoenix from his shell
Burst forth and was the Phoenix once more.

So Death lay in arrest. But at Bethlehem the bless’d
Nothing greater could be heard
Than sighing wind in the thorn, the cry of One new-born,
And cattle in stable as they stirred.

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“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” Roundtable Video (Feature Friday)

I loved my experience with the Mythgard Movie Club panel last Thursday night. A couple of years ago we hosted a “One Fantastic Rogue Beast” panel to let two popular films clash in conversation: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Star Wars: Rogue One. I followed up with my thoughts on the new Harry Potter world film with a post called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Put Them.” We decided to call the council once more to discuss the new Fantastic Beasts film, The Crimes of Grindelwald.

What resulted was a couple of hours of conversation about the film. I hope that you enjoy!

Mythgard Movie Club Panel

Kelly Orazi is a longtime bookseller, reader, and Signum Grad School student. She spends her days reading Harry Potter, pretending she has the Force, and hanging out with her dog, Lupin. She is descended from a real-life wandmaker, but has yet to embark on the journey of making her own lightsaber.

Emily Strand is a professor of Comparative Religions at Mt. Carmel College of Nursing in Columbus, OH, where she also serves the Catholic diocese as a Master Catechist. Besides her books on liturgy, she has published articles on the Harry Potter series, including a contribution to Harry Potter for Nerds 2, and many essays at HogwartsProfessor.com. She has appeared on the Mugglenet Academia podcast and is a frequent guest on the Reading Writing Rowling podcast.

Brenton Dickieson is working on a PhD on the theology of C.S. Lewis’ fictional worlds and writes the blog, http://www.aPilgrimInNarnia.com. He lives in the almost fictional land of Prince Edward Island, where he teaches and consults in higher education.

Curtis Weyant is a Signum Grad School alumnus whose daughter tried to teach him the magic spells at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, but never quite got the hang of it. A digital marketer by trade, he co-hosts the weekly podcast Kat & Curt’s TV Re-View and occasionally pecks away at his own creative work.

Kat Sas holds an MA in Language & Literature from Signum University, where she concentrated in Imaginative Literature. She hosts a weekly podcast on speculative television at Kat & Curt’s TV Re-View, and she blogs about Doctor WhoGame of Thrones, and other shows on her blog, Raving Sanity.

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Peace on Earth, Nargle Vaccines, and a Christmas Vacation

I have had a flu shot for the first time since the last public health panic. I think it was swine flu or bird flu or nargle flu or something, but it was not an experience that engendered my trust in the public health system.

So I would like it to be clear that my reasons for taking the flu shot were not scientific. I lack the ability or motivation to test the results of a particular generation of flu vaccinations. So I would be simply trusting what the health system says. That is social formation rather than science, so I insist that I took the flu shot out of superstition, purely.

But the superstitious leap is worth it, I think. Really, truly, I didn’t want to have the flu at Christmas, as I have had about half the time. Instead of watching family films and drinking eggnog by the Christmas tree, I spend half my Christmases in the little broom cupboard where we keep infectious people. It sucks missing Christmas.

Mostly, besides peace on earth and good will to my fellow humans and family time by the fire, I miss the turkey. Though I was sick and could not eat, the heavenly aroma still hung heavy in the house. But as my stomach turned it was gone, all gone! No turkey! No turkey sandwiches! No turkey salad! No turkey gravy! Turkey Hash! Turkey a la King! Or gallons of turkey soup!

Instead, after a few days, I have some dried toast and flat ginger ale.

I don’t know if this particular flu vaccine will save me from whatever flu threatens to ruin Christmas, but I don’t want it. So in a move of desperation, fingers crossed, I got the flu shot.

They used a frozen rag on the back of my neck to keep me from fainting. Fainting from the overwhelming miracle of science and the beauty of the unquestioned authority of government health, I mean, not the terror I have of needles.

Miracles, or luck. Or whatever. I don’t really care. I’m also taking vitamin C and ColdFX for the same reason: superstition. If I had lucky shoes or could light candles in a certain order, I would do it. I live 51 weeks a year pretending with everyone else that we live in a scientific worldview. For one week I can surrender to superstition so I can enjoy the holiday. The turkey, mostly, but also light of the world and hope and all that stuff.

Wow, this has turned out to be a terrifically cynical post that was really meant to wish people a Merry Christmas! Oh well. I think it is okay to have some things fail from time to time.

Except for turkey and family time I care very little about the holiday. But I do have an important Jan 3rd deadline, so I’m pulling back from the blog for a couple of weeks.

I am taking a Christmas vacation! Doubtless one with less hilarity, but also fewer calls to the police. I hope.

I will post a nice Christmas day note (not a terrible one like this), but I won’t be on social media or chatty in the comments. You all can, as they say locally, “have atter,” and continue the excellent digital discussion of books and the Inklings and everything. Myself, I will either be on the couch, at the dinner table, at my desk, or in the isolation cupboard under the stairs. I’ll return in January with some reading notes and then my planned series on “(Re)Considering the Planet Narnia Thesis.”

For now, best wishes on the season. And keep away the nargles.

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What Counts as a Classic? A Conversation with C.S. Lewis and Goodreads

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a little post called “Reading and the Cultural Moment, with C.S. Lewis.” Though I now think I could have said it even clearer, I was sharing once again C.S. Lewis’ critical idea that reading old books can offer a prophetic criticism of today’s cultural moment. The strengths, sins, struggles, and sanctimonious postures of a past age will be different than our own strengths, sins, struggles, and sanctimonious postures. While the people were no better or worse than us in, say, the days of Chaucer or Shakespeare or Austen, their assumptions and in-text moralities may be bracing enough to cause us to ask questions of our own assumptions and out-loud moralities. At the very least, reading these other, older books will provide us with more intellectual and imaginative diversity that can help us to see our world a little differently.

The OED word of the year is “toxic,” which is a great metaphor to describe today’s cultural moment. I suggested that old books might help us diagnose the poison in the cultural air even they are not always an antitoxin.

Although he didn’t have the precise words for it, Lewis was talking about our worldviews differ. At some point I want to press Lewis’ argument even further, asking what the potential of that encounter of “other” in literature might be. Today, though, I want to say, “Yes, but….”

And my “Yes, but…” is really the question, what do we mean by an old book? Lewis himself included authors as late as George MacDonald in his list, basically speaking about pre-20th-century authors in the 1940s and the 1950s in essays like “On the Reading of Old Books” and “De Audiendis Poetis.” Lewis spends most of his time, though, writing and thinking about books from up until Bunyan.

So what do we mean by old book today?

As soon as we allow for a “but” to Lewis’ argument, a dozen different ideas immediately pop up. In particular, what is an old book? The Goodreads Most-Read Books of the 2018 Reading Challenge list is instructive. The top 4 books are all youth books, three of them in this generation and all since 1960. J.K. Rowling and the fantasy revolution has created a generation of young readers, but it is a generation of readers who crave for great, new material.

The Goodreads most-read classics list is also instructive:

I have read them all except, embarrassingly, the second-oldest book on the list: Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Orwell’s books have had a resurgence since the political situation of 2016–as have sales of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)–but 1984 (1948) is a cult classic like Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951). Animal Farm (1945) is a school book, like Harper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird–a Pulitzer Prize novel that was followed by a 1962 film that swept the Oscars.

And as we look closely, we see that almost all of the films have popular movie interpretation, including a 2013 big-budget version of The Great Gatsby, Peter Jackson‘s 2012-14 remake of The Hobbit (1937), the huge cast 2018 transformation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962), and the ever popular 1995 and 2005 interpretations of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813)–the only really old book on the list. Animal Farm has had poor film adaptation attempts, but it continues to be read in school and the 1984 film released in that inauspicious year has a strong cult following.

The second-newest book on the list, Margaret Atwood‘s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) was certainly buoyed by the recent TV series–season two was out this summer–and news of a sequel. The viral effect of films in buoying books to the top of this list is undeniable. While I’m sure my blog has globe-shaking effect on C.S. Lewis readership, the 2005 Disneyfication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) has had a profound effect on readership. But I suspect that news of a Chronicles of Narnia Netflix series has lifted C.S. Lewis’ children’s classic to the list again.

There are some outliers here, but not in the old book category. The Diary of Anne Frank/a Young Girl (1947) is a very important book and the only biographical piece on the list. It is a widely read school book and rapidly being translated and used in curriculum throughout the world. Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist (1988) sits oddly on this list. It is a mythopoeic parable, less an allegory like Animal Farm than a theological book like The Lion or A Wrinkle in Time. But The Alchemist combines Coehlo’s global popularity–he is like the Terry Pratchett of the Portuguese-speaking world, selling an enormous amount of books–with the chic popularity and inspirational quality of the text. The Alchemist is the kind of book you see tucked under the arms of presidents and movie stars and is tremendously helpful for use in the classroom.

And it has sold a lot of copies. All of these books have, but considering how new The Alchemist is and how every movie adaptation has failed in conception, the fact that it has tied in sales with most of the Harry Potter books is pretty intriguing.

For book sales are a factor. Using a couple of lists–one from Wikipedia and one on Ranker–here is what the popularity factor looks like:

  1. The Hobbit (1937), #5 on Ranker, est. 100m sales, blockbuster film series, #11 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), #9 on Ranker, est. 85m sales, 120m sales in series, blockbuster film and upcoming Netflix series, school book, #48 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  3. The Catcher in the Rye (1951), #13 on Ranker, est. 65m sales, cult classic, school book
  4. The Alchemist (1988), #14 on Ranker, est. 65m sales, cult classic, #100 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), #35 on Ranker, est. 40m sales, blockbuster film, school book, #1 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  6. The Diary of Anne Frank (1947), #41 on Ranker, est. 35m sales, school book, #26 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  7. 1984 (1948), #48 on Ranker, est. 30m sales, cult classic, cult film, #3 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  8. The Great Gatsby (1925), est. 25m sales, blockbuster film, #9 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  9. Pride and Prejudice (1813), est. 20m sales, blockbuster film and TV series, #50 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  10. Animal Farm (1945), est. 20m sales, school book, #4 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  11. A Wrinkle in Time (1962), est. 14m sales, blockbuster film, #16 on Ranker’s Life-changing Book Chart
  12. The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), less than 10m sales, TV series

By my estimation, the factors for landing on this “classics” list are sheer sales buoyed by a number of factors:

  1. Film, Television, or Netflix Success
  2. Personal Impact
  3. Cult Followership
  4. Social Moments

What would it take, then, for avid readers to dig into older classics? While all these factors are relevant, I think for older books–books that can speak prophetically from outside our culture–there needs to be a blockbuster film or new Netflix or Amazon series. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) is a gorgeous book with strong readership, but really needs a new blockbuster film for it to get picked up again. It needs, frankly, the Little Women effect, or the kind of success that came with films on Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliet.  I think if we want readers to pick up Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, the Brontës, the other Austen books, Swift, Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Chaucer, or Dante, there needs to be a film.

And that’s hardly going to work for some of the best books. The Divine Comedy would be simply too terrifying to film, and any garden of Eden film is going to occupy a niche market, I expect. There needs to be a leap of the reader rather than a translation of genre, I think, to re-engage with the classics.

So is the project lost? No, I don’t think so. After all, C.S. Lewis lumps a writer working just 50 years before him (GeoMac) in the “old books” category. Moreover, C.S. Lewis is himself a tool to help the reader “leap” back to older books. NarniaThe Great DivorceTill We Have Faces, and the Ransom Cycle are soaked through with old books, from classical mythology to medieval adventure tales to the great poetry and fantasy stories of all periods.

By reading Lewis’ fiction we are reading “old books” by his definitions. As such, they help see our own culture and time from a different angle, giving us a resource for a bigger worldview. But they are also bridges to the truly great books of the past, the canon that forms our intellectual and imaginative space. And Lewis isn’t alone in this gift. Often the greatest books of the age are infused with the greatest books of other ages.

What I hope to do at some later date is take Lewis’ theory on this point and pop it out into a new context. I think Lewis gives us a framework for using books as prophetic self-criticism in new and exciting–and some problematic–ways.

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C.S. Lewis’ Unicorn Song

I have talked before about my love of Shel Silverstein’s poetry. Most people don’t know that he is the poet behind the Irish Rover’s international hit, “The Unicorn Song.” It’s hard to resist the Celtic charm of this lilting classic, but I encountered it first between the covers of Where the Sidewalk Ends. My mother gave me this book when I was very little, coming home one night from a business trip of some kind and sharing with me the joy of a new book.

The poems of Where the Sidewalk Ends were also an essential part of my son’s childhood bedtimes, including “The Unicorn Song.” The moral lesson in the song is pretty thin, and intentionally so. Why do we not see unicorns in our enchanted forests and suburbs anymore? Because they missed the boat, too busy frolicking in the great wilds. And not just any boat. Growing up on an island we were always attuned to the rhythm of the daily crossings to the mainland, aware that if we miscalculated we could be waiting for hours–even overnight. These poor adventurous souls, however, missed the boat of boats, Noah’s ark, the last refuge for antediluvian creatures. The rains fell and Noah’s ark sailed while the played.

Despite this lesson, we still missed the boat from time to time, and I have never stopped looking for unicorns in the enchanted realms I inhabit.

The Irish Rovers were not the first to sing about the lost unicorns, and neither was childhood poet laureate Shel Silverstein. And checking my booklist dates, I see that Peter Beagle wrote The Last Unicorn in the late ’60s, just as “The Unicorn Song” was lilting across the airwaves for the first time.

Before all of these folk artists–an Irish band, a Jewish poet, and a fantasy author–shared their unicorn stories, C.S. Lewis thought about the loss of the unicorn. And just like Shel Silverstein, he pinpointed Noah’s ark as the critical moment. In “The Sailing of the Ark,” a poem published in Punch in August 1948, Lewis anonymously shared a funny little tune about Noah’s lazy and belligerent sons, and how the unicorn finally was left behind. Unlike Silverstein’s legend, we find out from C.S. Lewis that it may not have been the unicorn’s fault after all.

This war of the poet legend-makers should also give us a little caution about how we make links between authors. There is little–I would say almost no–chance that Silverstein knew of Lewis’ version. It is highly unlikely that Silverstein ever came across this edition of Punch, a popular UK humour magazine, but not one with sticking power. “The Unicorn Song” was written by 1962, and Lewis’ collected poetry didn’t appear for another half-decade.

It seems most likely that this legend of the unicorns missing the boat popped up independently and was played with by two popular poets of the 20th century without mutual influence. Both of the authors asked where the unicorns went, and both suggested they missed Noah’s ark.

I think we underestimate this phenomenon. Some ideas just beg for air and will find their way to the surface through one genius or another. Which civilization invented music? or poetry? or art? Why should we choose? I think that some things are simply essential to the human social space. One of those, in the west, is the idea that the unicorns missed a chance to get on Noah’s ark.

Of course, there may be a source behind both these fine fellows. And we also must remember that it is only a legend, a fun play on cultural ideas. Thus, I am not saying that a unicorn isn’t haunting a bookshelf or neighbourhood near you.

The Sailing of the Ark

The sky was low, the sounding rain was falling dense and dark,
And Noah’s sons were standing at the window of the Ark.

The beasts were in, but Japhet said “I see one creature more
Belated and unmated there comes knocking at the door.”

“Well, let him knock or let him drown,” said Ham, “or learn to swim;
We’re overcrowded as it is, we’ve got no room for him.”

“And yet it knocks, how terribly it knocks,” said Shem. “Its feet
Are hard as horns and O, the air that comes from it is sweet.”

“Now hush!” said Ham. “You’ll waken Dad, and once he comes to see
What’s at the door it’s sure to mean more work for you and me.”

Noah’s voice came roaring from the darkness down below:
“Some animal is knocking. Let it in before we go.”

Ham shouted back (and savagely he nudged the other two)
“That’s only Japhet knocking down a brad-nail in his shoe.”

Said Noah “Boys, I hear a noise that’s like a horse’s hoof.”
Said Ham “Why, that’s the dreadful rain that drums upon the roof.”

Noah tumbled up on deck and out he put his head.
His face grew white, his knees were loosed, he tore his beard and said

“Look, look! It would not wait. It turns away. It takes its flight—
Fine work you’ve made of it, my sons, between you all to-night!

O noble and unmated beast, my sons were all unkind;
In such a night what stable and what manger will you find?

O golden hoofs, O cataracts of mane, O nostrils wide
With high disdain, and O the neck wave-arched, the lovely pride!

O long shall be the furrows ploughed upon the hearts of men
Before it comes to stable and to manger once again,

And dark and crooked all the roads in which our race will walk,
And shrivelled all their manhood like a flower on broken stalk!

Now all the world, O Ham, may curse the hour that you were born—
Because of you the Ark must sail without the Unicorn.”

And here is Shel Silverstein doing his own rendition, which I have never heard before.

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“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” Roundtable Thursday

I’m pleased to announce that I am part of a Mythgard Movie Club panel on Thursday night. A couple of years ago we hosted a “One Fantastic Rogue Beast” panel to let two popular films clash in conversation: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Star Wars: Rogue One. I followed up with my thoughts on the new Harry Potter world film with a post called “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Put Them.” We decided to call the council once more to discuss the new Fantastic Beasts film, The Crimes of Grindelwald.

The Mythgard Movie Club meets a half-dozen times a year, looking at films old and new. We will meet on Thursday, December 13, 2018 at 8:30pm Eastern, for a discussion of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, directed by David Yates and starring Eddie Redmayne. The event is totally free with a Q&A panel that will allow you to ask live-time questions. Here is the announcement from the Signum webpage:

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Join the Mythgard Movie Club on December 13, 2018, for a discussion of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, directed by David Yates and starring Eddie Redmayne.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of GrindelwaldDecember 13, 2018 – 8:30 pm EST

Join the Mythgard Movie Club on December 13, 2018, for a discussion on Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, directed by David Yates and starring Eddie Redmayne. Based on a script written by J. K. Rowling, Grindelwald is the follow-up to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), and it is the second in a series of at least three films set in the world of Harry Potter and following the adventures of magizoologist Newt Scamander.

In the prior film, Newt helped the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) catch a dark wizard named Gellert Grindelwald. However, at the end of the film, Grindelwald escaped. Now, he is raising an army of like-minded wizards and witches to assert magical rule over all non-magical people. In this film, Scamander teams up with a young Albus Dumbledore (played by Jude Law) in an attempt to recapture Grindelwald and put an end to his evil plans.

For this discussion, we are bringing back some of the original team of panelists that joined our the proto-Movie Club discussion One Fantastic Rogue Beast in January 2017.

Fantastic Beasts: Crimes of the Grindelwald premieres in theaters on November 16, 2018 – which gives everyone about a month to see the film before our discussion on it!

Sign up for Mythgard Movie Club

Kelly Orazi is a longtime bookseller, reader, and Signum Grad Schoolstudent. She spends her days reading Harry Potter, pretending she has the Force, and hanging out with her dog, Lupin. She is descended from a real-life wandmaker, but has yet to embark on the journey of making her own lightsaber.

Emily Strand is a professor of Comparative Religions at Mt. Carmel College of Nursing in Columbus, OH, where she also serves the Catholic diocese as a Master Catechist. Besides her books on liturgy, she has published articles on the Harry Potter series, including a contribution to Harry Potter for Nerds 2, and many essays at HogwartsProfessor.com. She has appeared on the Mugglenet Academia podcast and is a frequent guest on the Reading Writing Rowling podcast.

Brenton Dickieson is working on a PhD on the theology of C.S. Lewis’ fictional worlds and writes the blog, http://www.aPilgrimInNarnia.com. He lives in the almost fictional land of Prince Edward Island, where he teaches and consults in higher education.

Curtis Weyant is a Signum Grad School alumnus whose daughter tried to teach him the magic spells at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, but never quite got the hang of it. A digital marketer by trade, he co-hosts the weekly podcast Kat & Curt’s TV Re-View and occasionally pecks away at his own creative work.

Kat Sas holds an MA in Language & Literature from Signum University, where she concentrated in Imaginative Literature. She hosts a weekly podcast on speculative television at Kat & Curt’s TV Re-View, and she blogs about Doctor WhoGame of Thrones, and other shows on her blog, Raving Sanity.

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“(Re)Considering the Planet Narnia Thesis”: My Article in An Unexpected Journal

Popular readers of C.S. Lewis and A Pilgrim in Narnia may be surprised that I have not been won over by Michael Ward’s thesis in Planet Narnia. It is an elegant, sophisticated, symmetrical, and well-argued idea about how C.S. Lewis constructed The Chronicles of Narnia. It is also, I think, one of the most important resources we have for reading Narnia.

I just happen to think his thesis is wrong.

Readers are often puzzled by my response as they are obviously won over by the beautiful synchronicity of Ward’s argument. “How can you not believe this?” I am asked when people find out that I don’t believe Michael’s argument in The Narnia Code and Planet Narnia. Often enough, people are baffled. One person cried, though people are usually more curious than anything else.

It is true, I am not won over. I have not voiced abroad my concerns about the work, but neither have I kept it as a secret. The academic world of Lewis studies, which is pretty small and supportive, has apparently picked up my thoughts. When they wanted to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Planet Narnia, the editors of An Unexpected Journal reached out to me for a response to the book. Most of the articles in celebration volume are laudatory (as one would hope), and they wanted a counterpoint from someone who was not won over.

Now, there are plenty of reasons why I should not write such an article.

First, the Lewis studies world is tiny. By example, I was having dinner with Michael Ward in Oxford just a few hours after I polished off my rough draft of the article. It was a good dinner and we were part of a good discussion afterward. I am friends with his friends. I like the work he does and the contribution he has made. Why would I take him on?

Second, An Unexpected Journal has an interesting core design. Here is the first line of their About page:

An Unexpected Journal is the endeavor of a merry band of Houston Baptist University Master of Arts in Apologetics students and alumni.

If you take a look at the last few editions, they have done some pretty interesting things. They have taken literature, pop culture, and theology and elevated the student conversation beyond a blog collective to an engaging e-zine. Well done.

But notice who teaches in the MA program at HBU?

That’s right, this guy: Michael Ward. The AUJ editors (and many of the readers) are students of Prof. Ward.

Third, I don’t want to take time in my life to be a controversialist. I don’t have time, frankly. And I don’t like the feeling of controversy. It eats at my mind. I worry about it. The disagreement sits in my gut. There are loads of wonderful fans of Michael’s books, films, classes, and podcasts who have been transformed by his work. The idea of disappointing them–or looking like I’m trying to slay their friend and master–sits poorly with me.

Moreover, as an emerging scholar, my choice to take on a leading light in the field is a bit peculiar. Asking for trouble is not wise.

So why did I do this thing? My reasons are weak but numerous.

First, frankly, I was won over by the title of the collective project, An Unexpected Journal. Very cool, and I have thought of submitting something for some time. I imagined it would be an Inklings inspired poem or speculation, but they approached me about the PN celebration edition.

Second, I am not being sardonic or falsely gracious when I say that Planet Narnia is an essential reading resource for Narnia. Not just Narnia, actually. I think it is even more valuable as a resource for the Ransom Cycle. I hope, actually, to someday teach a high school semester of English using The Narnia Code and the Chronicles. Planet Narnia has helped me clarify my thoughts about C.S. Lewis’ work and helped me root myself more deeply into the soil of Lewis’ imagination. In short, Michael’s work has helped me read closely and can help others to do the same.

So in writing, I am not just honouring Michael’s work, but suggesting where we can move forward with it. I think there is a better way to read Michael’s “data”–a better way to put the text of Narnia in conversation with the medieval world that gives light and colour to much of the work.

Third, I had already organized a series of blog posts for January and February 2019 where I break down the different parts of the argument. Basically, I had the article written when the request came in. An Unexpected Journal showed up and gave me a chance to publish a 4000-word argument in a single article. Then I can use my blog to attend to various parts of the thesis, hopefully in conversation with the other contributors and readers.

So this article works well to launch a Considering the Planet Narnia Series. In 2019, I will be dealing with questions like:

  • What is the Planet Narnia Thesis and Why is it Important?
  • What do we do with the Planet Narnia conspiracy theory?
  • Why I think C.S. Lewis would have rejected the Planet Narnia Thesis?
  • What is a better way to read Planet Narnia‘s main argument?
  • With all the fans, why has so little academic attention been paid to the Planet Narnia Thesis?
  • Am I Just Resistant to New Ideas? (i.e., am I just a jerk?)

Then I will open the blog to you, dear readers, so you can show me why I am still wrong.

Because of interest, partnership, helpfulness, and the hope to honour in disagreement–these are the reasons I took on this task. Meanwhile, I hope that you will look at the 2018 Advent edition of An Unexpected Journal, where you will see some guest bloggers to A Pilgrim in Narnia, as well as authors we’ve discussed here. Perhaps you can even turn the digital page to my own article, “(Re)Considering the Planet Narnia Thesis.” Perceptive readers of Planet Narnia will see some puns that I’ve hidden throughout the piece, including the title. I hope you enjoy, and maybe I’ll win a few over to my dark side. Even if I don’t, I do hope that I help people in critically considering how we read, how we do research, and the way we deepen our reading of a classic text.

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