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Archive for April, 2012

You play the hand you’re dealt. I think the game’s worthwhile

–C. S. Lewis (allegedly) 

While this quote is widely attributed to Lewis on-line, I’ve yet to come across an actual reference that points to a place where I can verify that he really said it.*  Still, the advice is worthwhile, though we see it better modeled in what Lewis’s friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote.

It is a simple fact that we all are gifted with varying levels of ability and circumstance.  There is no society–nor will there ever be in this fallen world–where everyone is born into complete and total equality in those terms (their ultimate value as a being is another matter–we are all already equal there).  Compared to some people (like Lewis himself intellectually or Bill Gates financially), I am not “gifted” in any meaningful sense of the term.  Compared to others, I am incredibly “gifted.” That isn’t intended to be humble or arrogant.  It is just a statement of fact.  The people above and below me in this pattern of ability in turn likely relate to others the way I relate to them.

Therefore, learning to take what we have been given by God in particular and life in general and make the most of it is often what separates people who are successes from those who are failures.  Unless I am greatly mistaken, I am not called to redefine generations of belief and literary genres as Lewis and Tolkien have.  I am called to do the most I can with what I have been given, to take it and use it to its uttermost in ways that I myself would not have dreamed possible before I undertook it.

We see this best in Frodo Baggins, of course.  Frodo was “just” a hobbit.  He was not tall or strong; no master of wizardry, warfare, or woodcraft.  He came from a people who had traditionally distinguished themselves for nothing in particular, beyond, perhaps, puttering away the days with pointless chatter about family trees and social relations.  Taking only what he had been given, Frodo brought the One Ring to Mordor, something even the Wise, Great, and Strong could not have done.  He did it himself, as himself.

Another problem comes when we judge ourselves by what someone else did with an entirely different hand of cards.  If I judge my success as an author by that of Lewis or Tolkien, then I am almost 100% guaranteed to come up a failure.  Thankfully, as Christ taught in the parable of the talent (Matt. 25:  14-30), if we are to live by the hand we are dealt, we will be judged by that hand as well.  In that sense, a poor man or woman who lives an honest life in poverty will be judged greater than a dishonest national leader.

I, for one, find that reassuring!

__________

*If so, it was out of character for him.  Lewis described himself as a terrible gambler in Surprised By Joy, and therefore he probably wouldn’t naturally revert to a card-paying metaphor.  The phrase is actually provably older than Lewis, though, and therefore perhaps he would have simply been repeating it.

Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

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Arthur Rackham Dwarfs

Arthur Rackham's "subliming" of dwarfs.

As I mentioned before, as I passed through Spirits in Bondage, I came across a number of very interesting parallels to points from Lewis’s biography–most of which I’ll share here as we move along.  I thought I might start with a poem that seems to be one of the better ones from the book:  “XXI. The Autumn Morning.”  There, Lewis is describing the magic of a stroll through the countryside in the late fall and the magical creatures one can encounter.  Interestingly, in Surprised by Joy, he references a very personal “encounter” with something similar.

First, the poem.  Pay particular attention to the last three stanzas:

See! the pale autumn dawn
Is faint, upon the lawn
That lies in powdered white
Of hoar-frost dight

And now from tree to tree
The ghostly mist we see
Hung like a silver pall
To hallow all.

It wreathes the burdened air
So strangely everywhere
That I could almost fear
This silence drear

Where no one song-bird sings
And dream that wizard things
Mighty for hate or love
Were close above.

White as the fog and fair
Drifting through the middle air
In magic dances dread
Over my head.

Yet these should know me too
Lover and bondman true,
One that has honoured well
The mystic spell

Of earth’s most solemn hours
Wherein the ancient powers
Of dryad, elf, or faun
Or leprechaun

Oft have their faces shown
To me that walked alone
Seashore or haunted fen
Or mountain glen

Wherefore I will not fear
To walk the woodlands sere
Into this autumn day
Far, far away.

There are two themes worthy of note for our current purposes:  First, the there is the idea of encountering some of the “ancient powers.”  The second is the fact that one need not be afraid of them. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis has the following to say:

Curiously enough it is at this time [while living at Campbell College], not earlier in my childhood, that I chiefly remember delighting in fairy tales.  I fell deeply under the spell of Dwarfs–the old bright-hooded, snowy-bearded dwarfs we had in those days before Arthur Rackham sublimed, or Walt Disney vulgarized, the earthmen.  I visualized them so intensely that I came to the very frontiers of hallucination; once, walking in the garden, I was for a second not quite sure that a little man had not run past me into the shrubbery.  I was faintly alarmed, but not like my night fears.  A fear that guarded the road to Faerie was one I could face.  No one is a coward on all points. (54-55)

It may well be that this chance “meeting” in the garden helped inspire his depiction of the sidhe in “The Autumn Morning.”  Both ideas are there–the basic encounter and the fact that, whatever the creature was, Lewis need not fear it.  I do wish that Jack had given us just a bit more detail in the Surprised by Joy account, though.  For instance, if we had know what time of year he saw the dwarf, we could perhaps make a stronger case. Too bad the dwarf didn’t sit down for a chat–I for one should like to know exactly how representative Trumpkin and Nikabrik were of the real thing!  🙂

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Just finished up Spirits in Bondage. In all fairness to Lewis I wanted to jump on-line and say that it was much improved as it progressed–though it may just be that my ability to appreciate it has improved instead. His “God and Satan” poems, which are the weakest, fade out and are replaced by much more engaging ones on faerie and the otherwold. These latter he seems to do more naturally and he succeeds in drawing you in more effectively.

I saw some definite parallels to some points in Lewis’s life and several of his later works. The strongest seem to be references to his friendship with Arthur Greaves and some relatively clear foreshadowing of Narnia. I’ll. Be posting on those over the next few weeks.

Ah! Post fodder! 🙂

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My dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books.  As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still.  But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.  You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it.  I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather,

C. S. Lewis

From  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

 One of the amazing things about Lewis as a person was the fact that he never “got too old” for fantastic stories.  The tone of his stories changed over time, it is true, and he went through a period where he was “adult” enough to take himself all too seriously.  Ironically, those are the periods of his life where, as a creative writer, he seemed to make the least impact.  How many people, other than serious fans and students of Lewis, have even heard of Spirits in Bondage which Lewis intended to be his dramatic debut as an author of serious poetry?  Instead, we remember best a small book intended as a gift for a child, written with no pretense, at a time when Lewis himself had reached the point he was describing above.

The pressures of life and of ego oftentimes make us forget to see the wonder in the world around us–physically and spiritually.  We feel the weight of our responsibilities all too keenly.  Responsibilities–to God, to family, to country, to community–are good things that remind us of where our priorities should be, but if we are not careful, they can become vampiric, taking up all of our attentions and sucking the life out of us.  Ego does nothing to help that.  It adds a further set of “requirements” to our list, not because we need to meet them but because our self-image demands it.  And so we trudge along, feeling angry, exhausted, and unappreciated, unable to see the beauty and truth literally sitting at our feet, let alone comprehend any of it.

For everyone, the specifics will look different, but the result is almost always the same–we forget to look things as Christ said, with the eyes of a child.  One blessed day, hopefully, with time and true maturity, we awaken to realize all that we have been missing and where our real priorities should be.  On that day we can read fairy tales again.

__________

Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

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The original cover of Spirits in Bondage.

Perhaps, when you are unsure of where to start, the best answer is “somewhere” over “nowhere.”  I hope to pick back up with my previous post stream when I can, but I would rather work on something Lewis related than let the blog languish again.

To that end, I picked up a copy of Spirits in Bondage, which is Lewis’s first attempt at fame.  It is, rather obviously, a book of poetry and Lewis hoped that it would be the vehicle that launched him to lyrical glory and fame.  He had written most of the  poems in his spare time while working with William Kirkpatrick (the “Great Knock”, on whom he later based the character of Professor Kirke) and in the army during World War I.  It was initially published under the pseudonym “Clive Hamilton” by William Heinemann in 1919.   This book differs greatly in tone and style from the later works that we know better.

It is important to remember that it was composed while Lewis was an atheist, and it doesn’t take much to figure out Lewis’s views.  In fact, he doesn’t so much as wear his atheism on his sleeve as pick it up and slaps you in the face with it.  He is fascinated with Milton and the characterization of Satan held therein.  Consider the following verses directed at God from “XII De Profundis”:

Yet I will not bow down to thee not love thee,
For looking in my own heart I can prove thee,
And know this frail, bruised being is above thee.

Our love, our hope, our thirsting for the right,
Our mercy and long seeking of the light,
Shall we change these for they relentless might?

Laugh then and slay.  Shatter all things of worth,
Heap torment still on torment for thy mirth-
Thou art not Lord while there are Men on earth.

I’ll have more to say on these later, but I want to finish the book first.  (So far, I’m about halfway through.)  In general, I am very underwhelmed, which is a strange thing to hear me say about Lewis.  My disinterest isn’t due to his atheism at all as it is his tone and composure.  Frankly, his flailing against God seems hollow–very like the petty tantrum of a spoiled child.  Perhaps others will find him more profound and I am simply a barbarian who cannot appreciate good poetry, but to me he has the same tone as any insecure religious believer who thinks that he or she can me more sure of his or her own faith by shouting at others over theirs.

Historically, the book was not a success and it did not secure Lewis a place as one of England or Ireland’s foremost poets.  I begin to see why….

P.S. Spirits in Bondage is the first of Lewis’s works to enter the public domain.  You can pick it up for free in various places, including the Kindle store.  Here is the link to the book from Project Gutenberg.

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Well, many moons after I intended to return to this blog, I am finally back at it.  This is a difficult to pick back up.  My workload is no lighter than it was before, and my studies here had previously been so detailed and specific that, frankly, it is no mean thing to figure out how I’m supposed to get up to speed and continue from where I left off.

Perhaps the decision to keep blogging here is mostly bravado, but I will dare it.  My workload was just today doubled again after having already been more than was practical.  I suppose this is my stubborn streak.  I feel that Lewis is important not only in his own right but as an influence desperately needed in a Christian church that is rapidly spiraling down into further absurdity, becoming in many cases the stereotype the world has tried to make of it.  There is so much to learn, so much that we, as a body of believers, have forgotten about what it means to be thinking Christians that we all must make a start somewhere.

I may not be able to do much–even a post a week will be difficult–and no one may read it, but I will do what I can, by the Lion’s mane!  I claim to be a “teacher,” an “associate professor of history.”  But I will sit at the feet of Lewis, a far greater teacher than I, and I will learn what I may from him.  If I can pass along a crumb of what he received from the Teacher, then I think my effort will be justified.

And now a gallop.  The ground between the two armies grew less every moment.  Faster, faster.  All swords out now, all shields up to the nose, all prayers said, all teeth clenched.  Shasta was dreadfully frightened, but it suddenly came into his head “if you funk this, you’ll funk every battle all your life.  Now or never.”

–Shasta in The Horse and His Boy

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I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.

–C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock

Here, Lewis is hitting on one of the very significant mistakes that people make when it comes to religion in general and Christianity in particular.  (He had a knack for that sort of thing.)  Since the rise of theological liberalism in the 19th century, there has been an over-emphasis on the comforting aspects of the faith to the detriment of Christianity as a whole.  This results in the idea of religion as a “crutch” to help us limp through a hard world we fear to face.   That has been reinforced in recent years by the wave of affluence we’ve experienced in the western world since the end of World War II.  Today, no one wants to accept a religion that has hard things to say about them or the way they live their lives.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your position), the Truth of Christianity is far harder than the world around us.  It shows us things about ourselves that no one wants to admit–after all, a real relationship with Christ begins with a knowledge of our own sin and with the admission that “we’re not all OK, myself least of all.”  That is precisely the converse of the message being broadcast by the modern world.  In reality, religion–Christianity–is not simply an easy expedient adopted by the weak to protect themselves from harsh naturalism.  It is the acceptance of the even harder path that leads the weak to become strong through Him.

Christianity isn’t a warm, fuzzy blanket that we wrap ourselves in when we feel the cold of the universe.  It is far more than a get-out-of-Hell-free card.  It is the Universal Sovereign’s attempt to set us back to rights after we have so thoroughly injured ourselves and His creation that He would be justified in simply doing away with it all.  The Truth of Christianity restores us to proper balance with Himself and with His creation as a whole.  That affects our entire life in different ways, some comforting, some hard, but all good.

Just try to balance all that on a simple crutch!

__________

 Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

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