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Archive for the ‘Surprised By Joy’ Category

C. S. Lewis Malvern College

Cherbourg School was connected to Malvern College at the time Lewis attended.

Finally got the chance to look through Jack’s letters from Cherbourg School today.  I need to take some time to examine them in more depth, but I did notice a number of general themes/issues that stood out right at the beginning and most of them have to do with his relationship to his father.

In Surprised By Joy, Lewis noted that he was mortally ashamed of the way he had treated his father, Albert.  He said that as time passed he intentionally put on a more and more elaborate mask with Albert.  Jack hid his true thoughts and real self from Albert while keeping up a pretense that he really was his father’s best friend.  While I’m not sure that it was intentional at this point in his life, the letters from Cherbourg appear to lay the groundwork for that later pattern:

  • There is almost a formula to Jack’s letters.  He seems to have a list of non-revealing discussion points that he moves through–the weather, the geography, local points of interest, trips to see the theater or hear a musical performance, and then finally requests for things he’s forgotten/needs.  None of this reveals anything in particular about Jack, what he’s experiencing, or what he’s thinking.  None of the important changes and revelations from Surprised By Joy make an appearance.
  • In his one letter to Warnie, he is already referring to his frustrations with his father’s company–“Rows after tea and penitentiary strolls in the garden are not pleasant…” (25), even as he later entreats his father to “pour out all your troubles” onto Jack’s young shoulders.  He said that he would bear the burden “as you know, very gladly.” (27)  There is clearly already a bit of a dual life story being written.
  • More than one Lewis scholar as noted the paucity of letters from Jack during his time at Cherbourg, and Hooper in particular takes this as evidence of the “personal renaissance” that Jack was undergoing.  While I do agree with that, there seem to be hints in the text that there were a number of other letters that simply haven’t survived (something Hooper does allow for, though he emphasizes the other explanation).  For instance, Jack specifically mentions to Warnie, “Please write soon (how often have I made that request and received no answer to it)…” (25).  He later mentions to Albert that Warnie “seems to consider the answering of letters a superfluous occupation” (26) implying of course that he was a regular attempted correspondent.
    • I think it worth noting that though there are a few possible inferences to draw from this, it would be a fallacy to attempt to do so.  We would be, obviously, arguing from an absence of evidence.

Finally, a quick note on Hooper’s chronology.  He dates LP IV: 49-50 (Jack’s letter to Warnie asking about Warnie’s getting the boot from his position as prefect)  to “1? July 1913” and LP IV 44-5 (Jack corresponding with Albert about Warnie’s demotion) to “6 July 1913.”  This seems to be out of order, for what that might be worth.  In 44-6 Jack specifically mentions that “shortly after I wrote my letter to you, I decided to write him…. [emphasis added]”  From the subsequent description of the letter’s contents, it is clear that Jack is describing 49-50.  Therefore, if 44-5 is correctly dated to 6 July, 49-50 must have been written on the same day.

No biggie, but there it is.

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Still trying to find time to sit down an give that comparison of Surprised by Joy‘s description of “Chartres” and Lewis’s letters home I mentioned a post or two ago the attention it deserves.  In the meantime, I came across a passage in SBJ that seems to point to part of Lewis’s inspiration for that so unlovable uncle, Andrew Ketterley, in The Magician’s Nephew.  Jack is discussing “Miss C.” and her interest in the paranormal that she introduced to him while she was at Cherbourg:

…that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since–the desire for the preternatural, simply as such, the passion for the Occult. …  It is a spiritual lust; and like the lust of the body it has the fatal power of making everything else in the world seem uninteresting while it lasts.  It is probably this passion, more even than the desire for power, which makes magicians.

This does seem to compare well with Uncle Andrew’s discussion with Digory in his study after sending Polly to the Wood Between the Worlds.  There, Uncle Andrew is more interested in being known as a great sage, thinker, and wizard than he is in making anyone bow before him.  He seems to prefer mystical knowledge for its own sake, so much that he was willing to break his vows and even risk life and limb to acquire it.  Of course, once he had achieved greatness, no doubt he expected the whole bowing/homage bit would be sure to follow, but from the tone of the conversation, it seems that he thought it would come when people where awed by his presence, not because he forced them to against their will.  Here is one of the more recognizable bits of his talk:

“Rotten?” said Uncle Andrew with a puzzled look.  “Oh, I see you mean that little boys ought to keep their promises.  Very true:  most right and proper, I’m sure, and I’m very glad you have been taught to do it.  But of course you must understand that rules of that sort…can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages.  No Digory.  Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures.  Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”

Both books were published in 1955, though Lewis began writing The Magician’s Nephew back in 1949, not long after he had finished The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I don’t think it is much of a stretch to see him putting a bit of his own temptation to the dark side of the supernatural in what we see from Uncle Andrew.

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And so, little by little, with fluctations which I cannot now trace, I became an apostate, dropping my faith with no sense of loss but with the greatest relief.

–C. S. Lewis Surprised By Joy

Lewis, as a former atheist himself, understood something about that particular belief system* that many life-long Christians completely fail to grasp:  for many people, atheism feels good.  Converting provides instant and complete relief from the massive weight of what it means to be a believer, not only in Christianity but in any of the major world religions.  All of them make claims on your life.  All of them require that you conform yourself, your beliefs, and your actions to a set of standards that you have no control over.  Atheism instantly releases you from all those obligations and, in fact, does so much more: It makes you the sovereign of your own little universe.  That can potentially provide an unparalleled sense of temporary security.  After all, who better to trust with your future than yourself?

This also helps explain why many atheists are so loudly sure of themselves to the point of epistemological absurdity–emotion often sits at the center of their position while their reason provides cover.  Lewis was one of these types.  He came to hate the forced prayers and unjustified legalism of what he had been taught about the Christian faith, and so when atheism presented itself, his emotions led him to grasp at it in intellectual desperation.

Lewis later rejected atheism–though he had to be dragged “kicking and screaming” back into belief.  For Lewis it was simply a issue of truth:  he still believed that there was an external world that he must conform to rather than vice versa.  Through his association with J. R. R. Tolkien and Owen Barfield, he was gradually led to accept proofs that Christianity was true, and therefore he changed his mind a result.

For me, there is another issue that speaks against atheism:  knowledge of myself.  While it sounds like a fine thing to be the sovereign of my own destiny, the more I understand about myself and how little I truly know, the less comfortable I am exercising the kinds of power atheism in theory would grant me over others.  I become even less pleased when I think about others having that kind of absolute authority over myself.  I would think that the Twentieth Century–and the bloodbath than certain atheists like Stalin and Mao made of it–bears out that concern.

That is one reason I am thankful that God created humanity able to both think and to believe.  Properly understood, the strength of each keeps the excess of the other in check.  In Lewis, we see a good example of both.

__________

*While atheism likes to style itself as a “lack of belief,” it is in fact its own separate religion. Modern atheism puts faith in what Lewis would later call the “Total System,” by which he meant the whole of the natural universe and the measurable phenomena which it produces. Since humanity is the ultimate expression of the intelligent side of the Total System, atheism usually (but not always) begins to treat the human race and its needs with an attitude that borders on mysticism.  This faith is often as blind as it is exclusive, and is also couched in a pseudo religious awe–remember, according to modern atheist thinkers “Forget Jesus.  Stars died so that you might live.”  In that sense, I see no particular difference between the basic fundamentals of atheistic belief and the “religions” they claim to critique.  Of course, this is too big a topic for a footnote!

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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I’ve decided that I will leave Spirits in Bondage aside for a while and try to get back into the basic process of working through Lewis’s letters.  I don’t think there will be a better (or more convenient) time for me to get back on the proverbial horse in the general process of reading through his letters.  Besides, if I use up all of my SIB content now what will I have to say later?  🙂

Picking back up from where I left off, Jack left Robert Capron’s Wynyard School and spent one term at Campbell College, not far from his home at Little Lea.  His father had moved Warnie to Malvern College and Jack to the nearby Cherbourg School.  At first glance in the letters it seems that Jack really doesn’t have much to say about his time at Cherbourg.  His is letters home from Cherbourg number, from start to finish, all of four (one letter per page).  In fact, on one page (Letters, vol. 1, 17), Hooper’s commentary (even in small print) takes up as much space as the letter itself.  From that, one might be tempted to think that Cherbourg didn’t matter that much.

An interior view of Chartres Cathedral. Impressive indeed.

And then we turn to Surprised By Joy.  There, Lewis calls Cherbourg “Chartres” after, as Hooper notes, “the most glorious cathedral in France” (Letters, vol. 1, 15).  In contrast to his few letters, he devotes two entire chapters (27 pages) to Cherbourg in SBJ.  That drastic of a discrepancy may indicate several possibilities, but I’ll mention two at the moment.  First and most obviously, it probably implies that he was simply too busy and excited with his self described “renaissance” to take the time to write.  Second and more seriously, it also likely marks a furtherance of the double life Jack  led.  He let his father see only one side of that life, while he lived the other with gusto.

This is a busy week, but I hope to reread these sections of SBJ and then take a fresh look at the Cherbourg letters.  I expect that some interesting comparisons will emerge.  I’ll have a new meditation post ready on Sunday and hope to post some more on this topic before next weekend.

Have a great week!

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Another interesting parallel between Spirits in Bondage  and Lewis’s more general biography actually tied into Narnia, particularly The Magician’s Nephew.  It is clear that Lewis did not consider his conversion grounds to discard the vividness of his earlier imagination.  In fact, he mined his own unChristian period for Truth much like he did other non-christian authors.

Consider his description of the “Land of the Lotus” from “XXV. Song of the Pilgrims”:

Land of the Lotus fallen from the sun,
Land of the Lake from whence all rivers run,
Land where the hope of all our dreams is won!

Shall we not somewhere see at close of day
The green walls of that country far away,
And hear the music of her fountains play?

[…]

But we shall wake again in gardens bright
Of green and gold for infinite delight,
Sleeping beneath the solemn mountains white,
While from the flowery copses still unseen
Sing out the crooning birds that ne’er have been
Touched by the hand of winter frore and lean;

This compares very favorably to what Polly, Digory, and Fledge encounter in the quest for the golden apple at the end of The Magician’s Nephew .  There, they find an isolated, magical garden set high on a huge green hill:

All round the top of the hill ran a high wall of green turf.  Inside the wall, trees were growing. Their branches hung out over the wall:  their leaves showed not only green but also blue and silver when the wind stirred them.  When the travelers reached the top they walked nearly all the way round it before they found the gates:  high gates of gold, fast shut, facing due east. […] [Digory] went in very solemnly, looking about him.  Everything was very quiet inside.  Even the fountain which rose near the middle of the garden made only the faintest sound.  The lovely smell was all around him:  it was a happy place but very serious.  (157-58)

Many of the same specific elements are the same–the green walls, the fountains, the colors green and gold, the brilliant rivers (referenced just a few pages earlier in The Magician’s Nephew).  Of course, the expression of the conception is separated by years, and so it isn’t an exact correspondence, but it is close enough to think that, perhaps, they are one and the same.

Perhaps what we’re seeing here is really Lewis’s fleshing out of the toy garden that his brother Warnie had brought into their nursery many years before.  In Surprised by Joy, he described the feeling evoked by that “biscuit tin filled with moss” as similar to “Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden” (16).  That does seem to be what Lewis was attempted to capture in both his poem and his book.  Without more specific context, we’ll probably never know for sure.

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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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My schedule through the end of November is insane, so I’ll be sneaking little snatches of my Lewis studies here and there until the blessed month of December when there will be a dramatic increase in sweetness, light, and chocolate (not to mention my waistline) and a corresponding decrease in my workload.  I’m planning on spending this break doing as little as possible for my current place of employment and devoting as much time to rest and distraction as I can as a matter of preserving my sanity.  Thankfully, I consider studying C. S. Lewis an eminently worthwhile distraction.

Tonight as I was reading a bit of Surprised by Joy (66), I was struck by a comment Jack makes in an almost off-hand manner.  He is discussing the chronological divisions into which he can describe his time at Cherbourg, and of the departure of his beloved matron, Miss G. E. Cowie.  He notes that her influence “had been the occasion of much good to me as well as of evil.”  Specifically, he states that,

…she had done something to defeat that antisentimental inhibition which my early experience had bred in me.”

This brought to mind something that had been hovering in the back of my thought since I started the project with Jack’s first few letters:  The serious, almost cold (at times) formality with which Lewis wrote at the time (see 1-16 of the collected letters, volume 1).  Much of what he has to say is purely informative–a simple statement of plain fact–and there are points in some letters where I felt that the writing itself was a formality.  Points of creative, personal light peek through, but, over all, Jack’s “antisentimental inhibitions” are plainly displayed in the letters.  At first I mistook it for an attempt to simply sound “grown up,” an air many children attempt to adopt.  On further reflection, though that may well still play a role, over all one gets the sense that Jack is presenting a formalized mask through certain letters, hiding his true emotions and thoughts.

This might be especially obvious in his letters home from Wynyard:  He didn’t let his father see the turmoil, pain, and real thoughts behind the veil of a “stiff upper lip.”  I actually already hinted at this in my discussion of the Wynyard letters.

Of course, as time went along, I know that Lewis refined this into an art with his father, keeping Albert in the dark about many things in his life.  It will be interesting to compare and contrast this with his letters to Arthur Greeves as time passes.

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