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Archive for the ‘Mythlore’ Category

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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“Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”  The Magician’s Nephew (126)

We forget that the we ourselves are the most important ingredient in the making of an idiot.  That usually means that we are more effective in making idiots our of ourselves rather than of others.

Of course, I’m not making any particular statement here about the state of education in general.*  There is a significant difference between “ignorance” and “stupidity.”  The former is a simple lack of knowledge about a particular subject or subjects.  That can be be caused by influences external to ourselves that we may not have control over.  The latter, on the other hand, is generally willful in some way.  It implies that the requisite knowledge to address a situation is at least available, but the person has somehow failed to do the right thing.  It is therefore possible to be ignorant without being stupid, and to bear no responsibility for it.  On the other hand, when we are being stupid, we are almost always ignorant and it is almost always our own fault.

In the character of Uncle Andrew in The Magician’s Nephew (to whom the quote above was applied) we have a brilliant example of stupidity in action.  He is perfectly capable of following what is going around him, but he chooses to understand only what suits him.  He has decided that he is, in fact, one of the “profound students and great thinkers and sages” and a powerful magician (18).  That presupposition renders him unable to see truths about himself that are very plain to everyone else–that he is really a doddering old coward, a greedy fool, and a ridiculous knave.  He is oblivious to his cowardice in forcing Digory to rescue Polly and deludes himself into thinking that the witch could fall in love with him.  Is it any surprise, then, that when he arrives in Narnia at its creation, he succeeds in making himself “stupider” than he really is?  As a result, he not only misses out on a tremendous adventure, he goes down in Narnian history as the least of all men–and in human history this “profound student, great thinker, and sage” is remembered not at all.

I’m afraid to ask myself how often do I follow Andrew Ketterley’s example.  Often enough, I have no doubt.  Lewis is reminding us that we should do all we can to see ourselves, the world around us, and how we relate to it was as much clarity as we can muster,  especially if we don’t think we’ll like what we see.

After all, I am “stupid” enough already–I need go no further!

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*Were you to ask, I could give you an earful.  In fact, I will in a few more weeks.

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

References:

  • The Magician’s Nephew.  New York:  Collier Books, 1974.
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Today I decided to knock out a small batch of letters at once and see Jack through his terrible years at Wynyard School, called “Belsin” in Surprised By Joy.

For those unaware, Wynard was Jack and Warnie’s first boarding school.  In Surprised By Joy, Jack described Wynyard as one of the worst possible places imaginable.  The headmaster, Robert Capron (“Oldie”) was literally insane and later carted off by the men in white coats after he assaulted one of his students.  The school closed after the incident.

Of course, that wasn’t the only time he attacked his students.  Apparently, such incidents occurred on an almost daily basis.  Jack describes one boy (whose one fault was that he was the son of a dentist, and of too low a social standing for Capron’s preference) who was made to bend over while Capron (a huge, burly man) literally took running starts from the other side of the room with each slash of his cane.

Lewis notes that he learned next to nothing while there, and that they were forced to spend the majority of the time doing random geometry sums (Warnie did the same five every day for more than a year without getting caught).  It forced Jack to learn a great deal about geometry, but little else:  “All the other arts and sciences thus appeared to us as islands (mostly rocky and dangerous islands) ‘Which like to rich and various gems inlaid; The unadorned bosom of the deep’–the deep being a shoreless ocean of arithmatic” (SBJ 28).

There is, of course, much that could be said about Jack’s time at Wynyard, and I have neither the time nor the the energy to say it, at the moment, so I’ll skip ahead to my chief observations:

First, Jack insists in Surprised By Joy that he and Warnie “did not succeed in impressing the truth [about the conditions at the school] on our father’s mind.” He also notes that, “We did not even try very hard” (30).   That is more than borne out by reading his letters.  Whatever Albert Lewis’s shortcomings, I cannot blame him for not pulling his sons out sooner, if the letters are any indication of what his sons told him.  After the comment (mentioned in my previous post) calling the place a “hole,” Jack says nothing in particular that would indicate what he and Warnie were facing.  Consider the following samples:

    • “I find school very nice but it is frightfully monotenis [sic]” (154, 9).
    • “As to what you say about leaving [Wynyard] I cannot know quite what to say.” (155, 9)
    • “In spight [sic] of all that has happened I like Mr. Capron very much” (155, 10).

It is also notable that in all of the remaining letters, Jack fails to mention any cruelty or particular dislike of the school.  They were evidently speaking of the issue in person and perhaps in Warnie’s letters, though, as evidenced by Albert’s question about them leaving.  It may be that Jack was concerned that his letters might be intercepted by Oldie himself, but that is mere speculation since, so far as I know, nothing to that effect is said elsewhere.

Also, it is possible that his reticence to tell Albert what is really happening implies that Jack is already distancing himself from his father.  He certainly already seems to be setting up his habit of trying to keep Albert at arm’s length.  That is particularly notable in the letter dated 16? December 1909 (195-6, 13), where he specifically tells Albert that he could meet Warnie at St. Lime Station, and it would “no longer be necessary for you to come over.”  I know this becomes a pattern, particularly with the advent of Mrs. Moore.  Jack later remembered his relationship with his father with shame, and wished that he could have undone and unsaid much of it.

In Surprised By Joy, Jack noted that intellectually his time in the school was “entirely wasted” and that it threatened to “have sealed my fate as a scholar for good” (34).  He notes particularly a “great decline in my imaginative life” (34).  This is also borne out by the letters.  There isn’t even a whiff of imagination beyond a reference to purchasing the Strand Magazine for a reading club they were creating.  Boxen isn’t mentioned once.

This is interesting because Lewis later became very, very good at retreating into his imagination in tense situations.  He particularly seemed to exercise it during his time in the trenches in WWI.  In my recently published paper in Mythlore, I speculated on possible origins for that ability, and I mentioned that one possible starting point might have been as a defensive measure against Capron’s torture.  From what I see here, that idea is entirely wrong; Jack’s imagination died while he was at that school.

Of course, Jack himself notes that he did learn some things…such as geometry and some English grammar.  I would point to the letters as clear evidence of the latter.  When he begins at Wynyard, he is still very much a younger writer, with poor punctuation and at times even poorer spelling (see above).  By the time he leaves, he had matured as a writer dramatically, and a significant increase is evident in his spelling, grammar, and general ability to express himself.

Finally for the night, I want to mention that I was moved by his depiction of Capron’s daughters, as captive to their father as his school boys were.  They strike me as a negative version of the daughters of Robert E. Lee, as bound to a tyrant as Lee’s daughters were to a hero.

I’ve always felt sorry for the Lee girls.  Their father was so good, so strong, such an incredible man, that none of them could find a husband to match his considerable standard.  They all died without marrying.  I don’t think Gen. Lee would have wanted that for his girls, and I know he would weep to know that he himself was the indirect cause of it.

Good night!

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