Friday 25 November 2016

The Eighth Narnia Book - a guest essay by John Fitzgerald

But for them this was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle


Theologians of the Orthodox Church talk often about the Eighth Day - the great day of Eternity that will dawn at the consummation of this age, once the seven Biblical days of creation are completed. The light of this Eighth Day to come shines on and around us even now, but our spiritual vision seldom seems sharp enough to sense it. Sometimes, however, it bursts through into human consciousness, the Transfiguration of Our Lord on Mount Tabor being the outstanding example, a prefiguration of the Heavenly City and the regenerated, phoenix-like world to be revealed at the end of time.

It's no overstatement to say that C.S. Lewis's Narnia books played an analogous 'Eighth Day' role for me as a boy. Between 1979 and 1982, from the ages of 9 to 12, I lived and breathed the rich, suggestive air of Narnia. It felt like home; my natural element. Before I'd even read a word of Lewis I had stood enchanted in our suburban South Manchester bookshop, captivated by the cover of The Last Battle - the bonfire, the stable, Jill's bow and arrows, Eustace's sword, and the mighty red lion emblazoned on Tirian's shield. One Friday night as well, in January or February 1981, I had a particularly numinous dream, which saw me personally involved in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, playing my part in the battle to liberate Cair Paravel. Afterwards, Aslan sat us all down in the courtyard and told the most fantastic story, which I was sure I'd be able to remember when I woke up, but which, by breakfast time, was already escaping my memory. It was a bright blue late winter Saturday, and in the afternoon my Dad took me to Old Trafford to watch United play Leeds. We got caught up in a spot of hooliganism, I recall, on the Mancunian Way after the game, but for all the excitement - both the football and the fisticuffs - it's the afterglow of Aslan's story in my young mind that makes that day so memorable.

It's clear to me now, thirty-five years on, that the Narnia stories plugged a huge spiritual hole in my life. Together with Roger Lancelyn Green's mythic retellings (especially his King Arthur book) they filled the sacred space that my ancestors had known since time immemorial but that had been left empty for me by the abolition of the Latin Mass in 1970. And what Lewis did for myself - a Romanised Gael from the North West corner of the Empire - he did for countless boys and girls around the world, with all kinds of backgrounds and all manner of circumstances, and goes on doing today. He is a storyteller and a witness, a prophet and a bard, a princely, and surely heaven-sent counter-presence to the demythologised, dechristianised temper of our times.


The early-1980s, in Britain, felt like an especially intense time to be a pre-adolescent. It was an era of style and colour, but also of riots, recession, and the ever-present threat of nuclear catastrophe. A local newspaper ran a series of articles on Nostradamus, and I was convinced that the end of the world was at hand. I also believed, at that time, that there existed an eighth Narnia book, not a continuation (as in Neil Gaiman's The Problem of Susan) nor fan-fiction, but something on an altogether different level - a secret, hidden text that contained the essence and magic of Narnia, distilling it into a story, like to the one that Aslan had told us in the courtyard, setting off in its readers and hearers a reaction akin to Jewel's in The Last Battle: 'I have come home at last! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this.'

I was certain that before the final conflagration took place this book would reveal itself and make its holy yet homely presence felt in the world. I hoped and prayed that I might be present when it did, and often I would imagine our school's classrooms and corridors dissolving and giving way to the stone passageways, cavernous halls and lantern-lit chambers of the Grail Castle itself. In a tiny chapel, I was sure, at the top of a spiral staircase, the Grail and the eighth Narnia book stood between the candles on the altar, waiting for the appointed hour - the Kairos, the supreme moment - to roll around at last.

It's interesting, looking back on it all now, to see how much has changed in our world but also how little. We live, after all, in equally uncertain times, and many's the moment when I see, or think I see, the mise en scene of my current working life - the computers, the drinks machines, the carpeted stairs - collapse and reconstitute themselves into the form and fabric of Carbonek Castle. And I'm there -sprinting through the echoing throne room, then up the spiral staircase, starlight glinting through the narrow slits of windows. At the top I find a wooden door, closed but with a soft and radiant light spilling out onto the floor at the bottom. I turn the handle - push, pull and shove - but there's no give and the door stays shut. I bang my head on the wood in frustration, then stiff my mind and pray: 'Oh God, if ever I've done anything good in my life, give me a glimpse please of that which I've always seeked.' The door swings open and next thing I know I'm kneeling down, gazing into the heart of the Grail's golden blaze as it fills the room and bathes my soul in its healing, transfiguring light. 

There are six tall candles on the altar, three to the Grail's left and three to the right. I see flowers as well, and a flicker and swish in the air like the beat of angels wings. An ancient, bearded priest in green - Joseph of Arimathea himself, perhaps - sits on the right, while three men kneel with heads bowed low right in front of the altar. I can't see their faces, but I know who they are - Galahad, Percival and Bors - the three Grail knights. Standing on the left is a female figure robed in red with a face like the sun, holding an open book in her hands, silver in colour with a mighty red lion emblazoned on the front. She reads aloud - sings rather - in a language I don't know but for some reason am able to understand as well as if it's my own. Her chant - high, strange and wild - reverberates around the chapel and I recognise and remember what it is she's singing - the long lost story, no less - the story Aslan told us in the courtyard, the selfsame tale, I realise now, that Lucy read in the Magician's Book in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the one about the cup and the sword and the tree and the green hill, the one she rates as the loveliest she's ever read and that Aslan promises to  tell her again and again for ever and ever.

Over-excited and carried away, I scramble up and dash into the room, arms outstretched. But a puff of wind laced with flame blinds and singes my eyes, and I'm ushered out of the room by a host of invisible hands and bundled down the stairs. Darkness engulfs me and when I come to I'm somewhere else altogether. A fresh, briny, morning smell, probes and pushes my mind awake. I'm met by lapping waves in front, white cliffs behind, and a canopy of pale blue, seagull-flecked sky high above. There's sand beneath me, rough and bristly to the touch. I stumble to my feet. The sun, rising behind the cliffs looks huge, five or six times its normal size. That's when the other smell hits me - familiar and reassuring - the smell of breakfast - fresh coffee and roasting fish. Something catches my eye, small and bright, towards the sea and to my right. It's a lamb, tending a cooking fire  and a burnished bronze coffee bowl. 'Come and have breakfast,' he says in his milky voice.

'This is all a dream,' I say to myself. 'Like the one I had about the fight at Cair Paravel when I was a kid.' I look behind me again, fully expecting to see the big sun vanished and the fixtures and fittings of the office restored to their habitual reality. But no, it's still there, even bigger than before if anything. I can look straight at it too, without even needing to shield my eyes.

I crouch down, pick up a fistful of sand - spiky and spongy at the same time - and watch it trickle down and stick to my fingers. It's unmistakably real. And there's a brightness in the air and on the ground and a joy in my heart which assures me that this is no dream. Then I start to understand. The dream, in fact, is over. This is the morning. The dawn. The Eighth Day has begun.

I stand up, turn and face the sea, and walk towards the Lamb.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

That Hideous Strength - A delightful and insightful review by Felix Kent

(Note: Felix Kent is a woman -- the only woman I have heard-of named Felix)

“The same girl who had first let her in had apparently just opened the door and was still standing in the doorway. Jane now conceived for her that almost passionate admiration which women, more often than is supposed, feel for other women whose beauty is not of their own type. It would be nice, Jane thought, to be like that — so straight, so forthright, so valiant, so fit to be mounted on a horse, and so divinely tall.”

–From That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis

I can’t have been more than ten when I went through my copy of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes with a bottle of Wite-Out and felt pen, determined to, at any point when Petrova’s appearance was mentioned, change the text. In the book, or at least in my mind, she was ugly, and not in the ugly-duckling way of so many children’s book characters (Sylvia’s views on her interesting looks notwithstanding), but straightforwardly un-pleasing to look at.

She was also the only character available for me to identify with. I lacked the talents of Posy and the charm of Pauline. And I was damned if I was going to think of myself as ugly.

I did not finish this task, being lazy and also left-handed and not able to write small enough in the book to make it look nice, which drove me nuts.

In my early teens I read C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. I loved Out of the Silent Planet. Perelandra I found too anxiety-provoking to really enjoy; I can’t handle books where the drama comes from one character hovering for much of the book on the verge of making a terrible mistake.

“Don’t read That Hideous Strength,” my mother said. My mother is a great C.S. Lewis fan, also a believer, in the religious sense. One of my best sources for what to read. And a woman who grew up in the Fifties and became an academic. Became, like Ransom, the trilogy’s main character, a philologist.

“Why not?” I said. I don’t think my mother used the word “yucky” in her reply, but that was more or less what she meant.

I went ahead and read the book anyway. It’s my favorite of the series; it’s probably the C.S. Lewis book closest to my heart, in that it’s the one that I think about the most when I’m not intentionally thinking about anything.

I am not one of those people who have read all of C.S. Lewis; I tell you that because you may be one of the people who has. I’ve read the Narnia books, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and the Space Trilogy. I read bits and pieces of Till We Have Faces, which my mother says is the best. I saw the movie Shadowlands, and I cried and I cried and I cried.

I am not pretending to expertise here.

It’s my favorite despite the fact that Jane, the main character, is not altogether a likeable female character. She condescends to Ivy, whose husband is in jail, and Mrs. Dimble, who is Christian and does not pretend to academic attainment. (Jane is a graduate student who has recently married an academic.) Also she is not as smart as she thinks she is.

I like it partly because it is so painstakingly accurate in so many things. This, for example, is the single best description of looking at things from a moving vehicle that I’ve ever read:

And in between the stations things flitted past, so isolated from their context that each seemed to promise some unearthly happiness if one could but have descended from the train at that very moment to seize it: a house backed with a group of haystacks and wide brown fields about it, two aged horses standing head to tail, a little orchard with washing hanging on a line, and a rabbit staring at the train, whose two eyes looked like the dots, and his ears like uprights, of a double exclamation mark.

I can’t even tell you how many times I have felt like I needed to get out of the car immediately and start a brand new life for myself because of exactly that phenomenon, and I have never seen it put into words so perfectly anywhere else. And then there’s the coziness that comes from having most of the main characters in a tiny island of safety while the world falls to pieces around them and there’s the toasted cheese and there’s academic politicking leading to the triumph of evil and there’s Merlin and there’s a bear.

But I really want to talk about the dresses. Towards the end of the book, as good is triumphing over evil, most of the non-evil female characters gather together in a room called the Wardrobe. They have been instructed to choose dresses. They are not given any mirrors with which to see how they look in these dresses. Each of them tries on only one dress, chosen for them by the others.

The dress chosen is always perfect, captures their essence. Camilla, who likes weather and horses, wears “a long slender thing which looked like steel in color though it was soft as foam to the touch. It wrapped itself close about her loins and flowed out in a glancing train at her heels. ‘Like a mermaid,’ thought Jane; and then, ‘like a Valkyrie.’”

Jane, who is the main female character, on the other hand, “could see nothing specially appropriate in the robe which the others agreed in putting on her. Blue was, indeed, her color but she had thought of something a little more austere and dignified. Left to her own judgment, she would have called this a little ‘fussy.’ But when she saw the others all clap their hands, she submitted.”

When I read this book I longed to be Camilla, just like when I read The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford I longed to be Linda. Which of course rules me out from being a Camilla or a Linda; Camilla would never dream of wanting to be anyone but herself, a little like Diana Mitford thinking in prison how lovely it was to be herself, but without the Nazism.

The quality of wanting to be somebody else is a quality that Jane has in spades. “Supposing all those people who, from the bachelor uncles down to Mark and Mother Dimble, had infuriatingly found her sweet and fresh when she wanted them to find her also interesting and important, had all along been simply right and perceived the sort of thing she was?”

If you haven’t read the book, and were starting to wonder where the yucky parts come in, this is where they come in.

The sweet-and-fresh business didn’t bother me much at the time I first read the book. Probably because I grew up in a world and family where I felt interesting and important and also it was assumed I would have to get a job one day to support myself. But the part about the fussy dress, that ate at me a little bit.

I asked my mother, trying not to tip my hand, which of the dresses she thought I would have been assigned, if I had been there in the room. This was in the old days, when there were no Buzzfeed quizzes to answer these questions for you, and so you had to open your soul to people in that pathetic kind of way.

She said that she thought I would be given Jane’s.
I said, tentatively, if she thought I might be really more like Camilla. My mother is kind. She didn’t laugh at me. Maybe, she said, maybe.

Not too long ago. I went shopping for a dress to wear at my wedding. I had to try on a lot of dresses. There was no magic dress that revealed the essence of my soul. I tried on a lot of dresses. Some I looked better in than others.

In every C.S. Lewis book I’ve read there are things that stay with me and then there are things that I vehemently disagree with. That’s nothing special to C.S. Lewis — one of my favorite all time books, D.H. Lawrence’s Studies In Classic American Literature has this to say about women:

“The very women who are most busy saving the bodies of men, and saving the children: these women-doctors, these nurses, these educationalists, these public-spirited women, these female saviours: they are all, from the inside, sending out waves of destructive malevolence which eat out the inner life of a man, like a cancer.”

(I would much rather be send out waves of destructive malevolence than sit there being sweet and fresh, but that’s just personal preference.)

What I find so difficult about reading C.S. Lewis, though, is that he really fights any attempt to take the parts you like and leave the rest. He’s really down on that. You get one dress, and you don’t get to choose that dress for yourself.

You don’t even get to see yourself in the mirror once you’ve got the dress on. You don’t get to take out your white out bottle and rewrite things to suit yourself.

And probably that’s also part of what I love about That Hideous Strength. Because there’s always a fascination in having someone else tell you who you are, even when it’s horrifying.

Once I was fifteen and on the shuttle that takes you from the airport to the longterm parking lot with my mother. We were on our way back from Seattle and our flight had been delayed and I was busy freaking out over not getting my homework done. I was whining. A middle-aged guy with his wife across from us looked at my mother indulgently. He said that I reminded him of one of his two daughters. One of his daughters was very organized and didn’t procrastinate and didn’t panic, and the other one was just like me.

I hated that man. I still hate that man twenty some years later. I want to tell him that he didn’t know the first damn thing about me.

But of course, just like Jane, I worry that he was right about me all along, that all those unpleasant voices, some external and some coming from inside the house, are right about me.

There’s not a damn thing to be done about it. I put on my dress, look at myself in the mirror. I think I look pretty good.

Sunday 6 November 2016

How do Tolkien scholars so thoroughly insulate themselves from Tolkien's wisdom?

With the notable and noble exception of Tom Shippey, and the primarily Catholic strand of (valid but secondary source) Tolkien scholarship as exemplified by Joseph Pearce; pretty much all of the heavy-hitting, primary Tolkien scholarship of the best quality is the work of academics whose world view is the usual, bog-standard, off-the-peg, silly, shallow and brainless mainstream modern academic left-liberal political correctness.

In one sense this is just as would be expected, given that the educational establishment is a major source of the most extreme and foolish brand of Leftist lunacy - and in that respect Tolkien scholars are merely 'of their time and place'.

In another sense, it must mean that the deepest level of Tolkien's writing is going over their heads, or passing them by - since Tolkien is the single most articulate and influential exponent of a world view which stands in the most complete imaginable opposition to that of the modern academy: a world view which indeed regards the ethical, aesthetic and metaphysical views of Leftism as not just mistaken, but profoundly evil.

How is it that so many people can spend so much time immersed in Tolkien's work, and from a sympathetic perspective, and produce such excellent scholarship - and yet remain personally (apparently) utterly untouched by his most heartfelt convictions?

I suppose I know the answer to this question - because I know it from my own experience as an atheistic, politically radical and modernist Tolkien lover for some 35 years before the scales fell from my eyes and I became a Christian, and then abandoned the materialist nihilism of modern life.

And I also know from experience that I was indeed missing a great deal of the deepest quality of Tolkien's work and thought; by failing to acknowledge Tolkien's refutation of my secular-Left world view.

And that, eventually, it was my taking seriously my intuitions and hopes about Tolkien's long influence (an unbroken 'golden thread' woven through the superficialities of my living) that was a large factor in leading to my Christian conversion and final abandonment of the appalling, shallow, dumb and wicked ideology of the modern academic and literary world.