C.S. Lewis on Science Fiction

Douglas A. Anderson at A Shiver in the Archive has republished an anecdote about C.S. Lewis originally told by Frank Arnold.

Arnold was one of a group of science fiction writers and fans who met at the Globe Tavern in Holborn in the early 1950s. On one occasion Lewis joined them together with his (future) wife Joy Davidman and his brother Warnie. Apparently Davidman was a regular at these meetings. Arnold writes:

The first distinguished author to call on us at the Globe was no less a man than C. S. Lewis (Out of the Silent Planet, The Screwtape Letters, etc.). One of the great scholars of his time, Professor Lewis was forthright in upholding his own views on all questions of history, literature and theology. If they happened to coincide with fashionable opinion, well and good, but if they did not – well, it was rough luck on fashionable opinion! When he came to the Globe, Lewis did not really know who we were, nor did he need to – enough that here was The Master enjoying an evening off among admiring pupils. What a feast of conversation we had that evening! Lewis hated and loved SF in almost equal measure, and I shall never forget how his eyes lit up when I chanced to mention Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus. ‘An evil book,’ he called it, with relish, for he was as strongly devoted to it as I am. So far from sharing A. M. Low’s belief in the blessings of science, Lewis believed that science was the especial gift of Satan – a view which has since been propagated by many much less exalted thinkers and agitators.

Lewis’s moderating cynicism about science and science fiction undoubtedly elevated his own brilliant Space Trilogy, which should be read alongside 1984 and A Brave New World.

Tolkien Answers Amazon

In a 1958 letter, J.R.R. Tolkien explained his disapproval of an ultimately unmade film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. About the filmmakers, he wrote,

they may be irritated or aggrieved by the tone of many of my criticisms. If so, I am sorry (though not surprised).

But I would ask them to make an effort of imagination sufficient to understand the irritation (and on occasion the resentment) of an author, who finds, increasingly as he proceeds, his work treated as it would seem carelessly in general, in places recklessly, and with no evident signs of any appreciation of what it is all about.

The canons of narrative in any medium cannot be wholly different; and the failure of poor films is often precisely in exaggeration, and in the intrusion of unwarranted matter owing to not perceiving where the core of the original lies.

Emphasis added.

As the Amazon corporation prepares to release its new Lord of the Rings prequel series, these words seem especially relevant. From the trailer and the marketing, this series seems to be built upon the intrusion of unwarranted matter, incompatible with Tolkien’s meticulous lore.

The Screwtape Legacy

This year is the eightieth anniversary of the publication of The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Brenton Dickieson has written an excellent history of the work (complete with interesting ephemera) at A Pilgrim in Narnia. The book was wildly successful at the time. It played a crucial role in the establishment of Lewis as a public figure. Dickieson observes that in the famous issue of Time depicting Lewis on the cover, “he is described as a ‘celebrity’ whose platform was built upon The Screwtape Letters.”

Old Enough For Fairy Tales

C. S. Lewis dedicated his novel The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to Lucy Barfield, the daughter of his fellow-Inkling Owen Barfield. She was Lewis’s goddaughter. The dedication itself is worth revisiting. It reads:

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 may be 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

The point suggested so elegantly here is elaborated upon in the posthumous collection of Lewis’s essays, On Stories. He erases what he considers an artificial boundary between children’s literature and adult. In the essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” he contends that, “The whole association of fairy tale and fantasy with childhood is local and accidental.” The genre “gravitated to the nursery when it became unfashionable in literary circles, just as unfashionable furniture gravitated to the nursery in Victorian houses.” In the titular essay he writes, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty”. He explains in another essay:

I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn’t grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next. In reality, the case is stronger and more complicated than this. I think my growth is just as apparent when I now read the fairy tales as when I read the novelists, for I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood: being now able to put more in, of course I get more out.

Indeed we introduce our children to the Grimms, The Hobbit, Kenneth Grahame, Beatrix Potter, and of course Lewis precisely because we know, from experience, that they produce a lifetime of deepening enrichment.

Pictured above: an illustration of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by Pauline Baynes.

Lovecraft and the Inklings

In the December 2018 issue of Mallorn: The Journal of the Tolkien Society, Dale Nelson considers tentative connections between H. P. Lovecraft and the Oxford Inklings.

Devotees of fantastic fiction have wondered if the Ink-lings knew the work of the Lovecraft circle, and vice versa. Several points of likely or certain awareness may be sum-marized as follows:

[1] By sometime late in his life, Clark Ashton Smith, short story writer, poet, and artist, had read The Hobbit and some of The Fellowship of the Ring, according to a posting by “calonlan” on 30 Nov. 2011, in an Eldritch Dark discussion thread. “Calonlan” appears to have known CAS personally.

[2] Lovecraft himself had read more than one of Charles Williams’s spiritual thrillers. Their orthodoxy spoiled them for HPL. He wrote:

“Essentially, they are not horror literature at all, but philosophical allegory in fictional form. Direct reproduction of the texture of life & the substance of moods is not the author’s object. He is trying to illustrate human nature through symbols & turns of idea which possess significance for those taking a traditional or orthodox view of man’s cosmic bearings. There is no true attempt to express the indefinable feelings experienced by man in confronting the unknown . . . To get a full-sized kick from this stuff one must take seriously the orthodox view of cosmic organisation—which is rather impossible today.” (as quoted in S. T. Joshi, I Am Providence, page 878; I’m indebted to a 21 April 2016 posting by John Rateliff on his Sacnoth’s Scriptorium blog for this reference)

Lovecraft could not have read Descent into Hell and All Hallows’ Eve, which contain perhaps the most “Lovecraft-ian” sequences in Williams’s seven novels.

[3] Lewis almost certainly not only read, but was influ-enced by, a story by Lovecraft correspondent and Arkham House co-founder Donald Wandrei. On one of the last pages in his short novel The Great Divorce, Lewis acknowl-edges his indebtedness to an American science fiction story, the title and author of which he has forgotten. This appears to be “Colossus,” which appeared in the January 1934 issue of Astounding. Wandrei’s story plays with the idea of our universe being of subatomic tininess as com-pared to a super-universe; the hero journeys from the one to the other. Lewis’s novel involves a bus trip from hell to heaven. In the fiction, “‘All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world; but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World.’”

[4] Tolkien evidently read a 1963 paperback anthology called Swords and Sorcery, edited by L. Sprague de Camp, who gave him a copy. The anthology contains Lovecraft’s tale in the manner of Lord Dunsany, “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” Smith’s “The Testament of Athammaus,” and Howard’s Conan story “Shadows in the Moonlight.” According to de Camp, who visited Tolkien in 1967, Tolkien liked the Conan story. Tolkien’s own copy of de Camp’s anthology was offered for bids on ebay a few years ago. http://www.tolkienlibrary.com/tolkien-book-store/000971.htm

[5] It is reasonably likely that Lewis read Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow Out of Time” in Astounding. His reading of American pulp magazines is certain. Below, I’ll say something about possible influ-ence of Mountains on Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet and of “Shadow” on Lewis’s Dark Tower fragment.

All that doesn’t come to a lot, but it’s more than might have been expected.

Tolkien reading Conan is obviously the most satisfying of these nebulous associations. Nelson addresses Lovecraft’s partially formed mythopoeic imagination in greater detail. The essay can be read at the link above.

An Inklings Pub Shuttered

The Inklings are fondly associated with the Eagle and Child in St Giles’ Street, Oxford, where they met on Tuesday afternoons for readings and discussion. When that establishment underwent renovations in the early 1960s, the Inklings moved their meetings to another pub, The Lamb and Flag. There they convened until C. S. Lewis’s death in 1963.

Now St John’s College, the owner of both pubs, has announced that The Lamb and Flag will “cease operations” indefinitely on January 31. Obviously rolling quarantines over the past year have wreaked devastation on the restaurant industry. This is true on both sides of the Atlantic.

The deputy bursar of St John’s explains his reasoning,

Despite the best efforts of the staff and looking at every option to keep it open, the trading figures of the last 12 months have meant that the pub is not currently financially viable. Also the College as a charity is not allowed to financially support a loss-making business that is not part of its core charitable objectives.

The Lamb and Flag has been operating in Oxford since 1566, on St Giles’ Street since 1613.

Under a Needling Star

In my library I have two first editions of Walter de la Mare’s 1921 collection, The Veil, and Other Poems, one signed and numbered, both published by Constable and Company.

This is my favorite of de la Mare’s many volumes of poetry, full of uncanny imagery and imagination. Nowhere do these two themes converge more elegantly than they do in “The Imagination’s Pride,” which begins:

Be not too wildly amorous of the far,
Nor lure thy fantasy to its utmost scope.
Read by a taper when the needling star
Burns red with menace in heaven’s midnight cope.
Friendly thy body: guard its solitude.
Sure shelter is thy heart. It once had rest
Where founts miraculous thy lips endewed,
Yet nought loomed further than thy mother’s breast.

O brave adventure! Ay, at danger slake
Thy thirst, lest life in thee should, sickening, quail;
But not toward nightmare goad a mind awake,
Nor to forbidden horizons bend thy sail—
Seductive outskirts whence in trance prolonged
Thy gaze, at stretch of what is sane-secure,
Dreams out on steeps by shapes demoniac thronged
And vales wherein alone the dead endure.

C. S. Lewis regarded this as de la Mare’s best poem, and the chronological high point of his career. In a 1927 letter to Arthur Greeves, Lewis wrote, “De la Mare’s poems I have had for a long time and I read them more often than any other book. I put him above Yeats and all the other moderns, and in spite of his fantasy find him nearer than any one else to the essential truth of life.” But three years later he expressed disappointment in de la Mare’s volumes Desert Islands and The Connoisseur, which he thought lacked “the real spirituality” found in The Veil.

In 1930, Lewis wrote to Greeves,

My idea is he really bade good bye to the best part of himself in the lovely poem ‘Be not too wildly amorous of the far.’ The peculiar kind of vision he had was of a strangely piercing quality and probably almost unbearable to the possessor: only a man of great solidity, of real character, sound at the bases of his mind & braced with philosophy, could have carried it safely. But De la Mare was not such a man. It was quite likely really leading him to madness, & he knew it. Hardly knowing what he did, and yet just knowing, he sent it away. I am told he lives in the midst of the silly London literary sets. His read day is over. Do you think this a possible theory?

Like Lewis himself, de la Mare was an Anglican Christian. He was educated at St Paul’s Cathedral School and buried in the crypt of St Paul’s, where he had been a choirboy.

By the 1960s Lewis was able to look back at de la Mare’s body of work with a more rounded perspective. In his 1966 collection On Stories he wrote of de la Mare’s “intensely sophisticated art,” comparing him insightfully to friend and fellow-Inkling Charles Williams.

The Daily Routine of C.S. Lewis

CSLewis

As a teenager, C.S. Lewis came under the tutelage of a former grammar school headmaster named William T. Kirkpatrick. Between 1914 and 1917 he boarded with the Kirkpatrick family at Great Bookham in Surrey. There Lewis lived a solitary and scholarly life that would remain his ideal into adulthood. He describes a “normal” day there in his memoir, Surprised by Joy:

We now settled into a routine which has ever since served in my mind as an archetype, so that what I still mean when I speak of a “normal” day (and lament that normal days are so rare) is a day of the Bookham pattern. For if I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table; and by two at the latest I should be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one…who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared. The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude, as I took it at Bookham on those (happily numerous) occasions when Mrs Kirkpatrick was out; the Knock himself disdained this meal. Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere. The ones I learned so to use at Bookham were Boswell, and a translation of Herodotus, and Lang’s History of English Literature. Tristram Shandy, Elia and The Anatomy of Melancholy are all good for the same purpose. At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven.

Tolkien and the Secret Life of Trees

Fangorn
Fangorn Forest from The Lord of the Rings, illustrated by J.R.R. Tolkien

I read a fascinating article recently about the German forest ranger and ecologist Peter Wohlleben in The New York Times. Wohlleben is the author of a book, The Hidden Life of Trees, and is featured in the documentary film, Intelligent Trees. His observations about arboreal biology are exciting and even startling:

trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.

Obviously this is a type of life and “society” quite different from our own. But trees are living creatures. I imagine it would benefit our understanding of them to consider the ways in which they behave like living creatures, not inanimate objects.

Reading this profile of Wohlleben reminded me of a writer who shared a similar outlook on nature: J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien portrayed trees as possessing various degrees of sentience, and as being shepherded by Ents, a race of tree-like giants. His imagination was informed by a deep sympathy with the forest, and a perception that trees were conscious on some mysterious level.

In 1972 the Daily Telegraph published an article which contained the description of a landscape “transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings.” In a letter to the editor, published a few days later, Tolkien replied,

I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

Sources:

McGrane, Sally. (January 29, 2016) “German Forest Ranger Finds That Trees Have Social Networks, Too,” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/30/world/europe/german-forest-ranger-finds-that-trees-have-social-networks-too.html

Tolkien, J.R.R.; Carpenter, Humphrey (ed). (1981) The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. London: George Allan & Unwin.

Another Lost Tolkien Poem

Two “lost” poems by J.R.R. Tolkien were recently rediscovered in the 1936 Annual of Our Lady’s School in Abingdon-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. I wrote about one of these poems, “The Shadow Man,” back in October. Since we are still in Christmastide it seems like a good opportunity to share the second, “Noel.” As the name suggests it is about the Nativity.

“Noel” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.
The wind in the trees was like to the sea,
And over the mountains’ teeth
It whistled bitter-cold and free,
As a sword leapt from its sheath.

The lord of snows upreared his head;
His mantle long and pale
Upon the bitter blast was spread
And hung o’er hill and dale.
The world was blind, the boughs were bent,
All ways and paths were wild:
Then the veil of cloud apart was rent,
And here was born a Child.

The ancient dome of heaven sheer
Was pricked with distant light;
A star came shining white and clear
Alone above the night.
In the dale of dark in that hour of birth
One voice on a sudden sang:
Then all the bells in Heaven and Earth
Together at midnight rang.

Mary sang in this world below:
They heard her song arise
O’er mist and over mountain snow
To the walls of Paradise,
And the tongue of many bells was stirred
in Heaven’s towers to ring
When the voice of mortal maid was heard,
That was mother of Heaven’s King.

Glad is the world and fair this night
With stars about its head,
And the hall is filled with laughter and light,
And fires are burning red.
The bells of Paradise now ring
With bells of Christendom,
And Gloria, Gloria we will sing
That God on earth is come.

Read more about the poems here.