MythCon 45 Day 4: Faith, Myths, and Archetypes

Sørina Higgins:

For Charles Williams Wednesday today, I have the honor of reblogging this post from Matthew Rettino’s “Vinciolo Journal.” In it, he talks about the exciting 4th day of Mythcon, back in August. Enjoy!

Originally posted on The Vinciolo Journal:

Fantasy and Faith Panel

Fantasy and Faith Panel

J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien

The first of the two legendary panels that happened on Sunday–just before my own presentation, which was the last before the banquet and awards ceremony–was entitled “Fantasy and Faith.”

Chip Crane moderated, and Carl Hostetter, Sorina Higgins, and Lynn Maudlin were discussing the Inklings. What is the place of faith in the fantasy genre? What place does religion have in LOTR? Oddly enough, there are no religions in Tolkien, despite his firm Catholicism; the elves have no need of religion, given their certainty that the Valar live in the West. Tolkien himself explained that LOTR was a “fundamentally” religious and Catholic work–unconsciously at first, but conscious during revision. This means that “fundamentally,” or “at base,” LOTR is religious, though not “fundamentally” in the sense of “extremism.” That would be decidedly un-Tolkienian! The Legendarium of Tolkien–the complex of legends that build up…

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Where is the Joy?

What books stir your soul?

the-wanderer-above-the-sea-of-fogWhich time period of literature or art appeals to you the most? Which stylistic era of music most stirs your soul? Is it the ordered precision of a Bach fugue or the poignant strains of a Chopin prelude? Alexander Pope’s witty epigrams or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s sublime musicality? The powerful catharsis of a tragedy by Sophocles or the messy psychological accuracy of one by Shakespeare?

C.S. Lewis, in describing the literary taste of his parents, wrote: “Neither had ever listened for the horns of elfland” (Surprised by Joy 5).

The Heraldry of Heaven

MythgardBadge_90x90The horns of elfland, the blue flower, sweet desire, divine discontent, the heraldry of heaven, Sehnsucht, Joy…. These are all names for a kind of painful yearning or beautiful longing that Lewis felt many times throughout this life, usually stirred by “Romantic” poetry, fiction, or music—or by nature. I gave a talk about this particular kind of Joy last week at Mythgard; you can listen to, watch, or download the talk here.

The Romantic Note

The point I want to make right now is that it wasn’t just all good literature that gave Lewis this strange longing; it was only works with those that have a “Romantic” tone to them, from whatever time period. Chopin would do it for him while Bach wouldn’t, even though Bach’s music might raise the soul to heights of glory and flights of heavenward delight. Bach’s music doesn’t have that sense of incompletion, of fragmentary suggestion, of hints and intimations of immortality. Bach’s music often seems to contain the very eternity of which is speaks, whereas Chopin’s gestures towards the sublime in a way that evokes our yearning for it but does not fulfill the yearning—which thus feeds the longing all the more. classikiss

External and Internal

This distinction may be related to the evolution of the “expressive theory of art” as defined by M.H. Abrams in The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Bach may be categorized as expressing in his compositions something outside of him: a kind of symmetry and order he observed in the universe, while Chopin might be characterized as expressing feelings evoked in himself (and thus in his listeners) about what he saw in nature.

Complete and Incomplete

This brings me back to the idea of completion and incompletion: Bach’s compositions have a satisfying sense of achievement about them: they are finished in two senses, both polished and complete. Chopin’s have a sense of suggestion, of being only a fragment of so much more. Perhaps I am overstating the case here, and I would love to have composers, music theorists, musicians, and music teachers argue with me here. Let me turn to literary examples. The Canterbury Tales, for all its stated fragmentary nature, does not arouse in its reader that longing for some spiritual beauty beyond itself. It contains all its satisfaction inside itself: its jokes, insults, ideas, and speculations are all self-contained. You put down the book feeling satisfied. You’ve had your meal. But that same author’s Troilus and Criseyde, even though it is a complete work, evokes much more spiritual longing and sense of something more, I think, in its hints and suggestions about heaven, Troilus’s soul, and so forth.

In other words, Troilus and Criseyde could evoke Sehnsucht in readers, while The Canterbury Tales is highly unlikely to do so.

sehnsucht-definitionLewis loved any work that could provoke this longing, and he strove to evoke it in his own readers, too. J.R.R. Tolkien also packed his writings with longing, with the romantic note, with a wild, sweet, painful yearning for something located off in the west, beyond the seas, beyond the world, that is inaccessible and infinitely desirable. The sound of the sea stirs the heart in both of these writers. Long landscapes, distant vistas, shrouded in mist and tinted by twilight, also awaken desire. Autumn, western winds, the cries of geese or gulls, mountain ranges fading off into fog, the distant past paradise or the unattainable future heaven—these are lavished throughout the works of Lewis and Tolkien.

What about Williams?

And what about Charles Williams? Do his works stir up Sehnsucht in the soul of the reader?

I don’t think they do. His books, especially his novels, do fill me with desire, but it is an entirely different desire: It is the longing for holiness. It is the aspiration to become a saint or a mystic. This is worlds away from the autumnal, Hesperian wanderlust aroused by a recitation of “Kubla Khan.” And there are also passages in CW’s writings that raise the heart to heavenly heights, filled with the golden glory of God’s presence or the profound peace of a soul’s submission—but this is in Bach’s category of sublimity, not Chopin’s.

How about for you? Are there any passages in CW’s work that strike you the way this one from Tolkien does?

And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen (Silmarillion 8).


“Ulmo” by Ted Nasmith

Or the way this one from Lewis does?

The sky was pure, flat gold like the background of a medieval picture….The water gleamed, the sky burned with gold, but all was rich and dim, and his eyes fed upon it undazzled and unaching. The very names of green and gold, which he used perforce in describing the scene, are too harsh for the tenderness, the muted iridescence, of that warm, maternal, delicately gorgeous world. It was mild to look upon as evening, warm like summer noon, gentle and winning like early dawn. It was altogether pleasurable. He sighed. (Perelandra 36).


Is there anything like that in Williams for you? I can’t think of any moments. There is plenty of beauty, but it’s of the more “Classical” kind, isn’t it?

And I think I know the reason. CW didn’t like nature. He was a city man at heart. He did like long walks, but his sight wasn’t very good, so he couldn’t enjoy long vistas of mountains and mist the way CSL and JRRT did. He much preferred to be in the heart of London, among the busses and traffic and crowds of coinherent humans. CSL and JRRT despised cars, trains, pollution, noise, hustle, and bustle. Williams loved all of that. So perhaps that’s why the note or tone of their works is so wildly different.

Or perhaps I’m wrong. Go ahead and prove me wrong. Is there a passage in CW’s works where you hear the horns of elfland?

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The Heraldry of Heaven

MythgardBadge_90x90the-wanderer-above-the-sea-of-fogOn Tuesday, I gave a guest lecture at Signum University’s Mythgard Institute as a supplement to the course on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The talk was entitled “The Heraldry of Heaven: The Development of Sehnsucht in the Writings of C.S. Lewis.” In it, I discuss the longing or yearning that drove Lewis to explore Romantic poetry and mystical encounters in his writings.

You can access the video here and the audio here.

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Crowdsourcing “The Hobbit” Smackdown

MythgardBadge_90x90On November 8th, Mythgard Academy is holding its fundraising webathon, and I have foolishly agreed to face off with The Tolkien Professor in a debate about “The Hobbit” films — so I need your help!

As you may know, Corey Olsen has been examining the Hobbit movies in some detail since even before the first one was released on his “Riddles in the Dark” podcast. If I may venture to summarize his argument here, he has essentially shown that Peter Jackson’s team has done a brilliant job of adapting Tolkien’s texts for the screen. Nearly every little change of plot, introduction of new material, visual choice, etc. can be shown to have a relationship to something Tolkien was thinking sometime, somewhere, in some notebook or draft or other.307252id1L_TheHobbit_TBOTFA_Teaser_27x40_1Sheet.indd

In short, Corey argues that the Hobbit films are excellent adaptations.

I am going to argue that they are bad movies.

See, it’s important to know how to evaluate an adaptation. It won’t do to base its worth on how close it sticks to the original, because form changes content, medium changes message. I believe that any work must be judged on its own artistic merits.

And I believe that the Hobbit films are pretty bad movies. So that’s what I’m going to try to convince Corey to concede. Or at least to have a fun and lovely time discussing the topic.

Here, then, is where I need your help. Please reply in the comments below if you can provide any of the following:

1. Recommendations for works of film theory I should read to learn how to critique a movie intelligently.

2. Links to the best online reviews of and forums about The Hobbit movies that offer sober, mature critique (NOT rants).

3. Your own evaluation of wherein the badness of these films consists (again, NOT rants; rants will be deleted).

Thank you! Be sure to tune in on November 8th for the debate (and listen to me get trashed).debate

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An Invitation to “Heraldry of Heaven”

SignumBadge_300x90You are invited!
Higgins Guest Lecture on C.S. Lewis
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
4:00pm-5:30 pm EDT
Mythgard Academy/Signum University

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Let Us Dispute About Noises: Guest Post

As you know, I have begun working as a Preceptor for Signum University/The Mythgard Institute. This University offers courses in fantasy literature and sci fi, and I’m on the faculty team for the Lewis & Tolkien course. So it seems appropriate to continue posting news, articles, and discussion related to these two writers, close friends of Charles Williams, The Oddest Inkling.

Recently, in response to a question of mine, Corey Olsen (“The Tolkien Professor“) released a podcast about how to pronounce names in Tolkien’s works. Dr. Ed Powell is a member of the Board and the Curator of Computational Complexities for Signum and Mythgard. Here he shares his thoughts on Tolkien’s pronunciation, including lots of helpful background information and the results of a poll. If you did not get a chance to vote in the poll, please leave your vote in the comments. Enjoy! 

2014-06-07 18-01-12 -- EdThere has been a lot of discussion of the names of Thorin’s father and cousin, Thrain and Dain, especially since Professor Olsen’s recent podcast on the subject. After the podcast, and listening to the Professor’s arguments, I wanted to know how you pronounce these names.

The results of the survey are shown below, but first a bit of background.

Vowels and Diphthongs

First a note about vowels. In first grade we all learned about vowels in English: Long vowels such as the a in fate, and short vowels, such as the a in fat. Similarly for the rest of the vowels e, i, o, and u. Then when we learned French or Spanish in later grades it was a shock to discover that their vowels were different. French a was pronounced like short o: the o in hot and the a in father. The vowel i was pronounced not like the i in kite or the i in kit, but like a long e as in machine. These are very approximately the vowel sounds of Middle English and Latin.

So why do our modern vowels not sound the same as the Middle English vowels? The explanation lies in the strange and wondrous tale of The Great Vowel Shift, which occurred in English in the mid-second millenium. Read the Wikipedia article or the more daunting article about The Phonological History of English Vowels. Intrepid students might also want to listen to the seriously outstanding set of courses on Linguistics by Professor John McWhorter offered by The Great Courses (née The Teaching Company).

Tolkien gives his prefered pronunciation of his vowels in the Appendix E of The Lord of the Rings:

For vowels the letters i, e, a, o, u are used, and (in Sindarin only) y. As far as can be determined the sounds represented by these letters (other than y) were of normal kind, though doubtless many local varieties escape detection. That is, the sounds were approximately those represented by i, e, a, o, u in English machine, were, father, for, brute, irrespective of quantity.”

Finally, instead of the standard first-grade English maxim “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking” that was drilled into our head at an early age (e.g., hear), many vowel combinations are diphthongs (“two adjacent vowel sounds occurring within the same syllable”–Wikipedia). In fact, many “vowels” that we know and love, for example the long a in fate, are not vowels at all, but diphthongs. Say the word fate slowly and notice how your tongue moves during the a sound. It starts at a place that roughly corresponds to the long e sound in French (père), close to the short e in English bed, then glides to the English long e sound (feet). The long a vowel sound in English is really the diphthong “ei” (spelled “[eɪ̯]” in the International Phonetic Alphabet or IPA). Similarly, the long i in kite is actually a diphthong, too. Again say the word kite slowly and pay attention to your tongue as the i sound progresses from a sound like the a in father (or the o in pot) to the long e sound like the i in machine (or the e in tree). The long i sound is really the diphthong “ai” (spelled [aɪ̯] in IPA).

Tolkien’s instructions for diphthongs are also given in Appendix E:

“In Sindarin the diphthongs are written ae, ai, ei, oe, ui, and au. Other combinations are not diphthongal. The writing of final au as aw is in accordance with English custom, but is actually not uncommon in Fëanorian spellings.

All these diphthongs were ‘falling’ diphthongs, that is stressed on the first element, and composed of the simple vowels run together. Thus ai, ei, oi, ui are intended to be pronounced respectively as the vowels in English rye (not ray), grey, boy, ruin; and au (aw) as in loud, how and not as in laud, haw.

There is nothing in English closely corresponding to ae, oe, eu; ae and oe may be pronounced as ai, oi.”

Tolkien also describes the purpose of accents in his names in Appendix E:

“Long vowels are usually marked with the ‘acute accent’, as in some varieties of Fëanorian script. In Sindarin long vowels in stressed monosyllables are marked with the circumflex, since they tended in such cases to be specially prolonged ; so in dûn compared with Dúnadan.”

Now we have all the background we need to understand the various arguments for the pronunciation of the name “Thrain”. Or do we?

More Evidence

So Tolkien just said that ai was pronounced as in rye, so Thrain is obviously pronounced Thrine. QED. Right?

Not so fast, Buckaroo. Tolkien’s directions above apply to words derived from Sindarin and Quenya, not for names derived from other languages. “Thrain” is not a Quenya or Sindarin name, but an anglicisation of the name “Þráinn” from the Dvergatal (list of dwarves) in the Völuspá (“Prophecy of the Seeress”), the first poem of the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems.

There are two items of note in this. First, the name Thrain is an anglicisation, not the original name itself. Many names in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are anglicized and are pronounced using modern English pronunciation. For example, Bilbo is pronounced as it reads in English, with a short i and a long o. it is not pronounced Beelbo, as it would be under the Tolkien’s Sindarin rules described above. Nor is Samwise pronounced Sahmweeze. English names and other anglicized names are pronounced as normal English speakers would pronounce them. Tolkien never pronounced the name “Thrain” as far as I can tell, but he did pronounce the names of all the dwarves in Thorin and Company, which you can listen to in a very poor recording here. There are some strange elements here:

  1. Dwalin and Balin are pronounced such that the a is the a in hat, not father.
  2. Fili and Kili are pronounced more like Filly and Killy than Feely and Keely
  3. Dori, Nori, and Ori are all pronounced as you would expect, with the long o as in the word or, and the final i as in machine.
  4. Oin and Gloin are pronounced Oh’-in and Glow’-in with two syllables. They are not pronounced to rhyme with coin.
  5. Bifur and Bofur are pronounced as Biffer and Boffer, rather than Bee’-foor (or Beye’-foor) and Bo’-foor
  6. Surprisingly Bombur is pronounced with the oor sound for the last syllable, following Tolkien’s rules in Appendix E of The Lord of the Rings. This is different from Bifur and Bofur where the last ur is pronounced er (with the schwa e). Bombur is Bomboor.
  7. Elsewhere (not in this clip) Thorin is pronounced in the usual way.

What can one conclude from these? First, there is no consistency with respect to pronunciation rules, whether English or Sindarin. Balin and Bifur just blew me away–Tolkien’s pronunciation was so unexpected. Who knows how he might have pronounced Thrain?

The second item of note is that the language of the original name (“Þráinn”) is Old Norse. The accented á in Old Norse is pronounced ou as in loud. Click here for a lesson in Old Norse pronunciation. This name would have been pronounced Throu’-in if I am hearing the Old Norse properly. Could this be a possible pronunciation?

Finally, to confuse us more, Tolkien added accent marks to many of the dwarves’ names in The Lord of the Rings. Thus, from The Council of Elrond:

‘Balin will find no ring in Moria,’ said Gandalf. ‘Thrór gave it to Thráin his son, but not Thráin to Thorin. It was taken with torment from Thráin in the dungeons of Dol Guldur. I came too late.’

‘Ah, alas!’ cried Glóin. ‘When will the day come of our revenge?’

What Tolkien meant by these accents other than his comment “Long vowels are usually marked with the ‘acute accent’” is unknown. How would anyone pronounce Thror differently from Thrór? What does it mean in Thráin? There are many theories. It could be to mark out that the ai is not a diphthong, but as in Oin and Gloin, simply two letters next to one another both of which get pronounced separately. In this case the i next to the a would be short, pronounced as in the word kin.

However, we are not talking about how Thráin is pronounced in The Lord of the Rings, we are talking about how Thrain is pronounced in The Hobbit. As Professor Olsen makes abundantly clear in his lectures, we need to take The Hobbit as a work on its own and judge it for what it is, by itself, not necessarily judge it based on hindsight after reading The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and other works. Tolkien had plenty of opportunity to modify The Hobbit and add in the accent over the a in Thrain. He took this opportunity to clean up a lot of other confusions, mistakes, and typographical errors. That he did not place the accent in The Hobbit tells me that he thought it was unnecessary complexity for a children’s book, so he sacrificed accuracy for readability, and thus produced multiple generations of children, including the makers of the Hobbit films, who understandably pronounce Thrain as Thrane. He must have understood that would be the result of his inaction.

At this juncture, the evidence ends, although additional research in Doug Anderson’s The Annotated Hobbit and John Rateliff’s The History of the Hobbit could be done. Let the speculation and argumentation begin!

The Arguments

Each of the choices in the survey are based on a possible interpretation of the evidence, laid out above. The survey looked like:

Here are the rationales for each possible choice:

  1. Thrane – like in “train”. Rationale: Standard English pronunciation of a name that has obviously been anglicised, just like all the other dwarf names taken from the Völuspá.
  2. Thrine – like in “brine”. Rationale: The favorite of many who have read Appendix E and have seen Tolkien’s dictum that ai is pronounced like the i in kite.
  3. Throu’-in – where the “ou” sounds the same as in “loud”, and the “i” is short. Rationale: Tolkien keeps the Old Norse pronunciation of the á, and the name is two syllables.
  4. Thray’-in – where the “ay” is the same as “stay”, and the “i” is short. Rationale: Standard English pronunciation of the name if we understand the ai is not a diphthong but two vowels pronounced separately.
  5. Thrah’-in – where the “ah” is the same as in “bra”. Rationale: Similar to the previous entry, except using the a sound from father rather than from fate, which fits in better with Tolkien’s pronunciation rules in Appendix E.
  6. Throu’-een – where the “ou” sounds the same as in “loud”. Rationale: Two syllables, but the first vowel is as in Old Norse and the second vowel is long. (This is unlikely given Tolkien’s other choices, but is here for completeness).
  7. Thray’-een – where the “ay” is the same as “stay”. Rationale: two syllables, the first vowel modern English long a, the second Latinate long i (ee), which to be fair is used a lot in modern English as well.
  8. Thrah’-een – where the “ah” is the same as in “bra”. Rationale: Still two syllables, but both vowels are Latinate and long. (This is unlikely given Tolkien’s other choices, but is here for completeness).
  9. Other. Rationale: Mythgard Students are creative, perhaps someone thought of another possible pronunciation.

The Tolkien Professor

In his podcast of July 6, 2014, titled “Riddles in the Dark Bonus: Pronunciation Guide“, The Tolkien Professor made the case that all names should be pronounced according to the guide in Appendix E, whether Elvish or not. He gave the example of Smaug with the au pronounced as the ou in loud, not the as the aw in saw. This is indisputably true. (And the S in Smaug is pronounced like the s in see, not the sh in shell, in case Peter Jackson is reading this blog post). However, The Tolkien Prof omits the evidence presented in Appendix F: On Translation, where Tolkien discusses how he “Englished” a number of the Hobbit names. While he discussed dwarves here, he does not specifically address dwarf names; however, it is abundantly clear that he did in fact “English” the dwarf names too, since he took them from the Völuspá when writing The Hobbit. He also ignores the obvious anglicised names that are counter-examples to his earlier conclusion about all names following the Appendix E guidelines, and himself uses anglicised pronunciations rather than saying Beelbo Bahggeens, Peeppeen, Sahmweeze, Thoreen, Golloom, and my absolute favorite example of misusing Appendix E, Gahndalve.

He continues by discussing the names Beowulf and Beorn as names with vowel combinations that are essentially two syllables, both derived from Old English/Old Norse pronunciation. He indicates that the accent in Thráin should mean that the two vowels a and i should be pronounced separately, and that the a is long. He compares the ai vowels in the dwarf names in the figure at the end of Appendix A with the obvious oi in Óin and Glóin and the certitude that they are pronounced in two syllables.

Finally, the Tolkien Professor concludes the name is pronounced Thray’-in. However, he does not make the case for the distinction of the a being pronounced as in fate rather than in father. Indeed, the modern English long a would by his argument from above (about using Appendix E for all names) be excluded, as that sound (which itself is the diphthong [aɪ̯]) would never be represented in a Tolkien language as just a single a. The Professor’s argument, if followed consistently, would lead to Thrah’-in, not Thray’-in. Also, it is an argument from The Lord of the Rings, not from The Hobbit.

My conclusion

My view, which you may already have seen above, is that when Tolkien appropriated Thrain from the Völuspá when writing The Hobbit, he anglicized its pronunciation to either Thrane, or Thray’-in (if, as The Tolkien Professor mentioned, it was meant to be consistent with Oin and Gloin’s multiple syllables). However, when he rationalized the pronunciation of names when he was revising The Lord of the Rings, he modified the pronunciation of Thráin from the above (Thrane or Thray’-in) to the more subtle Thrah’-in, which fit better in his invented language scheme. One thing is for sure, none of us really know, since his pronunciation of all the other names of the dwarves in Thorin and Company are so unexpected.

Your Conclusions

After the Tolkien Professor released his Pronunciation Guide, I put forward a poll using social media, asking the question, “How do you personally pronounce Thorin Oakenshield’s father Thráin’s name?” I admit that adding the accent over the a is non-canonical when looking at The Hobbit on its own and thus may have skewed the result; nevertheless, the results are in from 90 responders. We have crowd-sourced the pronunciation of the name of Thorin’s father, and it’s Thrane by a fair margin:


–Ed Powell
If you have any comments, questions, or snark, please send me an email at powell (at)

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King Solomon’s TARDIS: “Many Dimensions”

It’s old, it’s new, it’s borrowed, it’s blue! It’s the TARDIS!

many_dimensions No, wait: It’s new, it’s old, it’s stolen, it’s gold! It’s… the Stone in the Crown of Suleiman ben Daood, King in Jerusalem.

This tiny, square, cream-colored stone is flecked with gold, and contains within it black markings that shape the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God. It enables its possessor to travel anywhere in time or space. It is bigger on the inside, because “All times are within it and all places.” If you chop it in half, the result is two identical Stones with precisely the same qualities, on and on forever, in infinite division and multiplication. Yet neither it nor any of the “Types” divided from it has any weight or mass or density when measured. It is made of the First Matter from which the universe was created, and thus contains all of the universe within itself.

As the Lord Chief Justice says:

1. It is of no known substance.
2. It answers to no re-agents.
3. It can be multiplied by division without diminution of the original.
4. It can move and cause movement from point to point, without leaving any consciousness of passage through intervening space.
5. It can cause disappearance—possibly in time.

Indeed, as experiments in the novel show, “it moves in time and space and thought. And in what else?” in “The Transcendence.” It seems to channel God’s original creative power, and thus “Anyone who has this Stone can heal himself of all illnesses, and can move at once through space and time, and can multiply it by dividing it as much as he wishes.”YHWH

What is this strange object? It is the sacred ritual object at the center of CW’s third novel, Many Dimensions.

This is an astonishing novel. You really need to rush out and read it right away. It is fast-paced and compelling, and not at all obscure except in some of the more introspective and mystical passages.

And it’s a time-travel story! Not only that, but it deals with time travel in a straight-forward, rational, sensible manner that I find extremely courageous. Here’s what I mean: in this book, CW lets the plot get out of hand in a way that’s very brave for a writer. He lets people do what they would do, dragging in other people, rushing away in all directions, getting lost and complicated in very realistic tangles both social and metaphysical (realistic, that is, given the basic premise of a magical healing Stone that enables travel in time and space!). Many other writers would be afraid to let everybody run around like crazy and bring other characters and complications in, but not CW. He believed that everyone was interconnected, and that everyone’s actions affected everyone else’s, and so in this book he shows that messy reality in all of its difficulties and confusion.

Meanwhile, at its center, the ritual object and the submitted Saint are quiet, peaceful, and unmoving in the midst of the madness.

The Saint in this story is Chloe Burnett, secretary (or general intellectual factotum”) to the Lord Chief Justice. As soon as she sees the Stone, she is possessed by a “vivid excitement,” and as the story progresses she chooses to believe in God and to know Him in some sense or other through the Stone. She submits her will more and more to God, or to the Stone, until she is the quiet means of saving the world.

Meanwhile the Persian Embassy, the British government, the heads of transport monopolies, an American millionaire, the Mayor of the little town of Rich, Sir Giles Tumulty (of villainous fame from War in Heaven), and any number of smaller people all strive for possession of the Stone or one of its types. Miraculous healings occur, and murder, and supernatural assassination, and it’s all very exciting and profound.

Yet the true power of this novel lies in something less exciting than the external mechanisms of plot. It lies in the embodiment of CW’s primary themes, in the way he brings natural and supernatural so close that they blend and become indistinguishable, and in the way he brings mystical devotion to life.

Triskel_type_Tonkedeg..svg I have written often in the past here about Co-Inherence, Romantic theology, The Two Ways, Ritual Objects, The Crisis of Schism, Mystical Tranquility, and The City. In Many Dimensions, CW brings those themes to life in integral, embodied ways. The Crisis of Schism is made shockingly physical when the Stone is cut in two. Here is an emotionally-charged passage in which the disgusting, subtle antagonist commits blasphemy against the Stone by dividing it, and Chloe tries to stop him:

“If the Government,” Sir Giles went on, “wish to conduct an inquiry into the nature of the Stone I shall be happy to assist them by supplying examples.” He covered the Stone on his knee with both hands and apparently in some intense effort shut his eyes for a minute or two. The inquiry looked perplexed and doubtful, and it was Chloe who suddenly broke the silence by jumping to her feet and running round the table. Sir Giles, hearing the movement, opened his eyes just as Palliser thrust his chair back in Chloe’s path, and leapt up in his turn, throwing as he did so about a dozen Stones, all exactly similar, on to the table. Everybody jumped up in confusion, as Chloe, still silent, caught Palliser’s chair with a vicious jerk that unbalanced and overthrew the Professor, and sprang towards Tumulty. Sir Giles, the Stone clasped in one hand and his open knife still in the other, met her with a snarl. “Go to hell,” he said, and slashed out with the knife as she caught at his wrist.

101202-DreidelAndStoneHere CW shows the horror of divisions in things that ought to remain a Unity, and shows it in a vivid, unforgettable way.

Similarly, the Two Ways are dramatized by those (on the one hand) who want to use the Stone for good things and those (on the other) who desire to find in it the End of Desire. The Mayor of Rich has seen its healing powers, and people are rioting in his village to be allowed to touch it and find health. His own son lies dying of cancer, and he knows that one touch of the stone would cure his beloved son. Chloe, however, come more and more to believe that using it in any way, even for good ends, is wrong. She follows this so far that she will not even use it to save her life when she is assaulted by a murderer, but chooses to lie still, submit her will to It, and let it save her—or not.

Finally, Many Dimensions shows an interesting version of CW’s distinctive Romantic Theology: a variation that is particularly fascinating in light of his own life. A powerful bond exists between the young lady, Chloe, and the elderly Lord Arglay, Chief Justice of England. Their relationship is something like that between a father and daughter, or between a mentor and a student, or between lovers who have sublimated their sexual desires into a spiritual union, or between a master and a slave. It has been noted (by Hadfield, mostly) that CW modeled many characters in the 1930s after Phyllis Jones, and Chloe is one of the clearest examples of his idealization of both her and of their strange love.

Yet I find that their interactions, their selfless and absolute commitment to one another, is so deftly handled in this novel that it is not uncomfortable. There is the clear admiration of a young woman for an old man who has achieved a high degree of wisdom and the highest possible success in an important vocation. He is protective of her, but knows that she is capable. There are moments of intellectual exchange and social understanding. There is a terrifying, but almost funny, scene in which the evil Giles uses the Stone to possess Chloe’s mind and make her lust after Lord Arglay’s wealth and attempt to seduce him. His calm reaction, and her lack of embarrassment after the episode is over, shows the depth of their mutual trust and understanding.

And there is one more element I need to mention before I close: the fascinating use of Islam in this story. There is a Hajji (one who has completed a pilgrimage to Mecca), and he clearly possesses true spiritual knowledge. He is the one who communicates truth to Chloe and sees that she will be the means and conduit of goodness and restoration. I would love to have a Muslim friend or colleague read this novel (by an Anglican Christian) and comment on its depiction of Islam. It seems to me to be a very tolerant, open-minded depiction, especially given its early 20th-century British Imperialist context. Yet I do not know how accurate its descriptions of prayers and doctrines are, and would be happy to know. Thomas Howard has commented on this matter in his excellent book The Novels of Charles Williams, and he argues that CW delicately maneuvers the Muslim doctrines in order to undermine them and show that Islam could never be a vehicle for truth, and I would be interested to hear an insider’s perspective. Please do write to me if you are able to provide that viewpoint or connect me with someone who can.

And in any case, whoever you are, do leave a comment letting me know if you have read this book and what you thought of it! Many thanks.


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Worlds Subtle and Strong: Guest Post

SignumBadge_90x90The following guest post was written by a student of mine at Signum/Mythgard. I hope you have been enjoying these guest posts recently. Next week I plan to transition back to the book summaries. Meanwhile, let me know if YOU want to write something for this blog. Today’s post is about CW’s two close friends and writing partners, Lewis and Tolkien.

IMG_2913A copyJennifer Raimundo entered the world on a blustery day in Canada, where she learned to love strawberries, sunflowers, cozy winters, and hot cocoa. At an early age she and her family migrated to the Dominican Republic, a Caribbean island that taught her the beauty of sea breezes and the glories of a sunrise. A few years later, she found herself living in the United States and establishing a joy in all things letters as a means to put the colourful pieces of her life together. To further this desire, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in History and Literature, and is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Language and Literature from Signum University. Jennifer lives in Virginia, where she continues to forge her love of literature and life into a sub-creation that would glorify her Maker. She is currently finishing an essay on laughter in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which will appear in a collection of essays to be published by Walking Tree Publishers in the summer of 2015.

Worlds Subtle and Strong
by Jennifer Raimundo

C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe began with a picture and Tolkien’s The Hobbit began with a word. This is ironic, for when we read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, what we gain is a collection of words and dialogue so deeply felt it can change lives, whereas upon closing the pages of The Hobbit what remains are a series of visuals and sensations so powerfully imagined that we will never be the same. Both authors express secondary worlds, but Lewis describes while Tolkien depicts. One works through pointed words and the other through weighty pictures. These alternative methods create a difference between the relationship of each secondary world to our primary one:Middle-Earth is a subtle Myth and Narnia is a blatant one. Both worlds captivate, both worlds change, but each do so in unique ways.


Pauline Baynes’ Illustration of Lucy and Tumnus

For one, Lewis and Tolkien initiate readers into their respective sub-created worlds from completely opposite angles. Lewis begins his tale with both readers and characters safely in war-torn England of the 1940s. There are no distant lands, no mythical creatures, and certainly no strange magic. There are simply four Pevensie children, a housekeeper and three maids, and an eccentric professor. It is our world Lewis describes, going drearily about its own business. But once we are settled in to what sounds like will be a warm, kind story, Lewis whisks his protagonist Lucy through a familiar wardrobe into a fantastical wood and into the arms of a faun. What was so familiar, the War and the wardrobe, suddenly fades away to be conquered by a frosty forest, fauns, dwarves, and basically anything our imaginations ever held. We are allowed the process of feeling the jerk and the pull into Myth, and are welcomed into the wonder of seeing a whole new world for the first time, of viewing the fantastic through the familiar eyes of a believing child. But Lewis characteristically makes sure we his readers are not left wondering what happened to us. He leaves nothing to chance, instead introducing us and Lucy to Mr. Tumnus, a faun who lures Lucy to his cave and, importantly for our purposes here, tells her all about Narnia. Dialogue, along with sense-experience, drives home the fact that we and Lucy are working on a plane not our own. Of course everything feels new and marvellous. We are in another world! And it is a world which can in no way be conflated with ours, but in every way must be embraced as equally real, and equally fantastic. We have been transported to Myth itself.


Tolkien’s Illustration of Smaug

Not so with the sub-creation of Tolkien’s classic. Here Myth has been brought to us. From the first page of The Hobbit, we are placed quite firmly yet ever so gently into a fantastic though not wholly foreign world. ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’(Tolkien 11). ‘Hobbit’ strikes us with strangeness, but holes in the ground do not. Hobbits and The Shire are indeed new, but they dwell in our earth, and seem to belong here just as much as does the ground beneath their feet. How do we know this? Tolkien’s masterful depiction of the people, the landscape, the customs of Middle-Earth, makes us feel it. Here are no talkative fauns to tell us where we are. Instead, Tolkien shows us what fills hobbit pantries and what decorates hobbit gardens, only for us to find they are filled with flowers and colours and foods that we from the Primary world deeply enjoy. Tolkien turns the seemingly mundane elements of life into common ground between us and the fantastic. A few pages later a wizard appears at Bilbo’s door, a door which by now feels as though it belongs to us as much as it does to Bilbo. The wizard arrives in upsetting fashion. His long grey mantle and tall blue pointed hat feel all out of place in that sunny garden, both to Bilbo and to us. Now, it seems, the fantastic has truly struck. Nevertheless, Gandalf laughs merrily and smokes his pipe with as much relish as any kindly gentleman would, so that, despite his magical shroud, he still smacks of a grandfather. Tolkien’s pictures of the familiar draw us to unconsciously accept the fantastic, leaving us hard pressed to recount whether the meeting of the two worlds was shocking or if it happened at all. The Hobbit, from its beginning,shows us that the fantastic belongs in the familiar.


Two Archetypal Guides

And both authors employ guides which perfectly suit their story-telling methods and worlds. Tolkien uses a wizard to direct us and his protagonist through the fantasy of Middle-Earth. Notice again the vivid subtlety. We have been drawn to imagine Gandalf in full colour, yet he takes hold of Bilbo’s life by giving it a gentle nudge and dwelling in all shades of grey. Gandalf proceeds to propel Bilbo’s journey from the background, only at last appearing when he is absolutely needed. Moreover, on the rare occasions when Gandalf speaks he does so in what seems to be riddles, leaving us ultimately to wonder along with Bilbo just what his role in the grand story we completed was. Just as we know Gandalf’s storyline is real without quite knowing how it is real, so do we know deep inside of us that Middle-Earth is real, though we cannot quite articulate in what sense. Lewis, on the other hand, creates an altogether different guide. While Gandalf reassures us that fantasy dwells in the familiar because we see him living in the haze between the two, Professor Kirke asserts Narnia’s existence by explaining that it must logically be so. ‘I wonder what they do teach them at these schools,’is the exclamation punctuating his rhetorical argument for Narnia’s reality, as if all academic knowledge pointed to that fact of Narnia’s existence (Lewis 90). And just as the Professor is certain about Narnia because of simple logic, so must we take Narnia as a blatant, obvious fact. What do they teach in those schools, after all? Narnia simply is. Therefore, while they work from separate positions, both the wizard and the Professor serve as powerful bridges between the familiar and the fantastic.

Lewis’s words and Tolkien’s pictures both create effective secondary worlds, but their varying creative methods cause their worlds to work upon us differently. The mythic vision of Middle-Earth silently penetrates our earth, as a green and steady shoot overtakes bland concrete only to grow into a mighty oak. It is a visceral place, a world inside and behind and underneath us but stronger than our own, unnoticed but always there until quite naturally it overcomes everything else. There is no escape from its visually rich history and geography, a history and geography so deep our ancients grew out of it. What could be more subtle? But what could be more strong? mrsbeaversconcerns2And what but a wizard with a propensity to leave us in the dark could guide us through the deep but narrow gaps separating primary from secondary without our brains going mad at the wild familiarity of it all? Lewis, on the other hand, creates Narnia, a land so completely distinct from ours that it can be peopled with the characters dancing in our imaginations from school and play. It, like Tolkien’s world, has always existed, but it shall go on to exist regardless of what we do now that we know about it. And because Narnia is so blatantly other and parallel, the only reasonable response to its discovery is to simply accept it in all its vibrant and childlike glory. Of course Mrs. Beaver uses a sewing machine! She lives in Narnia, a world alive with the stock-characters of our imagination.And so, quite rightly, it takes a professor to explain its reality.

But whether it is the slow shock of wild things growing out of our dark mountains deep, or the magical overthrow of a blaring horn and bannered red lion charging at us and our world, in both Lewis and Tolkien’s sub-creations there is a mythic glory. And both the choking of this world’s concrete and the slaying of whatever it is they teach in our schools are each a real death. But it is a death making way for life. We have come out of both secondary worlds unscathed, but certainly not unchanged. We have been made new. And that is the point of Mythopoiea: bathing the truly familiar in the fantastic so that what is truly fantastic may become familiar. Bilbo returned home to his tobacco jar and the Pevensies stepped back through the wardrobe into childhood and plain clothes, but never again were they merely a hobbit under hill and siblings caught in an air-raid. Other lands and deeper magic, Myth, had sparked their souls. It can also spark ours.Mythopoeia

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The Posts Go Ever On: Guest Post on “War In Heaven”

Just when you thought we were done with War In Heaven, I have another guest post to offer you. This is by CW scholar David Llewellyn Dodds. Enjoy!

The Corpse and Its Contemporaries

War in Heaven, published in early summer, 1930,  has, to my way of thinking, gone from a story set in the contemporary world to a classic ‘period piece’ without any loss of vitality. It was drafted, as The Corpse, four years earlier, having been finished in time to be offered to, and rejected by, Faber, by the end of May, 1926. I do not know how much or little The Corpse differs from War in Heaven as we know it. But the Twenties seem to have been a rapidly and even wildly changing literary landscape as far as ‘mystery’ and ‘detective’ stories went. And some facts about literary context at the turn of 1925-26 strike me as interesting.

In her paper “Is a ‘Christian’ Mystery Story Possible?” (2011), Sørina Higgins refers to “the inimitable, Chestertonian Archdeacon” – partly and very justly so, I take it, in comparison to (as well as contrast with) G.K. Chesterton’s clerical detective, Father Brown.  Now, when Williams was writing the novel, only the first two of the eventual five books of Father Brown stories had been published.

But in its humor, where treatment of characters, dialogue, and diction in general are concerned, Williams’s debt does not seem limited to Chesterton. There is, indeed, an intertextual clue (as well as a humorous touch of characterization) when Barbara Rackstraw introduces the retired publisher, Gregory Persimmons, to Jeeves, and her husband, Lionel, goes on to explain something about him to his old boss. At the time Williams was initially drafting the novel, only the first three of Wodehouse’s books with Jeeves and Wooster stories had been published (the most recent only in October 1925).

A more straightforward detective novel than The Corpse had already shown the influence of Wodehouse: Dorothy L. Sayers’s Whose Body? (1923), her first Wimsey novel and the only one to have appeared when Williams embarked upon his story.

James Brabazon, in his biography of Dorothy L. Sayers, says of the literary figures who were Lord Peter Wimsey’s “progenitors” as “silly-ass aristocrat with nerves of steel” (like Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel), “being a modern silly-ass (in 1921), who does he take his cue from but Bertie Wooster? – who must of course be accompanied by his Jeeves, now transmogrified into Bunter.”

Whether Williams had read Whose Body? by early 1926, or not, I do not know, but War in Heaven, and presumably, The Corpse, exhibits a similar combination of Wodehousian verbal humor and characterization with moral and metaphysical seriousness.

Father Brown and Jeeves and Wooster were, of course, already famous by the turn of 1925-26, and Whose Body? was selling well enough for Unwin to want to publish more Wimsey, but their fictional worlds of humor of character and style and diction, combined by the two detective story writers with depth and seriousness, were still new and close by in their freshness, when Williams started his entertaining second novel. Not a Wodehouse pastiche, nor even, as Sørina Higgins observes,  primarily “a mystery to entertain”, but very much, I think, intended to entertain in various ways, and to be (may I say) seriously entertaining.

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“It’s Very Weird.” Guest post on “War in Heaven”

Here is a guest post by Medievalist Alice Deegan to finish off War In Heaven week. Drop me a line if YOU want to write a guest post on anything CW-related. Cheers.

I should start by making clear what I don’t know, which is much of anything about the circumstances of the novel’s composition or what Williams thought he was doing when he wrote it. I make this disclaimer because, while I think I’m on board with War In Heaven’s theology—or at least the theology that I find in it—part of my enjoyment of it involves a kind of indeterminacy that is only possible because it is a novel. I love the fact that I get something new from it on each rereading.

I’m a medievalist, so the Grail angle is appealing. I like the way the meaning of the Grail is handled, the neat laying-out of its significance to the different heroes and to the villains, and the fact that the most spiritually authoritative character, the Archdeacon, ultimately decides that as an object it both does and does not matter. I think that’s the perfect way to approach such a fraught and difficult artifact, and it also chimes with my own understanding (such as it is) of the meaning of the material world for Christians.

As I mentioned before in a comment, I’m drawn to the sympathetic characters in War in Heaven, as I am in all CW’s books, actually, and I don’t find myself bothered by the fact that they don’t “develop” or are somewhat schematized. In fact, I never noticed that on previous readings. I also find the main villains very compelling. I love that we see so much from Gregory’s perspective, making him simultaneously more creepy and more comprehensible (which is yet more creepy) than if he were presented strictly from the outside. It struck me as a particularly bold stroke, and very effective, to present the main antagonist as deeply religious, but for the wrong side. And Sir Giles is so wonderfully hateful, yet also chillingly believable. (Dmitri and Manasseh are disappointingly cartoonish by comparison, and on first reading I was really hoping that where CW was going with them was that one or the other would turn out to be a straight-up devil, kind of a counterpoint to Prester John. If I’d been a friend of Williams’s and read early drafts of the book, I would have lobbied for that.)

But I think more than anything it’s the slight zaniness of the plot that makes this one my favourite of CW’s novels. The fact that the Archdeacon doesn’t take himself seriously is a major factor in setting this tone. I absolutely love the wacky “Archdeacon and Duke and publisher’s clerk steal the Holy Grail and a car chase ensues” episode, and to me that seems almost like the heart of the book, or its apex or quintessence or something.

When I was coming up with a list of Arthurian novels for my students to choose from for their class presentations, a friend dared me to put War in Heaven on the list, and I did, but when a student asked about it, I said, “Well, it’s very weird. It’s one of my favourite books, but it’s very weird.” Ultimately she picked some miserable novel about Guinevere, which she hated, so I should maybe have done a better job of selling the weird Holy Grail book. But it’s the combination of the weirdness and the theological seriousness of the book that I love, and that also make it an appropriate addition to the tradition of literature about the Holy Grail.

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