Dr. Crystal Hurd is an educator, writer, poet, and researcher from Virginia. She lives with her husband and four dogs (among them “Jack” and “Lucy”) in southwest Virginia. A self-proclaimed book nerd, her interests include reading, writing, photography, and immersing herself in anything associated with England (especially Doctor Who). Over the past decade, she has read and researched both biographical and rhetorical aspects of C.S Lewis, fully endorsing his integration of faith and intellect. She has been featured frequently as a special guest or co-host on the “All About Jack” podcast hosted on Essentialcslewis.com.
Dr. Hurd loves discussing Lewis as well as various aspects of spirituality, apologetics, and leadership theory. Her dissertation applied Transformational Leadership theory to the life and works of Lewis. Hurd works for the non-profit organization Develop Africa mentoring young women in Sierra Leone and Kenya. She continues to explore various aspects of Lewis, Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers, while additionally examining the role of artists as leaders and the rhetoric of power. She is a staff writer for the art/faith blog All Nine Muses and the fantasy/science fiction site Legendarium. You can visit her website at http://www.crystalhurd.com.
Heroines and Humility: How Charles Williams Shaped C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength, Part I
On 26 February 1936, C.S. Lewis writes to Arthur Greeves:
I have just read what I think a really great book, The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams…It is not only a most exciting fantasy, but a deeply religious and (unobtrusively) a profoundly learned book. The reading of it has been a good preparation for Lent as far as I am concerned: for it shows me (through the heroine) the special sin of abuse of intellect to which all my profession are liable, more clearly than I ever saw it before. I have learned more than I ever knew yet about humility. In fact it has been a big experience. Do get it, and don’t’ mind if you don’t understand everything the first time. It deserves reading over and over again. It isn’t often now-a-days you get a Christian fantasy.
C.S. Lewis first encountered the work of Charles Williams through professor, playwright, and fellow Inkling Nevill Coghill. In a letter to Williams, Lewis writes: “I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life – comparable to my first discovery of George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris” (11 March 1936). Lewis concludes the letter with an invitation to join the Inklings.
Little did he know then, but the admiration was mutual. Just as Lewis was penning his letter extolling Place of the Lion, Williams was thinking about writing a similar epistle praising Lewis’ The Allegory of Love. If Lewis had waited one more day, the correspondence might have literally crossed in the post. Upon meeting, they quickly kindled a deep friendship of reciprocal respect and collaborative creativity. Lewis writes that he shares his enthusiasm with many other friends, including Inkling brethren Tolkien and Warnie Lewis. William thus began a warm and wonderful friendship with the Inklings. Lewis describes the selflessness and generosity of Williams in the preface to Essays Presented to Charles Williams:
The highest compliment I ever heard paid to [his manners] was by a nun. She said that Mr. Williams’s manners implied a complete offer of intimacy without the slightest imposition of intimacy. He threw down all his own barriers without even implying that you should lower yours…I said before that he gave to every circle the whole man: all his attention, knowledge, courtesy, charity, were placed at your disposal. It was a natural result of this that you did not find out much about him – certainly not about those parts of him which your own needs or interests did not call into play. A selfless character, perhaps, always this mysteriousness: and much more so when it is that of a man of genius. (x)
Among the many talents that Williams possessed, humility and integrity were two significant aspects that Lewis continually mentions and admires. Williams had a towering intellect, but avoided the temptation of pretentiousness (or as Lewis would say, being “priggish”). Lewis found this blend of intellect and humility both fascinating and alluring.
Indeed, quality Christian fantasy was rare. Lewis and his contemporaries, on many occasions, noted the woeful lack of good Christian fiction in the market. What they wished for was fiction which made one think, which stretched the boundaries of one’s preconceived notions about God and religion and literature, which didn’t appear as recycled clichés with little didactic value. Can God penetrate the fortified modern mind? Can, in the new age, apologetic literature find traction in a world increasing hostile towards God and notions of the holy? The scientific movement served to dichotomize the public’s perspective on God: either God exists or God doesn’t and we must find a suitable substitute in the concrete world. Yet here, in The Place of the Lion, was a work in which modernity embraced the sacred. The book captivates the reader through contemporary eyes, yet succeeds in avoiding the pitfalls of typical “Christian literature.” Williams’ fictional world is saturated with the intellectual snobbery of Modern academia. Characters resembled many members of college faculty and the Inklings detected the characters’ stubborn pride as well as the urgency for redemption. The Place of the Lion was one of the many literary works that Lewis read during his life that substantially shaped and challenged him. From this, we see the beginnings of a new novel, one that would complete a series for Lewis and help him craft one of his most memorable female characters.
The Place of the Lion features Damaris, an Abelard scholar, who spends her days dreaming up long, yawn-inducing names for her academic articles. Her cousin, Anthony, romantically pursues her, but is perpetually met with rejection. When Damaris’s father talks to her of beauty and loveliness, her pragmatic mind merely rejects such subjective and frivolous notions:
Beauty! She didn’t know that she hated him…nor did she realize that it was only when she was talking to him that the divine Plato’s remarks on beauty were used by her as if they meant anything more than entries in a card-index. She had of course heard of ‘defense mechanisms”, but not as if they were anything she could have or need or use. Nor had love and Heloise ever appeared to her as more than a side-incident of Abelard’s real career.
Ironic that Damaris neglects her love interests and chooses to neglect Abelard’s, which is a significant aspect of his personal life. For Damaris, love is simply a stumbling block to greater intellectual discovery. Yet, holistically, she is impoverished by refusing it. Rather, she simply regurgitates the solid wisdom of philosophers with a noted lack of enthusiasm. For Damaris, love and beauty are abstract intangibles. She has exhaustively explored their philosophical impact, their rhetorical significance, and yet she has never permitted herself to experience them.
Eventually, Damaris begins to accept the occurrence of miracles and the existence of the supernatural. The erosion of her reluctance and eventual relinquishing of her pride improve her life exponentially. What she forfeits in arrogance, she receives generously in contentment. She welcomes and returns Anthony’s affections. In the final chapters of the novel, Damaris asks if she should continue to pursue intellectual endeavors:
“Tell me one thing first,” Damaris said. “Do you think – I’ve been wondering this afternoon – do you think it’s wrong of me to work at Abelard?” “Darling, how can intelligence be wrong?” he answered. “I should think you knew more about him than anyone else in the world, and it’s a perfectly sound idea to make a beautiful thing of what you know. So long as you don’t neglect me in order to do it.”
Lewis writes, in the first of many letters he exchanged with Williams, that he not only relates to the heroine, he is instructed by her: “I know Damaris very well: in fact I was in course of becoming Damaris (but you have pulled me up)”(11 March 1936). Damaris serves as a model against the pitfalls of pride. Lewis was deeply impacted by Williams’ work and, as the saying goes, imitation is the highest form of flattery. Nearly fifteen years later, C.S. Lewis introduced his readers to a similar heroine: a scholar-newlywed named Jane Studdock. While her husband is out tickling the egos of the university elite, she quietly sits at home, obediently cleaning and continuing her studies on Donne. Jane becomes bitter with Mark’s long absences and decides to retaliate by exhibiting more independence. She eventually finds her way to the company of Dr. Ransom (now known as “The Director”) and together with the companions at St. Anne’s fights the malevolent organization N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments). The praise of intellect is literal as well as symbolic, as the putative leader of the movement is actually a human head kept alive through scientific means (think Futurama). Science is the new religion and progressive experimentation, ambiguous and deceptive leadership practices, and annihilation of opposition are its doctrinal tenets. Mark, while attempting strides in career advancement, becomes involved in N.I.C.E.’s corruption. Jane, on the other hand, struggles to reconcile the conventional image of wife with the more contemporary notion of female scholar. She realizes that marriage (or “mutual society” as The Book of Common Prayer states) only succeeds when both husband and wife are attuned and receptive to one another’s needs. Jane discovers that being a woman is not a liability, while Mark realizes the foolishness of his decision to neglect his wife and fraternize with an enemy. In the conclusion of the novel, both approach the marriage chamber with armor removed, equipped with a greater understanding of life and of each other.
In Part Two, we will further investigate the parallels between Williams’ The Place of the Lion and Lewis’ That Hideous Strength and modern reactions to both female protagonists.
The first thing that reading your blog did for me was to tell me, as Lewis wrote to Greeves, that I should read “The Place of the Lion” a second time. I read it for the first time a year ago and found myself constantly thrown off balance by Williams’ story. A second reading might allow me to ask the question, with which of the characters do I most identify? It certainly isn’t Damaris and I doubt whether I could access the spiritual power that Anthony does without harm to my soul. Or perhaps I would be too afraid to do so. That is a disturbing thought. Reading Sørina’s blog in the last year has shown me that Williams did not seem to be afraid of spiritual power and I find that disturbing too. I suspect that I might have reacted more as Tolkien did when Lewis invited Williams to join the Inklings, that is with some reserve!
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