Hear, ye, hear ye! Calling all lovers, haters, and ambivalent readers of Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien! Calling all fan-girls and fan-boys of Ender’s Game, Dune, Watership Down, the Hobbit films, and Doctor Who! Calling those who are dazed with the wonder and mystery of fantasy, sci-fi, and other imaginative works! Tune in on November 8th for The Mythgard Academy’s annual Webathon!
Take a look at the amazing content scheduled for that day; here’s the description from Mythgard’s website:
- The New Whovian: In the first hour, Corey Olsen will be join Mythgard students Katherine Sas and Curtis Weyant, podcast hosts of Kat and Curt’s TV Re-View, to discuss Doctor Who (Corey is a wide-eyed newbie, eager to discuss his impressions).
- Inside the Inklings: In the second hour, Mythgard Academy Wizard Ed Powell will be interviewing Sørina Higgins, author of the Oddest Inkling blog and Mythgard faculty member, on the Inklings—their lives, their loves, and their literature.
- The Great Hobbit Movie Debate: In the third hour, Sørina has challenged Corey to a debate about the Hobbit films, throwing down the gauntlet and daring him to defend the films against her own far more scathing critique (Will sparks fly? You must attend to find out!).
- Riddles in the Dark, the Extended Edition: Finally, in the last two hours, the Riddles in the Dark team will focus on the just-released Extended Edition of The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug.
I’ve already posted about “Crowdsourcing “The Hobbit” Smackdown” and would still love your assistance as I prepare for this terrifying debate.
Meanwhile, let’s talk about “Inside the Inklings” and the dangers of biographical criticism. If you are a regular listener of The Tolkien Professor, or a Signum University student, you know that Dr. Corey Olsen rarely discusses the lives of authors when he is teaching their works. He (quite rightly) is careful not to interpret their lives in light of their literature. For example, in the Lewis and Tolkien course, we recently discussed JRRT’s The Notion Club Papers. It would be foolish to rashly assume that since some of the characters in that work criticize CSL’s “space trilogy,” therefore it is clear that JRRT himself held to exactly the same critiques in precisely the way his fictional characters express them. It is possible that he was writing parody of the critiques, rather than (or in addition to) parody of CSL’s writings. Now, if he wrote the same critiques elsewhere, we could then infer that he was putting his own views in the mouth of a character in The Notion Club Papers, but that would be a different matter. It wouldn’t be interpreting the life by the works; it would be interpreting the works by other works, which is perfectly legitimate.
There is another variation of this kind of poor criticism, which is to assume, without any other evidence (internal or external) that the biographical events of an author’s life made their way straight into his or her works. So, for instance, some critics are surprised that the Battle of Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King is less like the Battle of the Somme, in which JRRT fought. Still other critics have argued that all battles in JRRT’s works are directly related to his experiences in WWI, either as reactions against them (depicting war as differently from his own military involvement as possible), or as condemnations of modern warfare (by describing a more glorious, chivalric type of engagement) or as creative recastings of the main lessons he learned in the fields of France (such as the toll war takes on the natural environment).
While any one of these conclusions, or some combination of them, may be true, readers of Tolkien’s works must be careful not to make them too readily. How do we know which is correct? Can we look at the description of a battle in LOTR and determine from that depiction alone how exactly he is responding to his personal experiences? We must tread carefully, looking for textual evidence, especially elsewhere in his works, before jumping to facile conclusions.
Either approach — reading the life via the works, or reading the works exclusively or superficially via the life — would be a logical fallacy, thus:
Premise: This writer expresses an idea in his works
Conclusion: Therefore he held that view in real life.
Premise: This writer experienced such-and-such in his works
Conclusion: Therefore that event is expressed in his works.
You see? It’s missing a premise. It’s not a syllogism at all.
C.S. Lewis was concerned about this type of bad reading. In fact, he wrote a book about it, called The Personal Heresy. This book is a debate with another scholar, E.M. Tillyard, about whether we read a book to learn more about the author (Tillyard’s position) or about something external to the author, something that maybe even the reader brings to the text (Lewis’s argument). Lewis thought it was not only a fallacy but a literary “heresy,” a damnable belief, that we should read a piece of literature to get to know more about the author. Baloney, he thought.
I have to be on my guard against this fallacy constantly in my work on Charles Williams, and I quite unashamedly fall into in on this blog, where I am writing much more casually than I do in my strictly academic work. You can probably think of many instances in which I have described something in the writings and the ascribed it to the man. I did this quite explicitly in my post Problems with Heroes and Kings. I find something troubling in the novels or poetry, usually having to do with the treatment of women, and I then label CW a chauvinist, or a sexist, or a sadist, and so forth.
But see, that’s not exactly what I am doing. I am comparing the content of, say, Heroes and Kings — in which a knight ties a woman to a bed and punishes her as part of their love-play — to external evidence: reports by Alice Mary Hadfield and Lois Lang-Sims that CW did engage in mild S&M rituals with his young female disciples. So I am, I hope, performing perfectly legitimate literary criticism: analyzing one (fictional) text in the light of another (nonfiction) text.
Furthermore, biography is (obviously) a perfectly respectable academic study in its own right. We readers as justified in wanting to know about the lives of CW, CSL, and JRRT as a matter of personal or professional curiosity.
THEREFORE! With all that established, I invite you to submit to me the biographical questions you may have about the Lives and Loves of the Inklings
>, and I will attempt to address them in my “Inside the Inklings” session with Ed Powell on November 8th. What do you want to know?