“One Fantastic Rogue Beast” Live Discussion

Here’s a post on A Pilgrim in Narnia with the video from last week’s Signum Symposium on “Rogue One” and “Fantastic Beasts.” Enjoy!

A Pilgrim in Narnia

one-fantastic-rogue-beast-1-263x263Last Friday night I had the privilege to be part of a unique panel discussion. Signum University hosted an impromptu Signum Symposium called “One Fantastic Rogue Beast.” The discussion featured a team of fantasy bloggers and podcasters who spend their time thinking about the intersection of culture and film.

Sørina Higgins, chair of Literature and Language at SignumU, hosted a discussion of two hot films: Rogue One and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. These are two hot insertions, one into the Star Wars universe and one into the Harry Potter fictional world. We had a great chat, and Sørina signed off after the 90 minutes we had allotted. When she slid away, the rest of us stayed on the software to chat for a bit, thinking that we were now a closed room. Obviously there was more to say as none of us actually agreed to keep talking. It…

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CFP — Mythmoot IV: Invoking Wonder

signumLogo_100The Mythgard Institute at Signum University is happy to announce its fourth conference on Tolkien, Inklings Studies, Imaginative Literature (Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction), Germanic Philology, and other literary topics. Full details are available here. Mythmoot IV will be held from Thursday, June 1 through Sunday, June 4, 2017, at the National Conference Center in Leesburg, VA. Special guests include Verlyn Flieger and Michael Drout!

Mythmoot is currently accepting proposals for papers, panels, workshops, and creative presentations (storytelling, music, visual arts, etc.). They are specifically looking for proposals on the following topics:

  • Imaginative Literature — Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction from Mary Shelley and H.P Lovecraft to Ursula Le Guin and Neil Gaiman.
  • Tolkien and Inklings Studies — Research on the works and lives of the Inklings as they interact with each other, their modern context, and classic and imaginative literature.
  • Germanic Philology — Explore relationships between language and literature in the past, present, and future.
  • Anything Else — Academic research or creative presentations that traverse literature in its wondrous variety.

Proposals will be accepted through February 28, 2017. See the complete submission guidelines for more details.

I hope to give a talk about the Inklings as Modernists. Here are my proposed title and abstract:

bad-modernismsReal Modernisms: Revising (Meta)Fictional Modernist Narratives 

In 1997, Brian Richardson’s “Remapping the Present” questioned the standard metanarrative of twentieth-century fiction, which plots a move from realism through modernism to postmodernism. This is a poor model, created by selectivity, marginalizing important authors, works, forms, and developments, ignoring the “radical heterogeneity and ‘untimeliness’ of twentieth-century literary practice” (292). Richardson proposes an alternate narrative, but his is also artificially selective, ignoring actual writing and reading habits. In this talk, I will re-narrate the story of twentieth-century British fiction, examining publication histories, reading behaviors, and measures of novels’ popularity and perceived quality. This approach recontextualizes the “Inklings” as essential contributors to the modernist narrative and puts them in dialogue with their critically-acclaimed High Modernist contemporaries.

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One Fantastic Rogue Beast: Signum Symposium

untitled4Are you a Harry Potter fan? How about Star Wars? Have you seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them and/or Rogue One? Well then, you’ll want to attend an upcoming Symposium in which we’ll be talking, arguing, and bantering about these two movies. What did you love, what did you hate, what were you shocked by? Where do they fit into their worlds? Are they faithful to their texts? How do they work as adaptations? What do they say about our culture?

On Friday, January 6th, at 7 PM ET, I’ll be hosting a roundtable discussion with three Signumites: Katherine Sas, Brenton Dickieson, and Kelly Orazi. The group will discuss the two recent films and touch on wider Harry Potter and Star Wars-related questions while they’re at it.

Have a question you want us to answer or a point you want us to address? Leave it in the comments here or tweet it to @SorinaHiggins.

Register here by clicking on the blue JOIN THIS EVENT button on the left-hand side of your screen.

For those who cannot attend live, the discussion will be recorded and posted on  our Signum Symposia channels on YouTube and iTunes U. You can add the Signum Symposia podcast feed to your favorite podcasting app to download audio-only versions of Signum Symposia.

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2016 in Books

I’m a fan of Goodreads, the site that lets you track your reading and share books recommendations with others. They make a really pretty end-of-year summary of reading.
untitled1I’m always startled by how little I’ve read, mainly because an enormous percentage of my reading is scholarly articles, chapters from books, individual poems and short stories, and selections from larger works, none of which shows up on Goodreads. This year is especially skewed, because even though I read more books than any other year, my non-book reading was even higher. I read thousands of pages of scholarly articles just for one class alone. But anyway, it’s still fun to see how many books I read from cover to cover.

untitled2And there’s something more important going on with these Goodreads end-of-year charts than just personal bragging rights. There’s a message about the enduring power of literature to bring connection and consolation. Check out #YearInBooks on Twitter or any other social media site; you’ll get a sense of excitement, of positivity, and of community with other book lovers. In a year of highly-publicized, widely-mourned celebrity deaths; terrorism around the world; and a divisive, nasty U.S. campaign season, it’s nice to reach back into timeless literature and join those who love sharing ideas through reading.

untitled3There were several communities in which I participated by my reading this year; you can see my full list here. I continued reading works by the Inklings, especially for Doug Anderson’s Signum class The Inklings and Science Fiction. These novels were eye-opening! While some of them (The Worm Orouborous, Voyage to Arcturus) were painfully tedious, others (Last and First MenChildhood’s End!!!!, Rendezvous with Rama!!!!!!!) were revelations.

I tried to keep up with my Charles Williams chronological blog-through and curated the Taliessin Through Logres poem posts, but besides that, my Baylor work rather took over my reading.

Indeed, it did. You can see a big increase in 20th-century Irish works on my list, especially those of Lady Gregory, Yeats, and Joyce, since I took an intensive seminar called “Yeats and Joyce in their Irish Context.” Lots of these were short plays, so they pad out my reading list a bit! But I made up for this with my biggest achievements this semester: reading Ulysses and writing a 421-page “Reading Notebook” about Irish mythology, Yeats, and Joyce. Ulysses is a doozey of a book, isn’t it? How many of you have read it? I really loved it most of the way through, but it doesn’t know when to stop, and Molly’s monologue disgusted me. But still, it’s an important, hilarious, brilliant book, and I hope and plan to teach a course on it soon. untitled4In fact, I’m tentatively planning to teach a class on Tolkien and Joyce. Yes, I know, that seems an unlikely pairing — but they have a surprising amount in comment. Both myth-makers, writers of sprawling works that encompass everything that mattered to them, affirmers of human dignity and importance and love, modernists who were reacting to what they hated in the modern world, great intertextual writers using vast bodies of previous literature as sources, and so on.

There were two other communities I joined with my reading this year. The first was the field I had thought I would do my PhD on: The Canterbury Festival. From 1928 onwards, with breaks for the war and economic difficulties, Canterbury Cathedral has hosted a dramatic festival. I wrote a paper about the first 20 years of this Festival for one of my classes; Charles Williams, T. S. Eliot, and Dorothy Sayers each wrote Canterbury plays (Sayers wrote two of them), and so I was hoping to use my Inklings knowledge as a base from which to work on these plays. However, I think I’ve changed my mind, because the plays just aren’t as good as I’d hoped they would be, because the existing scholarship on the Festival is quite comprehensive, and because it’s frustrating to study plays without seeing them in performance. I tried to arrange for performances of them, but with little success.

And finally, I read Stephen King for the first time. I read The Green Mile and The Stand. WOW. Amazing. What a gifted writer, with such a vast and penetrating vision! I feel very blessed to have his whole body of work yet before me. It’s great to know there are years and years of reading pleasure before me in just that one author’s work.

But The Gunslinger will have to wait for summer vacation. This semester, it’s Shakespeare and Victorian poets!

What did you read this year? What were the most important books for you? What new reading communities did you join?



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Signum’s Christmas Faculty Roundtable

signum-christmas-roundtable-526x526You are invited to attend a chat with two of Signum University’s fine faculty members who will talk about Christmas Mythopoeia. Check out the description, where you can click the big blue “JOIN THIS EVENT” button on the left to RSVP for the live webinar. You can always watch or listen later, and there are various ways to do that.

Here is a description of this excellent event:

ON Thursday, December 22 at 5 pm EST, Signum University Department of Language & Literature Chair Sørina Higgins will be hosting a roundtable discussion with Kris Swank and Dr. Karl Persson with a Christmas theme.

Kris will be talking about her work on the Tolkien family history and literary echoes hidden in Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters, as well as its resonances with Frank Baum’s “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus” as another attempt at Santa mythopoeia.

Karl will talk about G. K. Chesterton, the Dickensian mystery of Christmas, the cheerful grotesqueries of holiday cheer, and the way that Christmastide culture wars obscure the haunting mythopoeia of the season.

We hope you can join us for this festive confabulation! For those who cannot attend live, the event will be recorded and posted on  our Signum Sessions channels on YouTube and iTunes U. You can add the Signum Symposia podcast feed to your favorite podcasting app to download audio-only versions of Signum Sessions.

Hope to see you there! 

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Course on C. S. Lewis and Prayer

A while back, I was honored to contribute a tiny amount to a Kickstarter campaign to send Rev. David Beckmann to England to record a class on C. S. Lewis and Prayer. The course is now available to purchase! Check it out here: http://revbeckmann.teachable.com/.

C. S. Lewis on Prayer

A study of the book by C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, in 8 video sessions – filmed in Oxford, England.

Here is Rev. Beckmann’s description of the project:

At the end of his life, in 1963, C. S. Lewis finally wrote a book on prayer. I say “finally,” because he had been thinking about it for many years. Lewis struggled with prayer. He did so, not only intellectually, but also – as we all do – because of the pains and difficulties that he encountered through his life.

Christian trials are always trials of faith and obedience, and we work those things out with God in prayer. If you are a Christian, prayer is critical for your life and walk with God. You sense that you need to learn all you can about it. The best way to do this is to learn from people who have practiced prayer for many years, like C. S. Lewis.

We need different truths at different times. The lessons we can learn about prayer from others will differ from person to person. Lewis had his questions and found his own answers about prayer, and if you have benefitted from his writings about other subjects, you should benefit from Letters to Malcolm as well.

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Descent into Hell: a Masterpiece of Emotion

Here’s a post about “Descent into Hell” by a Barbara Elin, blogging as The LawLass. Check it out!

The Law Lass

If you can get past the somewhat macabre title, you’ll find an uncommonly beautiful story about the power of fear, forgiveness and free will from the mind of Tolkien/ Lewis’s fellow (yet lesser-known) Inkling, Charles Williams. Confession time: I’d never heard of this author until recently, and I only discovered his work through searching ‘Doppelgänger books’ on Google.

But Descent into Hell is so much more than this.

The story centres on the staging of a play by famous dramatist Peter Stanhope at his home town of Battle Hill, just outside of London (though the place itself exists in a mystical, quasi-timeless state of existence). There’s much excitement at the prospect of a local boy turned celebrity returning home, and everyone gets involved in the theatrics of it all. We follow four main characters: Stanhope, Pauline (a woman who is haunted by her Doppelgänger), Wentworth (a lecherous local historian), and…

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Announcing the Charles Williams Library

The Charles Williams Library

Collector’s hardback editions of Charles Williams’ best-loved work.untitled

For too long, Williams’s work has been out of print or only available in budget-level paperbacks.  The Charles Williams library is rectifying this with high-quality, hardbound editions of his work, something suitable for collections and gifts.

Finally: modern, hardback editions of Williams’ most compelling, accessible writing — in handsome editions that are worth collecting and sharing. They’re available now for order: http://cwlibrary.com

They have been designed and printed with care: The Williams Library editions are hardbound, with cloth covers and foil stamping and debossing on the covers. Inside, you’ll find modern typography in the best bookmaking tradition. Printed in pure black with bright spot colors, on pure white paper. They’re sized right in the sweet spot: easy in the hand but a respectable presence on the bookshelf. We’ve included generous margins for a comfortable reading experience, and room for exclamations, scribbles and arguments.

The first one, The Place of the Lion, is available now, and you can place pre-orders for War in Heaven next!

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NaNoWriMo the Signum way!

Ekphrasis: Allentown's Fellowship of Christians in the Arts

nanoDear creative writers:

Remember that awesome flash-fiction contest Signum University hosted last year? Well, this year we’re doing something different. November is National Novel-Writing Month; check out nanowrimo.org. And Signum University, with NaNo’s blessing, is hosting its own NaNo-within-NaNo, right signumLogo_100here: http://forums.signumuniversity.org/index.php?forums/nanowrimo-2016.48/. So if you’re writing a novel this month, especially one with a science fiction or fantasy slant, and you want to join a creative community to discuss your project, please join Signum’s NaNo forum! You are very welcome there.

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How the occult helps my faith

I have promised that as I go through my PhD program, I’ll post bits of my writing that are related to Charles Williams or the Inklings. Here’s a draft of a “reading notebook” entry I made for my class on Yeats & Joyce. Enjoy — and your comments are welcome. 

Thornton, Weldon.  “Between Circle and Straight Line: A Pragmatic View of W. B. Yeats and the Occult.”  Studies in the Literary Imagination 14.1 (March 1981): 61-75.

Short Summary:

In debate with other scholars on Yeats and the occult, Thornton critiques the narrow-minded “Western” epistemology that rejects such spirituality out of hand because it does not pass the test of reductive rationalism. Questioning assumptions about belief, Thornton encourages readers to take Yeats’s occultism seriously; without it, we lose the richness of his poetry.

Long Summary:

Most critics, Thornton laments, reject Yeats’s occultism as silly or irrelevant. On the contrary, he argues: it is absolutely central to Yeats’s poetry. Yeats was involved with many secret societies and hermetic activities from childhood through death, and he integrated its concepts into all his thought and work. In particular, the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, and between this life and the next, were of crucial importance to Yeats.

Why, then, Thornton asks, have good scholars ignored or denigrated the most significant ideas of the poet they study? Because, he suggests, Yeats was in fundamental opposition to Western presuppositions about knowledge and belief. The occult does not fit into our narrow empiricism, and so it is jettisoned or ignored. But Thornton proposes that it is our reductionism, not Yeats’s spirituality, that is close-minded, parochial, and unrealistic. We only allow extremely limited forms of evidence or of experience to hold validity, and we prefer philosophical simplicity (à la Occam’s Razor) to rich experience and open-minded skepticism.

After establishing that broad philosophical basis for rejection of Yeats’s occultism, Thornton next surveys particular scholars’ dismissals, including Yvor Winters, Karl Shapiro, Austin Warren, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Richard Ellmann. All of them try to put distance between themselves and Yeats’s weird beliefs.

But were they beliefs? Did Yeats really believe in spirits, séances, reincarnation, etc.? Thornton presents this question, then comes at it from a different direction, questioning the limited definitions we have permitted the word “belief.” There are many possible kinds of belief, he posits, listing “intellectual, affective, volitional” and suggesting experience as well. Yeats was different. He could tentatively try on a belief to see how it worked in a certain situation, treating it more like a thought experiment than like a quiz-question for getting into heaven.

Finally, then, Thornton considers what all this meant to Yeats as a poet. He was neither a philosopher nor (primarily) a mystic, using spirituality as an end in itself, but a poet who enriched his own life and work by lived experiences of the supernatural. He was the opposite of an escapist: he studied the other world in order to enrich this one, and did so with his poetry.


In this powerful article, Thornton raises profound questions about “Western” tradition’s limited epistemology. We are only allowed to believe a very narrow swathe of ideas, he points out, if they pass certain tests of empirical validity and philosophical simplicity. His ideas are refreshing and encouraging, not least because they are practical. They suggest ways that literature can live beyond the page and scholarship can thrive outside the academic. I have been challenged and heartened by his writing in ways that go far beyond my study of Yeats. For this one response, then, I would like to take a different approach than usual. Rather than reading a Yeats poem through Thornton’s lens, I would like to explore practical and personal applications of Thornton’s thesis as it relates to Christian belief and public intellectualism. Finally, I would like to close with explaining and debunking an alternative approach to the occult from either the one Thornton dismisses or the one he suggests. While I will not use these ideas as an approach to the poetry of Yeats per se, the broader concepts I will be exploring have to do with the practical and personal application of literature, and so they are reflexive back to Yeats and his work.

First, then, there are valuable practical and personal applications of Thornton’s thesis to Christian belief—to my own Christian belief. He points out that Western intellectualism puts a high value on “belief”—but has not adequately defined the term or delineated what does and does not count as belief. There are many possible kinds of belief, he posits, listing “intellectual, affective, volitional” and suggesting experience as well (71). He implies several important questions: Is it doctrine that matters? Or feelings? Or a decision driven by will power? Or relationship? Or sensory events, such as voices or visions?

These questions are relevant in many contexts, including political, philosophical, legal, and scientific communities, but Thornton points out their application to religious, specifically Christian, creeds:

Can even an orthodox person say what it means to “believe” in the “existence of God,” or in the “resurrection of Christ”? Does one have any control over whether he believes any such assertions, and should one then feel pride or guilt about belief or lack of it? But in spite of how vague a category belief is, most Westerners inherently feel that they have precipitated something real when they ask whether a person believes something, for this constitutes a powerful intellectual shibboleth in our culture. (71)

Now, most orthodox people do say what it means to believe in the existence of God. Some will emphasize doctrine: it means intellectual assent to certain stated propositions about the nature of God, historical events, their spiritual significance, their application to the individual, etc. Some will emphasize subjective experience, such as an emotional feeling of love for Jesus or God’s love for oneself. Others will prioritize choice and commitment, pointing to a particular date on which they “gave their hearts to Jesus” or made a public profession of faith or were baptized, and so forth. And yet others will focus on actions as evidence of a heart change, looking for works of service and sacrifice in themselves or others as proof of saving belief.

I found Thornton’s questions refreshing and liberating. I am and have always been a member of the Reformed/Evangelical branch of the Protestant church, which requires people to attest to come kind of affective, relational sort of belief, usually articulated as “A relationship with Christ.” I find this sort of emotive metaphor difficult to manufacture in myself, and instead cling to a volitional form of belief—but even then, I am often stymied. I have made a commitment to follow Jesus, but I am often at a loss as to what that means at any given moment when I don’t feel something emotional about Him and when I even intellectually question the historical or propositional doctrines I am meant to be affirming. This often rises to an internal crisis right before participation in the Lord’s Supper, which is “fenced” by warnings about the danger of partaking without an appropriate kind and level of belief. Thornton reassured me that I am not alone in my questions about belief: wiser minds than mine have debated what belief actually is or entails, and he is confident in asserting that it is a vague category. My Calvinism agrees with his question about whether anyone has control over belief and forbids either pride or guilt at a subjective sense of having or not having achieved it. Perhaps it is all right, then, for me to have questions about the narrow ways in which any given denomination or congregation fences the table or defines emotive reactions to the reciting of creeds.

This is a significant way that his article lives outside the academy: It could be usefully read by pastors, Sunday school teachers, and Christian educators to encourage them to interrogate their assumptions about what constitutes belief. One need not be a scholar of Yeats to know that such questions are relevant and powerful. Narrow answers to them are terrifying.

This leads to my second point, which is that Thornton’s article could be performing a much-needed service as public intellectualism. I doubt that it has done so; it was published in a scholarly journal, after all, which is hardly ever read (and difficult to access) outside the academy. I don’t know, but I doubt, that Thornton ever turned any part of the contents of this article into, say, a blog post or a newspaper editorial. I doubt that it has ever been read by pastors, Sunday school teachers, or Christian educators unless they were studying Yeats as a hobby or side-field. And yet, “Western” culture is in dire need of public intellectualism. The very narrowness of popular concepts of proof, evidence, empiricism, rationalism, and philosophical simplicity are themselves symptomatic, I believe, of a deep disease of anti-intellectualism in our culture, often disguised as a kind of cheap intellectual savvy. I will not pursue this point in any depth, but I strong believe (believe!) that the current U.S. Presidential election debacle is a result of wide-spread intellectual weakness. This campaign season has revealed that the truth-content of claims is no longer valued. Facts are of little importance. Ethics have been discarded, as a candidate’s assertions of future usefulness are given more weight than his or her past dubious (possibly criminal) actions). A narrow and intolerant, even cruel, ethnocentrism has replaced an earlier over-application of political correctness. I believe that these are not only moral failures, but the results of poor education, under-education, and wrong-headed education. Public intellectuals are badly needed to foster an open-minded, ethically sound culture that is capable of detecting logical fallacies and courageous enough to reject rhetoric, whether hateful or suave, that does not align with facts and with historical wisdom. Thornton’s open-minded approach to belief could help to challenge the narrowness of the current American climate.

Finally, I would like to move back from broad questions about public intellectualism to more specific ones about the occult, and close with explaining and debunking an alternative approach to the occult from either the one Thornton dismisses or the one he suggests. My own a response to occult materials in writers I have studied has not been disbelief in it. I have not thought it silly or tangential or irrelevant. In fact, I have tended to believe that these writers (Blake, Yeats, Waite, Crowley, Underhill, Williams) meant what they said. They probably did have converse with spirits. But my response has been rather one of fear: They probably did interact with spirits, but which spirits? I do not doubt the existence of the spiritual world in which they believed, but I am afraid it is the wrong spiritual world. I have assumed they are talking to demons, rather than angels; that their afterlife is hell, not heaven. And I have never accused them of escapism from the “real world”: rather, the vice I have ascribed to them is a lust for power. I see dabbling in the occult not as an attempt to get away from this mortal life, but to control it—and to control the people in it. In my research, I have encountered high-ranking occult initiates who manipulated their families, friends, and coworkers into performing roles in their constructed myths. I have encountered those who have abused people, physically, emotionally, spiritually, or sexually. I have encountered those who have abused themselves, through neglect of their bodily needs or through active mistreatment of their bodies or minds as they were consumed by this lust to control nature, spirits, other people, or themselves. I have seen them worn out, used up, made ill, driven mad, and dying young because they drained their bodily energies to serve a creative genius. I have heard of the terrible deeds they have done, the terrible sins they have committed, in service of this other world with which they were in contact.

This ugly picture of the occult is quite different from the picture Thornton paints of the thoughtful, broad-minded sensitive Yeats whose “experiences deserve to be regarded seriously and sympathetically” (75). I understand that Thornton is correcting an error he sees in the scholarship, so it would be no surprise if he over-corrected. I am more surprised, however, and pleasantly surprised, to find that his investigation of an area I have feared and been repelled by has helped my own spiritual condition. I am not prepared to say that I have been wrong to fear and condemn occult involvement, but I stand by my claim that we need scholars like Thornton to come forward and serve as public intellectuals. Clearly, there are debates we need to have about the validity and value of the occult, about our assumptions regarding what constitutes belief, and about the place of spiritualit(ies) in “rationalist” Western culture.

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