Monday, January 28, 2008

A Historical Falsehood

In popular thought, however, the origin of the universe has counted (I think) for less than its character - its immense size and its apparent indifference, if not hostility, to human life. And very often this impresses people all the more because it is supposed to be a modern discovery - an excellent example of those things which our ancestors did not know and which, if they had known them, would have prevented the very beginnings of Christianity. Here there is a simple historical falsehood. Ptolemy knew just as well as Eddington that the earth was infinitesimal in comparison with the whole content of space. There is no question here of knowledge having grown until the frame of archaic thought is no longer able to contain it. The real question is why the spatial insignificance of the Earth, after being known for centuries, should suddenly in the last century have become an argument against Christianity. I do not know why this has happened; but I am sure it does not mark an increased clarity of thought, for the argument from size is in my opinion, very feeble.
~C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, "Dogma and the Universe" (1970)

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Till We Have Faces

The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, "Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that's the whole art and joy of words." A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
~C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces (1956)

Lord, hear my voice, my present voice I mean,
Not that which may be speaking an hour hence
(For I am Legion) in an opposite sense,
And not by show of hands decide between
The multiple factions which my state has seen
Or will see. Condescend to the pretence
That what speaks now is I; in its defence
Dissolve my parliament and intervene.

Thou wilt not, though we asked it, quite recall
Free will once given. Yet to this moment's choice
Give unfair weight. Hold me to this. Oh strain
A point - use legal fictions; for if all
My quarrelling selves must bear an equal voice,
Farewell, thou has created me in vain.
~C.S. Lewis, "Legion", Poems (1964), (1st published in The Month, April 1955)

Saturday, January 19, 2008


Since finishing the first volume of Spenser I have been reading again 'The Well at the World's End', and it has completely ravished me. There is something awfully nice about reading a book again, with all the half-unconscious memories it brings back. 'The Well' always brings to mind our lovely hill-walk in the frost and fog - you remember - because I was reading it then. The very names of chapters and places make me happy: 'Another adventure in the Wood Perilous', 'Ralph rides the Downs to Higham-on-the-Way', 'The Dry Tree', 'Ralph reads in a book concerning the Well at the World's End'. Why is it that one can never think of the past without wanting to go back?
~C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume I, Letter to Arthur Greeves (16 November, 1915)

I spent the afternoon and evening between spells of working on "Sigrid" (which I did with incredible difficulty, but finally pleased myself) and beginning to re-read The Well at the World's End. I was anxious to see whether the old spell still worked. It does - rather too well. This going back to books read at that age is humiliating: one keeps on tracing what are now quite big things in one's mental outfit to curiously small sources. I wondered how much even of my feeling for external nature comes out of the brief, convincing little descriptions of mountains and woods in this book.
~C. S. Lewis, All My Road Before Me (entry of July 4, 1926)

Wikipedia Page for The Well at the World's End

Loose My Chains

"What is it, Aslan?" said Lucy, her eyes dancing and her feet wanting to dance.

"Come, children," said he. "Ride on my back again today."

"Oh, lovely!" cried Lucy, and both girls climbed on to the warm golden back as they had done no one knew how many years before.

Then the whole party moved off; Aslan leading, Bacchus and his Maenads leaping, rushing, and turning somersaults, the beasts frisking round them, and Silenus and his donkey bringing up the rear.

They turned a little to the right, raced down a steep hill, and found the long Bridge of Beruna in front of them. Before they had begun to cross it, however, up out of the water came a great wet, bearded head, larger than a man's, crowned with rushes. It looked at Aslan and out of its mouth a deep voice came.

"Hail, Lord," it said. "Loose my chains."

"Who on earth is that?" whispered Susan.

"I think it's the river-god, but hush," said Lucy.

"Bacchus," said Aslan. "Deliver him from his chains."

"That means the bridge, I expect," thought Lucy. And so it did. Bacchus and his people splashed forward into the shallow water, and a minute later the most curious things began happening. Great, strong trunks of ivy came curling up all the piers of the bridge, growing as quickly as a fire grows, wrapping the stones round, splitting, breaking, separating them. The walls of the bridge turned into hedges gay with hawthorn for a moment and then disappeared as the whole thing with a rush and a rumble collapsed into the swirling water. With much splashing, screaming, and laughter the revellers waded or swam or danced across the ford ("Hurrah! It's the Ford of Beruna again now!" cried the girls) and up the bank on the far side and into the town.
~C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian, Chapter 14 (1951)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Faith vs. Good Works

The Bible really seems to clinch the matter when it puts the two things together into one amazing sentence. The first half is, 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling' - which looks as if everything depended on us and our good actions; but the second half goes on, 'For it is God who worketh in you' - which looks as if God did everything and we nothing. I am afraid that is the sort of thing we come up against in Christianity. I am puzzled, but I am not surprised. You see, we are now trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does when God and man are working together. And, of course, we begin by thinking it is like two men working together, so that you could say , 'He did this bit and I did that.' But this way of thinking breaks down. God is not like that. He is inside you as well as outside: even if we could understand who did what, I do not think human language could properly express it. In the attempt to express it different Churches say different things. But you will find that even those who insist most strongly on the importance of good actions tell you you need Faith; and even those who insist most strongly on Faith tell you to do good actions. At any rate that is as far as I can go.
~C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book 3, Chapter 12 'Faith' (1952)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

He Will Not Be Pinned Down

We may observe that the teaching of Our Lord Himself, in which there is no imperfection, is not given us in that cut-and-dried, fool-proof, systematic fashion we might have expected or desired. He wrote no book. We have only reported sayings, most of them uttered in answer to questions, shaped in some degree by their context. And when we have collected them all we cannot reduce them to a system. He preaches but He does not lecture. He uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the "wisecrack". He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be "got up" as if it were a "subject". If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, "pinned down". The attempt is (again, I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam.

Yes, it is, perhaps, idle to speak here of spirit and letter. There is almost no "letter" in the words of Jesus. Taken by a literalist, He will always prove the most elusive of teachers. Systems cannot keep up with that darting illumination. No net less wide than a man's whole heart, nor less fine of mesh than love, will hold the sacred Fish.

~C.S. Lewis,
Reflections on the Psalms, Chapter XI "Scripture" (1958)

Friday, January 11, 2008

I Should Put the Odds at 10,000 to 1 Against You All

I don't think Tolkien influenced me*, and I am certain that I didn't influence him. That is, didn't influence what he wrote. My continual encouragement, carried to the point of nagging, influenced him very much to write at all with that gravity and at that length. In other words I acted as a midwife not as a father. The similarities between his work and mine are due, I think, (a) To nature - temperament. (b) to common sources. We are both soaked in Norse mythology, George MacDonald's fairy-tales, Homer, Beowulf, and medieval romance. Also, of course, we are both Christians (he, an R.C.).

The relevance of your problem to 'Higher Criticism' is extremely important. Reviewers of his books and mine, both friendly & hostile, constantly put forward imaginary histories of their composition. I do not think any one of these has ever borne the slightest resemblance to the real history. (e.g. they think his deadly Ring is a symbol of the atom bomb. Actually his myth was developed long before the atom bomb had been heard of).

You see the moral. These critics, in dealing with us, have every advantage which modern scholars lack in dealing with Scripture. They are dealing with authors who have the same mother tongue, the same education, and inhabit the same social & political world as their own, and inherit the same literary traditions. In spite of this, when they tell us how the books were written they are all wildly wrong! After that what chance can there be that any modern scholar can determine how Isaiah or the Fourth Gospel [...] came into existence? I should put the odds at 10,000 to 1 against you all. [...]

The Narnian series is not exactly allegory. I'm not saying 'Let us represent in terms of m
ärchen** the actual story of this world.' Rather 'Supposing the Narnia world, let us guess what form the activities of the Second Person or Creator, Redeemer, and Judge might take there.' This, you see, overlaps with allegory but is not quite the same.

I don't think a marsh-wiggle is like a hobbit. The hobbit is essentially a cheerful, complacent, sanguine little creature. If Puddeglum is like any of Tolkien's characters, I'd call him 'a good Gollum'.
~C.S. Lewis, The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume III, Letter to Francis Anderson 23 Sept 1963
* Anderson had written to Lewis asking what the connection was between the Lord of the Rings and the Narnia series and which writer had influenced the other.

ärchen - the German term for tales of enchantment and marvels, usually translated as ‘fairy tales’.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Childhood's End

Dear Joy,

As far as I can remember you were non-committal about Childhood's End*: I suppose you were afraid that you might raise my expectations too high and lead to disappointment. If that was your aim, it has succeeded, for I came to it expecting nothing in particular and have been thoroughly bowled over. It is quite out of range of the common space-and-time writers; away up near Lindsay's Voyage to Arcturus and Well's First Men in the Moon.

[...]There has been nothing like it for years: partly for the actual writing--'She has left her toys behind but ours go hence with us', or 'The island rose to meet the dawn', but partly (still more, in fact) because here we meet a modern author who understands that there may be things that have a higher claim than the survival or happiness of humanity[...]

It is a strange comment on our age that such a book lies hid in a hideous paper-backed edition, wholly unnoticed by the cognoscenti, while any 'realistic' drivel about some neurotic in a London flat--something that needs no real invention at all, something that any educated man could write if he chose, may get seriously reviewed and mentioned in serious books - as if it really mattered. I wonder how long this tyranny will last? Twenty years ago I felt no doubt that I should live to see it all break up and great literature return: but here I am, losing teeth and hair, and still no break in the clouds.

And now, what do you think? Do you agree that it is AN ABSOLUTE CORKER?

~C.S. Lewis, Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis: Volume III, Letter to Joy Gresham, Dec 22, 1953

*Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End (New York: Ballantine, 1953)

Joy Gresham showed Clarke the letter from Lewis, and when Childhood's End was published by Pan Books of London in 1956, parts of his letter were quoted on the back of the book.