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Tag: Inklings

Flannery O’Connor and Charles Williams: Coming to the Big (and Small) Screen

Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood

I just ran across the Facebook page for a television and film production company called Good Country Pictures. This small company is dedicated to bringing the works of Flannery O’Connor and Charles Williams to the screen, and currently is working on producing a TV series based on O’Connor’s short stories, and making a film of Williams’s novel, All Hallows Eve. Here’s how they describe their mission:

Good Country Pictures is dedicated to producing TV and film projects
that help their audience rediscover ‘mystery and manners.’ GCP presently
owns the TV and film option rights to most of the works of Flannery
O’Connor and Charles Williams. Already underway is a feature film of
O’Connor’s ‘The Violent Bear It Away’ and a TV series of her short
stories. A film treatment of Charles Williams’ ‘All Hallows’ Eve’
(1941) is also in progress.

I’ve recently written a bit about Flannery O’Connor (there’s lots more I’d like to say, when time allows); if you visit Good Country Pictures’ Facebook page, you’ll find links to various resources online that will help you learn more about both these writers. A number of Flannery O’Connor’s works have been adapted for television (not very successfully); they are also the favorite subject of amateur filmmakers — just take a look on YouTube and you’ll find plenty of videos made by students, indies, and other O’Connor enthusiasts. By far the best made and best known adaptation is John Huston’s feature film of Wise Blood, in which a very young Brad Dourif was brilliantly cast as Hazel Motes (the Criterion edition
is available on DVD).

Charles Williams novelist
Charles Williams,
Inkling & novelist

Those who don’t know the works of Charles Williams are missing a treat. Inklings fans will know that Williams was a member of that literary coterie, the only one of the group who did not teach at one of the great English universities. C. S. Lewis was a great admirer. Williams is best known for his metaphysical novels, which are weirdly surreal yet rooted in a profoundly Christian worldview. (Williams also wrote poetry and at least two works of theology.) There’s really no way to describe his books adequately; probably the best one to begin with is War in Heaven, which has to do with the Holy Grail, found in an English country church, and the struggle between good and evil forces to possess it. I’m not aware of any screen adaptations of Williams’s novels, but they would all be wonderful as films.

I’ll be interested in seeing what Good Country Pictures produces.

The Narnia Code: Hidden inklings of the God-breathed cosmos

Michael Ward The Narnia Code
Many readers have sensed that there is more
than meets the eye in Lewis’s Narnia tales,
but Michael Ward is the man
who finally discovered what it was.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on Michael Ward’s theory of the unifying principle  that guided C. S. Lewis in writing the Narnia tales, and Ward’s book, Planet Narnia, in which he provides a detailed analysis of the Narnia novels. The book was based on his doctoral dissertation and was, I suppose, fairly scholarly in tone. Apparently Ward and/or his publisher felt that Planet Narnia would be heavy reading for a lot of Narnia fans, so now there is a new book which (as far as I can tell from the preview available on Amazon) is essentially Planet Narnia reworked for the popular market.

The new book is The Narnia Code: C. S. Lewis and the Secret of the Seven Heavens. Here’s a portion of the publisher’s blurb:

In The Narnia Code, Michael Ward presents an astonishing literary
discovery. Drawing on the whole range of Lewis’s writings, Ward reveals
the single subject that provides the link between all seven novels. He
explains how Lewis structured the series, why he kept the code secret,
and what it shows about his understanding of the universe and the
Christian faith. 

Readers should not be put off by the title’s similarity to The Davinci Code, which, despite Dan Brown’s claim to the contrary, is pure fiction and a load of codswallop. Ward actually does a good job of demonstrating that Lewis (a) wrote according to a set of principles that, until Ward discovered them, had eluded literary critics and exegetes and (b) he deliberately concealed his plan. In other words, there actually is a “code” which can be “decoded,” thereby yielding up new meaning to the reader who has figured out the code.

Decoding Narnia: the Medieval connection

To many modern readers, this will seem like a weird, sneaky thing to do, but it would not have seemed so to a medieval reader. What most modern critics have ignored is the fact that C. S. Lewis was a trained medievalist, and that, in scholarly circles, he is more famed and admired for his work as a medievalist than he is as a writer of children’s stories or a Christian apologist (as he is known to most general readers). He wrote several books that should be familiar to college students, if they’ve ever studied medieval literature or history, and which help to support Ward’s claim that Lewis’s background as a scholar of medieval literarture is absolutely key to a thorough understanding of his Narnia tales.

C S Lewis The Discarded Image
As Lewis knew well, medieval
culture understood the metaphysical
complexity of the universe.

First in importance, there is The Discarded Image, in which Professor Lewis demonstrates how the medieval conception of the created order (the cosmos) profoundly influenced every aspect of medieval culture. Here’s the publisher’s blurb from the Canto edition
of this book:

C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image paints a lucid picture of the medieval
world view, as historical and cultural background to the literature of
the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It describes the “image” discarded by
later ages as “the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of
their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious
mental model of the universe.” This, Lewis’ last book, was hailed as
“the final memorial to the work of a great scholar and teacher and a
wise and noble mind.”

One of the key elements of the “medieval world view” was the concept of plenitude, i.e., that the world we can see is just one small part of the whole of creation and there is a densely populated, but invisible order of Creation which is every bit as “real” and varied as the parts we can see. So in the medieval view the cosmos actually had different “levels,” the visible and the invisible, which coexist side by side; in a somewhat similar way, the Bible was understood to have several layers of meaning, the literal or superficial meaning which would be plain to even the most casual reader, as well as spiritual (figurative or allegorical) meanings which lay, as St Augustine put it, “beneath the veil of the letter.” The reading habit of looking for, and finding, various levels of meaning in the Bible bled over into reading of other kinds of writing as well, so that medieval poets (i.e., fiction writers) carefully planned and built many layers of significance into their works, and astute readers were adept at recognizing the “hidden” layers of meaning. Lewis, of course, knew this thoroughly, and knew that much of the delight in both writing and reading in the Middle Ages was derived from this kind of polysemous composition.

Readers must uncover (discover) the meaning

C S Lewis The Allegory of Love
Medieval writers, in imitation of the Bible,
loved to hide their meaning
the surface.

Another work by Professor Lewis that should be familiar to students of medieval literature is The Allegory of Love
, which traces the allegorical treatment of love in western European literature from the high Middle Ages through the Renaissance. Here again is evidence of the medieval delight in finding hidden meaning in literary works, and here again C. S. Lewis literally wrote the book on it. Both The Discarded Image and The Allegory of Love have been enormously influential in the modern study and teaching of medieval literature. And yet no modern scholar until Michael Ward has really understood how profoundly Lewis the writer was influenced by the medieval images and methods that preoccupied Lewis the scholar.

This idea of a literary work being conceived and composed according to an intricate plan is quite foreign to modern readers and writers alike. Recently I was introducing some students to Dante’s Divine Comedy, a massive work composed according to a massively intricate plan structured by various numerological, theological, and typological schemata. I had made similar remarks on the structures of other medieval narrative poems we have studied. One student, who seemed surprised to realize how carefully medieval writers planned their compositions, asked me if modern writers do such careful planning, and I had to reply that this is seldom the case these days.

Flammarion woodcut of the cosmos
The Flammarion woodcut, in which a truth-seeker
peers into the hidden workings of the cosmos.

Modern novelists frequently write without any plan whatsoever and seem to think that this somehow makes a work more authentic — they claim to “wait for their Muse” for inspiration, and then “let the characters take the story where it needs to go,” as if novel writing were something that happens to the writer rather than something that the writer deliberately does (I blame William Wordsworth for this romantic tendency to regard the writer as a medium through which the forces of inspiration magically work). Even mystery writers will claim that they start their stories without knowing “whodunnit.” What nonsense! Unfortunately, many readers and critics have assumed that Lewis wrote his Narnia novels using an equally haphazard method (or lack thereof). Thank goodness Michael Ward has finally vindicated Lewis in the face of critics who accuse him of having thrown Narnia together using a meaningless hodgepodge of images (Santa in Narnia? Crazy!).

By the way, when I got a beautiful new hand-tooled leather cover from Oberon Designs for my Kindle ereader, I chose a design that caught my imagination because it seemed to sum up for me the wonder of reading, allowing us to glimpse the inner workings of the universe. I didn’t realize at the time that the image was based on a well-known pseudo-medieval engraving known as the Flammarion engraving (see image at the top of this post). Whether the image is a forgery made in the nineteenth century or not, it captures nicely the medieval belief in the invisible but magnificent reality of the created order that remains invisible to human eyes. This is a much richer conception than the scientfic worldview, which denies any unobservable, metaphysical reality. Anyway, the Flammarion image makes for a beautiful Kindle cover — check it out!

Roof of Heaven Kindle cover by Oberon Designs
Roof of Heaven Kindle cover by Oberon Designs

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Moral Imagination: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness

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Recently I wrote about literature
as being capable of conveying, and even discovering, truth,
which can be
called “poetic knowledge.” Both Aristotle
and St Thomas Aquinas upheld a similar view, Aristotle by demonstrating that
poetry is “more philosophical” (i.e., more capable of demonstrating truth) than
history, and St Thomas acknowledging poetry as a kind of “science” (scientia) or knowledge, albeit a lower
form of knowledge than philosophy because it relies more on imagination than intellect.
Today I’d like to consider the value of beauty, an abstract value, but one that
we often associate with poetry, as well as music and the fine arts.
beautiful dew drops on clover leaf

Beauty lifts us up

My thoughts are prompted by this interesting feature article
from the National Catholic Register, “True
Beauty Satisfies the Human Heart,”
an interview by Trent Beattie of
psychologist Margaret Laracy, who identifies beauty as a kind of knowledge.
Laracy has made a study of the healing effects of beauty on those suffering
from mental illness. Since she is one of the few scholars to study seriously
the effects of beauty, she first had to arrive at a satisfactory definition of “beauty”
before she could study it; as a starting point she turns to St Thomas Aquinas,
the great definer of abstract truths. Thomas identified three essential
qualities of beauty: clarity (the luminosity or illumination communicated by the
object of perception), harmony (the right ordering of the parts of the object),
and integrity (the wholeness of the object’s luminosity and harmony which, in
synthesis, elicit repose and contemplation). Through its integrity, beauty calls
us to contemplation, and thereby leads us beyond the beautiful object to the
greater beauty of which it is but one instance. (This reminds me of what
C. S. Lewis said of “good books”
– that they enlarge us.) Dr. Laracy does
not cite St Augustine in her
discussion of beauty, but she well might: Augustine would say that in
contemplating the creature (beautiful object) one is drawn to the Creator
(God). In this way, I would say, beauty can provide not merely mental but
also spiritual healing.

Thinking about Thomas’s three essential marks of beauty, I
was reminded of an experience I once had in an art museum. Many years ago, I
was in the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art, probably more out of morbid
curiosity than for aesthetic pleasure. In those days (and still) I found most
of what is classified as “modern” art to be incomprehensible and repugnant,
sometimes even laughable. (In fact, I can remember at least one occasion on
which I was all but physically expelled from the Modern by a docent who didn’t
like my jeering commentary on the exhibits.) I guess, in Thomas’s terms, I found
that the “artworks” being exhibited failed on almost every point – for
instance, a pile of stones of nondescript stones did not communicate anything
in particular; patrons were invited to rearrange them as they liked, so there
was no inherent harmony; and there certainly was no integrity, since the
implication was that the “artwork” was always unfinished (although patrons were
exhorted not to take any of the stones away). The only thing it led me to
contemplate was why the heck the museum would present such dreck as “art.”

A visceral reaction

Perhaps the same day I saw the pile of stones at the Modern
(or some other day altogether), I wandered into an open gallery containing
sculpture that immediately arrested my attention. I imagine there were a number
of pieces displayed there, but I remember only one. It was fairly large (say
about the size of a large man sitting with his knees drawn up), and seemed to chrome-plated
(it was probably polished aluminum), abstract in form, a twisted, highly
reflective mass suggesting (to my imagination, anyway) tangled car bumpers, which
I found mesmerizing and repellent. I would stare at it for a few moments and
then rush out of the room, but come back a few minutes later to peer at it in
horrid fascination from a different angle. I felt an incoherent, but insistant,
impulse to find a curator and demand that the sculpture be taken away.
Eventually, I left the museum feeling inexplicably distressed and nauseated.

I remember asking myself what it was about the sculpture
that provoked such a strongly negative response and could not articulate a
reason other than to think, as I looked at the sculpture, “It’s just wrong! It’s
a lie!” Had I been foolhardy enough to say such a thing to a curator, I
undoubtedly would have been told that there is no “right” or “wrong” about art,
that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and what I found repellent someone
else would find enchanting. If anyone had suggested as much, I would have
replied, “Then anyone who likes that thing has something seriously wrong with
him.”
Winged Victory of Samothrace
Winged Victory of Samothrace
I can’t remember any other work of art that elicited such a vivid
sense of repulsion, but I have had at least one other encounter with sculpture
that provoked an equally viscerally, but completely opposite, reaction. I was
visiting the Louvre Museum in Paris and, after spending two or three hours
perusing the paintings on the ground floor, realized that the museum would be
closing in less than an hour and I hadn’t even gotten upstairs yet. I was
rushing toward the large double staircase that led to the upper floor when I
was stopped as suddenly as if I had run into an invisible wall. Dazed, I looked
around to see what had stopped me, and found myself gazing at a sculpture that
I had seen many times in photographs without finding it very impressive: the
famous Nike, Winged
Victory of Samothrace
You’re probably familiar with the image: a female torso that
seems to be striding forward, wearing those formless drapey garments often
found on Greek figures, with large, backswept wings sprouting from the shoulder
blades. The statue has been badly battered, with the arms (probably once
outswept like the wings) and the head completely missing. Still, it was, quite
literally, breathtakingly arresting; it had stopped me dead in my tracks, while
my attention was elsewhere. As I looked at it, I felt indescribably
exhilarated: I could feel the wind rushing against Nike’s glorious form,
sweeping back her gown and unfurling her great wings; I even felt I could see
her hair blowing back, her eyes gleaming, her triumphant smile dazzling –
although the statue’s head has never been found. I doubt I even noticed that
she was standing on the prow of a ship, yet I could feel the rush of air
against her body and lifting her wings. She seemed to me to be alive and in
vigorous motion, and yet she was only a broken lump of stone carved by some anonymous
craftsman two thousand years ago.

Beauty and Truth

These two sculptures – the deliberately twisted, highly
polished metal one at the Fort Worth Modern and the badly battered hunk of
marble at the Louvre in Paris –
both evinced from me strong, visceral reactions that I can’t fully explain. The
former, modern work was undoubtedly beautifully crafted according to the
sculptor’s intent, but it struck me as horrifically false and wrong, highly-polished
but somehow ugly and obscene. If we judge it according to St Thomas’s “essential”
criteria of beauty, it has none: it does possess a certain clarity or luminosity
(at least, it is very shiny and smooth), but it is so disharmonious as to
suggest a car crash; the (apparently deliberate) disharmony opposes the clarity
(if that is what we can call its smooth shininess) that the work does not seem
to posses integrity, indeed its clarity seems to belie its disharmony, making
it seem false and wrong, and to evince a feeling of dis-ease, rather than
repose.

On the other hand, while the mutilated form of the Rhodian
sculpture might make its maker weep with frustration if he could see it today, it
nonetheless remains incredibly beautiful, radiating life, movement, and exultant
emotion that can quite literally stop a person in her tracks. Its clarity is
such that the sculpture almost seems to be lit from within, not with actual
light but with life itself; even though many portions of the sculpture are
broken off and lost, what remains is unified by a profound harmony, despite its
broken state; the clarity and harmony of the object imbue it with an pervasive
integrity that make the viewer feel as if somehow the essence of Life itself
has been given exuberant form.
By Thomas’s standards then, the modern metal sculpture lacks
the criteria of beauty, and my negative reaction to it suggests that, for all
its careful craftsmanship and smooth surfaces, I was not wrong to find it quite
the opposite of beautiful. The Winged Victory of Samothrace, however, seems to
possess all the hallmarks of beauty, in spades, and certainly it left me
feeling “enlarged,” enriched for having seen it. (Even today, more than thirty
years later, I feel exhilarated as I remember seeing the Winged Victory.) Its
beauty did not depend on “integrity” in the most literal sense, since many
parts of the original are missing, which just goes to show that integrity
itself is something more than material and literal completeness; yet, its
beauty does somehow seem to depend on
direct experience, as no photograph of it that I have seen before or since was
able to do more than hint at the great vitality of the sculpture.
ugly metallic sculpture
The dog seems to have the right idea,
to treat it as a toilet.
All of this serves to show that there does seem to be, despite
what so much modern “culture” insists, that there is a strong identification
between beauty and truth. However, it also seems to be true that our faculties
for perceiving and recognizing both beauty and truth must be honed, so that we
are not led astray by, for example, smooth shiny objects that appeal to our
senses without illuminating our souls. And, if we can recognize the
identification between beauty and truth, it is not difficult to see (as Dr.
Laracy’s study of beauty and mental health suggests) that regular exposure to
beauty can also help us to be whole and healthy, to be good. This in turn suggests
that we should, on principle, avoid spending our time on ugliness, just as we
should avoid lies and wickedness.

Reading and the Moral Imagination: Aristotle and C. S. Lewis

girl reading a book
Doing this in public could earn you funny looks.

If you are a reader of books (not just blogs), these days you are apparently in the minority. Some alarming statistics I’ve run into on various web sites claim that:

  • 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
  • 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
  • 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
  • 70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

    Today’s column by Fr. James Schall on The Catholic Thing suggests that one reason young people don’t read much any more is that they are tethered to their cell phones, which constantly demand their attention, making it impossible (unlikely, at least) for them to devote themselves to reading or sustain reflection — these days, college students hit the beach with their “smart phones,” not paperback novels. Fr. Schall goes on to comment that he is not encouraged by the current fad for “electronic books” that can be read off of computer and smartphone screens, a view that I share. I’ll let you read for yourself his reasoning. (What do you mean, you don’t read The Catholic Thing? Why on earth not? They publish a new and thought-provoking essay each day, by an impressive variety of excellent Catholic thinkers.)

    Fiction matters

    Schall mentions all this as a lead-up to his consideration of a question that I think is an important one: Does it matter if we read fiction? (Notice, he does not insist that it be “important literature” or “timeless classics,” just “fiction,” including poetry.) I think the answer is, “Absolutely, yes!” I know plenty of people who think of themselves as “readers,” but proudly proclaim, “Oh, I only read non-fiction,” as if that were a virtue. On the contrary, I can’t help but think of it as a character defect, revealing an undeveloped moral imagination. Why? Well, Aristotle gave an answer that I think is as valid today as it was nearly 2,400 years ago, in his Poetics. Aristotle, of course, was a philosopher, not a poet, but he believed in the ethical value of poetry (by which he meant what we mean by “literature” — in his day, all “fiction” was written in poetic verse). Comparing poetry (“fiction”) to history (“nonfiction”), he says:

    It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen — what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims … (Poetics IX)

    So it looks like Aristotle would not have been too impressed by those people who proudly proclaim that they read only “nonfiction.” 

    C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism, Canto edition

    But, one might ask, was Aristotle right in claiming that “poetry” is a “high and philosophical thing”? And if so, why? I would say yes, if we recognize that, while his use of the term “poetry” would include literary fiction generally, it probably would not extend to pulp fiction (the sort of mass-produced schlock that keeps many booksellers in business, for which there was no analogue in Aristotle’s day). I think that Aristotle had in mind something more like what C. S. Lewis, in his An Experiment in Criticism, classified as “good books.” Lewis proposed that we define “good books” not by something inherent in the book but by what sort of reading it provokes and rewards. A “good” book is the one that allows the reader to find something new with each reading and re-reading, to which the reader returns time and again, a story that provokes reflection, and rewards reflection with discovery, which in turn causes delight. Good books provoke good reading, taking us out of ourselves while we read and returning us to ourselves, at the end of our reading, somehow enlarged:

    One of the things we feel after reading a great work is “I have got out.” Or from another point of view, “I have got in”; pierced the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside. … We therefore delight to enter into other men’s beliefs (those, say, of Lucretius or Lawrence) even though we think them untrue.  And into their passions, though we think them depraved, like those, sometimes, of Marlowe or Carlyle. And also into their imaginations, though they lack all realism of content.

    This is not to say that to say, of course, that a good book cannot be read badly; rather, the important distinction is that good books “permit” a reading that enlarges the reader, whereas bad books make such reading impossible. The good book meets Aristotle’s criterion of being “philosophical”because it allows us to gain new insight into some truth about the human condition, the way of the world, etc.

    People who don’t read suffer from anorexia of the imagination

    Matthias Stom,  Young Man Reading by Candlelight
    With free books and free reading apps for every gadget,
    there’s no excuse not to read.

    None of this is to say, however, that every work of fiction we read should be “good” (using Lewis’s terminology) or “philosophical” (using Aristotle’s), any more than every bite we eat has to be “healthy” or “nutritious.” If we want to carry this food analogy a little further, however, we would have to acknowledge that, much as a complete lack of appetite for food indicates some underlying illness, and prolonged fasting will, in the end, prove deadly, in a similar way, it is not healthy for an otherwise civilized person never to read a book, or to regard reading (as too many students do!) as simply a necessary evil that must be performed to survive, a bitter medicine that must be swallowed. Avid readers are baffled by people who never read, in much the same was as people who delight in healthy, delicious, well-prepared food are baffled by anorexics, or those who never eat anything but tasteless processed junk.

    The fact that even college-educated adults quit reading books as soon as they are able suggests that our schools and colleges do a very poor job of teaching the delight of reading tales well told, and that many parents set a bad example by never reading books themselves. What can or should be done about that is a separate question, and outside the scope of this blog. The delight and benefits of reading, however is a topic that I’d like to pursue further, so I’ll undoubtedly return to the question of why reading fiction is good for you.

    ©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

    Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

    Laughs in the Catholic Blogosphere

    Since this is a blog about things I’m reading, I guess it’s okay from time to time to make reference to other blogs that I read occasionally. (I don’t plan to make a habit of this, however.) One that I enjoy from time-to-time is Fr Dwight Longenecker’s Standing on My Head blog, particularly when he is in satirical mode (which is much of the time). One of his recent entries that got me snorting was an announcement that he will henceforth be linking his blog to the website of his new parish, Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, SC, and including more parish-relevant posts. That much is just straight news, no funny business intended. However, to let his new parishioners get a taste of what they will have to put up with from their new pastor, he includes the following at the end of his discussion of his new parish:

    … The parish has a building project, so the chance to build a new church is an exciting challenge.

    I have already designed a very nice contemporary structure which is circular in form with the altar placed down among the people. The church is patterned after the native American teepee so that it reflects the ‘Circle of Life’. Around the altar will be plenty of space to allow for liturgical dance and behind the altar will be the sacred drum space. I believe in proper inculturation and we will be encouraging the young people to play bongo drums of different sizes during Mass to encourage participation by all the people of God.

    Already some nuns from New Mexico have expressed interest in coming to take over the parish school in order to transform it into a place of genuine earth healing and reconciliation with the maternal powers which are being raped by the military industrial male chauvinist conspiracy. They are called Sisters of the St Hildegard of Bingen who was known to be a herbalist, healer, musician and mystic.

    Episcopal Bishop Mary Cesspool has agreed to be our liturgical advisor and spiritual director.

    Then he rather spoils the fun by adding a postscript to his new parishioners that the last few paragraphs are just satire. Well, you can hardly blame him — in many parishes in the American South (still officially “mission country” because of the paucity of Catholics), such things are not necessarily the stuff of Pythonesque fantasy. In fact, one commenter (“Catholic Tide”) notes:

    Those last 3 paragraphs were brutal! With the exception of “Bishop Mary Cesspool” I think I have seen every single one of these atrocities at one parish or another over the years. Thank you for the satire… sometimes we need to laugh to keep from crying.

    Not everyone appreciates satire, of course — especially those whom it ridicules, at least if they lack a sense of humor and the healthy habit of being self-critical. One such reader (apparently an Episcopalian who resented his oblique reference to the local Episcopal she-bishop) reprimanded him for his “insulting” and “non-sensical” references, and received this reply from another reader, who apparently has a greater appreciation of the purpose and uses of satire:

    Bad Jesus, who makes nasty insults, such as,”Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” I guess those forty days in the desert didn’t do him any good.

    The Gargoyle Code by Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Just for the record, Fr Longenecker is a Catholic priest of the Pastoral Provision (i.e., former Anglican/Episcopal priest) who started as  an Evangelical Christian (Mennonite, I think). He’s a fairly prolific writer (not just a blogger), with a number of books in print, including a recent book that updates C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, called  The Gargoyle Code. I was surprised to learn that his writing career started with writing apologetics for This Rock magazine, a very fine magazine published by Catholic Answers and currently edited by a former classmate of mine from the University of Dallas, Cherie Peacock. This Rock is well worth subscribing to, as I have done when I had a job and an income (and will do again as soon as I am able); if you are cash-poor or just want to get a taste of the magazine, follow the link in the previous sentence and you can read online (or download) archived issues of This Rock (after following the link, click the This Rock pull-down menu and select the desired date of publication).

    Planet Narnia: Tutelary Deities

    Last week when I was writing my previous post about Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, I visited Ward’s website and left a comment on his blog, telling him how much I like his book and inviting him to take a look at what I had said about it on my own blog. A day or two ago I received this reply from him:

    Dear Lisa,

    Thanks for your post on the Planet Narnia blog.  I’m delighted to know you enjoyed reading the book; it was certainly the greatest pleasure to write.
    Thanks also for your post on your own blogsite, which I read and admired.  One thing I would slightly question though is the use of the word ‘red herring’ with respect to Aslan as Christ.  Sure, it’s a red herring insofar as it has led critics to concentrate far too exclusively on Biblical-allegorical readings of the Chronicles.  But Aslan certainly IS a Christ-figure, beautifully so, and the planetary scheme Lewis adopted means that the Christology he is trying to communicate is far more sophisticated than ‘mere’ Biblical allegory of a simple one-to-one kind.
    But that’s a small point.  Generally, I thought what you wrote was excellent, and I found it personally very encouraging.  Thank you!
    With kind regards,
    Michael

    I can see that my use of the term “red herring” was confusing, so I’ve revised the original post to make my meaning a little clearer. I didn’t mean to suggest that readers are mistaken to discern an identification between Aslan and Christ, or that Lewis was misleading readers to make an erroneous connection (that’s the usual meaning of “red herring”). It seems quite clear to me — as I think it will to almost any reader — that, in the first Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW), Lewis deliberately made the parallels between Aslan’s actions and the atoning sacrifice of Christ virtually unmistakable. What I had meant to convey is that this connection was so obvious that it may have distracted critics from discerning or pursuing less obvious (non-Scriptural) allusions.

    medieval engraving of Roman god Jupiter

    For those who have not yet had an opportunity to read Planet Narnia, I’ll explain a little bit about Ward’s thesis. What Ward calls his “Eureka moment” occurred one night when he was struck by a phrase from Lewis’s poem, “The Planets,” which describes the allegorical personae of the planets as they were used poetically throughout the Middle Ages. The phrase that struck him referred to the influence of Jupiter (a.k.a. Jove, the Latin equivalent of Greek Zeus): “winter passed / And guilt forgiven.” Immediately this made him think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which Narnia is caught in an unending winter, until Aslan arrives on the scene and allows himself to be sacrificed by the White Witch, in substitution for Edmund Pevensey, who has betrayed his siblings to the Witch. Ward wondered:

    Could there be a link somehow between poem and Chronicle? That thought was the stray spark connecting Jupiter to The Lion in my mind, and one by one the other planet-to-book relationships began to be lit up in its train. (Planet Narnia, 251)

    That spark lit a blaze which resulted in Planet Narnia, a wonderfully illuminating study of how the medieval allegorical use of the pagan gods influenced the composition Lewis’s Narnia stories (and his other novels, as well).

    Why would Lewis use Roman gods as the inspiration for his wonderful Narnia tales? Well, the short answer is, “Because he was a medievalist and an ardent amateur astronomer.” Here’s a longer answer: Much of the poetry of the Christian Middle Ages — and well through the period of the Renaissance — was modeled on, and influenced by, the norms of pre-Christian Latin poetry, which was considered exemplary (think of how deeply influenced the thoroughly-Christian Dante was by the pagan Latin poet, Vergil). The Greeks and Romans, of course, believed that there were many immortal gods, who had their own distinctive personalities and attributes and who intervened in the human realm and governed the cosmos. Today we still call planets by the names of the gods who governed them: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, etc. One of the borrowings (or, better said, inheritances) from the pagan Graeco-Roman world that had the most pervasive influence on the medieval imagination, poetically and otherwise, was their concept of a cosmos in which everything beyond the orbit of the Moon (Diana’s planet) was eternal and immortal, the realm of the gods.

    medieval conception of the cosmos

    Medieval man, of course, was not a pagan and did not believe in the pagan gods, but he was profoundly influenced by the conceptual model of the universe that he inherited from the ancient pagans. (You can read about this in C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image.) For medieval man, too, the earth was the realm of all that is mortal, material, passing, and fallen, while everything in the heavens was spiritual and immortal, charged with the Divine Presence. Thus it was natural for medieval man to find the ancient pagan gods who had given their names to the heavenly bodies to be transformed into personifications, or allegories, of the one true God who reigns over all Creation. Thus, when a medieval poet wrote about the god Jove (Jupiter), he was really writing about those aspects of God (Christ) that Jove embodies: his kingship and majesty, warmth and festivity, etc. Each of the gods represented by the planets of the night sky, in this Christianized cosmos, reflected different aspects of God’s nature, so that poems about the pagan deities were always really poems about Christ.

    The insight that Michael Ward hit upon was that each of the Narnia books has its own tutelary deity; i.e., each is attuned to the aspects of a particular planetary god, giving that story its own peculiar flavor or atmosphere (what Ward calls its “donegality”). Not only does the planet in question “flavor” the story to reflect its corresponding planet/god, but the way Lewis portrays Aslan in each story also reflects the those particular aspects of Christ that the god in question embodies allegorically. Medieval writers delighted in complex and many-layered allegory, so it should be no surprise that Jack Lewis, medieval scholar and Christian apologist, should choose such a complicated and obscure way to compose his Narnia tales, such that you first have to find the hidden layer of planetary influence and then penetrate beneath it to the Christological meaning, in order to fully appreciate their significance.

    Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia

    Michael Ward, Planet Narnia

    I thought I would mention another book that I read recently, which I like very much. This is Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, by Michael Ward. I won’t spend time describing the book just now — go to the Planet Narnia website and see for yourself — except to say that it is a work of literary criticism that will change Lewis scholarship forever. And about time!

    I found out about this book quite by chance — I was on Graboid (a video downloading service), and trying to find copies of the TV versions of Lewis’s Narnia stories that the BBC produced back in the ’80s. To simplify my search, I just used the keyword “Narnia.” Not only did I find the old television shows (some of them, anyway — I’m still looking for The Silver Chair, and one or two others), but I also hit on a BBC documentary called “The Narnia Code.” This was not a title to inspire confidence; “oh, no,” I thought, “another crackpot theory about what the Narnia novels ‘really’ mean; the BBC will do anything to attract viewers.” But I downloaded it and watched it — without great enthusiasm until Michael Ward started to explain the hermeneutic key he struck on one night that unlocked a whole level of significance in the seven Narnia novels hitherto undetected by Lewis critics.

    When Ward started talking about what his find actually was, I began to get interested. This was the first theory I’d heard that (a) took seriously into account Lewis’s long career as a medievalist, (b) looked at the Narnia stories as an integrated part of L’s overall opus (i.e., showed that he did not, by some weird aberration, suddenly turn to writing “children’s stories”), and (c) answered Tolkien’s famous dismissal of them as an artless hodgpodge of mythic and legendary elements, unworthy of serious attention. Then the documentary began to show some of the major Lewis scholars giving their respectful and enthusiastic imprimaturs on Ward’s theory. Next thing I knew, I was searching the internet for the best price on Ward’s book (after I found that my local university library did not yet have it).

    Once the book arrived from Alibris, I read it section by section at the breakfast table, over the course of several weeks. Before I got through the first chapter, I realized that it was time to re-read the Narnia novels (Lewis always called them “romances,” so I guess I should, too), as well as the three Ransom novels (Lewis’s “space trilogy”). I read them over a month or so, while I was also reading Planet Narnia. Ward’s theory has it that each of the Narnia stories is keyed to one of the major celestial bodies (sun, moon & planets, with the pagan deities they are associated with) in medieval cosmology, so I matched my reading of each of the Narnia stories with the relevant chapter in Ward’s study. I found this worked quite well, reading the Narnia romance first, and then the related chapter. I was also inspired to go back and, finally, finish reading Till We Have Faces (I had begun it once years ago and got distracted before finishing; wow, that was a mistake!).

    I wound up being quite impressed with how thoroughly Ward’s new theory illuminates many aspects of these stories and shows them to be not an aberration amid Lewis’s other published work, but rather inspired from the very wellsprings of his deepest interests and preoccupations. Although I have not read any of Lewis’s poetry (Ward’s reading of his poems was what inspired this theory), I am familiar with his Christian apologetics and, to a certain extent, the more popular works touching on his scholarship (An Experiment in Criticism and The Discarded Image — which I now want to re-read). Now I would really love to read more of his literary criticism, particularly his preface to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

    I can see that one of the reasons, probably, why critics have hitherto failed to see the influence of Lewis’s expertise in late medieval and renaissance literature on the Narnia stories is that they have been distracted by the obvious association of Aslan with Christ in the first Narnia story (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), which although clearly intended by Lewis, has served almost as a red herring. Since the Aslan portion of LWW seems to be a kind of allegory or parable of the Salvation Story, this obvious parallel has influenced far too many critics to try to find all sorts of other connections with Biblical narratives and analogues, and to overlook other allusions that are not explicitly Christian. Of course, one other reason the connection between Narnia and the medieval cosmos has remained unnoticed is that Lewis always intended it to be so — at least, that’s what Michael Ward argues, and I think he is right.

    Ho-ho, any readers out there — yes, this is meant to be a teaser. If you’re a Narnia lover and want to uncover hidden depths in those beloved stories, go to Ward’s Planet Narnia web site and learn more about his theory. And if the words “literary criticism” make your eyes glaze over, fear not: this is not academic gobbledygook that ordinary mortals would choke on. In fact, although Ward came up with his theory while he was working on a doctoral dissertation, his degree is not in literary studies but theology (he is an Anglican priest; one of the Lewis scholars he quotes several times is Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury). So those of you who love Lewis’s work for its Christian elements should not despair to learn that the Narnia novels are inspired by the pagan gods who inhabited the planets of the medieval cosmos — those gods themselves were, in the Middle Ages, allegories of divine attributes of the Christian God, and Ward does a fine job of showing how the various layers of significance interplay.

    I’ll have more to say about Planet Narnia later. I will just add now that one of the reasons (a rather unexpected one) that I’m interested in Ward’s study, is that he found himself faced with a task similar to one I had in my own doctoral dissertation. Although our subjects were quite different (I wrote on Chrétien de Troyes’ twelfth century French Arthurian romance, The Story of the Grail), I saw some marked similarities in what I will call the critical and rhetorical tasks we faced. So while I was reading Planet Narnia, in addition to appreciating the content of Ward’s argument, I was watching how he structured that argument, defined his terms, built his case, overcame likely objections, etc., and taking note of ideas that occurred to me regarding structural changes I might make when I get around to revising my dissertation for publication (which I definitely want to do). I’ll probably have more to say about that, too, but that will be another day.