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One of the real charms of the imaginative literature of the Inklings is that their works come in such well-numbered series: There are three volumes in The Lord Of The Rings, but if you add The Silmarillion, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, The Hobbit, Smith Of Wooten Major, Farmer Giles Of Ham, and Leaf By Niggle, and if you reduce the trilogy to a single work, you get a seven-fold opera. There are three books in the Ransom series; Out Of The Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, and seven Narnia books. Charles Williams’ metaphysical thrillers number, conveniently, seven, although I wish he hadn’t written Shadows Of Ecstasy. Until We Have Faces and the Taliessin poetry of Charles Williams don’t fit this tidy Trinitarian/Zacarian scheme, but they shouldn’t be overlooked because of that oversight.I have my favorite moments from these works, and in Letterman fashion, I’d like to count them backwards.
10) The Progress of the Suicide, from Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell.
There is a lot to complain about in Williams’ literary style, but when it comes to depicting supernatural, sub-natural, or post-natural modes of existence, he has no peer. In Descent Into Hell, an unloved workman commits suicide to escape from the torment of life. He awakens in a silent universe illuminated by a furious moon that will not allow him to escape into himself. He conceives the idea that he needs to go to London. The purgatorial landscape he crosses, and the unexpected help he encounters on the way remain the most vivid depiction of the spiritual geography of the Afterlife I have ever encountered in literature.
9) Bilbo Surrenders The Arkenstone from JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit.
This plot device took me entirely by surprise, and prepare me for the centrality and necessity of hobbits in The Lord Of The Rings. Now, The Lord Of The Rings is a very mannish book, by hobbit standards, but any race that could prize peace between those who should by rights be friends and allies over wealth and comfort would be the only race that could ever be entrusted to carry the One Ring to its destruction. Men could be ensnared by power, Elves by beauty, and Dwarves by Craft (that wonderful old Germanic word!), but how do you corrupt a race that values above all things, “peace and quiet, and good tilled earth”?
8 ) The Descent Of The Gods Upon St. Anne’s from CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength.
Actually, That Hideous Strength is my least favorite among Lewis’ imaginative works. Lewis is a good preacher, and a great storyteller, but he doesn’t mix the two voices as well as Bunyan or Langland. In That Hideous Strength, he is covering the same ground as he does in Abolition Of Man, and there are places in the narrative where Lewis is trying so hard to be Williams, and places where is trying so hard to be Tolkien, and there are even traces of Barfield in the mix. I prefer Lewis when he is being truer to his own Muse, as in The Horse And His Boy, or Till We Have Faces. Nevertheless, I had the extreme felicity of having put a copy of Gustav Holst’s The Planets on the stereo before settling into my easy chair to the chapter where Ransom is inviting the Oyéresu, the planetary geniuses of Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn, into the body of Merlin. The music blended so powerfully with Lewis’ language that I slowed practically to a crawl for the full effect. It was, as may well be expected, a peak experience.
7) Anthony’s Vision Of The Griffin/Eagle in Charles Williams, The Place of The Lion.
I had a hard time deciding between this and the vision of the butterflies earlier in this same novel. The butterfly scene is more charming, and more accessible. But Anthony’s vision of the Eagle, the platonic Form of Perception and Discernment, is central to understanding Anthony’s character and the whole dynamic of the novel. Only by means of the Eagle is Anthony able to assimilate the other Archtypes and sew up the rupture between the world of the Ideals and their playground of the quotidian world, where all the other characters wander about in their deadly delusions.It is a scene that I needed to read several times before the grandeur of what Williams was trying to say began to emerge from his difficult language. Williams is not a visual writer as is Lewis or Tolkien. When it did, it was as breathtaking as Plato’s original parable of the Cave; I saw gods arising out of the Earth, and, like the sibyl of Endor, I cried aloud.
Mention should be made of the Eucharistic unicorn of the twelfth chapter. Nowhere else in all his writings does Williams show any sectarianism I have been able to discern, save here alone, yet the effect is graciously ecumenical and heartwarming.
6) Random’s Landing Upon The Floating Islands and His Encounter With The Lady Of Venus from CS Lewis, Perelandra.
For such a sensuous book, Perelandra has inspired surprisingly little visual art. Most of what has been produced concentrates on the image of the Green Lady, although nobody in sad Thulcandra will ever depict her unfallen eros. There is a privately commissioned icon of St. Brigid of Kildare in my church that comes close. It partakes of the same spirit of Lewis’ description of the Lady of Venus. Perelandra was a crucial book for me because it convinced me of the basic materiality of Christianity and of the basic goodness of matter. Lewis’ descriptions of the sights, sounds, and tastes of that unfallen world worked on me like a tonic. I may not have realized it in high school, when I first picked up this book, but the material world can be nothing other than sacrament if we can but cleanse our perceptions aright.Som,e years ago, when I still attended a church in the Reformed tradition, there occured a discussion about how to reach the “unchurched”. I don’t remember now what action the board of elders decided to take, but a wise friend of mine offered this advice to me privately:
They should throw a party, a harvest party. Let the maidens weave vines in their hair and serve steaming cider on the first real cold moonlit night of the year. Let the young men compete in contests of strength and fleetness. Let the good dames of the church load the tables until they groan. At the end, invite all and sundry to a Divine service giving proper thanks to God who so liberally supplies all things for our enjoyment.
God, I miss Christendom.
5) Beren Happens Upon Luthien Tinuviel Dancing In The Starlight from JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion
I don’t think there can be any doubt that we are closest here to the heart of Tolkien’s Legendarium. If any man ever poured out love onto paper and page, Tolkien does so at just this point in his narrative. Tolkien prized three earthly things above all else; starlight, trees, and his wife Edith. All three are masterfully commingled in the Lay of Luthien, and all three – starlight, trees, and married love, are under siege today.
Light pollution keeps most of us from seeing the heavens that declare the glory of God. Having spent most of my adult life in Florida, I can say that I have never seen the stars the way Ptolemy, Johannes Kepler, or even Fred Hoyle must have seen them. As a boy, I was led out into a field on a midnight hike with the Boy Scouts. There, we were shown the principal stars with their fascinating names; Betelgeuse, Antares, Spica, Vega, and how to find them using the Pole Star, Polaris, as our center of reference. I can still find Polaris, with difficulty, but my night sky is illumined now by billboards and neon, and I am much the poorer for it.
I never learned any of the names of trees growing up. Our family was four generations off the farm, and we now paid people to know about trees for us. I do remember that in my early boyhood (even before the Boy Scout hike), the majestic elms that were the trademark of the local college were dying of a fungus infestation. By the next summer, they were dead and needed to be uprooted. Tolkien’s love of trees and his unsuccessful defense of them against various development projects is well documented.
I never knew that Edith Tolkien was three years and change older than “Ronald”, nor that she converted to Catholicism at his insistence and against the wishes of her family. That helps to explain some of the “unapproachableness” of Thingol Greycloak’s daughter in the narrative. Tolkien was intimidated by the older and more accomplished Edith, and was instructed by his clerical guardian not to pay court to her until his 21st birthday. On the midnight of that day, he proposed to her and was rebuffed. He persisted though and was finally victorious. The union was a happy one, and a fertile, producing four children.
The four words “sex”, “marriage”, “babies” and “without” create a perfectly infernal matrix in which web we are as trapped as any hapless fly. Try it: Sex without Marriage, Marriage without Sex, Sex without Babies, Babies without Sex, Marriage Without Babies, Babies without Marriage.
Anyone care to call me out on this?
4) Digory And Polly In Charn from CS Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew – The passage of Digory and Polly through the royal chamber of Charn displays for me what is Lewis’ principal charm; his ability to put into simple, everyday language the effects of sin and virtue on the human person:
Both the men and women looked kind and wise, and they seemed to come of a handsome race. But after the children had gone a few steps down the room they came to face that looked a little different. These were very solemn faces. You felt as if you would have to mind your Ps and Qs, if you ever met living people like that. When they had gone a little further, they found themselves among faces they didn’t like: this was about the middle of the room. The faces here looked very strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel. A little further on they looked crueller. Further on again, they were still cruel, but they no longer looked happy. They were even despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and had suffered dreadful things.
And there you have all the story of our glorious and tragic Humankind –
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow -
Nothing we ever do turns out right. There is always the Law of Unintended Consequences, whose iron rigor penetrates all our endeavors, be they the democratization of the Middle East, the redefinition of marriage (homosexual marriage is the caboose on this train, not the engine), or the establishment by legislation of “family values”. The primordial image of this is the Tower of Babel. It reaches for Heaven, but ends in rubble and division. Logres devolves into Britain, the Dawn of the Proletariat into the Gulag Archipelago, Woodstock Nation into the horrors of Altamont and the Tate-Manson murders.
Still – You have to wonder whether or not Lewis didn’t have a problematic attraction to the “bad girl”. Joy Davidson definitely appealed to this part of him. This happens to a lot of good men, especially spiritual men. Lewis himself commented on the Celestial and the Infernal Venus, and Queen Jadis of Charn is easily the sexiest in the whole Inklings canon, including the lusty Redival from Till We Have Faces.
3)The Repentance Of Lester Furnival from Charles Williams, All Hallow’s Eve. All of Williams’ best characters are either mad or dead. Lester Furnival (what a splendid amalgam of “carnival” and “funeral”) is dead and only gradually does she awaken to that fact. But Williams’ Afterlife is not, thank God, Tim Burton’s snarky Afterlife. It seems not much changes, but events no longer are connected by temporality, but by another principle altogether, a principle that can be called, loosely, sympathy.
The path of Lester’s salvation looms before her in the person of a schoolchum that she had previously treated shabbily, and in the person of her husband, Richard, whose love she had taken for granted. In the realm in which she find herself now, these sins of omission loom enormous, and worse, are being used by an evil sorcerer as a breach by which he can enter the atemporal realm, affect the future, and precipitate the Apocalypse. Lester needs to ask forgiveness of her schoolmate, and just as importantly, receive it. Then she needs to assure her grieving husband that she did appreciate his love. In doing just these simple things, she thwarts cosmic evil and knits the Earthly City to the Heavenly
The first few times reading Williams’ fiction, I was surprised at the great weight he placed upon what would to anyone else appear to be very small courtesies and the exchange of social conventions. Three decades of contemplation, I believe, had led me to believe that the answer lies in Williams’ peculiar doctrine of coinherence. I want to discuss coinherence more rigorously in later posts, but right it will suffice to say that coinherence is an extension to human life of the con-substantiality of the Holy Trinity, how the Blessed Three can simultaneously exist, and be adored, as One and as Many.
2) The Dawn Treader‘s Approach, and Reepicheep’s Departure, To Aslan’s Country from CS Lewis, Voyage Of The Dawn Treader
I think there are a lot of people for whom Reepicheep, the courtly Lord of the Talking Mice of Narnia, is a favorite character in the series. Certainly, he is a throughback to an earlier time, when Honor and Chevalrie mattered. Despite his obvious authority, Reepicheep is no tyrant. He understands that there is greater glory of to a king by being the free Lord of a free people than by being the master of slaves.
The approach of the Dawn Treader to Aslan’s Country, in increasing power and light, reminds me of two things; the first is the passage of Bunyan’s Pilgrims through Beulah Land on the very outskirts of the Celestial City:
Now I saw in my dream, that by this time the pilgrims were got over the Enchanted Ground, and entering into the country of Beulah, whose air was very sweet and pleasant, the way lying directly through it, they solaced themselves there for a season.
Yea, here they heard continually the singing of birds, and saw every day the flowers appear in the earth, and heard the voice of the turtle in the land. In this country the sun shineth night and day: wherefore this was beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and also out of the reach of Giant Despair; neither could they from this place so much as see Doubting Castle. Here they were within sight of the city they were going to; also here met them some of the inhabitants thereof; for in
this land the shining ones commonly walked, because it was upon the borders of heaven.
The second is the Seraphic hymn sung in every Orthodox Divine Liturgy at the termination of the Liturgy of the Word and the commencement of the Liturgy of the Mysteries.
Οἱ τὰ Χερουβεὶμ μυστικῶς εἰκονίζοντες, καὶ τῇ ζωοποιῷ Τριάδι τὸν τρισάγιον ὕμνον προσᾴδοντες, πᾶσαν τὴν βιοτικὴν ἀποθώμεθα μέριμναν, ὡς τὸν Βασιλέα τῶν ὅλων ὑποδεξόμενοι, ταῖς ἀγγελικαῖς ἀοράτως δορυφορούμενον τάξεσιν. Ἀλληλούϊα.
“We, who mystically represent the Cherubim, sing the thrice holy hymn to the life giving Trinity. Let us set aside all the cares of life that we may receive the King of all, Who comes invisibly escorted by the angelic hosts.”
There are those among us who seem always to dwell in Beulah Land, in the suburbs of heaven. I seldom meet these people these days. The last was an old-school Pentecostal preacher-woman in her 90s. But the language of the Liturgy reminds us that there is passage into Aslan’s country every week. Most of us, like the other sailors on the Dawn Treader have to return to the difficulties and cares of the “biotikan merimnan”.
But, like Reepicheep, we don’t have to.
1) Frodo And Sam At The Cracks Of Doom from JRR Tolkien, The Return Of The King
Her is the recapitulation of all things Inkling; the triumph of the lowly and merciful over the arrogant pitilessness of power, the fatal inability of egotism to discern the motivations of sacrificial love, and the intervention of Providence when all the best intentioned plans of Men, Wizards, Elves, and Hobbits fail.
True good wins a substantial victory over true evil, and although the Shadow, though submerged, always takes new form and reemerges, the Days of the King may soon be upon us.
May they last while the thrones of the Powers endure.