Posts Tagged ‘C. S. Lewis’

MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin

June 5, 2016

The Princess and the Goblin
George MacDonald
(Everyman’s Children’s Classics, 1993) [1871]
340 p.

Our oldest children are now 4 and 7, and for some time I’ve been looking for a way to transition our bedtime reading from picture books to novels. With The Princess and the Goblin I think we might have finally managed it. The kids loved it.

The story is about a princess who lives in a mountainside castle, where the local peasantry are miners, digging tunnels deep into the mountain. Yet there is more activity under the hill than you might expect: long ago a group of disaffected subjects retreated under the mountain, and have nursed a hatred for the royal family for many generations. These goblins — for so they have become, hidden away from the sun and the fresh breezes — are also miners, and it is almost inevitable that at some point their tunnels will encounter those of the kinprincess-grandmotherg’s loyal subjects, and the ancient malice against the royal house break into the open…

This book was a favourite of C.S. Lewis, who was a great admirer of MacDonald. And G.K. Chesterton accounted it one of the books most formative of his whole outlook on life:

But in a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I ever read … it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald…

It really is a beautiful book, informed by courage and faith. On one level it is a rousing adventure story, of secret missions and clashing armies, but it has a mysterious register as well, a spiritual aura of goodness that emanates from Princess Irene’s great-great-grandmother, who lives, under enigmatic conditions, in the little-frequented upper passages of the castle.

I do not know much about MacDonald’s theology, but for me the “great, huge grandmother” is redolent of the Blessed Virgin: a loving, maternal figure, clad in blue, surrounded by stars, and possessed of a rare grace and quiet power. She makes an effective contrast with the horrid goblins who dwell under the ground.

MacDonald wrote a sequel to this book, called The Princess and Curdie, which does not seem to be as widely read. But we enjoyed this one so much that we may try it.

Lecture night: Educating the heart

May 17, 2016

My favourite pastime on YouTube is to watch news anchors making mistakes, but my second favourite is to listen to lectures. There are many excellent lectures posted from all manner of venues. I could listen to something interesting nearly every night, if I had the leisure. It occurs to me that I might post some of the more interesting of these lectures here.

For today, here is a lecture by Fr Andrew Cuneo, an Orthodox priest, broadly on the topic of education, and broadly based on C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Fr Cuneo is the first Oxford graduate to have done his doctoral degree on C.S. Lewis, so he knows his subject, but he wears his learning lightly. It’s a very thoughtful lecture.

Incidentally, I rarely sit and actually watch these lectures; I listen to them while I commute to and from work. (I usually use a simple tool to reduce the videos to audio only.)

Barfield: Saving the Appearances

March 3, 2016

Saving the Appearances
A Study in Idolatry
Owen Barfield
(Harcourt Brace, 1957)
190 p.

I forget exactly how it came about that I added Saving the Appearances to my reading list some years ago. I expect that it may have been under the influence of C.S. Lewis, who knew Barfield well and once called him “the best and wisest of my unofficial teachers”. One of the more memorable sections of Lewis’ wonderful book The Discarded Image appears to have been inspired directly by the present book, so perhaps that was the connection that brought me here.

Saving the Appearances is a book that digs down to bedrock, and then keeps digging. Things you may think of as basic and uncontroversial are interrogated and made doubtful. As he says, “a great deal of the complexity of my argument is due to the deep-seated error, with its consequently innumerable ramifications, which that argument has sought to unravel”. It’s a rather difficult book in that respect, full of unfamiliar ideas — unfamiliar to me, at least. One of the many questions I have about the book is whether the ideas he presents, and the language in which he presents them, are original with him or are part of a larger conversation that I’ve not been aware of until now. Sprinkled through the text are references to anthropologists like Durkheim and Levy-Bruhl, so perhaps his jargon and his approach is borrowed, at least in part, from them.

Roughly speaking, the book is an examination of how modern Westerners experience the world, and how that mode of experience differs from that prevalent in other cultures and earlier periods in our own culture. And by “experience” I mean something very basic: the very way in which we perceive things, prior to any conscious or reflective engagement with them. It is a book about philosophy of perception, philosophy of nature, epistemology, culture, history, and religion. It covers a lot of ground in a short space, and raises more questions than it answers.

Barfield begins by defining a few terms on which he relies throughout, and I cannot see how to summarize his argument without first doing the same.

One basic idea is that of a “representation”, which he variously defines as “something I perceive”, or “something experienced”. It is not the thing itself (which he calls, by contrast, “the unrepresented”), but a mental construction which, generally below the level of consciousness, folds in sensory data, beliefs, memories, imagination, and feeling. We do not perceive with our senses alone, but with our whole being. As we mature we quite naturally compare our private representations with those of others, and adjust them accordingly. The result is a set of “collective representations”, which are cultural in scope, and which reflect those aspects of things which a particular culture thinks worthy of attention. Collective representations affect our most basic apprehension of the world; they are the phenomena we experience. For Barfield, the world as we experience it is a system of collective representations.

A second key idea is what he calls “participation”. It is more difficult to grasp, for reasons that will become clear shortly, but it means something like this: the activity of the mind whereby things are experienced as full of meaning, charged with a significance that is at once natural and also personal. A participating consciousness experiences an object not simply as an inert thing, but as a kind of window into another or deeper reality, a reality within which a being like us faces back toward us, as in a mirror. Again, participation is not, at this point, to be thought of as a self-conscious or reflective process, but as an immediate one. In participation, there is a general “entanglement of subject and object, of psychology and natural history, of divine and human, of word and thing.”

It might also seem a strange idea, but he, citing the work of anthropologists, argues that in fact it is the near-universal mode of consciousness for humanity. Consider, as a case in point, medieval Europe. Their sensory experiences were the same as ours, naturally, but their collective representations were different, and their consciousness was participatory. They thought it natural that literal and symbolic significance be conjoined in things. Barfield argues that they not only attributed symbolic meaning to things, but actually experienced things as having symbolic resonances. To them this was not, as it seems to us, a superfluous patina on top of raw experience; it was raw. For a medieval person, “the ordinary way of looking at, and of thinking about, phenomena, was to look at and to think about them as appearances — representations. For which, therefore, knowledge was defined, not as the devising of hypotheses, but as an act of union with the represented behind the representation.” Reading this, anyone with experience of medieval Scriptural exegesis or medieval epistemology is going to feel the hair on his arms standing up, because this is exactly right. And since participation involves one in a personal encounter with significance-laden phenomena, it naturally informed and influenced their religious experience. “For medieval man, then, the world was a sort of theophany, in which he participated at different levels, in being, in thinking, in speaking or naming, and in knowing.”

(It as at this point that Barfield makes the suggestion that the reader might walk out at night and make the imaginative effort to put oneself in the mindset of a medieval person looking at the starry sky, a suggestion followed up and realized so memorably by C.S. Lewis in The Discarded Image.)

On the other hand, our culture — and by this I mean Western modernity — is distinctive, and perhaps unique, in this respect: we are generally not aware that our representations are representations. We do not think that we participate in phenomena; to us the things we encounter in the world are independent of us, and intrinsically meaningless. They are “facts”. Such representations, which are not experienced as such, Barfield calls idols. The term is potentially misleading, as we’ll see in a moment, but what is gained by its use is the resonance with “false idol”, because for him the most important feature of our presumed-to-be-just-there representations is that they are false.

I think Barfield is right that we do take the phenomena of our experience in this way, at least most of the time. But if that is so, why is it so? If we are different from other cultures in this respect, how did we come to be different?

Barfield argues that there have been two historical movements that have undone the psychology of participation, and we have been influenced by both. The first is the one that comes immediately to mind: the scientific revolution. The scientific revolution was a movement from an awareness of the meaning of phenomena to a preoccupation with the phenomena themselves. Its architects aimed to abstract those aspects of the natural world that could be treated mathematically, and were therefore “objective”. All else receded into the mind and the realm of the “subjective”. And, as Burtt argued so convincingly in his history of early modern science, what began as a methodological tactic soon became confused with an ontological judgement. To wit: only the mathematical structure of things is truly real. Since purposes (final causes) and essences (formal causes) could not be mathematized, they were judged not objective. On such a view, the objects we experience “out there” in the world must be independent of us; they are defined that way. Were we to attribute meaning of any kind to them, we would be making a blunder. In such a world a participating consciousness is throttled.

But there has also been a second cultural stream tending against participation: Judaism. Barfield explains:

The children of Israel became a nation and began their history in the moment when Moses, in the very heart of the ancient Egyptian civilization, delivered to them those ten commandments, which include the unheard-of injunction: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” This is perhaps the unlikeliest thing that ever happened. As far as we know, in every other nation at that time there prevailed unquestioned the participating consciousness which apprehends the phenomena as representations and naturally expresses itself in making images.

For Israel, the natural world is not God, nor are the names of things names of God. The “entanglement of subject and object” which is the mark of participation meets an obstacle. Rather, the natural world was created by God as something independent of and distinct from Him, and it lacks the quality of personal disclosure that is perceived by a participatory mind. The many injunctions against idol worship in the Hebrew Scriptures take on fresh significance in this light: for Israel’s neighbours, idols were not merely objects, but entities charged with meaning, for such they naturally appear to a participating consciousness. But the Psalmist insists, over and over again, that idols have no “within”; they are merely things, dead in themselves, with eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear. Such phrases were not empty rhetoric; they were aptly phrased assaults on a prevailing temptation.

Now, there are certain advantages to idolatry (in Barfield’s sense). There is no doubt that the methods and abstractions characteristic of our scientific age have given us an unprecedented ability to manipulate nature for our own ends, and we have all benefited in many ways from that ability. The modern attitude to nature has also opened up a new way of relating to it emotionally, a way in which her difference from us is part of the attraction. Think of a naturalist’s selfless and attentive love for the natural world. But we have lost something as well, not least a sense of continuity with our ancestors. Take again the case of Scriptural interpretation, a practice which straddles the historical divide between the ancient world and ours. For a non-participating consciousness like ours, a text is either an historical record or a symbolic representation, but not both. For earlier readers in our tradition it could be both. In fact, the traditional account of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments assumed a participating consciousness, so much so that Barfield concludes that “in one most real sense, the Old Testament was lost with the Reformation”.

Barfield perceived a kind of revival of participation in the early twentieth-century. Not that it was entirely dead prior to that, of course. He points to Blake and Goethe as major figures who had very strong instincts toward participation, and such instincts set them very much at odds with their times. But he caught the scent of participation — an appreciation that things can bear intrinsic symbolic content — especially from Freud and Jung, and he thought this significant because their ideas caught on widely on a cultural level in very short order. Granted, even they made only partial steps: for Freud, symbolism was still always in the mind alone, without a real connection to the outside world; Jung, with his ideas about the collective unconscious, went further but not all the way. And, in any case, I think it is fair to say that the Freudian and Jungian moment has passed, leaving little more than a residue. Is participation deader than ever?

Well, maybe not. At the end of the book Barfield raises the prospect of something he calls “final participation”. The idea seems to be that here, on the far side of idolatry, a new kind of participation becomes possible based precisely on a conscious awareness that phenomena are representations. In final participation the percipient knows that he is involved in creating representations, and his imagination enters into the process directly. How this can elude the veto cast by the non-participating mind is hard to understand: isn’t this exactly the “gloss” that the parsimonious literalist objects to? But Barfield contends that either we will find a way to final participation or proceed further and further into idolatry and the elimination of participation, but elimination of participation is the elimination of meaning and coherence from the cosmos.

In his final pages he turns to consider the sacramental system of Christianity, one of the very few contexts in the modern world where things retain a sense of the “within”, of being more than just themselves, that is characteristic of participation. “The tender shoot of final participation,” he writes, “has from the first been acknowledged and protected by the Church in the institution of the Eucharist… In the physical act of communion as such, men can only take the Divine substance, the ‘Name apart’ directly into the unconscious part of themselves”. If true, the sacraments are thereby one of the keys to the recovery of meaning and the return of an enchanted world.


As I said at the outset, the book raises more questions than it answers. Foremost among them in my mind is a doubt about the meaning of “participation”, which is obviously central to the whole book. I suppose he would say that it is natural for one raised in a non-participatory culture to have trouble with the concept, especially since it is, properly speaking, not a concept at all. Still, I’d have benefited more from the book if it had spelled things out more clearly on this critical point.

Lying beneath this complaint is another set of questions about the metaphysics of “representations”. The usual philosophical bifurcation is between realism and nominalism; in the former, things have real, particular natures independent of human minds and knowledge consists in knowing those natures, and in the latter our categories of thought are mere conventions without any real corresponding structure in the nature of things. The notion of representations seems most consistent with nominalism: on the one side is “the unrepresented”, atoms and the void, which we can never know in itself, and in which there is nothing to know, and on the other side is phenomena, consisting of mental constructions folding together sensory inputs and a variety of mental resources and ingrained habits. Yet at the same time Barfield seems to be taking the position that it is through participation that we know the world most fully and truly, and that idolatry, our besetting sin, alienates us from truth. I worry that he concedes too much to the metaphysics of the materialists when he characterizes “the unrepresented” as merely atoms and the void.

Another question arises from his account of how idolatry triumphed over a participating consciousness in the West. He attributed the victory to the combined efforts of two forces: Judaism and the scientific revolution. Yet we know, from his own arguments, that medieval Europe had a participating consciousness, so it would seem that the scientific revolution was the decisive factor, and that Judaism, despite its influence on Christianity, had little to do with it. And this makes a certain amount of sense, because insofar as participation is naturally expressed through the making of images and the death of participation is accomplished by a prohibition on the making of images, the very fact that in Christianity the prohibition on images was relaxed points to a relaxation of the assault on participation. The same comment can be made about sacramental theology, which seems positively to encourage a participatory consciousness. The possibility remains that Judaism condemned a certain kind of participation (as expressed through the making of idols) but that Christianity permitted another kind. Indeed, Barfield’s closing remarks about the Eucharist, cited above, connect the sacraments to “final participation”, which one only arrives at after having gone through the long dark.

But why does he see in the sacraments a “tender shoot” of final participation, and not a hangover from original participation? After all, the sacraments pre-date the scientific revolution.

I’ve gone on long enough. There is an odd, but interesting and stimulating book.


Make room for Jack.

November 18, 2013

This Friday will be the 50th anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death. I’ve just learned that on that day a memorial plaque bearing his name will be installed in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. This is obviously a great honour for any English author — and for an Irish one too. More.


November 15, 2013

C.S. Lewis writing about the Middle English word ‘solempne’:

This means something different, but not quite different, from modern English solemn. Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a ‘solemnity’. The feast at the beginning of Gawain and the Green Knight is very much of a solemnity. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious Gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempne is the festal, which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for pomp – and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of ‘solemnity’. To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in.

Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a wide-spread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast – all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual.

— A Preface to Paradise Lost.

Around and about: video edition

November 10, 2010

Time has been short of late, but here are some interesting things I’ve come across:

  • Another volume in Dylan’s Bootleg Series was released late in October.  This one, Volume 9: The Witmark Demos, is a 2-disc set of early recordings. Some of the 47 songs are familiar from Dylan’s early records, though they are given here in different versions, and a fair number were previously heard, also in slightly different versions, on the Bootleg Series, Volume 1. Even so, this is a wonderful collection. Dylan was in his early 20s when he wrote the songs, and we can hear him trying his hand at the various genres of American roots music. Not all of the songs are of the highest quality, but many are very good, and that voice.
  • Speaking of Dylan, the bad boys at Korrektiv have dug up a project from a few years back called Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan, in which gospel music luminaries tackled Dylan’s overtly Christian songs.  It sounds terrific. 
  • Speaking of gospel, I have been listening a lot lately to Mavis Staples’ recent record You Are Not Alone, and I am loving it. Here is the title track in a spare arrangement.  Jeff Tweedy is on guitar, but it’s the voice and the song that are the real attractions: 
  • Speaking of attractions, the teenaged girls of the world and I were anticipating Taylor Swift’s latest record, which dropped a week or two ago, and has since sold gazillions of copies. There’s nothing on it quite as beguiling as “Love Story”, but it’s a good record that, on balance, I think I like better than its predecessors. The critics, too, have generally seen fit to praise rather than pan.
  • Speaking of pan, I came across an interesting panel discussion on the theme “The Imagination of C.S. Lewis”. The participants are Douglas Wilson (who recently co-published a book with Christopher Hitchens), N.D. Wilson (who is currently writing a screenplay for The Great Divorce), and Alan Jacobs (author of The Narnian). It’s a wide-ranging conversation, touching on Narnia, the Space Trilogy, Planet Narnia, the film adaptations, Tolkien, and other topics, from people who know what they’re talking about. I found it worth my time. [Unembeddable, but viewable here.]
  • Speaking of Narnian film adaptations, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader will be released in just a few weeks. This will be the first film in the series not directed by Andrew Adamson, so there are perhaps some grounds for hope that it will capture the Narnian magic better than its predecessors did. We’ll see.
  • Speaking of magic, David Bentley Hart, who surprised me some months ago by recommending a book called The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, follows up with a short philosophical essay inspired by garden fairies.

Ward: Planet Narnia

September 7, 2010

Planet Narnia
The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis
Michael Ward (Oxford, 2008)
360 p.  First reading.

Michael Ward made a big splash in the world of Narnian scholarship a few years ago with this study of the Chronicles.  His central claim is that he has uncovered the structural plan according to which the seven books were made.  Each book, he argues, is governed by, presided over, by one of the seven planetary deities of the medieval cosmos: Sol, Luna, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.  The characteristics of each planet influence the plot, the ornamental detail, and the atmosphere and mood of each book.

At first it seems a startling idea, but after a little reflection it becomes intriguing. The books do have very different atmospheres: The Silver Chair is wet and cloudy, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is sunny and bright, The Last Battle is crabbed and dark, etc.  Furthermore, Lewis was a medievalist, and anyone who has read his fascinating study The Discarded Image knows that he had a great admiration for the medieval heavens, and knew the natures of the various planetary intelligences in close detail.  He called the planetary gods “spiritual symbols of permanent value”.  Certain odd features of some of the books, which have been often criticized (such as the sudden appearance of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), suddenly seem rather fitting when viewed in this way (for, to continue the example, that book’s presiding spirit is Jupiter, and is there a more jovial figure than Father Christmas?).

Once the idea is suggested, then, it has a certain plausibility about it.  To make the case really convincing requires looking at the Chronicles in careful detail, and Ward does so.  In fact, he seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything Lewis ever wrote, and he marshals it all in support of his thesis.  The most relevant books are (of course) the Chronicles themselves, followed by the Space Trilogy (especially That Hideous Strength) and The Discarded Image, but he also brings in his letters, essays, studies of medieval literature, Christian apologetics, and other works of fiction.  If you are an admirer of Lewis, the cumulative argument is a rare feast.

At the end of the argument, Ward makes the provoking claim that his theory illuminates the books to such an extent that “the burden of proof now rests with those who would dispute it”, and I admit that I am persuaded to agree with him.  First of all, I like the idea of the books having a secret plan, and, based on what I know of Lewis, I find it easy to believe that he would relish the artful concealment of his guiding vision.  Second, he really did love the medieval cosmos, and he must have thought himself a lonely lover at times; that he could pay private homage to the planets in this way must have seemed appealing.  Third (and perhaps I should have said this first), the theory really does fit the literary evidence: when once the character of each planet is explained, it becomes a fairly simple matter to match the books up, one with the other.

At the close of his central argument, Ward advances, more cautiously, a theory about the occasion for Lewis’ decision to begin writing the Chronicles.  The first of them was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and he began it shortly after the famous Oxford debate with Elisabeth Anscombe — famous because it was one of the few occasions in his life when he was soundly bested in debate, and he knew it.  Anscombe had criticized an argument Lewis put forth in the first version of his book Miracles about the nature of rationality.  Some commentators, noting that after this rather humiliating defeat Lewis turned to children’s literature, have interpreted the Chronicles as a kind of retreat into immaturity.  Ward disagrees completely.  Instead, he argues that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is an attempt to present in fictional form his thoughts about the nature of rationality.  Jove, the kingly god, is the source of reason and order, and the book’s characters live and move in the light he sheds upon the world.  In other words, it is an attempt to go deeper into the issues that Anscombe had brought up, not to flee from them.  This is an intriguing proposal, but I agree with Ward that it is less compelling than his principal claim.

All in all, this is probably the most fascinating book that I have read about C.S. Lewis.  I am persuaded by the arguments, and I feel that my understanding of and admiration for the Chronicles, and for Lewis himself, have increased considerably.


This interview with Michael Ward lays out the argument concisely.  It does rather spoil things, though, if you’d like to try to guess the planet-chronicle mapping yourself.

Lewis: The Discarded Image

August 29, 2010
I wrote this back in 2006, before All Manner of Thing started, but I am posting it today because it relates to a book I hope to write about in the next week or two: Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia.


The Discarded Image
An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature

C.S. Lewis (Cambridge, 1964)
251 pp.  First reading.

C.S. Lewis is today known mostly for his much admired works of fiction and of Christian apologetics, but by profession he was a teacher of medieval and renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and he wrote a number of academic books on those subjects.  His Preface to Paradise Lost and The Allegory of Love are perhaps the best known of these, but I also have on my shelf a rare copy of the big volume he contributed to the Oxford History of English Literature, which bears the endearing title English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama.  These works about literature, like all his books, are accessible to non-specialists, and are written with great wit and grace.

The Discarded Image, the last book he completed before his death, is another of his professional works.  Though billed as a general introduction to literature of the period, the focus is in fact narrower: it is a study of the relationship between the literature and science of the medieval period.  More precisely, it is a generous, and fascinating, introduction to the medieval model of the universe — what Lewis simply calls “the Model” — and the ways in which it was influenced by, and in turn exerted influence on, imaginative literature.

This theme might seem marginal and esoteric — hardly enough to justify the book’s broad sub-title — but Lewis thinks not.  Medieval literature is notable, he says, for the amount of “solid instruction” that it contains, meaning that medieval writers were fond of working into their writing many details of the Model, and this fondness, he argues, was but a consequence of their fondness for the Model itself.  It was a fondness that Lewis evidently shared:

I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree… Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination.

That “solid instruction” was at home in medieval literature was also a consequence of the cluster of stylistic and structural conventions that governed medieval rhetoric. They seem to have simply enjoyed didactic digressions restating what was believed about the universe, digressions which, while they seem unnecessary to the total design, were evidently deemed worthwhile for their own sake. This, I suppose, should not really be surprising to anyone who has looked closely at Gothic architecture or paged through medieval manuscripts, for they display the same relish of detail, frequently on themes of nature, along the margins and spires. To us this embellishment seems to be without rhyme or reason, and, in a sense, Lewis agrees. They did not justify its inclusion, he says, because they did not think it needed justification; it was its own justification. If the natural world and its order is intrinsically interesting, what literary work would not be enhanced by an artful discourse on the theme?

This attitude to literature — that to write well one only need find a worthy subject — highlights the basic humility of medieval art. This humility is apt to be misunderstood. It is true that medieval art is frequently anonymous and that, if intentional, this could be a result of the artist’s humility.  But it goes deeper, for even when not anonymous, even when the author was ambitious for personal fame, there remains something basically humble about the art itself. The subject of medieval art is rarely original. The medieval imagination, says Lewis, was a realising imagination. Authors took stories already in existence and re-told them, re-imagined them, gave them fresh life. The art consisted not in invention, but in the artful telling of the tale. Some are liable to think this practice was the result of a lack of imagination on their part, a dimwittedness or rigidity that prevented them from expressing themselves in new and original works.  Lewis sees it otherwise:

If you had asked Layamon or Chaucer ‘Why do you not make up a brand-new story of your own?’ I think they might have replied (in effect) ‘Surely we are not yet reduced to that?’ Spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve?

The aim was to present a worthy story worthily.

This conception of literature naturally meant that stories were about the past. Their fiction was historical fiction.  In this connection I have often wondered: to what extent did they distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in literature, and in what sense did they understand it as historical fiction? To the first question, Lewis says that in general there was a lack of clarity about what was truly historical and what was not, and this was so because they were not really interested in the question. It didn’t come up. This seems strange to us. But if the point of the story is the noble deed or the tragic ending, what difference does it really make to the story if it is historically true?

It is by no means necessary to suppose that Chaucer’s contemporaries believed the tale of Troy or Thebes as we believe in the Napoleonic Wars; but neither did they disbelieve them as we disbelieve a novel… I am inclined to think that most of those who read ‘historial’ works about Troy, Alexander, Arthur, or Charlemagne, believed their matter to be in the main true.  But I feel much more certain that they did not believe it to be false.  I feel surest of all that the question of belief or disbelief was seldom uppermost in their minds.

As to the question of their awareness of where these historical events belonged in history, Lewis says that medieval people had little or no sense of historical period. For instance, they assumed that people in the past dressed the same way they did, observed much the same social conventions, and shared the same temper and mental climate. This short-sightedness, while inevitably causing some misunderstandings, did have at least one positive result: it meant that to them the people and events of the past were psychologically closer than the chronology might suggest. The past was alive to them in a way that it is not to us. The past, they might have said, is like the present, but better. “Hector was like any other knight, only braver.”

They did, by the way, believe that the past was, by and large, better than the present. But it is part of the admirable spirit of the times that this was not dispiriting. Their humility was healthy, for they felt delight rather than self-pity. They honoured the great feats and figures of the past without envy. Lewis points out, too, that this preoccupation with the past is but the mirror of modernity’s preoccupation with the future. Are we sure which is better?

Medieval and nineteenth century man agreed that their present was no very admirable age; not to be compared (said one) with the glory that was, not to be compared (said the other) with the glory that is still to come.  The odd thing is that the first view seems to have bred on the whole a more cheerful temper.  Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight.  The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration…There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age.  One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely.

Thus far I have dwelt on the character of medieval literature on its own terms, and have said little about the Model, which was supposed to be the main topic. In fact, much of the pleasure of this book is in the sweeping portrait it paints of the medieval Universe. Many of the fascinating details were new to me, so I can’t resist making some comments about them.

First some preliminary principles that governed the structure and operation of the world according to their Model.  First, in place of our notion of ‘natural law’ their world was governed by sympathies, antipathies, and strivings which were said to be inherent in matter.

Every kindly thing that is
Hath a kindly stede ther he
May best in hit conserved be;
Unto which place every thing
Through his kindly enclyning
Moveth for to come to.
— Chaucer, Hous of Fame, II, 730 sq

Objects seek their natural place in the universe under the influence of these sympathies: fire strives to rise, earth to fall. This ‘kindly enclyning’, like our ‘natural law’, was a metaphor; there is no evidence that they ascribed will or desire to matter any more than we regard matter as literally law-abiding. (It is interesting to note, too, that their metaphor was less anthropomorphic than ours, for an animal may incline, but only a human obeys laws.)

Two other general principles are worth mentioning.  The first is what Lewis calls the ‘Principle of Plenitude’.  There ought to be a creature living in every region and hierarchical layer in the Model.  They thought it fitting that the world be bursting with life, and they populated their Model accordingly. There were creatures inhabiting the sea, the land, and the air, of course, but what about the region of air above where birds can fly?  This was the domain of the daemons,  spirit-like rational animals which filled the space between us and the higher beings, not only physically but in their natures. And above them, tier after tier of the heavens were home to ever greater beings.

A second principle Lewis calls the ‘Principle of the Triad’, and it states that whenever two things are related, there must be some third thing to mediate the relation. One application of this principle was to posit a human ‘spirit’ to mediate between the body and the soul, a trained sentiment of honour to mediate between appetite and reason.  But the main consequence of this principle was that the universe was filled with beings whose primary role was mediation between one hierarchical level and another. Angels, for instance, found a natural place as messengers between higher and lower regions, and of course it wouldn’t do to have just one kind of angel: they speculated about a whole ladder of angelic orders mediating influences up and down through the Model, such that the universe became a grand fugue on the Triad principle.

Incidentally, they didn’t conjure these principles up out of nothing;  both are stated in the De Deo Socratis of Apuleius. Belief in daemons was derived from pagan writers, and the medieval angelology was taken from The Celestial Hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius (sixth century). Lewis remarks, in this connection, that medieval scholars were unduly credulous when reading ancient authors. “They find it hard to believe that anything an old auctour has said is simply untrue.” Almost all of the elements of their Model can find a precedent in writings of Greek, Roman, and early Christian writers, and a good portion of Lewis’ book is devoted to tracing the literary sources for common medieval beliefs about the world.


With these principles in mind, let’s turn to the actual form of the Model. Everyone knows that the world was believed to be constituted from the Four Elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire.  What I did not know was that these elements were not elementary in the modern sense, for they were produced by combining the truly elemental substances, the Four Contraries: Hot, Cold, Moist, and Dry (Hot and Dry for Fire, Hot and Moist for Air, Cold and Moist for Water, Cold and Dry for Earth).  The same combinations of Contraries within the human body produced the four Humours, the preponderence of which defined a person’s basic temperment.

Everyone also knows that the Earth was at the center of their universe. It was a sphere. (The common belief that they thought the earth flat is an absurdity originating in the nineteenth century.) The Earth was divided into five zones: two polar zones, both uninhabitable due to cold, two temperate zones, and straddling the equator a torrid zone, uninhabitable due to heat. The torrid zone, in fact, was not only uninhabitable but impassable, such that no human could pass from one temperate zone to the other. This naturally raised the question of who or what lived in the other temperate zone. Naturally, something should, and so they called those unknown and unknowable creatures the Antipodes — literally, those with their feet opposed. They understood that these creatures would be walking around ‘upside-down’, but also that ‘down’ really means ‘toward the center of the earth’, so that the ‘upside-downness’ equally well applied to humans, depending on your point of view. Each temperate zone was divided into four land masses, one of which was Europe, Africa, and Asia. These islands were divided by four great rivers running north-south, and the mixing of these rivers at the poles was apparently believed to be the cause of the tides, though Lewis does not explain why. All of these ideas about the Earth’s large-scale geography were derived from the writings of Cicero (Republic, Bk VI).

The globe of the Earth sat at the center of a grand structure. They knew that the Earth was larger than the Moon, but smaller than the Sun. In comparison to the size of the entire universe, however, the Earth was understood to be infinitesimal. The basic structure of the universe as a whole was that of a series of nested concentric spheres, nine in total.  The first seven spheres were those of the seven planets; in order: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond Saturn was the Stellatum, the sphere of the fixed stars, and the outermost sphere was called the Primum Mobile. This last sphere was not luminous, but its existence was inferred from its effect on the other spheres, as we shall see. And what was beyond the last sphere?  They seem to have believed that the very notions of spatiality and temporality broke down beyond the edge of the world.  Some held that this was Heaven, a region of “pure light, intellectual light, full of love” (Dante, Paradiso, 30.38). Lewis does a superb job of conveying what it may have felt like to gaze up at the sky with these ideas in mind, and it is worth quoting him at length:

You must go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old cosmology.  Remember that you now have an absolute Up and Down.  The Earth is really the centre, really the lowest place; movement to it from whatever direction is downward movement.  As a modern, you locate the stars at a great distance.  For distance you must now substitute that very special, and far less abstract, sort of distance which we call height; height, which speaks immediately to our muscles and nerves.  The Medieval Model is vertiginous.  And… the medieval universe, while unimaginably large, was also unambiguously finite.  And one unexpected result of this is to make the smallness of Earth more vividly felt.  In our universe she is small, no doubt; but so are the galaxies, so is everything – and so what?  But in theirs there was an absolute standard of comparison.  The furthest sphere, Dante’s maggior corpo is, quite simply, the largest object in existence.  The word ‘small’ applied to Earth thus takes on a far more absolute significance.  Again, because the medieval universe is finite, it has a shape, the perfect spherical shape, containing within itself an ordered variety.  Hence to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one in a trackless forest – trees forever and no horizon.  To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building.  The ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony.

One aspect of the Model which surprised me was that the Sun was believed to illuminate the whole structure.  Starlight was, like moonlight, reflected.  But, more than that, the entire universe was filled with light, like perpetual daylight.  The only places of darkness were the shadows of solid objects.  As the Sun rotated about the Earth, the Earth cast a long finger of shadow out toward the spheres.  The night sky appeared dark only because we were looking at it through a shadow; in fact it was bright as day.

The dynamics of the spheres were caused, like all dynamics, by sympathies. All motion of the spheres originated at the outermost edge with the Primum Mobile. We might translate this is ‘First Movable’, and should not confuse it with God, the Unmoved Mover, who is the true and ultimate source of all motion.  But how can God be the source of motion if he himself does not move?  It is possible because the Primum Mobile is moved by its innate sympathy — its love — for God. In fact each celestial sphere is moved, each in its own way, more swiftly in the outer spheres than the inner, by its love for God and by the influence of the other spheres. But in what does this love subsist? Is the sphere a creature that loves God in the way that we say humans love?  Yes.  Each sphere was the abode of what they called an Intelligence, an angelic-like being of god-like strength and power.  In fact, they were the Christianized versions of the Pagan planetary gods.

But a question might occur to you.  If we grant that theory that the sphere is moved by love of God, why should it assume that very particular sort of motion called rotation?  They argued that in its love, each sphere desires to resemble God to the greatest extent that its finite nature allows, and “The nearest approach to the divine and perfect ubiquity that the spheres can attain is the swiftest and most regular possible movement, in the most perfect form, which is circular.”

When the sun is up he dazzles us and we cannot see.  Darkness, our own darkness, draws the veil and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps within; the vast, lighted concavity filled with music and life.  And, looking in, we do not see…’the army of unalterable law’, but rather the revelry of insatiable love.  We are watching the activity of creatures whose experience we can only lamely compare to that of one in the act of drinking, his thirst delighted yet not quenched.

It is worth wrapping up these remarks on the Model with a few words about medieval astrology. You don’t have to have much contact with medieval culture to learn that they believed in planetary influence. What is interesting, however, is that this influence was believed to be a physical influence. The planetary spheres transmit effects to lower spheres, and the motion of the lowest sphere, the sphere of the Moon, disturbs the air, causing winds which, of course, are felt on the surface. This moving air was thought to be the medium by which the planets affected human affairs. (Etymology buffs will note that the very word ‘influence’ conveys this idea.) In other words, astrology for them was more scientific than one might have thought. Each planet had certain characteristics which would be reflected in the type of influence it had. (Again, these characteristics still leave traces in our language: lunatic, mercurial, venusian, martial, jovial, saturnine.)

It is often said that the Church opposed astrology, but this has to be understood correctly.  She did not oppose the scientific idea that the planets exerted a physical influence on men.  She did oppose astrological prediction of the future and astrological determinism, both of which would have undermined human freedom, and she did oppose the worship of the planets. In this the Church was largely successful — though one notes that to this day the planets are still called by the names of Roman gods.

There is more that could be said, about the grades of animal life, about the rational soul, about the five wits, or even about the overall epistemological status of the Model. The book has fascinating discussions of the seven liberal arts and the character of the various planets. There is a very fine section on Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae. But brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness its outward limbs and flourishings. I have gone on long enough.

Let me add just one final word about the waning and passing away of the Model. Lewis argues that the Model could have absorbed many of the astronomical and physical discoveries of later times, but in fact it was discarded well before the breaking point was reached, and mainly for non-empirical reasons; a new appetite for simplicity and a preference for an evolutionary model pushed the increasingly complicated, devolutionary medieval model to the margins. In other words, Lewis contends that, like any work of man, scientific ideas are influenced by the broader intellectual climate of the culture. It is not that our scientific theories are mere fancies — of course not — but, like a good lawyer during cross-examination, the testimony we elicit, though it be entirely truthful, is shaped by the questions we pose.

No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge.

Is it a coincidence, after all, that the medieval Model was produced by a world that loved hierarchy and heraldry, and ours by a world that loves democracy and egalitarianism? It is easy for us to see the mutual influence between medieval culture and the medieval Model; it is harder for us to see it in our own Model. That, I suppose, is to be expected. There are lessons here about the tentativeness of scientific theories, and the traffic between scientific and non-scientific ideas, but these are better saved for another time.

Tolkien: The Lays of Beleriand

January 19, 2010

The Lays of Beleriand
J.R.R. Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1985)
393 p.  First reading.

Beleriand, if you don’t remember, was the region of Middle Earth in which the Elves settled when they first arrived from the Western Isles.  It was inhabited by the Noldor (at the great hill fortress of Nargothrond), by the Sindar (in the forests of Doriath), and also, in the course of time, by Men. To the north lay Angband, the underground fortress of Morgoth, who was (and is) the greatest and most wicked of the Ainur.

I am actually not much of a Tolkienian.  Like everyone else, I have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Like a great many people, I have also read (with, on reflection, an appalling lack of attention) The Silmarillion, and a few years ago I read The Children of Hurin.  But this is my first foray into the really obscure parts of Tolkien’s legendarium.  It look me a long time to get that first paragraph right (if I did get it right).

The events related in the Lays of Beleriand took place in the First Age of Middle Earth, about six or seven thousand years before the more familiar events from The Lord of the Rings, which are set in the Third Age.  Given the long time gap, the two periods have no characters in common — except perhaps for Morgoth, of whom brief mention is made in LOTR, and for whom Sauron is but a lieutenant. Hobbits are nowhere to be found in these tales.

The Lays of Beleriand contains two long poems: The Lay of the Children of Hurin, and The Lay of Leithian.  Each poem exists in two distinct versions, and each is incomplete.

The Lay of the Children of Hurin tells the story of Turin and Nienor, the two ill-fated children of the elf-warrior Hurin.  (Tolkien also wrote prose versions of this story, and it was from those manuscripts that The Children of Hurin, published a few years ago, was compiled.) The first version of the story is about 2300 lines, and the second version only about 800.  Neither progresses very far into the tale — Turin’s sister Nienor hardly gets a mention.  The main reason to read the poems, in my judgement, is their form: they are written in alliterative verse, in conscious imitation of Old English poetic models like Beowulf, and there are few, if any, other modern examples of this kind of versifying on this scale.  Here is a short passage for purposes of illustration, describing Turin’s wanderings in the woods around Nargothrond:

The ways of the woods \hspace{0.2cm} he wandered far,
and the land’s secrets \hspace{0.2cm} he learned swiftly
by winter unhindered \hspace{0.2cm} to weathers hardened,
whether snow or sleet \hspace{0.2cm} or slanting rain
from glowering heavens \hspace{0.2cm} grey and sunless
cold and cruel \hspace{0.2cm} was cast to earth,
till the floods were loosed \hspace{0.2cm} and the fallow waters
of sweeping Narog, \hspace{0.2cm} swollen, angry,
were filled with flotsam \hspace{0.2cm} and foaming turbid
passed in tumult; \hspace{0.2cm} or twinkling pale
ice-hung evening \hspace{0.2cm} was opened wide,
a dome of crystal \hspace{0.2cm} o’er the deep silence
of the windless wastes \hspace{0.2cm} and the woods standing
like frozen phantoms \hspace{0.2cm} under flickering stars.
(v.1, 2100-13)

My recollection of permitted line types in Old English poetry is dim, but Tolkien knows them and is, I expect, doing his best to follow the rules.  Although frequently called “alliterative verse”, the alliteration is actually an optional decoration (note its absence in line 2110); the poetry is built on a system of long and short syllables.  Personally I find that underlying structure hard to parse; alliteration is the attraction for me.

The second poem is more ambitious than the first. The Lay of Leithian tells the story of the tragic love between the man Beren and the elf Luthien.  Tolkien considered it one of his most important stories; the tombstone beneath which he and his wife are buried bears the names of the star-crossed lovers.   The poem is written in octosyllabic couplets, and again exists in two versions.  The first version has about 4200 lines, and completes thirteen of a projected seventeen cantos.  The second version begins in much the same way as the first, but soon begins to expand the story in scope and power; however, Tolkien only completed four cantos (about 650 lines) before abandoning the effort.  It is a pity that he never finished the poem, for it is a beautiful and memorable tale, and his narrative verse, while not “great poetry” on a world-historical scale, and despite the sing-song quality that sometimes creeps into the couplets, is well-executed.

Consider, for example, this passage, which describes Beren’s encounter with Luthien.  He sees her dancing and singing in the forest of Doriath:

The wind of winter winds his horn;
the misty veil is rent and torn.
The wind dies; the starry choirs
leap in the silent sky to fires,
whose light comes bitter-cold and sheer
through domes of frozen crystal clear.

A sparkle through the darkling trees,
a piercing glint of light he sees,
and there she dances all alone
upon a treeless knoll of stone!
Her mantle blue with jewels white
caught all the rays of frosted light.
She shone with cold and wintry flame,
as dancing down the hill she came,
and passed his watchful silent gaze,
a glimmer as of stars ablaze.
And snowdrops sprang beneath her feet,
and one bird, sudden, late and sweet,
shrilled as she wayward passed along.
A frozen brook to bubbling song
awoke and laughed; but Beren stood
still bound enchanted in the wood.

That is lovely, and there is music in it.  Tolkien can do dark and stormy as well, as when he is describing Morgoth’s reign of terror in the early days of Middle Earth.  I mentioned above that the second version of The Lay of Leithian improved on the first, and this is a good example.  Here is the relevant passage from the first version:

Unconquerable spears of steel
were at his nod. No ruth did feel
the legions of his marshalled hate,
on whom did wolf and raven wait;
and black the ravens sat and cried
upon their banners black, and wide
was heard their hideous chanting dread
above the reek and trampled dead.
With fire and sword his ruin red
on all that would not bow the head
like lightning fell.  The Northern land
lay groaning neath his ghastly hand.
(v.1, 115-26)

And here is the corresponding passage from the second version:

His hosts he armed with spears of steel
and brands of flame, and at their heel
the wolf walked and the serpent crept
with lidless eyes.  Now forth they leapt,
his ruinous legions, kindling war
in field and firth and woodland hoar.
Where long the golden elanor
had gleamed amid the grass they bore
their banners black, where finch had sung
and harpers silver harps had wrung
now dark the ravens wheeled and cried
amid the reek, and far and wide
the swords of Morgoth dripped with red
above the hewn and trampled dead.
Slowly his shadow like a cloud
rolled from the North, and on the proud
that would not yield his vengeance fell;
to death or thralldom under hell
all things he doomed : the Northern land
lay cowed beneath his ghastly hand.
(v.2, 119-38)

That’s a real improvement.  The ravens no longer sit and chant (do ravens chant?) but wheel and cry; Morgoth’s armies no longer bring an abstract “ruin red”, but their swords actually drip with blood and their enemies lie hewn and trampled; we see the elanor and the finch driven out; and the image of the dark cloud rolling south is downright scary.

I won’t go into the details of the story lest I spoil it for anyone; suffice it to say that Beren must complete a great quest if he wishes to win the hand of Luthien.  A prose version of the story can be found in The Silmarillion.  It occurs to me that this story would make a good film, and I wonder whether, once The Hobbit has hit screens, enterprising film studios might go searching through the Tolkienian backwaters in search of other adventures from Middle Earth.  Probably not, but it would be great if they did.

This volume is filled out with a few other, minor and fragmentary, poems about events in the First Age, and a considerable portion of the book is given over to detailed commentary.  If you ever had the itch to study variant readings of certain lines, you would be very well pleased indeed by the critical apparatus which Christopher Tolkien has included.  The best of the commentary, however, comes from C.S. Lewis, who cushions the blow of his sometimes sharp criticism of the first version of The Lay of Leithian with some wonderful English don humour.  He pretends the poem is of medieval provenance, and conjures up a group of scholars (Pumpernickel, Peabody, Schuffer, and Schick) to comment upon it.  It is a charming cherry atop the cake.

The same book

January 10, 2010

C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man and Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos are both superb books, worth reading and re-reading regularly.  According to Peter Kreeft, there’s a good reason for contemplating them together: they are the same book.  Both are inquiries into the nature of the spiritual malady that plagues modern man. The Abolition of Man proceeds irenically, and Lost in the Cosmos ironically.

Kreeft’s lecture about the books, linked below, illustrates his usual clarity and good sense (not to mention his good sense of humour).  If you know both books, I expect you will find his comments enlightening, as I did.  If you know just one or the other, the lecture is tailored to you.  (It is intended, he says, to introduce Lewis to Percy fans and Percy to Lewis fans.)  If you’ve not read either of these books, you should take a critical look at how you’ve been spending your time.

The rest of the lecture can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.  It is worth the time.

(Hat-tip: Korrektiv)