25 October 2013

Abstract: King Arthur was an Elf!

I will be spending the weekend of Dec 13-15 at this lovely little Tolkien conference/party: Mythgard's Mythmoot II. Should be amazing! Here is a summary of the paper I'm scheduled to give (which is the seed of my proposed book on The Inklings and King Arthur. Check it out.

King Arthur Was an Elf!
An Imaginary, Composite, Inklings Arthuriad 



The recent publication of The Fall of Arthur, an unfinished poem by J.R.R. Tolkien, revealed a startling, previously-unknown aspect of Tolkien’s legendarium. The key is found in notes Tolkien left about how he intended the fragmentary Fall of Arthur to continue (included in Christopher Tolkien's editorial matter). In the final confrontation, Mordred would fatally wound Arthur, Arthur would kill Mordred, and Arthur would be carried away to the West for healing. Lancelot, arriving too late, would set sail into the West, searching for his king, never to return.

In other words, Lancelot is Eärendel. He sails into the West, seeking a lost paradise: Avalon, Tol Eressëa, or the Land of Faery. If Tolkien had finished this poem, he could have woven it together with The Silmarillion so that his elvish history mapped onto the legends of Arthur, forming the mythological and linguistic foundation on which “real” English history and language were based. In addition, he could have collaborated with Lewis and Williams on their Arthurian legends, creating a totalizing myth greater than any they wrote individually.

This paper, then, examines the theological, literary, historical and linguistic implications of an imaginary, composite, Inklings Arthuriad by comparing the Arthurian geography and characters of The Fall of Arthur, The Silmarillion, and The Lord of the Rings with “Lancelot,” Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis and Taliessin Through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars by Charles Williams.

In all three writers’ worlds, evil is in the East; this is not surprising in an England threatened by Nazi Germany. God’s country is in the opposite direction, across the sea, connected with ancient legends about Hesperus, the evening star, Venus, the light in the West.

In all three writers' worlds, heroic characters achieve a great quest and leave this earthly realm for a heavenly one, attaining a spiritual fulfillment that has both historical and personal implications for England and for the individual Christian.

If Tolkien had finished The Fall of Arthur and if the Inklings had put all their Arthurian ideas together, they could have produced the kind of totalizing English mythology that Tolkien attempted, but abandoned. But he did not, so this paper also considers why he stopped, and what the theoretical pitfalls are of examining a work of literature that does not exist.

21 October 2013

Guest Post: "How Shall We Then Write?"

How Should We Then Write?
Guest Post by J. Aleksandr Wootton

We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted.
As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible.

We must attack the enemy's line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity 'latent'.”

C.S. Lewis, Christian Apologetics (essay collected in God in the Dock)

In college I had an ethics professor who taught that the foremost task of religious persons is to relate that religion to every aspect of their lives.

Imagine someone's life captured in a series of Venn diagrams: Each circle would represent a different activity or worldview: “work,” “political outlook,” “gym,” “book club,” and so on.

Because the diagrams are made at different points over the course of this person's life, the labels on the circles and their relative positions and degree of overlap vary from diagram to diagram. When arranged chronologically, the circle labeled “religion” first appears on the periphery and barely touches any other circle.

However, as we move forward in time through the diagrams, the “religion” circle moves (we hope!) gradually towards the middle, and as it moves, it also grows to encompass every other circle. As time gets on, religion should come to centrally dominate this person's life and expand to its furthest edges, eventually providing the context that informs and explains everything else about them.

Including what and how they write.

In 2 Peter 3, the writer asks us to consider, in light of the revealed truth of God's Word, what sort of people we ought to be. Francis Schaeffer famously paraphrased the question as How Should We Then Live?

I propose to consider a much smaller piece of that question: How should we then write?

1. With Subtlety

From the opening quote it should be apparent that I do NOT believe that Christians should only write Christian books [i.e. books about Christianity; books meant primarily for Christian audiences]. Just the opposite.

Later in that same essay Lewis asks us to imagine how startling and potentially life-changing it would be to read a physics or biology textbook which inferred, in its conclusions and suppositions, that Hinduism were true.

It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist,” he writes. “It is the materialist assumptions in all the other books.”
Although these remarks were a digression from the main argument of the Christian Apologetics address delivered in 1945, Lewis would soon follow his own advice with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, published in 1950.

Lewis famously wrote that George MacDonald's fairytales had “baptized his imagination” as a child, laying the foundation for his lifelong love of mythology and for his eventual acceptance of J.R.R. Tolkien's argument that Christianity is the True Myth. In The Chronicles of Narnia Lewis successfully replicated that experience for perhaps thousands of children around the world.

The Narnian allegories are an excellent example of a Christian fairytale. They are subtle enough that even atheists don't worry much about “exposing” children to them, delightful enough to engage those children, and deep enough that readers who return to them later in life glean theological insight during nostalgic enjoyment of great stories well-told.

2. With Discernment

I also do not contend that Christian writing must be saccharine or “squeaky-clean.” I oppose – and, as a reader, do not enjoy – gratuitous violence, sexuality, and crude language in all fiction; quite apart from any moral objection, they make for poor storytelling.

But those who argue from Philippians 4:8 that such things “have no place” in Christian art rely on a simplistic reading of that verse and on ignorance of biblical context. In the original Hebrew, the Old Testament does not shy away from recording earthy “taboo” language when those words appropriately describe the situation. The Prophets unblushingly use near-pornographic hyperbole to call out the idolatry of God's people.

(It's not until later translations that scribes apparently begin to feel a misguided need to protect God's reputation or people by watering down His Word.)

Concerning these things we are called to be both wise and innocent, not delicate and willfully ignorant.

As writers, we must exercise discernment in our portrayals of sin and evil and the moral confusion of fallen people.

As readers, we must exercise discernment regarding the media we consume and recommend, regardless of the author's religious claims.

The Church has received considerable spiritual nourishment from certain pagan authors (Plato is an obvious example). Meanwhile, some Christians are presented with significant stumbling blocks by certain popular Christian authors I could name.

There is no simple, clear, hard-and-fast rule for this. Neither is there no rule at all. “All things are permissible,” Paul writes, “but not all things are profitable.”

Writers and readers should be guided by what is profitable, rather than by what is permissible.

3. With Excellence

Quid frugiferens est? What is profitable?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn declared in his Nobel lecture that

The convincingness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable and forces even an opposing heart to surrender.”

He argues that although Relativism has cast considerable doubt on direct claims to Truth and Goodness, Beauty, through art, retains the power to transcend cultural barriers and awaken and provoke humanity towards universal community. Art transmits truth capable of bypassing our cynical intellects to penetrate our spirits directly.

(I urge you to read the full lecture, it's absolutely beautiful.)

We Christian novelists must aspire to literary masters like Solzhenitsyn and Lewis and their peers; anything less is a disservice to our gift, craft, and heritage, not to mention our readers.

(Aspire, by the way, does not mean idly wish for or daydream about; it means to “seek ambitiously”, literally to pursue someone so closely that you “breath upon” them or “pant after” them. As a deer in the wilderness aspires for flowing streams, so my soul aspires for God.)

After twenty years as a committed Communist activist, Douglas Hyde became uneasy about the disconnect between ideology and action manifest in the Soviet Union. In March 1948, he resigned his position as editor of the London Daily Worker, renounced the Communist Party, and converted to Catholicism.

He later wrote Dedication and Leadership, an analysis of the Communist Party's methods and effectiveness in spreading its message, intending that their tactics be put to use for worthier causes – specifically, Christian evangelism. One of the primary tactics he identifies is the mantra that Communists should strive to be the best at their jobs.

In any profession,” Hyde writes, “you will be respected if you are good at your job – not because you are good at talking about your beliefs. It may be quite irrational, but the fact is that, if you are recognized as being outstanding on one thing, you will be listened to on all sorts of subjects in no way related to it... and so, if you are going to be really effective [for your cause] in your place of work, you must set out to be the best man at your job.”

I suppose there is no need for me to repeat any of the Bible's various exhortations to Christian excellence; they are favorite passages for “Christians in the workplace” sermons. But perhaps the why of it tends to slip from our memories?

Conclusion: True Art

We should not try to boost generic “Christian involvement” in media and the arts, as if any quality of Christian-themed art will have a positive impact on anybody.

We should not suppress boredom or distaste from a misplaced sense of loyalty (although it might be appropriate to do so for other reasons).

We should not support or recommend poor and unworthy art simply because the artists happen to be Christian. It is good they are Christian, but that doesn't automatically make them good artists. All art is craft, and any craft must be learned and practiced and developed.

Tolkien observed, in his Andrew Lang lecture On Fairy-Stories, “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode because we are made: not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

When God looks at what He makes, He says “it is very good.”

In our measure and in our derivative mode, we should be able to say that too.

Only then are we truly imaging our Maker in what we have made.

Only that kind of art does what Solzhenitsyn describes – uses Beauty to communicate Truth Immutable, Morality Universal, and Spirituality Irresistible.

True art, then, must be our ambition and our creed. In aspiring after creative excellence as we relate the Christian faith to our writing, we reveal the refracted Light of the world.

Sehnsucht-forged, our art shall “pierce like swords or burn like cold iron.”

Our works will become islands of joy.

Writing as J. Aleksandr Wootton, Jason M. Smith is the author of the Fayborn novels Her Unwelcome Inheritance, The Eighth Square, and A First or Final Mischief (forthcoming), as well as a poetry collection, Forgetting, due out next month. He can be contacted at

16 October 2013

A Day with Douglas Gresham

by Crystal Hurd
In the wee hours of September 23, I traveled five hours through the idyllic Kentucky countryside to Asbury University to hear Douglas Gresham, step-son of C.S. Lewis. Gresham had three speaking engagements at Asbury that day: “chapel” (the audience comprised mainly of students), a question and answer session in the media department discussing aspects of the first three Narnia films, and the final talk open to the general public about growing up with C.S. Lewis.
The first talk perhaps gave me the best first impression of Gresham. He was introduced by an Asbury student who had been writing to Gresham since she was fourteen.  Nearly every day for the past five years, the student corresponded with Gresham and now considered him a dear friend and mentor (following in the footsteps of his step-father, Gresham answers every email he receives). Humbly, Gresham approached the podium in a white turtleneck, khaki vest, and brown riding boots and began to unravel the events which influenced his conversion to Christianity. He recalled the loss of his mother to cancer, of his father’s suicide, and of the equally painful loss of his step-father. These emotional tempests did much to tarnish his faith. However, the lessons Gresham learned while living at the Kilns with Lewis surely made an impression on him. He began to understand the importance of service as part of the body of Christ. “Faith, hope, and charity”, he stated, “and the greatest of these is charity”. Choosing the translation of “charity” over the popular preference “love” is, I believe, intentional. Charity is a state of “giving”, contributing tirelessly and generously even if it becomes inconvenient. Once Gresham made the leap, once “the armor was off” as Lewis so poignantly states in Surprised by Joy, he came to realize that there was nothing glamorous in Christianity; the glory belonged solely to God. As he spoke, I detected glimpses of his mother, the wisdom and whimsical wordplay of Joy Lewis: “A man who worships himself has a fool for a deity”. Later, Gresham remarked that Lewis taught him that life was not about “understanding more” but “misunderstanding less”. His jovial nature and gentle spirit were immediately evident when he spoke.  As Lewis’s step-son, he could easily have developed into a pretentious, flamboyant personality, but true to Lewis’s example, Gresham was effortlessly humble and gracious. I was most touched at Gresham’s now unwavering devotion to Christ and his persistence to serve humanity. Gresham and his wife ran a successful ministry for nearly 30 years in Ireland.
C.S. Lewis display in Kinlaw Library featuring unpublished Lewis correspondence
The second session took place in a small “theater” located in the media building.  Seats filled quickly, as did the floor space. To a full house, Gresham discussed aspects of producing the Narnia films. Students asked a range of questions from, “Do you think Lewis would like the films?” to “What is the deal with that kiss at the end of Prince Caspian?”(Just for the record, Gresham declined this alteration and the director ignored Gresham’s protestations).  Gresham fielded each question with kindness and occasionally with humor.  Gresham recalls being on set and rumors swirling that he was having passionate affairs with the female actresses.  Gresham chuckled, “I didn’t have the time…or the inclination!”
It is significant to highlight Gresham’s dismissal of these fabrications because I think it truly illustrates something genuine and admirable about his character. Some Lewis scholarship has not been kind to Joy Lewis. Earlier this year, Alister McGrath painted Joy as a “gold-digger”, an ex-communist divorcee who “seduced” Lewis into marriage to obtain control over his finances.  Don King, who edited Joy’s correspondence into a volume titled Out of My Bone: the Letters of Joy Davidman, claims, “For some time now I have been surprised at the negative attitude otherwise compassionate Lewis devotees adopt with regard to Joy; perhaps they are suspicious of her Communist background, embarrassed by her New York brashness, or upset by her winning Lewis’s heart. This negative attitude, combined with the fact that most of Lewis’s friends did not have many kind things to say about Joy, has relegated Joy to the status of an interloper in the minds of many” (xxx).  Despite these calumnious indictments against Joy, Douglas Gresham remains undeterred by these accusations. He displays much affection for his mother, and focuses his energies on serving the Kingdom, rather than engaging in heated debates about his mother’s perceived personality flaws or motivations in migrating to England. 
David Gresham with author Dr. Devon Brown
The final event of the day was “An Evening with Douglas Gresham”, a discussion led by Lewis scholar and author Devon Brown to celebrate the release of Brown’s new book C.S. Lewis: A Life Observed.  Brown enthusiastically led Gresham in nostalgic recollections of his time at The Kilns. Perhaps most interesting was a picture of Lewis with Douglas and David Gresham as children.
The juxtaposition of the youthful Gresham, standing erect and smiling in his school uniform and the wiser gentleman seated now upon the stage was quite fascinating for the audience. Gresham fondly recalls various stories about his first meeting with Lewis, the kindling of friendship and love between his mother and Lewis, and the solemn weeks and months after his mother’s death as he and his step-father shared a deep, unrelenting grief. Gresham recalls Lewis’s funeral in which a solitary candle was placed on the casket and flickered fearlessly throughout the service. This, Gresham states, symbolizes Lewis’s continued contributions to Christian culture, an inextinguishable flame that counters our current darkness.

At day’s end, I recalled my experiences with great joy. Here is a man who has endured unspeakable heartbreak at the premature loss of his parents and who lived, day in and day out, with a literary giant. His complex, serpentine journey to faith paralleled that of his mentor, hero, and step-father. It was a pleasure to hear, in his own words, Gresham’s life experiences with such conviction and transparency. Perhaps most importantly, it was an opportunity to “misunderstand less” this intriguing and enigmatic figure.  

12 October 2013

Call for Papers: The Inklings and King Arthur

Call for Papers: Edited Volume
The Inklings and King Arthur

This collection will compare the Arthurian works, especially the mythological geographies, of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Barfield, their immediate predecessors, and their contemporaries, using The Fall of Arthur as an important keystone text. Topics may include: Arthur in England during the World Wars, Spiritual Quest in a Scientific Age, On Mythological Geographies, Lancelot as Earendel, Western Isles and and Faerie Land, Perelandra as Avalon, Sarras as Valinor, Williams Anatomical Arthur, Williams’ Occult Arthur, and Owen Barfield's Holy Grail. Proposals should show evidence of rigorous critical engagement and an original approach to the text(s) in question, and must not be previously published. Include contact information and institutional affiliation; a brief introduction to the topic, including scope and texts under consideration; the theoretical framework used; the main conclusions; and the implications of this paper for the overall vision of this volume. In addition, please submit a curriculum vitae. Send abstracts of 500-1000 words to Sørina Higgins at by 1 February 2014.

Please view the longer version of the CFP on The Oddest Inkling

02 October 2013

A Shocking Novel: The Place of the Lion

As I said in the re-introduction to this blog, the Inklings -- C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams -- have been very influential in forming my views of reason, imagination, and literary fantasy. Williams wrote seven wild, crazy, bizarre “spiritual thrillers.” The Place of the Lion is my favorite.

A series has just ended over on my other blog, The Oddest Inkling, in which several readers wrote their responses to The Place of the Lion. Most of these readers were shocked by this book. It's extremely startling! I won't spoil or even summarize it here; please go and read the posts.

But here I just want to talk about how this book is an “island of joy,” how it trumpets the heraldry of heaven. It does so (for me, anyway) in several ways.

First, the book is visually gorgeous. There are descriptions of an enormous golden lion, a humongous multi-colored butterfly, a fire that burns in the shape of a phoenix and does not consume, a visionary mystic soaring in his mind's eye like a eagle.

Second, the events of the book are shocking; when I first read it, Williams kept smacking me upside the head with philosophical surprises. I know I'm wired differently than the average Jane (I guess): I get my kicks from the appearance of Platonic forms. (OK, I also get kicks from the appearance of, say, Benedict Cumberbatch—but that's a different post!). When a gigantic lion appeared in the sunset and turned out to be the Platonic form of strength, a shiver of heaven ran through me, lifting me into realms of glory.

Third, the spiritual lesson was hard and painful, but (perhaps therefore) also glorious. Every time I reread it, I am convicted. One of the main characters is a woman trying to be a scholar, and she has turned her studies into a kind of dry idolatry. I do that. So Williams terrifies me.

Finally, the ending soars up into heights of sweet desire. But I won't spoil it. Read it!