19 December 2013

Review of "The Hobbit" and Report on Mythmoot

140efe96-4850-4cd4-830e-963b0a9e2978_TheHobbit_TDOS_Tauriel_DOM_RGB_1600x2333 I have written a little review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug; it is published here, on Curator. In this article, I also summarize my experience at The Tolkien Professor's conference this past weekend, called "Mythmoot II."

You may also be interested these articles I wrote last year:
"Packing for an Unexpected Journey"
"Embellishment is an Understatement"
"Showing Us Our Inconsistent Selves"

or these lectures:
"Where is The Hobbit? Tolkien's Fantastical Geography"
"J.R.R. Tolkien, Myth-Maker"

27 November 2013

New York C.S. Lewis Society Celebration

New York C.S. Lewis Society

Since I couldn't afford to go to London this weekend for the installation of Lewis's stone in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, I went to New York City to join in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Lewis's death with other poor or local scholars and fans. Here are little summaries of or commentaries on the talks.

Monsignor Hull gave the first introductions of the day, as this event was held in and partly sponsored by the Sheen Center for Faith and Culture. This reminds me to mention to you that there is something of a movement going on right now to wrest Lewis from the American Evangelicals and argue that if he were alive right now, he would be a Roman Catholic. This might be something to explore in a later post.

Then James Como gave further intros. I must say it was an enormous pleasure to meet, greet, listen to, and talk with all these lovely people and intelligent Lewis scholars.

During the talks, I sat with the intrepid William O'Flaherty of Essential C.S. Lewis. He is a walking Lewis encyclopedia: whenever a speaker referenced a title, text, image, etc. William pulled it up on his computer quick as thought. That was very cool.

The first speaker was William Griffin, who wrote the third biography of Lewis and worked as an editor at Macmillan for many years, helping to bring Lewis’s works to the United States. He told several delightful stories about his time at Macmillan.
In 1977, he did some research and found that 5 million copies of CSL's books had been printed. Macmillan had fallen short on their sales list and needed a new CSL book overnight. Griffin came up with the idea of a thematic anthology entitled The Joyful Christian, organized according to the points of the Nicene Creed. He chose the quotes, organized the book, and was about to go to press with it when—oops! His senior editor asked him if he had consulted Walter Hooper about copyright permissions! No, he hadn’t; who was Hooper? Once enlightened, he sent off a “grovel” asking for Hooper’s blessing on the new book. Hooper wrote back that the book was “worthy of a D Phil.” Griffin said, “that made me his slave for life.”
The book was a huge hit; 35,000 copies were ordered in the first two days of its availability. It was the start of the “blankety-blank Christian” series: The Joyful Christian, The Visionary Christian, The Electric Christian, etc.—all anthologies from various writers. Dorothy Sayers and Fulton Sheen were included. Griffin turned down a date with a movie star to meet Sheen to work on that book.
 There were other stories, other statistics. It would have been a more lively talk had Griffin just told his stories, rather than reading them out in a monotone. Perhaps the whole paper will be published somewhere so that others can enjoy the content of the talk. 

Next, Elaine Tixier read a paper about Till We Have Faces, which she argues is CSL's best work of fiction. I agree. She focused on themes of doubt and the stages that lead to faith. Although Lewis wrote that this novel is about what it would feel like for someone to lose a family member to Christianity—in other words, about how conversion feels from the outside, rather than the inside—Tixier talked about the novel as an extended query: Why do some people see what is hidden to others? Why do some have the gift of faith, while others do not? Its theme is the mystery of the transmission of faith. She compared it to The Silver Chair, which is also about the question Eustace asks Jill: “Are you good at believing things?” He chose to ask this question in several fictional works, because fairy tale and myth both have distance from our world, which provides distance and makes the reader more receptive to poetic language—and poetic language is at the heart of TWHF.
            Psyche illustrates both the simplicity and complexity of faith, while Orual believes in the gods, but is suspicious of their goodness. Her faith is transmitted (rather than direct or experiential—I'm not sure this was part of the argument). Orual is afraid, rather than rationally skeptical. She suffers from “infinite misgivings,” but also has moments of tenderness or self-oblivion. The palace scene minutely illustrates the “anatomy of doubt.” 
            Tixier also compared Orual's sorrow to the narrator's (Lewis's?) in  A Grief Observed.  He wrote: “It is not my reason that is taking away my faith; it is emotion.” Then she compared it to the short story “Light,” which is a distillation of the same points about doubt and faith. Both have misty uncertainty, a yearning for assurance, and emblems of sehnsucht [visible light, the mountain, etc]. Both books have a mystical core. Lewis's method of writing was often retrospective: remembering and reviewing past spiritual steps.
            TWHF uses the genre of the “Complaint” and also draws from the book of Job. A complaint is not blasphemy, but a way to faith. Charles Williams, Tixier pointed out, admired Job. He wrote: “Job's impatience had been approved, his apparent blasphemies accepted.” Orual is of Job's lineage. After her complaint is uttered, she enters into silence. She is a Job-like figure for our time. God's answer is not an answer, but a story. It also leads Orual into an Act of Exchange—Orual carries Psyche's burden. The mystical moment is a revelation of plenitude and simplicity. This is the climax of the narrative trajectory.
            Tixier’s paper was nice, but was not a scholarly analysis. It was an observation of a theme. This frustrates me, because Lewis studies have been plagued by summary and thematic papers for years, which I believe is one reason Lewis is not more respected by mainstream academia. I passionately believe that we need to STOP presenting these elementary observations and begin applying rigorous scholarship if any good work is to be done on Lewis.

Then Maggie Goodman, a member of the Society, read Lewis’s poem “The Late Passenger.”

Finally, Michael Travers spoke on “Invitation to Glory: CSL's apologetic of hope.” He recounted that Alister McGrath lists three reasons for the popularity of CSL's apologetics: 1. logical positivism has declined; 2. his writings have religious appeal; and 3. he appeals to the imagination. Travers wants to add another: his apologetic writings include an invitation to hope for Glory. Ecclesiastes says that God has put eternity into men's hearts. The Bible presents this hope in narrative form: a grand narrative of the created order. CSL gives voice to this Christian narrative of hope, inviting his readers home. Attempts to turn earth into heaven dull our longing for the real thing.
            His narrative of creation is found in The Magician's Nephew. It echoes the Biblical narrative.
We live in a condition of exile and hope: looking backwards to Eden and forward to Heaven. That Hideous Strength as a narrative of separation and “objectification.” The Silver Chair as classic quest narrative. But even when the quest is accomplished, the longing remains: it is a there-and-back-again narrative, but only back to a good earthly realm, not (yet) to Heaven. Longing is most naturally expressed in literature through the quest narrative (i.e., The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). {note: this is nearly the only Inklings work in which the longing is located in the EAST; everywhere else, good is to the WEST}. :) In The Great Divorce, this longing is shown in the strength, brightness, and hardness of all things in Heaven, to emphasize how much more real it is than earth.
            All of these themes are brought together in The Last Battle. {side note: Obviously the Stable and the Wardrobe are Time Lord technology.} Travers compared the end of The Last Battle with the book of Revelation, chapter 21, and concluded that all of Lewis’s works encourage his readers to long for heaven and for God.

            Again, this was a nice talk, but was not a scholarly analysis. It really wanted to be a sermon. Travers would have done better to go all the way and preach us an inspiring sermon, rather than reading a somewhat dull paper without applying scholarly rigor. We need to rescue Lewis from the burden of summary and thematic appreciation under which his works have struggled for these fifty years. On this anniversary, let us take a new approach. Let all conference organizers, journal editors, and event planners in Lewisiana covenant together: There shall be no more summary! We will only speak publicly about Lewis’s works if we speak intelligently. We will use profound analysis. We will raise his works to the level at which they belong: With the works of T.S. Eliot, or Tolkien, who are appreciated by mainstream scholarship. We will not let him fall into obscurity or into the grave of popularism. His popularity will take care of itself: His academic reputation will not. Therefore, we eschew summaries and fluffy appreciation from here onwards into the future. To another 50 years!

25 November 2013

Alliteration and Local Habitations: Meeting Malcolm Guite

There are few moments in your life when you meet someone so curiously magnetic, so profoundly inspirational that you feel he or she has stepped straight out of a time-cherished fairy tale.

So it was when I met Malcolm Guite.

Malcolm was one of the featured speakers at the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Fall Conference in Houston, Texas earlier this month. After a delayed flight, Malcolm arrived tired but jovial with an emerald jacket, burgundy vest, khaki trousers, and travel-stained wooden walking stick. I greeted him with a firm hug. He and I had corresponded over the last few months, but this was the first time that we had met face-to-face.

“To give to airy nothingness a local habitation and a name”

The following day Malcolm taught two courses for the Writer’s Track sessions offered by the Foundation. In both sessions, Malcolm shared poetry from his forthcoming release, The Singing Bowl. ­­­­­He also shared his artistic wisdom with the crowd, who gasped and furiously scribbled notes as he talked. Malcolm’s first session concentrated on the art of incarnation – that we create because are products of a prodigious Creator (what Tolkien called “sub-creation”). Ultimately, we create to please God. What enormous yet joyous responsibility – and to such a worthy audience!

So how do we set about creating? How do we of creative impulse pluck an idea out of the air and stir the dust of obscurity into something lovely and moving, like metaphorical Adams?

“Begin with you,” Malcolm suggests, “Start by thinking of yourself as a made thing.”  Creating is a holy act, an act in which we take “a finite set of words” and make something more. We take twenty-six letters and place them in various arrangements, and meaning is born. As a creator we must be gentle with ourselves, forgiving, reassuring – “Be as patient and generous and caring with your creatures [writing] as God is with His Creation”.  God gives His character space and room to breathe. For example, Malcolm claims, God looked to see what Adam would name the animals. In this way, we “share in the joy of creation by creating”. 
Photo courtesy of 

Malcolm works well with closed form poetry. His first book of poetry, Sounding the Seasons, is a sonnet sequence celebrating the liturgical year. He enjoys the structure and paradoxically, it lends him the liberty to create within those limitations. In fact, Malcolm states that it is important to know your creative limitations – “Figure out the basic shapes of things and the limitations which it must work within”. He compared this as “symmetry” versus “bounding energy”. True prudence is knowing, acknowledging (and even appreciating) your limits. It establishes the proper place for our work to begin, and continue, with beneficial structure. This is why Malcolm enjoys writing in iambic pentameter (as illustrated in the poem below).
As Malcolm explained, culture is reductive. In the exhaustive search to satisfy our curiosity, much truth is explained away without expressing awe about its mysterious splendor. Glory, he cites, is translated as “weight”. Envision a scale: sorrow’s heaviness makes one pan hopelessly sink. In reflecting God’s glory, in creating, we fill the opposing pan with “the weight of glory” which lifts sorrow and achieves balance.

Therefore, by creating, we are alleviating sorrow and introducing an aspect of God’s glory into the universe.

Malcolm explained similar themes in a short interview I conducted with him on Saturday for the “All About Jack” podcast. To listen to this enlightening exchange, visit here.
Photo courtesy of
Later that evening, I worked the Foundation bookstore, operated by Books by Becka, and was fortunate enough to sell the first stateside copies of The Singing Bowl. Malcolm sang songs (he is also an accomplished musician) and enthusiastically signed copies of his new book.
Malcolm signing my copy of The Singing Bowl

It is my firm belief that long after we have graduated to the idyllic landscape of Aslan’s Country, Malcolm’s poetry will continue to challenge and inspire generations to come. Below I have included the first poem of Malcolm’s collection. Here, Malcolm uses the singing bowl as a meditative symbol, a bowl which needs to be “empty” to “sing” properly. It is a poignant reflection which pleads for a deep sense of satisfaction, for calm and quiet.  Like the movement at a bowl’s rim, the poem ends where it begins – with you, now, in your circumstances no matter how dark or inconvenient.  Take what you have and “let it be for good”.  Such wisdom expressed in exquisite language. The sheer beauty of the poem is worth the price of the collection.

Singing Bowl

Begin the song exactly where you are.

Remain within the world of which you’re made.

Call nothing common in the earth or air.

Accept it all and let it be for good.

Start with the very breath you breathe in now,

This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood

And listen to it, ringing soft and low.

Stay with the music, words will come in time.

Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and low.

Become an open singing bowl, whose chime

Is richness rising out of emptiness,

And timelessness resounding into time.

And when the heart is full of quietness

Begin the song exactly where you are.
Keep up with Malcolm on his blog:
Follow Malcolm on Twitter @malcolmguite

Books by Becka is selling physical copies of The Singing Bowl. Visit her website to purchase one here. (They make EXCELLENT Christmas gifts!)

To purchase a digital version of The Singing Bowl, go here.

To purchase a digital version of Sounding the Seasons, go here
 These can also be purchased through the UK publisher, Canterbury Press.
Don't forget - Malcolm has TWO albums available for purchase on his website and through iTunes: Dancing Through the Fire and The Green Man
For more information on the C.S. Lewis Foundation and its events, please visit

17 November 2013

PA Shakespeare Announces its 2014 summer season!

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival Announces 2014 Summer Season

Center Valley, PA – The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s 23rd season features Shakespeare’s Macbeth in repertory with the inventive hit comedy Lend Me a Tenor, the Bard’s romantic comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the beloved musical Fiddler on the Roof. The season also includes Tina Packer’s masterful Women of Will, which will launch a national tour following its run at PSF.
“The vibrant interaction between the artists and the audiences at PSF continues to be the centerpiece of a uniquely enriching experience for our patrons,” says Patrick Mulcahy, producing artistic director. “Record subscriptions are a great sign that it’s working.
“Expanded programming has lead to deeper engagement by giving our audiences more opportunities for pre- and post-show experiences.”

            For the fourth consecutive season, PSF will produce two plays in repertory on its main stage: Macbeth and Lend Me a Tenor. Mulcahy returns to the director’s chair with Macbeth for the first time since his triumphant production of Hamlet in 2011. “This is a scorching personal and political nightmare made real – and I’m envisioning a production that will appeal to multiple generations, as Shakespeare always has and always will,” he says.
             Lend Me a Tenor will be directed by long-time Festival artist Jim Helsinger, who directed The Importance of Being Earnest last season and also played the role of Lady Bracknell to rave reviews. “My favorite description of the play is an accelerating snowball of laughter,” Mulcahy says. “It has the class and charm of a Kaufman and Hart comedy plus all the door-slamming hilarity of a Marx Brothers’ classic like Room Service.  It’s a masterwork of comic mayhem.”
            Following his lauded production of Oklahoma! last summerPSF Associate Artistic Director Dennis Razze will direct Fiddler on the Roof. “Fiddler on the Roof is the great American musical," Razze says. "The combined talents of Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, Joseph Stein, and Jerome Robbins all perfectly coalesced to create this modern masterpiece based on Tevye the Dairyman and other tales by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. Set in 1905 in Czarist Russia, this musical has been performed all over the world and appreciated by people of every faith and culture. The fiddler balanced precariously on the roof is a metaphor of survival, and of the traditions and faith that help provide balance and direction in the upheaval of challenging times.”       
            Best friends fall for the same girl in Shakespeare’s earliest romantic comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona. A Duke, a debutante and a dog join the cast in this lively exploration of loyalty and love. Matt Pfeiffer, director of last season’s hit The 39 Steps, returns to direct.
            Funny and fierce, Women of Will is the masterful summation of Tina’s Packer’s 40-plus years investigating all things Shakespeare. Exploring themes of love, loss, freedom, control, violence and power through the heroines in Shakespeare’s text, Packer traces the chronological evolution of Shakespeare’s female characters. Founding Artistic Director of the renowned Shakespeare & Company, Tina Packer has won accolades from Ben Brantley of The New York Times for this work. Starring Ms. Packer and Nigel Gore, Women of Will will be directed by Eric Tucker.
            The production runs July 20 through August 3 in the intimate Schubert Theatre, and will launch a national tour. “Tina has been a force of nature in Shakespeare performance in England and in America for decades,” says Mulcahy.  “Any understanding of Shakespeare’s women would be incomplete without Women of Will.”
            The 2014 season will also include two productions for children: Cinderella and Shakespeare for Kids. The season opens May 30 and runs through August 3 in the Labuda Center for the Performing Arts on the Center Valley campus of DeSales University.
            Subscription renewals are available in mid-November; new subscriptions will be available after January 1st. 
            The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, a professional company in residence at DeSales University, is the Official Shakespeare Festival of the Commonwealth and a professional, not-for-profit theatre company. An independent 501 c 3 organization, PSF receives support from DeSales University and relies on contributions from individuals, government agencies, corporations and foundations. PSF is a constituent of the Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national organization for the American theatre, and a member of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the Shakespeare Theatre Association, the Lehigh Valley Arts Council, and Discover Lehigh Valley.

Season Schedule:
Fiddler on the Roof • June 11 – June 29
Macbeth • July 17 – August 3
Lend Me a Tenor • July 9 – August 3
Shakespeare for Kids • July 23 – August 2
The Two Gentlemen of Verona • June 18 – July 13
Women of Will • July 20 – August 3 
Cinderella • May 30 – August 2

14 November 2013

Where is "The Hobbit"?

You are invited to attend

Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC) 
is hosting an event in preparation for the release of 
 Peter Jackson’s film 
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug.
Everyone is invited!

* When: Thursday, Dec. 5 at 6:00 p.m.
* Where: LCCC Main Campus, Science Hall (SH) 144.
* What: A lecture, discussion, & quiz game 
about Tolkien’s Legendarium, 
especially his imaginative geography.
* Extra credit may be available for LCCC students 
(ask your professor).
* A suggested donation of $5 will help defray the cost of refreshments and the lecturer’s presentation.
For more information, 
please contact Sørina Higgins at

12 November 2013

5-Minute McGrath

I'm reviewing three new Lewis biographies for Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal. Here are selections from my thoughts on the last of these. 

Alister McGrath's book C. S. Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet is by far the most academic of the trio. Its style is objective and authoritative. Its content is extensive, covering public, private, personal, theological, and professional aspects of Lewis' life. There are a few noteworthy moments in this book that call for brief examination. 
First, there is the much-discussed topic: McGrath provides a new chronology for Lewis' conversion. Many Lewis scholars and fans have been weighing in on this topic online; a google search for “McGrath Lewis conversion” will reveal insightful, detailed discussions about the dates Lewis records (in his letters, Surprised by Joy, and elsewhere), the dates McGrath offers, and evaluations of the two. Here is one by The Pilgrim in Narnia that clearly explains the situation. 
Second, McGrath focuses a little more than other biographers have done on Lewis' Irishness, discussing this topic heavily at the beginning of his volume. He positions Lewis in historical context far more fully than either of the others, discussing social class, politics, economics, and war just enough to provide a robust understanding of the world into which Lewis was born.
Third, McGrath includes much material about Mrs. Moore and about Charles Williams, analyzing each of these influences sufficiently. 
  His approach to one episode has, however, generated criticism. McGrath is very harsh towards Joy Davidman, Lewis' wife. He claims that Joy purposefully set out to “seduce” Lewis (323). He refers to (but, frustratingly, does not publish or quote from) “forty-five sonnets, written by Davidman for Lewis over the period 1951-1954” (323). Some of them, McGrath claims, “set out in great detail how Davidman attempted to forge that relationship [with Lewis]. Lewis is represented as a glacial figure, an iceberg that Davidman intends to melt through a heady mixture of intellectual sophistication and physical allure” (323). How strange, then, that McGrath does not quote any lines at all from these poems to support his controversial interpretation. Instead, he refers in his footnotes to Don King's forthcoming study, Yet One More Spring. We will have to wait, then, to see how much evidence there is to support McGrath's reading of Joy Davidman as a money-grubbing, sexually motivated, American predator. 
Even more surprising than McGrath's negative interpretation of Davidman is his failure to balance this ugly portrait with the image of the woman who brought passionate, comforting, companionable love to Lewis in his later years and the writer who inspired several of his last, best books. Had she done nothing else, Joy's role as midwife to Till We Have Faces alone would have earned her a place worthy of praise. Yet she did far more. 
Finally, McGrath is also critical of one other character in this story: Lewis himself. McGrath takes a refreshingly objective approach to the man and his work. His is no wimpy paean of watery praise for St. Lewis. Instead, he takes the philosopher and apologist seriously, analyzing each of Lewis' arguments and pointing out their weak spots. This is exactly what Lewis needed, and what he liked in his friends. He loved a good argument. He would have been delighted to sit down with McGrath and thrash out these points. 
Perhaps the most telling critique is his attack on the famous “trilemma”: the Liar, Lunatic, or Lord proof about Christ's nature. I have long thought that this lovely, elegant argument simply does not work as an evangelical tool, because it functions on Christian presuppositions—which are exactly what the listener presumably does not accept! McGrath takes the same approach, albeit much more thoroughly and professionally than I have done. He points out: “the main problem is that this argument does not work apologetically. It may well make sense to some Christian readers.... Yet the inner logic of this argument clearly presupposes a Christian framework of reasoning” (227) and ignores several alternatives that non-Christians may propose, such as “that Jesus was a well-loved religious leader and martyr whose followers later came to see him as divine” (227). One can imagine other possibilities, such as a universe in which god lies, or in which there are so many gods that anyone can truly claim godhead, or (the most plausible postmodern option) a universe in which “truth” and “lies” have no meaning-content. 
In short, McGrath's critiques of Lewis are good. They are necessary, in a publishing world glutted with Jacksploitation and hagiography. They are apt, opening cracks that should be further explored. And in spite of his harsh treatment of Davidman and less-than-idolatrous treatment of Lewis (or perhaps because of them), this is one of the most intelligent biographies on the market.

10 November 2013

5-Minute Brown

I'm reviewing three new Lewis biographies for Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal. Here are selections from my thoughts on the second of these. 

A Life Observed: A Spiritual Biography of C. S. Lewis by Devin Brown is sweet and engaging, yet also insightful and well researched. Its greatest strength, I believe, is that it approaches Lewis' life through the theme that Lewis himself claimed was the theme of his earthly existence: sehnsucht or “joy.” This means that the majority of the biography veers dangerously close to being just a paraphrase of Surprised by Joy, but manages to avoid that fate by bringing in passages from all of Lewis' works and setting them against SbJ

Indeed, this is as much a study of Joy in Lewis' life as it is a straight-forward biographical account, weaving together light literary analysis with the story of the life.

This analytical, thematic approach means that Brown sometimes departs from a chronological narrative, occasionally relating events out of order to emphasize their relationship to the story of Joy. Yet he always signposts these with clear markers (such as “but we are getting ahead of ourselves,” 4) to avoid confusing the reader.

The style is lovely: simple, clean, elegant, and inviting. The focus on Lewis' spiritual life, while not original, is valuable. Brown takes especial care in tracing the steps of Lewis' thought (on naturalism, for instance, or in the “moves” of the divine “chess game” that brought him to faith).

While this biography is, as I have said, lively, intelligent, and informative it suffers from two enormous omissions that may very well prove fatal: Mrs. Moore and Charles Williams are almost completely erased from this account.

Leaving Mrs. Moore and Charles Williams out of the story of Lewis' life is like leaving Queen Elizabeth I and Christopher Marlowe out of an account of Shakespeare's; they were probably the fifth and sixth most influential people he ever encountered—after Warnie, Tolkien, Barfield, and Joy Davidman. (Arthur Greeves may belong in that list, but he was arguably a man more influenced than influencing).

Mrs. Moore receives less than three full pages in Brown's work (104-6). Any intelligent reader of All My Road Before Me or the Collected Letters knows that the story is very complicated and sordid.

Charles Williams did more than any other person, after Barfield and Tolkien, to form Lewis' thoughts, books, and behavior. Their friendship was extremely important. They taught one another about new theological varieties of love. They each inspired the other to be a better writer, a better friend, and a better Christian. Lewis wrote in a letter right after Williams' death: “I also have become much acquainted with grief now through the death of my great friend Charles Williams, my friend of friends, the comforter of all our little set, the most angelic man.”

All this to say: Brown's negligence in treating Mrs. Moore and Charles Williams seriously lessens the value of his otherwise excellent book. This is still the one biography I would recommend to you!