The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

Posted on

The Kilns – What Was and Could Have Been

As a fan of C S Lewis, I love it when bits of Narnia or other elements from the life of Lewis weave their way into my everyday life.

Recently a friend gave me a special treat. It was a lunch out in the countryside nearby to celebrate finishing the final draft of my latest novel. It was to be at the Bottle Kiln in West Hallam, an unexpectedly beautiful place in a small Derbyshire village [1].

The Bottle Kiln

The Bottle Kiln

It was also unexpectedly crowded. No doubt the school holidays contributed to some extent, but in retrospect I can see that the quality of the place drew people like the proverbial magnet and we were lucky to get the last parking space at lunch time. Plus the weather couldn’t have been more gorgeous or the sky more blue.

Bottle Kiln and garden

Bottle Kiln and garden

This meant that my first view of the old kiln was doubly delightful as it rose above the surrounding brick buildings that now house a café and the sort of shops that translate me into retail heaven.

But, of course, the kiln itself was bound to remind me of C S Lewis’ home, the Kilns, in Oxfordshire, so I was hoping to find interesting resonances. At the Bottle Kiln there is an intimate garden at the back where people can eat their food and chat to friends but that is also quiet enough for contemplation.

photo 27

It is called a Japanese tea garden and I was immediately struck by the effort taken to make a tranquil space that was both friendly but that encouraged people to just stop and be quiet for a while.

Bottle Kiln Garden

Bottle Kiln Garden

We certainly couldn’t ignore the fact that this kiln had once produced bricks. They were everywhere, not just in the construction of the kiln itself and the outbuildings but also beautifully laid out in systematic patterns for paths. Even the tabletops in the restaurant were made of bricks and mortar. The whole place has been rescued and renovated with very creative and artistic touches.

Garden tiles

Garden tiles

The various chambers around the central kiln are now four selling areas for Gifts, Home and Accessories, Handmade items, and the Card Room, with the restaurant on the other side.

Central chamber of kiln

Central chamber of kiln

The design motif throughout was one of my favourites – Orla Kiely’s iconic leaf pattern. The predominant colour of green blended well with the brickwork and reflects the green ethos of so many organic and recycled items on sale, all of which were laid out with the precision and good taste of a magazine shoot.

Orla Keily wallpaper

Orla Kiely wallpaper

My friend knew I would love this, and I did!

Contemporary pots on sale

Contemporary pots on sale

It was also interesting to stand in the middle of the building and look up – to see right through to the sky above through the narrow outlet of the kiln’s original chimney.

Bottle Kiln Chimney

Bottle Kiln Chimney

It formed such a contrast to the vibrant life and colour all around me. For the brick flue was huge, dark, bleak and silent with the longest cobwebs I’ve ever seen draped from the top, like a spider’s dusty version of the hanging gardens of Babylon. Looking up at the sky, I felt as though I was in a tunnel again – the feeling I’d had for the last few months while writing my novel – head down, prioritising work, not seeing people, utterly concentrated and largely isolated. That’s not to say it’s been a negative experience – I’m an introvert and I love it! But one can’t do everything in life, and when I’m concentrating on a book, other parts of my life (like going out to restaurants with friends) just tend not to happen (like my blogging too, for that matter)!

The Tunnel in Nottingham

The Tunnel in Nottingham

This time there’s the added factor that a massive tunnel in the centre of Nottingham – just called ‘The Tunnel’ – features at the beginning and end of my novel (which is called ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’ in case you were beginning to wonder). The Nottingham Tunnel is a huge Victorian construction blasted out of sandstone. This has often been in my mind as an image for the writing process – one enters the darkness of the imagination to construct an alternative reality in prose, which can feel like blasting one’s way through rock to find what’s on the other side. Then one day it’s all over and you emerge blinking into the daylight of normal life again. And friends take you out to lunch…

The light at the end of the Bottle Kiln’s towering chimney reminded me of this – I’m at least out of the tunnel of the final draft of my novel at any rate. I couldn’t help remarking to my friend how marvellous it would have been if the Kilns that used to be next to C S Lewis’ house of the same name had survived and could have been refurbished just like the Bottle Kiln here.

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

Original plan of Bottle Kiln

The home that Lewis bought with his brother and Mrs Moore in 1930 that is now a study centre would be enhanced by such a development next door, especially if still surrounded by the fields and wild countryside that so attracted the Lewis brothers. The original kilns in Headington in Oxfordshire could have become a similar visitor centre with beautiful shops, a café (or pub!), and a garden next to the lake and part of the nature reserve that’s still there. What a ‘go to’ spot that would have been for visitors to the area, and an even greater pull for The Kilns’ and the C S Lewis Foundation’s attempt to stimulate further interest in this great author and teacher. Instead of a small house in the middle of a modern housing estate, my mind’s eye could now see a much larger enterprise, with the chimneys of the old kilns visible for miles, like a sign, like the towers of a cathedral calling out to visitors to come and find.

Original Bottle Kiln

Original Bottle Kiln

I can imagine Lewis would have approved of a refurbished set of Kilns in the countryside next to his house where people could come and eat and drink with friends, talk about art and literature, contemplate nature, de-stress, and generally have good fellowship together or mediate on their own in God’s good creation. That was exactly what I was able to do with my friend. I could just imagine the Inklings having a drink and a meal here together, discussing their latest work in the restaurant or garden, as we were able to do.

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Bottle Kiln restaurant

Even the retail side of my experience was a blessing. I was delighted to find the very things I needed to buy – some kilner storage jars for the kitchen (plus they were about half the price of shops in the centre of town)!

Glassware

Glassware

But to go back to the very centre of the building, not only did the opening at the top of the kiln itself remind me of a tunnel, it brought to mind the experience of Jill Pole in C S Lewis’ ‘The Silver Chair’ when she and Puddleglum and Eustace have been in the dark Underland for what seems like ages. Then at last Jill sees a glimpse of light up above and can now emerge, with the help of friends pulling her out, into the heart of Narnia again. Then, what should I see in the restaurant at the Bottle Kiln after our meal, but a little bit of Narnia in the form of a children’s book on the newspaper and magazine stand. There, along with the Tatler and the Times, were a couple of picture books on the bottom shelf within the reach of children. I must admit I hadn’t seen this version of a Narnia story before, but there on the cover were none other than Puddleglum and Jill Pole in a version of part of Lewis’ The Silver Chair! [2]

Version of 'The Silver Chair'

Version of ‘The Silver Chair’

I love it when this sort of Lewisian synchronicity/serendipity happens. It seemed to affirm my experience of the light at the end of my own personal tunnel-cum-kiln.

And this linking of tunnels and kilns is not as fanciful as it might sound. Yesterday I looked at kilns on the web to see if there was anything else of interest. Well, there is even a ‘Tunnel Kiln’, apparently! And both the kilns next to Lewis’ house and the Bottle Kiln I visited this week were both built in the 1920s. There were two brick kilns and a brick drying barn about 100 yards away from Lewis’ house which was built in 1922. The area used to be known as the Clay Hills when the brick industry flourished there in the late 19th century.

But a glance at the Ashmolean Museum’s website revealed a much more ancient heritage for this area of Oxfordshire in its Archaeology section. Here we’re told that “large numbers of pottery kilns have been excavated in south and east Oxford. The numbers have suggested to some archaeologists an “industrial zone”, coincidentally but interestingly centred on the modern industrial zone around Cowley, but also stretching to Headington, Rose Hill, Littlemore, Sandford and as far south as Betinsfield. The kilns cluster around the Roman road…’ [3]. These were developed in the early 2nd century AD to provide good quality domestic ware, mostly for dining and kitchen storage, using the pure white clay of Shotover Hill.

However, these early kilns fell into disuse when the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early 5th century and it was only in the Victorian era that serious pottery and brick production began in this area again. But we can still see some of that early Roman homeware from the Oxford Potteries in the Rome gallery on the ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum.

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Roman pots in the Ashmolean

Did Lewis ever look at any of these old pots and reflect that they could have been made just a few yards from his home 1600 years before? And how interesting that Lewis is buried at Holy Trinity Church, Headington Quarry – named after the stone quarry there that provided some of the stone for the building of the Oxford colleges.

So, two of the main places most associated with C S Lewis are named, not after any high-flown literary or romantic themes, but after two of Oxfordshire’s oldest and most down to earth industries – the Kilns and a Quarry.

Model of bottle kiln

Model of bottle kiln

Perhaps my own envisionings of the imaginative process of writing as hewing through rock, or journeying through a dark tunnel, or trying to find the sky through a dusty and cobwebby chimney of clay bricks, are also sufficiently down to earth images and experience on which to build a creative literary life.  The kiln can become a model for how I think of my work.

Inside model of bottle kiln

Inside model of bottle kiln

And if that’s whetted your appetite to read the novel I’ve been mentioning – yes, it’s published now and you can find it on Amazon at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Mr-Rochester-Jeanette-Sears-ebook/dp/B01M28IXFD/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477392333&sr=1-3&keywords=jeanette+sears

My latest novel 'Murder and Mr Rochester'

My latest novel ‘Murder and Mr Rochester’

NOTES

1] You can see more at www.bottlekiln.co.uk.

2] Hiawyn Oram, The Giant Surprise: a Narnia Story (HarperCollins, London, 2005) based on C S Lewis, The Silver Chair  (Geoffrey Bles, London, 1953).

3] From www.ashmolean.org/ash/britarch/roman-oxon/oxon-pottery.html, written by Susan Walker, 15 Dec 2011.


Donna Fletcher Crow interviews Jeanette Sears

Posted on

I was delighted to be interviewed recently by the well-known American novelist Donna Fletcher Crow for the International Christian Fiction Writers website.  Here are the text and pictures:

A Murder in Michaelmas:  Jeanette Sears Interview by Donna Fletcher Crow for ICFW

Jeanette Sears

Jeanette Sears

Donna: Jeanette, welcome to International Christian Fiction Writers! We are so privileged to have an internationally known C. S. Lewis scholar visit us. Before we get to talking about your last novel tell us about your contribution to Women and C. S. Lewis.

Jeanette:  Thank you so much, Donna, for inviting me. It’s great to speak with you, and thank you for asking about my non-fiction as well as fiction. Yes, I was asked by one of the editors of Women and C S Lewis, the wonderful Carolyn Curtis, if I would write a short opinion-piece for this Lion Hudson book which has been published in the UK and USA this summer. The aim was for around 30 contributors who regularly research and write on Lewis to say what influence he has had on them, particularly in the area of Lewis and women. Did Lewis have a bad attitude to women? Has his teaching had a negative impact on them? That was the sort of question we were to address in our response. Well-known writers such as Alister McGrath, Michael Ward, Colin Duriez, Crystal Hurd, Monika Hilder, Randy Alcorn, Malcolm Guite, Holly Ordway, David C Downing, Don King and others all chipped in to reassert Lewis’ reputation and standing in this area. I suspect the piece that’s most critical of Lewis is probably mine! I take him to task on the subject of women priests. But basically we’re all fans who are very grateful to him for his influence on our lives and we hope that this book on a popular level will be interesting for fans and critics alike.

New book 'Women and C S Lewis'

New book ‘Women and C S Lewis’

Donna:  And you also published a guide to C. S. Lewis’ Oxford, didn’t you?

Jeanette:  Yes, I’m glad to say that The Oxford of J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis has sold around 7,000 copies and is in Blackwell’s and the main tourist shops in Oxford. I had been taking people on Inklings tours of Oxford and approached Oxford Heritage Trails who had published walking tours on different themes for many years. I’m glad to say it’s become their best seller, even beating the one on Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland!

'The Oxford of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis'

‘The Oxford of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis’

Donna:  Now, tell us about A Murder in Michaelmas. Of course, I loved it because it’s set in Oxford, revolves around Arthurian legends and has an American heroine— subjects all dear to my heart. It must have been quite a challenge weaving all those strands together.

My novel 'A Murder in Michaelmas'

My novel ‘A Murder in Michaelmas’

Jeanette:  I thought you might like it! I’ve just enjoyed reading your A Newly Crimsoned Reliquary, so I suspect we have a lot of interests in common! I lived in Oxford for 10 years – as an ordinand at theological college, a curate, a student chaplain, and a Summer School Director for a college – so I got to know the life there from the inside. I found myself using it as a setting for a murder mystery very naturally, as of course have many before us. Oxford seems to bring murder out in people, in literature at any rate! (By the way, I used to live on Fairacres Road in Iffley, as did your heroine for a while.)

Donna:  Have you always had a love of things Arthurian?

Jeanette:  Not particularly. No more so than any other Brit – perhaps it’s in our DNA. But I wanted to have a plot that reflected the medieval setting of Oxford and that could easily include the theme of witchcraft and the occult. I had been to the Oxford Arthurian Society (which sadly no longer exists) and so made up my own Lancelot and Guinevere Society. I thought this could be a re-enactment group where students dress up as characters from Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, the nastier characters as well as the good guys. Was the murder a re-enactment that went horribly wrong, or did the victim’s death have some other cause? You may have noticed that I also love the Preraphaelites, and often quote them at the beginning of chapters. Well, they loved Tennyson and the Arthurian legends, and so I suppose I love Arthur because I love them. Of course, C S Lewis rather liked them as well – I really love That Hideous Strength in which he draws on these medieval stories.

Donna:  Why did you choose to work with an American heroine?

Jeanette:  My heroine, Eve Merry, was originally written as British, but then it occurred to me that her being American would work better, especially as a contrast to the English upper-class hero and fellow student Crispin Martin de Beauchamp-Massey. She’s studying Theology, he’s reading English Literature. She’s from a poor background, he’s rich. She’s a Christian (although struggling after her father’s death), while Martin is a bit of a cynic. So I thought to have them as different nationalities would add to the conflict and interest. I lived in Boston, Massachusetts, for 4 years in the 1980s so I thought I could have Eve heralding from there, plus Oxford is blessed with many keen and enthusiastic American students, so I figured that would fit well too.

Donna:  Eve and Martin are such interesting characters. Will we be seeing more of them? Do you envision this book as being the first in a series?

Jeanette:  Oh, thank you. Yes, I hope this will be a series. I’ve started writing the second ‘Merry and Massey Mystery’ – it’s called Death of a Sluggard. The first mystery had the theme of Christianity versus the occult; this one has the debate between Religion and Science as the ideological background which the murder throws up. Eve and her friend Charlie Boscombe, who is a Biochemistry student, will be tackling the so-called New Atheists, with eccentric help from the irrepressible Martin of course.

Donna:  Your website says you’ve been a church minister, a university lecturer, a London bookseller and a writer. What a wonderful variety of experience. Do you find all this background helping you in writing your novels?

Jeanette:  Definitely. I’m sure you find that as a writer now you have to also be a public speaker, event planner, book seller, sales and marketing expert, teacher, pastoral counsellor, etc etc, as well! So it all comes in handy, whether it’s plotting the books, talking about them in public, or getting people to buy them. My children’s novel (although really it’s for everybody) called Pig’s Progress began as stories I told to live audiences at church and school.

'Pig's Progress'

‘Pig’s Progress’

Donna:  You also lecture on Dorothy L. Sayers— another of my favorites. How has a love of Sayers influenced your writing?

Jeanette:  She’s my heroine. I first read her Clouds of Witness when I was 10 and immediately wanted to be a writer. I include talking about her on my Inklings tours of Oxford, even though she wasn’t officially an Inkling. As a theologian and a writer of murder mysteries, she’s got to be my patron saint. If I can reflect any of her intelligence, style, faith and imagination in my writing, who could ask for more?

Donna:  You have so much to keep up with it must be hard to keep all your hats in a row. What’s next for you?

Jeanette:  Mmm, you’re right, it can be tricky combining everything. At the moment I have a lull in speaking events so there’s more time to concentrate on the writing. I’ve been finishing a comic literary novel called The Last Romantic. Then I’ll be writing the first of (I hope) a series of murder mysteries set in my home town of Nottingham. Oh, and finishing Death of a Sluggard, and working on more non-fiction on C S Lewis and Dorothy L Sayers.

Donna: Jeanette, thank you so much for taking time in your busy life to be with us today. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Jeanette:  It’s been my pleasure. The next publication is my contribution to C S Lewis at Poet’s Corner (Wipf and Stock) which should be out fairly soon. One of the highlights of recent years was being able to be part of the events surrounding the inclusion of Lewis in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, and this is the written form of those events, plus lectures and blogs it inspired.

Donna:  And where can we find you and your books on the web?

Jeanette:  My web address is www.jeanettesears.com and my books can be accessed on Amazon from there. Donna, many thanks again, and may God bless you and yours. (Perhaps we’ll get to meet in Oxford sometime?!)

[You can find the original of this interview at:
http://internationalchristianfictionwriters.blogspot.com/2015/09/a-murder-in-michaelmas-jeanette-sears.html and Donna at www.donnafletchercrow.com]

 


C S Lewis, Brideshead, and the Earls of Beauchamp

Posted on

C S Lewis, Brideshead, and the Earls of Beauchamp

'Madresfield: the Real Brideshead' by Jane Mulvagh

‘Madresfield: the Real Brideshead’ by Jane Mulvagh

My breakfast time reading for the last few days has been Madresfield: the Real Brideshead by Jane Mulvagh [1]. It is an account of the history of the Lygon family and their country home, told via a series of objects found in and around the house (eg. The Nursery, The Ditch, The Portrait, the Red Heels, The Tuning Fork, The Tree of Life). As with any aristocratic British family whose ancestors ‘go back’ to the Norman Invasion, the family was active and involved in most of the major events of our island’s history and politics and frequently pioneers in the arts and exploration.

But why take a special interest in this family and their country pile rather than another? The clue is in the title of the book – Brideshead. Even though Castle Howard in Yorkshire was used to represent the Brideshead revisited in the TV and film versions of Evelyn Waugh’s novel of 1945, it was really Madresfield Court in Worcestershire owned by the Lygon family that was the beautiful old house in Waugh’s mind as he wrote.

Madresfield Court

Madresfield Court

And it was the (beautiful? you judge) son of the house, Hugh Lygon (1904-36), who was a model for the beautiful and doomed Sebastian Flyte.

Hugh Lygon

Hugh Lygon

The first chapter of Mulvagh’s book on ‘The Nursery‘ is actually about Waugh as it was in the nursery of Madresfield where Waugh wrote on his frequent visits.

Evelyn Waugh with two Lygon sisters

Evelyn Waugh with two Lygon sisters and a friend

And what does all this have to do with C S Lewis? I certainly didn’t begin to read this book with Lewis in mind, but as always seems to happen, there were connections that seemed to jump out of the pages. Lygon (pronounced ‘Liggon’) is the family name of the Earls of Beauchamp (pronounced ‘Beecham’) who own Madresfield and it is the sixth Earl of Beauchamp who was the main founder and financial supporter of both Malvern College where Lewis went to school (for one year in 1913/14)

Malvern College

Malvern College

and Keble College Oxford where Lewis received his military training before going to fight in France in 1917.

Keble College Oxford

Keble College Oxford

As I read more about the sixth Earl and his family, there were unavoidable resonances between his emotional history and spirituality (which expressed itself in architecture, literature, and good works) and Lewis the writer and Christian apologist.

The sixth Earl Beauchamp

Frederick Lygon, 6th Earl Beauchamp

Frederick Lygon, 6th Earl Beauchamp

The chapter of ‘Madresfield’ that concerns Frederick, the sixth Earl, is entitled ‘The Breviary’. This is because he was a “highminded High Churchman” who was fascinated by liturgy and wrote a much-researched book of prayers and services now in Madresfield’s library [2]. Frederick had been a younger brother in the family who was not expecting to inherit the title – in fact, early on he looked more likely to ‘go over to’ Rome and become a priest. The young Frederick’s mother had died when he was only five and his father withdrew emotionally, so the small boy was largely raised by a stern anglo-catholic governess, with chapel at the beginning and end of every day and church seven times on Sunday [3]. Even as a schoolboy at Eton, Frederick Lygon began collecting medieval religious texts. He went on to read Greats at Christ Church Oxford and became a follower there of Edward Pusey, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, a Tractarian or ‘ritualist’. Frederick even made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1856 in order to decide once and for all between the Anglican Church and the Roman but, after a severe struggle, remained Anglican, although praying for the reunion someday of the Anglican and Roman branches of the Church.

According to Mulvagh, “his Christian mission continued in his political career” [4] and he had considerable success in various government posts. The future Archbishop of Canterbury, E. W. Benson, described him as “a very smart, bright man, a little chimerical, gaily dressed and brushed, and beneath a most loving son of the church.” [5] In the House of Commons he earned himself the nickname “the Ecclesiastical Layman” and wrote all of Disraeli’s speeches on religious matters [6].

Meanwhile at Madresfield, Frederick’s older brother Henry Lygon, the fifth Earl, was transforming the house from a medium-sized squire’s manor house into a 160-roomed Victorian neo-gothic stately home [7].

Madresfield Court

Madresfield Court

But in 1866 Henry died of TB and Frederick succeeded to the title and the task of finishing the building works. This had happy results, as Mulvagh points out:

“Frederick’s devotion to God was bound up in the Gothic rebuild. Though in ecclesiastical matters he was nit-picking and academic, his architectural instincts were sentimental and idealized. The Gothic was the Tractarians’ preferred architectural style. Their romantic imagination associated it with the medieval: the chivalric knight, the medieval monk, the artisan. Inspired by nostalgia, these modern crusaders turned their backs on classicism, a style they associated with the decadence of Ancient Rome, the godlessness of Georgian England and, worst of all, the barbarity of French Republicanism. Gothic Revivalism – conveniently rinsed of all its violent associations – suggested to them high-minded poetry, an undivided and true church, Plantagenet nationalism and, for those so inclined, ancient lineage.” [8]

Malvern College

Frederick built almshouses, estate workers’ houses, several gothic churches, and donated to the restoration of the Priory at Great Malvern [9]. As a substantial landowner in Worcestershire, he helped found Malvern College and a nearby girls’ school. I picked up a copy of A History of Malvern College 1865-1965 by Ralph Blumenau [10] for only a £1 at my favourite shop in Oxford (‘Arcadia’ on St Michael’s Street – oh, another coincidence: the first chapter of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited about being an undergrad at Oxford is called ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’, I should imagine the source of the name of the shop). Frederick Lygon became the Chairman of the College Council, built the headmaster’s house, and was one of the main investors in the Building Company which was formed to develop the school. He was the biggest sharehloder, along with John Wheeley Lea, and Blumenau concludes: “it is no exaggeration to think of these two men as the principal founding benefactors of Malvern College.” [11] Frederick’s heir, William, the seventh Earl Beauchamp, was only a minor when Frederick died but in turn also became Chairman of Malvern College’s Council in 1905.

William, 7th Earl Beauchamp

William, 7th Earl Beauchamp

While still just a member of the Coucil, the seventh Earl was instrumental in getting one of his old masters from Eton, S R James, to be Malvern’s headmaster. S R James was headmaster from 1897 to 1914 and therefore during the time Lewis and his brother attended the school (the college called ‘Wyvern’ in Lewis’ autobiography Surprised by Joy). Blumenau makes several references to C S Lewis in his history of Malvern College, noting some of his positive and negative reactions to the teaching and regime there (I’ll deal with this in a later blog).

Keble College

John Keble himself died in 1866 and his supporters were determined to build an Oxford college in his memory (as well as to “counteract Rugby and Balliol” in spirituality) [12]. It was to be High Anglican, frugal, and for those training for ordination in the Church of England. Donors included Gladstone, Samuel Wilberforce the Bishop of Oxford, and of course Frederick Lygon who gave £5,000 at first and more anonymously later. William Butterfield, a neo-gothic architect, was chosen as designer. The foundation stone was laid on 25 April, Keble’s birthday. “Not surprisingly, in its Gothic style, Keble bore a remarkable resemblance to the rebuilt Madresfield and some rooms in college were named after the Earls Beauchamp.” [13]

Coincidences

So it was to be the architectural preference of the 6th Earl of Beauchamp and the deep spirituality that it sought to express that was to be the backdrop for some of the formative years of C S Lewis at school and university. Both lost their mothers at a young age, had fathers who withdrew from them emotionally, and had formative training by a nanny/governess. Ironically, even though Lewis pretty much hated his time at Malvern and his military training at Keble, he grew up to share the deepest aesthetic and spiritual interests and instincts of Frederick Lygon’s heart – the medieval romantic imagination, nostalgia for the chivalric knight and medieval monk, a hatred of the idolatry of Reason, and a desire for the universal Church to be united once more.

Any other serendipitous connections? Well, while I’ve been writing this blog everything’s come full circle. I’ve been listening to the TV music of composer Geoffrey Burgon, a CD which just happens to start with Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia,

Geoffrey Burgon CD

Geoffrey Burgon CD

continues with Testament of Youth about young people at Oxford affected by the First World War, and which ends with – you’ve guessed it – the mellifluous beauty of Brideshead Revisited.

Lygon family at Madresfield Court

Lygon family at Madresfield Court

NOTES

[1] Jane Mulvagh, Madresfield: the Real Brideshead, Black Swan, London, 2008.

[2] Day Hours of the Church of England, 1858 – it was actually a translation of the Roman Breviary and the Earl published it anonymously.

[3] Mulvagh, ibid., p199.

[4] ibid., p203.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., p206.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid., p213.

[10] Ralph Blumenau, A History of Malvern College 1865-1965, Macmillan, London, 1965.

[11] ibid., p10.

[12] Mulvagh, op.cit., p215.

[13] ibid., p217.


C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

Posted on

C S Lewis on Truth and Originality

[A version of this article first appeared in the Christian Writer magazine for Spring 2015]

C S Lewis article in 'Christian Writer' magazine

C S Lewis article in ‘Christian Writer’ magazine

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” (C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, IV, 11)

This is very good advice for anyone seeking to write, perhaps particularly on C S Lewis. There are so many books about him and his thought already in existence and new ones being created all the time, that it can feel foolhardy to attempt to say anything new about him or his circle, the Inklings. However, since this is true about virtually all subjects, what is the writer to do, particularly the writer committed to non-fiction?

Lewis (1898-1963) revelled in being a “dinosaur” in his field, one of the last surviving examples of Old Western Man who read medieval and renaissance texts as if they were native to him, as he declared in his inaugural address as Professor at Cambridge University in 1954. He had already parodied those who tried to be original and up-to-date for its own sake in Pilgrim’s Regress, his first novel of 1933. Here he portrayed the fashionable modernists of the time who pedalled godless philosophies for financial gain and a privileged status in society as the intelligentsia. Lewis showed how Freudianism, Marxism, and most other contemporary ‘-isms’ were frequently illogical and ridiculous if taken to their logical conclusions and were more effective in oppressing individuals rather than in liberating the true self. Once Lewis became a Christian he particularly disliked attempts by liberal theologians to import worldly philosophies into Christianity, resulting in a pseudo-form of the faith, even though he himself was quite happy with some forms of biblical criticism and evolutionary theory.

But for Lewis it was the task of re-educating his fellow citizens on the forgotten core beliefs of the Christian faith that was really crucial. In the Second World War he was to get the chance to do this, not just via the written word but via the most up-to-date technology available, the wireless. In these Broadcast Talks the last thing he wanted to be was original. Arresting, interesting, engaging, yes – in the way he put across the basics of the faith. But the main elements of Christian belief were not his to tinker with and he had found salvation for his soul and meaning for his life by submitting to the classic Christian creeds. He got into a spat with the liberal theologian Norman Pittenger in 1958 on this very issue. Pittenger, who taught Theology at a seminary in New York, accused Lewis, in effect, of dumbing down the faith. Lewis was perfectly aware that he was not a professional theologian and that he was bound to be essentially a populariser in this field, more a translator of the work of orthodox theologians that had gone before him than an innovator. And in his gift for making the distant and complex exciting and accessible lay his strength. In his rejoinder, Lewis rightly defends the necessity of this task:

“One thing at least is sure. If the real theologians had tackled this laborious work of translation about a hundred years ago, when they began to lose touch with the people (for whom Christ died), there would have been no place for me.”[1]

So for Lewis, writing about the Christian faith was much more than an academic exercise, it was an act of “translation” of what already existed, in a way suitable to communicate with a contemporary audience who desperately needed to hear it. More than that, he was obeying the Lord’s command to speak His truth to all people, not just playing around with concepts and ideologies with the intellectual elite. Lewis was not interested in the kind of fame that came from being ‘original’, especially as he was so well-versed in the philosophies and literary styles of the past that he knew how often these tended to just repeat themselves and be anything but ‘new’.

He was also not averse to repeating himself, for example on the topic of truth and originality: in Membership he wrote: “No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.” [2] And in a letter from 1942 he wrote against the need for so-called originality in poetry, not just in content but also in style, concluding “The pother about ‘originality’ all comes from the people who have nothing to say: if they had they’d be original without noticing it.” [3]

God is more concerned with making us new people: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation…”, “…be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”, and God is the one who says: “Behold, I make all things new…”. [4] God has made each one of us unique and so the uniqueness of our writing will come from us being true to our real selves as God has made us, not by trying to be something else. In fact trying to be ‘original’ and different and therefore something other than what we are could be seen as an affront to God’s own creativity. We reflect back the divine glory because of who we become in Christ, not in spite of it. Becoming our true selves and achieving self-realisation, which is the story arc of practically every Hollywood story and TV drama, is a free gift to the Christian. We become truly authentic as individuals and therefore as writers when we give ourselves up to Christ and let Him lead us into new life by His Spirit. Then we will truly blossom and achieve what Carl Jung called ‘individuation’. Then, if we are speaking or writing authentically we will be original and different by definition, for no one else can speak as the real you or write as the real you, other than… you.

Lewis ended his broadcast talks during the war on this very point: that “our real selves are, so to speak, all waiting for us in Him…. the very first step towards getting a real self is to forget about the self. It will come only as you are looking for something else.” And that ‘something else’ is of course the Lord Jesus. Lewis then emphasises that the same principle applies in literature, art and all of life – you make a much better impression when you have forgotten about yourself and making a good impression. It is the divine principle of losing your life, one painful bit at a time if necessary, in order to gain true spiritual life. To try and gain a self for yourself and by yourself will bring you only to despair and ruin.

I can’t think of a better way of ending than to be entirely unoriginal and use Lewis’ own ending to his radio talks: “But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in” [5]… including originality.

 

 

NOTES

[1] Lewis in ‘Rejoinder to Dr Pittenger’ in Undeceptions: Essays in Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper (Geoffrey Bless, London, 1971, p183).

[2] Available in The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses, edited by Walter Hooper (Macmillan, New York, 1980).

[3] Letter of 23 April 1942 to Martyn Skinner about his poem Sir Elfadore and Mabyna. Lewis was here particularly citing the style of Alexander Pope as one that was still valid, even though held in contempt by many of their contemporaries (Collected Letters of C S Lewis, vol 2, ed. Walter Hooper, HarperCollins, London).

[4] 2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 12:2; Rev. 21:5.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity (HarperCollins, London, 1952, Book 4, ch 11).


Dante and C S Lewis on Heaven as an Acquired Taste

Posted on

Dante and C S Lewis on Heaven as an Acquired Taste

Botticelli's Dante and Beatrice

Botticelli’s Dante and Beatrice

I’ve been so close for so long to finally finishing John Sinclair’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (it’s only taken me thirty years to get this far) that I thought to aim to finish at the end of 2014 might be an incentive. So I’ve been reading a couple of Cantos a day to try and get it done. I’d read Dorothy L Sayers’ translation in my twenties and loved it, then started on this version, in the (forlorn) hope that I’d learn Italian at the same time, as Sinclair’s translation lies next to the original text. I whizzed through the Inferno, then went a bit more slowly through the Purgatorio, and then ground to a halt on the Paradiso around 1992. No doubt life on this earth took over. I can remember going to a display of Botticelli’s illustrations of The Divine Comedy at, I think, the Royal Academy in the late 90s. The first room was full of luridly coloured drawings of Hell and its inhabitants and the room itself was hot and heaving with people. There were about half the number of people in the next room, devoted to the drawings of Purgatory. These illustrations were less highly coloured and more unfinished than those in the previous room. We then battled our way to the room devoted to Paradise to find that it was cool and serene with hardly anyone there – a very useful sermon or blog illustration in itself.

That of course was not Dante’s experience. In his story there were continual challenges to his vocabulary to describe just how many saved souls and angels he was seeing at the final stage, how many living examples of those kept alive by God’s grace – if he had known the word “gazzillions” he would probably have used it, since he was so fond of the vernacular. He is also finding it hard to describe the increasing beauty and holiness of the sights and sounds and is frequently blinded by the light as he gets closer to God. For many years I had a poster from the exhibition above my desks at home and at work – of Botticelli’s drawing of Dante next to Beatrice in mid-air, surrounded by the flames of the apostles and saints, with God just out of sight at the top of the picture. Dante has his hand up to his eyes as if he can’t take any more, even though Beatrice, his love, is pointing higher. Dante, even now, needs healing and his eyes strengthening if he is to see more.

Today I was as far as Canto XXX of the XXXIII. And it’s happened again! Dante again is overwhelmed by what he’s seeing: “Like sudden lightening that scatters the visual spirits and deprives the eye of the action of the clearest objects, a vivid light shone round about me and left me so swathed in the veil of its effulgence that nothing was visible to me.” [1]. Dante is using the language of St Paul’s experience of the divine light on the road to Damascus that left him blinded for 3 days [2]. But for Dante help is virtually instant: “…I was conscious of rising beyond my own powers, and such new vision was kindled in me that there is no light so bright my eyes would not have borne it. And I saw light in the form of a river pouring in its splendour between two banks…”

He sees angels like “living sparks” and the saved souls as jewel-like flowers set in gold that kept plunging into the water, as if drunk with wonderful smells, and laughing. Dante is instructed to drink of this water too so that he can see what’s actually going on, and when he does he no longer sees mere sparks and flowers but these changed into “a greater festival, so that I saw both the courts of heaven made plain.” [3].

This whole process of needing to be acclimatized before one can receive the beatific vision reminded me of the end of C S Lewis’ children’s novel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which is probably what Lewis intended. How great, to sneak Dante into a kid’s book! As Lucy, Edmund, Eustace, King Caspian, Reepicheep and the others are at the final point of sailing to the end of the known Narnian world, they too need to drink the now sweet water in order to be acclimatized to the staggeringly intense light that is the prelude to meeting with Aslan at the edge of the world and the beginning of Aslan’s own country. They too are about to see their hearts’ desire and need to be made strong enough to bear it.

Reepicheep is the first to hurl himself overboard and drink the water, which he says is like “drinkable light”:

“And one by one everybody on board drank. And for a long time they were silent. They felt almost too well and too strong to bear it…” [4].

They now notice that they are reacting differently to the light which had been getting stronger around them everyday since Ramandu’s Island. “Now, the light grew no less – if anything, it increased – but they could bear it. They could look straight up at the sun without blinking. They could see more light than they had ever seen before…” [5]. The sweet water of “that last sea” makes the older ones on the voyage feel younger and fills everyone with joy and excitement and… stillness. It even enables them to see past the sun, beyond the End of the World and into Aslan’s Country – sights and smells and sounds that would break your heart with longing [6]. We know this because of one of the most extraordinary things in the whole of the Narnia Chronicles, that is, that Lucy herself spoke to C S Lewis and told him about it! He must have been curious, we assume, at her saying this most wonderful sight could break your heart. “ “Why,” said I, “was it so sad?” “Sad!! No,” said Lucy.”[7] But she does not elaborate further, and neither does Lewis, with the obvious implication that the experience is beyond words and we are in the realm of the apophatic. We are often treated to Lewis speaking to us as the author in his children’s stories but this is the only place where he tells us one of the characters has spoken to him and he is giving us their first-hand account, as if Lucy is a real person. It is as if Lucy (whose name means ‘light’) is Lewis’ Beatrice, telling him the glories of the heaven that he has not yet seen, the communicator of the ultimate sehnsucht.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to be reminded of Lewis by this Canto of Dante. John Sinclair back in 1939, before the Narnia Chronicles were written, wrote in the commentary on his translation of Canto XXX:

“From such vision springs the love of true good, and from such love joy surpassing every sweetness. (The suggestion of Mr. C. S. Lewis, made in another connection, is relevant here: ‘The joys of heaven are for most of us, in our present condition, an acquired taste.’)” [8].

Once Dante’s sight is strengthened, everything changes from mere “shadowy forecasts” to “their truth”. And Sinclair quotes Aquinas to support this, that “grace and glory are the same in kind, since grace is nothing but a certain beginning of glory in us.” Wow!! That God’s grace working in us now is the same ‘thing’ as his glory revealed to and in us later – what an amazing thought! And Sinclair adds that this section is Dante’s version of what is referred to in the 36th Psalm: ‘Thou shalt make them drink of the river of thy pleasures. For with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light we shall see light.”

What a great end to Dante’s great work – and my own year – anticipating the soul’s final enlightenment. And huge thanks too to Lewis for writing about this in a form children can understand – who, like me, might take another thirty or more years to get round to Dante – his characters literally acquiring the taste for heaven.

Come to think of it, my eyes have been very sore recently and sensitive to light. Mmm, now where is that sweet water…?

NOTES

[1] John Sinclair (trans.), The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, with translation and Commentary by John D Sinclair, III, Paradiso, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1939/1961, Canto XXX, lines 46-51.

[2] Acts 9:9.

[3] ibid., lines 94-96.

[4] C S Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, HarperCollins, London, 2002 edn, p174.

[5] ibid., p175.

[6] ibid., p185.

[7] ibid.

[8] Sinclair, ibid., p442. This is a quote from Lewis’ 1940 book The Problem of Pain, so presumably Sinclair added this quote in the later edition of his translation.


Carey’s Oxford: Encounters with the Inklings

Posted on

The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books by John Carey (Faber and Faber, 2014)

Professor John Carey

Professor John Carey

My holiday reading last week took an unexpected turn – it turned out to be yet another bout of Inklings Studies instead of a holiday. Not that I’m complaining. It was a fantastic surprise to find Prof John Carey’s new autobiography on the shelf in a friend’s loo and to see it contained accounts of encounters with C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien, Hugo Dyson, Neville Coghill, Helen Gardner, Lord David Cecil, and Austin and Katherine Farrer. True, they don’t all come out of it very well, but I’m as fascinated as the next fan of the Inklings by first hand reports of them and their friends. We all want to know ‘What was it like to meet Lewis or Tolkien? What did they look and sound like? How did they smile, laugh? Did they have any odd habits we don’t know about? And what was it like to study with them or be their college colleague?’ Carey, Emeritus Professor of English at Merton College, gives us some fascinating glimpses as he tells of his own experience in the Oxford of the 1950s onwards.

With it being an autobiography, obviously Carey tells us a great deal about his own life and background which is fascinating in itself. He was born in London in 1934 and can remember the Silver Jubilee celebrations for King George V in 1935 (an elephant in a street parade in particular) and the fiery glare in the sky of the destruction of the Crystal Palace in 1936. I was particularly interested in the time he spent as a boy in Nottingham, my own home town, where he was evacuated in the Second World War for safety. But I will confine myself to Oxford and the Inklings…

Winning a scholarship to study at Oxford meant that Carey experienced the English Faculty there in the 1950s. He is scathing about the archaic nature of the syllabus (“a scandal or a joke, depending on your sense of humour”) which of course Lewis and Tolkien had helped to design. It stopped at 1832, seeming to assume that everyone would read Victorian literature for pleasure anyway and that modern stuff wasn’t worth studying, or at the very least, the jury was out. The syllabus had been heavily weighted towards Anglo-Saxon and early Middle English (pre-1300), “on the grounds, I suppose, that since no one could conceivably read them for pleasure they suited the rigorous demands of an academic discipline.” [1] Carey was a fan of the Modernists and found delving back into Anglo-Saxon a great chore: “Apart from Beowulf only three or four poems are worth reading…” [2] But it was a tremendous luxury to be able to read all day and Carey loved the Oxford tutorial system with its one-on-one time each week with some of the greatest experts on the planet.  Lectures, he found, were sometimes a waste of time. “J. R. R. Tolkien, lecturing on Beowulf was mostly inaudible and, when audible, incomprehensible. He seemed immemorially aged, and green mildew grew on his gown, as if he had recently emerged from a wood.” [3]

Despite these seeming setbacks to his enjoyment, Carey achieved a First in his degree and set about applying for scholarships for postgraduate study. His interview at Merton for a Harmsworth Senior Scholarship was with Hugo Dyson, who had already examined him as an undergraduate: “…Dyson, an Oxford ‘character’, known for his wit. I always found him alarming. He was like a hyperactive gnome, and stumped around on a walking-stick which, when he was seized by one of his paroxysms of laughter, he would beat up and down as if trying to drive it through the floor. It brought to mind Rumpelstiltskin driving his leg into the ground in the fairy tale.” [4] Carey acknowledges that Dyson was one of the famous Inklings and had had a role with Tolkien in bringing C S Lewis to the Christian faith: “So he was, at least in part, responsible for the Narnia books.” [5] But Carey never asked him about it. He does quote the famous story, however, of Dyson cutting off the reading of The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien at the Inklings with his protest: “Oh, not another ******* elf!” [6] But Carey was certainly impressed with Dyson’s humour: “On a good day he was the funniest man I ever met…”, second only to Peter Ustinov who could do mimicry as well, although he always seemed more ‘rehearsed’, “whereas Dyson was famous for his spontaneity. It was said that, one evening in Merton when there was duck on the menu, and the bird served was not duck but pheasant, he remarked, ‘Ah, le mallard imaginaire.” [7]

But on the day of Carey’s interview for the scholarship at Merton he had the surprise of finding that, not only was he introduced to all the Fellows, he was expected to play bowls (called ‘woods’) with them on the lawn of the Fellows’ Quad after dinner, amongst whom was Prof Tolkien. (I too have a Tolkien-related memory of having dinner with the Fellows at Merton when I was a Curate at St Aldate’s church, unfortunately when the Professor himself was long gone. It was around 1994 and we had wandered on the Fellows’ Quad and seen the ruin of the many irises lining the medieval wall, apparently caused by the visit the day before of President Clinton whose helicopter landing in the field next door had whipped off all the flowers, spoiling what should have been a beautiful show. I then had post-prandial drinks in a Fellow’s rooms who casually mentioned that they were the rooms occupied by Tolkien. There was not much there other than bookshelves and a desk and my main memory is of everything painted white. In those days I didn’t have a camera on me, so that was that. The Merton Fellow seemed as nonchalant about it as all in Oxford are who are used to that sort of thing.)

One intriguing detail of what it was like to be a postgrad in English in the Oxford of the 1950s is that Carey had to take two introductory courses in order to specialise in 17th century literature – how to decipher 17th century handwriting, and how to set up a page of type and print on an old handpress in the Bodleian Library, just like a 17th century compositor. Apparently those on the course made authentic-looking 17th century Christmas cards that year!

The other major part of a postgrad’s life is of course Supervision. Carey is critical of the standard of supervision in Oxford in those days. He refers to Kingsley Amis’ description in his Memoirs of Lord David Cecil’s non-cooperation and unavailability for him. But he particularly singles out Dyson for his lackadaisical approach to his postgrads: “…Dyson would slam down a fistful of coin on the mantelpiece, explain derisively that this was all the university paid him for the supervision, and suggest he and [the student] go off and ‘drink it’ in a pub.” [8] (I’m sure there are a lot of us who would pay good money for the chance of a drink in a pub with Dyson, but anyway…)

Carey feels he was lucky to have Helen Gardner as his supervisor. She may have been scary at times, reducing some students to tears, and have knitted during supervisions, but she was brilliant and helpful. Most people at the time, apparently, thought she should have been given the Merton Professorship of English that went to Neville Coghill. Carey writes: “I met Coghill, a tall, twitchy, gentle man with a face full of care.” Coghill was so nervous about giving his inaugural address as Professor that he asked Carey to second for him and read his lecture in case on the day he couldn’t go through with it. Fortunately Coghill managed.

Carey doesn’t seem to have come across C S Lewis much apart from one main encounter at Keble College. The new Warden of Keble in 1960 was the philosopher and theologian Austin Farrer who had just moved there with his wife Katherine, the detective novelist. Carey had managed to get a job there and moved into the same building as the Farrers at the same time. He was hugely impressed with Farrer: “He was lean, quick and witty, and seemed to me – though he was well into middle age – like one of Jane Austen’s clergymen – Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey, say. His wife Kay was tiny, sharp and so neurotic you imagined she’d emit a shower of sparks if placed in a dark room… [She] talked in a series of rapid squeaks that were hard to interpret…. Farrer was the nearest thing to a saint I have met, but he was capable of asperity, as saints no doubt need to be.” [9] Farrer was always very considerate to the Careys and invited them one day to lunch to meet Lewis. Both Carey and his wife had Firsts in English and were in awe of Lewis’ “prodigiously learned” The Allegory of Love, “besides, he had a ferocious reputation as a tutor and was famed for having challenged an undergraduate who failed to share his passion for Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum to a sword-fight. However, he was not at all intimidating that day. He had walked down across the University Parks from his home in Headington Quarry, and strode into the room, rubicund and tweedy, with a knapsack slung over his shoulder, like a farmer on holiday.” [10] There were only the Farrers, the Careys and Lewis at lunch that day in “mahoghany-and-damask splendour”, eating stuffed onions served by a housekeeper.

They spoke on literature, as one would expect, and Lewis quoted a line from a poem, “It was a little budding rose”, but couldn’t remember where it was from. Carey reports his ambivalence at saying the source in such august company and showing up their ignorance, as he just happened to have read the Emily Bronte poem that contained the line that week. But he needn’t have worried, as “both Lewis and Farrer were obviously delighted to be enlightened, and showed not the least trace of pique, so in character-test terms they won by an enormous margin….” [11]

Carey had been raised in a Christian context but had lapsed from the faith. However, he seems to have remained fascinated by faith in others, especially the devotional poets of the 17th century. He was also impressed by Farrer’s preaching at Keble chapel. “In the pulpit… Farrer’s personality changed. He would start very quietly, almost in a whisper, and gradually work himself up into a soaring climax, as if the Holy Spirit had entered him, as perhaps it had. I was not a regular chapel-goer but I tried not to miss his sermons because I was interested in the histrionics.” [12]

Another of Carey’s jobs in Oxford was that of Fellow at St John’s College in 1965, teaching medieval literature alongside Tom Shippey who was later to become such an authority on Tolkien. At this point Carey identifies Shippey as “a science fiction fanatic” [13]. Carey is now Emeritus Merton Professor of English, aged 80, having retired in 2011 after a distinguished career at his alma mater and as a writer and critic.

It is sad that he always felt like he was studying the Christian faith from the outside rather than entering into it. “…I came to feel that studying seventeenth century English Literature was really the same as studying Christianity. That was all they seriously cared about, and they cared enough, at a pinch, to kill or to be killed for their own particular brand of it. I was excited by this. As a lapsed Christian I felt I could imagine – just – how it would be to believe as they believed. At heart I knew this was a delusion. I was simply substituting aesthetic admiration for belief, and a real believer would probably tell me there was a special department in hell reserved for people who did that. All the same, it was the nearest I could get. When I read Henry Vaughan, for example, describing his experience of God:

“O joys! Infinite sweetness! With what flowers

And shoots of glory my soul breaks and buds!”

“It seemed to me that no one in the post-God era ever feels joy like that. The death of God has meant the death of joy – if joy means absolute certainty of eternal life. If a modern poet wrote those lines they would be about having sex, which doesn’t seem a very adequate substitute.” [14]

What a shame a man with such an opportunity of quizzing the Inklings and co didn’t discover the open secret of their inner life of joy for himself.

 

NOTES

[1] John Carey, The Unexpected Professor, p102.

[2] ibid., p103.

[3] ibid., p122.

[4] ibid., p135.

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid., p136.

[8] ibid., p142f.

[9] ibid., p178.

[10] ibid.

[11] ibid.

[13] ibid., p239.

[14] ibid., p123f.


In Tolkien’s Footsteps in Switzerland

Posted on

“… I journeyed on foot with a heavy pack through much of Switzerland…”

So the elderly J R R Tolkien wrote to Joyce Reeves on 4 November 1961 [1], recalling his journey of fifty years earlier when he was a mere nineteen years old and just about to go to Oxford. He points out that he was with a mixed group of about the same size as that which accompanied Bilbo in The Hobbit and experienced many of the same dangers and deprivations.

 

Tolkien's 1911 group in Switzerland

Tolkien’s 1911 group in Switzerland

Along with a later letter to his son Michael [2], we know some of difficult yet exhilarating conditions of their journey – the sleeping rough (the men of the group at any rate), snow, dangerous walks along mountain ledges, more snow, precipices, thunderstorms, fast flowing rivers and torrents of water, an avalanche with falling rocks, and walks through mysterious woods, even having to get rid of horrible spiders.

One gets the impression that Tolkien really enjoyed reminiscing about his death-defying journey as a young man and conjures up a vivid impression of his experiences in the 1967 letter to his son who has just been on a similar trip. Tolkien begins “I am delighted that you have made the acquaintance of Switzerland, and of the very part that I once knew best and which had the deepest effect on me” [3].

View from Reichenbach Falls

View from Reichenbach Falls

I was thrilled when I realised that my holiday in Switzerland a few weeks ago was going to cover much of the same area as Tolkien and his party. I was alerted to this by Alex Lewis’ article in Amon Hen 244, the Tolkien Society bulletin (November 2013) about his Alpenwild tour and so I read the relevant letters by Tolkien and any other material I could find in biographies and on the web. My tour was with Great Rail Journeys, so there was much less walking involved, apart from dashing between platforms at stations to get the next connecting train!

View from hotel window

View from hotel window

Tolkien writes that his group went first from Interlaken on mountain paths to Lauterbrunnen. It was fascinating to read Alex Lewis’ and others’ accounts of the story of St Beatus at Interlaken – the Irish monk who drove a treasure-guarding fire-breathing dragon out of the mountain over the main lake there.

Interlaken

Interlaken

It’s hard not to see this as Smaug and Laketown. I was particularly pleased that our boat on the lake was actually called ‘St Beatus’

St Beatus boat

St Beatus boat

and had the city’s coat of arms on the side which depicted the monk with a sword defeating the dragon.

St Beatus and Dragon

St Beatus and Dragon

 

As the boat drew away from the shore I had a great view of this misty mountain where it all happened and where the saint is buried.

 

Grave of St Beatus

Grave of St Beatus

St Beatus of Lungern is known as the Apostle to the Swiss because of his role in bringing the gospel there, sent from Britain to evangelise the Helvetii. His dates are somewhere between the 6th and 9th centuries. His grave is there in the caves at Beatenburg (Interlaken) and the Augustinian monastery built over it could be the model for the Last Homely House in Rivendell. I can imagine that the highly religious young Tolkien would have been delighted and moved to find a story here from Christian Europe that was so similar to the ones he loved in Norse mythology, especially involving dragons!

St Beatus monastery at Interlaken

St Beatus monastery at Interlaken

Then Tolkien’s party, which included his brother Hilary and his Aunt Jane Neave, went east over the mountains to Grindelwald, as did we.  Of course ‘wald’ means ‘wood’ but does ‘Grindel’ have any relationship to ‘Grendel’ and therefore a reminder for Tolkien of Beowulf?

Tolkien’s party then reached Meiringen. This is where my party was based and we stayed at the Park Hotel du Sauvage. It is possible that Tolkien stayed here as it was the place where the English tended to stop when visiting.

Park Hotel du Sauvage

Park Hotel du Sauvage

It is a beautiful art nouveau building and was called the Englischer Hof by Conan Doyle for his classic Sherlock Holmes story about Holmes’ struggle at the Reichenbach Falls in ‘The Final Problem’.

Hotel where Conan Doyle stayed in 1893

Hotel where Conan Doyle stayed in 1893

It would seem likely that at least some of Tolkien’s party would have been interested in the Holmes and Moriarty connection as here as they had to take the path past the Falls where the supposed death of Sherlock took place.

Reichenbach Falls 2014

Reichenbach Falls 2014

From Meiringen we too explored the gorge of the Aare river with its massive cliffs and terrifying steep plunges towards gushing torrents of water. It seems it was difficult to escape dragons even here as the Worm (der Tatzelwurm) that used to guard this place was portrayed on a plaque at the entrance to the rocky gorge.

Der Tatzelwurm at Aare Gorge

Der Tatzelwurm at Aare Gorge

My first view of Lauterbrunnental was from one of several trains that eventually took us up the Jungfrau. There was one moment in particular where the view of the valley looked like Tolkien’s drawing of Rivendell.

Tolkien's Rivendell

Tolkien’s Rivendell

Tolkien gave the name Bruinen (Loudwater) to the river flowing through Rivendell. This is the Swiss valley of loud water running through the valley with the towns of Murren and Wengen on cliffs on either side.

Lauterbrunnental

Lauterbrunnental

Climbing the Jungfrau – we were able to get to the highest train station in Europe, the Jungfraujoch, but Tolkien’s party would have stopped at the second level as the final stage of blasting through the rock and building the railway was only completed in 1912. The views were stunning.  Tolkien wrote: “I left the view of the Jungfrau with deep regret: eternal snow, etched as it seemed against eternal sunshine, and the Silberhorn sharp against dark blue: the Silvertine (Celebdil) of my dreams.”

Through a window at Jungfraujoch

Through a window at Jungfraujoch

Tolkien’s group ended their Swiss journey by crossing the Grimsell Pass, playing a game pretending they were beavers by building a dam, climbing up to the Aletsch glacier where they endured an avalanche, on to Valais, and then to Zermatt and the stunning view of the Matterhorn.

aletsch

Tolkien concludes in his letter to his son Michael: “I do not suppose all this is very interesting now. But it was a remarkable experience for me at nineteen, after a poor boy’s childhood. I went up to Oxford that autumn…” [4]. Oh, and if you do come across any spiders on your travels there, Tolkien recommends to Michael the dropping of hot fat from your candle onto their fat bodies!! Not an option for Bilbo and Co of course.  I’m glad to say I didn’t meet any either in the woods or my hotel room.

NOTES

[1] In Letter 232 in Humphrey Carpernter (ed.), The Letters of J R R Tolkien, George Allen and Unwin, London, p308f.

[2] In Letter 306 from 25 August 1967 to Michael Tolkien, in ibid., p391f.

[3] ibid.

[4]  ibid., p393.


Chesterton Chuckling

Posted on

Chesterton Chuckling

G K Chesterton

G K Chesterton

I have a memory of hearing G K Chesterton’s laugh – a deep, rich, infectious chuckle, bursting out of him almost uncontrollably, as if he can’t keep it in. My memory of this is from a short clip – no more than a minute long – which I heard on YouTube a few years ago. I now can’t find this, only another sample of his laugh at an event in honour of Rudyard Kipling in Canada [1], but it’s not the clip I remember. Was I imagining it?! Perhaps someone will find it for me, meanwhile I’ll have to make do with this other sample. It’s also frustrating to know that there was a film made of a literary breakfast before the First World War attended by GKC and Rupert Brooke, amongst others, that’s now lost. What I’d give to see that! Could it be gathering the proverbial dust in someone’s attic somewhere and they don’t even know?

Listening to Chesterton’s speech at the event honouring Rudyard Kipling, all of GK’s wit and intelligence and self-deprecating humour is on display and it’s obvious from the laughter of the audience that this is appreciated. His voice has the posh clipped tones that one hears in old British movies and news reports and has the slow deliberateness of someone used to projecting their voice without amplification. But every so often towards the end of the speech he can’t resist laughing at his own jokes. And that’s what I really love! It’s as though a gush of boyish joy bursts through and punctures the pomposity of the public event, as though we get a glimpse of the real Gilbert, his essence. This is certainly the impression he made on others – that of an irrepressible joie-de-vivre and enthusiasm, of someone enjoying life to the full, as if he had a private spring of gurgling joy that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, repress.

Here’s a first-hand impression from Holbrook Jackson’s description of him in 1908:

“Best is it to see him in his favourite habitat of Bohemian Soho. There in a certain obscure yet excellent French restaurant, with Hilaire Belloc and other writers and talkers, he may be seen, sitting behind a tall tankard of lager or a flagon of chianti, eternally unravelling the mysterious tangle of living ideas; now rising mountainously on his feet to overshadow the company with weighty argument, anon brandishing a wine-bottle as he insists upon defending some controversial point until ‘we break the furniture’; and always chuckling at his own wit and the sallies of others, as he fights the battle of ideas with indefatigable and unconquerable good-humour.” [2]

At first this doesn’t seem to have much in common with his much quieter creation, Father Brown. But one quality they seem to me to have in common is a mountainous confidence in God as the Creator of a good world that we are required to enjoy, and confidence in a universal church as the joyous servant and instrument of God in the world. Father Brown seems to see the world as his parish and everyone he comes across as his responsibility. He speaks the truth to them before God and hears their awful truth in confession. His God has a global reach and it’s actually quite silly of people not to believe. It reminds me of the astonished response of ‘Bridie’ in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ that Charles Ryder is not a believer. How strange! It’s so different to the feeling of marginalisation that one has as a Christian now most of the time. God and His Church are the central truths and it’s the rest of the world that’s odd and out of kilter. Now, I know this theologically, but how often do I feel it ? I remember when re-reading the Father Brown stories several years ago being so impressed with this confidence that Father Brown has as a priest that I had a ‘Father Brown moment’ at the hairdresser’s. My hairdresser, who was not a believer, was saying how worried she was about her fiance who was serving in the army in Iraq – there were only two weeks left before he could come home and they were to be married. With all of Father Brown’s confidence in my mind I said, “I’ll pray that he returns safely and you can get married.” Normally I think I might have said I would pray for her peace of mind in this difficult situation. But the Father Brown (or Chesterton) effect raised my confidence levels and suddenly this stranger was my pastoral responsibility and it seemed obvious that God would hear me – He was Master of all these events in the world. Needless to say I had to return to the hairdresser’s two weeks later to find out what had happened, the confidence level generated by Father Brown having worn off a bit by then. What if her fiance had been injured or killed in that time and my offer to pray now sounded like a facile mockery? Well, I’m glad to be able to say that the hairdresser’s fiance had indeed returned home safely and they were reunited as planned. I suppose I shouldn’t have doubted that the Lord would respond to a heightened level of faith, that was His gift after all. And I’m sure GK would be thrilled at another example of his stories still inspiring people’s confidence in God and the Christian worldview.

And that’s what I hear in Chesterton’s chuckle – a whole worldview and a massive faith in God is communicated in that outburst of fun and joy. Life is so good, he can’t help himself! Let non-believers keep their doom and gloom – Christians have this world and eternal life to be delighted about and a loving Lord who cares and intervenes for good. How fantastic, to be able to communicate the gospel just by how you laugh! Here Chesterton reflects the same view as the great victorian novelist and preacher, George MacDonald. GK loved MacDonald and was influenced by his writing and on this subject they could agree, as MacDonald wrote:

“I wonder how many Christians there are who so thoroughly believe God made them that they can laugh in God’s name; who understand that God invented laughter and gave it to His children. The Lord of gladness delights in the laughter of a merry heart.” [3]

And it certainly wasn’t because MacDonald or Chesterton had easy lives. It wasn’t a laughter generated by having no troubles. When I was thinking how to describe Chesterton’s laugh, I certainly did not want to use the phrase ‘holy laughter’ as that now seems to have such negative connotations – a laugh that’s held back, puritanical, anally-retentive, anondyne – the opposite of Chesterton’s happy gurgling or stupendous roar. Where are the well-known Christian comedians (apart from Milton Jones – God bless him)? Sometimes stand-up comedians are the only ones speaking the truth about the world in our media. We need to listen to MacDonald again:

“It is the heart that is not yet sure of its God that is afraid to laugh in His presence.” [4]

When this world order is over, I’m looking forward to having a good long chuckle with Chesterton.

Meanwhile I think I need some more ‘WWFrBD’ moments…

 

NOTES

1] YouTube clip of G K Chesterton at Rudyard Kipling event in Canada, the third excerpt of GKC speaking, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJjtJrvo87I

2] Holbrook Jackson, ‘G K Chesterton’, 1908, quoted in A Booklover’s Companion, The Folio Society, London, 2006, p74.

3] George MacDonald, The Miracles of our Lord, Strahan and Co., London, 1870, p23.

4] George MacDonald, Sir Gibbie, J M Dent and Sons, London, 1911, p152.


Do Poets need their own Corner?

Posted on

Do Poets need their own Corner?

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet's Corner

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet’s Corner

Far from being confined to the events of last November, a high level of interest in C S Lewis and his inclusion in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey continues. The lectures by Alister McGrath and Malcolm Guite and the discussion of the Symposium panel, of which I was a member, are now available on the web in audio and soon as a film on YouTube. It certainly does seem to have been “the Lewis event of the century” – at least so far! [1]

Just after the event itself I was very amused to read a poem by Wendy Cope on why there should be a Poet’s Corner at all. I don’t think anyone else has referred to it in connection with Lewis, so I thought you might like to see some of it. It’s from her first volume of poetry, entitled Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis [2] and is a comic response to an Engineer who had written to a newspaper complaining that there is a Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey to honour our nation’s greats in that field but not an ‘Engineer’s Corner’ or equivalent for those in different professions (presumably ignoring the many political and military ‘saviours’ who tend to get their statues scattered around sacred spaces willy-nilly the rest of the time).

The poet Wendy Cope

The poet Wendy Cope

So in ‘Engineer’s Corner’, Cope’s ironic consolation begins:

“We make more fuss of ballads than of blueprints –

That’s why so many poets end up rich,

While engineers scrape by in cheerless garrets.

Who needs a bridge or dam? Who needs a ditch?”

Of course life is easy for a poet, she continues. There’s a daily demand for their work as people eagerly devour at least a poem a day whereas, Cope sarcastically sympathises, desperate engineers have to take a second job to make ends meet and can’t have a social life if they’re to get any work done at all, the poor things.

“While well-heeled poets ride around in Daimlers,

You’ll burn the midnight oil to earn a crust,

With no hope of a statue in the Abbey,

With no hope, even, of a modest bust.”

And of course small boys prefer poems to engines! Anyone can see that the massive popular embrace of poetry is why the country is going to the dogs.

I wish I could quote her poem in full but no doubt copyright forbids. The comic impact is much greater in her succinct sarcastic rhyme. But Cope’s main point here seems to be that poets deserve the attention they get in Westminster Abbey in order to raise their profile and do something to make up for the neglect and poverty they suffered in life. Engineers and the like, you already have your reward. She is not tackling the question of whether there might be something peculiarly appropriate about poets and other artists of the word having a place of civic honour in a place of worship, that those whose work is most likely to exalt our souls to access the spiritual should be privileged in this way. Do artists of the word have more chance of leading us to consider the Word Himself than the mechanics of the material? Perhaps it’s an argument that will always exist between the poetic and musical Hrossa and the mechanical and crafts-oriented Pfiffltriggi (to put it in terms of Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet).

But as soon as we start to analyse this distinction in supposed worthiness for Abbey inclusion, there emerge some notable gaps. If we are to have a biblical emphasis on helping the poor and the sick, why is there not a Doctors/Nurses/Healers’ Corner? Or a Police and Social Workers’ Corner for those who rescue children from abuse and women from domestic violence? I could go on. In fact, the more one tries to analyse the need for a specifically Poets’ Corner, the more the argument falls down. This special Corner can’t just be to somehow ‘make it up’ to those we’ve treated rather shabbily here and feel a bit ashamed about, like children who give a special present to the teacher at the end of the year that they’ve given the hardest time to. And I wouldn’t have thought that the aim of a Poet’s Corner was to get every member of the populace writing poetry for themselves, an interesting world though that would be.

Sir Philip Sydney

Sir Philip Sydney

On a purely superficial level it seems appropriate that poets and writers should have their own corner to hide in – introverted observers rather than participators in life, who were able to view life from one step removed and so write to shape our vision of it more effectively. But straightaway I think of how many of our greatest poets were also men of action, for example those who were soldiers too – Sir Philip Sydney, Lord Byron, the War Poets themselves, and of course C S Lewis whose first published poem was ‘Death in Battle’ in John Galsworthy’s journal for war poets Reveille in 1919. Perhaps one thing those in Poets’ Corner have in common is that they were writers who burst out into the world in action and word and vision on a national and international level, and we finally caught on enough to honour them, whether hundreds of years later, or in Lewis’ case only fifty.

And all this talk of ‘great men’ – there are women in Poet’s Corner too. Wendy Cope herself is already an OBE and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, despite writing hugely enjoyable comic verse that appeals to a wide audience, so… who knows what will happen in the future, Abbey-wise? Rowan Williams, who preached at the Lewis memorial service at the Abbey, has called her the wittiest of contemporary English poets. She has almost been Poet Laureate twice and when she wanted to downsize to move house she sold her huge archive of material to the British Library. (This makes me very jealous as I’m currently downsizing and about to move house, but I think contacting the BL might be a bit premature in my case…)

In thinking about about how we honour our fellow human beings after death in public life, it’s easy to forget the real point – that everyone who does the will of God faithfully in this life will on the Great Day hear the words “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” from the Lord Himself and receive gracious reward from Him. What more does anyone need? C S Lewis gave a brilliant imagined portrayal of how human beings will be honoured or otherwise after death in his novel The Great Divorce of 1945. One character everyone remembers from this book is that glorious bright lady whom ‘Lewis‘ mistakes for the Virgin Mary herself, but is told by the MacDonald character: “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green.” When reviewing this book in 1946, The New Yorker said: “If wit and wisdom, style and scholarship are requisites to pass through the pearly gates, Mr Lewis will be among the angels.” [3] I’m sure Lewis would have counted a true wisdom as the only one of those qualities to really count in that regard. Anyway, I’m here concerned with the far more earthly issue of who passes into the corner of the poets in Westminster Abbey. I think I would conclude that a special corner for poets is probably indefensible, but the fact is it’s there, and since it is there, and in view of what it’s become over the centuries, then Lewis should be there too. His inclusion is certainly miraculous considering his early lack of faith and other struggles. When His father Albert was discussing his son’s atheism with his eldest son Warren, he was obviously worried but still clung on to hope, writing “…I do think that if Oxford does not spoil him… he may write something that men will not willingly let die.” [4]

Notes

[1] I’m glad to say that my blog on the C S Lewis Memorial Service has been shared by hundreds on Facebook and included on lists of the most useful resources about that event, eg. by William O’Flaherty, and Sarah Clarkson at http://www.thoroughlyalive.com/2013/12/c-s-lewis-at-westminster-abbey-a-roundup-of-links

[2] Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, Faber and Faber, 1986.

[3] Quoted in Walter Hooper (ed.), C S Lewis: A Companion and Guide, HarperCollins, London, 1996, p289.

[4] ibid., p142.


A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Three

Posted on

A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Three

Stairway

Stairway

The next staircase contained a hint that a great battle had been fought between good and evil in Narnia, all revolving around the death of Aslan. There began to be military pennants and flags, knights in armour and more small lion toys as clues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Narnian victory banquet

Narnian victory banquet

But the Great Dining Room was spread for a phenomenal banquet, with beautiful Christmas trees.

Van Dyck painting

Van Dyck painting

There were displays of fruit and candles on every table beneath old master paintings.

Side table display

Side table display

It was set to celebrate the victory of Aslan and the Narnian army over the White Witch and her evil hordes.

High King Peter's chair

High King Peter’s chair

Each chair at the table had a name tag showing which guest was to sit there. Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy (now called Kings and Queens of Narnia) had a chair with their names plus the gifts they had been given by Father Christmas that had helped them win the battle (except Edmund who had not been there to meet him). What could top this?

Aslan

Aslan

Meeting Aslan himself, of course. This was surprisingly low key. As you can see from the photo, the lighting was not good nor the setting. Anyway, it was great to see small children (and adults) getting their photos taken with him and not seeming to mind. I suppose there was something appropriate about even the resurrected Aslan being humble and approachable, as opposed to the White Witch posing with her throne under a disco glitter ball.

Sculpture Gallery

Sculpture Gallery

Those of you familiar with the Kiera Knightley ‘Pride and Prejudice’ can perhaps remember the Sculpture gallery at Chatsworth that she walked through contemplating the statues supposedly at Pemberley. The gallery is now transformed into Cair Paravel with striped tents and banners with lions rampant.

Children's requests to Santa

Children’s requests to Santa

There were smaller Christmas trees made of paper tags on which children had written their requests to Father Christmas.

Thrones at Cair Paravel

Thrones at Cair Paravel

And children were able to sit on thrones on a dais and be crowned as High King Peter, King Edmund, Queen Susan and Queen Lucy. When I was there it was lovely to see a boy in a wheelchair crowned with his brothers.

Marble lion

Marble lion

Of course it was hardly necessary to add a figure of a great lion to the Sculpture Gallery at Chatsworth as the room finishes with two enormous lions like bookends

Marble lion

Marble lion

on either side of the huge doorway as one leaves.

Chatsworth shop

Chatsworth shop

It was rather strange to suddenly be in the shop, even if there were C S Lewis’ Narnia books on sale. There were some toys for children too to help them play out the story at home. I heard a small boy requesting some pieces of plastic armour from his mother but she replied: “You can have a sword or a shield but we can’t afford both!” That must have been a let-down after all the excitement so far! I already had the Narnia books of course, so I contented myself with a book on the grand houses used in Jane Austen film and TV adaptations – oh, and some chocolate.

Tea rooms and Orangery

Tea rooms and Orangery

After that I went with my family to the tea rooms

Stable block

Stable block

and we managed to stagger around a few more shops in the stable block and down to the magnificent Emperor fountain, blowing into thousands of droplets in the strong cold wind.

Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House

Looking at the house itself from the garden we were able to see that the window frames had been painted gold since our last visit. This apparently weathers better than ordinary paint and is cheaper for them in the long run – just a little household tip for you there! It was also noticeable as we left how many of the trees were leaning to one side because of the high winds on the peaks. We left before it got dark and there didn’t seem to be any flaming torches this time anyway. But the whole trip had been exhilarating and even joyful. I was glad to be able to share it with some of my family and I wish I could have taken all my family and friends.

Goodbye to Chatsworth

Goodbye to Chatsworth

I hope these photos and commentary give you a taste of what it was like and a desire to experience again the excitement of C S Lewis’ Narnia this Christmas and the glory of the victory over evil and the salvation of humankind as depicted in the story of Aslan and Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

IMG_4739

Merry Christmas!

Have a very blessed Christmas!


A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Two

Posted on

A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part Two

One of the most amazing things about visiting Chatsworth House this week was just the fact that we were allowed to take photos. Anyone who has been round the great stately homes of England will know that this is very unusual, so it felt like a triple privilege being able to take photos of such marvellous architecture and works of art, along with the staggering amount of special Christmas decor plus the magical Narnian theme.

Painted Hall

Painted Hall

A glory of Chatsworth even under normal conditions is the enormous Painted Hall with the main staircase. Virtually every inch is covered with murals and carving and sculpture. Those of us walking around the house had already begun to gasp as we entered each room, but this next one really took our breath away.

White Witch

White Witch

The White Witch had certainly commandeered the best spot, looking magnificent at the top of the main stairs with a cloak flowing down,

Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

with the addition of a few cheeky boxes of turkish delight.

White Witch

White Witch

She was standing next to a very impressive throne that looked suspiciously like the silver chair.

Turkish Delight

Turkish Delight

Turkish delight was definitely a theme here, even nestling under glass domes on side tables.

View from balcony

View from balcony

It was possible to view the whole scene from a balcony on the upper floor and get an even more amazing perspective.

Tops of trees

Tops of trees

Here one could see the top of the gigantic Christmas trees.

Detail of decorations

Detail of decorations

Apparently it took the staff a week of solid work to decorate the house. I’m surprised it didn’t take a lot longer.

Aslan on the Stone Table

Aslan on the Stone Table

Even though the scene with the White Witch was impressive, the next scene, though on a smaller scale, was even more astonishing. We were suddenly confronted with a life-size Aslan on the Stone Table. He was bound with ropes in the classic pose and there were small white mice moving around on him as if helping to free him. They were animatronic of course but it looked surprisingly realistic. But the most surprising thing was that Aslan’s chest was moving up and down gently as if he had begun to breathe again and was returning to life. I don’t know if they didn’t want to present him as dead so as not to upset children or if this was a genuine theological statement! Of course Aslan, the true King, has given his life in exchange for Edmund, to rescue him from the White Witch.  I could have stared at this for ages but of course one has to keep moving and let other people see. The scene fitted remarkably well with the backdrop of the room chosen and felt august and solemn.

Veiled lady

Veiled lady

Next a statue of a veiled lady reminded me of the women weeping at the tomb of Jesus, and Susan and Lucy mourning Aslan, before they know of his victory over death.

Tiny lion clues

Tiny lion clues

All the way round the house were small lion toys to give the children clues to various questions for them for the quiz on the guide.

Lion Christmas tree

Lion Christmas tree

Now a whole tree decorated with lots of lion toys seemed to be giving the hint as well that perhaps the witch was not about to have everything her way and Aslan was on the move again…

 

Part Three concerns the victory of Aslan and the enthronement of the four children at Cair Paravel.


A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part One

Posted on

A Narnian Christmas at Chatsworth House – Part One

Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House

A few years ago I had such a marvellous time at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire seeing their Christmas decorations and nativity that I vowed to go again someday. Not only is the house one of the most beautiful in Britain, the huge Christmas trees in every room, the vintage swags on the staircases and fireplaces, and the nativity with real animals in the stableyard, meant that it had been an unforgettable treat, plus flaming torches lighting our way as we drove away in the dark. The house is the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and dates back to the sixteenth century, but it has also posed as Darcy’s Pemberley for ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in both the Keira Knightley/Matthew MacFadyen film version and now the TV adaptation of P D James’ ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’, so catnip for Jane Austen fans. And when they announced that this year the Christmas decorations would be themed around C S Lewis’ ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, it was obvious that this was the year to go to Chatsworth again. I have spoken on Lewis and Narnia at various venues and have seen several excellent and creative attempts to decorate places to give a Narnia ‘experience’, so what would such an immense house with so many resources be able to offer?

Chatsworth House So this week we made the hour’s drive from Nottingham to Bakewell in the Derbyshire Peak District. There was the obligatory ‘Brideshead’ moment as we approached the enormous building from the edge of the estate and saw the building’s magnificence at a distance. As you enter the Chatsworth itself you are greeted by an Air Raid Warden and scenes and music from the Second World War. This is because ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ of course is set at the beginning of the War and, as I’m sure you know, concerns the four Pevensie children who were evacuated to the countryside to avoid the bombing – very appropriate for Chatsworth as apparently a girls’ school called Penrhos College was evacuated here at that time too in reality, although sometimes it was so cold that their hot water bottles froze at night!

Christmas tree with London buses The first two Christmas trees that greet you in the entrance way are decorated with little London buses and there is a desk with 1940s items such as an old phone and newspaper which reminded me of Lewis’ desk at the Kilns. But then one walks through a doorway and into a short passage lined with fur coats and then… into Narnia!

Narnian Winter

Narnian Winter

A long corridor with spectacular white and silver and frosty trees and baubles, all leading up to –

The Lamp post

The Lamp post

what else – the lamp post. Small white furry woodland creatures are hiding in the undergrowth and one is lulled into a false sense of security when suddenly…

Maugrim the Wolf

Maugrim the Wolf

several enormous menacing wolves appear, one being Maugrim himself with the notice of the arrest of Mr Tumnus on the orders of the ‘Queen’.

Stone fountain

Stone fountain

There was an area for children to dress up in long dresses and furs and cloaks as characters from the story. This overlooked an inner courtyard with a fountain and animals that had been ‘turned’ into stone to show the witch’s power in Narnia at that point.

Trees in Chapel

Trees in Chapel

We then walked into the chapel, in itself a stunning place for worship filled with magnificent murals and statues and two of the biggest Christmas trees I’ve ever seen indoors. Christmas carols were playing in the background and people were standing around in awe at the sight.

Chairs in chapel

Chairs in chapel

The tapestry chairs on either side reminded me of the thrones for the kings and queens of Charn, waiting to be awoken by Digory striking the bell – not perhaps a happy recollection but by this point even the ‘ordinary’ furnishings and carvings in Chatsworth were taking on a Narnian significance.

 

 

 

 

Tea with Mr Tumnus

Tea with Mr Tumnus

We then turned left into the Oak Room, renamed Tumnus Towers, and found ourselves in Mr Tumnus’ living room all set out for tea. His kettle was whistling on the fire and a book entitled ‘Is Man a Myth?’ lay on the table, the cover photo looking suspiciously like the Duke of Devonshire! The man playing Mr Tumnus was probably rather old for the part, if he’ll forgive me saying, but did have magnificent furry trousers. But having tea with Mr Tumnus here was very appropriate as it was the Duchess of Devonshire in the 18th century who invented the habit of taking afternoon tea as a stop gap to tide one over as dinners were so late in the evening.  There were two trees in his room, both decorated with gingerbread men. I had read a newspaper account beforehand of what would be in this Narnian experience so I had been expecting Mr Tumnus, but not what we could see from the next room –

 

Mr and Mrs Beaver

Mr and Mrs Beaver

– right into the living room of Mr and Mrs Beaver! She is at her sewing machine and he is scrubbing his back in a bath in front of the fire (not sure where they got this from, but it was funny)! The walls made of logs was a nice touch and there were packets on a table such as wood chips for them to chew on and ‘incisor paste’ for cleaning their teeth, the old-fashioned packaging adding to a 1940s feel.

Father Christmas' sleigh

Father Christmas’ sleigh

One then walked out into the Chapel Corridor and was confronted by Father Christmas’ sleigh. Unfortunately he was not there in person (I probably would have fainted by this point) –

Father Christmas' reindeer

Father Christmas’ reindeer

– but the two reindeer were animatronic and moving as if they were about to eat the carrot and mince pie left out for them by children. Apparently each year, for over a hundred years, Chatsworth has a held Christmas party for the children of their estate workers during which Father Christmas really does come down the chimney! If we hadn’t realised it already, it was now obvious that here they can do things on a much bigger scale than the rest of us. And we were only at the beginning of our Narnian Christmas journey…

 

Part Two concerns Aslan, the White Witch and Turkish Delight.

Part Three concerns the victory of Aslan and the enthronement of the children at Cair Paravel.


Marsh and MacDonald

Posted on
MacDonald's 'At the Back of the North Wind'

MacDonald’s ‘At the Back of the North Wind’

Marsh and MacDonald

In my last blog, I made a link between a passage I had been reading in a Ngaio Marsh murder mystery and the memorial service for C S Lewis. I never dreamt I would be doing the same again for my next blog, although this time not about C S Lewis but in reference to his mentor, George MacDonald.

This week I moved on to reading Ngaio Marsh’s Death at the Bar (1939), beautifully realised on TV and DVD with Patrick Malahide as her Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn. If you like murder mysteries that also take you on a trip to the seaside with your favourite detective, then this is one for you (as well as the classic ABC Murders with Poirot, of course). ‘Death at the Bar’ is a pun, much beloved by Marsh for her titles, as the murder victim is killed at the bar in a darts match in an old-fashioned pub but is also ‘at the bar’ since he is a lawyer. Meanwhile, Inspector Alleyn is up to his eyes in work and exhausted in London and so is rather pleased to get the chance to travel to Ottercombe in Devon on the south west coast of England for a change that might prove something of a rest.

He and his main sidekick Inspector Fox are soon holed up in the olde worlde pub where the murder has taken place and are interviewing suspects. But they cannot resist the charm of the beautiful scenery stealing over them. One night, instead of concentrating on poisons and fingerprint evidence, Alleyn takes a break:

“He got up, stretched himself, and leant over the windowsill. The moon was out, and the sleeping roofs of Ottercombe made such patterns of white and inky black as woodcut draughtsmen love. It was a gull’s-eye view Alleyn had from the parlour window, a setting for a child’s tale of midnight wonders. A cat was sitting on one of the crooked eaves. It stared at the moon and might have been waiting for an appointment with some small night-gowned figure that would presently lean, dreaming, from the attic window. Alleyn had a liking for old fairy tales and found himself thinking of George MacDonald and the Back of the North Wind. The Combe was very silent in the moonlight.”

This is just one of the very evocative descriptions by Marsh of the Devonshire coast and what a small English coastal village was like in 1939, almost cut off from the rest of the world. There are also interesting political discussions between characters, like Nark and Legge and Will Pomeroy, which would not be out of place in the polemic over emergent evolutionism, scientism, and social progressivism also used in C S Lewis’ cosmic trilogy of the same period and confirm that he had his finger on the pulse of the times (if more confirmation were needed). But I am chiefly grateful at this moment for this evidence that one of my favourite literary detectives was also a fan of fairy tales and the father of fantasy fiction, that his first recourse on a moonlit night was to think in imagery derived from the marvellous MacDonald, or should I say that I am grateful for this reminder from the mind of his fantastic female creator, Ngaio Marsh.


C S Lewis’ Memorial Service

Posted on

C S Lewis’ Memorial Service

 

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

After being at the C S Lewis memorial events at Westminster Abbey this week – listening to lectures on C S Lewis, speaking at the C S Lewis Symposium, meeting up with C S Lewis fans and friends, and finally attending the C S Lewis service itself – I felt like having a bit of a day off today to recover, preferably on activities nothing to do with C S Lewis. Especially as I’ve also spent the last few weeks reading Lewis’ novels and writing talks about Lewis, some non-Lewis reading seemed in order, much as I love him.

But, as usually happens when I’m trying to escape a subject, the very thing I pick up instead drags me back to it – or, to put it more positively, gives new insight and perspective on the forbidden subject. This morning, as an escape, I picked up at random an old murder mystery by Ngaio Marsh called False Scent (1960). It concerns the death of a famous actress. And after being with the thousands who turned up to honour Lewis this week, I couldn’t help but resonate with the opening words of Ngaio Marsh’s story:

“When she died it was as if all the love she had inspired in so many people suddenly blossomed. She had never, of course, realised how greatly she was loved, never known that she was to be carried by six young men who would ask to perform this last courtesy: to bear her on their strong shoulders, so gently and with such dedication. Quite insignificant people were there… the family nurse… her dresser… the stage doorkeeper… Crowds of people whom she herself would have scarcely remembered but upon whom, at some time, she had bestowed the gift of her charm. All the Knights and Dames, of course, and The Management, and… the great producer who had so often directed her. Bertie Saracen who had created her dresses since the days when she was a bit-part actress and who had, indeed, risen to his present eminence in the wake of her mounting fame. But it was not for her fame that they had come to say goodbye to her. It was because, quite simply, they had loved her.”

That was exactly how I felt! I, surely, was one of those “insignificant people” who had turned up to honour Lewis on the fiftieth anniversary of his death. As a speaker at one of the commemorative events, I did have a place in the Quire of the Abbey and so was closer to the ‘action’ and so felt doubly blessed and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking along the lines of “Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

Service booklet for C S Lewis' Memorial

Service booklet for C S Lewis’ Memorial

The service was stunning and moving, beginning with the oh-so-appropriate opening hymn ‘He who would valiant be’ based on Pilgrim’s Progress, then a recording of Lewis himself speaking about “getting a real self”. How strange and affecting to hear his voice in that setting. Then Dr Francis Warner, one of Lewis’ pupils, read from Isaiah 35 (including the wonderful phrase “the habitation of dragons”!), and Prof Helen Cooper, who holds Lewis’ old chair at Cambridge, read 2 Corinthians 4 (“eternal weight of glory”). There followed a particularly telling reading as Douglas Gresham, Lewis’ stepson, gave us Aslan’s welcoming of the children into his land forever after their earthly deaths from The Last Battle – hard not to shed a tear at that point if you hadn’t already. Dr Michael Ward led the dedication of the memorial that he has done so much to bring about and Walter Hooper, Lewis’ friend and secretary and the editor of his works, laid beautiful white flowers above Lewis’ name.   The Right Rev and Right Hon Rowan Williams (now “The Lord Williams of Oystermouth” – who knew?) gave a brilliant sermon on Lewis’ defense of language and the human, and the Choir sang Paul Mealor’s flowing arrangement of Lewis’ poem ‘Love’s as warm as tears’ – another opportunity for tears from the congregation. The prayers were led by a wonderful array of clergy representing the geography of Lewis’ life and the service ended on an uplifting note with ‘O praise ye the Lord!’

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet's Corner

Memorial of C S Lewis in Poet’s Corner

There was then the chance for us to actually see the memorial with Lewis’ name in the stone floor of Poet’s Corner, cut with his own words: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”

There may often be people going to services at Westminster Abbey just to see the magnificence of the building (and not pay the usual £18 entrance fee – there’s a tip for you) or some may have been tempted to come simply because Lewis is now a celebrity, as opposed to the very few who went to his funeral in 1963. But I don’t think this was the case yesterday on the 22nd of November, 2013. If I can adapt the words of the Ngaio Marsh story:

“But it was not for his fame that they had come to say goodbye to him. It was because, quite simply, they had loved him.”


The Honouring of Dead Poets Society

Posted on
Keats' Grave

Keats’ Grave

The Honouring of Dead Poets Society

Around 130 years ago there was an effort to raise funds to belatedly help the poet Keats, or rather his sister who was his only surviving close relative. There was a sense that not enough had been done to honour the young poet during his too-brief life. Only recognised post mortem as one of England’s greats, John Keats had been neglected and he and his family subjected to unnecessary suffering as a result.

I discovered this attempt at fund-raising when reading some of another poet’s letters in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The Preraphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was writing in February 1880 to Harry Buxton Foreman, a collector of Keats manuscripts, to ask about Foreman’s copy of Endymion. Rossetti describes himself as “a lover of Keats” despite the fact that he then goes on to diss Keats quite severely (most of his sonnets were “very faulty or inferior”, although his sonnet on Chapman’s Homer is good and the finest is On a Dream). He then refers to the subscription to help Keats’ sister Frances Mary, wife by this time of Valentine Llanos. Rossetti is sad that so little has been achieved by this point:

“It is grievous to me to find how little progress has been made with the Keats subscription. I have found a lukewarmness incredible to me even among special admirers of the poet. I had hoped much from America, but this it seems proves fallacious.” [1]

There was to be a happy ending eventually, however. Disraeli, now Lord Beaconsfield, granted a Civil List Pension to Frances Mary in old age, the younger sister of the young dead genius. What else could the lovers of Keats do? There was always his grave in Rome with the memorial stone without a name, only to the one whose “Name was writ in Water”, organised by the painter Joseph Severn who was with Keats when he died and honoured his request concerning the brief epitaph. Many, including Oscar Wilde, made the journey there to honour their poetic hero. I must confess, though I have been to Rome, I have never made that pilgrimage, although I did visit Oscar Wilde’s grave in Pere-la-Chaise cemetery in Paris in the 1980s. I still have the photo of me aged 20, standing under an umbrella next to the large Jacob Epstein monument of a sphinx, looking intense and dismal in the rain in an inappropriately bright cardigan that just failed to be sunflower yellow. The Epstein monument records lines from Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol : “For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.” I had already memorised these lines as a Melancholy Romantic teenager and so was delighted to find them as the last word on my favourite poet of that time. (A bit different to Wilde’s last reported words: “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do”, or indeed Disraeli’s great last words: “I think I’m getting better now”!) But it still took a while longer for Keats to be honoured in his own country with a memorial. There was an attempt in 1939 to have a plaque dedicated to him in Westminster Abbey but the advent of the Second World War delayed things till 1954.

But this November marks the honouring of another poet who was not honoured (as a poet, at any rate) in his lifetime. The great writer and scholar C S Lewis (the writer of Dymer rather than Endymion) is to have a plaque unveiled to his name in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, largely due to the efforts of Dr Michael Ward.  It has often been noted that Lewis, though sometimes ignored in Britain, has been embraced by America, and this is certainly true of those subscribing to the memorial to Lewis for Westminster Abbey. There has not been the “lukewarmness” from the USA that Rossetti noted in the Keats fund-raising, for which we’re very grateful.

But there is a slight way to go. You can still make donations at www.lewisinpoetscorner.com where you also get your free tickets to come to the celebrations. This is your chance to be a part of it. And this time I get to be part of it too, as one of the speakers at the Symposium on 21 November. I promise not to wear the unfortunate yellow cardigan.

NOTES

[1] D G Rossetti, John Keats: Criticism and Comment, Private Circulation, 1919 (30 copies of 5 of DGR’s letters printed for T J Wise of Hampstead).