Marsh and MacDonald

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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

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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.”