Critiquing Critiques: A Lewis Insight (Part 2)

In my last C. S. Lewis post, I drew from one of his lesser-known essays entitled “On Criticism.” I find that it contains a number of great insights into how reviewers of books can fall into errors. The first error Lewis pointed out is that some reviewers simply don’t do the work necessary: they don’t read carefully and miss the mark on the actual facts contained in a book.

A second error, according to Lewis, is when a reviewer attempts to provide a background for the book, yet does so without adequate knowledge. This often results in a fanciful tale with little relation to reality.

A great example, Lewis says, is of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Lewis, of course, knew all about its genesis, as he was probably the prime instigator in getting Tolkien to continue work on it and finally completing it. He knew the date when Tolkien began the project and could comment with authority that the critics had something terribly wrong historically:

Most critics assumed . . . that it must be a political allegory and a good many thought that the master Ring must “be” the atomic bomb. Anyone who knew the real history of the composition knew that this was not only erroneous, but impossible; chronologically impossible.

Others assumed that the mythology of his romance had grown out of his children’s story The Hobbit. This, again, he and his friends knew to be mainly false.

Now of course nobody blames the critics for not knowing these things: how should they? The trouble is that they don’t know they don’t know. A guess leaps into their minds and they write it down without even noticing that it is a guess. Here certainly the warning to us all as critics is very clear and alarming.

Lewis then takes the critics to task for ignoring what they were supposed to be doing: writing a review of the actual book before them, not inventing a tale of how the book came into being and what might be the message behind the message within the book.

Notice that in all these conjectures the reviewer’s error has been quite gratuitous. He has been neglecting the thing he is paid to do, and perhaps could do, in order to do something different. His business was to give information about the book and to pass judgement on it. These guesses about its history are quite beside the mark.

After remarking on the mistaken assumptions about Tolkien’s work, he mentions how the same thing has happened with his own:

And on this point, I feel pretty sure that I write without bias. The imaginary histories written about my books are by no means always offensive. Sometimes they are even complimentary. There is nothing against them except that they’re not true, and would be rather irrelevant if they were.

I find it a little amusing that Lewis says those misunderstandings can sometimes be quite nice, but that the real issue is that they are false regardless.

As always with Lewis, he takes his own criticism to heart, wanting to ensure he doesn’t fall into the same trap:

I must learn not to do the like about the dead: and if I hazard a conjecture, it must be with full knowledge, and with a clear warning to my readers, that it is a long shot, far more likely to be wrong than right.

Bottom line: maintain integrity in all you write. That’s a great lesson for us all.

Lewis, Tolkien, WWI, & Hope

Hobbit, Wardrobe, Great WarA Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. What a great title. And what a great book. Joseph Loconte, professor of history at the King’s College in New York City, has crafted a masterpiece that weaves knowledge of the impact of WWI on a generation, and then offers an insightful analysis of how the war affected the thinking and writing of both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

For me, as a professional historian, the book was a delight on two fronts.

First, WWI has not been a particular focus of my studies. Yes, I know the basics, but I’ve never delved into the kind of detail Loconte provides here. So this book has deepened my bond with the generation that endured that horror.

Second, even though I knew that Lewis and Tolkien had served in the Great War (as it was called at the time), and I am familiar with Lewis’s account in Surprised By Joy, Loconte’s description of what he experienced expands on the barebones treatment Lewis gives. As for Tolkien, this was my first encounter with what he suffered during the war.

Tolkien was a faithful Catholic at the time, and remained so for the rest of his life. Lewis was an atheist, sometimes bordering on agnosticism. They didn’t know each other while the war was going on, but when they met at Oxford for the first time in 1926, their shared experience, not only of literature, but of the war as well, created a deep friendship.

Lewis-TolkienLoconte shows how this Great War dashed the utopian hopes of Progress in the 1920s generation and replaced those hopes with cynicism. Then he concentrates on how Lewis and Tolkien bucked that trend in their writing. Once Lewis converted to the faith (helped along by key conversations with Tolkien), he became the most noted Christian apologist of his time.

Lewis’s works—from the Screwtape Letters to his science fiction novels to The Chronicles of Narnia—recognized evil for what it was, yet always offered the Christian remedy for that evil. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings painted a horrible portrait of evil, and the descriptions he offers of the terrible battles derived directly from his WWI experiences. Lewis drew on that same background for his works.

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War is eminently readable. I breezed through it in less than three days. As the cliché goes, I couldn’t put it down. My next goal is to figure out how to use it in one of my courses because it is that good.

This is not a book for Lewis and Tolkien admirers only. It is for anyone who seeks to understand the false hopes humanity tends to cling to, the awfulness of human evil, and the way in which Christians can communicate the truths of the Good News to any “lost generation.”

The current generation is just as lost as the one Lewis and Tolkien addressed; the solution to that lostness has not changed. God’s truth is still the message that must be trumpeted to a world that has exchanged the truth for a lie.

Lewis & the Hams

Warfield FirorI keep writing my C. S. Lewis book. The chapter I’m currently working on highlights some of the regular American correspondents Lewis had for the last decade and half of his life. Warfield M. Firor was one of those. He was fairly famous as a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. A Chair in Surgery has been established there in his name.

Firor, after WWII, was not only an admirer of Lewis’s books, but one of his most faithful contributors during the rationing after the war. He sent a steady stream of packages with a variety of foods that the English had trouble obtaining. Firor was particularly notable for sending over hams, one of Lewis’s favorite meats, but scarce for many years. Those hams started appearing in late 1947. After the arrival of the first one, Lewis replied,

I am completely at a loss when it comes to thanking you for your last parcel: because I rather doubt if you know what you have done. A ham such as you sent lifts me up into our millionaire class. Such a thing couldn’t be got on this side unless one was very deep in the Black Market. . . .

And as for the cheese, I found I’d almost forgotten what real cheese tastes like.

I and all my friends are very deeply grateful; you have given an amount of pleasure which you, in your happier country, cannot realize. . . .

P.S. We’re boiling it tomorrow. Meantime I go and have a look at it every now and then for the mere beauty of it—the finest view in England.

A scant three months later, Lewis had to send another thank-you letter, telling Firor, “No one ever see a ham these days over here, and even in a good restaurant it is very rarely that you would get a small slice of ham. I shall probably be known in Oxford for months as ‘the man who got the ham from America’! Believe me, I am heartily thankful to you for your kindness.”

When another one arrived just two months later, Lewis informed Firor, “The arrival of that magnificent ham leaves me just not knowing what to say. If it were known that it was in my house, it would draw every housebreaker in the neighbourhood more surely than would a collection of gold plate! Even in your favoured country its intrinsic value must have been considerable, and over here it is beyond valuing.”

InklingsLewis decided to share this largesse with the Inklings, rather than hoard it all for himself. He described to Firor what transpired at their last meeting:

The fate of the ham was this: we have a small informal literary club which meets in my rooms every Thursday for beer and talk, and—in happier times—for an occasional dinner. And last night, having your ham to dine off, we had a meal which eight members attended. By diligent “scraping the bottom of the barrel” in various colleges we got two bottles of burgundy and two of port: the college kitchen supplied soup, fish and a savoury: and we had a delightful evening. This by English standards is a banquet rarely met with, and all agreed that they hadn’t eaten such a dinner for five years or more.

Attached to the letter was a “Ham Testimonial” signed by all the Inklings who were present that evening to enjoy the feast. So Firor had a testimonial signed not only by Lewis but by J. R. R. Tolkien. Imagine what a price that would fetch today.

My study of Lewis has yielded so many fascinating insights. I’m grateful for this sabbatical year when I can devote myself to this.

Redeemed Beauty

We’ve never seen men and women as they were intended to be. We’ve never seen animals the way they were before the Fall. We see only marred remnants of what once was.

Likewise, we’ve never seen nature unchained and undiminished. We’ve only seen it cursed and decaying. Yet even now we see a great deal that pleases and excites us, moving our hearts to worship.

If the “wrong side” of Heaven can be so beautiful, what will the right side look like? If the smoking remains are so stunning, what will Earth look like when it’s resurrected and made new, restored to the original?

C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien saw core truth in the old mythologies, and in their books they give us a glimpse of people and beasts and trees that are vibrantly alive. What lies in store for us is what we have seen only in diminished glimpses. As Lewis and Tolkien realized, “Pagan fables of paradise were dim and distorted recollections of Eden.”

The earthly beauty we now see won’t be lost. We won’t trade Earth’s beauty for Heaven’s but retain Earth’s beauty and gain even deeper beauty. As we will live forever with the people of this world—redeemed—we will enjoy forever the beauties of this world—redeemed.

C. S. Lewis said, “We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

And so we shall.

Randy Alcorn, Heaven