Tuesday, January 22, 2019

An Inklings Toast

In October of 2018, I was invited to speak and offer a series of toasts at an Inklings festival hosted by The Eighth Day Institute. For the toasts, I focused on things which the Inklings, despite their many differences, shared: an oddball sense of humor, a love of language and what could be done with language, and a confidence (at least on the part of Lewis, Tolkien, and Dyson) in the idea of "True Myth." Here's the final toast.

*~*

On an early Sunday morning in September of 1931, three 30-something Oxford dons took a stroll together on Addison’s Walk in the grounds of Magdalen College. They were a 32-year-old C.S. Lewis, a 39-year-old J.R.R. Tolkien, and a 35-year-old Hugo Dyson. Their conversation had begun the evening before during dinner and had gone late into the night. Tolkien had left around 3 AM, and Lewis and Dyson continued to talk until 4 AM before retiring in their rooms there at the college. The next day, Lewis wrote to his dear friend and long-time correspondent Arthur Greeves:

We began on metaphor and myth—interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would. 
We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot: then discussed the difference between love and friendship—then finally drifted back to poetry and books.

Later in the letter, discussing the writings of William Morris and George MacDonald, Lewis said:

These hauntingly beautiful lands [of Morris's fiction] which somehow never satisfy,—this passion to escape from death plus the certainty that life owes all its charm to mortality—these push you on to the real thing because they fill you with desire and yet prove absolutely clearly that in Morris’s world that desire cannot be satisfied. 
The MacDonald conception of death—or, to speak more correctly, St Paul’s—is really the answer to Morris: but I don’t think I should have understood it without going through Morris. He is an unwilling witness to the truth. He shows you just how far you can go without knowing God, and that is far enough to force you . . . to go further.

Lewis's letters to Greeves provide a valuable "inside look" at his conversion. What they reveal is something deeper than either intellectual assent or an emotional surge; it is a complete paradigm-shift, a new way of looking at the world through "mythic" eyes. When Lewis wrote to Greeves again the next month, he put it this way:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’. 
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.

Many years later, Lewis would write a poem called "What the Bird Said Early in the Year." It is, not coincidentally, set on Addison's Walk, and it compares this paradigm-shift to a spell being broken--perhaps a spell of perpetual winter, broken forever by the coming of the King of the Wood?

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick!—the gates are drawn apart.

Each of these toasts has been to celebrate something of significance to the Inklings, a love which they shared--humor, language, myth. But this final toast is to the one great Thing which binds all other things together. Glory to Jesus Christ, who breaks every spell, and makes every story come true!



Currently reading: For the Life of the World, Fr Alexander Schmemman
Current audio book: Out of the Silent Planet, CS Lewis
Currently translating: Beowulf

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Riddles of Gestumblindi: Riddle 10

As usual, here's the answer to the previous riddle:

"Góð er gáta þín, Gestumblindi, getit er þessar. Þar fara svanbrúðir til hreiðrs síns ok verpa eggjum; skurm á eggi er eigi höndum gert né hamri klappat, en svanr er fyrir eyjar utan örðigr, sá er þær gátu eggin við."

"Your riddle is good, Gestumblindi, but I have guessed it. Swan-maids* go to their nests and lay eggs; the shell of the egg is not by hand or hammer forged, and the swan by whom they previously got the eggs sits upright outside the islands."

Riddle 10

Þá mælti Gestumblindi:

"Hverjar eru þær rýgjar
á reginfjalli,
elr við kván kona,
þar til er mög of getr,
ok eigu-t þær varðir vera?
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu."

Then said Gestumblindi:

"What are those ladies
On the mighty mountain,
Woman begets by wife,
So that she bears a son,
And those women have no husbands?**
Heiðrekr king,
Ponder this riddle."

*Female swans.
**This is an idiomatic rendering of (in literal word-order): and having-not [i.e. marriage] those women be.


Currently reading: Reclaiming the Atonement, Patrick Henry Reardon
Current audio book: Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis
Currently translating: Hervarar Saga, "The Riddles of Gestumblindi"

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Riddles of Gestumblindi: Riddle 9

First, here's the answer to riddle 8:

Heiðrekr mælti: "Smækkast nú gáturnar, Gestumblindi, hvat þarf lengr yfir þessu at sitja? Þat er hrafntinna, ok skein á hana sólargeisli."

Your riddles grow small, Gestumblindi, what need is there to sit any longer at this? That is obsidian*, when shone on her a sunbeam.

Riddle 9

Þá mælti Gestumblindi:

"Báru brúðir
bleikhaddaðar
ambáttir tvær
öl til skemmu;
var-at þat höndum horfit
né hamri at klappat,
þó var fyrir eyjar utan
örðigr sá, er gerði.
Heiðrekr konungr,
hyggðu at gátu."

Then said Gestumblindi:

"Maidens bore,
Fair-headed,
Serving-maids twain
Ale to the store-house;
Not turned by hands
Nor beaten by hammers,
Though far outside the island
The maker sat upright.**
Heiðrekr king,
Ponder this riddle."

*Literally "raven-flint."
**The thing which was not turned by hands or beaten by hammers must refer to the cask in which the ale was carried, not the ale itself.


Currently reading: For the Life of the World
Current audio book: The Man Who Was Thursday
Currently translating: Hervara saga, "The Riddles of Gestumblindi"

Friday, January 11, 2019

That Tremendous Reality

 "...much too frightened of that tremendous Reality on the altar."

With these words, G.K Chesterton explained why he put off his conversion to Roman Catholicism until the last 14 years of his life. It wasn't until recently, reading a sort of biography of Chesterton (Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God) that I realized what a late convert he was. It surprised me that the man who could write so intimately of confession in the Father Brown Mysteries had not actually "crossed the Tiber" when most of them were written. He delayed, in his own words (not that we can trust authors when they speak of themselves, but that's often all we have to go on), because he was "much too frightened" of the Sacrament of Sacraments, the Holy Eucharist.

I've been mulling over this thought the last couple of days because of something that happened in my own experience, being in the process of converting from a Southern/Independent Baptist upbringing to the Orthodox Church. There were many "tipping points" along the way--it might be better to describe them as a slow progress up the mountain. But for a long time I had been content with the idea of reading "sacramental authors"--Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton, but also Ratzinger and Vigen Gourian and Alexander Schmemann--and importing their ideas as much as possible into my own Baptist experience.

One day during a Sunday morning service in which we were to take "The Lord's Supper" (which at the church where I have been on staff the last 10+ years is done 2-3 times a year), one of the pastors stood up before communion and gave a little talk, reminding everyone that what was about to happen was just, and I quote, "just crackers and grape juice, and nothing more." My oldest daughter (6 at the time) wanted to know why the pastor "did not believe in communion." And that is when I knew we had to make a change.

But what is interesting to me, and what the Deacon who teaches the catechumen class at our new church pointed out to me, is the fact that people have to be reminded, not that something significant is happening in communion (though probably there are people who need to be reminded of that), but rather that nothing whatsoever is happening. There is a fear in these churches, quite justified, that the act of ritual itself will impart the sense that something significant is taking place. And that brings me back to Chesterton's fear, his intuition, about the reality made imminent on the altar.

Admitting that different Christians can mean very different things when they speak of "sacraments," it seems to me that the sacramental view of the world is the native language of creation. It is what even merely human rituals and even merely pagan religions hint at, so that if for a moment we let our guard down we find that our nominalism does not really hold up.

This is not to say that everyone understands fully what is happening. I am not sure that I ever will. But I see it as significant that it is precisely in these moments--communion, baptism, marriage--that even Baptists will revert back to traditional liturgical formulas. Without knowing why, after he spent several minutes telling us all that this was only juice and only crackers, the pastor proceeded to say "this is my body, which was broken for you" and break the bread, and "this cup is the new testament in my blood" and distribute the juice. There is an intuition, deep down in the quiet places of the heart, that something awful is happening, or ought to be happening, and that these words and no others will do.

What I have called nominalism, this insistence on seeing things for nothing more than they appear to be--we might say even less than they appear to be--is a defense. It is a defense against the terrible alternative of the world breaking in upon us, of showing itself to be the world, and the shift in gravity this might cause.

Let us stand aright. Let us stand with fear.

Hail Elbereth

I wanted to push back on a popular misconception concerning prayer in Tolkien's legendarium. It is often said that the "Window in t...