Midmoot 2014: Seminar with the Tolkien Professor

10443240_10204342028573753_2898416249309081053_o Did you know that the Garden of Eden is in Alexandria, Virginia? Actually, no, it isn’t: Eden is a Moveable Feast. My Garden of Earthly Delights is wherever an eclectic and eccentric group of people gather to share their love of literature, learning, art, music, or God. You may have read my piece about the second Hobbit film, in which I wrote about how the company in which we view a movie colors our interpretation of the work.

This past weekend was another of those mini-Edens, in the company of many of the same Mythgardians with whom I saw the Hobbit at MythMoot II. Indeed, this event was a regional meeting so that we wouldn’t have to go a whole year without the wise company of Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor. So this past Sunday’s event consisted of Flash Sessions: mini-papers and prompts designed to get Corey and the company talking on some of our favorite Tolkien-related concepts.

10550149_10204342630628804_3203225213989649532_oI led off the event with C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams ‘Solve’ the Problem of Evil. Then Corey responded by talking about Tolkien’s Augustinian response and his embrace of Mystery.

Thomas Johnson talked about Disney and revisionist fairy tales, such as Maleficent, in The Fairy Tale Craze in TV and Film Today. He talked about how these films try to upend traditional morality, but how Disney has continued to replace the grittier fairy tales with their cutesy, sanitized versions.

Then Neil Ottenstein asked a good question: “Should the producers of the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game have revealed the nature of the games to the viewers or kept it as a surprise to them? How important are surprises in adaptations?” This led to an excellent discussion of other movies and books with surprise endings that re-interpret the whole story (Life of Pi, Blade Runner, Inception) and how we read/watch and re-read/re-watch these.

After lunch, Mike Therway presented a word-search study called “In the Mood for Doom.” He did a word count of occurrences of “doom” in LOTR and talked about how these reveal thematic and narrative elements.

Next, Dom Nardi used his political science expertise to analyze exit vales and tyrannical policies in Middle-earth in his talk “Politics in Middle Earth.”

Shellie Kennedy shared some thoughts about male relatives — the families of Rohan, Gondor, and Durin — in “Blood is Thicker: Tolkien’s Perspective on Family.” Of course, in the discussion that followed, questions of “Where are the women? Where are the mothers?” came up. Obviously, some one talked about JRRT’s loss of his own mother at a young age. Corey pointed out that really Tolkien is doing something with Medieval culture in LOTR: most women died young in the Middle Ages! 1 out of 3 women died in childbirth, so motherless children were very common, as were stepmothers.

The last two scheduled presentations were very much discussions, without a mini-paper to start us off. Trevor Brierly opened up “Chaucer Time — An Opportunity for Chaucerian Discussion,” and John Costello led “Lovecraft Time — An Opportunity for Lovecraftian Discussion.” The Chaucer conversation was magnificent; Corey is currently teaching the second of two online courses in Chaucer offered by Mythgard (I’ve audited both), so he is very much in a Chaucerian frame of mind. He talked about why he loves Chaucer: primarily because Chaucer is so very hilarious and self-deprecating, and his narrators are some of the funniest people on the planet. His narrative strategies are arguably unparalleled. He also talked about reception history: how Chaucer was under-valued for centuries because readers didn’t understand how to pronounce Middle English, which led to the widespread belief that his poetry didn’t scan. He also discussed Shakespeare’s debt to Chaucer.

We didn’t talk about Chaucer’s thoughts on Love; I very much wanted to ask about Chaucer’s response to Dante’s Romantic Theology. I mean, we had discussions on politics and religion, but none on sex. Lame.

There was a little time left (thanks to April Kleuver’s amazing management and sci-fi sound effect for an alert), so Ed Powell shared a talk he had kept in reserve: “Meta-Textual Musings: Reconciling the Writings of Middle-earth.” He discussed JRRT’s ret-coning obesession and narrative strategies (a little like Chaucer’s actually), leading to the conclusion that Peter Jackson must have been working from a flawed text that “Tolkien called disorderly, discursive, and confused.”  :)

Then we all reconvened at the Bilbo Baggins pub for good food, drink, and conversation. Although I didn’t get to talk to everyone, so I probably still don’t know half of them half as well as I should like, yet I like all of them at least as well as they deserve!10502182_10204287691575369_1658073541225383746_n

Share and Enjoy

Posted in News | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

In Memoriam: Chris Mitchell

Chris-Mitchell-headshotOn Friday, I received horrific, shocking news. My friend, colleague, and adviser Chris Mitchell had died suddenly on Thursday. Here is the news on Biola’s website; he had just recently moved from Wheaton to Biola to teach at the Torrey Honors College there. Here is the news on the Wade’s website; Chris was the director of the Wade for many years, and that’s where I met him.

I called him my “friend.” I only met Chris twice in person, had one long phone conversation with him, and exchanged emails — and yet I considered him a friend and mentor. When I got the news, I was just about to email him to ask him if he would write a back-of-the-book blurb for The Chapel of the Thorn. I was thinking about talking to him for advice on my Inklings and King Arthur work. He was an amazing person. His sweet love for everyone made a beautiful atmosphere around him. Let me tell you about our interactions, in order to give you an idea of how wonderful he was and how much his loss means to the world of the Inklings, to young scholars, and to his students.

First, when I was visiting WadeFront-contthe Wade back in 2011, he took me out for lunch at a lovely Vietnamese restaurant. The food was amazing; Chris gave me recommendations about what to order. He was friendly and cheerful all the time, chatting about my life (education, residence, family) and my future prospects. He gave the impression that he was as committed to my academic success as I was, and would do anything he reasonably could to further my career. So over that lovely lunch, we made a plan for realizing my dreams and goals. Then he supported my efforts over the next couple of years, advising me over email, making phone calls to influential people, and writing letters of recommendation. While our dream did not work out, its failure was entirely my fault, not his. He secured me the position I wanted, although I was not then able to take it up. And even after I (arguably) disappointed him, he continued to advise me.

That’s where our second and third interactions come in. When I visited the Wade again in 2012, we met in his office and talked for a long time: about my ongoing career struggles, about the C.S. Lewis Journal (he served on the Editorial Board), my work on Charles Williams, whether I was ready to apply for a Kilby Research Grant, and so forth. I am sure he did the same for nearly every Inklings scholar who passed through the Wade.

Then, finally, when my last-ditch effort came to secure a traditional academic career, we had a long phone conversation in which he shared all the ideas he could come up with. He was supportive and kind: a cross between a colleague, a brother, a father, and a friend.

I relate all this partly for my own sake–to remember someone I loved and admired–and also to point out some of his greatest strengths. Chris was a master of networking and mentoring. Every time I talked to him, I went away with a list of names of possible contacts. He loved connecting people to each other and to resources. He was arguably the center of the Inklings world until his move to Biola. (There are a few other such kind and intelligent people at or near the heart of Inklings, studies, too, notably his Associate Director at the Wade, Marjorie Mead, and Judith and Brendan Wolfe at the Journal of Inklings Studies). I don’t know who will step in to take care of younger Inklings scholars the way he did, making sure that we have the resources and networks we need. And his students will suffer his loss sorely. And of course, more than anyone, his family must be in deep agony. If he was half as kind a husband and father as he was a teacher, scholar, director, mentor, and friend, his loss is very very great indeed.

Chris mHere is a podcast William O’Flaherty has put together with comments from Chris’s friends to honor and remember him.

Here is a list of videos where you can watch some of his lectures.

Here is a remembrance by his friend Wesley Hill, and here’s one by Lewis scholar Andrew Lazo. Here is one by Jenna Bartlo that includes comments below by Luci Shaw, Douglas Gresham, and others. And here is one by John Rateliff, a noteworthy Tolkien scholar. Here his church remembers him and includes a link to a sermon Chris preached.

All I can think when I read these posts is: I hope Chris felt as loved during his life as he would feel now if he read these posts. Or maybe he is reading them, and that is part of the joy of Heaven.

Share and Enjoy

Posted in News | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Problem of Evil — Solved!

I gave my little mini-talk / discussion starter this morning at MidMoot. Here it is:

C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams “Solve” the Problem of Evil

What is the Problem of Evil, or the Problem of Pain? C. S. Lewis wrote: “If God were good, He would wish make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both” (The Problem of Pain 26). We may break this down into three logical propositions, thus:
GOD IS ALL GOOD
GOD IS ALL POWERFUL
EVIL EXISTS
There are a variety of ways of expressing this dilemma, but this is a simple one. It lines up three “facts”—propositions, observations, or claims—and shows that they contradict one another. This is a logical and experiential problem.
Theologians, philosophers, and ordinary people have tried to “solve” this problem in many ways; most of their attempted solutions have explained away one of the three premises, usually by redefining it, so that no logical problem exists. Here are some ridiculously brief examples:

· Many people, of course, have simply written off the first proposition, claiming that God is a sadist in the sky, torturing people for fun. For instance, Descartes put forward the thought-experiment of the “evil demon” in his first Meditation, writing: “I will suppose… that some malignant demon, who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful, has employed all his artifice to deceive me.”

· The vast majority of thinkers within the Christian tradition have redefined the second proposition, “God is all powerful,” by claiming that God voluntarily limited His own power and control by giving humans free will. For instance, in Paradise Lost, God’s Milton grants to His angelic and human creatures an ontologically actual measure of independence, and gave them the ability to choose to disobey. From this ability came the choices of Lucifer and then of Adam and Eve, resulting in “all our woe, with loss of Eden.”
· Boethius had a brilliant solution, which I will leave to Corey to explain, but it boils down to redefining and explaining away proposition #2, “God is all powerful,” by means of a creative understanding of termporality.

· Augustine famously got rid of the third proposition, “evil exists.” He wrote: “all things which suffer corruption are deprived of something good in them. Supposing them to be deprived of all good, they will cease to exist altogether…. Therefore, so long as they exist, they are good. Therefore, all things that are, are good….” (Confessions VII.13). “Bad denotes merely privation of good” (City of God, XI.21,22; qtd. in Preface to Paradise Lost 66). “What we call bad things are good things perverted” (Preface to PL 66).
Julian of Norwich laid some of the groundwork for the common understanding that evil will not exist forever, but “all shall be well, All shall be well; and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Now, what about The Inklings? C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, were devout Christian writers who were deeply well read in these classics works and others, intimately acquainted with the problem and its “solutions” throughout history. How did they “solve” this problem?
In all of those ways. Let me give you six quick examples, one from Lewis and one from Williams under each of the three propositions, and then perhaps Corey can give us a bit about how Tolkien responded (I suggest that Tolkien was a good Augustinian who mostly messed with #3).

1. GOD IS ALL GOOD
Lewis: Perelandra –meeting an eldil: “I felt sure that the creature was what we call ‘good,’ but I wasn’t sure whether I liked ‘goodness’ so much as I had supposed” (Perelandra 19). “Beyond all doubt, His idea of ‘goodness’ differs from ours…not as white from black but as a perfect circle from a child’s first attempt to draw a wheel” (PoP 39).
Williams: In a paper called “Charles Williams as heretic?” Richard Sturch asks, “does he make God the author of evil?” War in Heaven: the Archdeacon quotes (or misquotes) Amos 3:6: “Shall there be evil in the City and I the Lord have not done it?” (War in Heaven 180), suggesting that God has not only created the villain, but wills every evil deed that the villain performs. “our meaning of love ought to have something of the ‘otherness’ and terror of God” (He Came Down from Heaven 11). “Our Impossibility is grounded within God’s own Impossibility” (Dunning 188).

2. GOD IS ALL POWERFUL
Lewis: The Problem of Pain proceeds on the premise that God had to allow creatures independent existence in order for them to exist as individuals with an identity:”man is now a horror to God and to himself and a creature ill-adapted to the universe not because God made him so but because he has made himself so by the abuse of his free will” (PoP 69). This implies a voluntary limiting of God’s omnipotence.
Williams: The Forgiveness of Sins and the poem “The Vision of the Empire” and elsewhere explore the nature of the Fall, and all depend upon the moment when the Adam “chose”: “they had their will; they saw; they were torn in the terror” (Taliessin Through Logres, “The Vision of the Empire,” l 128). Free will, human will, is set against God’s, thus limiting God’s control over His creation.
Interestingly, both of them deny the absolute ontology of free will when their writing pushes them to look at it squarely:
Lewis: After Ransom makes a terrible decision, he sees that “Predestination and freedom were apparently identical. He could no longer see any meaning in the man arguments he had heard on this subject” (Perelandra 149).
Williams: “He made…the delight of a perfect response to his initiative a part of the working of the web. We could not otherwise become at once perfect servitude and perfect freedom” (The Forgiveness of Sins 18).

3. EVIL EXISTS
Lewis: “evil is a parasite, not an original thing” (Mere Christianity chapter 2) and “A sound theory of value demands . . . that good should be original and evil a mere perversion… that good should be able to exist on its own while evil requires the good on which it is parasitic in order to continue its parasitic existence” (God in the Dock, “Evil and God”).
Williams: The idea of “correspondence,” a form of monism (“What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is similar to that which is below to accomplish the wonders of the one thing” and “As all things were produced by the mediation of one being, so all things were produced from this one by adaption”) runs through CW’s early work, making all things, good and evil, part of God. In other words, all things are one. He liked to use the phrase “Holy luck,” meaning that “all luck is good” or “everything will work out for good.” Evil is a schism, a division in the unity of all things, and in his later works he strove to show the divisions being healed back into “a promulgation of sacred union.”

Share and Enjoy

Posted in Themes | Tagged | Leave a comment

C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams “Solve” the Problem of Evil

th On Sunday, at a mini-gathering of Mythmooters, I’ll be sharing a very brief (5-15 minute) talk as a discussion-starter. Here are some of my notes. I’m leaving out most of the substance of my points, so that there will still be something to talk about (!), but post this here to get your own ideas going. Especially if you will be one of the lucky attendees at the “MidMoot 2014 Seminar with Corey Olsen, the Tolkien Professor” — this is for you. Do some reading and thinking and come prepared to share an idea or ask a question!

problem-of-evil

C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams “Solve” the Problem of Evil

What is the Problem of Evil, or the Problem of Pain? C. S. Lewis wrote: “If God were good, He would wish make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both” (The Problem of Pain 26). We may break this down into three logical propositions, thus:

1. GOD IS ALL GOOD
2. GOD IS ALL POWERFUL
3. EVIL EXISTS

There are a variety of ways of expressing this dilemma, but this is a simple one. It lines up three “facts”—propositions, observations, or claims—and shows that they contradict one another. This is a logical and experiential problem.

Theologians, philosophers, and ordinary people have tried to “solve” this problem in many ways; most of their attempted solutions have explained away one of the three premises, usually by redefining it, so that no logical problem exists. Depending on time, I may give some ridiculously brief examples; I merely list the thinkers here:

  • Augustineproblem-of-pain
  • Boethius
  • Julian of Norwich
  • Dante
  • Milton
  • Descartes

Now, what about The Inklings? C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams were devout Christian writers who were deeply well read in these classics works and others, intimately acquainted with the problem and its “solutions” throughout history. How did they “solve” this problem?

In all of those ways. In the main body of my little talk, I will give six quick examples, one from Lewis and one from Williams under each of the three propositions, and then perhaps Corey can give us a bit about how Tolkien responded (I suggest that Tolkien was a good Augustinian who mostly messed with #3).

  1. GOD IS ALL GOOD
    How Lewis and Williams redefined this proposition.
  2. GOD IS ALL POWERFUL
    Lewis and Williams on God’s voluntary limiting of His omnipotence.
  3. EVIL EXISTS
    Lewis on the parasitical nature of evil; Williams dancing close to heretical monism.

 

Share and Enjoy

Posted in News, Themes | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Let Us Live Forever: “Shadows of Ecstasy”


Charles Williams Book Summary #15: Shadows of Ecstasy (1926, pub. 1933)

Shadows of Ecstasy

Shadows of Ecstasy

Behold CW’s 4th oddest book! After Witchcraft, Letters to Lalage, and Heroes and Kings comes Shadows of Ecstasy on my list of his strangest works. Yet with Shadows of Ecstasy, we edge nearer and nearer to his best works, and we begin our tour of my favorites: the novels.

Perhaps I should have summarized Shadows of Ecstasy earlier, before the whole “Amen House” period, since it appears that he finished writing it in 1926. But it wasn’t published until 1933, after four other novels had appeared; it rode on their coat-tails into the public square. And he rewrote it significantly in 1932, so we can consider it in the group of the early-1930s works.

What is it about? Well, as always with CW’s works, a bare plot summary suggests the strangeness and originality of his thought, but does not capture the profound lights, depths, shadows, and dances of his ideas. In short: it’s about POWER.

This novel is about Nigel Considine: a charismatic occult leader who has figured out how to live forever. The trick is that you take everything that would be an expenditure of energy—love, desire, lust, passion, hunger, anger, longing, envy, faith, ambition, etc—and turn it inward. Channel the energy inside yourself instead of spending it on sex, food, work, hobbies, or other people. This creates a kind of self-sustaining personal battery complete with battery charger: as if you could plug an engine into itself so that it would keep itself running forever without adding fuel. This has worked out nicely for Considine, who is a few hundred years old and looking quite well. He has spent time in Africa teaching his new “Gospel” there and is now leading both an educational tour and an invasion in England.

The plot follows several people in their responses to Considine: do they believe him, follow him, worship him, adore him, ignore him, repudiate him, or fight him? In this way, Considine serves as the central locus of the book’s motion, just as ritual objects do in all CW’s novels. Earlier he used the Crown of Thorns as the sacred object at the heart of a story. Later he would use the Holy Grail, a magical stone, the Tarot cards, and so forth. Each serves as the catalyst to reveal the characters’ true spiritual natures. So in Shadows of Ecstasy we get to know people’s true nature by how they respond to Considine.

Or do we? There are a few factors that make the “meaning” of this book very difficult to discern.

shadowscoveritunes.225x225-75First, there is the cognitive dissonance set up between Considine’s “Gospel” and the true Gospel of Christianity. One character has to “decide whether he should turn out a fervent Christian or a submissive Considinian” (p. 112), and that seems to be the reader’s decision, too. Which one is a reader supposed to believe in this story? Considine is a charming, attractive, compelling figure. Is he meant to be the protagonist? Yet he has led hordes of African warriors to invade England, and drives them to die by the thousands. There is riot, murder, and mayhem. There is a horrific scene of our heroes in a car, driving over the bodies of fallen Africans. And through all this, the characters we love the most follow Considine with the passion of the newly-converted.

The second factor that makes this hard to decide is that all the best characters follow, love, or at least respect Considine. The narrative focuses a large part of its attention on Roger Ingram, a poetry professor. He sees in Considine’s teachings what he has always believed to be the real meaning behind the power of great verse. He is such an admirable character that his passionate love for Considine is very persuasive. Then there is his wife, Isabel, who is the submitted saint with mystical tranquility in this book. While she makes no decision about Considine herself, she supports her husband’s fanaticism whole-heartedly. Then there are others—a doctor named Sir Bernard Travers, an African king named Inkamasi—who feel a kind of intellectual or spiritual kinship with Considine even if they most oppose them. Only the Anglican priest, Ian Caithness, directly opposes Considine, both with religion and with the law. What is a good reader to do?

And the final question is the terrible ambiguity of the ending, which I will not spoil here. Suffice it to say that the reader is left with enormous questions about Considine’s nature, personality, leadership, and immortality. The characters are left in the same condition of uncertainty, some clinging to their faith that he has achieved an unending life on earth, and others think that he has been exposed as a fraud. The reader has to decide.

So what about CW? What is he doing in this book? Does Williams love Considine? Does he espouse his “Gospel”? The transference or sublimation of energy is very much like what CW may have learned in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross or his other occult reading. Did he believe in all that, at this stage of his life? Was he torn between the occult and Christianity? Had he not yet reached his great stage of integration?

I will let you read it and decide. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Share and Enjoy

Posted in Book Summaries | Tagged , , | Leave a comment