Truths Breathed Through Silver
Truths Breathed Through Silver: The Inklings’ Moral and Mythopoeic Legacy. Ed. Jonathan B. Himes, with Joe R. Christopher and Salwa Khoddam. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008. xviii + 160 pp. Hardcover. $59.99. ISBN (10) 1-84718-444-8; ISBN (13) 9781847184443.
Reviewed by John D. Rateliff
[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 28.1/2 (#107/108) (2009): 186–91.]
The title of this collection derives of course from C.S. Lewis’s famous statement to J.R.R. Tolkien, during the conversation that led to Lewis’s conversion, that myths were “lies breathed through silver” — a charge which Tolkien ably rebutted by asserting that Christianity was both a myth (indeed, the myth) and true. Comprised of ten lectures or papers presented at John Brown University and similar venues by contributors such as Joe R. Christopher, Tom Shippey, Roland Hein, David Oberhelman, and Jason Fisher, this book grew out of an annual event held under the auspices of the C.S. Lewis & Inklings Society (CSLIS). What had begun as a one-time, one-day symposium in Tulsa in 1998 has now become a yearly gathering of Inklings scholars in the Arkansas/ Oklahoma/Texas region. While its interests obviously overlap with those of the Mythopoeic Society, its focus is slightly more Lewis-centric than Tolkien-centric, and somewhat more religious than secular (as may be seen by the book’s subtitle). Four of the pieces presented here deal primarily with Lewis, two with Tolkien, two with MacDonald, and the rest with multiple authors (MacDonald, Chesterton, Tolkien, Lewis, and Williams).
Of the four Lewis pieces, Joe Christopher’s examination of Lewis’s three paths to God (the logical, the moral, and the transcendent) comes first, having served as the keynote speech for the very first of the gatherings commemorated in this volume. After briefly disputing Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of a Faithless future, Dr. Christopher discusses Lewis’s controversial claim to have “proven” by formal logical argument that Materialism is self-refuting. He then looks at Lewis’s concept of a universal moral code (the “Tao”), and of longing for something transcendent that cannot be found in the material world. Perhaps the most notable contribution of Dr. Christopher’s essay is his use of the relatively neglected The Pilgrim’s Regress to explicate Lewis’s ideas, showing that many of CSL’s most notable mature arguments advanced in The Abolition of Man and Miracles and Mere Christianity are already present in his first apologist’s work.
Salwa Khoddam’s focus, by contrast, is on The Magician’s Nephew, and specifically the contrasting images of the ruined city of Charn and the paradisial Garden of the newly made Narnia. Among the antecedents of the former she finds the City of Cain/City of Satan in old Christian tradition, as well as ancient real-world cities visited by the children in Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet and the “lost world” cities of Rider Haggard’s She (Kôr) and King Solomon’s Mines. For the Garden, she believes Lewis drew on classical, biblical, and secular sources, including of course the biblical account of Eden in Genesis as well as Milton’s Paradise Lost but also, surprisingly, the lovers’ garden in The Song of Solomon. Oddly enough, she never takes into account Lewis’s own earlier depiction of an Edenic garden, in Perelandra; a comparison between his two treatments of the theme would seem pertinent. Lewis completists will be happy to learn that Khoddam includes a passage from Lewis’s unfinished, unpublished early work, The Quest of Bleheris; although brief (only forty-seven words), it is nonetheless a piece of primary material never made available in print before.
It should come as no surprise that one of the volume’s highlights is Tom Shippey’s contribution. Shippey has built up such a reputation as a Tolkien scholar that it’s easy to forget how wide his range is, and it’s very welcome to see him tackle Lewis. In this piece on Screwtape’s “Verbicide,” he underscores affinities between Lewis (Screwtape), Tolkien (Saruman), and Orwell (Newspeak) on the modern corruption of language to obfuscate rather than communicate, with corrupted language ultimately becoming a force for evil (“humans can easily be led to do what they know to be wrong in the service of a cause they believe to be right”). As usual, he makes a good case in typically vivid Shippeyan prose; his blast against F.R. Leavis is particularly welcome, although marred by a passing sneer at Virginia Woolf — ironically, since Leavis himself despised Woolf.
No doubt the most controversial of all the Lewis pieces in this volume will be the editor’s own contribution, a lengthy examination of The Dark Tower — a major contribution to the slim volume of works addressing that neglected story and, at thirty pages, the longest of all the pieces here, comprising roughly a quarter of the entire book. To his credit, Hime does not believe this unfinished story to be a forgery — that is, he accepts the testimony of Tolkien, Mathew, Fowler, and the manuscript itself that Lewis actually wrote such a work. However, he feels that the story as we have it includes “substantial” editing that was either “creative, inept, or biased” (54) resulting in “excised portions, additions,” and other sorts of “editorial mismanagement” (55). He devotes roughly a third of his piece to his theory of how the published story was put together, postulating an unnecessarily elaborate sequence of labyrinthine complexity that contradicts most of the known facts.
After stating his belief that Lewis was deliberately writing down to a pulp market, Hime presents his own interpretation of the work: that Lewis was writing an anti-lust tract which he deliberately filled with blatantly obscene imagery in order to deliver a “spiritual message” against the “alienating and destructive effects of sexual addiction” presented in the form of homoerotic fantasies of “bisexual rape” with strong masturbatory overtones, all as a way of allegorizing the message of Just Say No to sex (63). Hime certainly sees enough phallic imagery to satisfy any Freudian, but I find his allegorical reading unpersuasive, and his proposed conclusion seems to me even further from probability than Lobdell’s.
Of the two essays on Tolkien, David Oberhelman’s “A Brief History of Libraries in Middle-earth” is one of those pieces that helpfully brings together passing references scattered across the legendarium into one well-organized essay — in this case, focused on “the preservation of cultural memory” through “libraries, archives, manuscript repositories, and other collections [...] of literature, lore, and history” (81). After a (too) brief discussion of the history of real-world libraries he turns to their parallels in Tolkien’s work, from libraries in Kôr (Tirion) and Gondolin in the First Age to archives at Minas Tirith, Moria (he points out that the Chamber of Mazarbul is, after all, “The Hall of Records”), and Rivendell in the Third, succeeded by hobbit-libraries at Brandy Hall, the Great Smials, and Undertowers in the Fourth. Sometimes his speculations seem extremely well-founded and supported by circumstantial evidence, as in his suggestion of a great library, rivaling that of Alexandria, at Armenelos on Númenor; in other cases it’s rather more dubious, as in his assumption that there was a library of Elven lore at the Grey Havens (possible, but he puts forth no evidence for the claim). Oberhelman’s topic is interesting enough that the main shortcoming of his piece is its brevity.
The second essay focused on Tolkien, by Jason Fisher, looks at the question of whether or not Tolkien’s cosmology incorporates the idea of the ‘Fortunate Fall’ or Felix Culpa — the idea that greater good comes about as a result of evil than would have been the case had the evil never taken place. Here we have a case of a single essay, of moderate length, that tackles a major topic with vast ramifications and implications and yet manages to be relatively thorough within a short space. Fisher discusses all three Falls that take place within the legendarium (that of Morgoth, that of the Noldor, and that of the Númenóreans) and reaches the rather unusual conclusion that Tolkien himself did not believe many of the core theological positions underlying his mythology — for example, that “Tolkien’s world doesn’t seem to incorporate the idea of Original Sin” (101) but “certainly Tolkien himself, in his Primary World beliefs, would have subscribed to the doctrine of Original Sin” (109n15). And again, Fisher asserts “As a devout Catholic, Tolkien would have firmly believed that Lucifer played no part in God’s creation of the World” (102). I remain unpersuaded, but it’s an intriguing idea, and I’m curious to see if others will take up this proposed barrier between Tolkien’s real beliefs and the beliefs upon which he based his life’s work.
The two essays devoted primarily to MacDonald form an oddly contrasting pair. David L. Neuhouser takes the interesting and novel approach of emphasizing MacDonald’s love of mathematics and the role math played in his ideas about God. I found Neuhouser’s essay full of more quotable lines than any other included in this book — having mainly read MacDonald’s fantasy fiction, I had not realized how eloquent his essays can be, and am grateful to Neuhouser for making me aware of this. If this striking and original essay has a flaw, it is that it relies just a little too much on assumptions; there are a few too many statements essential to the argument that rest on no firmer basis than “not unreasonable to assume.”
By contrast, Rolland Hein takes a diametrically opposed position and heaps derision upon rational thinking, or analysis, or the scientific method as a path towards truth. Instead, he champions imagination, wisdom, insight as a means of “open[ing] a door into the human heart” (18). For him, MacDonald and those Christian mythmakers who have followed him are of particular importance because mythic writing “can awaken the soul” (22). I think all the Inklings would agree with Hein on the importance of imagination and mythmaking, but nonetheless found it disturbing when he quotes Psyche from Till We Have Faces: “I have always [...] had a kind of longing for death [...] to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all beauty came from”(qtd. 20), and then follows it up with his own comment that here “Psyche becomes a spokesperson for every conscientious reader” (20); this seems to me to play into recent spurious depictions of Christianity as “a culture of death.” Towards the end, his essay segues into Chesterton as a successor of MacDonald.
Kerry Dearborn’s “The Sacrament of the Stranger” also deals with MacDonald, but only as the author of one of the four works she focuses on (The Princess and Curdie), the others being Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet and The Great Divorce and Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Perhaps the most narrowly focused of all the pieces here, she looks at hospitality towards strangers as the ultimate Christian virtue within Celtic Christianity and seeks to trace what she sees as the seven stages of a “sacramental” pilgrimage (Risk, Relinquishment, Rebirth, Realism, Renewal/Restoration, Reconciliation, and Receiving) as expressed in the four works at hand. The introduction of so much specialized terminology makes her essay feel like a piece excerpted from (and dependent upon) some larger work, not altogether satisfactory in its truncated form. Similarly, her claim that these three men were all strongly influenced by “Celtic Christianity” should be the subject of a paper all by itself, rather than simply being asserted as a preliminary to her main argument, as here.
Finally, Thomas Howard’s closing piece is more memoir than essay, telling how he first encountered the work of MacDonald, Williams, Lewis, and Tolkien, and his vivid recollections of favorite characters from all four men’s fiction. In particular, he singles out that mismatched pair from War in Heaven, the (Catholic) Duke of the North Ridings and (Anglican) Archdeacon of Parvulorum, whom he sees as nicely representative of their respective faiths: “Anglicanism is nothing if [...] not vague. Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, would like to have things nailed down” (153). He also, rather oddly, praises an extremely minor character from Till We Have Faces: the old priest of Ungit, whose devotion to human sacrifice Howard admires. The memoir is of interest chiefly for including Howard’s 1958 letter from Lewis praising Tolkien’s work and for a brief but telling account of his 1963 meeting with Lewis himself.
In the end, this is not an essential purchase for Inklings scholars, especially given its high price for such a slim volume. But there’s certainly enough of interest here to make the book worth reading, with the high points being Khoddam’s quote from The Quest of Bleheris, Himes’s valiant attempt to sort out the mess regarding The Dark Tower, Howard’s reminiscences, and the essays by Fisher and Shippey.
1. Not to be confused with Cambridge University Press.
2. Preserved in Tolkien’s poem “Mythopoeia” and quoted in “On Fairy-Stories.”
3. Despite its name, John Brown has nothing to do with the notorious abolitionist of that name but instead is a small Christian college located in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, just a few miles from Wal-Mart corporate headquarters in Bentonville near the Oklahoma and Missouri borders. As Himes notes, Inkling scholar Clyde Kilby taught here for a few years in the early 1930s.
4. For Christopher’s purposes, whether Lewis was right or wrong is less important than accurately tracing the development of his ideas. Christopher is also more focused on Lewis’s conversion to theism in 1929 than his embrace of Christianity in 1931.
5. For example, Hime refers to “the extensive revisions and additions” to “the extant manuscript”(56). Yet the manuscript currently in the Bodleian, which aside from minor copy-editing corresponds exactly to the published text, is not a composite text copied onto “used sheets” of “scrap paper” but a coherent rough draft all set down in a single stage of composition and on the same batch of fresh paper. Simply consulting the manuscript to which he devotes so much attention rather than theorizing about it would have prevented most of the errors he falls into here.
6. Hime suggests that Scudamour is vulnerable to being drawn into the Otherworld because he and his girlfriend (the real-world Camilla) are having sex. His chaste relationship with the Otherworld Camilla will, Hime feels, ultimately lead to his castrating himself by severing his own horn in order to offer it up to the White Knights, a salvation facilitated by the Otherworld’s Ransom, who will also be that world’s Christ.
7. He notes that the initial Fall of Man takes place offstage in these Elven-centric tales, but does not discuss Tolkien’s two major accounts of this event, in the unfinished “Gilfanon’s Tale” (Book of Lost Tales I) and the much later Athrabeth (History of Middle-earth X). He also, in his discussion of Original Sin, fails to apply this to the orcs — though this is probably more due to space considerations than any oversight.
8. Among other things, he points out that MacDonald not only had a major in science at college but later taught math and science. MacDonald also works many references to math, especially geometry, into his novels and sermons, as Neuhouser demonstrates.
9. Even if we were to grant that MacDonald, a Scot, and Lewis, an Ulsterman, owed more to ‘Celtic Christianity’ than the mainstream of Christian thought, belief, and practice — a contentious claim in and of itself — it would be a much harder sell to build a convincing case for the firmly Roman Catholic Tolkien. Dearborn’s citation of a single article showing how Tolkien’s depiction of the elves was influenced by (pagan) Celtic myth is insufficient to make the case.
10. Lewis’s letter to Howard has already appeared in Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (vol III, pages 980-81), but I’m assuming relatively few among us are familiar with all 3,999 pages of this three-volume set.