Archive for April, 2009

“The Silmarillion” by J.R.R. Tolkien reviewed

26 April 2009

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien. Ballatine Books (1977). 369 pp.

One of the covers for the Ballatine edition

One of the covers for the Ballatine edition

The Silmarillion is not a novel, despite that word appearing on the spine of my paperback edition; it contains the mythology of J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy world, Middle Earth.  The stories are often only loosely connected and don’t form a unified whole; they were intended for eventual publication, but it fell to Tolkien’s son and literary executor, Christopher Tolkien, to put the material into final form.  As one might imagine, the results are mixed, but those completely in love with the world of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit may beg to differ.

For me, the high point of the work was the first of it’s five divisions: Ainulindalë (which translates to “The Music of the Ainur” in one of Tolkien’s many made up languages).  It is a creation myth which tells of how Ilúvatar, God, creates the world.  It is a work of stunning beauty and I cannot resist quoting it’s opening:

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.  And he spoke to them, propounding to them themes of music; and they sang before him, and he was glad.  But for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly.  Yet ever as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony.

And it came to pass that Ilúvatar called together all the Ainur and declared to them a mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendour of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent. (3)

The myth is clearly informed by Christian mythology, most notably in how one of the Ainur, Melkor, wishes for greater prominence and tries to gain control of creation, an obvious parallel to Satan.  Melkor, a.k.a. Morgoth, is the work’s villian; he spends the whole Simlarillion trying to screw things up for everyone else.  In the Ainulindalë when he tries to take control of the music of creation, Ilúvatar chides him “thou … shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.  For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” (6)  It is interesting to note that Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, conceived of Ilúvatar as a fictionalized portrayal of God as described in the Christian tradition.  This being so, the work can inform us of Tolkien’s theodicy, which seems close to that given in the Book of Job; he elsewhere declares that, ultimately, “evil [will] be good to have been.” (113)  While that’s not necessarily copied consciously from Job, other aspects of the story very probably are.  Ilúvatar destroys much of the world due to the wickedness of men echoes the Flood and, more subtlely Aulë’s creation of the dwarves due to his impatience is possibly a reference to Abram’s impatience for children.

The second division of the book, Valaquenta (“Account of the Valar”) continues where the creation account leaves off; some of the Ainur enter the world, at which point they are called Valar, which are basically gods with a small g.  Oh, and some other beings that are basically the same but less powerful also exist and they’re called Maiar, one of which becomes Sauron later on.

The bulk of The Silmarillion, about 276 of its 369 pages, is the Quenta Silmarillion (“The History of the Silmarils”).  This is a collection of somewhat connected myths dealing with the Silmarils, three crystals made by a craftsman that contained the light that used to be emitted from two giant trees before a giant spider killed them, necessitating the creation of the Sun and Moon.  There are 24 chapters that somewhat stand on their own but for the most part do clearly belong in a series, albeit loosely.  Here is where a problem arises: there are far too many names—almost all of them oddly spelled and/or hard to pronounce—for one to follow what is going on with any degree of ease.  Consider the following passage, which is fairly typical:

At that time Beren and Lúthien yet dwelt in Tol Galen, the Green Isle, in the River Adurant, southernmost of the streams that falling from Ered Lindon flowed down to join with Gelion; and their son Dior Eluchíl had to wife Nimloth, kinswoman of Celeborn, prince of Doriath, who was wedded to the Lady Gladriel.  The sons of Dior and Nimloth were Eluréd and Elurín; and a daughter was also born to them, and she was named Elwing, which is Star-spray, for she was born on a night of stars, whose light glittered in the spray of the waterfall of Lanthir Lamath beside her father’s house. (290)

According to my count, that passage contains 105 words, of which 36 are proper names.  And since most of these names are made up words, often with odd accent marks, and often differing by only a few characters—Eluchíl, Eluréd, Elurín—it becomes very difficult to keep track of who is who, a task made even more difficult by the fact that one also needs to keep track of whether the character is a god, an elf, a dwarf, a human, or something else. The book does contain an index of names to try to make this workable.  It is 53 pages long and contains 799 entries.  So, there are 799 proper names and terms in a book that is just 369 pages long—that’s over 2 new names and terms per page that you have to keep track of.  Good luck keeping track; Tolkien rarely introduces characters in a way that reminds you who they are.  Oh, and some of the characters, like the aforementioned Melkor/Morgoth, have multiple names, which the author switches between at will.  The worst offender in this regard is Túrin, a.k.a Neithan, a.k.a. Gorthol, a.k.a. Agarawen, a.k.a. Mormegil, a.k.a. Wildman of the Woods, a.k.a. Turambar.  Does he really need seven names?

I realize, of course, that this is precisely what attracts many readers to The Silmarillion, the sense of a richer and more interesting world that this implied history implies.  I have no problem with that and am glad that they enjoy the book.  However, I am not one of those people and this just alienates me from the text; I don’t like the storyline enough to make that massive investment needed to keep track of all this stuff.  So for me it’s just “That guy with the A name attacking the people from the N place.”  Who are these people?  I dunno.  I think the A guy is the good guy though.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in 1972

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien in 1972

Anyway, enough criticizing; there were many things I liked about the book besides the creation myth.  Ungoliant, the aforementioned giant spider, an ancestor of Shelob from The Lord of the Rings, was interesting.  Melkor manipulated her into killing the two magic trees that lit up the world and then she turned on him when he wouldn’t let her eat the Silmarils.  Tolkien writes that some say “she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda”, (80) an archetypal reference to light and dark that will be pleasantly familiar to any reader of Tolkien’s magnum opus (or any one of a number of major works of world literature, including John’s Gospel).  She is so voracious that “she ended long ago, when in her uttermost famine she devoured herself at last.” (90)  Melkor was also an interesting, if  two-dimensional, character.  I kept wanting to see some sign that he would eventually be redeemed, but none ever came.  Of course, this is only a history of Middle Earth up to a certain point, and what comes after can be left up to the reader.  It was interesting that several times it is noted that the ultimate fate of men after their deaths is unknown, (327, et al), unlike the fates of other races, like the elves.

My favorite story from the Quenta Silmarillion was “Of Maeglin,” which had a manageable cast of characters, no massive battle scenes, and involved no supernatural intervention from the gods, which is almost always an ad hoc way to write yourself out of a problem. Of course, the logic of myths doesn’t follow the logic of history or of everyday life.  However, the Silmarillion is supposed to be both myth and history, and it doesn’t work as both.  For instance, when the two light-giving trees are killed, and when the Silmarils are stolen, one wonders why replacements can’t simply be made.  Answer: some things can only be done once.  Now, in a myth, that is a perfectly acceptable answer, but in considered in the light of real life there’s no apparent reason why that is so.

Or consider the Silmarils themselves.  They are so good and pure that they burn anyone evil who touches them.  So, of course, Morgoth, the most evil person ever, puts them in a crown and wears them on his head.  Then, at the end, two of the Silmarils end up in the hands of two evil guys and said hands are then burned.  So, notwithstanding that they have just about the greatest thing ever that everyone has been trying to get for ages, the guys just chuck the crystals into a deep chasm and the ocean, respectively and the Silmarils are history.  As a myth, that’s a beautiful story.  As history, it’s silly.  And that’s generally what happens when you take a myth and try to make it literal: you don’t make it more meaningful, you make it ridiculous, or even contemptible.  I do not, however, think that this issue will present itself to many of the work’s readers, and one can certainly read the book as pure mythology.

In summation, the writing style makes the book much less accessible than it could have been.  I would only recommend it to people who really loved The Lord of the Rings, especially the songs and implied history therein.  (But note that if, like me, you are curious to learn more about Ancalagon the Black, he is disposed of in a single sentence.)  Lots more maps (there are two in this edition) and a chronology would  have been extremely helpful and made the book more accessible.


“A Reporter’s Life” by Walter Cronkite reviewed

19 April 2009

A Reporter’s Life by Walter Cronkite. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (1996). 382 pp.

A Reporter's Life by Walter Cronkite

A Reporter's Life by Walter Cronkite

Published in 1996, Walter Cronkite’s memoirs, A Reporter’s Life, document an exciting life and career and reveal an engaging and decent man.  He begins, naturally, with his early life.  His childhood was a happy one and isn’t dwelt upon too much.  He quickly became involved with the media; he started out selling newspapers but rapidly progressed to being a cub reporter and then to more serious assignments.  He clearly loved the industry, writing fondly about “the heavy odor of printer’s ink and pulp paper and melting lead, and the building-shaking rumble of the big presses.” (33)  His journey to being the first news anchor and “the most trusted man in America” took him to Houston, Kansas City, Europe—including Soviet Russia—and other places, while going from newspapers to radio and back before landing on television.  Along the way, he shares a number of great stories and observations that are interesting and often quite insightful about how the news industry has changed.  For instance, he argues that competition between newspapers is good for accuracy: readers—and editors—can compare stories between newspapers, providing great incentive for the reporter to get it right.  With few cities now supporting multiple newspapers, this incentive is largely diminished or absent.

During his lengthy career Cronkite had innumerable exciting and unique experiences.  He met Bonnie and Clyde’s partner in crime, Ray Hamilton; he was also forced to vote—twice—by Boss Pendergast’s political machine in Kansas City; and he had a number of adventures in WWII, which he reported on from a number of angles.  He went on a bombing raid, serving as a gunner in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which require reporters to be non-combatants.  He also flew on a sub-hunting mission to Iceland and back; they bombed a whale, having mistaken it for a u-boat.  And on D-Day he flew with another bombing mission, but that time they didn’t bomb anything due to clouds.  Later, he flew into France with some infantrymen on a glider, which he doesn’t recommend as a way to go to war.  One of his best wartime experiences happened when riding with Patton’s Third Army to the relief of Bastogne.  Patton stopped his tank when he saw Cronkite riding in a jeep without a helmet.  The reporter had to sheepishly admit that it had fallen off… and rolled into a minefield.  Upon learning that Cronkite was a war correspondent and not a soldier, Patton simply cursed and drove on.

Like everyone of that generation, Cronkite was effected by his experiences of the war.   He expresses internationalist views, which are also influenced, I imagine, by his many experiences working and living all over the world.  He writes that:

The world is unlikely to survive a third world war, which would almost certainly bring universal nuclear devastation.  If we are to avoid that catastrophe, a system of world order—preferably a system of world government—is mandatory.  The proud nations someday will see the light and, for the common good and their own survival, yield up their precious sovereignty just as America’s thirteen colonies did two centuries ago. (128)

He doesn’t develop these views, and one suspects that his own views don’t extend much deeper than that to all the difficulties that world government would entail and the obstacles to forming one at this time.

Cronkite’s insight on the many U.S. presidents that he knew is very interesting.  He writes that, as many are now coming to realize, Eisenhower was not the lazy, hands-off chief executive that had previously been portrayed.  He says that Nixon was easily “the most complicated personality to occupy the Oval Office”, but the reporter got along well with the 37th president; Cronkite was later disappointed not to have made his “enemies list.”  (224) The author says Nixon’s successor, “President-by-accident” Gerald Ford, was “one of the more affable, straight-arrow presidents,” though Reagan “won the affability contest hands down,” (238) though Cronkite largely disagreed with Reagan’s laissez-faire, trickle down policies.  Some of his observations are more surprising.  For instance, he says that

Of the presidents I have known since Herbert Hoover, the best brain was possessed by Jimmy Carter.  I base this not on his political or administrative skills, which clearly were wanting, but on his incredible ability to read complicated material and file and catalog it in his memory so that it could be instantly recalled when needed. (225)

He shares an anecdote when Carter extemporaneously “delivered an excruciatingly long dissertation on the history of all agricultural supports with facts and figures relating to every increase in milk prices since World War I.” (226)  I also found Cronkite’s thoughts on would-be president Adlai Stevenson, who he covered during the ’52 campaign, to be interesting.

I became a great admirer of his intellect, his personality, his gentlemanliness.  I also decided he would probably not make a good President.  He was almost too bright, too humane, too liberal (in the best sense of the word).  He saw and understood, it seemed, all sides of all issues. (181-2)

Cronkite seems fair in his assessments of the various politicians he covered.  His own views seem to be pretty centrist; he refers critically to the right wing several times, but has nothing against Republicans per se.  He is also not a leftist, writing critically about “confiscatory inheritance taxes” that he had to deal with. (374) Various people at different times wanted Cronkite to become involved in politics by running for office, without even knowing his positions on the issues.  He always turned them down—including Senator Ted Kennedy, who wanted Cronkite to run for the U.S. Senate from New York in 1968.  Cronkite worried that “once there a prominent network anchor ran for public office, the people might suspect all news anchors of doctoring the news to satisfy secret political ambitions. (259)  He says “I can go Sherman one step further. … Not only if nominated, I would not run, and if elected, I would not serve, but if perchance I did serve, I would be impeached.” (210)

The chapter dealing with coverage of the space program was quite interesting, as were his dealings with Apartheid-era South Africa and the Middle East peace process, which was somewhat facilitated by one of Cronkite’s interviews of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.  Cronkite’s work also took him to the rain forest, the Himalayas, and 8500 ft. to the ocean bottom in the Alvin.  He also came close to going into space; he was one of 40 finalists to be NASA’s first reporter in space before the civilian in space program was ended when its first participant, teacher Christa McAuliffe, was killed in the Challenger disaster.

Anyway, all of that is sort of interesting and adventuresome, but Cronkite’s observations and views on the evolution of the media and its place in a democratic society are the most thought provoking parts of the book.  He points out that back when political bosses selected the candidates, they did the screening; but now that candidates are selected not by party leaders but by voters in primary elections, the role of the press is much more important—since people are choosing their own candidates, they must have the information necessary to screen those men and women themselves. (197-8)  Unfortunately, the evening news is not a good way for voters to do this.  The average sound bite for presidential candidates during the ’92 election was just 8.2 seconds, and “naturally, nothing of any significance is going to be said in seven seconds, but this seems to work to the advantage of many politicians.” (376-7)  Cronkite, who is most famous as the first news anchor  (indeed, the term was coined for him, but was slow to be adopted in Sweden where such people were called “Cronkiters”) is very frank about the limits of TV news.  “The nation whose population depends on the explosively compressed headline service of television news can expect to be exploited by the demagogues and dictators who can prey upon the semi-informed. (380)

The autobiographer at his CBS news desk

The autobiographer at his CBS news desk

He points out that Germans after WWII claimed not to have known the holocaust was in progress.  Since the press had been shut down, these claims have some validity.  However, Cronkite does not absolve them of responsibility, since the German people acquiesced in the Nazi dismantling of the press; they made themselves ignorant. (268)  He is also critical of British officials who maintained excessive secrecy during the Falklands War and American officials who did likewise during the U.S. invasion of Grenada and actions in Panama and the First Gulf War.  Most notably, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney was criticized by the Defense Department’s own official review of press relations for “an excessive concern for secrecy.” (269)  Cronkite points out that a free press is important for informing not just the citizenry, but also the government about what is going on. (298)  The Soviet government wouldn’t have needed so many spies and informants in their own country if they’d simply had a freer press.

Having an informed public is very important to the author.  He laments the state of history education, writing that “understanding the issues on which citizens of a republic are expected to vote is impossible without an understanding of the past.”  He says that those who have an opportunity to impart this knowledge but fail to do so “can be accused of sabotaging the democratic process.” (28)

And another thing—geography!  They don’t even seem to be trying to teach it anymore.  Maybe, now that we are homogenizing the world via television and the airplane, knowing where you are and where you’re going and what the place and people are like wherever you are isn’t considered as important as it once was.  But surely this knowledge is fundamental to understanding our place on this planet, philosophically as well as physically. (28)

The book is a light read and the life reported on is an interesting one.  His stories about changes in the news media as they enter the television age are also interesting, and will call to mind parallels with the current shift to the internet.  The reporter’s observations and views give meaning to the disparate adventures he has and he’s a decent gentleman that you’ll be glad succeeds.  If you want a light read filled with true adventures, give this book a try.

“Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller reviewed

7 April 2009

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Thomas Nelson Publishers (2003), 205 pp.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

I first heard about this book about three years ago when several of my friends were reading it.  They recommended it, but I didn’t get around to reading it until a friend obligated me by giving me a copy.  Anyway, the book is basically a memoir that contains lots of autobiographical material, and its subtitle, “Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality,” is apt.

Like most memoirs, the book lacks a clearly stated central thesis or argument to push; Miller prefers to relate his own experiences and observations and seems happy to raise questions and get his readers thinking.  For instance, he raises the question “Why would God want to call Himself father when so many fathers abandon their children?” (His own dad played very little role in his life, as he explains.)  He proffers no suggested answers for his question—which is a very good one—and humorously remarks that “all the vocabulary about God seem[s] to come from ancient history, before video games, Palm Pilots, and the Internet.” (4)  One quickly realizes that Miller has a good sense of humor and it comes across well throughout the book.  (And in his other writings too. On his website, he says he’s going to use the money from his next book, which “might be the greatest book ever written,” to go into space.)

One of the book’s main themes, and the closest it comes to having a thesis, comes up early, when Miller is recounting his thoughts about the genocide in the Congo.  He writes that “Nothing is going to change in the Congo until you and I figure out what is wrong with the person in the mirror.” (23)

The problem is not a certain type of legislation or even a certain politician; the problem is the same that it has always been.  I am the problem. … The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest. … True change, true life-giving, God-honoring change, would have to start with the individual.  I was the very problem I had been protesting.  I wanted to make a sign that read “I AM THE PROBLEM.” (20)

Miller says there is nothing more progressive than embracing the fundamental idea that the problem in the universe lives within us.  He develops this idea throughout the book.

Another major theme is the need for authenticity, or the need to be genuine, which is often hard to achieve in our society which emphasizes appearance so much.  He says that “Everybody wants to be fancy and new.  Nobody wants to be themselves. … If there was a guy who just liked being himself and didn’t want to be anybody else, that guy would be the most different guy in the world and everbody would want to be him.” (29)  Elsewhere he diagnoses one problem with our culture:

I think we have this need to be cool, that there is this undercurrent in society that says some people are cool and some people aren’t.  And it is very, very important that we are cool.  … The problem with this is that it indicates there is less value in what people believe, what they stand for; it only matters that they are cool.  In other words, who cares what I believe about life, I only care that I am cool. (105)

He laments that “even our beliefs have become trend statements.  We don’t even believe things because we believe them anymore.  We only believe things because they are cool things to believe.” (107)  He goes on to say that true belief requires commitment and costs something, as opposed to the cheap, trendy variety.  He adds that if you believe something passionately, regardless of what it is and whether it is right or wrong, people will follow you, “because they think you know something they don’t, some clue to the meaning of the universe.” (109)  That’s one reason why believing things that are true is so important.  He adds that “if we believed the right things, the true things, there wouldn’t be very many problems on earth,” like the genocide in the Congo. (107)

Donald Miller (b. 1971)

Donald Miller (b. 1971)

Much of the book details Miller’s adventures among people who are not only not Christians but are actively suspicious of them.  He discusses his time at Reed College, which is known for its secular and libertine culture.  He and others from the school’s small Christian community set up a “Confession Booth” on campus during the annual Bacchanalia.  The twist was that they confessed to the students who came in, not vice versa.  They apologized for not living up to the message of Jesus and for ways in which Christians have historically not been very Christlike.  His observations from the time he spent with the hippies in the woods are also interesting. One passage I found very powerful concerned a student at Reed College who had a speech impediment and a question that Miller fielded from someone asking how he could deal with all the immorality at the school.  He writes that

I never thought of Reed as an immoral place, and I suppose I never thought of it as an immoral place because somebody like Nathan can go there and talk like Elmer Fudd, and nobody will ever make fun of him.  And if Nathan were to go to my church, which I love and would give my life for, he would unfortunately be made fun of by somebody somewhere, behind his back and all, but it would happen, and that is such a tragic crime. (224-5)

He describes his experiences living alone and living with a group of other guys, saying he finds it “interesting that God designed people to need other people.” (154) Miller stresses community a lot throughout the book.  He describes hell as “a place where a person is completely alone, without others and without God,” (171) which contrasts with Jean-Paul Sarte’s view that “hell is other people.” (226)  He says that “the words alone, lonely, and loneliness are three of the most powerful words in the English language. … These words say that we are human; they are like the words hunger and thirst. But they are not words about the body, they are words about the soul. … Other people keep our souls alive, just like food and water does with our body” (152)

Miller stresses love for others, not coincidentally, just like Jesus did.  He writes “I think love is a bit of heaven,” (cf. his description of hell) and says that when he was in love “there was somebody in the world who was more important than me.” (151) He stresses that we shouldn’t love others in order for them to like or love us, or in order to get anything whatsoever from him.  He said he hated the idea of befriending people in order to get them to go to his church—but he liked the idea of loving people just to love them, with no other motives attached. (135)  The passage on page 150 which concludes the 13th chapter is also informative on this topic.

Towards the end of the book Miller deals just a bit more directly with the topic of God and our relationship to the divine.  “It comforts me to think that if we are created beings, the thing that created us would have to be greater than us, so much greater, in fact, that we would not be able to understand it.” (201)  He says that in the face of such “big beauty” we have two choices: terror or awe; he recommends the later, adding “I don’t think there is any better worship than wonder.” (204, 206)

Don Miller suggests, but rarely directly states, a lot of good questions in the book, mostly concerning how the church has screwed up, is marginalizing itself, and is detracting from what should be its very powerful—and important—message.  But sometimes I wish he’d come out and be a bit more straightforward with criticisms and critiques.  Still, this is a good book for anyone, Christian or not, to read in order to have their view of what Christianity is and can be shaken up just a bit; it’ll keep people thinking.  The book is a light read; his writing style is conversational (as demonstrated) and humorous; the book doesn’t deal with deep metaphysical or theological topics; it is very practical.  It’s also short, at just 205 real pages, so few will have excuses.  Especially if a friend gives them a copy.  Recommended for anyone who wants an introduction to the new emergent movement within American Christianity.

“The Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius reviewed

6 April 2009

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Penguin Classics. Victor Watts trans. 164 pp.

The Penguin Classics edition shows Philosophy talking to Boethius while Fortune turns her wheel in the background

The Penguin Classics edition shows Philosophy talking to Boethius while Fortune turns her wheel in the background

The Consolation of Philosophy is a fairly well-known little work.  Wikipedia has good background information on it and it’s author, Boethius.  He was a sixth century Roman patrician who’d lost the king’s favor and wrote the book while in prison in 524 or 525 awaiting execution and musing on his fall from grace.  Though a Christian, he drew on classical themes and motifs for the work, which is fundamentally a theodicy.

The book is a dialog between Boethius and Philosophy, who is personified as a woman and contrasted with Fortune (cf. the image of Wisdom as a woman and Folly as a harlot in Proverbs—the work isn’t wholly uninformed by the Christian tradition).  Boethius, who had previously served as Consul and in other high positions while he had the king’s favor, complains to Philosophy that he had “never been moved from justice to injustice by anything.”

You and God, who has sowed you in the minds of wise men, are my witnesses that the only consideration to impel me to any office was a general desire for good.  This was the reason why I had no alternative but grimly to resist evil and why in the struggle to defend justice I have always been indifferent to the hatred I inspired in men who wielded greater power than mine—an indifference inspired by the knowledge that I had freely followed my conscience. (10)

He feels betrayed by Fortune, which had previously blessed him with respect and success.  “I cannot deny the speed with which I rose to prosperity.  It is the very thing, in fact, which makes me burn with grief as I remember it.  In all adversity of fortune, the most wretched kind is once to have been happy.”  Philosophy consoles him that Fortune hasn’t changed her attitude towards him, she is the same as always: changeable.

The author goes on to examine the things that he had lost and why he ought not to lament his dispossession of them.  He looks at wealth, and how people who pursue it above all else never have enough and end up serving their money and stuff rather than vice versa.  “No good thing harms its owner … but wealth very often does harm its owners.” (36)  Power likewise is not the summum bonum; it doesn’t bring happiness or safety, but frequently the reverse.  His insights on those topics is good, but I most enjoy his analysis of fame:

Just think how puny and insubstantial such game really is.  It is well known, and you have seen it demonstrated by astronomers, that beside the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point; that is to say, compared with the magnitude of the celestial sphere, it may be thought of as having no extent at all. … This is the tiny point within a point, shut in and hedged about, in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendour. (41)

I can’t help but wonder if Carl Sagan was thinking of that passage when he wrote Pale Blue Dot.  Beothius further comments out that

Many men have been famous in their time but their memory has perished because there were no historians to write about them.  And yet the very histories are of little use when like their authors they become lost in the depths of time which make all things obscure. … If you think of the infinite recesses of eternity you have little cause to take pleasure in any continuation of your name. (42)

He then analyses the good, identifies it as the summun bonum that all people desire and are drawn to, and identifies it with God.  These passages owe much to Plato and need little explanation for anyone familiar with his concept of the good.

The passages in the work on the problem of evil (or the problem of undeserved suffering) are interesting.  He states the problem quite well:

The greatest cause of my sadness is really this—the fact that in spite of a good helmsman to guide the world, evil can still exist and even pass unpunished. … But there is something even more bewildering. When wickedness rules and flourishes, not only does virtue go unrewarded, it is even trodden underfoot by the wicked and punished in the place of crime.  That this can happen in the realm of an omniscient and omnipotent God who wills only good, is beyond perplexity and complaint. (85)

Later, he calls the problem of evil “the greatest of all questions, a question that can never be exhausted.”  He says that “when one doubt has been removed, countless others spring up in its place, like the hydra’s heads.”  While the statement of the problem is excellent, The Consolation hardly the definitive solution.  Philosophy answers Boethius much as God answered Job out of the storm: “It is because you men are in no position to contemplate this order that everything seems confused and upset. … It is not allowed to men to comprehend in thought all the ways of the divine work or expound them in speech.  Let it be enough that we have seen that God, the author of all natures, orders all things and directs them towards goodness.” (106, 109)  As for suffering that the good endure, “in the very short space of a human life, nothing can be so late in coming as to seem to the mind long to wait for, especially as it [the mind] is immortal.” (97)

Another image of the Wheel of Fortune, from a 15th century manuscript

Another image of the Wheel of Fortune (Rota Fortunae), from a 15th century manuscript

But Boethius goes beyond this; he offers arguments that all things, both those apparently good and those apparently bad, are for the better, because “all fortune whether pleasant or adverse is meant either to reward or discipline the good or to punish or correct the bad. … [therefore] all fortune is good.” (111)  While there is a bit more to his argument, it is unconvincing and few readers will accept his claim that “evil is [only] thought to abound on earth. … if you could see the plan of Providence, you would not think there was evil anywhere.” (110)  The arguments he adduces to prove the nonexistence of evil are sophistical and detract from what preceded them.

The last matter dealt with is divine foreknowledge as it relates to free will, a topic which I normally find it useless to discuss, an opinion that Boethius does nothing to modify.  The penultimate sentence of the work reminds me of the verses appended to the end of Ecclesiastes: “Avoid vice, therefore, and cultivate virtue; lift up your mind to the right kind of hope and put forth humble prayers on high.”

The Penguin Classics edition contains the 1960s translation by Victor Watts, who adds a 26-page introductory essay that provides context and interpretive help for The Consolation. The poetic passages that intersperse the dialog parts don’t seem particularly skillful, and only a few lines stand out for their beauty, images, or form.  I don’t particularly recommend this edition above any other, but the work as a whole is well worth reading for anyone familiar with classical philosophy.

“Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: 1905-1931” reviewed

3 April 2009

The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. I: Family Letters: 1905-1931. Edited by Walter Hooper. Harper Collins. 983 pp.

Volume I of III

Volume I of III

At 983 pages, excluding the helpful biographical appendix, this is a pretty big book—and it’s just the first of three volumes of C. S. Lewis’s collected letters.  The man wrote a lot and this volume contains 95% of the extant letters that he wrote between 1905, when he was seven years old, and the fall of 1931, shortly after his conversion to Christianity.  While tedious at places, it contains interesting biographical details and accounts of his early life and reveals an impressive intellect and strong personality.

Much of the material is, of course, quite quotidian.  One letter, sent from school in January 1915 to his father, says “Yes; I did change my socks. No; there are no holes in my shoes. Yes, thanks, I have plenty of warm underclothing.” (101)  Almost half of the letters in the first 200 pages were sent to his father and until he became a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford requests for funds were a staple of his letters, along with itemized lists of expenses for which the money was needed.  His father, a solicitor, once apparently suspected Jack (as all of C. S. Lewis’s friends and family members called him) of cheating him out of about £1 and Lewis wrote a point-by-point letter arguing that the charge was illogical and contrary to the facts;  it was  probably more than what was called for (see p. 135-6).

The author’s mother died when he was ten and when reading his letters to his father, one wishes to have the other half of the conversation and to know more about just what sort of relationship they had.  Lewis wasn’t above pointing out how smart he was.  To his father he says he  “often wonder[s] how you came to have such a profound and genuine philosopher for your son, don’t you?” (85).  They often debated abstract matters, Lewis once claiming that “no further disputation is possible after my crushing and exhaustive demonstration” (93) and elsewhere that “one of these days you will come round and ‘see my point'” (213).  These seem likes things one would write to an equal, not a parent.

Probably 90% of the letters in the first third of the book are either to his father or to his lifelong best friend, Arthur Greeves, with whom he shared many interests in music and literature.  Lewis similarly thought he won all of the arguments with Arthur: “How funny that I always prove everything I want in argument with you but never convince you! … be good and talk sense the next time you do me the honour of arguing with me” (129-130).  Of course, their relationship was very close and their philosophical conversations were vigorous but never mean spirited.  Some of the most interesting exchanges they had concerned religion and Christianity.  Lewis was, of course, an atheist from the age at which he was first able to form his own beliefs and make his own decisions and Arthur was a Christian, though he played relatively little direct role in Lewis’s later conversion.  The two best letters to examine for Lewis’s beliefs at this period are the ones to Greeves dated 12 October 1916 and its follow up dated 18 October of the same year.  To quote the former at length:

You ask me my religious views: you know, I think, that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best.  All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name are merely man’s own invention—Christ as much as Loki. …

… Superstition of course in every age has held the common people, but in every age the educated and thinking ones have stood outside it, though usually outwardly conceding it for convenience.  … ones views on religious subjects don’t make any difference in morals, of course. A good member of society must of course try to be honest, chaste, truthful, kindly etc: these are things we owe to our own manhood & dignity and not to any imagined god or gods.

Of course, mind you, I am not laying down as a certainty that there is nothing outside the material world: considering the discoveries that are always being made, this would be foolish. Anything MAY exist: but until we know that it does, we can’t make any assumptions.  The universe is an absolute mystery: man has mad many guesses at it, but the answer is yet to seek.

Lewis also pointed out how ideas of God evolved throughout the Hebrew scriptures from a tribal diety to a universal one (206) and often took opportunities to tweak Arthur, for instance pointing out that another person is “a rather violent athiest, so I suppose I shall meet him by ‘the fiery, flaming flood of Phlegethon” (240).

Lewis in 1947

Lewis in 1947

These disagreements notwithstanding, Lewis and Greeves had much in common.  Many of their letters involved planning visits to each other, and discussing the good times they enjoyed in each other’s company.  And it is almost disconcerting the vast number of books that Lewis mentions reading in his letters and the analysis he brings to them, frequently recommending works to Arthur. Lewis was not found of Thucydides, who he called “a desperately dull and tedious Greek historian” (145)—an assessment I disagree with—and also disliked Cicero and Demosthenes.  He did, however, enjoy The Histories of Herodotus, who he said pleasantly combined both history and romance (284), and also recommended The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon (447).

The volume also contains a smattering of references to historical events, such as the appearance of Comet Halley in 1910 (14), the Battle of Jutland (204), and the 1918 influenza epidemic (416, 430, 442).  Regarding World War I, Lewis echoes the sentiments of his tutor, William Kirkpatrick (the inspiration for the Professor in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) and wrote in 1914, when the war was only three months old, that

one of the most serious consequences of this war is what Kirk calls ‘the survival of the unfittest'[.] All those who have the courage to do so and are physically sound, are going off to be shot: those who survive are moral and physical weeds—a fact which does not promise favorably for the next generation.

(Lewis would follow his older brother, Warnie, into the army and was injured in combat.)  Anyway, Lewis seemed to be something of an elitist, which is perhaps easier to understand if one remembers his privileged upbringing and education.  For instance, he criticizes a list of the 100 best books, saying he “abominate[s] such culture for the many, such tastes ready made, such standardization of the brain” (581) and elsewhere praises aristocrats for “having tradition in [their] outlook” and rues “the influx of commercial democracy” (746).  But a few months later he writes that “the aristocracy was not a bit better than the plutocracy that has replaced it” (772).  And while he evinces some disdain for socialism in several letters (see pp. 441 and 544), he wrote Arthur in 1917 saying “I am a bundle of contradictions, but I must say socialism does interest me.”

When you think of the way labourers in the factory live at home,—men & women slaving from half past five in the morning to six at night at hard, monotonous work in hideous rooms full of shrieking machinery year after year, with never a moments pleasure except when they are drunk (and you can’t blame them) it really does make you feel that the whole thing is wrong. Are you ashamed to think of us], blessed prigs, with our books and music and little grumbles about nothing, dawdling along … while half or more than half the people are slaves.  As much slaves as ever there were in Rome, their only liberty being to starve when the torture becomes unbearable!

Like all of us, C. S. Lewis was a product of his own time.  Thus, some of his letters from this period seem to reflect some of the racial views held by many of the time.  When writing to his brother who was serving in the Army in Sierra Leone, Lewis wrote “What a queer thing that black man … is: he’s been there as long as anyone else and has never adapted on quarter of a step.  Perhaps the really strange thing is that others have” (538).  Elsewhere, he refers to “an atrocious little blackguard of a French nouveau riche boy with negro blood in him and the manners of a swine” (613) and is critical of Chinese culture (see pp. 710-11 & 720n).

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

Magdalen College, Oxford, where Lewis was a fellow while many of these letters were written

He was also not entirely comfortable around women, again probably because of his upbringing (his mother died in his childhood, he had no sisters, and he attended all boys schools).  For instance, when he was “bothered” into teaching a class of young women he writes to his father that teaching “girls, if one considers only their faculties, … might seem an easy task.  But then they would be reading for the same exams as the men: and that being so, the ‘weakness of the sex’ (assuming that they are dunces) would make the proposition all the tougher” (598).  He also wrote that “as a general rule, women marry their tutors,” but he wasn’t worried because in his class “the pretty ones are stupid and the interesting ones are ugly, so it is alright” (667).  As an Oxford don, he said he “did [his] duty” in voting for a resolution that “the university has a right to remain predominantly a men’s university” and was happy that it passed, being concerned that Oxford might become “the women’s university” and Cambridge “the men’s university” (702-4).  He also comments that “that mixture of Northern respect and Oriental suppression” is “not a bad answer” to “the female sex” (771).  These are all views which we would not be likely to entertain today.  However, he did say that women write very good novels (910).

Speaking of Lewis’s views of women somewhat naturally raises another topic dealt with in his early letters: sadism. Most fans of his work probably have no idea that Lewis entertained sadistic fantasies.  To quote from one of his biographies, C.S. Lewis: Creator of Narnia by Michael White,

In a letter written in January 1917 Lewis begins to explain that he is writing the letter on his knee and this seemingly innocent comment leads him on to a discourse on whipping and spanking.  He declares: “Across my knee … of course makes one think of positions for whipping: or rather not for whipping (you couldn’t get any swing) but for that torture with brushes … very humiliating for the victim”  Soon he was signing his letters to Greeves “Philomastrix” (“lover of the whip”) and detailing gruesome fantasies involving Arthur’s younger sister, in which he whipped her “for the good of her soul”.  In other letters he described a particularly beautiful girl he had seen in Oxford and what pain she would have suffered if she had received only half the torment he had inflicted on her in his imagination. (p 47)

Arthur later scribbled through incriminating passages in the letters, but those passages are restored (and noted) in the volume presently being reviewed.  In 1931, Lewis wrote Arthur “I am now inclined to agree with you in not regretting that we confided in each other even on this subject, because it has done no harm in the long run—and how could young adolescents really be friends without it?”  (Incidentally, Arthur was homosexual and, presumably, indicated some of his fantasies to Jack.)  At the time, Arthur indicated concern about confiding such details to paper, but Lewis wrote “if any person did read out letters, he would be an ill-bred cad & therefore we shouldn’t mind what he say” (274).  Hopefully he would except the present reviewer and his audience.  The material is certainly salacious, but I wouldn’t characterize it as “gruesome” as White does.  In any event, after considering some possible sources of Lewis’s interest, the biographer points out that that as an adult Lewis was somewhat embarrassed by his interest and

As far as anyone knows, Jack’s attraction to sadism never strayed beyond his own imagination, but no one will ever know what went on behind closed doors later in his life.  For the eighteen-year-old at least, these sadistic musings went no further than that: onanistic fantasies and bravura to impress Arthur. (p 48)

Anyway, some of the most interesting letters occur near the end of the collection, around Lewis’s conversion to theism in 1929 and ultimately to Christianity in 1931.  The roots of his conversion, which are familiar to anyone who read his autobiographical Surprised By Joy, are evident in his earlier letters.  For instance, in 1916 he wrote Arthur saying “I know quite well that feeling of something strange and wonderful that ought to happen, and wish I could think like you that this hope will some day be fulfilled.”  And to another friend, Leo Baker, in 1921: “beauty seems to me to be always an invitation of some sort & usually an invitation to we don’t know what.”  Though an atheist from the time he could form his own views until about age 31, Lewis was never a materialist, the main species of atheist that one sees these days.  He always seemed to sense that there was a “more” or something beyond the purely material, and that is was ultimately lead him to theism and Christianity, a journey described in his highly recommended Surprised By Joy and hinted at throughout the present volume.

This probably explains the interest he entertained in his 20s in the occult and magic, which he called “the burning subject” of the time and that it was difficult to obtain even enough evidence to disbelieve (543).  He said that he had “no doubt” that some people could see the future (640) but that astrology was “all rot” (597).

Some of the best passages come from his own self examinations, where he identifies his main sin as pride—which he calls “the mother of all sins”—and that he also experiences lust, wrath, and envy.

What I feel like saying … is “things are going very, very well with me (spiritually).”  On the other hand, one knows from bitter experience that he who standeth should take heed lest he fall, and that anything remotely like pride is certain to bing an awful crash. … Yet as long as one is a conceited ass, there is no good pretending not to be. (877)

He confides to Arthur that

I catch myself posturing before the mirror, so to speak, all day long. I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realise I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me.  I pretend I am remembering an evening of good fellowship in a really friendly and charitable spirit—and all the time I’m really remembering how good a fellow I am and how well I talked. (878)

He says that fighting pride is like fighting the Hydra, which grew a new head every time one was cut off: once you stop one line of prideful thinking one is tempted to be proud of doing so.  The argument will be familiar to those who’ve read Lewis’s popular works, like Mere Christianity.  He also discusses his attempts to cultivate “the blessed sense of charity, so rare in me,” writing about an experience after Christmas Eve service in 1929, when he could view “even my worst enemies in college [as] funny and odd rather than detestable” (852).

The editor takes the opportunity of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity to bring the volume to a close, and I must say I am interested in obtaining its sequel.  I am especially interested in seeing how his views and outlook may or may not change as a result of his new religious views.  I also expect that theology will be a much more prominent subject in the two later volumes, once he becomes a well known theologian and apologist.  This volume, which you have gotten only a not particularly representative sample of in the above, is good in its own right, but is only recommended for those already familiar with C. S. Lewis’s popular works, especially Surprised By Joy, who want to learn more about the person behind them.