Sort of meeting Lewis and Tolkien . . . an Oxford reverie

In my family, my father and I are the ones who read and enjoy fantasy literature, and we share and discuss our favourites, when the others are not around.  Here he reminisces about his time as a student at Oxford University, the home of three of Britain’s best-known and loved fantasy writers (C. S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, and J. R. R. Tolkien).

John Hale is an authority on the Latin works of John Milton. Since his ‘retirement’ in 2007, he has produced many volumes, including De Doctrina Christiana (Oxford Complete Works of John Milton, Vol. 8), and most recently, Milton’s Scriptural Theology: Confronting De Doctrina.

Lewis, fiction and scholarship

I read bucket-loads of Lewis at school and university. At school it was his books on religious belief. They were approved of there. I was impressed by the Screwtape Letters; their indirect technique, evil mentoring from a senior to a junior devil, was new to me and to apologetics. At university, however, other forms of belief and unbelief or doubt made more noise.

Lewis remained a presence at Oxford even after he had shifted (unfortunately for me) to Cambridge. He had founded the Socratic Club, where belief and unbelief were interrogated by a formally-appointed Socratic gadfly. (Like a medieval disputation, as I later learnt.) I found that I couldn’t breathe its combative atmosphere, and that Lewis’s pugnacity was uncongenial to serious thought about faith. I had a friend, Martin, who enjoyed the religious works more than I did, without being at all persuaded or moved by them.

Martin preferred Till We Have Faces, where Lewis retold the myth of Cupid and Psyche. Lewis set it in some far country, beyond the edge of Greek or Roman territory, and told it from a strange viewpoint, that of Psyche’s sister. I mention it because I liked it too, for its deliberate strangeness. Well written, too, almost too well. Did writing come too easily to Lewis?

       He says not, in his self-life, Surprised by Joy. He says that when he began writing fiction, he was astonished by how much harder it was. To write about literature you just “switched on the motor at the place where you had left off,” and carried on, whereas to write a story needed a different power, the power which might or might not return— would just as likely “leave a man as dry as a stone.” He liked to talk of “a man,” generalizing in a bluff or hearty tone from his own experience.

        Hard or easy, I found him wonderful at almost everything he touched; but which of his books did I read when? That did change. Nowadays I admire his works of scholarship the most. Not the apologetics, nor the children’s tales, but works on the scale of his Oxford (OHEL) volume English Literature in the Sixteenth Century  (but “excluding the drama,” saddled for ever with its stuffy sub-title) which manages to be both objective and personal, funny and austere. Or works where he expounded and expatiated, to continual delight and enlightenment, like the Discarded Image and Studies in Words.

         Back then, aged about 21, I was in some awe of his fiction, because he himself was in awe of that kind of writing. It did come harder to him. He himself was in awe of Tolkien, and the more difficult Charles Williams, and other Inklings.

Sort of meeting Lewis

        I met him once back then, sort of. I dreamt that I met him. Like this: As a student at Christ Church, we had a tatty old common room with high window seats, on which you could look out at one of those secretive Alice gardens with high stone walls. Lewis Carroll’s former rooms were on the next floor up from this common room, in the corner of Tom Quad. In my dream, I was sitting with Lewis at that window. He said, “Got something to show you.” He rummaged in the baggy side-pocket of his old check sports-jacket, and carefully brought out a fairy, about three inches tall, wearing a pale green hazel-nut cap. End of dream. Waking up I recognized Lewis from his photograph, and the fairy from one of the Rupert books. The first one I had ever read, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, and nothing to do with Lewis. Well, no, maybe somehow it was. And how strange that the dream-encounter was set in Dodgson-land; underneath it, in fact. Allegories welcomed.

          It was some time after that dream that I met Lewis’s children’s stories. The Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, borrowed from the Oxford Public Library just up the road. (A distinctively Victorian library, that one. Loved it.) I was thrilled by the Dawn-Treader! I felt Lewis had embodied his own love of Die Ferne, which he vents a lot in Surprised by Joy. Like Odysseus, too. And Norse myths of sailing to the farthermost end of the sea. In Reepicheep, the mighty-mouse idea blended with that lovely poem by Christopher Smart, about the mouse which challenged the cat which has seized his mate. (Set to music by Benjamin Britten in Jubilate Agno.) These off-centre works radiate a different joy from the plodding ones of much fiction, including workaday fantasies which show their construction.

A brush with Tolkien

           I had more time for random reading that summer (1959). I was grappling with philosophy reading, logic, which took me one hour per page. I had to read something else. I tried Dawn-Treader. Also in May 1959 I heard of Tolkien. I had heard tell of how one day, marking examination papers, he had written onto one of the scripts, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” An act of release, frustration, rebellion, who knows? He had fame outside his own subject because of it. I liked the break-out. And he was a buddy of Lewis. Lewis was “Jack,” Tolkien was “Tollers.” To each other, I mean, when meeting at the pub on Tuesdays to drink deep and debate their fictions.

        So, when Tolkien gave his final lecture, I packed in with hundreds of other people to Merton Hall. That one time, I “sort of” met him too. It was filled full, gallery and all. I had got there late, so stood at the back of the gallery. I could hear every word, then! The lecture ran for well over an hour. It consisted, entirely, of a defence of the Oxford English syllabus. Which did and must for ever start with Old English (compulsory), stopping at Jane Austen!  This did need some defending. It disappointed me. Anyhow, I was present only to hear anecdotes or indiscretions about hobbit-making.

         How curious, in hindsight, to learn that some scholars (such as my Otago colleague Alan Horsman) judged that Tolkien should have spent his last 30 years at Oxford on his scholarship; following up his edition of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Instead, Tolkien published little except fantasy once he started with the Hobbit. Hobbitry took up more and more of his energies. And his jingly verse and philological whimsying. I have some sympathy for Alan in this! I was bored by the valedictory, couldn’t see what the fuss was about this in-house stuff, since I was studying a different subject. And, holding those views about the syllabus, wouldn’t it have been more consistent to publish scholarship? Better still, like Lewis, to divide his writing time between his two very great gifts…

Hobbit or Homer?

          For the record, before going back to Lewis:: from reading the Hobbit, I remember only Gollum, and “My precious.” And from a year later, reading the Rings, how Gollum’s fixation and identity are finally disclosed. If I remember rightly, he is a former hobbit, who has lost his skin and eyesight, and his right wits, by hunting through too many caverns for long dark ages for the lost ring of power. A moral tale, ending in metamorphosis, somewhat resembling the evolutionary pattern of species like flightless birds, or bats. Call me Philistine, but the imagination at work here does not impress me all that much.

         Much greater power is to be found in Homer understated, back near the beginning of recoverable fiction. When the suitors are slain by the bow of Odysseus, their spirits flee away like bats in flight, squeaking, trizontes. They are flitting off in a colourless half-life to Hades, where even the greatest spirits —like Achilles, who has spoken with Odysseus during the Nekuia, the book where he travels to consult the dead—loathe to be, only partly alive after their vibrant lives of earth. The mythological imagination coheres, and convinces. Is it because we have gone back to its wellspring, the oral composition and bardic performance?

Kindly but not cosy—Lewis

         A little later, 1962 I think, I tried Tolkien’s long tale. Thrilled at first, I read the Rings late into the night in order to finish, despite this being the week of final exams. An imprudence! Was I growing up or eegressing?  That was the high watermark of my liking and enjoyment. Lewis’s tales have lasted better. Or I haven’t binged on them. He undertakes secondary epic more lightly, at less portentous length, and with a different kind of density. He has the same philological density. Spirits that glint sidelong in the bright air are eldila, singular being eldil. And in other ways the secondary epic is thought through with less sweating over it than Tolkien. Lewis more lightly touches it in, to the depth required in each moment of his story— as it intensifies towards the end in Dawntreader It was always a sport. Tolkien turned professional after being enjoyed as an amateur.

           I don’t know whether I prefer Lewis because he enlivened tales which were his own with assorted myth, not only classical, or because Tolkien stood closer to a different body of myth which he knew better and then aped. But Lewis’s characterizations engage actual growing-up feelings better. Myths help: Argonautic voyaging rather than clunky sword-fighting (taken ad absurdum in those movies). Lewis is kindly but not cosy, unlike Tolkien.          

          What does let it down, for me, is the metaphysics, in a word, Aslan. Tolkien does the opposite, beneficially: no benign spirit presiding and intervenes, and instead a supernatural of evil, as if evil not good was the ruling norm. The metaphysic you get in Henry James. Rather than either of them, leave the tale-telling to Robert Louis Stevenson.

         All in all, nonetheless, Lewis is the great all-rounder of English letters in his century.

John Hale

One thought on “Sort of meeting Lewis and Tolkien . . . an Oxford reverie

  1. john bowes

    The Lewis fantasy I keep returning to is The Great Divorce, where he envisages people have just died being taken on a bus “elsewhere”, and how they respond to their new companions and conditions and the overtures from God.

    Like

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