Happy Birthday, Jack! (CS Lewis Born Today, Nov 29th, in 1898)

CS Lewis has had more of an impact on my life than any other writer.  So I raise a pint to Jack (as he desired to be called by) and give a hearty “here, here!” to this amazing writer.  And why?  I wrote this a couple of years ago, but the thoughts remain the same.   Perhaps this sums it up, at least for me.

After a number of years intently reading Lewis’s works, it is still hard for me to articulate the impact this author has had on my life and faith.  There’s a hearty handshake and an offer to sit with him with a pint, and after a bit of conversation, and some anxious questioning on my part he jumps up and says “Let me show you something,” and leads me out the door to show me the landscape of faith, with its towering mountains, leafy glades, and roaring seas.  We go hiking, swimming, climbing- and he knows or has struggled with every root in the path, every crested wave, and scrambled to find every foothold.  And the best part is after a day’s journey finding an out of the way pub, where we sit and he pontificates on the sheer joy of the landscape and breathing the fresh air.  He is not there to revel in the obscurity of it all, but the remarkable clarity of all things.

Coming across Puddleglum’s assertion to “Live like a Narnian,” in The Silver Chair, the peeling off of Eustace’s dragon skin in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Wormwood losing his patient in The Screwtape Letters, longing for the irrigating of deserts in The Abolition of Man, tin soldiers becoming New Men in Mere Christianity, and impatient chargers stamping their hooves inMiracles, and Aslan’s roar throughout…there is much much more, but these images and situations have resonated within me, urging my soul to look up instead of down.  Lewis allows the world to become larger because he sees the eternal beyond it.  Not many writers do that nowadays.  Lewis still does.  And I say still not in the sense that he is still here among us, but in that larger sense a good writer attains when his/her work is around long after they have passed.

Back from Narnia

“Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest.”- CS Lewis, The Four Loves

A place of safety and retreat for me is where I am sitting right now- in the armchair of my library, either reading, or writing, with a big fat mug of coffee or a glass of wine or pint of ale.   My books stand comfortably at their posts on the shelves behind me, and a few of those jolly souls occupy an honored spot of distinction on the end table beside me, a few dog-eared and well worn, others fresh from the field and awaiting perusal.

Many of these books are by or about CS Lewis.  Over the past few years, his books have been the pebble in the pond, sending ripples out to other books, other authors, living and dead, past and present, which now grace my shelves.  Lewis has been that particular member of the communion of saints who has opened door after door after door, engaging me, challenging me, until I learn more about myself as a writer, a teacher, a husband, a father, and a follower of Christ.

And wouldn’t you know it?  I have found others in my own situation.  I registered for the CS Lewis Retreat held in Navasota, TX early, knowing that it would be smack dab in the middle of a busy 1st quarter teaching my rambunctious seniors, but feeling it was high time to engage in person with authors I had only known in black and white thus far, and a hazy coterie of folks who had been touched by Lewis and I knew were out there somewhere and not just on WordPress and Blogger.  Who were the faces behind the fingers tapping at those keyboards?

“So how did you get into Lewis?” Andrew Lazo asked me as I found a seat in the lobby at Camp Allen Retreat Center in Navasota Texas.

I waxed semi-lyrically a rather incoherent reply.

Andrew seemed to get the gist.  And he must have also seen an undercurrent of pleading in my voice and eyes, as in “Did I make the right decision to take a plane and come here?  I’m not here with anybody.  There just seemed to be this necessary pull to…to trust that it wouldn’t be a waste of ti–…”

“Well, it’s great to have you here.  You’re home, my friend.  Welcome home.”

And that was pretty much the whole retreat, folks.  Just one interaction with “home” after another.  Further up and further in.

The primary focus of the retreat centered on Lewis’s The Great Divorce, an allegorical novel about a purgatorial bus ride to the lowlands of Heaven.  Speakers such as Joseph Pearce and Louis Markos expounded on the novel and its understanding of the true nature of sin and its application for us today, especially as (as many were in the audience) writers, teachers, and scholars.  A writer’s track featured Diana Glyer, author of The Company They Keep: Lewis and Tolkien as Writers in Community.  Using Lewis and Tolkien as models, she explained differences and writing styles and importance of recognizing our own styles and playing to their tune instead of the ideal tune we wish to fit ourselves into.  I had the good fortune of arriving early on Thursday and getting to know Diana and her 10 year old daughter Sierra.  Sierra was mid way through a novel with an unmistakable cover which immediately identified the author for me: The Pearls of Lutra, by Brian Jacques, the famous creator of the Redwall series.  So we ended up having a wonderful discussion about hares, squirrels, mice, otters, and the difficulty of mastering mole speech (as in “Burr-oi, soir, oim gurtly afurred of villy-ans.”).  Lancia Smith led a hosted group focusing on CS Lewis and our approach to prayer which was revealing and refreshing.

A highlight for me was Bag End Café, led by Andrew as a sort of open mic night for the retreatants.  Original poetry was read, songs were sung, music was played, and if the cookies and other assorted goodies, as well as the wine and beer, didn’t make you feel like you were sitting in the Green Dragon, I don’t know what else would have.  A few of us continued to burn the midnight oil when others had left, leading to a few more hours of horrible punnery, bad jokes, and multiple toasts to whoever and whatever.

Friends were made quickly and permanently.  A woman named Lani and I shared our stories over coffee.  Lani was friends with Lancia, who introduced me to William, who sat at lunch with Kathleen who pulled me into a fascinating conversation about cathedral architecture with Steve, which resonated with Katie, who introduced me to Thomas, and then there was that great conversation with Crystal, and …you get the picture.  Everywhere and anywhere, conversations abounded and fed our hearts, minds, and spirits.

The Ad Deum Dance Troupe lent movement to many emotions and insights unvoiced in a beautiful performance which made me forget the pain in my knee and just revel in unspoken story.

Thus, after a full weekend of almost too many expectations fulfilled, it was time to say goodbye.  Stan Mattson, president of the CS Lewis Foundation (and may I take this opportunity to just rename him King Frank, as humble, forthright, and good-natured as that character was in The Magician’s Nephew?) led us in an old folk song entitled “Will Ye No Come Back Again,” a fitting, quite emotional end to our time together as our voices (including my reedy tenor) intermingled with a sense of true fellowship and completeness.

I left with a heart a thousand times lighter, with grace and a sense of purpose I haven’t known for a long while.  And with, as the theme of the retreat indicated, a sense of eternity, in the here and now.

Here Comes Spring

Jumping around YouTube tonight, an odd way to keep Saturday Vigil for Easter.  The Resurrection celebration is around the corner.   I come across a brilliant guitarist by the name of Phil Keaggy doing a pretty amazing cover of “Here Comes the Sun” by George Harrison.

I had, prior to my YouTube excursions, been mulling over some old Oxford photos of the Kilns from my trip in 2009 and 2010.

C.S. Lewis.  George Harrison.  “Here Comes the Sun.”  Why am I all of a sudden thinking of…..of course, Narnia.

Here are the lyrics:

Here comes the sun, doo doo doo doo.
Here comes the sun, and I say,
It’s all right.

Little darlin’, it’s been a long cold lonely winter.
Little darlin’, it feels like years since it’s been here.
Here comes the sun, doo doo doo doo.
Here comes the sun, and I say,
It’s all right.

Little darlin’, the smiles returning to their faces,
Little darlin’, it seems like years since it’s been here.
Here comes the sun, doo doo doo doo.
Here comes the sun, and I say,
It’s all right.

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes.

Little darlin’, I feel that ice is slowly melting.
Little darlin’, it seems like years since it’s been here.
Here comes the sun, doo doo doo doo.
Here comes the sun, and I say,
It’s all right.

In Narnian terms, the “ice slowly melting” refers to the coming of Aslan and the coming defeat of the White Witch.  Indications of this begin in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when the White Witch, with Edmund and a Dwarf in tow, speed through the frozen tundra of Narnia in her sledge, out to find Peter, Susan, and Lucy.  Only at one point, the sledge has troubling moving, because Edmund begins to hear

“A strange, sweet, rustling, chattering noise…It was the noise of rushing water.  All round them though out of sight, there were streams….And his heart have a great leap when he realized that the frost was over.”

Then the grass begins to show.  And the trees “shook off their robes of snow.”  And the birds begin to sing, and sunlight filters down.  Flowers push up from the soil.  Until it is finally said:

“This is no thaw,” said the Dwarf, suddenly stopping.  “This is Spring.  What are we to do?  Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you!  This is Aslan’s doing.”

Here Comes the Sun, indeed.  And it is all right.  Notice that last line in Harrison’s lyrics. “It’s all right.”  Well, yeah, of course it’s all right, isn’t it?   I mean, who wants to endure the freezing cold for yet another year, or perhaps in Narnian terms, another hundred?  But I think the line fits for some us on this Easter Eve.  Change, even good change, even the Best and Final Change, this shift from Death to Life, leaves some of us, remarkably but predictably, longing for the old frozen paths.  We got used to the snow and the cold over the long Narnian years.  We got used to huddling by a tiny fire for warmth, in the comfort of our solitary rooms.  Shoveling the drive was a bore, but at least it kept our minds preoccupied.  Now things are disrupted.  A great and cataclysmic force has entered our world.  We are invited, but cling to our coats, long used to having the old wine skins draped over our souls.

So here’s to it being the best “all right” in our Christian life.  And to those of us who pray “I believe, help thou my unbelief,” I also pray that we have the courage to wake up- I mean really wake up- tomorrow, to accept the Spring given us.  Because here it comes.

Review: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

What follows is my initial review of Fox’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie.  And I do emphasize Fox’s.  I’m still a bit bitter over the changes in the film, and soon it will be time to “let go” and move on, but for this last moment, let me dwell in my “affronted fan” persona a bit longer.

In addition to this review, I highly recommend, and agree with, Will Vaus’s review and Carl McColman’s review at the Website of Unknowing.  Both have written books on Narnia and Lewis, and I value their opinion.

Here’s my review:

I’m writing this “off the cuff,” having just come back from a viewing of the film at my local theater. I went with high expectations for the film. As the movie opened, I felt I had nothing to fear: it was interesting seeing Susan writing from America, but not off-putting, and Poulter seemed like he was going to do a grad job as Eustace. Their entry into Narnia was fantastic, as the trailer alluded to.

However, once the sequence of the Calormen slave trade came around, I knew Lewis’ story was in trouble of Hollywood tinkering. Instead of reclaiming the Lone Islands for Narnian rule, a bizarre storyline of sending people into a mist as sacrifice was brought up. This was the beginning of what I began to call the “beware of the fluffy smoky balls of temptation” scenes, where small puff balls of smoke trailed mysteriously around our characters leaving ominous, well, confusion mostly, in their wake. And the point was….?

Apparently to make the Dark Island the absolute centerpiece of this film. Did it work? Not really. One reviewer I read before seeing the film pointed out that since Dawn Treader is so “episodic,” it does not really translate well to film as is, so a cinematic storyline scope was given to the film to engage the audience’s attention for 2 hours. As my friend put it, also a true Narnian fan, this apparently led to the filmmakers to the decision of throwing all the elements of Voyage of the Dawn Treader into the air and seeing where they landed, and then drawing a line connecting them together.

Therefore, the sea serpent becomes guardian of Dark Island, and Coriakin tells of seven swords which must be collected, and Eustance fights the sea serpent- as a dragon, with Reepicheep as his coach. The film seemed rushed because they were trying to fit in all these new elements.

The actors did a great job with the script they had to work with. Georgie and Skander added depth to their characters, Poulter was spot on as Eustace, and Ben Barnes thankfully dropped the accent, though he still seemed a bit stiff in his role as Caspian.

One can only hope Aslan’s comment that Eustace’s help would be needed once again in Narnia will lead to the Silver Chair, but then again, do we really want to see how Hollywood will tinker with that one too?

An Evening with C.S. Lewis – UCTV – University of California Television

Given that Voyage of the Dawn Treader is less than a month away, I think it worthwhile to look behind the text to the author.  There’s no better way of doing this than a peek of the author in action.  C.S. Lewis may have died over 40 years ago, but David Payne of David Payne Drama gives a remarkable performance as the intrepid Oxford don, Christian apologist, and venerated author of the Chronicles of Narnia.  Click on the link to check out the full show:

An Evening with C.S. Lewis – UCTV – University of California Television.

The Chronicles of Oxford Part 3: Finding Narnia

On Erin’s second-to-last day in Oxford, we took a literary pilgrimage to the Kilns.

Before this, we searched out the lamppost from Narnia- yep, the one Mr. Tumnus was under with his books in Lewis’s first images of Narnia.  It is in an area called Parson’s Pleasure- a park with wonderful hiking and bike paths, and much to Erin’s delight, baby swans.

The Kilns was CS Lewis’ home for the last thirty years of his life, so named because it was previously a brick making plant, and the super hot furnaces in which they used to bake the bricks were known as kilns.  The CS Lewis Foundation has spent the last decade or so restoring the home, and it is now a center for Lewis scholarship and seminars.  Kate Simcoe is the current steward of the Kilns, along with Kim Gilnett, and she graciously invited us to come over for a tour at 2.

Following the “friendly” advice of a local bus driver, I took the 7C bus from Oxford to Headington, instead of the 9.  This meant a bit of a hike to the house, but let me tell you, it was well worth the hike.

Lewis’s home is off Kiln Lane, tucked into a corner at the end of the street.  It is, in a word, beautiful.  Gravel crunched under my feet as I made my way to the front door, the heady fragrances of flowers wafting from the ornate English gardens. I joined the tour as they were meeting each other in the Common Room, where Lewis often greeted visitors.  Kim ran through the history of the house, and led us through each room telling Lewis anecdotes and filling us in on the role and function of each.  We saw Lewis’s study, Joy’s room, Warnie’s study and bedroom (Lewis’s brother), the Music room where Lewis collapsed in 1963, dying within one hour of JFK.  The Kilns also has the original sign for the Eagle and Child Pub (aka the Bird and Baby).

Erin joined me after completing a tour in Oxford, and we trekked up Shotover Hill behind the property and got a great view of the countryside.  We got a little goofy with the pictures and- I swear- a Sound of Music reenactment (singing courtesy of yours truly). From there it was about a ten minute walk to Holy Trinity church, Lewis’s final resting place.  The light gray stone marker is adorned with a simple cross and the dates of Lewis’s birth and death, with the quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear “All men must endure their going hence.”  His brother Warnie lies right beside him.

After a number of years intently reading Lewis’s works, it is still hard for me to articulate the impact this author has had on my life and faith.  There’s a hearty handshake and an offer to sit with him with a pint, and after a bit of conversation, and some anxious questioning on my part he jumps up and says “Let me show you something,” and leads me out the door to show me the landscape of faith, with its towering mountains, leafy glades, and roaring seas.  We go hiking, swimming, climbing- and he knows or has struggled with every root in the path, every crested wave, and scrambled to find every foothold.  And the best part is after a day’s journey finding an out of the way pub, where we sit and he pontificates on the sheer joy of the landscape and breathing the fresh air.  He is not there to revel in the obscurity of it all, but the remarkable clarity of all things.

Coming across Puddleglum’s assertion to “Live like a Narnian,” in The Silver Chair, the peeling off of Eustace’s dragon skin in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Wormwood losing his patient in The Screwtape Letters, longing for the irrigating of deserts in The Abolition of Man, tin soldiers becoming New Men in Mere Christianity, and impatient chargers stamping their hooves in Miracles, and Aslan’s roar throughout…there is much much more, but these images and situations have resonated within me, urging my soul to look up instead of down.  Lewis allows the world to become larger because he sees the eternal beyond it.  Not many writers do that nowadays.  Lewis still does.  And I say still not in the sense that he is still here among us, but in that larger sense a good writer attains when his/her work is around long after they have passed.

The Choice to Be Narnian

We have a choice on how we live each day, and our choices include our influences as well.  For some, this is an intense and challenging struggle.  Caught in addiction, violence, or other outside force, the choice to succumb or give up is palpable.  But ultimately there is a choice to be made.

But choice and the reshaping of reality are two different things.  A single choice, let’s say a choice of faith, can lead to a lifetime struggle to mold that reality.  From the Christian perspective, this entails allowing God, through Christ, to recreate your life anew.  And the process may take a very long time, a lifetime, and be very painful.  As CS Lewis stated in Mere Christianity, if we were houses, then we are not going to get simple repairs to the drains or leaks in the roof: the whole house might be knocked down, a la Extreme Makeover, and rebuilt.  Our Dragon skin could be torn off us quickly, or it may take a long voyage out at sea.

Here, I think, is where fiction comes in, as our choices of story affect our choices of reality.  What story would you want to be a part of if given the choice?  One can presume my answer by the title of this post.  I was led to consider this when I stumbled across a wonderful blog.

This was a wonderful meditation by Emily Riley, on her blog named (what else?) Live Like a Narnian.  She bases her reflection on this excerpt from The Silver Chair, Puddleglum’s famous speech to Queen Jadis:

. . .Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies playing a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.
~Puddleglum the Marshwiggle

This insistence by Puddleglum is the very essence of choice I am arguing.  To me, distinctly Narnian, and by default, distinctly Christian.

Now what?

A true choice must not be considered a passing phase or fad- merely part of a growth period involving recognition of various perceptions.  Rather, it is one to be made, and then…

lived.

In every aspect of life, it must be lived.  In humor, in darkness, in despair, in joy, in doubt, in certainty, on the peaks of mountains, in the valleys down below.

Consider the list below created, in part, by Stanley Anderson, from the old MereLewis site, and reposted by John, aka Dr. Zeus, on the Into the Wardrobe forums.  Have a laugh or two, then consider: the person who gives a nod or a “yes,” to most if not all of these may be certifiable, but oh, what a quirky, joy-filled life has been made by this choice!

You Might Be a Narnian If…

1. Your car has a bumpersticker that says “I brake for Marshwiggles.”
2. Your fishing license has a stamp for Pavenders.
3. You have wading pools in your back yard that you periodically jump in to.
4. You taste water samples from lily ponds to see if they’re sweet.
5. Christmas seems to take FOREVER to get here.
6. You examine every lamp-post you see for signs of root damage.
7. When you hear the word fau(w)n, you think not of Bambi, but of parcels and umbrellas.
8. You have a keen respect for mice.
9. You secretly breathe on statues in parks and whisper, “In the name of Aslan…”
10. You always reach inside wardrobes and touch the back…just in case.
11. When referring to your boss, you say “May He Live Forever.”
12. You are always polite to animals.
13. You talk to animals.
14. Animals talk to you and you understand them!
15. You are a bit suspicious of middle-aged men wearing yellow and green rings.
16. Your preferred holiday destination is Archenland.
17. You know that the collective term for owls is “parliament.”
18. You float, rather than fall, off cliffs.
19. You sometimes wonder if humans are a myth.
20. You have a tendency to suck your paws at inopportune times.
21. You have ever been beaten silly by a mouse.
22. You have ever set off fireworks underground for fun.
23. Your interest in astronomy was sparked by studying the Ship, the Hammer, and the Leopard.
24. You’ve ever had history lessons about the Jackdaw and the First Joke.
25. Bullies at school threaten that they know the Deplorable Word.
26. The ultimate insult you give to people is calling them “a second Rabadash.”
27. You’ve ever sat around with several owls trying to impersonate Trumpkin.
28. You’ve ever mistaken a magician for an animal, vegetable, or mineral.
29. You are determined to live like a Narnian, even if there isn’t any Narnia.
30. You always inquire at restaurants if it was a talking beast when you order venison.
31. You always clean your sword after battle.
32. The first time you ever heard the name Aslan, a curious feeling awoke inside you.
33. You know what a serious thing, a very serious thing indeed, it is to ask a centuar to stay for the weekend.
34. You like your sausages fat and piping hot and just the tiniest bit burnt.
35. You have conversations with your horse.
36. You have a strange approach/avoidance reaction to Lions.
37. You believe the stars in the heavens are people you have personally met.
38. You know that fireberries are a food.
39. You believe that a Lion can change a dragon into a boy by “peeling” him.
40. You enjoy having tea parties with fauns and beavers.
41. You know dwarves exist, but you are never sure which side they’re on.
42. Your closet contains fur coats and pine boughs.
43. You carry an umbrella in the snow.
44. You look to see if a lone bird is carrying a red berry in its mouth.
45. You have a picture of a lion on prominent display in your home or office.
46. You hear the words “further up and further in” in the sound of every waterfall.

This is the Morning.

“The term is over: The holidays have begun.  The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

So states Aslan at the end of the Narnia series, in The Last Battle.  I have been listening to the series via audiobook for the past couple of months in my car, as I drive to work, church, run errands, etc. and I find it wonderful divine coincidence that I should finish the series on Easter Sunday.  Many Lewis fans may allude to the scene at the Stone Table in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe today, given it is the strongest resurrection parable in the Chronicles of NarniaBut somehow the last passage of Last Battle evokes that Easter feeling of a New Beginning, of a Great Story just beginning to unfold.  A story of life after life, a rolling back of stone to release empty space, a recalibration of reality, of everlasting Spring.

Now, I suppose the irony of going back to school tomorrow should taint this a bit, but it doesn’t.  It did at times over the course of my Spring Break; a sort of looming dread of settling back to grade papers, discipline students, getting up before the sun, the weariness of a teacher just trying to make it to the end of the school year.  I felt I was procrastinating on my lesson plans.  There were times to buckle down which, through my laziness, I simply allowed to drift by.  But now, in the late morning of Easter Sunday, as the glorious ringing of the bells during the Sunday liturgy at Ascension still echo in my ears, and a warm blue sky lights up my room, and the knowledge that this world was meant for goodness and love, no matter how we conspire to twist things to the contrary, I feel I am ready.  Ready to lead my seniors to their own new beginning, to lead them to their transition from high school students to the world beyond my classroom.

And the wonderful thing is this feeling is only a mere part of the joy.  Things are certainly put into perspective on this day.  Responsibilities still remain, the mundane chores of maintaining house and home and preparing for work go on, but these things are under a light: by grace I am moved forward, rather than pulled down by the weight of despair or worry.

So the term is not quite over yet, but it is a new morning.  Christ has risen.  He has risen indeed.

Off to Oxford

I am pleased to report I have won a scholarship to attend the English Literature Oxford Summer School program at Exeter College in July.  I’ll be spending three weeks under the spires where JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, and the rest of the Inklings taught and created their works.  Just imagining I’ll be in the place which was the genesis of Narnia and Middle-Earth gives me the chills.  The scholarship was provided by the English Speaking Union of Central Florida, and you can find their website here.

My wife and I journeyed to England this past summer (2009), and I was able to record some video focusing on Oxford to show my students in the fall.  Here’s a brief discourse on Addison’s Walk at Magdalene College, where CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien used to take long walks: