Screwtape Letters and The Hobbit

Screwtape advises Wormwood on the modern human mind and how it differs from those of the past in Letter One:

 “At that time the humans…still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning.  But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that.  Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head.

So how does Bilbo Baggins factor into this?  Well, CS Lewis did dedicate the book to JRR Tolkien when it was first published in the 1940s.  But aside from that…

Malcolm Guite writes in a recent post about running to catch his plane:  “I was obliged to pass through all kinds of searches and high security electronica at various airports. Now I had forgotten I would have to do this and had set off on the adventure, like a certain middle aged hobbit before me, without so much as a pocket handkerchief, but with the usual assortment of bits and pieces in the pockets of the trousers, waistcoat, and old tweed jacket I happened to be wearing when… I dashed for the plane.”

Guite happens to have in his pockets an assortment of pipes and pipe cleaning devices, which render a bit of concern to the security folks.  To Guite, it was a perfect time to reflect on Gollum’s question to Bilbo in The Hobbit (“What has it got…”) and GK Chesterton’s famous essay “What I Found in my Pocket.”  GKC ponders on each sundry item and the eternal possibilities of each.  At the top of the post, he shows a picture of Bilbo running to join the dwarves from Peter Jackson’s upcoming movie.

Having read his post, and thinking about this first post about the Screwtape Letters, I realized that Bilbo had, prior to his mad dash and through the encouragement of Gandalf, been moved into a course of action by a chain of reasoning which would alter his life forever, even if he wasn’t cognizant, and even hostile, to the reasoning and action initially.  Therefore an undercurrent of Screwtape’s first letter exists in Bilbo’s transition.   I argue that this wasn’t purely rational, but more of a poetic reasoning, bordering on instinct, which stirred the deepest core of his being.

We read at the beginning of the Hobbit that Bilbo thinks adventures as “nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things.”  Yet Tolkien takes some time to relate Bilbo’s ancestry, and that deep in Bilbo’s bones there perhaps lay a bit of “Tookishness,”waiting to emerge.  Gandalf, apparently, sees this in Bilbo, and has arranged, without Bilbo’s consent, to have him as part of an adventure with 13 other dwarves.

If this new course of action is to take place, something which would bind Bilbo to his prior action must be forfeit.  Bilbo’s sedentary life revolves around comfort and food.  Thus, when the “throng” of dwarves arrive,” they proceed, quite rightly in this sense, to eat Bilbo out of house and home.  They demand Raspberry jam and apple-tart, mince-pies and cheese, porkpie and salad, red wine, eggs, coffee, cakes, ale. When Gandalf calls out to him to just “bring out the cold chicken and pickles,   Bilbo states “’ [He] Seems to know as much about the inside of my larders as I do myself!’ thought Mr. Baggins, who was feeling positively flummoxed, and was beginning to wonder whether a most wretched adventure had not come right into his house.”

Which it had, of course, but before Bilbo can even consider going on said adventure, the food supplies of his comfortable home are rapidly depleted.  It is almost as though Gandalf is subtly setting up a transition from the comfortable and ample provisions of dear old Hobbiton, to meals which “didn’t come as often as  Bilbo would have liked them (Ch. 2).”

The plainly physical obstacle or desire removed, Bilbo then experiences a poetic epiphany which showcases Bilbo’s change of path and reasoning.  He hears of strange and wondrous things as the dwarves begin to tell of past adventures:

“As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up–probably lighting a wood-fire–and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again.

He got up trembling.  He had less than half a mind to fetch the lamp, and more than half a mind to pretend to, and go and hide behind the beer barrels in the cellar, and not come out again until all the dwarves had gone away.”

I love that last part.  Here the core of his being is stirred to new heights, and he wants to hide.  But the spell has been cast: he is looking at things in a new way.  Far from “a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing around in his head, (Screwtape)” Bilbo experiences clearly a single focused desire far beyond his humble hobbit home, seeing, perhaps for the first time in his mind’s eye, caves, mountains, waterfalls, and dragons.  There is poetic reckoning here.

And in the end, after a bit of a freak-out (“Lightning, Lightning!”) and some negotiation via his “business manner,” off Bilbo goes, albeit late, to join Thorin and the dwarf party.

“To the end of his days Bilbo could never remember how he found himself outside, without a hat, a walking stick or any money, or anything that he usually took when he went out; leaving his second breakfast half-finished and quite unwashed-up, pushing his keys into Gandalf’s hands, and running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more.”

But we as readers recognize and remember, however, for we too join Bilbo on his adventure, just waiting for that narrative moment when he finally agrees, and the story may truly begin.

What a contrast from Screwtape’s patient, the “sound atheist,” which he uses as an example to Wormwood to point out the necessity of keeping people mired in “real” life, a life devoid of an untold myriad of potentialities!

“I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years’ work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defense by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch.”

Screwtape’s patient is unable, or unwilling to “believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before [his] eyes.” Screwtape shows him a newsboy selling the paper, and a bus passing by, and convinces his patient of remaining sedentary in his comfortable “real life.” His life remains ordinary, and ultimately, ignorant.

What might have happened, someone may posit, if Bilbo had decided not to go?

No story.  No adventure.  No stirring of the Tookish poetic inside his soul.

And what of us?  What incompatible philosophies and distractions do we allow to dance about in our heads?  I declare myself the worst of this lot.  Whether thinking about the next errand, mucking about online, worrying and fretting about minor things, letting my mind drift during conversations instead of being in the moment, the willingness to turn on the TV and allow wave after wave of insignificant advertisements and talking head point of views interrupt whatever peace of mind and sense of adventure the Lord desperately desires to plant in my soul.  And then I wonder why I am so stressed out.

Rather, with Grace offered, let me listen to the possible Took inside me, who so often looks out the window onto a glorious day and sighs, citing responsibilities and restrictions and distractions rather than immersing in contemplation, and the possible adventure which lies ahead.

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As We Enter the Dark

Good Friday is upon us. For followers of Christ who have already “seen the other side,” that is, who know Easter is right around the corner, unlike the apostles, who did not understand and were in despair over the death of their Lord and King, this day focuses on one single question:

Would you still stand in the hope of God were all hope seemingly eradicated?

I have been reading GK Chesterton’s epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse. In the poem’s dedication, there is an attitude of stalwart courage in the face of adversity that I find fitting to this day. GKC writes:

Ride through the silent earthquake lands,
Wide as a waste is wide,
Across these days like deserts, when
Pride and a little scratching pen
Have dried and split the hearts of men,
Heart of the heroes, ride.

Later on, in Book I: “Vision of the King,” The Virgin Mary speaks to Alfred the Great about his upcoming battle:

“I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.

Night shall be thrice night over you,
And heaven an iron cope.
Do you have joy without a cause,
Yea, faith without a hope?”

“Faith without a hope.” This sums up the essence of Good Friday. One cannot help but call to mind, as well, the ultimate Good Friday moment in recent film history. No, I’m not talking about The Passion, but rather the final battle scene of The Return of the King. In the face of seemingly absolute defeat, with the clothes of Frodo, their last hope of victory mockingly given to them by the enemy, not knowing that Frodo was indeed alive, Aragorn faces a crossroads. All hope is gone. They are outnumbered, outflanked, and outmanuevered. How to proceed? “For Frodo,” that’s how. Therefore, what should we as followers of Christ say?

The Chronicles of Oxford Part 2: Standing Up

It is the second day of my program at Oxford, and the third day that I’ve been in town.  Much has happened in that time and within that time a sense of the inability to actually sit and write down some impressions and experiences, for fear of missing something.  So it is with a sense of relief that I am finally sitting down in Blackwell’s Bookshop on High St, directly across from the Bodleian Library and typing on this laptop.

If I try to encapsulate my experience thus far, I have to begin with standing up.

Not right now in Blackwell’s.  I mean two nights ago, in the Exeter Dining Hall.  Here’s what it looks like:

And here’s me with a drink in hand in the Dining Hall:

Notice I’m wearing a suit?  Required.  Our first night consisted of a champagne meet and greet in the Fellow’s Garden, and a four course welcome dinner with wine flowing freely, served and poured by Exeter’s wait staff.  But what really struck me was what happened before we ate.

We stood up.  But why?

As sudden as a light switched turned off, all pre-dinner chit chat in the dining hall stopped, and we all stood as the faculty made their way to the high table, their black robes flowing behind them.  The sense of ceremony in the room was palpable during that moment, and to me, it set the tone for the whole program.  This was a tangible statement of respect for learning.  The positioning of the head table and this ceremonious walk stated very clearly “Learning is set on a pedestal here.   It is worthy of respect.”  For those who are teachers out there:  Can you imagine your students actually standing when you walk into the room?  I really liked that moment.  One might think it smacks of elitism and inequality, but the fact of the matter is, I am not their equal.  They are my literary and educational betters.  But that’s ok.  Because they are taking time to teach me, and who wants to be a student and have a teacher who knows just as much as you do?

My rooms overlook Ship Street, off Turl.  I am situated right in the heart of the University, with Bodleian Library and the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theater next door.

Radcliffe Camera

I’ve met many people thus far, and there is a whole coterie of us representing Florida, especially because of scholarships given out by the ESU.  In addition to the US, however, I’ve had conversations with people from New Zealand, Pakistan, Denmark, Germany, France, and Australia.

Exeter is the college of Tolkien- this is where he studied English Literature and Languages in the early part of the 20th Century.  There is a bust of him in the Exeter Chapel, sculpted by his daughter in law in 1977.

Bust of Tolkien in Exeter Chapel

My mind still feels a bit scattered, but I feel totally at home here.  I am surrounded by wood and stone and grass and books and coffee shops and PUBS.  I am sitting in places my favorite authors sat, and looking at buildings and structures which have been here for centuries.  tolling church bells tell me when to go to lecture.    I was sitting in class in the Morris Room, and noticed elaborate tapestries showcased in each corner.  One girl said, “Those are great replicas of William Morris’s work!”  Our professor gave her an odd look and coolly stated “Ah.  Actually, those are the originals.”

I am still echoing many of my fellow summer students: “I can’t believe I’m here!”

Next: A trip to Canterbury, and what the heck am I actually doing here?

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:

The Paradox of Christianity, or Wandering Tree Remains

Of the myriad thoughts which have bounced around in my head lately, an urge to change the name of this blog has surfaced and warrants consideration.  On my “About” page, I describe myself as “the tree who has troubling standing still,” but since I have decided to settle, spiritually, in Christianity, and now, I think, as a member of the Episcopal Church- well, the desire to have a name more “rooted,” so to speak, has entered my thoughts.

A moment of recap might be necessary.  Over the past few months, I have been trying to find a new church to call “home.”  I became disenchanted with my church, for a number of reasons, mostly through my own prejudices and rationalizations, as I soon realized, but distance was also a primary factor and I longed to find a church closer to my house.  This led to a reassessment of the denomination I had called home for three years- I am not a cradle Episcopalian, so the exploration seemed reasonable.  I checked out a number of churches with a wide number of approaches.  However, I love the liturgy of the church, and find time at the Table a necessary part of my celebration of Christ.  In addition, my decision to leave Emmanuel Episcopal had nothing to do with the welcome and love I received from the congregation.  This, in fact, was what made it so hard to leave.  And so, after wandering into the Church of the Ascension– an Episcopal Church much closer to me, and receiving the same type of welcome- well, that was it.  I think the Episcopal Church will have to put up with me for while.

Anyway, back to the name change.  Could I really say I was still “wandering”?  The implication of that word connotes a lack of direction, an aimless meandering.  Someone who has “wanderlust” has a strong impulse to travel, and what good is that word if you want to feel that you have arrived?

The addition of the word “tree” might be an appeal to balance this sense of wandering- a rooted fixture in the earth, which is moved only by great disturbance.  But in reality, it seems only to add to the confusion, and maintain a sense of paradox.  Trees don’t wander.  No one expects them to.

Ah, but then comes the reminder.  The reminder of an insight I had a few years ago.  The Christ-centered life is itself a paradox, and therein lays the beauty and mystery of the faith.  Inherent in Christianity is the unexpected.

To wit:  A Virgin gives birth.  God becomes Man.  Death on the cross leads to life.  Water changes into wine.  Fishermen become the disciples of the Rabbi.  Blind men see.  The crippled walk.  Five loaves of bread and two fish feed five thousand people.  The last become first.  Love wins.

Nobody expected any of that.  We expect catastrophe and hurt.  The catastrophe in Haiti is devastating, but we expect that in this hurting world.  What we marvel at even more, however, is the outpouring of help and aid and support, and the images of neighbor helping neighbor.  A selfish world wakes up and becomes giving.  That’s what is unexpected.  We are not used to seeing it on a scale that rivals destruction.  Tolkien called it the “eucatastrophe”- the sudden, unexpected turn to good, the serendipitous event.

And Tolkien, as well as a couple of other well known authors, incorporated trees into the unexpected as well.  Saruman never expected the Ents to revolt against Isengard, or that Fangorn would awake to consume the forces of evil.  He thought Shakespeare did not go far enough in Macbeth when “Great Birnham Wood” was prophesized to rise up against Macbeth (turning out to be the illusion of Siward’s forces camouflaging themselves).  Lewis has the trees dance around Aslan in Prince Caspian and the movie has a wonderful sequence of the trees defending the Narnians against the Telemarines.

There are other wonderful paradoxes inherent in trees as well.  They stand silent, but for many centuries we have used their fiber on which to etch thousands of stories with ink.  We have used them to communicate, to create, to express, to reveal.

The last paradox is the most important of all.  When one finds Christ, it is only the beginning of a journey.  There the true search begins, for once we are found, it is our commitment to “come and see.”  We are not meant to sit but follow.  We are not meant to wait but “go out into the world.”

So the name stays.  Wandering Tree remains.  At times a cedar in Lebanon, at times a withered fig tree, at times a fruitful tree in the center of a garden.  But at all times, hopefully, conscious of the wind, the Spirit, which rustles its branches.  And I have not arrived, not yet.  There is still much “wandering” to be done.  But the Land is not barren, and every step I take has meaning.

A lingering question- do you have a blog?  If so, why did you choose the name you gave it?  Have you ever wanted to change the name of your blog?  Why?  Post your response in comments!

Mariette in Ecstasy

Currently reading Mariette in Ecstasy by a new author I have just discovered, Ron Hansen. Hansen has been on the map since the 80s, with books such as The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (recently a movie with Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck). Mariette focuses on the mystical experiences of a turn of the century nun in a convent located in upstate New York. My intense interest in monastic life and experience, as well as in Christian mysticism and experience has not waned over the last few years, so this novel is good fictional grist for the mill. Hansen has also written a book A Stay Against Confusion that details his beliefs on faith and fiction, and the purposes of writing from a Catholic/religious perspective, which is also an interest of mine, stemming from Tolkien’s theory of subcreation and its worldview of the writer/artist in connection with the Divine.

I enjoy this reading with a vague sense of panic in the back of my mind about the impending school year. The feeling is due to not hitting the books and really preparing for the upcoming school year, which is just a few weeks away. The daydreams of “The First Day” have already begun, so it is about time to get cracking. Immediate pressing goals: organization of grades, redoing syllabus (first nine weeks or semester only), rules/procedures, pretest for general knowledge with writing sample, initial powerpoints lesson plans for History of English and Beowulf.

Was going to buy a new laptop today, but the Mini would not start for me! Tow truck currently on its way- how odd is it to have a tow truck come to one’s house? But I’ve done this more than once before.

Awaiting in the mail: Exiles, Ron Hansen new novel. Focuses on one of my favorite poets Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Chesterton via Lewis

In reading The Narnian, Alan Jacob’s bio on CS Lewis, I came across a great quote by GK Chesterton worth pondering by any English teacher: “Literature is luxury. Fiction is a necessity.”

Jacob explains: “…the stories most greatly treasured, and treasured for the longest periods, are those that trace, in bold lines, the outlines of our deepest experiences. And if it is stories, among all the things we make and do, that mean the most to us as we face our own battles, journeys, and riddles, what does that suggest?”

He quotes Chesterton further: “The life of man is a story; an adventure story; and in our vision the same is true even of the story of God.”

This is akin to Tolkien’s notion of subcreation and his thought we are, ourselves, the story told by God. This idea brought me back to faith, but I have to admit, it’s been over two years and I can still barely articulate it.