226

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Homer’s Odyssey is still inspiring new art—like my little sonnet.

Odysseus

FAITHFUL

The harsh will of the gods was the end of Troy;

Most of the Greeks would never make it back.

The ones who did found Clytemnestra, coy

With ten years brooding vengeance to exact,

Or, like Odysseus, were blown off track

To spend an extra decade wandering.

But he kept his integrity intact:

Calypso could not stay his voyaging;

Tied to the mast, he heard the Siren sing,

But still sailed on toward Penelope.

Lotus, Circe, Cyclops could not bring

Despair, could not erase the memory

Which, after twenty years, still drove him on,

Relentless as the rosy-fingered Dawn.

He still sailed on . . .

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!

Donald T. Williams, PhD

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What is YOUR Quest?

leatherbooks
So many books . . . so little time!

Whether we know it or not, life our lives and the stories we know so well are linked.  A good friend and I were recently discussing how to help a mutual acquaintance whose life seems to have gone off the rails.  We realized that he had taken on a “life narrative” of victimization and betrayal.  Everything that happens to him is interpreted from within the context of this story line; innocent acts by his friends are seen as betrayals because that is the default setting for how he understands his life, not because there is any objective reason to think they actually are.  The results are self-destructive, as you can well imagine.

The conversation moved on to the importance of establishing a healthy life story to live by.  We can only write the story of our own lives up to a point, but a central component of a healthy self-concept is the life narrative we adopt.  It has a powerful influence on how we interpret our life events and on how we make decisions that affect the way our lives actually do unfold.  This realization leads to the importance of exposure to good literature from a young age, powerful stories that model for us who we are and lay out quest trajectories by which we create a vision for understanding our purpose and calling.

JacksonFrodo
What is your quest?

The Bible is of course the most important.  It has the ultimate hero, the ultimate knight in shining armor, Christ.  It has the classic villain, Satan, and the classic damsel in distress, the human race.  The Hero goes on an epic journey, at great personal sacrifice defeats the Villain, and the Hero and the Damsel then ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after.  That metanarrative actually happened, indeed, is happening.  Therefore, if it defines your life story, you live in hope and meaning.  Adopt any other narrative and you will have nothing but arbitrary choices standing between you and futility, nothing but arbitrary values between you and boredom, nothing but lies and false hopes between you and despair.

Illum-Ms
Illuminated Manuscript of the Bible. (Yes, it deserves to be treated like this!)

Other good literature can help too, by reinforcing the biblical narrative and fleshing it out in our imaginations.  Is life a meaningless, self-centered ramble or a purposeful quest?  We need Oddyseus’s journey home to Ithaca,Aeneas’s journey to find a new homeland for his people, Dante’s journey through Hell and Heaven, Frodo’s journey to the Cracks of Doom, Reepicheep’s journey to the Utter East, and Puddleglum’s journey back to Overland, to help keep us fresh and focused.  Is this world our home, or are we just a-passing through?  If so, to what end?  The choices we make and the quality of our experience will depend on how we conceptualize the journey of life.  We need the Bible as a foundation and other good literature to reinforce it in order to be travelers who will arrive at our destined end and be healthy and productive along the way.

Dante-Satan
Slide from Dante’s trip to Hell.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College and the author of eight books, including three from Lantern Hollow Press: Stars Through the Clouds (his collected poetry), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave.  To order, go to

https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

books bookshelf

I want to be everything I’m not

I have spoken on this topic before…the role of women and the crisis of identity.  I suppose it means so much to me because I can see the struggle in becoming more and more of a theme in young adult literature and in our popular movies.  I find it interesting that I keep coming back to this topic and Orual from Til We Have Faces keeps being a role model.

I wanted to be a wife so that I could have been her real mother. I wanted to be a boy so that she could be in love with me.  I wanted her to be my full sister instead of my half sister.  I wanted her to be a slave so that I could set her free and make her rich (Lewis, Till We Have Faces 23).

Orual’s wish sounds strange at first glance, but in a larger context, Orual is expressing her desire to be something other than who and what she is.  She is feeling the constraint of being a woman.  Orual has never once felt comfortable being who she is.  She is not beautiful, she is not strong, she is not a man, she cannot be a true ruler in the eyes of her father, and she cannot be what she wants to be for Psyche.  Orual does not appreciate where she belongs or how she fits into a her world, a world that she thinks is so dominated by men that she could not possibly have a place in it.

The classical world appears to be all about men with only trophy women thrown in to it to add contention and flavor. However, if you look beyond the facades and the faministic mumble you can see women of character, women who knew who they were and where they belonged. (Some of you may not like the “where they belong” part.  It is a phrase that is often times used in a derogatory sense “a woman belongs in the kitchen or with the kids.” However, I’d like to suggest that we embracae the idea of belonging and having positions.  We spend out lives looking for them and yet we complain must ardently when we are told what those roles or posistions might actually be.  Is it possible that we can find an understanding about who we are and where we belong in literature, that some things written before the twentith century actually might give a positive reflection on the role of women? It is a thought I’d like us to consider…

 Homer gives women a higher place in society than is first perceived when one reads the Iliad or the Odyssey.  He is subtle in expressing the proper place and role of a woman in the household and in her community.  In the Iliad, the most notable women are Helen and Andromache.  In a world of war and death, Helen is seen as the cause, since her household has been defiled.  Helen did run off with a younger richer man, thus starting war.  Andromache, though she is not prominent in the story, paints the smallest picture of what the woman ought to be like.   She stows courage to her son and husband when faced with the reality that her husband is going off to war and may not come home.  She is diligent and hard working and doesn’t complain.  But the Iliad is a poem about war and the glory of men; therefore, it is in the Odyssey that Homer gives a fuller picture of the domestic life.

Once again Homer portrays Helen as the bad example.  She is always undermining her husband.  The way she talks and holds the conversation, her mannerisms are manipulative and mean.  Such behavior in anyone is just undesirable.  In contrast we are given Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, as the shining example of a woman doing her duty for husband and household. She is not weak nor is she cold and unfeeling.  She has quiet efficiently (until she is besotted by suitors) taken care of the management/business of her husband.  By her own merits she is seen as a woman of honor and respect among the people.  This is not something a weak, docile, incompetent person could or would achieve.  Some would complain that these woman were confined and thier roles were limited to the homes and therefore my argument is not valid.  But if you know anything about running a business or a more practical analogy, farming, then you would know that often times family/home life and the business are the same.  These classical women were incharge or not only the families but of the property as well.  They worked along side their husbands and fathers.  Granted this is family and not corporate America but I think the concepts are not exclusive.  Helen was discontent with her stations. She wanted more or different or something other than what she had.  Penelope and Andromiche knew who they were and what they needed to do.  They had learned contentment with what it was they had to do to survive and thrive.

Lewis, in Till We Have Faces: a Myth Retold, picks up on these subtleties of the role of women in classical culture.  He explores them in the character and nature of Orual and Psyche; thus, making Orual’s desire a poignant declaration for the reader to consider throughout Till We Have Faces.  Oraul struggles with even accepting the thought that she is a women or that someone would find her attractive or even love her.  Because she cannot accept herself she cannot love or be loved.  She pushes those she loves away at the same time she pulls them close, a “nine-tenths hatred” that calls itself love.  Her dissatisfaction in life is a result of not being satisfied with who she is and what she is.  She goes about trying to change all the unchangable things about herself.  First she learns to fight so that she can be more like a man. Then she hides her face to hide her ugly face taking away her femininity.  She tries to change Psyche and force Psyche to be someone she was not so that she could be something for Orual.  All of these things only mask or hide the truth; they do not actually change anything.  Orual must go through a process of unveiling and demasking all of her lies before she can learn to love and accept who and what she is…and only then can she have what she really wants.

 

Myth and the Role of Women: Dealing with Men

The last two weeks I have talked about the role of women in classical literature and mythology.  I have been primarily looking at Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces.

In the Iliad and Odyssey and Till We Have Faces there is an element of misunderstanding roles and placements of women, which transcends even to the court where the men hold council. This is not to say that women have no place in courts or politics, but that there is an order to governing and many times the women struggle with understanding that order or learning how to respect that order.  It is true that often times in myth and classical literature it would appear that the women are being looked down upon or bullied but that is because we do not understand time, placement and order. We cannot subject history to the same philosophies that our society clings to.  The Greeks were not post modern, and it is ridiculous to view their world and thier way of doing things by such standards.

Therefore when we read about we struggle with understanding why it is sad that Orual cannot find her place.  We want to blame the man for being chauvinistic pigs when really the blame is not completely off of the woman. Sadly, Orual on numerous occasions oversteps her bounds in the court with her father.  Like Helen who is always butting into Menelaos’s conversations, Orual cannot let her father govern as he sees fit. Orual does not exhibit the subtle grace of storytelling that Helen does, so that when Orual contradicts her father she is blatantly belligerent.  The outcome is the same; both Kings lose face with their people.  Fortunately for Helen, her delicacy only mildly irritates her husband (Homer 4. 266).  Yet, Orual’s blunt words get her a blooded up face and a sound beating from her father (Lewis 55).  Helen and Orual do not understand where they belong.  Helen should comprehend the proper order of things in the court with men; her years of being fought over, her time spent in Troy, the very fact that she is back in her first husband’s household, should have taught her.  However, Helen still sets herself up in the court of men and in her way mocks her husband, which she ought not to do.  Orual, who has spent some time in the court with her father, should have known her place was not to speak against her father in a public manner.  But Orual still does not comprehend her place.  She is still trying to discover where an ugly, intelligent girl fits into her society.

If only Orual had paid more attention to some of the stories the Fox told her and had learned the finesse of Penelope who knew her place in the court with men and still could speak her piece without overstepping the leadership and authority of her husband.  It should be noted that first of all, Penelope avoided the suitors when she could.  If she needed to seek counsel or speak with anyone, be he the swineherd or a vagabond, she would conduct her conversation in an orderly circumspect manner that did not compromise her honor nor the honor of her husband’s household.   When it was necessary for her to address the suitors, she would do so in the proper way, veiling herself and speaking with a prudent tongue (Homer 16.416-423).  She does not let anger or fear move her to speak out of turn and she takes counsel with Telemachos and Eumais in private (17. 96-97).  When Penelope becomes aware that Telemachos has reached the age where he capable of making the decisions for the household, she respects him for it and does not question his authority (17.57). Such behavior on Penelope’s part sets her apart from Helen and any other women in Homer’s epics.  Her sense of honor and her prudent conduct around men are the testimony of her virtue and faithfulness.

If Orual had had such an example, she would have known how to let go of Psyche when it was her time to meet her fate of the Shadowbrute.  She would have known how to speak with decorum and prudence.  She may have learned how to be a woman in the court of men and still be respected.  Unfortunately, Orual did not.  When it was her time to take command of her people, Orual did not do so as a woman, but as a veiled woman acting like a man (Lewis 226).  Orual thinks that hiding herself will give her strength and make her a better ruler.  In some ways it does and in other ways it does not.  She fights like a man, commands her people like a man, and her veil strikes fear into the heart of her enemies (216). She governs her house like a man and for all of that, she brings prosperity and peace to her people.  But Orual has lost a part of herself.  She is not all that she could be.  She does not have the compassion or the womanly nurturing spirit; she has locked that away.  To be a ruler, Orual sacrifices family for she has none; she has lost Psyche, she marries Redival off, and she frees the Fox.  She does not marry, not because she is ugly, but because that would mean that she would have to let Orual out—the woman, the vulnerable, weak part of herself that she has buried.  If only Orual had known that she could have been a great queen while still retaining herself.  But Orual did not understand how to be a woman in a man’s world, so she masked herself and pretended to be as much of a man as possible.

The relationship of woman to woman and how a woman presents herself in the court of men also affect the woman’s fidelity to her husband and her household.  Because Orual is not married, she neither comprehends the sort of fidelity that a woman should feel for her husband nor how a man ought to feel for his wife.  Orual, throughout her life, effectively ruins the life of the two people she loves the most.  Because she does not understand the love between a husband and a wife, she causes Psyche to betray her husband like Helen betrayed Menelaos.  In the same way, she kills Bardia out of envy and despair, as Klytaimestra killed Agamemnon.

I’ll have more on this topic next week…

War in Narnia: Some Literary Limitations on Lewis’s Experiences

C. S. Lewis
I can’t help but wonder what he was writing….

In the last two weeks, I’ve looked briefly at C. S. Lewis’s experience in World War I and then offered some speculations on why the war may not have had the stereotypical effect on him that people seem to automatically expect.  As a result of the latter, I argued that we have to be careful about our speculations on how Lewis’s writing must have been influenced by this war-time experience.  This week I would like to look at another few “checks and balances” that would keep his wartime experiences from directly influencing Narnia and limit our ability to understand which cause led to which effect:  his incredible exposure to war in literature and his purposes in writing the Chronicles of Narnia.

The content of Lewis’s thinking shows the effects of his exposure to various genres, particularly classical literature.  Lewis noted in “Learning in Wartime” that he found his own war experience mirrored in Tolstoy and the Iliad (The Weight of Glory 51-52).  The massive amount of mythology he imported into Narnia is so self-evident that it is unnecessary to do more than mention it in passing.  His decision to draw from the vast wealth of information he had stored in his internal library would necessarily limit his opportunity to include his wartime experiences.  There was, after all, only so much that he could cram into so few pages.  The fact that Lewis was so widely read also makes it difficult to trace particular scenes and ideas back to specific influences.  After all, in the absence of direct explanation, how can we be sure we know the difference between a fantasy battle scene based on what Lewis personally witnessed and one based on his reading?  I believe that are clear enough parallels, but drawing them can be tricky.  For example, Lewis mentions that his very first experience of combat immediately provoked literary thoughts, when he describes, “the first bullet I heard—so far from me that it ‘whined’ like a journalists or a peacetime poet’s bullet.  At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference:  a little quavering signal that said, ‘This is War.  This is what Homer wrote about’” (Surprised By Joy 196).  When he was drawing on his intellectual resources to describe Peter or Shasta’s first battle, on whom did he rely, himself, Homer, or a combination thereof?

The Head of Odysseus
A sculpture of Homer’s Odysseus

There is another practical literary aspect that would check Lewis’s reliance on personal experience:  his goals in writing children’s literature such as Narnia.  Lewis did not intend to produce a hard-bitten pseudo-documentary about the Great War, nor did he wish to drag his audience through the muck and stink of the British trenches as an anti-war object lesson.  Though he primarily intended to tell a good story about a picture in his head, Lewis knew that children’s literature also teaches.  He insisted that “the only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind” and that we “must write for children from those elements in our own imagination which we share with children” (Of Other Worlds 33).  In Narnia, Lewis depicted war as he felt he would have needed to see it as a child.  First, he knew that there must be limits on what he could show.  He himself had suffered from night terrors well into adulthood, and therefore he noted that “I would not wish to heat the fires of that private hell for any child” (Of Other Worlds 30).  More importantly, though, he wanted his audience to see real evil and real good, and he wanted them to see that by decisive, brave action, good could triumph.  In one of his more famous passages on the subject, Lewis wrote,

Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. […] As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.  (Of Other Worlds 31)

Lewis’s purposes then would act much as a filter might, straining out inappropriate facts and ideas gleaned during the war from expression in a Narnian context.

Still, I believe that Lewis’s wartime experiences clearly influenced him, and I also believe that it is possible to draw some carefully examined parallels between them and Narnia.  Next week we’ll take a look at our first catagory of thought:  Dark Realism and Plain Practicality.

The content of this series of posts was first presented to the world in the excellent little Lewis journal, The Lamp-Post 31:4 (Winter, 2010): 3-23, and was given in a talk at the 41st meeting of the Mythopoeic Society in Dallas, TX, in July 2010.  A greatly expanded version is under consideration with the journal Mythlore.

Sources referenced:

  • Lewis, C. S.  Of Other Worlds:  Essays and Stories.  San Diego:  Harvest, 1994.
  • ________.  Surprised by Joy:  The Shape of My Early Life.  Orlando, FL:  Harvest Books, 1955.
  • ________.  The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York:  HarperOne, 2001

Posts in the War in Narnia Series:

  1. C. S. Lewis the Soldier
  2. World War I’s Effect on C. S. Lewis
  3. Some Literary Limitations on Lewis’s Experience
  4. Dark Realism and Plain Practicality
  5. The Unchanging Nature of the Individual
  6. The First Experience of Battle
  7. Wounds and the Wounded
  8. Corpses?  What Corpses?