This favorite Lewis quote shows up all over the worldwidespiderwebthatensnares.
Google search it and you will freely receive almost half-a-billion hits. If you can’t trust that, what can you trust?
But here’s the thing. If you read this quote as a self-standing phrase, you’ll likely get it wrong. By itself, it sounds like, “Whatever it is that you want to do, whatever adventure it is that you want to pursue, whatever big thing it is that is dangling in front of your eyes – perhaps surrounded by crowds and acclaim, by fame and fortune – them for goodness sake just go do it. I dare you!I dare you to not do it!Do not dare not to dare! Or some such thing. Indeed
Glory be, this is Lewis at his how-we-like-and-imagine-him finest, encouraging us to be Amazing People Who Do Amazing Things (And Hopefully Probably Get Noticed In The Doing).
This real quote is from The Horse and His Boy. Aravis (human), Shasta (human), Hwin (horse), and Bree (horse) had recently arrived at the Hermit of the Southern March’s humble dwelling after a dreadfully dangerous journey. Shasta stayed but the briefest of moments because after doing the most frightening thing he’d ever done in his life, he’d been immediately sent on another dangerous and difficult quest.
“Shasta’s heart fainted […] for he felt he had no strength left. And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.”
His new task? To go in pursuit of a King he’d never met, who lived in a place he’d never seen, travelling through a land he’d never visited, to deliver a message he didn’t understand. Woohoo. The stuff of fame and fortune.
Meanwhile, back at the Hermit’s habitat, Aravis, Hwin, and Bree rested from their exhausting journey. They began discussing Aslan – primarily who and what he is.
Aravis:Bree, why do you keep swearing By the Lion and By the Lion’s Mane? I thought you hated lions.
Bree:So I do. But when I speak of the Lion of course I mean Aslan, the great deliverer of Narnia who drove away the Witch and the Winter. All Narnions swear by him.
Aravis:But is he a lion?
Bree (in a shocked voice):No, no of course not.
Aravis:All the stories about him in Tashbban say he is. And if he isn’t a lion why do you call him a lion?
Bree (in a rather superior tone with his eyes half shut):Well, you’d hardly understand that at your age.
And then, you see, a lion, the Lion, who is in fact 100% lion, approached from behind so that Aravis and Hwin saw him, but Bree did not.
Bree (still in a rather superior tone with his eyes half shut):Even a little girl like you, Aravis, must see that it would be quite absurd to suppose he is a real lion. Indeed it would be disrespectful. It he was a lion he’d have to be a Beast just like the rest of us. Why! (and here Bree began to laugh) If he was a lion he’d have four paws, and a tail, and Whiskers!….Aie, ooh, hoo-hoo! Help!
You can guess what had happened. The Lion, the Only Lion, the One True Lion, approached the group, and the Lion’s very real whiskers brushed against Bree’s very real ear, and all of Bree’s puffed up worldly wisdom was shot to pieces as he shot like an arrow to the other side of the enclosure, unable to escape the horror behind him.
Hwin, who’d always been the wisest and bravest of them all, “though shaking all over, gave a strange little neigh and trotted across the the Lion.”
Hwin:Please, you’re so beautiful. You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.
Aslan (planting a lion’s kiss on her twitching, velvet nose):Dearest daughter. I knew you would not be long in coming to me. Joy shall be yours.
And then Aslan said this – and pay close attention because here comes the Dashing Adventurous Big Amazing quote.
Aslan (in a louder voice):Now, Bree, you poor, proud, frightened Horse, draw near. Nearer still, my son. Do not dare not to dare. Touch me. Smell me. Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers. I am a true Beast.
Bree (in a shaken voice):Aslan, I’m afraid I must be rather a fool.
Aslan:Happy the Horse who knows that while he is still young.
Did you catch that? Did you see what Lewis did there? He flipped “do not dare not to dare” on its everloving self-focused big-and-amazing-things head.
Do not dare not to dare:
to draw near to Christ
to see him as he truly is – the True King incarnate
to shed one’s foolish fears
to shed one’s foolish pride
to cast aside one’s foolish notions that are based on rubbishy blather
to deny oneself so that the Creator can refashion you into your true self
to be undone by the Lord’s almighty presence
to be embraced by the Lord’s patient and faithful love.
There is nothing “me” about this quote. There is nothing particularly “dashing and daring” about this quote.
Mostly, there is repentance, surrender, humility, trust, and obedience.
Which makes it, in fact, quite a stunning truth for all to consider.
Isn’t it interesting how even when we quote Lewis correctly, we are quick to make it mean what we want it to mean? Human nature is so very predictable that way.
NB: the following news will be of interest only to fellow bibliophile bookish nerds.
While searching for something on EEBO (Early English Books Online – the drug of choice for historians, medievalists, and similar personality types), I stumbled upon this:
Note the handwriting across the top:
(plus a fancy flourish in the style of JRR Tolkien, which is twice reproduced in the center white space)
Note the handwriting across the bottom:
Tho: & Isabella Hervey
Thomas & Isabella Hervey had an extensive library that has been written about in various places. They lived in the 17th Century, at which point this book was already over 100 years old. Bless you, Herveys, for affirming the joy of book collecting so long ago.
Just a few pages in, I found this:
Note the stern warning on the left side (folio 7 verso) about reprinting books within seven years of the original printing “upon pain of forfeiting the same.”
For those who enjoy decoding, “u” is often “v” accented vowels (i.e. ū and ā) indicate a missing “n” (so: Fraūce=France) “ſ” is a long ess, so ſhal=shal(l), ſpace=space, &c. “y” is often our “i”
But especially note the handwritten blurb at the bottom:
1540: In H- :30: year of Henrie the 8th.
Note that “the” looks suspicially like a “y” plus a superscript e. From this do we get such nonsense as “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” which is a naive misreading of what in fact is the letter thorn (sound = th, orthography resembles a “y”). It should in fact be “The Olde Coffee Shoppe” because, well, a coffee shop is a thing that deserves a definite article, it is not a person that we address as “You Old Coffee Shop.”
Here’s the real point: almost 500 years ago, someone picked up a quill pen, dipped it into handmade ink (recipes for which I have, indeed, found on EEBO), and wrote the words and numbers you are looking at now.
If that’s not worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.
To survive sheltering-in-place, I’m going to read the Narnian books on facebook live, 4 pm (EDT), every day, until we finish the series or are released to the outside world. [UPDATE: When the entire world is online, facebook live is like a very bad carnival ride – likely to cause motion sickness in viewers. Hence, though we will still go live at 4 pm (EDT), we will be “going live” with a pre-recorded smooth non-bad-carnival-ride time of reading. Thought you should know.]
Chapters 1 and 2 on YOU TUBE. Chapter 3 and 4 on YOU TUBE. **ALL THE CHAPTERS ARE UPLOADED ON YOU TUBE.
We start on Thursday, April 2 with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, aka BOOK ONE (let’s not bother now to belabor the undeniable factuality of this fact, which is as factual as a fact can be, but trust me: it’s belabor-worthy).
For those who care about such things, I’ll provide some background tidbits here. Because tidbits are what give life flavor and style.
Notes on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
EVACUATION OF BRITISH SCHOOLCHILDREN DURING WW2
In 1939 and 1940, English schoolchildren were evacuated from cities to country homes. C. S. Lewis himself hosted several groups of schoolchildren during that time period at his home, the Kilns.
Lewis sometimes mentioned the children in his letters. See the excerpts below, all taken from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. 2:
To his brother (9.2.39):
“Our schoolgirls have arrived and all seem to me– and, what’s more important, to Minto– to be very nice, unaffected creatures and all most flatteringly delighted with their new surroundings. They’re fond of animals which is a good thing (for them as well as for us.”
To his brother (9.10.39):
“Life at the Kilns is going on at least as well as I expected. We had our first air raid warning at 7.45 the other morning when I expect you had yours too. Everyone got to the dug-out quite quickly and I must say they all behaved well, and though v. hungry and thirsty before the all clear went, we quite enjoyed the most perfect late summer morning I have ever seen…Another thing which would amuse you is the daily bathe– I’ve never known the pond so clean at this time of year– which is in two shifts because they have not enough bathing suits to go round, and each shift interminable because of the insatiable appetite of children. In fact we had the whole Dunbar technique– me bawling ‘Time to come out’ and a head disappearing and then emerging ten yards further away to say ‘What?’, and then twenty yards further away still to say ‘I can’t hear what you say.’
To his good friend Sister Penelope Lawson CSMV (10.24.40):
“Thanks-my brother is not only safe from France but, better still, back on the retired list and living at home: so that what with that and a house full of really delightful refugee children (I am a bachelor and never appreciated children till the war brought them to me) I have very much to be thankful for.”
To Dorothy Sayers (April 1942) in a post-script:
The French prose is not by me but by one of our evacuees– delightful creatures. I’d never lived with children before– oh that world of pencil-boxes! O bell età dell-oro!
THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE in LEWIS’S LETTERS
LWW was published on Oct 16, 1950. The letter excerpts below are all taken from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. 3
In response to a child’s query (1.22.52):
Dear Miss Jenkins,
It is a pleasure to answer your question. I found the name in the notes to Lane’s Arabian Nights: it is the Turkish for Lion. I pronounce it Ass-lan* myself. And of course I meant the Lion of Judah. I am so glad you liked the book. I hope you will like the sequel (Prince Caspian) which came out in November.
*In The Way Into Narnia, Peter Schakel (an esteemed Lewis scholar) writes: “The British pronunciation of the a in both syllables is closer to that (in American speech) of the a in father than in cat.” So Lewis probably said: AHSS’lahn.
To friend and poet Ruth Pitter (11.28.50) in a post-script:
But fan mail from children is delightful. They don’t gas. They want to know whether Aslan repaired Tumnus’s furniture for him. They take no interest in oneself and all in the story. Lovely.
To an unknown reader (3.5.51):
I am glad you all liked ‘The Lion’. A number of mothers, and still more, schoolmistresses, have decided that it is likely to frighten children, so it is not selling very well. But the real children like it, and I am astonished how some very young ones seem to understand it. I think it frightens some adults, but very few children….
To Mary Wilis Shelburne (4.17.53):
About my fairy-tales, there are three published by Macmillan, New York (The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
The the Kilmer children (3.19.54):
The typescript of your book* went off to the publisher last week, though it will not be out till next year. It is called The Magician’s Nephew. You must have often wondered how the old Professor in The Lion, Witch & W could have believed all the children told him about Narnia. The reason was that he had been there himself as a little boy. This book tells you how he went there, and (of course that was ages and ages ago by Narnian time) how he saw Aslan creating Narnia, and how the White Witch first got into that world and why there was a lamp-post in the middle of that forest. The one before yours (The Horse and his Boy) is also dedicated to two Americans and will be out ‘this Autumn’ (Fall, as you say).
*The Magician’s Nephew was dedicated to the Kilmer children.
To Joan Lancaster (4.15.54):
I am so glad you like the Narnian books, and it was nice of you to tell me. There are to be seven stories altogether. The ones which have already come out are 1. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 2. Prince Caspian 3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 4. The Silver Chair. Some time this year, Number 5, The Horse and his Boy, will be out: and the 6th, The Magician’s Nephew has already gone to the printer (you have no idea how long it takes getting a book printed). The 7th is already written, but still only in pen-and-ink, and I have not quite decided yet what to call it. Sometimes I think of calling it The Last King of Narnia, and sometimes, Night Falls on Narnia. Which do you think sounds best?
To a 5th-grade class in Maryland (5.24.54):
You are mistaken when you think that everything in the book ‘represents’ something in this world. Things do that in The Pilgrim’s Progress but I’m not writing in that way. I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.’ If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing.
To William Kinter (10.28.54):
Aslan is the Turkish word for a lion: I chose it for the sound.
To Mrs. Krieg (5.6.55):
Dear Mrs. Krieg
Tell Laurence from me, with my love: 1/ Even if he was loving Aslan more than Jesus (I’ll explain in a moment why he can’t really be doing this) he would not be an idol-worshipper. If he was an idol-worshipper he’d be doing it on purpose, whereas he’s now doing it because he can’t help doing it, and trying hard not to do it. But God knows quite well how hard we find it to love Him more than anyone or anything else, and He won’t be angry with us as long as we are trying. And He will help us.
2/ But Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he is doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before. Of course there is one thing Aslan has that Jesus has not– I mean, the body of a lion. (But remember, if there are other worlds and they need to be saved and Christ were to save them as He would– He may really have taken all sorts of bodies in them which we don’t know about.) Now if Laurence is bothered because he finds the lion-body seems nicer to him than the man-body, I don’t think he need be bothered at all. God knows all about the way a little boy’s imagination works (He made it, after all) and knows that at a certain age the idea of talking and friendly animals is very attractive. So I don’t think He minds if Laurence likes the Lion-body. And anyway, Laurence will find as he grows older, that feeling (liking the lion-body better) will die away of itself, without his taking any trouble about it. So he needn’t bother. 3/ If I were Laurence I’d just say in my prayers something like this: ‘Dear God, if the things I’ve been thinking and feeling about those books are things You don’t like and are bad for me, please take away those feelings and thoughts. But if they are not bad, then please stop me from worrying about them. And help me every day to love you more in the way that really matters far more than any feelings or imaginations, by doing what you want and growing more like you.’ That is the sort of thing I think Laurence should say for himself; but it would be kind and Christian-like if he then added, ‘And if Mr. Lewis has worried any other children by his books or done them any harm, then please forgive him and help him never to do it again.’
To Charles Brady (11.16.56):
I get lovely, and often most moving, letters from my child readers. I had expected that they wd. get the theology more or less unconsciously, but the truth is that they all see it perfectly clearly, bless ’em, and much more clearly than some grown-ups.
To Allan Emery (8.18.59):
Dear Mr. Emery–
Thank you for your kind letter of the 13th. The fairy-tale version of the Passion in The Lion etc. works in the way you describe because– tho’ this sounds odd– it bye-passes one’s reverence and piety. We approach the real story in the Gospels with the knowledge that we ought to feel certain things about it. And this, by a familiar psychological law, can hinder us from doing so. The dutiful effort prevents the spontaneous feeling; just as if you say to an old friend during a brief reunion ‘Now let’s have a good talk’ both suddenly find themselves with nothing to say. Make it a fairy-tale and the reader is taken off his guard. (Unless ye become as little children…)
To Sophia Storr (12.24.59):
That is, when I started The Lion, Witch and Wardrobe I don’t think I foresaw what Aslan was going to do and suffer. I think He just insisted on behaving in His own way. This of course I did understand and the whole series became Christian. But it is not, as some people think, an allegory. That is, I don’t say ‘Let us represent Christ as Aslan.’ I say, ‘Supposing there was a world like Narnia, and supposing, like ours, it needed redemption, let us imagine what sort of Incarnation and Passion and Resurrection Christ would have there.’ See?
To Anne Jenkins (3.5.61):
Anne– What Aslan meant when he said he had died is, in one sense, plain enough. Read the earlier book in the series called The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and you will find the full story of how he was killed by the White Witch and came to life again. When you have read that, I think you will probably see that there is deeper meaning behind it. The whole Narnian story is about Christ. That is to say, I asked myself ‘Supposing there really were a world like Narnia, and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong, and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?’ The stories are my answer. Since Narnia is a world of Talking Beasts, I thought He would become a Talking Beast there, as he became a Man here. I pictured Him becoming a lion there because (a) The lion is supposed to be the King of beasts: (b) Christ is called ‘The Lion of Judah’ in the Bible: (c) I’d been having strange dreams about lions when I began writing the books.
THE LION, THE WITCH and THE WARDROBE EXTRA FAQs
On the dedication:
Lewis dedicated LWW to his goddaughter, Lucy Barfield, daughter of his close friend Owen Barfield. The real Lucy became a professional music teacher. In the 1960s she developed multiple sclerosis and spent a good part of her life in a wheelchair.
On shutting wardrobe doors:
When Lucy Barfield’s mother read a manuscript of LWW, she mentioned to Lewis her fear of children locking themselves in a wardrobe, so he added clear warnings:
From Chapter 1:
“She immediately stepped into the wardrobe and got in among the coats and rubbed her face against them, leaving the door open, of course, because she knew that it is very foolish to shut oneself into any wardrobe.”
“(She had, of course, left the door open, for she knew that it is a very silly thing to shut oneself into a wardrobe.)”
From Chapter 3:
“But as soon as she reached it she heard steps in the passage outside, and then there was nothing for it but to jump into the wardrobe and hold the door closed behind her. She did not shut it properly because she knew that it is very silly to shut oneself into a wardrobe, even if it is not a magic one.”
“[Edmund] jumped in and shut the door, forgetting what a very foolish thing this is to do. Then he began feeling about for Lucy in the dark.”
From Chapter 5:
“Quick!” said Peter, “there’s nowhere else,” and flung open the wardrobe. All four of them bundled inside it and sat there, panting, in the dark. Peter held the door closed but did not shut it; for, of course, he remembered, as every sensible person does, that you should never never shut yourself up in a wardrobe.”
On foxes and rabbits and snakes:
In the first edition of LWW, when the children talk about what they might discover in the countryside around the Professor’s house, it read:
Peter: “There might be eagles. There might be stags. There’ll be hawks.”
“Badgers!” said Lucy.
“Foxes!” said Edmund.
“Rabbits!” said Susan.
Lewis revised this in a later edition in this way:
“Snakes!” said Edmund.
“Foxes!” said Susan.
Lewis likely changed this to give a hint at the characters of Edmund and Susan. The (mis-numbered) Harper-Collins editions reverted to the original text.
On “WOW” as Aslan’s roar:
On the other hand, Lewis did make a change in the American editions that would have been better left as it was. In chapter 13,when the White Witch asks Aslan’s how she can be sure he will follow through on their agreement, he roars so loudly that she races off in fear. The original roar is this: “Haa-a-arrh!” For whatever reason, Lewis changed the American edition to: “Wow!” He obviously wasn’t aware of how “wow” was used in casual slang American conversation, else he never would have made this change. On the other hand, check out this clip of lions roaring. It does rather sound like “wow” – but in a roaring kind of way, not in a “cool & awesome” kind of way – sort of like “wow
“It All Began with a Picture…”
(in Of Other Worlds: Essays & Stories, Harcourt, Brace & World. 1966, p. 42) The essay is only one page long, printed here in full:
The Editor has asked me to tell you how I came to write The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I will try, but you must not believe all that authors tell you about how they wrote their books. This is not because they mean to tell lies. It is because a man writing a story is too excited about the story itself to sit back and notice how he is doing it. In fact, that might stop the works; just as, if you start thinking about how you tie your tie, the next thing is that you find you can’t tie it. And afterwards, when the story is finished, he has forgotten a good deal of what writing it was like.
One thing I am sure of. All my seven Narnian books, and my three science fiction books, began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.’
At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came. But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him.
So you see that, in a sense, I know very little about how this story was born. That is, I don’t know where the pictures came from. And I don’t believe anyone knows exactly how he ‘makes things up’. Making up is a very mysterious thing. When you ‘have an idea’ could you tell anyone exactly how you thought of it? //
ON THE FRONTISPIECE:
The original frontispiece was this:
Thankfully (because just look at that Aslan, would you?) Lewis asked Pauline Baynes to make a new image, which you likely recognize:
We can all sleep easier at night knowing Aslan is more of a lion and less of an overgrown hand-raising, line-dancing, Disney-esque villain.
Here are two of the earliest advertisements for LWW:
As March 25th, National Tolkien Reading Day, draws to an end, I have much to celebrate. For today I discovered a new book. By a favorite author. A book which I should absolutely have known about, but did not. A book which cannot be found anywhere except on Abe Books, two copies, one just under $1000 and one just over $1000, which is pretty much the same as “cannot be found anywhere.”
Fortunately for me, I know someone who has more books than I do – more books than most public libraries, and who is a medievalist, and who is a Tolkien scholar, and who lives in my town, and who is very kind.
This person and I are both rule-followers. And our town is under a stay-at-home-except-for-necessities order. Getting my hands on this book was a necessity. So at noon:30 today, I ventured out to a quiet neighborhood, pulled up to a curbside mailbox, surreptitiously retrieved an unmarked manilla envelope of medium heft, deposited in its place a small hermetically sealed package of British cookies, glanced around nervously because what if someone thought I was making a ransom money-drop, and then drove off with literary gold settled gently on the passenger seat next to me.
And now, at nearly midnight, I am settling into The Old English Exodus, Text, Translation, and Commentary by J. R. R. Tolkien.
You read the correctly.
And glory be. The inside dust jacket has already filled my soul with delight. But the first lines – well, the first lines cause my heart to pound with joy.
Hwæt we feor and neah gefrigen habbađ ofer middangeard Moyses domas wrætlico wordriht wera cneorissum –
All of that valiant orthography. All of that Beowulfian pathos. Plus middle earth. And Moses. There are simply no words to express the wonder and weight of language.
Hold your heart. Rest your soul. And hear the opening lines of Exodus as translated by John Ronald:
Lo! We have heard how near and far over middle-earth Moses declared his ordinances to men, uttering in words wondrous laws to the races of mankind – to all the blessed healing of their life’s care in heaven on high after the perilous journey, to all the living enduring counsel: let him hearken who will!
This man did the Lord of Hosts, true King, by his own might honor in the wilderness, and to him did the Eternal and Omnipotent grant power over many miracles. He was dear unto God, prince of his people, a leader of the host, sage and wise of heart, valiant captain of his folk.
March 25th, 2020 was filled with far too little reading of Tolkien at my house, much to my dismay. But I am going to make up for that now by settling into a mere 590 lines of ancient epic, a mere 13 pages of translation, and a mere 44 pages of linguistic and literary commentary.
I cannot think of a better way to finish out this day of sheltering-at-home.
For almost a week, friends have been sending me emails and texts about this blog post (“C. S. Lewis on the Coronavirus”) asking if it is in fact genuinely Lewisian. Are these the words of Clive? The truths of Jack? During this time of COVID19 lockdowns and social distancing, does Lewis really want me to not only pray, read, and listen to music but to also chat with my friends over a pint and a game of darts in the local pub or tavern where presumably there are many other people for whom social distancing is a thing to be eschewed by smart folk who smirk?
They ask me this, I presume, because I get mighty curmudgeonly about the glut of Lewis misquotes in print, digital, and spoken discourse (see here and here and here for starters) as well as the egregiously errant mis-numbering of the Narnian books – but I digress).
In answer to my friends’ questions: Yes. Lewis did write the three paragraphs quoted in the blog post. And thirteen subsequent paragraphs, which are definitely not about the Coronavirus (not even obliquely) and not even about the atomic bomb (primarily). Instead they are about acknowledging and admitting (being “waked” as Lewis put it, which I suppose is akin to being “woke” in this, our superlatively advanced and intellectually brilliant 21st-century)
“that the important question is not whether an atomic bomb is going to obliterate ‘civilization’. The important question is whether ‘Nature’ — the thing studied by the sciences – is the only thing in existence.”(“On Living in an Atomic Age,” Informed Reading, vol. VI , pp 78-84, par. 7)
Lewis wrote this essay in 1948, when the possibility of a civilization-obliterating atomic bomb was a very real thing, and when most Europeans, including Lewis, were living not just under but within and among the realities of a gruesome war that often pounded on their backdoor.
In other words, Lewis wrote this essay under circumstances that were entirely unlike those in most of today’s world, especially America, and were absolutely unlike our current battle (skirmish? combat? struggle?) with covid19.
We have been asked to wash our hands scrupulously. To not stockpile more than we need. To avoid unnecessary travel. To stay home if possible, as much as possible. And for certain to avoid such things such as crowded (or even under-crowded) taverns and pubs where one might be “chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts.” (par. 3)
Certainly do read Lewis’s full essay since true meaning is most assuredly found in full reading. And certainly do take the time to discern if there are relevant ideas and concepts worth pondering (e.g. the limitations of naturalism, the existence of a Creator, the true essence and meaning of life).
But as you read, contextualize wisely. Do not pluck a Lewis quote – even a real one – out of context in order to either satisfy yourself or to be smirkingly provocative (which is not what the referenced blog’s author seemed to be doing, but is certainly what some re-posters are doing).
Lewis played by the rules – whether he was teaching, tutoring, soldiering, rationing, caring for sick and elderly, or quarantining himself during illness. His letters reveal a man who, for all of his worldly renown, did not presume to knock aside the rules or guidelines delivered by those in authority, which isn’t to say he didn’t grumble or grouse about them if he was having a grouchy day or if the occasion warranted.
To those who have read just three paragraphs of Lewis’s 1948 essay addressing the very real fear of atomic annihilation and see within it Lewisian approval to toss aside what may feel like unnecessary and life-squelching limits on certain types of social interaction, I get it. No one likes to be told what to do. And maybe in months or years, the telling will turn out to have been overly reactionary and unnecessary.
But unless the telling defies the laws of decency or requires one to deny Christ, we would all do well to pay attention.
We would also do well to pay attention to Lewis’s underlying and ultimate messages in the essay.
Be sensible: do the necessary daily work (such as bathing babies) as though they matter and have value, which they do.
Be joyful: read books, listen to music, chat with friends as though such things matter to our souls, which they do.
Be thoughtful: consider how the deeper truths of life, the supernatural world, and the Divine inform and intersect with our very existence, which they do.
Be Christlike: sacrifice humbly, love deeply, embrace the here-and-now earthly things that embody this present life, but pursue the now-and-not-yet heavenly things that point towards and reflect the only Real & Lasting Life itself, which they do.
Postscript: And if the current events provide occasion to read (joy!), and if you should choose to read the Chronicles of Narnia (joy, indeed!), then be literarily and Lewisianly orthodox: read them in the order the books themselves propound and the author himself planned:
C. S. Lewis had strong opinions about modern advancements that wiped out traditional truths. In the final chapter of Right and Wrong As a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe (which later became Book 1 of Mere Christianity), “putting the clock back” is what many modern skeptics assume religion does, with regressive and costly results.
Not so, writes Lewis, who quite thrived on argumentative disputes, both gentle and stern, both kind and curmudgeonly.
You may have felt you were ready to listen to me as long as you thought I had anything new to say; but if it turns out to be only religion well, ‘the world has tried that and you cannot put the clock back.’ If anyone is feeling that way I should like to say three things to him.
First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
Per Lewis, if metaphorically putting the clock forward proved to be a critical error, then putting the clock back would be the logical and right thing to do.
This was not just a metaphorical issue for Lewis. Turns out he had similarly strong opinions about tinkering with time by changing actual clocks.
In a letter from autumn 1939, he wrote:
We had an hour extra in bed thanks to putting back the clocks.
Just days later he wrote in another letter:
Thank heaven the clocks have gone back!
Six months later, in the spring of 1940, he wrote to his brother:
Plague on this nonsense of putting [forward]* the clock which has docked me of an hour’s sleep and which for the next few weeks will give me darkness at shaving and dressing time when I want light, and light after tea when it is an impertinence.
For those who find it empowering to bolster their position with a Lewis quote, these three real quotes are gems: down-to-earth joy on one hand, grumbly snark on the other.
On November 3rd at 2 a.m. – (or more likely at 6 a.m. which used to be 7 a.m.) – when Daylight Savings Time ends and we** “put the clock” back to its rightful place, with fellow Lewisians I will declare:
Thank heaven the clocks have gone back!
*[Lewis actually wrote “back” instead of “forward” – perhaps because the notion of “putting clocks forward” was entirely anathema to him, or because they’d not yet embraced the annoyingly trite (yet necessarily helpful) remind to “fall back / spring forward.”]
**Most, but not all Americans, fall back/leap forward. Only a minority of the world’s population observes DST, and even then, it begins on different dates and has varying durations.
(It is the 55th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death today. I will celebrate with turkey, stuffing, pie, and an earnest attempt to recover yet another Lewisian quote from its tangled and tortured digital revision.)
Most Lewis misquotes are multiplicitous, appearing hither and yon throughout the interwebbed cosmos. Some of the internet’s favorite snips of non-Lewisian blather are:
“You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.” (Gah.)
“True humility is not thinking of yourself less; it is thinking less of yourself.” (Ack.)
“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” (Meh.)
Anyone who has ever read Lewis seriously will recognize these phrases as thoroughly non-Lewisian. The thought of him speaking or writing any of these vapid platitudes is ludicrous. Lamentable, even.
But I was recently sent a Lewis misquote that I’d not seen before. The subject line of the email read:
Did CS Lewis say “May the real me meet the real you”
The appalling grammar was proof enough of misquotation. (Grammar isn’t a mystery. Break the sentence down to its simplest elements: “May me meet you.” Indeed. Cough.) A quick web search showed the fuller misquote to be as follows: “The prayer that precedes all prayers is may the real me meet the real you.” The appalling punctuation was additional proof of misquotation. (Where does the quote within the quote begin and end?) But it provided enough context for me to consult a real book, written by the real Lewis, that sits upon a real shelf in my real office, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.
After a frenzied textual search, I began typing my response, with gusto, while gritting my teeth:
Did CS Lewis say this? Absolutely not. It doesn’t sound even remotely like him. It’s trite syrup that drips of 21st-century populist-speaker-writer-religion centered around supernaturally vulnerable friendships. Ack.
It is similar to something Lewis actually wrote in Letters to Malcolm. The social media misquote makes it sound as though Lewis is concerned with people being completely open and honest with each other – no masks, no false selves, no posturing, no faking, blah blah blah.
But the original quote – the real quote – is concerned with the fact that in prayer, we are trying to place ourselves in the very presence of God, while also existing amongst earthly realities (i.e. four walls of the room in which we sit, our own physical self, our feeble attempts at introspection) that are both “real” but also very far from being ‘rock-bottom realities’. Until we realize and even experience that truth, our prayers are mere chatter that often entirely miss the actual intersection of Creator and created.
The real quote appears in letter XV, which deals with such things as dramatic constructions of realities, questions of ontology, the façade of consciousness, the confrontation of subject and object, and surprising theophany. You can find it in the final paragraph. It reads thus, with the prefacing context:
“The attempt is not to escape from space and time and from my creaturely situation as a subject facing objects. It is more modest: to re-awake the awareness of that situation. If that can be done, there is no need to go anywhere else. This situation itself is, at every moment, a possible theophany. Here is the holy ground; the Bush is burning now.
“Of course this attempt may be attended with almost every degree of success or failure. The prayer preceding all prayers is, ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’ Infinitely various are the levels from which we pray. Emotional intensity is in itself no proof of spiritual depth. If we pray in terror we shall pray earnestly; it only proves that terror is an earnest emotion. Only God Himself can let the bucket down to the depths in us. And, on the other side, He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking, ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed…’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.'”
– C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt, 1964), pp. 81-82.
There is nothing here about masks, false identities, curated selves, vulnerable friendships, or other social-psycho-theological deconstructionist babble.
For those who care about such things, I’d suggest reading the whole of letter XV and the entire book in order to understand the full intent and to enjoy the complete discourse.
That’s usually the best way to read a nuanced text and a brainy author. Misquoted snippet phrases overlaid on angsty photos is not.
Literary Lewisians – that is, those who view his written texts and his recorded readings as the only things that qualify as Lewis quotes (as opposed to cinematic adapted one-liners and outlandish self-empowering slogans) – likely expend too much energy seething about the ever-growing corpus of non-Lewis quotes cluttering (even polluting) the digital universe.
I do, anyway.
And perhaps I should stop caring. Or stop blathering about it. Or stop calling it out.
But I think it matters immensely, far beyond anything that has to do with being a devoted Lewisian, medievalist, literarian, or would-be-Narnian. (For these reasons and these. Also these and these. And so many more.)
This is not merely about misquotes. It’s about being thoughtful, careful, precise, clear. Truthful, even.
But I am once again disheartened and confounded by the most recent misquote because it is in print, in a book, about Lewis, that perhaps many people will read, and so there’s very little chance of retracting this particular absolutely-not-a-quote (just like there is very little chance of properly recovering the correct order of the Chronicles of Narnia, yet another reason literary Lewisians gnash their teeth).
The newly released book Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis (by Patti Callahan; Thomas Nelson, 2018) ushers readers into Part I with this page:
Anyone who has read Lewis will recognize this “quote” of Aslan’s as not possibly having been written by Lewis, ever. It drips with modern self-actualization that appears nowhere in Lewis’s writings (who was thoroughly unmodern and utterly I-am-lost-without-my-Lord).
I suppose the cinematic-adapted CGI-leo might have uttered these words. But if so, the above quote should indicate such by 1) deleting C. S. Lewis as the intimated author and 2) clearly noting the cinematic-adapted-and-ravaged version as the actual source.
That seems only fair. And accurate. And clear. And precise. And factual.
I assume this “quote” comes from the cinematic-adapted scene wherein the Dawn Treader (“such a very Narnian ship”) enters the Darkness – a very real and very terrifying place of evil. A place wherein Aslan would never advise someone to defeat the darkness in oneself (which isn’t to say he denied inner darkness, or didn’t think it should be defeated). Those who know Aslan (and his earthly incarnated human-divine reality but please remember the Chronicles ARE NOTALLEGORIES) know that when any of his children find themselves in the midst of evil danger – quivering hands, overwhelming despair, paralyzing fear – if that child has only enough strength to whisper, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now,” – well, even if that child would forget to say please or pretty please or by your mane – Aslan would never respond with: “Well, hmmm, okay. But first you must defeat the darkness in yourself.”
Never. Absolutely and unequivocally never.
Instead, after pleading hopeful words in the midst of palpable despair, something would begin to change inside the child, and inside all the other children on whose behalf she also whispered.
First, a tiny speck of light would appear up ahead.
And then a broad beam of light would fall upon the ship, even while it was still surrounded by darkness.
And then along the beam, the children (some young, some grown) would see what looked like a cross, then like an aeroplane, and then like a kite before finally arriving in a whirling rush of wings. It would be an albatross. It would circle around the mast three times before perching for just an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. And then it would spread its wings, rise, and begin to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little starboard, leading the whole shipload of children folk out into the warm and welcoming sunshine.
And the one who’d whispered for help back in the evil dark – rather than being chided for not first defeating her own inner darkness (blather) – would have heard these words from Aslan-as-albatross while still in the darkness:
Courage, dear heart.
And as she heard the voice, she would also have felt a delicious smell breathe in her face – the breath of love, the breath of joy, the breath of presence, the breath of spirit, the breath of undeserved rescue.
And when finally out of the darkness, without knowing exactly when or how it happened, everyone would realize there was nothing to be afraid of and never had been.
That is what Aslan would have done and said – because that is what he did and said in Chapter 12 of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
So, yes – misquotes matter.
Because though both Aslan and our Lord are in the business of forming humility and love and grace in their children while also helping them die-to-self each and every day, neither Aslan nor our Lord are in the business of self-help nonsense-babble that only leads to disappointment, despair, and emptiness. (And maybe also poisonous self-inflation.)
Words matter. Because behind the words are ideas, meaning, stories, and truth. At least that’s the hope.
[UPDATE: 9 Oct 2018]
Turns out this is not just a misquote: it is a misattribution of a misquote. Aslan-of-the-screen did not say these words. Rather, Coriakin-of-the-screen did, per the Confirming C. S. Lewis Quotes page (CCSLQ) of the meticulously researched Essential C. S. Lewis site. I highly recommend it.
I don’t know if this makes things any better. Or worse. To misattribute a misquote is two too many missteps. To misattribute to a false Aslan something said by a false Coriakin is beyond reckoning. It’s Dufflepud-ish, if you will. It’s as difficult to imagine Coriakin saying these things as it is to imagine Aslan saying them.
Coriakin is, by his own estimation, the least of Aslan’s magicians. He oversees the Duffers, who would drive anyone mad. But he never once lays on them platitudes about overcoming inner darkness, pride, or stupidity. Nor does he presume to deliver supposed Aslan-esque platitudes to them regarding their petty and outlandish stubbornness, not even to the Chief Duffer, who would drive anyone sky-high-batty after just five minutes. Coriakin’s ethos and discourse runs more like this:
Lucy followed the great Lion out into the passage and at once she saw coming towards them an old man, barefoot, dressed in a red robe. His white hair was crowned with a chaplet of oak leaves, his beard fell to his girdle, and he supported himself with a curiously carved staff. When he saw Aslan he bowed low and said,
“Welcome, Sir, to the least of your houses.”
“Do you grow weary, Coriakin, of ruling such foolish subjects as I have given you here?”
“No,” said the Magician, “they are very stupid but there is no real harm in them. I begin to grow rather fond of the creatures. Sometimes, perhaps I am a little impatient, waiting for the day when they can be governed by wisdom instead of this rough magic.”
“All in good time, Coriakin,” said Aslan.
“Yes, all in very good time, Sir,” was the answer. (Chapter 11, VDT)
Actual-Lewis’s actual-Coriakin is surely not someone who would blather about defeating inner darkness in order to defeat outer darkness. He knew better. Much better. The Chief Duffer, on the other hand…
[Note: When a writer steps away from writing, for whatever reason (and there are usually several, and at least some of the several are usually very real and true), it is hard to step back into it for the simple reason that writing is work. Hard work. Fly-in-the-ointment work. Day-in-day-out-nose-to-the-grindstone work. No matter how much it is embedded in one’s blood, bones, heart and breath. But: it is good work. Glorious work. Real work. Meaningful work. True work. And so writers – if they step away, when they step back – must always step back into the work again. Because they can’t not. Because they must. It’s just a matter of when. Today, for example…]
It’s a big year for Lewisians across the world.
Today a new-found old letter hits the auction block. I read about it here first, on a delightful blog I discovered during my stepped-away-from-writing season.
The letter is delightful for several reasons.
It’s addressed to “My Dear Grittletonians.” We should all live in a world of such places and people.
You can see where Lewis’s fountain pen ran low on ink.
He capitalizes Sea Serpent and Dragon, indicating their true is-ness.
He specifically refers to three completed and four upcoming books as a unified series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
He writes about some of his favorite books, all of which would be found in the children’s section of a library, but which for him were never categorized by age.
He adds a P.S about more favorite books, because that kind of list has no end.
He talks about what he did when he was a boy, as though it were a vivid and recent memory.
He writes to children as though they are full-fledged human beings, i.e. he takes them seriously.
He crosses out a mistake in his writing.
And – perhaps most wondrously gratifying of all to those of us Lewisians who are book-order purists – he makes it unequivocally clear that the sixth book that “will go right back to the beginning and explain how there came to be that magic wardrobe in the Professor’s house” – i.e. The Magician’s Nephew is absolutely and intentionally and authoritatively the sixth, not the first,book in the series.
You can imagine how satisfying this is to people who’ve known it all along – known it not just in their own bones, but known it based on all the internal evidence of the books themselves (a critical literary practice that Lewis himself holds in high esteem).
But this new-found old letter is not the only Big Lewis News of the year. There are also two new-found old articles that have heretofore never been collected or anthologized. I don’t remember where I first got wind of these, but there were hints in the Lewis-sphere that The Strand Magazine might contain articles by Lewis that were not yet indexed in Lewis collections.
Happily, my research institution maintains copies of Strand Magazine in its expansively mysterious repository. And after much dusty digging, sorting, and page-flipping, I found these:
“A Christmas Sermon for Pagans” will sound familiar to anyone who has read Mere Christianity and De Descriptione Temporum. The language, phrases, and ideas are recognizably Lewis. “Cricket’s Progress” is another thing altogether. Did Lewis – who wrote other things under the pseudonym Clive Hamilton – care about cricket? Did he hanker to be a sports writer? I haven’t pored over this article enough to make any sense of what’s going on, but I do find vague hints of Puddleglum in this narrated Cricketer’s quote:
“It’s a great game, but fast bowling takes too much out of a fellow,” he told me. “You want to be a nice, steady all-rounder, good for thirty years’ service…Keep one eye on the ball and the other on the future, and you’ll be all right. And above all, never let them get you down.”
It does rather sound like our favorite wiggle, doesn’t it?
“I’m not going to lose an opportunity like this. It will do me good. They all say – I mean, the other wiggles all say – that I’m too flighty; don’t take life seriously enough. If they’ve said it once, they’ve said it a thousand times. ‘Puddleglum,’ they’ve said, ‘you’re altogether too full of bobance and bounce and high spirits. You’ve got to learn that life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie. You want something to sober you down a bit. We’re only saying it for your own good, Puddleglum.’ That’s what they say. Now a job like this – a journey up north just as winter’s beginning, looking for a Prince that probably isn’t there, by way of a ruined city that no one has even seen – will be just the thing. If that doesn’t steady a chap, I don’t know what will.”
In a fascinating twist of literary nuance, the final page of “Cricket” features a footer quote by G. K. Chesterton. Curious indeed.
All of that to say – a new-found old letter and two new-found old articles are no small thing in the world of Lewis. And though there have been many, many reasons and moments and means to step back into the world of writing, these have proven to be the golden ticket.
In Lewis’s own words to the Dear Grittletonians:
“Do you write stories yourselves? I did at your age. It is the greatest fun.”
Or, modified for this specific juncture of life:
“Do you write? I do. It is the hardest work. And the greatest fun.”
Job is often read as a book about suffering, patience, providence, righteousness, and faithfulness.
Certainly Job discusses all of those things.
But it is not primarily about those things.
It is primarily a book about someone coming face-to-face with this stunning and silencing truth:
Behold, I am of no account. (ESV)
I am nothing. (NLT)
We just finished reading Job in my Bible as Literature class. We plowed through its dialogues and discourses, its philosophical wonderings, and its theological thunder.
Job, like all of scripture, is richer, deeper, wider, and wiser than anyone can possibly understand in a single lifetime. Its narrative structure and poetic beauty are hallmarks of ancient literary genius.
In his introduction to Job, G. K. Chesterton – with typical brilliance, wit, and British pithiness – notes that God’s ultimate discourse (chapters 38-41) upends our expectations in four ways:
Rather than offering answers to all the questions posed of him, God offers questions of his own – richer, deeper, wider, and wiser questions than any yet presented. “In dealing with the arrogant asserter of doubt, it is not the right method to tell him to stop doubting. It is rather the right method to tell him to go on doubting, to doubt a little more, to doubt every day newer and wider things in the universe, until at last, by some strange enlightenment, he may begin to doubt himself.”
Though God offers deeper, darker, and more desolate riddling questions than Job has yet encountered, Job is strangely comforted by the Lord’s words. “[Job] has been told nothing, but he feels the terrible and tingling atmosphere of something which is too good to be told. The refusal of God to explain His design is itself a burning hint of His design. The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”
As God unrolls a panorama of his mighty creation, he seems to “insist on the positive and palpable unreason of things” and to declare that the world’s inexplicableness is one of its finest truths. “Instead of proving to Job that it is an explicable world, [God] insists that it is a much stranger world than Job ever thought it was.”
In a stunning use of imagery, and sacred language – and “without once relaxing the rigid impenetrability” of divine power – God drops here and there “the metaphors, sudden and splendid suggestions that the secret of God is a bright and not a sad one…like light seen for an instant through the cracks of a closed door.”
Indeed, oh yes indeed he does.
God robes his earth in brilliant colors.
He guides the Bear and her cubs across the heavens.
He tilts the waterskins of heaven to satisfy the parched ground.
He creates the cosmos to the celebratory accompaniment of singing stars and shouting angels.
The secrets of God are indeed bright. The inexplicability of God and his creation is indeed a comfort. The impenetrability of divine power is indeed a reassurance.
To be small, to be of no account, and to be nothing – this is in fact that most spacious truth within which to exist.
It is to be deeply content with my identity as a child of God (as opposed to believing I am a god myself).
It is to be thoroughly assured of my role in the universe as merely one of trillions (but one who is nevertheless fully and undeservedly loved).
It is to be wholly at rest in the arms of one I cannot condense, comprehend, deconstruct, or delimit (but one who I can surely know – personally and intimately).
Only when I believe of myself, “I am of no account. I am nothing,” will I be positioned to finally be all that God has made me to be.
Only when I accept the paradox of being fully loved while being nothing and being fully redeemed while being of no account will I finally understand the price and purity of God’s love for me.
Only when I embrace my very finite smallness will I be able to rejoice assuredly in the frightening magnitude of my Lord.
“Behold, I am of no account.” Yes and amen. Thus can I live and love with a full and free heart.
[Quotes taken from “Introduction to the Book of Job, by G. K. Chesterton (originally published 1916), available at chesterton.org]