Aslan Did Not Say That (Lewis misquoted again)

[UPDATE below]

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 printin a bookabout Lewisthat 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 NOT ALLEGORIES) 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…

 

What Lewis almost said: some thoughts on quoting carefully

lewis-hamlet-quote
Detail of page 99, _Selected Literary Essays_, C. S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper. (Cambridge University Press, 1969).

I’ve ranted in the past about C. S. Lewis misquotes. So has the C.S. Lewis Foundation, Essential C. S. Lewis,  and a host of other Lewisians.

I’ve often wondered why I care about this so much, why it rankles me so deeply when someone tosses around a quote offhandedly – or heavy-handedly, as the case may be – and then takes special care to note that it is from none other than C. S. Lewis, implying that it (the quote) is nearly scriptural and therefore they (the quoters) are entirely trustworthy and authoritative.

Does it really matter?

I think so (for reasons mentioned here). I think it speaks to something about how we use language, words, and ideas, how we view authority, and how we tend to accept (often blindly) what we are offered by Those-Who-Know, whether in virtual conversations, printed text, or spoken word.

We often let others do our thinking for us. But to make it look like we’ve done our own thinking, we buttress it with a quote by Someone Really Important and Smart, like C. S. Lewis, or countless other dead people whose words have been dissected into convenient sound-bites that make us look good.

Sometimes the quote is nearly-right, as in the case of this popular one:

The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live among those who are.

This quotes gets almost 3 millions hits in a Google search. Bravo for Clive on being viral, a thousand times over.

Unlike many of Lewis’s other misattributed quotes (including: “Humility is not thinking of yourself less: it’s thinking less of yourself,” and, “You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream,” and, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”), this one is almost spot on. What Lewis actually wrote was:

The next best thing to being wise oneself is to live in a circle of those who are: that good fortune I have enjoyed for nearly twenty years. (C. S. Lewis, “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?”)

If the misquoters knew that the original included “in a circle of” as opposed to “among,” I suspect they would love it even more. We are all about circles these days – circles of friends, circles of life, circles of prayer, circles of circles.

[“Circle” is a very strange word if you look at or say it over and over and over again.]

The problem with this quote being used as it so often is – i. e. to say that if one’s friends have common sense and real-world wisdom, then so will you – is that Lewis wasn’t talking about that at all (which isn’t to say he wouldn’t agree).

This quote is from one of Lewis’s literary essays, “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” You can find it in at least three places: Proceedings of the British Academy (Vol. 28, 1942), They Asked for a Paper: Papers and Addresses (Geoffrey Bles, 1962) and Selected Literary Essays (ed. Walter Hooper, Cambridge University Press, 1969). It appears rather unexpectedly about two-thirds of the way into Lewis’s argument that Hamlet is best enjoyed for its poetic power and prowess rather than being critiqued along various theoretical and critical lines. He tips his hat to Owen Barfield, not for being a friend who helped Lewis navigate the difficulties of daily decision making (though perhaps he did do that) or for being a friend whose mere presence deepened and expanded Lewis’s own daily wisdom (though perhaps that did happen).

Instead, he tips his hat to Owen Barfield specifically and his other literary friends generally for being the kind of people who kept Lewis grounded as a reader and critic, for being people of deep intellect and smart ideas who challenged Lewis as a reader and critic, for being people who thought carefully and thoroughly and creatively before spouting off about nothing in particular.

For those who are interested, Lewis tends toward a reading style that embraces the poetry, the lyricism, the words, the essence, the donegality, and the visceral responses rather than a reading style that hacks and dismembers texts into lifeless blobs of intellectual blubber. Lewis believed that the many critics who had examined Hamlet’s character through every lens from every angle had missed something important. He warns that our own reading of Hamlet (should you choose to read it, which he would strongly recommend) will also miss something important if we approach it in the same clinically sterile way.

Perhaps I should rather say that it would miss as much if our behaviors when we are actually reading were not wiser than our criticism in cold blood. (“Hamlet: The Prince of the Poem?” in They Asked for a Paper, pp. 68-69; Selected Literary Essays, p. 103)

Lewis’s famous quote about wise friends is assuredly about wise friends – but not in the sense that most people use it.

And perhaps that’s not a very big deal at all. Perhaps if the quote is powerful and good and true, it has limitless applications.

But maybe it is a big deal. Maybe we need to be very careful about what we write and say and quote. Maybe knowing the context is as important as knowing the words.

If a writer doesn’t know absolutely certain where a quote is from (which includes almost every wildly popular [uncited] internet quote) but the words are good enough to stand on their own without the weight of Someone Really Important and Smart behind them, then simply say so. “As someone once said: … ”

Don’t claim the words as your own if they aren’t. At the same time, don’t attribute them to someone else if you have not checked and confirmed their source. Language is too important and powerful, too beautiful and poetic to be flung about lightly and carelessly.