Friday, January 20, 2017

Praying and writing

George Gillespie
The following is an anecdote from the proceedings of the Westminster Assembly (see Notes of Debates and Proceedings of the Assembly of Divines, p. xxviii):
There is one anecdote connected with the formation of the Shorter Catechism both full of interest and so beautiful, that it must not be omitted. In one of the earliest meetings of the Committee, the subject of deliberation was to frame an answer to the question "What is God?" Each man felt the unapproachable sublimity of the divine idea suggested by these words; but who could venture to give it expression in human language! All shrunk from the too sacred task in awe-struck reverential fear. At length it was resolved, as an expression of the Committee’s deep humility, that the youngest member should first make the attempt. He consented; but begged that the brethren would first unite with him in prayer for divine enlightenment. Then in slow and solemn accents he thus began his prayer:—"O God, Thou art a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in Thy being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth."—When he ceased, the first sentence of his prayer was immediately written down and adopted, as the most perfect answer that could be conceived; as, indeed, in a very sacred sense, God’s own answer, descriptive of himself.
Compare with Augustine in his Confessions, where he writes as he prays.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Beowulf Argument

This "argument" comes from The Tale of Beowulf, Sometime King of the Folk of the Weder Geats translated by William Morris and A. J. Wyatt (v–x):
Hrothgar, king of the Danes, lives happily and peacefully, and bethinks him to build a glorious hall called Hart. But a little after, one Grendel, of the kindred of the evil wights that are come of Cain, hears the merry noise of Hart and cannot abide it; so he enters thereinto by night, and slays and carries off and devours thirty of Hrothgar's thanes. Thereby he makes Hart waste for twelve years, and the tidings of this mishap are borne wide about the lands. Then comes to the helping of Hrothgar Beowulf, the son of Ecgtheow, a thane of King Hygelac of the Geats, with fourteen fellows. They are met on the shore by the land-warder, and by him shown to Hart and the stead of Hrothgar, who receives them gladly, and to whom Beowulf tells his errand, that he will help him against Grendel. They feast in the hall, and one Unferth, son of Ecglaf, taunts Beowulf through jealousy that he was outdone by Breca in swimming. Beowulf tells the true tale thereof. And a little after, at nightfall, Hrothgar and his folk leave the hall Hart, and it is given in charge to Beowulf, who with his Geats abides there the coming of Grendel.
Soon comes Grendel to the hall, and slays a man of the Geats, hight Handshoe, and then grapples with Beowulf, who will use no weapon against him: Grendel feels himself over-mastered and makes for the door, and gets out, but leaves his hand and arm behind him with Beowulf: men on the wall hear the great noise of this battle and the wailing of Grendel. In the morning the Danes rejoice, and follow the bloody slot of Grendel, and return to Hart racing and telling old tales, as of Sigemund and the Worm. Then come the king and his thanes to look on the token of victory, Grendel's hand and arm, which Beowulf has let fasten to the hall-gable.
The king praises Beowulf and rewards him, and they feast in Hart, and the tale of Finn and Hengest is told. Then Hrothgar leaves Hart, and so does Beowulf with his Geats, but the Danes keep guard there.
In the night comes in Grendel's Mother, and catches up Aeschere, a thane of Hrothgar, and carries him off to her lair. In the morning is Beowulf fetched to Hrothgar, who tells him of this new grief and craves his help.
Then they follow up the slot and come to a great water-side, and find thereby Aschere's head, and the place is known for the lair of those two: monsters are playing in the deep, and Beowulf shoots one of them to death. Then Beowulf dights him and leaps into the water, and is a day's while reaching the bottom. There he is straightway caught hold of by Grendel's Mother, who bears him into her hall. When he gets free he falls on her, but the edge of the sword Hrunting (lent to him by Unferth) fails him, and she casts him to the ground and draws her sax to slay him; but he rises up, and sees an old sword of the giants hanging on the wall; he takes it and smites off her head therewith. He sees Grendel lying dead, and his head also he strikes off; but the blade of the sword is molten in his venomous blood. Then Beowulf strikes upward, taking with him the head of Grendel and the hilts of the sword. When he comes to the shore he finds his Geats there alone; for the Danes fled when they saw the blood floating in the water.
They go up to Hrothgar's stead, and four men must needs bear the head. They come to Hrothgar, and Beowulf gives him the hilts and tells him what he has done. Much praise is given to Beowulf; and they feast together.
On the morrow Beowulf bids farewell to Hrothgar, more gifts are given, and messages are sent to Hygelac: Beowulf departs with the full love of Hrothgar. The Geats come to their ship and reward the ship-warder, and put off and sail to their own land. Beowulf comes to Hygelac's house. Hygelac is told of, and his wife Hygd, and her good conditions, against whom is set as a warning the evil Queen Thrytho.
Beowulf tells all the tale of his doings in full to Hygelac, and gives him his gifts, and the precious-gemmed collar to Hygd. Here is told of Beowulf, and how he was contemned in his youth, and is now grown so renowned.
Time wears; Hygelac is slain in battle; Heardred, his son, reigns in his stead, he is slain by the Swedes, and Beowulf is made king. When he is grown old, and has been king for fifty years, come new tidings. A great dragon finds on the sea-shore a mound wherein is stored the treasure of ancient folk departed. The said dragon abides there, and broods the gold for 300 years.
Now a certain thrall, who had misdone against his lord and was fleeing from his wrath, haps on the said treasure and takes a cup thence, which he brings to his lord to appease his wrath. The Worm waketh, and findeth his treasure lessened, but can find no man who hath done the deed. Therefore he turns on the folk, and wars on them, and burns Beowulf's house.
Now Beowulf will go and meet the Worm. He has an iron shield made, and sets forth with eleven men and the thrall the thirteenth. He comes to the ness, and speaks to his men, telling them of his past days, and gives them his last greeting: then he cries out a challenge to the Worm, who comes forth, and the battle begins: Beowulf's sword will not bite on the Worm. Wiglaf eggs on the others to come to Beowulf's help, and goes himself straightway, and offers himself to Beowulf; the Worm comes on again, and Beowulf breaks his sword Nægling on him, and the Worm wounds Beowulf. Wiglaf smites the Worm in the belly; Beowulf draws his sax, and between them they slay the Worm.
Beowulf now feels his wounds, and knows that he is hurt deadly; he sits down by the wall, and Wiglaf bathes his wounds. Beowulf speaks, tells how he would give his armour to his son if he had one; thanks God that he has not sworn falsely or done guilefully; and prays Wiglaf to bear out the treasure that he may see it before he dies.
Wiglaf fetches out the treasure, and again bathes Beowulf's wounds; Beowulf speaks again, rejoices over the sight of the treasure; gives to Wiglaf his ring and his armour, and bids the manner of his bale-fire. With that he passes away. Now the dastards come thereto and find Wiglaf vainly bathing his dead lord. He casteth shame upon them with great wrath. Thence he sends a messenger to the barriers of the town, who comes to the host, and tells the of the death of Beowulf. He tells withal of the old feud betwixt the Geats and the Swedes, and how these, when they hear of the death of the king, will be upon them. The warriors go to look on Beowulf, and find him and the Worm lying dead together. Wiglaf chooses out seven of them to go void the treasure-house, after having bidden them gather wood for the bale-fire. They shove the Worm over the cliff into the sea, and bear off the treasure in wains. Then they bring Beowulf's corpse to bale, and they kindle it; a woman called the wife of aforetime, it may be Hygd, widow of Hygelac, bemoans him: and twelve children of the athelings ride round the bale, and bemoan Beowulf and praise him: and thus ends the poem.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The works of N. D. Wilson

These are the works of N. D. Wilson. Not all of the below titles are available on his website.

Right Behind: A Parody of Last Days Goofiness (2001)
Supergeddon: A Really Big Geddon (2003)

Canonball Kids: The Old Stories
The Dragon and the Garden (2007)
In the Time of Noah (2007)
The Sword of Abram (2013)

100 Cupboards
100 Cupboards (2007; Book 1)
Dandelion Fire (2008; Book 2)
The Chestnut King (2010; Book 3)
The Door Before (2017; stand-alone prequel)

Ashtown Burials
The Dragon’s Tooth (2011; Book 1)
The Drowned Vault (2012; Book 2)
Empire of Bones (2013 Book 3)
The Silent Bells (2017?; Book 4)

Outlaws of Time
The Legend of Sam Miracle (2016; Book 1)
The Songs of Glory and Ghost (2017; Book 2)

Short Stories
"The Seventh Sneeze" (never published)
Credenda Agenda stuff (e.g., "Sand")
"The Rise and Fall of Circumcision" (2007; Esquire)
"Conversations with Tod" (2011; The Chattahoochee Review)

Stand-alone novels
Leepike Ridge (2007)
Boys of Blur (2014)

Canonball Kids
Hello Ninja (2013)
Blah Blah Black Sheep (2014)
related: Ninja Boy Goes to School (2014)

Emerging from Shadows (2005; Audio CD; related to "Father Brown Fakes the Shroud")
Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World (2009)
Death by Living: Life Is Meant to Be Spent (2013)

Introductions and collaborations
Twilight Land by Howard Pyle (2010; 1894?; introduction)
The Rhetoric Companion (2011; co-author with Douglas Wilson)
The Amazing Dr. Ransom’s Bestiary of Adorable Fallacies: A Field Guide for Clear Thinkers (2015; co-author with Douglas Wilson)
Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not the Enemy of Faith by Barnabas Piper (2015; introduction)
"Willow Worlds" in Wingfeather Tales by Andrew Peterson (2016; contribution)

Films (Scripts, Producing, Directing)
Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl (2011; script)
The Hound of Heaven (2014; script)
The River Thief (2016; script; directing)
They Grow Up Fast (2016; script)
The Riot and the Dance (2017?)
The Great Divorce (?)

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Top books of 2016

According to Goodreads, I read eight books this year that I rated 5 stars ("It was amazing"). In a significant change from last year, all were fiction, and half were written by members of the same family. Six of the eight were YA fiction.

Beowulf and Paradise Lost were the two non-YA fiction books. The Beowulf edition that I read was a "new verse rendering" by Doug Wilson. Wilson writes in the introduction,
So what is a rendering [as opposed to a translation], and why is it any better? While I am limited in Old English, I do okay in New English, and know my way around, both with the regular stuff and in the reading and writing of poetry. So what I did was this. I took about five different translations of Beowulf, including my two favorites (Heaney and Chickering), got the sense of lines x, y, and/or z from them, and then cast that general sense in my own modern form of an Anglo-Saxon-style alliterative poetry. [For another example of alliterative poetry, see C. S. Lewis's essay "The Alliterative Metre" in Selected Literary Essays.] Then I did the same thing over again, and went on and on until I was done. Since I was making free to add words for the sake of the alliteration, and because I sometimes supplied my own imagery, the result is a loose paraphrase of the sense of the original and not a knock-off of any of the translations I used. [For another example of literary rendering, see Dennis Danielson's prose edition of Paradise Lost.] At the same time, the poem can generally be followed 'line by line,' give or take a couple of lines, and I am not saying I never looked at the original. What with one thing and another, this version of the poem has three more lines than respectable editions do. I don't know. It was dark. They were big. Just think of it as more Beowulf than you would get with those other editions. (1–2)
Praise for Wilson's rendering comes from great writers such as Anthony Esolen (translator of Dante's Divine Comedy), Richard Wilbur (United States Poet Laureate in 1987 and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner), and Leland Ryken (a Miltonist who also writes on the Bible as literature and other great texts). (See here for a related post regarding a connection to Homer's Iliad.) Wilson's edition includes two appendixes, one of which appeared as an essay in Touchstone. This essay may be the best piece of literary criticism that I've ever read. I taught from this edition in my British literature survey course at Baylor University.

I listened to Paradise Lost on CD (read by Nadia May). My 5-star rating is for Paradise Lost, not the reading of it.

The other audio books that I listened to, however, were wonderful as books and as reading performances. I "read" N. D. Wilson's 100 Cupboards series again this year, and if I were to rate them according to narration alone, they would all get 5 stars. Russell Horton is a simply fabulous reader. I rated books 2 and 3 (Dandelion Fire and The Chestnut King) 5 stars, and gave 100 Cupboards 4 stars, although I'm not sure if I can explain why. I think the series just takes a dive after book one, and by "takes a dive" I don't mean "decreases in quality"; I mean "deepens and enriches." (See here for a related post on pirates and Augustine.) I am a big advocate of N. D. Wilson's writing, both fiction and non-fiction. I have already published an article in Pro Rege, and next year I am scheduled to publish a book chapter on Boys of Blur (another 5-star book from this year; trailer here).

Thus far I have mentioned five of the eight 5-star books: four by Wilsons, and one by Milton. Two books by C. S. Lewis almost complete the list. I read Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Kate. She turned five in February, and I still think that she's a little young for the Chronicles. Voyage is particularly challenging because of its nautical/ship terminology. But she hung in there, and we muscled through while managing to keep it fun as well. Sometimes I paraphrased words or passages to avoid getting bogged down. I concluded my British Literature survey course with Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Finally (also via audio), I read Richard Adams's Watership Down for the first time and loved it so much that I bought the illustrated (by John Lawrence) edition.

Honorable mentions (4 stars) include the following:
Nancy Guthrie's Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
René Girard's I See Satan Fall Like Lightning
Joseph Pieper's On Hope
Leland Ryken's The Devotional Poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Milton
Richard Mouw's Called to the Life of the Mind
James K. A. Smith's You Are What You Love
Tim Challies's Do More Better

Children's books
Kevin DeYoung's The Biggest Story
N. D. Wilson's The Dragon and the Garden
Mary Ann Hoberman's The Seven Silly Eaters
Garrison Keillor's The Old Man Who Loved Cheese
Kobi Yamada's What Do You Do with a Problem? and What Do You Do with an Idea?
William Steig's Yellow and PinkPete's a Pizza, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, and Amos and Boris
Ben Hatke's Nobody Likes a Goblin
Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny
Drew Daywalt's The Day the Crayons Came Home
Jack Prelutskey's If Not for the Cat

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Lewis and music

The Lewis Estate, which is notoriously difficult to work with, does not easily grant permission for composers to set Lewis's texts to music. But Paul Mealor succeeded and was commissioned to set "Love's as warm as tears" to music for the 2013 special service to honor C. S. Lewis in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey. The United States premier was on April 16, 2014.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A danger of reading

The following quotation is from a section titled "Three Dangers of Reading" in a chapter titled "The Educational Benefits of Obscurity: Pedagogical Esotericism" in a book titled Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (211). The epigraph to this chapter is from Proverbs 1:6: "The words of the wise and their riddles."
A book is a strange and unseemly thing. It delivers into one person's hands the distilled essence of another's thinking. It gives one things one has not earned. That is the core difficulty from which all the more specific problems flow, as we will see. And that is why the solution to all of these problems will involve some form of esotericism: some effort to give away less and to make the reader work more for what he or she is getting.
The first danger of reading books is that it allows you to skip too many stages, shortcutting the proper intellectual development. Especially harmful is that it prevents the humble confrontation with your own ignorance. Reading makes you prematurely wise. Before you have had a chance to face the questions and live with them a while, you have seen the answers. Books give a false sense of knowledge and sophistication based on borrowed wisdom, on the belief that you know what you have only read. Thus, they rob you of the proper state of mind for true education. As Socrates argues in the Phaedrus—putting these words in the mouth of an Egyptian god, Thamus, who is rebuking the inventor of writing—through writing "you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction, and will therefor seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant" (275a–b). As we have seen, Plato himself gives this same explanation when he asserts, in the Seventh Letter, that he has not and would not ever commit to writing an open statement of his deepest thoughts. Reading such an account, he explains, would not help people but rather fill them with a "lofty and empty hope as if they had learned awesome matters" (341e). The false presumption of wisdom, which is generated by books, presents the greatest obstacle to the acquisition of the real thing. Whence the inner logic of Milton's description [in Paradise Regained 4.327]: "Deep versed in books and shallow in himself."

Monday, November 28, 2016

The light and music of the universe

From C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image (Ch. 5 on "The Heavens," 111–12, emphasis added):
[N]owhere in medieval literature have I found any suggestion that, if we could enter the translunary world, we should find ourselves in an abyss of darkness. For their system is in one sense more heliocentric than ours. The sun illuminates the whole universe. . . . Night is merely the conical shadow cast by our Earth. It extends, according to Dante (Paradiso, IX, 118) as far as to the sphere of Venus. Since the Sun moves and the Earth is stationary, we must picture this long, black finger perpetually revolving like the hand of a clock; that is why Milton calls it "the circling canopie of Night's extended shade" (Paradise Lost, III, 556). Beyond that there is no night; only "happie climes that lie where day never shuts his eye" (Comus, 978). When we look up at the night sky we are looking through darkness but not at darkness. . . . [S]pace is not dark, so neither is it silent. . . . The "silence" which frightened Pascal was, according to the Model, wholly illusory; and the sky looks black only because we are seeing it through the dark glass of our own shadow. You must conceive yourself looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music.
The through-at distinction reminds me of Lewis's essay "Meditation in a Toolshed," in which Lewis describes the difference between looking at a beam of light versus looking along a beam of light.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

C. S. Lewis, ambition, and joining the great poets

In the preface to Selected Literary Essays, Walter Hooper explains how C. S. Lewis eventually joined the great poets in one way, although he never could in another way.

Hooper writes, "From his schooldays Lewis's major ambition was to be a great poet" (vii). But Lewis was not optimistic about it (vii), and he constantly tried and failed "to join the ranks of his favourite poets" (Hooper viii). Lewis once wrote that "it is impossible [for me] to be a poet" (ix), and Hooper writes that Lewis was "certain that he would never be a great poet" (xvi).

However, Lewis converted to theism and eventually to Christianity, and this religious shift allowed Lewis to join the great poets in another way. According to Hooper (xvi–xvii),
Lewis's conversion in 1931 and the publication of his theological and semi-autobiographical Pilgrim's Regress in 1933 [was a great milestone]. Lewis had long shared much in common with his favourite poets: he now shared with them that most binding of all beliefs. With his conversion, that little hard core of worldly ambition, evident on almost every page of his diary, seems to have dropped into oblivion. And with the dying of his old ambition he became more interested in what he wrote about than what he might become by writing. He continued to write short poems for the rest of his life but, beginning with "What Chaucer really did to Il Filostrato" (1932), and later in his imaginative works, his poetic insight and his critical reason seem to have flowed together and expressed themselves in one activity. Despite his disagreements [with T. S. Eliot] about some things, Lewis could at long last say, as he does in [his essay "Shelley, Dryden, and Mr Eliot"], "as Mr Eliot and I believe."

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Chronicles of Narnia and allegory

From John Warwick Montgomery's article "The Chronicles of Narnia and the Adolescent Reader" in Myth, Allegory, and Gospel: An Interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Charles Williams (pp. 109–11):
Aslan is the Divine Christ—God revealed to creatures in a form in which they can at least partially understand him and love him. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan is not ultimately defeated when the Witch (i.e., the Devil) demands, on the basis of "deep magic from the dawn of time" (i.e., God's justice) that Edmund must pay with his life for his volitional allegiance to her. Aslan dies in Edmund's stead, and is resurrected through "deeper magic from before the dawn of time" (i.e., God's love). In Prince Caspian, Narnia is redeemed from a different evil—from human beings who would force themselves upon and assert control over those whom Christ has put under his own authority and under the authority of the ministers (the Kings of Narnia) whom he has chosen. The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" indicates the perils which a man encounters in seeking Christ's kingdom; Reepicheep is a glorious example of the person who "seeks first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness." The Silver Chair gives further insight into the strategy of the Demonic, which would plunge us into a world of spiritual darkness by pretending to give us the things to which God has already entitled us by His grace. In The Horse and His Boy we see Christ's guiding hand over a person's life; at one point Aslan says to Shasta: "I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept . . . , and I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you." The Magician's Nephew draws back the curtain on Creation, and on the entrance of sin into a world through pride and presumption; and it shows us how easily a world can be destroyed through the ravages of such sin. In referring to the dying world which she visited, Polly asks, "'But we're not quite as bad as that world, are we, Aslan?' 'Not yet, Daughter of Eve,' he said. 'Not yet. But you are growing more like it. It is not certain that some wicked one of your race will not find out a secret as evil as the Deplorable Word and use it to destroy all living things.'" A timely warning in our age of atomic weapons! [Tolkien did not appreciate connections between the One Ring and the atomic bomb: see here and here.] In The Last Battle the Biblical story of the end of human history is graphically portrayed: the Antichrist, the battle of Armegeddon, death (represented by the Stable which is larger on the inside than on the outside), the General Resurrection, and the consummation of the Plan of Redemption in a New Heaven and a New Earth.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Pirates, emperors, and Augustine

In Chapter 19 of N. D. Wilson's YA fantasy novel The Chestnut King, an old pirate captain surveys a strange-looking ship approach him on the waters (emphasis added):
The captain stood on deck, watching the green and leafy galley chop methodically through the waves toward his own pair of ships. The galley was moving slower than he would have expected with so much cloth spread to the wind, but then he didn't know what to expect from a five-tiered craft sprouting with branches and flickering leaves. He was an old man, a sailor almost from his birth. His beard was whitened with sun and salt, his eyes had bleached to a pale blue, and his bones were as toughened as the ship's beams beneath him. He had been a ship's boy, a hand, a gunner, a mutineer, a merchant, a galley slave, a commander of fleets, all before he had become the pirate that he now was. He had gone down into the sea with a ship's wreckage more times than he could count, and had seen more of the sea's secrets than he cared to tell about. But he had never seen anything like this.
. . . Both of his ships flew the imperial flag. He could think of no reason why they shouldn't. It was his business to do to ships what the emperor did to countries. And he did not think of himself as a pirate. He was simply a servant of the sea, and he took whatever it gave him.
When I read this passage in The Chestnut King, I thought of a description of another pirate who faced an emperor. This description comes from Augustine's City of God 4.4:
[T]hat was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, "What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it it with a great fleet art styled emperor."
Other writers, from John Gower to Noam Chomsky, have used this story in their writing.