Sign up for awesome summer courses!

SignumBadge_90x90If you are into creative writing, literature, the arts, and faith, then you are the sort of person who would love courses at Signum University! They are lively, engaging, highly-intelligent courses that combine rigorous academics with serious fun and love of literature. They often interact with popular culture in the smartest possible ways, wsas if Shakespeare were Game of Thrones. Which, really, if you think about it, he kind of was.

This summer (starting next week!), we’re offering three fantastic classes–fantastic in at least two senses. They’re awesome, and they’re about fantasy literature, speculative fiction, mythology, and classical languages.

And there are three different levels of participation you can choose from, so these aren’t just for those who want to pursue an M.A. with Signum (although of course if you are interested, talk to me!!). You can:
1. Take a course for credit towards a Master’s degree;
2. Enroll as a discussion auditor and participate in the live, small-group discussion sessions but not write papers or take exams; or
3. Audit the class, listening to the lectures (live or recorded), just for your own personal enrichment.
Whichever you choose, you’ll get world-class lectures on life-changing topics!

This summer’s three classes are:

The Inklings & Science Fiction

Taught by the famous Douglas A. Anderson, author of The History of the Hobbit.

Of the various men in the writer’s group the Inklings who met in Oxford primarily during the 1930s and 1940s, two achieved world renown with their writings: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Both had a strong interest in the developing field of science fiction. This course covers the Inklings’ creative and personal encounters with science fiction.

Mythologies of Love and Sex

Taught by the brilliant newcomer Brenton D. G. Dickieson, scholar who discovered a fascinating new connection between The Screwtape Letters and the Ransom Trilogy, author of the popular blog A Pilgrim in Narnia.

This course explores some of the great mythologies of love that provide a background to today’s culture, sketched out along the twin paths of C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves and a chronological development of the ideas of love.

Elementary Latin II

The second semester of “Elementary Latin” will complete your introduction to the basic elements of the Latin language. It will emphasize the fundamentals of grammar, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. The course is open to all students who have completed Signum University’s Elementary Latin I or a comparable introductory course in Introductory Latin at another institution.

 

What Happens When a Bander Snatches

banderI recently served on a jury. It was a powerful, intense, positive, transformational experience. Interestingly, since I’ve just read Diana Glyer’s Bandersnatch and am thinking about my upcoming keynote speech about Charles Williams and collaboration, the trial was about artistic collaboration and what happens when it breaks down. I won’t give any specifics, so as to protect the privacy of the parties, but here’s a generalized summary.

Several years ago, two creative guys got together and shared a great idea. It was snappy, original, imaginative, catchy, and cool. And it worked, for a while. But then personality conflicts arose. They had arguments over who owned the idea. Finally, one sued the other.

It was a complicated case. Each claimed he had invented the particular creative idea that was contested. But, under oath and under pressure from the lawyer’s questions, each finally admitted that he had invented exactly HALF of the idea. But both had been using the idea since then, so who owned it? Must one of them stop using it, even though that would break his heart?

Along the way, a few things struck me, hard.

I. The idea originally belonged to both of them 100%. Not to one guy 50% and the other guy 50%, but to both men 100%. The idea would not have emerged except in collaboration. They both got the idea while on the phone together. Neither man would have had it without the other. The thing couldn’t live if it were cut in two. Either they had to learn to work together, or one of them had to give up all of it and hand it over to the other. Art made in community has to stay in community in order to thrive.

II. The trial itself was a work of dramatic art created by all the parties present. It followed a definite narrative trajectory, with a clear arc of increasing tension. What started as a boring, technical discussion over the rights to use a specific idea escalated into serious accusations—of inappropriate sexual language, of threatened violence. The temperature in the courtroom rose. Voices were raised, tempers flared, fists were pounded. lawyerAnd each person played his or her given role: the lawyers, in particular, were Dickensian caricatures of themselves: one extremely tall and bone-skinny, with a skeletal face and a cruel, hard, bullying manner; the other short, quiet, grandfatherly, with a round, beaming red face and long white curls, soft-spoken, forgetful, disorganized. The drama fell into discernible scenes and acts, divided by breaks and behind-the-scenes drama in the jury room.

III. Art and Law, when they meet and clash, do not mix. The lawyer for the plaintiff knew how to break a man, and he did: he broke down his witness in the box with relentless, repetitive questioning, all about how many pieces the artistic idea could be broken down into and who created which little piece and who owned it. That’s not how art works. I left that scene of the drama in tears, saying over and over in my mind: “That’s not how art works. You can’t break it into those bits. They all have to work together, to live.” But when collaborative partners become enemies, that’s what happens.

IV. Powerful collaboration among perfect strangers is possible, and community can be created in the most unlikely places between extremely dissimilar people. At the start of the jury selection process, there were 70 strangers in a room. Over the next day and a half, we were whittled down until a jury was selected. By the end of the trial, that little group of humans felt like close friends—and most of us didn’t even know each other’s names. We worked together remarkably well, using our differences as an advantage.

This intense experience (staying in a hotel far from home for several days, living in this strange bubble so different from my ordinary life) taught me a lot about justice, society, law, and personalities. It was a really positive, enriching time. I admired the judge greatly, and I am confident that the right decision was made, from a legal point of view. But I was saddened to see that the creative people couldn’t work it out without the intervention of law.

Was Charles Williams a Bandersnatch?

owenThroughout, of course, I thought about the Inklings and their creative collaborations. I’m working on my keynote speech for the Colloquium at Taylor this coming June (where the great Diana Glyer herself is giving another keynote). My talk will be called “Charles Williams and Friendship sub specie Arthuriana.” I’ll be talking about the ways in which his love of the Grail and Logres intersected with his friendships. I’ll be asking: When did Williams work with other people on his retellings of the King Arthur materials? What did that collaboration look like? How did it work? How did working together affect what he wrote, how or where or when it was presented or published? How did working together influence the reception of his writings? What influence did his particular take on the Arthurian legends have on his friends, his family life, and his workplace? So the talk will be all about various kinds of collaboration.

Collaboration was important to Williams, because community was important to him. You already know about his doctrines of Co-Inherence, Substitution, and Exchange. He believed that people live in, through, and for one another. So it was natural, then, even for someone with his loner’s temperament, to involve others in his work. And these literary exchanges were usually fruitful. I’ll have to explore, of course, the times that it went sour: when he used his Arthurian mythos as a cover story for emotional abuse. But more often, I think, his Arthurian myth was among the healthier parts of his psychology. I’ll see as I go along. And I’ll also be looking at whether any theory of friendship or theology of collaboration emerges from his work. I’m looking forward to it!

And YOU can collaborate with me by leaving questions, comments, thoughts, suggestions on this blog and elsewhere on social media, and I’ll take them into consideration as I write my speech. But don’t let’s argue, split up, and sue one another, OK?

The Long Defeat

As you know, I started working on a short story the other day: a piece of alternative history about the Inklings. It’s very silly, but in a way it’s a love song to my favorite writers–C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield–to whom I have devoted a decade of my life. I post the whole story here because I don’t think it’s professionally publishable. It’s too goofy, and it employs too many quotes and paraphrases from their works (not to mention that it’s very slightly plagiarized from Wikipedia on a few historical points!). But I would love critiques from Inklings scholars, historians, and writers about how to improve it. Enjoy.

The Long Defeat

 It was the spring of 1945, and Hitler was about to plant his boots on English soil. The United States had refused to come into the war, in spite of the unprovoked attack on military personnel and civilians alike at Pearl Harbor. The testing of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos had gone horribly wrong, wiping out the local population and affecting millions of people in the subsequent fallout. Hitler had made plans to invade Russia early in the war, but had changed his mind and strengthened his alliance with Stalin. With the Soviet Union, Japan, and Italy as strong Axis supporters, Germany marched on across Europe: east, west, and north. The morale of the Royal Air Force was broken, its once cocky young pilots dead, imprisoned, wounded, or traumatized, and the Luftwaffe ruled the skies. The English Channel, swept clean of English mines and sealed off by Germans at either end of the Strait of Dover, was open and waiting for the German navy’s easy crossing, further protected by heavy artillery along the coast of occupied France. The Royal Navy, distracted by meaningless skirmishes in the North Sea and the Mediterranean, was scattered and destroyed piecemeal. London was on her knees, bombed into submission, beaten and dying. Churchill, defeated and desolate, committed suicide, and the nation collapsed into impotent mourning.

Oxford had survived the Blitz; the rumor was growing that Hitler coveted it for his British headquarters, and many residents were bracing themselves to accept the possibility that he would set up his center of operations in the ancient university city after the inevitable end of the war. There, in the golden bubble of Oxford, the towers and spires dreamed on, and children were still sent there for safety from the relentless bombing of London and the south coast. But the corridors of the great colleges were nearly empty of echoing footfalls: most of the faculty and nearly all of the students had been massacred in the killing fields of France. As the war dragged on and the Allies lost one battle after another, as Germany was victorious at Monte Cassino, at the Battle of the Bulge, as D-Day failed and the Nazis overran Normandy, a desperate Britain had begun calling up older and older men, younger and younger boys, and finally women.

Oxford fought to keep her irreplaceable Dons, those human receptacles of wisdom and culture. If England’s greatest minds were blown apart on the battlefield, who would rebuild civilization when the warmongers were done destroying? If England won the war but lost her wisest men, how would victory be any different than defeat? And now that defeat was inevitable, the men of letters were more valuable than ever before: they were the last hope of the human spirit, the tiny enclave of all that was good in human history, and they were the only ones who could rebuild all that had been lost. Who would educate that generation of lost, fatherless children, refugees in this quiet golden city? Who would teach them to keep the old ways, when the tyrant had them under his sway? So argued the University’s Chancellor, more and more feebly, as his faculty were killed off one by one, and he heard the tramping boots of England’s enemies drawing near.

Huddled in the back room of a smoke-darkened pub, four men shared one cigarette among them, passing it from hand to hand. The smoky haze hovered over their heads and wrapped around their dark coats, hiding them from a hostile world. The Chancellor’s special authority hovered over them, too, keeping them safe in the ivory tower while their friends, brothers, sons, colleagues, and students fought on the south coast and in the skies above England. One was unfit, anyway, with a nervous disorder that made his hands shake so badly he could not shave himself, but had to go to a barber every morning. The others were beyond the usual age of fighting men: one, a hearty, loud, beefy man of forty-six; the other two tall, slender, ages forty-six and fifty-three, the younger with the delicate build of a dancer—but men a decade older than they were dying in the air and on the beaches and in the streets of London even now.

Were they cowed and quiet, this quartet of veterans from the first war, these men held back in their books while the world fell apart around them? Did they creep and crawl with embarrassment that they were not fighting again while their loved ones were? Did they shudder and shake with fear of the coming invasion?

An enormous guffaw exploded from all four mouths, puffing away the smoke and rattling the walls. Four heads were thrown back, hands slapping the table or someone else’s back in merriment, faces red with laughter, feet pounding the floor in delight. The slender dancer leaped up and cut a caper in the middle of the room. Then the tall, thin fellow did him one better by clambering upon the table and declaiming with gusto:

“Hiġe sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað.”

After only two words, the big fellow joined in, adding his booming voice to the other’s rather garbled articulation, and the ancient sounds rolled across the pub:

“Hēr līð ūre ealdor eall forhēawen
gōd on grēote. Ā mæġ gnornian
se ðe nū fram þisum wīġplegan wendan þenċeð.”

As the chanting went on, the other two joined, a line or so behind, adding modern English antiphonally to the din:

“Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
courage the greater, as our might lessens.
Here lies our leader all hewn down,
the valiant man in the dust; may he lament for ever
who thinks now to turn from this war-play.”

The gentleman on the table tripped on an empty pint pot—there had been only a couple of beers shared among them that evening, what with the rations and the shortages—and the others reached up to steady him, roaring with laughter as they offered their hands to help him down from the table.

“No, no!” he protested. “I have a song to sing first!”

They struggled with him for a moment, trying to get him off of the table-top, but he resisted, shook himself free of their hands, and announced:

“The Man In The Moon Came Down Too Soon.”

“The old man had better not send you off to war, Tollers,” the beefy chap bellowed. “You’d only sing songs at the Germans to frighten them away.”

“And then begin analyzing the history of their language,” the lithe little fellow put in. “Didn’t you spent the whole of the first war talking about verbs with a German prisoner?”

“I fought in the battle of the Somme!” the table-top singer protested, but the little man went on:

“And Jack would retell their own myths to them until they all fell asleep with boredom and we could walk right into Berlin over their snoring forms.”

C. S. “Jack” Lewis howled at this, banging the table with his fist. The table shook, and Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wobbled among the dishes. He put out a hand to steady himself, and it landed on the head of the stoop-shouldered man on his right, who grasped it and burst into a fluid stream of quotation:

“A pack of blessings light upon my head,
Happiness courts me in her best array,
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
I pout upon my fortune and thy love.”

Tolkien and Lewis, tears of merriment running down their faces, shouted together:

“Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable!”

And Lewis went on:

“Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art. Thy tears are womanish. —But you are a true man, Williams, and regular charmer to the ladies. Maybe the top brass should send you to Germany to seduce all of Jerry’s women. You could do what you liked with them as either a cad or a Don Juan, undermining national morale and making way for an Allied invasion—if you were not a thoroughly good man.”

Tolkien harrumphed, as it he wasn’t quite sure about the “good man” part, but he kept his hand on Charles Williams’s head to steady his precarious balance upon the table. Williams beamed up at him, a beatific smile that glowed upon the little fellowship, transforming his face from simian wizardry to angelic beauty. Dapper little Owen Barfield looked on, tapping his heels in an impatient rhythm on the floor, and said:

“But we need Charles here more than over there. Not for the women, but for the sanity and consciousness of England herself. Your doctrines of love and forgiveness keep madness at bay here in this city of wisdom in our trying times.”

The others nodded soberly.

“I have never heard anything like your lecture on Milton,” Lewis agreed. “It is the first, and probably the last, time that I have ever seen a university doing what it was meant to do: teaching wisdom.”

Williams stood gracefully, catching Tolkien’s hand to steady the professor, who still stood on the tabletop, waiting to sing his song. Williams bowed ceremoniously, one hand on his heart, then kissed his hand to each of them, gracious as an emperor.

“Wisdom shall soon cease in this city and all such ordered civilizations of our times,” he said, “if we are all sent off to wield our useless weapons in aged hands, to die beside our sons and brothers, and for all our learning to be buried with our bones in France.”

A blue haze settled over the friends for a moment—then Tolkien burst out, waving the smoke away from his face with a slender hand:

“Enough of this serious chatter! I have a song to sing!”

He began warbling:

“There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill.”

There was much more of this song, and much more of their talk, in a tiny pocket of laughter on that Oxford evening before Hitler landed.

#

One week later, Prof. Tolkien walked swiftly through the empty street, until he came to the corner of St. Giles and Beaumont Street, next to the silent, shuttered Ashmolean Museum. He was thinking of his son, Christopher, flying at this moment with the RAF. He was thinking of his other children and of the refugees he and Edith had taken into their house. He was thinking of Major Warnie Lewis, Jack’s brother, recalled to active duty at age forty-nine, who had fought in France, was supposed to be evacuated at Dunkirk, but had been taken prisoner and never heard from again. He was praying for the safety of them all. He was remembering the encouraging words of the Mass this morning: “And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet.” And he was thinking of Beowulf—he was lecturing on the ending of that great poem today—and pondering the brave northern warriors who fought on when hope was gone. His quick steps echoed off of the stone floors and walls, beating back against him as he strode on, lecture notes in hand. He passed between the columns of the Taylor Institution, one of the many buildings in the Bodleian Library system, threw open the huge doors, and walked up to the lectern just as the great bells of Tom Tower were striking the hour.

The seats in the hall were empty.

He arranged his notes. Still no students appeared. Hilary term was drawing to a close, and ordinarily his lectures would have been packed at this time, as students crammed for final essays and exams. Tolkien adjusted his black gown, checked a translation note, and waited. No one came.

Slowly, sadly, he began lecturing to the desolate room, as if trying to speak across the miles and through the defeat, past the lines of Nazi troops who were nearing London, to reach his son, in the air over France, to reach Lewis’s brother, presumably in a German POW camp somewhere, to reach Williams’s colleagues at Oxford University Press’s publishing house in the city, to reach all the men and women who were falling now, wheat cut down by the indifferent sickle, lying in the mud of Hastings or the streets of Amen Corner. His voice mumbled on, around the stem of his pipe (which he still kept in his mouth at all times, in spite of the lack of tobacco), weaving together the tragedy of the battle of Maldon with the Norse concept of bitter courage, tying both to the tragedy of his times. His swift mind leaped from point to point, masterful in its control of language, timeless and modern as it faced the facts.

The huge doors opened. Lewis and Williams came in, walked down the central aisle, Lewis heavily, Williams deftly, and sat down in two of the empty chairs. Williams looked up at Tolkien, his eyes red-rimmed and brimming. Lewis buried his face in his hands. Tolkien’s voice wobbled to a stop, and he struggled down from the podium and sat beside his friends.

These cheerful veterans and makers of myth, their keen eyes honed by one war and their hearts steeled by another, their minds sharpened by contact with the conflicts and hopes of many cultures that had gone before, sat in numb silence in the vacant hall.

At last Lewis shook himself and spoke.

“It does not matter whether we are sent to France or kept at home. It does not matter whether we stay here to nurture good philosophy to combat the bad ideas.”

Williams picked up the thread of his thought: “The collective wisdom of Oxford cannot long be protected behind the golden walls of its ancient colleges.”

“What is the latest news?” Tolkien asked, trembling a little.

“London is finished,” Lewis told him. “Panzers are unloading at all of England’s southerns ports.”

“The Wehrmacht’s infantry have swarmed up the white cliffs and is marching inland across untended fields,” Williams went on.

There had been little military resistance. An entire generation of British youth had been erased on the killing fields of France. Their fathers and uncles—and even some of their mothers and sisters—were stranded on the Continent, swiping ineffectually at the enemy’s backside, or languishing in POW camps, while the systematic extermination of Europe’s Jewish population went on unchecked. The refugee children, hiding behind Oxford’s walls, were being orphaned day by day.

The door opened again, and Owen Barfield stood there, a slender silhouette against the dreary light of a rainy English afternoon.

“The King has surrendered,” he whispered. “Hitler has landed.”

A silence fell on the group. Lewis gripped Tolkien’s shoulder. Williams took off his spectacles and wiped his eyes, then clutched at his stomach as he was racked by a spasm of pain. Barfield crossed the flagstone floor and folded himself up in a chair beside them. At last Williams looked up, cleared his throat, and spoke strange lines in his Cockney accent:

“There on the waves a headless Emperor walked
coped in a foul indecent crimson; octopods
round him stretched giant tentacles and crawled
heavily on the slimy surface of the tangled sea,
goggling with lidless eyes at the coast of the Empire.”

“But in your myth, Williams, the Empire rallies,” said Lewis. “The young pope prays, and the invaders are defeated on Christmas day. Surely in this Easter season—”

His strong voice trailed away.

“And in yours, John Ronald,” Barfield said to Tolkien, “the tyrant will go down into defeat, conquered by the little people at last, will he not?”

“He will. On the Feast of the Annunciation,” Tolkien mumbled. “Which is also the last day of Creation. But that is only one small victory in the whole history of the legendarium. Sauron is the servant of Melkor or Morgoth, and—”

Lewis interrupted him.

“Let’s not go into your whole convoluted history of Middle-earth just now, Tollers. We’ll never get back out to real history, which is looking bleak enough right now without adding the fading of the Elves to it.”

Tolkien nodded.

“But you see,” he said. “I am a Christian. I believe we are fighting the long defeat. I do not look for hope in this world.”

“All the peoples await the Parousia,” Williams muttered, “and even your elves look forward to a victory at the end of all times.”

#

Lewis jumped up, strode to the front of the room, and pounded his huge fist on the lectern.

“We shall not give in!” he bellowed. “Though they set their boots and drive their tanks on our English soil, we shall not give in! Have we not the power of the great stories on our side, the myths and the legends and the fairy tales, the encounters with dragons, the battles with sorcerers, the recurring victory of spring over winter in every land, the dying and rising god who is torn to pieces but comes to life again? These are the stories on which our children were fed from their earliest days, the stories that were in the hearts of our boys when they marched across Europe, the stories that are at the foundation of the wisdom we teach in this place. Surely those tales of unexpected victory and of unlooked-for return should rally our hearts and the hearts of English youth to hope and to resistance?”

The others looked up at him, light returning to their eyes. All the books they knew and loved poured back into their minds: the hopeless battles, the unlikely heroes, the swift turns of fortune at the end of the tale.

“The eucatastrophe,” Tolkien murmured.

The others nodded.

“What do you think we should do, Jack?” Barfield asked.

“We could form a secret society and promulgate these truths in the true fellowship,” Williams suggested.

“No, no, no,” Lewis cut in. “It must be public. Let us use those avenues that have worked before for spreading truth. The schools, the radio, and the press.”

“But is there time?” Barfield wondered. “It takes time to write books, to publish books, to arrange speaking engagements, to record broadcasts.”

“Then we must move swiftly,” Lewis said.

“The world is changing,” Tolkien hummed to himself. “I can feel it in the waters. I can sense it in the air.”

“We shall do it,” Williams said, bowing his head in a gesture that turned his pronoun royal. “We shall gather the stories into propinquity and promulgate them to the far corners of the kingdom.”

“I’ll talk to the BBC,” Lewis said.

“I’ll talk to the OUP,” Williams said.

“I’ll talk to the Chancellor,” Tolkien said.

“I’ll arrange the financing,” Barfield said.

And so it was settled, and they got to work.

Over the next few weeks, while Hitler imprisoned or shot all the members of the British government, blew up Big Ben, and established the ministers of the Third Reich in the Houses of Parliament, the Inklings worked feverishly from their Oxford rooms. Lewis scheduled a series of talks on the BBC about “Forgiveness and Resistance” and scrambled to write his own notes and schedule guest lecturers. The German High Command seized Blenheim Palace, metaphorically throwing out Winston Churchill’s body before it was cold, and twisted that ancient castle into their central headquarters. Williams stayed up all night, many nights in a row, writing pamphlets with such titles as “The Image of the Invaded City,” “The Figure of the Führer,” “The Defeated Way of Exchange,” and “The Theology of Surrender.” He passed these along to his colleagues at the Oxford University Press, who worked long hours, printing them nearly before he had finished writing them. Hitler vivisected the United Kingdom and Ireland into six military-economic segments, passing each to one of his trusted administrators, giving them total control over search, seizure, arrests, and “liquidations.” Tolkien arranged for a meeting of the combined—remaining—English faculty, then labored over a lecture in which he would blend the historical with the present, the mythological with the actual, agonizing over details of etymology and chronology, discarding them time and time again, starting again, and meandering off on long sidetracks of purely philological interest or topographical precision. All over England, armed civilian resistance arose, farmers and shop workers wielding pitchforks and spanners against assault rifles and machine guns. These were obliterated so fast they didn’t even make it into the news. Barfield, with speed and panache, darted back into occupied London, scurrying through the deserted Underground tunnels like a literary mouse, popping aboveground into the offices of lawyers and bank managers, securing his own and his friends’ small collective wealth before the tyrants could seize all assets. Mrs. Tolkien and Mrs. Barfield took in more and more refugees, their homes bursting, and they and their husbands read fairy tales to the wide-eyed flocks every evening. Lewis also read to his house full of frightened refugee children, saying:

“Since they will soon meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Let them know stories of wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.”

Not satisfied with only the radio program, Lewis dashed off a new children’s story and an adult spiritual fantasy, both with allegorical import or at least thematic applicability to the dire situation his nation faced. Williams shuttled those off to the Press, too, and they were rattling merrily along through the printing process, when—

Everything stopped.

The printing presses stopped. The radio broadcasts stopped. The meetings of the Oxford faculty stopped. Hitler had seized control of them all.

Although not one German soldier or administrator had yet set foot in Oxford, the long arm of the Nazi’s political machine reached even there. By means of subtle—and not-so-subtle—threats, the seizure of bank accounts, the liquidation of other financial assets, the placement of personnel, and strategic arrests, the Third Reich had maneuvered itself into positions of power in every cultural institution in the nation. All broadcasts and all books scheduled for printing had to be passed by the Minister of Propaganda. All lectures and tutorials at the great Medieval universities were canceled, pending the colleges’ transformation into military training schools. Lewis’s rooms were boarded up. The flagstone corridors lay silent, awaiting the moment when they would ring to the sound of marching boots.

At Lewis’s house in Headington, a suburb of Oxford, the Inklings gathered in his gloomy, ash-bestrewn living room. This time, there were no drinks at all, not even one cigarette among them. They sat quietly this time. No one made jokes. No one sang songs. No one danced on the table or the floor. They were gathered around the wireless, listening to a broadcast in German, and Tolkien was translating it for them, sporadically, sometimes sinking into morose silence until one of the others roused him again and asked what Hitler was saying. It was all the now-familiar rhetoric about the “Final Solution” ushering in world peace, about the “Master Race” establishing its rightful superiority over all the earth, about “High culture” reigning the earth at last, ushering in a golden age. Tolkien choked on many of the phrases, coughing them out as though their taste was revolting on his tongue. The Führer’s speech ended, accompanied by a patter of rhythmical applause, and the four men shook themselves and looked miserably into one another’s eyes.

Then a voice in English came on the radio, heavily accented but clear.

“As you have just heard from our great Führer,” it said, “each nation will be ushered into the New Order in the way most fitting to its culture. Some have embraced the Führer as their longed-for savior. Others, emerging from centuries of oppression, are misguided and confused. They have attempted resistance. They will be brought in by liberation from their false ideologies and corrupt leaders.

“England is one of these.”

“Of course,” whispered Barfield.

“Now, you can hear behind me,” the voice went on, “the sound of marching feet. Members of the Gestapo are leading onto the platform here outside of Westminster Abbey the last tyrant of a unified Europe: Albert Frederick Arthur George, known until today as King George VI.”

The four men sucked in their breath and sat up straight, staring at the radio.

“He is here with the members of his family: his wife, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, and their two daughters, eighteen-year-old Elizabeth and fourteen-year-old Margaret. They have been lined up along the stage, and the Führer is speaking to each one of them. I am too far away to hear what he is saying, but it looks as if he is giving them his blessing.”

“Blessing, my arse,” Lewis snorted.

“The Führer has stepped aside now,” said the announcer, “and it looks as if he has asked if the former King of England wants to say anything.”

“Former,” Williams noted.

A little silence fell from the radio, interrupted only by small shuffling and coughing sounds from the great crowd gathered outside Westminster Abbey to watch their King stand before Adolf Hitler.

Then four shots rang out, sharp, shocking, in quick succession.

The crowd broke into screams, shrieks, and howls of agony, and the four men gathered around the radio yelled, too, and leaped out of their chairs.

“Thus ends the life of the last tyrant of our times,” the calm German voice said. “Europe is now one!”

#

The Inklings sat in the darkened room for hours, unmoving. Williams recited poetry under his breath. Tolkien prayed the Rosary, Barfield meditated, and Lewis read verses from the Psalms. All of them scribbled thoughts on scraps of paper now and then, but mostly they sat still, stunned.

The telephone rang.

They looked at each other, startled, confused. Then Jack Lewis heaved himself up out of his chair and lumbered down the hallway. The others heard his voice, muffled but astonished.

He shuffled back into the room.

“That was MI6. They want to meet with us. All four of us. Now. They’ve relocated their headquarters to Oxford, and they’re sending a car.”

#

The four Oxford men rode through the dark streets of Oxford, bundled together in the back seat of a black car that slid smoothly through the night. No one spoke. They arrived at a darkened building and were ushered out, pulling their hats down over their eyes, and shown to a small door in an unlit entryway. In they went, and along a hallway, and into a large, smoky room. A man stood with his back to them, reading a document by the light from a fireplace. He turned. They gasped.

It was Major General Sir Stewart Graham Menzies, chief of MI6. There he stood, with his particular poise, trim, fit, with an aura of wealth and restrained power.

“Welcome, gentlemen,” he said, waving them into chairs, offering them whiskey, cigarettes, cigars, tea—all luxuries they hadn’t seen for weeks. His smooth accent rivaled even the public-school suavity Lewis and Tolkien had tried to spread over their Irish and South African backgrounds, and put to shame Williams’s Cockney. Only Barfield’s voice came close, but even his diction was garbled, and he quailed before Menzies posh precision.

“I am sure this meeting comes as a surprise to you. It isn’t every day that the British Secret Service calls upon its poets, its professors, its philologists for clandestine military work. But these are dark times: the darkest Britain has ever known.”

They nodded, all except Williams, who was characteristically trying out contradictions in his mind to see if he could think of a darker possible time. He could, but he thought it better not to share.

“It is probably darker than you know. The SS death squads have spread out across southern England, rounding up soldiers, diplomats, Jews, and other unwanted elements of our population. Nearly all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of seventeen and forty-five have been interned and will soon be deported the Continent, where some will be shot, some hanged, and the rest put to industrial hard labor. Estimates suggest about twenty-five percent of our remaining male citizens have been thus interned. Meanwhile, the SS is systematically liquidating our entire Jewish population, which numbers well over three hundred thousand individuals. Our population will soon be decimated, and replaced by hand-picked Nazi officials and sympathizers. A massive eugenics campaign will be put in place. All of this is designed to establish the so-called New Order of Europe, the Neuordnung Europas, and the creation of a pan-German racial state. This will exist to promulgate German National Socialist ideology and ensure the supremacy of an Aryan-Nordic master race.”

He looked at them, fixing each with his leveled gaze in turn.

“I don’t need to tell you, gentlemen, what this would mean for civilization, for the human race.”

They all nodded this time.

“You are writers and thinkers of great imagination,” he went on, “and you have shown in your works that you have trenchant insight into the human condition and into possible totalitarian futures, as well as their alternatives. So I have decided to enlist your assistance in our last great work: the last great work of free humanity, if it does not succeed.

“I need not warn you that this work I am calling you to is intensely dangerous. I am sure you are well aware what will happen to you if you fail, if you are caught, probably even if you succeed. You have most likely heard of the Nazi’s ‘Black Book’?”

He strode over to his desk and picked up a thick file.

“This is a copy of the Sonderfahndungsliste G.B., the Special Search List Great Britain. It was compiled by the SS Einsatzgruppen, a special deployment task force. It is the list of prominent British residents whom the German High Command names to be arrested upon the successful invasion of Britain by Nazi Germany. Now that they are here on our soil and have taken control of the public branches of government, the Gestapo has begun systematically working its way through this list, hunting down, arresting, and executing those individuals whose names appear here. The list was expanded just months before invasion; it now includes all four of you, in such illustrious company as Leonard and Virginia Woolfe, H. G. Wells, E. M Forster, and Aldous Huxley.

“Mr. Barfield, as your name occurs quite early in the alphabet, you are advised to prepare yourself for arrest at any moment. We will, of course, do all we can to protect you, but there is only so much we can do, especially now. So I do not know how long you may have.

“Now, to your missions. These are primarily propaganda missions, as you are no longer fit for active service, nor would physical resistance be the best use of your considerable talents.

“Professors Tolkien and Lewis: although the British Broadcasting Company has fallen into the hands of the enemy, we have our own means of disseminating radio programs both inside and outside of England. We are going to ask you to assist us in reaching out to our allies and potential allies abroad, in a campaign to win their hearts and minds and move them to assist us in our dire plight.”

He turned to C. S. Lewis.

“Professor Lewis,” he said, graciously, “this will be very like the mission you completed for us in 1941.”

The other three stared, astonished.

“Jack?” asked Barfield. “What is this all about?”

Lewis looked at Menzies, eyebrows raised, and the chief nodded his permission.

“In May of 1941,” Lewis told his friends, “when we were about to occupy Iceland, I was recruited by MI6 to record a propaganda message, to help win the hearts of the Icelandic people. I gave a talk on ‘The Norse Spirit in English Literature,’ and it was disseminated across that island.”

“And of course he never disclosed this information,” Menzies told his flabbergasted colleagues, “but now you have a chance to serve your country in a similar way, and in even more dire times.”

“We are honored,” said Tolkien, “to join the mighty company of those who have fought to the last in hopeless battles.”

“Not hopeless,” said Barfield.

“There is always hope,” said Williams.

“Let’s give ’em hell,” said Lewis.

#

And so they set to work. Menzies had designed propaganda missions for all of them: talks on language and literature by Tolkien and Lewis, to prove England’s kinship with the nations to whom they appealed; pamphlets and novels and children’s books by all of them, to foster a love of England in the hearts of the many people who would read them; the composition of new occult rituals by Williams, to unify the European secret societies in magical and mystical resistance to Nazi rule; and special assignments in code-breaking for Tolkien at the new, underground Bletchley Park. Barfield was charged with writing dystopian fiction and, more importantly, working with his contacts in the legal profession to develop a lawful footing for the British resistance. Much of the work was what the four men had tried to do on their own, in the public forums and publishing houses before Hitler took over. But now they had the massive, clandestine machinery of the British Secret Service at their disposal, and no one could shut them down. For now.

#

What glorious success! What heady days those were, in the wild spring of 1945, as apple trees blossomed in sweet indifference, daffodils persisted in their golden gladness, and pairs of larks went mad with love, heedless of London’s fall. Though Tolkien had been feeling the aches of age in his joints, though Lewis had put on weight and Williams’s eyesight had been failing, though Barfield had given up professional folk dancing, yet now they were given new life, new energy, new purpose: service to the British Secret State. Quiet support for MI6’s underground activities grew, both at home and abroad. The British Secret State had three purposes: plan and prepare for the overthrown of the Third Reich on British soil; maintain institutions to resume power after the German defeat; and preserve a free-thinking civilization.

Lewis and the others were amazed at the extent of the British Secret State and the sheer volume of work it involved. There was an underground parliament, a court system, a police force, schools, newspapers, publishing houses, theaters, art exhibitions, and concerts. There were active social services, taking care of the poor, the millions of widows and orphans, and the tiny remaining Jewish population in hiding. There was sabotage, guerrilla warfare, intelligence operations, and escape networks. It seemed that nearly every British citizen left alive and at large must be involved. Hope was still alive, underground, waiting, growing.

One morning the sun came out blazing. Tolkien trotted along to the new Bletchley Park, sheaves of notes under his arm. He had stayed up most of the night, working on a tricky bit of code. Today is the day, he though, that we crack the stubborn thing. Williams emerged from the house he shared with so many other displaced members of the Oxford University Press, shaking with weariness, his hands trembling so he could not button his jacket. But in an inner pocket he carried a new Masonic ritual he had written, calling all Freemasons, Rosicrucians, and Golden Dawn members, disbanded and in hiding through Germany, to gather again for secret rites and call supernatural forces to their aid in the fight against tyranny and oppression. He murmured the phrases lovingly:

“The Temple is shyly offered, O Omnipotence. How is it offered? By a companion of the Fellowship, raised to Netzach, a drawn sword in his right hand and a hazel wand in his left. We shall see that all pass into the glory, exalted into spiritual equality, and all condemnation of bodies and races abolished. We shall strengthen ourselves in the light of the Holy Glory, the Sun that is beyond the Sun, to stand before the Devil and his Minions and resist them. We will be clothed in white, garmented in ceremony, shrouded in submission.”

Barfield was closeted with several other solicitors, putting the finishing touches on all the official (though clandestine) documentation that would prove to the world the legality of the British Secret State and its resistance when it was revealed to the world. He straightened up, stretched his arms, and blinked out the window into the morning light.

“Today we can bring our work before the underground parliament, gentlemen. We have done our job well.”

And C. S. Lewis was bounding along the High Street, on his way to a back-room recording studio-cum-printing-press, with his notes for a talk entitled “Back to Personality” in one hand, and the manuscript of a new children’s story—The Lion, The Witch, and the War—in the other. His heart was high, his face beaming, the birds singing.

And then Hitler drove into Oxford.

#

Events moved swiftly to their close from the moment the Grand High Führer of Unified Europe stepped out of his car and strode through the gates of the Sheldonian Theatre. He set up his new headquarters there, from which he could stretch out his military tentacles and grasp at all the free world.

There were no emotional goodbyes, no final gatherings of the four literary spies, no hurried hand-grips and last lingering glances. No. The Nazis liked their enemies isolated, solitary, preferably sobbing for mercy or cursing their God.

So they were glad when Charles Williams collapsed in the street, gripping his stomach in agony. His old intestinal complaint had flared up, and he writhed on the pavement unceremoniously. By the time the Gestapo had him locked in a military hospital, he was unconscious.

The Nazis were also pleased by the flutter of papers through the air when the bashed down the door of Barfield’s office, scattering their work, battering his colleagues, clapping him in handcuffs, and burning the building. As they stuffed him in the back of a car, he saw he office explode, and the last ashes of the British Secret State’s legal position disappeared in a dark conflagration against the bright morning sky.

They were happy, too, that they got to watch Lewis’s face crumple, its jovial red fading, as he ran smack up against them in the High Street and practically tumbled into their hands. They smirked and joked—with him, not just themselves; they were human, after all—as they tossed him into solitary confinement, as he shivered with the cold, as his substantial flesh quivered at the anticipation of starvation, as his ample mind shrank from isolation, as they forbid him paper and pen and watched his spirit break. That part was fun.

It was even more fun for them when they caught the dapper don, the famous Professor Tolkien, and interrogated him for hours on end in a gray concrete cell. They made a game of it, seeing in how many languages they could ask him the same questions, over and over, about the letter he had sent a German publisher in 1938, refusing to prove his Aryan ancestry, calling the Jews a “gifted people,” insulting the Pure Race by suggesting it was of Indo-Iranian origin, mixed with Hindustani, Persian, and—horrors!—Gypsy ancestry. They called in one expert linguist after another, tormenting him with vain repetition in many tongues.

The Nazis were tickled by Owen Barfield’s staunch statements of loyalty as they shipped him off to Germany and gave him into the hands of counterintelligence agents, whose job was to break him and turn him into a double agent. They chortled as they settled in for the long process of brainwashing, erasing and reshaping his mind. They delighted in the back-and-forth, the repartee, the psychological pressure, the faked executions, the sleep deprivation, the endless hours of recorded propaganda playing in his cell day after day. They praised his intellect and his rhetorical skill. They were impressed by his logic. They admired his tenacity. And after a while, they stopped laughing. Then they stopped smiling. On and on it went, and he would not budge. No matter what the conditions, he behaved as if he were giving closing arguments in the courtroom or debating theology with Lewis in a pub, demanding that they make logical distinctions, clarifying fuzzy categories, insisting that they define their terms. Eventually, they left him to a slow starvation in a solitary cell, and he lawyered his way into eternity, making St. Peter define everything and interrupting his most dogmatic pronouncements with subtle distinguo’s until that Apostle opened the pearly gates in sheer exhaustion.

They were not quite as cheerful as they watched Williams slide in and out of consciousness, suffering extreme agonies in his intestines and bowels, as his insides fell apart and infection spread. Gestapo officers didn’t like to see people dying of natural causes. They gave him modern medical treatment, of course, but they didn’t let his wife visit, nor did they even tell her where he was. Michal stood in Oxford in the rain in South Parks Road, outside the last house where her poet-lover had lived, and she could feel his soul slipping away. It had never really been hers, and now it was going far, far out of reach. But it was exulting, chanting, declaiming great verse, as it mounted to the heavens. In his hard, metal hospital bed, Williams suddenly flashed into consciousness, sat up and raised his right arm. Powerful rhythms rolled out of his mouth, the great iambic lines of the past, and he named the ascending virtues of the Sephirotic tree as he drew near perfection, and he called upon Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton as he stepped unashamed into their great company. The German doctor bowed his head, then moved forward to close the luminous eyes and lay the rigid figure down on the bed.

It even amused them that Tolkien almost always replied, that he knew all the languages they so abused, and that he sat upright, debonair and dignified, unmoved, as they mocked him in manifold phrases, and that he refused to cry out, even when the torture began. Instead, he retold them their own noble legends, in their own noble speech—as they deprived him of sleep, immersed him in freezing water, and administered electric shocks—about dragon-slaying warriors and heroic last stands. They laughed even harder when he began babbling nonsense, as they thought, about ‘Sauron’ and ‘Mordor’ and ‘Gollum.’ Poor old professor, they said to one another: his mind is wandering. Then he slipped into songs about the elves, and drifted away from the Grey Havens as Iluvatar gave him the gift of death.

But it wasn’t the SS officers who were laughing as they frog-marched Lewis out into a courtyard, set his back to a wall, and blindfolded him. No, they weren’t laughing. No one bit. But he was. He was roaring, his beefy face red with delight, his jowls shaking in amusement, his stocky figure aquiver with joy.

“Further up and further in!” he shouted. “This is the first step on the last great journey, the first chapter in the great story where all myths come true, all evil comes untrue, and all questions are answered at last. And you!”

He thrust a stubby finger in the direction of the firing squad he could not see.

“I jeer and flout at you devils to drive you out. You cannot endure to be mocked, and so I mock at you. And yet….” His voice softened, and the firing squad squinted at him, waiting for their orders, waiting to hear what he would say.

“And yet, I pity you, poor puppets of the Kingdom of Noise. Your dance on this little stage will be so very short, and then you will be jerked away by your strings, the boards cleared, the work of God begun again.”

At this, the commander shook himself, scowled at Lewis, and growled:

“Time to shut this one up. We don’t need his pity.”

Suddenly, Lewis bellowed: “I want to look you in the eyes! I want to square up to death and stare him in the face!”

He struggled, his hands bound behind him, scraping his blindfold against the wall. The officer leaped forward, but the blindfold fell from Lewis eyes and he stared the German down, steadily. The man stepped back, turned to the fire squad, and barked out:

“Ready!”

“Soon it will begin,” Lewis said, in a lower voice, almost dreamily. “There will be a sudden clearing of my eyes. Just think what I will feel at that moment! Scabs falling from the old sores, emerging from a hideous old shell…”

“Aim!” shouted the officer.

“What, then, of this final stripping, this complete cleansing? This release, this glorious freedom! I wonder—”

“Fire!” came the command.

Jack’s eyes opened wide, and his face broke into an enormous grin.

“Of course!” he said.

Spring of 1945

I’m working on a short story (along with my creative writing class), and it’s a really fun experiment for me. It’s alternative history, and it’s almost fan fiction. It’s kind of goofy. Here’s part of it for you to enjoy.

Spring of 1945

It was the spring of 1945, and Hitler was about to plant his boots on English soil. The United States had refused to come into the war, in spite of the unprovoked attack on military personnel and civilians alike at Pearl Harbor. The testing of nuclear weapons at Los Alamos had gone horribly wrong, wiping out the local population and affecting millions of people in the subsequent fallout. With Japan and Italy as strong axis supporters, Germany marched on across Europe: east, west, and north. Russia soon succumbed. London was on her knees, bombed into submission, beaten and dying. Churchill, defeated and desolate, committed suicide, and the nation collapsed into impotent mourning.

Oxford had survived the Blitz; the rumor was growing that Hitler coveted it for his British headquarters, and many residents were bracing themselves to accept the possibility that he would set up his center of operations in the ancient university city after the inevitable end of the war. There, in the golden bubble of Oxford, the towers and spires dreamed on. But the corridors of the great colleges were nearly empty of echoing footfalls: most of the faculty and nearly all of the students had been massacred in the killing fields of France. As the war dragged on and the Allies lost one battle after another, as Germany was victorious at Monte Cassino, at the Battle of the Bulge, as D-Day failed and the Nazis overran Normandy, a desperate Britain had begun calling up older and older men, younger and younger boys, and finally women.

Oxford fought to keep her irreplaceable Dons, those human receptacles of wisdom and culture. If England’s greatest minds were blown apart on the battlefield, who would rebuild civilization when the warmongers were done destroying? If England won the war but lost her wisest men, how would victory be any different than defeat? And now that defeat was inevitable, the men of letters were more valuable than ever before: they were the last hope of the human spirit, the tiny enclave of all that was good in human history, and they were the only ones who could rebuild all that had been lost. So argued the University’s Chancellor, more and more feebly, as his faculty were killed off one by one, and he heard the tramping boots of England’s enemies drawing near.

Huddled in the back room of a smoke-darkened pub, four men shared one cigarette among them, passing it from hand to hand. The smoky haze hovered over their heads and wrapped around their dark coats, hiding them from a hostile world. The Chancellor’s special authority hovered over them, too, keeping them safe in the ivory tower while their friends, brothers, sons, colleagues, and students fought on the south coast and in the skies above England. One was unfit, anyway, with a nervous disorder that made his hands shake so badly he could not shave himself, but had to go to a barber every morning. The others were beyond the usual age of fighting men: one, a hearty, loud, beefy man of forty-six; the other two tall, slender, ages forty-six and fifty-three, the younger with the delicate build of a dancer—but men a decade older than they were dying in the air and on the beaches and in the streets of London even now.

Were they cowed and quiet, this quartet of veterans from the first war, these men held back in their books while the world fell apart around them? Did they creep and crawl with embarrassment that they were not fighting again while their loved ones were? Did they shudder and shake with fear of the coming invasion?

An enormous guffaw exploded from all four mouths, puffing away the smoke and rattling the walls. Four heads were thrown back, hands slapping the table or someone else’s back in merriment, faces red with laughter, feet pounding the floor in delight. The slender dancer leaped up and cut a caper in the middle of the floor. Then the tall, thin fellow did him one better by clambering upon the table and beginning to declaim in a loud voice:

“Hiġe sceal þē heardra, heorte þē cēnre,
mōd sceal þē māre þē ūre mæġen lȳtlað.”

After only two words, the big fellow joined in, adding his booming voice to the other’s rather garbled articulation, and the ancient sounds rolled across the pub:

“Hēr līð ūre ealdor eall forhēawen
gōd on grēote. Ā mæġ gnornian
se ðe nū fram þisum wīġplegan wendan þenċeð.”

As the chanting went on, the other two joined, a line or so behind, adding modern English antiphonally to the din:

“Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener,
Courage the greater, as our might lessens.
Here lies our leader, all hewn down,
The brave man in the dust. May he mourn for ever
Who now thinks to turn from the warplay!”

The gentleman on the table tripped on an empty beer stein—there had been only two pints to share among them that evening, what with the rations and the shortages—and the others reached up to steady him, roaring with laughter as they offered their hands to help him down from the table.

“No, no!” he protested. “I have a song to sing first!”

They struggled with him for a moment, trying to bring him down from the table-top, but he resisted, shook himself free of their hands, and announced:

“The Man In The Moon Came Down Too Soon.”

“The old man had better not send you off to war, Tollers,” the beefy chap bellowed. “You’d only sing songs at the Germans to frighten them away.”

“And then begin analyzing the history of their language,” the lithe little fellow put in. “And Jack would retell their own myths to them until they all fell asleep with boredom and we could walk right into Berlin over their snoring forms.”

C. S. “Jack” Lewis howled at this, banging the table with his fist. The table shook, and Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien wobbled among the dishes. He put out a hand to steady himself, and it landed on the head of the stoop-shouldered man on his right, who grasped it and burst into a fluid stream of quotation,

“A pack of blessings light upon my head,
Happiness courts me in her best array,
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
I pout upon my fortune and thy love.”

Tolkien and Lewis, tears of merriment running down their faces, shouted together:

“Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable!”

And Lewis went on:

“Art thou a man? Thy form cries out thou art. Thy tears are womanish. —But you are a true man, Williams, and regular charmer to the ladies. Maybe the top brass should send you to Germany to seduce all the Jerry’s women. You could do what you liked with them as either a cad or a Don Juan, undermining national morale and making way for an Allied invasion—if you were not a thoroughly good man.”

Tolkien harrumphed, as it he wasn’t quite sure about the “good man” part, but kept his hand on Charles Williams’s head to steady his precarious balance upon the table. Williams beamed up at him, a beatific smile that glowed upon the little fellowship, transforming his face from simian wizardry to angelic beauty. Owen Barfield looked on, tapping his heels in an impatient rhythm on the floor, and said:

“But we need Charles here more than over there. Not for the women, but for the sanity and consciousness of England herself. Your doctrines of love and forgiveness keep madness at bay here in this city of wisdom in our trying times.”

The others nodded soberly.

“I have never heard anything like your lecture on Milton,” Lewis agreed. “It is the first, and probably the last, time that I have ever seen a university doing what it was meant to do: teaching wisdom.”

Williams stood gracefully, catching Tolkien’s hand to steady the professor, who still stood on the tabletop, waiting to sing his song. Williams bowed ceremoniously, one hand on his heart, then kissed his hand to each of them, gracious as an emperor.

“Wisdom shall soon cease in this city and all such ordered civilizations of our times,” he said, “if we are all sent off to wield our useless weapons in aged hands, to die beside our sons and brothers, and for all our learning to be buried with our bones in France.”

A blue haze settled over the friends for a moment—then Tolkien burst out, waving the smoke away from his face with a slender hand:

“Enough of this serious chatter! I have a song to sing!”

Then he began warbling:

“There is an inn, a merry old inn
beneath an old grey hill,
And there they brew a beer so brown
That the Man in the Moon himself came down
one night to drink his fill.”

There was much more of this song, and much more of their talk, in a tiny pocket of laughter that Oxford night before Hitler landed.

“The Chapel of the Thorn” launched at Ekphrasis

Chapel CoverOn Monday (January 5th), my edition of Charles Williams’ play The Chapel of the Thorn celebrated its official release with a nice little Book Launch Party at Ekphrasis. You can purchase the book on Amazon. After enjoying fellowship and really great food (see below), we gathered to listen to a selection from Chapel, read by Betsy Gahman, Jeffrey Harvey, and Andrew Stirling MacDonald. You can watch the reading here: . I apologize for my zombie-like condition; I was (and still am) recovering from a horrific bout of ‘flu.

IMG_1399After the Chapel party, we proceeded to a regular Ekphrasis. It was short, but successful. Jeff and Alex shared fiction, Marian performed two drama audition pieces, and several members read an adaptation Besty made from Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson. Is that it, folks? I can’t remember.

Do come out and join us next time!

Report on Dramatic Reading of “The Chapel of the Thorn”

(Please note that this post also appears on my other blog, The Oddest Inkling, all about Charles Williams.)

This past Monday evening (St. Patrick’s Day), we made history! For the first time in human existence, Charles Williams’s as-yet-unpublished play The Chapel of the Thorn received a performance: a semi-staged read-aloud by members of my group Ekphrasis: Fellowship of Christians in the Arts. We gathered in the chilly basement of Lehigh Valley Presbyterian Church to bring Williams’s high, ceremonial poetry to life. Everyone read extremely well, bringing the play into sound and action for me. IMG_20140317_195146_531

Here was the cast:

Innocent—Betsy G.
Joachim—Jim F.
Amael—Andrew MacD.
Gregory—Josh L.
Michael—Nick M.
Constantine—Dominic C.
Theodoric—Sharon G.
John—Jeff
Woman—Betsy
Hillman—Jeff
The villagers and monks were taken up variously by members of the cast. I read the stage directions and followed along in the script so I could keep an eye out for typos in my transcription.

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The reading went very, very well! I sent out a nicely-formatted .pdf of the text ahead of time and most of the readers read through either the entire play or at least their lines before we met. Most of the attendees have significant theatrical experience; one is director of the Players of the Stage youth theatre, another is assistant-directing Midsummer Night’s Dream this spring, and three have acted with that company for years. Everyone took his or her part seriously and stayed in character most of the time. The poetry is extremely hard to read, as Williams’ sentences go on and on for eight or more lines sometimes. Yet everyone pressed on valiantly, infusing monologues and dialogues with emotion and drama. The tensions among characters were palpable. The narrative arc of the story was clear, and the climax was powerful.

This is not to say we didn’t indulge in lots of our typical Ekphrasian hilarity! On the contrary: there was a liberal sprinkling of our usual teasing, quoting, punning, and general poking-fun. And our evening was made complete by funny English and Scottish accents, an enormous knife grabbed from the kitchen as an impromptu prop, chanting in Latin, a heroic ballad, and a druidic folk-song sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Most importantly, this reading gave me a deeper understanding of the play.

I had not realized, for instance, how central the Abbot Innocent was to the plot: how he is at the center of most of the conflicts, and how his character undergoes a shift during the course of the action.

I had not known just how gorgeous the poetry is: it reads even better in context than it does on the page or as spoken by only one voice (I read some of it out loud to my fellow researcher A Pilgrim in Narnia when we were working at the Marion Wade Center, and I found it extremely beautiful and moving then; it was more so spoken by a variety of trained voices).

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I had not seen what the most important theme is: Law vs. Grace. I was so busy looking out for CW’s more common later themes (coinherence, the Two Ways, the City, the Sacred Object, etc.) that I missed this one. It’s right at the heart of the action, and it is the character of Innocent the Abbot who speaks for Law, while Joachim the Priest and keeper of the Crown of Thorns speaks for grace. Each goes too far to the extreme end of his position, with Innocent speaking for the value of law in itself as an external restrain and Joachim permitting immoral actions in the name of freedom.

It also had not struck me how shockingly sexist and racist this play is—or at least, characters in the play are, which is not by any means the same thing.

After the reading, we had a long and thoughtful conversation about the play. My friends helped me think about the historical, theological, and dramaturgical aspects of Chapel. One pointed out that the conflict of law vs. grace between Innocent and Joachim somewhat resembles the Protestant vs. Catholic debates of the 16th century: an anachronism that would have interested someone of Williams’s unifying nature. He wrote the East/West split of the Church out of his later Arthurian poetry, after all, and would have been interested in exploring theological debates in a localized, non-historical setting.

We discussed Universalism, and Andrew MacD asked whether CW knew the writings of George MacDonald by 1912. I believe that he did, but have no evidence that he knew MacDonald’s sermons. Yet a tendency towards Universalism runs through CW’s works all his life, even while he writes such a chilling account of damnation as Descent Into Hell. (On this topic, see Richard Sturch’s essay about “CW as Heretic” in the Charles Williams Quarterly).

There were two big topics we spent most of our time discussing.

First: Who wins? What is the conclusion of the many conflicts—between Joachim and Innocent, Constantine and Innocent, Amael and Innocent, Michael and Joachim, Gregory and Joachim….? And, asking the same thing another way: Which character speaks for the author (if any)? Does anybody in this play speak for Williams?

There are ways in which Joachim seems to win, by choosing defeat and exile rather than being forced into them. Yet he only does so once all material support has been withdrawn. Innocent gets what he wants, but at the end of the play, Theodoric is hatching plans to take down Innocent in future. Gregory is the easiest to sympathize with, and gets what he wants: for himself and his villagers to be left alone. Amael certainly gets what he wants in the most dramatic visual way. He is darkly manipulative, and sees that everyone else is to there be outmatched. He gets some of the most beautiful poetry, and is in a way a forerunner of Taliessin, the hero bard of CW’s later Arthurian poetry.

The play ends (or almost ends) in indeterminacy: with monks chanting a Christian hymn in Latin on one side of the stage, the villagers singing a pagan folk-song on the other, and Amael declaiming a tale of his hero Druhild inside the abandoned chapel. Does this ambiguity speak for Williams?

But a simple village woman gets the last word. And her last line is: “Mary, Mother of God, be pitiful.” Does she speak for Williams? WP952014031795199512954595Pro

Or, as was suggested in the course of our conversation, do the questions themselves speak for Williams? I have speculated before that in 1912 Williams may have been going through something like a crisis of faith or a period of deep questioning before he committed himself thoroughly to the Christian religion. (He may have experienced a different kind of questioning while he was in the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross later, from 1917-1927). In this play and in The Silver Stair, published the same year Chapel was written (sorry, folks from last night; I misspoke on that point!), he is asking lots of questions about the right things to believe and the right way to live. Maybe none of the characters speak for Williams, or all of them do, and he is playing with all the philosophies, trying them on.

He was also, of course, figuring out the right way for him to write—which led us into our final question: Is this play performable?

I hadn’t really thought so. I found it a bit dry and boring when I read it on the page. But the conclusion of the group last night was: It is playable! It would work on stage!

Sure, it’s in verse. There is not an enormous amount of external action (although there is a lot of shouting). The sentences are too long. There are too many characters standing around without saying anything while one or two ramble on. The long speeches are hard to listen to. All this makes me think CW never heard this read aloud. There is certainly a great improvement between this play in 1912 and his “Masques of Amen House” from the mid ’20s. Those have shorter lines, shorter sentences, more punchy dialogue, lots more vivid action.

But still, Chapel is playable. It takes the viewer on a roller-coaster ride of character arcs, as it is very plot- and character-driven. The sound of the sea always in the background would add depth to a live performance. The weaving in and out of characters keeps one’s attention and drives the motion forward from one inner motivation to another. It is somewhat similar to Julius Caesar or Oedipus Rex with the small casts of characters fighting internal battles, with betrayals and self-revelation. In this case, the religious debate is the focus of the drama. In the first act, the characters are more static but their motivations are gradually being revealed through monologue and dialogue. In the second act, the elements become more chaotic, building to a tempest of speech and song at the end. Finally, all becomes bright and quiet at the end.

Some said this play would work as a movie: that it is “filmable.” The long speeches could be given more significance and interest through the addition of pan-and-zoom, bringing the audience closer for the most fraught lines, showing background and context when necessary, using light and motion to enhance the meaning of the poetry.

We thought maybe it could work really well on stage if it were staged as a Masque, with gorgeous sets, elaborate costumes, lots of music, choreography, visual interest, royal and ceremonial robes, and symbolic colors. Amael should sing more of his lines, as he is a bard. Its climax, after all, is a religious processional. So the whole action and vision could build up to the majestic glory of that final scene. Then the last conflict between the groups would appear as a clarification, a narrowing of the chaos. At the last moment, cut off the singing before the last lines so that the Woman speaks her prayer to Mary in the sudden silence.

I wish you had been there last night. I think you would have walked away with a happy head full of poetry and lofty ideas. Keep your eyes open for The Chapel of the Thorn in a bookstore and online when it’s finally published!

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Dramatic Reading: The Chapel of the Thorn

imagesUpcoming in-between meeting:

When: Monday, March 17th (St. Patty’s Day), 6:00-10:00ish
Where: Lehigh Valley Presbyterian Church, 31 South 13th Street, Allentown, PA 18102
What: A reading of a verse drama, The Chapel of the Thorn, by Charles Williams. I am editing this play for publication and need to hear it read aloud so that I can write about its performability.

Bring food and friends. Please let me know if you are planning to attend (and have not already told me), and I will cast you in a role and send you the script by the end of this week.

Here is a blog post about the play, and here is the first 10% of the text.