Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College. His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), his collected poetry, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised and expanded, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).
Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality, or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.
Also, check out Dr. Williams’s latest book: Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Square Halo Books, 2016)!
Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”
I was really on a blank-verse jag that year for some reason. More rhyme is coming soon; I promise. I don’t even remember where this landscape was, but it reminds me of some parts of Wyoming, or of the Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge (though I had never seen it at that time, nor was I in Wyoming that year). It also brings to mind Tolkien’s barrow downs. Clearly it was somewhere not in the Appalachians seen by someone whose way of relating to landscapes is defined by places that are. The specific location is forgotten, but not the feel of it. That is where poetry is valuable.
It was a bare place, despite the vegetation.
There was grass on the rounded hills, the long slopes,
A few trees standing, just enough
To make you notice that there were not more.
They were dark evergreens, stooped with age.
They did not stand in bunches, but alone,
Spread out like silent sentinels to watch
The years and keep a record of their doings.
There was wind in the grass and the twisted limbs. There was
Too little between a man and the horizon.
You ought to have to climb awhile before
The sky can open up and leave you standing
Emptied out of everything but wonder.
You ought to have to go past dripping ferns,
Cool with water seeping from the rocks.
The graceful arms of trees should pull back slowly
To open in an unexpected meadow,
Then fold together again to receive you back.
It ought to be a thing you have to seek,
Perhaps unconsciously, and then return from,
Weakened and yet stronger for the journey.
It is not always so, for there was grass
On rounded hills, and wind was in the grass,
And the sky was all around you, all around you,
And lonely trees told tales that had no words.
Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
Donald T. Williams, PhD
After finally watching Peter Jackson’s THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, I was pretty much unmoved, either to admiration or to anger. I was surprised by that, because there was plenty of both to report about all the earlier films. The truth is that there is really nothing left to learn from one more Jackson film about either Middle Earth or Jackson’s version of it. The parts that were good and the parts that were unnecessarily stupid and lame were pretty predictable from the first two Hobbit films. Jackson’s Middle Earth is what it is, and there really isn’t anything left to say about it that I have not said before.
Except one thing: I am never left unmoved by re-reading Tolkien.
OK, what are some of the things I had said before? Now that Jackson’s entire interpretation of the legendarium is complete it might be worthwhile to revisit some of them. If you want them in full versions, they can be found here: https://lanternhollowpress.com/2013/02/04/review-the-hobbit-part-1-directed-by-peter-jackson/; https://lanternhollowpress.com/2013/02/11/9196/; https://lanternhollowpress.com/2014/02/03/review-the-desolation-of-smaug/. For now, I will sum up:
Skipping the obvious (the visuals are mostly authentic and usually breathtaking), I understand that the change to a new medium requires changes to the story. So I’m not a purist. I didn’t mind, for example, Bombadil being dropped or having the characters of Arwen and Glorfindel conflated. So saying that “It’s different from how Tolkien did it” is not, by itself, a valid criticism. There are even a couple of changes to the legendarium that are actual improvements. [I pause for all the Tolkien fans who know me to gasp in horror.] First, it actually makes more sense for Narsil to be in a shrine in Rivendell than it does for Aragorn to be carrying a useless sword around with him in the wild. Anybody who has done any serious backpacking knows that dead weight is the last thing you want with you. Aragorn is the most experienced outdoorsman in Middle Earth. I rest my case. Second, it makes sense for Aragorn to have kept the Army of the Dead with him through the end of the Battle of Pellenor Field. His little band of thirty Dunedain plus an elf and a dwarf, however good they might be, would not have been enough to turn the tide.
I object to two things: Changes that are just dumb and changes that alter the basic meaning and philosophy behind the work. First, the dumb. OK, it’s a movie, and we have CGI now. There is still a difference between an epic and a video game. This became most pointedly evident in the first two Hobbit installments, where people fall down five-hundred-foot cliffs and get up and walk away as if nothing had happened, dwarves randomly fall out of a tree onto Eagles’ backs who just happen to be passing below at the right time instead of being plucked from them (Nobody is that lucky, even if you add the phrase “if luck you call it”), and two ninja elves double-handedly kill more orcs than Saruman and Sauron put together ever bred. Tolkien added the laws of magic to Middle Earth, but he did not allow himself to break the laws of physics. All the physical feats performed are physically possible. Not in Jackson’s Middle Earth. Even in a movie, it makes the art less serious.
Much more problematic are changes that alter the moral meaning of Tolkien’s tale. Here the prime example (there are many others) is Faramir. How do you get from “I wouldn’t pick this thing up if I found it lying in the road” to “Tell my father I send him a powerful weapon?” There is no logical path from the one place to the other. The reason so many of Tolkien’s characters have to be “complicated,” some, like Faramir, to the point that they are unrecognizable, is that Peter Jackson lacks the moral imagination to believe that virtue is believable to a modern audience. Tolkien has evil characters (Sauron, Saruman by the time of LOTR), he has morally compromised characters (Gollum, Theoden, Denethor, Thorin) in whom either good (Theoden, Thorin) or evil (Denethor, Gollum) finally triumphs, and he has good characters with integrity (Aragorn, Faramir, and many others). We meet more people in the middle category in real life, true. But Tolkien believed that we need positive portraits of integrity to feed our moral imaginations on. Jackson either does not understand or rejects as impossible that belief. It is that difference in philosophy that makes his movies, for all their brilliance, ultimately unsatisfactory to people who truly love and understand Tolkien’s work. For more on this point, see my article “The World of the Rings: Why Peter Jackson Was Unable to Film Tolkien’s Moral Tale,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 26:6 (Nov.-Dec. 2013): 14-16). To see it online, go here: http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=26-06-014-v.
The last installment of Jackson’s Hobbit adds nothing new to this account. Jackson’s Middle Earth is what it is, and there really isn’t anything left to say about it that I have not said before.
Except one thing: I am never left unmoved by re-reading Tolkien. I hope some of the things I have said above help to explain why.
To see more of Dr. Williams’ writing, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., or Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy: Poems and prose in pursuit of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty!
Today we have a guest writer. Luke Riel is a student of philosophy at Rice University. He began writing poetry after attending Summit Semester and hearing Don Williams speak. He hopes one day to learn to combine philosophy and fiction effectively.
The sunset shines on ruined walls
where Mithril swords and hauberks hung
with harps in long deserted halls,
But e’er and e’er the ocean calls,
the symphonies that Ulmo sung.
The light has passed beneath the trees,
while men still wait in thoughtful gloom
to ponder ancient melodies
that echoed once across the seas
in songs of splendor and of Doom.
How soon the Dúnedain forget
the Children of Ilúvatar!
And fall so soon into regret
through all the passing years; and yet
they still can see the Evenstar.
The morning star Tinúviel
who from e’en Mandos drew a tear
now lives once more: Undómiel!
The image of Gilthoniel;
in her is Elbereth brought near.
While Arwen lives, it still lives on,
the dying beauty of the elves
which from the earth will soon begone.
The kings of men will muse upon
their days before they die themselves.
But we have left it all, we go
to live at last with Elbereth,
forsaking haunts of long ago,
we sail the silver seas, And lo!
We sail fore’er from pain and death.
And few will know the elven art
or long recall their passion strong,
but those who do will live apart:
It saved their souls, but broke their heart
to hear the ancient elven song.
And dim will glow the lights of yore
and fainter grow the memories,
but some with longing in their core
will know not what they listen for,
for it is lost beyond the seas.
Beyond the seas has set our light
and with the Valar there in bliss
awaits a world with no more night.
But if I see with elven sight,
I know one thing, and it is this:
That if I could but give away
this curséd immortality,
then I would leave the earth today
and find perfection’s blesséd ray
and with Ilúvatar be free.
To read the poetry that inspired Luke Riel to write this poem, go to the Lantern Hollow e-store and order Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), $15.00 + shipping.
I’ve interviewed myself in these pages before. The following are questions I came up with to ask a number of Lewis scholars when I was the editor of The Lamp-Post: The Journal of the Southern California C. S. Lewis Society. So I thought I might as well ask myself too and see what I had to say.
I am a minister of the Gospel and missionary who makes his living by teaching English and Philosophy at a small Christian college. If it weren’t for Lewis, I doubt I would be a Christian today at all—so you can blame him for all of the above! He showed me that a Christian mind was possible, and no one has done more to form mine. Discerning readers can find Lewis in all of my books, but he shows up most explicitly in Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).
What was your first C. S. Lewis book? How did you come to read it, and what impact did it have on you at the time?
My senior year in high school one of my friends said, “If you like Tolkien you should check out his friend C. S. Lewis.” So I went to the library and checked out the first Lewis book that fell into my hands: An Experiment in Criticism! I’ve never met anyone else for whom that was his first Lewis book. I was captivated by the combination of depth, clarity, and common sense that we find in all of Lewis’s books, and I was fortunate enough to recognize myself in Lewis’s portrait of the literary reader. I’ve been trying to follow his advice ever since.
You are going to spend a year marooned on a desert island. You can take one Lewis fiction book with you. Which one, and why?
Only one? That’s hard! And I suppose I can’t cheat and count the Chronicles of Narnia or The Space Trilogy as one book? O. K. Perelandra. It’s one of the most original secondary worlds ever created, and every detail of it is loaded with spiritual significance. Accepting what the Waves bring you rather than sleeping on the Fixed Land as a metaphor for the life of faith, for example, is a picture I cannot meditate on enough.
You are going to spend a year marooned on a desert island. You can take one Lewis non-fiction book with you. Which one, and why?
Miracles. It has more good philosophy, good theology, and good mythology all woven together into one rich whole than any other book I’ve ever read. The Argument from Reason is a devastating refutation of Naturalism, and The Grand Miracle doesn’t just defend the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, but really shows it to be the heart of theology and of life and the fulfillment of all human longing.
What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian story teller?
Lewis is Tolkien’s equal in mythopoeic imagination. That sounds like a controversial claim, but it shouldn’t be. Lewis’s imagination was more original, but Tolkien’s more careful and consistent. There were dwarves, elves, and goblins (orcs) before Tolkien—but where was the Hross, the Pfiffltrigg, the Sorn, or the floating island? On the other hand, you will get glitches in Narnia (like where vegetables came from in the Long Winter) that don’t happen in Middle Earth. Lewis is a master of spiritual symbolism. The Stone Table portrays the atonement better than Mere Christianity explains it. On the other hand, he sometimes allowed himself speculations that go beyond the bounds of “mere Christianity,” such as Emeth’s inclusivist conversion. See my article “’For the Sake of the Story’: Doctrine and Discernment in Reading C. S. Lewis,” Modern Reformation 18:3 (May-June, 2009): 33-36.
What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian evangelist?
He meets people where they are. He communicates Christian truth without watering it down but also without using Christian jargon. Most importantly, through his evocation of Joy and his positive portrait of the loving and lordly Aslan, he shows us why Christ is above all things to be desired. His only weakness is sometimes a little dithering on the vicarious substitutionary nature of the atonement—but he atones (ahem) for that by portraying it so potently in the Stone Table.
What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian apologist?
His unique combination of wide learning, no-nonsense clarity, elegant language, and apt analogy remains as the standard to which Christian apologists should all aspire and the example they should seek to emulate. In himself he has no real weaknesses as an apologist, but the passage of time has caused some of his arguments to need updating. It will not now be quite so easy to maintain, for example, that in the midst of the Moral Argument no one is going to say, “To hell with your standard,” as Lewis could assume of his audience when he wrote Mere Christianity in the 1940’s. The argument is still valid, but the change in the assumptions of the audience will require more work from us now to get to the same place.
What to your mind are Lewis’s greatest strengths and weaknesses as a Christian thinker?
There are great rational minds good at analysis; there are great imaginative minds good at synthesis. There is no other mind I know of that combined both of those virtues so strongly, or meshed them so seamlessly into one unified whole. It is the combination that makes Lewis so valuable—indeed, I would argue, the most important Christian intellectual of the Twentieth Century. Lewis employed this uniquely gifted mind in the service of Christ and of mere Christianity. Nevertheless, his lack of formal training in theology sometimes caused him to be led astray. He had never encountered an intelligent and nuanced presentation of the doctrine of the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture, for example, so he dismisses it as “Fundamentalism,” which is misleading.
Which Lewis book (or essay) do you think has been or become sadly neglected and which you would like to see more people read?
One essay I don’t see quoted as often as it deserves to be is “The Poison of Subjectivism” (Christian Reflections 72-81).
Which Lewis book (or essay) has had the greatest influence on your own thinking?
I would have to give a three-way tie to Miracles, The Abolition of Man, and “Meditation in a Toolshed.” Miracles I discussed above (I took it to the Desert Island). The Abolition of Man may be the most incisive and profound refutation of Reductionism ever written—I devote a whole chapter in Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) to explaining why that is so important. And for a mere essay to make this list? You should go read it, and you will immediately see why!
You have been given the power to ensure that your readers will truly “get” one Lewis idea, understand it, digest it, and forevermore incorporate it into their thinking. Which idea is it?
Aslan is not a tame lion—but he’s good, I tell you!
For more of Dr. Williams’ thoughts on Lewis, click on the Lantern Hollow e-store. Inklings of Reality shows Lewis’s influence, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave has four chapters dealing with aspects of Lewis’s thought.