Luxuria: The Temptation of Lilith

John’a poem from C.S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress

When Lilith means to draw me
Within her secret bower,
She does not overawe me
With beauty’s pomp and power,

Nor, with angelic grace
Of courtesy, and the pace
Of gliding ships, comes veiled at evening hour.

Eager, unmasked, she lingers
Heart-sick and hunger sore
With hot, dry, jewelled fingers
Stretched out, beside her door,

Offering with gnawing haste Her cup, whereof who taste, (She promises no better) thirst far more.

What moves me, then, to drink it?
—Her spells, which all around
So change the land, we think it
A great waste where a sound
Of wind like tales twice told
Blusters, and cloud is rolled Always above yet no rain falls to ground.

Across drab iteration
Of bare hills, line on line,
The long road’s sinuation
Leads on. The witch’s wine,
Though promising nothing, seems
In that land of no streams,
To promise best—the unrelished anodyne.

Reading Lewis on “The Model”, Ch. I

First it is necessary to note what Lewis is doing in this book. I think he is fundamentally wanting to illustrate the general psychological difference between ancient and medieval people and ourselves, in order to make us aware of our own “mental temper.” I think he holds that each age, very roughly speaking, has a sort of aesthetic that saturates its epistemic and moral intuitions. This is a claim about generalities; and as such, it will be suspect to the modern scientific mind. Morton Bloomfield objects, for instance, that “built into a book of this sort is the hazard of trying to find the mediaeval and Renaissance world-image,” and quips that Lewis has “a tendency to oversimplify and to overcategorize.” But, even this rejection of general views may be an aspect of the modern psychology. We’d prefer to stick to knowing “the facts,” the things that are falsifiable. Claims about general psychologies are not falsifiable, and therefore taboo. Frankly, I think this taboo is partly arrogance about the sorts of things “we [moderns] know”, and partly a lack of imagination about the assumptions that drive our intuitions.

(In case you missed it, I’m suggesting the reason that the notion of a “general mind” seems uncouth is because we fail to notice our “general mind.” The danger with bracketing off generalities as “unknowable” is the sort of absurd causal reductionism that is only possible to specialists [e.g. “A new study shows…”]. When dealing with persons, for every ten variables you think you’ve eliminated, there are ten more you’ve failed to imagine. Imagination is a key ability for generalizing. Generalists–at their best–skillfully balance relations of causal factors.)

At any rate, this is how Lewis sums up at the end of the book:

Pg. 222: 

“We can no longer dismiss the change of Models as a simple progress from error to truth. No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge. Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical.

“It is not impossible that our own Model will die a violent death, ruthlessly smashed by an unprovoked assault of new facts–unprovoked as the nova of 1572. But I think it is more likely to change when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental temper of our descendants demand that it should. The new Model will not be set up without evidence, but the evidence will turn up when the inner need for it becomes sufficiently great. It will be true evidence. But nature gives most of her evidence to the questions we ask her. Here, as in the courts, the character of the evidence depends on the shape of the examination, and a good-cross examiner can do wonders.”

So, to begin the series of posts. Excerpts from Chapter I of The Discarded Image:

Pg. 10: 

“At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in the right place’. Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight. Though full of turbulent activities, he was equally full of the impulse to formalise them. War was (in intention) formalised by the art of heraldry and the rules of chivalry; sexual passion (in intention), by an elaborate code of love. . . . There was nothing which medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up. Of all our modern inventions I suspect that they would most have admired the card index.

“This impulse is equally at work in what seem to us their silliest pedantries and in their most sublime achievements. In the latter we see the tranquil, indefatigable, exultant energy of passionately systematic minds bringing huge masses of heterogeneous material into unity. The perfect examples are the Summa of Aquinas and Dante’s Divine Comedy;”

Pg. 11:

“They are bookish. They are indeed very credulous of books. They find it hard to believe that anything an old auctour has said is simply untrue. And they inhabit a very heterogenous collection of books; Judaic, Pagan, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoical, Primitive Christian, Patristic. Or (by a different classification) chronicles, epic, poems, sermons, visions, philosophical treatises, satires. Obviously their auctours will contradict one another. They will seem to do so even more often if you ignore the distinction of kinds and take your science impartially from the poets and philosophers; and this the medievals very often did in fact though they would have been well able to point out, in theory, that poets feigned. . . . A Model must be built which will get everything in without a clash; and it can do this only by becoming intricate, by mediating its unity through a great, and finely ordered, multiplicity.”

“As the Ruin Falls,” C.S. Lewis

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love –a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek–
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.

The Redemptive Voice: Vocal Characterization in Tolkien

“But at that moment there came a sound like mingled song and laughter. Clear voices rose and fell in the starlit air.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

There is an old story that the origins of the now popular ‘football’ chorus “Ole! Ole! Ole!” is a remnant of the Moors invasion of Spain. It is said that the original chant was in fact “Allah, Allah, Allah” and that it was used for a particular set of circumstances. The Moors would chant “Allah, Allah, Allah” out of respect for a performance of some sort which was obviously possessed divine inspiration. For instance, a particular musical performance might so transport the hearers so as to move them to recognize the presence of God in it. So the Spaniards would say, “Ole, Ole, Ole.”

J.R.R. Tolkien was a master at his craft, which is to say his artistry was sublime. Tolkien had a particular view of writing which he describes as follows: “One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, not by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps.”[1]  For him, writing was an organic process which ‘grew’ out of the leaf mould of experience. Tolkien’s experience, like that of his friend and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, was profoundly Christian. In other words, when one reads Tolkien, he expects to find forms and expressions with a particular Christian hue. This expectation is validated in his most well-known work, The Lord of the Rings trilogy. While Tolkien’s ‘leaf mould’ is Roman Catholic in its essential tone, it has elements in common with Lewis’s more Protestant vision. For instance, both writers were masters at portraying the radical devastation of sin. One thinks of the power of illicit curiosity which nearly wrecks the incipient realms of Perelandra or Narnia. What might have happened in these places is apparent in the glimpses that the reader gets of Charn, in The Magician’s Nephew or even of Earth, in That Hideous Strength. Sin was and was not a mere trifling matter for Lewis. On the one hand, it could manifest itself in a seemingly innocent concern for one’s mother, but on the other, it could affect the destruction of every form of life. On the topic of trifles, Tolkien’s embodiment of illicit desire in the ring leads Boromir to ask, “Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing? So small a thing!”[2] But as the reader knows well, the ring is not a trifle (not a mathom), but holds in itself the power to destroy everything that has worth, hope and life including.

Yet, for their similarities, Tolkien excels beyond Lewis in many respects. Among them is the development of his characters. In a recent read of The Fellowship of the Ring, my students noticed one feature in particular.* Tolkien very intentionally focuses the reader’s attention on the vocal quality of his characters as an orienting factor for understanding them. The first example of this appears with the arrival of the high elves that Frodo and his companions meet along the road out of the Shire. Tolkien describes their encounter as follows: “But at that moment there came a sound like mingled song and laughter. Clear voices rose and fell in the starlit air.”[3] The clear voices of the elves come just at the opportune moment, when the “sniffing” black rider was approaching. And the reader knows the voices mean salvation; the black rider vanishes at the sound. But it is not just the elves’ voices that are clear, but also the song itself which rises and falls in autumn air.

Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!

Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are they eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the Sea.
 
O stars that in the Sunless Year
With shining hand by her were sown,
In windy fields now bright and clear
We see your silver blossom blown!
 
O Elbereth Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
They starlight on the Western Seas[4]

For Tolkien, the elves represent what is high and grand, everything that is most like Illuvatar himself. After all, it is these very elves who had gazed on the Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion with its silver dew and Laurelin with its golden boughs. It is remarked in The Silmarillion that the high elves who had seen the trees of Valinor were forever sundered from the lingerers who refused to obey the call of the Valar to cross out of Middle-Earth to western lands. It was precisely this vision of pure, clear light which sundered them. So the elves, being most like Illuvatar, embody most purely divine qualities—pure divine light, wisdom, truth, and joy. And when it comes to voice, it is clarity which is divine.

And it is not only the elves that share this remarkable vocal quality. Tom Bombadil is said to enchant the hobbits with his “deep glad voice” which rises up “loud and clear”:

Hey dol! merry dol! ring a dong dillo!
Ring a dong! hop along! fall all the willow!
Tom Bom, jolly Tom, Tom Bombadillo![5]

So it is, for the second time in Tolkien’s narrative, the hobbits are saved at exactly the moment of tribulation, by a clear voice. Yet, Tom Bombadil is a very different sort of character than the elves. He is older but more carelessly happy. Tolkien describes him, “He had a blue coat and a long brown beard; his eyes were blue and bright, and his face was red as a ripe apple, but creased into a hundred wrinkles of laughter.”[6] But the reader already has guessed all of this. His “deep glad voice” lets slip the merry old man that he is. He is different than the elves, though in some respects the same. Joy, song, truth, wisdom, and age might be said to characterize them both. But Tom, as the reader would naturally call him, is obliviously gay as though wrinkles of anxiety would never touch his brow. It is only the voice of naked mirth that can make the weeping willow shiver and the cold barrow-wight flee. And it is his voice in song that first we meet.

Contrariwise, the hobbits are immediately alarmed by the voices of the black riders. Frodo has an encounter with the voice of a rider in the Shire, “He turned to go back, and then stopped for he heard voices, just round the corner by the end of Bagshot Row. One voice was certainly the old Gaffer’s; the other was strange, and somehow unpleasant. He could not make out what it said, but he heard the Gaffer’s answers, which were rather shrill.”[7] The “strange and somehow unpleasant” voice of the rider is reinforced by the sniffing encounter along the road, but especially by the hobbits’ experience in the wood:

They stopped short suddenly. Frodo sprang to his feet. A long-drawn wail came down the wind, like the cry of some evil and lonely creature. It rose and fell, and ended on a high piercing note. Even as they sat and stood, as if suddenly frozen, it was answered by another cry, fainter and further off, but no less chilling to the blood. There was then a silence, broken only by the sound of the wind in the leaves.

‘And what do you think that was?’ Pippin asked at last, trying to speak lightly, but quavering a little. ‘If it was a bird, it was one that I never heard in the Shire before.’

‘It was not a bird or beast,’ said Frodo. ‘It was a call, or a signal—there were words in that cry, though I could not catch them. But no hobbit has such a voice.’

No more was said about it. They were all thinking of the Riders, but no one spoke of them.[8]

The hobbits do not understand the particulars of the peril, but it is the vocal quality which reveals something of its urgency. The nature of the black riders is vividly disclosed by the chilling wail.

We know a bit about the voices of hobbits as well—though hobbits’ voices perhaps vary somewhat. The old Gaffer’s voice becomes shrill with fear. And so does Frodo’s at the moment he calls to Tom Bombadil for rescue. Yet, hobbits can also exhibit the voice of celebration and simple joy. Their voices rise into the night sky at Bilbo’s party. Or we might remark of Pippin’s high and merry voice as he sings the praises of hot water!

Sing hey! for the bath at the close of day
that washes the weary mud away!
A loon is he that will not sing:
O! Water Hot is a noble thing![9]

But the voice of Frodo exhibits a power which is unique to himself, the power to change. There is, of course, the shrill voice of terror. But more significantly, the river daughter notices that Frodo is an elf-friend both by the light in his eyes and the “ring in [his] voice.”[10] Hobbits are not high and grand like elves, but it is their capacity for joy as well as their vulnerability which most characterizes them. On one hand, their spirits are not easily broken, but on the other what could be more improbable than a hobbit facing the power of Mordor? And masterfully, Tolkien captures these qualities, in their voices.

Still, there is one voice which the reader will find mysterious. The voice of Strider is introduced simply, with little editorial comment as a “low voice.” There is ambiguity even in the description. Does he mean tone or volume? If the elves are high and grand, the hobbits are jolly, practical, but frail, Strider is sad and mysterious. Strider is a man. To be more specific Strider is a ranger, a lonely wanderer whose appearance belies his identity. Gandalf admonishes the hobbits, “not all those who wander are lost.”[11] Yet, within the soul of Strider there is perhaps a profound sadness that is uniquely human. When the hobbits desire a tale of Middle earth, Strider says, “It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.”[12] The tale which follows is of Beren and Luthien Tinuviel, a deeply affecting tale of love and loss. Fleming Rutledge, in The Battle for Middle-Earth, says, “This tale is of the greatest importance, not only because it forms the backdrop for much that will happen, but also because it embodies a central motif, that of self-sacrifice.”[13] Yet, what is most striking in light of what has been said already about voice is the way Strider is described in the telling of this story of self-sacrifice. Tolkien writes, “As Strider was speaking they watched his strange eager face, dimly lit in the red glow of the wood-fire. His eyes shone, and his voice was rich and deep. Above him was a black starry sky.” Even at this point in the story, Strider, the ranger, has disappeared to be swallowed up by Aragorn the king. Yet, this king is a dramatically human king. Whereas elves represent everything high and grand, humans represent redemption. All stories of Middle-earth are sad tales because all human tales are sad. Yet, it is in this sadness and self-sacrifice that Aragorn the king has developed not just a low voice, but a deep and rich one. We know from experience that depth and richness are won with great difficulty. They are only won through tears. The Strider we meet is uniquely equipped to do the very human thing he will do precisely because he had gazed on the faces of the elves and he had stared down the face of great evil.

All of this leads me to aver, Christians ought to live as Strider does. To live as the elves is high and grand; and Strider too feels the pull of western lands. He has long been a friend of the elves. Yet, he knows that this is not his path. His life is inextricably tied to the fate of his people. His life, he knows, will likely be a sad tale full of hardship and perhaps even failure.

Christians likewise, ought to feel the pull of western lands, of feasting, of drink, of song, of dance and of pure goodness. Yet, we ourselves are linked through blood to a people in peril. As Strider’s path led him to Gondor, to the stoop of pure evil, so ours leads us to people who are broken with deceit, destruction, anger, and envy. His manner of life (de modo conversationis) is a redemptive one.

Our path, like Aragorn’s, is a redemptive path, one which involves much sadness, but is rich and deep. It offers the hope of reforging what once was broken. Let the voice of Aragorn act as a guide to our own ethical vision. May we love the elves, but remember our people. Only a writer like Tolkien, a master in his craft, could develop such rich textures of meaning, through so subtle a point as voice.

So as the Spaniards would say, Mr. Tolkien, Ole, Ole, Ole.

de modo conversationis

Transcendent

Redemptive

Earthly

Clear

Rich and Deep

Raspy or Shrill

Clear

True

Light

Wisdom

Creative

Trusting

Joy

Song

Clear Voices

Feasting

Practical

Married

Food

Fire

Sadness

Self-sacrifice

Building

Cunning

Chant

Distorted

Hardened

Shrewd

Angry

Destruction

Darkness

Deceit

Traitorous

Envy


[1] Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien (New York, Ballantine Books, 1977), p. 140-41.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Rings (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1965), p. 414.

[3] Ibid, 88.

[4] Ibid, 88-89.

[5] Ibid, 130.

[6] Ibid, 131.

[7] Ibid, 78.

[8] Ibid, 99-100.

[9] Ibid, 111.

[10] Ibid, 135

[11] Ibid, 154.

[12] Ibid, 203.

[13] Fleming Rutledge, The Battle for Middle-Earth, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), p. 82.

*Thanks to Felicia Van Dress for noticing this.

“Five Sonnets,” C.S. Lewis

I.
You think that we who do not shout and shake
Our first at God when youth or bravery die
Have colder blood or hearts less apt to ache
Than yours who rail. I know you do. Yet why?
You have what sorrow always longs to find,
Someone to blame, some enemy in chief;
Anger’s the anesthetic of the mind,
It does men good, it fumes away their grief.
We feel the stroke like you; so far our fate
Is equal. After that, for us begin
Half-hopeless labours, learning not to hate,
And then to want, and then (perhaps) to win
A high, unearthly comfort, angel’s food,
That seems at first mockery to flesh and blood.

II.
There’s a repose, a safety (even a taste
Of something like revenge?) in fixed despair
Which we’re forbidden. We have to rise with haste
And start to climb what seems a crazy stair.
Our Consolation (for we are consoled,
So much of us, I mean, as may be left
After the dreadful process has unrolled)
For one bereavement makes us more bereft.
It asks for all we have, to the last shred;
Read Dante, who had known its best and worst –
He was bereaved and he was comforted
— No one denies it, comforted – but first
Down to the frozen center, up the vast
Mountain of pain, from world to world, he passed.

III.
Of this we’re certain; no one who dared knock
At heaven’s door for earthly comfort found
Even a door – only smooth, endless rock,
And save the echo of his cry no sound.
It’s dangerous to listen; you’ll begin
To fancy that those echoes (hope can play
Pitiful tricks) are answers from within;
Far better to turn, grimly sane, away.
Heaven cannot thus, Earth cannot ever, give
The thing we want. We ask what isn’t there
And by our asking water and make live
That very part of love which must despair
And die and go down cold into the earth
Before there’s talk of springtime and rebirth.

IV.
Pitch your demand heaven-high and they’ll be met.
Ask for the Morning Star and take (thrown in)
Your earthly love. Why, yes; but how to set
One’s foot on the first rung, how to begin?
The silence of one voice upon our ears
Beats like the waves; the coloured morning seems
A lying brag; the face we loved appears
Fainter each night, or ghastlier, in our dreams.
“that long way round which Dante trod was meant
For mighty saints and mystics not for me,”
So Nature cried. Yet if we once assent
To Nature’s voice, we shall be like the bee
That booms against the window-pane for hours
Thinking that the way to reach the laden flowers.

V.
‘If we could speak to her,’ my doctor said,
‘And told her, “Not that way! All, all in vain
You weary out wings and bruise your head,”
Might she not answer, buzzing at the pane,
“Let queens and mystics and religious bees
Talk of such inconceivables as glass;
the blunt lay worker flies at what she sees,
Look there – ahead, ahead – the flowers, the grass!”
We catch her in a handkerchief (who knows
What rage she feels, what terror, what despair?)
And shake her out – and gaily out she goes
Where quivering flowers and thick in summer air,
To drink their hearts. But left to her own will
She would have died upon the window-sill.

C.S. Lewis, Poems, 125-128.

“The Philosopher,” C.S. Lewis

Who shall be our prophet then,
Chosen from all the sons of men
To lead his fellows on the way
Of hidden knowledge, delving deep
To nameless mysteries that keep
Their secret from the solar day!
Or who shall pierce with surer eye!
This shifting veil of bittersweet
And find the real things that lie
Beyond this turmoil, which we greet
With such a wasted wealth of tears?
Who shall cross over for us the bridge of fears
And pass in to the country where the ancient Mothers dwell?
Is it an elder, bent and hoar
Who, where the waste Atlantic swell
On lonely beaches makes its roar,
In his solitary tower
Through the long night hour by hour
Pores on old books with watery eye
When all his youth has passed him by,
And folly is schooled and love is dead
And frozen fancy laid abed,
While in his veins the gradual blood
Slackens to a marish flood?
For he rejoiceth not in the ocean’s might,
Neither the sun giveth delight,
Nor the moon by night
Shall call his feet to wander in the haunted forest lawn.
He shall no more rise suddenly in the dawn
When mists are white and the dew lies pearly
Cold and cold on every meadow,
To take his joy of the season early,
The opening flower and the westward shadow,
And scarcely can he dream of laughter and love,
They lie so many leaden years behind.
Such eyes are dim and blind,
And the sad, aching head that nods above
His monstrous books can never know
The secret we would find.
But let our seer be young and kind
And fresh and beautiful of show,
And taken ere the lustyhead
And rapture of his youth be dead;
Ere the gnawing, peasant reason
School him over-deep in treason
To the ancient high estate
Of his fancy’s principate,
That he may live a perfect whole,
A mask of the eternal soul,
And cross at last the shadowy bar
To where the ever-living are.

“Narnia, Narnia: Awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.”

A Friend:

Could you expound on what Aslan is saying in this quote from the Magician’s Nephew? I am wondering if the words “…Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine waters.” have a double meaning.

My Response:

Dear Friend,
I think that Lewis operates under the assumption that if a tree is to be, it should be a walking tree.

To be frank, I’m not sure I can say with certainty why Lewis does what he does, but I can give some thoughts toward an explanation. First, Lewis loves fairy stories. The stories that stirred Lewis’s imagination as a child were those that imagined that what we see is only the surface of what is, that there is a supernatural world that we are insensible to. Second, Lewis is really afraid of a worldview that reduces everything to its naturalistic explanation. So for Lewis, it would be better for you to suspect that the tree in your backyard could awake and speak to you than for you to think it was simply a collection of cells arranged by natural selection. It is better in a moral sense. He’s very afraid of the types of people naturalism produces.

So he writes “fairy stories” (or something closely related) for children highlighting not only Christian themes but generally supernatural (not sure what word to insert) ones.
-m

I would be very interested at any push-back on my explanation. What thoughts do you have, all ye Lewis scholars.

Update: 8:35 AM, 11/28
Read Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories”

“The definition of a fairy-story—what it is, or what it should be—does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country. I will not attempt to define that, nor to describe it directly. It cannot be done. Faërie cannot be caught in a net of words; for it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible. It has many ingredients, but analysis will not necessarily discover the secret of the whole. Yet I hope that what I have later to say about the other questions will give some glimpses of my own imperfect vision of it. For the moment I will say only this: a “fairy-story” is one which touches on or uses Faerie, whatever its own main purpose may be: satire, adventure, morality, fantasy. Faerie itself may perhaps most nearly be translated by Magic—but it is magic of a peculiar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso : if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away. Of this seriousness the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an admirable example.”