All Blog Posts

Latest

Yay! I finally get to talk about the Pevensie children! Well, not all four of them today. I’m just going to tackle the boys and how they reflect Mars.

Guess where the children were when Lucy told them that Edmund had been to Narnia and he denied it. They were in the room with the suit of armor. That’s also where they were when the girls came to tell the boys they had to get out of the way of the tourists and they all went into the wardrobe. Lewis being Lewis, this isn’t a coincidence. The suit of armor naturally, especially for him, wakens thoughts of knighthood and of Mars and masculinity. It calls attention to the fact that one boy is demonstrating Lewis’s ideal masculinity, and one is exhibiting the opposite.

From the beginning of the story, Peter demonstrates a tendency to protect others, especially those weaker than himself. When Lucy goes to Narnia alone, Susan and Edmund make fun and treat her like she’s foolish, respectively. Peter comes up with a more positive explanation for her story. He protects her by arguing that she’s fooling them on purpose. After Edmund returns from Narnia and hurts Lucy further by denying that he went, Peter again steps up to protect her, giving Edmund a thorough tongue-lashing for his bullying. He also takes the lead in telling the professor, trying to get help for her if she is going mad. When they all get into Narnia, he apologizes for not believing Lucy, asks her to lead their expedition, and tells her she makes a good leader. He does all that in just the first few chapters. Throughout the books, Peter exhibits this willingness to sacrifice to protect others. Perhaps the most obvious example of this primary characteristic of Lewisian masculinity, unsurprisingly, occurs in Prince Caspian.  He offers to fight the much older and more experienced Miraz in personal combat, as a way to buy time for rescue to arrive and to prevent more bloodshed. Because of all of this, I believe that Peter is a picture of mature masculinity. He has an instinctive desire to protect others and consistently acts to do so. His only failure in this is in his treatment of his brother, Edmund. In his protection of Lucy and in his pride he fails to protect Edmund, instead hurting him with his harsh words. But when confronted by Aslan, he confesses his failure of pride and tries to make it right. He grows.

Edmund is in some ways a more complicated character than Peter. In the beginning of the novel, he is complaining, grouchy, and unpleasant. He generally seems bent on making everyone miserable. When Lucy first discovers Narnia, he makes fun of her. He actively seeks to cause her pain. This is clearly the opposite of Lewis’s portrait of ideal masculinity. When Lewis compares masculinity and femininity to accentual and quantitative metre, I believe he’s making the point that masculinity and femininity are not two ends of a spectrum but are on entirely separate spectra. Lewis uses the four children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to provide an illustration of this idea. The opposite of masculinity is not femininity but bullying – selfishly causing harm, especially to those weaker than you. And this is exactly the way Peter accuses Edmund of behaving – ‘You’ve always liked being beastly to anyone smaller than yourself; we’ve seen that at school before now.’

Edmund is so interesting partly because after Aslan offers himself as Edmund’s ransom, he becomes an excellent example of true masculinity. Aslan keeps the girls from the battle, not because they lack courage, as Lucy supposes, but I believe in part to give the boys a chance to exhibit the sacrificial protectiveness that is true masculinity. Edmund proves as wily in his protectiveness of others as he was in his bullying. When he realizes that the queen’s wand is her means of turning people into stone, he attacks and breaks it, though he knows it could cost him his life – and it almost does. The result of this is a recognition of his masculinity. ‘And there on the field of battle Aslan made him a knight.’ Edmund had exhibited the key characteristic of masculinity – of true knighthood – and Aslan recognized it as such. Now,  Edmund isn’t always protective, especially with his words, but he comes through when it really counts. So Edmund changes in the course of the novel from a boy who hurts others to one who protects them – who became masculine. It may be that Edmund grows in his masculinity in the course of the novels, but it would take a closer reading than I’ve yet done to find out.

The two Pevensie boys demonstrate the opposite ends of a spectrum of Lewisian masculinity in the beginning of the novel. Peter consistently protects others, and Edmund consistently hurts others. Edmund also demonstrates that sometimes great growth in masculinity can occur almost instantaneously. I don’t believe that gender is the primary theme of the novel, but I do believe that it was so important for Lewis that it naturally came out in his writing. He was providing examples of heroes for both boys and girls – heroes and heroines who exhibited the essential characteristics of masculinity and femininity, as well as positive characteristics common to both genders such as courage, charity, and mercy.

Next week we’ll take a look at the girls and how they fit into Lewis’s idea of femininity. We’ll finally get to Susan! Meanwhile I’d love to hear what you think about Peter and Edmund as masculine beings.

Previous Post: Gender in the Wardrobe


I mentioned in my last post that I really want to write about Susan and explain her place in Lewis’s view of gender. I’ve realized that not only do I need to cover all the Pevensie kids to do that, but I should also take a look at the big picture of Lewis’s ideas of gender as represented in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. So here goes!

As soon as I realized that cold and winter are associated with Mars and masculinity, it struck me that the White Witch, who is feminine, is imposing eternal winter, masculine, on Narnia. That is, for Lewis, an oxymoron. Real femininity is connected to spring, warmth, plenty, water. So the idea that a female being would bring winter shows us that something is off kilter – things are not as they should be. In addition, at the first appearance of the witch, she is described in masculine terms. ‘Her face was white—not merely pale, but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar, except for her very red mouth. It was a beautiful face in other respects, but proud and cold and stern.’ Her face is ‘white like snow’, ‘cold and stern’, and her mouth is ‘very red’. All those are characteristics associated with Mars, not Venus. So I think that Jadis is attempting to suppress her femininity in favor of imposing a kind of negative masculine domination – tyranny – over a country which is not under her authority by right.

And she succeeds. Tumnus and his house are described in non-feminine terms – it is made of reddish stone, as his face and scarf are red. There are chairs and a fire and a teapot, but none of them are described as warm or soft. While lulling Lucy to sleep, he describes a summer scene, dancing and plenty – feminine. But they are merely longed for, not present. Real femininity arrives with Tumnus’s sorrow for his sin – he weeps. And there are 6 words associated with water in two paragraphs. Tears, trickling and running and wet and making a damp patch. Lucy brings a tiny bit of femininity into this oppressively masculine world. And shortly after this, Tumnus chooses masculine protectiveness of Lucy, even believing that he’ll be captured and turned to stone. Tumnus has learned masculinity from Lucy’s femininity.

The Beaver’s house is a lovely example of my understanding that places of great growth have masculine and feminine components. The Beaver’s house is a mound or hill rising out of water – frozen water, but it’s green ice, described with words related to moving water, indicating femininity (spurting, trickling, water, wavy). It’s also made clear that there is water under the ice when Mr. Beaver and Peter go fishing. The house itself is made of wood, and the interior, like Tumnus’ house, is described without feminine warmth or softness – like having bunks rather than beds – in spite of being inhabited by Mrs. Beaver. As the fixed land on Perelandra, Meldilorn on Malacandra, and the garden in The Magician’s Nephew, places of great growth exhibit masculinity surrounded by femininity. And Mr. and Mrs. Beaver together tell the children about Aslan and the prophecies. The children’s growth is facilitated by masculine and feminine beings, in a masculine place surrounded by feminine water.

I’m still working through the specifics. I think that’s enough indication that Lewis was working this masculine and feminine imagery into the novel, so I’ll go ahead and get back to the big picture. There are four thrones at Cair Paravel, intended for two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve. I think Michael Ward is right when he writes in Planet Narnia that the book is about Jupiter, or Jove. But what Jupiter does at his coming is to restore the balance between masculinity and femininity that has been upset by the White Witch. 

I’ll just go ahead and acknowledge here, too, that Michael Ward connects cold to Saturn rather than to Mars. I think Lewis associated cold with both Mars and Saturn, as cold things are often mentioned when he’s talking about both. The best reason for this I can think of is that both are traditionally planets with unfortunate influences. Mars is Infortuna Minor and Saturn is Infortuna Major. In The Discarded Image, Lewis makes it clear that he doesn’t think these planets are unfortunate in themselves, but their influence on a fallen world can be unfortunate due to the nature of the world that receives it. In the same way, cold and winter are beneficial in their place, but they can be unfortunate indeed when taken to extremes or when unrelieved by the appearance of spring.

Given this understanding, it would appear that the White Witch in Narnia is trying to impose an unfortunate influence of masculinity – unrelieved cold, without even the warmth brought by Christmas. The coming of Jupiter doesn’t do away with winter entirely, but rather restores the balance between the seasons by bringing the long overdue spring. Spring will be followed by summer and fall and then winter, in its proper time and place. Jupiter is the king, ruler of Mars and Venus, who ensures that ‘while the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’

Next Post: Peter and Edmund

Previous Post: A Quick Summary

As I may have mentioned before, I started working on a post on Susan Pevensie as related to gender, after reading someone saying Lewis ‘didn’t like women’ and talking about his ‘issues with women’ and mentioning Susan as a case in point. It’s turning out to be a bit more complicated than I anticipated, as I think she needs to be understood in context with her siblings. AND I’m not sure how much I’ve written about some of my ideas that may eventually need full posts. So I’ve decided to go ahead and write up a summary of main ideas that relate to gender and Lewis’s treatment of it in his fiction, to make my conclusions about the Pevensies a bit more understandable.

First, I believe that the eldila scene at the end of Perelandra gives an overview of Lewis’s views on gender, which are fleshed out in the trilogy and reflected in all his fiction. The image of the masculine eldil (Malacandra, or Mars) and the feminine (Perelandra or Venus) give a visual representation of what he saw as the essential characteristics. He carefully eliminates human cues such as hair length or style, color, sexual characteristics, and strength. Both shine with charity – love that desires to see and assist in the growth of the beloved. He describes them as both integral to complete humanity, and as entirely separate from one another.

The description of the eldila’s halos give us clues to know when he’s talking about Mars/masculinity and when he’s highlighting Venus/femininity. Mars is connected with hardness, coldness, and mountains; Perelandra with warmth, water, and plants/growth.

The eldila’s posture is the primary visual representation of the differences Lewis saw between masculinity and femininity. Mars stands with a spear, facing the direction from which danger has come, indicating his watchful willingness to sacrifice to protect others. Venus faces inward, to a world full of growth, indicating her connection with fertility or nourishing life, and she stands with her hands open, indicating a willingness to accept whatever God sends.

I see the primary focus of the trilogy as growth – Ransom’s process of maturing in both femininity and masculinity. He grows in Lewis’s idea of femininity because Lewis saw God as ultimately masculine and therefore all creation as feminine toward him. (I disagree, but in my writings on Lewis, I promise I won’t always include the tedious distinction between my views and his. If I’m writing about Lewis’s ideas, ‘femininity’ refers to his views. My views are addressed here and here) OSP is ‘Ransom’s enfances’ where he begins learning femininity, in Perelandra he reaches maturity in femininity then masculinity, and in THS he charitably leads others in their similar development. 

I also believe, becoming more convinced the more I read, that Lewis saw growth as requiring the presence of masculinity AND femininity. Every setting where major character growth occurs in his fiction seems to have masculine and feminine characteristics. (I haven’t re-read everything with this in mind yet, but as I read, I keep finding it.) I need to write a post about that, but once you start recognizing those Mars/Venus indicators from the Perelandra scene, it becomes fairly clear. Moreover, the presence of masculinity encourages growth in femininity and vice versa. The major clue to that is that what Ransom actually learns on Mars is feminine acceptance of God’s will, while on Venus he learns the art of war, but it’s reflected throughout his writings. My kids and I just listened to Prince Caspian and I noticed that it’s after spending time with Aslan (in his Martial character, as I think Michael Ward is right in Planet Narnia that the Chronicles reflect the seven heavens and seven aspects, if you will, of Christ) that Lucy becomes willing to follow him, even if she must do so alone. She grows in femininity through being with the masculine Aslan.

It’s also good to note that Lewis saw everyone as both in authority and under authority in different situations, and everyone should both submit and lead depending on their God-given place in the relationship (see Preface to Paradise Lost and The Arch Metaphor).

I don’t think that gender is a primary focus of the Narnia Chronicles as it is in the trilogy, but they naturally reflect Lewis’s views on gender.  Characters reflect differing positions on a sort of gender maturation spectrum, with some exhibiting characteristics opposite their gender, some intuitively practicing their gender, and some growing over the course of the books. (Wanna guess how I see the Pevensie kids?) I’m not sure that sounds right. Lewis makes it clear that masculine and feminine aren’t opposites, but each gender has it’s opposite. The opposite of masculine protective willingness to sacrifice oneself is a selfish harming of others rather than a feminine willingness to accept what God sends. This view helps us understand Susan’s place as a feminine character,  as it helps us understand all the characters.

I hope this has been a helpful overview. I’ll try to get around to writing about the parts I’m realizing I haven’t covered in this space. Let me know your thoughts below!

Next post: Gender in the Wardrobe

Last Post: Black Bards

Today I’m going to talk about a lighter topic. Well, sort of. It’s still not Lewis, but one I think he’d find interesting. I love Black poetry. I put it that way on purpose – not just poetry by African Americans, necessarily. But the poetry of freedom – it is so powerful and gritty and beautiful. I usually read a little poetry in the morning to wake my brain up, and the other day I began re-reading The Black Poets, edited by Dudley Randall. It’s a great place to start if you’ve never read any – it starts with spirituals and other slave songs and moves all the way through to 1970.

So, this morning I read one of my absolute favorites – ‘O Black and Unknown Bards’ by James Weldon Johnson. It honors the anonymous authors of the spirituals. In it, he marvels that people so oppressed, so crushed, could compose such beautiful, stirring melodies and that they should sing in praise to God. It’s full of the irony that a people thought to be lacking in intelligence could compose songs full of double meaning, and comparing their work to the classical masters. That last line, though, is the kicker. ‘You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.’ 

Just wow.

The horrible, horrible blasphemy of slavery (blasphemy because calling and treating those created in God’s image as though they were not is nothing less) brought people who had once been princes, princesses, valued members of their tribes, to a place where they were destitute, treated like animals to be bought and sold. I’m sure when many of them were introduced to the gospel, they saw it as just a white man’s religion. Some adopted it in order to placate their owners, yes. But many realized, rightly, that Jesus was much more like them than like their white masters. He also was a brown man, ruled over and oppressed by white men, treated as less-than by them, turned over by his own people to be killed by them. So many of them found in the Scriptures their hope – truly came to trust in the God who freed his people from the Egyptians. 

Most slaves were never taught to read or write. So as they learned the stories and the truths of the Bible, they composed songs about them. They began to sing of their hope – to express their joy and confidence or their sorrow and longing, and to draw others toward Christ. They wrote songs fitted to the needs of their people. Songs of comfort or encouragement, yes, but also songs of which Johnson says, ‘Such were the notes that men have sung/Going to valorous deeds’. People who read them assuming the authors weren’t genuinely believers miss out on the beautiful double meanings. ‘Steal Away to Jesus’ and ‘Deep River’ are both about dying and about escaping literal captivity. To say they are only about one or the other is to downplay the intelligence and creativity of the poetry. When they sang of Moses and Joshua, they sang of how God had freed his people and about how they hoped he would free them. They took the Scriptures and applied it to their lives in the only way available to them and they did, indeed, sing a race to Christ.

This poem made me think in a new way about Kanye West’s conversion and release of his new album. I know that some believers are hesitant to accept his conversion as real. Perhaps they have become accustomed to thinking that someone who has fallen so far is unredeemable, of being hesitant to accept any celebrity conversion as real – or of being worried about what embarrassment such a person might bring if they fall away, or if they embrace a form of Christianity unacceptable to the individual. But two things make me think his conversion to Christianity is real. The first is that from what I’ve read he’s perpetually honest, even raw, in his music – calling himself a god when he’s on a high, freely admitting his destructive tendencies when he recognizes them. And the album is full of an acknowledgement of sin and the need for grace and dependence on Christ necessary for conversion. The second is that he’s doing exactly what his forefathers and mothers did. He’s singing – composing music  that both expresses what he is feeling and thinking and urges others to come to Jesus. The composers of the spirituals created music that came from their African roots, composing new songs of encouragement, of lament, of rejoicing, of invitation that centered on their new faith. I think Kanye is doing the same, using the gospel music of the church crowd and the hip hop influences that permeate the African American community. I listened to the album. It’s not something I’ll listen to often – the changes are too abrupt, too drastic for my taste. Of course his theology needs time to develop, to grow and solidify – but doesn’t everyone’s? So I will do as he asks on the album. I will pray for him, that he will grow in Christ and that I’ll see him in that great gettin’ up mornin’.

Next Post: A Quick Summary

Last Post: A Woman’s Place

Well, last week was an eventful week for my gender studies. Kathy Keller mentioned me on the Gospel Coalition website, and a certain masculine Bible teacher told a certain feminine Bible teacher to go home. Now, I don’t follow either of said Bible teachers. I’m pretty sure I disagree significantly with both. I also didn’t read said remarks – just saw a brief summary of them. But it made me realize that it might be helpful if I spelled out what I’m thinking in these areas here on the blog. I’ve been writing ideas for my own thinking and talking through it with some people for a while, so this seems like a somewhat providential push to put it out there. Please understand that this is my own personal view at the moment. I don’t expect everyone – ok, I expect very few people – to agree with me. My views may change as I learn and grow. I just saw an article titled something like ‘I’m human, so I think and change my mind.’ That. Yes.

First, I’ll just say that I don’t fit into either the women belong at home or the women can do whatever they want camps. I see the situation as a bit more nuanced. I believe that a woman’s place is wherever God has placed her.

First, as I detailed in my last post, I see submission to authority – whatever authority God has placed over you, male or female – as a Christian virtue, like charity or kindness or love or joy or peace. The only context in which gender plays a role, as far as I can see scripturally, is wives to husbands. There are several possibilities as to why God may have made it that way – the fall, or the picture of Christ and the church (as Jesus was masculine), for instance. I don’t really know. But at the heart of my acceptance of that command is that I believe God said what he meant in his word, and that he only commands what is best for everyone. And wife is only a role, like citizen or employee, entered into willingly, that does not define who I am. In the role of wife, I submit to my husband. In the role of parent, I exercise authority over my children. When they are no longer children, I will no longer be in authority over them. Remember the arch.

As to women in the church, I mostly agree with Kathy Keller’s position in Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles. Women in the Bible are clearly given leadership roles. Deborah was a judge, several women are mentioned as prophetesses, deaconesses or co-laborers – even one as an apostle. Ann Voskamp recently gave an excellent overview of women listed in the Bible as spiritual leaders. The only position I see as not open to women is what my church calls elders. Some call it pastors or bishops or priests. It seems from my study to be a single position, with different words describing the qualifications or type of work emphasized in the context – ‘elder’ referring to maturity, ‘pastor’ being taken from the command to ‘shepherd the flock of God’ but not used as a title in the New Testament, and ‘bishop’ or ‘overseer’ referring to the primary function of overseeing the church. The term ‘priest’ is a carryover from the Old Testament. Personally, I think the New Testament is clear – especially in Hebrews – that we no longer need priestly mediators between God and humans as Christ’s death tore the veil, ending the separation between God and humankind. We have become, as God prophesied through Moses, a ‘kingdom of priests’, with Christ as high priest and the ‘only mediator between God and man.’ There is, as far as I can see, no mention in the New Testament of such a position in the church(see note). The requirements for elder as listed in I Timothy and Titus both expect it to be filled by a ‘one-woman man’ – for the most literal translation. That seems to me to exclude women from the position. It’s important to note, as well, that there are no women mentioned in the New Testament as filling the role. 

As to teaching in the church, there seems to be an expectation that women will prophesy – which before the NT was completed would have been the equivalent of teaching or preaching. When women are told to be silent in the church in I Corinthians 14, the context is when people have prophesied and the prophecy is being judged to determine whether it is in line with commonly accepted revelation. It seems to me to be focused on a woman questioning her husband’s or the church leadership’s judgement of prophecy in public. Paul says they are to be silent in obedience to the law, but women are never instructed in the Old Testament to submit wholesale to men, or to be silent in a gathering. They are instructed to submit to their own husbands, and men and women are both to submit to authority – including church leadership. If she does question either her husband or the elders’ judgement, she is instructed in the passage to ask her husband at home. Presumably, then, her husband could come to see her point of view, or he could explain why he believes she’s wrong. If her disagreement is with the elders, and her husband comes to agree with her, they could go together to the church leadership. This would fit the circumstances described in I Timothy 5 for correcting an elder with two or three witnesses. The reason I don’t think it can mean that women are never to speak in church is that so many women are described as prophets in the very law he says they should obey. So I think it is acceptable for women to teach/preach/speak in church – as long as they are doing so in submission to their husbands and the church leadership rather than in opposition to them. I’ll say here that I’ve never done so – have never been asked or asked to do so. I do lead in congregational prayer regularly – which is more than some churches permit women to do. I hold my hands open to what God asks, but I will not seek something he does not call me to do.

Now for the ‘go home’ aspect of the remarks I mentioned at the beginning of the post. Sigh. I wish people would learn their history. I’m focusing here on European history, but I think the idea holds true across many societies. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, most women were at home. BUT so were most men. The family had a farm or another business. Husbands and wives and children all contributed to the financial sustainability of the family. Husbands did the heavy lifting around the farm – because they’re physically bigger. Wives did more of the housework – because they’re physically smaller and because, well, babies need mom’s milk. What exactly the division of labor was depended on the individual family, type of work they did, and the society to which they belonged. When people started leaving farms and villages for cities in the Industrial Revolution, everybody had to work to survive. BUT if the husband alone made enough money, the wife could stay home and take care of the kids because not everybody had to earn money. So mom staying home became a status symbol and a goal – like owning a house is in ‘the American Dream.’ Then, thanks probably in part to Queen Victoria’s emphasis on children and home, it eventually became the norm. Then it got read back into the Scripture to the point that now moms are held responsible for the home and children, especially in Christian circles, even if they work outside the home. 

But this doesn’t really fit what the Bible says. The Proverbs 31 woman’s children aren’t even mentioned except as part of ‘her household’ until they’re praising her along with her husband. But she has her own businesses – makes and sells goods, purchases and runs a vineyard. (Oh, I love the story of Katharina von Bora Luther – this sounds so much like her! Martin had absolutely no money sense.) She’s apparently rich, as she has servants. But her work and wisdom have clearly contributed to the wealth of her household. Her financial contributions are so emphasized that you could almost summarize it as ‘marry a wise woman and be both happy and rich.”

Another big problem with glorifying the idea of mom staying home with the kids while dad works outside it is that Scripture expects fathers to be the main disciplers of their children. Really! Go look. The only time mothers are directly connected with discipline in the Bible that I’ve found is when a kid is about to be stoned for rebellion and both parents have to verify that the kid was appropriately disciplined. David and Eli alone were held responsible for their sons’ rebellion. God disciplines us . . . as a father. The primary audience of Proverbs is . . . a young man. Women are portrayed as teaching their children, and the main command to them as mothers is to love (affectionately) their children. And, presumably, they should carry out some discipline as the couple mentioned above testifies that they both have done so. But the father is the one held responsible. He is pictured as teaching and admonishing them. Those things aren’t possible if he doesn’t spend time with his kids or if he views them as his wife’s responsibility. So I believe the problem with parents working away from home is the father’s absence even more than the mother’s.

Oh. I should probably also address a commonly misused verse. I Timothy 5 says ‘if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.’ This is sometimes used to say that it’s a man’s responsibility to provide for his wife and children – therefore the woman can just stay home and care for the kids. The reason this is a misleading application is that it’s actually talking about a man providing for his mother or grandmother – and possibly other relatives – after his father has died. Elderly widows in that time and had very little recourse for earning an income, so Paul is giving instructions for deciding which widows were eligible for church financial support. If a widow had children or grandchildren who could support her, they should provide for her, leaving church funds available for women who were truly in need. Verse four actually describes this support of relatives as a way to ‘show godliness’.

So, no, I don’t believe that women are restricted to the home – or that they are any more responsible for the home or children than are men. In our society, unfortunately, at least one parent will usually have to work outside the home to make ends meet. In many cases, both parents will have to work. Honestly, I think the best case scenario is both parents working from home as much as possible so that both have significant time to interact with the children. But which parent works outside the home if the family can afford one staying home – at least once the children are old enough to be independent of mom’s milk – simply depends on the individual couple and their gifting and priorities.

For our family, we believe, strongly, that God gave my husband and I our children because he wants us to rear them rather than turning them over to others for the majority of their days. At the moment, that priority means I stay home and they only go to school two days a week. My husband works outside the home because one of us needs to and I can’t make enough money to support us in our area. To make that happen we do without some things many in our culture see as necessities. But it is what God has called us to do. If things changed, we might swap places. My husband is definitely a better cook than I am! And I’m far more extroverted than he is, so more time with people would be nice for me – and less for him. Early in our marriage, I was the primary breadwinner for a time. We will do what God calls us to do, when he calls us to do it.

That will all be different for each family. Coming back to Lewis, for a moment, the important thing is that each individual and each family holds their hands open for whatever God calls them to do. For some mothers, that means leaving their children with their husband or in school and going to work outside the home. For some fathers, that will mean staying home with the kids. For some parents it means parenting without a spouse – or in the wake of a difficult divorce. For some families it may mean moving from an expensive city or a big house into something smaller that gives them time with their kids. For some it will be making the most of the little time they have with their spouse and children because everyone must work to survive. 

Having open hands means filling the place God has uniquely created for you – male or female, mother or father or childless or single. He is the one who defines your unique role. His commands are always for your good, and he knows the plans he has for your good future. Your place, man or woman, is wherever God places you.

(Note: You may notice that this is a significant point of difference between Lewis and I. He belonged to the Church of England, which has priests. He believed in an equal or almost equal degree of authority between the Bible and church tradition. I believe Jesus illustrates that the Scripture alone is God’s Word. He absolutely ignored the Talmud as a guide to his behaviour, going back to the words of Scripture when he did something that broke the additional commands/interpretations in the Talmud, particularly concerning the Sabbath. The Talmud was the collection of writings the Jews of his day considered authoritative (think church councils from our perspective). All authority belongs to God – not the Scripture – but God always says what he means and means what he says, as written to the original audience in the original genres.)

Next Post: Black Bards

Last Post: All Good Masters Are Servants

Nothing is merely a by-product of anything else. All results are intended from the first. What is subservient from one point of view is the main purpose from another. No thing or event is first or highest in a sense which forbids it to be also last and lowest. The partner who bows to Man in one movement of the dance receives Man’s reverence in another. To be high or central means to abdicate continually: to be low means to be raised: all good masters are servants: God washes the feet of men.  The concepts we usually bring to the consideration of such matters are miserably political and prosaic. We think of flat repetitive equality and arbitrary privilege as the only two alternatives–thus missing all the overtones the counterpoint, the vibrant sensitiveness, the inter-inanimations of reality. C.S. Lewis, Miracles.

 

In Chapter 14 of Miracles, C.S. Lewis addresses the miracle of the Incarnation – God became flesh and dwelt among us. One of the major ideas he addresses is the idea of dying and rising in creation, and how the Incarnation fits into, and gives meaning to, this theme. Along the way he asserts that minor things can turn out to be major and vice versa – a theme he addresses in the praise service at the end of Perelandra, as well. What strikes me about this is something I’ve been considering for a while.

When people begin to understand what I have to say about Lewis’s ideas about femininity and masculinity, I’m sure there is going to be considerable consternation over his portrayal of submission as feminine, especially as he’s already been accused of misogyny. It seems demeaning, though Lewis rather turns things on their head by expecting men to exhibit exactly the same kind of submission. Our culture – and all earthly cultures – are so permeated by the idea that it’s better to lead than to follow, to be in a position of power rather than a position of servitude, in authority rather than in submission. But that’s simply not the way that Lewis – or God – sees it.

The gospel of John is so fascinating because Jesus repeatedly claims both absolute submission to God and complete equality with God, almost in the same breath. Take, for instance, John 8:28-29 ‘then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. . . . He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.’ When he says, ‘I am he,’ he’s using the Old Testament name God used of himself. The unbelieving Jewish leaders clearly understood Jesus to be claiming equality with God, as they continued to try to find a way to kill him (they had started in chapter 5 after a similar exchange). Yet he is also indicating complete submission to the Father. There is no sense that submission because of his current role has anything to do with worth or power or ability, no sense that submitting to the Father is demeaning to the Son. Jesus is claiming to be fully God, and currently existing in a role in which he submits to all that the Father asks of Him – does and says only what the Father tells him to do and say.

Lewis demonstrates this same concept both in the above quote from Miracles and in the praise service at the end of Perelandra. When you compare the above quote to Perelandra, ‘It is loaded with justice as a tree bows down with fruit. All is righteousness and there is no equality. Not as when stones lie side by side, but as when stones support and are supported in an arch, such is His order; rule and obedience, begetting and bearing, heat glancing down, life growing up. Blessed be He!’, you realize that Lewis’s idea of equality, of worth and importance, has nothing to do with either submission or leadership. Both are temporary – changing from moment to moment and situation to situation. As I mentioned in a post on the arch metaphor, everyone is both in authority and under authority – as the stones in an arch both support and are supported by the stones above and below them. In Perelandra, the visual representation of the Great Dance follows the verbal one, and all of the interweaving strands are both central and peripheral – they are all important and unimportant, depending on your point of view.  

So here’s how I’m thinking about submission. Men and women alike should submit to God’s good authority. Paul instructs those who live in a given country or city to submit to the laws and authorities governing the city or country. He tells employees to submit to their employers (I know it’s slaves and masters, but I think the implication is there) and children to submit to their parents. He even says all believers should submit to one another. I think few would take issue with those examples. They’re not gendered. The difficulty comes when he instructs wives to submit to their husbands. This, perhaps, is how submission has come to be seen as a feminine trait, and this is perhaps why Lewis chose to treat it as such. But ‘wife’ is simply a role, as is ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ or ‘employee’ or ‘resident’. It is not the sum of one’s being. Like Christ’s submission to the Father, there is no reason to see this voluntary, covenantal relationship as demeaning or as having any bearing on worth or power or ability. The word used of Eve at creation, usually translated ‘helper’, has unfortunate connotations, but in the Old Testament it is often used to describe God himself. He ‘helps’ us because we cannot do something alone – and the same is true of the woman helping the man. God created Eve because Adam needed her help! To be a helper is to be like God. To be the one in submission OR the one in authority is to be like God, and both men and women are called to do both, in various roles. The Bible never states or implies that women are subservient to or in any way inferior to men. It is full of people submitting to one another – even of men submitting to women, as Barak submitted himself to Deborah’s instructions regarding the battle with Sisera, and his reluctant/imperfect obedience was to his detriment. It seems to always be a matter of roles.

 

So I don’t believe that submission is well chosen as the ultimate image of femininity – I think perhaps Lewis comes closer to the mark on the fertility aspect. Perhaps submission, like charity, is a significant requirement for both genders. (It’s also interesting that when Paul calls wives to submission, he calls husbands to charity. So why isn’t charity seen as primarily a masculine trait?) I’m also wary of the idea that God is so ultimately masculine as Lewis portrays in his body of work – or at least, not without being also ultimately feminine, as in being the ultimate, the original, of both. While most of the descriptions of God in Scripture are masculine, he also does picture himself in feminine terms several times  – as a hen protecting her chicks, and as a mother nursing her child for example. Masculinity and femininity alike – and equally – reflect God’s image.

What I do love about Lewis’s work is that he restores submission to God as necessary for all humans, and as a conduit of blessing. I love how he pictures Ransom as feminine – especially in the ship on the way to Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet. (Read more here.) Other pivotal scenes depicting Ransom’s growth in submission include his acceptance of the necessity of going to Meldilorn and the scene in Perelandra in which he is tempted to assert his independence and learns ‘not to make that inner gesture.’ Ransom is blessed because of these choices – this learning to submit to God’s authority. ‘His day became better and better as the hours passed.’ He, a man, learns the joy of submission.

In depicting submission this way, Lewis, though retaining the cultural idea of submission as feminine, is at least removing the sting of our tendency – the tendency of all humans – to think that authority is somehow better than submission. He is reminding us – through making it clear that Ransom is a reflection of Christ and portraying him as learning submission – that our ultimate example of humanity was fully submissive to the Father. ‘[A]ll good masters are servants’, indeed.

Next Post: A Woman’s Place

Last Post: High and Low Brows, part 2: or God, Me, and Agatha Christie

I looked last week at Lewis’s article ‘High Brows and Low Brows’. Thinking of those ideas led to some natural applications I want to talk about today.   First, and most briefly, the Bible. Definitely difficult literature, at least today. I think that idea of simple and difficult literature somewhat explains the ‘foolishness’ of preaching. Any literature becomes difficult to understand in a hundred or two hundred years – much more in two thousand! So it makes sense that God instituted preaching as a way to take the Scripture – some originally easy literature, some difficult, but all becoming more difficult as time passed – and bring it down to the level of people, of whatever culture in whatever time, who could only understand simple writing – writing of their own time, in their own language. Can I just say that I love the way the elders of my church seek to understand pertinent aspects of the culture to which a given passage was written, and the language in which it was written, then explain the ideas and apply them to our own cultural context?

Next I see some applications to my own writing. I’m a teacher at heart. I spend most of my time with seven to eleven year olds. So I tend to write and speak in such a way as to make what I’m saying clear, or not ‘difficult’. Even when I taught college I tended to use very straightforward language, as I wasn’t teaching communication majors, but the general population – and the goal wasn’t to challenge them to puzzle out communication terminology, but to enable them to give a decent speech! In my current situation, that tendency to straightforwardness could make some scholars think I’m not serious or knowledgeable – because they prefer or expect more difficult or ‘highbrow’ language and a more roundabout way of getting at concepts. Well, so be it. My goal in writing isn’t to make people think I’ smart, but to get ideas from my mind into others’ as clearly as possible. I don’t think anybody really likes reading gobbledygook, even if it’s academic gobbledygook. I could, however, stand to use a bit more terminology others have used when writing about Lewis. Like a word from the essay I read recently that pointed out evolutionary theories in Lewis’s time moving from static ideas of ‘being’ to a more movement-oriented ‘becoming’. Now, that terminology fits in very well with what I called in my article ‘maturation’ – a continual growing, moving forward, following Maleldil in the dance. And the more I read, the more of that terminology I’m bound to pick up. I don’t think there’s any danger of becoming one of those writers that use big words just because they like them, or because they think it makes them sound smart, so I don’t think I need to worry about that side of it!

Another application I’ve been thinking of is Agatha Christie. I wrote some time ago about someone lecturing and saying she didn’t have much ‘atmosphere.’ He felt at liberty to say that precisely because it’s ‘lowbrow’ literature. And as Lewis notes, those who read ‘highbrow’ literature have a tendency to feel free to dismiss or criticize ‘lowbrow’ literature with little to no cause. There’s also the fact that humans have a tendency to see what they expect to see – so if they expect stock characters, impossible situations and coincidences, that’s all they’ll see. But if you read Christie a bit deeper, you see that she was having fun with those tropes. She winks and nods to readers astute enough to see it. ‘Look! I’m using this trope – watch how much fun I have with it!’ (For instance, I just finished a really early novel – The Blue Train, 1928. It centers on a woman who works as a companion to an old lady. The employer dies and leaves all her money to the woman, much more money than anyone knew she had.  So you can read that and roll your eyes and think Christie unoriginal. Or you can read a bit further, when on hearing of this happening, another character remarks, ‘What about it? . . . It is the sort of thing that is always happening. Cheese-paring old women are always dying in villages and leaving fortunes of millions to their humble companions.’ THAT is Christie’s wink to let us know that she’s using the trope on purpose and having fun with it. And she gets away with it all the time!) The characters ARE often stereotypes. But they’re still individuals – and so very lifelike. We enjoy recognizing their type, and getting to know them as individuals. That, in my book, is genius.

As to atmosphere, the critic I mentioned earlier was right in a sense. Christie’s novels contain plenty of atmosphere, but it’s essentially the same atmosphere, at least for most of her books. The critic was noting that it doesn’t change much – and he was right. The few novels that vary significantly are replete with their unique atmosphere – like Death Comes as the End (set in ancient Egypt) or The Mysterious Mr. Quin. But the usual consistency of atmosphere is, I believe, a part of the reason her mysteries are so successful. She sets up a very conventional, predictable, organized, distinctly English atmosphere. Even novels with exotic settings, such as the Orient Express or an archeological dig, are peopled with English or Continental types her readers recognize readily. Even her notoriously un-English (Belgian) detective is notoriously meticulous – despising every speck of dust, noticing crooked cravats and fireplace spills and chairs placed at the wrong angle. So when murder occurs, or a piece of jewelry is missing, solving the crime becomes an urgent matter – because things are no longer as expected. Murder doesn’t fit this organized world she has created.

Christie didn’t mess around with that atmosphere very often because it worked so well. The surprise ending leads, full circle, back to what the reader has been led to expect. The boy gets the girl, the killer gets her/is comeuppance, the innocent suspect is cleared, somebody eats a good meal or inherits some money, and the reader can breathe a sigh of relief because order is restored. I would also argue that that’s part of why so many readers object to Tommy and Tuppence. I quite like them – because I’m reading for the characters and I find them amusing. But those who are in it for the plot (and for that pattern of normalcy established – normalcy broken – normalcy restored), their quick repartee doesn’t quite fit. They’re too unpredictable, so for those readers they disrupt the flow.

Interestingly, Christie didn’t write the mysteries because it was the best stuff she could write. She wrote them, first for the fun of it, then to make money to support herself and her daughter, and then, I surmise, because, well, it was expected of her – and maybe to put her grandson through school or keep herself well indoors on archeological expeditions. I wouldn’t put it past her. And part of what tells us that are those little winks that are all over the place if you’re looking for them. She did publish six ‘serious’ novels – character studies of the kind she really wanted to write. They sold moderately well. A common theme is the ways in which we deceive ourselves. (Listening to another Christie, I just connected this to the way Hastings continually deludes himself in thinking that he’s a good detective!) These novels aren’t difficult, in the sense of being hard to understand, but they are perceptive. In fact, my theory is that they didn’t sell better because they hit far too close to home. No one wants to be confronted with the fact that their family finds them annoying because of all the sacrifices they’re constantly making and talking about. That’s the theme of the novel she declared herself absolutely satisfied with – Absent in the Spring. Lewis described the same kind of women in Perelandra – and not in a positive context!

What I love most about Christie, her ability to draw a character in just a few words, might be part of the reason those who prefer difficult novels find her unbearable. They’re almost too clear, too easy to picture or to know – minor characters as well as major ones. That’s also part of the reason her books adapt so well for the stage. For instance, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, there was ‘an individual who made up for insignificance of stature by a large quantity of gold lace and uniform.’ Most readers can instantly picture this individual, the way he would stand and move and  his facial expression, just from that phrase. And his words and later gestures conform to the picture. He plays a very small part, but he is perfectly clear. Primary characters become even clearer, often with just as few words. And they remain perfectly clear throughout the novel. And there are so many of them! Christie loved people – she loved their variety, their foibles, their capacity for good and evil and kindness and love. And so she portrayed them in her novels. And in her autobiographical works, for that matter!

So, anyway, that’s why I think that in about a hundred years, Christie’s novels will supply the place in literature that in our day is supplied by Dickens. Written for the masses, best sellers, but enduring. And difficult in about a hundred years!

Previous Post: High and Low Brows, Part 1

Reading through Lewis’s essays is always interesting, and the other day I came across one I love! It’s called ‘High and Low Brows’, and it explores the dichotomy between Good, Great, or Classical Books (type B in the essay, or highbrows) and Popular Books (type A, or lowbrows). His goal is to find out where, exactly, the line is and why it exists. He first makes clear that it’s not a distinction between well written and not well written and quotes a college head as describing reading a ‘good, bad book’. It was well-written, but definitely part of the lowbrow class. Then he explores things like themes and subject matter and writing style, and finds examples of similarities in each category. Then there’s the fact that Dickens and Moliere wrote best-sellers for a general audience in order to make money, so it isn’t really about whether an author was trying to write great literature, or just something that would sell, either. What makes these books move from one class to the other seems to have to do with time. And what time does to books is make them difficult. So Lewis finally comes to the conclusion that the dividing line is . . . difficulty. Yup. An easy book in the mid-19th century becomes a difficult book in the mid-20th and so moves from type A to type B.  So, some books are on the highbrow side of things right off the bat (because they’re difficult to begin with), and others become that way with time, because they become more difficult as they become more dated. So Lewis basically cautions readers not to be quite so dismissive of popular literature, as it could well be the highbrow literature in a hundred years.

I’m assuming not many people saw . . . or agreed with . . . or maybe were willing to admit . . . his premise from this essay.  But what is really interesting to me is that Lewis obviously appreciated both complicated, difficult literature (witness his love for Dante and Medieval and Renaissance literature in general – its complexity is much of the appeal) and more popular literature (witness his continual references to books like The Well at the World’s End). And he makes the point that slighting popular literature does no one any good – nor does applauding scholars for reading popular literature in their native language. Oh, how he would sorrow to see the kind of books kids are praised for reading these day! The twaddle my kid brings home from the library sometimes doesn’t even bother with proper grammar! But teaching people to be able to read more difficult literature at least gives them the advantage of broadening their horizons. I would say that it also has the advantage – which Lewis talks about elsewhere – of being able to appreciate and evaluate different viewpoints – both cultural and chronological. That’s one of the things I love about homeschooling. Our read-alouds right now are The Hobbit and a book of classical myths. Familiarity with the myths will make references in literature from the Odyssey to Shakespeare to the modern Arcadia (Iain Pears – amazing!) much easier to appreciate – it will make ‘difficult’ literature much more accessible for them.

Part of what I love about this article is that Lewis had already published Out of the Silent Planet. That was definitely classed as lowbrow literature! Lewis took a lot of flak over the next several years because he was an Oxford professor who kept publishing lowbrow books in addition to his scholarly work. But these popular works also have a deeper, more difficult level that we’re just now exploring . . . in journals . . . as if they belonged to type B, or ‘highbrow’ literature. So, as Lewis loved both kinds of literature, he wrote novels that in a sense belonged to both kinds of literature. Though, for some people, at least, that seventy years makes even the more obvious level on a difficulty par with type B!

Thinking about these ideas is encouraging me to think, once again, about books I love of both kinds. I share Lewis’s tendency to appreciate both kinds of literature, and to seek a balance between them in my reading.  Even as a kid I was reading, by choice, chosen from the library shelves, the definitely type A Nancy Drew alongside biographies of Dolly Madison and Martha Washington – biographies written for an adult audience, which qualified as more difficult literature for 12-year-old me. Then it was Agatha Christie (A) and James Fenimore Cooper (B) by the time I was fifteen. In college I remember reading Jane Eyre and Shakespeare and performing The Tell-Tale Heart. It was SO MUCH fun walking around randomly reciting that killer of a first line – ‘In the consideration of the faculties and impulses, of the prima mobilia of the human soul, the phrenologists have failed to make room for a propensity, which, although obviously existing as a radical, primitive, irreducible impulse’ . . . and there my memory fails me. Anyway, now I’m reading Milton’s Paradise Lost and Lewis’s essays, listening to the Ransom trilogy, and reading an Agatha Christie. What I’ve tended to lately is reading Lewis and his influences and listening to easy literature – like steampunk (most recently Mortal Engines). Like Lewis, I tend to appreciate literature that is easy on the surface, but has some interesting insights or lessons or themes either on another level or buried in the conversations or stories.

I guess my point is that I, and I think many people, naturally choose a balance of literature between that which is difficult for them, and that which is easy. On a day when I’ve been running on autopilot, or been distracted by trying to do fifty things at once, I’ll look for something difficult to read, so I can focus. On a day when I’ve been overwhelmed with difficult decisions or emotional situations, I’m more likely to turn to something easy. I just think it’s incredibly sad that in our culture, most people, even those who enjoy Shakespeare, wouldn’t think to pick up and read Paradise Lost because they assume it’s too difficult.

So, pick up a difficult book and spend some time working through it!  It’s fun! (Yes, I know I’m weird – but you may enjoy it more than you think!)

I named this part one because I have lots more to say about this idea and how it applies to various literature, including – you guessed it – Agatha Christie . . . and the Bible!

Next Post: High and Low Brows, Part 2

Previous Post: Lewis vs. Milton

As I’m reading Paradise Lost and thinking about its relation to the Ransom Trilogy, one thing I’ve been struck by is that Milton puts Eve clearly in submission to Adam from the beginning, before the fall. Here’s part of the initial introduction to the pair.

  •                                            Though both
  • Not equal, as their sex not equal seem’d;
  • For contemplation hee and valour form’d,
  • For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace,
  • Hee for God only, shee for God in him:
  • His fair large Front and Eye sublime declar’d
  • Absolute rule . . .
  • Shee as a veil down to the slender waist
  • Her unadorned golden tresses wore
  • Dishevell’d, but in wanton ringlets wav’d
  • As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli’d
  • Subjection . . .

So Milton saw Eve as subject to Adam from the beginning, before the fall. Their other unfallen interactions make this clear, as well. She gets his food, he asks her to bring food for Raphael, she gets his permission to work in a different part of the garden, etc. My reading of Genesis is a bit different from Milton’s, and I would hope most people now would see it my way, though I’m pretty sure nobody in his day would have agreed with me! But I do think Lewis would have . . .

When Genesis says God created Eve, she was created after Adam, out of Adam, but there’s nothing in the text to indicate that she was subject to him. Unfortunate connotations of the word ‘helper’ have contributed to the persistence of the idea, but the word in the text doesn’t imply subjection at all. The word is used in the Old Testament several times to refer to God – ‘The Lord is my helper.’ So, if God is characterized with this word, then it can’t imply subjection because the idea of God being subject to man is simply ludicrous. Some modern translations clarify this by translating it with a phrase like ‘suitable companion,’ ‘a companion who corresponds to him,’ though some still use ‘helper’ in there somewhere. The note in the NET is very helpful (ha!) here. ‘In the Bible God is frequently described as the “helper,” the one who does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, the one who meets our needs. In this context the word seems to express the idea of an “indispensable companion.” The woman could supply what the man was lacking in the design of creation and logically it would follow that the man would supply what she was lacking, although that is not stated here.’ The note on the ‘corresponds to him’ part says that the word ‘literally means “according to the opposite of him.”’

That, to me, sums up the way that Lewis portrays the masculine and the feminine fitting together, suiting one another, working together to bring about growth and fertility. What I’ve been seeing in the trilogy is that every physical location where major growth happens has elements of both masculinity and femininity. Growth in femininity occurs under a masculine influence, and vice versa. Each fills up what the other is lacking.

In an unfallen world, this means that there would be no need for subjection. If both parties have the same goals, and if each is continually content in the role they have been given, then there is no need for rule or authority between them. I think this is a lot of what Paul is getting at when he is continually exhorting Christians to be of the same mind, to have unity, to be like a building or a body. There will be little to no conflict or need for anyone to exert authority if everyone agrees on the goal and each fills their role. Within marriage, Paul instructs women to submit to their husbands. But a woman only needs to submit to her husband when her desires are different from his. And that’s what Genesis says, isn’t it? “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he will rule over thee.” The desire to usurp his role (and therefore to be ruled) is part of Eve’s punishment, which is fitting as her sin was driven by a desire to be as God, usurping His role. Another part of this punishment is the tendency of men to rule over women, whether or not their relationship makes such rule reasonable (such as in a king/subject or employer/employee relationship).

I think Lewis deals with this beautifully in Perelandra, in contrast with Milton. There is no sense that the Green Lady needs or seeks her husband’s permission to welcome the stranger, to converse with him, to learn from him, to teach him. Ransom gets his own food, as presumably does Tor, her husband. She frequently receives information directly from Maleldil regarding their conversations, to enable her to understand Ransom. She desires to see her husband, and there is indication during her conversation with the Unman that she wishes to seek his guidance (on which more in another post), but their relationship seems much more equitable than that in Milton. When they arrive at the coronation, it is side by side, hand in hand. King Tor takes the lead in answering many of Ransom’s questions – and a few of Tinidril’s as well – but he also acknowledges that he has received information from her without any necessity for outward communication. She tells Ransom where Tor has been during his absence and indicates that his role has been just as vital as hers when Ransom thinks he’s getting off easy. As it was Adam’s job to name the animals, it seems to be part of Tor’s role to name the places of Perelandra. But as there is no desire to usurp that role on Tinidril’s part, there is no necessity for submission- much less subjection. They are together crowned ‘Oyarsa-Perelendri, the Adam, the Crown, Tor and Tinidril’, joint rulers with no hint that one needs to rule over the other. Malacandra need not rule over Perelandra, and Tor need not rule over Tinidril, because each accepts their role, their part in the dance, their place in the arch.

Next Post: High and Low Brows, Part 1

Previous Post: Femininity + Masculinity = Fertility

Hang on to your hats for this one, folks!  It’s a bit of a wild ride. And, please, if you’re not already familiar with my ideas, please read something else first! Good places to start would be With Hands Open, Something Like a Spear and Hands Open, or Musings on the Trilogy Theme. Maybe even The Arch Metaphor. This is gonna sound really weird without some background. I don’t think I’m crazy!

When I first read That Hideous Strength, I noticed that when Lewis describes a visit to Merlin’s Well in Bragdon Wood at Bracton College, he uses an abundance of feminine, even sensuous, imagery. I wasn’t sure what the implication was, but I noticed it, thought it was a definite choice, and wondered what he was getting at. Fast forward a couple of years and I’ve finally gotten around to reading Paradise Lost. And now I think I’m beginning to understand.

Before I started Paradise Lost, of course I read Lewis’s Prologue and started wondering why I hadn’t done so sooner! It was published just before Perelandra, and has some obvious connections in the subject matter (temptation of Eve/Tinidril anyone?). Then I started into the actual poem and the further I get the more interesting connections I see – Lewis sharing or expanding on or avoiding or altering Milton’s concepts of God and sin and Satan and the fall and, of course, masculinity and femininity. It’s fascinating how in the Prologue he points out, for instance, the almost-laughable foolishness of Milton’s Satan, then  in Perelandra describes the Unman as being like a kindergartener. His also-comparable description of Weston ignoring the existence of the eldil Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet came before the Preface, but the idea is the same.

I didn’t realize how profound the influence on the trilogy was until I got to the place where Raphael comes to warn Adam of the impending temptation. The language there uses those same tones of feminine sexuality to describe the bower in which Adam sits that Lewis used of Bragdon Wood. Raphael travels

Into the blissful field, through Groves of Myrrh, And flow’ring Odours, Cassia, Nard, and Balm; A Wilderness of sweets; for Nature here Wanton’d as in her prime, and play’d at will Her Virgin Fancies, pouring forth more sweet, Wild above rule or Art; enormous bliss. Him through the spicy Forest onward come Adam discern’d, as in the door he sat Of his cool Bow’r, while now the mounted Sun Shot down direct his fervid Rays to warm Earth’s most inmost womb, more warmth than Adam needs; And Eve within, due at her hour prepar’d For dinner savoury fruits, of taste to please True appetite, and not disrelish thirst Of nectarous draughts between, from milky stream, Berry or Grape: to whom thus Adam call’d.

In Milton, the femininity is inherent in words and phrases such as ‘wanton’d’, ‘play’d’, ‘Virgin Fancies’, ‘sweet’ (used repetitively), ‘Wild above rule or Art; enormous bliss’, ‘spicy Forest’, the ‘fervid Rays’ of the sun warming ‘Earth’s inmost womb’, and so forth. Milton has his Adam found sitting in a bower characterized by a sense of sensuous femininity.

In That Hideous Strength, even the path to the wall surrounding the wood is characterized by feminine imagery. If you think of the descriptions of the planet Perelandra, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the ideas connected to femininity – water, growing things, diffuse light. In the path to the wood and the well, Lewis describes a ‘sense of gradual penetration into a holy of holies,’  ‘a cool tunnel-like passage’, green grass, buttresses giving the impression of being ‘soft and alive.’ He speaks of buildings that are ‘humble, almost domestic in character’(Lewis himself saw domestic work as something both sexes should share[see note], but it was nonetheless connected with femininity in Milton and in the popular culture of his own time), and the impression of being in ‘a sweet, Protestant world’. Then come a row of elms and the wall and the sound of running water. In fact, the path takes him over a bridge, so that ‘the dark brown dimpled Wynd was flowing under’ him. At that point he describes being ‘very near [the] goal’. The wood itself is a place of ‘sunlit green and deep shadows.’ ‘I suppose the mere fact of being walled in gave the Wood part of it peculiar quality, for when a thing is enclosed, the mind does not willingly regard it as common. As I went forward on the quiet turf I had the sense of being received.’ (This section reminds me so much of Mark at the end of the book, realizing that he has taken Jane for granted, treating her as common.)  Lewis says that it isn’t a long walk, but it seems to take a long time to get to the centre, the well, the place he has been seeking. When he arrives, he doesn’t walk on the pavement surrounding the well, but says ‘I lay down in the grass and touched it with my fingers.’ Then ‘[t]he air was so still and the billows of foliage so heavy above me, that I fell asleep. I was wakened by my friend hallowing to me from a long way off.’

That’s a pretty long descriptive paragraph for the scene, but even that doesn’t include all the the feminine imagery.  For instance, the words denoting fertility include florid, grass, green, soft and alive, mossy, elms, water, bowling green, wood, sunlit green, wood, turf, foliage, clearing, grass, out of doors, wood, grass, foliage.  Even the word ‘sweet’ comes into play when one realizes it appears twice in the the above description in Milton, and it is the characteristic Jane doesn’t understand why people keep attributing to her.

This whole section seems almost a picture of marriage; gaining entry through the proper means (being let in through the gate by a key used by his friend seems similar to a priest presiding over marriage vows), then entering the wood and be received. The path seems long – and what engaged couple doesn’t find the waiting long? Rather than walking on the pavement (bed?), he lies down on the grass and touches ‘it’ (consummation?). Then he falls asleep to be awakened by the far away voice of a friend. Maybe. In some ways it seems like a bit of a stretch, in others it seems to fit too well to be coincidence. In any case, I have a sense that Lewis had something more specific in mind in the progression of this walk than I fully understand. But here, undoubtedly, is the masculine well, and the masculine Lewis, surrounded by the feminine garden, as in Paradise Lost the masculine Adam was surrounded by the feminine bower.

That got me to thinking. What happens when masculinity is surrounded by femininity? Fertility!! And then to realize that in Perelandra, the fixed land isn’t just land – not just a beach, not flat, but mountains!  Very steep mountains! And that Ransom kills the Unman in the mountain, far above the feminine sea that covers the surface of the planet. And then he is born – borne on water out of a cave. Even the place he meets the eldil on Malacandra is an island rising out of a lake. These major moments of growth for Ransom happen when masculinity is surrounded by femininity.

Over a year ago, early in my research, I conjectured that for Lewis, one learns femininity from masculinity and vice versa. I realized that Ransom learns early femininity from the masculine planet of Malacandra. He learns further femininity, not from Perelandra itself, but from the masculine Presence on Perelandra. From Perelandra, and from Tinidril, he learns masculinity . He learns protectiveness because there is someone – a feminine person and a feminine planet – to protect. Jane learns femininity from Ransom’s masculinity.  It is the conjunction of the masculine and the feminine that bring fertility – life and growth. And isn’t that a reflection of life, of creation, itself? It’s definitely something I’ll keep an eye out for as I continue my research!

Note on Lewis seeing domestic chores as shared by both sexes: Consider the fact that Milton has Eve preparing Adam’s food, but Ransom gathers his own from the bounty of the planet. The men and women of St. Anne’s in That Hideous Strength share cooking and cleaning duties equally. It seems, from his letters, that Lewis himself did household chores when needed in his own home, though he usually had some form of hired help for daily cooking and cleaning. He speaks of cleaning messes made by sick dogs and people, caring for chickens, and so forth, as duties that sometimes interfered with his writing.

Next Post: Lewis vs. Milton

Previous Post: Metaphors and Meaning