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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

I’m reading Lewis’s essays in chronological order (at least the ones I haven’t read yet), and I just read a strangely titled but very interesting one. The title is ‘Bluspels and Flalanspheres: A Semantic Nightmare.’ Told you it was weird!  Bluspels and Flalanspheres are two words Lewis made up to illustrate the point he was making about meaning. He was speaking about an argument in philological and philosophical circles about the nature of meaning and metaphor and their connection to specific words. Specifically at issue was the idea of ‘dead’ metaphors. English has many words whose basis is a metaphor that either no longer relates to modern life, or that has been essentially forgotten. He argues, essentially, that in using a term without an understanding of the metaphor underlying the word, either we have an understanding of the meaning of the term we use from outside sources, or that we are speaking nonsense. He distinguishes further between metaphors we create to teach others and metaphors that teach us. In the first case, the metaphor is a tool separate from our meaning. In the second, our understanding of the term is created by the metaphor itself.  In the second instance, further study may enable us to have an understanding of the term separate from the metaphor, but if we don’t develop that understanding AND forget the metaphor, then we would just be using the term without an understanding of what it meant and would therefore be talking nonsense. I won’t get into what bluspels and flalanspheres are (or the metaphors that underlie them), because that would just be re-writing the essay, which isn’t my goal today!

My interest is in a further point that Lewis makes – that many of the things of which we speak cannot be spoken of at all except through metaphor, and that more ‘scientific’ or ‘non-metaphorical’ language is often merely a different metaphor. He gives the illustration of the word ‘soul’, originally indistinguishable from the word for ‘breath’. He says that it is quite true that we can – and often do – have a conception of the soul that does not include the metaphor of breath. But any other words we can use to describe the soul are equally metaphorical. Even the more scientific language of complexes and respressions and neuroses are equally metaphorical. And he makes the point that being able to choose between metaphors at least shows more understanding than having only one to shape our understanding. If a man has never seen the sea or a boat, he will need to use metaphor to understand what one is. And having more metaphors (‘sea-stallions, winged-logs, wave-riders, ocean-trains’) will give him at least a better idea than any one of them alone. But they are still functioning as metaphors. The only non-metaphorical language we use is essentially names of physical objects – and unless we’re pointing at a particular boat, there are probably metaphors underlying even that. (It’s fun to write and think about the metaphors in even the most direct of language – ‘underlying’, for instance)

‘Either literalness, or else metaphor understood: one or the other of these we must have; the third alternative is nonsense. But literalness we cannot have. The man who does not consciously use metaphors talks without meaning. We might even formulate a rule: the meaning in any given composition is in inverse ratio to the author’s belief in his own literalness.’ Ahhhhh. Here at last we’re getting to what interests me – and relates to the trilogy. Further on in the essay, he says, ‘The percentage of mere syntax masquerading as meaning may vary from something like 100 per cent. in political writers, journalists, psychologists, and economists, to something like forty per cent. in the writers of children’s stories.’  

So, I think when Lewis had a topic, or set of topics, that he wanted to discuss seriously, deeply, meaningfully, he turned intentionally to using metaphor. As he crafted the trilogy – or at least the last two-thirds of it – he consciously used Ransom and Tinidril and Weston and the planet Perelandra itself as metaphors. And when he came to the end of the book, he chose a different, a more pointed, obvious (to him, at least) metaphor – the god Mars and the goddess Venus. He was using a variety of metaphors to communicate his themes, just as he said helped our understanding. And when he wanted to communicate something of the various facets of his God, the most important, the most wide-reaching and most beautiful topic of all, he wrote it in the form of children’s stories, containing the most meaning and the least ‘mere syntax’ to his way of thinking. So I don’t think it would bother Lewis at all to be best remembered, most beloved, as the author of children’s stories. I think it would please him.

NextPost: Femininity + Masculinity = Fertility

Previous Post: Musings on the Trilogy Theme

I’ve been thinking lately about the main theme of the trilogy. In my article (which I’m hoping to submit next week!), I make the point that the trilogy represents an interweaving of many themes – the ‘unity in diversity’ Lewis praised in The Allegory of Love – into a unified work. I mention that gender is one of these themes, and perhaps the primary one.  I carefully avoid saying that it IS the primary one. One of my beta-readers commented that he didn’t think it was the primary theme; he saw it as ‘unity in diversity’. But that’s not really a theme; it’s more of a strategy. So, what IS the primary theme?

I made the point in a post a while back (The Ransom Trilogy and Maturity) that the trilogy demonstrates Ransom’s maturation – especially his growth in femininity and masculinity. So, I’ve been thinking about the idea of maturation, growth, development.  And I think the overall theme of the trilogy has to do with that idea, not just in Ransom, but in Weston and Devine as well. And, I think, the two of them represent a sort of growth in evil – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It’s also the contrast in Proverbs – the wise man and the fool (simple, fool, scoffer); the way that leads to life and the way that leads to death. Perhaps most significantly, it’s a reflection of the theme he quotes in his Preface to Paradise Lost, ‘“The great moral which reigns in Milton,” said Addison, “is the most universal and most useful that can be imagined, that Obedience to the will of God makes men happy and that Disobedience makes them miserable.”’ (Edit: As I get further into Paradise Lost, seeing in letters that he re-read it in 1940 and published his Preface in 1942, I realize more and more how much PL influenced the trilogy. I think he may have been writing his own variation on this theme when he wrote the trilogy.) And, Lewis being Lewis, the process they progress through and their interaction with various philosophical positions, regarding various subjects, exhibits that ‘unity in diversity’ he loved.

So, in the novels, Ransom illustrates development in good – in obedience, in femininity, in masculinity, in charity, in the knowledge of God and nature and humanity. Obviously I’m most interested, at least at the moment, in the gender aspect, but if you see growth as the primary theme – and remember Lewis called Out of the Silent Planet ‘Ransom’s enfances’ – there are several possible tracks to follow. So gender is A main theme, under that overarching idea of development. Ransom starts off a nice guy, so to speak. A bit selfish, a solitary walker. Nobody knows where he is, and nobody cares. He’s polite, but really much more interested in his own comfort than the well being of others. He grows to risking his life to protect others, then directing the growth of his neighbors (as in, the people God sends his way, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan) in the fight against, well, Satan. He grows to be respected by humans and gods, and his end is being translated, without death, to Venus to await the end of the universe in the company of King Arthur. The path of the righteous leads to life. Obedience makes men happy.

Lewis, as I’m beginning to understand is usual, provides a contrasting development in the characters of Weston and Devine. They start out selfish, but selfish in different ways. I see Devine reflecting the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes while Weston reflecting the pride of life. On the spaceship on the way to Malacandra Devine talks about what he hopes to gain from the trip, and it has to do with villas on the Riviera, yachts, and the best women. Weston’s hopes are the continuation of the species – conquest. Pride is a highly-emphasized characteristic throughout Ransom’s interactions with him.

Lewis echoes Milton’s portrayal of the foolishness of evil in the scene where the men are brought before Oyarsa Malacandra at the end of Out of the Silent Planet, as they both completely misread the situation and act foolishly in light of what we know that they don’t – that in their pride they refuse to recognize.

Weston’s development is summarized in Ransom’s talk with him after he lands on Perelandra. His seeking after power  – the power to ensure the continuation of the species – leads him to Satanic influence and eventually being fully controlled – possessed – by the trilogy’s equivalent of a demon.  His end is being overpowered by Ransom in the bowels of Perelandra, and his grave is in a river of lava. This is the path of development of the lust for power; the pride of life.

Devine’s development is shown in That Hideous Strength. His setback in not getting the gold from Malacandra doesn’t appear to have hindered him; he inherits a title, acquires some of the things he lusted after, but he is not satisfied and continues to seek more. That he grows to enjoy baser things is illustrated by the fact he stays and watches the carnage in the dining room at NICE. He continues to think only of himself and his end is being swallowed by the earth. The path of the foolish leads to death. Disobedience to God makes men miserable.

I’ll just say that I’m sure this barely, barely scratches the surface. I’m just jotting down my musings. I’m not very knowledgeable about the philosophical positions reflected in the characters’ beliefs. But maybe by pointing out this theme of growth, of contrasting development, I can encourage someone else to dig into that aspect while I dig into the gender one.

Next Post: Metaphors and Meaning

Previous Post: Preface to Paradise Lost

I don’t even know where to start!  I finished Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost a couple of days ago – and started in on the poem/book – and I am amazed. Why, oh, why didn’t the people I asked about what to read to help in my analysis of Perelandra tell me to read this first? Maybe they just didn’t think of it because it’s not their area of expertise. Or maybe they thought I couldn’t handle it 😉 It was only a million times easier to read than The Allegory of Love. But even more fascinating!

So, it seems that a lot of Lewis’s concept of both Tinidril and the Unman were shaped by his reading of Paradise Lost. The chapter on hierarchy alone will be exceedingly helpful when I get around to writing my book. It’s a bit too late in the game for me to insert it into my article – which four people have read and enjoyed. I have edited it a bit since a couple of them read it, inserting a section on the homily that clarifies the Lewis saw gender as God-ordained rather than as a social construct.

So, I’ll share a few highlights from the Preface. Lewis talks about some of Milton’s excessively high style – the references and comparisons to classical mythology and use of unusual or archaic words – as intended more to evoke an emotional response than for us to worry out specifics.  In fact, the way it’s written is probably intended to mimic an oral style, so that we keep reading rather than stopping to figure it out. It reminded me greatly of the style of the praise service at the very end of Perelandra. Some of the paragraphs are important comparisons, but many of them don’t make a whole lot of sense – because they’re not intended to. He’s stringing words together to evoke a sense of awe at God’s power and majesty and glory – just as he saw Milton doing.

He also talks about how part of the reason critics today have trouble understanding Milton is that they have lost the ‘stock responses’ Milton counted on when writing his poem. People don’t react to the ideas of disobedience or hierarchy or pride as they did when Milton wrote. It seems that part of Lewis’s goal in Perelandra was to write a book in which the stock responses of his own day could be used to elicit some of the same emotional responses Milton was going for. The torture of the frogs, for instance, went much further toward invoking the disgust most people no longer feel toward, say, maybe, blasphemy, that they would have felt in Milton’s day.

Then come the chapters on hierarchy and Adam and Eve and sexuality. Oh. Favorite quote (used often with my kids of late) ‘”The great moral which reigns in Milton,” said Addison, “is the most universal and most useful that can be imagined, that Obedience to the will of God makes men happy and that Disobedience makes them miserable.”’ Lewis points out that in Milton’s day, the assumption was that superior beings rule over inferior beings. God – angels – kings . . . So the justice of rule – and the kind of rule acceptable – depended on the relationship of the parties involved. A more superior being (say . . .an angel . . . or a man) ruling over an inferior being (say . . .a human . . . or, in Milton’s day, . . . a woman) was acceptable. An equal or inferior being trying to rule over an equal or superior being was tyranny. And refusing either to rule over inferiors or to obey superiors created problems (as in the quote above). I think Lewis would agree with this, with the emendation that ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ referred purely to position and not necessarily to worth or ability, etc. But that should probably be a post unto itself . . .

Can I just say that I love that Lewis said he wasn’t sure Milton was wise in trying to portray sexuality before the fall . . . and then avoided it in Perelandra by having Tor absent until the end? Smart man. I also love the discussion on Adam and Eve as highly intelligent beings rather than the ‘primal’ (as in simple and ape-like) beings his contemporaries tended to imagine the first humans to be. That is certainly reflected in his portrayal of Tor and Tinidril.

So now I’m excited to read Paradise Lost, like I did the Divine Comedy, a little at a time. After just a few pages I’m loving the way, as Lewis also points out, Milton shows us how foolish Satan is to think that he can thwart God’s divine plan. I just read how Milton shows Satan being so proud of himself for getting out of the lake of fire onto dry ground on his own power rather than God’s, with the understanding that his readers know that God created Satan and he wouldn’t even be able to do that much if God hadn’t given him the power, so he’s still acting in power that came from God. It shows his pettiness – as Lewis does when having the Unman repeat Ransom’s name over and over like a kindergartner, not knowing that he is a ransom.

Now I’m off to more editing and continued reading . . . and supervising math and cooking dinner . . .

Next Post: Musings on the Trilogy Theme

Previous Post: A Second Danae


The more I read C.S. Lewis, the more amazed I am at the complexity of his work.  I had noted the feminine imagery in chapter 5 of Out of the Silent Planet, where Lewis describes Ransom as ‘a second Danaë.’ I think I had looked up her mythology at some point, but while listening to that section the other night (Audiobooks are awesome for doing dishes and laundry. Have I said that before?) I realized that the whole section is permeated by references to the story.

So, I’ll give the story first. Danaë was the only child of King Akresius. He wanted a male heir, so he consulted an oracle, which told him that he would be killed by the son of Danaë. He locked her up in a (variously) bronze/brass tower/underground prison, with a small skylight for light and air. That, of course, didn’t stop Zeus, who impregnated her with a shower of gold. Her father locked her and her son in a casket and tossed them into the ocean, where Poseidon protected them and brought them safe to land. There’s much more to the story, but that’s all we really need to give here.

So, in OSP, Ransom is on the spaceship, on the way to Malacandra, having been kidnapped and with only his kidnappers for company. But he feels great! In explaining why, he describes the daylight on one side of the ship and the night on the other. Both are delightful. At night, or on the night side of the ship, he describes some stars as ‘pinpricks of burning gold,’ with a comet to the left side of the ‘skylight.’ ‘Stretched naked on his bed, a second Danaë, he found it night by night more difficult to disbelieve in old astrology: almost he felt, wholly he imagined, “sweet influence” pouring or even stabbing into his surrendered body. All was silence but for the irregular tinkling noises.” The word tinkling is from an old word for star. In the myth, the gold enters Danaë’s womb to give her Perseus. Then he mentions being in a ‘hollow drum of steel,’ not brass exactly, but a metal container like Danaë’s prison.

Ransom then moves to the sunward side of the ship. There he is ‘immersed in a bath of pure ethereal colour and of unrelenting though unwounding brightness.’ The water imagery brings to mind both Danaë and Perseus floating in the casket on the sea, and Venus herself, especially when one considers the descriptions of the planet Perelandra – the overall golden brightness and wateriness of the planet. Again he mentions being ‘stretched [to] his full length’ in the ‘strange chariot’ and he ‘felt his body and mind daily rubbed and scoured and filled with new vitality.’  Again, it sounds like impregnation, especially when he mentions Weston explaining this vitality by his exposure to ‘rays that never penetrated the terrestrial atmosphere.’ Here Lewis-reporting-Ransom moves into the comparative inaccuracy of the word ‘space’, in which he describes the ‘empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it “dead”: he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he saw now that it was the womb of worlds.’ Wow! As I said, the whole section is permeated by not only feminine imagery, but imagery connected directly to the myth of Danaë and to Venereal influence.

So, the question is, what was Lewis getting at with this imagery? Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. From my reading of the trilogy, the primary focus is not only gender, but maturation in gender. And, for Ransom and I think possibly in Lewis’s view for everyone, maturation in femininity (open-handedness toward God) precedes maturation in masculinity (protectiveness for others). And, I think, masculine influence encourages growth in femininity and vice versa.  I know, I know, it sounds weird, but bear with me. I’ll just say that the primary reason I think this, other than the fact that Ransom learns femininity from/on Malacandra and masculinity from/on Perelandra, is that in That Hideous Strength,  the answer to the final question from Merlin, the one that convinces him that Ransom truly is the Pendragon, is that he learned war on Venus. It’s an important scene, and an important question, and I don’t think Lewis would have put it there if it wasn’t important. So, he learned war (as in, war to protect others, as in masculinity) on Venus, representative of femininity. Anyway, back to the scene in question.

In this scene, I think, possibly, pending more reading, that Lewis intends the two sides of the ship to represent masculine and feminine influence, and a double impregnation of Ransom with the seeds of femininity and masculinity. I know, crazy. But maybe not.

First Lewis pictures a masculine influence from the night, star studded sky – Zeus of the Danaë myth. The stars ‘reign,’ the planets are ‘of unbelievable majesty’ he thinks of meteorites powerful enough to smash the ship. And he is Danaë, open to impregnation by Zeus via the ‘pinpricks of gold’, also pictured in the tail of the comet, pouring into ‘his surrendered body.’ I think (think being the operative word) this is an image of Maleldil planting the seed of femininity/openness in Ransom. As I wrote in an earlier post, this seed is developed under the influence of the masculine planet of Malacandra, as Ransom learns more and more to ‘surrender’ to the will of Maleldil.

On the other side of the ship, the sunward side, the water imagery begins. This is not only the second episode in the story of Danaë, it is also indicative of the influence of Venus. He is “drawn by an irresistible attraction’ to this area of the ship. This attractiveness, along with her connection to water and fruitfulness, seem to indicate the involvement of Venus. The description of being ‘filled with new vitality,’ ‘penetrated’ by rays, may well be a second  impregnation, this time with the seed of masculinity. This masculinity is brought to fruition on the planet of Perelandra, or Venus.

Like I said, it’s just a theory. But if fits so well that I can’t help but think it’s intentional. It wouldn’t be the first time if I’m wrong! But at least this time it’s all coming out of the text, in conjunction with the rest of the novels in the series. The man’s mind simply astounds me.

Next Post: Preface to Paradise Lost


I’ve been reading – and collecting – Agatha Christie novels since I was in my early teens. I literally own every novel she wrote – and yes, that includes the Mary Westmacotts. I have yet to comb through to make sure I have all the short stories, but if I don’t have them all I’m pretty close. Add to that an assortment of autobiographical works and collections of letters, etc. and, well, you get the idea. I know I don’t have all the plays; just a few. Not quite an obsession, but maybe bordering on it. I can’t tell you how happy I was to find Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (never published in the US) in hardback at an antique store. My aunt texted me pictures of finds at a library sale a couple weeks ago. I bought 4 books . . . some nicer hardbacks of ones I already have.

My hubby even made me this little paperback shelf which now contains only Christie and Sayers . . .

Anyway, a few years ago, I think, after reading and being disappointed yet again by a mystery author somebody recommended after hearing I liked Christie, I got to thinking about why I enjoy her books. The only mystery authors I really enjoy are Christie and Dorothy Sayers.  And maybe the Baroness Orczy, but there’s not exactly a huge canon there. Anyway, I realized that I enjoyed reading – and re-reading – her books more because I love her characters than for the mystery plot. They’re so very human, with natural and interesting  personalities and goals and relationships. And she manages to delineate these characters, set up a crime and resolve it in a couple hundred pages! Amazing! I also love the sense of respect with which she treats her characters. They may make foolish or wrong choices, but she manages somehow to imbue them each with a sense of dignity, which I love. Characters who treat others with disrespect are generally corrected or proven to be foolish or wicked. Poirot, especially, often makes the point that for anyone to take another’s life is the ultimate form of disrespect, and a frequent motivation for him to solve the crime is a sense that that disrespect must not go unpunished or be repeated.

So, with that background, you can imagine my surprise when a person whose literary opinion I generally respect said ‘Nobody re-reads Agatha Christie – at least not for her characters. Maybe if they forget the plot.’’ Now, to be fair, the context was a discussion on the atmosphere of books; the idea being that some authors are adept at creating a vivid atmosphere that transports you to a different place and time whereas some stories could take place pretty much anywhere anytime and it wouldn’t make much difference. C. S. Lewis wrote about this idea in his essay ‘On Stories.’ For example, Lewis loved the vividness of James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans – he thought the detail of a tomahawk instead of a pistol as a weapon added to the atmosphere of the story, as did the descriptions of the mountains, trees, and wildlife. As a contrast, Lewis said The Three Musketeers could have taken place anywhere – it moves from London to Paris with no discernible difference in tone or character.  A personal favorite for me is L. M. Montgomery – PEI to the core! The descriptions of place as well as the social mores and language of the characters all contribute to this turn of the century, down to earth but with this bare-possibility-that-fairies-are-real atmosphere. In Planet Narnia, Michael Ward christens this idea ‘donegality’ after Lewis saying he appreciated different places for different reasons, such as Donegal for its Donegality; its characteristic atmosphere. Hence the title of my essay.

Now, this person who referred to Agatha Christie as not having much atmosphere did moderate most of the statements regarding Christie with phrases like “the typical Christie mystery’ and ‘most readers,’ but of course the very phrase that wasn’t qualified was essentially the same phrase I’d used in a conversation with a friend just a couple of weeks before. Favorite authors . . . I love Christie . . . friend doesn’t read mysteries . . . I don’t read her for the mysteries but for the characters . . . I loan friend a Christie non-mystery novel.

Now, granted, many Christie readers read her for the plot and aren’t likely to re-read unless they forget it and want to be surprised. And I agree that’s definitely the pervading opinion of her work. Aaand for some readers the little tricks of the trade become apparent and they get bored with her. Set up, crime, eventual resolution . . the arc is easily predictable. BUT I had a feeling there were other people out there like me; people who read Christie because we love her characters rather than only, or primarily, for the plot. Email to person who made comments explaining that there is at least one person who reads Christie differently, to avoid A Defense of Agatha swirling in my head for days afterward. Case closed. Or so I thought.

The question came up again recently in a conversation with a friend whose literary tastes are surprisingly similar to my own. I asked her about it and she also re-reads Christie because of her characters! It’s not just me! Ha! She specifically appreciates the way Christie could create a cast of characters who are all so very different from one another and who interact in interesting ways.

So a couple of days later, stuck acting as a human security blanket after the cold season struck our house, I started pondering.  Is there an overarching atmosphere – a donegality, if you will – that draws people to Agatha Christie’s work?

And it struck me that I really think that a significant part of her appeal is her mid-twentieth century Englishness.  There’s this uniquely English flavor to all her work – her murder mysteries and her more literary works under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott – that is, perhaps, part of what draws people to her.  She is, after all, an international phenomenon. So it makes me wonder if there’s a segment of readers that read her for the plot and another that reads for that atmosphere, those characters. The language, the interactions, the  values, the relationships of her characters all contribute to this orderly world, peopled with individuals who conform to specific types but who each also have their particular flavor.  In fact, I’d say that sense of orderliness and conventionality are key aspects of the atmosphere that permeates her work. Murder messes up that conventional, orderly atmosphere. Therefore it must be solved so things can go back to normal! 

I think this idea may even account for part of the popularity of Hercule Poirot, her distinctly foreign detective. I think that the contrast provided by his un-Englishness brings the very English, conventional flavor of other characters (ahem, Hastings) to the fore. It’s also true that several of her works are set in foreign locales (she did travel a lot!), but with very English characters driving or reporting the action. The contrast of the place, like the contrast of Poirot, emphasizes that Englishness. The one place I think she really steps away from this is in a work set in ancient Egypt, and there her characters have an entirely different flavor – different setting, different values, different relationships.

And then I realized that part of the reason the person saw Christie as having little atmosphere may be that they’re . . . from England. So maybe, just maybe, that atmosphere doesn’t stand out to them  because it just seems like normal life. After all, I don’t read novels about moms in middle class suburban America because, well, that’s the life I’m living and it would be kinda boring . . . to me. A murder set in that world would be a bit more interesting, though!  And then I’d be reading for the plot rather than for the atmosphere!

It also may help to recognize that she was severely limited in what she could accomplish as a novelist by the mystery genre. She wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles as part of a bet with her sister. Sis says it would be hard to write a detective novel . . . Agatha says not that difficult; she could do it better than the one in question . . . bet you can’t . . . it’s on . . . and she did.  But once she started writing mysteries, she was stuck in that genre. She had to make a living for herself and her daughter after her husband left her. The publishers didn’t want her writing anything else because they didn’t think they’d make as much money. She did eventually manage to  publish 6 novels under a pseudonym, and they did fairly well. About one of them, Absent in the Spring, she wrote in her autobiography that it was, of all her books, “the one book that has satisfied me completely.” Reading them, I have a feeling they’d have done better if they didn’t hit quite so close to home (as in having characters whose self-deception is highlighted . . . whose motivations aren’t really what they had told themselves they were . . . and not many of us want to be made to think too deeply about those ideas!).  Interestingly, for those who complain about all her mysteries being solved and everything going back to normal, these novels don’t have happy, uncomplicated endings. They’re not tied up in neat little bows, but reflect the complications of real life, as I said, perhaps too closely.

It’s just an idea, but I’d love an excuse to do more research. We’ve just moved into fireplace weather after all, and curling up with a Christie by the fire sounds just about perfect. At any rate, I think she does a marvelous job of using Poirot, foreign locales, and murder itself to emphasize and make us want to get back to that conventional, orderly English world she creates. Anybody with me?

P.S. I just had the thought that someone might object to my theory on the grounds that Christie was just writing the culture in which she lived. But didn’t Jane Austen do the same?  And Cooper was writing about things that could have happened in the generation before – as he was friends with many who had served in the Revolutionary War, which ended only 8 years before he was born. And, as I said, I think Christie writes of the culture in which she lived, but she emphasizes the ordinary, conventional, orderly aspects of it as a contrast to the mayhem of crime and to make her readers want to see the crime solved so the world can return to that base of normalcy.  That’s all!