Why Old Magic was Innocent, According to C.S. Lewis

As I’ve mentioned, That Hideous Strength dealt with a number of things, and there is one of them I’d like to explore more in depth, as it is a topic that interests me a lot and is relevant to the general enjoyment of literature and other of my favorite works such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Arthurian tales such as The Once and Future King by T.H. White and the more recent Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, which I hope to begin soon.

Through the character of Arthur Dimble, a professor of ancient languages and mythology, C.S. Lewis speculates on the role and place of magic in ancient times as contrasted with its place today. Here is an abbreviated version of the discussion on the subject between Dimble and his wife:

“Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time….[For a man like Merlin] there were still possibilities for a man of that age which there aren’t for a man of ours. The Earth itself was more like an animal in those days. And mental processes were much more like physical actions. And there were–well, Neutrals [spirits] knocking about…A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him. But there might be things neutral in relation us [humans]….There used to be things on this Earth pursuing their own business, so to speak.”

“I think there was room for them then, but the universe has come more to a point.”

“In Merlin’s time…though you could still use that sort of life in the universe innocently, you couldn’t do it safely. The things weren’t bad in themselves, but they were already bad for us….Like polygamy. It wasn’t wrong for Abraham, but one can’t help feeling that even he lost something by it.”

“Merlin…is the last vestige of an old order in which matter and spirit were, from our modern point of view, confused. For him every operation on Nature is a kind of personal contact, like coaxing a child or stroking one’s horse. After him came the modern man to whom Nature is something dead–a machine to be worked, and taken to bits if it won’t work the way he pleases.”

(from That Hideous Strength, p. 284-285)

Lewis, who like Dimble, was an expert in languages and in English literature especially would have encountered this issue theologically and in explaining the value of the myths from various cultures that engrossed him so much.

His answer regarding the status of pre-Christian or early post-Christian magic is that the world was a bit different back then, when distinctions about power and agency were perhaps less clear. It was a time, he says, when angels or other spirits may not have had a position towards humans and when the spiritual, even animal, realities of nature could be tapped into innocently, though he adds not safely. Continue reading

5 Books that Led to My Conversion

Uc2JTTW9vaMCNine years ago, while I was an undergraduate, I converted to Catholicism. Most people know that about me, and a lot of people think it’s strange, and that’s okay. 

I read a lot then and I read a lot now; here are five books that helped me on my way (in addition to the numerous actual people I observed and whose example and conversation affected me):

  1. The Confessions of St. Augustine
    1. Granted, this great saint and theologian was trained in rhetoric in the classical Roman educational style, but his language draws the reader right in. He is so forthright in telling his own wrong-doings, the thought-process of his conversion and in describing the nature of God and how he discovered it.
    2. It’s near-impossible not to be captivated by Augustine’s style and emotion as unfolds the story. There is a lot I identified with and a lot that I learned that Augustine puts into words rather well.
    3. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O Lord.”
  2. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
    1. A tour-de-force modern classic of philosophy that goes through the history of the Enlightenment moral philosophers to explain why moral/ethical discourse today has gone astray and why we often have difficulty just talking to one another about it.
    2. He criticizes the Enlightenment, destroys relativism as a fall-back and proposes a modern Aristotelianism.
    3. When I was pondering the casual relativism so rampant on college campuses, no other book dealt with the philosophical difficulties therein so well or so broadly. In many ways, this book was for me intellectual permission to set a stance, to reject the proposition that there is no truth, but while maintaining respect for others.
    4. Interestingly, MacIntyre was not Catholic when he wrote this, but he did later convert.
  3. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

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Yes, Deep, hidden meaning in books and movies is really there

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From Prospero's books

I was snot-faced in high school. I loved to sneer at novels in english class and say, “if the meaning is so deep and hidden, maybe it’s not really there. Maybe it’s just a story.”

Well, if myself today could teach a lesson to myself back then, it would be that “yes, it’s really there, and probably more than you think.”

Having written myself a good bit, I know that no one bothers to concoct a whole story and characters and plot points for no reason at all. Whatever conflicts and relationships the author finds compelling and powerful will be the  plot and choices available to the characters. Writing a novel, play or movie is hard work, and no one undertakes it just for the heck of it.

Every choice of clothing, setting, tone, obstacle is selected to have a certain mood in order to create meaning and connection in the reader’s imagination. An author tells a story because he or she deeply believes that it is worth telling. And the things that we think are worth telling others are the most significant facets of reality. Continue reading