Tag Archives: C.S. Lewis

The net of our days chasing the bird of our lives: relating stories to life

I’ve been trying to deepen my understanding of plot and storytelling. I’ve been reading ancient (Aristotle’s time-honored Poetics) and contemporary (Benjamin Percy’s amazing Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction).

So it seems like a good time to dust off an essay from which I have quoted here before, C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” (which grew from a presentation in 1940 to a published essay in 1947). Like Lewis himself said, there’s more hope for someone who has never read a book than someone who has read it once and thinks he’s got it down. So re-reading him along with Aristotle and Percy, I hope, will help my fiction-writing-challenged brain better understand the basics and make new connections. (My graduate degree is in literary nonfiction.)

It’s been interesting to read Aristotle’s assumptions about real-world psychology as he dissects plot in general and tragedy in particular. (“Now character determines men’s qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse.”) Considering relationships between our real lives and fictional stories, here’s a segment from Lewis’s “On Stories” I think is especially interesting because it offers a useful metaphor.

“It must be admitted that the art of Story as I see it is a very difficult one. What its central difficulty is I have already hinted when I complained that in the War of the Worlds the idea that really matters becomes lost or blunted as the story gets under way. I must now add that there is a perpetual danger of this happening in all stories. To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality. Giantship, otherness, the desolation of space, are examples that have crossed our path. The titles of some stories illustrate the point very well. The Well at the World’s End—can a man write a story to that title? Can he find a series of events following one another in time which will really catch and fix and bring home to us all that we grasp at on merely hearing the six words? Can a man write a story on Atlantis—or is it better to leave the word to work on its own? And I must confess that the net very seldom does succeed in catching the bird….

“It may be asked why anyone should be encouraged to write a form in which the means are apparently so often at war with the ends….

“Shall I be thought whimsical if, in conclusion, I suggest that this internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life? If Story fails in that way does not life commit the same blunder? In real life, as in a story, something must happen. This is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the journey has once been begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside. Other grand ideas—home-coming, reunion with a beloved—similarly elude our grasp. Suppose there is no disappointment; even so — well, you are here. But now, something must happen, and after that, something else. All that happens may be delightful: but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted? If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more?… The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

“In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.”

I love the idea of seeking or reaching for something we kind of know, we almost see, we suspect is there, yet somehow evades us. With Lewis’s metaphor, the best aspirations of life could be the best accomplishments of stories. In life we want to achieve a qualitative state, and we hope to maintain it. (Most of us keep failing to catch it.) We go to the arts to experience a distilled version of a qualitative state. (Of any number of qualitative states.) We return to certain works of art because they do so well at allowing us to experience that distilled qualitative state again.

Of course, not everyone agreed with Lewis’s view of stories, including his former student turned friend John Wain, an acclaimed writer in his own right who would “frequent the Inklings.” Read Wain’s recollection of his differences with Lewis on the purpose of stories here.


Owen Barfield and Clyde Kilby discuss C.S. Lewis on video

I just yesterday found this video, which includes Owen Barfield’s account of his friendship with C.S. Lewis. The occasion was Barfield’s Nov. 3, 1977, visit to Wheaton College’s Marion E. Wade Center, which is devoted to The Inklings, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy L. Sayers. (Barfield was at Wheaton to give a lecture, a piece of which is included in the below video.)

During the video, Kilby shows Barfield one of the Center’s prized pieces: the wardrobe from Lewis’s home. Barfield also talks about his first book, The Silver Trumpet, and its popularity among the children of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Please also see:

Rediscovered C.S. Lewis Christmas sermon: ‘we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans’

And, the short documentary “Owen Barfield: Man and Meaning.”

And, C.S. Lewis on … ashtrays.

And, an interview with Lewis scholar Don W. King on Ruth Pitter, an award-winning poet and friend of Lewis.

Plus, you can search this site for more notes, annotations, and posts about Lewis, Barfield, Tolkien, Charles Williams, and G.K. Chesterton.

Rediscovered C.S. Lewis Christmas Sermon: ‘we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans’

While researching for her PhD thesis, Stephanie L. Derrick uncovered a forgotten C.S. Lewis article—forgotten in the sense that it that had not appeared in scholarly bibliographies of his work. Entitled “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” it reads in part:

“A universe of colourless electrons (which is presently going to run down and annihilate all organic life everywhere and forever) is, perhaps, a little dreary compared with the earth-mother and the sky-father, the wood nymphs and the water nymphs, chaste Diana riding the night sky and homely Vesta flickering on the hearth. But one can’t have everything, and there are always the flicks and the radio: if the new view is correct, it has very solid advantages.”

And then later:

“It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. … For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure. It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying. It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.”

Read Derrick’s article about unearthing this C.S. Lewis sermon along with an unlikely article he apparently wrote about cricket (under his pseudonym).

By the way, Derrick is turning her thesis into an upcoming book: The Fame of C. S. Lewis: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America, to be published by Oxford University Press in July 2018 (that release date according to Amazon.com).

And while we’re talking Christmas, see what C.S. Lewis had to say about ritual, which included some thoughts about the holiday season.

Should You Perceive Meaning in Nature?

If humans can manipulate some aspect of nature—in other words, if humans find a way to perform godlike miracles with the building blocks of, say, biology—does that mean whatever’s manipulable has no meaning? And, implicitly, has no divine origin? Along those lines, I recently found a quotation from one of the Inklings, and I thought the idea was worth wrestling with.

In the 1970s, Owen Barfield—a close friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien— wrote: “Amid all the menacing signs that surround us in the middle of this twentieth century, perhaps the one which fills thoughtful people with the greatest sense of forboding is the growing sense of meaninglessness. It is this which underlies most of the other threats. How is it that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it?”

Isolate the assumption in that question and convert it into a statement: “The more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it.”

I’m inclined to agree, probably because I’ve read enough of Lewis to get an inevitable splash of Barfield, but how true is that statement, really? Is it true often enough, generally enough?

Probably, but then why?

Maybe the more “we” (some group within the human race) find nature manipulable, the more we assume its value is reducible. In other words, maybe humans once assumed nature was set by God in some inviolable way, and when we realized we could manipulate it, suddenly nature seemed violable, therefore less valuable, less absolute, less a reflection of divinity.

The more it can be manipulated, we assume (perhaps unconsciously), the less it must be a creation of a divine power, and if something has less value, it seems to mean less (the way value is applied and understood and designated is a lot to think about). If some divinity made nature, why would mere mortals be able to mess with it?

But along those lines, the ability to manipulate is not a simple either-or situation. It has matters of degree. Should our ability to manipulate nature (a big, abstract ability) be any more surprising than our ability to make a salad from wild vegetables? To make a shelter from trees and branches?

But then there’s that popular Internet meme: “The sciences can tell you how to clone a T-Rex. The humanities can tell you why that might not be a good idea.”

At any rate, I’m not sure Barfield was precisely correct in the above quotation. It could be that, on a popular level, certain assumptions about nature, science, and progress became “viral” before the Internet was part of our daily lives. (Late evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer, decades before the Internet, once suggested that Americans get their opinions like they catch cold viruses—they’re not sure where they got those opinions, but they certainly got them.) So certain assumptions—and maybe inclinations of attitude—made Western people less likely to perceive meaning, but maybe not less able. Not less able, just less inclined.

Furthermore, whether from a metaphysical point of view or a naturalistic point of view, wouldn’t nature have to be meaningful?

‘C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Myth of Progress’ — A Podcast Interview

Inklings fans, take note: A recent episode of The Art of Manliness podcast featured an interview with Joseph Loconte, author of A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, & Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18.

The interview with Loconte taught me new things about the way Tolkien and Lewis viewed life and literature. I also was challenged to think more about my deeply held, Western-world belief in the supposedly inevitable outcome called progress.

Speaking of Inklings, you might also be interested in reading Charles Williams’s take on dogmaand watching a short documentary on Owen Barfield.


James K.A. Smith: ‘We were created for stories’

Two of the most-clicked posts on this blog have been Paul Holmer: How literature functions and Umberto Eco on theory and narrative. The common theme between the two might be that storytelling is not only necessary, but also of greater value than systematized and abstracted knowledge. Granted, the structure of Eco’s quotation seems to give priority to theorizing, but Holmer argues that humans learn more broadly and deeply from stories than from abstract or systematic knowledge.

So a quotation from James K.A. Smith’s book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church,  found in this recent review, was a welcome addition to the theme:

“We were created for stories, not propositions; for drama, not bullet points.”

In this context, it’s probably worth remembering that beloved storyteller C.S. Lewis warned against systematizing the Bible.

Considering Books by C.S. Lewis

I think I might like Till We Have Faces as much as all other C.S. Lewis books combined.

How about you?

Here’s my brief review (of an old book!) from earlier this year.