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21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

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21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby paminala » 05 Apr 2010, 19:20

Reading many of the posts here I became quite curious about the Space Trilogy books. To be honest I had not been aware of them before seeing them here. I finally got my hands on a copy of the series last week and I must say I'm enjoying it tremendously. So far I'm through the first 2 books and about to start the third.

I'm noticing something that I often notice when I read books written in periods markedly prior to our "technological" age. There are times that something the author must certainly have meant to convey one thing (and would have to his contemporary audience) leaves for a moment a very different picture in my mind before I say to myself, "oh no, of course not!"

This hit me quite strongly when I got to chapter 19 (I think) of Silent Planet. Weston is refusing to answer questions put to him by the Oyarsa. The Oyarsa orders him taken away to have his head dunked in cold water several times (14 as it turns out) in the hope that he will come back more cooperative than before.
Certainly Lewis' 1938 sensibilities could have meant many things by that little exchange.
Unfortunately my very American 21st century imagination, upon reading it flew in only one direction--waterboarding!
"oh no, of course not!"

Am I the only person who has ever had a moment like that?

How much of a barrier is it, do you all think, for the average reader's understanding of an author's intent that it was written in a time so different than their own?
All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby Adam Linton » 06 Apr 2010, 02:25

Glad to hear that you are enjoying the Space Trilogy. THS is a rather different reading experience than OOTSP and P, though.

paminala wrote:How much of a barrier is it, do you all think, for the average reader's understanding of an author's intent that it was written in a time so different than their own?


It seems to that the more one reads outside of one's immediate era, it becomes less and less of a barrier. And older works can illumine newer ones in a way that newer ones can seldom do for the older.

(See Lewis' "On the Reading of Old Books" AKA as the Preface to Athanasius' On the Incarnation.)

All the best.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby paminala » 06 Apr 2010, 14:37

The 3 books are certainly different from one another. The first had a very "adventure story" feel, even an element of fun. The second seemed a bit more like an intellectual exercise dressed up as a story.

I'm only just about a quarter of the way into the 3rd but it seems darker. Both of the others were drawn in such bright colors and here there is so much in the shadows. The characters before were purer, now they exist in shades of grey. I can't decide whether Mr. Studdock(sp) will be a victim or a hero or perhaps even a villian. His wife is another entire issue! We need a whole thread devoted to what Lewis must have thought of women!

There is again that curious criss cross of time, though. I see so much of what is happening in my "now" in what he wrote in his "then."
All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby galion » 06 Apr 2010, 19:34

paminala wrote: His wife is another entire issue! We need a whole thread devoted to what Lewis must have thought of women!


Oh my, that is so true! :toothy-grin: However, when he got involved with Joy Davidman his views changed somewhat. The fictional fruit of that is Till We Have Faces - the next thing for you to read, if you haven't done so already.

I personally find THS a very mixed bag. On the one hand, the description of NICE, and the description of senior-common-room politics at the college, are sharp observation verging on satire, and occasionally brilliant in a "Nineteen Eighty Four" sort of way; on the other, the whole Merlin business is, as Lewis must have known, pretty nonsensical (for a start, there was no historical person named Merlin). And, as mentioned above, the , er, sexual politics (theology?) is a real muddle And yet I do come back to it from time to time, and enjoy the experience.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby Nerd42 » 10 Apr 2010, 02:01

galion wrote:
paminala wrote: His wife is another entire issue! We need a whole thread devoted to what Lewis must have thought of women!
Oh my, that is so true! :toothy-grin: However, when he got involved with Joy Davidman his views changed somewhat. The fictional fruit of that is Till We Have Faces - the next thing for you to read, if you haven't done so already.

I personally find THS a very mixed bag. On the one hand, the description of NICE, and the description of senior-common-room politics at the college, are sharp observation verging on satire, and occasionally brilliant in a "Nineteen Eighty Four" sort of way; on the other, the whole Merlin business is, as Lewis must have known, pretty nonsensical (for a start, there was no historical person named Merlin). And, as mentioned above, the , er, sexual politics (theology?) is a real muddle And yet I do come back to it from time to time, and enjoy the experience.
Uhh, as to the Merlin thing, I think I understand it and will try to explain it to you. I'm gonna try and stick to explaining what I think Lewis was expressing and try to keep my own opinions to a minimum even though that's probably not even possible, except for the following: I think he did go a little too far in making the various pagan gods seem alot more real than the Christian god in the book, coming dangerously close to a violation of the first of the ten commandments. It's all well and good to say in Miracles that the various pagan gods are all distorted and confused pictures of the real one, but to make the fake pictures appear real in That Hideous Strength treads on very dangerous ground. Much more so today because of the Neo-Pagan movement that wasn't as widespread back in the '40s. I wonder whether Lewis would have written the same book today in that regard.

OK enough of my own opinion. On to what I think Lewis thought:

I don't think the Merlin appearance is nonsense. I think Merlin as a literary device enabled Lewis to make a whole bunch of points he wanted to make in the story that would have been difficult otherwise, killing several different birds with one stone. To understand this you have to keep in mind where and when That Hideous Strength was published. England, 1945. World War II had just ended. The Greatest Generation was still in full swing, thinking hard about what's important about things like their country's flag, political freedom and what's so bad about the Nazis and Communists.

To understand the Merlin stuff, you have to try to put yourself into the mind of a very British and very patriotic British person from that time period. The closest thing we Americans have to Merlin is probably Benjamin Franklin, so think about an American just after World War II, one who really knows and loves the history of his country getting to meet Benjamin Franklin in a novel. It's a somewhat political statement. He's sort of saying that England has it's own history in relation to God that is unique and special and that's why he tries to tie in the Arthurian legends to the book. If an American wrote the same book, he'd tie it to American history in a National Treasure kind of way and the symbolism would be rather different. Lewis goes on to say, through Ransome, that every nation has this kind of spiritual history or relationship with God - that people have a collective relationship with God in addition to the individual kind. (I'm pretty sure he also mentions this somewhere in his non-fiction apologetics but I don't remember where. Might have been in Mere Christianity Book III) He says there are "two Englands and two Frances" and my favorite quote from the book, "When the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, why then it will be Spring." That is a prophecy about the second coming of Christ and it ties directly in with the idea that Winter represents the world being without Christ in the Chronicles of Narnia. What the Chronicles of Narnia says about summer and winter is basically a children's version of this statement by Ransome.

The other thing about Merlin's role in the book is Lewis's classicism. He gets to put some of his points from The Abolition of Man about magic and applied science being twins into action. All this fancy new technology and achievements of man being used for evil and then overthrown by wisdom from the past. Remember, this book is aimed toward science fiction readers from the mid to latter 1940s. If you tell them a priest or church has some supernatural power to overthrow a bunch of scientists plans to remake the world, they probably aren't going to take that very well. But if you disguise your priest as Merlin, an ancient mysterious supernatural power coming out of the past which no one really knows much about, they might take your ideas a little more seriously and on further reflection, not see the Christian story as quite so silly or ridiculous after all. I think that's what the Out of the Silent Planet series really does. It shows how Christianity is the system of thought that turns the world upside down.

One statement by Merlin ties in with some of the things said or implied in The Great Divorce, The Last Battle, The Screwtape Letters and The Abolition of Man about the people whom Dante called the "virtuous pagans." On finding the King and the church powerless and corrupted and the peoples of Christendom fallen into atheism and apostasy, he immediately asks whether any of the virtuous pagans from far-off lands might be willing to help stage a rebellion and reconquer the kingdom at least for the cause of upholding the moral law, (what Lewis calls the Tao in The Abolition of Man) if not for Christianity, because (I'm starting to editorialize a bit here) only in such a society can Christianity find a receptive audience. How quickly Merlin is ready to work together with anyone who will stand up for moral standards no matter what they think about theological issues, and what a contrast with the modern Christians and their tendency to demonize anyone that isn't a part of their own little clubs even within Christianity! Merlin in that scene is able to overstep all our modern theologians and their arguments with each other and see the bigger picture. However, Merlin typifies the classicist mindset you find in Plato where there is no distinction made between evil and politically criminal actions, and he has to be corrected by Ransome's knowledge about modern political systems that acknowledge important concepts of individual liberty that were unknown to Merlin's totally hierarchical authoritarian medieval society. Lewis is, I think, making the point there that each time period has it's good points and it's bad points, as he also says through Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters.

I have to admit that the sudden arrival of Merlin in the middle of a story that seemed to be getting on quite nicely without him does seem to jar a bit with the overall flow of That Hideous Strength if you look at the book strictly by itself and don't think about how it connects with everything else Lewis ever wrote. But if you read all of Lewis's other writings (especially his non-fiction) first, and then look at That Hideous Strength, Merlin brings another dimension to the book that makes it much more philosophically meaningful.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby paminala » 10 Apr 2010, 15:05

Perhaps it just goes to show that I've read a bit more "fluff" in my miss-spent youth than some of you but I have to say Merlin didn't come as a suprise to me at all. In fact I was expecting him from the moment that well in the wood showed up.

The thing I took from Lewis using him in the way that he did was that it is the essential spirit of Britain that is embodied in that character. Merlin is an embodiment of the spiritual power of the land and the people of his own time which Lewis is recalling and reviving in his own.
Lewis seems to be saying by the use of this character in particular that it is by calling on the spirit of the past that we can resist destructive change that others label as "progress."
There are many episodes that point to the idea that, while we can no longer live that old life, we are not entirely removed from it either. He talks about things coming to a point. The rules getting tighter as what those in the past did we do not do now. I believe his example was Soloman having many wives worked for him but would not work for a man today. The rules don't change, they just grow more refined hence the difference in manners between Merlin and the others when they eat together. He does not use a fork to eat and yet still seems somehow polite. The same expectation of courtesy but in a less refined manner.

Overall I liked the way the "old ways" came forth to strengthen the battle against the new enemy. What I could have done without was the romance novel ending.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby Matthew Whaley » 10 Apr 2010, 17:00

In a way THS is a classic love story. Mark and Jane are married but have lost their love for one another; they become separated early in the story and are not reunited until the very end. Science and the Idea of progress threaten to create chaos and confusion between men and women in the modern world. Mark and Jane undergo trials to not only find out who and what they really are, but learn obedience through the things they suffer.

Lewis loved the Arthurian Romances and he loved happy endings. This is one of my favorite books of his; I find each time I read it, I see some things I never noticed when I read it before.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby Nerd42 » 12 Apr 2010, 15:30

paminala wrote:Perhaps it just goes to show that I've read a bit more "fluff" in my miss-spent youth than some of you but I have to say Merlin didn't come as a suprise to me at all. In fact I was expecting him from the moment that well in the wood showed up.

The thing I took from Lewis using him in the way that he did was that it is the essential spirit of Britain that is embodied in that character. Merlin is an embodiment of the spiritual power of the land and the people of his own time which Lewis is recalling and reviving in his own.
Lewis seems to be saying by the use of this character in particular that it is by calling on the spirit of the past that we can resist destructive change that others label as "progress."
There are many episodes that point to the idea that, while we can no longer live that old life, we are not entirely removed from it either. He talks about things coming to a point. The rules getting tighter as what those in the past did we do not do now. I believe his example was Soloman having many wives worked for him but would not work for a man today. The rules don't change, they just grow more refined hence the difference in manners between Merlin and the others when they eat together. He does not use a fork to eat and yet still seems somehow polite. The same expectation of courtesy but in a less refined manner.

Overall I liked the way the "old ways" came forth to strengthen the battle against the new enemy. What I could have done without was the romance novel ending.
I agree, though I must admit I didn't expect Merlin himself to actually make an appearance. I expected oh, I don't know, some kind of scroll or message or something from the time of King Arthur to provide the vital clue or something of that kind.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby agingjb » 12 Apr 2010, 16:45

Hmm. Reread the first chapter of THS again. An "ancient British, druidical kind of man" is mentioned at the end of Jane's dream. Then, in the description of Bragdon Wood, "Merlin's Well" is mentioned. There are plenty of hints that the N.I.C.E. want Bragdon Wood for some reason, and the Dimbles mention the legend that Bragdon Wood is where he is buried.

By the way, if you are unfortunate enough to have the abridged version of THS, bin it and buy the full version - quickly - and read it.

Anyway I don't find the appearance of Merlin (a more convincing Merlin than any other fictional version of the character) any more difficult than the - as it happens - inaccurate astronomy. This is myth - as others have said.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby Nerd42 » 14 Apr 2010, 15:37

agingjb wrote:Hmm. Reread the first chapter of THS again. An "ancient British, druidical kind of man" is mentioned at the end of Jane's dream. Then, in the description of Bragdon Wood, "Merlin's Well" is mentioned. There are plenty of hints that the N.I.C.E. want Bragdon Wood for some reason, and the Dimbles mention the legend that Bragdon Wood is where he is buried.

By the way, if you are unfortunate enough to have the abridged version of THS, bin it and buy the full version - quickly - and read it.

Anyway I don't find the appearance of Merlin (a more convincing Merlin than any other fictional version of the character) any more difficult than the - as it happens - inaccurate astronomy. This is myth - as others have said.
Yeah, it's just that I didn't expect Merlin to still be alive. Those bits made me expect him to have left or sent help in some way but not to still be alive. Like I said, it's rather like watching National Treasure and finding Benjamin Franklin to still be alive in it.



Mr. Whaley, you're quite right about the love story angle, but Merlin isn't involved in that part and I was just trying to explain Merlin's role and how his character contributes to the philosophy of the story, not the whole story. :)
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby Matthew Whaley » 25 Apr 2010, 22:14

I absolutely love Merlin's appearance in the story and the night when Ransom and Merlin first meet! It's a chapter that I take as much time as I can to read, savoring every word. And I love the way Lewis portrays Merlin; very masculine, noble, agile, muscular and full of wit.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby paminala » 26 Apr 2010, 15:23

I loved that too, and also the bit later when Merlin finds out that what he had taken to be just "pass words" are for Ransom actual truth. The book would have been missing something important--I think--without that meeting of powers of the past and the present.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby Matthew Whaley » 27 Apr 2010, 05:30

The one thing that I would have wanted to know more about at the end is what happens to Merlin after he leaves Mark and Lord Feverstone. I think he dies, thats all we are told. After saving the world and what he went through, being taken up by a chariot of fire would not have been too much to ask! Also too, Grace Ironwood did not get much said about her at the end; and I would have liked to have seen her play a bigger part before Ransom leaves the building.
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Re: 21st century reader meets early 20th century lit.

Postby CSLFAN » 29 Jun 2010, 23:18

Remember also that Oyarsa was not trying to force Weston to answer him. He believed that Weston had suffered some sort of head-trauma and asked the Hrossa to tend to him by clearing his head. This may have seemed the best way.
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