Thoughts on A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War

Studying World War One has been on my mind for the past while.  The Great War set the course for all the events which came after it and deeply altered Western culture.  The part this war played in shaping the fiction of Tolkien and Lewis has also aroused my curiosity.  And so, this book supplies for both of my wants, since it describes the world prior to the war, the attitudes of Tolkien and Lewis to WWI, their careers during the war, and how it shaped their lives and works.  The book contains an impressive amount of information in its short two hundred pages.

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The early chapters inform the reader of the important intellectual movements prior to the war.  These movements proposed that science, technology, and the state could build a superior society without reliance upon God.  Eugenics and Social Darwinism played a huge role in these Utopian schemes, which all crumbled in the cataclysm of 1914-1918.  World War I ushered in an era of pessimism with patriotic and religious values being suspect and often disowned.  Former soldiers often led the way in literature by sucking all the glory and meaning from war.  The book attempts to answer the question why Tolkien and Lewis defended traditional values in a world where most intellectuals were turning against them.

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Impression of the Dresden Files

While I was a member of the Science Fiction Book Club, I purchased an omnibus edition titled Wizard for Hire by Jim Butcher.  It includes the first three novels of the Dresden Files: Storm Front, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril.  I devoured these three novels in short time.  I’d say that it took reading all three novels in order to come to a general opinion of the series, which is now at sixteen books.  These books are exciting page turners, but they smack of being formulaic.  It’s a very good formula where the obstacles keep mounting for the hero, but I find myself leery of formulaic plots.  After all, can’t one keep changing the details and villains and continue to churn out thrillers?  One of the things I like about the classics is that the science of writing a story was not well known.  The plots might be slow or full of errors when looked upon from the science of novel writing, but they’re more interesting for all that.

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For all the sense that Butcher follows a kind of formula, the details and characters in each story are brilliant and lovable.  These areas of the novels and the prose itself contain his artistry and great sense of humor.  I might describe his hero as a Philip Marlowe with the physical features of Sherlock Holmes–sans the master detective’s athleticism.  But, Butcher adds the twists of Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden (what a name!) being a wizard and perfect gentleman.  Butcher also goes to great lengths to making Dresden seem more human and less hard-boiled than Marlowe.  Another recurring character is Karrin Murphy.  I find her too touchy and too much of a feminist.  It’s cool that she’s a Aikidoka (Though, her trophies prove that she’s numbers among the sport Aikidoka, whose art is less traditional), a sharpshooter, and a tough cop; but, she’s way too demanding.  (I was happy to see less of her in Grave Peril.)

I love opportunities to show O-Sensei.  Here Morihei Ueshiba sends a student flying.

I love opportunities to show O-Sensei. Here Morihei Ueshiba sends a student flying.

Besides Raymond Chandler’s detective novels, I’d say that he owes much to H. P. Lovecraft and Christian writers like Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.  Concerning the former, the vast array of supernatural villains and the idea that giving in to evil never pays are very Lovecraftian.  The ideas of sexual purity, the positive presentation of faith, and the constant battles between good and evil evince a Christian moral background.  Though Harry Dresden himself seems to be kind of pagan–he still believes in God, but is not sure whether God is caring, Butcher introduces a very Catholic character in the paladin Michael, the Fist of God.  Virtuous characters are often accused of being boring, but Michael, with his stoic insistence on morality, quiet faith, and a bastard sword named Amoracchius, stand as one of the series greatest characters.  Michael appears in Grave Peril, and the opportunity to read more of him and Dresden battling villains will likely convince me to pick up more novels.

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So, I have a rather positive impression of the Dresden Files.  Though the plot for his modern fantasy thrillers reveal a formula, the writing, characters, and other details he adds are very interesting.  They feature suspenseful and action-packed battles between good and evil.  So, these novels are great fun and I recommend that you read a few of them.  Fool Moon, which dealt with werewolves running rampant in Chicago, stood as my favorite of the three.

C. S. Lewis and Getting into a Woman’s Head

As I was reading That Hideous Strength, I was reminded of an anecdote Professor Michael Bauman of Hillsdale College told us about a certain female student who claimed that it was necessary to be a woman to depict a realistic female character.  After Professor Bauman, a man of great intellect and kindness but pugnacious in argument, discovered that his arguments claiming that understanding women as human beings sufficed to allow a male author to depict a female character adeptly were falling on deaf ears, he brought in a book for her to read sans cover, title page, and any other identifying information.  When she had finished, she told Professor Bauman: “At last, we have an author who can truly express the female voice/person!”  (The exact wording escapes me.)  To this, Professor Bauman responded that the book she had read was Till We Have Faces, which incidentally happens to be C. S. Lewis’ favorite of all the works he wrote.

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However, I think that neither the student nor the esteemed professor were completely correct.  C. S. Lewis has a rare talent for writing female characters.  I am reminded of this in That Hideous Strength as he flawlessly describes the character and motivations of Mark’s wife, Jane.  She wishes to remain an independent woman, a scholar, and free of the chains of masculine dominance.  But, in creating a character of this kind, he does not condemn her as being an unreasonable woman following the fashions of the time.  Rather, her position is described as perfectly rational, and Jane is one of the most sympathetic characters in the work.

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Also, he adeptly depicts Miss Hardcastle, the chief of the evil organization’s secret police.  She smokes cheroot cigars, possesses a powerful frame, and has a no nonsense attitude toward how the organization will affect social change.  C. S. Lewis could have made this character overbearingly masculine, and yet he eschews this by giving her light feminine touches and showing how Mark finds her a little attractive.  If there were any deficiencies in C. S. Lewis’s earlier methods of writing compelling characters, he had certainly solved them by this novel!

Balalaika: the anime version of Miss Hardcastle

Balalaika: the anime version of Miss Hardcastle

All in all, of the few male authors able to delineate female characters, Ovid and C. S. Lewis stand head and shoulders above the rest.  (I suppose that we can place Ernest Hemingway at the bottom?)  One can learn more about a woman’s psyche reading his books than those of many a female novelist!

Do you know of any other novelists who are as capable of getting into the opposite sex’s head?  Especially male authors?

One more picture of Balalaika. I admit that I rather love this character–not Miss Hardcastle, though.

Beginning That Hideous Strength

Since the site’s tagline claims that this is a blog started by two Inklings fans, it seems appropriate that the first article concerns a work of C. S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.  That Hideous Strength ends the trilogy, coming after Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra.  One of my best friends, the co-author of this blog and owner of Dusty Thanes, has often encouraged me to read this work.  After a long time of persuasion, I read the first work in my junior or senior year of college.  To speak truly, Out of the Silent Planet failed to impress me too much.   Perelandra, however, with its new temptation story and spellbinding cosmological vision, easily may be counted a masterpiece.

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Yet, I waited two years before attempting to read the book following this master work.  This reading was stalled early as I became distracted by other things, and so I am now attempting to read it again.  This work is supposed to be the best of the three too!  Yet, compared with the other two novels with their beautifully fantastic vision of Mars and Venus, the last book starts by focusing on the every day existence of Britishers.  So much so that his wife mentions that Mark slept as soon as his head hit the pillow with one exception: “Only one thing ever seemed able to keep him awake after he had gone to bed, and even that did not seem to keep him awake for very long.”

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Mentioning sex in addition to the ordinary life of a stay at home mom and politics in educational institutions gives this story more of the feel of a modern novel.  You might exclaim: “It is a modern novel!!!”  But, the most popular works of the Inklings, especially when one considers the Chronicles of Narnia, all tended to have a more extraordinary feel to the extent that the banality of every day existence tends to be avoided or the characters’ ordinary existence is so removed from us as to render it fantastic, like the hobbits of Hobbiton.  I think that describing these ordinary details is what turned me off from finishing it the first time.  (Yes, I did not get very far.)  This time, I am keeping the fact that Merlin makes an appearance in the novel in mind, and I’m very eager to read about C. S. Lewis’s treatment of him.

Stay tuned for a proper review of this novel in the future!  And I hope that you will look forward to other articles on this site!

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