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Once upon a time there was a land called Mercoria.  It was a temperamental land occupied by constantly warring clans.  There were the Jinabites, short, witch like people whose men and women alike grew long and tufted beards.  Then there were the Lillimots, quite the opposite, who were so tall and graceful that they almost gave the impression of giraffes, and the Berubabels who had the advantage of wings and might call to the mind of a human a creature rather like a fairy.  The Cormlins went largely unnoticed among the other clans because they liked to keep to the craggy wastelands that none of the other peoples cared too much about.  But the Niamows, the soft skinned bipeds were always stirring up trouble and brewing up the newest and most cunning means of overpowering their rivals.  Having no natural protective armour of their own, they spent immeasurable time and energy on developing their defences.

 

Each clan felt that the realm of Mercoria rightfully belonged to it, and that their wise men were the only leaders capable of ruling justly.  Sieges, attacks, plots and deception had raged for 5 long years and the only result had been countless losses and a land scorched by violence.  Eventually, the surrounding nations had become so unsettled and enraged by the uproar that they had agreed that King Perdurus, a respected leader amongst them, should set up his own palace in Mercoria and attempt to bring order to the land by governing over all the clans.  And so it was.  From within his courts, King Perdurus quietly began to plan his strategy.

 

Now, King Perdurus had a son, Clemius, who had just celebrated his 13th birthday at the time this tale began.  He loved his son more than anything in the world and could not part with him so Clemius came to live in the royal palace of Mercoria.  He was an adventurous youth and full of courage.  Everyone who met him felt strangely drawn to him because of his childish curiosity and interest in them.

 

And so it was that one day, as Clemius was  flying his kite, a birthday present from his uncle, a gust of wind rudely lifted the play-thing and tore it clean out of his hands.  Clemius yelped, partly with surprise and partly with a rush of excitement at the chase that had now developed.  He ducked under nearby branches, staying low, but glancing constantly upwards through the chinks in the trees to keep his coloured kite within his sights.  He feared it might get caught in the topmost spines of the towering Goldcrest trees but on and on tumbled the kite.  Eventually Clemius found himself in the bright light of an open field where chasing became far easier.  But alas, the kite was climbing ever higher.  Surely it could not go on rising forever?  Clemius stopped for a brief moment to catch his breath, leaning forward and jamming his hands into his knee caps to prop himself, but the thought of surrendering never crossed his mind.  When his throat no longer burned he stumbled on, realising that his kite was gradually descending.  It was definitely far closer to the tops of the mountains than it had been 10 minutes ago.  He was so concentrated on it that he barely noticed the growing difficulty with which he was lifting his feet from the sludgy ground.  It was definitely becoming wetter and every footstep caused the earth beneath to squelch and froth like a compressed sponge.  With a sinking feeling in his gut, Clemius realised that his kite was going to land right in the middle of a muddy little lake straight ahead of him.  He heard it hit the surface with a dull thud and collapse like a dying water bird.  It appeared that the wind was now causing the kite to drift towards the left hand bank and so Clemius headed cautiously in that direction.

 

All of a sudden he heard faint but distinct whispering and a poorly suppressed giggle coming from behind him.  Clemius whipped round in surprise.

 

“Who’s there?” he said, far more curiously than threateningly.  But nothing came back at him.  Clemius strode towards the spot from which he guessed the sound had come.  As he peered into the bushes and his eyes became accustomed to the details, he was able to pick out the whites of 2 little eyes.  He wasn’t afraid of them.  For starters, Clemius had never really known fear, but more than that, these eyes were smiling.  He smiled back.  “Hello” he ventured, holding out one arm to his side, as if to encourage the eyes out into the daylight.  They blinked and glided from side to side and gradually revealed themselves as set in a narrow, heart shaped, pale face.  No wonder Clemius had been so unable to detect this creature, her clothes as they were, reflecting every colour of the surrounding foliage and transforming from dark to light and back again as the wind rippled over them.  Clemius had never seen anything like her.  He’d been told that the clans outside the castle walls were difficult, trouble, even dangerous, but this (this girl?) surely was none of these.

She stepped forward lightly until she stood square on to Clemius.  He realised she was at least as tall as him but her bare feet were tiny.  “Is that your kite?” she asked, nodding towards the lake.  “It’s pretty”.

Clemius had forgotten momentarily all about his kite but now turned and realised it had floated to a completely unreachable spot near the centre of the murky water.

“Yes” he replied, “it was mine.  But I don’t see how I’ll get it back now.  And it was new as well.”

“Can’t you swim?” asked the girl, surprised.

“Swim?  I don’t know.  I suppose I could.  It’s a long way though and the water looks pretty muddy and freezing cold.

“You’re a wuss!” teased the girl.  I don’t feel the cold and I don’t care about a bit of mud.  I’ll get it!”  She broached the side of the lake and, as Clemius called after her that she needn’t bother, it wasn’t that important, she might get hurt, and anyway, he could do it himself, she waded into the reeds and plunged into the lake.  Clemius hurriedly followed, concerned that this fragile looking creature might get into trouble and need his help.  But he stopped at waist height, shivering under the sun, and watched with curious amusement as she glided smoothly over to the drowning kite.  She tied the tale of the kite around her waist and it followed her in graceful meanders as she made her way back to the bank.

“There” she said.  “A couple of hours in the sun and it’ll be fine”.

“Thanks” Clemius replied with slight embarrassment.  “Um, that was really good, thanks, you didn’t have to.”

“It’s ok” she laughed.  “I love swimming, any chance I get I come here.  But I’ve never seen you out here before.”

“That’s cause I’ve never been here before!”  joked Clemius sarcastically, recovering his confidence.  She slapped him on the shoulder with the back of her tiny hand.  “Anyway, I’m Clemius.  And thanks again”

“I’m Erudita” she replied.  “But just call me Dita”.

 

 

After that, Clemius would regularly make his way down to the lake where he and Dita would swim or fly his kite or just climb trees and tell stories about their lives, the lands they had grown up in and their families.  Each was a curiosity to the other and both were in need of a friend.  Their lives were so different.  While Clemius lived in safety and abundance, secure amongst his loved-ones, Dita had only her elder brother left since the death of her parents and younger brother at the hands of the Jinabites some years before.  The two of them struggled to survive and regularly and repeatedly lost all they had worked to build up in the crossfire of bitter rivalries.   At times, as their confidence grew, Clemius would venture further out into Dita’s world than he’d ever gone before, half believing, half doubting the tales Dita recounted.  And Dita in turn followed Clemius closer to his home.  As the winter drew in it became icy and bitter, too harsh to spend long hours out of doors.  Clemius couldn’t bear to leave his friend to face another perilous season and so made up his mind to go to his father and see what could be done.  Knowing his Father so well, Clemius felt sure he would want to do anything he could to help.  What he wasn’t sure of was just how happy the king would be about his adventures beyond the palace grounds.  Nevertheless, one evening, after dinner when the king had retired to his workshop and uncovered the sculpture he was tirelessly chiselling from a solid weight of ochre stone, Clemius broached the subject.  The king said very little about the matter that evening but thought long and hard about it all through the night as he worked.  The next morning he looked at Clemius over his piping breakfast and said simply,

“bring her here next time, let me meet her.”

 

When Dita finally agreed to come into the palace (with fear and trembling it must be said, despite all Clemius’s lovely stories about his father) King Perdurus welcomed her most heartily but also watched her most closely.  He soon came to realise just how fond the 2 young ones were of each other and how much happier even than before Clemius seemed in her company.  She had a fierce defensiveness about her but nothing at all malicious.  She was grateful for every kindness shown her despite clearly having felt the bruises of much unkindness in her young life.  With every visit, the king grew to love Dita more and as he did so, a glimmer of a hopeful idea also dawned on him that perhaps Clemius might come to love her more than he yet realised.  But he kept this firmly to himself.  He also found it harder and harder to watch her venture out to the struggles of her daily life every time she left.  So, one day he came to a decision and called Clemius and Dita to his chamber where he sat, pondering over a large tome and a collection of letters.  That afternoon he invited Dita to come and live with them in the palace as a special guest.  He told her how much he had come to care about her almost as his own daughter and that he wanted to give her a good life.  He knew how much hardship she faced beyond the palace grounds and was afraid that one day she might not make it back to visit them again.  She would be treated like a princess.

Dita didn’t know what to say.  She blinked back the tears.  They were tears of gladness but also mingled with tears of sorrow at the idea of leaving her brother behind, alone.  Her brother however, when Dita at last brought herself to tell him the news some 3 days later, spared no energy in persuading her to go, to make the most of the opportunity for warmth and companionship and wealth and security.  He felt inadequate to offer these things and afraid for his young sister.  So, with this persuasion alongside her own desires, and with the reassurance that her brother could visit whenever he wished, Dita came to live under the protection of the king.

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‘I am the product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles.  Also, of endless books…….books of all kinds reflecting every transient stage of my parents’ interests, books readable and unreadable, books suitable for a child and books most emphatically not.  Nothing was forbidden me.  In the seemingly endless rainy afternoons I took volume after volume from the shelves.’

– CS Lewis in ‘Surprised by Joy’, 1955

Well, we have something after all to thank the British weather for!

But that’s not the point of this blog.

The point is, haven’t we all experienced our own ‘long corridors, empty sunlit rooms and distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes’?  Don’t we all as children feel the weight and the stirrings of the world around the corner?  For my part it was hours spent in the garden with my open umbrella thrust imploringly to the wind, trusting it would carry me far away, or searching for crevices between tree roots where I might just crawl down a rabbit hole, or opening my eyes beneath the warm glassy bath water and wishing it would swallow me up and spit me out in that other place, or following elusive and wandering sun shafts through the woods on holiday.

And as we grow older, don’t we sometimes still turn around expecting to see the origin of a whispering?  Or get magnetised gazing into a dusky distance, as if that horizon were where we needed to be?

What if we had a small group of like-minded friends who also sensed the pullings, who could look into the atmosphere with us and watch it fracture and split clean open, parting the air for a moment to reveal who-knows-what?  Who could listen to, and encourage us in the pursuit of our tales, gropings and wonderings, and help us, each in turn, to craft them either into a deeper conviction, or even into a solid work of art?

This is what CS Lewis had, what he was also a product of.  On a trip to Oxford last summer I passed the Eagle and Child Pub, affectionately known as the Bird and Baby!  The endearingly enthusiastic guide informed us that it was here, in a back room, accompanied by ale and pipes of tobacco, that ‘The Inklings’ met.  The Inklings.

 

Now, I’d known that CS Lewis had been part of a kind of discussion group or ‘old time book club’ but now it was almost right here before my eyes and I was really curious.  This literary group of friends, which included not only Lewis but also JRR Tolkien and Charles Williams, formed in the 1930s and continued for nearly 2 decades.  That’s amazing, they must have known each other so well, and on a deep level.  They met twice a week either in the pub or Lewis’s rooms at Oxford University, although nearly every website I researched had different, but absolute, convictions about the particular night on which The Inklings met!  They talked about their ideas and philosophies, their beliefs and about literature and myths, and they read and critiqued each others’ manuscripts.  I like to think they dreamed together of unseen things.   Their words in that room must have floated up and mingled with the smoke from their pipes and formed a swirling dance of shapes right there above their heads as they talked into the evening.  They knew that their fantastical imaginings were not simply make-believe but the coloured expressions of something real.  I would so have loved to have been there, even just as a little fly on the wall!  It’s amazing to think that in an old pub this little gang birthed stories and worlds that are still meaningful to us today.

But without The Inklings, without  each other, would they have developed into the people they became?  I’m sure the discussions were not always easy and amicable and agreeable!  The Inkling members all had quite strong and different characters and curiosities.  Apparently, Charles Williams was a staunch Anglican but was also heavily interested in the occult, Cabala and the place of romantic love in the meaning of the divine and salvation.  He had many young female ‘followers’ and agonised over his 20 year-long, unconsummated love affair with a work colleague outside his marriage to his first love.  That must have been tortuous!  He would definitely be one for further research and a future blog!  And yet, despite their differences,  CS Lewis greatly admired him and wrote of him as one of his dearest friends.

We all need but rarely find, trusted friends who will listen to our deepest things, encourage us selflessly, but also who will have the courage to tell us for our own good when we are out of line or going off track or being untrue or damaging ourselves or others, or who will simply help us sculpt the good into the brilliant.  Charles Williams died in 1945 and this affected The Inklings so much that the group slowly wound down.  Lewis knew he himself would never be the same because of the death and that he would never again experience the other Inklings in the same way either.  The point he lamented was that Charles drew out certain aspects of people that no one else could in the same way.  Therefore the loss of Charles was also the loss of certain sides and aspects of others.  This is true for all of us all the time because we each affect others differently, causing them to manifest in different ways.  I need you and you need me if we’re to experience ourselves, each other, and other people to the fullest.

(As an aside by the way, Donald Miller, the author of the very honest and insightful tale of a spiritual journey ‘Blue Like Jazz’, wrote a blog about this very idea a few weeks ago in early October 2010 (www.donmilleris.com).  It’s worth a read, as are most of his blogs!  He pretty much writes a blog a day and it’s always interesting, I don’t know how he does it.  But then again, he’s a writer as a job so he gets paid for it.  That’s my excuse anyway!)

Back briefly to The Inklings…..

There were a few writers and dreamers who particularly influenced and inspired CS Lewis and some of the other Inklings, such as Lewis Carroll (of Alice in Wonderland fame) and G K Chesterton.  Both of these are also great characters worth a blog and a half themselves!  Chesterton’s quotes are sparklingly witty!  But the person that stood out to me recently was George Macdonald, who lived from 1824 – 1905 and was described as an original thinker, a spiritual guide and a master in the art of myth-making.

He wrote poetry, stories and novels but, interestingly, is best remembered for his fairy tales and fantasies.  His unorthodox views led him to offend and rile certain church parishioners and before he had even reached 30 years old he had been forced to resign from being a pastor.  At that time he must have felt pretty alone and excluded, and yet he continued with his questioning and exploring and going against the grain rather than acquiescing to the general view, even despite being a ‘wipper snapper’!  It’s hard not to feel some kind of odd comfort and affinity with this man!  CS Lewis said of him:

‘The quality that had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic reality in which we all live’.

How could I not be curious to read his ‘imaginative works’?!  So I have started on his ‘Complete Fairy Tales’!

So far, each of his fairy tales seems to  mix weird worlds and baffling magical characters to turn conventional thinking and systems on their heads.  They’re meanings are obvious and also not obvious, so you have to think and interpret for yourself.  The description is so good that you can build a fantastical picture of each scene in your mind’s eye.

So far my favourite fairy tale has been ‘The Light Princess’, which tells of a princess who is cursed at birth by a miserable and bitter aunt.  As a result this princess has no weight at all and so floats in the air all the time.  That is until the day she discovers water and the local lake, and decides to swim.  Once in the water she has weight of her own and can splash and play and finally feel free.  A handsome prince finds her playing in the water one day and joins her, and of course he falls in love with her fairly soon!  The trouble is that the wicked aunt does not like all this happiness and so causes a serpent to bite a hole into the base of the lake and the water gradually seeps away, to the despair of the princess.  The cause of the shrinking lake is finally discovered almost too late, but it can only be remedied if someone is willing to plug the hole with their own body, and so drown.  After contemplation, the prince decides wholeheartedly to offer himself.  The princess is pleased and not too distressed at this!  In fact, she floats in a boat and feeds the prince at his request whilst he is plugging the hole and the water level is rising!!  She is quite selfish and unconcerned, though grateful that this prince is saving her lake.  Well, I won’t entirely spoil the happy ending, but just want to end with this song, which the prince sang as the water rose to reach his ankles, his knees, his waist and then his chin.  I defy you not to be moved!

‘As a world that has no well,

Darkly bright in forest dell;

As a world without the gleam

Of the downward going stream;

As a world without the glance

Of the ocean’s fair expanse;

As a world where never rain

Glittered on the sunny plain;-

Such, my heart, thy world would be,

If no love did flow in thee.

As a world without the sound

Of the rivulets underground;

Or the bubbling of the spring

Out of darkness wandering;

Or the mighty rush and flowing

Of the river’s downward going;

Or the music-showers that drop

On the outspread beech’s top;

Or the ocean’s mighty voice,

When his lifted waves rejoice;-

Such, my soul, they world would be,

If no love did sing in thee.

Lady, keep thy world’s delight;

Keep the waters in thy sight.

Love hath made me strong to go,

For they sake, to realms below,

Where the water’s shine and hum

Through the darkness never come:

Let, I pray, one thought of me

Spring, a little well, in thee;

Lest they loveless soul be found

Like a dry and thirsty ground.’

– George Macdonald

A few snaps from Oxford!

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