Narnian Ulster (VI)

As a girl, I went to Victoria College (then in Shaftesbury Square) by tram from Malone Park along the Lisburn Road. On the glass of the partition that divided passengers from the driver were inscribed Belfast City’s arms and motto; Pro tanto quid retribuamus. So I can explain what Jack meant when he wrote to Arthur Greeves in expressing his gratitude for the offer of MacDonald’s books: " ’Pro tanto quid’, as the tramcars say; what can I give you in return?" This sense of obligation in the city’s motto is more than loyalty; it is commitment, the chief Ulster characteristic.

In The Last Battle the very title tells us that all the gallant courage of Prince Tirian and his loyal Few will not be successful. It will be aquestion of ‘sticking it’. The story goes from treachery, through obligation on to accountability and judgement. But threre is much glory in this wonderfully written apocalypse. Tirian, looking into the stable through the hole in the door, says, "The stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two different places." Digory answers, "Its inside is bigger than its outside." It is the perceptive Lucy who voices the hope that is in us, "In our world, too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world." As Prince Rilian said (in The Silver Chair), "Aslan will be our good Lord, whether He means us to live or die." Meaningful words for young Ulster people today, as always.

Belfast Coat of Arms
The present Belfast Coat of Arms dates from 30 June 1890 when the Ulster King of Arms made a Grant of Arms to the new city of Belfast. The motto ‘Pro tranto quid retribuamus’ comes from Psalm 116, verse 12 of the Bible. Translated from the Latin, it means ‘what return shall we make for so much’. The precise origins and meanings of the symbols contained on the Coat of Arms are unknown. However, images such as the bell, the seahorse, the ship and the chained wolf were all used by 17th century Belfast merchants on their signs and coinage. The seahorse, which is used twice, shows the maritime importance of Belfast, as does the ship at the base of the shield. The name ‘Belfast’ also originates from the Gaelic ‘Beal Feirste’, which means ‘mouth of the river’.

Narnian Ulster (V)

And so we come to accountability. I remember being shocked at the Lion’s scratching deeply the shoulders of Aravis in The Horse and His Boy. Aravis learns later that the slave who had been blamed for her escape had been whipped, and Aravis’s wounds matched hers exactly, number for number, and blood for blood. I doubt if the E.U. would approve of such corporal punishment! But it was certainly just. Ulster people understand this. So, in The Last Battle, when all have to face Aslan and accordingly go with Him, or away from Him, there will be some surprises, and mercy will be shown. So Emeth is told that the services he has done to Tash, Aslan will accept as performed towards Himself. So much for sectarianism! To each Aslan tells his own story. Who but Lewis would have used children’s stories to confront us, each one, with his own destiny?

It is only a step from ritual to magic. Here, the most important factor is who uses it, and for what. Jadis, the White Witch, uses it to increase her own cruel power at the expense of the weak. In The Magician’s Nephew, Uncle Andrew uses magic to feed his vanity. Aslan’s use of sometimes tender, sometimes stern, power comes directly from the Deep Magic of His Father. The Pevensies’ magic gifts from Father Christmas are of this kind, and only to be used in extremis. Lucy’s bottle of healing fluid is most in demand. My husband is one of those who think there are too many fights and battles in the Narnia books. Lewis’s response was that it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Courage is what he is particularly concerned with, both kinds, - 'the kind that faces danger as well as the kind that ‘sticks it’ under pain'...'You cannot practise any of the other virtues long without bringing this one into play' he wrote in Mere Christianity.

In peace and in war, the Ulster man (or woman) has usually been prepared to put his life where his loyalty and convictions are. Magic doesn’t get him out of this confrontation. He can be humbly awed if things suddenly come right for him; or shocked when retribution strikes those who thought themselves beyond judgement, but I don’t think he would call this ‘magic’.

Narnian Ulster (IV)

These Narnian stories are not altogether allegories but supposings: suppose Christ reappearted among us as an animal, which one would He be? Of course, He would be the King of beasts, death resurrection and redemption outlined in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But natural law, basic values and stock responses apply to all as what is to be expected as decent behaviour -- or not: stealing is wrong, robins are good, dwarfs are dicey. Curiosity is usually negative: ‘mind your own business’ is frequently implied. Aslan tells no one any story but his own. The King is under the law, because it’s the law that makes him King. This Aslan Himself recognises: "Do you think I wouldn’t obey my own rules?" But yet Aslan is not a tame lion. Ulster people recognise this, and are uncomfortable about people who keep God in their pocket, and expect instant rewards for their good behaviour. They know that holding on, sticking it, in a desperate situation is more likely to be expected of them. So, in The Silver Chair, the marsh-wiggle, Puddleglum, says before the risky adventure, "I’m on Aslan’s side, even if there isn’t an Aslan to lead it", "I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia." So thousands of Ulstermen went to their deaths at the Battle of the Somme.

Yet Lewis gives his characters a taste for glory, and isn’t mealy-mouthed about it. On appropriate occasions, trumpets, drums and banners announce and express Royalty in gorgeous sounds and colours.

He uses memorable phrases that evoke Ulster echoes: as in The Dawn Treader where ‘everyman drew his sword and set his face to a joyful sternness.’ I at once see Orangemen on parade on the 12th of July, their banners held aloft, their bowlers straight, their white gloves gleaming - and with just that look on their faces. This solemn joy has something to do with the Ulsterman’s love of ritual.

The Ulsterman I knew best was, of course, my father. Regularly, every summer, he would take us on Saturdays by train to Bangor or Newcastle. We always had the same lunch at the same restaurant, too, the same walk along the beach to Ballyholme, Bangor, or the golf links in Newcastle. No-one thought of asking, ‘Can’t we go somewhere else?’ ‘May we try another cafe?’ ‘may I have strawberries instead of ice-cream? The Ulsterman likes to know what he is going to do next. I seem to remember his saying, "There’s a right way and a wrong way of doing most things." Strawberries weren’t wrong: but they weren’t what we usually had.

Narnian Ulster (III)

I can think of many places in Narnia which may have an Ulster background: the shape of Aslan’s How in Prince Caspian, for instance: like the round crown of a hilltop that marks a passage grave. The incised patterns on the stones have the same reference: see Knockmany, near Clougher, in Co. Tyrone. The stone structure inside the How suggests a dolmen (or portal tombs, as they’re now called); most people have seen these - perhaps at Legananny in Co. Down, or in the Giant’s Ring, south of Belfast. The caves in The Silver Chair may owe something to Belfast’s Cave Hill. The ruined city the children had to find, and the steep climbs up stone steps, suddenly brought me back to the Giant’s Causeway. When the children, under the land’s surface, see chasms which lead down to even darker and worse places, a thought of St. Patrick’s Purgatory in County Donegal flashed through my mind -- and possibly had been in the back of Lewis’s. He knew Donegal well.

Turning from the scenery to the stories themselves, we find his essay on the subject in Of This and Other Worlds interesting. He writes, " I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child, and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties." In other words, he is not writing down to children but from what is in himself. He chose the children’s story as the best art form for something he had to say. Lewis points out that in most places and times, fairy tales have not been exclusively for children. The appeal of the fairy tale for an author is that he may there most fully exercise his function as a ‘sub-creator’, in Tolkien’s terminology. (Jung thought fairy tales liberated archetypes.) Lewis writes that he is not sure why at a particular time he had to write fairy tales. The Narnian chronicles were probably written as relaxation in the evenings at home in the Kilns, after spending the long days and years of reading in the Bodleian library the mostly dull verse and prose of the 16th century for what he called OHEL, the Oxford History of English Literature. There were bright spots; he loved Spenser, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets and narrative poems, but he needed, as relief, to exercise what he called ‘the imaginative man’ in him as a reaction from the generally ‘dry-as-dust’ day’s reading and writing. So I think that was part of the why; he also tells us how he saw that ‘stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of his own religion in childhood.’ The ‘how’ was more easily answered. In Lewis’s case, he saw pictures: a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. His work came in fitting them together, or rather, letting Aslan the Lion pull the whole story together, ‘and soon He pulled the six other stories after Him.’

Somehow, this is very Ulster-like: the sheer practicality of describing pictures that had been given to him, and then piecing them together to make a whole. The same message occurs through the books: Keep your sword clean; don’t let your tears wet your bow-string: it’s no good thinking what would have happened if you had done something else: things never happen the same way twice: be sure of your food, before you start on a long journey!

Narnian Ulster (II)

To begin with, I have found myself back in Ulster where I spent my childhood, and Lewis spent his. Ulster for Lewis, of course, had the pre-Partition geography. His childhood and youth knew nine counties., including Donegal, beloved still of all children for seaside holidays at Inver, Rathmullan and Portnoo. In addition, south of Carlingford, there is Co. Louth, once Cuchullain’s country, which stretched down south as far as modern Dundalk. This includes Annagassin, which later became familiar to Jack and Warnie through the Henrys. The Lewis brothers had a happy childhood, as long as their mother was alive. (She died of cancer in 1908, before Jack was 10, and Warnie three years older.) Surprised by Joy tells of those days, blest by good parents, good food, a large garden to play in, a good nurse, Lizzie Endicott from Co. Down, and kindly servants. We learn of his early paintings, drawings and stories, sometimes written down for him by his father. He writes of his first experiences of Joy, an unsatisfied desire which is more desirable than any other satisfaction. Their mother’s death separated them from their father in his frantic grief. All settled happiness came to an end. No wonder Jack Lewis went back to those former sunlit days in his imagination when he wrote the Narnia books. Their Ewart cousins later took them on drives and picnics: perhaps to the places that were to become the essence of Narnia: we don’t know when he first saw the Carlingford/Rostrevor area.

The Christian values of home were not to survive his first boarding school, and he became an atheist. So was W. T. Kirkpatrick, his later splendid private tutor, a man of brilliant intellect, and sound values of moral law. Jack’s love of mythology (Greek, Irish and Norse) prevented his becoming a materialist. He was a lover of fairy tales all his life, and knew well.the great sagas and fairy tales of Ireland. Walter Hooper remembers that ‘if you want to plunge into ...the very quiddity of some Narnian countyside, you must go to what Lewis considered the lovliest spot he had ever seen’ - the Carlingford Lough area, with its sea, woods and mountains. Jack would have known from The Cattleraid of Cooley of these parts: Cooley point is on the eastern edge of the Carlingford peninsula. Jack and Warnie came to know the area well when they stayed with the Henrys at Golden Arrow cottage, Annagassin. Vera Henry, Mrs. Moore’s goddaughter, had acted as maid at the Kilns for some time, and they were all very fond of her; she died suddenly in 1953, to their grief. When I went to see her brother, Major Frank Henry in the Abbeyfield Home near Rostrevor in 1994, he told me with such pleasure of the trips in his car, and Jack’s typical Ulster punctiliousness in paying for all the petrol and expenses involved. Ulster people are practical: "Never forget to wipe your sword" all Narnian heros are told.

Narnian Ulster (I)

Back in the 1959s, my small daughter’s first prize in the Girl’s Collegiate School, Enniskillen, was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I looked at the book in some surprise. To me, the author, C. S. Lewis, was the distinguised and unique lecturer of my student days, his Prolegomena to Medieval Studies being the unforgettable series that opened our eyes and ears to the medieval world. I remembered with gratitude his war-time writings, such as the Problem of Pain and the Screwtape Letters, along with his Broadcast Talks; but the war was now over! What was he doing and why was he writing a children’s fairy tale? An old friend od his (and mine), Janie McNeill, was equally perturbed. "He’s done enough! He should be writing more books like the Allegory of Love. He’s ruining his academic career," she moaned. I agreed. (I had just given a paper on Lewis’s literary criticism (which included his Preface to Paradise Lost and The Abolition of Man, as well as the Allegory of Love) to the only Belfast audience there was then for Lewis’s works, the Drawing-Room Circle, founded by my mother in 1926.) So together Janie and I sighed and wondered why.

But I’m glad to say that I now know the answer, since, in the early 1990s, I was asked to talk on Lewis to the English Benedictines at Elmore Abbey, Newbury. Father Basil, the Abbot, amazed me by telling me afterwards that when novices came to join the Order, the first books they were set to read were the Narnian Chronicles! So I have recently re-read them all in the correct order to see why.

(Mary Rogers)

[Mary Rogers was born in India and grew up in Belfast. Mary attended Oxford University, where she heard C. S. Lewis lecture. At Oxford, Mary met her husband, Rev Val Rogers, Mary later taught at Portora Royal School, Co Fermanagh, where her husband was Headmaster for many years. Mary has lectured on C. S. Lewis in England and the United States, and she has written three books on the Ulster countryside. The Rogers live in Oxford.]


Lessons from the Death of Tolkien

In September 1973, Father John Tolkien celebrated a Requiem Mass for his father at the Church of St. Anthony of Padua, in Oxford. JRR Tolkien was buried next to his wife Edith in a Catholic cemetery just outside Oxford at Wolvercote. He may have penned his own epitaph in 1956, shortly after The Lord of the Rings was published, when he wrote: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a long defeat — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”

This sense of exile was present in The Lord of the Rings. At the end of the story many of the heroes travel, quietly and alone, to the Grey Havens, a harbour containing ships to take passengers on a one-way voyage away from Middle-Earth. Against all odds good has triumphed, but at a cost. Some of the travellers are scarred by evil, others by sorrow. The boat slips anchor and fades into the darkness, leaving in its wake a glimmer of light, which in turn disappears. A sense of melancholy prevails.


There came an instant at which both men braced themselves. Ransom gripped the side of his sofa; Merlin grasped his own knees and set his teeth. A rod of coloured light, whose colour no man can name or picture, darted between them; no more to see than that, but seeing was the least part of their experience. Quick agitation seized them: a kind of boiling and bubbling in mind and heart which shook their bodies also. It went to a rhythm of such fierce speed that they feared their sanity must be shaken into a thousand fragments. And then it seemed that this had actually happened. But it didn't matter: for all the fragments - needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts - went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves. It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry. The doubling, splitting and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision. For Ransom, whose study had been for many years in the realm of words, it was heavenly pleasure. He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning. For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them: the angel that spins nearest the sun. Viritrilbia, whom men call Mercury and Thoth.

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, Chapter 15: Descent of the Gods (1945)


In the Blue Room also Ransom and Merlin felt about this time that the temperature had risen. The windows, they did not see how or when, had swung open; at their opening the temperature did not drop, for it was from without that the warmth came. Through the bare branches, across the ground which was once more stiffening with frost, a summer breeze was blowing into the room, but the breeze of such a summer as England never has. Laden like heavy barges that glide nearly gunwale under, laden so heavily you would have thought it could not move, laden with ponderous fragrance of night-scented flowers, sticky gums, groves that drop odours, and with cool savour of midnight fruit, it stirred the curtains, it lifted a letter that lay on the table, it lifted the hair which had a moment before been plastered on Merlin's forehead. The room was rocking. They were afloat. A soft tingling and shivering as of foam and breaking bubbles ran over their flesh. Tears ran down Ransom's cheeks. He alone knew from what seas and what islands that breeze blew. Merlin did not; but in him also the inconsolable wound with which man is born waked and ached at this touching. Low syllables of prehistoric Celtic self-pity murmured from his lips. These yearnings and fondlings were however only the fore-runners of the goddess. As the whole of her virtue seized, focussed, and held that spot of the rolling Earth in her long beam, something harder, shriller, more perilously ecstatic, came out of the centre of all the softness. Both the humans trembled--Merlin because he did not know what was coming, Ransom because he knew. And now it came. It was fiery, sharp, bright and ruthless, ready to kill, ready to die, outspeeding light: it was Charity, not as mortals imagine it, not even as it has been humanised for them since the Incarnation of the Word, but the translunary virtue, fallen upon them direct from the Third Heaven, unmitigated. They were blinded, scorched, deafened. They thought it would burn their bones. They could not bear that it should continue. They could not bear that it should cease. So Perelandra, triumphant among planets, whom men call Venus, came and was with them in the room.

C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, Chapter 15: Descent of the Gods (1945)