Stealing Past the Watchful Dragons

Though in many ways the genius behind the Inklings was Tolkien’s — and the Inklings was a surrogate for an earlier “writer’s club” that Tolkien had helped found but which was decimated by World War I — Lewis was its center of gravity, its draw, and its ongoing source of energy. His ebullient personality was in great contrast to Tolkien’s more shy and retiring demeanor. Lewis’s group criticism could be pointed and personal, but always rendered for the sake of making a work more “seaworthy”; Tolkien’s was more muted, and focused on encouragement. What brought them together week after week, besides the pleasure of their company (which was enormous), was a shared conviction that the twentieth century had started abysmally and that one of the best ways to maintain or restore the glories of the “true West” was to create and promote grand works of mythopoeia — myth, fantasy, and speculative fiction that would “steal past the watchful dragons” of conventional wisdom and decadent culture and instill what Lewis called “a taste of the other” — a vision of a transcendent realm.

Dr. Bruce L. Edwards (Bowling Green State University)
Who Were The Inklings? (excerpt)

The Seed of Dragons

In 1939, Tolkien gave a talk at Oxford on 'Fairy-Stories', later published in Essays presented to Charles Williams. In this he quoted a poem he had written for Lewis (cf. Carpenter, Inklings, 63):
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons -- 'twas our right
(used or misused), that right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we're made.

Thus Tolkien saw our (inklings) creativity as something like craft: a pleasant matter of professional obligation as a human being.

Coins, his dragon's loins

The king has set up his mint by Thames.
He has struck coins; his dragon's loins
germinate a crowded creaturely brood
to scuttle and scurry between towns and towns,
to furnish dishes and flagons with change of food;
small crowns, small dragons, hurry to the markets
under the king's smile, or flat in houses squat.
The long file of their snout crosses the empire,
and the other themes acknowledge our king's head.
They carry on their backs little packs of value,
caravans; but I dreamed the head of a dead king
was carried on all, that they teemed on house-roofs
where men stared and studied them as I your thumbs' epigrams,
hearing the City say Feed my lambs
to you and the king; the king can tame dragons to carriers,
but I came through the night, and saw the dragonlets' eyes
leer and peer, and the house-roofs under their weight
creak and break; shadows of great forms
halloed them on, and followed over falling towns.
I saw that this was the true end of our making;
mother of children, redeem the new law.

Taliessin's look darkened; his hand shook
while he touched the dragons; he said 'We had a good thought.
Sir, if you made verse you would doubt symbols.
I am afraid of the little loosed dragons.
When the means are autonomous, they are deadly; when words
escape from verse they hurry to rape souls;
when sensation slips from intellect, expect the tyrant;
the brood of carriers levels the good they carry.
We have taught our images to be free; are we glad?
are we glad to have brought convenient heresy to Logres?

Charles Williams ~ ‘Bors to Elayne: on the King’s Coins’
Arthurian Poets (The Boydell Press) 1991 (extract)

Lewis on Taliessin
Dec. 15th 1945
“... I am (these last 6 months) immersed in a v. different poet who I think great – Charles Williams: the two volumes of his Arthurian poems Taliessin and The Region of the Summer Stars. Inexcusably difficult, as I always told him, but here there really is something behind the difficulty – that something wh. we all need most in literature at present & wh. I wd. call opaque splendour – thick, rich, solid, heavy – porphyry, gold diamond.”
CS Lewis ~ Collected Letters

On Dragon Island

Laying anchor off the shore of the island, most of the ship's company went to the island to restore provisions, repair the broken water casks, and find a tree to fell and replace the Dawn Treader's broken mast.

Not wanting to work, Eustace ran off to find a shady spot. Wandering off into the mist, Eustace became lost and found his way into a valley where dwelled a dragon. The dragon had only just come out of its cave when it lay down and died. Eustace went into the cave and found its treasure horde -- donning a rather lovely golden bracelet he found -- and lay down to sleep. When he woke up, he found himself in the form of the dragon. In a panic, he tore his way out of the valley and came down to the beach. The crew was about to slay him when he was challenged by Caspian and Reepicheep, who quickly deduced who he really was.

Working with the crew for a while, Eustace became disheartened in that he might have to remain on the island since he won't fit on the Dawn Treader. However, Aslan appeared to heal him and restore him to human form so that he could remove the bracelet, which Caspian recognized as belonging to the Lord Octesian. At the end, when the ship was ready to set sail, they decided that the dragon had either killed Octesian, or was itself the lord transformed.

"A powerful dragon crying its eyes out under the moon in a deserted valley is a sight and a sound hardly to be imagined."

C. S. Lewis ~ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader


This is what another writer made of the Story...

Eustace has little respect for others and lacks a sense of fairness: he tries to take more than his rightful share of water rations and lies about it, and later he slips away from his companions to avoid doing his part of the work. is behavior is beastly, and he turns literally into a monster, cut off from other human beings: he becomes a dragon – a creature straight out of the imaginative stories he had resisted. Only then can he begin to get outside himself, imagine how others see him, and “wonder if he himself had been such a nice person as he had always supposed”. After being un-dragoned by Aslan, he is able to escape the limited, materialistic, rationalistic world in which he had grown up, aided perhaps by Reepicheep’s stories about “emperors, kings, dukes, knights, poets, [and] lovers” who had fallen into distressing circumstances and recovered. Moral imagination comes to play an important role in Eustace’s life, and as readers respond to Eustace first with antipathy and then sympathy, they too can experience moral imagination at work in their own lives.

(Source unknown)

Dragon Hunt

Smaug the Golden

“One of the greatest Dragons of Middle-Earth during the Third Age, a royal beast of great lineage and cunning whose first recorded appearance in the Annals of the Age was in the year 2770, when he came flaming out of the North to capture, sack and occupy the Dwarf-kingdom of Erebor east of Mirkwood. The attack was so successful that most of the Dwarves unfortunate enough to be caught inside the Lonely Mountain on that day were exterminated - and for good measure Smaug aslo destroyed the nearby Mannish town of Dale. After completing these labours, the Dragon crawled inside the Mountain and there gathered all the wealth of both Erebor and Dale into one vast heap, upon which he lay in contented slumber for nearly two full centuries.”

(The Tolkien Companion ~ J.E.A. Tyler)

Lewis on Williams

I was looking up mentions of Williams in Lewis' letters, and came across one which was amusing, and another which is very insightful, I think. The amusing one was telling his brother Warnie about an evening he spent with Tolkien, Wrenn, and Williams. He says, Wrenn almost seriously expressed a strong wish to burn Williams, or at least maintained that conversation with Williams enabled him to understand how inquisitors had felt it right to burn people. Tolkien and I agreed afterwards that we just knew what he meant: that as some people at school..... are eminently kickable, so Williams is eminently combustible. "

The other, 4 months later in 1940, commented on a lecture CW had given, I think at Oxford, on chastity. In the middle of a fascinating paragraph describing CW's lecture, Lewis said, "I have at last, if only for once, seen a university doing what it was founded to do: teaching Wisdom." I realised that this does sum up for me the kernel of Williams' writings: wisdom. That must be why they are so lapped up by those who do try them; the difficulties of understanding are worth overcoming, if one can just get to the nub and taste that wonderful wisdom, the wisdom from above, "from the Father of lights".

Would others agree with me that this may be the secret of CW's writings?

Carolyn Janson


When we are praying about the result, say, of a battle or a medical consultation the thought will often cross our minds that (if only we knew it) the event is already decided one way or the other. I believe this to be no good reason for ceasing our prayers. The event certainly has been decided--in a sense it was decided 'before all worlds'. But one of the things taken into account in deciding it, and therefore one of the things that really cause it to happen, may be this very prayer that we are now offering. Thus, shocking as it may sound, I conclude that we can at noon become part causes of an event occurring at ten a.m. (Some scientists would find this easier than popular thought does.) The imagination will, no doubt, try to play all sort of tricks on us at this point. It will ask, 'Then if I stop praying can God go back and alter what has already happened?' No. The event has already happened and one of its causes has been the fact that you are asking such questions instead of praying. It will ask, 'Then if I begin to pray can God go back and alter what has already happened?' No. The event has already happened and one of its causes is your present prayer. Thus something does really depend on my choice. My free act contributes to the cosmic shape. That contribution is made in eternity 'before all worlds'; but my consciousness of contributing reaches me at a particular point in the time series.
C.S. Lewis, Miracles, Appendix B (1947)