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Lewolkien 2019 Summary

April 18, 2019

lewolkien literary conference, featuring discussions of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

Lewolkien 2019 has come and gone, but that does not mean its embers do no smolder on in the ashes. Perhaps one day we’ll get our act together and actually start recording the talks, but for now, humble words chiseled in pixels will have to suffice.

Read on for all that was of the flaming comet streaking through our literary skies known as Lewolkien 2019.

To allegory or not to allegory? That is the question

After breakfast the unforgettable RM Brooks Generals store the conference proper began. The first talk was given by Jacob Stock, the organizer of the workshop, which is put on each year by Castle Ministries. He spoke on his vision for encouraging others, especially parents and children, to seek out and discover great literature. That is one of the key pillars of the conference. It’s a time to focus on the good, the true, and the beautiful in literature and to inspire people to read more and to read better.

The next talk was from the featured speaker. Dr. Sam Overstreet. Dr. Overstreet brought to the conference the scholarly insight of an academic in the field of literature, yet was most engaging and personable. His talk focused on the use of allegory as it related to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Some of Lewis’s works have been considered allegorical by many readers, though Lewis himself stated that they were not. Dr. Overstreet explained that Lewis, being himself an academic of literature, adopted a strict and narrow definition of what constituted “allegory” which excluded his own works. Dr. Overstreet proposed his own working definition, a story with “a system of interconnected metaphors” as being more inclusive and better in line with what most people mean when they talk about allegory. Using this criteria, much of Lewis’s fiction can be considered allegory, such as the novel Till We Have Faces, and most especially the beloved Narniabooks, in which the familiar elements of Aslan the great Lion dying on the stone table in the place of undeserving, traitorous Edmund, feel strongly allegorical to most Christian readers.

This was rather to be expected, Dr. Overstreet suggested, given that Lewis was very familiar with a number of medieval allegories through his studies, such as Pilgrim’s Progress, Piers Plowman, and The Faerie Queene, and by his own statements Lewis enjoyed allegory when well executed. Also, the professor adds, C.S.Lewis was much more a rationalist than Tolkien ever was, and having an organized and recognizable system of symbols and metaphors  – an allegory, in other words – to illuminate spiritual truths, appealed to the logical side of Lewis’s mind along with his deeply imaginative side.

architecture art cathedral stained glass

Tolkien the bandersnatch

Tolkien, on the other hand, was a romantic at heart, and Dr. Overstreet quoted him as saying he “cordially disliked allegory in all its manifestations.” Tolkien, like Lewis, desired his works to point toward the transcendent truths of Christianity, but he chose to do so through symbols and suggestions scattered throughout his stories – through typology, as Dr. Overstreet explained. Wise but powerful Gandalf dying to save his companions and returning to life as Gandalf the White, or Aragorn, the unrecognized King with “the hands of a healer” who long wanders the wilds before coming to his throne in glory, are both characters that typify Christ. Yet neither fully or exclusively embodies Him, the way Lewis’s Aslan seems to do; they are first and foremost their own characters, and their Christ-like attributes are subordinate to their particular personalities and histories.

Dr. Overstreet illuminated other examples imbedded in Tolkien’s works whose resonance with Christianity is more subtle. The elven “waybread” which sustains travelers corresponds with the Old English word wegnest, which in turn harkens back to the Latin term for the Eucharist, the viaticum. In Tolkien’s mind, the professor suggested, the idea of Holy Communion, which strengthens spiritually those who partake of it as they travel through life, lent meaning to the “waybread” in his stories that provided the weary with the strength they needed to keep going. Dr. Overstreet also talked about the word earendil, meaning “daystar” in Old English. Many centuries before finding its way into The Lord of the Rings as the name of the Elves’ most beloved star, the word appeared in a poem from antiquity about Christ which compares Him to and names Him Earendil, and which seems to have been one of the early sparks which ignited Tolkien’s imagination, leading eventually to the fictional world we now know and love.

The audience enthusiastically received Dr. Overstreet’s fascinating and very informative talk on the ways, whether allegory or typology, Tolkien and Lewis infused their stories with spiritual meaning.

Lewis, while he did not set out to write explicit allegories in his Chronicles of Narnia, nevertheless found himself using the allegorical mode often with things like the White Witch, the Stone Table, and, of course, Aslan the great lion. He even has Aslan appear as a lamb in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, because of course Christ, whom Aslan represents, is spoken of as a both lamb and lion in the Bible.

The more “life” a story has the more it may be interpreted allegorically

A walk through literary history

After Dr. Overstreet’s talk we headed over to the Rugby Visitor’s Center to begin our tour of the historic town. First we were treated to a short talk by one of the tour guides. He informed us about how the town was founded in 1880 by author Thomas Hughes, author of Tom Brown’s School DaysThe town now has around 80 residents and all homes, even the newer ones, are built in the architectural style of that time.

rugby tennessee library

After leaning about Mr. Hughes and the founding of the town, be sauntered over to the nearby library, home to roughly 7000 volumes, all from the late 1800’s. It’s a small little one-room affair, but it is remarkable how well-preserved it is. A vent in the ceiling allows moisture to evaporate, but there are no other environmental controls in use.

Next we visited the Episcopal church across the street. It has been in continuous use since 1887. It is quite small with two dozen or so pews which are original to the building. Most amazing, however is the paint on the back walls of golden fleur-de-lis set in a field of red. The buttermilk paint there is original to the building and is in perfect condition. It’s hard to imagine not needing to retouch paint for 130 years. Oh, if only they sold that particular mix at the local paint store!

The highlight here was an impromptu singing of the Doxology by the forty or so conference attendees. It was a holy moment of praise, made all the more holy because it was unlooked for.

After our trip to the church, the tour ended in the small museum on the bottom floor of the old schoolhouse. The displays there featured quotes from Thomas Hughes, more details on the life of the town, and highlights from the lives of some of the more prominent residents of Rugby.

Where has all the imagination gone?

In the first of the afternoon sessions DJ Edwardson, author of The Last Motley and other books spoke on meta-narrative and how all of us are story-tellers in our own heads all the time. We all believe one overall story which explains all the others. These stories feature the same structure as the three act structure in story: origin, conflict, and resolution. These answer the three basic questions:

  • Where did we come from?
  • What’s wrong with the world?
  • How can what’s wrong be made right?

Whether you are an environmentalist, a socialist, or a Christian, you will have these questions. And the meta-narrative you subscribe to will influence the answers to these questions, as well as how you interpret things happening in the world around you.

There are two main groups of meta-narratives, the materialistic and the supernatural. The materialist believes that nature is all there ever is, ever was, or ever shall be. The supernaturalist believes there is more to the story, that something else has a say in nature and that it’s more important even than what we can see and hear and touch.

Lewis and Tolkien were, of course, supernaturalists. They refused to bow the materialism of their age and wrote stories which reflected their belief that beyond the “circles of this world is more than memory,” as Tolkien put it.

silmarillion white ships

illustration by Ted Naismith

An inside look at the birth of a book

The final talk was by Maynard Nordmoe, author of Mercy and Truth He gave us insights into the book he is currently working. The working title is, “Growing Old is not for Everybody.”

Having gotten rather up in years himself, Mr. Nordmoe offered reflections of his time taking care of his own elderly family members. He shared photos, stories, and lessons learned on what surely were some rugged roads.

He also read an excerpt from his manuscript and his passion for his work came through as he spoke about what he hoped to accomplish by writing it. Writing is such a personal affair and Mr. Nordmoe opened up in very honest way about some of his own struggles and victories through dealing with the elderly, from the perspective of one now having lived to the age of those he once cared for.

Final discussion

The conference ended with a panel consisting of Mr. Stock, myself, and Dr. Overstreet. The topics were far ranging and would be hard to sum up in this brief space. It was encouraging, though, to see so many young people and parents among those who stayed to the end. They asked great questions and several shared their own observations from having trundled on their own through many journeys “between the pages.”

And, like all all good things, the conference at last came to an end. The hope of those who organized it is that people will keep in touch hear at Stop by to discover new books and hear about our literary adventures.

In a world of light speed technology and twenty four hour social media feeds, Lewolkien hopes to be an oasis in a desert of busyness and pragmatism. A gentle call to go “further up and further in” to the realm of the good, the true, and the beautiful. And, for a few brief hours in March of 2019, perhaps it was just that.

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