Wednesday, August 27, 2008


When schoolboys begin to be taught to make Latin verses at school [those were the days!] they are very properly forbidden to have what is technically called "a spondee in the fifth foot." I is a good rule for boys because the normal hexameter does not have a spondee there: if boys were allowed to use this abnormal form they would be constantly doing it for convenience and might never get the typical music of the hexameter into their heads at all. But when the boys come to read Virgil they find that Virgil does the very thing they have been forbidden to do--not very often, but not so very rarely either...

Now one often finds that the beginner, who has just mastered the strict formal rules, is over-punctilious and pedantic about them. And the mere critic, who is never going to begin himself, may be more pedantic still. The classical critics were shocked at the "irregularity" or "licenses" of Shakespeare.

A stupid schoolboy might think that the abnormal
hexameters in Virgil, or the half-rhymes in English poets, were due to incompetence. In reality, of course, every one of them is there for a purpose and breaks the superficial regularity of the metre in obedience to a higher and subtler law: just as the irregularities in The Winter's Tale do not impair, but embody and perfect, the inward unity of its spirit.

In other words, there are rules behind the rules, a unity which is deeper than uniformity. A supreme workman will never break by one note or one syllable or one stroke of the brush the living and inward law of the work he is producing. But he will break without scruple any number of those superficial regularities and orthodoxies which little, unimaginative critics mistake for its laws...

If we had grasped as a whole the innermost spirit of that "work which God worketh from the beginning to the end," and of which Nature is only a part and perhaps a small part, we should be in a position to decide whether miraculous interruption of Nature's history were mere improprieties unworthy of the Great Workman or expressions of the truest and deepest unity in His total work. In fact, we are in no such position. The gap between God's mind and ours must, on any view, be incalculably greater than the gap between Shakespeare's mind and that of the most piddling critics of the old French school...

How a miracle can be no inconsistency, but the highest consistency, will be clear to those who have read Miss Dorothy Sayers' indispensable book, The Mind of the Maker. Miss Sayers' thesis is based on the analogy between God's relation to the world, on the one hand, and an author's relation to his book on the other.

If you are writing a story, miracles or abnormal events may be bad art, or they may not. If, for example, you are writing an ordinary realistic novel and have got your characters into a hopeless muddle, it would be quite intolerable if you suddenly cut the knot and secured a happy ending by having a fortune left to the hero from an unexpected quarter. On t he other hand, there is nothing against taking as your subject from the outset the adventures of a man who inherits an unexpected fortune. The unusual event is perfectly permissible if it is what you are really writing about; it is an artistic crime if you simply drag it in by the heels to get yourself out of a hole.

The ghost story is a legitimate for of art; but you must not bring a ghost into an ordinary novel to get over a difficulty in the plot. Now there is no doubt that a great deal of the modern objection to miracles is based on the suspicion that they aer marvels of the wrong sort: that a story of a certain kind (Nature) is arbitrarily interfered with, to get the characters out of a difficulty, by events that do not really belong to that kind of story. Some people probably think of the Resurrection as a desperate last moment expedient to save the Hero from a situation which had got out of the Author's control.

The reader may set his mind at rest. If I thought miracles were like that, I should not believe in them. If they have occurred, they have occurred because they are the very thing this universal story is about. They are not exceptions (however rarely they occur) nor irrelevancies. They are precisely those chapters in this great story on which the plot turns. Death and Resurrection are what the story is about; and had we but eyes to see it, this has been hinted on every page, met us, in some disguise at every turn, and even been muttered in conversations between such minor characters (if they are minor characters) as the vegetables.

If you have hitherto disbelieved in miracles, it is worth pausing a moment to consider whether this is not chiefly because you thought you had discovered what the story was really about?--that atoms, and time and space and economics and politics were the main plot? And is it certain you were right? It is easy to make mistakes in these matters.

A friend of mine wrote a play in which the main idea was that the hero had a pathological horror of trees and a mania for cutting them down. But naturally other things came in as well; there was some sort of love story mixed up with it. And the trees killed the man in the end. When my friend had written it, he sent it to an older man to criticise. It came back with the comment, "Not bad. But I'd cut those bits of padding about the trees."

To be sure, God might be expected to make a better story than my friend. But it is a very long story, with a complicated plot; and we are net, perhaps, very attentive readers.

--C.S. Lewis, Miracles, A Preliminary Study

No comments:

Post a Comment