'It is wonder that infuses Narnia, the land where trees and animals talk and a mighty lion is always liable to irrupt when least expected.'
Colin Duriez and David Porter 'The Inklings'
The Inklings was a group of literary friends meeting in Oxford from 1933 to 1949 which included CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien who wrote the world-famous bestselling classics of literary fantasy. It was their belief that we win truth by metaphor, using highly imaginative models such as their worlds of Narnia and Middle-earth.
The creation of a work of wonder, a classic, is far more important more than a matter of life and death.
Wonder or the feeling of wonderment goes beyond the spectacle, or carnival, the pageant or festival, beyond feasting and fêting, beyond human celebrations and the things we enjoy thanks to the suspension of normal routine.
It goes FAR beyond those. Don’t mistake it for misrule or mayhem. Don’t confuse it with surrealism, romantic love or engrossment.
'I am not quite sure what made me, in a particular year of my life, feel that not only a fairy tale, but a fairy tale addressed to children, was exactly what I must write - or burst.'
CS Lewis 1952, aged fifty-four.
To some this desire comes later than others. To me it has come now at forty-seven years old. I find adult books and matters of love, life and death, tawdry and childish. They sit perhaps on Bogart’s ‘hill of beans’.
‘Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of. Ilsa, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.’
I could never have foreseen this happening to me. Perhaps it's that you run out of moral energy in one direction and fall through a hayloft into a new place. Maybe you have to have suffered. After all, more than one kind of God wants us on our knees to even begin a conversation.
That the creation of a feeling of wonder or wonderment in your work is hard should not put you off. I am only asking you to want to create it for now.
The creation of wonderment is all about striving and feeling, striving and feeling.
Sehnsucht or the joy of yearning for the infinite and the unattainable was, according to CS Lewis, the prime mover behind his work, and one of the forces behind the ambitions of the small Oxford-based group of writers and thinkers from 1933-1949 who called themselves The Inklings and whose members included CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.
Faith first? Faith before reason? The French singer, idealist and humanitarian, Balavoine, proposed we rekindle a taste for life and love by replacing need with desire.
If an adult work of fiction is a moral journey, singular but of broad application, the 'Classic' is altogether more avowedly universal and it requires reader and writer working together to replace our needs with desire, possibly our first foremost and final desire. The forgotten desire.
A masterpiece shows us our forgotten desire.
The Masterpiece and Our Forgotten Desire.
In Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, the work begins with the pilgrim's moral confusion and ends with the vision of God. The most beautiful and mystic passages appear when Dante looks into the face of God:
'all'alta fantasia qui mancò possa'
'at this high moment, ability failed my capacity to describe,' (Paradiso, XXXIII, 142).
Dante confesses that it's bloody hard to get that feeling of wonderment into words. As you will see in the course, other great writers have admitted how hard it is too, even in their prose, but that doesn't mean we're not going to give it a go. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that.
(And you thought it was going to be tough writing a classic, now I'm telling you we're looking at masterpieces!)
'In speaking of this desire for our own far off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.' CS Lewis.
The masterpiece classic - goes beyond good craft, good writing, good art. Its content goes beyond the matters of love, live and death. It shows us the face of God, you might say. It takes us into the realm of the ineffable and the divine, you might say. But if you are resistant to these concepts beyond the three dimensions of material, let’s just say there’s more to life and death than life and death and the great works help us burst through the doors of comprehension.
‘Over the course of history, there sometimes emerge works of art of such quality that they transcend boundaries of period and place.’
'What Makes a Masterpiece?' Christopher Dell.
We are removed from our bodied and boundaried experience when we experience a masterpiece. This is not ‘feet on the ground’ stuff. Forget Hemingway. This is the opposite of grounded reason.
This kind of writing work goes beyond craft skills. Yes, you need them. But your ambition is no longer worldly. Your primary objective is to return to find any early seeds of wonder, any recollections of that feeling and to transfer them now to a laboratory where you will grow them into monstrous, fantastic vision of wonderment.
‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.’
A masterpiece is the work of an artist who can transform a personal experience into a universal one. A masterpiece expands our consciousness. You know when you've encountered a masterpiece because it stays with you. It has a very profound meaning for you, and also millions of others. It has a universal appeal.
Once you get a handle on this, every song you hear, every work of art you see you will divide between good stuff (concerned with life and death matters) and great classic masterpieces (concerned with matters beyond matter, after death and before life.)
Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep.
Shakespeare: Measure for Measure
It goes beyond visions of utopia too. It goes beyond anything worldly and into the sublime or the 'numinous'.
In 'Phaedo' ('On The Soul') Socrates tells us that there exists an ideal world above and beyond the world of matter.
‘In this other earth the colours are much purer and much more brilliant than they are down here... The very mountains, the very stones have a richer gloss, a lovelier transparency and intensity of hue. The precious stones of this lower world, our highly prized cornelians, jaspers, emeralds and all the rest, are but the tiny fragments of these stones above. In the other earth there is no stone but is precious and exceeds in beauty every gem of ours.’
The masterpiece and the classic work of fiction deliver a sense of wonder, a feeling of awakening or awe, triggered by an expansion of one’s awareness of what is possible.
A sense of wonder has been considered one of the primary attributes of science fiction too, since the pulp era. The titles of the most popular Sci-Fi magazines of that period—Astounding, Amazing, Wonder Stories, Thrilling, Startling, etc.—clearly indicate that the cognitive value of the stories is more than counter-balanced by an affective power. There's a deep need for this kind of feeling in both children and adults, perhaps we need it even more so as we grow up.
John Clute and Peter Nicholls have associated the experience with that of the 'conceptual breakthrough' or 'paradigm shift'. (Clute & Nicholls 1993).
It's deemed breaking through the doors of comprehension, going beyond reason and science, or as William Blake put it, inspiring Aldous Huxley to try it out for himself, it's about going beyond 'the doors of perception.'
Damon Knight wrote about the ‘sense of wonder’ in sci fi in 1952 at the height of pulp. ‘All the great fantasies have been written by emotionally crippled men.’
Well, there’s a lot of them about, and you will see in the course how this applies to Hans Christian Anderson, JM Barrie, JRR Tolkien. Lewis Carroll and CS Lewis too, whose works we will be examining.
Thinking about the boys who never grew up, I think of Michael Jackson and his Neverland ranch, and the desire above all else to dwell in wonderment and how this desire in itself manifests in the works of arts of the greats of music, art and song.
‘All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’
Never grow up, answers J.M. Barrie.
But it's not just that. A world of 'wonderment' must strive to go beyond redeemed experience - 'the vacation eyes' of childhood, a long way beyond, so that if it falls short we are still in the gutter but looking at the stars. It goes beyond surrealism, the bartering of ideas and concepts and playful rearrangement to assist sensory awareness, it goes out to the big beyond without hope of answer. It's the call, that's the point, and whether the answer is imagined or heard, it's crucial. That ain't panto. That ain't pretty pictures, that's hair-raising stuff.
It’s 'numinosity' that takes a work BEYOND the big matters of life and death to the GREAT possibility, beyond death, beyond the door of death.
Pack your bags.
I'm going to take you to 'the numinous' in the lessons of The Classic Course. I’m going to show you step by step how to create a numinous experience of wonderment in your work and I will show you exactly how JRR Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, JM Barrie and others did it. You're in for some surprises. Join us!