When C. S. Lewis gave his famous “De Descriptione Temporum” speech at Cambridge University, he described himself as a “dinosaur” partly because his education had been of the older type, where it was expected that a youth read the classics in the original Greek or Latin. Though he went on to teach Philosophy and English Literature at Oxford, he could easily have taught the Classics and the languages. One of his teachers said Lewis was more talented in his translation work than any other student he had known. Though his career went elsewhere, Lewis never left his love for the Classics in his heart. One recalls that passage in Surprised by Joy, when an important step toward his eventual conversion to theism occurred as he picked back up the Hippolytus, and that old enjoyment resurged in his heart.
Another indication of Lewis’s love for the Classics is his lifelong practice of reworking different mythological themes or stories in his poetry and prose. His most famous would surely be Till We Have Faces, the re-telling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. There are, of course, a lot of classical mythology references in the Narnian Chronicles – figures such as nymphs, fauns, centaurs, and even Bacchus himself, pop up here and there.
On this first annual C. S. Lewis Reading Day, I would like to point the reader to the reworking of classical myths in Lewis’s poetry. I like to call these mini-narratives the “forgotten stories” of C. S. Lewis. They are delightful. In the book Poems, you will find stories such as “Pan’s Purge,” “Pindar Sang,” “The Magician and the Dryad.” My favourite is “The Birth of Language.”
You will recall that the god Mercury (the Greek, Hermes) was the god of rhetoric, communication, language, travel, speed, etc. The planet closest to the Sun, Mercury, is named after him, being the planet that speeds in its orbit the quickest of the rest. Lewis wonders about the identity of the planet with Mercury, and he wonders how the words we speak emanate from the deity. His imaginative answers to these questions are versed in “The Birth of Language.”
Echoing his Platonism, Lewis imagines our words originally born as living creatures on Mercury. They are living flames, engendered by the Sun. In semblance, they carry wreathed rods and “sandals fledged with wings” – the origin of the appearance of the god himself. They eventually travel to earth, chilled and shrunken by the cold they encounter. But, just as the apple tree in the Professor’s back yard would sometimes sway to the winds of Narnia, so these words will sometimes remember their origin. The occasion on which this occurs reveals the literary point Lewis is making with the poem. I’ll not spoil it for you.
Will you read Lewis today with us? If so, adventure into his poetry. The flame of Mercurian genius is there to be found.
Please note that the content and viewpoints of Rev. Beckmann are his own and are not necessarily those of the C.S. Lewis Foundation. We have not edited his writing in any substantial way and have permission from him to post his content.
The Rev. David Beckmann has for many years been involved in both the Church and education. He helped to start a Christian school in South Carolina, tutored homeschoolers, and has been adjunct faculty for both Covenant College and the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. He founded the C.S. Lewis Society of Chattanooga in 2005. He has spoken extensively on C.S Lewis, and was the Director of the C.S Lewis Study Centre at The Kilns from 2014-2015. He is currently a Regional Representative for the C.S. Lewis Foundation in Chattanooga.