"Are You Slain?"

Yes, Din! Din! Din!
You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din!
Though I've belted you and flayed you,
By the living Gawd that made you,
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

Gunga Din, Rudyard Kipling

I don't exactly belt and flay them, though I did toss Kipling across the room on his face, poor fellow, and the Brothers Grimm were dumped unceremoniously on a chair (it turns out, I needed Hans Christian Anderson instead). I love my books and I take care of them, but the ones I love most do tend to take a beating. It puts me greatly in mind of a conversation one Old Skin Horse had with one Velveteen Rabbit about being loved and becoming Real... The book always makes me cry. But the principle remains: the books I love most, use the most, reference the most, paw through and reread the most, show the signs of my thumbing. Needless to say, The Silver Branch is very worn indeed, The Last Battle likewise, and thank goodness Chesterton is hard-back otherwise he would diminish quickly. Which is funny, if you think about it...

You probably know, from my brief introduction of myself or from personal experience, that I like stabbing people in the heart with words. I love making people soar, or cry, or rage - I love making them feel the worlds in my head as truly as I feel them with all their swirling pomp of colour and emotion and vivacity. When people can look up from my writing and blink in surprise at the image of the kitchen counter with its coffee maker percolating, when they had expected to see a torrent of alaunts on the flanks of a boar, with the hue and cry of the huntsmen in their ears, then I know I've won the day. When I can turn a person's heart in my hand with words, as you might turn a chess-piece, I know I've penslain them.

But what about me? Who slays the Penslayer? I try not to read often below my level. I don't mean this snobbishly, not at all. There are numerous beautiful, charming, inspiring, well-written stories out there that I missed in my childhood and now have to go back and catch up on. But when they say the mind is a terrible thing to waste they don't know how seriously they need to mean it. So I always try to read someone a little harder, a little deeper, a little further up or further in, someone who tests my mettle, someone who challenges me. So how about it? I know a few people who have managed to really deliver a blow with the beauty of words and with the glory of truth. There aren't many yet because I want my Penslayers to really and truly slay me. Here are a few of the works of literature which have managed to pen-slay the Penslayer.

The Worm Ouroboros - E.R. Eddison
The Ballad of the White Horse - G.K. Chesterton
The Last Battle - C.S. Lewis
The Inferno - Dante Alighieri
The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien
Horatius - Thomas Babington MacCaulay
Simon - Rosemary Sutcliff
Knight's Fee - Rosemary Sutcliff
The Land - Rudyard Kipling
If - Rudyard Kipling

I don't want you to think I'm a hard reader to please. I have enjoyed over twice this many books in the past six months, but these are books I've read which really gripped me with their powerful prose or turns of lyric, with their ability to throw you off the edge of the world into heights unknown. I love these poems and stories. But one more author needs to be mentioned and I save him for last for several reasons. One, I feel he deserves the close of the post as an honour; two, because I'm not sure I actually have the words to describe his penslaying. He so totally penslays me that all words vanish. The more I read him, the more I am convinced: no one could say it better. I deny all accusations of the cliche or the hollowly sentimental. That author, frankly, is Jesus. I say author, perhaps orator is a better term. But what a wordsmith! If I could penetrate the movements of man's mind and heart a fraction so well as he I might do better at my own smithing. If I had half the compassion, half the justice, and an abundance of the Holy Spirit, I could make the words of my characters sing across the ages with truth. As an unrequited lover of just the right word at just the right moment, I can only sit back in a breathless thrill of wonderment as I listen to Jesus' speech. I strive to bring my words to life: his are living already. On a level where life and godliness and history and heroes and the love of words all collide into one thing, I find him there. I find him and I'm penslain.


"O Juss," cried Brandoch Daha, "thine own breath lighteneth at it, and thy words come more sprightly forth. Are not all lands, all airs, one country unto us, so there be great doing afoot to keep bright our swords?"
The Worm Ouroboros, E.R. Eddison

9 ripostes:

  1. Oh, I agree so much, Jenny! His Word IS Life, as the Lord Jesus said, "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life." (John 6:63 KJV) Another Scripture that speaks about that is in Hebrews 4: 12, "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart."

    I think that is a good thing, to try reading material that builds you up/'slays you' both spiritually and intellectually, and so is a challenge. There are some literary materials out there that really "slayed me" and are all time inspiring. Those in the fiction world are,
    Pilgrim's Progress - John Bunyan
    The Holy War - John Bunyan
    The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis
    The Hobbit - J.R.R. Tolkien
    The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
    The Keys of the Kingdom - A. J. Cronin
    The Robe - Lloyd C. Douglas
    The Acts of Faith Series - Janette Oke and Davis Bunn
    The Martyr of the Catacombs - Anonymous
    Treasures of the Snow - Patrica St. John
    Nothing Else Matters - Patricia St. John
    ... oh, and there are many, many more... but these are just to name a few :)
    Your book and Abigail's have also pen-slayed me!

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  2. Out of interest, what exactly penslays you about Dante's "Inferno"? When I read it, I felt like I needed a lie down after each page.

    These are the books/poems that "penslay" me, if I may share them:

    The Hunchback of Notre Dame - Victor Hugo
    I Am - John Claire
    Adlestrop - Edward Thomas
    Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee - Dee Brown
    Martin the Warrior - Brian Jacques
    The Hiding Place - Corrie Ten Boom
    How Can One Sell the Air? - Chief Seattle
    Dr Johnson's Dictionary
    Full Fathom Five- Shakespeare
    The Fly - William Blake
    Jane Eyre- Charlotte Bronte

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  3. Oh, and I forgot Hiawatha by Longfellow!

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  4. I just wanted to add a few books I forgot!

    The Knights of Arrethtrae - Chuck Black
    Vanya: a true story - Myrna Grant
    The Hiding Place - Corrie Ten Boom
    God's Smuggler - Brother Andrew
    Torn Veil - Gulshan Esther
    Secret Believers - Brother Andrew
    Jesus a Dialogue with the Saviour - a Monk of the Eastern Church
    A Life of Faith (and I forgot the author!)

    And as Bethany mentioned, what pen-slays you about reading Dante's "Inferno"?

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  5. Joy, it's very good to see that you have read both The Holy War and Pilgrim's Progress. It's hard to get people to read the latter, and I think not many have heard of the former. I grew up with an abridged version of Pilgrim's Progress with splendid illustrations: the text was taken directly from the original, but it was culled down to bare plot. So I had long been acquainted with the story and when I came of an age that I could appreciate the full story, I read it and very much enjoyed it. The Holy War likewise, which I read some years later, was a splendid allegory of a calibre rarely matched. Both are masterfully written, full of truth, imaginative, and very revealing of man's walk toward and with God.

    The two of you asked me what makes me like The Inferno so much. I will preface my explanation with three notes: one, I read it for school, so the fact that that didn't ruin the experience for me should say something; two, I recall Bethany's own take on the matter and hope I will be listened to with an open mind. The third point is this: I do not know Italian, so I have not read Dante in his original verse. However, assuming the translator has been faithful to the original, my points of interest still stand.

    The verse itself is magnificent. It is rich without being flowery, poignant almost to the point of stinging at times. I see emotions in colours: The Inferno is rich red and velvet black, slashed with golds and whites. The wording is clear, easy to follow, but certainly never insipid. As a work of literature it is a masterpiece. In plot, more than any other book I have read, it is a testimony to God's justice. "The punishment should fit the crime" is a biblical notion, and I feel Dante himself metes out hypothetical justice upon those found in Hell very well. But however he distributes justice among sinners, his depiction of God is beautiful. At the beginning of Dante's sojourn, on the very Gate of Hell, it is inscribed:

    I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE.
    I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE.
    I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW.

    SACRED JUSTICE MOVED MY ARCHITECT.
    I WAS RAISED HERE BY DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE,
    PRIMORDIAL LOVE AND ULTIMATE INTELLECT.

    Further on Dante writes: "O Sovereign Wisdom, how Thine art doth shine in Heaven, on Earth, and in the Evil World! How justly doth Thine power judge and assign!" Indeed, I think my favourite place to find penslaying words is in the Eighth Circle among the Simoniacs.

    'I said, "Indeed! Now tell me how much cash
    our Lord required of Peter in guarantee
    before he put the keys into his keeping?
    Surely he asked nothing but 'Follow me!'...
    Gold and silver are the gods you adore!
    In what are you different from the idolator,
    save that he worships one, and you a score?" '

    I will admit, Bethany, that the language and imagery can be graphic. But it seems Dante was a man who recognized that God takes sin seriously, and that no man outside of Jesus and his work of atonement has any hope of anything but damnation. So as a tribute to God's justice (even, at times, to his mercy and his love) The Inferno remains a beautiful work of literature.

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  6. Actually, Jenny, our distance education school (ACE) has the Pilgrim's Progress as part of the literature curriculum. I haven't done that course yet, but I couldn't wait to read it and I think I've read it at least twice. I've also got the pictorial Pilgrim's Progress which is really nice. I love the Holy War (I read a more easy-to-read version but it still retained all of Bunyan's depth of language which was great). There is a modernized movie version of Pilgrim's Progress called "Pilgrim's Progress: Journey to Heaven" and though the characters are all dressed in modern clothes and the language is really, really modern, the message is the same as the book which was great. I love that film and would really recommend it (you'll probably be annoyed with the 'modernness' for a while, but I think you soon get used to it, and see how also John Bunyan's allegory is for all time.)

    I see why you like Dante's The Inferno... Dad has the book on his ipad I think so I'd like to read it one day maybe. It looks very rich :).

    Oh, by the way, I tagged you on my blog: http://joy-live4jesus.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/little-fun-tagging.html

    Blessings,
    ~Joy

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  7. I think the reason I don't share your take on Dante's "Inferno" is because to take delight in it is to assume that I am something I am not. I've come to realise that I can't understand God logically- the logical extension of the idea of hell (for any human being who is used to living in a logical world where 4+1=5) is concern and anguish, but I know that God doesn't work through logic. I don't know if he can make a four sided triangle, or a married bachelor, or make 4+1=9, but I know that the idea of hell, to a human, doesn't make logical sense while we are on earth, and when a logical human is told illogical things, unrest follows. Don't think that by my saying it is illogical is to say that it is unfeasible- illogical things do happen, but when they happen on earth they are a facade. Perhaps, when they happen elsewhere, they are true.

    If it is a tribute to God's justice, mercy and love, I'm not sure why Dante had written it as if hell was a place separate from God's love, where his mercy is withdrawn. I was of the understanding that mercy is in fealty with compassion. If I may ask, how do you feel the poem is a tribute to God's mercy?

    Even if you can somehow understand why hell is as it is, or appears to be, I don't know how one can delight in a graphic description of it. It's /horribly/ graphic- if it were a film it probably wouldn't make it to the cinema, (but that's irrelevent- I know Dante wasn't trying to provide merely a good read). It's as if human sentiment is automatically detached or somehow irrelevent when Dante is enjoying paradise. He related no srrow for these people- don't you feel sorrow for the damned? You seem to have a strong sense of justice, Jenny, but surely we can only put the idea of hell in a context we are familiar with, if we really are to understand it. When evil terrorists are tortured and starved for their crimes, and when you feel no sorrow or compassion for them (because they deserve the punishment), then that is not a sense of justice. It is a sense of revenge.

    My feeling is that this narrative wasn't a tool for evangelism, but a bizzarre, man made vision of what humans on earth can never ever logically comprehend. Graphic descriptions of burning souls is something that I have no clue how anyone can /enjoy/... because it is beyond us! I can enjoy things that are beyond me, such as God's peculiar and baffling grace, because these are naturally desirable. I can't enjoy justice- if justice is enjoyed, it is not justice, but revenge. Justice is important, and innate, and has to be done. But we shouldn't /delight/ in seeing those on the receiving end go through it, only feel a sense of balance.

    I hope I have an open mind, because I read the Inferno in the hopes that I'd find something in it, but I didn't.

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  8. I want to assure you, Bethany, that I intend to reply properly to your remarks. Only, you and I have embarked upon a difficult topic and I feel I couldn't possibly do it justice in a comment box, nor without giving it some serious thought first. I don't want to give you a flippant answer. If you will permit me, I will ponder how best to address this subject and reply in a blog post.

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  9. Thankyou. It would be interesting to extend this discussion in a post if you're in favour of it.

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