Four Books, and Amicitia (Friendship)

Eric Ortlund
Associate Professor of Old Testament
    Posted: Apr 12, 2016

Every year I have to pull myself out of the abyss of winter and work up into spring. I can tell when I'm starting to make it because I start reading again. In February, my mind loathes the effort of reading for pleasure; I find it repellent, and watch more Netflix than I feel good about. But I'm enjoying four books far more than I expected. Maybe they will help you into spring, too.

First, Michael Chabon's The Final Solution: A Story of Detection. He's never named as Sherlock Holmes, but it's clearly the great detective, now in his final years as an 89 year old man, living in England in 1944, solving his last case. Everything good about Holmes is in these stories: the bizarre clues which all connect in the end; the thick sense of place in still-Victorian-influenced England; the eccentricities of the hero which somehow never repel. Chabon's writing is almost ludicrously good. A random sentence: "Shane nodded, mouth open, eyes blinking slowly, like a golfing man pretending to enjoy for courtesy's sake an impromptu lecture on cell mitosis or irrational numbers." It's good.

Second, William Morris' The Wood Beyond the World. Lewis speaks of Morris in the highest of terms, which is the only reason I found him. Not that all of Lewis' recommendations have exactly paid stupendous dividends: I've pretty much given up on George MacDonald (there are some scenes in Lilith which grip the mind and will not leave, but they're buried in so much florid verbosity that the total effect is, for me, mere work to slog through). But so far, it's a delightful fairy story about a young man betrayed in love and off to seek his fortune on the sea. That doesn't sound good, now that I say it out loud, but my eyes don't stop reading once I start. Haven't gotten beyond the world yet, but I'm sure the story will go there. Also pretty sure that no-one in history ever spoke the version of English used in the book (not that that's bad! Adds to the charm, don't you know).

Third, Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, pointed out to me by my redoubtable friend, Dust Kunkel. One reviewer said that the directness of Heaney's translations makes others look more florid, and not in a good way. You definitely get the rich roughness of these honor-bound heroes, hailing to fight high and hard before the deep dark of death descends (as it will).

Ale I bring thee, thou oak of battle
With strength blended and brightest honor
Tis mixed with magic and mighty songs,
Some wrought by thee
Some boon-granted thee
Great lays to sing, words as gifts given,
Deep-set jewels in stranded-chord and woven-song:
All these lays swifter to the mark by thy fired heart,
Wise-worded foe-hammer of the dragon!

"Wise-worded foe-hammer of the dragon!" If that doesn't work for you, I'm plain out of ideas. Oh, and I almost forgot: the truly mythic symbolism of Hrothgar's hall (the last defense of light and fellowship against the dark), the monsters and their status as symbolic "opposites" to hearth and home, and Beowulf's courage into death. When both language and theme combine in a way that you can't separate, it's heartening, re-vivifying.

Fourth, Philip and Carol Zaleski's The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. The book is an investigation of the literary dimension of these men's lives and how they influenced each other. The Zaleskis will summarize entire books in a sentence - the ideas aren't their focus - in order to move deftly through childhood experiences, teachers, and so on, to give a portrait of the Inklings as literary men. The first chapter on Tolkien describes the intoxicating effect language had on him (interestingly, he hated French, but loved every language north of German) and his deep friendship with early schoolfellows of similar interests and talents, who formed their own literary society, until most of them were killed in WWI. Tolkien found it again the in Inklings, and I suspect none of those men would have had the influence (or the wisdom) they did without each other.

Lewis once said that Friendship accounts for at least half of the happiness in the world, and although I don't know how you calculate it, I'm not inclined to disagree. I'm sorry it's not well understood today. The very fact that the nearest term we have for that companionship and iron-sharpening based on mutual obsessions and loves and goals is "bromance" shows a significant loss. My mouth curdles at the word - it injects sexuality into a relationship where it is absent, as if that was the only category we can invoke to understand strong relationships - which only shows our shallowness. Tolkien knew this kind of amicitia firsthand - may it grow anew in many quarters, especially as this book is read.


Written by: Dr. Eric Ortlund

Read more by Dr. Ortlund on his blog: Scatterings