Lewis's Unfinished "Quest of Bleheris"
"And under the pass, clear seen against the purple foothills there stood a great, white city. [His] heart thrilled as he looked upon those towers and battlemented walls and glittering spires a great way off: for he knew it was . . . the greatest town of earth, the city of the King. And in the haven of it--for it ran down to the bay--the great ships of the merchants and the sea-kings rode at anchor, and he saw the sun flashing upon their dragon-prows" (XV).
For those acquainted with the fiction of C. S. Lewis, these words may have a familiar ring to them. The hills of royal hue, the castle by the sea, the dragon-headed ships: it all sounds like something out of Narnia. But this passage actually comes from an unfinished manuscript called "The Quest of Bleheris," written when Lewis was seventeen years old--more than thirty years before he would begin writing the Narnia Chronicles, and more than a dozen years before he recovered the faith of his childhood. "Bleheris" is a fascinating fragment not only because it anticipates so much of Lewis's later imaginative work, but also because it casts new light on the spiritual pilgrimage of a man who became one of the twentieth century's most effective and influential Christian writers--only after spending his teens and twenties as a resolute agnostic.
"The Quest of Bleheris" is a 64-page manuscript, composed in 1916 when C. S. Lewis was living and studying with a private tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick, in Great Bookham, Surrey. Lewis's only reader at the time was Arthur Greeves, his correspondent back in Belfast whom he considered his first real friend (Joy 131). Lewis, called "Jack" by those closest to him, and Arthur had met only two years earlier, but they had begun a life-long friendship based on their mutual enthusiasm for Northern myths and for tales of chivalric adventure. And that is just what "Bleheris" is: a chivalric quest narrative which draws upon Nordic mythology. But, perhaps unconsciously on Lewis's part, it is also the story of a spiritual journey, a story left unfinished possibly because Lewis's own spiritual quest was far from resolved.
Lewis's biographers agree that the two and half years he spent in Great Bookham were among the most peaceful he spent in his entire life (Green and Hooper 43; Sayer 47). After his mother's death when he was nine, Lewis attended a series of English boarding schools, where his state of mind varied from mild estrangement to abject misery. After repeatedly writing to his father to be removed from a preparatory school in Malvern, even threatening to shoot himself, Jack was sent to live with the Kirkpatricks, where he recovered the closest semblance to a home environment that he had known since childhood (Sayer 45-46).
But if Lewis's time at Great Bookham was more emotionally settled, it was also a period of great intellectual and spiritual ferment. Kirkpatrick, or the "Great Knock," as he was affectionately dubbed, was an outspoken skeptic who had Lewis reading Schopenhauer's withering critiques of religion as well as Frazer's Golden Bough. When Arthur Greeves, still affirming the tenets of his Plymouth Brethren parents, wrote to Jack in the autumn of 1916 asking about his beliefs, Lewis responded at length:
You ask me my religious views: you know, I think, that I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man's own invention--Christ as much as Loki. Primitive man found himself surrounded by all sorts of terrible things he didn't understand--thunder, pestilence, snakes etc: what more natural than to suppose that these were animated by evil spirits trying to torture him? These he kept off by cringing to them, singing songs and making sacrifices etc. Gradually from being mere nature-spirits these supposed being[s] were elevated into more elaborate ideas, such as the old gods: and when man became more refined he pretended that these spirits were good as well as powerful.
Thus religion, that is to say mythology grew up. Often, too, great men were regarded as gods after their death--such as Heracles or Odin: thus after the death of a Hebrew philosopher Yeshua (whose name we have corrupted into Jesus) he became regarded as a god, a cult sprang up, which was afterwards connected with the ancient Hebrew Jahweh-worship, and so Christianity came into being--one mythology among many, but the one that we happen to have been brought up in (Stand 135).
When Greeves challenged some of this analysis, Lewis responded again at length, this time in a more petulant tone:
You ask me why I am sad, and suggest it is because I have no hope of a 'happy life hereafter'. No, strange as it may appear, I am quite content to live without believing in a bogey who is prepared to torture me forever and ever if I should fail in coming to an almost impossible ideal (which is a part of the Christian mythology, however much you try to explain it away). In fact I should think it horrible to feel that if life got too bad, I daren't escape for fear of a spirit more cruel and barbarous than any man. . . . The only reason I said I was sad was because I was disappointed in my hope that you were escaping from beliefs which, in my case, always considerably lessened my happiness: however, if it has the opposite effect on you, tant mieux pour vous! As to the immortality of the soul, though it is a fascinating theme for day-dreaming, I neither believe nor disbelieve: I simply don't know anything at all, there is no evidence either way. Now let us take off our armour, hang up our swords and talk about things where there is no danger of coming to blows!" (Stand 137-138).
In Surprised by Joy, written nearly forty years later, Lewis would look
back upon his early debates with Greeves and find them lacking in substance:
"And, of course, I exulted with youthful and vulgar pride in what I thought
my enlightenment. In argument with Arthur I was a very swashbuckler.
Most of it, as I now see, was incredibly crude and silly. I was in
that state of mind in which a boy thinks it extremely telling to call God
Jahveh and Jesus Yeshua "(173). Despite that later verdict, many
readers will find in the young Lewis's letters an articulate and sophisticated
critique of Christianity, coming as it does from the pen of a seventeen-year-old
"Such, then, was the state of my imaginative life; over against it stood the life of my intellect. The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow "rationalism." Nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless" (Joy 170).
Lewis's letters to Greeves during those years certainly bear out this retrospective judgment. Juxtaposed to rather bleak and polemical passages like those quoted earlier, one finds frequent and enthusiastic references to Lewis's "light reading." Apart from his study of Greek and Roman classics in the original languages, he was devouring texts for his own pleasure in his midteens that many graduate students nowadays find difficult: Malory's Morte Darthur, Sidney's Arcadia, Spenser's Fairie Queene, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. He also took great pleasure in nineteenth-century fantasy classics such as George MacDonald's Phantastes and William Morris's The Well at the World's End, as well as Matthew Arnold's poems on legend and myth such as "Balder Dead" and "Tristram and Isolt."
As he was immersing himself in so many tales of adventure and enchantment, the young Lewis decided it was time for him to try his own hand at it. The project, tentatively called "The Quest of Bleheris," is addressed to "Galahad," Jack's nickname for Arthur, with an added note that the hero of the tale and its only reader are very much alike. This seems a dubious compliment, since Bleheris is portrayed as a good-hearted but callow young man with very little experience of the world, someone whose Christian beliefs seem based more upon convention than upon careful reflection.
Bleheris is a 23-year-old man who has spent his whole life in the "City of Nesses," a town built upon a wide bay where rocky slopes plunge down to the sea (Bleheris I). "Ness" is an old word for a promontory, the same one used in a place name such as Loch Ness. This is one of many poetic archaisms in the story that Lewis borrows from the romances both he and Arthur enjoyed reading. The setting of the story also calls to mind their shared experience, resembling the terrain of County Down along the Belfast Lough, where the two of them spent many an afternoon hiking along the ridge and gazing northward to the Mountains of Antrim, a "mass of grayish blue" across the hazy inlet (Joy 154) .
When we first meet Bleheris, he is almost a young Don Quixote, trying to live out the romance and adventure he has read about in books. His mother urges him to court the favor of one Lady Alice, the most sought after young woman in the city. And so he dutifully "wrote verses upon her and jousted for her, and sighed piteously and altogether deemed that he was no less sorely smitten in love than Launcelot or Palomides or any of the knights of old song" (II). Yet even as his suit makes progress and Bleheris gains the favor of Alice's father, he senses that something is missing: "And the young man must kiss her upon the lips and have speech with her and make pretense (not to others only but to himself) that he loved her in truth and was fain of her: but her lips were as cold as might be the lips of the dead, and her beautiful eyes were calm as the untroubled eyes of an angel painted in the window of the Church" (II).
When Bleheris learns from his mother that his marriage to "Alice the
Saint" has been arranged, he is far from exultant: "Now fell a strange
mood on Bleheris so that he knew not what ailed him: for he said within
him that this was great joy and that now must all men envy him sore: but
in his heart was there no great delight, and he felt dazed as though some
evil were come to him" (II). As Bleheris ponders this further, he decides
that he does not have the proper feeling because he has not yet proven
himself or made a name in the world. He vows to set forth on a quest, hoping
that he will "learn truly to love her and come again to wed her" once he
is worthy (II).
"And he saw how stark and grim and baleful they lay in the pale moonlight so that perforce there came flooding on him a host of memories of all the old tales concerning them--of hideous passes among them, of wizard cities and evil places in their gloomy woods and of knights' adventurings there and in the unheard of lands beyond, away to the North. And as he thought thereon, the dull, sober world in which he lived waxed ever more and more irksome to him: for he too had his dreams, and thought that surely he should do great things in the world, and fight and love as mightily as the heroes of old song. But now it seemed that his life was but a short space, a thing little worth: that he should marry and live at ease, and beget sons to live also at ease, as others did before him and at the latter end to wax old and die, with all his dreams yet hidden. . . But even as thus he pondered, those dark moonlit hills with all their wonders were weaving a spell about him: so anon a new thought, as it had been a gust of sweet, cold morning-wind, smote upon the dungeon of his soul, and he almost laughed for joy" (III).
The last word in this passage--joy--is one that would resonate throughout all of Lewis's writings. Here we find his first attempt in fiction to evoke that unique blend of wonder, delight, and longing which would become one of the defining experiences of his life. And here too we find so many of the elements associated with Joy: the severe beauty of a moonlit landscape; the lure of uncharted realms and untold adventures; the heart-breaking contrast between the wonders of Faerie and the mundane realities of the everyday world.
Images of Joy, or Sweet Desire, may be found in all of Lewis's imaginative works and in many of his non-fiction books. In Pilgrim's Regress it is the vision of paradisal islands which causes John to set out on his journey. In the Ransom trilogy, a pedestrian college don is carried off into Deep Space to be enraptured by the dazzling radiance of the Heavens, by the austere beauty of the Martian landscape, and by the lush, Edenic beauty of Venus. And every one of the Chronicles of Narnia includes at least one scene in which a key character is transported by that unique longing which both wounds and delights.
Perhaps the most striking parallel to the passage from "Bleheris" quoted above comes from Lewis's last and most complex novel, Till We Have Faces. There the beautiful Psyche explains to her sister Orual that she does not fear being taken up to the Mountain as a ransom for her people; rather she hopes it will be the fulfillment of a longing she has felt all her life. Orual supposes this might be a death-wish, but Psyche explains that it is something altogether different:
"It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine. . . . Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking across at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche come! But I couldn't (not yet) come and I didn't know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. . . . The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing--to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from" (74-75).
Bleheris' Great Mountains have become the Grey Mountain for Psyche (both suggesting perhaps the "grayish blue" mountains of Lewis's childhood). Still, the longing is much the same, a yearning to enter into some elusive paradise evoked by distant horizons. By the time he published Till We Have Faces in1956, Lewis had spent a lifetime contemplating Joy, and he felt assured he knew what it meant: that it was the soul's longing to find some lost home and to enter in yet again.
In 1916, however, the young agnostic Lewis could only record the experience without claiming to know its meaning. At that point he was comparing the experience of Joy to a morning breeze wafting through the dungeon of a young man's soul. Three years later he would use a similar image in the title of his first book, a cycle of poems called Spirits in Bondage (1919). Lewis's working title for the collection was "Spirits in Prison," referring specifically to the cryptic passage in the New Testament where Christ descends after his crucifixion to preach to the spirits in prison (I Peter 3:19). It seems ironic that the young Lewis, who had written to Arthur so earnestly about the need to escape from childhood beliefs, would still be writing about souls longing to escape.
In Pilgrim's Regress (1933), Lewis's first book written after his return to faith, the dungeon motif appears again, underscoring the fascinating convolutions of his spiritual journey. There the pilgrim, John, is imprisoned by the Spirit of the Age, and subjected to anthropological and Freudian "explanations" of the religious impulse. Eventually he is rescued by the virgin Reason, who strikes off his chains and challenges the facile arguments of his tormentors. At seventeen Lewis was reasoning from anthropology and psychology that Christianity was only an illusory form of wish-fulfillment; in 1933 he would portray Reason herself as exposing the glibness of such a critique.
In many respects "Bleheris" seems a kind of rehearsal, not only for the Chronicles of Narnia, but also for Pilgrim's Regress . It seems almost inevitable that the project would eventually have to be abandoned, because Lewis had no more idea where Bleheris' quest would lead than he knew where his own would lead. Yet if the narrative is unresolved, it still contains fascinating adumbrations of what is to come, both for Lewis as spiritual seeker and for Lewis as story-teller.
Once he has decided to go on a journey, Bleheris, like John in Pilgrim's Regress, seeks out advice on what direction to take. He goes to Alice's father, Sir Lionel, and explains that he would like to put off the wedding because he is a "deedless man" who has not yet earned the right to her hand (V). Lionel learns of Bleheris' quest and asks whether he plans to "seek out the Red Launds to cleanse them, or bind the Lady of the Hideous Pass; or mayhap, go down to the People that dwell in the midst of the Earth between us and hell?" He also suggests that Bleheris might sail to "uttermost lands," seeking the Well of Youth in the East, or in the West, "the isle of Avalon . . . the garden of the ladies which are cleped Hesperides" (V).
Bleheris chooses none of these destinations, but characters in Lewis's later books would certainly not neglect the opportunity. Ransom in Out of the Silent Planet and Digory and Polly in The Magician's Nephew both visit "Red Launds," worlds dominated by roseate hues. The Narnia Chronicles contain three separate evil Ladies who must be bound (or perhaps the same one in three different incarnations.) And in The Silver Chair Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum journey to meet "the People that dwell in the midst of the Earth" in order to rescue Prince Rilian. Reepicheep in The Voyage of the "Dawntreader" is the guiding spirit behind the voyage to the Uttermost East, while Ransom in Perelandra finds that the Western isle of Avalon is indeed the garden of Hesperides, and that it may actually be found on the planet Venus.
But the magnet for Bleheris' imagination is the North. When Sir Lionel
explains that "northward beyond the Mountains a great way is the STRIVER,"
Bleheris breaks in: "Of thy courtesy, good sir. Canst thou rede me aught
of him they call the STRIVER? Where doth he abide, or with what doth he
strive, that men name him thus?" (V). Lionel answers that men know little
of the STRIVER, because the journey to the North is "full evil and bitter,"
that it is "utter madness" to try and cross the Great Mountains--but that
they are only the foothills of even more towering peaks in the lands further
on. Lionel says that some consider STRIVER "a monster and a fiend whom
men seek to slay," but that an old man who had journeyed to that country
and returned "spake of him more as a saint or a god" (V).
When Lewis sent the first installment of "Bleheris" to Arthur, the latter apparently objected to this sardonic aside. In his letter of 18 July 1916, Lewis tried to explain:
I am sorry you disapprove of my remarks in the romance. But you must remember that it is not Christianity itself I am sneering at, but Christianity as taught by a formal old priest like Ulfin, and accepted by a rather priggish young man like Bleheris. Still, I fear you will like the main gist of the story even less when you grasp it--if you ever do, for as is proper in romance, the inner meaning is carefully hidden" (Stand 124).
Actually, considering the vehemence of Lewis's letters on Christianity quoted earlier, the wonder is not that the story contains satirical comments about religion, but that it contains so few of them. Lewis's caustic remark about the inefficacy of sacred talismans in "Bleheris" is about what one would expect of a young man raised as an Ulster Protestant and trained in philosophy by an ardent free-thinker.
Ironically, Lewis's portraits of church officials in his fiction became more pointed, not less so, once he had rejoined the community of faith. One can find much more acerbic satire in Lewis's "Christian" books than in his juvenilia. InThe Pilgrim's Regress John is tutored by a hypocritical "Steward" who regards all the traditional creeds with great solemnity while wearing his mask, then sets aside the mask, winks at John, and tells him not to fret about them. Then there is "Mad Parson" Straik in That Hideous Strength (1945), who employs biblical phrases and imagery to preach his heretical gospel of violence and coercive collectivism (78-80). In Till We Have Faces (1956), the first priest of Ungit reminds us of Father Ulfin, with his blind adherence to superstitious rites; but his young successor, who tries to "demythologize" the blood-stained old traditions, errs in the opposite direction, trying to reduce all religious truths to mere rational self-interest. It would seem that the older, Christian Lewis was much more perturbed by "blind guides" in the Church than the younger, agnostic one.
Before Bleheris has even set out on his quest, it is clear that some
of the seventeen-year-old Lewis's values have already come into focus.
Obviously, he does not intend to write a story in which the protagonist
finds happiness by "winning the hand of a fair maid." Whatever he may have
thought at the beginning of the story, Bleheris is no Launcelot. Already,
Lewis indicates that a quest worthy of the name must involve more than
romantic conquest. In his satirical jibes about Father Ulfin, we can also
see the Lewis does not intend to observe the conventional religious pieties
which may be found in so many medieval romances. As the story unfolds,
it becomes increasingly clear that Lewis has already made other important
choices as well in his own pursuit of an authentic personal philosophy.
Still disheartened that his courage failed him on his very first test, Bleheris comes next to the Hostel of the Crossways. When he dismounts and goes inside, he encounters three men of distinctly different appearance. On the left is a tall and gaunt fellow with feverish eyes, a hoarse voice, and bony hands which tremble as he speaks. He identifies himself as Gerce the Desirous, who seeks for Tomorrow. On the right is a richly-dressed lad of about twenty, "small and light of limb as a girl," who has black, curly hair hanging down in lovelocks. His skin is smooth as porcelain, his voice low and sweet, but he speaks with a melancholy air and keeps his eyes half-closed as if he is "ever dreaming on some age-old pitiful memory." He identifies himself as Wan Jadis, who seeks after Yesterday (VIII). Sitting between these two is Hyperites, a robust man of middle years with a full, golden beard and a "cheerful and open countenance" (VIII).
As soon as they are introduced, it is evident that these three embody two extremes and a Golden Mean, rather like the three sisters encountered by Sir Guyon in TheFairie Queene (I.ix.53): Perissa (Too Much), Elissa (Too Little), and Medina (The Middle). But Hyperites represents more than just a balance between opposites. Before the newcomer has even had a chance to speak, Hyperites reveals that Bleheris is seeking STRIVER. At this, the young pilgrim "looked up with great wonder and somewhat abashed: but he of the golden beard, looked back at him so calmly, and with such mastery and kingly pride, that for very awe, he durst not ask him anything" (VIII). When the excitable Gerce accuses Hyperites of sorcery, the latter answers serenely, "I am but the servant of him they call the STRIVER, to do his will and draw men unto him" (VIII).
In his brief discussion of the Bleheris manuscript, Lewis's biographer George Sayer has identified Hyperites as a Christ figure (60), and it is not difficult to see why. He is the servant of the numinous being Bleheris seeks, and his words echo several statements of Jesus quoted in the Gospel of John (6:38-44; 12:49). The name Hyperites (sometimes spelled "Hyperetes" in the manuscript) suggests the Greek prefix meaning "over" or "above." Hyperites' words seem especially suited to his name, which is akin to the Greek phrase meaning "in one's stead, in the name of" (Liddell 1690).
Though Hyperites' flowing, golden beard makes him seem more like a Teutonic hero than a carpenter of Nazareth, it is a detail which recurs in a number of Lewis's imaginative works, always suggesting wisdom and authority. Lewis would later portray king Solomon with a golden beard (Poems 46) and describe his spiritual mentor, George MacDonald, the same way in The Great Divorce (64). When Ransom returns from his Christ-like mission to Venus, he has grown a long, golden beard (Perelandra 30). He still wears the beard inThat Hideous Strength, where he is portrayed as almost enthroned, his heel still wounded, in an upper room at St. Anne's. When Jane Studdock first meets him, she feels that this must be what it would be like to enter into the presence of an ancient king such as Arthur(143).
But just as Jane at first is not ready to be "drawn in" and follow Ransom, Bleheris is not ready to follow Hyperites. Before he and Bleheris have exchanged many words, the contentious Gerce breaks in and admonishes the young knight, in an exchange which reveals more about himself than about the supposed sorcerer:
"I charge thee, young sir, keep guard on thyself when this one speaks to thee; for his words be passing cunning to steal away man's reason. And if once he taketh and bringeth thee unto the STRIVER--then the Gods help thee, say I."
"The Gods?" said poor Bleheris, crossing himself, "There is but one--"
"Aye, the Gods, the Gods!" shouted that other, smiting upon the table and speaking as to a troublous child. "What boots it to quarrel which of those old tales be the greater learning? For when thou are fallen among sorcerers and deceivers, all the gods shall have little help to give thee" (IX).
Hyperites again answers calmly, saying that he will bear such charges against himself and his master because he knows Gerce is genuinely concerned about Bleheris. But then he says that the real danger is for those like Gerce who seek after Tomorrow, only to be "spilled on the rock Mothlight" and perish in their quest.
"I must take my chance," answers Gerce, "for the Glory that is beyond" (IX).
Though he never becomes a fully-developed character, Gerce certainly
offers an intriguing hint of how early Lewis made up his mind about utopian
schemers who propose that humanity save itself through its own efforts.
Gerce's lack of composure and his sheer bad manners clearly reveal him
to be one whose earnest philosophy has brought him neither peace nor wisdom.
He cannot live in the present and shows little interest in the past, so
he has developed some vague ideology which will bring about redemption
in the future.
Some readers of the Ransom trilogy, including J. B. S. Haldane, the Marxist polemicist who may have been the model for Edward Weston, have assumed that Lewis's satirical portrayal of ruthless social engineers is rooted in traditional tensions between the communities of faith and science (Hornie 25). But it is clear from the "Bleheris" fragment that Lewis's distrust of ideologues who propose to save humanity from itself predates his adult conversion by more than a decade. Lewis himself observed that he was ripe for just such an ideology during his Great Bookham years and surmised that it was Romanticism, not Christianity, that prevented him from moving further in that direction:
Looking back on my life now, I am astonished that I did not progress into that opposite orthodoxy--did not become a Leftist, Atheist, satiric Intellectual of the type we all know so well. My lifelong fear of sentimentalism ought to have qualified me to become a vigorous "debunker." It is true that I hated the Collective as much as any man can hate anything; but I did not then realize its relations to socialism. I suppose that my Romanticism was destined to divide me from the orthodox Intellectuals as soon as I met them: and also that a mind so little sanguine as mine about the future and about common action could only with great difficulty be made revolutionary (Joy 173).
Yet if Romanticism might save one from the excesses of revolutionary fervor, it might also lead to perils of its own. As Bleheris' adventures continue, he learns that those who seek Yesterday may be every bit as dangerous as those who seek Tomorrow. Afraid that Hyperites might indeed be an enchanter and put off by Gerce's fierce demeanor, the young man turns to reconsider Wan Jadis: "Now the change from the Desirous to the sweet and comely youth was as honey after wormwood or spring after winter: although, in truth, there was more of the sad loveliness of Autumn than of the lustiness of Spring in him" (IX). When Bleheris asks Wan Jadis about the place he seeks, his reply weaves its own kind of enchantment:
Ah! The land of Yesterday. It lies in the West, in the times of the setting sun. . . . It is the home of things past, and of all old, forgotten, unhappy memories: a vallied land, full of soft mists and trees that ever shed their leaves in the drowsy winds. There the queens of olden song abide, Helen, Isolde, and Guinevere, deathless forever in their sorrow and loveliness. . . . In that country, a man can hide away from the care and moil of the world: nor is there anything so much worth as the quiet peace we shall find yonder of noble sorrow softened by many years" (IX).
This halcyon reverie certainly evokes Romanticism as the youthful Lewis understood it. Apart from echoing Wordsworth's line about "old, unhappy, far-off things," it also calls to mind the great tragic heroines of myth and legend whose stories Jack and Arthur knew so well. In Surprised by Joy Lewis would later explain that the "Idea of Autumn" was one of the main catalysts for those youthful experiences of piercing delight he came to know as Joy (Joy 16).
Wan Jadis seems to be the very embodiment of the "sad loveliness of Autumn." His words weave a spell which make Bleheris decide to abandon his quest for STRIVER and to seek instead the Land of Yesterday. The young pilgrim fears some silent reproach from Hyperites for this change of plans, but Hyperites does not intervene:
"My son, I said to thee but a little since that it was my task to draw men unto the STRIVER: yet therein I erred. For no man can draw another on that road, but only show it to him if he seeketh after it. Therefore thou must needs go on what quest thy heart bids thee: nor can I let thee from it, though it lead thee to Mothlight" (X).
After this somber warning, Hyperites ends the conversation on a more hopeful note: "But if thou comest again, with thy life, and hast a heart to fall to thine old quest, then seek out Hyperites again, for in this I may profit Thee. Morever,the power giveth me an inkling that I shall see thee not many days hence" (X).
It is clear from this passage that Hyperites has a solemn respect for the free will of others, even if that will may lead them to their own destruction. But Hyperites also offers hope that the choices of sincere seekers will eventually lead them back to the right path. Writing thirty years later in The Great Divorce (1946), Lewis, by then a Christian and an Inkling himself, continued to stress the sanctity of free will, stressing both the horrors and the hopes that are the final consequence of one's choices: "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done. All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened" (72).
At this point in his pilgrimage, Bleheris' choice is to follow Wan Jadis, and the two of them bid farewell to Gerce and Hyperites and depart from the Hostel of the Crossways. They journey for many miles until they come to a dark valley of mournful winds and fluttering golden leaves, until their way is blocked by a gray marsh. They find a small boat, called a shallop, tied to a rosebush and set out over the water in heavy mists. Though the marsh seems to Bleheris little more than a slimy bog, Wan Jadis grandiosely calls it a "Sea" upon which they will "sail to Yesterday" (X). Eventually they see a "vast and awful temple" looming ahead in the mists with a withered old crone wearing a gray shroud.
Just then the mud starts oozing in over the sides of the skiff, which founders in the swampy waters; Wan Jadis is sucked into the bog, with water spiders crawling over his handsome, sad face as his head disappears beneath the mud. Bleheris is saved when he is clutched by the branches of the rosebush, which draw him back to the shore from which the boat set out. At first he is angry to feel his cloak torn and his arms scratched by that thorny embrace, but then he recognizes his near escape and he comforts himself, "joying in the coolness and fragrance" of the rose petals (XI). Suddenly, the rosebush appears to him as a lovely woman, her body covered only by her luxuriant, long hair, who reaches out to him with manacled arms, as if pleading for help.
When the vision vanishes, leaving Bleheris weary and alone, he can think of nothing else to do but trudge back to the Hostel of the Crossways. There he finds Gerce still badgering Hyperites, for, as the narrator explains, "Poor Gerce strove often in his speech with every man" (XIV). But the other tolerates this with good grace, since he pities the Desirous, "seeing the twisted soul, and the pain of this man, and how he lived unsatisfied and ill at ease" (XIV). When Bleheris recounts his adventures at the Gray Marsh, Gerce weeps at the loss of Wan Jadis and argues that it was the Rose, not the STRIVER, who had drawn Bleheris to the quest which almost cost him his life. "Yet many have come to Him by way of the Rose," answers Hyperites, "Or rather they so used ere she was led captive. Her spirit, I think, must have sickened in the long years of bondage" (XV).
Bleheris's excursion to the Gray Marsh seems as fraught with allegory as any passage in The Pilgrim's Regress . Lewis added a note to Arthur on the "Bleheris" manuscript explaining that the old woman at the temple is modeled on Hela, the goddess of the underworld in Nordic mythology. Wan Jadis, whose name combines the word for "pale" with the French adjective for "times of yore," is one whose search for Joy has become effete and sentimental, leading not to yesterday, but to death. (The powerful witch Jadis we meet in The Magician's Nephew is nothing like this pallid aesthete; yet she too comes from a world where death prevails.)
The Rose at one end of the Gray Marsh is a more ambiguous symbol than the temple at the other end. One cannot help but wonder about the connection with George MacDonald's Phantastes, which Lewis read for the first time in spring of 1916, the same time he was beginning to compose "Bleheris." Lewis immediately wrote to Arthur that he'd had a "great literary experience" that week (Stand 92) and would later say that MacDonald baptized his imagination (Joy 181). In Phantastes, the protagonist Anodos also revels in the perfume of wild roses and sees a frolicsome child-like rose-fairy. But Bleheris's vision of a rose-dryad suggests not playfulness, but pathos--and also eros. She seems to represent the spirit of Romance, whom the young Lewis had encountered so often in his favorite texts from the twelfth century to the nineteenth, but who seemed fettered in his own generation.
At the time he wrote "Bleheris," Lewis was still confused about the connection between the Romantic impulse and the religious impulse; he was also uncertain about the nature of Joy, which seemed to evoke both the numinous and the amorous. In his commentary on "Bleheris," George Sayer observes that the tale is "most obviously a quest for the deity and for the feminine, the two not necessarily at variance with each other" (60). Though they may not be at variance, it was essential for Lewis's spiritual pilgrimage that he learn to distinguish between them. The two sides of the young Lewis's dilemma are expressed perfectly by Gerce, who debunks the quest for STRIVER as really only a search for the Rose, and by Hyperites, who answers that many have found Him by way of the Rose--or at least they did before she became another spirit in bondage.
Hyperites' response anticipates exactly the argument developed later in The Pilgrim's Regress. There John meets the debunker "Sigismund Enlightenment," who claims that if visions of paradisal islands usually end in lustful fantasies, then the islands are actually symbols of repressed sensual desire (59). Later Reason herself sweeps away this reductive logic by asking which is the Real and which counterfeit, and suggesting that all human loves are mere copies of the more perfect divine love (67-68). In his preface to the same book, Lewis explores more fully the relation between religion and Romance, and depicts the soul's opposite dangers in imagery strikingly similar to that we find in "Bleheris":
If I were now writing a book I could bring the question between those thinkers [counter-Romantics such as T. E. Hulme] and myself to a much finer point. One of them described Romanticism as 'spilled religion'. I accept the description. And I agree that he who has religion ought not to spill it. But does it follow that he who finds it spilled should avert his eyes? How if there is a man to whom those bright drops on the floor are the beginning of a trail which, duly followed, will lead him in the end to taste the cup itself? How if no other trail, humanly speaking, were possible? Seen in this light my ten years' old quarrel both with the counter-Romantics on the one hand and with the sub-Romantics on the other (the apostles of instinct and even of gibberish) assumes, I trust, a certain permanent interest. Out of this double quarrel came the dominant image of my allegory--the barren, aching rocks of its 'North', the foetid swamps of its 'South', and between them the Road on which alone mankind can safely walk (Regress 11).
But if these key issues and images had already formed in Lewis's mind by the time he was seventeen, he was still far from resolving them. It seems that at this point in the manuscript, Lewis began to lose the thread of the story. In June of 1916, he wrote to Arthur, "I think Bleheris has killed my muse--always rather a sickly child" (Stand 107). And indeed the tale begins to unravel after Bleheris returns to the Hostel of the Crossways. First he meets a massive, ominous figure with the melodious name Bethrelladoom, an enemy of Hyperites associated with the realm of Utgard, the barren Outer World of Norse myth. Then he receives a message from Father Ulfin that Alice has run away to the northern city of Ralholt. The young knight adds a squire to his retinue, one Nut, son of Nut, and continues his journey north, both to renew his quest for STRIVER and to seek the now less-than-saintly Alice.
Ralholt is a great seaport and royal city, the one similar to Cair Paravel described in the excerpt which begins this essay. What strikes Bleheris as most unusual about Ralholt is that a magnificent Christian cathedral and an equally splendid temple of Odin stand side by side in the heart of the city, for "in this town Christian and heathen lived peaceably together and strove not one with another, being too busied in their daily lives to waste their strength in shadowy things" (XVI).
As the story trails off into hastily-sketched characters and undeveloped episodes, Hyperites continues to be the most intriguing figure in the narrative. At one point Bleheris draws his sword when Gerce mocks his God, but when Hyperites bids them be at peace, they obey, for, as the narrator explains, "they both feared and loved this servant of the STRIVER" (XV). Later on, Bleheris discovers that everyone from the houseservant Nut to the king of the realm hold Hyperites in the same high esteem and consider him a personal friend. The reader too is drawn to this character, without ever learning who he is and what his eventual fate might have been. The reverence he inspires far outweighs the ridicule directed at a conventional religious figure like Father Ulfin.
But if Lewis seemed willing to travel further in his imagination than in his intellect, eventually his imagination faltered. The manuscript ends abruptly on page 64, soon after Bleheris arrives at Ralholt. In the same letter to Greeves quoted above in which he argued that all religions were human inventions--Christ as much as Loki--Jack also announced: "As to Bleheris, he is dead and I shan't trouble his grave" (Stand 136). In 1916 Lewis's imaginative work was suggesting that Christian myth and Nordic myth could be venerated equally, while his intellect was telling him they could be dismissed equally. Not able to rest in either conclusion, Lewis grappled with the issue throughout his twenties, evolving slowly from a kind of gnosticism to theism and finally to Christianity. (See Stand pp. 214-18; 326: 425.)
It is no accident that his conversion should be explicitly tied to a
late-night conversation in 1931 with J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson, two
Christians who shared Lewis's fascination for myth, romance, and fairy
tale, but who believed that mythology revealed its own kind of truth and
that Christianity was True Myth. Lewis was becoming settled in his somber
conclusion that myths were "lies breathed through silver," but Tolkien
and Dyson understood myths to be "real though unfocused gleams of divine
truth falling on human imagination" (Miracles 139). They asserted that
the recurring myth of the Dying God who sacrifices himself for the people
reveals an archetypal awareness of the need for redemption. For them, the
Incarnation was the pivotal point at which myth become history.
But in 1916, that great paradigm shift still lay fifteen years in the future. In "Bleheris," the young Lewis revealed how far he had come in his personal quest--and how far he had yet to go. At age seventeen he could eloquently describe the experience of Joy, but he did not claim to understand it. He had clearly set aside conventional religious explanations and he seems to have suspected that there was more to it than mere sublimated libido. By then he also recognized opposite dangers of an arid reductionism on the one hand and a self-indulgent romanticism on the other. Most intriguing of all is his portrayal of an elusive god-figure whose servant goes among the people, befriending all and making peace among them, seeking to draw them to his master.
Yet what reality did the experience of Joy point to? When would reason, revelation, and romanticism ever speak with one accord? And how could the beautiful dreams of myth and story ever be reconciled to the grim actualities of the waking world? Lewis would be nearly twice as old before he felt able to weave a coherent worldview from these tangled skeins. Yet most of what later crystalized in his mind and heart may be found in solution in an early work such as "The Quest of Bleheris." Perhaps it was Lewis himself who best described the connection between his early imaginative explorations and his later spiritual discoveries:
I do not think the resemblance between the Christian and the merely
imaginative experience is accidental. I think that all things, in
their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not least. "Reflect"
is the important word. This lower life of the imagination is not
a beginning of, nor a step toward, the higher life of the spirit, merely
an image. In me, at any rate, it contained no element either of belief
or of ethics; however far pursued, it would never have made me either wise
or better. But it still had, at however many removes, the shape of
the reality it reflected (Joy 167).
Green, Roger Lancelyn, and Walter Hooper. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.
Haldane, J. B.S. "Auld Hornie, F. R. S." Modern Quarterly 1(Autumn 1946), 32-40. Rpt. in Shadows of Imagination: The Fantasies of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Ed. by Mark R. Hillegas. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1969.
Lewis, C. S. The Great Divorce. New York: Fontana, 1972. Originally published 1949.
__________. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe . New York: Macmillan, 1950.
__________. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Originally published 1947.
__________. Narrative Poems. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1969.
__________. Out of the Silent Planet. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Originally published London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1938.
__________. Perelandra New York: Macmillan, 1968. Originally published London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1943.
__________. The Pilgrim's Regress. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1960. Originally published London: Geoffrey Bles Ltd., 1933.
__________. "The Quest of Bleheris." Manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS. Eng. lett. c. 220/5 fols. 5-43). Copies at the Marion C. Wade Center, Wheaton College. [The manuscript is not consistently paginated; quotations have been cited by chapter number. Minor errors of spelling and punctuation have been corrected.]
__________. Surprised by Joy . New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955.
__________. That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy Tale for Grown-Ups. New York: Macmillan, 1968. Originally published London: John Lane, Bodley Head, 1945.
__________. They Stand Together: The Letters of C. S. Lewis to Arthur
Greeves (1914-1963). Ed. by Walter Hooper. New York: Macmillan,
1979. [Minor errors of spelling and punctuation have been corrected in
the passages quoted.]
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