Splendour in the Dark, Jerry Root, annotations of Dymer by David C. Downing. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.
Summary: An annotated edition of C. S. Lewis’s Dymer and three presentations with responses given as part of the Hansen Lectureship series at Wheaton’s Marion E. Wade Center.
Many of us, including me, who are fans of the works of C. S. Lewis have never read Dymer, his book-length narrative poem. There may be several reasons for this. It is poetry, less popular with many than prose. It does not receive the circulation that many of Lewis’s works have. Also, it was written before Lewis’s return to faith. Also, as a work of his youth, most critics thought it wasn’t very good.
This work, a product of the Ken and Jean Hansen Lectureship may help make up for this on several fronts. The lectureship, taking place at Wheaton’s Marion E. Wade Center, which houses works and papers of Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers, and others in their literary circle, features scholarship on the Wade Center authors. Jerry Root is a Lewis scholar and author of several books. The book which includes the lectures by Root followed by responses, also opens with the poem, lightly annotated by David C. Downing, another Lewis scholar. Downing’s annotations are sparing, illuminating rather than distracting from the text. I recommend reading the poem first, followed by the lectures.
The poem was written in rhyme royal, a rhyme scheme used by Chaucer. The scheme is ABABBCC and the lines are in iambic pentameter. It consists of nine cantos, elaborating a narrative that had come to Lewis in his teens–and though written in his twenties, has that feel. A young man in the Perfect City is sitting in class, bored with lectures, gazes out the window, hears a lark, kills his lecturer and flees the city for nature. He wanders naked through a forest, finds a mansion-castle, wanders its halls, makes love with a woman he encounters, not knowing her name or remembering his face but knows that he loves her. After going out in the morning, he is barred from returning by an old crone who drives him away. In his wanderings he survives a narrow scrape with death, encounters a man suffering wounds from a revolt in the city that followed on Dymer’s actions led by a rebel named Bran. Perhaps as penance, he stays with the man until he dies, hears a lark, then a shot and comes upon a magician’s house and learned that the magician shot the lark. Drugged, Dymer dreams of his lover but recognizes these are dreams, awakens, cries for water, jumps through the window and escapes, being mortally wounded in the process. An angel comes, saying there is one more thing he must do–engage the beast laying waste to the land that is the offspring of his night in the castle. He does, he dies and the land springs to life.
Sounds like male adolescent imaginings to me! Yet there is also a journey into increasing insight, the shattering of illusions and a development from self-absorption to self-sacrifice. Sometimes the language seems stilted by the rhyme scheme, and at other times it soars.
All these things are acknowledged in the lectures and responses. Root argues that the big idea in this poem is that “reality is iconoclastic”–that it shatters idols, and that this poem was the place where Lewis first addressed this idea that recurs in Chronicles, Surprised by Joy, and other works all the way to Till We Have Faces. In his first lecture, Root retells the story (far better than my summary above) and traces the development of the idea. The second lecture focuses on the influences upon Lewis in writing the poem, mainly in mythology and the “Christina dream” of Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh. The third lecture then shows how the idea that reality is iconoclastic and many of the images of the early poem recur in deeper and richer form in Lewis’s later works. If Dymer is not a great work, it is certainly one helpful in understanding Lewis’s journey back to faith and the artistic imagination, informed and deepened by his faith, evident in his later works.
One example of how Root connects the imagery of Dymer to later works is noting the use of the mirror. In Dymer, the character sees a naked, wild-eyed man in the mansion-castle, only to realize it is himself he is seeing in a mirror. This occurs in The Great Divorce in the bus ride from hell to heaven, with Eustace Scrubb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and with Queen Orual in Till We Have Faces. Root notes that these iconoclastic experiences not only reveal the really real, but expose the true self and fuel a quest for meaning, one that would eventually lead Lewis back into the arms of Christian faith.
Both Jeffrey Davis and Mark Lewis remind us of the flaws of the work, and Davis thinks that Lewis’s failure as a poet may have been a good thing, given the later impact of his prose work. Miho Nonaka, though slightly more appreciative of Root’s efforts also finds that Lewis may have been too close to Dymer, despite Lewis’s disavowals, and also critiques the intrusion of the narrator’s voice in his children’s fiction.
Even given these criticisms, really more of Lewis, Jerry Root (and the Hansen Lectureship) have done us a great favor in bringing Dymer to our attention. As I mentioned, I knew of the work but had relegated it to Lewis’s atheist years, seeing it, as it were, the work of a different author. Root helps show us the continuity rather than discontinuity in this work, the idea that reality is iconoclastic that will recur in later works, and the reflection on Lewis’s own development. Root (and Downing) have done a great service to every Inkling in acquainting us with this work!
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.