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'The light beyond the material universe is intellectual light.'

March 8, 2017

 

Any attempt to write a book about C. S. Lewis and his work has to come to terms with the fact that so much has already been written about him and his writings. What exactly could another book add to the world’s library of opinions of and adulations towards this famous scholar and his works, which have been translated into more than 30 languages, have sold millions of copies or who has had major motion pictures made of key writings, viewed by millions?

 

The point of C. S. Lewis: Piecing Together His Life and Work is that, regardless of the above, it demanded to be written. While it doesn’t claim to add anything particularly startling to the pile, it is a unique personal viewpoint of the man and his work. That’s primarily because, in looking at Lewis’s life and work for over forty years, some remarkable strands started to stand out in the tapestry, strands which other, far worthier scholars than myself have probably noted and explored more fully, but which nevertheless are so pronounced that they invite comment.

 

It is this book’s chief contention that there is a distinct process or action or motif in both Lewis’s life and work which he outlines himself for us in his last book, The Discarded Image. This operation or movement is something which can teach us much about Life and ourselves as well as being able to cast light back upon itself, and to open new doors to the worlds which Lewis created.

 

Of all of C. S. Lewis’s vast contribution to literature and to thought in the Twentieth Century, it is The Discarded Image which is perhaps the most under-valued. Its treatment of the Mediaeval model of the universe, the way in which thinkers in the Middle Ages looked at the world around them, seems to be the province of scholars rather than of any general interest. But I think this is a mistaken view. Michael Ward in his book Planet Narnia found The Discarded Image to be a kind of decoding work for the whole of the Narnia books, for example. And The Discarded Image undoubtedly contains valuable insight into the way in which Lewis himself thought as well as how our own thinking could benefit from a model of the world outside our ‘normal’ framework. From it we can get a glimpse of something simple but profound, which, once seen, can be seen everywhere in Lewis’s world and work.

 

Lewis covers a lot of ground in what is really quite a short book. Part of the central hypothesis of the work, though, concerns the fundamental structure of the cosmos as viewed during the Mediaeval period. In brief, this consisted of a central Earth surrounded by a series of unfilled and transparent globes, each one larger and around the one within it, each. The first seven ‘spheres' or 'heavens', had fixed in them, like a jewel, one luminous body. Starting from a stationary Earth, the order was the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn ; the 'seven planets'. Beyond Saturn was the Stellatum, in which the invariable stars were fixed, and beyond that was a sphere called the Primum Mobile. This ‘First Movable’ had no luminous body and was therefore invisible to our senses, but its existence was inferred to account for the motions of all the others in the same way that scientists today infer the presence of another body in space by the gravitational effect on the bodies around it.

 

My father used to drive my brother and I crazy by telling us not to think about space ‘going on and on and on forever, in case we went mad’, which of course prompted us to think of that exact thing. But whereas space for us today is conceived of as infinite, going on without end, for the mediaeval viewer it was not: space for them terminated at the Primum Mobile. Just as I had suggested to my father that space ended in a ‘wall’, to which he would reply ‘Ah, but what’s behind that wall? More space!’, ancient thinkers also had an answer, as Lewis says:

 

And beyond the Primum Mobile what? The answer to this unavoidable question had been given, in its first form, by Aristotle. 'Outside the heaven there is neither place nor void nor time. Hence whatever is there is of such a kind as not to occupy space, nor does time affect it.' 

 

Aristotle may not have named this further, but Christian thinkers knew that this could only mean that outside the Primum Mobile was

 

'the very Heaven', caelum ipsum, and full of God, as Bernardus says. So when Dante passes that last frontier he is told, 'We have got outside the largest corporeal thing (del maggior corpo) into that Heaven which is pure light, intellectual light, full of love' (Paradiso, xxx, 38). 

 

It wasn’t ‘space’ that lay beyond, in other words, but something qualitatively different:

 

There can be, in the ordinary spatial sense, no ' end' to a three-dimensional space. The end of space is the end of spatiality. The light beyond the material universe is intellectual light.

 

It takes something of an effort of will for us in this modern age, in which we have become accustomed to an entirely different view of the universe and the way in which things work, to turn our minds back to a universe in which all power and movement, or what physics would today call ‘forces’, emanate from God: this emanation then sets the Primum Mobile in motion, causing it to rotate; the rotation of the Primum Mobile causes the rotation of the Stellatum, which then makes the sphere of Saturn turn, and so on, down to the last moving sphere - not Earth, we have to remind ourselves, but the Moon. The Earth was not a moving sphere, but the ‘ground’ around which all this operated.

 

However, the model was not just a huge, complex clockwork machine: the idea was that within each sphere an Intelligence was attempting to mirror and thereby approach the perfection of the God who was the source of it all. A better image, if we can manage it, might be a giant clock which turned not through springs but by desire to become: ‘moved’ not in a mechanical sense (though mechanical motion was part of the result) but ‘moved’ as in ‘arousing strong feeling’.

 

The Primum Mobile moved in a perfect circle to emulate the perfection of God; this then caused the Stellatum to move in a similar, circular fashion, which in turn caused the planetary spheres to move and so on, as we have said, all trying to approach God both in terms of distance and in terms of likeness.

 

This model needs to be kept in mind as one of Lewis's chief tools in producing the effects he wanted to produce on readers.

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