Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Rebuke from 1772

So, last week I finished reading TALES BEFORE NARNIA [2008], a v. interesting collection put together by Doug Anderson as a sort of companion book to his TALES BEFORE TOLKIEN [2003]. It's a very good collection which makes readily available some fine hard-to-find pieces such as Tolkien's "The Dragon's Visit" [1937] (the original, superior version) and Kenneth Grahame's FIRST WHISPER OF WIND IN THE WILLOWS* [1944]. Also here are some real discoveries, such as a chapter from Roger Lancelyn Green's never-before-published THE WOOD THAT TIME FORGOT, which Lewis and Green both agreed had been a major inspiration for Narnia; or C. F. Hall's "The Man Who Lived Backwards", the story Lewis acknowledged in his Preface to THE GREAT DIVORCE [1946] as having been the source for one of his ideas in that book. Since Lewis could not remember the author or title of that story, Anderson's re-discovery of the tale in question is a real coup. And what's more, now that we have the story itself we can see its influence on THE DARK TOWER as well. I also found the final story, by Wm Lindsay Gresham (Joy Davidman's first husband, the father of Douglas and David), surprisingly moving -- Gresham is so often presented as a sort of walk-on villain in accounts of CSL's life that the fact he was a talented writer often gets overlooked.

All that aside, I was struck by a passage in one of the antecedents to THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS that held far too much resonance to today. The book in question, INFERNAL CONFERENCES; OR, DIALOGUES OF DEVILS [1772] is by Rev. John Macgowan, a hellfire Baptist preacher. In a long diatribe attacking the Inquisition, Macgowan has one of his devils extravagantly praise the Inquisition's work:

"One holy inquisitor goes beyond an hundred of our fraternity in the art of cruelty, which you know is the first of the learned sciences . . . Such wonderful inventions of torturing, one would have thought, could never have been contrived. What ingenuity does the rack display! How excellently formed for exquisite torture! What an apt resemblance of the infernal furnace is the dry-pan! A contrivance worthy the most skilful among the Beezebubian artists. But their watery torment, the gag and pitcher, is what raises them most in my esteem. Almost every blockhead hath some notion of a hell fire but it is peculiar to the skill of an holy inquisitor to contrive a hell of water. In this, Fastosus, we must all knock under to them, for indeed they are our betters. And, to enhance their merit, their torments are inflicted upon the unhappy wretches, who fall into their hands, under a shew of the greatest sanctity towards God, and pity to the unhappy victim of their cruelty. And so very strictly do they and their assisting familiars observe the rules of inviolable secrecy, that the world can never know the hundredth part of their villainy."

That's right. The worst thing the fervid imagination of a hell-fire and damnation preacher two hundred years ago could come up with to accuse the Inquisition of was WATERBOARDING. Worse than The Rack. Worse than being slowly roasted to death in an iron box.

And made all the worst by being done by holier-than-thou torturers who are careful to keep their misdeeds secret.

Sounds all too familiar.

--John R.

*Charles Williams fans will also be glad to find his only short story reprinted here, so far as I know for the first time since Boyer & Zahorski's VISIONS OF WONDER [1981].

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