Monday, May 26, 2008

"A Hundred Covenanters in his Eyes" : CS Lewis and Ulster Scots

(This article was originally submitted to The Ulster Scot in January 2006, but not published. Oh the shame!)

With the Disney version of “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe” packing cinemas worldwide, and having already taken over $225 million dollars since its release in December, interest in CS Lewis has never been greater. Steven Moore’s article in the December edition of “The Ulster Scot” inspired this short piece about the role that Ulster-Scots culture played in Lewis’s life and his writings.

“…low Scotch…”
One of his earliest pieces, The Most Substantial People (1927), was a story about the family of Scrabo Easley from Belfast. On a trip on the Liverpool to Belfast ferry, he describes a group of hefty, prosperous Ulstermen whose speech:

“…I could have easily mistaken for low Scotch... I cannot describe these Ulstermen better than by saying that they realised perfectly a child’s dream of what grown-up ought to be. Their hands were hairy and massive: their movements and voices were sudden, confident and practical: they moved to an incessant jingling of money, flipping of watch chains and rattling of cuffs. They were the strictest uniform of respectability… I felt instinctively that I was among good sleepers and hearty eaters…”

Over the following 36 years of his life, references to Ulster-Scots culture and language would continue to appear in his writings.

Mr MacPhee: Covenanters and Burns forbye
Lewis’s three science fiction novels – Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945) - collectively named The Cosmic Trilogy - provide more of the Christian symbolism that Narnia is so famous for, and further examples of Ulster-Scots influence. One of the main characters, Mr MacPhee, is clearly an Ulster-Scot and was probably based on Lewis’s tutor WT Kirkpatrick.

In That Hideous Strength MacPhee is described as an Ulsterman and uses many Ulster-Scots words like “forbye”, “skeery” and “daffin” - as well as expressions like “…that’s not a question to be answered by Aye or No…”, and “…my uncle, Dr Duncanson, whose name may be familiar to you – he was Moderator of the General Assembly over the water, in Scotland…”. Some of the descriptions of him include: “…MacPhee, who had been carefully shutting up the snuff box, suddenly looked up with a hundred Covenanters in his eyes…”.

He is even mocked by other characters in the story with comments like “…Mr MacPhee probably approves of no poets except Burns…”. Lewis’s understanding of the Ulster-Scots connection is further underlined by: “…I am ver' glad to see you, Mrs. Studdock," he said in what Jane took to be a Scotch accent, though it was really that of an Ulsterman…”

Lewis dedicated That Hideous Strength to another Ulster Presbyterian, Janie MacNeill, who he described as a “…true, sometimes a grim, daughter of the Kirk…” and “…the broadest-spoken maiden lady in the Six Counties…”.

Three Ulster-Scots Influences
Lewis’s later writings about his early life reveal strong Ulster-Scots influences. Three particular people are recognised to have had a major impact on him, and in Surprised by Joy (1955) he refers to them all. His nurse in Belfast, Lizzie Endicott, may well have been of Ulster-Scots stock, as he said this about her: “…through Lizzie we struck our roots into the peasantry of County Down…” - it was Lizzie who told him the ancient tales and legends which gave him such inspiration.

Then there was the spiritual insight and academic influence of his governess Annie Harper, of whom he wrote “… she was a Presbyterian; and a longish lecture which she once interpolated between sums and copies is the first thing I can remember that brought the other world to my mind with any sense of reality…”.

Ultimately, his strongest Ulster-Scots influence was his tutor during his early years in England, WT Kirkpatrick.

An Ulster-Scot on the Sabbath
William Thompson Kirkpatrick was born in 1848 at Boardmills, near Lisburn, and had also been tutor to Lewis’s father, Albert Lewis, while he attended Lurgan College. Kirkpatrick was qualified for ordination into the Presbyterian Church, but had never actually been ordained. When the young CS left Ulster for England he met Kirkpatrick, who was then 66. He described himself to Lewis as an atheist. In Surprised by Joy Lewis wrote these classic lines about Kirkpatrick – lines which are now almost part of Ulster-Scots literary folklore:

“… He had been a Presbyterian and was now an Atheist. He spent Sunday, as he spent most of his time on week-days, working in his garden. But one curious trait from his Presbyterian youth survived. He always, on Sundays, gardened in a different, and slightly more respectable, suit. An Ulster Scot may come to disbelieve in God, but not to wear his week-day clothes on the Sabbath…”

As you can see from just these few examples, Ulster’s most renowned author recognized Ulster-Scots speech and cultural influence in his own life.

So as the cinema popcorn runs low, and as you finish the final chapter of The Chronicles of Narnia you were given as a Christmas present, why not wait for the DVD release by reading The Cosmic Trilogy – that way you’ll be able to enjoy CS Lewis and discover his Ulster-Scots influences for yourself!