A light from the shadows

The Oxford pub where sparks were fanned into a flame that grows ever brighter with the years

The Oxford pub where sparks were fanned into a flame that grows ever brighter

“From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring…”  J.R.R. Tolkien

These lines are from a poem I have loved for many years.  It appears in the first book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings, but its message has an enduring appeal whether or not one has read the story.  The themes of hidden strength and eventual triumph are close to the heart of anyone who is surviving hardship while hoping for better times to come.

When I went to Oxford in December 2005, I went back to the Eagle and Child, the modest St. Giles pub I had first visited a few months earlier.  I wanted to take some photographs (including the one above) of the place where Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and other writers met for years to discuss their writing. Tolkien and Lewis, the best known of the group referred to as “the Inklings,” would go on to achieve a degree of fame and popularity they probably never dreamed of during their early Oxford years.

C. S. Lewis is my favorite author.  I have a hard time ever choosing a favorite of anything, and when discussing books and writers, the list of worthy contenders is long indeed.  But Lewis has earned the superlative through his remarkable ability to distill profound ideas into simple, friendly language that intrigues as it instructs, and comforts as it challenges.  His works have been a bright spot in my life for which I’ll always be thankful, and I find myself returning to them again and again.

Who are your favorite writers? Have you any books that are so loved as to seem almost like old friends?  Any that shine a light into the dark nights of your life?  I wish you many hours, days and years of the unique joy that is found in exploring real and imaginary worlds through books.


  1. Being one such person, I can opine: by stating one has an affinity for the writings of Clive Staples Lewis, or J.R.R. Tolkien, a man is revealing a lot about himself. The first line of Tolkien’s poem, cited above, is a “flip side” of the so oft repeated line from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” (though in the 1600’s the word glitters was rendered glisters). If you are fascinated by words and English usage, just read the first eight lines you see when you access http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/94882/all-that-is-gold-does-not-glitter

    • Hi Eric, thanks for your comment! I read the comments at the link you included, and I think the person who wrote them is failing to see the forest for the trees! Tolkien’s meaning is made clear by the following line, “Not all those who wander are lost” and continuing lines. Plus “some that is gold does not glitter” just doesn’t have the same ring. Bottom line, I would be willing to bet that those who dissect such lines are probably not even close to Tolkien in terms of the ability to write words that live well beyond the author’s time on earth.

  2. The Old Man and the Sea, Corelli’s Mandolin, Rebecca, Bel Canto, The Great Gadsby… there are so many! Thank you for nudging me out of a photo-editing mode and into a retrospective one spent with favorite books!

    • You’re welcome! Of the books you listed, the one I have read most recently is Bel Canto and I really liked it. I haven’t read Corelli’s Mandolin but I’ll have to put that on my very long list of books I want to read. Don’t stay out of photo-editing mode TOO long – we really enjoy your photos! Thanks for being here.

      • there is a beautiful line in Corelli’s mandolin that is so beautifully written, and i think you’ll really appreciate it. it’s when the father talks to the daughter and compares the married life to two trees growing beside one another. i watched the movie just to see if they kept that part (and they did) but of course i loved the book more. (they changed part of the ending, which frustrated me!)

        have a good day, beautiful friend!

        • Should I read the book or see the movie first? Normally I recommend that people read the books first, but of course, that can set up disappointment with the movies as they are often different or not as good, as you mention. “Life of Pi” is one book I am definitely glad I read before I saw the movie. Thanks for being here – hope you have a wonderful day too!

  3. Me too, Julia, me too – C.S. Lewis – when i need a simple understanding ‘good news’ quote Lewis is my favorite: one of my favorite on friendship is : “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” tis true my friend. agape Love and Prayers to you & yours ❤

    • YES, I love that line from Lewis also. Thanks so much for your visits and especially your prayers!

      • For those who have not embraced the words to which Katherine and Julia are referring, I want to add – Lewis so brilliantly contrasts the Greek words eros and phileo. Characterizing them with personification, I paraphrase Lewis as saying eros spends its time looking, face-to-face in to the eyes of its object; while phileo is realized when two find themselves with their faces parallel, both looking at the same object apart from themseves. And then, as the two aforementioned ladies can verify, Lewis will blow you away with what he says about agape, in his book, “The Four Loves”.

        • Eric, I have a set of tapes you gave me that are recordings of Lewis himself reading a slightly abridged version of “The Four Loves” on radio in Britain. It is wonderful to hear authors reading from their own works, and these aging cassette tapes are among my favorites. In fact, I need to digitize them soon, before they quit working! Thanks for your comments, and for sharing my enthusiasm for Lewis.

  4. In the comments section of my third grade report card my teacher wrote “Don has shown an interest in reading”. For me it started by reading about sports heroes and famous people from the book selection in the library at my elementary school. I mostly read books about my hobbies and passions. A friend recently loaned me a book of famous short stories that I enjoyed. Books are cool. I thought I was the only one! (wink)

    • Don, did you read ever Matt Christopher? He was sort of the Beverly Cleary of sports books for boys back in the 60’s and 70’s. Very easy to read and enormously popular with my male classmates. I also loved the biography series about the childhood years of famous people. They seemed to be partly fictional since most childhood years are not documented, but they were written to agree with what is known historically. I think someone should bring that series back. I can’t remember the name or publisher but those books were some of my very favorites. Jeff is like you in reading mostly nonfiction, but he and Matt read together each night and I think he’s grown to enjoy fiction. They’ve been through all of the Lord of the Rings books, the Harry Potter books, the Narnia books, etc. and countless other individual titles. Books are definitely cool! (said the librarian who currently works only at home).

      • I don’t remember any of the authors of the early books that I read, but that biography series was one of my favorites. Babe Ruth, Sandy Koufax, Eli Whitney, and the Wright brothers were some of books that made an impact. I was really into baseball from 3rd grade through 6th grade. I pitched during those years and did pretty well. My competitive juices began flowing around then. ( I think a bit of that is good when blended correctly with other important qualities). My passion for flying was possibly aroused by the Wright brothers, but was developed in high school. To build a fire by Jack London was one of the best short stories I read recently.

        • I agree that competition is a good thing when it’s handled correctly, especially when one is competing essentially against one’s own ability level, pushing higher. I vaguely remember To build a fire; I’ll have to go back and read it again. As I recall, it has sort of a “surprise” ending (I don’t want to ask about it for fear of spoiling it for someone else). I’ve never read much by Jack London, I guess he’s more of a guy’s author. There are a lot of famous short stories I’ve never read, though. Eric really likes The Bear by William Faulkner, and I’ve never read that one either but I need to read it. I have a lot of old literature anthologies that I got secondhand, and I love to read them when I have the time. Most of what’s in those literature textbooks got there for a good reason, I think.

  5. Ryan

    I like “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas.

    • Ryan, believe it or not, I’ve never read that, although Jeff and Matt have. That’s on my astronomically long “I want to read this someday” list! 🙂

  6. I grew up reading Russian literature as they were readily available in those days thanks to Progress Publishers. Though I have never been to Russia the culture seems familiar through those books.
    And Julia, so glad to inform you at last a ray of light has sprung from the shadows. Hope it would last and we could lead a normal life till we are prepared for a change. I feel a bit relieved after a fortnight of tensions. Thanks a lot for your prayers.

    • You are welcome, Bindu, it is a privilege to pray for other people as it helps me feel more connected to them. I am overjoyed to hear that things are looking up for you, and I will keep praying.
      As for the Russian literature, what I have been able to read of it I really liked. In high school, my senior honors literature class allowed us to choose one country whose literature to study, and I chose Russia. I remember being especially impressed with one particular poem by Voznesensky. It was called “To B. Akhmadulina” and it was a tribute to a woman who was a fellow poet. After high school I searched for decades, literally, for a copy of the poem which I had partly memorized. Over 20 years passed until my older son finally found it in the library of his graduate school (he had known about my searching for it all those years). Other than the poetry, I remember being impressed (and slightly depressed) by Gogol’s story “The Overcoat.” I also liked Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich and Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons . OK, I’d better stop now, but suffice it to say that I find the history, culture and literature of Russia fascinating and hope very much to read more of it and maybe eventually visit that country. Thanks for bringing back memories of some of the reading I really enjoyed in my youth! I pray for continued blessings for you and your family. Thanks so much for visiting!

  7. Sheila

    Julia, over our “soup and sandwich” lunch on this blustery, rainy day, I asked Bill what his favorite classic book was, thinking he would say,” Old Man And The Sea”. Instead he asked me,” Is this a trick question?” Yes, he’s feeling much better. Thanks for your prayers!

    • Sheila, that put a big grin on my face! Yes, it sounds as if he is feeling much better! So happy to hear it, and we’ll keep the prayers going up!

      • Sheila

        Julia, your blog just keeps on giving. On April 1st Eric shared http://worldwidewords.org/ so I checked it out. I passed it on to Bill’s dad,who is quite the smartest 91 year old that I know. He thanked me and told me that he subscribed to it. Never too old to learn or enjoy life!

        • Thanks Sheila, I’m sure Eric will get a kick out of knowing he was able to share the site with another reader who would appreciate it! I’m glad you let us know. YES we will never grow too old to learn, and that attitude makes life fun.

        • Sheila

          This really puts a smile on my face today, one year later. For obvious reasons! 🙂

          • Thank you Sheila! I understand, and join you in smiling. 🙂

  8. hey
    i am not a big movie person, so i would say read the book first then see the movie through my eyes! when you read the book we’ll have to discuss a few parts, especially the part about the trees.

    • Thanks, I’ll let you know when I have read it!

  9. I would have love to eavesdrop on the Inklings! This is my favourite quote –

    “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
    “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
    ― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

    • I totally agree about the eavesdropping! And that’s a wonderful quote, one I think almost all of us can identify with to some extent. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    • Rene

      As I was reading that quote, I could hear Ian McKellan saying it in my head. 🙂

      • Yes, it’s amazing how some of those quotes lend themselves to eternal auditory memory once we’ve heard a sonorous voice speaking them!

      • He has a magnificent voice!!! 🙂

  10. I always feel like I am such a dunce around you Julia because you read at a whole different level than me. I would have to say my favorite authors are children’s authors or those who write at a level for a younger set. Over the years Stephen and I have read many books together and recently (in the last 10 years) we have come to love Rutherford. His historic fiction is fantastic. I seem to always quote Judith Viorst from Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. “I think I will move to Australia.” I love Boynton too. She is soo funny and colorful. Hmmm guess there just isn’t enough room for ALL my favorites. Of course I could say that SOME of my favorite authors aren’t published yet. Thanks for sharing your love of books.

    • Amy, I think you read circles around me. You have read way more books than I have. I do want to get around to Rutherford someday because you and Stephen have really sparked an interest in me and being the Anglophile that I am, I think I’d love his books (I wonder if HM has read them?) I love Judith Viorst – she writes funny stuff about getting older, too, as Nora Ephron did — and Boynton’s cartoons are great. You are the best reader I know of and you read very widely, a bit of everything. I have enjoyed all our book talks over the years, starting when we were reading picture books to our babies and I hope continuing when we are reading to our grandchildren. Thanks for being here!

  11. C.S. Lewis is certainly my favorite Christian apologist. I would say Flannery O’Connor is my favorite story teller. As for a novelist, you can’t beat Fyodor Dostoevsky.

    • I like O’Connor too, I find her quite different from any author I have ever read. She certainly mastered the short story, which I think is harder in some ways than writing a novel. I started Crime and Punishment the summer between high school and college. I found it fascinating but got only about 1/3 through with it before I got interrupted somehow and never got back to it. I have several of Dostoevsky’s books on my aforementioned astronomically long “want to read someday” list. Most of what I know about him I learned from watching Woody Allen films!

      • Rene

        I took a class on “The Novel” in college that pretty much required a novel a week. In a three week period, we had to read “Huck Finn,” “Great Expectations,” and “C&P,” followed by a midterm; needless to say, I didn’t finish “C&P.” I went back to it later & it was well worth finishing. I would have to say it’s my favorite Russian novel (acknowledging how few I’ve read).

        • WOW, I could not have read even ONE of those books inn three weeks, I’d have had to fake it. GREAT WORK getting through them! I started Crime and Punishment (reading just for fun) as a college student and loved it, but got interrupted and never went back to it. I’m a slow reader, so it takes me awhile to get through anything. Having said that, I recently read Dostoevsky’s other great masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, and like the books you mention here, it was well worth the effort of getting through it. He’s a master storyteller and Alyosha Karamazov was perhaps the most appealing fictional character I’ve ever encountered.

  12. When you wrote these words about Lewis “remarkable ability to distill profound ideas into simple, friendly language that intrigues as it instructs, and comforts as it challenges” I thought how perfectly that describes your own writing Julia. I’m afraid I’m very much a fair weather reader and have read all the Shopaholic novels and Ellen’s three books and all of Dan Browns books (so much better than the movies), and others like that. I did read ‘The Glass Castle by Jeannette Wells and her followup Half Broke Horses and enjoyed them both immensely. The books are somewhat a narration and I loved her voice.

    • I have been wanting to read The Glass Castle; I’ll have to move that one up the list. Have you read any of Maeve Binchy’s books? She is a wonderful story teller. Some of her novels feature characters who had minor roles in earlier books, so it’s good to read the in date order, although not essential. Two that I really loved were Light a Penny Candle and The Glass Lake. Binchy had the true Irish gift of storytelling and although I’ve never been to Ireland, I feel as if I know it better through her books. WOW, what a compliment you gave my writing to compare it to what I said about Lewis. I really appreciate that but I feel like Wayne and Garth — “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!” 🙂 (that was a blast from the comedy past). Have you read Alexander McCall Smith’s series that begins with The Number One Ladies Detective Agency? One critic described his books as written in a “deceptively simple style” and I totally agree – very easy, lighthearted reading, but over time you realize what a master of characterization he is, and you really come to know these people. I’ve read the whole series and can’t wait for the next one to come out, it’s like visiting with friends to read them.

      • ‘Like visiting with friends’, that’s a good read Julia. I’ve heard a lot about ‘The Number One Ladies Detective Agency’. Two Aussie girls we traveled with in Europe raved about them. I’d love to check out that series.
        I’m not familiar with Maeve Binchy, sounds interesting! Your blast from Comedy past of course hit home because Bob & Doug were Canadian ey? Thanks for the referrals. PJ at Pyjama Gardener had some book reviews this week too, so many great novels…..so hard to decide. 😀

        • I totally agree about so many books, so little time. One of Ashleigh Brilliant‘s quotes that I had on my wall for years says “It’s hopeless! Tomorrow there will be even more books I should have read than there are today!” A nice problem to have, though, isn’t it? BTW, if you like audiobooks, I highly recommend the unabridged audios of the Number One Ladies series. Something about hearing it with authentic-sounding African accents just makes it so much more fun.

          • Oh that’s cool, do you download them? I would have really made use of that when we lived out of town and I had long drives. Silly me, why didn’t I think of it. I like Ashleigh Brilliants quote, so darn true.

            • Yes, I download the books from the public library, for free. I don’t know whether they would have the earliest ones still available on audio, though. The narrator I love is a woman named Lisette Lecat and she must have lived in Africa at some point (or maybe now) because the accents sound so real. I asked a friend who lives in Uganda whether that series was as accurate as capturing what Africa is like as it sounds and she said it was. The series is set in Botswana, though, which is probably quite different from Uganda or many other African countries.

              • We’ve never had the time or opportunity to travel to Africa. I thought I’d like to visit Egypt at one time but I don’t think it’s safe now. I saw a documentary with Ewan McGregor and his friend Charlie. They travel from Scotland thru Africa on motorbike. Wonderful, heartwarming and humorous in parts. I adore Ewan, he’s in my favourite movies.

                • My friends who went to Egypt fairly recently did feel it was a bit nerve-wracking to be there. I’d like to go someday but not anytime soon. I would love to see the animals in Africa, and after reading the McCall Smith series, I’d like to see Botswana. Of course, there are so many places I want to go that who knows when or if I’ll ever get there. I want to see India and China first, and South America. I’m so far out of touch with movies that I can’t even keep up with most movie stars now. I told Jeff that is one of the few ways I can really feel my age; I don’t recognize more than half the names in the entertainment news! I did like the new James Bond movie, even though I was afraid I wouldn’t.

                  • Daniel Craig is appealing to all the ladies……except PJ at Pyjama Gardener 😀 She thinks he’s funny looking, gasp! Her hubby must be pretty dishy, I’m mean Mr B is no slouch but OMGosh, Bond has those dreamy blue eyes LOL.

                    • Actually, I think he’s funny looking too — but then, my hubby is pretty dishy 🙂 at least in my eyes (and he has those dreamy blue eyes too). My favorite Bond was Roger Moore because he always seemed as if he was in on the joke. But this latest one was more serious, and I liked that. Still pretty far-fetched, but less so than the old ones. Judi Dench is great, I think she steals any movie she’s in.

      • Rene

        I loved The Glass Castle, you should move it to the top of your list. I love Precious also!

        • Is that Precious the same book on which the movie was based? I really liked the movie though it was quite difficult to watch, from an emotional standpoint.

          • Rene

            Sorry, I meant Precious Ramotswe. I didn’t see the movie “Precious,” precisely because it seems emotionally difficult.

            • I TOTALLY agree about Mma. Ramotswe, who is one of my favorite fictional friends of all time! Though I am much more like the strong-minded Mma. Makutsi, I find Mma. Ramotswe’s company to be quite therapeutic (perhaps as much as Grace Makutsi does). Sitting down for a cup of bush tea at the end of the day and seeing the sunset over Botswana through Mma. Ramotswe’s eyes is one of the most enjoyable of literary experiences. I continue to marvel at the way Alexander McCall Smith can re-create so many different characters so convincingly.

              The movie Precious was worth the emotional toll it took on me because I like the way hope kept breaking through the gloom. But I think it would be way harder for a teacher, social worker or anyone else who might have to deal in reality with the fallout of such sad circumstances. I don’t blame you for not wanting to watch it.

  13. Donbuck – Eli Whitney couldn’t pitch his way out of a paper bag! Now, Whitey Ford – HE was a pitcher!!

    • A lot of people have compared Tom Glavine to Whitey Ford. I don’t know enough about Whitey Ford to know whether that’s an apt comparison. Oddly, I have never heard a sportscaster discussing Eli Whitney’s style. 🙂

      • The most oft-repeated commentary about Whitney’s style was: “He’s cuttin’ tall cotton, now!” (When Whitney next took the mound in Gin Stadium, and was informed of this remark, he just growled,and spit out a mouthful of cotton seed hulls.)

        • Why did I not see this coming? 🙂

      • Rene

        The inventor of the sewing machine? 😉

        • Well, let’s just say that the inventor of the sewing machine (or at least later manufacturers of it) owe a great though indirect debt to Whitney. Besides which, he had a mean changeup!

  14. Enjoyed your writing. I lived in Oxford for three years and seeing the Eagle and Child has ignited fond memories. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Thank you, I’m so glad you liked it! How very fortunate to have lived in Oxford for three years. My son was in school there only one semester (Michaelmas term) through a study program sponsored by his U.S. college, and I visited twice during that term. I wish I could have spent more time there. It’s a beautiful and fascinating place. I’m sure you must miss the “dreaming spires.”

      • I certainly do miss those ‘dreaming spires’. Oxford is a great place to walk about with a song in your head or a book in your pocket. It’s especially nice in the summer, if you get the chance, go punting when the weather is nice.

        • I hope I am someday able to go back to Oxford in spring or summer, and stay longer than a couple of days. In 2001 I went punting in Cambridge and loved it; Oxford would probably be even more magical (as I’m sure Alice would agree)! Thanks for being here!

          • You’re welcome! Thanks for reading.

  15. Susan

    Julia have you read Until we have Faces? It’s a bit more obscure than many of Lewis’s works, but I appreciate the ongoing struggle and perseverance that the main character experiences all of her life.

    • Susan, yes I did read that book and found it very intriguing. Since I wasn’t familiar at all with the mythology on which it’s based, I did find it to be fairly difficult to follow as clearly as I would have liked, but I agree that the character’s tenacity was inspiring. My favorite part of the book (and arguably its climax, from which the title is drawn) is this line : “I saw well why the gods do not speak openly to us, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” I have read in more than one source that Lewis said this novel was his personal favorite of all he had written. Thanks for mentioning it here!


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