At a climatic moment in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, Ransom must reveal himself as a master, as possessing spiritual authority to another master of ages past. Remarkably, it is not through supernatural works or through a test of strength that this is done. Instead, it is in the revelation of knowledge, the knowledge and power to wield names, that Ransom’s authority is made manifest. It is words which are the seal of his power and veracity.
Lewis, a lover of words, of philology, of languages, has his day here. Ransom is himself a former British philologist. But to understand the exchange and its significance, it is necessary to realize that this is not just a matter of dictionary prowess.
Of old, men who knew and loved words (particularly those of ancient languages) were men who had devoted their lives to the learning of them. Such men at times learned to form their tongue in new ways to pronounce curious syllables, often imperfectly! They knew the meaning of some those ancient tongues only after having poured long over texts–with our without the aid of those lexicons with which modern students are so familiar.
The lexicon of any ancient language is itself the labor of such lovers. Anyone who has spent time amid Lewis and Short, Cunliffe, the Liddell-Scott, the Brown-Driver-Briggs for instance, has sampled something of this labor and ought to have a due reverence for the awful sacrifice of life which was necessary for their production. For such aids are made not with wikipedia or with a dictionary, but by the slow, plodding, gathering and organization of words, grammar, syntax and phrases, etc., through the mechanical formation of concordances and the comparative uses of words and phrases in the primary texts themselves.
The history of almost every great scholar of old is entangled with such study. Christian tradition, for instance, is a history of the study of Hebrew, Greek, Latin and other languages. Consider the work of Origen, Jerome, Augustine, etc.
Thus to know a word from this perspective, to speak it with authority, is to have loved it and its texts and worlds–to have entered into its secret places (for nature loves to hide), and scented something of the mystery of meaning. It is the authority of experience and intimacy I speak of here, rather than one of sheer memorization.
Such a life can become a quasi-fetish for the consonants and syllables or for etymology. Yet it is to know not as a school boy does, but as the result of a quest, which for many has been itself a kind of gracious and arduous revelation: part archaeology, part grammar, part discipline and hardship, part self discovery, in which years of one’s life have been spent like the tallow of a candle in the course of one a long mysterious night, a night in which voices, old and new, converge and slowly show meeting points of agreement which are the blessing upon the scholar and which reveal that their apprenticeship has not all been in vain. Perhaps certain knots in one’s back, a certain depth of squint, a knack for flipping the ancient tome open to the right page, all come from such hours spent.
Ransom is himself a possessor of words, however, not only by way of the philologist, but as a receiver of direct revelation. He has done what every philologist dreams of; he has heard the native speak the tongue and has tasted its sound, and he has met the very referent of its meanings there before him.
So he does indeed speak as one with authority and not as a mere scribe, though truly that is all he is.
It for these reasons and more that there is a grave delight, something of a victory for one who knows the love, in hearing the description of that ancient tongue being spoken. There is the delighted hope to one day speak the true language. For language and words, as Plato taught, are indeed the mirror of Being. And so we can take seriously any possible implications when Lewis describes this the man speaking as uttering forth “syllables of words that sounded like castles.”