BBC’s Inspector Lewis: Is Fantasy Literature Perverse?

For those of you who have read my books and blog posts here over the last decade, the name ‘Titus Burckhardt’ is not unknown. I have referenced his ideas on alchemy and Perennialism from the start and remain not-so-secretly convinced that Ms. Rowling’s reading in hermeticism that set the story scaffolding for her Hogwarts Saga was founded in Burckhardt’s Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul. His Mirror of the Intellect, too, I suspect was influential, if only in drawing out the meaning for Ms. Rowling of the many mirrors in the English fantasy tradition. Harry Potter for Nerds has an important essay by Erin Sweeney on Rowling’s astrological-alchemical artistry that assumes just this Rowling-Burckhardt connection.

I’ve also mentioned another traditional writer in thoughts posted here, Martin Lings, who was both a Perennialist and Sufi like Burkhardt and a student and friend of C. S. Lewis.’ Frankly, I think the links joining the Inkling writers and the greater Coleridgean resistance to the errors of modernity with the Perennialist school to be significant and important, both for understanding the artistry and meaning of Tolkien, Lewis, Williams, Rowling, et aliorum, which is to say the power of their work, but in understanding ourselves, as readers and as human beings. Lings’ Sacred Art of Shakespeare is the model of exposition in this regard that I have tried to emulate.

Imagine my intrigue, then, when I heard from a mentor and friend that the BBC had filmed an episode in its Inspector Lewis ‘Masterpiece Mystery’ called ‘Allegory of Love’ that explored the tradition of English fantasy out of Oxford, notably, Lewis Carroll, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien, in light of Perennialist teaching. I watched it last night via Hulu plus and my wife’s laptop and I review it below the jump; please watch the show yourself before reading what follows because I make no allowance in it for those not wanting to be spoiled.

‘The Allegory of Love‘  bears reviewing certainly, both in the sense of ‘watching it again’ and discussing it. I doubt I will give it a second watch because of other demands on my time just now but here are my thoughts on what the screenwriter, clearly a reader and admirer of Burckhardt and I think a Muslim of some kind (perhaps only a sympathizer?), was after.

The key image of the mirror, I’d say, is meant as an invitation to contrast the Burckhardtian/Perennialist/Islamic idea of the ‘Mirror of the Intellect’ — the Persian mirror on the wall of the Comparative Religion professor that is hung there to invite noetic reflection on one’s identity as an image/likeness of God — and the mirror of Romantic fantasy, here Liddell/Carroll’s Looking Glass, but as apt, MacDonald’s mirror in Lilith, Lewis’ wardobe with glass, Tolkien’s Galadriel mirror, and Rowling’s various mirrors, most importantly, the Mirror of Erised and the eye fragment in Hallows.

These latter mirrors in the teevee program are literate “allegories of love” but also the love of “arrested development” as Bernie/Bernice, the story wise woman/Perennialist/androgyn and Burckhardt reader observes outside the Bird and Baby, and, really of sexual perversion.

The story turns on the doppelganger of the Alice woman who is simultaneously niece, daughter, sister, bride-to-be, and sexual rival/danger to various men and women in the story. The Lewis Carroll don/scholar and secret pervert posing as celibate (a critique of Dodgson, alas, I’m afraid, hence the scene of his cleaning the photograph of the Liddell Alice) buys an Alice human copy, the Bosnian ‘sex worker,’ with whom to act out his longing for his niece. Alice’s father and son eventually also use Alice’s human reflection as surrogate sex toy and fantasy reflection.

The man who has won the real Alice, however, has his own allegory of love nightmare. His foster mother, in her grief at the departure of her husband, had sexual relations for years with Dorian — yes, the Wilde mirror/portrait reference is apt (I wonder if the Carroll don isn’t the Boxland author’s aging image of a life of sin) — for their mutual comfort. The beginning and end of his Boxlands chapter, the murderous mirror and the quotation from Oedipus, suggests that he had begun to break free from his perverse childhood by reflecting in the Persian mirror and seeing his true self. The Australian girl, who looks like his foster mother/muse (and the young Joanne Rowling!), is thrown off she says and he quotes the Oedipal confession to his Alice as a marker of what secret sin he is struggling to overcome to love her truly.

Which, given the clear Lewis references made by the Scotland Yard (?) sergeant from Boxen/Boxlands and the mother burying the box a la Lewis at his father’s death, is as close to a kindness for the Inklings as we get in the story. I think we are meant to take Bernie/Bernice’s judgment as final — Lewis was a psychological invalid and perhaps a pervert having relations with a mother substitute (Jane Moore — the Lewis in the story calls his boss ‘Mum’ in something of a shadow here), Tolkien likewise, and Carroll most of all — that fantasy writing is, at best, therapeutic projection and, more likely, a sick allegory or transparency through which we can see psychological maladjustment and grief/longing.

The scene that has to be interpreted is the close at which Alice comes to her brother’s shed, takes his hand, and leads him out of his fantasy isolation (in which we have seen his pre-occupation with his sister’s Bosnian twin). Is this her attempt to save him from the fantasy-gaming and perversion that was Dorian’s downfall, i.e. a rescue attempt that breaks the cycle? Or is she, in her grief for Dorian and her anger with her father, taking him to her bedroom to comfort herself with his incestuous fantasy and her own Elektran desires?

I think the author offers us hope for the former but believes it will be the latter.

On the Muslim point, all the characters who are believers in the story (with the possible exception of Bernie/Bernice, who, if the beer dispute scene is any measure, is something of a nutter as well as the sage!) are meant to engage our sympathy for long suffering Islam, The Alice look-alike with two names is an orphan because of the war that the Seyyed Hossein Nasr stand-in figure clearly blames on the Christian west not Muslim violence and she is brought to the UK as a sex object. She is a victim, whose life as prostitute is supported (in charity? sympathy?) by her friend the chambermaid and not judged by the Nasr don who, I assume, we’re meant to believe is the true Carroll figure that loves/adores her from afar as long-suffering Islam Alice.

Given the anger in the UK at its Islamofascist minority that have made much of the capitol into ‘Londinistan,’ I’d say it’s a fair bet that the author was making the case via Perennialism that Islam is persecuted and righteous (and the subject of perverse projection from Christian intellectuals) rather than the agent of violence and Taliban-esque fundamentalism on the streets. The Nasr cut-out figure, if anything, is the hero of the piece, who is falsely arrested for showing the only acts of sincere kindness to his co-religionist; his denial of being like the Taliban, I think, may have been the point of the production. He is, after all, the man who owned the Persian mirror, the real Mirror of the Intellect, that he let Dorian borrow for his work and which brought him to the point of Self understanding in Boxlands.

And what are we to make of the Mystique d’Noir (?) perfume that Ned buys for his niece and doppelganger — and which Inspector Lewis’ wife wore as well? And the critical place of the reference to Borges’ Uqbar? There is much more to unpack here and I look forward to reading below your thoughts and reflections on this remarkable program.

Is English fantasy an edifying medium through whose story transparencies we can have imaginative contact with spiritual realities? Or is it more the mark of arrested psychological development in the perverse longings of adolescent projection and sexuality? Certainly with Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling, all of whose family lives were marked by missing or dead mothers and fathers — and consequent odd personal histories, the case can be made for the latter (as I think this screenwriter attempts to make in story). Does that mean that fantasy cannot be serve the greater purpose — or does it necessarily lock us into the childishness of the Bird and Baby ‘New inklings’ fans portrayed in Inspector Lewis’ Allegory of Love?


  1. I watched this one a while ago. I’ve been watching all the Inspector Lewis episodes that I could get on Netflix and enjoyed them all. I remember this one because of it’s references to alchemy, Lewis and Tolkien and Rowling (I think she was mentioned in this one – if not, she was in another episode). I think this is the episode where Sgt Hathaway picks up a Burckhardt book about Alchemy off the shelf and makes a comment on it.

    But I did not get this deep into the connections. I can clearly see that I need to watch it again – while paying attention to different details than just solving the mystery. And, duh – I can’t believe I didn’t make a connection between Dorian and Oscar Wilde. Wow.

    Was this the one that had the New Inklings going to a meeting and the sword being displayed and then being used as a murder weapon?

    Thanks, John – as usual, you have given me a lot to think about.

  2. Was this the one that had the New Inklings going to a meeting and the sword being displayed and then being used as a murder weapon?

    That’s the one — the episode called ‘Allegory of Love.’ The Lewis sword trophy, on display in the reading place of ‘Boxlands’ that opens the book, in an Oxford lecture hall we visit at least twice and at ‘The Eagle and Child,’ is identified as being “C. S. Lewis’ ‘Sword of Truth’,” and as being from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

    Does anyone remember a ‘Sword of Truth’ in that novel or the Narniad?

    The other references to Lewis are the boxes of Dorian and Adrian in which they secret their fantasy worlds (essentially psychopathologies involving mom in this telling) and a note about the “role of Islam in Lewis’ Horse and His Boy.”

    The two visits to the lecture hall are telling moments. In the first, the Uncle and Carrollite says that only the Alice books will “stand the test of time” and Dorian, who is watching, leaves the room as if dismissed and injured. The next time it is the Uncle who is listening to the Nasr Perennialist stand-in lecture on whether Gods accepts repentance with the delight that angels do. The Uncle seems unmoved by this thought; he confronts Prof Nasr-alike with the Alice-twin Marina’s having been seen with him on the quadrangle.

    The Sword of Truth stands by.

  3. No, I don’t think Lewis refers to Peter’s sword (or any sword in Narnia) as the Sword of Truth.

    In looking up “sword of truth,” though, I found it is the name of another fantasy series. I didn’t find anything connecting Oxford and a sword of truth.

    What I was surprised to learn is that while the “sword of truth” may mean the Bible to Christians, it is also an important phrase in Islam.

    I can understand why the writer would use a sword as the murder weapon, given its obvious use in fantasy lit, but why name it the Sword Of Truth? Why create it and say it was the inspiration for King Peter’s sword?

  4. A very important collection of Perennialist essays, edited by Jacob Needleman and published by Penguin Metaphysical Library (the publishers of Burckhardt’s Alchemy as well), was titled The Sword of Gnosis: Metaphysics, Cosmology, Tradition, Symbolism. The book description on the back cover explains the title this way: “In this book the study of metaphysics, symbolism, and spiritual method is intended to be a sword with which to cut away the illusions of the present age and open a path for the renewed influence of primordial tradition.”

    Three quick notes:

    (1) I didn’t catch the note that this episode’s Sword of Truth was the “inspiration” for Peter’s sword in LWW. If that was said, it can be explained as a Perennialist token or nod to the primordial wisdom underlying all exoteric religious forms.

    (2) If this Sword of Truth is actually a pointer to ‘The Sword of Gnosis’ that “cuts away the illusions of the present age,” that would be support for my thesis that this episode is a Perennialist (and Muslim Perennialist) critique of modern Christian fantasy — Carroll, Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling — as more “arrested adolescent development” (which is to say, psychosexual disorder and projection) than edifying means to imaginative, transcendent experience.

    (3) The Dorian Gray image here in this episode’s Dorian having the Sword of Truth run through his heart is, ahem, pointed, I think, in that Wilde’s Dorian is found dead with a knife in the chest after he attacks his Faustian image. The screenwriter (is that what teevee writers are called?) seems to have in mind that fantasy authors of the Oxford sort are dealing with powers that they ought not while neglecting individual psychological disorders at their spiritual peril.

    There is no small hint of disgust with the sexual liberality (?) of Oxford expressed by police and other characters in the story, which is also some indication of a traditional religious bent in the guiding hand. Forgive me for thinking the horror expressed by all that a widower has taken a lover at this episode’s finale is more fitting of a Victorian morality tale than postmodern television serials.

    I’m curious if we are meant to think, like Wilde’s Dorian, that this story’s Dorian was finally repentant, after his time staring into the Mirror of the Intellect, had broken off with Australian mother-image lover, and was coming to terms with his Oedipal history (hence his Sophocles comment-confession-last words to Alice, his fiancee, that were the close of his book chapter that began with the Persian mirror). If so, the Dorian Gray death is a nice touch; he has died to himself and has not betrayed his mother but must pay the cost to the Sword of Truth.

    That the Sword is wielded by the mother who then buries his Box a la Lewis, though, suggests the author believes the imaginative fiction muse-boxholder is mentally unhinged — and perhaps is as dangerous and irresponsible as Pandora.

    Any thoughts on Adrian and the warrior figurine carrying a sword at story’s end? He puts the bridle of a black horse in her hand at the top of a tower. Is this a throwback to the opening in which Marina/Alice hears hoofbeats approaching with alarm? And what about Alice’s leading him by the hand out of the shed? Is he meant to represent the dark horse of the passions in Plato’s Phaedrus?

  5. Viktor Richardson says

    Dorian Crane’s first words to his young mother stand-in/student: “Try the chapter on Peacock and the Romantics.”

    Thomas Love Peacock (1785 to 1866) Close friend to Percy Bysshe Shelley:

    “While the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age. Mr. Scott digs up the poachers and cattle-stealers of the ancient border. Lord Byron cruizes for thieves and pirates on the shores of the Morea and among the Greek Islands. Mr. Southey wades through ponderous volumes of travels and old chronicles, from which he carefully selects all that is false, useless, and absurd, as being essentially poetical; and when he has a commonplace book full of monstrosities, strings them into an epic. Mr. Wordsworth picks up village legends from old women and sextons; and Mr. Coleridge, to the valuable information acquired from similar sources, superadds the dreams of crazy theologians and the mysticisms of German metaphysics, and favours the world with visions in verse, in which the quadruple elements of sexton, old woman, Jeremy Taylor, and Emanuel Kant, are harmonized into a delicious poetical compound. Mr. Moore presents us with a Persian, and Mr. Campbell with a Pennsylvanian tale, both formed on the same principle as Mr. Southey’s epics, by extracting from a perfunctory and desultory perusal of a collection of voyages and travels, all that useful investigation would not seek for and that common sense would reject.

    These disjointed relics of tradition and fragments of second-hand observation, being woven into a tissue of verse, constructed on what Mr. Coleridge calls a new principle (that is, no principle at all), compose a modern-antique compound of frippery and barbarism, in which the puling sentimentality of the present time is grafted on the misrepresented ruggedness of the past into a heterogeneous congeries of unamalgamating manners, sufficient to impose on the common readers of poetry, over whose understandings the poet of this class possesses that commanding advantage, which, in all circumstances and conditions of life, a man who knows something, however little, always possesses over one who knows nothing.

    A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward. The brighter the light diffused around him by the progress of reason, the thicket is the darkness of antiquated barbarism, in which he buries himself like a mole, to throw up the barren hillocks of his Cimmerian labours. The philosophic mental tranquillity which looks round with an equal eye on all external things, collects a store of ideas, discriminates their relative value, assigns to all their proper place, and from the materials of useful knowledge thus collected, appreciated, and arranged, forms new combinations that impress the stamp of their power and utility on the real business of life, is diametrically the reverse of that frame of mind which poetry inspires, or from which poetry can emanate.

    The highest inspirations of poetry are resolvable into three ingredients: the rant of unregulated passion, the whining of exaggerated feeling, and the cant of factitious sentiment: and can therefore serve only to ripen a splendid lunatic like Alexander, a puling driveller like Werter, or a morbid dreamer like Wordsworth. It can never make a philosopher, nor a statesman, nor in any class of life an useful or rational man. It cannot claim the slightest share in any one of the comforts and utilities of life of which we have witnessed so many and so rapid advances. But though not useful, it may be said it is highly ornamental, and deserves to be cultivated for the pleasure it yields. Even if this be granted, it does not follow that a writer of poetry in the present state of society is not a waster of his own time, and a robber of that of others.”

    Dorian’s last words to his mother: “The heart can and should obey the head.”

    Dorian and Peacock agree while Shelly (a poet with a saving people thing) and Harry Potter would surely object.

    Would that American TeeVee writing was on these levels and that I could pick up and express so many jewels from one quick viewing as does our Professor!

  6. Great Catch, Viktor!

    The odd thing is that the Perennialists, if I understand them correctly, would agree less with the empiricist Peacock than with the romantic Coleridge. I’m guessing here, though, that the screenwriter/Perennialist believes the excesses of Oxford Christian fantasy and their root in psychosexual disorders are just that rather than counter-balances and cardiac resistance to cranial logical positivism like Peacock’s. Dorian’s comments about “heart and head” make him sound like a Peacock, disdainful of poetry et alia, when I think after his experiences before the authentic ‘Mirror of Intellect,’ he has only come to recognize his own failings vis a vis Mum, Alice, and student-stand-in.

  7. Bruce G Charlton says

    A key name missing here may be Owen Barfield – one of Lewis’s oldest and best friends (his second friend, according to the autobiography Surprised by Joy) – Barfield was a Steiner disciple, an anthroposophist (as was another of Lewis’s friends, Cecil Harwood). Anyway, Barfield was one of the longest-running Inklings (although not a regular attender, because he lived in London). Barfield was a big Coleridge expert and remains a bit of a cult figure – for example Saul Bellow was a great admirer, and Barfield is a character in (I think) Herzog.

  8. Thanks for a marvelous introduction to an excellent TV series (and to Hulu, which this media clueless soul had never encountered before).

    The AOL episode seems more a commentary on academic elitism and secularism vs. practical religiosity than on Christianity vs Islam. The only practitioners of any real religion are two of the three Muslims; none of the academics are portrayed as believing in much of anything except their own superior intellects. Seems to me this is a pretty accurate portrayal of contemporary life at Europe’s elite universities.

    Of all creatures only humans have the ability to create separate worlds, apart from reality and God. Avivah Gottleib Zornberg describes mankind’s fall in the Garden of Eden this way: man’s beginnings are clear and solid, only until the point where he becomes conscious, to name the world, himself and God. From this point it is a matter of hours til he has named his reality in such a way that what remains is a world that is not really there, in which the whole creation story is subtly undermined. [The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, p 26]

    John, you ask if English fantasy can be a medium that illuminates spiritual realities; I believe that it not only can, but must, serve a higher purpose. I suspect the original Inklings shared this view. But if fantasy is stripped of its spiritual moorings it all too easily becomes an escapist trap, a false world, a pathological substitute for reality. And as Professor Dumbledore told Harry: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”

    Victor’s quote from Peacock holds the clue to the academicians’ central values: “… though not useful, it may be said [poetry] is highly ornamental, and deserves to be cultivated for the pleasure it yields.” The Oxford elitists in AOL delight in pleasurable intellectual games stripped of humanity and spirituality; even spiritual practices such as celibacy become mere dandified poses. These ‘New Inklings’ wear fake elf ears (“[Their gods] have ears but they cannot hear” Psalms 135:17.) Lewis tells CID Innocent that the murder clues all point to someone who is deliberately using fantasy world symbology. “That’s sick!” exclaims Innocent. “That’s Oxford,” counters Lewis.

  9. Does anyone have an ‘inkling’ what the horse scene about?

  10. Viktor Richardson says

    As for the horse thing, I haven’t a clue beyond the first horse being white and alive while the last is black and lives in the real world inside the head. Their coming to the hand of the same woman in both worlds nicely completes the ring.

    C. S. Lewis’ “The Allegory of Love: a Study in Medieval Tradition” explores the “humility”, “courtesy”, “adultery” and “religion” of love. Perhaps the screen writer is showing us that Christian imaginative literature can have enlightening effects when enjoyed for their “highly ornamental” values; but, can be stripped of power by allowing the head to rule the heart as exemplified by the dragon tickling Oxford academics with the result that they can excel in only one of Lewis’ four marks of love.

  11. Perhaps the horse images refer to the fact that the courtly lover was generally a knight (chivalry, from the French cheval, horse). Perhaps the horse is a unicorn, with the two scenes echoing those in the unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters in NY. The first scene with Marina stopping the white horse reminds me of the fragment with the maiden subduing the unicorn with an uplifted hand while the last scene with the horse captured and fenced in by the castle battlements reminds me of this image of the unicorn tamed and fenced in its delightful garden: But then why is the horse black? That’s one of those alchemical references, isn’t it?

    To add to the complications IMDb lists a lieder Wenn dein Mütterlein as the soundtrack. The lieder is based on a poem by Friedrich Rückert translated by Emily Ezust as follows:

    When your mother steps into the doorway
    and I turn my head to see her,
    my gaze does not alight first on her face,
    but on the place nearer to the threshold;
    there, where your dear face would be
    when you would step in with bright joy,
    as you used to, my little daughter.

    When your mother steps into the doorway
    with the gleam of a candle, it always seems to me as if
    you came in as well, slipping in behind her,
    just as you used to come into the room!
    O you, a father’s cell,
    alas! how quickly you extinguish the gleam of joy!

    I don’t know who’s actually responsible for all this marvelous if somewhat overheated allegory — David Pirie (credited with the story) or Stephen Churchett (screenplay) or Bill Anderson the director, or all three — but they do seem to be having a great deal of fun.

  12. A perhaps minor if important correction. Lewis is on ITV not the BBC.

  13. Another correction: Lewis and Hathaway are Oxfordshire cops…

    And indeed, the Borges references and fantasy notions need further interrogation…

  14. and yes, for those of you who regularly watch the wonderful Lewis (and who watched its as wonderful predecessor Morse) know the arrogance and often murderous nature of academics, at least those in elite Oxford, is one of the central themes of the show. It is a theme I quite like. Both shows take petty academic squabbles and turn them into murderous intent making Oxford, in the process, the murder capital of the UK.

  15. Carolyn Wolfe says

    The opening scene is from Hayden’s fantasy role-playing. Did not happen in real life.

  16. For what it’s worth, Lewis refers to his boss as “Ma’am” not “Mum”. He does this throughout the series and I don’t think it is related to the themes in this particular episode. (“Ma’am” being the official equivalent of “Sir” when addressing a female superior officer in the police in the UK.)

  17. The guitar music at the end sounds like Pink Floyd, but I am not sure because I cannot place the song. Anyone know what it is?

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