Prof. John Patrick Pazdziora: Worlds of Words

‘Welcome back to Hogwarts after our Christmas break! Before we tuck into our New Year’s Eve Eve Feast [editor’s note: Yes, Hogwarts is on the Julian Calendar], I wish to introduce our new Magical Language Arts Teacher, Professor John Patrick Pazdziora, on loan from nearby St. Andrew’s University, where he studies Muggle fantasy alongside our non-magical brethren. He will be filling the revived Lake Poets Chair in Literary Alchemy, long neglected, and his classes will be open to all those attempting the Eloquence and Imagination N.E.W.T. — although I must caution older student that you must have attained an Outstanding on your O.W.L. if you wish to take his Advanced Spell Composition class. I have asked him to give us a short talk tonight to introduce his research as we sup on soup and before the main courses are served. I give you Hogwarts Professor Pazdziora.”

Thank you, Headmaster. I am honoured both by the appointment and by the overwhelming kindness of your welcome. As I–like the rest of you–am far more interested in what we are about to eat than what I am about to say, I shall be brief to the point of near silence. You shall not–alas!–always be so fortunate when I speak.

As both a reader and a literary critic, it’s all too easy to lose track of what we’re actually studying and enjoying. We examine places and characters, argue about symbolism and settings, analyze themes and structures. We assess the narrator’s voice, the texture of literary references. We emotionally relate to these characters, live for a while in these places, and engage—creatively and critically—in another world.

But we forget—or I, at least, often discover I’ve forgotten—what these worlds are actually woven from.

These worlds are woven in words. Words, words, words. We do not see the world the author has created. We only see, and hear, and consider her words.

Even in the remarkable collaboration of art and illustration that is the graphic novel—one thinks of the serendipitous partnership between Neil Gaiman and David McKean—the words and the pictures remain distinct, as distinct as the musician and the dancer, moving together in counterpoint but using different tools. It is not that single world is created; two worlds are created on the same frame, illumining and giving meaning to each other.

Certain artist/illustrator pairings can play in a similar counterpoint—George MacDonald and Arthur Hughes (especially in the Curdie books), Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, Lewis Carroll and Tenniel, James Thurber and himself. But—with perhaps the exception of Thurber—the works remain distinct; the words came first, and the pictures follow as the imaginative response of another artist. What we are given of words.

We never actually see Lewis’s Narnia, for instance—unless we consider Pauline Baynes’s wonderful illustrations, or Chris van Allsburg’s covers. But those can’t really be considered Lewis’s work at all, just more or less drawing inspiration from the texture and pattern of his words. The artists have read about Narnia the same way we have. It is not too much to say that Narnia is a world of words; the words are Narnia, simply and profoundly, and their sound and rhythm and meanings create a verbal wardrobe, that wraps the world around us.

So it comes as no surprise—in fact with great delight—to discover a writer like Gaiman, who uses words so frightfully well, or to rediscover in a writer like Lewis the subtle richness and pattern of words we’ve always read but perhaps overlooked, perhaps forgotten.

Just such a rediscovery of the words of the Narnia books is offered—suitably enough—at Oxford Jeremy Marshall, an editor for the OED and co-author of The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary (OUP, 2006), has written a delightful article exploring the verbal wonder of ‘The Lion, the Witch, and the Wordbook.’ With obvious delight, Marshall points out Lewis’s adroit use of obscure and rare words. What other perennial children’s classics use words like ‘loquacity’ and ‘choriambus’? Marshall writes:

Many readers must simply pass over these without fully understanding them, unless they have a dictionary to hand. But Lewis was, after all, a professor of English literature, and having a rather bracingly old-fashioned approach to education, he thought nothing of throwing a word such as malapert, victualed, or frowsty into a children’s book.

Marshall’s article is a delight to read. Although the introductory matter, explaining Tolkien’s dislike for Lewis’s mismatched mythological references, is familiar territory to CSL devotees, Marshall quickly move into new lexical ground. He encourages us to read Narnia with a good, comprehensive dictionary (presumably the OED) close to hand. Who knew, for instance, that the orrery was a serious tool in Renaissance science, but a poesimeter is Lewis’s own coinage?

This sort of examination not just of the stories, but of the words of story—the blood and bones and heartbeat of story—can’t but help to renew our appreciation for great stories and great writing. Because words matter, language matters.

That’s what stories are made of.

Read and report. As always, thoughts, corrections, and questions are eagerly welcomed – later. For now, tuck in!


  1. I’m simply delighted by the connection between Lewis’s “orknies, ettins, and wooses” with Tolkien’s “orcs, ents, and wood-woses.”

    Though how he could make it through that entire article without once mentioning that Lewis wrote an academic volume called Studies in Words escapes me. (Maybe because it’s published by Cambridge?)

  2. Your discussion on the relationship between the words and the illustrations made me think of Dr. Seuss. I think Dr. Seuss my be one of the few examples where the relationship is almost reversed. In my opinion, the illustrations in Dr. Seuss really create the world. The words from Dr. Seuss are wonderful but are really a celebration of the joy of playing with language.

  3. Louise M. Freeman says

    Welcome aboard, Professor Pazdzoira!

    (Though, Headmaster, I must say, if he gets a title, I want one too… Perhaps Professor of Phrenology? That was probably the equivalent of neuroscience in the Wizarding World).

  4. I had you down as ‘Charms,’ Professor Freeman, but ‘Phrenology’ it is!

  5. I can only reply: Nitwit! Blubber! Oddment! and Tweak!

    But that was an enjoyable read with references, I must say. I will say! For I assent to it readily rather than be forced to it!

    But, I must ask, is it the thought that gives birth to the word, or the word that births the thought?

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