I’ve been rereading C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image today, sparked by a reread of Michael Ward’s work on planetary symbolism in the Narnia novels. A word jumped out at me twice which I don’t think I have ever noticed particularly before: “gumphus”. According to Lewis it means “nail” in medieval Latin: he records that Alanus ab Insulis, the thirteen-century theologian and poet, states that the soul is fastened to the body gumphis subtilibus, “by tiny little nails” (60). He goes on to point out that Alanus did not make up this strange and evocative image, but that he is following Chalcidius in this opinion, who is following Plato. Indeed, Lewis suggests that Alanus “may not even know very clearly what a gumphus is”.
The mention of nails in connection with the soul and body would obviously raise an eyebrow when it appears in a work by Lewis, especially when writing about a medieval theologian and poet, but it is not the crucifixion which came to mind. In fact I did not think much of this, except to make the odd-looking word and briefly look it up (apparently from the Greek “gomphos”). About a hundred pages later, however, it popped up again. In a longer passage, Lewis discusses the medieval solution to a major philosophical problem: how can there be an interaction between the spiritual and the physical? How can minds move bodies? How can the soul direct the person? The answer given in the medieval vision of the world (the Discarded Image of the title), is via a third sort of thing or tertium quid, the spirits:
The spirits were supposed to be just sufficiently material for them to act upon the body, but so very fine and attenuated that they could be acted upon by the wholly immaterial soul. They were, putting it bluntly, to be like the aether of nineteenth-century physics, which, for all I could ever learn of it, was to be and not to be matter. This doctrine of the spirits seems to me the least reputable feature in the Medieval Model. If the tertium quid is matter at all (what have density and rarity to do with it?) both ends of the bridge rest on one side of the chasm; if not, both rest on the other.
Spirits, then, are the ‘subtle gumphus’ required by Plato and Alanus to keep body and soul together, or as Donne says, ‘the subtile knot which makes us man’ (167.)
This caught my attention for a couple of reasons. Lewis has found an excuse to use the word “gumphus” again, and he had done so whilst criticising an element of the medieval vision of the world. This happens very rarely in The Discarded Image. He found the medieval cosmology, and its ramifications, fascinating and inspiring. His avowed intention in writing the book was to make a primer available for readers of medieval and early modern literature, to help them understand the nuances they might have otherwise missed. But it is also to expound and offer that cosmology for contemplation: there are even moments when he suggests readers go for a walk under the stars and try to inhabit the same world as the medieval poets. Indeed, according to Michael Ward, Lewis believed that modern readers would benefit morally and socially from recovering the imaginative power of that universe.
Lewis suggests that parts of this image of the world can be confusing, or draw on different sources. He comments a couple of times, for example, that the idea of God as the beloved around whom the universe moves in response, as the lover is moved by the beloved, is difficult to reconcile with a Christian doctrine of God’s grace and activity in the world. At another moment he suggests that this universe may seem too ordered and classical, with no hiding places or obscure corners, but then goes on to introduce the longaevi, the creatures such as elves and fairies, which provide that illogical and even chaotic element. However, I cannot think of many moments when he suggests that an element is intellectually disreputable or of little value. But this is apparently true of the tertium quid spirits, the “gumphus” of soul and body.
It was because of this rare comment that I paid more attention to the word, and realized that it reminded me of something. A number of Narnia readers have probably shot ahead of me here, and are already thinking of the name of Governor Gumpas. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Caspian and the Pevensies come to the Lone Islands. They are captured by slavers, and Caspian is sold to the Lord Bern. He quickly persuades the Narnian lord of his real identity, and they march to the residence of Governor Gumpas, where they browbeat him into recognising Caspian as the proper ruler of the Lone Islands.
Gumpas is a minor and unappealing figure in the episode: a pettifogging bureaucrat with greying hair and a small mind. When faced with Caspian, he blusters about appointments and investigative commissions, and the narrator tells us that he doesn’t see through Caspian’s plan because he would never imagine anyone trying to take the Islands with only fifty men. He is the image of ineffective and unimpressive authority. Ironically, he supplies the figure of the British Consul whom Eustace has been demanding to see, and hoped to find on the Lone Islands.
That, I think, is why he has the name “gumpas”. In these books, which are soaked in medieval lore and symbolism, he carries the name of an ignoble aspect of the medieval worldview, which Lewis disliked and scoffed at, partly because of its affinity to the Victorian idea of aether. He is disreputable, and ineffective, and he fails to transmit or embody authority properly. As Governor of the islands, he should transmit power and authority effectively and aptly, but he fails to do so – just as Lewis found the tertium quid spirits, the gumphus, unpersuasive as a means of connecting the soul and the body.
Gumpas is himself a bit of a tertium quid – neither a real Lone Islands man and true subject of the Emperor, nor a Narnian noble. It is telling that Caspian abolishes the system of governorship itself, appointing Bern not as Governor but as Duke. He installs a Narnian noble who possesses an inherent form of authority, not an ineffective transmission mechanism. I only noticed this about an hour ago, but I’m convinced for the moment that Governor Gumpas has his origin in a detail of the great hierarchy of the medieval universe which Lewis found shoddy and unlikeable. An idea which he records as expressed by Alanus ab Insulis, or “Alanus from the Islands”.