Random Walks: Narnia, Schmarnia

[Author’s Note: Some of you may have received an earlier, unfinished version of this particular column. It was not, as one reader suggested, an avant-garde literary choice — Behold! The Half-Finished Post! — but a sad case of an inexperienced blogger accidentally hitting “Publish Now” when she really meant to save it in “Draft” mode. Really, it’s a miracle she is allowed to blog at all. But she promises to never do it again.]

C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia have long enjoyed enormous popularity among readers of all ages, particularly among those with Christian leanings. That’s not surprising, since Lewis was himself an avowed Christian and made no bones about the fact that the series was intended as a reworking of the traditional Christian “myth” (and I use that term in the literary sense). But it’s not obvious to everyone, as I discovered when a friend of mine recently went to see the much-anticipated film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. A staunch agnostic, she was horrified to find that somehow, in the translation to the silver screen, the subtleties of Lewis’ mythical retelling were lost, leading to what she considered to be little more than a ham-fisted, didactic advertisement for the Christian religion.

My friend is not alone in her objections to the film (I share them) — indeed, it is a common refrain when discussing Lewis’ literary output. There are many people who view Lewis with suspicion, precisely because he has been so warmly embraced by evangelical Christians. And in the case of bestselling children’s author Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy (a wonderful read in its own right), suspicion gives way to outright hostility. Pullman is among Lewis’ most outspoken critics, clearly evidenced by a 1998 article in The Guardian, in which he dismisses the Narnia books as “one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.” More recently, he dismissed his rival’s work as being “blatantly racist,” “monumentally disparaging of women,” and blatant Christian propaganda in remarks at the 2002 Guardian Hay festival. (Pullman in turn has been unjustly attacked by right-wing naysayers as “the most dangerous author in Britain” and “semi-Satanic”; he is, in many respects, the anti-Lewis.)

Pullman has made some valid points in his public comments about Lewis and the Narnia chronicles. In addition to his avowed Christianity, Lewis was a conservative product of his era, with all its recumbent prejudices. And he was not, by any means, “nice,” possessing a flinty,  intellectually stringent, sometimes slightly bullying disposition that didn’t always win friends and influence people. Lewis did not suffer fools gladly, if at all. I doubt many of the evangelical Christians who deify Lewis today would have much cared for him in person, and vice versa. Yet he was hardly evil incarnate. I am not a diehard fan of Lewis’ work, but I will be so bold as to suggest that the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes of beloved saint and recalcitrant sinner. Lewis was a man, plain and simple, with all the usual strengths and foibles.Cslsmoking

As for the charge of Lewis’ work being blatant Christian propaganda, Pullman somewhat over-states the case. Certainly Lewis deliberately evoked the themes and symbols of the Christian mythology in much of his writing, but so did many of the greatest writers in Western literature: Dante, Milton, and Donne, to name just a few. The problem lies not with the choice of themes, but with Lewis’ decidedly heavy-handed style. In his hands, the subtle symbolism of myth more often than not devolved into  overly-simplistic allegory — a far less satisfying approach, artistically.

Lewis certainly understood the power of myth. He’d been fascinated with mythology since his childhood, particularly the Norse myths, and within those, relished the story of Balder the Beautiful, struck down by an errant arrow as a result of the meddlesome Loki. Balder is the Christ figure of the North. Norse mythology was an enthusiasm Lewis shared with J.R.R. Tolkien when the two men met at Oxford in the 1930s. (If nothing else, we may owe The Lord of the Rings trilogy in part to Lewis, who was the first to read early drafts of Tolkien’s imagined world and who encouraged his friend. Tolkien himself later credited Lewis with “an unpayable debt” for convincing him the “stuff” could be more than a “private hobby.”) Along with several other Oxford-based writers and scholars, they began meeting regularly at a local pub called The Eagle and Child, fondly dubbed The Bird and the Baby.

The Oxford Inklings, as they came to be called, were arguably the literary mythmakers of the mid-20th century, at least in England. In addition to Lewis and Tolkien, the group included the lesser-known Charles Williams, who penned fantastical tales in which, for example, the symbolism of the Major Arcana in the traditional tarot deck becomes manifest (The Greater Trumps), while the Earth is invaded not by aliens from outer space, but by the Platonic Ideal Forms (The Place of the Lion). The Platonic Lion featured in the latter may have influenced Lewis’ choice of that animal to represent his Narnia Christ figure, Aslan.

Ironically, it was Lewis’ love of myth that eventually led to his conversion. He was a notoriously prickly atheist for much of his early academic career; in fact, he was as dogmatic about his atheism as he was later about his Christian beliefs, so if nothing else, the man was consistent in his character.  He was also rigorously trained in logic, thanks to an early tutor, W.T. Kirkpatrick. An anecdote related in Humphrey Carpenter’s book, The Inklings, tells of Lewis’ first meeting with Kirkpatrick. Disembarking onto the train platform in Surrey, England, Lewis sought to make small talk by remarking that the countryside was more wild than he’d expected. Kirkpatrick pounced on this innocuous observation and led his new student through a barrage of questions and challenges to his assumptions, concluding, “Do you not see that your remark was meaningless?”

As Carpenter writes, the young Lewis thereby “learned to phrase all remarks as logical propositions, and to defend his opinions by argument.” Among the irrational concepts Lewis rejected was belief in God, or any religion, writing to his Belfast friend Arthur Greeves, “I believe in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies… are merely man’s own invention.” For Lewis, Christianity was merely “one mythology among many.”

Personally, I’m inclined to agree with the young Lewis on that point (although I, too, have an affinity for myths both ancient and modern); it’s a shame he lost that rigorous clarity later on. I disagree with his early rejection of the thrill of imagination; he insisted it must be kept “strictly separate from the rational.” So what changed? That’s not entirely clear. Over a period of several years, Lewis learned to embrace his childhood love of myth and story, particularly the emotional sensation he called “Joy,” which would come to symbolize, for him, the divine, in the form of the Christian god.  Through long discussions with Tolkien and another Oxford colleague, Owen Barfield (ironically, a fellow atheist, albeit one who propounded the story-telling power of myth), he changed his tune. Tolkien in particular played a role, convincing him that the Christ story was the “true” version of the age-old “dying god” motif in mythology — familiar to anyone who has read Joseph Campbell’s compelling The Voyage of the Hero — but unlike, say, the story of Balder, Tolkein maintained that the Christ myth brought with it “a precise location in history and definite historical consequences.” It was myth become fact, yet still “retaining the character of myth,” as Carpenter tells it.

My problem is not with Lewis’ acceptance of the view that Christianity is rooted in the ancient “dying god” mythology; that should be patently obvious to lovers of story and myth. But it takes a certain special kind of arrogance to assume that, out of all the versions of this prevailing myth that have been told throughout the ages, the one of Jesus is the only “true” one. Lewis was too rigorous a logician not to realize this, and correctly concluded the point was logically unprovable. At some point, he chose to ignore his lingering misgivings and make a leap of faith. That is why they call it faith, after all. Lewis knew his Dante; he recognized that cold hard logic (personified in The Divine Comedy by the poet Virgil) could only lead him to Purgatory, not Paradise. But he hadn’t yet found his Beatrice.  He took that leap of faith anyway, which might be why he became so dogmatic about his adopted religion: he knew he was on logically shaky ground, just as his earlier atheistic foundation was shaken by his love for myth and the experience of “Joy.”

However enriching Lewis may have found his faith personally, I (and many others) would argue that his writing suffered for it. He was hardly a slouch in the writing department, but he lacked the subtlety and complexity of his friends Tolkien and Williams. His innate Christian bias seeped into everything he produced. Since he was a medievalist, this was less of a problem for his scholarly criticism, because the great works from that period in literary history are firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. But the didacticism hurt his fiction. Even Tolkien, a fellow believer, found the Narnia chronicles distasteful in their cavalier, overly-literal approach to mythology, announcing, “It simply won’t do, you know!”

Nonetheless, there are bright spots. Lewis’ science fiction trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength) owes as much to the conventions of medieval literature as it does to his Christian faith. And for those able to look beyond the overtly Christian trappings of The Screwtape Letters, they may find a highly intelligent, perceptive, and mercilessly satirical exposition of human frailty. One can also see shades of Milton’s Paradise Lost in Screwtape’s insistence that Hell’s demons fight with an unfair disadvantage: since all creation is “good,” by virtue of emanating from God — a.k.a., “the Enemy” — everything “must be twisted before it is of any use to us.”

One of my favorite passages in these fictional letters from a senior demon to his nephew, a junior tempter, concerned the sin dubbed “gluttony of delicacy,” or the “All I want…” phenomenon. For instance, the target’s mother has an irritating habit of refusing anything offered to her, for a simple piece of toast and weak tea, rationalizing her finicky behavior with the reassurance that her wishes are quite modest, “smaller and less costly than what has been set before her.” In reality, it cleverly disguises “her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others.”

That particular insight — like many of those contained in the book — is just as apt today, with our modern obsession with fad diets. More and more restaurants are tailoring menu items to meet the needs of their customers, whether they’re watching their carbs, cutting down on fat, avoiding meat and dairy, or choosing to subsist entirely on dry toast and weak tea. Starbucks’ entire rationale seems to be affording its customers the ability to order their caffeinated beverage to the most precise specifications. (In that respect, I’m as guilty as the next person. You’ll pry my grande soy chai tea latte from my cold dead fingers before you’ll get me to go back to drinking Folger’s instant coffee or that standard-issue Lipton orange pekoe tea bag. At least offer me the option of selecting a nice darjeeling or Earl Grey blend from Twinings or something. Gluttony of delicacy, indeed.)

But I digress. For all my distaste for Lewis’ Christian didacticism, I forgive all on the merits of just one book: the unjustly ignored novel, Till We Have Faces. It is a mythical retelling of Cupid and Psyche, told from the perspective of the ugly elder sister, Orual, who eventually becomes queen of Lewis’ fictional realm. Despite her role in bringing about her sister’s downfall, Orual is a good queen, and a sympathetic character. But the book ends with a shattering moment of painful self-awareness, when the dying Orual — who has long held a grudge against the gods for their treatment of her — finally has the opportunity come before those gods and read her “complaint,” a book she has been carefully composing over the course of her entire life. It is the mythology she has created of her experience, the story she tells herself, the persona she has created to present to the world. But in the presence of the eternal, she realizes that her once-great work is now “a little, shabby, crumpled” parchment, filled not with her usual elegant handwriting, but with “a vile scribble — each stroke mean and yet savage.” This is her true self, her true voice, stripped of all the delusions and lies she has been hiding behind all those years.

Lewis is unflinching in his depiction of Orual’s metaphorical “unveiling.” And therein lies the novel’s lasting power. Narnia, Schmarnia; those books are highly over-rated. For once, Lewis achieved the essence of myth without lapsing into the cheap  didacticism that characterizes so much of his overtly Christian writing. Why hasn’t someone made the film version of Till We Have Faces? The same over-arching themes are present, but explored in a richer, far less literal (and less overtly Christian) context. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the novel — which Lewis rightly considered his best work — was written in 1955, after he had met and married Joy Davidman. She was his Beatrice, bringing his faith and understanding of mythology (not to mention himself) to a new, deeper level; everything up to that point had been Purgatory, mere pretense, in comparison. Alas, the marriage was short-lived; Joy succumbed to cancer in 1960, and Lewis wrote a wrenching poem in the days before her death, declaring,

… everything you are was making

My heart into a bridge by which I might get back

From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

Joy’s death precipitated a crisis of faith, and while Lewis weathered it and stubbornly clung to belief, I think it is clear from his later writings that he emerged with a deeper kind of faith, something closer to the spirit of mythology than any blind adherence to, or easy acceptance of, conventional religious dogma. He never quite got all the way to true Paradise; he lost his “bridge” midway. But he got farther in his lifetime than many modern believers who might not be quite as willing to ask the hard questions, nor bring the same rigorous, unflinching logic to bear on their faith. (That spotlight is uncomfortably unforgiving, and few of us can wholly withstand the glare.)

There is much to find objectionable in the life and work of C.S. Lewis, if one doesn’t happen to share his religious (or political, or moral) beliefs. But there is also much to praise. Give the man credit for his insights into what seems to be an innate human need to tell stories that make sense of our existence and give it broader meaning. That longing goes beyond the gods of any specific religion, and this is what lifts Till We Have Faces so far above Lewis’ other work and makes it timeless. Like Orual, Lewis’ entire life was spent weaving a “story,” but in the end it was always the same one, worked, and reworked, until he finally managed to hit the truth of the matter and say what he really meant. As Orual concludes in her moment of realization, “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, 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?”

When not taking random walks on 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette waxes whimsical on various aspects of science and culture on her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics.