PRISONER OF NARNIA
How C. S. Lewis escaped.
by ADAM GOPNIK
Issue of 2005-11-21
The British literary scholar, Christian apologist, and children’s-book author C. S. Lewis is one of two figures — Churchill is the other — whose reputation in Britain is so different from their reputation in America that we might as well be talking about two — or is that four?) different men. A god to the right in America, Churchill is admired in England but hardly beatified — more often thought of as a willful man of sporadic accomplishment who was at last called upon to do the one thing in life that he was capable of doing supremely well. In America, Lewis is a figure who has been incised on stained glass — truly: there’s a stained-glass window with Lewis in it in a church in Monrovia, California — and remains, for the more intellectual and literate reaches of conservative religiosity, a saint revered and revealed, particularly in such books as The Problem of Pain and The Screwtape Letters. In England, he is commonly regarded as a slightly embarrassing polemicist, who made joke-vicar broadcasts on the BBC, but who also happened to write a few very good books about late-medieval poetry and inspire several good students. — A former Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, “couldn’t stand” Lewis, because of his bullying brand of religiosity, though John Paul II was said to be an admirer.)
The British, of course, are capable of being embarrassed by anybody, and that they are embarrassed by Lewis does not prove that he is embarrassing. But the double vision of the man creates something of a transatlantic misunderstanding. If in England he is subject to condescension, his admirers here have made him hostage to a cult. The Narnian — HarperSanFrancisco; $25.95), a new life of Lewis by his disciple Alan Jacobs, is an instance of that sectarian enthusiasm. Lewis is defended, analyzed, protected, but always in the end vindicated, while his detractors are mocked at length: a kind of admiration not so different in its effects from derision. Praise a good writer too single-mindedly for too obviously ideological reasons for too long, and pretty soon you have him all to yourself. The same thing has happened to G. K. Chesterton: the enthusiasts are so busy chortling and snickering as their man throws another right hook at the rationalist that they don’t notice that the rationalist isn’t actually down on the canvas; he and his friends have long since left the building.
In England, the more representative biography of Lewis is the acidic though generally admiring life that A. N. Wilson published some fifteen years ago. It gives Lewis his due without forcing stained-glass spectacles on the reader. — Wilson is quite clear, for instance, about Lewis’s weird and complicated sex life.) While William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, in all its play, movie, and television versions, shows the priggish Lewis finally humanized by sex with an American Jewish matron, it actually reflects the British, rather than the American, view: Lewis as a prig to be saved from priggishness, rather than as a saint who saved others from their sins.
None of this would matter much if it weren’t for Narnia. The seven tales of the English children who cross over, through a wardrobe, into a land where animals speak and lions rule, which Lewis began in the late nineteen-forties, are classics in the only sense that matters — books that are read a full generation after their author is gone. They have become, to be sure, highly controversial classics: the wonderful British fantasist Philip Pullman has excoriated their racism — the ogres are dark-skinned and almond-eyed), their nasty little-Englandness, and their narrow-hearted religiosity. But they are part of the common imagination of childhood, and, with the release of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as the first of a series of film adaptations, they are likely — if the Lord of the Rings trilogy is any indication — to become still more deeply implanted.
The two Lewises — the British bleeding don and the complacent American saint — do a kind of battle in the imagination of those who care as much about Narnia as they do about its author. Is Narnia a place of Christian faith or a place to get away from it? As one reads the enormous literature on Lewis’s life and thought — there are at least five biographies, and now a complete, three-volume set of his letters — the picture that emerges is of a very odd kind of fantasist and a very odd kind of Christian. The hidden truth that his faith was really of a fable-first kind kept his writing forever in tension between his desire to imagine and his responsibility to dogmatize. His works are a record of a restless, intelligent man, pacing a cell of his own invention and staring through the barred windows at the stars beyond. That the door was open all the time, and that he held the key in his pocket, was something he discovered only at the end.
The early, appealing part of Lewis’s life is extremely well told in his own 1955 memoir, Surprised by Joy. He was born in 1898, into a rough and ready but pious Ulster Protestant family in Belfast; his father was dense and eccentric — a man with “more power of confusing an issue or taking up a fact wrongly than any man I have ever met,” his exasperated son wrote much later — and his mother, who died before Lewis turned ten, was warm and loving and simple. The key relation in his life was with his older brother, Warnie, with whom he shared a taste for reading and even a private language and mythology, and to whom he remained close throughout Warnie’s long, unhappy, and, later, alcoholic life.
Above all, the young Lewis, often in company with his brother, read and walked. He was the sort of kid who is moved to tears every day by poems and trees. He loved landscape and twilight, myth and fairy tale, particularly the Irish landscape near their suburban home, and the stories of George MacDonald. Now too easily overlooked in the history of fantasy, MacDonald’s stories — At the Back of the North Wind, The Princess and the Goblin, and, most of all, Phantastes) evoked in Lewis an emotion bigger than mere pleasure — a kind of shining sense of goodness and romance and light. Lewis called this emotion, simply, the “Joy.” With it came the feeling that both the world and the words were trying to tell him something — not just that there is something good out there but that there is something big out there. The young Lewis found this magic in things as different as Beatrix Potter and Longfellow, Paradise Lost and Norse myth. “They taught me longing,” he said, and made him a “votary of the Blue Flower,” after a story by the German poet Novalis, in which a youth dreams of a blue flower and spends his life searching for it. The Christianity he knew in childhood, by contrast, seemed the opposite of magic and joy: dull sermons and dry moral equations to be solved.
This loving and mother-deprived boy was sent to a series of nightmarish English boarding schools, where he was beaten and bullied and traumatized beyond even the normal expectations of English adolescence. Lewis’s own words about the places are practically Leninist. — One headmaster raced down the length of a room with his cane to beat a lower-middle-class boy, enraged by his social pretensions.) Lewis writes about his last school, Malvern, at such length, and with such horror — with far more intensity than he writes even about serving on the Western Front — that it’s clear that the trauma, coming at a time of sexual awakening, was deep and lasting. It seems to have had the usual result: Lewis developed and craved what even his Christian biographer, Jacobs, calls “mildly sadomasochistic fantasies." In letters to a homosexual friend, he named the women he’d like to spank, and for a time signed his private letters “Philomastix” — “whip-lover.”
A bright and sensitive British boy turned by public-school sadism into a warped, morbid, stammering sexual pervert. It sounds like the usual story. What was special about Lewis was that, throughout it all, he kept an inner life. Joy kept him alive — and it is possible that the absence of happiness allowed an access of joy. When he served on the Western Front, in 1917, he got what every soldier wanted — an honest wound honestly come by but bad enough to send him home. Still, he saw the trenches as they really were, and though he chose largely to forget, and tried to deprecate the importance of “the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles,” he admitted, in later years, that he had had nightmares about it for the rest of his life.
Oxford always seemed like joy to escapees from public schools; add the Western Front, and it must have seemed like something close to paradise. After Lewis’s first long residence there, upon his departure from the Army, in 1918, he never left Oxford again, except, at the end, for Cambridge. He took a first in classics, and then made a decision, slightly daring in those days, when teaching English literature seemed as swinging as teaching media studies does now, to become a tutor in English; he soon became a fellow in English at Magdalen College. — He also took up with a much older married woman, with whom he had a long affair that may have had a sadomasochistic tinge.)
Jacobs is a bit touristy about Magdalen’s charms; Wilson is much better, tartly and accurately describing how the system of tutorials, seemingly so seductive — an essay delivered each week by the pupil, and analyzed and critiqued by the tutor — helps turn the tutors, from sheer exhaustion and self-protection, into caricatures of themselves, rather as the girls in a lap-dance club take on exotic names and characters. Lewis, the sensitive and soft-spoken young hiker, took on the part of a bluff, hearty Irishman, all tweed and pipe. It is this Lewis who became an Oxford legend, smoking in darkened rooms and holding “Beer and Beowulf” evenings in his rooms. He held to the narrow anti-modern curriculum then in place at Oxford, and befriended a young philologist named J. R. R. Tolkien, whose views on teaching English were even more severe than Lewis’s: Tolkien thought that literature ended at 1100.
Lewis had a reputation as a tough but inspiring teacher, and, reading his letters, one can see why. His literary judgments are full of discovery; his allegiance to a dry, historical approach in the university didn’t keep him from having bracingly clear critical opinions about modern books, all of them independent and most of them right. He got the greatness of Wodehouse long before it was fashionable to do so, appreciated Trollope over Thackeray, and could admire even writers as seemingly unsympathetic to him as Woolf and Kafka. He was a partisan without being a bigot.
It was through the intervention of the secretive and personally troubled Tolkien, however, that Lewis finally made the turn toward orthodox Christianity. In company with another friend, they took a long, and now famous, walk, on an autumn night in 1931, pacing and arguing from early evening to early morning. Tolkien was a genuinely eccentric character — in college, the inventor of Lothlorien played the part of the humorless pedant — who had been ready to convert Lewis for several years. Lewis was certainly ripe to be converted. The liberal humanism in which he had been raised as a thinker had come to seem far too narrowly Philistine and materialist to account for the intimations of transcendence that came to him on country walks and in pages of poetry. Tolkien, seizing on this vulnerability, said that the obvious-seeming distinction that Lewis made between myth and fact — between intimations of timeless joy and belief in a historically based religion — was a false one. Language, and the consciousness it reflected, was intrinsically magical. One had to become religious to save the magic, not to be saved from it. — It was, ironically, the same spirit in which the children of the nineteen-sixties felt that the liberal humanism in which they had been raised failed to account for the intensities of another kind of trip — and that led them, too, to magic, and to Lewis and Tolkien.) All existence, Tolkien insisted on that night ramble, was intrinsically mythical; the stars were the fires of gods if you chose to see them that way, just as the world was the stories you made up from it. If you were drawn to myth at all, as Lewis was, then you ought to accept the Christian myth just as you accepted the lovely Northern ones. By the end of the walk, Lewis was, or was about to become, a churchgoer.
This was a new turn in the history of religious conversion. Where for millennia the cutting edge of faith had been the difference between pagan myth and Christian revelation, Lewis was drawn in by the likeness of the Christian revelation to pagan myth. Even Victorian conversions came, in the classic Augustinian manner, out of an overwhelming sense of sin. Cardinal Manning agonized over eating too much cake, and was eventually drawn to the Church of Rome to keep himself from doing it again. Lewis didn’t embrace Christianity because he had eaten too much cake; he embraced it because he thought that it would keep the cake coming, that the Anglican Church was God’s own bakery. “The story of Christ is simply a true myth,” he says he discovered that night, “a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”
It seemed like an odd kind of conversion to other people then, and it still does. It is perfectly possible, after all, to have a rich romantic and imaginative view of existence — to believe that the world is not exhausted by our physical descriptions of it, that the stories we make up about the world are an important part of the life of that world — without becoming an Anglican. In fact, it seems much easier to believe in the power of the Romantic numinous if you do not take a controversial incident in Jewish religious history as the pivot point of all existence, and a still more controversial one in British royal history as the pivot point of your daily practice. Converted to faith as the means of joy, however, Lewis never stops to ask very hard why this faith rather than some other. His favorite argument for the truth of Christianity is that either Jesus had to be crazy to say the things he did or what he said must be true, and since he doesn’t sound like someone who is crazy, he must be right. — He liked this argument so much that he repeats it in allegorical form in the Narnia books; either Lucy is lying about Narnia, or mad, or she must have seen what she claimed to see.) Lewis insists that the Anglican creed isn’t one spiritual path among others but the single cosmic truth that extends from the farthest reach of the universe to the house next door. He is never troubled by the funny coincidence that this one staggering cosmic truth also happens to be the established religion of his own tribe, supported by every institution of the state, and reinforced by the university he works in, the “God-fearing and God-sustaining University of Oxford,” as Gladstone called it. But perhaps his leap from myth to Christian faith wasn’t a leap at all, more of a standing hop in place. Many of the elements that make Christianity numinous for Lewis are the pagan mythological elements that it long ago absorbed from its pre-Christian sources. His Christianity is local, English and Irish and Northern. Even Roman Catholicism remained alien to him, a fact that Tolkien much resented.
If believing shut Lewis off from writing well about belief, it did get him to write inspired scholarship, and then inspired fairy tales. The two sides of his mind started working at the same time and together. His first important book, and his best, is “The Allegory of Love,” a study of epic poetry that Lewis began writing soon after his conversion. It is full of enthusiasm for and appreciation of the allegorical epics of Ariosto, Tasso, Spenser, et al. — but it also makes a profound historical argument about the literary imagination. Until the time of Tasso and Ariosto, he points out, writers had two worlds available to them: the actual world of experience and the world of their religion. Only since the Renaissance had writers had a third world, of the marvellous, of free mythological invention, which is serious but in which the author does not really believe or make an article of faith. In Ariosto, Lewis found the beginnings of that “free creation of the marvelous,” slipping in under the guise of allegory:
The probable, the marvelous-taken-as-fact, the marvelous-known-to-fiction — such is the triple equipment of the post-Renaissance poet. Such were the three worlds which Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton were born to. . . . But this triple heritage is a late conquest. Go back to the beginnings of any literature and you will not find it. At the beginning the only marvels are the marvels which are taken for fact. . . . The old gods, when they ceased to be taken as gods, might so easily have been suppressed as devils. . . . Only their allegorical use, prepared by slow developments within paganism itself, saved them, as in a temporary tomb, for the day when they could wake again in the beauty of acknowledged myth and thus provide modern Europe with its “third world” of romantic imagining. . . . The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination. For poetry to spread its wings fully, there must be, besides the believed religion, a marvelous that knows itself as myth.
When we sit down to write a romance, then, we make up elves and ghosts and wraiths and wizards, in whom we don’t believe but in whom we enclose our most urgent feelings, and we demand that the world they inhabit be consistent and serious.
Yet, if these words are a declaration of faith, they are also a document of bad conscience. For, throughout his own imaginative writing, Lewis is always trying to stuff the marvellous back into the allegorical — his conscience as a writer lets him see that the marvellous should be there for its own marvellous sake, just as imaginative myth, but his Christian duty insists that the marvellous must — to use his own giveaway language) be reinfected with belief. He is always trying to inoculate metaphor with allegory, or, at least, drug it, so that it walks around hollow-eyed, saying just what it’s supposed to say.
Marvellous writing in our culture has two homes, children’s literature and science fiction, and in his forties Lewis began to work in both. His first effort, the trilogy that begins with Out of the Silent Planet, is essentially science fiction written against science. What is really out there is not more machines but bigger mysteries. But these books are lacking in vitality, and seem worked out rather than lived in. They are filled with a kind of easy Blimpish polemics — the bad scientists are fat and smelly, or atheists. It was only in the late forties, when he began to write, quickly and almost carelessly, about the magic world of Narnia, that he began to find a deeper vein of feeling.
What is so moving about the Narnia stories is that, though Lewis began with a number of haunted images — a street lamp in the snow, the magic wardrobe itself, the gentle intelligent faun who meets Lucy — he never wrote down to, or even for, children, except to use them as characters, and to make his sentences one shade simpler than usual. He never tries to engineer an entertainment for kids. He writes, instead, as real writers must, a real book for a circle of readers large and small, and the result is a fairy tale that includes, encyclopedically, everything he feels most passionate about: the nature of redemption, the problem of pain, the Passion and the Resurrection, all set in his favored mystical English winter-and-spring landscape. Had he tried for less, the books would not have lasted so long. The trouble was that though he could encompass his obsessions, he could not entirely surrender to his imagination. The emotional power of the book, as every sensitive child has known, diminishes as the religious part intensifies. The most explicitly religious part of his myth is the most strenuously, and the least successfully, allegorized. Aslan the lion, the Christ symbol, who has exasperated generations of freethinking parents and delighted generations of worried Anglicans, is, after all, a very weird symbol for that famous carpenter’s son — not just an un-Christian but in many ways an anti-Christian figure.
When The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — magical title!) opens, four children who have been sent to the countryside discover an enchanted land on the other side of an old wardrobe; this is Narnia, and it has been enslaved by a White Witch, who has turned the country to eternal winter. The talking animals who live in Narnia wait desperately for the return of Aslan, the lion-king, who might restore their freedom. At last, Aslan returns. Beautiful and brave and instantly attractive, he has a deep voice and a commanding presence, obviously kingly. The White Witch conspires to have him killed, and succeeds, in part because of the children’s errors. Miraculously, he returns to life, liberates Narnia, and returns the land to spring.
Yet a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible — a donkey who reëmerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation — now, that would be a Christian allegory. A powerful lion, starting life at the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth.
Tolkien hated the Narnia books, despite Lewis’s avid sponsorship of Tolkien’s own mythology, because he hated to see an imagination constrained by the allegorical impulse. Though Tolkien was certainly a devout Catholic, there is no way in which The Lord of the Rings is a Christian book, much less a Catholic allegory. The Blessed Land across the sea is a retreat for the already immortal, not, except for Frodo, a reward for the afflicted; dead is dead. The pathos of Aragorn and Arwen’s marriage is that, after Aragorn’s death, they will never meet again, in Valinor or elsewhere. It is the modernity of the existential arrangement, in tension with the archaicism of the material culture, that makes Tolkien’s myth haunting. In the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, the effort to key the fantasy to the Biblical themes of the Apocalypse is genuinely creepy, with an Aslan Antichrist. The best of the books are the ones, like The Horse and His Boy, where the allegory is at a minimum and the images just flow.
A startling thing in Lewis’s letters to other believers is how much energy and practical advice is dispensed about how to keep your belief going: they are constantly writing to each other about the state of their beliefs, as chronic sinus sufferers might write to each other about the state of their noses. Keep your belief going, no matter what it takes — the thought not occurring that a belief that needs this much work to believe in isn’t really a belief but a very strong desire to believe. In his extended essay The Problem of Pain, which appeared, propitiously, in 1940, and in his novel The Screwtape Letters, two years later — these are written to a younger devil by an older one — Lewis takes as his presumed opponent a naïve materialist who believes in progress and in the realm of common sense and the factual and verifiable, and who relegates imagination and myth and ritual to a doomy past. Lewis has an easy time showing that progress is dubious, that evil persists, that imagination has a crucial role to play in life, that life without a shared ritual and some kind of sacred myth is hardly worth living. But, trying to explain why God makes good people suffer, Lewis can answer only that God doesn’t, bad people do, and God gave bad people free will to be bad because a world in which people could only be good would be a world peopled by robots. Anyway, God never gives people pain that isn’t good for them in the long run. This kind of apologetic is better at explaining colic than cancer, let alone concentration camps.
An old Oxford tradition claims that Bertrand Russell, on being asked why his concerns had turned so dramatically away from academic philosophy, replied, with great dignity, “Because I discovered fucking.” So did Lewis, only he was older. The story of how Lewis came to be seduced by a married woman named — for fate is a cornier screenwriter than even man is — Joy is so well told in the “Shadowlands” film that one is almost inclined to imagine it overdrawn. But, indeed, the real Joy Davidman, a spirited Jewish matron from Westchester who had been impressed by Lewis’s books, was not delicate and transcendent but foulmouthed, passionate, a little embarrassing. She drove away his more bearishly single-minded Oxford friends, including Tolkien. Fierce and independent-minded — she was played by Debra Winger in the movie but seems more Barbra Streisand in life), Davidman was a Christian convert who never lost her native oomph. After she Yokoishly insinuated herself into Lewis’s life, in the early fifties, she also brought him passion. They “feasted on love,” Lewis wrote. “No cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied.” That’s a lot of crannies for a middle-aged don to be satisfying, but it had a happy effect on his mind and on his prose.
It is tempting to say that Lewis, in the dramatic retellings of this story, becomes hostage to another kind of cult, the American cult of salvation through love and sex and the warmth of parenting. — She had two kids for him to help take care of.) Yet this is exactly what seems to have happened. Lewis, to the dismay of his friends, went from being a private prig and common-room hearty to being a mensch — a C. of E. mensch, but a mensch. When Joy died, of bone cancer, a few years later, he was abject with sadness, and it produced A Grief Portrayed, one of the finest books written about mourning. Lewis, without abandoning his God, begins to treat him as something other than a dispenser of vacuous bromides. “Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think,” he wrote, and his faith becomes less joblike and more Job-like: questioning, unsure — a dangerous quest rather than a querulous dogma. Lewis ended up in a state of uncertain personal faith that seems to the unbeliever comfortingly like doubt.
“Everything began with images,” Lewis wrote, admitting that he saw his faun before he got his message. He came to Bethlehem by way of Narnia, not the other way around. Whatever we think of the allegories it contains, the imaginary world that Lewis created is what matters. We go to the writing of the marvellous, and to children’s books, for stories, certainly, and for the epic possibilities of good and evil in confrontation, not yet so mixed as they are in life. But we go, above all, for imagery: it is the force of imagery that carries us forward. We have a longing for inexplicable sublime imagery, and particularly for inexplicable sublime imagery that involves the collision of the urban and the natural, the city and the sea. The image of the street lamp in the snow in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; the flock of crying white birds and the sleeping Narnian lords at the world’s end in Voyage of the Dawn Treader; the underground abode of the surviving Narnian animals in Prince Caspian, art “Wind in the Willows” badger hole and part French Resistance cellar; even the exiled horse’s description of his lost Northern home in The Horse and His Boy, called Narnia but so clearly a British composite — “Narnia of the heathery mountains and the thymy downs, Narnia of the many rivers, of the plashing glens, the mossy caverns and the deep forests”) — these are why Lewis will be remembered.
For poetry and fantasy aren’t stimulants to a deeper spiritual appetite; they are what we have to fill the appetite. The experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual, is . . . an experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual. To hope that the conveyance will turn out to bring another message, beyond itself, is the futile hope of the mystic. Fairy stories are not rich because they are true, and they lose none of their light because someone lit the candle. It is here that the atheist and the believer meet, exactly in the realm of made-up magic. Atheists need ghosts and kings and magical uncles and strange coincidences, living fairies and thriving Lilliputians, just as much as the believers do, to register their understanding that a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to our experience, much less to our hopes.
The religious believer finds consolation, and relief, too, in the world of magic exactly because it is at odds with the necessarily straitened and punitive morality of organized worship, even if the believer is, like Lewis, reluctant to admit it. The irrational images — the street lamp in the snow and the silver chair and the speaking horse — are as much an escape for the Christian imagination as for the rationalist, and we sense a deeper joy in Lewis’s prose as it escapes from the demands of Christian belief into the darker realm of magic. As for faith, well, a handful of images is as good as an armful of arguments, as the old apostles always knew.