The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis
By Alan Jacobs
The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy: The Lion, The Witch, and the World View
By Edited by Gregory Bassham & Jerry L. Walls
Open Court Books, 2005
"There is no such thing as perpetual tranquility of mind, while we live here; because life is but motion, and can never be without desire, nor without fear." — Thomas Hobbes
On November 22, 1963, American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Aldous Huxley died of cancer while tripping on LSD, and C.S. Lewis died of natural causes. The latter was the least well known of the three in the secular world, but Clive Staples Lewis, born in 1898, left a legacy as arguably the most important Christian writer of the twentieth century and a man who helped keep Christianity relevant through the twentieth century.
Lewis was many things. In accumulating order, he was a soldier, a published poet (his first collection, Spirits in Bondage, was published when he was only 20), a philosopher, a British professor of Middle Age and Renaissance literature, a Christian convert and apologist, the soul of the Inkling writers group (along with J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams), and a science fiction and fantasy writer. Certainly his was a life worth remembering, and the recent biography The Narnian by Alan Jacobs, offers a portrait of an compelling man.
Jacobs tells of not only of Lewis's writing, but also aspects of his life outside of the covers of his books, such as his rise to fame as a spokesman for Chrisitanity (he even appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1947), one who used many mediums to argue the importance of the grandest legend of the recent millenniums and Western Society. Lewis, who converted to Christianity in midlife, argued that Christ could only be either a liar, a crazy man, or what he said he was: the son of God. He would not settle for Christ being solely a great moral teacher, and he chose to worship him and reexpress his message in many venues, The Chronicles of Narnia being one of the later ones.
In Lewis's words from Mere Christianity:
You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and call Him a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great moral teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.
The Chronicles of Narnia, his magnum opus, was a retreat from both more overt Christian apologetics and also from science fiction, for which he had a run in with Arthur C. Clarke and his astronomer followers (as documented in From Narnia to a Space Odyssey), who argued that space explorers would not be imperialistic. To the end of his days, Lewis worried that we would export our greed and territorial imperative into the cosmos. After this exchange with Clarke (and other run-ins, including one with philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe) Lewis wrote in the introduction to earthbound That Hideous Strength (the final of Lewis's "Space Trilogy," which included Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra) that he could only write about his profession: "I selected my own profession, not, of course, because I think fellows of colleges more likely to be thus corrupted than anyone else, but because my own is the only profession I know well enough to write about."
Lewis never published a book about astronauts or space imperialism again, and Narnia, published during the 1950s, was a new venue, an opportunity to bring the gospel, not necessarily in disguise, to children. He had already justified Christian beliefs to adults as a professor, and an apologist. As Jacobs describes, the tales of Narnia grew out of Lewis's life experiences and beliefs. The stories were not the result of some cold calculation on Lewis's part, but rather a heartfelt expression of his angst over the current state of the world and modern secular education. Lewis also wanted to share the wonder of a god who could supply joy even in the "Shadowlands," the partial world we live in before we can go to Heaven.
Despite Lewis's status as a Christian spokesman and his strong association with children's literature, the portrait in The Narnian is hardly straight-laced. His life contained a range of unorthodox experiences and experiments, including war, friendship with a homosexual, a sexual arrangement with an older woman, a desire for kinky sex, a period of atheism, successful and failed attempts at poetry, and a marriage to poet Joy Davidman Gresham who was a divorcee, Jewish, and a Communist. Their marriage was one of the final straws for friend J.R.R. Tolkien, who was instrumental in C.S. Lewis's conversion to Christianity, but did not always appreciate Lewis's "worldly" decisions. Tolkien, who tried to be a moral anchor for Lewis, also didn't like The Chronicles of Narnia when he heard them first at meetings of the Inklings, and the two became estranged.
Despite the fascination inherent in Lewis's life, Alan Jacobs's book is dense and sometimes dry. However, The Narnian provides context for Lewis's literary output, arguing that he was open to experiencing the magical wonders of existence, some of which are theological, and probably in the past now seemingly fantastical. Lewis believed that God, even if in the dock, was responsible for the joy one experienced in one's life; the other side (Satan and the Devils) was not able to supply those experiences, and one needed to fight to protect the world from them.
Another recent book, The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy: The Lion, The Witch, and the Worldview, helps to put the pieces of Lewis's imagined world together, giving the Narnia texts a new meaning and relevance not readily apparent to the children reading them for the first time. Though somewhat inconsistent due to changes in characters and times and perspective, the Narnia books were not solely about a few children, but rather the lessons of Aslan and the magic of Narnia. I remember the wonder I experienced when I first read about the snowy field and a lamppost in the back of the wardrobe, and when Aslan comes back from the dead. I was also astounded by the creation scene in The Magician's Nephew, and the animals that could talk. Read in the new proposed order of the new single volume, The Chronicles of Narnia might seem more fluid, but they may also lose some of their wonder. Read in the order in which they were written, they are more likely to surprise and delight, but they may be harder to follow.
Narnia was an adventure, and a magical wonderland inhabited by all sorts of magic creatures. Lewis believed that children needed Narnia, a place to foster theological beliefs and gain courage. He thought that secular education produced "Men Without Chests," or cowards, and Narnia, with its many battles and dangerous missions, could remedy the situation. Faith, which was comforting, could also help. It was easier to be a soldier if God was there to help and there was a wonderful afterlife waiting for one. Aslan the Lion was the spokesperson for Lewis's theological world. The Chronicles of Narnia tales are certainly fun reads, with good guys and (usually) bad girls, but Lewis had an axe to grind and truths and values he wanted to express through his storytelling. In the words of fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien, he also sought "the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in the real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments."
Narnia and Philosophy takes Lewis's themes of morality and salvation very seriouesly. Bill Davis, in the included essay "Extreme Makeover: Moral Education and the Encounter with Aslan" writes, "Students without a Narnia-like moral education will be incapable of genuine self-sacrifice for the sake of some higher good." Frodo from The Lord of the Rings embodies this sentiment. Clear as it is, in a way the sentiment might be a recruitment device for Right, and could be used by the military. Davis goes on to write, though, "We all need Narnia (or to realize that Narnia is no mere story); but we need Aslan most of all."
One also finds this argument made more strongly in Angus Menuge's contribution "Why Eustace Almost Deserved His Name: Lewis's Critique of Modern Secularism." Menuge writes, "But just as Eustace's mind was changed by his encounters with Aslan, Lewis suggests that a philosophy that affirms the reality of the transcendent can overcome the problems that beset modern secularism."
The book does not fully deal with Lewis's issues towards women, who are sometimes depicted as evil, in the shape of witches. Lewis's mother died early in his life and Lewis did not marry until late in his life. Karin Fry in "No Longer a Friend of Narnia: Gender in Narnia" concludes "In these respects, the Chronicles are indeed 'unfriendly' to the feminine." What is missing is a human patriarch with that role taken by the magical lion Aslan, who, with the help of others (sometimes young women) battle these wicked witches. Maybe Lewis was also writing about children being brought up without fathers. Aslan does tell the child heroes that he can be found in our world if they look for him in a different guise.
As the philosophers point out, there is much to pay attention to in The Chronicles of Narnia. They succeed in showing the depth of Lewis's work by providing the background to better understand it. They also present philosophical ideas in a fascinating way. Reading twenty such essays in a row is a bit much, but one does not need to read them all or all at once. The entries are usually somewhat short and pithy, sometimes even humorous. One can read them sporadically or by subject. There is much reference to St. Augustine, René Descartes, Aristotle, and other philosophers here. The included essays are usually compelling and insightful, providing a context of ideas to understand Lewis's work, which is fine, but it is unlikely that young readers will want to be a party to these deeper understandings. The Chronicles of Narnia may be more enjoyable without them.
One sometimes does experience the harsh lash of the philosopher's judgments in the essays included: The need to believe or have faith is considered "infantile" by some philosophers; there are characters in Narnia without any virtues; Lewis did not like all the woman characters; and so on. The presentation of philosophical ideas help illuminate The Chronicles of Narnia and their myriad themes.
Lewis, due to the renewed interest in his work, as well as the film The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, has emerged out of the shadows made by Harry Potter to roar again that we are a part of a wondrous existence which we can better understand through personal examination rather than the scientific method. His works, as well as these books, as the philosophers and biographers have learned, may also bring one joy.