Prisoner of Narnia?

The New Yorker: A Critic at Large
Prisoner of Narnia, how C.S. Lewis Escaped
by Adam Gopnik

If you are a C.S. Lewis fan you need to read this article. I’ll update my analysis of it later. Indeed very interesting in light of our conversations.

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.

What is so moving about the Narnia stories is that, though Lewis began witha 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.

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.

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.

Also in the article was this quote:

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.

2 thoughts on “Prisoner of Narnia?

  1. Wow. How can someone be so wrong on so many points. Is this guy Lewis’ dad? (the one that was so keen at ‘taking up the facts wrongly’)This is ridiculous. There is so much that can be so easily pointed out that demonstrate this fellow to be full of it. I don’t want to steal your thunder, Matt, so I will only ask: has this author never heard of the Lion of Judah?Fool.

  2. There are other versions of the story of him and Joy.http://meme.essortment.com/joydavidman_rqzh.htmI'm not sure which to believe. For what its worth, I didn’t mean that the author of the New Yorker article was a fool for his ad hominem quips (which were really his main argument against Lewis). I say he’s a fool because his ‘study’ of Lewis must have been from a couple of movies, and is certainly not from the books that Lewis wrote.

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