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We are all fallen creatures and all very hard to live with.

–C. S. Lewis Letters to an American Lady

Ouch.  Many times we forget to actually consider how theology actually impacts our lives.  That may be partially blamed on a modern church full of pastors who don’t really know much good theology let alone how to relate what it means to those of us sitting in the pews (or stackable padded chairs, if you prefer), but over all I think it is a problem of humanity in general.  We like to keep things compartmentalized, and we’re often quite good at it.  Lewis is referencing something that happened in Eden itself that has direct, uncomfortable consequences for understanding ourselves and the world around us.

The Bible teaches us that in the Garden of Eden, the first man, Adam, sinned and he took the first woman, Eve, with him.  As a direct result of that humanity has inherited a tendency towards choosing evil–called “the Fall” in theological terms.  Now, this idea has often fallen out of favor even among Christians these days (usually first among those who would prefer not to think it true of themselves), but I would argue that, whether or not you believe in Christianity, its reality is undeniable.  As I tell history classes, if you don’t understand this basic fact about humanity, you won’t be able to comprehend 90% of what has happened in world history.

Lewis’s quote brings this down to a very practical level.  As a fallen creature, I am hard to live with.  I have a tendency in my nature to choose things that can be called “selfish” with charity and “evil” in all honesty.  I would not like to live with myself–and yet I expect others to do so and be happy about it.

This, I think, reminds us of two very important things:  First, I see the need to understand myself and do everything I can, through Christ, to head off the tendencies I know for a fact are there.  I owe that as much to myself as I do others.  Second, when others offend and anger me, I am reminded, “there, but for the grace of God [and often even with it], go I.”  They are, in a very real way, mirrors of myself.  I should grant them as much reasonable leeway as I do myself.

And that should be a sobering thought.

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Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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There is a simmering debate into which every mere Lewisian descends at some point or other during the course of their life:  What is the “best” way to read the Chronicles of Narnia?  Should we read them in the order they were published or in chronological order according to the actual timeline of Narnia?  Lewis himself weighed in on that question in a letter to response to one of his young pen pals:

I think I agree with your order for reading the books [the chronological one] more than with your mother’s [who thought the published order was intentional].  The series was not planned beforehand as she thinks.  When I wrote The Lion I did not know I was going to write any more.  Then I wrote P. Caspian as a sequel and still didn’t think there would be any more, and when I had done The Voyage I felt quite sure it would be the last.  So perhaps it does not matter very much in which order anyone reads them.  I’m not even sure that all the others were written in the same order in which they were published.  I never keep notes on that sort of thing and never remember dates.

Letters to Children

In the end, readers will likely glean something from either approach.  It is far easier to get a real sense of the growth and history of Narnia if we read chronologically, but also, perhaps, a unique insight into Lewis’s own mind and life to read them in the order they were published.

In either case, the journey is more than justified.  “Further up and further in!”

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Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

Another interesting parallel between Spirits in Bondage  and Lewis’s more general biography actually tied into Narnia, particularly The Magician’s Nephew.  It is clear that Lewis did not consider his conversion grounds to discard the vividness of his earlier imagination.  In fact, he mined his own unChristian period for Truth much like he did other non-christian authors.

Consider his description of the “Land of the Lotus” from “XXV. Song of the Pilgrims”:

Land of the Lotus fallen from the sun,
Land of the Lake from whence all rivers run,
Land where the hope of all our dreams is won!

Shall we not somewhere see at close of day
The green walls of that country far away,
And hear the music of her fountains play?

[…]

But we shall wake again in gardens bright
Of green and gold for infinite delight,
Sleeping beneath the solemn mountains white,
While from the flowery copses still unseen
Sing out the crooning birds that ne’er have been
Touched by the hand of winter frore and lean;

This compares very favorably to what Polly, Digory, and Fledge encounter in the quest for the golden apple at the end of The Magician’s Nephew .  There, they find an isolated, magical garden set high on a huge green hill:

All round the top of the hill ran a high wall of green turf.  Inside the wall, trees were growing. Their branches hung out over the wall:  their leaves showed not only green but also blue and silver when the wind stirred them.  When the travelers reached the top they walked nearly all the way round it before they found the gates:  high gates of gold, fast shut, facing due east. […] [Digory] went in very solemnly, looking about him.  Everything was very quiet inside.  Even the fountain which rose near the middle of the garden made only the faintest sound.  The lovely smell was all around him:  it was a happy place but very serious.  (157-58)

Many of the same specific elements are the same–the green walls, the fountains, the colors green and gold, the brilliant rivers (referenced just a few pages earlier in The Magician’s Nephew).  Of course, the expression of the conception is separated by years, and so it isn’t an exact correspondence, but it is close enough to think that, perhaps, they are one and the same.

Perhaps what we’re seeing here is really Lewis’s fleshing out of the toy garden that his brother Warnie had brought into their nursery many years before.  In Surprised by Joy, he described the feeling evoked by that “biscuit tin filled with moss” as similar to “Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden” (16).  That does seem to be what Lewis was attempted to capture in both his poem and his book.  Without more specific context, we’ll probably never know for sure.

You play the hand you’re dealt. I think the game’s worthwhile

–C. S. Lewis (allegedly) 

While this quote is widely attributed to Lewis on-line, I’ve yet to come across an actual reference that points to a place where I can verify that he really said it.*  Still, the advice is worthwhile, though we see it better modeled in what Lewis’s friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, wrote.

It is a simple fact that we all are gifted with varying levels of ability and circumstance.  There is no society–nor will there ever be in this fallen world–where everyone is born into complete and total equality in those terms (their ultimate value as a being is another matter–we are all already equal there).  Compared to some people (like Lewis himself intellectually or Bill Gates financially), I am not “gifted” in any meaningful sense of the term.  Compared to others, I am incredibly “gifted.” That isn’t intended to be humble or arrogant.  It is just a statement of fact.  The people above and below me in this pattern of ability in turn likely relate to others the way I relate to them.

Therefore, learning to take what we have been given by God in particular and life in general and make the most of it is often what separates people who are successes from those who are failures.  Unless I am greatly mistaken, I am not called to redefine generations of belief and literary genres as Lewis and Tolkien have.  I am called to do the most I can with what I have been given, to take it and use it to its uttermost in ways that I myself would not have dreamed possible before I undertook it.

We see this best in Frodo Baggins, of course.  Frodo was “just” a hobbit.  He was not tall or strong; no master of wizardry, warfare, or woodcraft.  He came from a people who had traditionally distinguished themselves for nothing in particular, beyond, perhaps, puttering away the days with pointless chatter about family trees and social relations.  Taking only what he had been given, Frodo brought the One Ring to Mordor, something even the Wise, Great, and Strong could not have done.  He did it himself, as himself.

Another problem comes when we judge ourselves by what someone else did with an entirely different hand of cards.  If I judge my success as an author by that of Lewis or Tolkien, then I am almost 100% guaranteed to come up a failure.  Thankfully, as Christ taught in the parable of the talent (Matt. 25:  14-30), if we are to live by the hand we are dealt, we will be judged by that hand as well.  In that sense, a poor man or woman who lives an honest life in poverty will be judged greater than a dishonest national leader.

I, for one, find that reassuring!

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*If so, it was out of character for him.  Lewis described himself as a terrible gambler in Surprised By Joy, and therefore he probably wouldn’t naturally revert to a card-paying metaphor.  The phrase is actually provably older than Lewis, though, and therefore perhaps he would have simply been repeating it.

Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.

Arthur Rackham Dwarfs

Arthur Rackham's "subliming" of dwarfs.

As I mentioned before, as I passed through Spirits in Bondage, I came across a number of very interesting parallels to points from Lewis’s biography–most of which I’ll share here as we move along.  I thought I might start with a poem that seems to be one of the better ones from the book:  “XXI. The Autumn Morning.”  There, Lewis is describing the magic of a stroll through the countryside in the late fall and the magical creatures one can encounter.  Interestingly, in Surprised by Joy, he references a very personal “encounter” with something similar.

First, the poem.  Pay particular attention to the last three stanzas:

See! the pale autumn dawn
Is faint, upon the lawn
That lies in powdered white
Of hoar-frost dight

And now from tree to tree
The ghostly mist we see
Hung like a silver pall
To hallow all.

It wreathes the burdened air
So strangely everywhere
That I could almost fear
This silence drear

Where no one song-bird sings
And dream that wizard things
Mighty for hate or love
Were close above.

White as the fog and fair
Drifting through the middle air
In magic dances dread
Over my head.

Yet these should know me too
Lover and bondman true,
One that has honoured well
The mystic spell

Of earth’s most solemn hours
Wherein the ancient powers
Of dryad, elf, or faun
Or leprechaun

Oft have their faces shown
To me that walked alone
Seashore or haunted fen
Or mountain glen

Wherefore I will not fear
To walk the woodlands sere
Into this autumn day
Far, far away.

There are two themes worthy of note for our current purposes:  First, the there is the idea of encountering some of the “ancient powers.”  The second is the fact that one need not be afraid of them. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis has the following to say:

Curiously enough it is at this time [while living at Campbell College], not earlier in my childhood, that I chiefly remember delighting in fairy tales.  I fell deeply under the spell of Dwarfs–the old bright-hooded, snowy-bearded dwarfs we had in those days before Arthur Rackham sublimed, or Walt Disney vulgarized, the earthmen.  I visualized them so intensely that I came to the very frontiers of hallucination; once, walking in the garden, I was for a second not quite sure that a little man had not run past me into the shrubbery.  I was faintly alarmed, but not like my night fears.  A fear that guarded the road to Faerie was one I could face.  No one is a coward on all points. (54-55)

It may well be that this chance “meeting” in the garden helped inspire his depiction of the sidhe in “The Autumn Morning.”  Both ideas are there–the basic encounter and the fact that, whatever the creature was, Lewis need not fear it.  I do wish that Jack had given us just a bit more detail in the Surprised by Joy account, though.  For instance, if we had know what time of year he saw the dwarf, we could perhaps make a stronger case. Too bad the dwarf didn’t sit down for a chat–I for one should like to know exactly how representative Trumpkin and Nikabrik were of the real thing!  🙂

Just finished up Spirits in Bondage. In all fairness to Lewis I wanted to jump on-line and say that it was much improved as it progressed–though it may just be that my ability to appreciate it has improved instead. His “God and Satan” poems, which are the weakest, fade out and are replaced by much more engaging ones on faerie and the otherwold. These latter he seems to do more naturally and he succeeds in drawing you in more effectively.

I saw some definite parallels to some points in Lewis’s life and several of his later works. The strongest seem to be references to his friendship with Arthur Greaves and some relatively clear foreshadowing of Narnia. I’ll. Be posting on those over the next few weeks.

Ah! Post fodder! 🙂

My dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books.  As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still.  But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.  You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it.  I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say, but I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather,

C. S. Lewis

From  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

 One of the amazing things about Lewis as a person was the fact that he never “got too old” for fantastic stories.  The tone of his stories changed over time, it is true, and he went through a period where he was “adult” enough to take himself all too seriously.  Ironically, those are the periods of his life where, as a creative writer, he seemed to make the least impact.  How many people, other than serious fans and students of Lewis, have even heard of Spirits in Bondage which Lewis intended to be his dramatic debut as an author of serious poetry?  Instead, we remember best a small book intended as a gift for a child, written with no pretense, at a time when Lewis himself had reached the point he was describing above.

The pressures of life and of ego oftentimes make us forget to see the wonder in the world around us–physically and spiritually.  We feel the weight of our responsibilities all too keenly.  Responsibilities–to God, to family, to country, to community–are good things that remind us of where our priorities should be, but if we are not careful, they can become vampiric, taking up all of our attentions and sucking the life out of us.  Ego does nothing to help that.  It adds a further set of “requirements” to our list, not because we need to meet them but because our self-image demands it.  And so we trudge along, feeling angry, exhausted, and unappreciated, unable to see the beauty and truth literally sitting at our feet, let alone comprehend any of it.

For everyone, the specifics will look different, but the result is almost always the same–we forget to look things as Christ said, with the eyes of a child.  One blessed day, hopefully, with time and true maturity, we awaken to realize all that we have been missing and where our real priorities should be.  On that day we can read fairy tales again.

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Interested in more about writing and reading from a Christian perspective?  Check out While We’re Paused–the official blog of Lantern Hollow Press.