Life Transformation: C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia

The following is a paper I wrote in a class on C.S. Lewis.

Life Transformation: C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia

“The gradual reading of one’s own life, seeing the pattern emerge, is a great illumination at our age” (McGrath 122).

C.S. Lewis was a man who throughout his career managed to creatively convey his life philosophy to worldwide audience. Over time, Lewis learnt to successfully communicate through a wide variety of mediums: allegories, apologetics, radio broadcasts, and children’s stories among others. Though he wrote in a spectrum of genres—often times seemingly strange dabblings for a scholar—there remained a common thread running throughout all of his work. While his academic colleagues often labeled him unscholarly and disapproved of him, there always was a “method in his madness”: a multiplicity of stories and truths weaved within his narratives. Like many of the great writers, Lewis had this remarkable ability to weave several sub-narratives through his fictional stories. And like a master weaver, the end product was something of tremendous quality. Perhaps one of the most fundamental of these interwoven truths is something profoundly obvious in Lewis’ own life: once an individual encounters the creator of the universe, their life is inevitably and unalterably transformed.

C.S. Lewis was a master literary architect. He used the materials of personal experience to build his literary worlds and fill them with color, emotions and existential depth (McGrath 264). As is often said, the easiest story to tell is your own story. Undoubtedly, one main reason for Lewis’ prolific writing was the fact that he was simply re-writing much of his own story. What he wrote about was not foreign to him; rather it was a collection of ideas, pictures, tensions, and experiences with which he had himself interacted with over the years.

Commenting on Lewis’ conversion, Bruce L. Edward writes: “[His] spiritual quest [. . .] illumines the origins of Narnia as well as our own response to Aslan and his kingdom” (3). Though Lewis spoke of his own conversion as a complicated matter, “so mixed up with technical philosophy as to be useless to the general [public]” (Barkman 19), we still manage to sketch the rough outlines of his journey and come to understand why he wrote the things he did. Though Lewis would be the first to point out that we should not have to study an author in order to understand what he wrote, in his own case, it remains an interesting endeavor nonetheless (McGrath 189-190). While his stories do make sense on their own, the sub-narratives (his closely held ideas in life), certainly become more prominent when the reader holds Lewis’ biography in one hand and his literary works in the other.[1]

In his early childhood, Lewis was a happy boy in a stable and loving family. Life as he knew it however was drastically changed when his mother, Florence Augusta Hamilton, died of Cancer (McGrath 22). After this point, we see a, “confused and bitter atheist whose mother’s death when he was nine robbed him of joy and serenity.” (Edwards 5). Gone where the happy days of his childhood. This bitterness and confusion would be further entrenched through subsequent estrangement from his father and exposure to the cruelties of war at age nineteen. A tormented and angry soul is clearly seen through his post war poetry collection Spirits in Bondage. For Lewis, if there was a God he felt he must be a cruel and despicable character. If the saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” is true, Lewis may have conceived of a God, but he was far from giving him any praise. “Yet I will not bow down to thee nor love thee” (Lewis, profundis).

While this season of bitterness and torment was an unpleasant one to say the least, its instability served to set the stage for the complete reshaping of Lewis’ inner world. While he would remain an ardent atheist for some time after the war, it is evident that this sobering experience served to form a small crack in his firm and rational foundation he had adopted as a youth and solidified under his tutor Kirkpatrick. The inability for his atheism to provide any moral grounds to support his sense of injustice served only to drive a wedge in his faltering views (Lewis, Mere 9-10). The cognitive dissonance between Lewis’ atheism and his perception of the world would ultimately drive him to a place where he would perhaps be open to embracing a sturdier philosophical framework—if such a thing did exist.

For the Christian reader of Lewis, this longing for joy which so gripped him, is undoubtedly understood to be the work of the Holy Spirit in his life all along. Certainly, his early “pre-Christian” poetry has the marks of such. George Sayer in his biography of Lewis highlights the following in the poem Dungeon Grates:

The beauty is “unsought” and comes in “some casual hour,” (which is a way of saying that it is a “grace,” or gift of God). It enables us to see “all things aright . . . seven times more true than . . . in vulgar hours.” For a moment “we are one with the eternal stream of loveliness.” The experience is momentary, but it is sufficient to alter our lives permanently. It will have taught us that we are “not made of mortal stuff.” It will make it possible for us to bear severe trials and persecutions, “For we have seen the Glory—we have seen” (146-147; ellipses original).

Though Lewis was not in a place to articulate it in these God-spiting poems, he was nonetheless witnessing to the early work of the Holy Spirit his life. Initially, not being able put his finger on the origin of this elusive “Glory,” Lewis would eventually reckon that this was in fact the glory of none other than the God whom he had been cursing.

Through a series of events and interactions with his Oxford associates, Lewis would eventually give in to this inner longing for a sturdier worldview, one that made sense of his longing for the joy of which he had once tasted as a child. Ultimately, he would adopt Christianity as being a much better answer to life’s questions than any other. For Lewis, as reluctant as he was to embrace something he had so fiercely fought against, this was a breath of fresh air in contrast to the suffocating despair of his previously held atheism (Lewis, Mere 228-229). For such an outspoken and prominent atheist, the importance of this event cannot be overstated: this was a cataclysmic shift. Here was a man who went from cursing God, to confessing Him as Lord—all within a very public arena. This was a Damascus road experience as it were.

The echoes of this revelation would continue to be heard throughout much of his future writing. Speaking of his conversion, Lewis stated that it felt as though he was “dragged through the doorway” (McGrath 144). Pulled into a new world perhaps? It is clear that Lewis experienced a drastic transformation first and foremost in his own inner life. He would subsequently spend the remainder of His life pulling as many people through this same door. He would invite people into a new creation: a place where truth is uninhibited by presuppositions and where individuals are exposed to the deepest realities of life.

Of all communicators, the best ones are those who manage to take their listeners by the hand and lead them through the journey they have personally experienced. Those who do this especially well leave their listeners feeling as though it were their own story. This, I suggest is what made C.S. Lewis such a great communicator. He had himself journeyed every step of the path he wrote about. He had felt that insatiable longing for joy that every human being feels deep down inside and had finally found a genuine fulfillment of this desire. What he managed to do so well is meet people where they were at—false preconceptions and all—and lead them through the path. Throughout the journey, he would highlight the flaws in their own foundations while pointing onward to a better, sturdier foundation. Leading them through various gates, identifying and detouring the many pitfalls, ultimately arriving at that final and glorious destination. This journeying theme is evident in such works as Pilgrims Regress and Chronicles of Narnia.

In the case of the Chronicles of Narnia, this experience of being pulled into a new world is a natural one as the readers follow the children into this strange new place filled with new possibilities and philosophical considerations. To the unguarded reader (most individuals who read children’s stories are), biblical truth is easily conveyed through Lewis’ harmless, non-religious language (Williams 18-19). We might suspect that Lewis anticipated objections to such sly tactics: tricking unsuspecting individuals, bypassing their intellectual walls in order to convince them into believing what you believe. Perhaps for this very reason Lewis inserted that same issue into his stories. In the Chronicles of Narnia, readers are thus forced, along with the characters in the stories to ask themselves, “who is it that is really being deceived?”[2] Williams notes that Lewis was, “the writer who so insistently scraped away at uncovering the varieties of self-delusion.” (Williams x)

A vast amount of biblical truths are conveyed within the Chronicles of Narnia. Among these are the concept of the atonement; the existence of a real adversary, an antagonist to all that is good, true and beautiful; the enslavement of individuals under the power of the adversary; and the concept of eternal life. Perhaps the most simple of all and the easiest for anyone (aware of the biblical narrative or not), to understand is that once someone has met Aslan, “business as usual” is no more (Williams 4). A vivid depiction of this reality is well presented in the Silver Chair. An exceedingly thirsty Jill desires to drink of the Narnian stream but fears to do so as Aslan lies within attacking distance. This situation—meant to represent our own decision concerning Christ—leaves Jill with a hard dichotomy to deal with: either she surely dies of thirst due to lack of other options, or she drinks from the stream with unknown and terrifying possibilities.[3]

Like Jesus in this sense, Lewis understood that the best way of explaining these types of spiritual experiences was through the use of fictional story. We might suppose that in this short scene with Jill Pole, Lewis was attempting to “recreate for his reader what it is like to encounter and believe in God.” (Williams 16). As Williams suggests in The Lion’s World, many individuals have never considered the Christian faith as an option. Their “‘default setting’ is a conviction that traditional Christianity has nothing much to be said for it.” (17). Therefore in being led into this world, which does not resemble any religion on planet earth, they can much more easily come to terms with the truths of Christianity, having their “imaginations baptized” to some extent (Lewis, Surprised 178-81). In other words, it is much easier to step into Narnia for the unbeliever than it is to step into a church. In doing so, they may be surprised at the attractive pull they feel towards Narnia and its “supposals,” as Lewis called them, and thus be one step closer to receiving Jesus as Lord (McGrath 278).

While Lewis does amazingly in conveying a piece of what it feels like to encounter the God of the universe, he does so without removing people from the reality that there remains a battle to be fought and tasks accomplished thereafter. There is no such thing as ‘safe’ relationship with Aslan in Narnia (Williams 64). He is after all, as Mr. Beaver would say, “not a tame lion.” This idea flies in direct opposition to a religious mood some Christians unfortunately adopt when it comes to any ethical imperatives to do with this world. As Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm remaining “too cozily at ease in Sion” (23) is perhaps not the most appropriate way to live our Christian lives to the fullest.[4] In the above-mentioned scene from the Silver Chair, this ethical component is depicted as Aslan satiates Jill’s thirst and subsequently gives her a series of tasks to accomplish in lower Narnia. Perhaps in with this book Lewis meant to portray Moses and his encounters with God on the mountain in mind. As Moses walked down from the mountain, he held commands, certain imperatives to be obeyed. Like Moses and the Israelites, Jill found herself completely failing to keep his commands and finding that Aslan had once again made alternate arrangements to save them from their impending death (117).

In C.S. Lewis: A Profile in Faith, we read: “Christian history shows that when men and women meet Jesus, recognize His Nature, and then decide to trust and follow Him, they become strikingly different people.” (Woodruff and Tarants 13) A powerful example of this life change is demonstrated in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In this novel, Eustace Scrubb the snobbish and disagreeable cousin to the Pevensies finds himself, midway through the story, turned into a dragon (82-113). In a brilliant inversion of fate, Eustace’s outer appearance is made hideous while his abrasive character is beautifully transformed into a decent young chap. In a touching scene, Aslan appears in order restore Eustace to his original form. There we see Aslan tearing off Eustace’s ugly skin and making him into his proper image once again. Aslan then throws Eustace into the water—Lewis here symbolically representing the idea of Baptism.[5] Of significance is how the renewed Eustace later describes this event: “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.” (109). Not watering down the gospel, Lewis, through the words of Eustace at once affirms the wonderful gift of being renewed while at the same time not skimming over the fact that often times the Christian life is a painful experience to bear.

In the Magician’s Nephew, another dimension is added to this idea of transformation. It is this concept that if we handle the word of truth correctly, we can help bring transformation to the lives of those around us. In this novel, we read of Digory commanded by Aslan to retrieve an apple from the garden in the Western Wild. While there, Digory faces the White Witch who recommends he eat the apple himself without returning it. After all, she suggests that Aslan’s intentions are not in fact in Digory’s best interest. Following his conscience however, the young boy—a type of Lewis himself—ignores her suggestion and heads back to Narnia. Upon his return, Aslan sends him back home with this apple, that he might be able to heal his sick mother who lay in bed, back in London. His obedience in this case served as a blessing to his mother, making her well once again. The principle of rewarded obedience is thus beautifully highlighted. Lewis here helps the reader understand that Christian actions do in fact have repercussions in one direction or another. In fact, we might assume that this very fact Lewis took to dearly heart. As has been suggested, why would an academic don in a comfortable scholarly position wish to risk humiliation and rejection, spending much of his time writing popular novels if it wasn’t for a divine imperative in his life (Woodruff and Tarrant 21)?

Many individuals say that a true encounter with God cannot in fact be expressed with human words. While this may true for many, Lewis proves that we do have the capacity to convey a small portion of this reality nonetheless. Utilizing the power of an image and the mastery of language, this English scholar managed to express that “simple intensity of feeling about God that [. . .] [being] able to both to register all the range of ambiguous and confused human feeling and still evoke an almost unbearable longing for that fullness of joy.” (Williams ix; ellipses added). As Lewis teaches us, Christianity is much more than mere intellectual consent but is rather a changed way of living. This new way of life is certainly not always comfortable yet it offers us a solution to this thirst we all have of which nothing else in this world can satisfy (Lewis, Mere 118). As Shakespeare wrote, “the course of love never did run smooth” (1.1.134). Rough as the Christian journey may be, we press on, “For we have seen the Glory—we have seen” (Sayer 147).

[1] Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia is a great example of this. While Lewis never did give an account of this planetary influence in The Chronicles of Narnia, a reading of his biography and scholarly interests makes it clear that this kind of insertion is indeed something that would have been intentional on Lewis’ part.

[2] Deception is a prevailing theme in The Chronicles of Narnia. Some notable examples of this include Mr. Tumnus’ library, which includes an ironic book entitled “is man a myth?” (Lion 25-26); The Platonean deception of the children and Puddleglum by the White Witch (Silver 173-182), and the Witch’s enticing of Digory to eat the apple in the Western Wild (Magician’s, 176-177).

[3] c.f. John 4:14; 14:6; Gen. 2:17

[4] c.f. Matt 17:4

[5] c.f. 2 Cor. 5:17

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