Speech, reason, faith and knowledge in C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia
This is an english translation of an essay which was written for a literature course entitled Believers, doubters and denyers in world literature given at in Sweden in the fall of 1995. The task was to write an analysis of a novel which was not included on the reading list but which was somehow connected to the theme of the course.
During a visit to a church in the United States in 1990 I found some books by the author C. S. Lewis for sale. I was mildly surprised, since - in my eyes - Lewis was an author of fantasy novels for children, something which I did not expect the church to approve of.
It was explained to me that Lewis' stories for children are actually biblical allegories, and this made me even more surprised and somewhat curious. Because I lacked the kind of biblical knowledge which comes with a christian upbringing I had complete ly missed what was perhaps Lewis' foremost purpose with the fantastic books about the land of Narnia. Inspite of that (or perhaps because of that) I had loved the books at the age of five.
A couple of years later I started to reread the stories in english (I had originally read a swedish translation) to see if I still would like them as much. I found it pleasant to once again enter the land of Narnia although much of the fun was ruined by Lewis' moralising tone and by my own adult scepsis.
There is no doubt that there are apparent biblical references in the stories about Narnia. These allegorical elements have already been treated by numerous literature scholars (e.g. Ying Toijer Nilsson in Fantasins underland), and therefo re I shall not waste time and space by elaborating on them. Instead I shall concentrate on the way Lewis connects speech, reason, knowledge and faith into an ideological and religious system.
It seems to me that most investigations into the authorship of C. S. Lewis have a distinct christian angle; they are seldom more than uncritical praise from other christians. I will not assume such an attitude, and so I hope that I might be able to pu t forth a few new viewpoints on the Chronicles of Narnia.
The paperback edition of the Chronicles which I am using was published in 1970 by Collier books, Macmillan Publishing company in New York. There is a separate volume for each of the seven parts.
A short presentation of C. S. Lewis
The information given in this section is taken mainly from C. S. Lewis:Images of His World by Douglas Gilbert and Clyde S. Kilby.
Clive Staples Lewis (1898 - 1963) made himself famous as a christian apologist. Like many other authors that have a distinct christian angle on their literary production he was converted as an adult after having been an atheist in his youth.
Lewis studied english and literature at Oxford, where he later became a lecturer. It was in Oxford that he became acquainted with J.R.R. Tolkien and formed the loosely structured writer's group The Inklings. Later he became proffessor of medival and renaissance literature at Magdalen College, Cambridge.
That Lewis spent the main part of his life and his authorship arguing for and around christian ideas is evident from book titles such as: The Pilgrim's Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism (1933), Christian Behavour: a Further Series of Broadcast Talks (1943), Beyond Personality: The Christian Idea of God (1944), Mere Christianity (1952), etc. One of his most successful books was the correspondence no vel The Screwtape Letters (1942), which describes the devil's view on how to best lure people into becoming sinners.
The Chronicles of Narnia
C. S. Lewis wrote his seven books on the land of Narnia in the beginning of the 1950's. In the first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), four children are taken to the enchanted land of Narnia through a magic wardrobe. In Nar nia there are speaking animals and all kinds of mythological figures such as fauns, dryads and dwarfs.
The naturally good and happy land is controlled by the evil white witch, who has created an eternal winter (without there ever being Christmas). The good animals wait for the mighty lion Aslan (God/Christ) to come and save the land from the witch. Asl an does come, and the children are given important roles as heroes and traitors in the battle against evil.
Later on, the pattern is repeated in several of the books: the children are suddenly and magically transported to Narnia to partake in the battle against evil powers. The last book is accordingly named The Last Battle (1956). In it, Narni a perishes, but all good creatures are allowed into the kingdom of Aslan, which turns out to be very similar to Narnia albeit grander and better and more beautiful; a mixture of sorts between Paradise and a Platonic world of ideas (of which Narnia had onl y been a shadow).
The book which I want to concentrate on is the one where the creation of Narnia is recapitulated, namely The Magician's Nephew (1955). This book is the sixth of the series but the first in the chronology of Narnia. In the book there are se veral elements representative of the whole chronicle, e.g. the description of the evil characters and the connection between knowledge, reason and religious faith.
The plot of The Magician's Nephew
In short, the plot can be described as follows. The two children Polly and Digory are lured by Digory's uncle into trying on the magic rings which he has fabricated. He is too much of a coward to try the rings himself, and he is not quite sure how they work.
The children end up in a forest where there are a number of ponds, which in effect are gateways to other worlds. Because of curiosity and stupidity, Polly and Digory eventually return from a dying world with an evil queen (who will later become the wh ite witch). When they try to bring her back to where she came from they get stuck in complete darkness - a Narnia which has yet to be created. By chance, they also have with them Digory's uncle and a cab driver together with his horse.
While they are standing there in darkness, the lion Aslan starts to sing forth the world. In the end Digory has to make up for bringing evil into the newly created world by fetching an apple from the tree of eternal youth, which is planted as protecti on for the land. Digory is permitted to bring a magic apple back to our world where it cures his mother from the severe illness she has been suffering from.
Good and evil
Throughout the chronicles the children represent the good. There are of course wicked children as well, such that tease and tell lies, but they are not allowed in Narnia. Only those children are admitted who are well mannered or who might so become (e.g. Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), who is a wicked, cowardish and egotistical boy when he arrives to Narnia but who is humble and brave when he leaves).
It is of course rather natural that the heroes in a children's story are children themselves, but in my opinion there is a more important reason: the children are naive and do not doubt the fantastic wonders they get to witness. Adults, on the other h and, are sceptics whose cynical thirst for power and status make them blind to the deepest good which, by Lewis' idea of the world, is God.
This is where Digory's uncle Andrew comes into the picture. He is a representative of the spritually poor adults. After having witnessed the creation of a world he lacks the means to appreciate his experience. All he thinks of are different ways of ex ploiting th new world:
"[...] I have discovered a world where everything is bursting with life and growth. Columbus, now, they talk about Columbus. But what was America to this? [...] I shall be a millionaire. And the climate! I feel twenty years younger alrea dy. I can run it as a health resort. A good sanatorium here might be worth twenty thousand a year. Of course I shall have to let a few people into the secret. The first thing is to get that brute [Aslan] shot."
"You're just like the Witch," said Polly. "All you think of is killing things." (p 111-112)
Thus, Andrew and the witch are evil, and like all evil characters in the chronicles they instinctively dislike Aslan. The witch is so evil that she even dislikes the whole, good world. In this way, Lewis becomes a little too single tracked - even child ren probably have the capacity to appreciate a bit of a more complex view upon good and evil, where there are nuances between the absolutely white and the absolutely black.
However, there are also good adults. The cab driver is one of them. He is a simple, honest man who has the capacity to appreciate the beauty in that which he gets to experience. That is also why he is appointed to be the first King of Narnia.
Human kind in God's scheme
When Aslan through his song has created the world and he chooses a few of them and breathes on them. Through this act they are bestowed with the gift of speech.
This episode is important - in my interpretation, the key to Lewis' view on the role of human kind in the grand scheme of things is found here: "Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be walking trees. Be talking beasts. Be divine wat ers." (p 116) Thus the good world is charactarized by love. The capacities to love, think and speak are given to the animal in one sole instant. The three almost become synonymous. Connected to this is also the notion of something divine ("divin e waters"). And the lion continues:
"Creatures, I give you yourselves," said the strong, happy voice of Aslan. "I give to you forever this land of Narnia. I give you the woods, the fruits, the rivers. I give you the stars and I give you myself. The Dumb Beasts whom I have not chosen are yours also. Treat them gently and cherish them but do not go back to their ways lest you cease to be Talking Beasts. For out of them you were taken and into them you can return. Do not so." (p 118)
The speaking animals of Narnia symbolize the humans of our world; in The Book of Genesis in the Bible God breathes life into Adam and gives him the world to rule over. In the moment of giving, Aslan points out that with the gift comes a responsibility - to treat the dumb animals kindly and not to degenerate to their level. Thus there is a demand for cultural refinement. Lewis seems to define virtue as identical to civilized behaviour.
Faith, reason and the gift of speech
As we have seen, the difference between the chosen ones and the non-chosen lie in the gift of speech. Traditionally, speech is usually connected to the faculty of reason. But since speech is a divine gift it also symbolizes the Wonder with a capital W. No t believing in the divine is the same as not understanding, or even wanting to understand, speech. This is the case with uncle Andrew. He cannot hear the animals speaking to him. In his ears their words sound only like screeches, because he convinces hims elf that speaking animals are impossible: "I must have imagined it. I've been lettin my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?"
And the longer and more beautifully the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. (p 126)
This is also Lewis' "explanation" to why not everybody believes in God. With false reason, humans conclude that that the divine is impossible, and therefore they are blind to it. What we call reason is not reason; true reason is believing in the divine revelation.
Because of his lack of faith, uncle Andrews' terrified screams for help sound like primitive noises in the ears of the animals. Since he is not similar to the children either by looks or behaviour, the animals do not understand that Andrew and the ch ildren are of the same kind.
The animals start speculating around Andrew's nature, and the donkey comes up with a suggestion: "'I tell you what!' said the Donkey brightly, 'perhaps it's an animal that can't talk but thinks it can.'" (p 132) Conclusion: Andrew thinks tha t he can speak (i.e. that he possesses reason) while after all he does not possess that faculty.
Later on in the book, Aslan gets to express more clearly what I have tried to point out in this section. He says about Andrew's inability to understand the speech of the animals: "But I cannot tell that to this old sinner, and I cannot comfort hi m either; he has made himself unable to hear my voice. If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh Adam's sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good" (p 171; my highlight) The purely christian-religious perspective is here made obvious by words such as 'sinner' and 'Adam's sons' (the latter is what male humans are generally called in Narnia).
Connected to the faculties of speech and reason is also knowledge. Lewis seems to propose that all of us carry deep within ourselves a knowledge about the divine while at the same time we are afraid of that knowledge, perhaps because we are small and i nsignificant while God is powerful and awesome.
The lion Aslan is, like Ying Toijer Nilsson points out in Fantasins underland, "severe, righteous and loving [...] by right a wild lion." (p 80; my translation). Mr Beaver explains in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to Lucy that Aslan is dangerous but good (p 76). To look him in the eyes requires an act of will.
Both Clyde S. Kilby (in The Christian world of C S Lewis) och Ying Toijer-Nilsson (in Fantasins underland) point out about C. S. Lewis that he perceived the myth not as a misrepresentation of truth and reality but rather as a means of uncovering a divine and inner truth. Knowledge is buried in the myth. Perhaps that is why Lewis attempts to create a mythical world of his own through the chronicles of Narnia. But he uses, as has already been pointed out, existing christian my ths as fundaments upon which to build allegories and analogies. When it comes to our attitudes towards knowledge he uses the myth on the fall of Adam and Eve.
The apple becomes an important symbol in The Magician's Nephew. Towards the end of the book Digory is sent off to a paradisical garden in the west (c.f. the garden of Eden) to pick an apple from a tree in the middle of the garden. At the gate there are some words of caution saying that one should not pick fruits for oneself, but only for others.
The witch has arrived before Digory and has already eaten from the fruit, since it can give her what she seeks: eternal life. She tempts Digory by telling him to eat of the fruit or at least return with the apple to his own world and give it to his m other instead of keeping his promise and taking the apple to Aslan. But Digory is virtuous and resists the temptation.
When the apple is planted a tree shoots up, and Aslan declares that now Narnia is protected from evil, since the witch cannot stand the smell of this apple tree. The children disagree, the witch seems not to mind the apples, in fact she ate of them h erself. The following dialog takes place:
"[...] there must be some mistake, and she can't really mind the smell of those apples."
"Why do you think that, daughter of Eve?" asked the Lion.
"Well, she ate one."
"Child," he replied, "that is why all the rest are now a horror to her. That is what happens to those that pluck and eat fruit at the wrong time and in the wrong way. The fruit is good, but they loathe it ever after."
I do not think that it is a coincidence that Polly is the one that speaks up in this conversation. The fact that Aslan adresses Polly with the epithet 'daughter of Eve' creates room for an ambiguity.
When Polly says "Well, she ate one" she naturally refers to the witch. But 'she' can at the same time refer to the last woman who was mentioned, i.e. Eve. She ate a fruit at the wrong time and in the wrong way. What she acquired was not, lik e the witch, eternal life, but knowledge. Because she obtained her knowledge in the wrong way she loathes it although it is good.
The message can of course be interpreted in many ways. Thus it might be a recommendation to search without scepsis for knowledge about God, or at least about what is good and what is evil. Knowledge about good and evil was exactly what Adam and Eve ac quired at their fall, but because of the circumstances they came to loathe it ever after.
Lewis seems to think that if we are to become righteous and happy we have to learn to separate good from evil. The knowledge from the fall is essentially good ("The fruit is good but they loathe it ever after"). However, the question is: how do we search for knowledge in the right way? It seems to be something not to be taken, but rather received. Perhaps Lewis means that we should trust wise men of his own caliber? No obvious solution is offered in these stories.
Another interpretation of the message is that it is a defence of Lewis simultaneously being christian and intellectual. Profane knowledge is good if it if it is acquired with the right intentions. What intentions are right is of course judged from a c hristian ethic point of view.
That there is forbidden knowledge even in our modern times is illustrated by the episode when the children fetch the witch from the dying world of Charn (chapter V). The witch has annihilated all life in her own world by pronouncing "the Deplorab le Word" (p 61). The Deplorable Word is of course a magic counterpart to the atom bomb, which must have been a threat that was very much present in people's minds in the early 1950's, just after the start of the cold war. The sort of knowledge which , when used, only can lead to mass destruction is of course evil, and because it is evil it should also be forbidden.
With his chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis har created a world which is very attractive to young children. Most people who read about Narnia want to find their own magic wardrobe to get to the land where animals speak and where one might join the good forces on exciting adventures.
The adult, however, will notice beyond the surface of the story a narrator who is a self assured defender of christianity. And personally I do not find him very convincing.
It is a little too easy to divide the world into black and white like Lewis does and claim that good people are believers and that believers are good people. Lewis seems to imply that the reason that so few people believe in the God which he finds so apparent is that human folly make us blind.
In one of the books a boy has to go through a very painful process to become good. But the most common way to deal with evil characters is to kill them off. Therefore I do not find Lewis very agreeable. There is something of an imperialist and crusador about him.
Likewise, the intellectual contents of the books are worth reflecting over, and as pure fantasy the stories are rather successful.