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A Celebration of Joy: Christian Romanticism in the Chronicles of Narnia, by Mike Bellah
Abstract and Table of Contents
Introduction
Definitions
Myth and Imagination
Children's Stories
The Ideal Reader
Fantasy and Realism
Friendships: Love in Narnia
Quest and Adventure
The Eucatastrophe
Romanticism in the Chronicles
The Failure of Romanticism
The Triumph of Chrisitian Romanticism
The Baptized Imagination
Works Cited
 

CHAPTER XII: THE TRIUMPH OF CHRISTIAN ROMANTICISM

Writing in 1963, the same year Lewis died, Harry Blamires protested the death of the Christian mind. While the modern Christian might subscribe to an ethical code different from his unbelieving neighbor, and while he might engage in "spiritual" activities like prayer and meditation, his thinking has succumbed to secularization:

He accepts religion--its morality, its worship, its spiritual culture; but he rejects the religious view of life, the view which sets all earthly issues within the context of the eternal view which relates all human problems--social, political, cultural--to the doctrinal foundations of the Christian Faith, the view which sees all things here below in terms of God's supremacy and earth's transitoriness, in terms of Heaven and Hell. (4)

According to Blamires, modern Christians have given up the battle for the minds of men. While they may lobby for personal piety in men's private lives, in the public sphere secularization with its emphasis on pragmatism and utilitarianism reigns unchallenged by a specifically Christian alternative.

Blamires believes that this secularization has destroyed the traditionally Christian sacramental view of life and, with it, the primary attractiveness of the Christian faith, especially for the young. Blamires sees youth as fundamentally romantic, longing for beauty and love, and possessed by individual fantasy, passion, limitless yearning, and aspiration. The secular mind has no satisfactory answer to this sense of longing. Behaviorist theories of human activity and Marxist theories of social and political evolution do not answer to the depth of human sehnsucht.

Blamires calls for an articulate Christian romanticism that sees this longing as "only longing after all . . . the dream is only a dream, but . . . fulfillment and satisfaction remain, as ever, an offering to man from beyond the world" (179 emphasis added). Like C. S. Lewis, Blamires sees sehnsucht not as an end in itself, but a pointer, a pointer to the same Ultimate Joy offered by Lewis in the Chronicles:

If the dreams and longings of youth did not lose their edge and their delight, but moved to culmination in a final, though finite, satisfaction, we should have less cause to know our homelessness on earth. Because they lose their intrinsic joy, we know our earthly dreams and longings for what they are, the pointers to fulfillment and reality; not ends in themselves, but significant disturbers of our peace. (179)

Longing, then, cannot be an end in itself, otherwise one comes up empty. The glory fades. Yet the solution is not to ignore or suppress longing. Rather, Blamires would have men honor and nourish it:

Unsatisfied longings must be nourished in us, and the elusive dream of fulfillment dangled before us, or we should never know that we are not here, on earth, in our proper resting place. Utterly divested of this disturbing inheritance, men's hearts would never desire the ultimate peace and joy offered by God. (179-80)

Blamires and Lewis both see Christian Romanticism as an affirmation of man's desires, especially his deepest joys. While avoiding the mistakes of pure romanticism (joy and joy's promptings are never made gods), their view releases man to passionately pursue his deepest desires. Desire itself is baptized with eternal significance, and the Christian faith becomes not life-denying but life-affirming. The vision, which is beautifully portrayed in the Chronicles of Narnia, is at once compelling, positive, holy, and heroic. Or, put another way, Christian Romanticism pronounces human desire as good, a good that is at once spontaneous, attractive, and engaging.

In The Weight of Glory Lewis makes the bold statement that God actually wants for man what man wants for himself. One's deepest desires for happiness and pleasure are not evil but good:

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (4)

John Piper later calls Lewis's view Christian hedonism and affirms its biblical base: "The good news of the Bible is that God is not at all disinclined to satisfy the hearts of those who hope in him. Just the opposite: The very thing that can make us most happy is what God delights in with all his heart and with all his soul" (2). Certainly this is the view of Aslan in the Chronicles. "You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be," he says. Aslan's desires for the children are one and the same with their own deepest hopes and dreams. Narnia spills over with pleasures not haphazardly but by design.

It is a compelling vision. Desires are good, not bad. When corrupted, they are too weak, not too strong. Strong desire does not settle for mud pies. Lewis believes the vision efficacious. It can lead men to the source of ultimate joy.

Lewis sees sehnsucht as an experience common to all. He calls it each person's "inconsolable secret . . . which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence" (The Weight of Glory 6). All men are conscious of "a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy" (8). The Chronicles Of Narnia appeal to this great felt-need. In them Lewis casts a spell, a spell to wake modern people from the siren-like hypnotic strains of secularization and point them to transcendent reality:

Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. (7)

One reason the Chronicles can present such a compelling vision is because it is such a positive one. Not only are desires in Narnia good, but good is itself spontaneous. Lewis says that if one asked twenty modern men what they thought the highest Christian virtue, they would reply with a negative: unselfishness:

But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. (3)

Lewis's point is a good one. The Christian vision (certainly that of Christian Romanticism) is not primarily a life-denying but a life-affirming one. The Gospel is of grace, not law. So while one finds plenty of unselfish chivalry in Narnia, like Reepicheep offering to defend the honor of Queen Lucy, one finds pleasure in the process; Reepicheep considers it a great joy to so do. Good in Narnia is not forced on one with threats from without but springs spontaneously from within one's own heart. King Edmund forgives Eustace because he, too, has been forgiven. Lucy follows Aslan, even when she must do so alone, because he is the love and desire of her heart. One fears Aslan; he is the numinous, but at the same time one's fear is overcome by joy; the numinous is good and personal and longs to fulfill man's deepest desires.

Fear of the numinous and joy are not often found together, neither are holiness and winsomeness; yet both are found side by side in Narnia. In Narnia holiness is attractive. Lewis first discovered holiness in the writings of George MacDonald. This quality, "the bright shadow," as Lewis called it (Surprised by Joy 181), had a profound effect on him: "That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer" (181).

Holiness, as Lewis and MacDonald would understand it, is a biblical quality which describes a lifestyle "set apart" from the norm of human experience. It includes things like honesty, loyalty, justice, kindness, and mercy; and it excludes their opposites. Too often holiness is equated by moderns with religiosity, but the two are not the same. The Pharisees were religious; Jesus was holy. Religiosity is often hypocritical and dull and repels people; holiness is always genuine and robust and is quite winsome.

The holy vision in the Chronicles of Narnia includes the warm hospitality of Mr. and Mrs. Beaver and the indisputable loyalty of Puddleglum the marshwiggle. The brave unicorn Jewel is holy, as is the gentle giant Wimbleweather. Freeing the slaves in the Lone Islands is a holy act, as is the rescue of Prince Rilian from the underworld. Holiness causes the "old" Narnians to obey the rightful King Caspian while prompting them to rebel against the usurper Miraz. Holiness is Eustace asking forgiveness and Edmund granting it.

Holiness in Narnia is all of these and much more. It is eating and drinking, working and resting, laughing and crying, all for the good of others, the glory of Aslan, and, not unimportantly, the pure joy these bring oneself.

Holiness, thus, takes its place alongside grace as part of the compelling vision of the Chronicles of Narnia. Good in Narnia is both spontaneous and attractive. There remains only one ingredient to complete the vision. Lewis's Christian Romanticism in the Narnian tales is heroic. Good is spontaneous, attractive, and engaging.

In Beyond Identity Dick Keyes tells a story of two women talking over their back fence:

One asked the other, "What do you think of Mrs. So-and-so?" After a long pause the second woman responded cautiously, "I think she's a good person." With a look of satisfaction the first woman replied, "That's what I thought you would say. I don't like her either." (21)

Keyes draws his conclusion: "Moral goodness today is often portrayed as something unheroic--unattractive, deadly dull, excruciating" (21). Keyes decries this lack of heroic goodness. Modern man, as a result of secularization and its naturalistic view of man, has lost his sense of the heroic and thus his sense of his own identity, for one always evaluates himself by his own models. If he falls short of the models, he feels ashamed. If he measures up, he feels glory.

But in the modern world secularization has almost eliminated heroes who are heroic for their goodness. They are much more likely heroic because of wealth or ability or, even worse, because they are famous. Yet these models are hard to imitate (how does one imitate fame) and so little glory is shared. Instead, modern men feel mostly shame (they are not famous, wealthy, or athletically gifted). Keyes laments, "How rare are writers like C. S. Lewis whose genius as a writer of fiction lay in his ability to make moral goodness attractive and heroic" (21).

The idea of a good hero on a quest permeates all of the Narnian tales. It is an engaging vision filled with heroes who, because they can be imitated, enable the reader to share in their glory. One can sail with Lord Drinian on the "Dawn Treader" and share in his glory by mirroring the same courage in the face of real life danger. One can feel the mercy of Queen Lucy attending to the wounded at Aslan's How and share in her glory by similarly healing the hurting in this world. Puddleglum is the embodiment of loyalty in a friend, and one can share his glory by similarly sticking with people when others do not.

Lewis's heroes avoid the weaknesses of the heroes of other popular 20th century literary genres. They are not larger than life as with those in melodrama. They are not John Wayne types whose courage is legendary and could, therefore, never be imitated. King Edmund's knees knock when he fights Fenis the Wolf, but he still fights him. Jill, through her own carelessness, misses the first two signs in her quest for the lost prince, but she repents and is successful with the final sign. Edmund and Eustace are transformed, but they still struggle with some of their old personality weaknesses. Their failures do not make them less attractive as heroes. They make them more believable and more likely to be imitated.

In melodrama heroes are often good, but too good. They have no major flaws. One can admire them. One cannot imitate them. No glory is shared.

On the other hand, in the 20th century genre of naturalistic realism, made popular by American authors like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, the very concept of glory dies. Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms has his hero, who has just lost his lover in childbirth, picture men as ants on a log in a burning campfire. Some get out with bodies burnt and flattened, still not knowing where they are going, but most finally fall off into the fire. And God, if there is a God, is indifferent. A camper throws a tin cup of water on the log, but it only steams the ants (327-28). Similarly, in The Sound and the Fury Faulkner puts the following words into the mouth of a cynical father: "No battle is ever won . . . . They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools" (76).

No wonder Peter Schakel calls the genre antiromance (97). In modern novels Tolkien's essential eucatastrophe becomes dyscatastrophe, and the human hope for glory can only be found in some type of existential epiphany. Surely the 20th century with its world wars and weapons of mass destruction has bred such a view. Reality can be ugly.

But Lewis and the Christian romantics offer an alternative. While not denying reality, bad things do happen to good people, they offer a hope of glory--a transcendent God at work in his world, in the present to support and even bring joy to man in tough days, and in the future to effect a great eucatastrophe where ultimate justice and ultimate love meet in ultimate joy.

In Narnia man can be heroic even in a fallen world, even with a fallen nature. Grace makes possible a eucatastrophe, so one can have real hope for the future. Ultimately, Aslan's perfect country awaits all his followers. And, in the present, grace offers forgiveness and transformation so one can imitate and share in the glory of one's models. The deeply felt need one has to like and admire himself, not in the forms of pride and conceit but as humility and self-esteem, can be richly fulfilled.

Lewis's Christian Romanticism presents a compelling vision in the Chronicles. Desire itself is good. One's deepest longings are affirmed and encouraged. Good is not a chore but a joy. Holiness is not boring but attractive. Heroes are neither unreal nor unable to be modeled. Glory can be shared. And, once again, the result is nothing less than joy itself.

To chapter 13

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