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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 III: MYTH AND IMAGINATION

C. S. Lewis carefully chose the form for his romantic vision. He once advised aspiring writers to compose children's stories not simply to please children and give "the public what it wants" but because it "is the best art form for something you have to say: just as a composer might write a Dead March not because there was a public funeral in view but because certain musical ideas that occurred to him went best into that form" (Of Other Worlds 23). Lewis followed his own advice in the Chronicles: " . . . I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say" (37). What Lewis calls fairy tales and children's stories belong to the general genre of romance. For Lewis this form includes things like myth, fantasy, quest, and adventure that call for the reader to engage his or her imagination.

Lewis's own imagination obviously played a key role in the creation of Narnia. He says that all seven of the Narnian books "began with seeing pictures in my head":

At first they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: "Let's try to make a story about it." (42)

Though imagination was important to Lewis, it was not (as is the case with many romantics) sovereign. Imagination did not supersede reason as the organ of truth; rather it preceded reason as a condition for truth:

It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning: meaning which is the antecedent condition of truth and falsehood, whose antithesis is not error but nonsense. I am a rationalist. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition. (Selected Literary Essays 265)

Robert Smith links Lewis's use of imagination to his creation of myth. According to Smith, Lewis viewed myth as "imagination in its most metaphysically significant, aesthetically satisfying and potentially ennobling form" (145). Smith goes on to say that myth is not a "primitive and outdated" form necessary to ancient man but able to be replaced today by scientific explanations. Rather, myth is "the faded, and sometimes not so faded, recollection of supernatural realities" (146). Lewis defined and explained his use of myth quite succinctly, but before considering these explanations, it would be well first to understand his concept of poetic language of which myth is but one example.

Lewis believed that only a small portion of human experience can be communicated in "precise and literal language" (Christian Reflections 138). Even in something as objective as medical science, one can use literal language to explain very little. For instance, one can tell where one hurts (one's foot, for instance) but not how much one hurts (as if an elephant has stepped on it). Lewis asserts, "The very essence of our life as conscious beings, all day and every day, consists of something which cannot be communicated except by hints, similes, metaphors, and the use of emotions (themselves not very important) which are pointers to it" (140).

Thus, for Lewis, myth as an expression of poetic language is a pointer. It is a story which has "a value in itself" (An Experiment in Criticism 40) apart from its embodiment in a literary work. Lewis defines myth by its effect on the reader. In myth a reader may "come nearest to experiencing as a concrete what can otherwise be understood only as an abstraction" (God in the Dock 66). Myth strikes "roots far below the surface of the mind" (An Experiment in Criticism 49). Lewis saw myth making as a great art:

It may be one of the greatest arts: for it produces works which give us (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the words of the greatest poet . . . . It goes beyond the expression of things we have already felt. It arouses in us sensations we have never had before, never anticipated having, as though we had broken out of our normal mode of consciousness and "possessed joys not promised to our birth." It gets under our skin, hits us at a level deeper than our thoughts or even our passions, troubles oldest certainties till all questions are reopened, and in general shocks us more fully awake than we are for most of our lives. (qtd. in Lindskoog 124)

Thus by Lewis's own definition one understands that the great power (and joy) of the Chronicles lies in their mythic qualities, and Lewis himself is an adept practitioner of this "greatest of arts."

Lewis's Christianity again affected his choice of form, for His faith had given him an example of the effective use of myth. Both he and his friend Tolkien extolled the mythic qualities of the biblical Gospels. Writes Tolkien,

The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels--peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: `mythical' in their perfect, self-contained significance; and at the same time powerfully symbolic and allegorical; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe [good ending]. ("On Fairy-stories" 83)

Lewis believed that the heart of Christianity lies in myth which became fact. In God in the Dock he writes, "The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens--at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences" (66). It is important to notice that in becoming fact the Gospel did not lose its power as myth. Thus Christians must embrace it imaginatively as well as intellectually. Writes Lewis, "To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other" (67).

One of the values of myth, be it biblical or fairy tale, is what Tolkien called the recovery of the familiar. Too often one gets so familiar with things, even great ideas and truths, that one treats them as trite. Says Tolkien, "We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them" ("On Fairy-Stories" 74). So Tolkien composed myths to help recover a fresh sense of the familiar.

Lewis seemed to share the same motive in his tales of Narnia. In Of Other Worlds he remembers the imaginative paralysis of his childhood religion: "Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ?" (37). Lewis decided it was his sense of obligation: "One was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm" (37). "But supposing," continues Lewis, "that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could" (37).

What Lewis was able to do in the Chronicles exceeded his own expectations. Not only was he able to steal past the watchful dragons of childhood familiarity, he also found (though he had not intended it so) that he was able to sneak past the watchful dragons of adult skepticism as well. Commenting on one of his science fiction stories in a letter to a friend, he wrote, "any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people's minds under the cover of romance without their knowing it" (qtd. in Duriez 152). One guesses that, with their immense popularity, the Chronicles have proved similarly effective as a Trojan Horse. They have gained entrance, as it were, behind enemy lines. They have brought Christian theology to those who would not normally read it.

Thus Lewis's use of myth has many values: to explain through poetic language that which is incomprehensible in the literal, to recover a sense of the familiar, and to steal past watchful dragons of adult skepticism. Yet his most compelling reason is best expressed in The Pilgrim's Regress. In this allegory of a quest for faith, the pilgrim John is distressed by the explanation given by Wisdom that all of his adventures have been not real but merely myth. Then a voice, sounding very much like the Narnian Lion-King Aslan, addresses the pilgrim:

"Child, if you will, it is mythology. It is but truth, not fact: an image, not the very real. But then it is My mythology. The words of Wisdom are also myth and metaphor: but since they do not know themselves for what they are, in them the hidden myth is master, where it should be servant: and it is but of man's inventing. But this is My inventing, this is the veil under which I have chosen to appear even from the first until now. For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination, that you might see My face and live." (171)

Tolkien had once posited a Christian apologetic for the creation of fantasy and myth: "We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker" ("On Fairy-stories" 72). This particular essay was one of Lewis's favorites, and one wonders whether his highest motive in the Narnian tales was influenced by it. Did Lewis not create a myth which, though not fact, could become "the veil" under which the Master Mythmaker might pass into the imaginations of Lewis's readers? Then, might they not see His face and live? Aslan's words to Edmund and Lucy at the end of The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader" seem to suggest the answer:

"Dearest," said Aslan very gently, "you and your brother will never come back to Narnia."

"Oh, Aslan!" said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

"You are too old, children," said Aslan, "and you must begin to come close to your own world now." "It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"

"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan. "Are--are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.

I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there." (215-16)

To chapter 4

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