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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 V: THE IDEAL READER

Echoing the words of Andrew Lang, Tolkien writes: "He who would enter into the Kingdom of Faerie should have the heart of a little child" ("On Fairy-stories" 64). Lewis agrees. Children or childlike adults are his ideal readers of the Chronicles of Narnia for two reasons: one, they have imagination; and two, they are receptive (Tolkien would say humble and Coleridge would say they willingly suspend disbelief).

"Myth," writes Lewis in The Pilgrim's Regress, "must be grasped with the imagination not the intellect" (13). And what is true for myth in particular is also true for romance in general. By definition romance is a genre of the fantastical, and sooner will a camel go through the eye of a needle than a pure rationalist enter the kingdom of fantasy. Thus, anyone who cannot imagine a frozen land where it is always winter and never spring (and never Christmas) will not enjoy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Those who cannot put aside their naturalism and believe for a moment in the power of enchantment will not experience the suspense of The Silver Chair. Landlovers who cannot imagine the feel, taste, and smell of salt water on their faces will not join the crew of the "Dawn Treader." Peter Schakel succinctly states the most important rule for entering the land of Narnia: "Lewis created in his stories `secondary worlds' which he expected readers to enter imaginatively and to respond to, initially, with their hearts rather than with their heads" (xii).

So Lewis's ideal reader is, first of all, imaginative; secondly, he is receptive. Lewis taught that one must receive a work of literature before one can evaluate it: "Otherwise we have nothing to evaluate. Unfortunately this ideal is progressively less and less realized the longer we live in a literary profession or in literary circles" (An Experiment in Criticism 92). Lewis called for "a preliminary act of good will on the part of readers" where "we . . . empty our minds and lay ourselves open" (16). For "no poem [or romance] will give up its secret to a reader who enters it regarding the poet [author] as a potential deceiver, and determined not to be taken in. We must risk being taken in, if we are to get anything" (94).

Lewis anticipates two objections to his call for reader receptivity. First of all, one might really be taken in. He might read a bad book. Yes, says Lewis, but one "can find a book bad only by reading it as if it might, after all, be very good" (116). And if one is taken in, a good reader will not suffer permanent damage for "the best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good; just as a real and affectionate acquaintance with honest people gives a better protection against rogues than a habitual distrust of everyone" (94).

A second objection to reader receptivity might be the feared loss of individuality. If one gives oneself, mind and heart, to a work of literature, might one lose his or her individuality in the process? Not so, says Lewis: "The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. . . . [He] inhabits a tiny world" (140). But the one who gives himself imaginatively and receptively to literature finds his world wider without losing his individuality: In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself, and am never more myself than when I do. (140)

The Chronicles of Narnia like other great literature will broaden as well as delight the reader, but they will not yield their fruit to just anyone. Pure rationalists and skeptics may turn the pages of the books, but they will not get into Narnia. For Narnia can only be entered by the imagination, and only the humble need apply.

To chapter 6

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