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C.S. Lewis: Stories and Secrets

Monday, 2 December 2013  | Greg Clarke

This paper was given as a talk at the Melbourne City Library (21st November, 2013) to mark the 50th Anniversary of C.S. Lewis’ death in 1963.

C. S. Lewis read fairy stories even though his Oxford professorial colleagues made fun of him for doing so. He read an early draft of his beloved Narnia novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, to J. R. R. Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings), who didn’t care for it. But Lewis was not deterred. He loved and read fairy stories and children’s tales his whole life long. Fascinatingly, he began to write them as a childless bachelor in his 50s. In an essay discussing his writing for children, Lewis adapts a passage from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “When I became a man I put aside childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children”).

Lewis’s storytelling style is built, importantly, on the idea that within stories we will find secrets. It seems appropriate to speak about his love of stories, especially children’s stories, as we mark 50 years since his death. It is his Narnia stories that are at present the main pathway into Lewis’s writing for the general public. But Lewis’s role as public intellectual, Christian apologist and literature professor was well established before he ventured into the role of children’s author. And this is important for understanding the context of his storytelling.

Although Lewis seemed to remain unclear about his own motivation for telling stories, it is clear from his writing that an important aspect of human fulfillment is to find one’s place within a story that is bigger than, and beyond, oneself. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the narrator writes about the character Lucy that, “what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician’s Book”. This concept builds on the Augustinian notion of the need for a restless heart to find rest in its creator; except, for Lewis, the restless character finds rest when aware of the rest of the Story.

Lewis’s storytelling style is built, importantly, on the idea that within stories we will find secrets. Stories are concrete, and must be concrete: they deal with people, places and things. When a story becomes too conceptual it starts to lose its grip on us and becomes something else: a manifesto, or an argument, or a philosophy. But the fact that stories are concrete does not undermine their power to open doors to the transcendent, and to hold the secrets of doing so.

In 2008, Cambridge Lewis scholar Michael Ward published a game-changing book on the Narnia Chronicles. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, claims to have discovered the unifying key to the seven Narnia books, something that has long baffled scholars. These disparate books have been analysed from various religious angles, relating them to the seven deadly sins, the seven churches of the Book of Revelation, the seven sacraments, and other ‘sevens’. Ward claims (spoiler alert!) that each book actually reflects Lewis’s fascination with pre-Copernican cosmology, the cosmology of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (one of Lewis’s great loves) and Dante. Each of the novels takes on the mythical character of one of those planets: Jupiter, for instance, is the jovial planet of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It is jovial because that novel solves the problem of why in Narnia it is “always Winter, but never Christmas”. The victory of Aslan, celebrated by the children rumbling with the great beast, is about as spiritually jovial as one can get!

At the heart of Ward’s argument is the claim that Lewis thought stories contained secret knowledge, and that he left this integrating theme itself a secret for his entire life. Lewis’s 1947 essay, “On Stories” provides evidence that the ‘hidden things’ are core to his understanding of how literature functions. He describes such a quality as an ‘atmosphere’ (telling, if the planets hypothesis is correct). Perhaps an ‘aether’ or ‘spirit’ captures for us what he is getting at: that stories conceal a spirit. In his academic work on Spenser, Lewis wrote that, “all great truths should be veiled”, and this does seem to guide his own creative work.

The ‘secret’ is the term used in the Gospel of Mark and other places in the New Testament to describe the kind of spiritual knowledge imparted by the life, teachings and passion events of Jesus Christ. The ‘mystery’ of religion is made clear through Jesus, writes the Apostle Paul. For Lewis, the story that became the capital ‘S’ Story was that of Jesus Christ, in its broadest biblical context. His conversion to Christianity in his mid-life not only provided spiritual solace for him, but also made sense for him of the literary milieu that had always intrigued him: the world of myth, fantasy and legend.

Lewis’s conversion to belief in the Christian story is by no means to diminish the importance of other stories, other myths and fables and allegories, for Lewis. They were in fact his first love. But he describes a reading experience he had at age 16 as “baptising” his imagination: it was the book Phantastes by George MacDonald. Many readers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe describe a similar experience; and that was my experience, too. After reading that book, a lion, a wardrobe, a lamppost and a piece of Turkish Delight had more potential than ever before, a spiritual and metaphorical, or poetical, potential that remains to this day.

The enabling of meaning in story rests firmly on Lewis’s Christian faith. As Michael Ward states it in Planet Narnia, “The incarnation of the Christ, the enfleshment of the spiritual, is the tap-root of Lewis’s belief in meanings beyond the literal” (p.163). The Christian story, for Lewis, brings to life other stories. It affirms them, as stories, and provides a transcendent dimension for them.

Conversely, Lewis came to the famous conclusion that the Gospel narratives were “myth made fact”; that is, they established a larger story which made sense of other stories, which satisfied the yearnings of myth in a new kind of spiritual history. To the postmodern ear, this can sound colonial, colonizing many texts by one dominating one. But for Lewis, it was liberating, releasing the meaning of those texts in a more cosmic context, and answering seemingly insurmountable questions in story form.

Jesus, the man made God, the sacrifice for sin, the resurrection that conquers death, the merciful friend, the humble superman. These were, for Lewis, the roles that Jesus played, and they were given to the world (beyond the world of those who met Christ face to face) in the form of stories.

Comedian Mikey Robbins once wrote that he enjoyed LWW but felt ‘ripped’ off when he discovered its Christian dimensions. Lewis would not be pleased, because he hoped that his Narnia books would be ‘proto-evangelical’, that is, would demonstrate the conditions by which Christianity makes imaginative sense.

Perhaps it is a sign of the levels of skepticism in society today, and people’s disappointment with religion, that Lewis’s stories not be seen to uncover a precious secret.


From Eternity Newspaper and reproduced online - Friday 22nd November 2013

To read more articles about C. S. Lewis, his life, writings and legacy, visit Bible Society’s C. S. Lewis Portal.

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