Looking along a light-beam

I’ve recently started reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my eldest child and, even though we are bringing up our children in the Christian faith, I’ve taken a deliberate decision to not explain the Christian symbolism to him.

Now, this may simply be a bias on my part. I read the Chronicles myself without any awareness of the hidden meaning(1) and enjoyed them tremendously, an enjoyment that was no way tarnished when I discovered that meaning as a teenager. Also, of course, I’m not a believer myself. But I believe it is in the spirit of what Lewis would have wanted.

Lewis wrote extensively about the different ways we can know of something. In Surprised by Joy he distinguishes between what he terms ‘Contemplation’, essentially the study of a thing, and ‘Enjoyment’, the experience of a thing, a theme he expands further in Meditation in a Toolshed as the difference between looking at a beam of light from the side (‘contemplation’) and looking along the beam (‘enjoyment’). It’s clear that, not least because of his own experience on the journey to conversion, he considered the latter means of obtaining knowledge as being at least as important as the first. In The Discarded Image, his adaptation of a lecture series on the Mediaeval cosmology, worldview and symbolism, he frequently urges the reader to try to put themselves in the Mediaeval person’s mindset, including by lying and looking up at the stars at night, as if one were at the bottom of a deep well looking up to a finite heavenly realm of light, joy and majesty.

As to Narnia itself, Lewis himself was insistent that it was not an allegory, but instead what he termed ‘suppositional’:

If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” This is not allegory at all. So in Perelandra. This also works out a supposition. . . . Allegory and such supposals differ because they mix the real and the unreal in different ways.

Letters of C. S. Lewis, 12/29/58

I believe that in the Chronicles, Lewis was not trying to teach the facts of the gospel (‘contemplation’) but instead to enable children to feel and experience the gospel (‘enjoyment’); the tragedy at Aslan’s death and joy at his resurrection; the despair of Eustace as he realises the extent of his helplessness to end his own depravity; the fear and longing of Jill as she gazes at the stream of life-giving water. More than any other Christian writer I know, Lewis believed that many of the pagan myths revealed something of the Christian God, and that through such myths people could reach towards, even if ultimately not reach, a true faith. He says of himself that he loved Balder (the Norse god) before he learned to love Christ and, in Narnia, he has created his own modern myth.

For while Lewis would of course say that the truths of Christianity are more real than Narnia, they are harder to feel. Even for a young child, the depth 2000 years of immersion in Christianity mean that the biblical messages comes transmitted through a glass, darkly of our endemic cultural lens. Some elements are truly perverted, such as the modern associations of a Samaritan as ‘someone who helps others’ rather than ‘a despised and feared foreigner’. But even the core gospel messages are deadened by familiarity and repetition; unless one makes an effort they are contemplated rather than enjoyed, looked at rather than looked along.

In Narnia, therefore, lies a unique opportunity for a person to look along the gospel message, to experience anew and untarnished, if vicariously, the full emotional impact of the Christian life, both current and historical. There are few writers that can be compared to Lewis in all of of English literature, and none of these have set out to produce what he achieved in the Chronicles. I am not suggesting they should never know (such, in any case, would be hard to achieve). A child raised in a Christian household will learn the historical and biblical message in church, or at home, and at some point they will no doubt see the connections, at which point their ‘enjoyment’ of Narnia can enrich their understanding or experience of faith. But they should have the opportunity to look along the beam before they look at it.

There will no doubt be many people who will take a different view. Of all the disputed areas of child-rearing, this is undoubtedly one of the least important, and it is not my intention to criticise or condemn any who make other choices. This is simply what I am choosing to do.

(1) Or meanings, if one accepts Michael Ward’s theory of the link between the seven volumes and the seven Mediaeval planets.