The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Two Wardrobes, Not All That Different

Today is, as well as being Thanksgiving, the 49th anniversary of C.S. Lewis's death. It's a good day to pause for a moment and think about him.

Lewis's greatest work, for me, is his later, less tendentious, Christian writing, and his literary scholarship, in which his lightly-worn learning genuinely illuminates the writing he loves. The Discarded Image and English Literature in the Sixteenth Century genuinely opened the door to a new understanding of Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton for me, and if I had never read another word of Lewis's, I would be profoundly in his debt for that.

But my favorite Lewis--the Lewis of The Great Divorce, of The Screwtape Letters, and of A Grief Observed--changed my life. Even the earlier apologetics, while not as resonant for me, have their moments, and flashes of Lewisian genius. But it's the mature Lewis who speaks most clearly to me.

What of Narnia? The books are a hodge-podge, aren't they? Borrowings and jottings, figures from legend, myth and children's books--moments of cultural imperialism, moments of transcendence. (For a troubled, yet affectionate critique of the works, see Laura Miller). For me, I found the books too late--I was amused, and fitfully grabbed by them, but they were not really my meat. Still, two moments lived with me. The first is Lucy initially pushing her way through the wardrobe into the magical land. The other is Puddleglum's response to the Witch's lie that Aslan and the world of Narnia is only a dream:
"One word, Ma'am," he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."
It's a wonderful affirmation of faith, dafka, and (in A.N. Wilson's telling, marks his ultimate answer to the philosophical inadequacies in his work on Miracles pointed out by Elizabeth Anscombe in their famous 1948 debate. (Victor Reppert, while admitting that CSL wrote no more overtly apologetic works after the debate, denies that it was cause and effect, noting that Lewis rewrote the chapter in Miracles under debate. (Notably, John Dolan points out that Anscombe herself respected Lewis's intellectual honesty in re-writing the chapter.) I think Reppert and Dolan over-read Wilson's point, in part because of the easy gibe Wilson allows himself; Lewis did not give up writing about his faith, and wrote many of his best Christian works after the debate. But he wrote in a different style--less like the police-court solicitor his father was, and more like the poet and critic he was at heart. Lewis himself later wrote that she "obliterated me as an apologist," though not as a Christian writer. The debate with Anscombe helped him, in my opinion, to find his own truest and best voice.

Interestingly, tomorrow is the 49th anniversary of the first episode of Doctor Who. That means that, had he lived another day, CSL might very well have seen An Unearthly Child, in which the famous dimensionally transcendental police box takes its first (recorded) flight. One wonders what he would have made of it?

I think Lewis might have liked the show, to be honest. The pervasive air of mystery, which is not dispelled until the end of the Second Doctor's tenure, the fact that the Doctor has to learn how to be a hero, from the ordinary schoolteacher forcibly traveling with him), and the mythopoetic style of the early years of the program (yes, I think Sandifer has it dead right). All these would have appealed to Lewis enormously, I think. As would the Master watching the Clangers:

But I think Lewis would especially have loved the very beginning, in which a wardrobe different from his own creation in form but not so very different in function takes off:

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