Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Fairy Tales and the Religious Imagination: Adam Gopnik on C.S. Lewis

I've tried and failed to get into C.S. Lewis's writings on religion. I read Surprised by Joy as a grad student, and a grad student I'm working with now recently gave me The Abolition of Man. While the latter work didn't do much for me at all, I found Surprised by Joy quite readable, if occasionally puzzling. Needless to say, despite my disappointment with Lewis's essays for grown-ups, the name C.S. Lewis still brings up happy memories, from when I devoured the Narnia books as a child -- completely oblivious to the Christian allegory I was supposed to be imbibing.

This other C.S. Lewis has been a mystery to me -- an avowedly Christian writer whose account of his religious beliefs isn't even especially convincing. In Surprised by Joy, one sees a writer whose imaginative life is apparently animated primarily by fairy tales, but who turns to religion as a way to amplify and order the joy his imaginative worlds give him. One finds passages like the following:

I also developed a great taste for all the fiction I could get about the ancient world: Quo Vadis, Darkness and Dawn, The Gladiators, Ben Hur. It might be expected that this arose out of my new concern for my religion, but I think not. Early Christians came into many of these stories, but they were not what I was after. I simply wanted sandals, temples, togas, slaves, emperors, galleys, amphitheaters; the attraction, as I now see, was erotic, and erotic in rather a morbid way. . . . The idea of other planets exercised upon me then a peculiar, heady attraction, which was quite different from any other of my literary interests. Most emphatically it was not the romantic spell of Das Ferne. "Joy" (in my technical sense) never darted from Mars or the Moon. This was something coarser and stronger. The interest, when the fit was upon me, was ravenous, like lust.

Lewis' account of the role of literature in the development of his religious imagination seems confused. For one thing, since the passion for science fiction and fantasy was so intense, why worry about "Joy" altogether? And since his own imagination is so often the story of Surprised by Joy, why not design his own religion based on the fantastic alternate worlds that had already created and populated by him in his own mind? Why the Anglican framework exactly?

Adam Gopnik's long piece on Lewis in this week's New Yorker clears up many questions. The whole piece is worth reading to people interested in Lewis, but perhaps the final two paragraphs are especially intriguing, as Gopnik bridges the gap between a secular reader's passion for fairy tales (or more generally, for the otherworldly) with the religious believer's investment in them (generally as a stimulant to spiritual growth).

Here is Gopnik from the New Yorker:

For poetry and fantasy aren’t stimulants to a deeper spiritual appetite; they are what we have to fill the appetite. The experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual, is . . . an experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light, and ritual. To hope that the conveyance will turn out to bring another message, beyond itself, is the futile hope of the mystic. Fairy stories are not rich because they are true, and they lose none of their light because someone lit the candle. It is here that the atheist and the believer meet, exactly in the realm of made-up magic. Atheists need ghosts and kings and magical uncles and strange coincidences, living fairies and thriving Lilliputians, just as much as the believers do, to register their understanding that a narrow material world, unlit by imagination, is inadequate to our experience, much less to our hopes.

The religious believer finds consolation, and relief, too, in the world of magic exactly because it is at odds with the necessarily straitened and punitive morality of organized worship, even if the believer is, like Lewis, reluctant to admit it. The irrational images—the street lamp in the snow and the silver chair and the speaking horse—are as much an escape for the Christian imagination as for the rationalist, and we sense a deeper joy in Lewis’s prose as it escapes from the demands of Christian belief into the darker realm of magic. As for faith, well, a handful of images is as good as an armful of arguments, as the old apostles always knew.

Clearly Gopnik sees Lewis as a talented fantasist first, and a Christian distantly second. But what I think is helpful about Gopnik's review essay is the way it links the two rather different modes of writing and thinking about the imaginative world. Secular readers (and readers from outside the Christian tradition) can indeed appreciate Narnia (well, most of the series) as an involving fantasy world, completely separate from its allegorical meaning. And their need for such stories is not very different from the need of religious believers to imagine spiritual significance overlaying material reality. While huge gaps remain between the two kinds of readers, someone like Lewis can act, at his best, as a bridge over the epistemological divide.

[Cross-posted to The Valve]


Rani said...

E'rybody is talking about Lewis in anticipation of the Narnia movie. I, too, enjoyed Gopnick's article in the latest NYer because I love fantasy literature.

However, I don't agree that Lewis was a talented fantasist. While I have enjoyed his work as a child (thought not so much as an adult because the religious allegory got in the way of enjoying the story), I think Lewis was somewhat derivative. Like J.K. Rowling, who seems to be closely inspired by Lewis, he mish-mashed medieval, folk, Norse, etc. myth to form his magical world. On the other hand, Tolkein, and most recently Philip Pullman, have created more original worlds.

Anyways, much more to say, but I'll wait for more responses :).

Suvendra Nath Dutta said...

Thanks for pointing out that article. I actually enjoyed reading G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories until I was told I was taking sides. Similarly I used to read C. S. Lewis until I was told after I came to the US that was practically like watching PAX TV.

vk said...

I never liked the Narnia books even as a kid (The Last Battle was especially grating). They were a bit too preachy for me, and the christian symbolism too heavy handed. Speaking of Christian symbolism, there is a lesser known writer whom I hugely enjoyed (I still like his books)-George MacDonald . He was a pretty religious gent like C.S Lewis, but I could respect the religious undertones in his books, something I could not do for C.S Lewis's unsubtle and heavy-handed allegory. I recommend his books.

I still enjoy Father Brown stories. They are pretty awesome. G.K Chesterton is in general an extremely eccentric writer (The Man who was Thursday, anyone?).

Rani said...

Vk, The Last Battle is awful, I think. It's *so* heavy-handed. Neil Gaiman recently wrote a short story called "The Problem of Susan" in response to the book. According to Gaiman: "It’s just one of those moments where you look at a children’s book and there’s a thing that sticks in your head and irritates you. I was amused to see an interview with J.K. Rowling in Time where she started going off about the problem of Susan again. It’s the thing that sort of Philip Pullman hates about the books, though he hates the books and I love them. But that’s the thing he focuses on most of all. So I was trying to write a story that would address that issue, and also the wider issue of how people relate to children’s books and death. It is an intensely problematic story, and I don’t actually know if it’s any good."

Ramndom Musings: A few other great epic fantasy writers: Ursula K. LeGuin and George R.R. Martin (who is making a big name for himself these days).

Timothy S said...

In response to the first comment, C.S Lewis intended Narnia to be a mishmash of all these mythical sources, he liked the effect they created though I suppose it's not for everyone.

meduban said...

Suvendra Nath Dutta said: ... I actually enjoyed reading G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories until I was told ... Similarly, I used to read C. S. Lewis until I was told ...

I can imagine that there is something quite authentic going on in these reponses, if the result of those "tellers" was to awaken in you an awareness that you were 'being had', that there was truly a deception, to which an awakening was a necessary and helpful response. If a message is truly false, then for the scales to fall off of the eyes, for one to stand up and say "And all this time I have been thinking...".

And then to turn away.

But is it possible, instead, that there was something true, and essential, and valid about the pleasure you felt in these readings, and that the artifice was not in the readings and initial pleasure, but rather in attempting to reshape that experience of pleasure at the diktat of those outside of you?

Nothing I am sure of here, but something within me was saddened in reading your account, a feeling that something good and right and pure might have been unnecessarily lost.

With regard,

M-E Duban

Thom Noble said...

In response to the first comment,
when i was a kid i liked to imagine all of the mythology together