Essays - Winter 2009

The High Road to Narnia


C. S. Lewis and his friend J. R. R. Tolkien believed that truths are universal and that stories reveal them

Map of Narnia by David Bedell

By George Watson

December 1, 2008


In the beginning was the story. Or so C. S. Lewis would have said, and 40 years after his death it is not too late to say it for him. Oddly enough he is now famous for everything except his critical views. His novels are read; his Narnia stories for children, which began to appear in 1950, were a worldwide sensation; and his theology is known to the sort of people who read theology. Even his life, including his late marriage to an American, has been a play and a film. It all makes a shapely story in itself. In youth he loved romance; then, in his 50s, he lived it. Theorists of narrative seldom mention either him or his friend J. R. R. Tolkien. And yet, though indifferent to fortune, they were not indifferent to fame. “They love me in Houston, Texas,” Tolkien once shouted to a visitor from his garden gate in Oxford, waving a telegram. They might both have been concerned, and with reason, that an age of critical theory left them unnoticed. Plainly they were saying something critics did not want to hear. The high road to Narnia, and to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, was paved with theory, and it was a theory people did not want.

Their disabilities were twofold. It is unhelpful, in a secular age, to be a religious apologist, and in any case their bitter campaign against literary Modernism was radically misconceived. It took no account of T. S. Eliot’s dedicated Anglicanism, not far distant from Lewis’s, or of the deep traditionalism of Eliot’s own sense of the past. Lewis and Eliot were adversaries who might almost have been blood brothers.

Lewis chose to be an enemy. In the 1930s, Modernism was in vogue in Oxford, where he taught, and he thought it sinister and (worse still) alien: “infected with chaos,” as he put it furiously in a letter to Paul Elmer More of Harvard in May 1935, and born of a “Parisian riff-raff of denationalized Irishmen and Americans who have perhaps given Western Europe her death wound.” That comment is touched with hysteria—maladroit as well as silly. Xenophobia is not a card to play among intelligent people, and Tolkien and Lewis condemned themselves to critical impotence by insisting on a God-given morality and the patriotism of the flag-waver.

As a tactic it was disastrous. Some would be tempted to say that as a Belfast man who chose to live in England, Lewis might, no less than James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, qualify as a denationalized Irishman himself. In the years I knew him, however, he seemed ineffably English in dress and accent, as did Tolkien, who was born in South Africa. They had a liking for beer and thick tweeds, and their voices resounded in Oxford pubs with the rich sonorities of the generation of one’s grandparents. Both had been to school in England before entering Oxford, and it plainly did not matter where they were born. Long before Pound and Eliot settled in London, which was just before the First World War, England was in any case cosmopolitan. Bernard Shaw and Henry James had settled in London in 1876, followed by a Polish sea captain called Joseph Conrad, and in spite of where Tolkien and Lewis were born, they seemed the epitome of national life.

Like Pound and Eliot before them, Tolkien and Lewis had something worth saying. Modern fiction, they believed, had lost the plot. Pound and Eliot, who led the Parisian riffraff, did not tell stories, and Joyce and Virginia Woolf seemed to think it the least interesting thing a novelist ever did. Nobody retold ancient and traditional tales. But art is tradition. The Greeks called Memory the mother of the Muses, and Lewis, whose training was classical, believed the Ancients had got it right. Originality is the most overrated of the virtues, and in The Discarded Image (1964), which appeared months after his death, Lewis imagined someone challenging Chaucer and Shakespeare to explain why they so seldom invented stories, and their reply: “Are we reduced to that?” No wonder he was amused in his last years by the complaint that the Narnia stories were unoriginal. They were meant to be.

The poet remembers, like the survivors of Shakespeare’s battle of Agincourt, “with advantages.” To tell a story is to add and subtract, reshape and astonish, confirm and deny. The poet remembers for others: for his tribe, for his people, and for all mankind. Homer remembered the fall of Troy, Virgil the founding of Rome, Shakespeare the Wars of the Roses and what took his fancy in French and Italian storybooks. In that view, mankind is endangered less by ignorance than by willful forgetfulness, and the recovery of tradition is not servile but creative. As Samuel Johnson remarked in The Rambler, “men require more often to be reminded than informed.”

In 1937 Tolkien published The Hobbit; and three years later, in Oxford in November 1940, Lewis gave a talk in Merton College called “On Stories.” France had just fallen, the barbarians were at the gates and inside the citadel, but at least a new generation could be saved. Stories followed, during the war and after it, when Tolkien read to his friends from his vast narrative The Lord of the Rings, which appeared as late as 1955 and 1956. That was often in Lewis’s college room in Magdalen at Oxford. A young John Wain, whom Lewis taught, had been touched by Modernism and tried to persuade those at the meetings to do something else, but without much success. The road to Narnia was a rocky road from the start and strewn with roadblocks. Then in 1950 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe appeared, the first Narnia story to see the light, and its international success was astounding. Now it is a film, which would have amazed Lewis, who was no film buff, though I once heard him remark he had been taken to Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and disliked the figure of Snow White. Perhaps it gave him an idea for the White Witch of Narnia, but I decline to speculate.

His critical case was already prepared. Seven years earlier, in 1943, and at the height of the war against Hitler, Lewis had delivered three lectures collected as The Abolition of Man; they still stand as the most eloquent attack on reductive theorizing ever heard. The book made from the lectures is startling to reread. It speaks so urgently to the present time that it is almost impossible to think that it could be two generations old. Lewis believed that educators are by now so deeply convinced that our values are merely personal that they allow no other view to be heard. But the error, though cosily domesticated, is gross and palpable, and in an elaborate appendix to the lectures called “Illustrations of the Tao,” he showed through accumulated quotation that a sense of Natural Law is common to all the great religions and philosophies of man. Virtue is human as well as tribal and local; it is not, whatever you are told in college, individual or social. Eager, as the author of The Screwtape Letters, not to appear for once as a Christian apologist, he insisted there is only one civilization in recorded history: no morality on earth is independent, and children are de-educated by being told otherwise. Education, it is well to remember, can de-educate.

The first lecture launches out in challenging style. “I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary textbooks,” Lewis begins, citing a book he has just been sent by two schoolteachers he politely declines to name. The book is now known to be The Control of Language (1940) by Alec King and Martin Ketley—two Oxford graduates he was perhaps acquainted with—and it is designed as a handbook for apprentice writers. (Lewis’s copy, with his dismissive marginal comments, is now at Wheaton College in Illinois.) He courteously calls it The Green Book and its authors Gaius and Titius, and he imputes no ill will to them, merely a credulity so unquestioning that it cannot allow for the possibility that any thoughtful being could think anything else.

Lewis opens the attack by invoking the name of the greatest of all English theorists, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Two people, Coleridge tells us, were admiring a waterfall. One called it sublime and the other pretty. Coleridge rejected the second view, but Gaius and Titius will have none of it. “He appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall,” they wrote, but it was no more than “a remark about his own feelings.” But surely, Lewis counters, the reverse is true. To see a waterfall as sublime is to feel humble; to call someone contemptible, you might add, is not to feel contemptible yourself. So Gaius and Titius have fallen at the first hurdle. They begin with a thundering mistake.

There is a wider argument to be offered here. Two fatal objections stand against subjectivism, whether moral or critical. One is that it involves a contradiction; for if all such judgments are merely personal, so is that judgment. “Merely personal” is plainly, among other things, a judgment of value. So the subjectivist is trying to have it both ways, and like a rich socialist he is claiming a silent self-exemption. Inequality is wrong unless it is mine, so give me the money. Morality is merely personal, but my view of the Holocaust or the Gulf War is right and others are wrong. All very convenient; but like convenience food, hardly nourishing.

Subjectivism, which denies knowledge, was an essential aspect of totalitarianism, and Lewis, who had fought on the Western front in 1918, believed by the time he’d reached middle age that he was fighting a second war. “We don’t have rulers but leaders,” he would say contemptuously. He was not alone in seeing that the struggle with Hitler was far more than a dispute about the Polish Corridor. George Orwell, who was five years younger, was to make a similar point in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four, and Lewis later applauded the first of these books, which was to appear in 1945 as the war ended. The dictators, as both men saw, were a new breed. They did not merely forbid you to know: they denied knowledge itself. But to abandon knowledge is to abandon liberty. The Party makes truth; even in your most secret heart you are allowed, brain-washed and servile, to do no more than echo slogans like “Freedom is slavery.” You do not just do what you are told: you think what you are taught. As Orwell put it, in a terrifying close to his fable, “He loved Big Brother.”

The other fatal objection is that subjectivism flies in the face of daily observation. Everyone lives by self-evident truths like Orwell’s “Stones are hard, water is wet.” A mathematician has axioms that he accepts without proof. Why should the moral life not have axioms too? “Murder is wrong” is such a one: you cannot prove it, and it needs no proof. There are factual propositions too, like the wetness of water or “All men are mortal,” which are unproven and universally accepted; and there are infinite numbers of nonpropositional truths like the taste of food and drink, which are incapable of being expressed at all. Language is a highly limited instrument, and everyone knows far more than he can say; an infant knows a lot before he uses words; and to accept that you cannot define or justify is not to concede that you do not know.

Sir Thomas More in an adage tells a story Lewis probably knew and would certainly have liked. Someone drinking from a loving cup at a feast carefully removed flies from the wine before he sipped, then laid them back on the side of the cup. “I do not like flies myself,” he said, “but some of you may.” No doubt Gaius and Titius would have wriggled earnestly to maintain that eating and drinking are nonetheless matters of personal taste. But who can believe it? We do not eat flies because we all know, without even tasting, that they are bad to eat.

Lewis was an angry writer—angry because he believed that the intelligentsia of his age had betrayed civilization. A controversialist to his fingertips, he confronted every adversary head-on. And he was, above all, certain you do not need to justify everything you know. Flies are no good to eat: never mind why. The last book he saw in proof, The Discarded Image, ends with a resounding challenge foreshadowed before the war in The Personal Heresy. Modern man is the victim of a long process of internalization, he had come to believe, whereby truth had been progressively belittled into a mere state of mind:

Century after century, item after item has been transferred from the object’s side of the account to the subject’s. And now . . . the subject himself is discounted as merely subjective; we merely think that we think. Having eaten up everything else, he eats himself up too.

He added that “where we ‘go from that’ is a dark question.” Forty years on, that dark question can be darkly answered. Critics went into reductive theories like literary psychoanalysis, semiotics, multiculturalism, and deconstruction; criticism deconstructed itself. It disavowed all claim to knowledge and willfully proclaimed its own uselessness.

Others were sounding the call. In the year Lewis died, 1963, Jung’s autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, appeared in English. It tells of crossing the Atlantic with Freud before the First World War and hearing him dismiss all spirituality as mere sexual repression. Is all human culture, Jung protested, no more than a “morbid consequence” of such repression? Freud sadly assented. It was “a curse of Fate against which we are powerless to contend.” Such was the facile reductionism against which Lewis fought for 30 years. “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” The task of the modern teacher, as he put it in The Abolition of Man, is altogether new. It is not “to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

So where, as he would say, do we go from that? A sense of knowledge, even certain knowledge, needs to be reborn, and the urgent task is to revive a respect for intuition and the axiomatic. Every creative spirit has intuitions; as Picasso once said, the artist first finds and then seeks. So does the moralist and the critic. You first see that it is so, and only then (if at all) ask how and why. Samuel Johnson spoke of improving opinion into knowledge, but it might be better to say that you start from knowledge before resorting to language at all. Like a speechless infant, the critic does not arrive at judgments but has them. It is like falling in love or finding a friend. “Because it was he, because it was I” was Montaigne’s celebrated remark of a friend he had lost. No justification was needed. It never is, in friendship or in love.

Suppose—to step back a little—you were asked how you know that two and two are four. An accurate reply is merely annoying. I know because I was told. Tempting to add that it has been confirmed by experience, but it is a temptation to resist. That is not how I know. Since no experience could refute it, none can be said to confirm it. A calculation based on any other assumption, such as that two and two are five, is a miscalculation, and that is not a matter of opinion. It is like Wittgenstein’s instance of a blind man asking if you have two hands. Useless to look: if you looked and did not see them you would doubt your eyesight. There is nothing that could persuade you otherwise.

Nor is arithmetic inborn, though aptitude may be. Arithmetic is said to have been discovered some 6,000 years ago, probably in India or the Middle East. If Homo sapiens is about a hundred thousand years old, most generations of humankind have not known that two and two are four. An unnerving thought, but it disposes of the notion that you know it because you are human.

Suppose (to go further) you were to name the school where you learned arithmetic, even the teacher. That is even more annoying. The skeptic does not want names. He wants you to admit you do not know at all. “How do you know Shakespeare was a great poet?” is a similar challenge. The skeptic affects to believe that views need justification—other people’s views. But some matters are known because they are instantly seen to be so. That is how you learned arithmetic, and there are moments when the question “How do you know?” is the merest waste of time and nothing more.

To look toward the writer, in any case, as Lewis insisted, is commonly useless. It is not only a fantasy adventure like Narnia that is about another world. All fiction is that, including realistic fiction. It creates, or seeks to create, its own world—what Sir Philip Sidney called a second nature. To read it because it emerged from one culture rather than another—from one side of the Atlantic or the other, from a woman rather than from a man—is to deny respect for what it is. Multiculturalism does not enhance but devalues, and nothing that matters in itself can be said to count because its author is black or American or gay.

It is readily forgotten, above all, that mankind has aptitudes as a species: for language, for arithmetic, for music, for stories, and for moral and critical issues too. Some, needless to say, are less apt than others. You can have a good ear, or a good head for figures, or a lack of either or of both. T. S. Eliot, when asked at a party what it took to make a critic, replied, “You have to be very intelligent.” A sculptor I knew, when asked what it takes to make a sculptor, used to answer, “Your mother has to have a special kind of baby.” Perhaps that stopped the flow of nonsense, for a time. The tone-deaf do not usually try to be musicians, or the color-blind painters, and it is not amazing if some people make better critics than others. Some people ride bikes better; others throw javelins better. What else would you expect?

George Watson is a Fellow of St. John’s College, Cambridge. He is the editor of the New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature and the author of The Lost Literature of Socialism and Take Back the Past.

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