Latecomer to Narnia

Small Talk — 2013 National Conference

The Romantic Rationalist: God, Life, and Imagination in the Work of C.S. Lewis

I’m the oldest of 10 children and, in a family that size, there were lots of responsibilities for all of us kids. Anyone standing still with empty hands was a target for the dreaded, “Oh, you’re not doing anything,” followed by something to do. Fortunately for me, homework was a priority, so that became my retreat, not mainly for doing homework, which I finished pretty quickly, but my fat, boring history book was a wonderful cover, literally, for the library book that I was reading. If footsteps came on me unexpectedly, I could slide the book under my chair and the skirt around the bottom of the chair was a good screen for my contraband pleasure.

From the time that I could read, I did read. I can still name for you most of my favorite books during my grade school years: The Little Girl with Seven Names, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Caddie Woodlawn. These are stories I could sit down and enjoy again today. And so, I think they must have been good books because, as Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” But there was no Narnia.

The First Visit to Narnia

I had never heard of C.S. Lewis or Narnia because I believe God saved me from Narnia then. I think that, at that age, I would’ve gulped Narnia down and flown onto the next book to get something new. But then, the day came in 1965 when Narnia’s hour was drawing nigh, and I stood at one side of a door and waved goodbye to my parents and brothers and sisters, and turned and walked through an open portal and disappeared from their sight and was transported, not quite instantly, from the Atlanta airport to O’Hare, my first ever flight.

At college, I entered a world I had never known, a story that I had never lived. All the characters were close to my age, almost all of them. My parents were far away. Once in a while, I heard their distant voices calling into my fantasy world, mediated faintly through an invisible agent whose magic incantation was, “Number please.” But, in my everyday story, I wrote the plot. Yeah, there were class schedules, there were professors, but I chose when, where, how, and whether to obey. I was free.

My problem, though I didn’t realize it, was that I didn’t know who I was in this new story. I didn’t know what role I played. I didn’t know what character I was in this story. I fell, without much thought, and certainly with no effort, into being Peter Pan. I liked this life of fun and friends and freedom and no responsibility. My motto, which I repeated numberless times was, “I don’t want to grow up.” Isn’t that cute?

If it’s a sweltering night and there’s cool water spraying up right there in the center of the campus lawn, why not dance with friends in the fountain until the oldest of the college trustees hobbles up and ends it furiously, saying, “What are you, a bunch of existentialists?”

Francis Schaeffer was on campus for a week during the early days of my freshman year. The main thing I took away from that was that he was the first person I’d ever really in real life seen wearing knickers, and that what everybody else would call pseudo-intellectualism — if you’ve used that word at all — he pronounced swaydo-intellectualism. I had pretty much no idea what he was talking about except that I did pick up that existentialism was probably a bad thing. I didn’t realize until later that, actually, Peter Pan was probably a good poster boy for existentialism.

Oh, by the way, if you want to know one of the big differences between me and my husband, here’s a good place to mention it. I hadn’t met him yet, but I’m pretty sure he really dug Francis Schaeffer. But what I dig is stories. My mind stays with me when I’m hearing a good story or reading a good story. Stories speak to me. I learn a lot from stories, about God, about life, about people, about places, about relationships.

Childlikeness and Childishness

Well, now, Narnia’s hour was upon me. At Wheaton, the sainted name of C.S. Lewis was part of the air. People spoke casually of Narnia as if it’s where they’d had their holidays during the summer. Now, if this were fiction, I would tell you about the earth-shaking moment when I turned the first page of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. But the truth is, I don’t remember actually reading the books. I just know I did, and what I remember is particular moments in the stories and what happened to me and in me afterwards.

Just yesterday, I was talking with one of our eight year old grandsons about the difference between adults acting like children in a good way, childlikeness, or in a stupid way, childishness. He got a kick out of me saying stupid.

For me, the most memorable moment in Lewis is a picture of that difference, and here’s the setting. Aslan has been humiliated and slaughtered. The girls are grief-stricken that that impossible thing could have happened. And then, there shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane, stood Aslan himself. Then, the awesome, mighty Aslan invites them to climb up high onto his back. Now, here’s my quote:

It was such a romp as no one had ever had, except in Narnia. And whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten, Lucy could never make up her mind.

There it is, childlikeness at its best. It was a romp like a child, playing like a child, playing as with a kitten like a child, a lion as playful and soft as a kitten, but at the same time it was a kitten as perilous as a thunderstorm. Of course, he’s not safe but he’s good.

Renewed Imagination

Now, I wasn’t changed overnight, but I began to trade Peter Pan for Lucy. I understood Lucy. It turns out, she was the kind of person I wanted to be with all the best traits of a child — bravery, loyalty, curiosity, truthfulness. But she wasn’t perfect. And so, Lewis’s Lucy made me look at myself through clearer eyes.

In Prince Caspian, she sees Aslan, the other children don’t, and she can’t persuade them to go toward Aslan. Every time I read it, I’m saying, “Lucy, don’t follow them. Go with Aslan.” And yet, I wonder, what would I have done? I know why she went with them. Narnia was one of God’s good tools, turning me from childishness toward the desire to be childlike, the kind of child that can enter the kingdom of heaven.

That led me toward imagination. Imagination is childlike, and Narnia opened my eyes to imagination, not make believe, but imagination.

The Creation of Narnia

My second favorite Lewis scene is Narnia’s creation in The Magician’s Nephew. It’s a long and glorious chapter. Here’s just one small part of it:

A voice had begun to sing. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth itself. It was beyond comparison the most beautiful sound Digory had ever heard. Then two wonders happened at the same time. One was that the voice was suddenly joined by other voices, more voices than you could possibly count. The blackness overhead, all at once, was blazing with stars. The new stars and the new voices began at exactly the same time. You would’ve felt quite certain that it was the stars themselves which were singing and that it was the first voice, the deep one, that had made them appear and made them sing.

Sometime after reading that, I was walking along a Wheaton street one dusky evening and, peering through the twilight into the next block, I saw a regal collie, one of my favorite kinds of dogs. As I came closer, that collie melted back to what it really was, a pile of golden autumn leaves. Ashes to ashes, but in between is life. Leaves to leaves, but in between is a glorious Narnian creature that I had the privilege of seeing. Narnia turned mere fairy tales into imagination. I could see more and hear more.

Tasting Perfection

The last memorable scene in my top three came when I traveled to Perelandra, the planet that hadn’t yet experienced sin. Ransom has landed. He’s by himself. He’s walking through the forest and tasting glorious fruits that shower on him and refresh him, besides the taste. As he let the empty fruit fall from his hand and was about to pluck a second one, it came into his head that he was now neither hungry nor thirsty. He goes on to say:

This doesn’t make sense by human reason. If something tastes good and you want some more, and it’s given you such childlike pleasure and you’re so tired and you’ve so experienced so much, then why wouldn’t you have another? What desire would turn from so much deliciousness?” But for whatever cause, it appeared to him better not to taste it again. Perhaps the experience had been so complete that repetition would be a vulgarity, like asking to hear the same symphony twice in a day.

Now, why is that my number three passage? Why do I remember that one? I don’t know, and maybe that’s why I remember it. It didn’t make sense to me. Why wouldn’t I hear a symphony twice in a day? Maybe it’s the fact that the thought was so foreign to me that I remembered it. Why wouldn’t I take a second helping of a glorious taste? Maybe because I didn’t understand yet what it would be for something to be so perfect. Maybe it’s because I was grasped by this idea of something perfect, and that really is, ultimately, what Lewis has done for me.

Yes, there are good stories. There are allegories. There are representations of Christ. There are representations of me, although he didn’t know me when he wrote. And yet, it’s all pointing me to something much bigger and better, to something perfect.

I don’t mean to say that Narnia was the only means by which childishness turned into childlikeness in my life, but I do mean to say that God uses many means to make his people what he wants them to be, which will be, ultimately, perfect. Narnia was one of the means he used for me to bring me part of the way along the path, mixed in with many other good things.

For me, Lewis’s fiction in particular (like I say, stories) — I’ve read others of his work — is what’s really spoken to me. There, for me, have been pictures, tastes, experiences, and shadows of what is to come. If I named to you my favorite books of Lewis, it would be The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Perelandra, and maybe those are the two. I probably shouldn’t even tell you the ones that I don’t like. Some of them, I think, are kind of weird, and you can figure out from there which ones they are. These were pictures and tastes and shadows of what is to come and warnings and teaching and ideas along the way to help me get there.

Now, that’s a very personal experience of Lewis, and I think it will resonate with some of you and. For others of you, Lewis has been something different. But I do know that in his heart and in his mind was the picture of the future that would be perfect. If the earth, like Perelandra, had been saved from the fall, how might it have been different? We don’t know the “what if”.

Aslan told Aravis that we don’t get to know anybody else’s story. We also don’t get to know the “what if”. But there is a perfect that’s coming and that’s where Lewis is taking us, whether it’s because we need to be saved from childishness or whether we need to be saved from greed over Turkish delight, which I think is horrible stuff anyway. That would never be my temptation. Lewis is taking us toward what is perfect.