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Narnia: Revolution or Restoration?
, 19 Jun. 2013
This review is from: The Lion's World - A journey into the heart of Narnia (Paperback)
The Lion's World is a book in which suggestions for reading C S Lewis's books for children are presented. That is, suggestions how the Narnia stories might be read in terms of their themes and symbolism; illuminated by the character of their author, his interests, his faith, and his purpose in writing them.
Can The Lion's World be summed-up 'while standing on one leg'? There would have been publisher's limitations imposed on the author, and the latter has set himself the task of presenting a personal meditation of Lewis's Narnia stories. The result is a unique book about Narnia.
Nevertheless, Williams' foundation argument as encapsulated in the Conclusion (p139), that Narnia is a call to revolution, is, when set against the Unicorn's description of Narnia (The Last Battle, p110-111), Narnia misread. Emotionally intense - 'exhilarating' - it cannot be substantiated in respect of Narnia in terms of the internal evidence of the stories themselves. In this conclusion the making normal what is abnormal in Narnia unintentionally allows the reader to believe, not in Narnia, but in its parody. If there is any revolution in Narnia it is restorative (Joel 2.25). This holds true both of individuals (Shasta’s recovery of his true name) and society (the thaw after the White Witch). Evil is defined by Williams as 'the ultimate force of reaction'. Yet Aslan is that ultimate force in Narnia. In defining evil this way Williams unwittingly and perversely makes Aslan evil.
Compelling reason for abandoning Narnia as a call to revolution comes from words written at the same time that Lewis was beginning the Ransom Trilogy: "...it is a common feature of the despotisms of Russia, Italy and Germany that they deliberately encourage the continuance of a revolutionary outlook..." - The Nazi Conception of Law, by J Walter Jones (Oxford Pamphlets on World Affairs No 12, 1939, p15).
Lewis has been criticised for Peter Pan-ism in respect of the Narnian children. Yet to want to be perpetually rebellious is to be permanently stuck in adolescence. Rebellion has become an oppressive cliché. Shall we move on from this ‘limited possibility’?
Williams' claim that Aslan/God is inviting us to `a revolution of what we have made of ourselves' is to give ultimate authority to the repudiation of our own cultural inheritance that defines ourselves. Instead of denying ourselves in the manner that Christ commanded, we deny Ourselves. There is the sort of person who, once they become a convert to a new orthodoxy, thinks that they can in no way show their rectitude so well as in scorn for their former creed.
The Lion's World is a reminder that the inspiration for revolutions does not come from the talking carthorses.
Indeed, Edmund Burke criticised middle class intellectuals for treating revolution as a spectator sport, believing that they could proclaim governments illegitimate without anyone getting hurt (and they are still doing it today).
As with St Paul, Williams uses a term from the criminal courts when discussing Lewis' portrayal of the Calormenes (p40), putting Lewis in the dock with the Apostle to the Gentiles. Williams notes the falseness of the permissive theory that underpins Experiment House (itself a symbol of society under experimental politics). Yet he truncates his principle argument that God is the enemy of the order around us by failing to note that Experiment House itself is that order. As such its inmates are liberated by the children descending from the Narnian `heaven', like the host of Revelation.
Williams laments certain Christians who are 'nervous' about Lewis' use of figures from classical myth (e.g. Bacchus). These Christians do not realise that Lewis is using these figures to convey the originally intended "gleams of celestial truth and beauty" and not the "filth and imbecility" (Ransom, Perelandra, p255). But does the former Archbishop, for whom these figures take on a radical environmental message?
Narnia shows that we have eternity to come to the truth about ourselves, declares the former Archbishop. At the end of The Last Battle there's no sense of this. As in Christ's parables, eternity fixes the Narnians in their moral shape forever. St Paul stated that there would be those who would always be learning but never be able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Readers may mistake Williams' declaration to mean that eternity is an unending length of time. Rather, Williams thinks eternity is something that allows us to be plastic enough to become fully human. This isn't Lewis' view. As he puts it into the Ransom stories, there would be humans who would be allowed to sink into a more or less contented condition of sub-humanity forever. Uncle Andrew is one such. The Narnians who enter Aslan's shadow, who remain in the material world, are another example.
What The Lion’s World shows - helpfully - is that in an age that finds all things revolutionary only too attractive (one of St Paul's 'youthful lusts'), care must be taken that this passion is not confused with the claims of the Christian Gospel; or that it causes Narnia to be shaded over into something its author did not intend. Lewis was culturally-conditioned by his own time? (p34). And we are not by ours?
Given the positions of Lewis as a Christian apologist and that of this book's author at the time of writing, the ‘spiritually impoverished' Christian would have benefited from an approach other than one which at times has, in its use of pronouncements such as "the familiar world has to be broken open by the life it contains for joy to be full", something of the school of Hillary Clinton about it.
Williams' reference to the 'polarity' in 'the West and the rest' (p38) indicates that he is unsympathetic to dualism. Lewis declared that he always went as close to dualism as he dared. His near-dualism features significantly in the Narnia stories (e.g Aslan and Tash are 'such opposites'). Williams' lack of sympathy with this causes him to misread parts of Narnia.
Whether parts of The Lion's World are read accurately in terms of Christianity or not, a road must be judged by where it leads. This road leads to the Conclusion (p139), which is a rewriting of Narnia along revolutionary lines and a denaturing of it. Having `a robust new sense of who we might be'? Might not this become merely a stoical self-possession? Or might not the incautious and those without God to guard choose to make those words the true successors of those of the Eden `gospel'? (Genesis 3.5).
The rest is commentary.
To see the true Narnia set everything else aside except the Unicorn's description of Narnia (The Last Battle, p110-111).
This Narnia has two characteristics. The first is that little happens in it that can be put into history books. It is not history. The second characteristic is that every day and week is better than the last; not different, inferior, or less familiar than the last. It is a case of good, better, best.
St Paul said that to live is Christ. He also said that to depart and be with Christ is far better. Better than what? Not the world as a vale of tears, for to live is Christ. What could be better than that? The answer is a greater measure of the same. Both Narnias are Lewis showing us a great Pauline truth. The Narnia-though-the-stable-door is a greater measure of the same. The narrator at the end of The Last Battle says, like St Paul, that this Narnia is where every chapter is better than the last. This is a characteristic utterly unlike revolutions, whose exponents always have to claim that the past is inferior to their `paradise'. The ‘further up and further in’ is St Paul’s ‘more and more’ (1 Thes. 4.1&9).
The Narnia described by the Unicorn is not history. It does not exist in the seven stories. These are Narnian history. The Unicorn's Narnia exists behind and between the seven stories. In That Hideous Strength Lewis has his characters consider the nature of history (p391-392). They muse that it is like the winnowing fan in the Gospel parable. The threshing action of the fan is the events of history. The effect of this is that things become more themselves and unlike others. It is this we see at Aslan's Great Door; a separation of the sheep and the goats, the wheat from the chaff - and the pathos of time exorcised.
Williams sees Narnia's ancient past as Lewis' roughly-sketched equivalent of Tolkien's, but as having no significance other than being back-lighting to the stories.
The Lion's World presents the reader with one central definition as to how Lewis intended people to read his stories. This is: "He (Lewis) is introducing us to a God who, so far from being the guarantor of the order that we see around us, is its deadly enemy" (p50).
In clear contrast with that definition, Lewis presents his own in the Unicorn's description of Narnia as he tells it to Jill in The Last Battle (p110-111). This Narnia is wholly unlike the character of Narnia in the second to sixth stories in the series; which are essentially St Paul's 'formidable seasons' (2 Timothy 3.1) - Narnia "stirred and upset". This means that the Narnia stories from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to The Silver Chair are the EXCEPTIONS to what Narnia is really like. Since they are exceptions certain acts that characterise them cannot be used, as Williams does, as a basis for the argument that Lewis is presenting Aslan as a figure of God who is an enemy of the Unicorn's socially-conservative `order around us'. It is this latter Narnia that is restored by the intervention of the children at the instigation of Aslan, who is its guarantor. As Williams says (conveying the Gospel truth), acts have a character: a tree is known by its fruit.
To think that Narnia is typically like that portrayed in these five books is like seeing a dear friend feverish and thinking that was their healthy state.
The overturning of established order in Beruna is the EXCEPTION rather than the rule in Narnia. Aslan overturns Miraz's order because Miraz, as a usurper, has no legal right to his position. The heart of the Lion's world is indeed that Narnia is law-made (p67). Tash has his lawful prey (The Last Battle, p165). In The Horse and His Boy a king says that the law makes kings and therefore they cannot do as they please (p238-239). Aslan obeys his own rules (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, p178). This implies rule of law. That is, being ruled by law itself.
Yet even Jadis acknowledges this in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in her dispute with Aslan over Edmund, her lawful prey. Jadis appeals to the Emperor's law (p153). Edmund's blood is her property; a lawful possession. As a 'player of power games' she does not 'ignore what is there' any more than Shift does when he uses truth as an instrument of power.
An `ordered state of sin' (p52) does not imply that every ordered state is sinful. An ordered state of sin is a society in which sin has been civilised, not conquered.
In the Conclusion Williams sums up his thoughts on what Lewis is telling us about God and what He calls us to do. What his conclusion is can be seen by doing the following:
Take a yellow highlighter and highlight the following words in the Conclusion in The Lion's World, pages 139 onwards:
"We are offered the romance of being rebels...expressed in terms of rebellion...overturning self-contained order...wildness...a revolution of what we have made...evil is cast as the ultimate force of reaction...join the resistance movement...victims of oppression...active rebels...joining the rebel troops...we need to confront...we are rebelling...invited to a revolution...sustain our rebellion...a robust new sense of who we might be...finally liberated from the occupation...we are at last radically opened up...vision of a new world...transfiguring of the material order...".
Can these words be applied to the Narnia described by the Unicorn? Some might see these words in historical terms, as follows:
Gwendoline joins in the celebrations in the streets of Beruna, a sans-culotte, with the other Narnian citizens, singing the (yellow-highlighted) lyrics of the Narnian Marseillaise (Prince Caspian, p215-216). Or, as it should be renamed: The Narnian Revolution. Narnians have been compelled to be free. Williams sees judgement taking place in silence. Lewis sees judgement taking place in conversation. Edmund, Eustace, Jill and Emeth are obvious cases, but Lewis also illustrates this at Beruna.
At Beruna Gwendoline exclaims, "There's a LION!"
A conversation follows. However, Gwendoline's school friends do not see the lion. They are paying attention to the school syllabus of Miraz the usurper. Gwendoline was chastised (persecuted) by her teacher for seeing the lion: she was reading the story 'wrongly'. Unlike Gwendoline, Miss Prizzle and the man beating the boy with the wooden stick suffer a liberation that reflects their blindness of heart. The man becomes the material he is abusing but in a way that give him in the softness and gentleness of flowers the quality he should have had when a man. Miss Prizzle, who propagated Miraz's Aslan-denying lies, is freed to run away from the instrument of Miraz's power that imprisoned her, her desk.
Gwendoline, Miss Prizzle and the others are ALL freed from what Williams calls 'limited possibilities'. Aslan is an ALL-corrective presence. However, the way they receive that release determines its effect on them. (In That Hideous Strength, Frost, at the point of death, rejects forgiveness. This is Lewis's visualisation of blasphemy against the Spirit (See Handley Moule, Veni Creator, p19-23)).
Williams sees in Narnia God inviting us to a revolution. Consider the subversive characteristics in Lewis' novel That Hideous Strength AND WITH WHOM THEY ARE ASSOCIATED: the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments representing the experimental politics of the 1930s; the NICE's suspending of the (secular) laws of England; government by experts (with the NICE's pragmatometer as a symbol of the concept of Gleichschaltung); the monolithic institution that becomes, undemocratically, the government (proven by its creating currency (p163)); the taking away of everything that makes life worthwhile except from an intellectually-superior elite (Hingest to Studdock, p85-86). Add to this the fact that Lewis has Ransom paraphrase Rousseau when he (Ransom) determines the nature of the subversive strategy of Weston, the Un-Man (Perelandra, p161-162). Keeping these points in mind, the one thing to ask is this: Is it likely that Lewis thought that the character of revolution could ever have a godly quality?
In That Hideous Strength, Wither refers to Ransom as having "embraced the cause of reaction" (p379). Is it likely therefore that Lewis wrote the Narnia stories to cast, as Williams claims, 'evil as the ultimate force of reaction'? Reaction was the ultimate evil - for the Jacobins.
The readers of The Lion's World who are not of such a subtle mind as its author may easily take up certain ideas in it according to their character, just as Peter, Susan, Lucy and Edmund do when they hear of Aslan.
To certain minds the text for the Conclusion in The Lion's World could be seen as Ezekiel 21.27 (KJV). This was taken out of its historical context and (mis)applied to justify any social revolution by the American preacher Herbert S Bigelow (see his book, The Religion of Revolution, 1916). Bigelow's passion for things revolutionary caused him to frame something so that it fed his passion. Bigelow thought he was suffering opprobrium for the sake of Christ when he was merely being disagreeable.
If the author of The Lion’s World should emphasise otherwise it will be lost on the unsophisticated mind of the person who sees things in binary terms, or who has beliefs and values that are not based on reasoned argument. Could any person (outside academia) ever distinguish 'anarchic grace' (p67) from any other sort of anarchy? How long will it be before others choose to see the 'invitation to a revolution of what we have made of ourselves' and the 'unending journey of joy' as just socialism in perpetual change - the 'gleams of celestial truth and beauty' in the Master of Magdalene's book becoming something else when they fall on a fallen world? Socialism in everlasting change - though it gave the man in the pub a transcendent purpose - is not the faith that preaches "Christ and Him crucified" (see Erik von Kuehnelt Leddihn, Leftism Revisited, p158).
The Edwardian Bishop of Durham, Handley C G Moule, wrote: "(In St Paul) is one great instance of that large phenomenon, the transfiguration of the first followers of the Lord Jesus from what they had been to what under His risen power they became. We see in them men whose convictions and hopes have undergone an incalculable revolution; yet A REVOLUTION THAT DISORDERS NOTHING. Rather, it has taken fanaticism for ever out of their thoughts and purposes." (The Epistle to the Romans, 1894, p74).
This is Edmund at his meeting with Aslan. Edmund has to give up what is valuable to himself, his resentment. Edmund retains a transcendent purpose, but without the self-importance (the members of the NICE have both. Lord Feverstone, whose title sounds like a fetish that induces delirium in others, is "a big man, in a big car, driving to where big stuff is going on"). In her 2005 Guardian article accompanying the release of the first Walden Media film, Polly Toynbee considered Edmund to be a poor wounded boy buffeted by his elder brother. She didn't notice the astonishing transformation of Edmund the Traitor into Edmund the Just.
'Transfiguring the material order'? Are we to pursue materialism in God’s name? The 'romance of being rebels'? Not the romantic self-indulgence of 'rebels' secure in a liberal society based on Enlightenment values, and safe in the experience of membership provided by Christian doctrine and common law? Human rules are, here and there, commonly used for JUST purposes (pace p67). That law has no moral content is Marxist in inspiration. What Christ said is to be given to Caesar is the validity of the secular law.
Is it possible to put one’s finger on what exactly is so elusively unsatisfactory about the former Archbishop’s presentation of Narnia in The Lion’s World, especially as he sums it up in the Conclusion?
To do so it is necessary to look at Lewis’ novel That Hideous Strength. There is a defining characteristic about the two camps in this story, the Nice (Belbury) and Ransom’s Company of St Anne’s. Belbury has goals and its people are in constant activity towards realising them. At the same time none of these characters originates the action. As Straik says, they are instruments. Whereas the members of St.Anne’s are in a waiting posture; they do not have a goal. They gather around Ransom of their own volition rather than be recruited by him to a plan.
Keep in mind this contrast between constant activity working towards goals on the one hand with stasis and normalcy on the other. The Narnia described by the Unicorn is at rest: a world of harmless lives and pretty villages. It does not have a goal. The activities the Narnians do in it result in a life of peaceable co-ordination. Their life is not planned. Their actions result in a return to rest. Yet since every day is better than the last there is a sense of expectancy, in the realisation of which, neither yesterday is swept away nor tomorrow advanced to in a progressive manner. Williams sees in Narnia Lewis advancing the possibility of our 'transfiguring the material order'. Is this the historical inevitability of dialectical materialism? In his novel That Hideous Strength Lewis categorically opposed this philosophy, one he declared to be made in Hell.
In Williams’ view poor Gwendoline at Beruna is invited to throw off the 'structures’ and become part of the leftist romanticism of the streets. If there is any character in Narnia who is revolutionary it is the Green Witch. Her under-earthmen have no will of their own while under her spell, though they have purpose and movement. Her plan is to ‘burst up from under the floors’ of the Narnians; where ‘floors’ are a symbol of an hierarchical society.
Williams has it that in Narnia Lewis is saying that we have eternity to come to the truth about ourselves. Given Williams' noted tendency to write to conceal rather than to reveal, this might means a number of different things. In his novels, Lewis advances his belief that eternity fixes someone in their moral shape forever. Williams might mean we have eternity to change. He might mean that we have eternity to suffer what we have made of ourselves.
The Unicorn's description of Narnia is ignored because its homeliness and modesty do not fit into the view that there is only revolution and reaction. The Narnians who live in this true Narnia are not consulted by Williams for their views on what Narnia is all about. The Conclusion in The Lion's World replaces Lewis' superb description of a consoling and fulfilling life that is the Unicorn's Narnia with the vacuous excitement of perpetual revolution. There is a palpable sense in the serenity of 'all those happy years' that this, the Unicorn's description of Narnia, is the reality lying at the heart of the lives of people on earth; and which will be the eternal yesterday the faithful departed will live again in God, for whom no time is past.
What is the character and purpose of the supposed revolution that we are summoned to? Revolution is made attractive by associating it with a fantasy story which then is to be developed into reality, as Narnia becomes a reality at the end of The Last Battle. The problem facing Narnia in each story is made out by implication to be so immense that only revolution can overcome it. This revolutionary paradigm of the Left is one that is entirely absent from Lewis' Narnia as he has the Unicorn describe it. It is Uncle Andrew's capitalist intentions to turn the newly-made Narnia into a money-making enterprise that would in its effect be revolutionary; bearing in mind how commercialism swept away Medieval hierarchy, and that it was Marx's belief that the bourgeoisie would create the globalist proletarian state.
Secondly, and to be fair to Rowan Williams, his revolution seems to be more Adorno than Marx or Sartre; a voyage of self-discovery that takes us away from our idols created by our appetites; the clichés that betray us into self-slavery. But Lewis puts all this into The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. To the snares present on the islands of that journey, Lewis adds in his other stories the fleshly sins of self-indulgence of Calormen (Rabadash - "I want, I want, I want..." - nothing to do with the Crusades); the intellectual sins of the Green Witch; and the materialism of Uncle Andrew.
The greatest revolution that has been carried out in Britain and one that affects the Church of England is one that doesn't appear in the Conclusion in The Lion's World. For all Williams' exhortations in this concluding chapter of his book that God wants to summon us to revolution of what we have made of ourselves he does not point out that equality legislation has dethroned Christianity in Britain. This is what has happened when the 'tree is dry'.
Williams' avoidance of spelling out this most revolutionary of all revolutions that have been carried out is the most serious omission in his claim that in Narnia Lewis is showing us a God who calls us to revolution. Is this a revolution that God would summon us to? Any country, person or church that abandons Christianity, and therefore the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, must suffer the fate of the house in the Gospels that was swept and garnished. In Prince Caspian the Telmarines have given up believing in Aslan and as a consequence, the narrator says, they believe in fearful superstitions.
There is no equality of outcomes in Christ's parable of the talents. Competition still lies at the heart of human relationships in Christ's declaration that the greatest is the one who serves. Here is the most crushing refutation of the New Left's objective of replacing domination with equalities.
In his book Rowan Williams claims that truth is to be found in rebellion against the oppressive clichés of the world. What is Narnia? It is as described by the Unicorn. What does Aslan do? He restores that Narnia. To recast Narnia along revolutionary lines is to change its metaphysics. Try to find joy by breaking open your familiar world and you will probably find that you have just broken your world - and with it your heart. What’s the point in reading Narnia if you can’t tell when a donkey is wearing a lion’s skin?
We've all read Narnia. But have we really understood what we have read?
From all sedition, privy conspiracy and rebellion...Good Lord, deliver us.
(Readers not noticing the significance of Williams' reference to 'the West and the rest' (p38) are invited to look at Roger Scruton's The West and the Rest).
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