Thoughts on “The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis,” by Alan Jacobs

The most recent book I finished is “The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis,” by Alan Jacobs. The book stirred up a lot of thoughts in me, which I’ve been chewing on. My relationship with C.S. Lewis’ work is complicated. Sometimes his writings inspire me deeply, and sometimes his writings make me cringe. This book helped me realize that that’s ok. He was brilliant, a gifted, fluent writer, loved a lot of the same things I love, and yet he sometimes contradicted himself, had a really strange and disturbing personal life, and was a product of his time, with misogynistic ideas that show up over and over in his writings. 

This biography is unusual in that it is about “The Life and Imagination” of Lewis. Now, I think this is what made me enjoy this book. I love to catch glimpses of peoples’ inner worlds: the ideas that drive their choices and come out in their creative work. Jacobs quotes one of Lewis’ friends as saying, “Somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.” Lucky for me, Lewis’ inner world was exceedingly rich by all accounts, and bits of it spilled out into his writings frequently. Jacobs did a great job collection them and organizing them.

The first thing I marked in this book was when Jacobs writes at length about how G.K. Chesterton influenced Lewis, and one of the things he referenced was Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” (which I haven’t read) and “In Defense of Penny Dreadfuls,” which I have. The latter is an essay about how humans need simple, sensational stories (“penny dreadfuls”) to remind our subconscious of the purpose of life (from a Christian perspective anyway.) Jacobs explains that, according to Chesterton, “Christianity, then, is a penny dreadful-or perhaps the seed from which all penny dreadfuls grow. The story of each human life, in the account given by Christianity, is filled with the suspense and tension of a ‘boy’s book’ -that is, with just the vital decisions and dramatic consequences that were banished from much modern literature.” I love this idea -that we read (or today, often watch) those formulaic, plot-driven stories because we are rehearsing the story of Christianity, or rather, the story of “fighting the good fight” of keeping the faith.

In a similar vein, Jacobs turns to the topic of mythology, which C.S. Lewis loved. He was deeply moved by Norse Mythology from a young age, and in his late teens he writes to a friend that he “worships” Homer. “So too the craving for myths (hearing them, reading them, making them) suggests the presence of a nonphysiological need that they satisfy -or, more accurately, try to satisfy. Because they reach something deep within us, we return to them repeatedly, but because they do not and cannot meet the need they invoke, our experience with them is characterized by longing.” If you’ve read much Lewis, you know he writes about “longing” often. This feeling of longing for something (Heaven/God) that is not here on earth, is one I latched onto the first time I read about it in Surprised by Joy. I immediately recognized what he was talking about. I have felt it off and on from a young age, and I also love mythology, fables, folklore, and fairy tales, in part because they stir up that longing feeling in me.  

A new-to-me idea in the book was when Jacobs started writing about Lewis’ thoughts on the similarity between magic and science. He quotes Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man,” “The serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins: one was sickly and died, the other was strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.” But what was that impulse? Quoting Lewis again: “There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is now to subdue reality to the wishes of men; the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.” And then, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” This blew my mind. I tried in vain to think of any sort of science or technology that was not used to give humans more control and power over their lives. Almost everything we do, our scientific research, the jobs we train for, medical treatments, even the education we get through school, is explicitly for the practical purpose of creating more control over our circumstances -not for wisdom or virtue. Lewis thinks this will result in the downfall of humanity, and I think he might be right, but I have a few points to write about. 

The first is that, to my understanding (and I am no expert on the ancient world, so bear that in mind,) the ancient philosophers who pursued wisdom and virtue for their own sakes were able to do so because of slaves and servants and other people taking care of their needs. They took slavery for granted. In a sense they had reached a pinnacle of control and power and thus were able to focus solely on wisdom. Similarly, classical education was meant to teach wisdom and virtue to students who belonged to the highest classes and again, didn’t have to worry about getting money or food or otherwise seek stability and control over their circumstances. Modern education is more interested in science and power and control. You get an education so you can get a job, so you can control your circumstances as best you can. It’s practical -nothing wrong with that. In our modern times, the idea of gaining wisdom just to have wisdom begs the question, “What are you going to do with that?” One of the reasons I love Charlotte Masons’ vision of education is because she was trying to meld the two methods together. Her intent was to give children of all classes a classical education (of which the sciences are a part and always have been, though perhaps not in the modern way we think of,) tweaked a bit to fit into a regular student’s life, so that they would obtain wisdom and virtue. She believed this was enough to prepare them to succeed in any career, including hard sciences. She was very successful in this. Conversely, she would argue, if a person were educated in the modern way, obtaining wisdom or virtue might slip through the cracks in some cases, because it was the side-goal to the more intentional goal of earning a living. I think she was right.  

An interesting part of the biography was the discussion of how Lewis shifted over his lifetime from writing mostly apologetics, to writing fantasy stories for children. He is quoted, “I am not quite sure what made me, in a particular year of my life, feel that not only a fairy tale, but a fairy tale addressed to children, was exactly what I must write -or burst. Partly, I think, (the reason is) that this form permits, or compels you to throw all the force of a book into what was done and said. It checks what a kind, but discerning critic called ‘the expository demon’ in me.” Jacobs says, “Objections to Christianity…are phrased in words, but that does not mean that they are really a matter of language and analysis and argument. Words are tokens of the will. If something stronger than language were available, then we would use it. But by the same token, words in defense of Christianity miss the mark as well: they are a translation into the dispassionate language of argument of something that resides far deeper in the caverns of volition, of commitment. Perhaps this is why Saint Francis, so the story goes, instructed his followers to ‘preach the Gospel always, using words if necessary.’ It is not simply and straightforwardly wrong to make arguments in defense of the Christian faith, but it is a relatively superficial activity: it fails to address the core issues….An apologist for Christianity, to some degree at least, commits himself or herself to answering questions that Jesus himself refused to answer….But…there is a kind of language that, if it does not avoid such superficiality, nevertheless shows an awareness of that danger and in a sense can point beyond itself. I refer to the language of stories -perhaps especially the language of fantasy and fairy tale. Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.” 

Jacobs then goes on to describe how Narnia came about first as “images” popping up announced in Lewis’ head. There was nothing Christian about the images, but Lewis decided to “trust the images” in writing his story, and only write down “what was done and said,” rather than explaining, defending, or moralizing. He decided, “Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life.” This reminds me of another Charlotte Mason idea: that “moralizing” to children will not truly teach them anything. We learn when we make real, living connections between ourselves and what is being learned, not when someone tells us this or that. It’s the difference between watching a video of watercolor painting techniques vs. attempting those techniques in real life. It’s the difference between telling a child “don’t hit people,” which usually doesn’t work, vs. the child becoming personally convicted, through experience, whether physical or spiritual, or story. What we truly learn is what we connect with on a deeper level, what we connect to our “spiritual roots.” 

The talk about “images” in stories begs to be applied to all of the arts. “Let the pictures tell you their own moral.” I think what Lewis is trying to say is that “the pictures” will teach each of us different things based on our own receptivness and our own unique spiritual roots. Some of us will be receptive to one idea, some to another. When a group of people look at a painting, they will all think and feel something different about it. The painting will teach them each a different lesson. And that lesson will most likely be remembered because part of it will come from what is already within you. Conversely, apologetics tends to only teach those who have already made a spiritual connection with what is being defended. Those who are against it will usually only form a rebuttal, rather than accept what is being taught. Those who are undecided might sway one way or the other as their “spiritual roots” begin to show themselves. Stories and images are powerful tools for teaching morals or expressing complex spiritual ideas, but they require a willingness to trust the process, not to mention a lot of restraint to keep the “expository demon” from emerging. As far as Narnia is concerned, I think Lewis was pretty successful. 

One of the things that really bugs me about Lewis is his misogyny. By all accounts he treated women and girls very courteously and even like equals, (I do appreciate that so much!) yet in his writings misogynist ideas pop up all the time. Yes, I know he was just a product of his times and he could have been so much worse. But I claim the right to cringe through some of his books. And I appreciated that Jacobs, though he is clearly a huge fan of Lewis, brought up this problem in The Narnian. Here’s an example Jacobs brought up briefly, and my thoughts: It bugs me that in The Last Battle, Susan has lost her faith, and she is more interested in “silk stockings, lipsticks, and invitations” than Narnia. Now, I get the point that Susan was more concerned about what people thought about her than about what God/Aslan thought about her, and that had become a stumbling block for her. But using silk stockings and lipsticks to illustrate that just makes me mad. The fact that they are such feminine things that he chooses to showcase tells me more about him than Susan. Did he think all women who wore and enjoyed wearing silk stockings and lipsticks were in danger of losing sight of what’s important? I doubt it, yet he still managed to let the sentence slip from his pen. Not to mention the fact that in 1956 when this book was published, stockings and lipstick were conventionally expected of any woman who went out in public. That’s problematic, sure, but it’s not the woman’s fault. It’s the culture. Of course I have no way of knowing how he would defend his words. 

Even more annoying, when rumors were heard that Lewis was an ascetic, his friends laughed because in reality Lewis was a pleasure-seeker, usually in the form of pipes, alcohol, and good food. He believed that pleasure is God-approved, and that “matter” or, the stuff of this world, be it silk or tobacco or good food or anything else that can bring pleasure and delight, should be used (appropriately) and delighted in. He said, “God likes matter. he invented it.” So it feels like a double standard that pipes are God-approved but lipstick is a symbol of worrying too much about approval from others. Now, I can give Lewis some grace because I think most people, including myself, believe that women taking pleasure in beautifying themselves is a sign of weakness. Our culture sends that message constantly, along with the message that women ought to be as beautiful as possible at all times. You can’t win. There’s so much to unpack there. 

I have often thought about this regarding myself. I do take pleasure in beautifying myself, through makeup, clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles. Not every day, but often. And since I know I tend towards being self-centered, and given our cultural messages, and given my tendency to overthink every choice I make, I have wondered on a daily basis for the past twenty odd years if my compulsion to beautify myself, and the pleasure I find in it makes me a self-absorbed, appearance-obsessed, shallow person, at risk of neglecting the more important things in life. I got some new insights into myself recently thanks to quarantine. I haven’t left the house more than a handful of times in the past nearly three months. And yet I still have been wearing makeup, fancy clothes, and jewelry. Not every day, but often. Literally nobody cares, no one will see me, unless it’s a social media selfie, which I share on occasion. My husband doesn’t even like makeup on me, and I am still wearing it. It does seem to be purely for my own pleasure. Now this doesn’t necessarily assuage my doubts, but I think it helped. But yeah, I am still overthinking all of it. 

The last point in the book that I’ve been chewing on starts with this quote by Jacobs: “‘Religion’ is either a set of cultural practices or a set of doctrines, and in either case -though for Lewis the doctrines were always absolutely necessary as maps toward one’s true destination- they should never be the goal of the Christian life. (To make such a mistake would be (quoting Lewis) ‘as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage.’) Beyond all religion lies Something, or rather Someone, that religion can never capture, Who is more real than any practices or doctrines.” If we put our faith in “religion” we are missing the point. Religion is a tool, a “necessary map” to help us find our way back to God -it is not God. “Living our religion” is not what saves us: God saves us. The difference is subtle but crucial. I can easily and gratefully point to the many, many ways that my religion has helped me come closer to God. But at the same time, as a person who sometimes battles thoughts approaching religious scrupulosity, I find it comforting and helpful to remember that perfection in religiosity is not the end goal.