Pilgrims and Slaves in the Valley of Contemporary Culture

To wander into C.S. Lewis’ fictional worlds is almost always to accompany characters on a journey in that world. All the Narnian stories, I think, have characters on long treks, moving from one place to another. It might be the long dark hikes through giant country and Underworld in The Silver Chair, or the flight from the castle in Prince Caspian, or the slow trudging of the miserable Edmund through the melting Narnian Springlands of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Beyond Narnia into Lewis’ other fiction and we have the long, thin journeys of space, the millions of miles traveled in the Ransom Trilogy and Lewis’ science fiction stories. But even when we get to Mars or Venus, the journeys have just begun, and our hero is making a mountain pilgrimage to meet with the lords of the lands, or chasing the devil incarnate across continents and oceans. To be a C.S. Lewis reader is to be mentally on the move.

This fascination with the journey may be partly because Lewis was an avid walker. Even as a boy he loved to hike through trails and roads into the British countryside, and except for periods of incredible busyness when he had become famous, he kept up the habit as much as he could.

I think, though, the journey theme is deeper for Lewis, a kind of metaphor for life. I think he viewed life as a kind of pilgrimage. It is why the long, tired, miles in most of his fiction contrast so sharply with the difficult, inchworm progress of visitors in The Great Divorce, where they find themselves in a land that is too real, too hard for their ghostly feet. And yet, despite the sheer impossibility of covering any distance, they are called to go far away to the deep mountains of that high country. Their arrival from the grey town is just the beginning of the journey, even if it has continuity with the life they lived on earth.

I was thinking of that earthly pilgrimage we all share as I was reading my son The Horse and His Boy, Lewis’ fifth Narnian chronicle. The story features four refugees: Aravis, a Calormene princess running away from a forced marriage; Shasta, a servant boy escaping a cruel master; and two Narnian talking horses, Bree and Hwin, who had been captured and subjugated to slavery in the lands of Calormen. Through providential encounters and close calls, they find themselves pounding through a desert to warn Narnia of an impending attack. Thus we find two children riding day and night on tired horses, all of them thirsty, hungry, and worn out.

Trusting the directions Shasta managed to overhear while inside the city walls of the invaders, they trudge on through the desert without end. Finally, in pitch darkness they find a small valley hidden between the waves of unending sand. I’ll let Lewis tell of their discovery:

Round every bend of the valley – and it had many bends – they looked eagerly for water. The Horses were nearly at the end of their strength now, and Hwin, stumbling and panting; was lagging behind Bree. They were almost in despair before at last they came to a little muddiness and a tiny trickle of water through softer and better grass. And the trickle became a brook, and the brook became a stream with bushes on each side, and the stream became a river and there came (after more disappointments than I could possibly describe)-a moment when Shasta, who had been in a kind of doze, suddenly realized that Bree had stopped and found himself slipping off. Before them a little cataract of water poured into a broad pool: and both the Horses were already in the pool with their heads down, drinking, drinking, drinking. “O-o-oh,” said Shasta and plunged in – it was about up to his knees – and stooped his head right into the cataract. It was perhaps the loveliest moment in his life (133).

They drank in the cool water, and basked in the floral scents mingling in the air of the grassy valley. Just for a moment, the children and the horses lay down on the bank of the river, determined not to lose their head start against the invaders and the cover of cool and darkness that night provides. But as the comfort of the valley overtook them, they each drifted into sleep.

With a start, Aravis awoke hours later and rousted her companions. Bree, the solid gentlehorse and experienced warrior, in the midst of cool and comfort and under the deadening effect of tiredness, forgot his training and his station.  He resisted Aravis’ urging, demanding that he eat and drink before they thunder into the desert again. The valley had lulled the great warhorse into a kind of self-delusion:

“A fellow’s got to have a mouthful of grass,” said Bree.
“I’m afraid we can’t wait,” said Aravis.
“What’s the terrible hurry?” said Bree. “We’ve crossed the desert, haven’t we?”
“But we’re not in Archenland yet,” said Aravis. “And we’ve got to get there before Rabadash.”
“Oh, we must be miles ahead of him,” said Bree. “Haven’t we been coming a shorter way? Didn’t that Raven friend of yours say this was a short cut, Shasta?”
“He didn’t say anything about shorter,” answered Shasta. “He only said better, because you got to a river this way. If the oasis is due North of Tashbaan, then I’m afraid this may be longer.”
“Well I can’t go on without a snack,” said Bree. “Take my bridle off, Shasta.”
“P-please,” said Hwin, very shyly, “I feel just like Bree that I can’t go on. But when Horses have humans (with spurs and things) on their backs, aren’t they often made to go on when they’re feeling like this? and then they find they can. I m-mean – oughtn’t we to be able to do even more, now that we’re free. It’s all for Narnia.”
“I think, Ma’am,” said Bree very crushingly, “that I know a little more about campaigns and forced marches and what a horse can stand than you do.”
To this Hwin made no answer, being, like most highly bred mares, a very nervous and gentle person who was easily put down. In reality she was quite right, and if Bree had had [Lord] Tarkaan on his back at that moment to make him go on, he would have found that he was good for several hours’ hard going. But one of the worst results of being a slave and being forced to do things is that when there is no one to force you any more you find you have almost lost the power of forcing yourself (135-137).

Lewis’ indictment is one that rings only too true in my own culture, especially when he finishes the chapter with the narrative effect of the valley:

The valley itself, with its brown, cool river, and grass and moss and wild flowers and rhododendrons, was such a pleasant place that it made you want to ride slowly (137).

The culture in which I live is now very like this valley: lush, abundant, refreshing. We have the greatest comforts imaginable, to the point that “obstacles” of any kind are a kind of evil to us—perhaps the only real evil left to us. We medicate ourselves against any pain, advocate to remove any barriers in our children’s training, and disappear mentally before a myriad of distractions. I can feel it as I face my students and ask them to read hard things: they think I am doing a kind of wrong, and I am met with a wave of incredulous entitlement. I feel it in myself too. The valley, the culture in which we live, is so full of life and yet so very deadly to what it means to be a human.

Some may disagree with me, but I think our addiction to screens—good things in and of themselves, I remind myself as I type these words—leads us to a kind of slavery, and the comfort of our culture tempts us to leave the pilgrimage aside. For this reason, I can no longer offer the standard benediction to my departing friends, students, and congregants. I can no longer pray that the road rises up to me them, and that valleys be laid flat before them. While these words were forged in cultures of great pain and ever-present death, in our context they add to the lulling spirituality of the valley. They are words of slavery.

Instead, I pray that God will be with them as the path slips out beneath their feet and as the valleys threaten to choke them out. There is one prayer, however, that is for me an alternative to the anti-benediction that rises up in my heart. It is the lively song of Bilbo as he releases the ring of power and walks away from his life in the Shire:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say

Eagerly, unburdened by the temptations of power in the great, fruitless battles of humanity, Bilbo’s benediction calls us to the road. But it is Frodo’s answering of that call to journey that should haunt us. Frodo is not freely leaving the Shire, but driven out by the ring of power. So as his heart looks back at the Shire, he sings, “weary feet” instead of “eager feet.” And Frodo’s journey is one of the most harrowing of literary history, a thousand page crucifixion of sorrow and doubt and Hobbit-sized determination.

Am I absolutely hopeless about my culture? No, actually, I am not. It may take crisis and loss to draw us out of slumber and set us on our journeys again—most of Lewis and Tolkien’s characters were pulled unbidden from their comfortable worlds to begin their adventures. But I suspect that, when a generation or two have had their fun, the generation that must pay the environmental and economical and literary and spiritual price for their parent’s valley experience will set out upon the road again.

Perhaps that is the next journey tale that must be told.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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20 Responses to Pilgrims and Slaves in the Valley of Contemporary Culture

  1. Well written, as always. Great insight into one of Lewis’s central themes,and into our reading experience, and into our culture. Just one possible objection: Why screens, particularly? Why blame “technology” in general, or screen technology specifically? Humans have always been, and always will be, prone to laziness and to giving up on the pilgrimage. I find that a compelling novel — on paper, mind you — is more addictive than any movie, TV show, or [even] social media. Furthermore, how many of our sins are actually committed while we’re on the computer, or even because of our computer use? Isn’t it so much easier to be angry with live people, to speak sharply, to mistrust, to lust, etc., in the flesh than online? Of course, the computer does make certain sins easier. But I would say that technology is always only an excuse for, rather than a real cause of, deep social ills. We’re pretty good at being bad with or without screens.

    I suspect that much more profound systemic problems are to blame for our generation, and the next, having its “fun.” And I recommend the work of sociologist Christian Smith (http://youthandreligion.org/) and psychologist Jeffrey Arnett (http://www.jeffreyarnett.com/) on this topic. They identify several causal factors in the persistent irresponsibility of today’s young people, including several that are in turn the results of the World Wars. These include the growth of higher education, the availability of cheap birth control, the shifts in the global economy and resulting job insecurity, etc. So the future generations “that must pay the environmental and economical and literary and spiritual price” won’t be able to blame all the time their parents and grandparents wasted online — or if they do, they should look several steps further back and seek the cause of our online addictions, rather than just stopping at what I think is a symptom, rather than the actual disease.

    The real disease, of course, is Original Sin.

    So, just a thought! What thinks you???

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    • Well, it is always the fall, it all goes back to a garden, not to a screen or a city or a wasteland.
      When I critique screen’ed life, it is because screens (and not books, or campfires, or hand-holding) tempts us to switch symbol and reality in the deepest levels of our internal beliefs. I think the 2D screen gives us the illusion of humanity, though only that. All the screens in our world are designed to be extensions of our bodies: the iPad is a fluid feature of my fingers, the computer an extension of my relationships, the TV a substitution for (or living out of) my dreams. I think screens are particularly problematic because they leave with us the temptation to trade real life for the simulation.
      Does that make any sense? Books we can close, put away, throw away burn. We don’t even turn off our phones and computers any more … they just go to sleep, like our dreams when we lose track of who we are.

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  5. jubilare says:

    I have chills. You are right. I have had these same thoughts myself, about myself and about my and many other cultures.

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