This summer I posted a quick write up of my project of reading Lewis chronologically thus far, called “Taking a Breath Before a Second Dive.” In the comments a great discussion broke out, and one of the dialogue partners, Beth Oliver, said something that sent me reeling with its implications. I will likely co-opt her phrase and use it to my own nefarious purposes. But, before I do, I thought I would ask her to explain the idea more fully. I love this post by Beth, where she responds to the Pilgrim’s (my) questioning. I hope you enjoy!
The Pilgrim’s devotion to all things Clive Staples has been a wonderful reminder of the many “What? You too?” moments kindled by Mr Lewis. How has this writer, so remote from myself in culture, education, gender and era, managed to lead me into so many well-lit rooms? As we tend to do, I tried to understand through comparison, and obviously chose as Mr Lewis’ counterweight, J.R.R. Tolkien, the architect of my other, slightly glossier, childhood palace. My first thought:
“In Tolkien, I want to get into Middle Earth. In Lewis’ fantasy, I’m there already – the real world is Narnia/Perelandra/Screwtape’s office.”
The Pilgrim has justifiably asked me to explain myself.
I grew up the second of a family of four kids – boy, girl, boy, girl. Obviously of the pre-iPad era, we were raised on Narnian broth. In our hours of Narnia-based play my older brother was of course Peter Pevensie and frequently reminded us of his situation as the High King. My younger brother was obliged to take on Edmund (he was wedged in his sullen stage at the height of our play), and the youngest, my sister, acquired the envied role of Lucy. I resented my place as fussy Susan, as well as the implication that I was the type to abandon the wonder and thrill of Narnia for boys and lipstick. It was some consolation to run around with a makeshift bow and quiver of arrows while my sister brandished a butter knife.
We were equally enamoured of Middle Earth. Strangely, we never identified closely enough with any characters from Middle Earth to “be” Boromir or Frodo or Legolas – we usually discussed what “race” we would be, (and often, what weapons we would carry). Everyone was always adamant I would be a hobbit, I imagine something to do with height, curly hair and appetite. I’ve come to terms with this – even though if you were to combine the roles, and devise a hobbity Susan, you would probably come out with Lobelia Sackville-Baggins.
The point of all this narcissistic reminiscence is that it reminds me that Narnia constructs an allegory with which we as children could identify, squabbling siblings visiting another world. The fantasy exists as an illustration of the truth Lewis pursues in his non-fiction; of faith, courage, lust, deception, flawed humanity. Even Narnians acknowledge that they inhabit “another” world, whereas Middle Earth is the only world (excepting possibilities hinted at in The Silmarilion). Visitors are wearing school uniforms when they re-enter
Narnia, until someone finds them a suitable tunic. And they are put back in their school uniforms to go home. Narnia is self-conscious. It knows it is one of many possible roads chanced upon by Polly and Diggory in the Wood between the Worlds. Middle Earth is blissfully egocentric*.
The Heater and I are currently re-reading The Lord of the Rings aloud. At this juncture I’d like to highly recommend hearing The Ride of the Rohirrim and The Battle of the Pelennor Fields aloud at least once in your life. If ever one wanted to saddle up for righteous war… We see the white horse tail streaming from Eomer’s helmet and hear the fierce, joyful singing of the Rohirrim as they cheerfully slay the foes of Gondor. Middle Earth exists for the sake of itself and for the sheer fun of it – you can feel Tolkien’s love for the details of armour, dragons, golden trees, herbs with magical properties and horses that never seem to tire. Tolkien dedicated his life to the fearsome task of constructing another world, history and language, while Lewis sought to understand this one.
Of course we want to get into Middle Earth, a place where the right thing to do is clear-cut. Deeds of valour are straightforward. Keep walking until you get to Mount Doom. Keep fighting orcs. Sing a song, build a kingdom, eat some lembas. Who wouldn’t want an ancient, blessed sword from the Barrow Downs that will prove itself a game day player? Middle Earth is glorious escapism, a place to be a hero.
In Narnia and other Lewis worlds, complexities of a less black and white reality are present – jealousy, faithlessness, vanity, gluttony, sibling rivalry, the aching marital breakdown in That Hideous Strength. Can you imagine Aragorn paying an extortionate price for a couple of beers because he is too proud to appear cheap by questioning the bill?
When I read Narnia, I can tell I am reading the same person who, as the senior devil Screwtape, wrote this frighteningly accurate description of us on our bad days:
“Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother’s utterances with the fullest and most over-sensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced that they are quite innocent. You know the kind of thing “I simply ask what time dinner will be and she flies into a temper” (The Screwtape Letters, Ch 3)
“Two things about our world particularly stuck in their minds. One was the extraordinary degree to which problems of lifting and carrying things absorbed our energy. The other was the fact that we had only one kind of hnau:” (rational animal) “they thought this must have far-reaching effects in the narrowing of sympathies and even of thought” (Out of the Silent Planet, Ch 16).
To put my original thought another way, Tolkien’s world makes me want to be a hero, but Lewis’ worlds show me who I already am. It remains to be seen whether I am Susan.
*The terms in which I describe Middle Earth and Tolkien could be considered negative, but that’s unintentional. I love, admire and frequently re-read his tales, because of course there is great truth in his writing also. I’m also not saying Tolkien isn’t a moralist. Total rejection of evil is required by those tempted by the Ring – you can’t borrow it, you can’t hide it, you can’t use it for your own ends, you have to destroy it. I am reminded of the George MacDonald quote that opens Lewis’ The Great Divorce:
“No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it – no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather.”