As a child, I wasn’t much of a reader. But I was a listener. I loved listening to stories—to stories told and stories read. And the Chronicles of Narnia were some of my favourites, with my mother often reading them to me and my sisters before bed. Later in life, I would come to realize that C. S. Lewis was much more than a good storyteller, that he was a man with an unusual ability for seeing into the bone and marrow of humanity and for bringing this to life in story. And I found him especially skilled at enlivening one particular area of human existence: the reading of Scripture.
One such instance of this was when I was completing my seminary studies. I would often read fiction in the evenings, and at one point I re-opened The Chronicles of Narnia. As I came to the sixth book, The Silver Chair,[i] something caught my attention for the first time: the scene from which the story unfolds has deep echoes of the Bible. In that scene Jill receives instruction from Aslan about her mission, to rescue her companion Eustace and to find the lost Prince Rilian. Aslan has given Jill four signs to guide her journey but suspects she has not grasped them:
“Child,” said Aslan, in a gentler voice than he had yet used, “perhaps you do not see quite as well as you think. But the first step is to remember . . . remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”[ii]
I soon discovered this echoed Deuteronomy, where Moses prepares Israel to live without him in the promised land. Time and again he calls the people to remember what the Lord had done in Egypt and the wilderness so that they might live rightly in the land. It was interesting to me that Deuteronomy, like The Silver Chair, cast memory as a vital guide for the people and portrayed its preservation therefore as a chief calling of the people.
I was fascinated by Lewis’s use of Deuteronomy in the book and wondered how it compared to the perspective of biblical scholars. But when I went searching, I was surprised by what I found: very little. The question had awakened a curiosity in me and I couldn’t leave it alone, so when my wife and I moved to England for my PhD the following year, I changed my topic up arrival. Instead of the original topic, I decided to pursue the question of memory in Deuteronomy (the fruit of this work can now be found in my book: Memoir of Moses: The Literary Creation of Covenantal Memory in Deuteronomy [Fortress Academic, 2020]).
Through my research I would learn that Lewis does not echo Deuteronomy alone, but appears to combine ideas from both Exodus and Deuteronomy. To be sure, Deuteronomy serves as the governing framework for that scene in The Silver Chair: framing the story, firstly, as a great and challenging journey for which memory is vital, and characterizing the practice of memory, secondly, as a diligent and daily exercise (see Deut 6:4–9). But he also uses an element from Exodus, namely its notion of memory proper. In Deuteronomy, people remember God’s acts in order to motivate obedience to his commands; but in Exodus, people remember the commands themselves (compare Exod 20:8 and Deut 5:15). In terms of human memory, this means Deuteronomy focuses on episodic memory (images and experiences) and Exodus on semantic memory (words, facts, etc.).
In Aslan’s insistence that Jill remember the “signs,” therefore, it appears Lewis has adopted Exodus’s notion of memory, for it focuses on semantic memory: namely, the list of signs. And what it means is that the memory motif in The Silver Chair represents a tapestry of interwoven ideas from both Exodus and Deuteronomy. I cannot say whether this merging of ideas reflects something intentional by Lewis, but I do think it represents a classic Lewis trait: an imagination saturated in Scripture that has produced a deeply theological exposition in story.
[i] C. S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: HarperTrophy, 1953).
[ii] Lewis, The Silver Chair, 25–26.
Although he now serves as lecturer in Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Malyon Theological College in Brisbane Australia, A.J. Culp originally studied English literature and writing. It was during those studies that he came to appreciate C.S. Lewis’ imaginative exposition of Scripture, which still influences his work today. For more of A.J.’s work, see https://malyon.academia.edu/AJCulp.