More than a century ago, C.S. Lewis witnessed the approach of the Machine. He saw it pockmark the countryside with belching factories, felt it unravel the delicate interplay of time and distance with every ringing telephone, and recognized how it warped the soul of his generation with its hollow ideologies. Lewis had intimate knowledge of such destruction when, on his nineteenth birthday, he was sent into the Machine’s very jaws. Reporting to the front lines of WWI, he discovered the stench of death from the trenches was so potent it could be smelled from miles away. Serving bravely in the Battle of the Somme, Lewis saw his fellow soldiers killed right in front of him and was gravely wounded himself when an exploding shell sent shrapnel into his legs and torso. Left lung punctured, he barely escaped with his life.
The Machine that Lewis witnessed is a term for the operating framework of modernity that obtains across the political spectrum. Its motive forces are as old as humanity, but it has undeniably come into its own in recent centuries. It can be found in the push toward hyper-industrialization, the technological tyranny that governs everyday life, and the philosophical subjectivism that underpins progressive ideology contributing to an epidemic of nihilism and despair. The Machine is premised on scientism and dedicated to the pursuit of “progress” at any cost. Perverting the innate human desire for transcendence, it preaches a philosophy of atomized liberty that purports to free people from limits of any kind, be they tradition, nature, or even the human body itself.
After his convalescence, Lewis returned to Oxford to finish his education. And there, amid the city’s dreaming spires, the war now over, he found the scales had fallen from his eyes. Never again would he believe in modernity’s myth of progress that said the past was exceptionally benighted and that the condition of humanity would go on forever improving. Lewis evaluated his other beliefs and began to recognize that the industrial and scientific revolutions of earlier centuries had profoundly transformed mankind’s felt perception of life. By Lewis’s era this had culminated in a societal-wide transformation: where once the natural world was seen to be saturated with divine meaning, modern people were a historical aberration because they were the first humans in history to view the world as a meaningless machine. Presented as a neutral appraisal of reality, the mentality of the Machine is actually a distinct dogma, one that Lewis recognized as having changed the way people thought about themselves, language, politics, even morality. By the early decades of the twentieth century, this mentality had ripped the sacred from the world, leaving mankind to wander a secular wasteland yearning for something that could no longer be named.
In contrast to this modern ideology was the medieval worldview Lewis found in the European literature he spent his career studying. As Jason Baxter suggests in The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind, Lewis felt a deep sympathy for the medieval European understanding of the world, in which theology, science, and history existed in a harmonious synthesis that informed mankind’s experience of life itself. This “intellectual atmosphere” meant that for medieval people, the world was enchanted. Richly symbolic, it could be studied to reveal a depth of divine meaning. Science had not yet been reduced to scientism, so investigating the world was a way to learn more about it, not the only way to learn about it. The living world was garlanded with poetry and myth, so that things not only had their material makeup but were understood to call up proper emotional and moral responses. A vast mnemonic device, the medieval world was in conversation with humanity, imparting both wisdom and beauty.
Lewis’s appreciation for this worldview was a cornerstone of his thought, so much so that he considered himself something of a displaced native of the medieval era. In the early decades of the twentieth century, at a time when literary modernism was in fashion and many of his academic peers pursued the overthrow of tradition, Lewis dedicated himself to keeping medieval wisdom alive. He approached the subject from many directions, highlighting its virtues in books, lectures, and sermons, but it was when Lewis guided readers through an enchanted wardrobe into a land of dancing dryads, an evil queen, and a lion who, while not at all safe, was unutterably good, that his quest reached its pinnacle. Under the guise of a winsome fairy tale, the heady atmosphere of Narnia is designed to allow readers to inhabit the medieval worldview.
Today, many of the tastemakers of the fantasy genre have settled into the opinion that Lewis was a writer of moralistic pablum. There have been books published, classes taught, and essays penned on why the genre needs to divest from its problematic roots—including Lewis—and not look back. In truth, however, Lewis was astonishingly prescient when it came to the negative consequences of modernity, and Narnia, with its knights, castles, and dragons, emerged from his understanding of how the medieval worldview could act as a tonic to the ills of the modern age. Looking more deeply at how The Chronicles of Narnia explore the concepts of objective value, chivalry, and Christian mysticism, demonstrates that far from being regressive morality tales, they are among the most subversive books in the fantasy canon.
The Abolition of Man
Eustace Clarence Scrubb, a boy so unappealing he almost deserved his name. Whisked away to Narnia in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace and his cousins Lucy and Edmund Pevensie find themselves on a sea voyage helmed by King Caspian. Raised by parents who are “very up-to-date and advanced people,” Eustace attended a progressive school in England premised on the idea that children should be free to do as they like. So while Eustace has been taught that chivalry is demeaning to women and knows nothing about courage, he knows plenty of facts and figures and all about “model schools” in distant lands. He is self-serving, cowardly, and condescending, all the while thinking himself more advanced than everyone else. To Eustace, Narnia is a horror.
Through the character of Eustace Scrubb, Lewis explores one of his chief concerns: the damage being done to children in the name of progress. In The Abolition of Man Lewis writes about the modern dogma that puts aside our rich inheritance of traditional moral wisdom and seeks to undo objective value altogether. Lewis believed that the dismissal of objective value that was being pushed in schools would lead to the tyranny of the quantifiable fact. Unmoored from traditional morality, society would then come to venerate “progress” as a kind of secular theology that could not be questioned. With classical virtues seen as a relic of the past and all limits—moral, natural, even biological—seen as barriers to shatter, people would eventually come to be ruled by their animal instincts while calling it liberation.
While ubiquitous and therefore unremarkable in the real world, Eustace’s mentality is starkly out of place in Narnia. Eventually, on an uninhabited island, he wanders away from the others and while thinking his usual beastly thoughts falls asleep on the treasure hoard of a dead dragon. When he wakes, he finds that he has been transformed into a dragon himself. The shock of this forces Eustace to recognize how dragonish he has been all along. Later, in a dreamlike scene, Aslan uses his claws to strip the dragonhide off of Eustace, releasing him from the burdensome layers his morally bereft upbringing has inflicted upon him. He is restored—not to his old self, but to his true self.
Earlier in the book, Lewis illustrates what this progressive style of thought looks like in the political realm when it is wielded by bureaucrats. On their voyage, King Caspian and his companions stop at the Lone Islands, where they discover the existence of a thriving slave trade. When King Caspian demands that the governor end the abhorrent trade, the governor objects. Citing its necessity for the economic development of the islands, Governor Gumpas assures King Caspian that the trade is supported by all the relevant statistics and that to abolish it would be to “put the clock back.” In Gumpas Lewis offers a stark example of the technocratic bureaucracy he feared, one in which the inherent dignity of the individual would be mowed down in the name of “progress” and anyone who dared to resist would be branded a regressive reactionary.
In The Silver Chair Lewis depicts how this ideology is inflicted upon children. In a scene that takes place deep underground, a witch tells Eustace, along with his friend Jill Pole and their Narnian companion Puddleglum, that they are childish to think there is a world other than the subterranean lair in which she reigns. There never was a thing like the sun, she says, that is only a fancy inspired by common lamps. And there is no such thing as the great Aslan, she continues, that is only a fancy inspired by an ordinary housecat. In this exchange, Lewis takes aim at how secular education attempts to destroy the spiritual intuition of children by forcing them to accept the material world as the sum total of existence. Despite its claims of being a straightforward appraisal of reality, this ideology actually severs children’s connection to reality because it compels them to see the world not as it is, but as less than it is.
Secular materialism is a historical aberration that, ironically, relies upon a leap of faith only made possible by a dogged suppression of intuition. And it is fragile; like a diabolical enchantment one only needs the right incantation to break its spell. Lewis knew one of the most powerful ways to teach someone this incantation is to let them inhabit a world in which a different way of thinking has been preserved. It is not enough simply to be told that humanity’s felt perception of life used to be different; to resist the Machine’s nihilistic spell we need the chance to live in the enchanted atmosphere of a world radiant with meaning, a world in which our spiritual longing is not made to feel out of place. In Narnia, much like Eustace being stripped of his dragonhide by Aslan’s claws, readers finds themselves relieved of the burden to uphold modern secular dogma. This allows us to strengthen our muscles of perception, intuition, and imagination so that upon returning to the real world we can see through its secular spells and find our way toward a fuller, more resplendent apprehension of reality.
“Fierce to the nth and Meek to the nth”
Narnia is not a safe place, there are real dangers—duels, battles, even death. For this, critics have accused Lewis of glorifying violence in a way quite unsuitable for children. But, as Lewis wrote in On Stories, and Other Essays on Literature, “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter, but darker.” To go further, though, this criticism misses an important point: when an objective moral order has been discerned, it places demands on the way we comport ourselves. This is where chivalry comes in.
The medieval chivalric model that Lewis so deeply admired is a behavioral code that brings together in a single person seemingly conflicting traits, such as courage with gentleness and ferocity with self-sacrifice. As Lewis wrote in the essay “The Necessity of Chivalry,” chivalry is not intended to make a happy medium between these conflicting traits but to create a knight who is both “fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.” Writing in the aftermath of WWII, and never forgetting the time he spent in the trenches of WWI, Lewis did not write about battle lightly but with the knowledge that chivalry is not about battle for battle’s sake but battle in pursuit of the restoration of order. This is a duty that, if shirked, will lead to even greater violence being inflicted on innocent victims.
The Chronicles of Narnia abound with examples of chivalric virtue, as well as depictions of the disordered hierarchies that can arise when the chivalric concept of servant leadership is missing, such as in the land of Calormen. It has been suggested that the depiction of this desert nation to the south of Narnia in The Horse and His Boy is simply evidence of Lewis’s bigotry, but Calormen can also be understood as a fictionalized stand-in for the Moors who invaded and ruled parts of Europe’s Iberian Peninsula for more than 700 years. In Calormen we find echoes of medieval European appraisals of Moorish society. Lewis did not adhere to the dogma of cultural relativism and was not afraid to make value judgements; in Calormen he offers a warning about what a society can become without a rightly ordered hierarchy.
The Narnian book most associated with chivalry is Prince Caspian. In its opening chapters, the Pevensie children return to Narnia more than a thousand years after their original visit and find the land in disarray. The trees no longer dance, the animals no longer speak, and a usurper sits on the throne. Throughout this story, as they seek to restore order to Narnia, it is Peter, the High King, who is the model knight. He is unafraid of violence when facing enemies while at the same time showing deep consideration for the least among his company, not just for their physical well-being, but for their emotional state and dignity. Peter also takes care to reassure Caspian, the rightful king, that he does not intend to take the throne himself but restore Narnia to its proper ruler.
At the end of the novel, Narnia’s trees and talking beasts emerge from their long dormancy, awakened to freedom by their land being set right. At this point Aslan asks Caspian if he is ready to assume his position as king. Caspian answers that he is “only a kid” and doesn’t quite feel up to the task. Aslan replies that if Caspian had found himself up to the task it would have been proof that he was not. In Narnia, leadership is premised on service, and the higher the role the greater the burden. King Lune of Archenland explains the reality of chivalric leadership in The Horse and His Boy, saying that to be a king is “to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”
Today, though, we frown at ordered frameworks and sneer at hierarchies of all kinds. People are encouraged to “live their own truth,” to think of themselves first, and to blame others for their circumstances. With no cohesive story to hold society together, atomized individuals are reduced to consumers and pitted against one another by politicians. This is why chivalry is offensive to the Machine. It is born from the understanding that the created world is dense with meaning and weighty enough to demand our respect. As a moral code, chivalry instills just sentiments, raises a host of ethical obligations, and imparts the knowledge that true freedom means the cultivation of virtue and self-control. This is why Lewis understood chivalry to be a subversive force in the modern world, one that sees through the bedlam sown in the name of progress to a more lasting foundation of dignity, courage, and compassion.
“Further Up and Further In”
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the valiant mouse Reepicheep intends to make his way to the very edge of the world in search of Aslan’s Country. As Reepicheep and his companions travel over the sea a dreamlike quality permeates the story. The crew and passengers find they no longer have need of sleep, nor food, but only occasional sips of sea water, which is inexplicably fresh and sweet. It is, they agree, like drinking pure light. Their days take on a paradoxical peaceful intensity, mere existence has become intoxicating. Narnia, always a world of ontological fullness, is never more so than in these chapters where Lewis brings readers on a journey deep into the heart of Christian mysticism.
As a young man, Lewis was an atheist who railed against God. After his conversion, this experience made him well-suited to commonsense apologetics because he understood the need to make a practical case for faith. A close reading of his work, however, reveals his commonsense approach is infused with a deep familiarity with Christian mysticism. Within Christianity mysticism is understood as an individual’s attempt to seek an encounter with the presence of God, and for 1500 years it lived at the heart of the faith.
In a personal letter, Lewis described The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as essentially being about “the spiritual life,” particularly when it came to the character of Reepicheep. The mouse’s single-minded pursuit to draw ever nearer to Aslan is a depiction of what Christians are called to do in their pursuit of God. But, like the journey to Aslan’s Country, the mystical path is surpassingly strange. God, as the ultimate reality, utterly exceeds human comprehension. Our minds tremble at the seemingly irreconcilable simultaneity of God’s infinite transcendence and profound nearness. As mystics over the centuries have shared, the closer one comes to experiencing the presence of God, the less one can possibly say to describe it.
In Prince Caspian, when Lucy greets Aslan she remarks that he is bigger than when she last saw him. Aslan tells her that is because Lucy is now older. Every year that she grows, he explains, she will find him bigger. Here Lewis illustrates epektasis, a key theme in mysticism. Saint Gregory of Nyssa used the term to describe the soul’s eternal ecstatic journey into the infinite depths of God. Within the medieval worldview that Lewis so admired, God was understood to be beyond human classification because any concept we can use to define God was created within God and will by necessity be superseded by God. This makes true religious life far from banal or straightforward but perhaps the strangest thing there is.
The closing chapters of The Last Battle are some of the most philosophically profound in all of fantasy literature. In them, Lewis illustrates a fundamental thesis of Christian mysticism. Here, at the close of the Chronicles, Narnia, as a world, is coming to an end. The stars have fallen from its sky, its creatures have streamed past Aslan to be judged, and, at last, even Narnia’s sun itself is squeezed out of existence. Passing through what looks to be a humble stable door to escape this apocalypse, Lucy, Peter, Edmund, and their companions find themselves once again in what appears to be Narnia. But upon closer inspection, and with rousing cries of “further up and further in,” they realize they have come to a much deeper country, one that is more saturated with realness than the Narnia they had known before. This is a place where “every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.” In these pages, Lewis is expressing what he felt to be the essence of Christianity, which is, as he wrote in The Four Loves, the turning “from the portraits to the Original, from the rivulets to the Fountain.”
While mysticism was long a central feature of the Christian faith, it can seem remarkably out of place today. We are living through an age in which the simmering secularism of the last few centuries has come to dominate the culture at large. And what religion we have left has become largely therapeutic and moralistic. The result is that while premodern people thought of holiness as a staggering intensity of meaning itself, today we tend to think of it as simply being nice. This sanitized, shrunken faith cannot satisfy the longing in our soul, it is a flaccid simulacrum of religion that makes it easy for people to walk away from the Church, to the benefit of the Machine which thrives when people feel alienated and unmoored.
Mysticism, then, is a powerful reminder that Christianity is anything but prosaic. Lewis knew how critical it was to keep this apprehension of the wildness of God at the core of our faith. Becoming acquainted with Aslan in Narnia prepares readers to learn a crucial lesson about Christ: He is not a tame God. Readers who know this will be less likely to accept an impoverished conception of the divine. In this way, in books that are often dismissed as childish fare, Lewis has hidden jewels of theology that can serve as bulwarks against the dehumanizing ideology of the machine.
The Strongest Spell that can be Found
The ceaseless revolution of progress that governs the modern age insists that limits be abolished. Cohesive communities, faith, and traditions are viewed as shackles holding us back from our birthright of radical autonomy, while across the political spectrum there is a headlong rush toward a forever deferred utopia. In this rush we have bought into the lie that freedom means a lack of interdependence, that we can buy enough products, consume enough pharmaceuticals, and ingest enough mass media to manufacture identities of sublime autonomy. In this world that seems to move at warp speed, to not move apace is seen as suspiciously reactionary and to critique the ethos of progress, as Lewis did, can be viewed as downright dangerous.
Witnessing the ascendancy of the Machine, Lewis understood what was at stake. He watched this ideology sweep across his society and take hold in its schools, and he keenly felt the loss of what was so hastily displaced and soon forgotten. The medieval worldview that Lewis cherished was replaced by an ideology that breeds nihilism and despair, one that is all the more insidious because it denies being an ideology at all, insisting instead that it is simply a recognition of fact. In this way the dogma of the Machine has become undetectable to modern people who drift through a desacralized landscape unaware of what has been stolen from them.
But Lewis understood the magic that can live on in stories, and in Narnia he vouchsafed the means by which to restore much that we have lost. The atmosphere of Narnia, this land where trees dance and animals speak, is itself a powerful enchantment that today we need more than ever. As Lewis suggested in The Weight of Glory, “spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years.” So let us remember our way back through the wardrobe into a land where children can become brave knights, where Lions are sometimes Lambs, and where self-sacrifice is a redemptive enchantment written before the dawn of time, where we can relearn a way of seeing and being that has the deep magic needed to remake the world.
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