Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Narnian

Alan Jacobs

Armed with this sound theology of pleasure, Lewis’s perpetual task both as a defender of Christianity and as an advocate of medieval literature is to call people to delight – and delight even in old books. Yes, those were written by people different than ourselves – but not radically different. They are still recognisably human; they inhabit a world that is sometimes strange to us but not wholly alien. In fact, they are just different enough to be valuable to us as instructors in virtues we have neglected. We cannot go back in time and teach them to be more compassionate, but if we read them with care and sympathy they can instruct us in courage and chastity. We will not, however, read them with care and sympathy unless there is some reward for us in it: it is for this reason that Lewis emphasises the delight that can come from them. He wants us to know that it is indeed possible for a twentieth-century man to enjoy reading four-hundred-year-old books just for the sheer pleasure of it. And any book that delights us may more readily teach us its wisdom.

In The Lord of the Rings, the wise and ancient Elf Celeborn counsels the Company, in response to a gibe from Boromir about "old wives’ tales," "Do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that were once needful for the wise to know." Several of the plots of the Narnia books turn on the forgetting of the old lore by some and its remembering by others. In Prince Caspian, Doctor Cornelius, Caspian’s tutor, is primarily a historian, and his passionate remembrance of ‘Old Narnia’ – "my old heart has carried these secret memories so long that it aches with them" – is key to the return of the Talking Beasts and the restoration of the great kingdom that Caspian’s Telmarine ancestors ruined. The confusion and discord sown by Shift and Ape in The Last Battle is possible because Aslan is only a name to the people of Narnia: they know nothing of his history, or of his character, so they can easily be made to believe that he has commanded deeds (for instance, the destruction of the forest) that are incompatible with his care for Narnia.

Among the ‘old lore’ of our world there is one tradition that Lewis found especially fascinating, and that turns up repeatedly in his fiction. Most of us have heard the phrase ‘the music of the spheres’ - the spheres being, in medieval astronomy, the abodes of the planets. These spheres surround the earth, moving outward from us in concentric circles; beyond them is the Empyrean, the Heaven of Heavens, where God’s presence dwells most fully. But what is their ‘music?’ That music is made by the friction of their contact as they ceremoniously rotate at their various speeds: it is of extraordinary beauty, and the contrasting stillness of the Earth is ‘the point at which all the light, heat and movement descending from the nobler spheres finally died out into darkness, coldness and passivity.’ But what makes the spheres move? That is the task of their governing spirits: ‘Each sphere, or something resident in each sphere, is a conscious and intellectual being, moved by the ‘intellectual love of God…These lofty creatures are called Intelligences.’ It was usually thought that an Intelligence was a very particular kind of angel – a ‘creature,’ but not embodied, and with the single function of being the mover of the sphere.

These are the Oyarsa of Lewis’s space trilogy…

From chapter 8 of The Narnian – the life and imagination of C S Lewis, published by HarperSanFrancisco 2005
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