Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lent in Narnia

Lent in Narnia
Would C.S. Lewis have renounced Turkish Delight from Ash Wednesday to Easter?

In his short essay "Some Thoughts," C. S. Lewis examines the paradoxical fact that the Christian calendar is as full of feasts as it is fasts, as full of fasts as it is feasts.

How did the Christian faith come to have this unique "two-edged" character, a stance which is both world-affirming and world-denying? Lewis explains that on one hand "because God created the Natural—invented it out of His love and artistry—it demands our reverence." But at the same time, "because Nature, and especially human nature is fallen it must be corrected and the evil within it must be mortified."

But make no mistake, Lewis writes, its essence is good, and correction is "something quite different" from repudiation or Stoic superiority. And hence, Lewis argues, all true Christian asceticism will have "respect for the thing rejected" at its center. "Feasts are good," Lewis concludes, "though today we fast."

Lewis makes a similar point in his essay "A Slip of the Tongue," where he argues that in the life of a perfect believer, feasts "would be as Christian" as fasts.

Though today we fast, feasts are good. Feasts are, or should be, as Christian as fasts. These statements might serve as helpful signposts as we enter the seasons of Lent and Easter.

This two-edged, world-denying and world-affirming, stance is seen clearly in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the Turkish Delight which Edmund is tempted with and in the delightful meal served up by the Beavers.

Early in the story, the White Witch creates a box filled with "several pounds" of Turkish Delight which Edmund greedily devours. Donald Glover has called Lewis's specific choice of Turkish Delight a master stroke, one made with clear intention. What would have been lost if the Witch had tempted Edmund with, for example, oatmeal and raisin cookies? Glover argues that Turkish Delight is "a highly overrated sweet," and Narnia fans who have gone in search of the candy may agree, wondering how Edmund could have fallen prey to the overly sugared confection. Surely the name promises more than the candy delivers, and this, perhaps, is Lewis's point. Furthermore, it is not just Delight but Turkish Delight, a title containing, as Glover has observed, "Oriental and romantic overtones," further promises left unfulfilled by the sticky goo.

Gilbert Meilaender, in a chapter appropriately titled "The Sweet Poison of the False Infinite," provides an analysis of the spell that the Witch's candy casts upon Edmund. As Meilaender explains, the phrase "the sweet poison of the false infinite" comes from Lewis's novel Perelandra and refers to any love of secondary things which has become inordinate. In Miracles, Lewis maintains that we are to offer the created things and pleasures of this world "neither worship nor contempt." Meilaender points out that the theme of inordinate loves is one to which Lewis often returns.

The Witch's magic candy is a sickly imitation of the wholesome food the children are served at the Beavers' house. There they eat boiled potatoes with "a great big lump of deep yellow butter" from which everyone can take "as much as he wanted." The main course is "good freshwater fish" followed by "a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll" fresh from the oven and steaming hot. Afterwards, they each have a big cup of tea, push back their stools, and let out "a long sigh of contentment."

Lewis's point with the Turkish Delight is not that enjoying sweets is bad; in fact, his position is quite the contrary. Enjoyment of life's pleasures in all their variety and plenitude will be an essential quality of proper Narnian life. This was seen earlier in the tea that Mr. Tumnus provided for Lucy which included "a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them, and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake." Meilaender points out that in both his fiction and non-fiction, Lewis suggests over and over that "to be fully human involves a certain stance toward the things of creation," one of deep enjoyment but not slavish adoration.

Lewis's devil Screwtape explains the situation to his young nephew this way: "Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy's ground. …  He made the pleasures. … All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasure which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden."
In his essay "First and Second Things," Lewis elaborates on this point, writing:
By valuing too highly a real but subordinate good, we … come near to losing that good itself. The woman who makes a dog the center of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. … Every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good. … You can't get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.
These real but subordinate goods come in endless variety besides the sorts of activities which are typically given up for Lent, things like eating sweets, smoking, or drinking Coke. Human curiosity, for example, is one of these real goods which must have its ordinate place. We see its proper role in the lives of the four Pevensies when they decide to explore the Professor's house. As the narrator tells us, "That was how the adventures began." The Professor's house is described as having a whole series of rooms lined with books, an indicator of the goodness of curiosity in its proper place in the Professor's life and vocation.

It was not always like this. In The Magician's Nephew, Digory's healthy sense of curiosity became inordinate as he forcibly made Polly stay in Charn while he struck the mysterious bell to find out what would happen. As Jonathan Rogers has noted, here Digory shows "an excessive desire for knowledge." It is fitting that at this point Polly tells Digory he looks just like his Uncle Andrew.

But lest we react too strongly and reject curiosity or any other created thing altogether, Lewis also includes in The Magician's Nephew one of the most awe-inspiring creation scenes in all of literature, as Aslan sings Narnia into existence—each star, stag, bird, and blade of grass. You may choose to despise the things of this world, Lewis seems be saying, but know that they came from the Creator's loving hand with a very different relationship in mind.

"A properly Christian view of things requires more than a right relationship to the things of heaven," Jonathan Rogers writes. "It requires a right relationship to the things of earth too." Rogers concludes that "by allowing the reader to watch the creation of another world, C. S. Lewis evokes an appropriate awe and delight in the things of this world."

As we enter into the season of Lent, it might be helpful to see these 40 days not so much a time of renunciation (unless, of course, we have things to renounce) but a time of reordering, a time to slow down, step back, and carefully examine the things we have actively made or passively allowed to become the first things and second things in our lives.

Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and a Professor of English at Asbury University. He is the author of Inside Narnia (2005), Inside Prince Caspian (2008), and Inside the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010).

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