Monday, December 22, 2008

Rediscovering Narnia

Watching the snow in the stillness of the middle of the night reminded me of the first time I entered the world of Narnia. It was not until I was well into middle age and decided to pick up the books not long after I was confirmed as an Episcopalian. I knew C.S. Lewis as a literary critic and I had read Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters (which left me cold) a few years earlier at the suggestion of the Lutheran pastor who was trying to help me get past my cold feet about affirming the creeds and renouncing Satan at my son's baptism. But I had yet to read anything from the religious side of C.S. Lewis that I felt compelling. I wondered if I delved into the fantasy world of Narnia whether I would find something of what drew both its author and myself back to religion in later life.

Fortunately, once I entered that world I pretty much put all thoughts of religion behind. I loved the look and feel and smell of the wardrobe, its warm darkness and fur coats, and the forest and the clearing, where everything was dark and still with the dim glow of the gaslight on the snow. That quiet moment of wonder in the still night, the pause before the faun spoke, was something that could only be truly experienced reading the words on the page.

I was intrigued when I read about Laura Miller's desire to examine what it was about Narnia that captured her so as a child, something she felt was spoiled when she later discovered all the Christian elements that C.S. Lewis had quite consciously interjected into the tale. I had gone to Narnia for those elements yet, while I could scarcely not see them the way she first did, they fell to the wayside for me, so much so, that when I got to the crucial scenes in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I wept in part because the "real" version in the Bible and the Tradition was not nearly as good.

I had not thought much about it since. In recent years I have wondered in moments of both self-criticism and disillusionment whether it was the magical elements of Catholicism and later Anglo-Catholicism that drew me "back" to Church, which made Christianity somehow more accessible and acceptable to me, despite my strong antipathy towards the Jesus-Man, the Son, and my inability to imagine God in any form but the Father's loving arms. I haven't been sure what to make of all that psychologically, but I have suspected that if the eucharistic magic were gone, there would not be much left for me, who in the depths of my heart and mind has always been a hard-core skeptic, as well as a mystical seeker.

Laura Miller has brought me back to my first encounter with Narnia and the thoughts and feelings it inspired. I realize now it has not so much been the Father/Son aspect of Christianity that I have often found so off-putting, but rather, despite all the words and images about the Incarnation, Christianity has never given me a God I could touch and feel, only clerics and conflict, stone buildings and pretty music, at its heart lifeless and empty. Father Terry often writes about the story of the boy caught in a thunderstorm who wants a god with a skin on. I wonder if what the child in me has always wanted most is a god with fur on.

Anyway, this is what Laura Miler wrote and quoted from C.S. Lewis that made me recall what it was like to dig into and be enveloped by that fur, to have a god who let not just the children but the girls come close and be the ones who best knew and were touched by him:
Unlike the God I was raised to worship, he [Aslan] is a god you can touch, and a god to asks to be touched in his darkest hour. "Lay your hands on my mane so that I can feel you are there and let us walk like that," he says to Lucy and Susan as he goes to his execution at the stone table. After he has been killed, the weeping girls come to kiss "his cold face" and stroke "his beautiful fur," in a far more raw and tangible evocation of grief than anything in the New Testament. Then, after Aslan has been resurrected, the girls climb onto his "warm, golden back," bury their hands in his mane, and go for a breathless cross-country ride through a Narnia you can almost taste, thanks to one of Lewis's most exhilarating descriptions:

"Have you ever had a gallop on a horse? Think of that; and then take away the heavy noise of the hoofs and the jingle of the bits and imagine instead the almost noiseless padding of the great paws. Then imagine instead of the black or gray or chestnut back of the horse the soft roughness of golden fur, and the mane flying back in the wind. And then imagine you are going about twice as fast as the fastest racehorse. But this is a mount that doesn't need to be buided and never grows tired. He rushes on and on, never missing his footing, never hesitating, threading his way with perfect skill between tree trunks, jumping over brush and briar and the smaller streams, wading the larger, swimming the largest of all. And you are riding not on a road nor in the part nor even on the downs, but right across Narnia, in spring, down solemn avenues of beech and across sunny glades of oak, through wild orchards of snow-white cherry trees, past roaring waterfalls and mossy rocks and echoing caverns, up windy slopes alight with gorse bushes, and across the shoulders of heathery mountains and along giddy ridges and down, down, down again into wild valleys and into acres of blue flowers."
Laura Miller, The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia (New York: Little, Brown and Company 2008) at pp. 34-35.

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