On the day C.S. Lewis died—November 22, 1963—the world was hardly in a position to take notice. The assassination of an American President, after all, had clearly and shockingly co-opted everything that day, including even the ending of a life unsurpassed for its sheer breath catching lucidity in defense of ordinary Christian belief. But history, as T.S. Eliot reminds us in Gerontion, is full of “cunning passages, contrived corridors.” We needn’t be surprised, therefore, a half-century later, to find the world increasingly interested in the life and literary remains of this astonishingly gifted apologist for the Christian religion, the least of whose books, by the way, will have blazed more trails of the spirit than a thousand days spent traipsing along the now largely forgotten byways of the Kennedy New Frontier.
And, really, what survives of JFK once the myth of Camelot is peeled away to reveal the squalid undercoat of a life undistinguished in any way save for its squandered promise? Memories of the Bay of Pigs debacle? The grotesquerie of the Berlin Wall built on his watch? The Kennedy mystique looks pretty tattered and forlorn from this distance. But the impact of Clive Staples Lewis continues to be felt as, even now, unforeseen ripples are loosed in the wake of his passing, fifty years ago today at age sixty-four.
Lewis often thought of himself, he said, as a “converted pagan living among apostate Puritans.” What he meant by that, I think, is key to an understanding of his life and character. That he regarded himself as someone for whom nothing less than finding the Well at the World’s End would ever truly satisfy. Nothing less, he was sure, could possibly meet the tremendous thirst of the human spirit, the sheer irrepressible thrust of man’s longing for God. Never mind the forces of encircling secularity, which conspire at almost every turn to deny the truth of the human heart, they mustn’t be allowed to stand in the way of deep, deep desire. “Man’s mounting spirit,” to use that lovely line taken from “The Caged Skylark” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, while it may only be found “in his bone-house, mean house” of fallen and contingent being, was nevertheless intended from all eternity to soar far beyond the stars. We are, each of us, destined to commune with the living God himself.
“What more, you may ask, do we want? Ah” says Lewis, striking the common chord of our humanity, “but we want so much more—something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”
For all that the parched world with its vast, unrelieved and eviscerate soil seeks to dry up the spiritual juices, every finite creature yet remains in the grip of infinite and unquenchable desire. We are pilgrims, in short, whose fate is to remain in a state of unhappy exile, strangely exercised by memories of a lost Eden, the wistful, half-remembered joys of which we long to recover. Against this “wild prayer of longing,” the poet W.H. Auden rightly tells us, “legislation is helpless.”
And did Lewis find his way back at last, restored to the courts of the living God, the land where heart and flesh long to be, to recall the words of the Psalmist spoken at his funeral? That, thankfully, is not our business to know. Anymore than it is our task to separate the sheep from the goats according to some strict Talmudic reckoning of divine rectitude. Our job, of which the work of Lewis provides moving and abundant testimony, is to search out as much Beatitude in this world as we humans will bear (learning, as the poet Blake put it, “to bear the beams of love”), all the while awaiting, like the children of Narnia on whom the favor of Aslan rests, the promised glory of the Lord.
Nowhere, it seems to me, are glints of that glory given greater or more sustained concentration than throughout the seven Chronicles of Narnia, a work whose countless felicities only confirm Chesterton’s dictum that fairy tales are really not meant just for children. They are meant rather for people for whom the capacity to sit in wonder, to marvel and take delight (for no other reason than that the world, to quote Fr. Hopkins once more, “is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness like the ooze of oil / Crushed…”), can hardly be said to exist at all. People whose horizons are strictly bounded by their work, by structures overwhelmingly secular and sensate, are not likely to notice the numinous, not even were it to appear on nighttime TV. But the realm of faerie exists primarily for them, to help them recover and renew a sense of vision appropriate to people who have been redeemed. In such as these, writes Lewis, there is often awakened, “a longing for they know not what. It stirs and troubles them, to their lifelong enrichment, with the dim sense of something beyond their reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth…. This is a special kind of longing.”
Although meant in this sense for adults, the Chronicles are mostly about children, quite ordinary ones in fact, who have been summoned to heroism in a strange land by a Golden Lion, where they meet and do battle with a cunning White Witch who has cast a terrible spell of perpetual winter without Christmas. How Narnia eventually rids itself of the evil enchantment is the stuff of high fantasy, of which the resolution is finally theological, requiring the sacrifice no less of Aslan, the Innocent Lion, who will give his life for the sake of his friends to atone for the treachery of one of their number.
It is a story strewn, of course, with echoes and evocations of that Other Story, which, to paraphrase a line from the great J.R.R. Tolkein, there never was a tale told that men would rather find was true. To go to Narnia is to discover once again, under the sign of art, the immense and sundering truth of that Tale, whose telling the men of our time have been for too long deaf and indifferent.