By Luci Shaw*
Lewis tells us that fiction has the power to convey “to us the quality of experience which we have not had, or perhaps can never have, [by using] factors within our experience so that they become pointers to something outside our experience—as two or more roads on a map show us where a town that is off the map must lie.” (“The Language of Religion” in Christian Reflections, Ed. Walter Hooper, 4th ed., p. 164) In each of his novels he charts for us a different country, a unique landscape, but the roads that point to it show striking similarities.
Here I’m thinking of Lewis’ ability imaginatively to transport us into new areas in space and/or time in order to break through our barriers of familiarity and open up the realms of the spirit to us in fresh and compelling ways. This is true of the novels in The Space Trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, as well as Till We Have Faces, The Screwtape Letters, and The Great Divorce.
One of Lewis’s felicitous gifts was to take a common perception, turn it on its head, and examine it thoroughly and imaginatively from a fresh angle. An example: his discussion of the characteristics of “good and evil,” both in Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, (p. 19), in the context of “experiencing” the presence of an eldil. By transporting us to another planet where every object and phenomenon is strange, original, alien, unexpected, and therefore surprising, so that we can see it devoid of cliché, Lewis turns his narrative into a running commentary and critique of our own commonplace familiar.
Thus Lewis often re-translates our own culture and earthly life by perceiving it through the lens of an altogether alien mode of existence. In The Great Divorce, the novels in The Space Trilogy, and The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis uses a kind of “displacement,” as his technique. Though the stories are seen from the viewpoint of “back on earth,” the writer moves us imaginatively into new territory.
How does Lewis escort us out of our familiarity and complacency to a larger landscape which opens up the meanings of our own lives? This is one of the premier gifts of Lewis’s fiction—that we see ourselves, and both our plight and our potential anew. Lewis guides us into a fresh understanding of our human uniqueness, with all its gifts and graces, in ways that may induce in us a surge of guilt that in our short-sightedness and blindness we have betrayed our destiny, or a surge of gratitude that we have been created thus, with free choice, with abilities and longings and visions implanted by the Creator, and with a sense of what Lewis refers to as the Tao—that innate conviction that there are standards of good and evil, and there is a being more powerful and more holy than we are who is pulling us into the realm of his beauty and goodness.
Through the Lewis lens we also see with shocking impact the banality, the shallowness, the short-sightedness, the self-absorption and arrogance, the artificiality of much human enterprise, which bears similarities to the biblical Babel. We note our human preoccupation with immediate sensual gratification, the lust for power, intellectual pride, and a waning of virtue, moral strength, and conviction. By contrast, in the familial and societal structures of the seroni (sorns), hrossa, and pfiffltriggi of Malacandra, for instance, we glimpse values, attitudes, and behaviors which long to claim or reclaim for humankind.
Recently I spent four weeks in South Africa and experienced my own personal sense of displacement. I was in a different hemisphere, with its own distinct constellations of stars, including the Southern Cross. The seasons were all back to front—where we in North America were moving into winter, my son and his wife and the rest of the South African population were experiencing the heat waves of late spring and early summer. Though wildly beautiful, the landscape seemed alien, with rock formations, flora and fauna that appeared strange and even bizarre to my North American eyes. We drove on the left of the highway, using our left hands to change gears in the bakkei, or open trucks, the vehicles of choice for much of the population. All measurements were metrical; I had no idea how large an area was measured off in a hectare. I saw the remnants of the cultural legacy of apartheid, and a nation still in the throes of a struggling economy and volatile political system. The languages felt odd. Xhosa is a “click” language in which my children had learned to converse but that left me in the role of the tongue-tied outsider.
But in that role of curious and bewildered observer I was, distanced from my customary culture, able to see myself and my country with a kind of stark objectivity that showed up its virtues of democracy, individual freedom, free enterprise and technological progress, but also its banality, superficiality, artificiality, and corruption all too clearly. Many of these are the very same negative qualities of western culture and enterprise that Lewis showed us in his fiction. Lewis lived in a “modern” world with a diminished sense of God, and vanishing mythic overtones. We, in our post-modern world are increasingly aware of its pluralism and relativism, where to speak of Truth is considered arrogant, where, with the prevalence of a fuzzy “spirituality,” absolutes have been dispensed with. Perhaps the continuing popularity of The Chronicles of Narnia suggests a hunger for a living truth that convinces without enforcing. The ancient, counter-cultural themes present in the stories are not propaganda, but in them Lewis calls us back to a truth we would all like to claim, that might banish our insecurity, giving us something of substance to hold to in a disjunctive and fragile world.
Reading Lewis’s stories, keeping in mind such contrasts between our current condition and the possibilities for change, may help us to see ourselves as God sees us. Lewis’s comments on Western culture still hold true; it behooves us in our own time to take his correctives seriously, and view our lives as if from other worlds. As we achieve this new view, our journals and our writing will become more thoughtful, richer, with greater power to convict or encourage, to show us truth about ourselves and our world.
*Luci Shaw is a poet and author of many books including Water My Soul: Cultivating the Interior Life. She is also the poetry editor for Radix and Crux magazines.