Tuesday, August 30, 2016
Return to Imagination
Today I learned something about Lewis and his fantasy children’s books. I had originally thought he had written The Chronicles of Narnia with the idea to help convert children to Christianity so that they, unlike him, would grow up in the faith. I was wrong. Well, partly wrong. As it turns out, he did not set out with that purpose, but the books themselves eventually evolved to show Christian symbolism. He says, “Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children. . . .This is all out moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first, there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.” (“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” 1956) The evolution of a fantasy story to a Christian fantasy story had help from the reader who, bringing with him his worldview of Christ and Christian symbolism, saw divine connections and this idea exploded into many excellent commentaries on the subject.
Since C.S. Lewis wrote the Chronicles of Narnia not, as so many have supposed, to rekindle the spark of Christianity within the minds of children, what must have been his purpose? Lewis looked at the world around him. Education reform had all but reduced the curriculum to mindless superficial facts and meaningless ideas. Movies had begun to replace the leisurely activity of reading the classic novel. Professor David Whalen of Hillsdale College says that in the movies, especially in the action/adventure type, one explosive event after another entertains a riveted audience until they are numb with overwhelming excitement. Lewis was concerned that the fast-tracked world would overpower the imagination once made vivid by leisurely reading and discussing.
One solution to the modern busy-ness was to return to the great books. He said, “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.” (Introduction to Athanasius’ On The Incarnation, by C.S. Lewis) There exists a certain texture, atmosphere, quality and character in a classic book that lends to the reader as much excitement as the story itself (Whalen). No other media can transfer these characteristics to the reader.
Lewis felt that modernity, with its rapid change and endless distractions, created a sort of man-made cocoon for mankind, far away from nature, Godly creation, and Imagination. Thus, he set forth to restore sensitivity to it.
Imagination, which Lewis thought had gone astray in our modern world, could be described as the default setting of our pre-cognitive skills (Whalen). The dreams, the hopes, the fears all begin within the realm of the imagination. The busy-ness and distraction in our man-made world seem to have upset and crippled the default setting of Imagination. We tend to get stuck in the mundanity and urgency of ordinary things (Whalen).
While pondering this, I could not help thinking of our family tradition of backpacking and camping and how much it rejuvenates me. I am sure few would understand why I would want to “be homeless for a week” (a phrase from someone I love), and I am not sure I understand the “why” myself until I am finally up in the mountains and away from the distractions and the noise of our fabricated world. It is there that I re-connect with my soul, reconnect with nature, with God’s creations and with the most basic tenets of life. Out in nature I feel liberated from the addictive superficial diversions and the entrapment of the merely immediate enticements. In the mountains, I am renewed to think of the higher and the highest things.
Lewis’s hope in writing the Chronicles of Narnia likewise was to restore sensitivity to the imagination, to correct it, and place it where it will instill the "ideal" within the mind and heart once again. In his writing, he returned to the ancient myths and symbols that inspired the imagination for many centuries.
Thank you, Hillsdale College, for your free online courses and especially thank you for the particular course on C.S. Lewis. Once again, I am inspired!