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C. S. Lewis and the Christian Life

C. S. Lewis and the Christian Life Ep. 9

April 4, 2018 Speaker: The Rev. Brian K. McGreevy

“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Excerpted from through-a-glass-brightly.blogspot.com/2014

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Lament of Eustace Scrubb and Penance


 After reading my Mumford & Sons post, a friend of mine recommended a new band to me called The Oh Hellos. It took me a while but I finally listened to their first album on YouTube. They sound like a mixture of The Head and the Heart, Of Monsters and Men, and The Lumineers. I really enjoyed the whole thing, but the song that stood out from the others is the one titled, "The Lament of Eustace Scrubb." I knew C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia from my childhood and I had the opportunity to study them as an adult in college. So right away I recognized that the song was about the wretched little boy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader who turned into a dragon. Do yourself a favor and listen to the song. It has a very Celtic feel to it, perfect for St. Patrick's Day. (Here's a link if you need it.) If you feel compelled to dance, by all means...

     Brother, forgive me: we both know I'm the one to blame.
     When I saw my demons I knew them well and welcomed them; but I'll come around, someday.

     Father, have mercy: I know that I have gone astray.
     When I saw my reflection it was a stranger beneath my face;  but I'll come around, someday.
     When I touch the water they tell me I could be set free. So I'll come around, someday.

Wipe that dancing sweat from your brow and let's talk about what just happened. What do you feel? Were you surprised when the song took such a dramatic turn? Surprised by.... joy, perhaps? Why did that happen in the midst of such mournfulness? Here's my interpretation: I think you just experienced the musical version of the Sacrament of Penance, or Confession. The songs begins slowly and sadly, the subject lamenting a sin that he has committed against his neighbor. He acknowledges the fault, sending up his mea culpa. He addresses God the Father, asks for mercy. What happens next is not illustrated in words, but rather in music. But the title directs the listener to a brilliant image to aid our understanding of what is happening: Aslan, the mighty lion, tearing the scales off the boy-turned-dragon, Eustace Scrubb.

This saga is captured by two chapters in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The beastly boy, in order to shirk work, breaks off from his cousins and the rest of the crew and discovers a dragon's cave full of treasure. (The set up is so similar to what happens when Edmund does the same sort of thing in The LionThe Witch, and the Wardrobe that we know something bad is coming.) Greedily, Eustace stuffs his pockets and covers himself with loot to the point of exhaustion. When awakens, he sees his reflection in a pool of water and discovers that he has become a dragon. The "Lament" goes: "When I saw my reflection, it was a stranger beneath my face." The rest of the chapter provides the full content to what the Oh Hellos mean by, "I'll come around someday," as Eustace struggles to cope with being a dragon and longs to be changed back. In the next chapter, Eustace tells his cousin Edmund about how he stopped being one. Aslan, King of Narnia, had come to him, and told him to undress. Eustace realizes that he means to shed his skin much like a snake does. So he scratches and scratches as scales fall to the ground, but it is not good enough:

   "Then the lion said—but I don't know if it spoke—'You will have to let me undress you.' I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of felling the stuff peel off. You know—if you've ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like a billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away."
   "I know exactly what you mean," said Edmund.


C.S. Lewis looking as if he just listened to The Oh Hellos.

 Allow me a brief digression here as we come upon one of my most cherished gems of spiritual formation, which came from C.S. Lewis. The last chapter of Mere Christianity is titled "The New Men." I've read it or listened to it at least a dozen times and I made my Apologetics students experience it, too, because it is one of my favorite things. It is about becoming holy, and Lewis says simply and surprisingly, "it must be fun." That is what is happening when we are stripped and purged of our baggage and our dead skin. We are being sanctified, and it is such fun.

Back to the song: none of this text is featured in the lyrics, but the music brings it to life most delightfully. The fiddle scratches like he lion's claws, the drum pounds like the child's heart, hands clap as if to cheer on the dazzling dance of transformation. It is loud and intense. It burns with pain but also pleasure. It is, to use Eustace's word, fun. As the music slows back down, the lyrics pick up and end with the next scene:

"Then he caught hold of me—I didn't like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I'd no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious. [...] I'd turned into a boy again."

But the perspective has changed in the song. By the end, it is not the dragon talking ("When I touch the water they tell me I can be set free"), for he has undergone the cleansing of these baptismal waters and as such is being held up to the singer and to the listener as an example to follow, so that we, too, can be set free. But then he says that he'll "come around someday." To that I say, get thee to a priest, my friend! You can "come around" before the sun goes down.


Plato Book VII of The Republic:  The Allegory of the Cave

Socrates is talking to a young follower of his named Glaucon, and is telling him this fable to illustrate what it's like to be a philosopher -- a lover of wisdom

[Socrates:]  And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: --Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

[Glaucon:]  I see.

And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads? And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

Yes, he said. And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

Very true. And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

No question, he replied. To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

That is certain. And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, -what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, -- will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?

Far truer. And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take and take in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?

True, he said. And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he 's forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.

Not all in a moment, he said. He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?

Certainly. Last of he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.

Certainly. He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?

Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him. And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?

Certainly, he would. And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer,

Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?

Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner. Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?

To be sure, he said. And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.

No question, he said. This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.


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passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy
Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.
Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy
Author Lev Grossman says C.S. Lewis taught him that in fiction, stepping into
magical realms means encountering earthly concerns in transfigured form.
AUG 5, 2014 | CULTURE

4/4/2018 Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy - The Atlantic
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“If you were in a room full of books,” Lev Grossman writes in his latest novel, The
Magician’s Land, “you were at least halfway home.” For Grossman, no books feel
more like home than C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which provide the template
Doug McLean
4/4/2018 Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy - The Atlantic
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for what he likes to read—and how he wants to write. In our conversation for this
series, Grossman explained what The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe taught him
about fiction, what makes Lewis’s work so radically inventive, and why his own
stories must step through the looking glass into fantasy.
The Magician’s Land concludes Grossman’s acclaimed and best-selling trilogy,
which has been praised in magazines like The New Republic and The New Yorker for
being a darker, grown-up, and more complex Harry Potter. At Grossman’s
Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, students drink, hook up, and take magic
classes that are as difficult as Organic Chemistry—and dangerous, too, for some are
devoured by the beasts their works unleash. The third and final installment finds
our hero Quentin Coldwater as a 30-year-old man, now banished from the Narnialike
land of Fillory, as he rejoins old friends to try to find—and then save—the
enchanted kingdom of their past.
Lev Grossman is a book critic and senior technology writer for Time magazine. He
spoke to me by phone from his home in Brooklyn.
Lev Grossman: I can’t say with total accuracy when I first read The Lion, the Witch,
and the Wardrobe. I wasn’t a particularly early reader, so I couldn’t have been much
younger than 7 or 8 years old. But the Narnia books had a kind of special place in
our family. My mother’s English; she was in London during the blitz, when she was
about Lucy Pevensie’s age. To stay safe from the bombing, like Lewis’s fictional
children, she was sent from London to the countryside. The book opens with the
Pevensies arriving from London, so you have this strange, dark background—this
sense of war going on, which the characters have only just narrowly escaped.
Of course, unlike the Pevensies, my mom failed to find adventures in a magical land
accessed through a wardrobe. But, in fact, she claims she was so badly behaved that
her host family actually had her deported back to London. I don’t know what she
did—but apparently it was so naughty that being bombed by Hitler was a preferable
fate. The cultural divide between poor urban Londoners and the country English
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was very great, and it was hard for the two factions to find common ground. I guess,
in her case, they never did.
So the Narnia books had a special place for my mom. I think she must have
presented them to us with a special flourish. And I’m fairly certain that The Lion, the
Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first book that I ever was transported by. I think it’s
the book that taught me what novels are supposed to do. It’s the book that taught
me how books work, and what—if they’re good—they do for you. It was the
template for all the great reading experiences I had ahead.
C.S. Lewis writes like Hemingway, like the Joyce of
Why is Lewis so important to me? In part, it’s because—technically, from the point
of view of craft—he tells the story with truly exemplary economy. By the time we’re
only six or seven pages into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we already know
all four Pevensies, we know how each child feels about the other three, and he’s
gotten Lucy through the wardrobe and into Narnia. With incredible speed, he
acquaints us with the characters—just one or two well-placed details, and we’re able
to know each one—and delves right away into the adventure.
Even more than that, it’s the way he uses language—which is nothing like the way
fantasists used language before him. There’s no sense of nostalgia. There’s no
medieval floridness. There’s no fairy tale condescension to the child reader. It’s
very straight, and very clean—there’s no Vaseline on the lens. You see everything
clearly, not with sparkles or a flowery sense of wonderment, but with very specific
physical details. Look at the attention to detail as you watch Lucy going through the
This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!" thought Lucy, going still
further in and pushing the soft folds of the coats aside to make room for
4/4/2018 Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy - The Atlantic
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her. Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her
feet. "I wonder is that more mothballs?" she thought, stooping down to
feel it with her hand. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the
floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and
extremely cold. "This is very queer," she said, and went on a step or two
Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and
hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even
prickly. "Why, it is just like branches of trees!" exclaimed Lucy. And then
she saw that there was a light ahead of her; not a few inches away where
the back of the wardrobe ought to have been, but a long way off.
Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found
that she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow
under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.
She feels the softness of the coats, she hears the crunching under her feet, she
bends down and feels the snow, she feels the prickliness of the trees, and just like
that she’s through the wardrobe and into Narnia. There are no special effects in the
passage. He’s making magic, but he’s making magic out of very ordinary physical
impressions. It’s very powerful, and it’s very new. I don’t think anybody wrote this
way before he did. He came up with a new way to describe magic that made it feel
realer than it ever had.
It works because he’s writing fantasy—but he’s working with the tools of realism.
Even though he had this wonderful romantic yearning nostalgia, he writes like a
modernist. He writes like Hemingway, like the Joyce of Dubliners. Though he was
writing shortly after the time of the modernists, he observes reality in the
meticulous, almost disenchanted way they did—but he puts those tools in the
service of a totally different effect.
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As far as the modern fantasy novels goes, this is ground zero. You’re seeing the
atom being split for the first time. So much of what’s written afterwards comes out
of that simple moment, just emerges from Lucy going through the wardrobe.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a powerful illustration of why fantasy
matters in the first place. Yes, the Narnia books are works of Christian apology,
works that celebrate joy and love—but what I was conscious of as a little boy, if not
in any analytical way, was the deep grief encoded in the books. Particularly in the
initial wardrobe passage. There’s a sense of anger and grief and despair that causes
Lewis to want to discard the entire war, set it aside in the favor of something better.
You can feel him telling you—I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is.
There’s another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option. I
remember feeling this way as a child, too. I remember thinking, “Yes, of course
there is. Of course this isn’t all there is. There must be something else.”
How powerful it was to have Lewis come along and say, Yes, I feel that way, too.
When you go to Narnia, your worries comes with you.
But I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate
way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an
understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when
you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you
thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his
grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything,
they're exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you
go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you
work them out and try to resolve them.
The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around
you—sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on
inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a
mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take
4/4/2018 Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy - The Atlantic
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the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you
can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes
all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then
deal with them.
The thing about the Narnia books, is that they’re about Christianity. I grew up in a
household that not only lacked Christianity—there was very little Christianity in our
house, even though my mom was raised Anglican—there was almost no religion of
any kind. Religion was, and to some extent has remained to me, a totally baffling
concept. I wasn’t experiencing the book in any way as stores about religion: I
experienced them as psychological dramas. This sleight of hand in which an
apparent escape becomes a way of encountering yourself, and encountering your
problems, seems to me the basic logic of reading and of the novel.
In this way, the portal in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe becomes a
magnificent metaphor for reading itself. When she opens the doors to the
wardrobe, it’s like Lucy’s opening the covers of a book and passing through it to
somewhere else—which is just the same experience you’re having at the moment
you’re reading the passage. You’re watching Lucy do the same thing you are, just in
a way that’s dramatized and transfigured.
I think the standard psychoanalytic reading of the wardrobe has to do with a return
to the womb—you know, passing through these furry coats back into a safe place.
But that idea, while perhaps supportable on the grounds of textual evidence, never
really seemed paramount to me. For me, the wardrobe’s doors open like a book,
ushering Lucy—and the reader—into a new imaginative realm of imagination.
That’s the kind of writer I aspire to be: one that helps the reader make that seamless
passage, from the real world to the land of fantasy, from real life to the realm of
When she opens the doors to the wardrobe, it’s like Lucy’s
opening the covers of a book.
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It’s funny, because Lewis was in some ways a very sloppy writer. The world he
created for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe doesn’t really add up. It’s not like it
has a working ecology. If he wanted fauns he put fauns in. If he wanted Santa Claus
—well, here comes Santa Claus! Let’s have him in too. He took from everybody, and
when he saw something shiny, he thought, “Ooh, shiny!” and put it in the book.
This drove Tolkien crazy, because Tolkien was very meticulous in his worldbuilding;
Lewis didn’t care, and wrote in this exuberant, improvisational way. As
sloppy as it is, people—myself included—believe in it utterly.
This flies in the face of conventional wisdom as it stands among fantasy writers
today—which is that you have to be very, very careful. Today’s fantasy writers feel
as though the fictional worlds they create have to be full-scale working models.
People talk a lot about the ecology of [George R. R. Martin’s] Westeros, for instance
—how do the seasons work? What are the climate patterns? How does it function as
an ecosphere? You have to think about the economy, too—have I got a working
feudal model? It’s gotten so extreme that when characters do magic, it’s very
common to see fantasy writers talk about thermodynamics—okay, he’s lighting a
candle with magic, can he draw the heat from somewhere else in the room so that
equilibrium gets preserved?
This is the school of thought that extends from Tolkien, and his scrupulouslycrafted
Middle Earth. Lewis was of a different school from that. Magic, to him, was
a much wilder, stranger thing. It was much less domesticated. And when I re-read
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I feel as though we’ve wandered too far from
the true magic, the kind Lewis wrote. Maybe we want to worry less about
thermodynamics and work harder to get that sense of wonder he achieves with such
apparent effortlessness.
And then, there are things that he does that are simply not replicable. The lamppost
in the woods: there’s something indescribably strange and romantic about that
image, which recurs at the end of the book. In some ways, you read Lewis and
think: I can learn from this guy. But sometimes you have to sit back and think, I’ll
never know how he did that. You know, I’ve seen the lamppost in Oxford which is
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alleged to be the Narnia lamppost. To me, it looked like an ordinary lamppost. I
would not have seen that lamppost, and gone home and to write The Lion, the Witch,
and the Wardrobe. You had to be Lewis to see it for what it was.
I should put on the record my mom’s other C. S. Lewis anecdote, which goes like
this: After she went back to London, wasn’t blown to bits by Hitler, and grew up, she
went to Oxford for college. It was her senior year, and she was on her way to her
final exams, which were oral exams. As one does, she stopped into a pub to have a
pint and stiffen her resolve. There was this old guy at the other end of the bar. They
started chatting, and he said, “If you’re taking your exams, you should really have a
brandy first.”
Well, up until that point in her life, my mom had never had any brandy. And the guy
at the bar, of course, was C. S. Lewis. He bought her a brandy. She drank it. And she
claims to have no memory of anything else that happened that day. She passed her
exams, at least, so it can’t have been that bad.
JOE FASSLER is the editor of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic
Process. He regularly interviews writers for The Atlantic's "By Heart" series. He also covers the
politics and economics of the American food system as a senior editor for The New Food
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