C. S. Lewis - The Silver Chair
March 20, 2019 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 Lion, The 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.
The Allegory of the Cave in the Writings of Lewis and Barfield
SEPTEMBER 30, 2009 BY HENRY KARLSON PATHEOS.COM
It is not surprising that science fiction and fantasy writers often use Plato’s allegory as a means of telling a story. We can associate ourselves with the struggle a character has in trying to maintain their insight. And the struggle can be of various kinds, some mental, some physical, providing, as it were, an unlimited numbers of stories to be told. Some writers try to engage more of the elements of the allegory than others, taking in details which are not necessary but nonetheless useful to the reader. Such, for example, is the case with C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield, two members of the Inklings. They both have stories which feature underground societies being kept in the dark about the world. They do so, however, for different reasons, each leading to their own insights about the human condition.
C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair has, at its basis, a refutation of the idea that religious experience is the delusional abstraction of ordinary life to fulfill one’s desires. In it, the main characters, Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum, were sent by Aslan to find and rescue King Capsian’s son and heir, Rilian. He had been abducted by The Lady of the Green Kirtle, The Emerald Witch, and taken into her underground kingdom, where she has confused him by her charms, making him forget his past. She hoped to use him to lead a force of gnomes into invading and taking over Narnia. After the heroes find him and break her control over him, she is outraged. Nonetheless, she believes she can charm him and everyone else into believing the world of Narnia is unreal, thus regaining her control. When she employs her magic, everyone begins to forget about their past. They remember elements of it, and talk about it, like the land of Narnia, the sun, the woods, our world from which Eustace and Jill came from, etc. She tries to convince them their memories are wrong, and what they say exists is merely the abstraction of what they find in the underground realm. When asked about the sun they talk about, Prince Rilian described it in like a lamp, filled with light, but much bigger and in the sky. This is all the witch needed to make her argument:
You see? When you try to think out clearly what this sun must be, you cannot tell me. You can only tell me it is like the lamp. Your sun is a dream; and there is nothing in that dream that was not copied from the lamp. The lamp is the real thing; the sun is but a tale, a children’s story.
Next, the witch challenged them upon the name of Aslan. Who and what is Aslan? When Eustace said he is a lion, and that a lion is like a big yellow cat with a mane, she responded:
‘I see,’ she said, ‘that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ‘tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say the truth, it would suit you better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. [….] I have work for you all in the real world. There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan…’
Of course, those who are reading the story know the witch is lying; they are able to see through her charms. But it is in this way Lewis is capable of showing us how we reason things out, how we try to explain away that which we do not want to believe (or knowingly try to make people believe in falsehoods). We find another explanation, and hold on to it, even if it really does not have the logical weight we make it out as having. It’s easy to say religious experience is the delusion created by wish fulfillment, but it is another thing to prove it. If one already assumes religious experience to be faulty, one can find a reason to reject it; but that shows more about the assumption behind the rejection than it does anything else. Just because one can suggest a plausible explanation behind a phenomena does not mean they really have explained the phenomena. I can, of course, make plastic replicas of food, though I would be foolish to suggest that this means all food is likewise fake. Because there is the possibility that an experience could be faulty, we should not dismiss that suggestion out of hand either. Lewis provides an interesting way out of this quandary, one which could be said to be aesthetical: as we must accept there is something which is real, we must choose that which best fits our own aesthetic sense of what should be real, even if we cannot prove it is (in traditional philosophy, this is the argument of fittingness). And this is what Lewis puts into the mouth of Puddleglum:
Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – tress and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. […] So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.
Lewis, therefore, used the allegory of the cave to show us the nature of doubt, to show us how charming and yet unreliable its explanations can be. The question for Lewis is not whether or not we can prove the truth, but how fitting a presentation our worldview is. Truth must be beautiful; that which is merely ugly is not fit to be called the truth. And it is because it is attractive, because it is beautiful, we can have faith in the truth of revelation.
What makes Owen Barfield’s own allegory of the cave, Night Operation, so compelling is that he shows us what went in to the creation of the “cave.” It is a prophetic warning of where society is going. His is the world of the future, the world of the sewer. Biological terrorism made humanity burrow under the earth, into the sewers; its changes in education and social mores were ones which fit their new homeland. The three R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic, were rejected because they led to a kind of education that was not seen as conducive to democracy. “Some children acquire them more easily and apply than others and in doing so become different from those others. Obsessions with the three Rs belongs to the old twentieth-century ideal of equality of opportunity. Modern education aims at equality of result.” As a replacement to the three Rs, the society of the future had the three Es, which became the foundation of their culture: “The three E’s were of course ejaculation, defecation and eructation.” Education fit for sewage-dwellers, indeed. Reason is no longer emphasized. Despite this loss, this society saw human history was seen as aiming for this end; ancient history was reinterpreted in light of the new social situation, and the new, positive history was seen as true and anything else as fanciful.
Barfield allows old books to exist in this world, and one could read them if they desired, but few did; and if they did, like the young Jon, the main character of this story, they had difficulty in understanding what was written in them. Many words were incomprehensible. Jon, in his attempt to learn about the past, had to learn the meanings of ancient words. “The language they used. The words they used. How to ‘dig’ them? How to get inside them? That was the problem, that was the abiding task.” It was difficult work. “One of his most formidable tasks was to familiarize himself with many other sorts of feeling, which Traditional History disclosed as having once been common property. We all have to approach the unfamiliar with the familiar and Jon was no exception.” Barfield provides many pages of Jon’s research and learning, how he gained access to words long lost like “marriage” and “honour” and “chaste,” as well as words which had been reduced in meaning by his time like “clean” and “dirty.”
Barfield in this work does a wonderful job in showing the hermeneutic process, and the difficulties we all have when we approach texts from different cultures. He also shows us the kind of changes such studies have on us, as he shows us the changes in Jon. The further he progressed in his personal studies, the more it changed him and his understanding of the world he was in. “It has been described already how Jon discovered at an early stage that, in order to participate enough to understand either obsolete words are obsolete meanings, he actually had to become a slightly different person. The trouble was that, as time passed and his studies continued unabated, he became a god deal more than ‘slightly’ different from his former self.” It affected him his social relationships. He was no longer able to join in with the leisure activities of his of his era, for he saw the value of previous tastes which were not based upon the three Es. “It mainly affected recreation, but then recreation was for nearly everyone the only leisure activity, and there was plenty of leisure. Not that there were no other games besides the various modes of ejaculation, but the excitement they offered was relatively weak and insipid.”
Jon introduces his studies to his two friends, Jak (probably named in honor of Barfield’s real-life friend, Jack, i.e.C.S. Lewis) and Peet. They struggle with him to understand what it is he is learning, and they slowly, like him, are changed because of it. In some ways Jak, without doing the study, is changed more and quicker than Jon, while Peet is the one who seems to be lagging behind. They eventually decide they must get out of the sewers and see the world that Jon’s reading describes. They promise each other, if they do make it out, they will stay in the overworld for only a few hours, and return home to reveal what they have seen to their society.
In theory, anyone is allowed up, but they find out, in reality, such permission is not readily granted, and any minor infraction they might have done is seen as a debt which must be paid before they get such permission. They expect it could take decades before they are allowed out, so instead, they find a way to sneak up and out. When they find themselves at the edge between the two worlds, they are afraid – the expanse of the world is beyond anything they knew or experienced. Jon’s readings did not prepare for what they saw. It was a holy event, filled with awe and attraction. They pressed on, and saw sights which they did not know how to interpret. They wanted to stay and yet they were afraid. Then they remembered their promise they made to return once they had something to bring back to their people – but as they go back, changed, they plan to return one day, and bring with them everyone from the sewer up with them. Barfield ends the story without any indication if they are successful or not: “What happened after that, how far they maintained their joint resolution, what influence they were able to exert, and what effect, if any, it had on the destiny of that closed society of sickness and the smell of sickness, from which they had momentarily emerged, is a tale which cannot be told for the sufficient reason that it is not yet know.” Why it cannot be told is probably because the story is a reflection of our society, and where we are going. Barfield wants to warn us like a Jonah, but he does not know the outcome of that warning. Can the future decay of human society be prevented? If it falls into such filth, can it ever recover? Both are questions Barfield wants to leave us with.
There are many other examples of Plato’s allegory of the cave used in the science fiction and fantasy genre which could be brought up, from Philip K Dick’s The Penultimate Truth to The Matrix; in each the questions raised by Plato continue to challenge us and our self-understanding in the world, but they do so with a sense of warning. Plato’s cave was to show us how to be enlightened; in science fiction and fantasy, we are shown how we can become deluded, of why we would need to be enlightened. In this way, the chains which bind us to delusion are revealed as those things which we make and place upon ourselves. Lewis shows us how we can create chains by the abuse of reason, while Barfield shows us the way society, when the ways of reason are rejected for the sake of survival, can also create such chains. With Lewis, we are shown the strength of faith, with Barfield, the power of reason – the two together present the means by which we can keep society together and not fall into a dark, damp cave of depravity in the future.
 C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1978), 155-6.
THE SILVER CHAIR:
Questions for Reflection
- In what ways might we, even as Christians, live in Experiment House today in terms of our beliefs and our behavior?
- What would be some of the good reasons Eustace could have used to rationalize not speaking with Jill in the first place, or even more so, being vulnerable with Jill? How does self-protection sometimes block our ability to live out God’s will for us?
- Why does Eustace cite specific examples of his having changed when he is talking with Jill? Is he bragging? Why is his behavior relevant to his change of heart, and what can we learn from his example in our own lives?
- Do we truly believe there is no other stream? In what ways can we give lip service to that idea while living otherwise?
- How can we move from having a victim mentality in our personal lives and instead work to be honest and accept responsibility for our own sins and their consequences as we seek to repent?
- Do we truly believe that living just for comfort and economic success is wrong? What is the alternative? How can we recover a sense of Vocation in our lives?
- Are we engaged in a purposeful life that is making a difference in the Kingdom of God? How would we know and if need, how would we begin to change?
- How convinced are we about the primacy and necessity of the Word of God in living our lives? How can we live into a Word-centric approach in our day to day routines? What would be the result?
- We live in a culture obsessed with defining identity. Eustace boldly stands for Caspian and Aslan. How can we more courageously stand for Christ individually and as a body, and define our identity in terms of belonging to Him?
- How can we become more sensitive to the ways that sin, both large and small, hinders us from following the Word of the Lord so that we may repent?
- It has been said that the role of the church is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Why is comfort such a deadly enemy of boldly following Christ, and what can we do to avoid being hindered and distracted by it in our own lives?
- Scripture is clear that the Body of Christ needs all of its parts, and that no one part is more important than another. Why is having all of the parts of the Body, including those who are very different from us, not only important but necessary to carrying out the work of the Gospel? How are we hindered when we do not walk together?
- How can we develop a stronger sense of discernment about Evil? Why is our culture so susceptible to the “frog in the kettle” syndrome? What is the standard for determining what is evil versus good in our culture?
- How can wise counsel help us avoid dangerous outcomes? What is the standard for determining whether counsel is wise? What keeps us from seeking wise counsel?
- What does it mean to be “wise in your own eyes”? How is this related to the Biblical idea of remembering from Deuteronomy 6 that we discussed in class recently?
- What does the desire for comfort do to Eustace and Pole? What are the consequences in terms of the Signs and the Quest? What is the analogous danger of comfort for Christians today?
- In what ways can we be naive in the face of Evil? What is the standard, and what can aid us in discerning between Evil and Good?
- How does neglecting the Signs (Scripture) put us on the slippery slope? Why are we then more likely to find ourselves in compromising situations we never sought out?
- What is the difference between guilt and conviction? What are the roadblocks we can encounter on the road from conviction to repentance that keep us mired in our situations?
- Does Scripture promise that following Christ will make us healthy, wealthy, and comfortable and protect us from suffering? Where does this false impression come from and how is it harmful to us? to the cause of the Gospel?
- Why is encouraging fellowship such an essential element for living into the Quest/God’s plan for our life? Why are we so often tempted to go it alone? What is the risk of so doing?
- What can we learn about reading Scripture and its applicability to us and our needs TODAY from the example of “UNDER ME” and Puddleglum’s refuting of Rilian’s argument:
Is it not the merriest jest in the world that you should have thought these words were written to you? This was like cold water down the back to Scrubb and Jill; for it seemed to them very likely that the words had nothing to do with their quest at all, and that they had been taken in by a mere accident.
"Don't you mind him," said Puddleglum. "There are no accidents. Our guide is Aslan; and he was there when the giant King caused the letters to be cut, and he knew already all things that would come of them; including this.”
- Why is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave so very relevant for our culture today? What myth about reality are we in danger of believing, and what is the result if we do so? How can we resist this dangerous temptation?
- Puddleglum and the children display a remarkably deep faith in Aslan and the Signs, putting their lives on the line in so doing. What is the result of their obedience, and what might have happened if they had disobeyed? What can we learn from their example about following God’s Word?