Tim (littlebluedog) wrote,
Tim
littlebluedog

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narnia 1: puddleglum

A couple of weeks ago, I finished up "The Chronic(what?)cles of Narnia," for the first time in probably twenty years or so. I have a set of seven well-thumbed paperbacks published in 1980, which were a Christmas gift from my parents after the old hardcover ones they had fell apart.

This reading was, to be honest, the first one in which I read the series with themes of Christianity in mind, because it's occurred to me that Lewis' version of Christianity differs from traditional doctrine. The catalyst of this idea was probably the recent phenomenon of the film being so loudly advocated by so many Christian groups, but its genesis is really unknown; I've wanted to revisit the series for a long time to figure out the nature of the doctrine being pushed by Lewis in these books. So far, I've noted quite a few departures.

The first involves the nature of faith. Some weeks back, I posed an unfortunately-worded hypo to the christianity group, essentially asking what would happen to a Christian's faith if the entire written record turned out to be hogwash. The answer I guess I expected to receive is that nothing would happen: the power of the Word is in the message communicated by the stories, not in the stories themselves. Coincidentally, this is also my personal take on it.

Some of the answers I did receive echoed this sentiment; many disputed the hypo itself ("you can't disprove the existence of a person! pwn3zd!"); but a surprising number were of the general idea that without the literal flesh-and-blood sacrifice of the perfect victim on the cross, nothing has happened to set the message apart from any other message ... in other words, that without the truth of the stories, Christianity is nothing.

When you look at it, the latter argument doesn't really say much: the flesh-and-blood sacrifice is just as much a part of the message as any other part. However, those who vocalized this type of answer were ... quite stalwart.

I think Lewis would agree with my take on it. Here's why.

In The Silver Chair, two children from our world (Jill and Eustace) are summoned into Narnia and given a task by Aslan: to find and rescue the missing Prince Rilian. The story proceeds with the children being introduced to a marsh-dwelling creature named Puddleglum, a rather somber fellow, who acts as a bare-footed guide and companion to the children on their mission.

Their journey leads the trio underground, to the lair of the Emerald Witch, where they succeed in breaking the spell under which Rilian had been held captive. However, before the group can escape from her subterranean kingdom, the Witch attempts to charm them with a spell: she throws some powder on the room's fire, starts strumming a guitar, and speaks coaxingly to them. Under her magic, the group start to forget their mission and relinquish themselves to her power.

During this episode, whenever one of the characters resists and pipes up with a line or two about how they must leave, the Emerald Witch is evil, Aslan said this and that, yadda yadda, the Witch calmly explains the logical fallacy of the statement: "Is there a country up among the stones and mortar of the roof? ... How do you call it, Overworld?" and "What is this sun that you all speak of? ... What does it hang from?" And so forth, in this manner persuading them that all they think is a dream copied in some way from what they can see in front of them.

Until: "There's Aslan," says Jill.

Only betraying a hint of annoyance, the Witch counters with: "Aslan! What a pretty name! What does it mean?"

Predictably, upon Jill's incredible explanation that a giant lion summoned them from another world and told them to go find Rilian, the Witch laughs gently and continues:
I see 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 so you imagined a bigger and better cat, and it's to be called a lion. Well, 'tis a pretty make-believe, though, to say truth, it would suit you all 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. ... Come, all of you. Put away these childish tricks. ... There is no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan.
At this point, our heroes are all but comatose, having all but completely succumbed to the Witch's existential logic and the enchantment, but it's Puddleglum who rouses himself up one last time: he walks over to stamp out the fire, using the cleared air (and sudden pain in his foot) to make his thoughts momentarily lucid, and declares:
I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things--trees 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. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia.

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 very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull as you say.
Well, that's pretty much the end of the stoner smoke-out: the Witch's guitar breaks and she turns into a snake, Rilian chops her head off, the underground empire crumbles, missing Prince reunites with kingdom, happily ever after. Yadda yadda.

Here's the dealio, in case you weren't paying attention: Puddleglum's exit speech neatly excises any necessity of factual underpinnings from the power of one's faith. In other words, assuming everything the Witch preached was true (no Narnia, no Overworld, no sky, no sun, no Aslan), the sheer vibrance and depth of Puddleglum's belief allowed him to be sustained with a certainty that suffered not even a moment's doubt.

Moreover, the importance of the realization in the narrative cannot be understated; it was pivotal to the plot: only upon hearing Puddleglum's manifesto, and realizing (or remembering?) its truth, were the others inspired to shake off their daze and defeat the Witch.

At this point it becomes a little sketchy to read too much into Lewis' story as a vehicle for this lesson ...

For example, can we safely assume that Lewis is suggesting, akin to the predicament faced by our heroes, that failing to reach this particular spiritual rubicon will necessarily result in, at best, a stasis of spiritual growth, or at worst, being eaten or enslaved by a ginormous guitar-playing green snake?

As another example, Puddleglum's speech is delivered immediately prior to the Witch's repilian transformation. Should we thus infer that only upon reaching this epiphany are we able to see evil in its true shape? Or that we can recognize doubt in a form that facilitates its defeat? Or maybe we just shouldn't come between a hippie goddess and her incense?

Quite apart from possible corollaries to the central message communicated in this episode, however, Lewis' delivery of it in such a notable fashion surely places it firmly in whatever hierarchy of Important Messages he's wrapped up in the series. Unlike, say, Ayn Rand, however, Lewis tends not to beat one over the head with an idea, leaving it instead as an exercise for the reader to determine from the context the relative importance of what he's trying to teach. However, this particular aspect of Lewis' Christianity is as profound as the role it plays in the plot of The Silver Chair. Faith should be based on an idea? Who'da thunk?!
Tags: deep+thoughts
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