We all have an imagination 1, given to us by God to use for his glory and the increase of his kingdom on earth. However, few manage to employ their imagination so strongly to this effect as C. S. Lewis did. As we consider Lewis, his life and his faith, his apologetics and his radio broadcasts, we must also consider the enduring appeal of the books that he brought to life with the exercise of his imagination. The chronicles of Narnia still sit on must-read lists for children more than 70 years after the publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 2 The Screwtape Letters still sells new copies in Christian bookstores across the country. Why is this? How did Lewis manage to encourage his readers to understand deep truths of the Christian faith through simple children’s books, science fiction, or a satirical look at the work of the devil in Screwtape’s Letters?
“Reason is the natural organ of truth, but imagination is the organ of meaning”.3 Thus wrote Lewis in a paper that aimed to promote the use of fantasy as a means of recreation (castle building), but also as a path to literary invention, leading to truth, and finally arriving at faith. Lewis aimed to use his imagination to convey meaning and from that meaning to convey truth. He was trying to challenge the limits of reason, and from there to open the door to a deeper understanding of reality. Alister McGrath writes, “One of Lewis’s distinctive emphases is that literature allows us to see things in a new way. The Screwtape Letters can be seen as offering a new way of seeing traditional, sound spiritual advice, by re-presenting it within a highly original framework.” 4 In the same way the Narnia series offers us a new way of looking at salvation, with the aim of helping us to appreciate more deeply God’s grace to us. Similarly, Lewis’ space trilogy was written partly as a response to the evolutionary fiction of the time and to substitute theological ideas in literature for the scientism which was becoming so popular.
In order to understand how and why Lewis wrote using secondary worlds, imagination and fantasy, we must look at his background as a scholar and professor. For much of his life Lewis was employed as a professor in English Literature at Oxford University. By all accounts he was an excellent speaker, tutor and critic, and his lectures were well attended and appreciated by both his students and other faculty members. As a professor of English, Lewis was well versed in a vast array of literature, including Milton, Dante, Homer, Spenser, Wordsworth, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Sir Walter Scott, and the list could go on. Many of these great works of literature which Lewis enjoyed were also works of fantasy, myth, or imagination. As Lewis read them, and appreciated the truth conveyed through the power of the imaginative story rather than through argument, he began to formulate his idea of imagination as the organ of meaning. This went on to shape much of his writing. He employed imagination to bring truths to the hearts of his readers in a way that they would accept where they may not have otherwise. Some of the inspiration for this came from reading the poetry and epics listed above, and other inspiration may have come from sources such as medieval plays. Just as in medieval times the clergy aimed to help an illiterate population to understand the basics of theology through the use of an imaginative approach, so Lewis wanted to teach an unaware population of the joy of salvation using a similarly imaginative approach.
This is very clear in the Narnia series. These stories are set in a secondary world accessible to ours only at certain times and in certain ways. This world is populated with many recognisable figures of myth, legend, and fairy tale. Lewis mixes Greek and Roman gods with questing heroes, medieval half-human figures, and talking animals – quite the mish-mash of content stylistically! “Of the content he writes that non-human characters present human ‘types’ more succinctly than realistic ones, implying that non-realism can, so to speak, be more successfully true to life than realism”.5 This is partly true because when we read about characters which are not human we are not so quick to ignore their faults or pass over their shortcomings. The character then becomes a mirror, one in which we can see our own selves as we truly are, without making excuses for our behaviour. “We can see Narnia as a spectacle … or we can see it … as a pair of spectacles, something that makes it possible to see everything else in a new way, as things are brought into sharp focus.” 6 This is the power of imagination and a secondary world to write the story in. “An imaginative engagement with Narnia prepares the way for, and helps give rise to, a more reasoned and mature internalization of the Christian grand narrative.” 7
The theological side of Lewis’ imaginative stories is done subtly, not through use of a strict allegory as some have accused him of doing. Rather, one of the aims of imaginative writing is to show us a world of wonder, to let us escape to another realm for a brief holiday, and to return to our own world with new eyes to see the beauty around us. A second aim is to show us the danger of the world around us through the demonstration of a good versus evil battle in which the hero must make wise choices and resist temptation. A third aim is that of consolation, knowing that we have hope in Someone far greater than ourselves who has saved us for his good purpose and will bring us into a glorious eternity.8
Lewis did not aim to write Christian apologetics with his fantasy or science fiction, he was perfectly capable of doing that without resorting to secondary worlds, as you will read in other articles in this magazine. What he was aiming to do is to arouse interest and encourage engagement with the story, which will then hopefully lead into a more thorough look at the truths contained in the tale. Reading The Screwtape Letters generally encourages people to go away and look carefully at aspects of their life they haven’t thought about much, or to consider more carefully the subtlety and guile of the Devil at work in our world. Reading the Narnia series often makes people think more seriously about the atoning work of Christ for our salvation, and reading the Space trilogy may enable unbelievers to better understand the doctrine of the fall. All these books lead readers to further consideration of gospel truth – they are not arguments for the gospel in and of themselves.
J. I. Packer writes that Lewis “verifies utterly the fundamental formula of communication: that reason plus imagination, tuned together, equals power.” 9 By taking his considerable intellect, reason and logic, and marrying it with his imagination, Lewis aimed to deepen our understanding of right and wrong, of good and evil. He wanted to appeal to our consciences, to make us look outward for meaning and virtue, to enable us to overcome challenges. This is why his books have appealed to so many for such a long time. “Those who agree with Lewis will be grateful for seeing ideas which they share expressed in a vivid, imaginative form. But even those who disagree most with Lewis should be grateful to him for giving them a glimpse not only into a Christian mind but also into a Christian imagination.” 10 As we consider what Lewis has done for the furtherance of God’s kingdom with the use of the imagination that God gave him let us also consider what we may do with the gifts that God has given us. Lewis put his considerable talents to use across all aspects of his life and in so doing has changed the lives of many. We also have something to offer God with our hearts, minds, hands, feet, intellect, and even our imagination.
1 Imagination: the faculty or action of forming ideas or mental images; the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.
3 Found in Lewis’ essay Bluspells and Flalansferes, 1939
4 Alister McGrath, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet (Hodder & Stoughton, Great Britain, 2013), p.217
5 M. A. Manzalaoui, Narnia: The Domain of Lewis’s Beliefs, published in We Remember C. S. Lewis (David Graham (ed), Broadman and Holman Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, 2001), p.10
6 McGrath, p.287
7 McGrath, p.282
8 For a more eloquent point of view on the aims of fantasy I recommend J. R. R. Tolkien’s excellent essay entitled On Fairy Stories, available in the public domain if you look hard enough!
9 J. I. Packer, What Lewis Was and Wasn’t, published in We Remember C. S. Lewis (David Graham (ed), Broadman and Holman Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee, 2001), p.8
10 Richard Purtill, Lord of the Elves and Eldils (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1974), p.149
Mrs Joanna Voschezang is a member of the Reformed Church in Hamilton.
Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash