Imagination & the Health of the Soul
Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis: Journeying to Narnia and Other Worlds
reviewed by Dale Nelson
When unhappy young people used to visit the St. Herman of Alaska skete in the hinterlands of northern California, the late priest-monk Seraphim Rose realized that they often had basic needs of the soul that had to be addressed, matters not specifically Christian. And so, rather than directing their attention to the ascetic-mystical texts and practices that some of them were interested in, he would have these adolescents watch an old Dickens film, listen to Bach, or read Dostoevsky. “Dickens communicates an extremely warm feeling about human relationships, which is not given in school today. And this very feeling of warmth about human relationships might have more effect in keeping a boy pure than giving him the abstract standard of Orthodoxy,” he said. “By contrast [to Dickens, Dostoevsky, et al.] the contemporary upbringing in schools emphasizes crudity, coldness, and inability to judge what is better and what is worse—total relativity, which only confuses a person and helps fit him into the world of apostasy.” Rose’s visitors needed to be fed, without haste, with wholesome imaginative fare to strengthen their anemic or poison-accustomed souls.
Though neither Seraphim Rose nor C. S. Lewis used the term, each man was concerned with what Peter Schakel and others call the moral imagination. Schakel points out that Mark Studdock, the protagonist in Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, struggles to feed his own ill-nourished moral imagination when he, at last, revolts against the relativism and perversity of the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments. What Mark somewhat fumblingly undertakes is akin to the regime that Rose offered the underfed souls who came to him; he “becomes as a child” by willingly, even eagerly, reading, in bound volumes of the old Strand magazine, a serial story that he had dropped as kid stuff when he became ten years old, and he finds it good. He is seeking something that the arts can help to form in us, the “trained emotions” without which “the intellect is powerless” against our lusts and fears. (Schakel quotes thus from Lewis’s The Abolition of Man.) Such emotions are closely related to the “practical reason.” The “practical reason can be nurtured in children through reading and engagement with the other arts,” so that just sentiments, “those complex combinations of feelings and opinions that provide a basis for action or judgment,” are formed, Schakel says.
Imagination & Meaning
Imagination, Schakel says, “is, except for salvation, the most important issue in Lewis’s thought and life.” However, where Lewis once conceived of the imagination as the source of truth, as a Christian he learned to see it instead as the source or organ of meaning. Schakel’s first chapter expounds this view. The intellect apprehends abstractions, but we experience reality concretely. The imagination connects ideas and helps us to understand them by embodying them. Once Lewis had a satisfactory understanding of the nature and value of the imagination, especially as a receptive faculty, he was able to write his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, as “in large part a celebration of the poetic and romantic imagination, present in the books he read and the longings he felt, central to all aspects of his life,” Schakel says.
Schakel’s next chapter lingers over the pleasure Lewis took, at least as a teenager, even in the paper, binding, and type of books—because the physical object was itself part of his imaginative experience. Later, Lewis continued to care about books, as distinct from the text, as evidenced by Pauline Baynes’s illustrations for his own Chronicles of Narnia. (Schakel might also have quoted Lewis’s comment that the ideal way to meet Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, a lifelong favorite, is while one is young, on a rainy day, with a sumptuously illustrated, big volume.)
Lewis also revised passages in the first and third of the Narnia Chronicles, and Schakel wishes those revisions had been retained in recent reprintings of the books. By first and third Chronicles, I mean The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” and not, as the books are published today, The Magician’s Nephew and The Horse and His Boy. I am convinced by Schakel’s argument, in his third chapter, that the original publication order makes better dramatic and even theological sense than the chronological reading. The evidence for Lewis wishing the books to be read in chronological order is uncertain, and I think Schakel would convince Lewis himself that the original publication order is best.
Schakel’s fifth chapter analyzes the storytelling voice in imaginative works by Lewis, especially the Chronicles, showing how readers seem to be listening to, rather than reading, the Narnian chronicler. Schakel contends that the narrative voice changes in a way that is more satisfying when the books are read in publication order rather than in the more tidy sequence of time. By means of the voice telling the story, Lewis “creates a moral center for the stories, a sense of decency, honor, respect, common sense, and intelligence, which indicates to young readers that these are qualities that should be reflected in their own lives.” Incidentally, he reminds us of the interesting fact that the events of the Narnian books are usually given from the perspective of a girl (Lucy or Jill for five of the seven books).
Music, Dance & Pictorial Art
Music permeates these fantasies “to their very core, shaping and directing the imaginative experience of young readers in the most crucial of ways,” Schakel states in his sixth chapter. And it permeated Lewis’s personal life. Schakel claims not only that Lewis’s “first friend,” Arthur Greeves, was a capable musician, but also that, despite the tension between the two, it was Lewis’s father who probably inculcated a love of music in Lewis (not his mother), by taking him to concerts as well as buying musical recordings.
From music, Schakel easily turns to a discussion, in chapter 7, of Lewis’s recurrent use, in both the Narnia books and his space trilogy, of dance as a central metaphor. “Active, orderly, and hierarchical,” like the cosmos itself, such dance as Lewis had in mind serves as an apt emblem of the “reconciliation” between “boundless freedom” and “order” that is of the essence of man’s life in the truth. Although Lewis himself was not given to dancing, the idea of being invited to join the Great Dance was, in the famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,” for him a poignant way to suggest the destiny of the redeemed soul.
In addition to advocating the reading of the Narnia books in their order of publication, Schakel also, in chapters 2 and 8, emphasizes the contribution that the original illustrations of Pauline Baynes, Lewis’s own choice of artist, make to these books’ enchantment, particularly when her pictures are not “colorized” as they have been in a recent edition. I’m with him in preferring Baynes’s work to that of other illustrators who have more name recognition in the United States than Baynes does. Schakel’s eighth chapter discusses pictorial art in Lewis’s private life, for example, a pair of Dürer works in which Lewis took particular delight in his youth, and a “detail of the Turin shroud” given him by a nun later in his life, which hung across from his bed.
Although he does not seem to have purchased many art books or reproductions of artworks to hang on his walls, Lewis’s remarks on art as an adult indicate a good understanding of how to receive it, Schakel believes. Concluding a chapter that also discusses Lewis’s interest in architecture and even clothes, Schakel writes, “All of the arts . . . celebrate the nobility and value of humanity.” Lewis held that all artists, whether Christians or non-Christians, as they use their imaginations to create works of beauty, reflect the beauty God implanted in human beings. In the Narnia books, Lewis was seeking to “help develop the imaginativeness of readers young and old and [to] foster their openness and sensitivity to the creative arts.”
I’ve already noted Schakel’s account, in his final chapter, of Mark Studdock’s groping for wholesome imaginative fare. Schakel dedicates a few pages of this chapter to a defense of the Narnia books meant to help Christians who worry that the Chronicles are unwholesome because of the presence in them of witches, spells, and the like. He is surely right in presuming that this concern is connected with the popularity in recent years of magical religion and witchcraft. The popularity of Wicca as a modern religion of witchcraft and the emergence of similar heathenisms complicate the task of the Christian writer working with fairy-tale conventions.
After defending Narnia, Schakel spends ten pages defending the Harry Potter books, which seems out of place, and though I haven’t read Rowling’s books, the discussion sometimes seems tendentious. Perhaps it would be better if Schakel dropped this digression and merged the remainder of chapter 9 with material that is now in his fourth chapter. There, he has much to say that would help him make his case for the Narnia books with well-meaning but anxious Christian parents: The seven books have such pleasing qualities as a suspense that is enhanced, rather than diminished, by repeated readings; a special atmosphere created by the blending of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the ordinary and the impossible, the child’s life and the adult’s; and a wholesome strangeness and mythic quality that can excite, or prepare the reader to have, healthy spiritual desires. “They open huge vistas, plumb the depths of the emotions and the spirit, in ways realistic fiction cannot.”
Dale Nelson is Associate Professor of Liberal Arts at Mayville State University in Mayville, North Dakota.
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“Imagination & the Health of the Soul” first appeared in the November 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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