To fully understand C.S. Lewis’ love for the imaginary—indeed, to understand the man himself—something must be said about the distinctively English world Faery. The world of Faery, which has its roots in Celtic culture, is not so easily categorized. It is not at all the land of delicate fairies that Walt Disney would have us imagine. Nor is it simply imaginary, a story altogether detached and unrelated to the world before us. Faery is, first, a place. It is lush and green like gentle British landscapes and ancient English forests, but forests untamed, willful, and enchanted—”a world, that sometimes overlaps with Britain but is fundamentally Other than it.”(1) Biographer Alan Jacobs hints at the importance of Faery on the imagination of Lewis, and in particular, this “old idea that Faery overlaps our world—that one can, unwillingly and unwittingly, pass from one into the other.”(2) Faery is both beautiful and dangerous, its boundaries unclear. The encounter with Faery and its tales, the “horns of Elfland faintly blowing,” was one that haunted Lewis throughout much of his life.(3)
For Lewis, “the horns of Elfland” were heard and followed and dear, like arrows of Joy shot at him from childhood—through the death of his mother at the fragile age of nine, through the horrid years at boarding school, through the doubt and dismissal of faith and God, through the metaphysical pessimism and the deep layers of secular ice, through a dejected and reluctant conversion, to Narnia, and to the Joy itself.
Of course, this is not to say that the imaginative world in which Lewis lived was one fueled in any sense by Christianity or faith; nor were the imaginary worlds he loved anything one might necessarily call Christian. But it was an imagination nonetheless that shaped the way he viewed the world—until he saw fit to abandon it all. Among other reasons for the distancing of his imagination, a new intellectual movement in psychology was becoming increasingly influential. As Lewis writes, “What we were most concerned about was ‘Fantasy’ or ‘wishful thinking.’… [W]hat, I asked myself, were all my delectable mountains and western gardens but sheer Fantasies?… With the confidence of a boy I decided I had done with all that… And I was never going to be taken in again.”(4) For a long line of atheists like Lewis at this time, the Christian imagination’s possession of beauty and hope could be explained only as wish fulfillment, which lied at the very heart of the Christian religion—even if it was, as some contended, a beautiful, imaginative delusion.
Of the many objections to Christianity, it is actually this one that stands out in my mind as most troubling—namely, that to be Christian is to withdraw from the world of reality, to follow fairy tales with wishful hearts and myths which insist we stop thinking and believe that all will be right in the end because God says so. In such a vein, Karl Marx depicted Christianity as a kind of drug that anesthetizes people to the suffering in the world and the wretchedness of life. Likewise, Sigmund Freud claimed that belief in God functions as an infantile dream that helps us evade the pain and helplessness we both feel and see around us. But I don’t find these critiques and others like them particularly troubling because I find them accurate of the kingdom Jesus described. On the contrary, I find them troubling because there are times I very much want to live as if Freud and Marx are quite right in their analyses. I want to escape the harsh realities of a world of which I can’t make sense. I want God to grant my prayers as if wishes readily fulfilled.
But this is not the story we have been given.
On some level, Christianity is indeed wishful thinking, as Lewis himself would come powerfully to see. For what planted in us this longing, this ache of Joy in Faery and myth, if not the Dreamer, the Wish himself? “Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream?” asked J.R.R. Tolkien in the very poem that would capture the doubting Lewis.(5) In other words, if the material view of the world is true, why should we have such dreams in the first place? And yet, this is so far from an invitation to live blind and unconcerned with the world of suffering around us or even in us, intent to tell feel-good stories or to withdraw from the harder scenes of life with fearful wishes.
It is hard not to imagine the nine year-old Clive trying to wish away his mother’s cancer in the Narnian exchange between Digory and Aslan, and yet the adult Lewis now sees that the wish itself was far from an irrational, childish instinct:
“Please—Mr. Lion—Aslan, Sir?” said Digory working up the courage to ask. “Could you—may I—please, will you give me some magic fruit of this country to make my mother well?”(6)
Digory, at this point in the story, had brought about much disaster for Aslan and his freshly created Narnia. But he had to ask. In fact, he thought for a second that he might attempt to make a deal with Aslan. But quickly Digory realized the Lion was not the sort of person with which one could try to make bargains.
Lewis then recounts, “Up till then the child had been looking at the lion’s great front feet and the huge claws on them. Now in his despair he looked up at his face. And what he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and wonder of wonders great shining tears stood in the lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the lion must really be sorrier about his mother than he was himself.”
“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another…”(7)
Digory discovers in Aslan what the Incarnation offers the world—a God who, taking our embodiment quite seriously, presents quite the opposite of escapism. The story of the Word becoming flesh is on some real level the story of the wish fulfilled, the myth made true. But so, the story of Rachel weeping for her slaughtered children beside the story of the birth of Jesus is one glimpse among many that suggests Freud and Marx are entirely wrong in their diagnosis. Christ brings the kind of hope that can reach even the most hopeless among us, within even the darkest moments, when timid hearts spin pained wishes. Jesus has not overlooked the suffering of the world or our deep longings within it anymore than he has invited his followers to do so; rather, it is a part of the very real and hopeful story he lives to tell.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 16.
(2) Ibid., 18.
(3) Alfred Tennyson, “The Princess,” Alfred Tennyson: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 151.
(4) Lewis, C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), 203.
(5) J.R.R. Tolkien, as quoted in Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 145.
(6) C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: HarperCollins, 1955), 168.