Father Andrew Pearce explores the work of C S Lewis and howan event in his childhood influenced his writing.
It’s always encouraging to have ‘fan mail’ – and so I was very pleased when TheBAY Editor Lesley told me of a letter she had received from Mr R Bronham, expressing thanks for the article in last November’s issue on C S Lewis. Mr Bronham enquired whether a follow-up article on C S Lewis’ The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed would be worthwhile.
I’m very happy to rise to the challenge set by Mr Bronham – but C S Lewis’ writings on theodicy (the technical term for that branch of theology which seeks to explore the question of how and why an all-powerful, all-loving God permits the manifestation of evil) are so rich that I’m going to go a step further, and explore them over the course of not one but three further articles.
This month, before we get to The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, Lewis’ two great works exploring theodicy, I’d like to begin by talking about Lewis’ childhood experience of grief, and the way in which he used a children’s novel – The Last Battle – to work out some of his feelings about this experience.
Clive Staples Lewis (Jack as he was known to family and close friends) was born in Belfast in 1898. He appears to have had a happy childhood, though he formed a closer relationship to his serene and optimistic mother Flora as opposed to his rather moody father Albert. However, Flora developed cancer when Lewis was just nine years old, and she slowly faded away at home over the spring and summer of 1908, passing away on August 23rd of that year. As Lewis later wrote in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy:
‘With my mother’s death, all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security.’
Flora’s death had a shattering effect upon the young Lewis. Whilst she was sick, Lewis prayed fervently and continually to God to heal his mother. With her death, his faith was called into serious question. On top of all this, Albert Lewis – doubtless struggling with his own grief at the loss of his wife – found himself incapable of providing the emotional comfort that Jack and his elder brother Warnie desperately needed. Within weeks of his mother’s death, Jack found himself bundled off to his first boarding school. It was not a happy experience: the headmaster was eventually consigned to a mental asylum, and Lewis was later to refer to the school as ‘Belsen’ (after the concentration camp).
A combination of an unhappy adolescence, a succession of freethinking atheistic tutors and the memory of his mother’s terrible death all led Lewis to conclude that either there was no God, or that if He did exist, He must be impotent, cruel or both.
That Lewis continued to be haunted by his memories of Flora’s death – well into adulthood and even following his Christian conversion – is clear from even a superficial reading of The Magician’s Nephew, the sixth (in order of publication) of the seven Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis had originally set out to write only one story of Narnia – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. However, when asked by his friend Roger Lancelyn
Green how a lamp-post had come to end up in the middle of a Narnian forest, Lewis set out to write a follow-up (what we would today call a ‘prequel’). This featured a younger version of Professor Kirke from the first novel (where the hint had already been made that the Professor might have had a prior knowledge of Narnia).
In the event, The Magician’s Nephew was the most challenging Narnia novel for Lewis to write. The other six stories were written over a relatively short period, from 1948 to 1953, whereas The Magician’s Nephew was started in the summer of 1949 and not finished until 1954. It has been suggested that one of the reasons Jack struggled with The Magician’s Nephew was the intensely autobiographical aspects of the novel.
There is no doubt that Digory Kirke – the chief protagonist of the story – is purposely modelled on Jack Lewis himself as a boy.
Digory and Jack were both children in the first decade of the twentieth century, in which the Earth-bound chapters of the novel are set. Both are separated from their fathers (Digory’s is said to be in India, whilst Jack’s remained in Ireland after he was sent to an English boarding school). Both are studious, being voracious readers (though both are poor at maths – Lewis was to fail the maths entrance exam for Oxford University). Digory became a professor in adult life, and took in evacuees during the Second World War – again, just like Lewis. But most significantly of all, both are faced with the death of their mothers in childhood.
The plot of The Magician’s Nephew is easy to summarise. Digory and his friend Polly are tricked by Digory’s amoral Uncle Andrew into becoming the guinea pigs for his scientific-cum-magical experiments in travelling to other worlds. Using magical rings, they find themselves drawn into The Wood between the Worlds (which, it transpires, is the gateway to an unknown – perhaps infinite – number of alternative universes). They travel on to the dying world of Charn, where Digory’s fatal curiosity is responsible for awaking Jadis, last and most evil Queen of Charn. Jadis escapes to our world, and causes considerable havoc before Digory and Polly are able to take her back to the Wood between the Worlds. Digory and Polly then try to take Jadis back to Charn, but unwittingly take her instead to a new world just as it is being created – the magical land of Narnia, populated not with humans but with talking animals. Unfortunately, the foolish actions of Digory have resulted in Evil being introduced into this new world right at its very beginning. Aslan the Great Lion, the all-loving Creator of Narnia, sends Digory and Polly on a mission to find an apple which will act as a protection against evil: but on finding the apple-tree, Jadis tempts Digory to take the fruit – not for himself, to be sure, but for his dying mother – for the apple is revealed to be ‘the apple of youth, the apple of life.’ Jadis says to Digory:
‘Use your Magic and go back to your own world. A minute later you can be at your Mother’s bedside, giving her the fruit. Five minutes later you will see the colour coming back to her face. She will tell you the pain is gone…soon she will be quite well again. All will be well again. Your home will be happy again.’
Digory, though sorely tempted, does resist Jadis, and returns the enchanted apple to Aslan, who uses its seed to grow a tree that will act as a ward against evil for many centuries to come (though not, alas forever: Aslan foresees Jadis will return one day, becoming the White Witch of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Aslan knows Digory has been tempted: but he knows also that he has resisted temptation. As a reward, Aslan allows Digory to pluck an apple from the tree. A stolen apple would have healed Digory’s mother in body, but not, alas, in soul: but a freely-given apple has the power to give Digory what he most desires. As Aslan says:
‘What I give you now will bring joy. It will not, in your world, give endless life, but it will heal. Go. Pluck her an apple from the Tree.’
I’m sure you’ll recognise the biblical allusions in The Magician’s Nephew just from this summary.
In the novel, Lewis reflects upon theological ideas such as creation, original sin and temptation, all with clear parallels within the Book of Genesis. The forbidden fruit of Genesis is mirrored by the Apple of Life in the novel; and Digory is tempted by Jadis is a similar manner to the way Eve is tempted by the serpent. Unlike Eve, however, Digory rejects Jadis’ offer. Here, then, is a crucial part of Lewis’ theodicy: the imagining a different outcome to the Fall, so as to give us a better understanding of the Fall as it actually happened.
The early church fathers, St Augustine of Hippo and St Irenaeus, both took different views on the nature of theodicy as revealed in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. The Augustinian view of evil and original sin has been more prevalent through much of Church history: but I, for one, have a stronger sympathy with Irenaeus’ view, and I suspect Lewis, at least unconsciously, reflects this view too. This is well summed up in the following extract from C.S. Lewis and the Church: Essays in Honour of Walter Hooper:
‘In The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis imagines the consequence of obedience to an interdict which, like the prohibition of the fruit in Eden, has no rationale but the will of God…the thing forbidden is good itself and therefore only provisionally withheld. Once the test of obedience is passed, Digory is permitted to take the apple. According to Augustine…the divine commandment not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge is irrevocable; it is Irenaus who teaches that if Adam and Eve had refrained from sin long enough to witness the perfect manifestation of God’s image and likeness in Christ, they would have been permitted to pluck the fruit as a means to the consummation of the image and likeness in their own persons…Lewis appears to have been in some respects an involuntary disciple of Irenaeus.’
Here, then, we see Jack Lewis re-imagining, through the Narnia stories, what might have happened if Adam and Eve had resisted temptation. In so doing, he cathartically deals with his own emotions about the death of his mother, and finally lays them to rest: and he re-affirms, resoundingly, his belief in a God of grace who, no matter how deep or damaging the consequences of human sin, does not rest – cannot rest – until the divine plan of salvation has been consummated in the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus. And that is the Christian hope upon which our celebration of Easter is firmly founded.