How C S Lewis used story to initiate the reader into a traditional moral vision by awakening desire

Fairies RingThis rough clip is from the “Tradition” chapter of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis. The burden of the “Lewis introduction” of the chapter is that Lewis saw himself, vocationally, as a “traditioner” for a generation losing touch with its roots. This bit explores how Lewis sought to carry out that vocation (at least in part) through storytelling.

I believe, through Paul Ford’s Companion to Narnia, I’ve been led to the key to my chapter on tradition and Lewis’s relationship to tradition and our need for it. The key is how, through re-narrating the stories of our traditions, through narrative form, we are led to indwell truths of the past, Enjoying them (“looking along the beam” of sunlight, and seeing all things by it) and not just Contemplating them (“looking at the beam,” and seeing only the dust motes floating in it). This is what Lewis did in his stories, per Ford in his section on “Stories” in the introduction to his Companion.

It is as Lewis said: Reason is the organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning. Therefore if we are to pass the meaning of our faith from generation to generation, it must be done through story. Remarkably, Lewis succeeded in doing that, in even passing the meaning of faith to other generations—to the generation of children (like the kids he had staying with him during the Evacuation) by means of his stories. Stories do this—they allow us to indwell imaginatively a world of meaning, by showing us examples of it (of that meaning, ethics, spirituality) which train our affections, which give us new habituses in ways that mere doctrinal catechesis can never do.

The reason we need to talk about a “rooted imagination” (thanks to my friend Jennifer Trafton Peterson for that phrase) is that wisdom is passed generation to generation through a traditioning process. The word tradition itself, as I must explain it in this chapter, means “handing down”: handing down that which is most vital to the living of life, from generation to generation. Handing it down as much or more in stories told around the campfire as in manuals to be followed. This is the knowledge of intimacy (known through affect) rather than that of convention (known through analysis).

In order to effectively hand down a moral framework from generation to generation, a narrative must give materials for our affections to dwell on: materials of desire, as Tolkien says in “On Fairy Stories.” Stories must form our desires, and to form our desires they must give materials for imaginations to dwell on, chew on, be nourished by.

Michael Ward argues, in Planet Narnia, the chapter on Silence, that what Lewis is doing by secretly weaving the Ptolemaic and medieval planets—the planets as virtues—into his story is he is implanting the imaginative material of those virtues into the story, so that the reader will fall in love with those virtues. He is doing what Tolkien once told his student W. H. Auden he himself was doing in his Lord of the Rings: Tolkien told Auden that he created his characters to embody “in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life.” This is just what Christian liturgical forms involve us in: especially the ritual of eating and drinking—addressing the central human desires of hunger and thirst (echoing Jesus’ words to the woman at the well about how he would become for her an ever-flowing, ever-satisfying fountain). We are drawn in by drinking wine, which in fact encourages desire in us, and by eating bread, which satisfies our primal desire for nourishment.[1]

[I have also posted my reflections extending this theme by interacting with Paul Ford’s actual words in his delightful Companion to Narnia.]

[1] Side-note: this is perhaps one of the reasons that the shift from wine to grape juice is so earth-shaking, or at least salient and revealing, within Am Methodism and American evangelicalism. This moves from a beverage which is to be desired and which arouses desire in us to one that is pasteurized—is de-mystified—that leads us back solely to reason rather than to desire (and imagination!). I think I should cite my friend Jennifer Woodruff Tait’s Poisoned Chalice within my chapter here.

2 responses to “How C S Lewis used story to initiate the reader into a traditional moral vision by awakening desire

  1. Pingback: Trevin’s Seven | Goblogle

  2. Pingback: Trevin’s Seven – Trevin Wax

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s