Storytelling ourselves back into a Christian ethic: C S Lewis’s approach to fiction

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

C S Lewis wrote his stories to help readers imaginatively indwell a moral tradition. This is an excerpt of the “tradition chapter” draft from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:

Teaching through stories

Lewis saw literature’s purpose as “delighting and informing,” with a heavy (didactic) emphasis on the latter, I’d add!—this was famously the source of Tolkien’s low estimation of the Narnia Chronicles.

What Lewis did in his stories was to re-narrate the stories of our traditions, allowing his readers to indwell truths of the past, “Enjoying” them (that is, seeing the world by their light) and not just “Contemplating” them (that is, knowing the analytically and propositionally). This was his practical application of a principle he enunciated like this: “Reason is the organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning.” Lewis, like the allegorist Boethius, knew that if we are to pass the meaning of our faith from generation to generation, an excellent way to do so is through story. Remarkably, Lewis succeeded in doing that, in even passing the meaning of faith to other generations, by means of his stories.

Humans pass their wisdom from generation to generation through a traditioning process—that is the meaning of the word “tradition”: “handing down”: handing down to posterity that which is most vital to the living of life—through stories told around the campfire as much as manuals studied in libraries and schools. This is the knowledge of intimacy rather than that of convention (analysis).

And effective narrative, to be indwelt, 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.

This is Michael Ward’s argument in Planet Narnia: that what Lewis is doing by secretly weaving the Ptolemaic and medieval planets—the planets as virtues—into his story is he is seeding the imaginative material of those virtues into the story, that we would fall in love with those virtues. He is doing what his friend Tolkien said he himself was doing: “embodying in the garments of time and place universal truths.”[1] This is just what tradition in the Christian story involves us in, in liturgical, sacramental forms in particular.

Ethics through story: A Boethian (and medieval) synthesis

Having become convinced of the objective reality and perennial pan-cultural presence of the basic morality also taught in traditional Christianity, Lewis set out to teach it to others. Certainly he did this in both The Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity, as well as in other, shorter essays. But he also taught morality by telling stories. This was consistent with his Aristotelian understanding that morality is best communicated by demonstration and imitation. But didactic fiction was also a venerable medieval tradition.

He follows Boethius in this too. We have in Boethius’s Consolation a consummate didactic fiction, which if  not fully allegorical at least borders on the allegorical, and which bridges Lewis’s first scholarly love, classical philosophy, to his second scholarly love, medieval literature.

[1] (need citation – he wrote this to W. H. Auden)

[2] Ford, Companion to Narnia, 14-15.

One response to “Storytelling ourselves back into a Christian ethic: C S Lewis’s approach to fiction

  1. A good, intense, and inviting post. “Story” is so powerful , at the core of the ministry I have been in for the last sixteen (+) years. Your knowledge of C.S. Lewis is such a bonus for me on my journey of blogging.

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