Monday, May 14, 2007

The Second Time: The Wardrobe Revisited

The name Narnia probably derives from one of Tolkien’s old Middle Earth languages in which “narn” is the word for lay, history or story. If this is so, then Narnia is well named, for she is a storied land in every sense of the word; a land that was spoken and written into being, a place whose magic is ultimately verbal. For all of us, to find our own true story (which is sometimes given us in words and sometimes not) is to find our own true way. It is the way I keep up with myself and not with the Joneses. To know myself is to find my power, not as politicians and technocrats and drug dealers are powerful, but as God is powerful. I am created in God’s image. You are created in God's image. This is the very best way we can see one another, through the imagination of God. Which returns me right to Lucy Pevensie. She went through a wardrobe door and found a very powerful story, but when she returned, no one would believe her. I wonder how many of us, upon discovering something dear and true, have come home glowing, only to be rebuffed by the very ones to whom we most want to give it. Did not Jesus himself say that “A prophet has not honor in his own country and among those of his own household?”

And yet, no rejection is ever complete, for even the act of rejecting a story means that someone has heard it. And so Edmund, the little brother, the one who had a bit of a nasty streak, experienced a temptation to find a story for himself, and so, when the time was right, he, too, went into the wardrobe.

Now just as all of us have stories, all of us have a capacity to be horrid, and one of the dangers of discovering truth is that I will discover falsehood at the very same time. This nasty streak seems to be a very important part of human nature. One of the ways that I encounter truth is by stretching it, trying it on, manipulating it around the edges to see how far it can go. Of course that means that I am being tested, too, and the sacred word for this trial of truth is temptation. It is in being tempted that I discover what kind of stuff I am made of. The saints go to be tempted and in this way discover their progress toward God. When little boys and girls are tempted, they discover surprising strengths and weaknesses. Maybe I am less nasty than others say I am; perhaps I am more. It is not comfortable to be small. The trials that children face are so real and terrible to them that we adults, who have forgotten our own, rarely hear the half of them. It is one of the geniuses of C.S. Lewis that, though he had no children of his own, he understood the secret world of childhood.

On the surface of things, little Lucy had a far more dangerous experience in Narnia than would her brother. Lucy encountered a creature that was half man and half goat, who in classical mythology is a seducer of women. Edmund was met only by a woman. In waking life, it is typically considered more dangerous for little girls to run into goat men than it is for little boys to run into women, but Narnia is deeper than waking life, for Narnia is the story of the soul. We know this at once, for at the house of Tumnus the faun Lucy is given food and enchanted music and she falls asleep, further emphasizing the dreamlike quality of Narnia. She learns the great truth of dreams, that they come always in the service of spiritual health and wholeness and they can never harm one. Tumnus repents of his evil before it is even committed and Lucy learns an important lesson. Edmund, on the other hand, ostensibly remains awake for the whole time. In the sleigh of the White Witch, he receives enchanted food which further awakens him, by awakening his every appetite, including, when he and Lucy returned, the chance to belittle his sister, to “reassure” Peter and Susan that they were only pretending a magic land lay behind the wardrobe, to pretend that it was “only a dream.”

There are by now many stories about magic lands and parallel universes, many of which feel desperately contrived, because they are written only as entertainment or as a quick moral lesson for the kiddies or because their authors are mad at the whole spiritual universe and want to turn us back into inanimate atoms, as if such a thing were even possible or could begin to set us free! Narnia, at least to me, remains true. Even when I am critical of some of its details, the stories do not let me down. There are many reasons for this, but the simplest reason is this: Narnia does not take me to a parallel universe or alternate world view. It takes me deep into my own.

I live, as did C.S. Lewis, at a moment of often predatory globalism. He, like my grandfather, faced a suicidal war. I face the suicide of the eternal plunderer. In my world with its vast fortunes and mass culture aristocracy, no corner of the earth is immune from the incursions of travelers, industrialists and the technologies of power. Mongolian nomads drink tea in their yurts and are seduced by super models and the culture of possession as purveyed by television. Such is the state of the world. Perhaps I can own it and control it and turn the whole thing into a box of Turkish Delight for me to consume. But I still cannot escape time. To be born is to enter time. That is why Narnia gives me exactly what I need. Narnia stops time. I may go and live in its time, but when I return to my own, I return to the exact point in the stream where I left it. Narnia gives me the opportunity to step out of the rat race, of the violent world from which my life in the suburbs is the ultimate evacuation, and to learn. I am not learning like a frantic manager, manipulating reality until I am too old to do so and on my deathbed learn the great truth that everyone learns, that my manipulations have accomplished absolutely nothing. When I go to Narnia, I myself become the experiment and I may return to my own world wise, without having harmed anyone. Wisdom is never recanted on the death bed, for wisdom is the one thing I can take with me.

There are, of course, interesting and immediate implications about being able to step in and out of time, questions so thorny that even Lewis did not take them up, such as, what is it like to leave childhood behind, grow up, be crowned a queen even, to explore an ill advised marriage to a Calormene prince, and then to tumble back through a wardrobe only to be a girl of eleven again?

For those of us trapped inside our histories, for those of us trapped inside a culture that worships youth and outward appearances above all else, for those of us forced to work like slaves to fulfill our vocations as consumers, leaving time may be the most important gift of Narnia. Is time, like the box of Turkish Delight the queen offers Edmund, a treat or a temptation?

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