by James Como
“It is as absurd to argue men, as it is to torture them, into believing”
– Cardinal Newman
There once was a little boy who believed that most animals could speak but chose not to and that hovering above him was a cozy world presided over by a panda-like king whose favorite toy was the moon and whose greatest joy was to share it, especially with the boy as he lay in bed in the dark. He could not explain these beliefs and didn’t care to. His imagination had spoken. On the other hand he was not irrational.
For example, his father, in response to the son’s unrelenting pleas, told the story of Jack and the beanstalk over and over. Finally the boy asked what had happened to Jack and his mother after the giant fell. “Well,” said the father, “that giant made a very big hole. So after they dug him out, the mother and Jack made the hole into a swimming pool and built a motel around it. They lived happily ever after.”
The boy spent long hours trying to figure out where that motel might be and also planning a visit once he had. After all, he had already been to a motel or two and so his imagination, not entirely untethered to reality, had been informed by both reason and experience. In short, though he was persistent in his beliefs he was not unduly credulous. Even his Russian grandmother learned this.
Truly she seemed on too-intimate terms with enchanted forests, children both hungry and lost, and witches who prey upon such children; she was convincing. But he did not for a nanosecond buy a gingerbread house large enough to live in – he had never seen or known of one and it made no sense. He loved his grandmother’s telling of “Hansel and Gretel” (there would be none better) only slightly less than he loved his grandmother, which was boundlessly, but he did not for an instant believe it.
Moreover, just as his doubt did not swoon at personal persuasiveness, neither did it whither at authority as such. Even though his high school geometry teacher had told the class that no proof for the trisection of an angle did, or could, exist, he worked hard and long to devise just such a proof: the impossibility seemed both unimaginative and unreasonable. Finally, when he satisfied himself that she was right he told her so – but to this day he remains vexed by that impossibility, and wonders. ...Then, as a young graduate student, he read The Chronicles of Narnia. Needless to say he has believed them (for nearly forty years) ever since.
The question is, how – as an adult – could I? Given the nature of the believer in question, there are some likely explanations: prolonged juvenalism (a kind of fixed sentimental affection coupled with a too-lively imagination), a not unrelated stubbornness (the Trisection Syndrome), rationality-cum-rationalizing (i.e. wish-fulfillment), and an anarchic streak (fairy tales by their nature are subversive). As motives for belief none of these is entirely false. Yet even in combination they do not come close to accounting for my actual assent, as opposed to a predisposition to assent. Rather, I believe The Chronicles because I regard them as true, the only reason (as C. S. Lewis has said) to believe anything.
The Chronicles are fairy tales, satisfying certain formal requirements of such tales; and as the great Chesterton pointed out fairy tales have the appeal of ancient common sense and warm milk – both hard to resist. However, they are also firstrate fairy tale literature, with basic appeals identified pivotally by the late critic Wayne Booth: intellectual (the arousal and satisfaction of curiosity), qualitative (the completion of a pattern), and practical (the fate of favored characters). These, in the context of Lewis’s own discussion from his An Experiment in Criticism of “realism of presentation” and of the delight of formal variety (as though the reader were being led in a dance by a master) take us a long way toward accounting for the engagement – a big step towards belief - achieved by The Chronicles.
Discovering how The Chronicles work is a bit trickier than describing what they are. They can be read as both theogony – the beginning of the gods – and as theophany – the appearance of gods: Aslan and the children serve both functions from the point-of-view of native Narnia creatures. That is, The Chronicles function as Narnian sacred scripture, a type of book with which we are very familiar. We learn that The Chronicles point, both to the real Narnia revealed at the very end of The Last Battle and to our world, which with its own sacred scripture also points – in our case, to heaven. Thus, even though we may not believe that Narnia exists, we do believe in it (just so Kenneth Grahame reminds us that we believe in dragons but not in pterodactyls).
So we have engaging, first-rate, fairy tale literature pointing us towards a particular end. And if that end is compelling enough, then we are ready to believe. In Narnia, that end is no less than holiness: the sea of mystery (as Rudolph Otto in his Idea of the Holy taught Lewis and the rest of us), the enchantment it causes, and the awe, wonder, and fear it inspires. But how do we know that the pointing is towards the holy? We know because we desire. In The Chronicles we experience Lewis’s “Joy”: at the creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew, when Aslan is first merely mentioned in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Lucy bids Aslan farewell near the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Puddleglum saves the day in the Underworld of The Silver Chair, at the very end of Narnia in The Last Battle, and... and so on.
It is that very same desire that Plato, Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Traherne, even the actor Alec Guinness, and so many others mean by thirsting for the Divine. And, as Lewis reminds us, where there is appetite there must be fitting satisfaction, even if there and then rather than here and now. In other words, I don’t desire to believe; rather, I believe because I desire.
Meaning is connectedness; connectedness to some Ultimate Object is ultimately meaningful. By occasioning Joy, Narnia is a sort of switchboard, connecting to our world just as ours does to the next. Narnia mediates and teaches us that mediation is the real thing, and reliable. That’s why Narnia break our hearts – always a sign of truth – and, in doing so, provides a Hope – as does so much of Lewis’s work: the great legacy to each of us, really – that never evanesces: “the conviction of things unseen.”
James Como is a professor of rhetoric and public communication at York College of the City University of New York. He is author of the new book Why I Believe in Narnia