Joy in the Chronicles of Narnia
Hello, Friends! This week, I wrote a paper called “Joy in the Chronicles of Narnia.” It was my last tutorial paper at Oxford (can it be true?!) Being named “Joy,” the whole paper felt slightly like a self-referential pun. Nonetheless, it was something of an end-of-the-term gift to get to write on these books so old and dear to me. One of my friends asked me to post about it on my blog, and so I have blog-ified my findings here... I hope you enjoy!
When I was seven years old, we moved to an old house, next to a green field, in a small town in Tennessee. When I say it was a small town, I mean that it did not even contain a Walmart, and had only one restaurant: Billy-bob’s barbecue. Given our rural location, rather than filling my days with the manifold activities of Nashville, my mother let me spend much of my time wandering in our large yard, catching frogs, peaking through fences at the cows on the other side, and getting bitten by mosquitoes.
It was there that I first remember experiencing Joy.
Perhaps it was the perfect plumpness of the blackberries in the bramble, the sweet haunting aroma of daffodils in spring, or the peace of watching clouds glide by on a sweltering summer day. Whatever the cause, the general atmosphere awake in my both delight and desire. The tactile beauty filled me up and emptied me out. I wanted, in my childish way, to drink in the beauty I saw; make it a part of me. But more than anything I wanted to be a part of it. And in that feeling there was a sense of melancholy; I could never completely lay hold of or repeat the ecstasy I experienced in those small moments. I could not conjure up the delight I felt.
As I grew older, and my parents read the Bible to me, prayed with me when I went to sleep, and taught me about God, it felt natural. I said to myself “Aha! Yes! Of course.” The desire created by those Tennessee years was given a reason; I was, in my young way, desiring God, the maker of all the beauty I delighted in, and ached to be a part of.
I think Lewis would have called this experience Joy. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis’ spiritual autobiography, he writes of his own experience of Joy, writing,
“Anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is” (Surprised by Joy, 18).
Lewis describes in the book his experience as a child of the delight in a toy garden or his emotionality at a haunting poem. In other passages, he describes this feeling as the German word Sehnsucht (wistful longing). Of all these experiences, Lewis writes that Joy is “an unsatisfied desire which in itself is more desirable than any other satisfaction.” Joy was the catalyst that made Lewis realize there was some delight and truth beyond this present life that could satisfy the craving he so deeply felt.
Part of what made this experience so convincing, was that it was a genuine reaction to beauty, and was not contrived. While describing experiences of rapturous joy as a child, Lewis clarifies that in these moments “religious experiences did not occur at all” (7). This statement could seem curious seeing as it is this concept Lewis later uses to describe his own religious conversion. Rather than contradicting the spiritual impact of these childhood desires, he is parcing out spiritually significant experiences (for it seems these experiences certainly were that) and “religious” experiences in which he felt it was incumbent upon him to feel a certain way. In one essay, he writes “Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. As obligation to feel can freeze feelings.”
I have felt this way before. I remember in youth groups as emotionally charged songs played, the guitar playing the 1-4-5 chords (if your a musician, you know what I mean), and we were called to life change, I sometimes felt a bit separated from it all.
How ought I to feel about this? Is this a spiritual experience? Am I bad for not feeling close to God through this experience?
I think it was this barrier to the Christian faith that Lewis attempted to hurtle through writing the Narnia stories. In the same essay, Lewis writes, “I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood... supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
And then came Narnia.
“None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don't understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning--either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in it's inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of Summer.” (Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe)
In Narnia, Lewis created a world where people could encounter Joy. Reading about Aslan awakens in the reader that same sort of delight, desire, and almost sadness. Just like the Pevensie children, we the readers are left with a desire to get back into Narnia. Of course, there are obvious and beautiful parellels to the Christian story in Narnia, but I do not think that these books were meant as an apologetic. Rather, they were meant to till the ground. They work on the imagination, as the daffodils and blackberries did on my own imagination, so that when one does encounter the true Christian story, one can’t help but say, “Ah, yes. This is what I was desiring all along.”
The watchful dragons could indeed be stolen past.
Daffodils are still my favorite flower, and when I see them, I am reminded of the world that is indeed “charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manly Hopkins). Reading Lewis, and remembering those old days in Tennessee has reminded me that God works outside of our own conventional boxes. God is present in church, of course, loving and moving hearts. But he also works in green spring fields, blackberry brambles, blue skies, and in Fairy tales.
He steals past our “religious” faces, and bursts with springs of laughter and delight and longing.
And to that I say... “Further up and further in!”