Alan Jacobs passed along this fascinating little bit on Lewis’s story:

My real criticism of this novel relates to a different matter. It is that it ends just when it is getting interesting. The Pevensie kids become the kings and queens of Narnia: King Peter the Magnificent, Queen Susan the Gentle, King Edmund the Just and Queen Lucy the Valiant. They grow to adulthood in this world, until, many years later, they chance upon the lamppost again, and tumble back into our world, no longer adults, now children. Only a few hours have passed on Earth, for all the year (decades?) they spent in Narnia. Then Lewis stops; but this is where the story starts, surely — what would it be like to have an adult consciousness inside the body of a child? To have passed through puberty, and then suddenly to have the hormone tap switched off? You could hardly go back to you former existence; but neither could you expect to live as an adult. Would you go mad, or use your beyond-your-seeming-years wisdom to some purpose? How would you cope? Would you try to explain? Would you betray yourself, and reveal the Narnia portal to the world — would governments attempt to exploit it? The psychological interest in the story begins at the end; but that’s exactly the place where Lewis drops the bar down and ends things. Grrr!

I’m tempted to say that cultivating an “adult consciousness” is simply one of the many things that imaginative literature and play provide for children.  That’s a tough note to swallow, if only because for most of us what distinguishes the “adult consciousness” is simply (and perhaps exclusively) related to those “raging hormones” and everything they lead to.

But erotic attachments are not Lewis’s theme, and as a result the adulthood that he depicts in the Pevensies is one unfettered by them.  He writes that the adult Queens of Narnia were objects of male affection and pursuit, but is silent on whether such attention was reciprocated.  And given they are hunting together at the end, it’s safe to say it was not.

This subordination of erotic attachments become clearer when the ending of the book is put into relief against one of its potential sources:   Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.   Here’s the High King Peter when they discover the lamppost:

“I know not how it is, but this lamp on the post worketh on me strangely.  It runs in my mind that I have seen the like before, as it were a dream, or in the dream of a dream.”

And here, of course, is the famous bit from Midsummer after the lovers are discovered:  “Are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me that yet we sleep, we dream.”

The textual parallel is only a hint (though one strengthened by the preceding dialogue in Midsummer), but the contexts of the utterances have their own antitheses as well: the four are siblings in Lion, while Midsummer’s has its lovers.  In both, though, a pair of men and women.  And in Midsummer it is the lovers who are discovered by those on the hunt, while in Lion they are on the hunt themselves.  But in both, it’s precisely hunting that leads to the conclusion.

What to make of all this?

The concord in Narnia is not brought about by the resolution of sexual desire, as in Midsummer, but by transcending it.

And as such, Narnia affords the Pevensies an experience of adulthood that is limited in one key respect.  But while it is no less adulthood for it, it more closely approximates childhood than Roberts seems to grant.  I think of a line by Lewis’s mentor George MacDonald:  “There is a childhood into which we have to grow, just as there is a childhood which we must leave behind.”  Somewhat paradoxically, the imaginative experience of adulthood enables moves that transition along by deepening the experience of childhood (affected, as it is, by flights of imaginative fancy) and so enabling the possibility of adulthood.  Even if that experience doesn’t encapsulate all the freedoms and privileges we afford to adults.

Postscript:  I offer all of this by way of exploration.  It’s a hypothesis, and by no means determinative.  I’d be interested to hear critical feedback and questions in the comments, as I’m not sure I’ve put the thought out clearly enough.  It is a new parallel to me (tonight!) and such things take me time to work out. 

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

8 Comments

  1. Strangely enough, the Pevensies’ return to the world is something I’ve actually thought about. I have always presumed that they returned to their childlike selves—or rather, have become like children, having been lead (by Aslan, who leads all in Narnia) to the place where they can work out their own salvation, having saved Narnia.

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    1. Matthew Lee Anderson December 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm

      Carson, I think that the return to the “childlike selves” is eminently plausible. The question seems to be what effect, if any, being “adults” has on their understanding of themselves and their own experience of childhood.

      And that’s where I think the sort of “adulthood” that Lewis depicts them having (or better, NOT having) is potentially fruitful. This has made me want to go reread the Lewis literary canon to see if there is more data elsewhere on this.

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  2. I always assumed that the “adult” Pevensies disappeared when they left Narnia. In later Narnia books they rapidly become more adult again as they breath the Narnian air – their old skills with swords return, their bravery returns, etc. It’s as if their adulthood fades in and out as they enter and leave Narnia. I also suspect Lewis might argue along the lines you suggest: “But while it is no less adulthood for it, it more closely approximates childhood than Roberts seems to grant,” since it is, after all, a children’s book, and children themselves are ok having their fantasy and then returning immediately to the “real world.” When children imagine and play that they are kings and queens, that does not then confer an “adult consciousness” on them.

    As for the link to Midsummer Night’s Dream, I haven’t gone back to look at the context, as you suggest, but my initial response is one of skepticism. The similarities you cite seem rather superficial to me. Furthermore, I don’t usually think of Lewis (especially in the Narnia series) as drawing parallels with Shakespeare – he draws many much more convincing parallels with Dante. But for this same reason, I’d be very interested in learning more about the potential ties to Shakespeare. Keep it up!

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    1. So interested that you’re not moved at all by the Shakespeare parallel. It just seems so clear to me! Besides, I don’t think that the parallels are superficial. We know that Midsummer was one of his favorite plays, and it definitely fits the themes of imagination and the possibility of alternate worlds that Narnia plays on.

      What Dante connections, though, are you thinking of? I hadn’t thought about those parallels before with respect to Narnia.

      And I think I’m growing increasingly ambivalent about the language of “adult consciousness” versus child consciousness. Not sure how helpful those categories are going to be long term for thinking through the relationship between adulthood and childhood, and the role imagination plays in the former.

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  3. See, I did not know that Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of Lewis’ favorite plays – that certainly increases the likelihood that he might quote/refer to it. Would be interested to hear a more fleshed out version of your argument for the parallel – so far you have given just a few snippets but it’s clear there’s more to your thinking about this than just snippets. Meanwhile, I’m still not convinced. Could it be instead that both Shakespeare and Lewis are drawing on some common sources? I remember reading an essay by Lewis (I think it was about Spencer’s Faerie Queen) in which he plays up the importance of the woods as the setting for all sorts of fantasy and all sorts of to-dos within fantasy, and it’s not just in Spencer, it’s more generally medieval. I could imagine Shakespeare tapping into this (he lived in the right period for it, after all, and the play is very “fantastic”), and Lewis also doing so since he loved medieval literature and fantasy so much.

    Dante: he was clearly the greatest poet ever, in Lewis’ mind (and Lewis is not at all alone in this). Lewis wrote an essay once on the Dantesque simile in comparison with other kinds of similes. He sort of laments the fact that the Dantesque simile never really took off, and is almost completely limited to Dante’s work. The example I remember best (not from Dante, in this case) is of fish’s scales looking like soldiers’ armor. It’s a simile, clearly, but it’s a Dantesque simile because the thing being described (scales) actually is a kind of the simile object (armor). Read the essay if you want a better (and more convincing) description of Dantesque vs. other similes… :-) It’s called “Dante’s Similes” and is in the book “Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature”. I read the Chronicles of Narnia books just last year (most of them for the first time!), after I had read Lewis’ essay, and although I can’t remember off hand which Narnia books had which similes, I was struck that these Dantesque similes do appear now and then in more than one Narnia book. There’s one scene where the kids are riding on Aslan and he’s going so fast that Lewis says it’s like when you’re riding on a horse that’s going so fast that it feels like x, y, and z. By my reading, this is a classic Dantesque simile, and I remember coming across maybe two or three more in other books. I wrote some of these instances down so I’ll see if I can find them again.

    There’s also the ending of The Last Battle which is *very* reminiscent of Dante’s Paradiso. The multiply repeated catch phrase at the end of The Last Battle is “farther up and further in” or something along those lines, where there seems to be no end to going farther up and further in, and everyone is utterly delighted at continuing farther up and further in, and when you turn around to look back at Narnia, you find that the Narnia you knew was just a part of the new Narnia you are exploring as you go farther up and further in, and at each new vista you find that, again, the new Narnia you just went through is simply part of the newer Narnia you are now exploring, and the delights never end. This kind of thing is what Dante experiences as he continues moving up and up through the Spheres closer to God. Also, at one point Lewis has all his creatures swimming *up* a waterfall and he describes it as if they were swimming through a rainbow of light – just as Dante finds himself in Canto XXX swimming upward through a river of light like rainbows. Also, Dante (and the medievals generally) thought of the cosmos as *both* getting bigger with concentric circles (spheres) as you go farther from earth, *and* as being more truly inside-out, with God (in the Empyrean) at the *center* of the cosmos and earth on its periphery – and this same inside-out nature of Aslan’s country is clearly stated by Lucy in The Last Battle: “This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside.” Tumnus replies “Of course, Daughter of Eve. The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside.” Finally, at the end of Paradiso Dante experiences a vision which he is utterly incapable of expressing with words. Lewis ends his book: “And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.”

    No comment on the usefulness of “adult” vs. “child consciousness”. You’re clearly thinking beyond Narnia with respect to this question, and I just don’t have anything helpful to say about it besides “You’re probably right.” :-)

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  4. Wow. I am now going to read that essay. Thanks Steven.
    I just recently read this quote by Owen Barfield re: Lewis and I think it again applies:

    Owen Barfield … found in Lewis an
    impressive unity characterized by consistency and unswerving sincerity. He summarized
    it as “presence of mind” and added: “If I were asked to expand on that, I could say only
    that somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said
    about anything.”

    Reply

    1. Matthew Lee Anderson January 11, 2012 at 5:46 pm

      That’s a great quote, Steve. Thanks for posting it. And I agree about the awesomeness of Steven’s comment. It wowed me into silence!

      Reply

  5. […] Of course you are all Narnia fans, yes? I mean, what’s not to love? I think you will appreciate this post over at Mere Orthodoxy contemplating the connection between The Lion, The Witch, and The W…. […]

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