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Chesterton and Lewis, Cont.

May 21st, 2008 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

While offering his own take on the differences between the respective literary imaginations of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Martin Cothran offered this substantial and skillful critique of my defense of C.S. Lewis:

Matthew Lee Anderson at Mere Orthodoxy has responded to Longenecker, saying that he unjustly uses Narnia as representative of all of Lewis's fiction. He points to Till We Have Faces as an example of fiction written by Lewis equal to Tolkien's. But ironically, it is the allegorical aspect of Till We Have Faces that is the only really valuable aspect of the book. In fact, it seems to me that it fails the test of a good allegory in a way that the Narnia books themselves do not: that you can enjoy the story quite apart from the allegory. I do think Till We Have Faces does a better job of creating a convincing world, but the story just isn't as compelling as Lewis's children's books.

Cothran and I part ways here. It is hard to compare Till We Have Faces with Lord of the Rings because the plot lines and narrative perspective are so different, but I find the story in Till We Have Faces quite enjoyable. Not only that, butt I would strenuously disagree with his characterization of the book as an allegory--it is much more significant than that. As Doris T. Myers writes in Bareface: A Guide to C.S. Lewis's Last Novel:

The bare outline of the story has fascinated poet, philosophers, and ordinary readers throughout the centuries. It is more than allegory; it has all the mysterious resonance of a myth. That is, the meaning, though clear, is yet somehow beyond our grasp. We think we have understood the story, but there is always something beyond, inviting us to ponder it more deeply. The originality of Lewis's approach is to ignore allegory, to deemphasize the mythic literary tradition, and to treat it as something that could, perhaps did, really happen.

With this assessment I heartily concur. While there are clearly allegorical elements to the book, it is much richer than that, and enjoyable apart from those elements. Myers's description of the story as a myth places it in the same category as Lord of the Rings.

Cothran also takes on my argument regarding G.K. Chesterton:

I don't know which stories Anderson is referring to here. Certainly Chesterton's characters make some interesting speeches, and certainly his fiction has flaws, but you simply cannot look at something like The Man Who Was Thursday (a work written, by the way, when Chesterton was an Anglican) and view it as a backdrop for anything other than Chesterton's own original genius. Chesterton's stories were perfectly suited to Chesterton's vision of the world: a place where mirth and magic underly every ordinary thing.

To say that Chesterton's vision is didactic is sort of like saying that The Divine Comedy is didactic: it's true, but it is so inadequate an assessment as to tell us nothing essential about the work. It also doesn't prove Anderson's point. There is a certain didacticism to Chesterton, but Chesterton, unlike Lewis, isn't trying to create a secondary world. Chesterton doesn't need a secondary world to instruct us about this one. To Chesterton, this world is fantastic enough.

I am afraid Cothran missed my point, which was less about Chesterton's fiction and more about his Catholicism. I agree with Cothran's assessment of Chesterton's writings, many of which I have read and almost all of which I have thoroughly enjoyed. I raised him only as a counterexample to Longenecker's argument that Lewis's didactism stems from his Protestantism. Cothran's reply does not, as best I can tell, refute the point.

Indeed, Cothran grants the didactic nature of Gilbert's writings. Regardless of whether that happens in a "secondary world" or "this world," my point is that his incarnating of stories is, on Longenecker's account, more Protestant than Catholic--reason enough, I think, to question Longenecker's neat distinctions.

Two more brief points.

First, Cothran approvingly cites this assessment of Narnia by Humphrey Carpenter:

Indeed one can regard all Lewis's most successful literary work as pastiche. He chose a form from on source, an idea from another; he played at being (in turns) Bunyan, Chesterton, Tolkien, Williams, anybody he liked and admired. He was an impersonator, a mimic, a fine actor; but what lay at the heart of it all? Who was the real C. S. Lewis?

It may be the case that Lewis drew heavily on source material, but that is hardly problematic. Shakespeare didn't have an original plot to speak of, yet we hardly degrade him by calling him a 'mimic.' Lewis's is a great thinker precisely because he stands at a crucial moment in history, synthesizing and distilling the greatest thinkers of the Western tradition.

Second, while (again) I agree with much Cothran has to say about the differences between Lewis and Chesterton, I think he goes awry when he writes:

Narnia is fantastic because it is different. We may be like Peter, and Lucy, and Susan, and Edmund, but we are not like Prince Caspian, or Mr. Tumnis, or Reepacheep, or the White Witch. The only characters in Narnia with which we can really identify are not from Narnia. Middle Earth, on the other hand, is fantastic because it is familiar. There is a little bit of Frodo in all of us--and Bilbo, for that matter, and Aragorn, and Merry and Pippin.

In short, while Cothran finds the attraction in the difference, I look to the sameness: there is, in fact, a little bit of Caspian, of Tumnus, of Reepicheep in us. Who doesn't wish to join Reepicheep on his quest to the edge of the world? Who has not longed to go with him, like Caspian, but been held back by duties and obligations?

It is, in short, precisely because Narnia so nearly reflects this world that it resonates so deeply in us. The differences only serve to make the lessons and the stories more palatable to those who may not learn them otherwise. Greed is an easier vice to spot if the person who suffers from it turns into a dragon. But the greed is the same in Narnia as it is here.

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.