C S Lewis’s use of story to “train the heart,” per Paul Ford, in the latter’s delightful Companion to Narnia


The Pevensy children and the lamppost

This is me reflecting in my “Tradition chapter” draft (for the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis) on Paul Ford’s understanding of how C S Lewis used story, in the Narnia Chronicles, to initiate readers into a traditional moral reality by drawing their desires into play. It supports and resonates with this post.

Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia, “Introduction” and “Story”

“Story, Stories” (pp. 412-13)

“The seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia are testament to the fact that Lewis valued stories and story-telling as the best way to transmit values down through the generations. The difference in quality between the New Narnians and the Old Narnians (as personified by Miraz and Prince Caspian) is faith. Miraz thinks fairy tales are for children and to be outgrown, while for Caspian the old stories are his salvation.” (412)

“Introduction,” sub-section “What Is a Story?

There is much wisdom here about story as moral education because it is a key way our emotions are trained. So too tradition: it is handed down as of immense value, it forms our culture’s “ways of seeing,” of “Enjoying” truths by indwelling them and using them to “see other things by”—like “looking along the beam” rather than “looking at the beam”—the latter being the analytical mode that Lewis calls Contemplating, rather than Enjoying.

The nature of the education that story gives us is described by Gilbert Meilaender, quoted at length in this section: “‘Moral education . . . does not look much like teaching. One cannot have classes in it. It involves the inculcation of proper emotional responses and is as much a ‘knowing how’ as a ‘knowing that.’ . . . The picture we get when we think of ‘knowing how’ is the apprentice working with the master. And the inculcation of right emotional responses [see “men without chests” image in Abolition of Man] will take place only if the youth has around him examples of men and women for whom such responses have become natural. . . . Lewis, like Aristotle, believes that moral principles are learned indirectly from others around us, who serve as exemplars [and here is a bridge to Augustine, who has said that he would not have become a Christian but for “the authority of the church” (find exact wording in my notes), which Rimini interpreted as meaning the examples of holiness in the lives of Christians around him—an interpretation that the story of his conversion seems to support, as it was the example of the soldiers converting when they hear Antony of Egypt’s story that drives Augustine in a frenzy out to the garden, where he is led to open Paul and read a further personal, emotional challenge to himself, showing him his own need for conversion.]. . . . This is also the clue to understanding the place of the Chronicles of Narnia within Lewis’s thought. They are not just good stories. Neither are they primarily Christian allegories (in fact, they are not allegories at all). [14] Rather, they serve to enhance moral education, to build character. . . . To overlook the function of the Chronicles of Narnia in communicating images of proper emotional responses is to miss their connection to Lewis’s moral thought.” [n. 19: The Taste for the Other (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1978), 212-213.]

Continues Ford,

“Lewis took his storytelling seriously and his audience seriously. In fact, his Chronicles have succeeded in restoring storytelling to the sharing of faith from one generation to the next. . . .”

Next, an important reflection on how stories arouse in us desire, this time rooted in some words of Tolkien’s, but no doubt important to Lewis. All of this indicates the important anamnetic function of tradition, I think—the liturgy brings us into the emotional presence of Reality by allowing us to re-narrate truth for ourselves; liturgy is narrative, just as creed is narrative. (Creeds were themselves the substance of tradition—the narratively formed “Rule of Faith” by which all Scripture was to be read and interpreted, so that the mosaic tiles of Scripture would come together to form the portrait of a king, not a fox.[1]) Tradition is not a lifeless body of truths handed down for the generations to Contemplate (by analysis). It is a living set of emotional scripts handed down for Enjoyment—to train us in new, emotionally charged and formed modes of perception. Like all the chapters of this book, therefore, this one on Tradition spills over quite easily into the chapter on Affective Devotion, and vice-versa. Lewis learned, reading the many books of myth and legend in his father’s house, how to find truth in story—how to indwell, as Adam Barkman puts it, “philosophy as a way of life,” not a subject for study. This is like the story he tells on himself of referring to philosophy as a “subject” and being rebutted with some heat by Barfield: “it wasn’t a subject to Plato!”:

“J. R. R. Tolkien tells us that fairy stories help us experience the desirable: ‘Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably [Sehnsucht], they succeeded.’ [“On Fairy Stories,” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 62.]

I am reminded here that Lewis’s “argument from desire” is not an argument at all, but a way of seeing and living. It is akin to the Affirmative Way that his friend Charles Williams articulated in his writings—the route to God through images that appeal to the imagination. And Ford makes the same connection, moving from Tolkien to Augustine. Picking up after “they succeeded,” above:

“This is extremely important in light of Lewis’s theology of prayer [which, along with the Eucharist, may perhaps be called the centerpiece of liturgy], which he inherits from St. Augustine via St. Thomas Aquinas [not sure about this provenance, given CSL’s own insistence that he doesn’t get a lot of things from T.A. that people think he does]. Augustine tells us that we cannot pray unless we have desires. In his famous letter to Proba, a North African woman who wrote him about her problems with prayer—you could say that this letter is the ancestor of Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm—Augustine says: ‘Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it) but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he [15] is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers.’” [This is certainly the burden of CSL’s “Weight of Glory” sermon!] (14-15)

“Augustine develops this idea in his Tractates on First John: ‘The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise of holy desire [the “transformation of desire” I see in CSL’s theology, as a species of Christian eudaemonism]. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.’ [Ford adds Aquinas, which I’m skipping here] . . . Lewis transforms this theology in Letter IV to Malcolm (in my own words): Prayer is the unveiling of our desires before God.” (15)

Concludes Ford, “And the Chronicles of Narnia help Christians desire God and enjoy mere Christianity.” (15) And I add: this is precisely the function of liturgy, including the creeds with their Rule of Faith, handed down as The Great Tradition. It was the purpose Lewis became captivated with as he moved through the process of writing the Chronicles, so that Ford describes the time, during the spring and summer of 1950, when Lewis has his “third burst of Narnian creativity”: “After a pause of at least two months, Lewis, like a portraitist finished with his main subject, started The Horse and His Boy to fill in the background by telling a story that takes place in Calormen and Archenland. Along the way, however, much as Shasta encounters Aslan in the fog . . . Lewis was overwhelmed with the possibilities of the education of the heart through his long-cherished form of the fairy tale.” (15)


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, chapter VIII: “How the Valentinians pervert the Scriptures to support their own pious opinions.” “[T]hey disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions.”

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