Friday, August 09, 2013

Objective Morality in Narnia

As is typical of C. S. Lewis, he wanted to show as well as tell. In his language, he wanted us to enjoy as well as contemplate. For that reason, he turned to fiction as well as argument. The apologetic from the moral law in Mere Christianity meets the moral universe of The Chronicles of Narnia.
      One key characteristics of the land of Narnia is Lewis’s creation of a profoundly moral universe. The good are ultimately rewarded; evil can be redeemed, but unrepentant evil does not win out. There is a corresponding remarkable lack of irony in Narnia—it lacks our postmodern sensibility of “whatever,” of a world where no one is ultimately directly committed to a moral good because all morality disappear in the murky contours of human action. But Narnia is different: In Lion, for example, Peter, Lucy, and Susan gain favor through their moral courage. They are rewarded with leadership as kings and queens. (I use the passive voice here because it seems as if Narnia itself has wound into it moral realism.) I omitted Edmund in the list above because his case demonstrates a different, but even greater good—the redeemed evildoer. Though he commits the horrendous sin of betraying Aslan—and this ultimately causes Aslan’s murder at the hands of Jadis—Edmund becomes wiser and stronger and takes on the name, Edmund the Just. Finally, in this universe of objective morality, evil will not triumph: Jadis, who rules Narnia with evil magic and totalitarian terror, encounters death in battle. Evil that cannot receive redemption is destroyed. 
      If all this sounds quite Christian, it should. The moral realism of Narnia corresponds to Lewis’s imaginative tutelage through the literature of largely Christian middle ages—and I mean “Christian” in the sense of worldview and moral vision, not necessarily in behavior. The world of medieval literature, which Lewis inhabited out of love, but also as his professor at both Oxford and Cambridge, follows the arc of the Christian story—God creates with good intention. Human evil mars creation. Reality seems to be overwhelmed by evil until ultimate good triumphs. One can see this narrative arc through seven stories of Narnia with its completion in The Last Battle, just as in the grandeur of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As the latter would describe it, this is the “eucatastrophe”—at the last minute and against all odds, good will triumph.
      Lewis’ moral universe also contrasts markedly with his experience in the chaotically immoral universe of boarding school. One telling example is the sadistic schoolmaster at Wynyard, the Reverend Robert Capon. But there are many more that Lewis details about boarding school that appear disproportionately and seemingly unreasonably in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. All of this explains Lewis’s repulsion at those years. It is a world where adults live immorally and chaotically, and the children can do nothing about it… at least, one child, Jack, who even implores his father to remove him from this hell. The efforts are unsuccessful for six years until he is finally tutored by the beloved William Kirkpatrick. Lewis was deeply convinced that this world was evil and would not triumph. His Christian convictions and psychological sanity depended on it. In fact, the crisis of the anomie of boarding schools illuminates why Lewis turned to writing fiction about children, who live a profoundly moral world, largely outside of adult power. This gives us some clue as to why moral realism matters to Lewis, how he not only argued for it in Mere Christianity and The Abolition of Man, but how he imaginatively portrayed it in The Chronicles of Narnia. Finally, and as I have argued throughout, writing out the resolution of this crisis of anomie speaks to our crises, living so often in a world that seems chaotic and profoundly immoral. 

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