Thursday, October 7, 2010

Medieval Cosmology in the Chronicles of Narnia.

I've just discovered my university library offers Michael Ward's Planet Narnia as an ebook. So please enjoy this rambling discussion of the pagan Greek elements of the Narnia books (cross-posted from Facebook).
Pagan Creatures in Christian Narnia: Why, Lewis, Why?

CS Lewis's Narnia is unusual in that along with dwarfs, Talking Beasts and an allegorical representation of Jesus, one also finds fauns, centaurs, dryads, river-gods, and other creatures from Greek myth. Many people, even those who love Narnia, consider the inclusion of these unusual, daring, even transgressive. To me, it's a clear homage to one of the greatest Christian works of fantasy ever written.

Edmund Spenser, who lived during the reign of Elizabeth I, was a Puritan of particularly impressive orthodoxy (unlike John Milton). He was also a brilliant and passionate poet. His unfinished masterpiece is The Faerie Queene, which has very strong allegorical elements. Think of it as the much more highly-rated version of The Pilgrim's Progress. Set in the tangled woods of a fantasy land inhabited by heroes and monsters, it tells the stories of several brave knights who represent different virtues (Holiness, Justice, Chastity, Temperance, &c) as they battle against beasts such as Vice, Error, Lust, Suicide, and the three wicked Saracen knights Without-Faith, Without-Law, and Without-Joy. A friend of mine called it “The Bible—With Knights!” There are also many minor Greek beasts and deities in the story—there's a nasty sea-god who kidnaps the most beautiful woman in the world; there are the satyrs Lady Truth falls among; there's even a good half-satyr knight (Satyrane), if I remember correctly.

Spenser used these as window-dressing for his fantasy world, and Lewis did the same—partly to add interest to the world, and partly as a homage to the Faerie Queene, which he was very enthusiastic about. Now Spenser mainly used the Greek deities as antagonists, although in some cases they could be redeemed, like Satyrane. Lewis on the other hand, puts them firmly on the side of good. His centaurs are wise and sober, unlike the Greek centaurs. His fauns are merry and artistic, unlike the Greek fauns. His Maenads are still unsafe, but are not at all demonic. I would argue that he has taken Greek ideas and Greek forms, and transformed them into something fit for a Christian children's book, to the point where they have no longer truly represent Greek deities. They have been redeemed, and now they are anthropomorphic beings representing different aspects of creation. While in the Old Testament, Moses commands the Jordan river, in Narnia, Aslan commands the Beruna Rivergod. There is little difference.

In addition all Lewis's Greek deities, like Satyrane, are subordinate and faithful to Aslan (the God-allegory of his story), being part of the created order. In this Lewis was also probably referencing the medieval idea that beasts and living things are animated by angels. He was quite capable of saying, “In Greek myths, pagan spirits animated trees, wells, and the woods. What if these spirits were not terrifying and demonic, but friendly and angelic?” It's a similar idea he explored earlier in his science-fiction trilogy, where Mars and Venus are mind-breakingly holy angelic beings. But it has even more interesting ramifications than this. The Greeks sensed that creation teemed with terrifying spirits. Our word “panic” means the numinous fear of Pan, aka Everything, the satyr god of the wild woods. To the Greeks, God's creation was hostile and terrifying.

Now perhaps they were onto something. Perhaps in those dark days before the death of Christ and the binding of Satan, creation did teem with demons. That's probably the correct explanation...but what if (and stories are made of what-ifs) the Greeks were actually frightened, with good reason, of a terrible holiness in creation?

Or what if the medievals were actually right? What if creation does teem with unseen life—what if the stars are angels? (and flaming gas is only what a star is made of). What if this world of ours is just as strange as Narnia, if only we could see it?

Either way, the fauns and dryads of Narnia are not pagan. They have been redeemed into Christian symbols. The spirits of beasts, trees, rivers and stars in Narnia may not be precisely angelic; that would be problematic for the theology of the story; but they are not demonic either. Instead, they are a fascinating and unique response to medieval cosmology.


Margaret said...

The Greek and Roman pantheon shown in subjection to Aslan, what an imagination Lewis had to show the Creator's supremacy over history.

Regarding all those unread books we have lying around--I call mine my "shelf of anticipated pleasures."

Don't worry about keeping up with a pre-supposed blog time-table. Keep this baby manageable so you don't burn out. You've got a lot to say, and it will take you some time. You're off to a great start.

Suzannah said...

Thanks, Margaret! I hope you enjoy reading my little blog, then.


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