Gopnik on Lewis, Part One

So Adam Gopnik wrote an essay on C.S. Lewis for The New Yorker about four years back, and in true Godsbody tradition (Yesterday’s News Today!), we’re just getting to it now. Of course, we’re not going to tackle the whole piece at once – who has time to read anything that long any more? Instead, we’ll just offer piecemeal comments here and there over the next little while. Cheers!

Gopnik:

“Yet a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reëmerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory. A powerful lion, starting life at the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth.”

Really? Gopnik’s version would be a fine allegory of Christianity seen, as it were, from the outside – the wondering world marveling that this odd little tribe could provide the seeds of a new dominant paradigm. But if we’re talking about what Christians think really happened with the Incarnation, then Aslan sort of has to be a lion – God Himself come down to earth, yes? And even so, his account of the “Mithraic, not Christian” myth doesn’t quite tell the whole story. What makes Aslan a Christ figure is that he not only descends to earth and walks among us, but also that he strips himself of power and delivers himself over to his enemy, out of love for one who betrayed him. That’s the moral force of the story.

This is not a particularly clever or subtle observation, but that’s precisely my point. It feels a little like Gopnik is twisting the text a bit to fit his larger point. (And what is his larger point? I’m afraid you’ll have to go read the thing to find out.)

Comments

  1. The Original Interlocutor says

    "It feels a little like Gopnik is twisting the text a bit to fit his larger point."

    Uh, yeah. Pretty much a spot-on assessment. The problem for an unbeliever like Gopnik is that fantasy fiction is hopelessly, fatally beyond his understanding, so he is left to wax wistful about "the experience of magic conveyed by poetry, landscape, light and ritual."

    I have no quibbles with his dismissal of Lewis' allegorical allegiances; as storied literature the books themselves do not quite hold up to scrutiny, a fact that is amply documented. But I find Gopnik's entire premise, shaky as it is, undermined when he cites the virulent Lewis-hater Philip Pullman ("the wonderful British fantasist").

    No. Pullman is the antithesis of a fantasist. If anything, he is a bigger didact than Lewis ever was, clinically and systematically reducing the whole idea of religious belief to an ultimately destructive and foolish impulse, while holding up the glories of teenage sex (!!) as the only thing that makes a chaotic world sane. One may say that Lewis' fantasy fails AS fantasy because its metaphor is always struggling to support the truth at its center (i.e., you can see the wires). But Pullman's fantasy fails altogether because it is false.

    Sorry, I've wandered a bit from your own assessment, with which I largely agree. But I'm afraid you and I are inmates of that stuffy realm which regards Narnia not as a "nasty little-England," nor as a mere vehicle for conveying pretty ideas about magic and ritual, however meaningless they ultimately are, but as a place in which our imagined better selves are given free rein.

  2. Matthew Lickona says

    Oh, I'm just getting started with this particular essay. It really stuck in my craw. "Hey, look, the New Yorker noticing Lewis! And trying to take his faith…seriously?"

    But comments like this make me wish I were a better blogger.

  3. The darndest about it is – as Tolkein would have gladly volunteered to point out – it's not like Lewis' story is that HARD to figure out. It's an ALLEGORY – for Pete's sake – and a Protestant one at that (we will resist committing to the thesis that there really is no OTHER kind of allegory for the moment).

    Now there may be things that recommend the Narnia series but the sophistication of its interpretative possiblities ain't one of them. What Gopnik is doing to Lewis is very like to the homo/feminist crowd trying to pull at the sparse strings of Spencer's Fairie Queen to find "hidden meanings" or the Marxists trying to manipulate crypto-bourgeois readings from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. I suppose it can be done, but not without some violence to the original text. But of course, it doesn't so much show the flaw in Lewis' work (we've got plenty of that to share around in his SF series – which I haven't read but hear is very tedious – to a hair-pulling degree) as it does the shallowness of the (post-)modern mind…

    Yes, they've rejected man along with God, but in so doing postmodernism's humility turns out to be a sham sort – a kind of disgraceful cynicism charading as true recognition of our smallness. I suppose for this, if no other reason, Gopnik can't be fully blamed for exhaling a bit of the air that he breathes over there in the NYer offices….

    JOB

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