Thursday, July 23, 2009

Ready for a Trip to Narnia

Summer is here. The thermometer is consistently reaching 80+ degrees. And from a literature perspective, there is nothing I find more exciting than reading fun, easy books—the kind that capture my attention and don’t overly tax my brain cells (especially in the sweltering heat).

My mother helped me develop this habit when I was young. Every summer, she would take my sisters and me to the small Jefferson County library, which was actually about 10 miles from our home and located in an adjacent city. We’d check out a pile of books and return every two to three weeks for another pile. I still have some of the lists of books I read during those summers, and the certificates of completion I received before heading back to school in the fall. Our interest in reading was kept alive when we stayed with our grandparents in Denver. We would walk to nearby Washington Park and check out books from the Eugene Field Library, a tiny branch of the Denver Public Library System established in the house where Mr. Field lived while working for a local newspaper and writing children’s poetry. (See note #1, below.) And on rare occasions, we would head to the huge main Denver library located downtown between the state capitol and municipal building.

Past summers have provided great adventures to far-flung places. I expect the summer of 2009 to be the same. This year I have my passport and guide books ready to travel to the fascinating land of Narnia, and this week I began my journey. Following my regular routine, I hid in an air-conditioned corner of a fast food restaurant, with a large diet soda in one hand and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (TLWW) in the other.

But Before the Journey Begins…

After six months of reading the “serious” works of C.S. Lewis, I am definitely ready for the Narnian Chronicles. I know from reading the chronicles 25 years ago that these children’s books are allegorical and will provide opportunities for thought. However, I don’t expect to have to look up Latin words and research social and psychological movements in order to understand things like I did when reading The Pilgrim’s Regress, reread passages time and again like I did when studying The Abolition of Man, or ponder the meanings behind episodes in The Great Divorce. I expect a delightful trip through a country I have visited before, reconnecting with old friends, and learning new things about myself as I experience the Chronicles of Narnia from a new, more educated perspective.

I was actually captivated before I got to the first page of the story. Immediately after the title page, there was a simple map of Narnia and surrounding countries. My mind immediately went to the stories Lewis wrote and illustrated when he was a child, between the ages of 8 and 13. The surviving tales have been collected and published under the title Boxen, the name of the geographic region Lewis created in which his anthropomorphic animals from Animal-Land interacted with his brother Warren’s characters from stories about India. Lewis drew a map of Boxen that placed Animal-Land very near the country of India, and included a few other land masses and oceans. It was easy to see while reading Boxen the kernels of imagination that eventually became Narnia. Seeing the map at the front of TLWW brought back memories of Lewis’ creative childhood and his great imagination.

The next thing I loved was the dedication of the book (see note #2, below) to Lucy Barfield (see note #3, below):

My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say but I shall still be

Your affectionate Godfather,

C.S. Lewis

As always, I appreciated Lewis’ insights into human nature. He knew that children reach a point where they think they are too old for dolls and toy trucks and fairy tales. To admit their love for these things would be to admit they were still “babies” so they deny they still love these childhood companions in order to appear “grown up,” even if they shed a silent tear as they close the toy chest for the last time or put books on a high shelf to gather dust. Lewis wrote of his own life: “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly.” Lewis also mentioned this phenomenon in the final chapter of his last space trilogy book, That Hideous Strength. When Mark Stoddard had left N.I.C.E. and was attempting to make his way back to his wife, he stopped at a little country hotel for tea and found an old volume of The Strand newspaper. In it there was a serial children’s story “which he had begun to read as a child but abandoned because his tenth birthday came when he was half way through it and he was ashamed to read it after that. …Now, he chased it from volume to volume till he had finished it.”

It was also touching to hear Lewis acknowledge that perhaps his goddaughter would be too old to enjoy TLWW when it was published (age 15) but that at some point she would be “old enough to read fairy tales again.” He knew there came a time in every person’s life when he or she could admit a love for things thought to be the exclusive realm of children. Perhaps this love provides a trip down memory lane, or a deeper appreciation and understanding of long-ago experiences. Or perhaps it provides a totally new experience. Whether it be dolls, teddy bears, toy trains, matchbox cars or my favorite—children’s books, childhood collectibles are big with adults.

Like Lewis, I’m glad I’m old enough to enjoy fairy tales again. I can’t wait to have my passport stamped as I enter Narnia through each of the seven chronicles.

Note #1: My favorite childhood library was the one located in the Eugene Field House, which had been relocated to the east side of Washington Park at 715 S. Franklin Street in Denver. The house was purchased for the city by Mrs. J.J. Brown (of Unsinkable Molly Brown fame). In addition to serving as a library for several years, it has had other uses, including its present use by The Park People, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve, enhance, and advocate for Denver’s parks, recreation resources, open space and urban forest.

Eugene Field, a journalist and poet, attended several different colleges with little success, briefly tried his luck with acting, spent six months traveling in Europe, and then returned to Saint Joseph, Missouri, in 1875 to begin his successful journalistic career. He worked for various publications across the country, including serving as managing editor of the Denver Tribune for two years (1881-1882). He had a generally light-hearted style of writing, but he could also be sarcastic and "cleverly mean." He is said to have turned the city upside down with his habit of skewering self-important gold and silver bullion kings and politicians, making his “Nonpareil” column a daily must-read. He also wrote devastatingly witty criticisms (e.g., when reviewing a production of King Lear he wrote of the lead actor “ he played the king as if under momentary apprehension that somebody else was about to play the ace”).

Field is best remembered for his children’s poetry, including his famous “Wynken, Blynken and Nod” (originally entitled “Dutch Lullaby”), which is a fantasy bed-time story of three fishermen sailing in a wooden shoe boat and fishing in the stars; the fishermen symbolize a sleepy child's blinking eyes and nodding head. A statue (sculpted by Mabel Landrum Torrey) honoring this poem was installed at Washington Park in 1919. My sisters and I loved to climb all over this sculpture until such antics were prohibited by placing it in the middle of a small pond.

Note #2: Lewis always dedicated his books to close friends; appropriately, the Narnian chronicles were dedicated to children. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was dedicated to Lucy Barfield, daughter of good friend Owen Barfield who was also a member of the Oxford literary club, The Inklings (See post dated May 24, “The Inklings”); Prince Caspian to Mary Clare Harvard, daughter of fellow Inkling Dr. R.E. “Humphrey” Harvard; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Lucy’s foster brother Geoffrey Barfield; The Silver Chair to Nicholas Hardie, son of Inkling Colin Hardie; The Horse and His Boy to Lewis’s future stepsons David and Douglas Gresham; and The Magician’s Nephew to the Kilmer family, an American family whose children Lewis corresponded with in his Letters to Children. The Last Battle is the only Narnia book that has no dedication.

Note #3: Lucy Barfield (1935 – 2003) was the daughter of Owen Barfield, one of C.S. Lewis’ closest friends and a major influence in his reconversion to Christianity. (See May 30, 2009 blog entry, “Intellectual Snobbery.”) Lucy was 12 years old when Lewis began writing TLWW and 15 by the time it was published. Sadly, when Lucy Barfield was 30, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which left her bedridden and unable to feed herself. Amid her physical trials, being named in TLWW touched her life in ways that Lewis could not have imagined. For the rest of her life, Lucy received letters from children. Some, believing she was Lucy Pevensie, asked her about Narnia. Others knew she was ill and just wrote to say hello. "What a wonderful oasis of pleasure I have in this pretty terrible world, being recognized as Lucy," she once said.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Multiple Meanings of "That Hideous Strength"

As Shakespeare asked: What’s in a name?, so do I ask: what is the meaning of the title of C.S. Lewis’ final book in his space trilogy—That Hideous Strength? To what or to whom does it refer? Does it foreshadow an event or describe a program? And why is strength described as hideous rather than powerful or superhuman or some other kind of strength? I came up with two hypotheses, one of which was confirmed by a Lewis biographer. Discovering the reference Lewis used for the title then led me to look at the book from a new perspective, which I found enlightening and which added another dimension to the work.

The Power of Evil Men

My initial determination was that the hideous strength pertained to the scientific/quasi-governmental organization called N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Coordinated Experiments). N.I.C.E. is run by evil men who seek power at any cost. They believe that since men are going to be ruled by other men, they might as well be the rulers themselves; they might as well be those individuals who shape society and determine its future.

The leaders of N.I.C.E. are manipulative; they project a benign attitude of caring for the general health and welfare of the people, while, in fact, they are plotting to destroy cities, eradicate certain classes of people, and change the form of human bodies. Not only is there a stealthy struggle between N.I.C.E. and the community or society at large, but there is an internal struggle within the ranks as ruthless office politics even result in murder. The story of That Hideous Strength is a case study in dictatorship—the evil that can be perpetrated on mankind, powerful evil and strength masquerading as humanitarian good. Since the book was written during World War II, it is easy to see the parallels between N.I.C.E. and the Nazi party.

The Insidious Tactics of Satan

The second interpretation of the title I came up with is that it applies to the masterminds behind N.I.C.E.—Satan and his devils who have had dominion over the earth since the expulsion of man from the Garden of Eden. Since devils do not have corporeal bodies, their time on Earth is not ruled by an aging process. They have had millennia to hone their evil craft, centuries to develop tactics to ensnare the souls of men. This duration of power has certainly given them a hideous strength, and drawn countless individuals down to their level and away from God.

Of course Satan’s evil influence is behind the actions of the leaders of N.I.C.E., so perhaps this explanation simply reinforces the first hypothesis.

Lewis’ Source for the Title

I was fascinated when I read that Lewis took the title from a 1554 work written by Scottish poet Sir David Lyndsaay, “Ane Dialog betwixt Experience and ane Courteor,” better known as “The Monarchie.” The modernized line of inspiration reads:

“The shadow of that hideous strength, six miles and more it is of length”

The six-mile shadow refers to the shadow cast by the Tower of Babel recounted in Genesis 11:4-9. Lewis biographer Walter Hooper says “in Lewis’ novel [the shadow] is represented by the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) at Belbury.” This confirms my first instincts about the title.

The Tower of Babel

The story of the Tower of Babel is about the arrogance of the builders who thought that, by building a city with a tower that reached heaven, they would make a name for themselves and prevent their city from being scattered.

When God saw what they were doing and perceived their intentions, He knew this “stairway to heaven” would only lead the people away from Him, not bring them closer. He also knew that when people are united in purpose, they wield a powerful force—which can be used for evil as well as good.

God knew that to save the people, He would have to break up the unified society. He therefore confused their tongues, causing them to speak different languages so they could not understand each other or work together on their common goal.

Another problem with the tower was that the people used brick instead of stone, and tar instead of mortar. They used “man-made” materials instead of more durable “God-made” materials. The people were building a monument to themselves, to call attention to their own abilities and achievements, rather than giving glory to God.

The Theme of Blocked Communication

The result of the confounding of tongues at the Tower of Babel was that communication was hindered. This theme of blocked communication runs throughout That Hideous Strength:

  • Mark and Jane have essentially ceased to really talk with each other. Their marriage is weak; each is unhappy and blames the other for their state of affairs. They head in different directions with their personal lives.
  • The people at N.I.C.E. project a caring, humanitarian, sociologically progressive image to the community, when in fact they are the exact opposite. They use propaganda on a regular basis to deceive the outside world.
  • N.I.C.E. controls the media, the primary means of communication. Their spin doctors completely change stories to benefit the secret mission of N.I.C.E.
  • N.I.C.E. is set up and run as an “organization” in which everybody is equal so all are equally insignificant. There is no real leadership, which results in constant infighting among members. Everyone talks in circles without ever taking a position, and never committing to anything definite. (This is in contrast to how the opposition is set up. St. Anne’s is organized like a “family” where there is a hierarchy, where all are equally vital in their positions and roles. St. Anne’s leader, Ransom, is a true Biblical patriarch whose members know their place and worth.)
  • At N.I.C.E., the people in charge are unable to find a member with the ability to speak ancient languages, so they are unable to communicate with the tramp whom they think is the reincarnated magician Merlin whose power they hope to employ in their nefarious efforts. The fact that they have to go outside for an interpreter opens the door for the real Merlin to infiltrate the organization and bring about its downfall.
  • During the banquet to honor the titular head of N.I.C.E., Merlin and the archangel from Mercury confound the tongues of all those present. This leads to the rapid destruction of the gathering and soon the entire society.


While the meaning of the title That Hideous Strength refers to the evil of the scientists at N.I.C.E., the reference to the Tower of Babel shines an entirely different light on the meaning of the book.

Babel—or more specifically poor communication—is a theme that runs throughout Lewis’ space trilogy. In all three books, the inability to communicate complicates the situations, which are resolved only when true communication occurs. I agree with Lewis that open, honest communication with our families, friends, neighbors, associates, leaders and most importantly with our God is critical to our happiness and well-being. Real communication is not easy and must be worked on continually; since people continually change and grow, the communication must also grow or the messages will no longer connect. The task of communicating is never-ending. As George Bernard Shaw said: "The problem with the illusion that it has been accomplished."

Communication takes at least two individuals--one to speak and one to listen. True communication is circular in nature; the listener must respond to the speaker to confirm that the message has been accurately received. The speaker then has the opportunity to agree or further explain the message. Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen said: "The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words." Whether the response is verbal or non-verbal, this type of shared communication creates strong bonds between the individuals sharing information and ideas. It takes work.

As shown in That Hideous Strength, communication can be used for evil (like at N.I.C.E.) or for good (like at St. Anne's). Most individuals will never be in a position to wield such power or exhibit such strength over large groups of people as in the novel, but each of us has the power to uplift or hurt everyone with whom we come in contact. It is imperative that we recognize the power we do have and use it wisely in our interactions with all of God's children.