The Extraordinary C.S. Lewis: Theology in Fiction

The 1988 version is not as watchable as the
2005 version, but the actors do fine jobs,
including Jonathan R. Scott as Edmund.
Writing about religious individuals and their lives has been done effectively (I second Bless Me Father as an excellent British sit-com!), especially when the writers stick to character and story.

Writing religious motivations effectively is a much more difficult prospect for believers and non-believers--especially if those religious or theological motivations are part of the problem and need to be paid off in some way. As Eugene states, "[The bigger worldview] has to surface sometime, else the plot will end up chasing its own tail."

What makes C.S. Lewis so effective is that he wrote from within his religion and mindset and he knew how to ground abstract ideas in the everyday.

Edmund's choice to betray his brothers and sisters in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is horrific when contemplated abstractly. His literal sin is a violation of every chivalric, pagan, and religious code that Lewis took seriously. It requires  absolution or atonement beyond an "I'm sorry" and "I forgive you."

It's big.

Yet the extraordinary C.S. Lewis manages to make it small, concrete, real, and horrible all at the same time. Edmund is no Mr. Evil. His betrayal is grounded in petty jealousy, vanity, and greed (for Turkish Delight supposedly; for the power to boss people around, most definitely). Mixed in with Edmund's vices is also a feeling of "I'm going to get back at people" and an almost obscure need to stick to the path he is on ("The Queen isn't so bad; I didn't behave wrongly by telling her about Lucy's faun; I have to keep going even though I'm wet and cold.")

He is utterly and completely comprehensible, no mean feat when it comes to betrayal.

The lowest circle of Dante's hell is
ice, not fire.
He also utterly and completely betrays his family. This is necessary to the denouement of LW&W, Aslan's sacrifice on Edmund's behalf. In order to comprehend the need, the audience must comprehend the violation caused by Edmund's behavior. Despite being a child, Edmund hasn't stolen a candy bar or called someone a bad name or hit someone. He has effected what Dante considered the worst sin: Treachery. In the lowest point of Dante's Inferno, Satan--who turned his back on God (Supernatural is classically right to have the angels refer to each other as brothers)--chews on Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot, the ultimate betrayers.

And yet, unlike Dante, Lewis wants us to mourn for his traitor, Edmund, to wish for his restoration. Edmund is us yet himself, his own character. We want his salvation because we see ourselves in him and because we care for him.

Through Edmund, Lewis prepares us for a recounting of the theological event which wedded the ultimate abstraction with the ultimate reality: God made flesh; God on a cross. What makes this even more extraordinary is that Aslan is not supposed to be an allegory or mere symbol, an easy out for a writer. He functions in LW&W as an individual character performing the same ritual for a new world.

We see the ritual through Lucy and Susan's eyes. This is story, not a theological treatise (Lewis himself stated that the entire story began with the image of a lion), and story is important! Yet Aslan's motivation makes or breaks the scene's place in the narrative arc, and it is grounded in something bigger than Edmund's brothers and sisters feeling bad (although that is one facet of the decision). Rather, it is grounded in an underlying, consistent worldview.

Grounding it in "Edmund must be saved to save Narnia" works (clever Lewis grounded it in more than one thing). Ultimately, however, Lewis uses an abstract concept to defend Aslan's decision. Edmund's sin is represented as larger than the people he immediately harmed--in violation of an eternal law. Aslan sincerely wishes to save him, is capable of doing so, and has access to the power--the Deep Magic--that makes Edmund's salvation possible.

The entire novel lies on the knife-edge of getting us, the readers, to accept both character's behaviors as believable because their motivations are plausible. Their motivations are plausible because the underlying "rules" of Lewis's world are plausible (though wisely never fully delineated).

Without the novel's conceptual framework, Edmund becomes merely a problematic bad boy who went off the rails until a good parent came to the rescue. Not a terrible plot. Cute, sweet, Touched by an Angel-ish (hey, I've seen a couple of episodes!), it falls short of a timeless narrative, myth in the best meaning of that term. 

Many readers have felt that C.S. Lewis succeeded even without believing (or being aware of) the Christian context. The characters are real because what motivates them is real and vice versa.

Unfortunately for writers, doing what Lewis did is quite difficult--even in fiction with secular ideologies. Depending on the context, a writer may need to convey, "My characters believe in something bigger than themselves"--like the environment, for example--only to produce characters with vague motivations who vaguely want something that readers have to struggle to care about, despite there being a concrete threat or narrative arc.

Granted, environmentalism is pretty much a pit of vagueness but this issue is a recurring problem with characters that require substantial ideologies as backing for their singular, concrete acts, especially religious characters. Why do they care? What do they want? Why do they make such sacrifices and take such risks? For ideas? Just ideas? Is that enough? George Bernard Shaw tried but without a true (not crazy) belief in her visions, Joan of Arc doesn't make much sense.

In my fiction, I find it easier to stick to material and personal motivations--and I recommend that most writers do the same. If we're lucky, the bigger stuff creeps in. Much of it crept in with Lewis, but it takes a master to go straight-on at something so big ("a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than the whole world") and humanly incomprehensible as the Christian Atonement, Passion, and Resurrection, make it work as a believable story yet not bog it down in saccharine, over-explanations, or coy platitudes.

The exceptions make the rule.

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