The Lion, The Mouse and the Dawn Treader

A review of The Lion, The Mouse and The Dawn Treader: Spiritual Lessons from C.S. Lewis's Narnia, by Carl McColman.

I don’t know how old I was when I got my boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Sometime in early elementary school, I’m sure. The cover art is copyright 1975. When I got married, I found that my new husband had the exact same boxed set of paperbacks. We finally (after ten years or so?) agreed to keep only one set, and we decided which one based solely on the fact that his set was not falling apart as badly as mine.

I don’t know how many times I read and reread the books in my childhood. The ones I didn’t like as well, like The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, I probably only read three times. The Horse and His Boy is still my favorite. I’ve read it at least three times in the last five years.

But I certainly didn’t read any of them for religious purposes. I was a freshman in college the first time I heard someone claim they were Christian books and I hotly denied it. I have since re-read them with that lens and I can see how someone could make that mistake come to that conclusion. But I want to firmly testify that it is possible to read and love them without that meaning at all. I’ve heard that C.S. Lewis himself insisted that the Narnia Chronicles were not Christian allegories.

Despite all this disclaimer, Carl McColman has written a wonderful explanation of the religious themes to be found in the Chronicles and particularly in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. McColman says, “VDT directly maps out the contours of the Christian spiritual life.” (Here I just have to quibble for a minute and point out that I suspect most of these lessons are relevant in any mystical tradition. But McColman, and I, are navigating the waters of the Christian tradition and from here on in, I’m just going to accept that framework. Also, McColman always uses masculine language for God but we’re just going to accept that He is McColman’s preferred pronoun.)

The major theological lessons I took away from McColman’s interpretation of VDT:
  1. We don’t choose our mystical experiences – they come to the willing and the unwilling alike.
  2. Mysticism is not a worthy end in itself but it can get your attention to help you focus on true holiness.
  3. Three dramatic metaphors for sin: being sold into slavery, being turned into a dragon, and using magic to gain power over others.
  4. Both the storms and the doldrums of life get in the way of our journey.
  5. Be not afraid. [And isn’t this the big spiritual lesson from Jesus in any case?]
For Quakers, these are all really important lessons. Our worship is a ritual of willingness to have a mystical experience. And sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. For me, it was my experience while I was still unwilling that set me on the path that led to Quakers.

But whether or not we have great visions in meeting for worship, it is the path of holiness, as Carol Spencer writes about it, that we are traveling. (The link is to a post from last year’s Quaker Heritage Day. I’ll have more to write about this year’s QHD by the end of the week.) Quaker testimonies are all about translating the unseen into the seen. The outward expressions of our inward experiences become our efforts at holiness.

Quakers have long held that we can escape the bindings of sin and walk in the Light. But we are always being tempted. No matter how strong or well armed or well trained, we are always in danger through carelessness or weakness of being caught and dragged down in our greed, or desire for power or popularity, or of just giving in to the world’s marketplace of degradation and capitulation.

And in a tradition that doesn’t have a written creed or a liturgical year, we can be shipwrecked either by the storms of our inner spiritual lives or by conflicts in our meetings/churches. Just as easily, we can be grounded on a soft, sandy beach by complacency and letting someone else do the hard work. Whether we pay those people to do the work or we lean on burnt-out volunteers makes no difference.

George Fox was not afraid. Tom Fox was not afraid. Or maybe they were but they did the hard work, said the necessary things anyway. Reepicheep was brave to the point of foolishness. Caspian was brave enough to admit when he was wrong. Eustace discovered his own courage as he walked among people who were doing their own imperfect best. As we listen to our Inward Guide, we find the courage to be faithful.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a good enough story to hold both page-turning adventure and deep spiritual truths. You gotta love that. I thank Carl McColman for opening my eyes to more in the story.

The book is available in paperback or Kindle from Amazon. I was sent a free review copy by the Viral Bloggers program of The Ooze.

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Blogger Hystery said...

In a 1963 letter to one of his young fans, Lewis wrote, "If you continue to love Jesus, nothing much can go wrong with you, and I hope you may always do so. I'm so thankful that you realized [the] 'hidden story' in the Narnian books. It is odd, children nearly always do, grown-ups hardly ever." (C.S. Lewis, Letters to Children, 1985)

I cannot express how much Aslan and the 'hidden story' have always meant to me. Without being told, I knew who He was and I think I would have even if I did not know who Jesus was. I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was seven and have read them, often multiple times a year, ever since. I think that because C.S. Lewis wrote such a powerful Christ, one that rivaled Jesus of Nazareth in my childish imagination, I developed an early belief that there must be a wide variety of ways to express the idea of that which we human beings understand as "Christ". These figures, male and female, human and animal, corporal and spiritual, embodied and philosophical, do not need to be allegories. They do not need to depend on any biblical template as a source of authority because the Bible is not the Source. It is merely another manifestation of that Source. This prepared me to be a Pagan who felt no conflict between my Christian beliefs and an earth-centered and mythological perspective. It prepared me to be a Quaker. One need not look in the Bible to find Christ. One only need look. S/He is always with us.

2/14/2011 7:45 PM  
Blogger Suzanne said...

Thanks for this post, Robin. I have long held that the story of Eustace being stripped of his dragon skin by Aslan is a deeply true description of a conversion experience.

2/15/2011 11:45 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hystery, I wonder if the Chronicles had a similar effect on me.

Suzanne, yes, I think you are so right.

Another Friend emailed me to say she liked the review and that she always knew that Aslan was God. I think that I too understood that Aslan was a God figure, but it didn't occur to me to identify him with Jesus. Then again, I didn't really understand that writers make their characters stand for certain philosophical things, on purpose, until a high school English teacher whacked me upside the head with the idea.

2/16/2011 12:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

delurking briefly... The Magician's Nephew taught me, as a child, two immensely useful lessons: first, what it looks like when grown-ups lie to themselves; and secondly, to trust my own observations of patterns of behaviour, good or bad, in adults as well as children.

It's not a nice book, but it is superbly truthful, especially about this world. Perhaps that's why it's less popular.

2/16/2011 11:17 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hmmm. Maybe I need to re-read the books I remember not liking so much as a child - it might be different to read them with my adult eyes.

2/16/2011 12:03 PM  

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