With an entire wall and then some of the office filled with books, many of which I have yet to read, what did I decide to read during Lent? Yes, books I’ve already read. Granted, it was 30 years ago and my memory doesn’t span beyond this morning’s breakfast (was that toast or cereal?), so it was like reading something new.
I wanted something on the lighter side and I wanted it to have a Christian theme or underpinnings. Since I had already read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in preparation of seeing the movie of the same name, I decided to continue with the entire Chronicles of Narnia. And then I moved on to Lewis’ so-called “Space Trilogy.” And then for good measure, I read the entire Father Brown stories by G. K. Chesterton. To be fair, that took me beyond Lent, but I was on a roll.
Now I’m not going to presume that I can write a profound, insightful commentary on these books; it’s been done far more often by far more intellectual writers than I. What I will do is jot down a few of the things that jumped out at me as I read.
Lewis has been criticized in some circles for making the Christian imagery too strong, too obvious. I believe that Tolkien mentioned this once or twice in comparison to his own Lord of the Rings. Narnia, however, was aimed at children; adults were along for the ride. Children tend to like things in primary colors and many of them might not be schooled in the more subtle points of biblical studies. I had no problem with the imagery. It was comfortable and reassuring.
There has also been some controversy lately about the order of the books. The order that my set was labeled was 1. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; 2. Prince Caspian; 3. The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader”; 4. The Silver Chair; 5. The Horse and His Boy; 6. The Magician’s Nephew; 7. The Last Battle. I think that this is considered the order that Lewis wanted. My set was printed in 1976, the year in which I read it. Afterward I decided to pencil in on the inside cover the order I thought they ought to be in. It is: 1. The Magician’s Nephew; 2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; 3. The Horse and His Boy; 4. Prince Caspian; 5. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; 6. The Silver Chair; 7. The Last Battle. Compare this to your favorite order-switch. I did read them in the traditional order and was content to do so.
The one event that stands out for me in the Chronicles was what didn’t happen at the end. A favorite Protestant view of salvation is once saved, always saved. Lewis himself never did make it to the Roman Catholic Church, but I must confess that I haven’t read enough Lewis to know what his take on salvation is (or perhaps I read it long ago and forgot. Sieve.) Getting to the point, however, guess who is conspicuous by her absence as the world comes to an end and the characters find themselves in Heaven or Hell? In Heaven “There was Glimfeather the Owl and Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, and King Rilian the Disenchanged, and …Caspian himself. And close beside him were the Lord Drinian and the Lord Berne and Trumpkin the Dwarf and Trufflehunter, the Good Badger…Bree the Horse and Hwin the Mare…the two good Beavers and Tumnus the Faun…King Frank and Queen Helen.” Even Reepicheep the Mouse and Puzzle the Donkey were there. Eustace and Jill, Queen Lucy, King Peter, King Edmund and even Emeth the Calormene (a Moslem-like character). So who gets “left behind”? Susan. One of the great queens who wept over the slain Aslan, who fought in the wars against evil, who ruled over Narnia. Queen Susan does not go to Heaven for she had found another god in material possessions and in herself, reveling in the pride of her appearance. Susan, who had it all, who seemingly had it made, did not make it. Be ever watchful. Work out your salvation daily with fear and trembling.
The space trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength is geared more toward adults. The themes are more subtle, the writing more intricate, the ideas more thought-provoking. I first heard That Hideous Strength presented on the radio as part of the series Reading Aloud with host/reader Bill Cavness. This was probably around 1970-71. There would be a different theme song for the program for every book presented. This theme was Mars from The Planets by Gustov Holst. Compare the two and you’ll see what a brilliant piece of match-making it is.
The book that stood out for me on this go-round was Perelandra. It made me the most uncomfortable, as well it should. In short, the plot is a re-creation of the choice to be made in the Garden of Eden, with the main character of the book, Ransom (no coincidence there), put in the garden to help the Lady resist the temptation of the Devil character Weston (a scientist) and be reunited with her King. Lewis’s ability to make Weston sound reasonable and correct while saying the most outrageous things far surpassed the arguments in The Screwtape Letters. I found myself wanting to shout out, “Don’t believe him; he’s lying. Follow Ransom, listen to him.” It was such a wonderful portrait of how Satan can oil the way down that slippery slope to sin and damnation. It was scary.
Chesterton’s Father Brown is one of the most remarkable detectives in fiction. Of course, heroes are always supposed to win in the end, but Father Brown has something more going for him than just a protective author. His great humility and unassuming manor enable him to look at a situation, put himself in the middle of it, clear away the red herrings and come up with the criminal each time. He has nothing to gain personally and thus can focus more readily. At almost 1,000 pages, the entire collection is interesting to read all at once. It’s easier to remember the people and events from earlier stories that are referenced in later ones, for one thing. It’s also fascinating to watch the style and prose change from being almost over the top at the beginning to becoming deeper and darker as the stories went on. I admire writers of mystery stories; the plotting and characterization are like puzzles and, as anyone who solves word or number puzzles knows, it is far easier to solve the puzzle than to create it. As it is, I was only able to guess the correct criminal in the last two or three stories.
And now I have moved from fiction to biography. Currently I’m reading Old Thunder, a biography of Hilaire Belloc by Joseph Pearce. And what a fascinating person Belloc is! I’ll keep you posted.