As a child, I was a repetitive reader. By age eight I’d read C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy so often I’d memorized it. I would greet visitors to our home at the front door, hand them the novel, and ask them to open it and read the first half of a sentence—any sentence! I could finish it from memory.
My parlor trick worked. I impressed a few of my parents’ friends—or in any case, they let me believe I’d impressed them.
Soon after, a friend led me into a beguiling new world: Sweet Valley High. My entrée was book number five, All Night Long. The cover featured a blonde, bikini-clad, sixteen-year-old Jessica Wakefield in the arms of an older man. I read late at night, half-concealed beneath bed covers. My mother caught and reproved me, but she did not confiscate the book. It might not have mattered if she had. I was hooked, and we lived two blocks from a book store. Thereafter I devoured whole SVH books like gummy bears by the fistful, reading them unpurchased in a single session in the store aisle.
In time I graduated to other novels: a series from our church’s library featuring prostitutes who, by novel’s end, had heard the gospel and believed. I read them during the Sunday sermon, learning words like “pimp” and “john” between the hours of 11 a.m. and noon in the sanctuary of First Baptist Church. By high school, I’d moved on to Mary Higgins Clark’s murder mysteries where no one got saved, at least not from the lake of fire. These novels all featured mature characters engaged in high-stakes conflicts resolved in the end to everyone’s satisfaction. Disaster was averted, evil punished, and virtue rewarded, the unregenerate born into newness of life.
A good novel transports the reader to another world. Yet an escapist novel—a palliative, whose value lies in its capacity to distract or soothe—returns her, at story’s end, more or less the way it found her. Both Sweet Valley High and The Chronicles of Narnia offered me a breathtaking escape from my ordinary life. The crucial difference lay in how they returned me to my own world.
From SVH I emerged with a circumscribed picture of the adolescent version of the good life: where the sun always shines and every girl worth knowing possesses a sportscar, a boyfriend, and a backyard pool. The novels left me pining for an injection of California fantasy to counter my increasing boredom with real life.
Narnia’s power was suggestive. It evoked rather than circumscribed. From Narnia I emerged not with a concrete picture of the good life filled out in caricatured or stereotyped detail, but with an inkling of the quality of the life of the imagination and faith. And I returned from this genuine fantasy hungering for a taste of Narnia’s truth and beauty in my own life.
Well, at age eight I probably wasn’t hungering for truth and beauty. But perhaps I perceived traces of them in the whirlwind of the talking horses’ desert crossing, in the mesmerizing melody of Aslan’s creation song, in the witch’s enchantment laced with the pungent odor of burnt Marsh-wiggle. One thing is sure: unlike Sweet Valley High, Lewis’s Chronicles sustained multiple readings in different seasons of life, each time yielding fresh insights, new pleasures.
Deeper, Higher, Better
The first day of my senior year of high school, my corrupted imagination was saved.
My AP English teacher read aloud an essay by Neil Postman titled “My Graduation Speech.” It described two opposing value systems: Athenians, who left an enduring cultural and intellectual legacy; and Visigoths, who stormed through Europe bent on conquest and left a trail of destruction in their wake. Which—Postman asked his imagined audience of graduates—will you be?
The essay roused within me a faint memory of something deeper, higher, better. Transcendence. I knew my answer to Postman’s challenge. I felt it with a conviction that could have carried me down an aisle to a swelling gospel hymn. That morning in AP English was like a religious conversion: thereafter I was changed.
I renounced the shallow, the trivial, and vowed to devote myself to the pursuit of truth and beauty—having little idea what these terms, which I’d encountered in a Schopenhauer essay my sister brought home from college, actually meant. I labored over literary novels that seemed to promise some entrée into the mystical or divine. I journaled in coffee shops and perused art galleries assessing works according to Schopenhauer’s elusive “truth” and “beauty.” Studying abroad in Oxford, I read Lewis’s poetry in Lewis’s pub and wandered the Wye Valley with a volume of Wordsworth in hand. I would be an Athenian.
Recovering the Beauty of a Book
A simple, heartfelt love of the Victorian novel drew me to graduate school. There I encountered a species that blurred Postman’s stark distinctions: those who valued the great books but read them with an injurious analytical rigor. My “simple heartfelt love” became an embarrassment, confining and naïve. True appreciation required a vivisection of the text, a suspicion of the motives of author and character alike, and familiarity with an enormous body of literary criticism. It involved, too, the relentless search—through text and subtext and critical essays built on various theoretical frameworks—for a single idea to adapt or oppose in order to present an “original” argument in a paper.
“Our meddling intellect / mis-shapes the beauteous form of things,” wrote Wordsworth. “We murder to dissect.” The beauteous form of the novels was indeed for me fatally misshapen. My efforts to mimic the values and methods of the academy left me flummoxed, frenetic, and disillusioned. (In the twenty years since, I have not yet returned to the Victorian novel with anything like simple heartfelt love.) I learned there was more than one way to be a Visigoth: that one could love the right books for the wrong reasons.
It was in the middle of my graduate work that Narnia returned to me. Or rather, for the first time since I’d left it in childhood, I returned to Narnia. I was studying feminist readings of Brontë’s Villette in one class, contending with Heidigger and Foucault in another—when all at once I found, within the deep magic of Narnia, rest for my starved, bruised imagination. The stories that had spoken to me in childhood revealed new dimensions.
I saw how even the noble are tempted by power (Caspian and Edmund on Deathwater Island); that failure to devote oneself to truth leaves one vulnerable to captivity (Pole, Scrubb, and Puddleglum); that we may at times be summoned to a kind of individual discipleship imperceptible to those closest to us (Lucy in Prince Caspian); that God disciplines those he loves (Aravis), raises the humble (Hwin) and brings down the proud (Bree); that he will someday recreate the whole earth—which recreation will constitute not the story’s end, but its true beginning.
Seeking the Divine in Human Stories
Like the escapism, in time I outgrew the lofty Athenianism. The culturally “low” and “high” alike gave way to the simply human. Real-life struggles and joys reoriented me toward stories that were real—not necessarily factual or literal, but ones that probed the human experience and found in it something true. Still I sought transcendence. I’d shed my nineteenth-century Romantic proclivities and now longed to encounter God himself. Like Saul on the Damascus road, I wanted a light, a voice, a divine visitation that would recast my life in the material world. Not pluck me from it, but transform my presence in it.
To seek the divine in human stories, not just the Bible, might seem misguided to some. Yet here and there, in evocations and echoes, redolent dusks and glistening dawns, I believe I found it. In fiction by Lief Enger, Marilynn Robinson, Siri Hustvedt, Kazuo Ishiguro, and others I glimpsed human longing for beauty or intimacy; heroic self-giving love and sacrifice; redemption and transformation. Christian or not, these authors had read the general revelation and from it fashioned something true—for those with eyes to see, something transcendent.
Because of the Incarnation, we see signs of God himself in the most human expressions of art and literature. Jesus became a man. The creator irrevocably, for all time, bound himself to his creation. The best human stories beckon us like a fire on a cold day. As we linger, warming feet and hands and face in its glow, we recognize Christ at the burning center.
From an early age, Lewis himself encountered moments of longing through literature and nature. He came to see these stabs and pangs, as he called them in Surprised by Joy, as pointers to something “other and outer”; as signposts to God. After his Christian conversion, he recognized God as “the source from which those arrows of Joy had been shot at me ever since childhood.” And not just the source, but the goal.
In The Last Battle, Lucy spies in the distance the professor’s old house in an England she thought had been destroyed. Yet this is the inner England, the real England, “and in that inner England, no good thing is destroyed.” Though darkness has fallen on Narnia, Aslan’s new creation contains vestiges of the old.
Ours is not a narrative of escape to an eternal happy land while this doomed world burns, but one of transformed presence within a new creation. In immortal human bodies, we will someday inhabit a recreated material heaven and earth. And there we will still tell our stories.
Changed by the Chapter
In 2016 a massive blizzard shut down the Washington, D.C. area. For two weeks my children alternately played in the snow and returned indoors with dripping boots and demands for hot chocolate and a fire. In desperation, I turned to Harry Potter. I’d never read the series. My idealistic Athenianism was still melting in a puddle on the floor of the graduate student lounge around the time J.K. Rowling published her books. Now, in my best British accent, I read them aloud to my children—book by book, the minutes giving way to hours, each novel’s conclusion met with cries for the next. We were verily transported, and at Hogwarts we longed to remain.
We observed likenesses to and lessons for our own lives—the dynamics of friendship, jealously, loyalty, and love; the dehumanizing effects of pursuing power; evil’s capacity to overtake those who deny its reality. We encountered too a young mother who sacrificed her own life to save her infant son, thus endowing him with long-term protection from the powers of darkness. Self-giving love proves greater than even the darkest, strongest magic—proves the mightiest force in the universe.
We were transported, but we could not remain. When at last we returned to our world, we had been changed. Like a fire on a snowy day, this fictional portrayal of human love warmed us to God.
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