Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Rowan Williams on C S Lewis

The fourth and final speaker at last Saturday's Lewis Lectures was Lord Williams of Oystermmouth, the Master of Magdalene (Cambridge) and one-time head of the Anglican Communion. His topic was C S Lewis and Fairy Tales for Adults.

I was not sure what to expect here: to be honest, I had been no fan of his as head of the Anglicans, but I had heard that he was a very good scholar. And so he proved to be.

He delivered an excellent lecture, both in terms of content and delivery. Given it was the final talk in a long afternoon (c.4.30 - 5..20, when we started at 1.30), it is a testament to his skill that he engaged us throughout.

He started by taking an observation from Lewis' Preface to Paradise Lost: how Adam's conversation differs from Satan's.  Adam's conversation is about everything; Satan's, ultimately, is always about himself.  Becoming too interested in ourselves (in a certain sense) is a moral hazard.  From this, he developed his thesis: that salutary literature and thought is always going to check the headlong career of self-absorption.

On the basis of that analysis, Fairy Tales perform well: they are a check on that tendency, relating to a world that is not ours. And that is part of their importance to the young.

Williams went on to refer to one of Lewis' essays (I think) with which I am not familiar (or don't remember), in which he describes three different ways of writing for the young.  A key point here was that to grow up is to able to see oneself afresh.

The Fairy Tale was contrasted with the School Story, particularly with regard to the types of longings they arouse, and how they deal with them. School Stories flatter the ego of the reader (of course, I could/should be the hero) and also leave the aroused desire finally unsatisfied (because I am not). Whereas Fairy Tales have a different dynamic: we don't aspire to be the heroes of them in the same way, as they are fantasy - quite removed from our reality. And they are intrinsically satisfying: they do not leave a legacy of unfulfilled desire in the same way.

Williams (and, if I recall correctly, Lewis) was quick to say that did not mean that Fairy Tales were morally better than School Stories; it was an observation about one of the differences between them. (Indeed from my understanding of Lewis, he would be more likely to have advocated the reading of both, rather than sticking to a diet of one kind or the other).

But Fairy Tale has the particular potential to make us see the spiritual and moral world anew; and that is  what Lewis often sought to do in his own writing, whether in The Screwtape Letters or the Narnia stories.

In this sense, Science Fiction (or some manifestations of it) is very close to the Fairy Tale.  Lewis' trilogy provides a device, particularly in Out of the Silent Planet, by which we can see the whole human race from the outside. (WIlliams also referred to Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos here, a book which I have not read, but now plan to buy).  Till We Have Faces is similarly about an individual, Orual, and her stories of herself, and the showing of faces she didn't know that she had...

One of the perspectives underpinning all of this is the realisation that what we do, think and want is a very small part of a very rich and complex environment, but our perspective risks making it seem quite otherwise.

Realistic fiction, on this view, always runs the risks attendant on our identifying too closely with the characters.  That is not to say that Lewis did not like it: he loved Tolstoy and George Eliot for example. But the risk is ever-present.

Williams also considered the very different anthropology of Tolkien, which he characterised as marked by the Norse sense of man confronting the universe; heroic in that sense. Lewis sympathises with that (cf his comment in The Weight of Glory that 'you have never met an ordinary person') but is also keenly aware of the danger of regarding oneself as heroic, as evidenced by those in The Great Divorce who think they are heroes.

A key difference between Tolkien and Lewis, in Williams' view, is that Lewis is aware of the ironic nature of human stories.  Our stories will always end up seeming ridiculous. Reepicheep exemplifies this: he is a hero, but not the kind of hero he aspires to be. We become better by not attending to ourselves and our concerns: sublime not knowing is where wisdom begins - and is fraught with possibilities of irony and comedy.

In summary, Fairy Tales are good for adults (particularly those who think that they have grown out of them) because they can reawaken perceptions we had once but have had trained out of us: to 'become like little children…'

Of all the four talks, perhaps this was the one that made me think most about Lewis' writing in a new way, and for that alone, I am very grateful.

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