There is no land called Narnia

I was shocked, in rereading The Silver Chair for this year’s Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge, to realize how much I’d forgotten from this book. It’s never been one of my favorite of the series, but I’ve still read it at least a dozen times. So why had I forgotten so much?

One scene, though, that I could not at all forget, is the scene where the Lady of the Green Kirtle aka the Queen of the Underworld returns to her throne room to find Prince Rillian free from his chair and in his right mind.

She throws some powder on the fire, filling the room with a sickeningly sweet aroma. She begins thrumming a mandolin with a repetitive, mind-numbing thrum. And at last she speaks:

“Narnia?” she said. “Narnia? I have often heard your Lordship utter that name in your ravings. Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.”

The Prince, Puddleglum, Eustace, and Jill all try to counter the sweet smell, the repetitive thrumming, the queen’s patronizing derision. There is a Narnia, they say. They’ve been there. But the queen’s questioning makes clear she thinks it all a childish game, a dream. Since they describe Narnia in terms of what she knows, in terms of the Underworld, she presumes that they are only looking at her world and dreaming of something bigger and better.

Eventually, between the mind-fogging effects of the music and the odor and the scorn of the woman, all the travelers begin to relent.

“No, there never was a sun,” said the Prince, and the Marshwiggle, and the children.

In this scene, Lewis has the witch play the role of the Enlightenment scholar, who declares no need for god now that reason is king. Once upon a time, people needed to create myths of gods to explain their world – but now that we have science to explain, we need no God.

And here Lewis makes one of his most compelling arguments for the existence of God: joy. And the seemingly joyless Marshwiggle is the one to make it.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said… “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder….So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones….And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

You see, science might be able to explain a lot about how this world works – but it doesn’t explain the unfulfilled longing for joy that rests in each human heart. It doesn’t explain the hunger that every experience in this world serves only to deepen. A purely naturalistic world would ultimately have us all as nihilists – since we are mere pawns of impersonal natural forces.

One must say that, if religion is a story, it is a much better story than the one naturalism tells. And if there is no heaven, at least the tale of heaven goes further to quench our forever longing than does the naturalistic story of death.

If this be a game, it’s a play-world which licks your real world hollow.

As C.S. Lewis said in prose:

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

~C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

So even if there is no Narnia, I shall live like a Narnian.

I choose joy.

Down from the mountain

When I was in high school, our youth group talked about “mountaintop experiences”.

Mountaintop experiences were when we had some sort of emotional experience with God or His word, usually at a camp or other special event. We would get all hyped up about one thing or another – evangelism, personal holiness, being in the word, whatever.

I don’t remember if we had any direct teaching on the Biblical basis for the term, but it hearkened to Moses on the mountaintop receiving revelation from the Lord or to Peter and James and John seeing Christ transfigured on the mountain. Away from people on the mountaintop, each of these had very special encounters with God.

And each of these ran into difficulties when they returned from the mountaintop to face everday life. Moses found the camp worshipping a golden calf. The disciples came down to discover their compatriots unable to cast out a demon.

We were given warnings about life off the mountaintop. We were warned that we’d come home from camp only to be tempted to get into a fight with our parents. And, amazingly enough, the warnings were usually right. It was a lot harder to be obedient, to be in the Word, to tell others about Christ once we were back in everyday life, once we had to clean our rooms and do our homework and get along with our siblings.

I was struck, as I re-read The Silver Chair last month for the Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge, that Lewis describes a mountaintop experience as well – and describes the difficulty of coming down from the mountain.

Jill meets Aslan on a vast plateau that sits high, high, high above the land of Narnia. She receives a task from Aslan: to find the lost prince of Narnia. And she receives four signs by which to complete the task.

Before Aslan blows Jill off the mountaintop to meet Eustace, he gives her a last warning – a warning about life off the mountaintop.

“Stand still. In a moment I will blow. But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters. And now, daughter of Eve, farewell — “

Aslan gives two instructions on leaving the mountaintop, but they are really one.

“Remember, remember, remember,” Aslan said. Lewis has Aslan almost quote the words following the Hebrew shema in Deuteronomy 6:

“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

~Deuteronomy 6:6-9 (ESV)

Aslan was telling Jill that she needed to remember what he had spoken. She needed to repeat his words to herself multiple times a day. She needed to return to his word again and again and again.

“Let nothing turn your mind”, Aslan said. He was telling Jill that she needed to purpose to be obedient to Aslan’s word. What’s more, she needed to keep on purposing to do Aslan’s word, whatever the inducements otherwise.

“Take great care that it does not confuse your mind,” Aslan said. He was telling Jill that she needed to guard against distraction. I am reminded first of Titus 3:9 (I’m in Titus now, so that’s on my mind quite a bit), where Paul warns the Cretans: “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” When Jill told bits of their quest to the lady of the green kirtle, she laughed them off with what seemed like enlightened words, dismissing Aslan’s words as myths. Eventually, under the power of the lady’s smoke, she would make Jill and her companions doubt that life above the ground even exists. Confusion was everywhere – but Jill needed to guard against distractions from her purpose – and from what Aslan had said.

“Pay no attention to appearances,” Aslan said. He was telling Jill that she needed to value Aslan’s word above her interpretation. How easy would it have been for Jill to have paraphrased the third sign “You shall find a writing on a stone in that ruined city, and you must do what the writing tells you” as “Follow the directions on the stone sign”? Very easy, I think. And when she saw the words “Under me” inscribed on the stone? She would have been looking for a stone sign, not writing carved on the stone underfoot. She could have missed (and nearly did miss) what Aslan had directed if she’d allowed herself to fixate on her interpretation of the sign rather than the sign itself. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day did exactly that, fixating on what they thought the Messiah was supposed to be and missing the Messiah when He came. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40 ESV)

Lewis’s advice, given by the mouth of Aslan, is good advice, I think, for those of us who live on this side of divine revelation. We have the signs, they are written in the Scriptures. But as we live our busy lives, if we are to live out the purposes for which God has called us, we must:

  • Remember what God has spoken
  • Purpose to be obedient to what God has spoken
  • Guard against distractions
  • Value God’s word above our interpretations

If we do these four things, I think we will avoid many of the traps that lie in store for us in this world down from the mountain.