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Volume 13, Issue 5: Recipio

Genius

Ben Merkle

At the center of Lewis's genius lies the picture of Narnia. In Narnia Lewis created a world that every red-blooded American boy has wished to visit. If you have never tapped the back of a suspicious wardrobe, just to make sure, then you have no soul (and certainly have no business being ordained). But one of the mistakes that we often make while praising Lewis is to act as if Narnia is a world that Lewis constructed out of whole cloth. We think he was "imaginative." But he was not imaginative in the way that the word is typically used. In fact he was a plagiarist in the best of senses.

Lewis learned much that he wrote in The Narnian Chronicles from another older story—The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser, the poet's poet. But the brilliance that Lewis saw in Spenser was, like Lewis's own work, not an invented genius, but rather a copied genius. Both Lewis and Spenser were not creating their own imaginary worlds. They were describing the truth of the world that they saw around them. Lewis created Narnia, but it was a creation with a small "c." The sixteenth-century poet Phillip Sydney describes this "creation" of a poet's in his Defense of Poesy. In it he argues that man is most like God when he writes, particularly poetry and metaphor. This is because when he writes, he is imitating God's act as Creator. As such, man then becomes a small "c" creator. When we think of Narnia, we sometimes think that Lewis was attempting to Create in a way that only God can Create, that is to make a new world, something that didn't exist before Lewis came around, to create ex nihilo. But Lewis only copied what God had already done. He was writing about this world. It is healthy to wish to visit Narnia. But it is even better to realize that this world is Narnia. This is exactly what Lewis had seen in Spenser's Faerie Lond.
If we want to understand how to read about Narnia then we must begin by learning how to read about Faerie Lond. According to Lewis, this requires a "slow ripened habit of mind." This habit is best begun while young. "Beyond all doubt it is best to have made one's first acquaintance with Spenser in a very large—and, preferably illustrated—edition of The Faerie Queene, on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen. . ." (Studies, 146). What was it in Spenser's work that so attracted Lewis? Primarily, it was the truth of the fairy tale.
By the late sixteenth century the sun had already set on the medieval age and the lie of humanism had begun to take root in the world of acadamia. Spenser retaliated against this new learning by telling a story set in the medieval world that his contemporaries despised. Lewis describes some of this. In the Shepheards Calendar the author, a contemporary of Spenser's who signs himself as EK, "could not let Spenser's references to fairies pass without adding `To roote that rancke opinion of Elfes out of mens hearts, the truth is, that there be no such things'" (Studies, 122). But Spenser ignored these criticisms and "devoted his whole poetical career to a revival, or prolongation, of those medieval motifs which humanism wished to abolish" (Studies, 122).
Lewis saw that Spenser was not merely inventing a fantasy world, rather he was embodying the "experience of ages." He was borrowing from a story that was much larger than himself, from creation itself. Faerie Lond is nothing more than the world that Scripture describes, a world where spirit touches matter, where the breath of God creates, where a man is rebuked by his donkey, where waters part to make way for God's chosen people and return to swallow the wicked, where a woman is made out of a rib, where a man is swallowed by a whale and spat out alive, where the fate of the entire created realm can depend on a piece of fruit hanging on a specific tree in a particular garden, and where everything is resolved when the dragon is thrown down. This is Faerie Lond, and Christians must come to grips with it. Lewis said that Spenser "would not have called himself `the poet of our waking dreams': rather `the poet of our waking'" (English, 393).
Perhaps the events that Spenser and Lewis described never occurred, but that is irrelevant because Faerie Lond and Narnia are both true. Does the truth of the Good Samaritan parable depend on the existence of a Good Samaritan? No, but the world of that story must be true. Spenser saw all the truth that the medievals saw in the world around them and embodied it in a poem. As Lewis put it, The Faerie Queene is enjoyed as the "very consummation of Middle Ages." He was able to "deny, in his own person, the breach between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and to hand on to succeeding generations a poetic symbol of the former whose charms have proved inexhaustible" (Studies, 148). Lewis understood that this was a powerful weapon. A well-told story sticks in someone's head and shapes how they look at the world. A taste for Spenser is irreversible—"though it may fail to gain some readers, it seldom loses those it has once gained. I never meet a man who says that he used to like The Faerie Queene" (English, 393). Much the same could be said of Narnia.
To read Lewis's reflections on Spenser is to read how he would have liked Narnia and the Space Trilogy to have been read. They are not clever inventions with which we may wile away the time, they are descriptions of the fantastic world that we live in. They are reminders that the world is an incredible place. Lewis once said about Spenser, "To read Spenser is to grow in mental health." To read Lewis is to do the same.

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