“It seems, then,” said Tirian, smiling himself, “that the stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two different places.”
“Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”
“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”
– C. S. Lewis, from The Last Battle (The Chronicles of Narnia)
Throughout the year, outside forces of marketing, media, and politics tempt our susceptible human nature to focus way too much on appearances and rob ourselves of a much richer inner life. C.S. Lewis addressed this tendency throughout his works, but especially in The Chronicles of Narnia.
I was thinking about 2020 clear vision themes that started off the year and then got obscured by the fogging of our spectacles while wearing COVID masks or by the smoke drifting through our county due to the massive local wildfire.
Waking up on this Christmas morning, I was reflecting on the challenges and blessings of 2020. The challenges are apparent, but the blessings take a bit more work to wrestle out. Working out the blessings is more of a battle. Maybe that’s part of why Lewis has Father Christmas deliver weapons to the Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
We’re in a constant battle for inner meaningfulness. At first glance, it looks like Edmund didn’t get a gift from Father Christmas. However, the presence of Father Christmas and Christmas is a graceful present to him, and it all contrasts with his sell-out to the Witch over Turkish Delight. Father Christmas emphasizes to the children that the gifts are tools and not toys. Indeed, they are tools to serve others with.
I chuckle to think how much Tolkien disliked this part of Lewis’ tales with its apparent mashup of fantasy and holiday traditions. But Tolkien’s own portrayal of Golem seems essentially compatible with Lewis’ theme of developing largeness on the inside while keeping the outside focus humble. The ring of power shrinks Golem so that he is even smaller on the inside, his soul becoming a black hole of desire, as he covets the ring.
Lewis’ and Tolkien’s heroes are continually giving away power and serving others to honor the great grace of inner life. Lewis thought that reading had a similar effect for moving us out of ourselves. In a great passage from An Experiment with Criticism, Lewis asserts the following role for reading:
“…in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
Central to real reading is learning to often receive from our reading rather than always seeking to use, and this attitude should reflect our relationship with living people as well (the idea of receiving versus using comes up in different forms in Rilke’s grace of great things, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and far back in history with Augustine’s view of teaching.)
Elsewhere, Lewis also notes that Christians can keep great literature in its proper modest place as by realizing and remembering that all the greatest works of literature are nothing compared to the saving of one human soul. Such a saving of a soul is all about rescuing a person from the sort of soul-sucking implosion that Tolkien portrayed in Golem.
The year has been a clarion call to empathy and aid for our fellow human beings and humility for our own schemes and dreams. We need the grace of Christmas stories that point us to life as bigger on the inside to help us fight off the unhealthy individualism that seems to have infected ourselves and our society. My deepest wish is for us to develop the kind of vision for our future years that seeks to value the insides of life as much bigger than the outsides.