Trickster: At the Boundary Between Creator and Sub-Creator

I am not going to tell you a story of this world. And I am going to tell you a story of this world. It is for you to find out where the story came from. Or I will tell you. Or something in between.

For no apparent reason the One chose to become many. For no apparent reason. The key here is whether it was apparent, not whether it was without reason. How can one ascertain the appearances of the reason of the One? The One alone knows the reason for being, and from thence does faith in the One arise. A faith based on reason. But no apparent reason.

We are going to enter a world together. Likely it is a world with which you are deeply familiar. Or somewhat familiar if you have chosen me (or I have chosen myself) to be your guide into this world. But to enter the world together we must, on this day, begin outside it. Usually we awaken already within the circles of this world, if we have chosen to explore it. But today we shall suspend time—for who is more able to suspend time than that which (or whom) we wish to encounter on this journey? We shall suspend time and enter the imagination of a world before time, the world before the world, the world even before the waking into reality of imagination.

I wish to explore Creativity as Trickster. If, as Lewis Hyde claims, Trickster Makes This World, who makes Trickster? The ambiguity, the shape-shifting, the amorality, the potential and paradox: these qualities of the Trickster are birthed from Creativity. Is the Trickster really Trickster? Or does Creativity take hold for some time, and make Trickster what Trickster is?

The world into which were are entering is one that happened to be penned by a single author, or so it is often said. You probably already know his name if you know me. Can you imagine that moment when a cosmogonic myth made itself apparent to a single human imagination? What must that have felt like? How many times has that happened in the history of our one species? How many beginnings have been retold of our world?

J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term “sub-creation” to describe the desire to create and experience Art, what he saw as the shaping and crafting of imaginal experience into artistic form. Yet Tolkien used the term “sub-creator” because he believed the desire to create arose within created beings because they in turn were first created by a divine Creator. “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[1] Tolkien saw himself as a sub-creator, making Art—an enchanted, Secondary World—under the creative imagination of God. But the Secondary World Tolkien shaped, a world called Arda, is one that tells the stories of other sub-creators, other divinely created beings who wished to create in their own measure and derivative mode. A world within a world, sub-creators under sub-creators. The desire to create itself, what we might call the embodiment of Creativity, has a Trickster form. Yet no single figure in Tolkien’s world remains Trickster for long: rather the Trickster energy appears to move on, igniting creativity and even chaos, yet ultimately bringing more beauty into the world for its disruption.

I would like to turn to Tolkien’s cosmogonic myth, called the Ainulindalë, the Music of the Ainur. Again, can you imagine that moment when a cosmogonic myth made itself apparent to a single human imagination? The Ainulindalë began with Eru, the One, who first made the Ainur, spirits of divine thought. Eru, called also Ilúvatar in the world of Arda, inspired the Ainur to make music—and they did. Their singing, unbeknownst to them, shaped the world they would eventually build. The Ainur are the first sub-creators under Ilúvatar, shaping the divine imagining they received from Eru. The musical strands wove together and formed the first harmonies:

. . . a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.[2]

But one among the Ainur wished not to be a sub-creator, one whose musical threads were woven into the melodies of all others seamlessly. He wished to be a creator in his own right. His name is Melkor, and at this moment he is the first embodiment of the Trickster in the Deeps of Time before the world of Arda is brought into being. “He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own . . . . Yet he found not the Fire, for it is with Ilúvatar.”[3] Melkor’s thoughts and desires began to give rise to a new music, a strand of melody that clashed with the harmonies already in motion. Some of the Ainur followed his lead and soon the music became “a sea of turbulent sound.”[4] From amidst the “raging storm”[5] Ilúvatar, with a smile, brought forth a new theme. Again Melkor’s discord ignited disruptive clashing and violent disharmony. And in response Ilúvatar drew forward a third theme. The two melodies played simultaneously, conflicting yet interwoven: “there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.”[6] Melkor’s music was loud, violent, drowning, and repetitive, “but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.”[7] The rebellion of Melkor, the desire for individual creativity apart from the Creativity of the One, was ultimately woven into the very patterning of the third theme of music making it all the more beautiful. For it was the sorrow of the third theme, sorrow in response to the violence of the disharmony, that gave it its profound beauty.

Many Trickster themes are woven into this narrative, although the Trickster is not embodied by one being alone. The Trickster energy moved quickly from being to being, never settling but still creating the dynamism of the moment. In Melkor’s rebellion and Ilúvatar’s creative response, the Trickster moved between them, crossing the boundaries between Creator and sub-creator. The Music of the Ainur is the moment of Creation, when the world is first imagined into being. It cannot be done again, and there are no mistakes. Disharmony is part of the world’s story from the beginning, and the suffering it causes gives rise to greater beauty than if all were melodious. So it is that Trickster does indeed make this world, or rather shapes it, by being many agents of creativity in succession.

After the making of the Music, Ilúvatar showed another of the most powerful Ainur how the discordant Music of Melkor had reshaped his own Music, that which had made the waters:

Seest thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of thy clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heat and fires without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth![8]

To this, the Ainu of the Waters responded: “Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain.”[9]

In his rebellion Melkor became identified with the Trickster. He had wandered through the Void looking for the Secret Fire, that which grants true Being to the creative impulse. To Melkor is seemed “that Ilúvatar took no thought for the Void, and he was impatient of its emptiness.”[10] As Lewis Hyde writes, the Trickster “embodies and enacts that large portion of our experience where good and evil are hopelessly intertwined. He represents the paradoxical category of sacred amorality.”[11] Melkor faced the darkness of the Void looking for the Imperishable Flame of Creativity, searching for consciousness in unconsciousness. As Tanya Wilkinson writes, “The archetypal Trickster faces both ways, toward consciousness and unconsciousness, embodying contradiction.”[12] Melkor’s desire to create was the gift bestowed on him by the Creator, but it was a gift he sought to wrest to his own devices, and the violence of his attempt to rip away that gift and make it solely his own changed the course of all subsequent actions. Ilúvatar showed the Ainur a vision of their Music, that they might see how their melodies each unfolded into form. Ilúvatar then said: “And thou, Melkor, wilt discover all the secret thoughts of thy mind, and wilt perceive that they are but a part of the whole and tributary to its glory.”[13] Perhaps here the One outwitted the Trickster, and became Trickster himself.

Melkor’s role in the beginning was ambiguous, as the role of the Trickster should be. He is the mightiest of the Ainur, “given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge,”[14] and his desire to use those gifts walks the boundary of good and evil. The evils he caused served the ultimate good of Ilúvatar, sorrow and suffering making the poignant beauty of Creation. Only later, when Melkor’s fall was complete, when he became identified no longer as a sub-creator under the One but simply a being marring the sub-creations of the other powerful Ainur, did he lose his ambiguous position. No longer was he named Melkor, meaning “He who arises in Might,”[15] but Morgoth, “the Black Enemy.”[16] If the Trickster is to be found at the boundary, the place of ambiguity, then the moment Melkor chose not to remain in that ambiguity he ceased to be the Trickster. Creative Trickster energy moved on, and found its home in other sub-creators who walk the fine line between good and evil, following the ambiguous path of ingenuity and clever creativity.

Melkor has a foil among the Ainur, one who also desired to make his own independent creations: Aulë, who longed for beings to whom he could teach craft and wisdom. Like the other Ainur, Aulë had recognized that the third themes of the Music signified the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, the Eldar and Edain—Elves and Humans—who would people the world. Yet Aulë was impatient for their coming, and instead crafted a new race of beings, the Naugrim, called also the Dwarves. In this moment Ilúvatar came to him, and we are able to see here most clearly the divine relationship between Creator and sub-creator. Ilúvatar spoke to Aulë saying: “For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?”[17] Aulë replied with an explanation of his seeming rebellion, so like Melkor’s rebellion in many ways: it came not from a desire for power and lordship in his own right but from a desire for “things other than I am, to love and to teach them.”[18] But it was the inherent desire to create, to be a sub-creator, that Aulë gave most convincing voice to: “Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father.” This supplication of the sub-creator is not that of the Trickster, but its effect on the One is such that the Naugrim awaken with their own individual life and wills, independent of their maker. Something new is introduced that would have not existed otherwise, without the seeming rebellion of the sub-creator, or the unexpected move of the Creator to give them life.

A sub-creator shapes a world within a world, Art from the raw material of Imagination. A world within a world naturally has its boundaries, but while within the world it can be difficult to see where the boundaries lie, if it is possible to see them at all. Only when a new world is created do we see that boundary drawn, the moment sub-creator and Creator work together to breathe life into new form. The Trickster waits at the boundaries, the crossroads, the borders, leaping between those who dare to draw a line against what has come before to make something new and different.

In this world we have entered the Trickster seems particularly evasive, changing names and changing shapes, crossing from good to evil and back before there was good and evil to cross between. If he who seems to be a Trickster falls from grace, the Trickster energy moves on, finds somewhere else to be. The Trickster seems to be Creativity itself, the Imperishable Flame that gives life, that is within Ilúvatar and yet is not Ilúvatar. And what is the Imperishable Flame, the Secret Fire?

Why was there a great Music to begin with? Why were the Ainur brought into being? For no apparent reason . . . Is that not the sign of the Trickster?

Works Cited

Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

–––––. The Silmarillion. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

Wilkinson, Tanya. Persephone Returns: Victims, Heroes and the Journey from the Underworld. Berkeley, CA: PageMill Press, 1996.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 145.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001), 15.

[3] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 16.

[4] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 16.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 16-17.

[7] Ibid, 17.

[8] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 19.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 16.

[11] Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 10.

[12] Tanya Wilkinson, Persephone Returns: Victims, Heroes and the Journey from the Underworld (Berkeley, CA: PageMill Press, 1996), 153.

[13] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 17.

[14] Ibid, 16.

[15] Ibid, 340.

[16] Tolkien, The Silmarillion, 341.

[17] Ibid, 43.

[18] Ibid.

Becoming Acquainted with “The Inklings”

“It was a pleasantly ingenious pun in its way, suggesting people with
vague or half-formed intimations and ideas plus those who dabble in ink.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien[1]

The Oxford Inklings have long held a fascination for me—a group of great literary authors meeting weekly to share their poetry and fiction, and discuss their ideas and beliefs. A meeting of the minds who, at different points in their careers, produced The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Poetic Diction, The Place of the Lion, and multiple other works across a great range of genres and topics. How did these writers come to know each other? How much did they influence one another’s work? Such questions as these are addressed by Humphrey Carpenter in his biographical work The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends.

The InklingsIn many ways, Carpenter’s The Inklings is primarily a biography of C.S. Lewis, with the lives of Tolkien, Williams, Owen Barfield and others woven in when their narrative threads cross paths with Lewis’s. Yet this is perhaps an entirely appropriate approach considering the group that called themselves the Inklings ultimately orbited around Lewis—the meetings took place in his Magdalen rooms, and his friendship was what the members of the group held in common. Nonetheless, Carpenter’s weaving together of these many, and often disparate, biographical threads produces a compelling tapestry that displays a historical picture both complex and deep, inviting one into the nuanced differences of multiple intellectual and creative lives.

Certain aspects of this interwoven narrative particularly shone forth for me, such as the descriptions of the shared feeling between Lewis and Tolkien when reading certain myths and stories of familiarity with the unfolding tale, a sense of longing and nostalgia as though one has somehow participated in this story before. It is a feeling with which I also am familiar, becoming apparent to me the first time I heard The Hobbit read aloud. Names such as Rivendell, Middle-Earth, and Dale, the songs and laughter of the Elves, all felt deeply familiar from the first time I heard them. Tolkien was able to imbue his own stories with that same essence that he and Lewis felt and found so richly compelling in the myths of Northern Europe.

Tolkien and Lewis’s friendship could really be seen as the core of the Inklings, as it was they who were the most consistent members throughout the duration of the informal literary group. Another moment I found particularly touching and unique to their characters was when Lewis first critiqued a poem of Tolkien’s, but instead of simply writing a commentary in his own voice he rather chose to execute his narrative creativity by annotating the poem “as if it were a celebrated piece of ancient literature, already heavily studied by scholars with such names as ‘Pumpernickel,’ ‘Peabody,’ ‘Bentley,’ and ‘Schick;’ he alleged that any weaknesses in Tolkien’s verses were the result of scribal errors or corruptions in the manuscript.”[2] Their creativity is coming through even in these most simple of interactions, giving the reader a greater sense of the imaginations able to access the worlds of Narnia and Middle-Earth.

Perhaps my favorite chapter in the whole of the book was the one entitled “Mythopoeia.” It centers around Lewis’s conversion to Christianity, first through his recognition of a divine presence when he, in his words, “admitted that God was God,”[3] and ending with his belief in the significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The key to his conversion was a recognition of the truth of myth, as articulated both by Barfield and by Tolkien. Barfield’s book Poetic Diction had a major impact on both Lewis and Tolkien, in which he describes the way in which language has evolved to show a correlated evolution of consciousness, from mythical perception to rational intellect. In Carpenter’s narrative: “In the dawn of language, said Barfield, speakers did not make a distinction between the ‘literal’ and the ‘metaphorical,’ but used words in what might be called a ‘mythological’ manner.”[4] One of the examples Barfield uses to illustrate this is when we translate the Latin word spiritus into English it can mean “wind,” “breath,” or “spirit” depending on the context. Yet for the ancient speakers of the word spiritus it meant all three of these words, and perhaps more, all at once—they were a unified whole in which the physical is indistinguishable from its psychical, ensouled presence. This is also the perspective from which Tolkien argued when he and Lewis entered into debate about the truth of myths. To quote Carpenter’s narrative at some length:

[Lewis] still did not believe in the myths that delighted him. Beautiful and moving though such stories might be, they were (he said) ultimately untrue. As he expressed it to Tolkien, myths are “lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”

No, said Tolkien. They are not lies.

Just then (Lewis afterwards recalled) there was a “rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.”[5]

Tolkien goes on to illustrate his point with what surrounded them in that moment, the trees and night sky overhead. I find it significant that in this pivotal moment it is as though the world itself is speaking, to offer its subtle yet powerful evidence to the words Tolkien says. No, myths are not lies. They are all around us. The rush of wind, spiritus, makes its presence known. The men hold their breath, spiritus. Spirit is present.

To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of “trees” and “stars” saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music.[6]

I would even alter Carpenter’s language further in keeping with what both Tolkien and Barfield understood. The stars were not “as living silver” they were living silver. Not only did the first humans to speak of trees and stars “see” them differently, they were different because they were in participatory relationship to these ancient people.

Lewis’s conversion to Christianity came about later that night when Tolkien explained first that “not merely the abstract thoughts of man but also his imaginative inventions must originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth,”[7] and then later not only is “the death and resurrection of Christ . . . the old ‘dying god’ story all over again,” but that “here is a real Dying God, with a precise location in history and definite historical consequences. The old myth has become fact.”[8] Tolkien’s recourse to myth, first by showing the truth of it, and then by showing how myth entered history in the story of Christ, is what led to Lewis’s conversion, and hence to his many works of Christian apologetics and allegorical fantasy.

The Inkling with whom I was the least familiar, but whose life and personality I felt completely charmed by and engaged with, was Charles Williams. The portrait Carpenter draws of him feels so alive, I was amazed I had somehow gone so long without an introduction to Williams and his work. In Carpenter’s words:

He would treat someone’s personal worry with the same vitality that he showed in [his] lecture, the same grave courtesy and fiery vision; so that it was easy to go home feeling that this was what it would have been like to meet Dante himself, or Blake, or even Shakespeare.[9]

Williams seemed to be an immensely complex and nuanced figure, always holding in balance perspectives of light and shadow: “Behind every bad thing he could see something good, and also behind every good thing he could see darkness.”[10] Furthermore, “He was able to embrace everything—belief and doubt, hope and disillusion, love and hatred—within the secure irony that he had developed.”[11] Meeting Williams through biography first, rather than through his fiction, has left me simply with the wish that I might have met him.

Carpenter’s biographical style flows best when he is able to paint a narrative picture, as though one were really present, for example, at a particular meeting of the Inklings. He does this in a chapter entitled “Thursday evenings,” in which he combines quotations from works and letters with multiple reports of what the evenings were like to give a fictional portrait of an Inklings gathering (he does this also in his book J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography in which he narrates a sample day of Tolkien’s life in Oxford). The effect is absolutely enticing, making the reader feel almost as if they were there, and wish that to do so were really a possibility.

Perhaps my most pervasive feeling as I read The Inklings was a continual desire to have been able to participate in this group, wondering what it may have been like to listen to the early chapters of The Lord of the Rings when it was still titled “The New Hobbit,” or to hear Barfield and Tolkien discuss language, or Lewis and Williams on poetry and theology. And this longing actually brought forward an unexpectedly painful realization as I continued to read about this group of writers, at least one of whom has fundamentally shaped who I am and how I think, feel, imagine, and engage creatively with the world. All of the Inklings were men, and a woman was never permitted to be present at a Thursday gathering, or invited to join in the conversation at the Bird and Baby pub on Tuesday mornings. I realized that at the table of my intellectual forebears I, as a woman, would not have been welcome.

It was Lewis who held the most, to be frank, misogynist views, but I was pained to find the ways in which Barfield and Tolkien also agreed with him. Lewis has said that

“the husband is the head of the wife just so far as he is to her what Christ is to the Church” adding: “If there must be a head, why the man? Well, is there any very serious wish that it should be the woman?” And elsewhere: “Do you really want a matriarchal world? Do you really like women in authority? When you seek authority yourself, do you naturally seek it in a woman?”[12]

I had hoped such views might have been confined to Lewis, but Tolkien has also written:

“How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp the teacher’s ideas, see his point—and how (with some exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him. It is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male.”[13]

I do recognize that such sexist views are, in large part, a product of the time in which these men lived. Yet I also cannot help but feel their words with pain, and recognize the countless women whose voices have been silenced, again and again, by such mistaken and degrading beliefs. It is an injustice to recognize at once how much Tolkien and so many other male writers have shaped who I am through their words and imaginal creations, and then to know that they regarded “the female mind as inferior to the male.”[14] If somehow I were able to go back through time and arrive at Lewis’s Magdalen door on a Thursday evening I would not have been permitted to cross the threshold because of my gender.

There is some comfort to know that perhaps Williams might have made an argument for my entry if such a situation were to occur (and it would be far more likely to occur in the supernatural fluidity of space and time in Williams’ novels than elsewhere). Williams once said that it would be likely that “any principle of the relations of the sexes will be wrong, since there are, after all, no such things; there are an infinite number of women and an infinite number of men.”[15] Williams, it seems, would have at least based his admission on individual merit rather than blind gender exclusion.

Perhaps because of these statements from Lewis and Tolkien I was particularly delighted to meet on the page the woman who became Lewis’s wife later in his life, Joy Davidman.

Lewis was astonished by her. “Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard,” he wrote of her. “Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it. It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening. How many bubbles of mine she pricked! I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure of being exposed and laughed at.”[16]

That such a woman came into his life and made the powerful impact she did felt long overdue as I was reaching the later pages of Carpenter’s book. But the role Joy Davidman played in Lewis’s life was indeed significant, and one that seemed to make a lasting imprint.

Both Lewis and Tolkien were resistant to having their personal lives explored in the context of their literary works, likely because they did not want the work to be psychoanalyzed and picked apart in search of biographical details and hidden personal truths. My sense is that this desire in part comes from their belief—shared at least after Lewis’s conversion—that myths ultimately are true. Because the source of myth is beyond simple human invention, but is rather the divine imagination creating through the human artist, the personal lives of the creators should not be looked to for the source of the stories. A human being is simply the container for them, the vessel into which the divine inspiration pours. And while such myths may be “partially spoiled in each writer by the admixture of his own mere individual ‘invention,’”[17] the hope is that we as readers, as fellow explorers of imagination, can see past those personal faults, and truly “glimpse” the reality of “Other-worlds.”[18]

Works Cited

Carpenter, Humphrey. The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends, London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Tolkien Reader. New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Humphrey Carpenter, The Inklings: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (London, England: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2006), 67.

[2] Carpenter, The Inklings, 30,

[3] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 40.

[4] Carpenter, The Inklings, 41.

[5] Carpenter, The Inklings, 43.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Carpenter, The Inklings, 44.

[9] Ibid, 74.

[10] Ibid, 80.

[11] Ibid, 90.

[12] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.

[13] J.R.R. Tolkien, qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 169.

[14] Carpenter, The Inklings, 164.

[15] Carpenter, The Inklings, 171.

[16] C.S. Lewis qtd. in Carpenter, The Inklings, 237.

[17] Carpenter, The Inklings, 138.

[18] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York, NY: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1966), 64.

A Review of “Planet Narnia”: Finding the Hidden Gods

Many critics have said that C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia seem to possess “little apparent coherence in design,” no clear continuity of tone or characters, or even consistent level of Christian allegory. Yet somehow these seven stories, penned “by an unlikely novice,” have gone on to “become some of the best-selling and most influential fables in the world.”[1] In a book that started out as his doctoral dissertation, Michael Ward lays out what he believes is the underlying scheme present in The Chronicles: each of the seven short novels is an homage to one of the seven planets of the ancient cosmos, expressed through the atmosphere and tone of each book. Not only does this provide an account for the great variations between each of the stories, it also offers a much greater depth of insight to The Chronicles as a whole, and also to the author who dreamt them into being.

Planet NarniaUpon completing this book, I was entirely convinced by Ward’s argument, and as someone who seeks to keep my own archetypal eye open to the astrological manifestations in our world, I could clearly see how each of Lewis’s books expressed the planetary aura in a subtle and implicit way. As Ward writes, this aura or atmosphere must “remain hidden, woven into the warp and woof of the story so that it comprises not an object for Contemplation but the whole field of vision within which the story is experienced.”[2] Ward’s methods for understanding the characteristics of each planet, as far as I could tell, were based entirely upon Lewis’s own expression of the planetary qualities in his other works, from his literary scholarship, to his Ransom Trilogy comprised of Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, to his poetry—particularly the poem entitled “The Planets,” which Ward was reading when the insight came to him about the underlying theme of The Chronicles. Ward did not draw on medieval sources of astrology, nor any contemporary works. Thus Ward’s depiction of the planetary archetypes was entirely through Lewis’s own perspective on them, which led to some interesting archetypal combinations that I will explore forthwith. Not only do each of The Chronicles of Narnia appear to subtly correlate to each of the ancient planets, as Lewis understood them from his breadth of knowledge about Medieval and Renaissance literature, but the expression of those planets is characterized by how they are each aspected in Lewis’s birth chart, which includes the archetypes of the three outer planets, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

C.S. Lewis’s Birth Chart
C.S. Lewis’s Birth Chart

The planetary correspondence to each novel (in the order Lewis wrote them) Ward has identified as follows:

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe ­– Jupiter
Prince Caspian – Mars
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – Sun
The Silver Chair – Moon
The Horse and His Boy – Mercury
The Magician’s Nephew – Venus
The Last Battle – Saturn

Painting by Jeremiah Briggs
Painting by Jeremiah Briggs

The first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, expresses the Jupiterian archetype through its Jovial turn from winter to summer, the kingliness of the divine lion Aslan, the crowning of the four children and their peaceful rulership of Narnia, and many other subtle expressions that Ward points out. Lewis particularly favored the planet Jupiter, and it is interesting to note that while he is not born with Sun-Jupiter, as one might expect from his feeling of its centrality to his personality, he does have five planets in Sagittarius (six if including Chiron) which is the zodiac sign ruled by Jupiter. But another aspect that is interesting to note is that Lewis is born with Jupiter square Mars, and the theme of triumphant and victorious battle plays a major role in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Furthermore, Lewis is also born with Jupiter trine Neptune, which can be seen not only in the explicit religious and spiritual themes expressed in the novel, particularly in the self-sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan, but also in his choice of re-telling the Gospel story in the form of a fantasy novel. The story concludes by the shores of Narnia, by the great ocean ruled by Neptune, a symbol of the eternal realm. As Ward writes,

[Lewis] tells us that the waves break “for ever and ever,” as if they belong to an eternal realm; and this is indeed what he is wanting to evoke, what the whole book has been intended to evoke: a glimpse of supernatural reality, a window onto an aspect of the divine nature.[3]

We see Lewis’s Jupiter-Neptune expressed here in the depiction of an eternal realm, the supernatural reality, and the divine nature, all within the Jupiterian context of the novel that Ward has already laid forth.

Interestingly, in the summer of 1948 when Lewis began to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he happened to be undergoing a long transit of Jupiter conjoining his natal Mercury—perfect for writing a novel with a strong Jupiterian theme.

Painting by Ludek Pesek
Painting by Ludek Pesek

The second book written in the series, Prince Caspian, is an expression of the planet Mars, run through with martial themes of war and violence. The entire story centers on the War of Deliverance that liberates Narnia from the tyrannical rule of the usurper King Miraz, with the Old Narnians and Prince Caspian aided by the four Pevensie children who first appeared in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Yet many of the themes Ward draws forward that illustrate the Martian atmosphere of the story actually have a more complex Mars-Saturn quality: discipline and obedience in the chain of military command, the necessity of war, steadfast strength in battle, the integrity of the true warrior. And it naturally follows to mention that C.S. Lewis is born with Mars trine Saturn in his natal chart. As Ward concludes the chapter on Mars he writes the primary themes present in Prince Caspian: “Discipline—obedience—faithfulness—strength—growth.”[4] All of these qualities are manifestations of the planetary archetype of Saturn, but they are expressed through the Martian realm of the warrior in battle as portrayed in Prince Caspian. Thus, while the book is indeed an homage to Mars, it is Mars as seen through Lewis’s own Mars-Saturn complex.

SunThe Voyage of the Dawn Treader is clearly an expression of the Solar journey, as the heroes embark upon a sea voyage into the utter East, the land of the rising Sun. However, while much of the imagery in the tale is actually Neptunian—the atmosphere of the eternal ocean, the spiritual quest—many of the episodes within the story are Plutonic, which resonates with Lewis’s natal Sun-Pluto opposition (he does also have a very wide Sun-Neptune opposition). Much of the Solar imagery is alchemical, focusing on the transmutational and transformative power of the Solar gold. Ward writes about the “connection in [Lewis’s] imagination between Solar influence (improperly received) and the will to power;”[5] the will to power is a clear manifestation of Pluto. Much of the story is about the transformation of one’s personal greed, ambition, and desire for power, all qualities associated with Pluto, into service for a higher good. Furthermore, a central piece of the story is Eustace’s journey of being turned into a dragon—an expression of the Plutonic underworld demon—and being transformed into a better person for the experience. The Solar ego with which Eustace enters the story constellates the Plutonic dragon energy within himself, transforming his very being into a monster, and when he is reborn from the discarded scales of the dragon, like a snake shedding its skin, he is reborn as a new Solar hero, humble and able to be in service to the whole.

Painting by Oscar Nilsson
Painting by Oscar Nilsson

The Moon is the underlying theme of The Silver Chair, yet much of the imagery present in the story has little in common with an archetypal understanding of the Moon as an expression of emotion, feeling, caretaking, relationality, family, and nourishment. Indeed, the story is far more expressive of the two planets Lewis has in conjunction with the Moon: Neptune and Pluto. The story is darker than the previous three, and much of it is set in a dangerous land inhabited by vicious giants, and in Underland, the underworld realm of the witch reborn. The Neptunian theme is also carried throughout in the form of water and wetness, from rain and fog, to marshes, tears, and an underground lake. Prince Rilian, who the heroes are attempting to rescue, is under an evil (Pluto) enchantment (Neptune) cast by the vile (Pluto) sorcery (Neptune) of the witch-queen, who transforms (Pluto) into a giant, terrifying serpent (Pluto) through her magical (Neptune) powers (Pluto). Most of the Lunar imagery is distorted through the Plutonic lens with which Lewis perceived it, and Ward spends much of the chapter on The Silver Chair defining the Moon by its relational submission to the Sun—a repression of the Lunar that is not only evident in Lewis’s chart but in the patriarchal culture that shaped his views, a culture that has elevated the Solar at the expense of the denied and relegated Lunar. Interestingly, one way in which the Lunar is able to shine through in this story is when the young girl Jill asks if she may return home at the end of the narrative, the only character to make such a request in the entirety of the Narniad. Lewis’s own struggle integrating the Lunar archetype in his life is clearly present in its expression in The Silver Chair.

MercuryMercury, particularly in the form of Gemini (which is ruled by Mercury), is the god present in The Horse and His Boy. Ward shows this clearly in the multiplicity of twin imagery, and that the whole story orients around the delivering of a vital message. Yet Ward also points out that the ongoing patterning of the story is about two merging into one, whether it is the separated twins reconnecting, or the mistaken belief that the main characters were being chased by two lions when really it was but one. This theme of merging within the Mercurial context can be seen in Lewis’s natal Mercury-Neptune opposition, as Neptune has the capacity to dissolve boundaries and to unite all things into oneness. Furthermore, the Mercury-Neptune theme can be seen in Shasta’s encounter with Aslan, who is named simply “the Voice” in the text—a clear expression of Mercury within the divine Neptunian context.

The Magician’s Nephew, now placed as first in the series but published sixth, is an expression of Venus, but in a way complexified by the many aspects Lewis has to Venus in his natal chart, and the ways those aspects manifested in his life. Two of the major themes in the story are the near-fatal illness of the main character’s mother, and the birth of a new world, Narnia itself, sung into being by Aslan. Lewis is born with a Venus-Saturn conjunction and lost the first primary love relationship of his life at a young age, for his mother died when he was but nine years old. The shadow of this lost love is present throughout the story, as the character Diggory hopes to find some way of curing his mother’s illness. On the other hand, the creation of an entirely new world, sung into existence by the musical artistry of Aslan, is a reflection of Lewis’s natal Venus-Uranus conjunction, with the generative creativity of Uranus birthing through song (Venus) a verdant and vibrant world ringing with “newness” and “vitality.”[6] Sweetness also plays a role, whether in the sweet taste of the healing apple Diggory brings to his mother, or the “sweet natural sleep”[7] she enters into after eating it—a reflection of Lewis’s Venus-Moon opposition. This aspect is also present in Lewis’s seeming conflation of the Venusian and Lunar archetypes, describing Venus as motherly, fecund, fertile, and nourishing—qualities usually attributable to the Moon. (Because we do not know Lewis’s exact birth time, his Moon may be in tighter opposition to both Venus and Saturn if he was born earlier in the day—this would correlate to the death of his mother at an early age, a clear expression of the Moon-Saturn combination.)

VenusYet the Venusian imagery is complexified further in the character of Jadis, the beautiful yet terrible queen of the dying world of Charn, a world destroyed by her own hand, who becomes the first evil present in Narnia. Jadis is the witch we meet later in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Here one can witness Lewis’s Venus-Pluto opposition in the evil and destructive power (Pluto) of this beautiful queen (Venus).

Ward brings up an issue in this chapter that shows the clear influence of patriarchy on Lewis’s creative imagination. Each story expresses the planetary archetype most clearly through the character of Aslan, so Ward asks why in The Magician’s Nephew, as an homage to Venus, Aslan is not portrayed as female. He is taking the gendered imagery of the planets as gods and goddesses in the Hellenic pantheon quite literally in this question, ignoring the fact that the archetypes all express themselves in male and female form through each one of us. Ward writes, “Lewis was of the belief that major imaginative difficulties arose when one attempted to depict God in feminine terms.”[8] Besides the inherent sexism in this statement, an interesting point is being addressed: when the Divine is depicted as feminine, or as both masculine and feminine, the imaginative implications ripple through all levels of reality. Ward quotes Lewis as saying, “a child who had been taught to pray to a Mother in Heaven would have a religious life radically different from that of a Christian child.”[9] I actually agree with this statement, but not in the way that Lewis meant it. What a different world we might live in if the feminine aspect of the Divine had been given equal devotion as the male, or if the female, male, and non-gendered aspects of each planetary archetype were given equal recognition. Ward concludes by saying that the feminine aspect of Venus is still expressed through Aslan, but not by changing the lion’s gender.

. . . Aslan is feminized, but not to the complete expulsion of the masculine. And this is a fair representation of Venus, for Venus may be properly understood as containing a masculine element alongside her feminine ones.[10]

If only Lewis, and Ward, could have seen the way each archetype contains feminine and masculine elements, as they both recognized in relation to Venus.

SaturnThe Narniad concludes with The Last Battle, a tragic homage to the final planet of the ancient cosmos, Saturn. Lewis’s natal Saturn-Pluto opposition is deeply apparent in his depiction of Saturn’s domain. Ward writes that for Lewis “evil was perceived as a merciless power in his younger days; as weakness, sorrow, and death in his later years.”[11] The Last Battle is indeed tragic and filled with death (Saturn) and the destructive (Pluto) ending (Saturn) of the Narnian world. “Under the planet who is responsible for ‘fatal accidents,’” Ward writes, “everyone who is alive at the beginning of this story is dead by the end of it.”[12] Yet Lewis, and also Ward, seem unable to recognize the gifts and nobility of the Saturnian archetype, desiring rather to return to the Jupiterian themes that began The Chronicles of Narnia. This depiction of only the negative side of Saturn is also a reflection of how Saturn was understood by Medieval and Renaissance sources, which naturally shaped Lewis’s understanding of the archetype. The ending of The Last Battle begins to shift toward images of spring and rebirth, an awakening into a radically different world—the true Narnia where all the characters from previous ages are reborn and living in peace. Ward sees this as Saturn deferring to Jupiter, writing “the spirit of the sixth sphere [Jupiter] is also the spirit which dominates the universe beyond the seventh [Saturn].”[13] He goes on to say later in the chapter, “Indeed, it is only by virtue of his deferral to Jove that Saturn can exert his true influence, making his patients into contemplatives who see beyond sorrow.”[14] I would argue rather that this is not Saturn deferring to Jupiter, but rather Saturn being seen all the way through in the entirety of its archetypal spectrum, moving from sorrow and death to the contemplative wisdom granted by sitting with the inherent grief of such challenges and obstacles. Saturn’s medicine can be found still within the seventh sphere, without having to turn elsewhere for its gifts.

Although The Chronicles of Narnia, from Ward’s perspective, are an expression of the ancient Ptolemaic cosmos, the archetypes of the three outer planets are still present implicitly throughout the series. This is most apparent at the end of The Last Battle when there are clear intimations that there is a world beyond the threshold of Saturn. Ward writes, “Sorrow comes, but it is not total, not ‘full,’ there is something ‘beyond;’ Saturn does not have the last word.”[15] Indeed, Saturn does not have the last word, but not because there is a deferral to Jupiter; rather the threshold is at last crossed and we are able to enter the transpersonal realm of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. These three archetypes are all present and interwoven in the final pages of The Last Battle, as all of the characters enter into a radically new world, a true paradigm shift (Uranus) in a transcendent, heavenly, ideal realm (Neptune), because each character, indeed all of Narnia, has gone through a powerful cycle of death and rebirth (Pluto).

To conclude, I would want to both critique and compliment Ward for the insight of the project he undertook, searching for a hidden underlying theme that unifies the entirety of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. As I have hopefully made clear here, I feel he has really hit the mark with his analysis, perceiving the archetypal qualities of the ancient planets as expressed by each of the seven tales—although those archetypal qualities are complexified by their expression through the lens of Lewis’s own natal chart aspects. Yet my critique of Ward’s book is of the way in which he expressed his profound insight. For he opens the book by stating his assurance that the planetary theme was one clearly devised by Lewis but intentionally kept secret for the rest of his life. Before laying out any of his evidence Ward writes, “I believe that I also have discovered a genuine literary secret, one that has lain open to view since the Chronicles were first published, but that, remarkably, no-one has previously perceived.”[16] His self-assurance, which echoes throughout the book, actually has the opposite effect upon the reader, casting into doubt his argument before the evidence has even been presented. Ward asserts again and again that the theme was intentionally created by Lewis and then kept as a guarded secret for decades. While it is clear from the evidence that The Chronicles do indeed express the planetary archetypes, I feel that the evidence would have stood more confidently on its own, without the investigations into Lewis’s reasons for keeping the theme a deeply hidden secret. The secrecy may indeed be so, but the pure literary evidence Ward puts forth actually speaks louder than his arguments—and there is a humility in the simple expression of the evidence when not overlaid by assertions of correct discovery. But perhaps that is my own stylistic preference.

As can be seen in the above analysis, even if Lewis consciously chose to offer each one of The Chronicles to the altar of its own planetary god, the other gods are still intermingled throughout the novels. For even when we try to contain the gods in their archetypal purity, our own biased lenses, influenced by our particular birth charts, will naturally shape how the gods choose to express themselves. As was carved above the doorway of C.G. Jung’s home: “Vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit.” Called or not called, the god is present.

Work Cited

Ward, Michael. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008.

[1] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 4.

[2] Ward, Planet Narnia, 18.

[3] Ward, Planet Narnia, 76.

[4] Ward, Planet Narnia, 99.

[5] Ward, Planet Narnia, 107.

[6] Ward, Planet Narnia, 181.

[7] Ibid, 183.

[8] Ward, Planet Narnia, 183.

[9] C.S. Lewis, qtd. in Ward, Planet Narnia, 184.

[10] Ward, Planet Narnia, 185.

[11] Ward, Planet Narnia, 192.

[12] Ibid, 201.

[13] Ibid, 207.

[14] Ibid, 211.

[15] Ward, Planet Narnia, 197.

[16] Ibid, 5.

The Beating Heart of Poetry: The Elegant Simplicity of “Poetic Diction”

Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction—first published during his Saturn return—lays forth, in simple yet elegant terms, an argument for the evolution of consciousness. By tracing the differentiating meaning of words through the history of poetry, he reveals the participatory relationship of humanity with the cosmos. Barfield argues against the mainstream perspective held by philologists of his time that the origins of the words for abstract concepts find their roots in metaphors for concrete objects. Most philologists assumed words gained meaning by the use of intentional metaphors: for example, the contemporary word spirit has its roots in the ancient word for wind, therefore the assumption was that an ancient poet once decided to draw a metaphor between the blowing gusts of wind and the principle for life animating living beings.

Poetic DictionBarfield posits an alternative theory. From his understanding, these primal words are not metaphorical but rather contain within them the full meaning—the spectrum of spirit and wind and all between—in a single utterance. He writes that “these poetic, and apparently ‘metaphorical’ values were latent in meaning from the beginning.”[1] Only over time, and through a changing of consciousness in human beings, is the “undivided meaning”[2] of words split apart, so that now wind refers to a material reality and spirit to an abstract thought. Barfield argues that it is not the case that “the earliest words in use were ‘the names of sensible, material objects’ and nothing more.”[3] Rather, one “must suppose the ‘sensible objects’ themselves to have been something more; you must suppose they were not, as they appear to be at present, isolated, or detached, from thinking and feeling.”[4] Language, in Barfield’s view, reveals the ensoulment of the cosmos once perceptible to ancient human consciousness, a quality revealed through true metaphor. A true metaphor was once a single ancient word, a unified meaning expressed not only in human language but in the language of the world.

Barfield’s thesis holds profound implications for a question often asked of astrologers: how was it that the ancients knew what names to give the planets so that their corresponding mythic figures expressed the same archetypal characteristics that are still carried in the astrological manifestations apparent today? How was the planet Venus aptly named after the Goddess of Beauty, or Mercury after the Messenger of the Gods, when Venus in the birth chart relates to love, beauty, romance, and artistic expression, and Mercury relates to communication, thought, speech, intellect, writing, and learning? The question is being asked with the same modern mindset as the philologists who assumed that consciousness has remained the same throughout time, and that humanity has only come to understand the world better through the acquisition of knowledge. Rather, as Barfield articulates, to ancient consciousness a physical object was inherently imbued with resonant, ensouled presence. This is the ‘undivided meaning’ of which Barfield speaks, the metaphor that exists latently in the word before a later consciousness has split it asunder. Our contemporary language cannot fully capture this ‘undivided meaning’ even as I try to describe it, because in the language I am using psyche and physis long ago diverged from one another.

The consciousness that in modernity wiped away the horizon of meaning, to paraphrase Nietzsche, cannot perceive in the world the unity of archetype and object, universal and particular. They are fundamentally split, finally to the point of unrelatedness. Yet, reawakening within an archetypal cosmos, the unity of archetype and manifestation is once again apparent, but from the other side of a long history of differentiation. The undivided meaning of words has splintered again and again—the white light has passed through the prism to be refracted into a myriad of colors—and the consciousness living in a reenchanted, archetypally patterned world view can witness both the differentiation and unity at once. The language of the archetypes hearkens back to a time when the world reverberated with unified, ensouled, embodied meaning. Yet now it is possible, through conscious participation, to once again hear the song of the spheres. But instead of the cosmos simply singing to us as our ancestors once experienced it, we are able to read the score and, along with the cosmos, play its song back in harmony. Through his passion Barfield lets his readers feel the “beating heart of poetry”[5] as it once lived, and to recognize that its poetic rhythm is the beating heart of the cosmos itself.

Work Cited

Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning. Oxford, England: Barfield Press, 2010.

[1] Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning (Oxford, England: Barfield Press, 2010), 77.

[2] Barfield, Poetic Diction, 71.

[3] Barfield, Poetic Diction, 77.

[4] Ibid, 78.

[5] Barfield, Poetic Diction, 123.

Back Through the Wardrobe: Returning to “The Chronicles of Narnia”

The world of Narnia has a distinct aura, a tangible presence that remains evasive, elusive yet alluring. The feeling of the Narnian world is somehow familiar, eliciting that nostalgic pull that calls from the heart of the Imaginal Realm. Many years had passed since I last read C.S. Lewis’s series of seven short novels for children, and I returned to them with fresh eyes and a much wider perspective than my childhood consciousness brought to the stories. While still enchanted by the places, the names, the people of Narnia, I was also aware of the underlying Christian themes woven into the stories in a way I was not as a child. Recognizing these themes elicited a mixed reaction from me, for on the one hand I could appreciate what Lewis was trying to communicate, but on the other I have been so deeply influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien and his profound distaste for allegory that occasionally I wished the stories could stand for themselves, apart from any parallel meaning intended by the author. At times I felt I was losing the real experience of Narnia to the allegory behind it.

Chronicles of NarniaThe Chronicles of Narnia tell the full arc of the history of that realm, from its creation in The Magician’s Nephew and its parallels with Genesis, to The Last Battle, with its coming of the Antichrist and the Last Judgment, ending in the extinguishing of the world of Narnia. Yet each one also feels somewhat disparate from the others, in tone, style, and feeling. They almost seem to not quite hang together, while at the same time being compelling and hugely popular. My two favorite stories were The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the Dawn Treader, interestingly perhaps the most and the least allegorical of the tales respectively. Although The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, with Aslan the Lion representing Christ, that story also feels like the one in which the pure realm of Narnia, apart from any allegorical meaning, shines through most brightly. The world of Narnia has a life of its own in that tale, more exuberant than in any of the other stories, perhaps in part stemming from the fact it was the first book Lewis wrote in the series. The four Pevensie children, the frozen Lantern Waste, Mr. Tumnus the Faun, Aslan himself, all have an imaginal reality to them which stands above and beyond the allegory that later came to be told through their actions. The Christian allegories Lewis is telling are taking place in a genuine part of Faërie, to draw on Tolkien’s term for the Imaginal Realm. Indeed, these aspects of Narnia came to Lewis before the Christian themes worked themselves into the tales, and Aslan himself seemed to be appearing in Lewis’s dreams for some time before he began writing, as the Imaginal Realm can so often do when the veils between worlds begin to thin.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my second favorite of the novels, appears to be the least allegorical, intended to depict the spiritual life of those upon the journey to the World’s End. There is a numinosity to this story, and one feels saturated by the light of the East as the voyagers enter the sweet seas whose waters give strength and vitality. I felt a longing to enter into this depiction of Narnia more strongly than in all the other tales, as the Dawn Treader sails through the sea of white lilies toward Aslan’s country. Perhaps the magnetism of both The Lion and The Dawn Treader comes in particular from that tangible sense of Narnia as a real place, alluring one to enter into its landscapes.

Looking beyond the purely Narnian and Christian themes, there is also a Platonic element to Lewis’s stories. Particularly in The Silver Chair, which takes place in an underground realm, the allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic is echoed in the witch’s enchantment of the children who have entered her domain. She is attempting to convince them that no world exists beyond her underground realm, and the children appeal to her by describing their own world which is quickly fading from their memories. In their penultimate defense they attempt to describe the Sun, which the witch dismisses as an imaginary enhancement of a lamp. Finally, they appeal to Aslan and try to describe a lion, only to be told they are just embellishing upon a cat. But in the end the children and their companions overthrow the witch’s enchantments because the power of the world above, the world beyond the shadows of Plato’s cave, is stronger and more real than the lies she is weaving below in the darkness. Carrying the Platonic theme further, in the final chapters of The Last Battle, after the world of Narnia has ended and the many familiar characters drawn from all seven books are traversing a new landscape, they discover that the new land is the real Narnia and that the one with which they were familiar was merely a copy, a Shadowland. The Professor, or Lord Diggory, exclaims: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”[1]

The Last Battle was difficult for me to read for many reasons, not least of which because of the judgments passed upon so many of the characters. When Aslan stands at the door of Narnia as the world is ending, in one moment all the creatures of that world are judged and divided. Those who glance upon him for even a moment without love in their eyes are cast aside; Talking Beasts become dumb and descend out of Aslan’s realm forever, to a place unbeknownst even to the author. Furthermore, all of the characters from our world who have played roles in the various stories are drawn together into the real Narnia, a place that is an allegory for Heaven, because in their own world they have all died in a sudden train accident—all except Susan, who was once a Queen of Narnia and who played a major role in both The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and in Prince Caspian. She has apparently dismissed her memories of Narnia as merely fantasy, games she played with her siblings as children. Yet at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Aslan says, “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”[2] Has he forgotten his own words? Is doubting one’s experiences so deep a sin that Susan is not only banned from ever entering the real Narnia, but also loses all of her siblings and parents to a single train accident and, one assumes, must now bear this grief alone in England? Where is Aslan’s compassion and forgiveness? Does he not recall that she wept alongside Lucy over his dead body upon the Stone Table before his resurrection? Or is there perhaps some other hidden answer, a consolation not directly written on the pages of the final book?

Perhaps the most difficult aspect for me about the closing of The Chronicles is that because the world has come to an end we as readers cannot hold on to the glimmer of hope that we may find a doorway to that world as well. Fairy-story gives us faith in the real existence of the Imaginal Realm, and a trust that we too may some day be given the grace to enter its domain. But what if “the gates should be shut and the keys be lost,”[3] as Tolkien writes, and we are locked upon the outside? Whence then do we turn to enter into Faërie? Perhaps it is in this sense of loss and nostalgia that one can truly reflect upon the potency of Lewis’s stories, for though they do at times bear the flaws of an all-too-human author, do we not still wish to return to the woods of Lantern Waste, the palace of Cair Paravel, and the sweet waters and white lilies of the eastern Silver Sea? Perhaps we may yet be granted that wish, for the time of the Narnian world does not align linearly with the time of this world—and some new doorway may someday open, allowing a different epoch of Narnia to be explored by some fortuitous wandering soul. With the ending comes both nostalgia and hope, a sense of loss mingled with the potential for remembrance and rebirth.

Works Cited

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia. New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1994.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle: The Chronicles of Narnia, (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1994), 212.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronicles of Narnia, (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1994), 199.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 109.

When Symbol Becomes Fact: Reflections on “Saving the Appearances”

“The world of final participation will one day sparkle in the light of the eye as it never yet sparkled early one morning in the original light of the sun.”
– Owen Barfield[1]

When sunlight refracts on the droplets of a raincloud, and an arc of colors bend across the sky, we must ask ourselves, “Is the rainbow really there?” With this image Owen Barfield opens his book Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, a short but profound tale of the evolution of consciousness from original participation, through the non-participatory (or rather, unconsciously participatory) scientific revolution, to final participation. But what does Barfield mean by participation? And how might one trace an evolution of consciousness?Saving the Appearances

Barfield begins with the image of the rainbow, demonstrating how it is a shared collective representation. A representation is something that I, and others, perceive to be there: whether it is a rainbow, a tree, a house, or any other phenomenon available to sensory experience. A representation is more than what any phenomenon can be reduced down to—such as subatomic particles; a representation is the phenomenon in its wholeness. The particles, which Barfield calls the unrepresented, are what science claims really exist in the world prior to human perception of them. “The world we all accept as real,” Barfield writes, “is in fact a system of collective representations.”[2] We do not perceive collective representations with our sense organs alone, but with “mental habits, memory, imagination, feeling.”[3] The generation of representations is what Barfield means by participation: “Participation is the extra-sensory relation between man and the phenomena.”[4] The world as we know it is created by participation in that world.

Through imagination Barfield enters into the participatory consciousness of previous world views, from the Medieval European, to the Graeco-Roman, to the Hebraic, each of which lived in original participation with the world to some degree. Original participation is “an awareness which we no longer have, of an extra-sensory link between percipient and the representations.”[5] Modern consciousness also participates in the phenomena, but does so unconsciously, believing instead that the perceived phenomena are independent of human perception. “Thus the phenomena themselves are idols, when they are imagined as enjoying that independence of human perception which can in fact only pertain to the unrepresented.”[6] This misperception of the phenomena as entirely independent of human perception Barfield terms idolatry, and it is to idolatry that he is attempting to bring awareness, to thus overcome and lead human consciousness into final participation—an awakened recognition that the phenomenal world is one of collective representations.

Simply put, it was through the development of the scientific revolution that original participation was expunged from the consciousness of the modern West and idolatry took hold in its place. “If therefore man succeeds in eliminating all original participation, without substituting any other, he will have done nothing less than eliminate all meaning and all coherence from the cosmos.”[7] Not only does idolatry empty spirit from the cosmos, it eventually eliminates spirit from the human as well. In order to move beyond idolatry into final participation, Barfield turns to religion, to the Incarnation of the Word in the Christian faith.

Idolatry suffers from literalness, thus to the idolatrous mind an event can be historical or it can be a symbol: it cannot be both. Barfield uses the Incarnation of the Word—the birth of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity incarnating into a human body situated in historical time—to usher in final participation. Because the Incarnation is both historical and symbolic, it breaks down the schism between human consciousness and perceived phenomena. Yet by turning to religion, and particularly Christianity, in this way, it feels like Barfield narrows the field of those to whom final participation might apply. He defines religion as “essentially an ‘I-Thou’ relation between man on the one hand and the Creator of man and of his phenomena, on the other. A man who cannot think of his Creator as a Being other than himself cannot be said to have religion.”[8] This definition of religion is quite narrow, and excludes many of the world’s religious and spiritual traditions (and the masculine language unconsciously excludes women as well). Yet Barfield writes that the only possible answer to idolatry is acceptance of a “directionally creator relation to the phenomenal world.”[9] Is that really the case? Can there be a wider reading of final participation that can allow for the inclusion of those who have entered into that stage of consciousness by paths other than the Christian one?

To begin answering this question perhaps a wider reading of what Barfield means by the Incarnation of the Word is also necessary. Idolatry, or non-participatory consciousness, has brought with it gifts as well as shadow. Barfield writes, at first in seemingly negative terms, that “a non-participating consciousness cannot avoid distinguishing abruptly between the concept of ‘man,’ or ‘mankind,’ or ‘men in general’ on the one hand and that of ‘a man’—an individual human spirit—on the other.”[10] This is the literalness of idolatry. But this literalness allows something else to be born as well, of which Barfield speaks shortly thereafter:

The awakened clarity of retrospect . . . will . . . be obliged to recognize that the gradual emergence of man from original participation amounts also to the gradual emergence of ‘men’ from ‘man;’ that it is not just the cumulative history of the race, but the biography, also, of each individual spirit.[11]

What Barfield fails to mention explicitly here, yet can be implied by this statement when read half a century after it was first written, is that not only can individual men emerge from the all-encompassing term “Man,” but so can individual women, as well as others whose identities have been obscured by the Western male conception of Man. The symbolic becomes situated, and thus refracts into a myriad of individuals. This is the gift of the non-participatory stage of the evolution of consciousness as Barfield describes it.

Beginning in the chapter entitled “Israel” Barfield writes about the Divine Name, the “I Am.” The Divine Name, when spoken within the mind of an individual human—one who has only been able to individuate through the refraction of non-participatory consciousness—indicates the divinity not only of the Creator whose name is being spoken, but the divinity of each individual speaking it. This is the Incarnation of the Word, the Word become flesh, that Barfield sees as able to overcome idolatry and usher human beings into final participation. I find myself drawn to read Barfield’s use of the Christian mythos itself as both a symbol and a historically situated reality. If I were to reject Barfield’s concluding thesis on the premise that his turn to Christianity excludes those for whom this perspective does not, or perhaps even cannot, apply then I too would fall into the literalness of idolatry. From my situated perspective I can recognize the way in which the Incarnation of the Word—which allows for a new form of individual participation in the Divine and participation with one another as individuals—was for Barfield the real way in which idolatry could be overcome and final participation entered into. Yet I can also read the Incarnation as a symbol of something beyond the Christian faith alone, a symbol of the recognition of the Divine within, that can encompass a multiplicity of forms of spiritual connection and religious perspective.

Work Cited

Barfield, Owen. Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

[1] Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1988), 161.

[2] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 20.

[3] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 20.

[4] Ibid, 40.

[5] Ibid, 34.

[6] Ibid, 62.

[7] Ibid, 144.

[8] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 156.

[9] Ibid, 159.

[10] Barfield, Saving the Appearances, 183.

[11] Ibid, 184.