Monday, February 21, 2011

Review :: The Lion, the Mouse, and the Dawn Treader :: Carl McColman

I don't know how you spent your childhood Sundays in church; I spent mine with C.S. Lewis. Our country church had a library full of faith-filled children's literature, the Ladd Family Adventures, the Sugar Creek Gang, and, best of all, The Chronicles of Narnia. Sitting in the pew next to my parents or the parents of my best friend, I read all seven of the Narnia books over and over: in order of publication, in Narnian chronology, in reverse order of publication, and I think I even tried reverse Narnian chronology. Narnia captivated me; Narnia was the world I wanted to live in, a world of adventure and magic and a depth of meaning that grade school (even grade school in Montana) just didn't seem to offer.

Of all the Narnia stories, my favorite since childhood remains The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. When I recently reread the entire Narnia series (aloud) with my wife, I found my opinion hasn't changed. Something about the travel narrative, the unique character of each island, and the mystical conclusion of the book continues to draw my thoughts into this story more deeply than any of the others (I feel the same way about Perelandra, the second of Lewis' space trilogy). When Mike Morrell alerted me to Carl McColman's new book, The Lion, the Mouse, and the Dawn Treader, that explores mysticism in Lewis' Dawn Treader, I jumped at the opportunity to reopen this story that has haunted me (in the best of ways) since childhood.
Over Christmas I saw Walden Media's take on the Lewis' story (thanks to the generosity of my in-laws). In terms of special effects and wash-buckling, the movie met its obligations, but I think the story somehow got lost. Or perhaps it got fabricated. One of the unique qualities of Lewis' Dawn Treader is its fundamental lack of a driving narrative. It is fundamentally episodic. Walden Media thought that like most good (or at least profitable) films, The Dawn Treader needs a story, so they wrote one--something about mystical swords and a green fog of fear belching up every now and again, along with a sea monster that reminded me of a house centipede.

Andrew O'Hehir posted a critical article over on O'Hehir complains (accurately, I believe) that the film adaptation takes the meandering, parabolic episodes of Lewis' book and ramrods it into Evangelical kitsch. He writes,
While the Narnia books are indeed, in part, a form of Christian parable (and we'll get to that), they're also an attempt to repurpose adventure stories of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance for a modern readership.
. . . As my friend and colleague Laura Miller (author of the "The Magician's Book,"an affectionate, skeptical rereading of Lewis) observes, the Adamson-Apted Narnia movies have been significantly Christianized, in the sense that 21st-century American Christianity is a much different animal from the high-Anglican, early-20th-century version Lewis was preaching. This retelling of "Dawn Treader" is relentlessly goal-oriented -- our heroes must collect seven swords, and free a bunch of people imprisoned in mysterious green mist -- in a way Lewis' book simply isn't. It's also prodigiously sentimental about the sanctity of the nuclear family, an article of American faith that would have seemed totally mysterious to Lewis and his age, when middle-class or upper-class English children grew up barely acquainted with their own parents.
My wife Cindy carries forward this conversation over on her blog, Aslan greets Caspian, Reepicheep, Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace at the far shore of the end of the world. In the book, Aslan appears first as a lamb, offering the sojourners breakfast cooked over the fire. The film subs out the Lamb for Aslan as the great Lion. Cindy reads the dangers of a spirituality that prefers the power of a lion over the gentle, humble, even cruciform service of the Lamb. She writes,
Increasingly, I am compelled to remember that my faith is in one who, for mysterious reasons beyond my understanding, abandoned the roar of a lion for the "sweet milky voice" of a lamb, who chose in earthly ministry to heal and feed rather than rouse a powerful following, who, as the old song says, "could have called ten thousand angels / to destroy the world and set him free," but instead willingly suffered death, even death on a cross. And who rose again, who claimed victory over death's power, yet was did not immediately demand recognition and worship but instead walked with some along the road, appeared at a house, showed up on a beach and cooked breakfast for his friends.
The story we find in The Dawn Treader, as with the story we find in our own lives, shapes us in profound ways. As a grade school kid, I wanted to live in Narnia. What stories do I want to live in today?

Carl McColman in The Lion, the Mouse, and the Dawn Treader: Spiritual Lessons from C.S. Lewis' Narnia finds the just what the subtitle indicates--spiritual lessons, a travel guide, as it were, for our spiritual journeys. Each island or event in the story represents a way station on the path to a living and engaged spirituality, a mysticism of everyday life.

On my most recent reading of the Narnia series, I began to wonder about mysticism. Throughout the novels, Lucy has a special relationship to Aslan. She is the Magdalene of Narnia. And while other novels in the series touch on this friendship and devotion (particularly Prince Caspian), nowhere is it rendered nearly so thematically as in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

In the first few pages of McColman's book, I had hope that he would reflect deeply on Lewis' child-like account of mysticism. Lewis' does something through Lucy that renders her a role model of faith for me even now. But McColman quickly veers away into matters more practical--a how-to of everyday mysticism.

I don't begrudge The Lion, the Mouse, and the Dawn Treader this. The book is good devotional reading. But like the film's take on Lewis' novel, McColman's account finds a story that I think is not quite there, a story that stems more from our contemporary spirituality than from being drawn deeply into Narnia.

Listen to the way McColman begins his journey through Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
Let's turn to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and see how this charming children's tale has, encoded in it, much of the wisdom and insight about spiritual living that has come down to us over the centuries from the great mystics and saints of the Christian world. It's a great adventure story on its own terms. But when understood as a metaphor for the mystical life, Dawn Treader becomes even more wonderful. It's wonderful because it can help ordinary folks like you and me to recognize, understand, and appreciate all the many aspects of the spiritual journey.
McColman and I part ways at the very beginning. I find a well-told tale (especially an adventure story) much more "wonderful" than well-crafted allegory. And while I agree that we need all the help we can get in seeing God's beauty shot through our lives, I doubt that commentary is the best means to cultivate this awareness.

The Lion, the Mouse, and the Dawn Treader is peppered with words like "represents" and "signifies." McColman is not positing a an allegory on the level with Sir Edmund Spenser--he foreswears this sort of reading from the beginning. But McColman leans in that direction. The slavetrade in the Lone Isles represents structural sin, the sea serpent represents an untamed subconscious, the silence of the Silver Sea represents contemplative prayer. I cannot deny that Voyage of the Dawn Treader has its highly symbolic moments: Eustace' bath after being un-dragoned, the sleepers at Aslan's Table. But I think there is much more to the book than this.

Last year I took a course on OT poetry and prophecy with Willem VanGemeren, a man very fond of Lewis (and good literature in general)--my favorite Dutch Evangelical OT scholars. Twice in the course he referred to Lewis' own reflection on the Narnia stories. He quoted Lewis,
I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my religion in childhood. . . . Supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could" (Lewis, Stories 47)
 VanGemeren suggested that Lewis has the same insight here that drives Hebrew biblical poetry: that we are changed most when we begin to see differently. By being drawn into the drama of Narnia--not its symbolism (thought that is beautiful) but its story--we begin to see everything differently. These are Aslan's very words at the end of the story to Lucy and Edmund: "You must learn to know me by that name [in your world]. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."

We must not impress Voyage of the Dawn Treader into service for another cause, another story, neither that of our own spiritual journey nor that of redemptive and virtuous violence against evil. These other stories have their own uses. McColman writes a find guidebook to Christian spirituality (even under the conceit of Voyage of the Dawn Treader). I enjoyed the two hours I spent wearing 3D glasses to fully experience the film adaptation. But we must not let our attention be pulled away permanently from the story Lewis tells, the world he creates. Allegory is the means of the elite, and spectacle is distraction or respite for the masses. But story, story is a means to conversion. For in stories, reality itself is smuggled past the dragons; reality is un-dragoned.

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