Just Beastly

Here’s an even longer paper from last spring–a class on C.S. Lewis. I meant to post this yesterday, and forgot, but that’s okay, because this post contains memories, w‘s, family stories, and theology, and since it’s super-long, but I haven’t been posting much lately, you can just count it as all the rest of the posts for this month. You’re welcome.

JUST BEASTLY
Animals and the Theme of Creation in the Writings of C.S. Lewis

Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of HS 772 The Ancient Future Lewis

By Jennifer A. G. Layte

May 2014

When I was a child we had a black cocker spaniel named Chocolate Chip. He was sweet and stupid, and maybe we were, too, because although we loved him dearly, we didn’t do it very well. Lots of accidental but horrific things happened to Chippy, some of which we couldn’t have prevented, but some of which we probably could. As it was, he didn’t live long. I wonder if he might have lived longer if my family had had a better theology of animals at the time. It wasn’t that we didn’t care—we just didn’t know. C.S. Lewis might have been able to give us some pointers, had we been paying attention to that sort of thing when we read The Chronicles of Narnia.

We had the same hair.

We had the same hair.

“And God saw everything that he had made,” said the writer of Genesis, “and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31, ESV). Contrary to prevailing contemporary views that value is completely subjective, a value judgment was placed on creation as soon as it was brought into being, by the very One who made it. God’s speaking the cosmos into existence and declaring truth about it packed creation with meaning—derived from Him.[1] When C. S. Lewis, a philosopher, a writer, and most of all a Christian, wrote worlds into being himself, he was “simply rearranging things that God has already made,”[2] elements that had their own inherent meaning, communicated into them by God’s word. Lewis’ perspective about objective meaning and hierarchy within creation was informed by centuries of earlier Christians’ perspectives. This view gave him the freeing humility to fill his own works with meaning by exploring these inherent meanings by assertion or negation. One of the most powerful ways he disclosed the nature of creation in general, and humanity’s relationship to its Creator in particular, was through his written treatment of animals.

The Noble Beast

Lewis’ view of our relationship to animals is well-nigh sacramental, according to Armstrong’s definition: “Sacramentality is the belief that transcendent spiritual reality manifests itself in and through created material reality, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator, that God is present in and through the world.”[3] Like Francis of Assisi before, him, C.S. Lewis saw the significance of animals in creation as yet one more vehicle through which to “[experience], and [act] extravagantly upon, an overwhelming passion for the person of Jesus.”[4]

In Lewis’ novel That Hideous Strength, Mr. Bultitude the bear and the animals at Belbury are probably the most “realistic” animals in all of Lewis’ fiction. Mr. Bultitude’s described impressions and experiences are decidedly fuzzy, only human insofar as Lewis has to employ words to communicate them to us at all. Nevertheless, the animals in the story gain a sort of nobility beyond that of the pitied abused (at Belbury) or even the beloved pet. “Mr. Bultitude is the last of the Seven Bears of Logres and the hero of the novel, That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis,” proclaims Mr. Bultitude’s Facebook page (only 18 likes), accessed on May 21, 2014. “Mr. Bultitude enjoys eating honey and saving the world.” Such an assertion may be an overstatement, but in Lewis’ tales, even a bearlike bear does indeed have heroic qualities.

He has 19 likes, now.

He has 19 likes, now.

The previous two books in The Cosmic Trilogy, of which That Hideous Strength makes the third, contain other sorts of animals—extraterrestrial ones. Perelandra, the book at the center, shows an idyllic, unfallen world in peril, with animals in relationship to the “humans” of Venus (Perelandra) the way Lewis imagines humans and animals related in Paradise:

“The beasts raced forward to greet her . . . She turned as they approached her and welcomed them, and once again the picture was half like many earthly scenes but in its total effect unlike them all. It was not really like a woman making much of a horse, nor yet a child playing with a puppy. There was in her face an authority, in her caresses a condescension, which by taking seriously the inferiority of her adorers made them somehow less inferior . . .[5]

On Mars (Malacandra) in the very first book of the Trilogy, “dumb animals” exist, but are overshadowed by other animal-like beings which are anything but mute or senseless. For that planet, Lewis imagines hnau, non-human beings who seem to be on the same tier of the hierarchy as humanity.[6] Malacandra has three sorts of hnau, the hrossa, the seroni, and the pfiffiltriggi. Each type is distinct from the other, but each is rational and is able to interact across species and with the supernatural eldila who also more or less inhabit the planet. It is still difficult to imagine these hnau as being other than animals, however. Lewis seems to have anticipated that when he describes the hero Ransom’s impressions:

“It was only many days later that Ransom discovered how to deal with these sudden losses of confidence. They arose when the rationality of the hross tempted you to think of it as a man. Then it became abominable . . . But starting from the other end you had an animal with everything an animal ought to have . . . and added to all these, as though Paradise had never been lost and earliest dreams were true, the charm of speech and reason.”[7]

While it is the Talking Animals of Narnia who are the most renowned examples of what Lewis is describing above, this paragraph from Out of the Silent Planet is, in fact, what really sums up Lewis’ approach to animal life in creation. Lewis does not intend even his most anthropomorphized beasts to be seen as human. However, it is telling that their significance is always relative to human beings. Lewis’ consistent insistence in almost all his writings is that the Incarnation—the entry of the Creator into His own creation as a human being—is “the central miracle asserted by Christians.”[8] Therefore, although humans are not at the top of the hierarchy of creation as understood by the medievals[9] and possibly by Lewis himself, they are uniquely honored in the created order. “Since our Beloved became a man,” says the Green Lady on Perelandra, “how should Reason in any world take on another form?”[10] In other words, since the Word took on earthly, human flesh (John 1:14), He would not take on other. Thus Lewisian animals, in a lower rung of the hierarchy, are ennobled by their closeness or likeness to human beings. Conversely, however, the more Lewis’ human characters take on baser “animal instincts,” the less noble they become.

The Beastly Human

George MacDonald, one of Lewis’ ideological mentors, whose writings famously helped propel Lewis toward the Christian faith, once wrote a story about Curdie, a boy who was given the gift of being able to tell the nature of a person by holding or shaking a person’s hand.

“’Have you ever heard what some philosophers say—that men were all animals once?’” asks the princess in the story, who enabled Curdie’s new gift.

“’No, ma’am.’

“’It is of no consequence. But there is another thing that is of the greatest consequence—this: that all men, if they do not take care, go down the hill to the animals’ country; that many men are actually, all their lives, going to be beasts. People knew it once, but it is long since they forgot it.’”[11]

Later in the story, Curdie discovers this almost empirically, every time he has contact with another human being’s hand. He is able to feel, at the touch of the hand, whether that person really possesses a a paw, a hoof, or a claw. If the person is a sincere human being, like his mother, for example, he feels a true human hand “just like that of the princess.”[12] It is difficult, after once encountering it, not to see this line of thinking at work in Lewis’ writing as well.

The most famous example in any of Lewis’ fiction of a person degenerating into a beast is, of course, when Eustace Scrubb, the odious cousin of the more heroic Pevensie siblings in the Narnia Chronicles, becomes a dragon.[13] He has been progressively alienating himself from his cousins and the other people on the journey of which he finds himself unwittingly (and unwillingly) a part. After wandering off and taking a nap in a cave, he discovers,

“He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself . . . But the moment he thought this he realised that he . . . wanted to be friends. He wanted to get back among humans and talk and laugh and share things. He realiezed that he was a monster cut off from the whole human race. An appalling loneliness came over him.”[14]

the_change_of_eustace_by_slazerbeam

Fortunately for Eustace, there is still hope. He still has some vestiges of true human sensibility, and when he meets the lion Aslan, the Lord—and Redeemer (contrary to the statement in Perelandra about the Beloved not needing to take on other flesh)—of Narnia, Aslan “undragons” him. After that, Eustace, having been personally redeemed, becomes a much better human being indeed.

Eustace, however, is not the only character in the Narnia chronicles who is transformed into an animal, and not all of the characters who descend the created hierarchy are brought back. The haughty Prince Rabadash of Calormen, in The Horse and His Boy, is turned by Aslan into a donkey before a large crowd. His restoration is possible but conditional, and only conditionally permanent.[15]

A more notable—and even less hopeful—example of this descent is seen in the story of Ginger the Cat. In The Last Battle, the final book in The Chronicles of Narnia, we first meet Ginger, as a Talking Animal. Talking Animals are really the chief inhabitants of Narnia. (If we were mixing Lewisian constructs across books, we could say that although, after Aslan, humans are always the true rulers of Narnia, Talking Animals are the chief hnau.) Ginger, however, does not appreciate his place even in an exalted animal hierarchy.

Ginger is clever, and arrogant and smug about it. Ginger thinks that because he is aware that the creature posing as Aslan in a stable is false that therefore Aslan and all supernatural beings are fables, and so when he encounters the demon god Tash in the stable, his status as a Talking Animal is downgraded in the shock.

‘“Look, look!’ said the voice of the Bear. ‘It can’t talk. It has forgotten how to talk! It has gone back to being a dumb beast. Look at its face.’

“Everyone saw that it was true. And then the greatest terror of all fell upon those Narnians. For every one of them had been taught—when it was only a chick or a puppy or a cub—how Aslan at the beginning of the world had turned the beasts of Narnia into Talking Beasts and warned them that if they weren’t good they might one day be turned back again and be like the poor witless animals one meets in other countries. ‘And now it is coming upon us,’ they moaned.”[16]

Neither Lewis nor MacDonald appear to see a necessity of arguing for or against the idea that humans evolved from animals. It is interesting to note, however, that the evolutionary theory can actually augment their belief that when people either abdicate or overstep their place in the created order, they become less human, which both men seem to see as a reversion, and not simply a deterioration.

As a final example of Lewis’ understanding of the devolution of humans who reject God and His appointed role for them, we should take note of the self-appointed scientists, sociologists, and other diabolical “men of learning” at Belbury, the Hell-in-the-making of That Hideous Strength. It does not take long for the reader to realize that each one of the men and women of Belbury are already significantly subhuman when we meet them. Each one retains some characteristic of humanity which is totally out of balance and has become a caricature in the absence or corruption of any other human qualities. Among all the characters in any of Lewis’ books (save perhaps Weston, in Perelandra), these have most obviously attempted to usurp God’s role as sovereign over all creation. Not least among their sins is a menagerie of animals they have collected for vivisection. In Lewis’ fiction, the truly rebellious characters always exhibit a lack of respect for others and for the rest of creation, particularly the animal kingdom. The pinnacle—or nadir—of this conception is seen here.

None of these evil people in That Hideous Strength turn into literal brute animals as they might have if they were transported to Narnia. They are, however, overcome by the animals they have abused. It is in this context that Mr. Bultitude becomes unwittingly heroic, as part of the animal mass which ultimately finishes off Belbury. He is not, however, the animal that leads the charge or wreaks the most havoc. In fact, first of all, the human inmates of Belbury who think they have so much control, lose the ability to speak intelligibly, just like Ginger the Cat. It is only after this that the animals are let lose among them—by a man who has not lost his paradisical ability to communicate with them:

“Suddenly, the confusion of cries ran all together into one thin long-drawn noise of terror . . . Something had darted very quickly across the floor between the two long tables and disappeared under one of them. Those who had seen it clearly could not tell the others: they could only point and scream meaningless syllables. But Mark had recognized it. It was a tiger.”[17]

A Sumatran tiger

The tiger is not the only animal that has its way with the humans at Belbury. More and more of the escaping menagerie descend on the nightmarish banquet, culminating in the arrival of an elephant, which tramples humans under its feet. This seems a not-so-coincidental reversal of that poem in praise to God and in wonder of humanity, Psalm 8, where King David says of man,

“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field . . . “ (Psalm 8:5-7).

This scene of the confounding of words (the vehicle of meaning since God created the cosmos) and the uprising of the animals is the most logical conclusion and effective illustration of Lewis’ views regarding the rejection of created meaning and order, and regarding humanity within that meaning and order. Conversely, his closing scenes in that same book, where the animals are reunited “each according to its kind” (Genesis 1:25), and where the humans are, too—almost like Adam and Eve in the Garden, but a restored Garden—is the logical conclusion and illustration of the fulfillment of the meaning God spoke into creation at the beginning of time.

Unleashed—The Theology of Animals in Life and Ministry

At the very least, the preceding observations provide an interesting study for the Christian animal lover. Lewis’ belief in “man’s lost prerogative to ennoble beasts”[18] is clear after only a brief survey of his writings. At a minimum—or perhaps it is the maximum—this study has provided me with devotional material such that, even as I have been writing about the role of animals in God’s creation (and Lewis’ writing), the underlying thought in my head is a wondering, “What is man that You are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4). I suspect that was at least part of Lewis’ intention whenever animals entered his art.

However, this study also has implications beyond my devotional edification, for ministry in general and for the specific ministry in which I am personally involved. Vigilance is necessary to keep any sort of teaching or focus on animals in the church from turning into a twisted idolatry or sentimentality. Yet I believe some kind of teaching about creation in general, with a more specific focus on humans and animals and their relation to each other within that creation, could be an important corrective both to that sentimentality and directionless outrage that comes from animal rescue videos, and to the disregard for animal life as unimportant which can still be found in some pockets of society (interestingly sometimes both in scientific and Evangelical communities). A truer appreciation within a Christian ministry context of the created role of animals may also help to diminish both animal abuse and the abuse of people. Contemporary wisdom states that harming an animal is frequently the first step on the trajectory toward harming a human. Not only does this seem plausible to me, but if Belbury is any indication, Lewis’ would agree.

Some churches have special services in which they bless the animals. I have never been to such an event, and I suspect its value differs from church to church. However, the fact that I have worked in churches at all corners of the theological grid and never have encountered such a service in person is only one indication that maybe the church at large today needs a stronger theology of animals. We would do well to inquire of Christians of past eras as Lewis did—perhaps of Francis of Assisi, William Wilberforce, or even C.S. Lewis himself.

My own experience with animals, combined with this study of their role in Lewis’ writings, confirms my view that animals can be a vital part of ministry here and now. In 2009, I completed a regimen of radiation therapy for breast cancer, and was soon afterward also promoted to a full-time position at the church where I still work. The change in employment status enabled me to cease shift work at Starbucks, and so as something of a reward for all of these positive developments, as well as possibly a little penance for the ill-fated Chippy of my childhood, I adopted a timid little black cockapoo from a pet rescue organization. Because I was single at the time and still worked long hours, I sought and obtained permission from the church to bring him with me to work each day.

Not only did Oscar and I benefit each other, but he has become a source of pleasure and joy to the people who come into the church during the week, and to the children and youth with whom I work. He is still timid, but he is and always has been gentle with children, and has served to bring many a child more timid than himself into community with the rest of the youth group, camp, or Sunday school.

He also provides me with excellent object lessons, since I lack children of my own to use as illustrations. Yesterday a young woman I mentor was asking me about the Good Shepherd passage in John 10. She didn’t understand it. But she knows Oscar.

“Oscar,” I said, “is, as you know, really a one-person dog. He is absolutely, one hundred percent at all times in tune with where I am and what I am doing. He could appear to be passed out on the couch, but if I rustle a piece of paper, he perks his head up immediately to see if I’m going somewhere and if he can come, too.” I could have reminded her that at our summer camp, if I left the premises for half an hour and returned into the middle of a bustle of teens and said something, he would perk up his ears and come running. But I didn’t need to. She understood me and could fill in other illustrative details because she knows Oscar.

IMG_2835

“Oscar knows my voice,” I said. “That’s the kind of thing Jesus the Good Shepherd wants from His sheep.” The young woman understood that, too.

I think Oscar’s relationship with me really is a picture of what Jesus wants of us humans. I think that kind of relationship between humans and animals is what Lewis thought was so important, precisely because it was meant to be a kind of mirror of our relationship with God. Like a reflection, a restored relationship with God engenders an improved relationship with His creation. Conversely, I think Lewis might have surmised that a genuinely restored relationship with creation had the potential to re-open a relationship with God, too.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Armstrong, Chris R. “Getting Earthy—Creation’s Glory and Sacredness.” Unpublished chapter, 2014.

Armstrong, Chris R. “Getting Passionate—Heart Religion.” Unpublished chapter, 2014.

Barkman, Adam. C.S. Lewis & Philosophy as a Way of Life. Allentown: Zossima Press, 2009.

Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia, sig. ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.

Lewis, C.S. The Cosmic Trilogy. comp. ed. London: The Bodley Head Ltd and Pan Books Ltd, 1989.

Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image, Canto ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Lewis, C.S. Miracles, HarperCollins ed., New York: HarperCollins, 2001.

MacDonald, George. The Complete Works of George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess And Curdie, Lilith, Phantastes, Parables, Far Above Rubies and More (73 Books With Active Table of Contents). Kindle Edition, undated.

 

 

[1] Chris R. Armstrong, “Getting Earthy—Creation’s Glory and Sacredness” (unpublished chapter, 2014), 2.

[2] Adam Barkman, C.S. Lewis & Philosophy as a Way of Life (Allentown: Zossima Press, 2009), 513.

[3] Armstrong, “Getting Earthy,” 4.

[4] Chris R. Armstrong, “Getting Passionate—Heart Religion” (working manuscript, Bethel Seminary, Bethel University, St. Paul, MN, 2014), 10.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy compiled ed. (London: The Bodley Head Ltd. and Pan Books Ltd, 1989), 200-201.

[6] Ibid., 59ff

[7] Ibid, 50.

[8] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, HarperCollins ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 173.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, Canto ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 11.

[10] Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy, 198.

[11] George MacDonald, The Complete Works of George MacDonald: The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess And Curdie, Lilith, Phantastes, Parables, Far Above Rubies and More (73 Books With Active Table of Contents), Kindle Edition, undated. loc. 239822-239827.

[12] Ibid., loc. 239958.

[13] C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia, sig. ed. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 462-476.

[14] Ibid., 466.

[15] Ibid., 308.

[16] Ibid., 727.

[17] Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy, 715.

[18] Lewis, The Cosmic Trilogy, 672.

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