Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
The first time I read The Last Battle, I was gutted to discover that C. S. Lewis destroyed my beloved Narnia. As a young reader, I struggled to understand why any author would do that to his own creation. I might have forgiven him for the deaths of the main characters, were it not for the loss of Narnia—Narnia, itself. Places are supposed to be permanent, the earth immovable in its course around the sun, and its domains like bastions, mooring us on the shifting waters of life. But Lewis destroyed Narnia. Fantasy location or not, it was as real to me as the house next door—more real, in some ways—and I grappled for the first time with the realization that our world, too, is an impermanent one.
Death, destruction, and decay are painful endings—impermanence imposed on a world that was once “very good.” Yet God’s creation, even after the Fall, is full of cycles: the life cycle, the water cycle, the cycles of the heavenly bodies that bring light and life, the push and pull of gravity, the very forces that allow us to live in the natural world. We are surrounded with the clarion calls of rebirth, bursting forth as the very rocks cry out for renewal, reminding us that we are designed for permanence by a loving God, that impermanence is temporary, and that out of death comes life.
Common grace allows any storyteller the ability to function as prophet. In the “already and not yet” of our present age, it is more than creation that cries out to remind people of the permanence of God and the ultimate renewal yet to come. Stories and storytellers hold a unique role, and common grace allows any storyteller the ability to function as prophet. J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis would point to the “Dying God Myth” as an example of how the pagans wrote about the coming of Christ without ever knowing him. But I think stories hold much more value than even these allusions to archetypes and symbols afford them.
Stories offer us permanence in a world made impermanent by the introduction of sin and death and decay. Stories can serve a double function here: both in reminding us that the permanence of their worlds exists, and in allowing us to go back, again and again, to beginnings—an act of renewal that, although it takes place in secondary belief, can give us hope in this life, as well. The best stories, I believe, do both.
In The Last Battle, Lewis destroys Narnia to lead us into a better Narnia—a “more-real” Narnia, a final renewal that is as shamelessly Platonic as it is applicably Christian. Beyond all the heartache and destruction and the loss of everything they’ve ever known, the Narnia the characters find is a world truly without end, and when they come at last to that realization, it is the Unicorn who says, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it looked a little like this . . . Come further up, come further in!” And from there, the characters proceed to explore “new Narnia,” without tiring, always under the cry, “Further up and further in!” They find not only the land renewed, but all their previously deceased friends living in eternity.
Stories offer us a glimmer of that hope—that heart-catching infinitude of constant renewal, a world without end.
Astute readers of Lewis will note the correlation between the Unicorn’s speech in The Last Battle and Psyche’s speech to her sister Orual in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: “The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from—my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” For Lewis—who drew heavily from mythology and relied on Platonic philosophy to inform his theology—the permanence of place his stories offer to his readers both precedes and succeeds his characters. It is more than a place they go to when they die; it is a “returning home” after a race run well. It is a renewal of all of creation to a Genesis 1 state, when God created the heavens and the earth and everything in them and man and woman in his own image, and it was good.
Most stories are not as explicit as Lewis in The Last Battle or in Till We Have Faces, or Tolkien with the Grey Havens in The Lord of the Rings, but all stories capture a world in time. In this, we see the secondary function of how a good story woven with truth and beauty can offer us undimmed hope. Stuck as we are in finitude, we can’t fully grasp infinity. Yet stories offer us a glimmer of that hope—that heart-catching infinitude of constant renewal, a world without end just like “real Narnia”; the hope of all things made new, where we can open the pages and step in to greet friends who never age, lands that never wither, and skies that never grow dim. What authors capture in the pages of a good book is far more than mere words—it is a glimpse at eternity.
No matter what painful endings we suffer in this life, we can always go back to the beginning of a good story. The Hogwarts Express will never fail to show up at Platform 9 ¾, nor will Gandalf neglect to arrive at Bag End for Bilbo’s 111th birthday. In Narnia, Mr. Tumnus will always be waiting under that lamppost with a parcel and an umbrella, and Christopher Robin never grows old in the Hundred Acre Woods. Revisiting stories is like a cycle of rebirth, an already-and-not-yet reminder that we ourselves are made for eternity, even as the world around us fades away. They remind us that we are made for permanence, yet we suffer the Fall. While we endure painful endings, we can always go back to, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.”
A. A. Milne captures the secondary magic of story to give us a glimpse of eternity in his closing paragraphs of The House at Pooh Corner:
“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.”
Pooh thought for a little bit. “How old shall I be then?”
Pooh nodded. “I promise,” he said.
Still with his eyes on the world Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt for Pooh’s paw.
So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.
Between the pages of Milne’s beloved works, Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh will always be adventuring together, beckoning us back to our childhood. In real life, we have only imperfect memory, which fades and dims with time. But we can relive stories over and over. The splendor of a book is the preservation of entire worlds within pages—worlds that wait for us to return. Not only is the written story itself specially permanent, but good stories gift us with permanence of place in a shifting, impermanent world. They ground us in the permanence of worlds that are not strictly real, but as Dumbledore once told the Boy Who Lived, “It is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
When Jesus declared “It is finished” from the cross, he testified to the coming end to all painful endings. And when he will sit on his throne at the last day, it will be a declaration of permanence. No longer will we need the reminders of constant renewal and the cycles of rebirth because the world will be, in him, reborn. We look forward to a better “Further up and further in”—one that is more than mere story, but a reality. But until that time, our storytellers can act as prophets, their stories as lampposts on a dim road.