Category Archives: cs lewis

For those who have been wrecked that they weren’t called to Hogwarts or let into Narnia. Or, for existential nerds.

(Note: This post quotes heavily from the book.  It was the only way I could process through it. And it’s rather long. I have some opinions about the narrative being so inner-thought heavy that the reader doesn’t have to infer, but those are neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.)
Fillory had yet to give Quentin the surcease from unhappiness he was counting on, and he was damned if he was leaving before he got what he wanted.  Relief was out there, he knew it, he just needed to get deeper in…He had to jump the tracks, get out of his Earth-story, which wasn’t going so well, and into the Fillory-story, where the upside was infinitely higher (304).
The Magicians by Lev Grossman is a coming of age story that begins when Quentin Coldwater, brilliant and bored, is a senior in high school in Brooklyn.  He has never left behind his Fillory books–a series Grossman made up, very similar to Narnia, and deeply believes without irony that if only he could find his way into a land like Fillory that life would make sense.  “He’d spent too long being disappointed by the world–he’d spent so many years pining for something like this, some proof that the real world wasn’t the only world, and coping with the evidence that it in fact was, ” (37).  His existence is defined by his longing for Fillory and all that it represents: wholeness, beauty, peace, fulfillment, adventure.  One day, though, Quentin unexpectedly finds himself walking through a garden and onto the campus of Brakebills, a college in the Hudson River Valley for magical training, and not visible to the non magical eye.  
When Quentin arrives at this school that does indeed exist on Earth and not in Fillory, a professor tells him: “Most people are blind to magic.  They move through a blank and empty world.  They’re bored with their lives, and there’s nothing they can do about it.  They’re eaten alive by longing, and they’re dead before they’re alive (88).  For Quentin, this makes sense, because they haven’t been able to step through to the magic.  The twist of expectation here, though, is that Quentin’s experiences with the magical realm are disappointing, and he finds himself struggling with the same kinds of things: “This was the kind of disaster Quentin thought he’d left behind the day he walked into that garden in Brooklyn.  Things like this didn’t happen in Fillory: there was conflict, and even violence, but it was always heroic and ennobling, and anybody really good and important who bought it along way came back to life at the end of the book.  Now there was a rip in the corner of his perfect world, and fear and sadness were pouring in like freezing filthy water through a busted dam,” (148).
As it would turn out, one of his magical friends finds that not only does Fillory actually exist (even among the magicians, they see Fillory as a children’s story), but he’s found a way to get in.  Quentin remained convinced that life would finally become ok: “He was in Fillory. There was no question about it now.  And now that he was here it would finally be all right,” (288). And I suppose that this is how it goes for most adventures: the initial thrill and newness of a move, a new job, a new relationship can make one think that life will be different.  And, of course in the book there is a feeling of true adventure for a while, but ultimately Quentin has to face the same existentialism that has plagued him all along: “Why now, when it was actually happening, did the seductions of Fillory feel so crude and unwanted? He thought he left this feeling behind long ago in Brooklyn, or at least at Brakebills.  How far did he have to run? If Fillory failed him he would have nothing left! A wave of frustration and panic surged through him,” (311).  
The Magicians could be described as a grown up’s Narnia or Harry Potter–it turned the magical into the ordinary and made the concept of fighting evil much more postmodern, and in turn, depressing.  The characters at the end just settle for a different brand of discontent.  There is not one clear foe or one clean answer in which to rest and find peace.  
I don’t want to be so jaded or realistic that there isn’t room for magic–or at least hope.  Reading Quentin’s story, I was surprised how much I related to parts of his mental journey.  At this point in the story, one would think that something would happen to re-instill Quentin’s hope in magic, but it takes a turn for pretty stark realism: He should have stayed in Brooklyn, in the real world.  He should have nursed his depression and his grudge against the world from the relative safety of mundane reality…Sure you can live out your dreams, but it’ll only turn you into a monster.  Better to stay home and do card tricks in your bedroom instead…The trick was just not wanting anything. That was power.  That was courage: the courage not to live anyone or hope for anything. The funny thing was how easy everything got, when nothing mattered (382-383). 
One of the professors at Brakebills seemed to be describe coming of age: “Magical thinking: that’s what Freud called it.  Once we learn otherwise we cease to be children.  The separation of word and thing is the essential fact on which our adult lives are founded,” (216).
And yet, C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia series, pressed into the longing: “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…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.” Readers and thinkers have to wonder if there is a space in the world for magic–and could the longing point to something real? Lewis, in his non-fiction writings on his Christian faith, explained that the longing was for Heaven and that life once again became magical for him when he realized that the longing was not in vain, but that it as was made him alive.  Grossman’s book seems to be a critique of the Narnia-like longings.  I can’t decide if Grossman himself would find Quentin a pathetic character in the hopes he had for magical lands. The bleakness of who Quentin becomes at the near-end of the story suggests that intellectual, passionless realism is the best way to cope with the disappointments of the world.  
And yet. There are some universal truths woven into the story: love, sacrifice, human fallenness and the pain of longing.  
So.

C.S. Lewis reminds me again

“If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing iself, but ony the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things–the beauty, the memory of our own past–are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not yet heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. ” from The Weight of Glory

On Faith and "East of Eden"

Liza Hamilton: immigrated with her husband to the Salinas Valley of California from Ireland, bore a huge family, the epitome of the “no nonsense” woman. She pursues her life with militant regularity: cooking, cleaning, reading her Bible.

Samuel Hamilton: a thinker. Cheerful. An animated storyteller with a listening ear. Samuel laughs loudly and feels the life in his bones deeply. The only regularity in Samuel is that neither his land or his brilliant, patented ideas are fruitful.

When one of their daughters dies, each one reacts in a completely different way. To Liza, death is a part of life. She feels no true attachment to anything on earth. Though naturally sad, she continues her life the way she always had: people still must eat, and they still make messes. Samuel is completely wrecked. He has no idea how to handle or comprehend the loss. From this time on, he is a little less himself. Though an old man, he starts to “seem” old. He laughs only for others’ sake.

At my book club, we were discussing our initial hatred of Eliza and how cold her laughless, practical life seemed to us. But at the end of the conversation, it turned to admiration and a declaration of her amazing strength, in light of her daughter’s death. My friend asked, “well, isn’t that what great faith is? Not having any attachment to this world?” We all slowly nodded our heads. Walking down the street afterward, though, I couldn’t get Eliza as the model for great faith out of my head. All I want is faith that runs deep, but I want nothing to do with her passionless life!

In “Mere Christianity” C.S. Lewis wrote: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” This concept changed my life. The deep longings that I feel to be—quite literally—a part of the beauty I find in front of me or to draw the depth out of some piece of music or to live inside a great story I’ve read show me that I am longing for things unattainable in this world. I learned I am not longing for the travel or the sunset or trees—not the thing itself, but for eternity: all its beauty and fullness and depth that are completely satisfying. This alone completely reordered my life. So, yes, Liza. Heaven is home.

Why, then, am I so drawn to Samuel? I think it’s because he exemplifies what Jesus meant when he said “Thy Kingdom come.” Samuel brings Life (with a capital “L,” my dear Springboro ladies) into his corner of the world. Samuel draws out the laughter. He draws people into the story. People walk away different. Samuel listens. He calls people out to be better versions of themselves. Yes, hope in eternity. But listen. It on the wind here.

I want faith that incorporates both of the Hamiltons.
I want to place my hope in heaven. I don’t want to be completely wrecked when the world breaks my heart.

But at the same time I believe that the story of redemption starts here.

I want to be a part of that.

I want to see more of the Kingdom in my corner of the world.

"We Demand Windows"

I am the kind of person who is never without a book, and my worst nightmare is getting stuck on a line or train without something to read. The teaching of reading is my profession. Living in a New York City apartment is not made any easier with the amount of books that occupy my small space. On the bookshelf next to my bed, I have 8 books “on deck,” just waiting for me to open their pages. And yet, I still find myself browsing through each bookstore I pass and having to pry myself away from titles calling my name.

But what I have found most recently is that in my voracious pursuit of the written word, I have forgotten to stop and really think about the literature that I have in front of me. I become lost and consumed by many imaginary lands and people, but I want to take them out of that moment of just reading. I want them to affect my thinking and the way I go about the world. Not that there isn’t value in those moments of reading; in fact, I think that is often the most beautiful part about reading. But at the same time, I believe that it is possible to take them with me as I step out of line, off the train, drift off to sleep or walk to make tea.

“A Kind of Library” is my attempt to respond. It might be to fiction or essays, poetry or scripture, whatever written words happen to be haunting my space. There are a thousand or more ways of looking at literature…most are intensely personal. I cannot pretend that this will not be. We all have our own lenses with which we examine what is going on about us. I will do my best to be clear and honest about my own.

C.S. Lewis wrote in his essay “An Experiement in Criticism:” “What then is the good of–what is even the defense for–occupying our hearts with stories of what never happened and entering vicariously into feelings which we should try to avoid having in our own person? Or of fixing our inner eye earnestly on things that can never exist..? The nearest I have yet got to an answer is that we seek an enlargement of our being. We want to be more than ourselves. Each of us by nature sees the whole world from one point of view with a perspective and a selectiveness peculiar to himself…We want to see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with other hearts, as well as with our own…We demand windows.”

When I look through those windows, I really am able to feel the way another has felt and by doing so, understand humanity a little bit more. The more I realize this, the more I see how important it is to glimpse into other lives; to move away from the self and truly see. C.S. Lewis is my literary hero, and his idea that “we want to be more than ourselves,” that we have a longind deep inside of us for a deeper, truer version of this world has been foundational in developing my own thoughts not just as a reader, but as a person. This will most likely be the thread that I try to unravel most often.

This blog is mostly for self-accountability purposes–I want to actively think about what I am reading in light of how I am living and what I believe. Talking about books, though, is the next best thing to reading. If you ever do want to share your thoughts, I would love to hear them.

One closing thought–

“Why are we reading, if not in the hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?”
-Annie Dillard, The Writing Life