Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

disputed sovereignty

For me, ‘tis the season of proofs. Recently I got proofs for my contribution to the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to C. S. Lewis, which is an essay on the Narnia books. Here’s an excerpt:

Lewis once suggested that literary critics are, and have always been, neglectful of ‘Story considered in itself’. They have been so focused on themes and images and ideological commitments that they have failed to notice the thing that decisively differentiates stories from articles or treatises. If we then try to consider the seven Narnia stories as a single story, what is that story about? I contend that the best answer is disputed sovereignty. More than any other single thing, the story of Narnia concerns an unacknowledged but true King and the efforts of his loyalists to reclaim or protect his throne from would-be usurpers.

This theme is announced early in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: when the four Pevensies first enter Narnia as a group, their first action is to visit the house of Mr Tumnus. There they discover the house ransacked and a notice of Tumnus’s arrest that concludes with the words ‘LONG LIVE THE QUEEN!’ – to which Lucy replies, ‘She isn’t a real queen at all.’ . . .

Among the first facts established about Narnia are these: it is a realm in which authority is contested, in which the present and visible Queen of This World ‘isn’t a real queen at all’ but rather a usurper, while the rightful King is frequently absent and invisible – but liable to return and assert his sovereignty. . . .

This theme is repeated in several forms in the later books, and is never wholly absent from them. [Here I give examples from each book in the series.] . . .

In short: there is a King of Kings and Lord of Lords whose Son is the rightful ruler of this world. Indeed, through that Son all things were made, and the world will end when he ‘comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead’, though ‘his kingdom will have no end’, in the words of the Nicene Creed. Meanwhile, in these in-between times, the rulership of Earth is claimed by an Adversary, the Prince of this world. And what is asked of all Lewis’s characters is simply, as the biblical Joshua put it, to ‘choose this day’ whom they will serve.

5 comments:

  • Michael Straight said...

    Some of us, perhaps because of the reading that we grew up with, find the notion of The True King stirring - Arthur, Richard, Aragorn - and it becomes a way of understanding and emotionally engaging with the Gospel.

    But I had a conversation with a friend in which I was trying to use this kind of language as a way of responding to some objection he had to Christianity, and I eventually realized that he found the concept of a True, Rightful King morally abhorrent. It was axiomatic to him that any such claim of authority could only be an attempt to unjustly exert control over other people. If he enjoyed Narnia or Middle Earth, it was in spite of that theme rather than because of it.

    It made me realize that there are people for whom the idea of Christ as The True King could only come as a result of embracing the Gospel for other reasons, and not (as it has for me) serve as a means for making my heart disposed to accept the Gospel.

  • That's right, Michael: sovereignty itself is an offensive concept in a democratic culture, no matter who is disputing it.

  • but rather "an" usurper....

  • No, I think "a usurper" is correct (as does Cambridge University Press) — "a" or "an" is determined by initial sound, not initial letter, and "usurper" begins with a consonantal sound. Similarly, we don't refer to "an university."

  • Mea culpa! Thanks for the correction.

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