By now, the flak over The Golden Compass and the fuss over Philip Pullman’s disgust for the Narnia books have pretty much blown over. People expressed surprise and dismay. Some attended the film, and others stayed home and did something they liked better. As for Pullman, he made his position clear: “I hate the Narnia books, and I hate them with a deep and bitter passion.” And his comment was picked up and repeated dozens of times, even earning a spot as “Quote of the Week” from Concerned Women of America.
As a long-time fan of all that is Lewisian, I haven’t been particularly alarmed to discover that Pullman and I don’t like the same books. Apparently, we have very different tastes. We look for different things, and we like different things. And that seems perfectly appropriate, desirable even.
Furthermore, I figure that Hollywood has a right to make movies that interest them, and movie-goers have the responsibility to be informed, to read, think, pray, discern, and decide what will honor their deepest convictions and nourish their spiritual health, and what will not.
The past is history. But something is still nagging at me. The disputes have largely ended, but I still have a sharp little pebble in my intellectual shoe. There is something that puzzles me and prompts these musings. In the course of the discussion, Pullman observed that when he reads Lewis, he finds no trace of the Christian love that Lewis supposedly stands for. Pullman said, “The highest virtue – we have on the authority of the New Testament itself – is love, and yet you find not a trace of that in the books.”
Now that surprises me. No love in Lewis? I keep rolling that around in the back of my mind. And just lately, I’ve begun to wonder if Pullman finds “not a trace” of love in Lewis’s writing because he doesn’t know what Lewis thinks that love looks like.
Those who are looking for Lewis’s definition of love typically pick up The Four Loves, in which Lewis describes four different kinds or expressions or branches of love: affection, friendship, romance, and charity, based on the Greek words storge, philia, eros, and agape. But even though The Four Loves (1960) explores these four branches, his essential account of the trunk of that tree is found twenty years earlier, in The Problem of Pain (1940).
Here’s how Lewis explains it: “By Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others than the self happy; not happy in this way or in that, but just happy. What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. Not many people, I admit, would formulate a theology in precisely those terms: but a conception not very different lurks at the back of many minds”(31).
Lewis says that most of us carelessly and persistently equate love with kindness. He begs to differ: “There is kindness in Love; but Love and kindness are not coterminous, and when kindness (in the sense given above) is separated from the other elements of Love, it involves a certain fundamental indifference to its object, and even something like contempt of it” (32).
When kindness is out of control, out of balance, separated out from the other elements of Love, it hurts, not helps. The point comes into focus for me when I think of my six-year-old daughter, Sierra Grace. I can say without qualification that she certainly wants some sort of drowsy benevolence to be in charge of getting her up in the morning, packing her lunch, buying her birthday presents, planning her summer vacation. Can you imagine? Sleeping in until 10, hot fudge sundaes for breakfast, candy corn for lunch, and, hey, how about that shiny new Harley Davidson motorcycle for her seventh birthday?
My daughter probably wakes up every single morning and prays with all her might for such a drowsy benevolence, such unalloyed indulgence, such rampant extravagance, such unbridled kindness. What she finds instead, as Mr. Lewis reminds us, is that “Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness” (32).
Get up at 6:30. Drink your milk. Eat your vegetables. Put on your sweater. Don’t play in the street.
I want to show “mere kindness” to her. But the fact is, I won’t. I can’t. Because I love her too much.
When Sierra Grace goes looking for drowsy benevolence in her house, she won’t find it. When we go looking for drowsy benevolence in Lewis’s books, we won’t find it, either. Now Sierra Grace and C. S. Lewis have this in common: neither can quite shake the deep down desire that maybe today things will be different, that maybe today, just for once, the universe will be run along more congenial lines. But both will find, before too many minutes have passed, that that’s just not how things work. Or, as Lewis puts it, “I should like very much to live in a universe which was governed on such lines.” Unfortunately, however, “it is abundant clear that I don’t” (32).
And neither do we. Haven’t you noticed? Self-indulgence doesn’t pay. We don’t feel better when we live by appetite. We don’t find fulfillment in living day by day seeking for a good time. The more we pursue comfort, the less comfortable we feel, and the more our hearts are restless.
There is something in our day-to-day experience, no matter what our nationality or faith tradition, that continually points to the fact that in this universe, not the one we think we want but the one we actually inhabit, those who try to keep their lives will lose it, those who lose their lives will find it.
For Lewis, Love is not essentially — that is, in its essence — about what is happy or nice or comfortable but, instead, it is firmly grounded in what is good and true.
Some of us might hear Lucy Pevensie chime in: “What? What’s that you say? Not safe?”
“Safe?” answers Mr. Beaver. “Safe? Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe?”
No, no, not safe. But good.
Go looking for such a drowsy benevolence in Lewis, and you won’t find it. Go looking for love in its “deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense” and you’ll see it everywhere (33). In The Silver Chair, Jill is charged to remember the signs. In Prince Caspian, Lucy is expected to leave the others and follow the vision. In Dawn Treader, Eustace is painfully, gloriously undragoned.
It’s there in a small way, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Lucy emerges from the wardrobe convinced that she’s been to another world. Peter and Susan could just pat her on the head and patronize her and say something like, “That’s just fine, little one. What does it matter so long as you are contented? Believe whatever you like, as long as you are sincere. Run along now and play dolls or something. Here’s a cookie.” Peter and Susan really love her, and so they confront her in truth with such strength and understanding as they have.
It’s there is a big way, in The Horse and His Boy, when Shasta learns that the Lion who drove away the jackals and gave new strength to the horses was the very same Lion whose gentle breath guided his small boat so that it bore him to the very shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight to receive him.
The fierce and tender goodness of that kind of love is really not so hard to understand. Genuine love is most evident when we seek the highest good of the beloved. Not the comfortable, easy, pleasant, satisfying, or agreeable. But the good. So I make my daughter eat her broccoli. Andrea encourages me to stop stalling and make my way to the gym. Mike turns off the television and says let’s take a walk. My editor reminds me to quit fiddling around and turn in that article. I take each of these small acts as a sign of genuine compassion. Of love. And when the dentist withdraws the infected tooth or the surgeon removes a cancerous tumor or my pastor calls me to a higher standard of personal holiness, it is the same.
It’s everywhere in our world. It’s everywhere in Lewis, in his children’s stories, science fiction, poetry, autobiography, literary criticism, apologetics, philosophical writings, sermons, lectures. I love to read Lewis because his concerns run the gamut of all the great themes: faith, friendship, peace, faithfulness, love, sacrifice, beauty, hope, joy. But it does seem to me, here, as elsewhere, that the greatest of these is love.
Diana Pavlac Glyer teaches English at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California. Her book about the Inklings, The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, has been nominated for the Hugo Award. (All quotations above are taken from the HarperOne edition of C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain.)