World-sized Dollhouses

Posted 4/23/2015

At several points in the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis seems to hint at a vision of Narnia which perhaps yields good fruit with regard to his love for fairy tales and “children’s stories.” Usually Narnia stands apart, utterly separate from our world, with very little commentary on the relationship between its world and our own. But on a few occasions, Lewis steps back from this strict distinction and addresses how they might interlock. Narnia is literally a fairy-tale world, but eventually subsumes the “real” world. In The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy notes, when the Pevensies are about to take coats from the Professor’s wardrobe, that “we won’t really even be taking them out of the wardrobe.” Their journey into Narnia is real, yet when they return, no time has passed, and they “return” to their proper ages (the issue of time is important here). In Prince Caspian, the Pevensies are called into the world, ancient kings and queens from another age of the world, who have the same mythos that Merlin would have if he returned to modern England. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Caspian, on learning that the Pevensies live on a round world, explodes in wonder, “Oh, I’d give anything–I wonder why you can get into our world and we never get into yours? If only I had the chance!” Combine this with Rilian’s statement in The Last Battle, on learning that Digory and Polly are still living in our world: “Lord Digory and Lady Polly, from the dawn of the world, and still in your place! Wonder and glory!” What can we learn from these isolated incidents? Within Narnia, our world (and the people there) are often thought of as demi-gods, or at least great heroes who only intrude into Narnia in order to save it from a great evil. This is a common literary trope, but it passes unnoticed because, in this case, the heroes are children. Great ages pass in Narnia while no time at all passes in our world, yielding our heroes a kind of immortality. The theme of apparently small spaces grown large is also a common theme, one which will, in fact, lead me to my principal subject and conjecture regarding Lewis’ theory of fairy tales. Not only is this mentioned in the earlier example of the wardrobe, but also in The Last Battle when the kings and queens observe that “once, in our world, a stable held something which was bigger than our whole world.” By means of a childlike imagination (but not a childish one), the small is made large and real. By means of a prosaic and “grown-up” imagination (like that of the dwarves who refuse “to be taken in”), the large is made small and trite. We can note from these examples that Narnia is, in many ways, described functionally a “small space” which is made large and real by childlike imagination, like a dollhouse whose characters enlarged and animated because of the imagination of the children who play with it. But if Lewis were content to leave it this way, it would be disturbingly abstract, almost Gnostic in its head-patting affirmation of “the value of imagination.” Instead Lewis sits back and snickers jovially at the modernists, because Narnia, in the world of the series, is actually a real place. It is so real, and so large, in fact, that it overtakes and subsumes “our” world, which is presented (as we have seen) throughout the series as inherently larger and more real than Narnia. Lewis turns the real world/fairy-tale world distinction, which he subtly built up through the series, on its head, when the kings and queens stand in Aslan’s garden, and look out over the world and see England, far away, like a peninsula jutting out from Aslan’s country. Lewis sets up Narnia as a dollhouse, a small space made larger by the imaginations of children, in the midst of “the real world” and then inverts the picture, showing “the real world” to be the dollhouse, and the fairy tale to be the reality. Like Chesterton in Orthodoxy, extolling the virtues of fairy tales and insisting that the real world is a fairy tale, Lewis shows the cynical, materialistic moderns to be like the dwarves who “will not be taken in.” The real, fairy-tale world is huge and beautiful. It is only made into a tiny, dark stable by the effort of the dwarves. (Perhaps it was an intentional irony that Lewis gave this cynical role to dwarves, who are physically small.) Lewis is making a remarkably Chestertonian point about the world: in reality, it is magical; it is made prosaic only by our lack of faith. We do not need imagination, but rather eyes. We don’t need to imagine the magic of the world, but rather to peel off our rationalist blindfolds and see what is already there. As Aslan said, for too long have we been so afraid of being taken in, that we cannot be taken out.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always like to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s on thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things–trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.” ~The Silver Chair, 158-59