C S Lewis Centenary Group

NARNIAN ULSTER by Mary Rogers

[Mary Rogers: a biographical note by James O’Fee. Mary Rogers was born in India and grew up in Belfast. Mary attended Oxford University, where she heard C. S. Lewis lecture. At Oxford, Mary met her husband, Rev Val Rogers - today 1 Jan 1998, the Rogers celebrate their 58th wedding anniversary. Mary later taught at Portora Royal School, Co Fermanagh, where her husband was Headmaster for many years. Mary has lectured on C. S. Lewis in England and the United States, and she has written three books on the Ulster countryside. The Rogers live in Oxford.]

Back in the 1959s, my small daughter’s first prize in the Girl’s Collegiate School, Enniskillen, was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I looked at the book in some surprise. To me, the author, C. S. Lewis, was the distinguised and unique lecturer of my student days, his Prolegomena to Medieval Studies being the unforgettable series that opened our eyes and ears to the medieval world. I remembered with gratitude his war-time writings, such as the Problem of Pain and the Screwtape Letters, along with his Broadcast Talks; but the war was now over! What was he doing and why was he writing a children’s fairy tale? An old friend od his (and mine), Janie McNeill, was equally perturbed. "He’s done enough! He should be writing more books like the Allegory of Love. He’s ruining his academic career," she moaned. I agreed. (I had just given a paper on Lewis’s literary criticism (which included his Preface to Paradise Lost and The Abolition of Man, as well as the Allegory of Love) to the only Belfast audience there was then for Lewis’s works, the Drawing-Room Circle, founded by my mother in 1926.) So together Janie and I sighed and wondered why.

But I’m glad to say that I now know the answer, since, in the early 1990s, I was asked to talk on Lewis to the English Benedictines at Elmore Abbey, Newbury. Father Basil, the Abbot, anazed me by telling me afterwards that when novices came to join the Order, the first books they were set to read were the Narnian Chronicles! So I have recently re-read them all in the correct order to see why.

To begin with, I have found myself back in Ulster where I spent my childhood, and Lewis spent his. Ulster for Lewis, of course, had the pre-Partition geography. His childhood and youth knew nine counties., including Donegal, beloved still of all children for seaside holidays at Inver, Rathmullan and Portnoo. In addition, south of Carlingford, there is Co. Louth, once Cuchullain’s country, which stretched down south as far as modern Dundalk. This includes Annagassin, which later became familiar to Jack and Warnie through the Henrys. The Lewis brothers had a happy childhood, as long as their mother was alive. (She died of cancer in 1908, before Jack was 10, and Warnie three years older.) Surprised by Joy tells of those days, blest by good parents, good food, a large garden to play in, a good nurse, Lizzie Endicott from Co. Down, and kindly servants. We learn of his early paintings, drawings and stories, sometimes written down for him by his father. He writes of his first experiences of Joy, an unsatisfied desire which is more desirable than any other satisfaction. Their mother’s death separated them from their father in his frantic grief. All settled happiness came to an end. No wonder Jack Lewis went back to those former sunlit days in his imagination when he wrote the Narnia books. Their Ewart cousins later took them on drives and picnics: perhaps to the places that were to become the essence of Narnia: we don’t know when he first saw the Carlingford/Rostrevor area.

The Christian values of home were not to survive his first boarding school, and he became an atheist. So was W. T. Kirkpatrick, his later splendid private tutor, a man of brilliant intellect, and sound values of moral law. Jack’s love of mythology (Greek, Irish and Norse) prevented his becoming a materialist. He was a lover of fairy tales all his life, and knew well.the great sagas and fairy tales of Ireland. Walter Hooper remembers that ‘if you want to plunge into ...the very quiddity of some Narnian countyside, you must go to what Lewis considered the lovliest spot he had ever seen’ - the Carlingford lough area, with its sea, woods and mountains. Jack would have known from The Cattleraid of Cooley of these parts: Cooley point is on the eastern edge of the Carlingford peninsula. Jack and Warnie came to know the area well when they stayed with the Henrys at Golden Arrow cottage, Annagassin. Vera Henry, Mrs. Moore’s goddaughter, had acted as maid at the Kilns for some time, and they were all very fond of her; she died suddenly in 1953, to their grief. When I went to see her brother, Major Frank Henry in the Abbeyfield Home near Rostrevor in 1994, he told me with such pleasure of the trips in his car, and Jack’s typical Ulster punctiliousness in paying for all the petrol and expenses involved. Ulster people are practical: "Never forget to wipe your sword" all Narnian heros are told.

I can think of many places in Narnia which may have an Ulster background: the shape of Aslan’s How in Prince Caspian, for instance: like the round crown of a hilltop that marks a passage grave. the incised patterns on the stones have the same reference: see Knockmany, near Clougher, in Co. Tyrone. The stone structure inside the How suggests a dolmen (or portal tombs, as they’re now called); most people have seen these - perhaps at Legananny in Co. Down, or in the Giant’s Ring, south of Belfast. The caves in The Silver Chair may owe something to Belfast’s Cave Hill. The ruined city the children had to find, and the steep climbs up stone steps, suddenly brought me back to the Giant’s Causeway. When the children, under the land’s surface, see chasms which lead down to even darker and worse places, a thought of St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Co. Donegal flashed through my mind - and possibly had been in the back of Lewis’s. He knew Donegal well.

Turning from the scenery to the stories themselves, we find his essay on the subject in Of This and Other Worlds interesting. He writes, " I put in what I would have liked to read when I was a child, and what I still like reading now that I am in my fifties." In other words, he is not writing down to children but from what is in himself. He chose the children’s story as the best art form for something he had to say. Lewis points out that in most places and times, fairy tales have not been exclusively for children. The appeal of the fairy tale for an author is that he may there most fully exercise his function as a ‘sub-creator’, in Tolkien’s terminology. (Jung thought fairy tales liberated archetypes.) Lewis writes that he is not sure why at a particular time he had to write fairy tales. The Narnian chronicles were probably written as relaxation in the evenings at home in the Kilns, after spending the long days and years of reading in the Bodleian library the mostly dull verse and prose of the 16th century for what he called OHEL, the Oxford History of English Literature. There were bright spots; he loved Spenser, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets and narrative poems, but he needed, as relief, to exercise what he called ‘the imaginative man’ in him as a reaction from the generally ‘dry-as-dust’ day’s reading and writing. So I think that was part of the why; he also tells us how he saw that ‘stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of his own religion in childhood.’ The ‘how’ was more easily answered. In Lewis’s case, he saw pictures: a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. His work came in fitting them together, or rather, letting Aslan the Lion pull the whole story together, ‘and soon He pulled the six other stories after Him.’

Somehow, this is very Ulster-like: the sheer practicality of describing pictures that had been given to him, and then piecing them together to make a whole. The same message occurs through the books: Keep your sword clean; don’t let your tears wet your bow-string: it’s no good thinking what would have happened if you had done something else: things never happen the same way twice: be sure of your food, before you start on a long journey!

These Narnian stories are not altogether allegories but supposings: suppose Christ reappearted among us as an animal, which one would He be? Of course, He would be the King of beasts, death resurrection and redemption outlined in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But natural law, basic values and stock responses apply to all as what is to be expected as decent behaviour - or not: stealing is wrong, robins are good, dwarfs are dicey. Curiosity is usually negative: ‘mind your own business’ is frequently implied. Aslan tells no one any story but his own. The King is under the law, because it’s the law that makes him King. This Aslan Himself recognises: "Do you think I wouldn’t obey my own rules?" But yet Aslan is not a tame lion. Ulster people recognise this, and are uncomfortable about people who keep God in their pocket, and expect instant rewards for their good behaviour. They know that holding on, sticking it, in a desperate situation is more likely to be expected of them. So, in The Silver Chair, the marsh-wiggle, Puddleglum, says before the risky adventure, "I’m on Aslan’s side, even if there isn’t an Aslan to lead it", "I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia." So thousands of Ulstermen went to their deaths at the Battle of the Somme.

Yet Lewis gives his characters a taste for glory, and isn’t mealy-mouthed about it. On appropriate occasions, trumpets, drums and banners announce and express Royalty in gorgeous sounds and colours.

He uses memorable phrases that evoke Ulster echoes: as in the Dawn Treader where ‘everyman drew his sword and set his face to a joyful sternness.’ I at once see Orangemen on parade on the 12th of July, their banners held aloft, their bowlers straight, their white gloves gleaming - and with just that look ontheir faces. This solemn joy has something to do with the Ulsterman’s love of ritual. The Ulsterman I knew best was, of course, my father. Regularly, every summer, he would take us on Saturdays by train to Bangor or Newcastle. We always had the same lunch at the same restaurant, too, the same walk along the beach to Ballyholme, Bangor, or the golf links in Newcastle. No-one thought of asking, ‘Can’t we go somewhere else?’ ‘May we try another cafe?’ ‘may I have strawberries instead of ice-cream? The Ulsterman likes to know what he is going to do next. I seem to remember his saying, "There’s a right way and a wrong way of doing most things." Strawberries weren’t wrong: but they weren’t what we usually had.

And so we come to accountability. I remember being shocked at the Lion’s scratching deeply the shoulders of Aravis in The Horse and His Boy. Aravis learns later that the slave who had been blamed for her escape had been whipped, and Aravis’s wounds matched hers exactly, number for number, and blood for blood. I doubt if the E.U. would approve of such corporal punishment! But it was certainly just. Ulster people understand this. So, in The Last Battle, when all have to face Aslan and accordingly go with Him, or away from Him, there will be some surprises, and mercy will be shown. So Emeth is told that the services he has done to Tash, Aslan will accept as performed towards Himself. So much for sectarianism! To each Aslan tells his own story. Who but Lewis would have used children’s stories to confront us, each one, with his own destiny? How right Abbot Basil was!

It is only a step from ritual to magic. Here, the most important factor is who uses it, and for what. Jadis, the White Witch, uses it to increase her own cruel power at the expense of the weak. In The Magician’s Nephew, Uncle Andrew uses magic to feed his vanity. Aslan’s use of sometimes tender, sometimes stern, power comes directly from the Deep Magic of His Father. The Pevensies’ magic gifts from Father Christmas are of this kind, and only to be used in extremis. Lucy’s bottle of healing fluid is most in demand. My husband is one of those who think there are too many fights and battles in the Narnia books. Lewis’s response was that it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Courage is what he is particularly concerned with, both kinds, - ‘the kind that faces danger as well as the kind that ‘sticks it’ under pain’...’You cannot practise any of the other virtues long without bringing this one into play’ he wrote in Mere Christianity. In peace and in war, the Ulster man(or woman) has usually been prepared to put his life where his loyalty and convictions are. Magic doesn’t get him out of this confrontation. He can be humbly awed if things suddenly come right for him; or shocked when retribution strikes those who thought themselves beyond judgement, but I don’t think he would call this ‘magic’.

As a girl, I went to Victoria College (then in Shaftesbury Square) by tram from Malone Park along the Lisburn Road. On the glass of the partition that divided passengers from the driver were inscribed Belfast City’s arms and motto; Pro tanto quid retribuamus. So I can explain what Jack meant when he wrote to Arthur Greeves in expressing his gratitude for the offer of MacDonald’s books:"’Pro tanto quid’, as the tramcars say; what can I give you in return?" This sense of obligation in the city’s motto is more than loyalty; it is commitment, the chief Ulster characteristic.

In The Last Battle the very title tells us that all the gallant courage of Prince Tirian and his loyal Few will not be successful. It will be aquestion of ‘sticking it’. The story goes from treachery, through obligation on to accountability and judgement. But threre is much glory in this wonderfully written apocalypse. Tiria, looking into the stable through the hole in the door, says, ‘The stable seen from within and the stable seen from without are two different places." Digory answers, ‘Its inside is bigger than its outside.’ It is the perceptive Lucy who voices the hope that is in us, ‘In our world, too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.’ As Prince Rilian said (in The Silver Chair), ‘Aslan will be our good Lord, whether He means us to live or die.’ Meaningful words for young Ulster people today, as always.

It may be the fault of some Ulster people that they feel too much responsibility, too much in control of their own characters and destiny, and that, with their endurance, their practical exoerience, and with their strong sense of obligation and commitment, they deserve success, here and hereafter. This may be true, but in The Silver Chair, Aslan tells Jill and Eustace that they are not in Narnia because they made the decision and called to Aslan to rescue them from the school bullies. aslan’s answer is, ‘You would not have called to me unless I had been calling to you....This is the reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there’ (that is, on earth.) The initiative came from Aslan.

Lewis understood this in his own case, and it answers my question as to why he was prepared to endanger his academic career by his apologetic writings. He knew that the initiative had been God’s in calling him back to Christianity, using, of course, his Inkling friends and his understanding of mythology, his search for Joy and truth. Por tanto quid. In return for so much, he felt he must give back to God his best efforts towards the redemption of others.

MARY ROGERS


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