Feast of the Holy Great Martyr Procopius
IN MY BOOK Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken the Child’s Moral Imagination, I comment that fairy tales are neither scientific hypotheses nor practical guides to living. They do something even better. They resonate with the deepest qualities of our humanity. Fairy tales hold the capacity to draw us into the mystery of morality and virtue. Ultimately, they enable us to envision a world in which there are norms and limits, and freedom respects the moral law or pays an especially high price. Fairy tales show us that there is a difference between what is logically possible and what is morally felicitous, between what is rationally doable and what is morally permissible. They reveal to us the virtues that make life worth living and hold out by their performance the promise of a world, beyond even this world, in which all of them are fulfilled.
Whether we are speaking of Lewis or Tolkien, this wisdom about fairy tales applies. But I know Lewis much better than Tolkien. So permit me to say a few things more about how Lewis understood the moral power of fairy tales and how they bring the virtues to life in characters that populate them.
In his Narnia Chronicles, Lewis explores the substance and nature of virtues and, more important, how the virtues empower us to live into the kingdom of God. If there is an overarching theme to the Narnia books, this is it.
I take, as an example, Lucy Pevensie, especially as we come to know her in Prince Caspian and The Last Battle. The etymological source of her name is the Latin lucer, meaning to shine. And, of course, Lucy shares her name with St. Lucy who, with faith and courage, resists the advances of a pagan nobleman who is enraptured with her eyes and pursues her relentlessly. Lucy tears out her eyes in order to escape his desire, exclaiming, “Now let me live to God alone.” Her eyes are miraculously restored, but her greater glory is her subsequent martyrdom, as she refuses to renounce Christ and his heavenly kingdom.
Lucy Pevensie is true to the saint. Her special vision and faith, fortified by her strong memory of Aslan, give her courage and enable her to save her brothers and sisters from capture as they rush through Narnia to assist Prince Caspian who is under siege. Caspian’s victory against his unbelieving and treacherous uncle, Miraz, restores justice, peace, and glory to Narnia under Aslan’s reign.
Lawlessness is banished. Right order is restored. Yet even Narnia must come to an end. The story of that end is told in The Last Battle. Once again Lucy plays a special role. Her faith and courage never fail, even in the face of defeat and the evident destruction of Narnia. But all is not lost, and Lucy is the first to recognize that the vistas of another world on the other side of the stable door are of a new and even more glorious Narnia.
We are reminded of and taken back to Lucy’s first sightings of Aslan in Prince Caspian, when the others are disbelieving and blind to his presence. Now, when others cannot make sense of what has happened and where they might be, Lucy exclaims: “I see . . . world within world, Narnia within Narnia.” To my mind, this is a variation on the ancient liturgical formula, “Now and forever and the ages of ages. Amen.” With these words, this benediction, the eyes of all of the others who are with her, her brothers and the last heroic defenders of Narnia, are opened. All are able to see what Lucy sees. Lewis injects, “their eyes had become like hers.” Eyes of true faith fortified with courage are rewarded with not only the vision of God but life in his eternal kingdom.
Vigen Guroian is professor of religious studies in Orthodox Christianity at the University of Virginia. He was a keynote speaker at our fourth annual Eighth Day Symposium on “Constantine, Christendom & Cultural Renewal” and will be back with us for our sixth annual symposium on “Soil and Sacrament: The World as Gift.”