C. S. Lewis and Modern Fairy-Tales for Grown Ups
The subtitle of C.S.Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is “A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown Ups.” His dystopic novel was not his only attempt at subverting the fairy tale genre. Indeed, his intent in Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planet was also to write fairy tales with a modern twist.
In his essay, On Science Fiction, he analyzed the genre of “scientifiction” as it was then called. Describing various sub-genres enables him to get down to the real point of his analysis. He first discards the type of story which takes place in an imaginary future, but is really an ordinary love story or adventure story. In such stories, the author chooses a future setting as a kind of gimmick to either woo the reader by novelty or develop a political or social idea he wishes to criticize by taking it to its logical conclusion. Lewis discards these stories as preachy and shallow.
A second sub-genre are the stories that focus on the scientific technology. Lewis thinks them legitimate but uninteresting. A third category are novels that dwell imaginatively on an alternative world. The hero is an ordinary person who goes to an extraordinary place by some sort of technology which takes the place of magic in the “modern fairy tale.” The fourth sub-genre he calls “eschatalogical”. This sort of story also takes place in the future, but the point of going to the future is not to make a political point, but as a kind of memento mori— a reminder of the grand sweep of history and the ultimate end of man. This, of course, grabs Lewis’ interest much more than the preceding categories.
The next category of “modern fairy tale” is the one that interests Lewis the most. Fairy tales invariably involve an imaginative visit to another world, and Lewis sees that transposition as vital for the imaginative chemistry to percolate. As ordinary travel does, so also space travel in science fiction provides the method to transport the hero to another country. This journey is not just for effect or entertainment, but as a medium of a new awareness—a new perspective on reality – as Lewis observes:
What makes that world valuable is not, of course, mere multiplication of the marvelous either for comic effect … or for mere astonishment (as, I think, in the worst of the Arabian Nights or in some children's stories), but its quality, its flavor. If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort… are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.
Now the master is getting down to business! The fairy story takes us to another world so we can access realms of reality we had never contemplated before. Since this is so, the fairy tale, fantasy stories and science fiction have the capability of inducing a heightened religious awareness. The invisible realm impinges on the visible and the paranormal presses in on the normal.
It is as if literature and liturgy are working on the same team, for liturgy (at least in its traditional form) also takes us into another world where we encounter alternative modes of being. This is why the pedestrian modernist liturgies with their relevant homilies, up to date “meaningful” music and “fellowship meal” ideologies celebrated in utilitarian auditoria are so dull. They are to true worship what the kitchen sink novels are to fantasy literature.
To step into a beautiful church is to step out of our mundane world to the threshold of another country. Beautiful architecture that symbolically points to heaven, transports the heart and mind. A ceremonial ritual, beautiful vestments and sacred music that sounds alien to the modern materialistic culture, the “strangeness” of Latin or Jacobean English all combine to transport the worshipper to that place where an encounter with the divine can occur.
Lewis understood the inhibitions placed on the human religious experience by stultifying religion. In his day the dull aspects of religion were not so much the tiresome “relevance”, the need to entertain and the utilitarian attitude, but a kind of stained glass respectability—a dull legalism and stuffy religious observance that suffocated the numinous and strangled the strangeness of the encounter with God. How to get around it? Lewis believed it was through literature one could creep past those dozing, but watchful dragons.
He famously said about his Narnia stories, “I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”
He stole past those watchful dragons with his science fiction adventures too, for in those fairy tales for grown-ups he takes us to the other countries where we taste the terror and glimpse the glory of worlds unknown. We are tantalized by the incense from a distant land that we realize is not so alien after all but is our long lost home.
Follow Fr Longenecker’s blog, listen to his podcasts, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.