Wednesday, June 08, 2005

An Invitation to the Dance

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. 2 Chronicles 7:14

The land of Narnia has descended into spiritual darkness. Only a remnant of believers in Aslan remains and Narnia is no longer graced with Aslan’s physical presence. The High Kings and Queens have disappeared. Talking animals, good giants and dwarves, and “living” waters and talking trees still exist but are subsisting on fear or dwelling in hiding. A cruel and heathen race has conquered the land and established its dynasty upon the throne. Thousands of years have passed and Cair Paravel is in ruins. The Golden Age of Narnia is over. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Though neither the reader nor the Pevensie children themselves yet realize it, Prince Caspian opens with the most desperate measure mankind has available: an appeal to the Creator—the simple prayer for help. Scripture is rife with the examples of prayers lifted by God’s people in all circumstances, but prayers are never so poignant as when backs are against the wall and situations seem hopeless.

When Doctor Cornelius sends Caspian away from Miraz’s court, he presses a horn into the boy’s hands, explaining that its sound is purported to bring strange and powerful help—even perhaps the appearance of Aslan himself. This is the magic horn of Queen Susan, Aslan’s particular gift to her, left behind in Narnia when she vanished at the end of the Golden Age. Caspian is also warned to use the horn only at his “greatest need.” Later, deep in Aslan’s How, a secret, ancient, magical place, Caspian and his advisors realize that the defeats they have suffered against Miraz’s army have brought them to such a point of desperation and need. They can do no more on their own. They will sound the horn. The call for help will go out. However, Caspian’s war council determines that the call, or prayer, if you will, could be answered in any of three sacred places—Aslan’s How, Lantern Waste, or the castle at Cair Paravel—so the council dispatches trusted messengers to the other two places in order to be ready to receive whatever help arrives.

At this point in the story, through several of his characters, Lewis reveals some common attitudes about prayer—for which the blowing of the horn stands as a metaphor. Dr. Cornelius, for instance, details the mystery of prayer: a source of “strange help—no one can say how strange.” When we pray, there is no guarantee of an answer; nor is there a promise of an answer that we expect, or one that makes sense at the time. Sometimes a fear of the unknown wheels that prayer might set in motion can actually compel us to hesitate—or even to refuse to take action through prayer. Even disappointment at the manner in which previous prayers were answered (or perceived not to be answered at all!) can discourage further prayer completely.

But Dr. Cornelius leads Caspian to understand that the “gift” of the horn is not to be wasted because of doubt, fear, or indecision. This mirrors Lewis’ belief that prayer is above all a mystery that cannot be completely explained or controlled. In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis goes so far as to ask if “prayer, in its most perfect state, is not a soliloquy, God speaking to God.” He cites the text of Romans 8:26 which tells us that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” Lewis believed that the “Holy Spirit guides our decisions from within when we make [prayers] with the intention of pleasing God.” This seems to be the point Dr. Cornelius is also making to Caspian. Don’t worry about the how, why, and wherefore… just use the tool you’ve been given. Certainly we can understand that Aslan would not be “pleased” at the state of Narnia under the Telmarines.

Dr. Cornelius also reveals the power of prayer, the power to bring great help and “set all to rights.” Indeed, the Bible tells us in Ephesians 6 that we are to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” Aslan has left a powerful tool that can summon either Him or His agents when the true Narnians understand that they absolutely have no power to effect the salvation of their land. God wants to hear from us; and, as Blaise Pascal says, “God instituted prayer in order to allow His creatures the dignity of causality.” The “creature” is allowed to “assist” the Creator, so to speak, through the exercise of “free will.” Lewis explains this well in God in the Dock:

[God] invented both prayer and physical action for [the dignity of causality]. He gave us small creatures the dignity of being able to contribute to the course of events in two different ways. He made the matter of the universe such that we can (in those limits) do things to it; that is why we can wash our own hands and feed or murder our fellow creatures. Similarly, He made His own plan or plot of history such that it admits a certain amount of free play and can be modified in response to our prayers.

Reepicheep the Mouse reveals the truth that prayer can affect God’s course of action. Biblically, the most blatant example we have is when Moses pleads with the Lord to spare the nation of Israel. Just as Moses kept arguing with God for the souls of the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Reepicheep asks for the return of his tail. At first Aslan tests him by pointing out that he may be taking a little too much pride in his dignity and honor, but Reepicheep regains his tail when his followers demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice their own tails out of love for their leader. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life (or his tail?) for his friends.

Trumpkin the dwarf, meanwhile, is a portrait of the skeptical agnostic. Today we might hear someone like him say, “I don’t believe that prayer will change anything because I don’t know if there is anything or anyone out there to effect such change; but if it makes you feel better I won’t stop you from talking to the air.” He reminds me of the times I have gently told non-believers, “You may not believe in God, but that doesn’t keep Him from believing in you.” But the force of Caspian’s “prayer” impacts even Trumpkin. He hears a sound that he will never forget: “loud as thunder,” “cool and sweet as music over water,” “strong enough to shake the woods.” Eventually, Trumpkin even comes face-to-face with the living answer to this powerful call for help. The encounter does not make him an immediate believer, but it definitely influences a step toward Aslan rather than away from Him.

Peter and the other children literally embody the often irresistible force of God’s will in answering prayer. But Lucy alone understands that Aslan is at the root of their being literally dragged back into Narnia from a British train station; the other three attribute the call to forces of magic. Modern mankind (self-assured of being enlightened) pooh-poohs the idea of unseen spiritual forces working in response to a bunch of co-dependent “crackpots” talking to some invisible deity. The preferred alternative is to name whatever occurs as luck or coincidence or karma. Yet the true believer in the power of prayer sees them as “God incidents.” Somehow, only Lucy has retained a vestige of the faith she found in Aslan after the children’s initial trip through the wardrobe. The others seem to have become dulled to Aslan’s purpose and, in fact, His very existence. A year in the “real” world has done much to “erase” the memories of the many years spent in the service of Aslan in Narnia.

The Pevensie children and Reepicheep also represent proof of God’s unexpected answers to prayer. Trumpkin assumes that the call will bring great warriors, not children or heaven forefend… mice! How in Narnia will such a desperate war be won with such puny reinforcements? Three great scriptural truths give the answer:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. ( Isaiah 55:8)
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1Corinthians 1:27)
I can do everything in [Christ] who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:1)

The children already know from previous experience that Aslan is not a “safe” lion. They have also learned that he is not predictable or controllable. The air of Narnia “works” on the children enabling them to “mature” again into “adults”—and strengthening them for the task to which they have been called.

All of Aslan’s subjects waver in their faith at some point or in some way, and yet they are used powerfully in both their spiritual and physical weaknesses to bring Aslan’s will to fruition. Some of them recognize that power at work in and through them. Some of them don’t see it or understand it until they come physically face-to-face with Aslan. Reepicheep, the smallest and seemingly most foolish, is in fact the most righteous, courageous and true. Caspian, in humility and defeat, calls for help. It is a process that Lewis called The Great Dance—and prayer is but the invitation.

The Great Dance is a metaphor for the believer’s relationship with God. This relationship is something that God desires but does not force upon those He has created. God gives every person the right to freely choose His company. Yet any relationship that will be strong, true and beneficial to both parties requires good communication. Good communication requires conversation. Prayer, by its simplest definition, is conversation with God. The deeper the conversation, the stronger the relationship becomes.

Lewis experienced the power of prayer and understood its impact on the life of a Christian, so we should not be surprised to find an expression of his faith in this powerful tool over and over in the pages of his writing. But Lewis did not arrive at this understanding easily, and he admits in Surprised By Joy that he was “brought into the Faith kicking and struggling and resentful with eyes darting in every direction looking for an escape.” He calls faith a paradox because although one is given free will to come to God, the surrender still feels like a “deeply compelled action. I chose, yet it really did not seem possible to do the opposite.” Likewise, many characters in the Chronicles of Narnia express the inability to resist the “pull” of Aslan. In Mere Christianity, Lewis explains it thusly:

God is not a static thing but a dynamic, pulsating activity—a life or a kind of drama. He is almost a kind of dance. The whole dance or drama or pattern of God’s three-personal life is to be played out in each one of us. Or… each one of us has got to enter that pattern. We must take our place in the dance.

Even though Lewis never meant the Narnia books as theological instruction, Prince Caspian develops not only into an outlet for the author’s struggle to accept and enter the dance, but it also becomes an example of the journey that every believer must make.

Lucy, for instance, personifies the faith of a child—accepting, willing to suspend any question of disbelief. She also holds that bright coal of faith that glows deep within and smolders back to life even after a long absence from the “conversation.”

Nikabrik portrays the angry Lewis who broke with God and became an atheist in the years following the death of his mother. Caspian says Nikabrik has “gone sour inside from long suffering and hating.” Lewis describes the years of his own atheism as hate-filled and dark. Sometimes the tragedies and disappointments of life cause believers to decide that we do not need God and can run our own lives, thank you. Placing blame with the Creator is often the beginning of the break and involves much time spent as a wallflower—feigning indifference or desperately wishing that God would come and sweep us back onto the dance floor.

Trumpkin represents the period when Lewis became exhausted with trying to maintain his hatred of God and tried to just exist as an agnostic. In effect, the emotionally exhausted believer (or skeptic) throws up the hands and says, “I’m done with this. It doesn’t matter if God exists or not.”

Peter, Edmund, and Susan represent Lewis’ (and the reborn believer’s) journey back to living faith, a faith that had never completely died but whose spiritual muscles needed reformation and strengthening. Each person goes through different experiences and meets God in personally specific ways—ways that are that person’s story and nobody else’s. Every person’s relationship with the Creator is unique, private, and shared with no one else, as Aslan taught in The Horse and His Boy.

The badger, Trufflehunter, is the picture of the mature believer, the assured and unshakeable spiritually grown Lewis, who lived out his adult life in relationship with and service to his God. Trufflehunter is an example of a believer who trusts that “help will come,” that “it may be even now at the door.”

When the prayer is answered… when Aslan returns… when Narnia is saved, Aslan and the children “make holiday,” dancing and reveling through the countryside with great joy: for their relationship with each other and with Narnia has been restored. In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Lewis describes this scene:

In this valley of tears certain qualities of Heaven have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities that for us, here and now, are frivolous. How can one find any image of boundless freedom in the serious activities either of our natural or of our present spiritual life? It is only in our ‘hours off,’ only in our moments of festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant on Earth, for Earth is not their natural place. Here they are a moment’s rest from the life we were created to live. In this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy is like that which, in a better country, is the goal of all goals. Joy is the serious business of Heaven!

This serious business of Heaven, this joy, comes with an invitation for all to enter the Dance. At the end of Prince Caspian all prayers (even the unspoken) are welcomed and answered:

  • Narnia is returned to the “true” Narnians;
  • The tree people and water people are free to come out in the open;
  • The talking animals, giants, fauns and dwarves do not have to flee over borders or live underground;
  • Caspian, a true Son of Adam, is back on the throne; and
  • The Telmarines who wish to depart are returned to the world they never were meant to leave.

In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else has been directed. Thus each is equally at the center and none are there by being equals, but some by giving place and some by receiving it, some things by their smallness and the great by their greatness, and all the patterns linked and looped together by the unions of a kneeling with a sceptred love. Blessed be He! —from Perelandra
For the dance is love itself. The Great Dance does not exist for us but we for it. —from The Problem of Pain

2 Comments:

Blogger George Rosok said...

I really enjoyed this article, Kathy. It puts the story in a new light for me. While I don't back down from the literary comments I made, your article illustrates that there is much to value and to learn in Prince Caspian.

6/12/2005 9:03 PM  
Blogger Kathy Bledsoe said...

Believe me, it didn't come easily! I still consider this probably the least enjoyable and most curiously put together of all the books in the series and I believe that you hit the nail on the head with great regularity! I really feel that Lewis more or less wrote this book for himself more than anything so it displays just what a complex and convoluted mind he had. Since we cannot talk to him today, his intentions will have to remain largely a mystery. The Bacchus debacle will always be a puzzler! Many of his theological works make a lot more sense than this novel.

6/13/2005 9:50 PM  

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