The Horns of Elfland
Posted by Jill Carattini, on March 26, 2014
Whether compelling the visions of a child or inspiring music or architecture, the power of the imagination is often clear.
O hark, O hear! How thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing.(1)
But what of the mere presence of the imagination? “I do not think the resemblance between the Christian and the merely imaginative experience is accidental,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “I think that all things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not least.”(2) Certainly, this taste of a richer fare was sensed in the formative imaginations at which Lewis supped long before he knew he was starving for their Host. Writes Lewis:
“Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too. Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were clearly those on whom I could really feed. On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called ‘tinny.’ It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining; but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books.”(3)
And while Lewis would come to see that this “lower life of the imagination is not a beginning of, nor a step toward, the higher life of the spirit,” he is equally certain that God in God’s mercy can profoundly make it such a beginning.(4) My own encounter of the great imagination of C.S. Lewis is similar to a testimony given at his funeral, namely, that “his real power was not proof; it was depiction. There lived in his writings a Christian universe that could be both thought and felt, in which he was at home and in which he made his reader at home.”(5) I believe I probably first loved God as an untame Lion, not because the God I wished for was kinder than the God who is, but because I did not yet see that my deficient vision of God was the vision that needed a better imagination. As Lewis later wrote of his intense love of all Norse mythology, “[A]t the time, Asgard and the Valkyries seemed to me incomparably more important than anything else in my experience…More shockingly, they seemed much more important than my steadily growing doubts about Christianity. This may have been—in part, no doubt was—penal blindness; yet that might not be the whole story. If the Northernness seemed then a bigger thing than my religion, that may partly have been because my attitude toward it contained elements which my religion ought to have contained and did not.”(6)
Even so, in moments of moral crisis, we do not pause to ask what Jane Erye would do, I once heard a writer say. She had referenced the Brian Nichol’s story—the gunman who went on a shooting spree in Atlanta and ended up holding a woman hostage in her apartment where she read to him from The Purpose Drive Life and eventually convinced him to turn himself in. She then asked if this story would have turned out the same if the young girl had read to him from Moby Dick or War and Peace or any of the great classics of history. Her point was clear: the influence of art and imagination is usually not in the thick of things, but on the margins of culture; nor it is always clear and obvious, but often dense and unsettling. And yet there are inarguably characters and stories that indeed become of moral significance, pulling us into worlds that call for attention, compassion, and consideration. Long before I had any idea about the word “allegory” or the concept of good or bad literature, Narnian kings, talking beavers, and the Queen of Glome began appearing in my dreams, beckoning me to another place. In the aftermath of death and subsequent disappointment over the miracle we did not get, it was Aslan’s empathetic tear for the grieving Digory that came to mind when all seemed lost. For Lewis, it was the bright shadow coming out of a George MacDonald book that found him mercifully in the margins. “In the depth of my disgraces, in the then invincible ignorance of my intellect, all this was given me without asking, even without consent. That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized; the rest of me, not unnaturally, took longer. I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes.”(6) But the Spirit no doubt mercifully did.
It is quite true that a young materialist or pessimist, atheist or agnostic who wishes to stay this way cannot be too careful in choosing what to read. God is unscrupulous, as Lewis attests, willing to use our own imaginations against us, our own pens to probe the wounds. If imagination is not the property of materialism, but the playground of heaven, it is nonetheless not the thing itself. But the hopeful signs of God’s own compelling imagination are everywhere—beautiful and terrible, inviting and transforming. It is the encounter with the Gate, not the signs along the way, that transforms the entire journey. It is said that Lewis became more like himself when he finally kneeled and admitted that God was God—”as though the key to his own hidden and locked-away personality was given to him.”(7) Everything is intensified—his loves, his responses, Jack himself—as the one brought in kicking and screaming discovered in Christ and his kingdom the world of Joy he had only before heard feebly. The faint horns of Elfland give way to the resounding glory of the creator and wonders beyond our imagining.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), 167.
(2) Lewis, 213-214.
(3) Lewis, 167.
(4) Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 312.
(5) Lewis, 76.
(6) Lewis, 181.
(7) Jacobs, 131.