To Hear the Horns of Elfland

Posted by Jill Carattini on August 28, 2013
Topic: A Slice of Infinity

Topic: Apologetics TrainingTopic: Atheism and SkepticismTopic: Christianity and the ArtsTopic: Cultural IssuesTopic: DebatesTopic: EventsTopic: FaithTopic: Human ConditionTopic: Just Thinking MagazineTopic: Theology and PhilosophyTopic: Worldview


The world of Faery had great importance on the imagination of C.S. Lewis and in particular, this “old idea that Faery overlaps our world—that one can, unwillingly and unwittingly, pass from one into the other.” Faery is both beautiful and dangerous, its boundaries unclear. 

When Alex Renton’s six-year-old daughter Lulu asked her parents to send the letter she penned to God, Renton had to stop to consider all the possibilities. An award-winning journalist based in Edinburgh, Renton is an atheist. And while he does not see himself keeping company with the “angry atheists of our time,” he was less than pleased by this invasion of Lulu’s moral imagination by primary school teachers who saw math and God with equal certainty. One of the easiest responses would have been simply to have the talk on religion a little earlier than they imagined, to sit Lulu down and tell her that the letter could not be sent because God does not exist. “We would have said that [God] was invented by human beings, because they were rather puzzled by life and death and some other problems in between,” writes Renton.

But to give Lulu that answer seemed to him almost self-indulgent, more about his own scruples than Lulu’s wellbeing. The decision, he felt, was a complicated one: “[T]he desire to shield your children from delusion and falsehood is easily matched by the one that longs to protect their innocence, to let them learn about the world at a gentle pace and, indeed, learn for themselves, rather than always hand over your notion of what is what.”[1]

In short, what was at stake for Lulu was an issue of imagination. While God, to Renton, is on imaginary par with the tooth fairy or Father Christmas, a delusion full of wishful thinking, he also knows it to be at times a beautiful delusion. While he found himself proud of Lulu’s budding rationalist sensibilities even amidst her supernatural curiosity—her letter simply read, “To God, How did you get created? From Lulu, XO“—he was less than pleased with the teachers he believed were fueling this part of her imagination. Yet he was simultaneously torn by the dismissal of everything that imagination entailed: “The Bible, taken highly selectively, is of course a pretty good introduction to the humanist moral system in which I’d like to see my children play a part. I have a copy of A. C. Grayling’s new “secular bible”: a wonderful enterprise, but it lacks the songs and the stories.”[2]

Convinced that Christianity posits an imaginary world, Renton laments nonetheless a world entirely without the imagination that Christianity nurtures. The songs and stories and the beauty of a world filled with God is one in which a child—and even her rationally minded parents—can naturally delight. A world without that imagination is one to mourn on a very real level.

Of Faith and Fairy Tales

Renton’s dilemma is one with which C.S. Lewis the atheist would have deeply resonated, though it was not until sometime after his conversion to Christianity that he was able to put his struggle between the rational and the imaginative into words. As his biographers have well documented, imagination and the imaginary boldly colored Lewis’s childhood, from his own chivalric adventures in Animal-Land, which allowed the young Lewis to combine his two chief pleasures—“dressed animals” and “knights in armor”—to his growing affections for fairy tales and dwarves, music and poetry, Nature and Norse Mythology. For the young Clive Lewis, who announced at the age of four that he would hitherto be going by the name “Jacksie,” imagination quickly took a dominant role, his first delight in myth and story eventually turning into a scholar’s interest in them.

To fully understand his love for the imaginary—indeed, to understand Lewis himself—something must be said about the distinctively English word Faery. The world of Faery, which has its roots in Celtic culture, is not so easily categorized. It is not at all the land of delicate fairies that Walt Disney would have us imagine. Nor is it simply imaginary, a story altogether detached and unrelated to the world before us. Faery is, first, a place. It is lush and green like gentle British landscapes and ancient English forests, but forests untamed, willful, and enchanted: “a world, that sometimes overlaps with Britain but is fundamentally Other than it.”[3] It is Britain seen in a “distorting mirror, a mirror one can pass through.”[4]

Biographer Alan Jacobs hints at the importance of Faery on the imagination of Jack, and in particular, this “old idea that Faery overlaps our world—that one can, unwillingly and unwittingly, pass from one into the other.” [5] Faery is both beautiful and dangerous, its boundaries unclear. The encounter with Faery and its tales, which can scarcely be miniaturized as a world for children, was one that haunted Lewis much of his life:

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.[6]

Lewis heard and followed “the horns of Elfland.” They were dear to him, like arrows of Joy shot at him from childhood. He followed them through the death of his mother at the fragile age of nine, through the horrid years at boarding school, through the doubt and dismissal of faith and God, through the metaphysical pessimism and the deep layers of secular ice, through a dejected and reluctant conversion, to Narnia, and to the Joy itself.

Of course, this is not to say that the imaginative world in which Lewis lived was one fueled in any sense by Christianity or faith; nor were the imaginary worlds he loved anything we might necessarily call Christian. In fact, unlike Alex Renton who notes admiration for the songs and stories of faith, Lewis was quite underwhelmed with the Christian imagination. “[T]he externals of Christianity made no appeal to my sense of beauty…. Christianity was mainly associated for me with ugly architecture, ugly music, and bad poetry.”[7] He read and admired the mind of G.K. Chesterton, the verse of John Milton, and the imagination of George MacDonald, but only in spite of their Christianity.

On the other hand, Lewis’s imaginative life was not something that could be readily claimed by his rationalism, materialism, or his atheism either. Quite the contrary, in fact, Lewis sensed throughout his adolescence that this imaginative part of his mind had been necessarily cut off from the analytical. He had “on the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’”[8] It made for a rather gloomy outlook on reality, as Lewis notes, for “nearly all that I loved I believed to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.”[9]

This need to further himself from the imaginary would continue to rear its head as he delved further into the fierce rationalism of his teacher Mr. Kirkpatrick and upon efforts to assume a new intellectual presence at Oxford. Describing his first two years, Lewis notes his resolve: “There was to be no more pessimism, no more self-pity, no flirtations with any idea of the supernatural, no romantic delusions…. [G]ood sense meant, for me at that moment, a retreat, almost a panic-stricken flight, from all that sort of romanticism which had hitherto been the chief concern of my life.”[10] Among other reasons for the distancing of his imagination was a new intellectual movement in psychology that was becoming increasingly influential. Lewis writes:

To fully understand his love for the imaginary—indeed, to understand Lewis himself—something must be said about the distinctively English word Faery. It is not at all the land of delicate fairies that Walt Disney would have us imagine. Nor is it simply imaginary, a story altogether detached and unrelated to the world before us. Faery is, first, a place.

[T]he new Psychology was at that time sweeping through us all. We did not swallow it whole (few people then did) but we were all influenced. What we were most concerned about was “Fantasy” or “wishful thinking.”… Now what, I asked myself, were all my delectable mountains and western gardens but sheer Fantasies?… With the confidence of a boy I decided I had done with all that. No more Avalon, no more Hesperides. I had (this was very precisely the opposite of the truth) “seen through” them. And I was never going to be taken in again.[11]

When Faith Is Wishful Thinking

Perhaps understandably then, in a universe that is, “in the main, a very regrettable institution,”[12] there is no room or reason for the fantastic. Still, the accusations of Renton and a long line of far less amiable atheists argue that where the Christian imagination possesses beauty and hope, it is because at heart the Christian religion is about wish fulfillment—even if it is, as Renton proposes, a beautiful, imaginative delusion.

Of the many objections to Christianity, it is this one that stands out in my mind as troubling: that to be Christian is to withdraw from the world of reality, to follow fairy tales with wishful hearts and myths that insist we stop thinking and believe all will be right in the end because God says so. In such a vein, Karl Marx depicted Christianity as a kind of drug that anesthetizes people to the suffering in the world and the wretchedness of life. Likewise, Sigmund Freud claimed that belief in God functions as an infantile dream that helps us evade the pain and helplessness we both feel and see around us. I don’t find these critiques and others like them particularly troubling because I find them accurate of the kingdom Jesus described. On the contrary, I find them troubling because there are times I want to live as if Freud and Marx are quite right in their analyses.

I was a seminary student when the abrupt news of cancer and jarring estimates of time remaining pulled me out of theology books and into my dad’s hospital room. The small church he attended was pastored by an energetic man whose bold prayers for healing chased doubt and dread out of the room like the pigs Jesus ran off a cliff. “Faith is being sure of what you hope for and certain of what you do not see.” He read this verse from Hebrews 11:1 to us repeatedly, imploring us to seize the promise of healing and to cast out even the smallest sign of doubt that our miracle would not happen. We simultaneously met with oncologists who told us it would be unlikely for dad to live more than six weeks. I had at my disposal a faith and theology that could have uttered so many different responses. But we wanted the miracle so badly, I didn’t dare. So as if we were participants in a magic show doing our part for the trick, we followed the rules, so much so that we didn’t talk about funeral plans or preferences until it was too late.

This was no doubt one moment when the imagination of faith was more “wishful thought” than anything else. Fear lived more powerfully in that prayer than trust or hope or even love. As a result, I know all too well the critique of Christianity as wish fulfilment to be a valid point, for in this instance, it was: “Yes! ‘wish-fulfillment dreams’ we spin to cheat/ our timid hearts and ugly Fact defeat!”[13]

Of the many objections to Christianity, it is this one that stands out in my mind as troubling: that to be Christian is to withdraw from the world of reality, to follow fairy tales with wishful hearts and myths that insist we stop thinking and believe all will be right in the end because God says so.

But this is not to say that wishing my father would live was itself invalid, that the hope we imagined was rootless, or that there is not One who moves us to wish in the first place. For indeed, “Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream?” continues J.R.R. Tolkien in the poem that would capture the doubting Lewis. In other words, if the material view of the world is true, why should we have such dreams in the first place? As Lewis would write later, using the same argument:

Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread. But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of stavation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating, and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist.[14]

For two young boys clinging together in the hallway as adults whispered about cancer and came and went from their mother’s room, Flora Lewis’s death was the event whereby “everything that had made the house a home had failed us.”[15] As his mother lay dying, nine-year-old C.S. Lewis prayed that she would live. Alan Jacob describes Jack’s prayer for her recovery: “He had gotten the idea that praying ‘in faith’ was a matter of convincing yourself that what you were asking for would be granted. (After Flora had died he strove to convince himself that God would bring her back to life.)”[16]

Lewis insists the disappointment of these failed prayers—not to a Savior or a Judge but, like me, to something more of a magician—was not formative to his young sense of faith. No doubt the longing for his mother to be well again, for home to be restored, and for someone to hear this deep wish made its mark on his imagination, nonetheless. A scene in The Magician’s Nephew perhaps says more:

“Please—Mr. Lion—Aslan, Sir?” said Digory working up the courage to ask. “Could you—may I—please, will you give me some magic fruit of this country to make my mother well?”[17]

Digory, at this point in the story, had brought about much disaster for Aslan and his freshly created Narnia. But he had to ask. In fact, he thought for a second that he might attempt to make a deal with Aslan. But quickly Digory realized the lion was not the sort of person with which one could try to make bargains.

Lewis then recounts, “Up till then the child had been looking at the lion’s great front feet and the huge claws on them. Now in his despair he looked up at his face. And what he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and wonder of wonders great shining tears stood in the lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the lion must really be sorrier about his mother than he was himself.”[18]

“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another…”[19]

Christianity is indeed on some level wishful thinking. For what planted in us this longing, this ache of Joy? Yet it is far from an invitation to live blind and unconcerned with the world of suffering around us, intent to tell feel-good stories or to withdraw from the harder scenes of life with fearful wishes. Digory discovers in Aslan what the Incarnation offers the world: a God who, in taking our embodiment quite seriously, presents quite the opposite of escapism. The story of Rachel weeping for her slaughtered children beside the story of the birth of Jesus is one glimpse among many that refuses to let us sweep the suffering of the world under the rug of unimportance. The fact that it is included in the gospel that brings us the hope of Christ is not only what makes that hope endurable, but what suggests Freud and Marx are entirely wrong. Christ brings the kind of hope that can reach even the most hopeless among us, within even the darkest moments, when timid hearts spin pained wishes. Jesus has not overlooked the suffering of the world or our deep longings within it anymore than He has invited his followers to do so; it is a part of the very story He tells.

Imagination as Evidence

Alex Renton’s initial discomfort toward the meddling with the mechanism of his daughter’s imagination gave way to another idea. Instead of sitting Lulu down and trying to explain that God was not taking letters because God was not real, he decided the burden of proof rested elsewhere. “There are people who believe in God who ought to be able to answer a fellow believer’s question. Some of them are paid to do it. Lulu’s letter is of their making, not mine. If they could satisfy her, I would keep out of it. For the time being.”[20] Renton turned to his Christian friends first, who weren’t very helpful, followed by several professionals to whom he sent a jpeg of Lulu’s letter to God. Two of the denominational leaders did not reply. One sent a letter that seemed to him theologically sound, but not very conducive to a six year-old’s imagination. The last reply came from Lambeth Palace in the form of an email from Archbishop Rowan Williams himself. It read,

Dear Lulu, Your dad sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this—

Dear Lulu—Nobody invented me—but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

 Then they invented ideas about me—some of them sensible and some of them not so sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints—specially in the life of Jesus to help them get closer to what I’m really like.

But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like someone who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!

And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off.

I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too.[21]

Both Renton and Lulu were sincerely touched, much more so than he ever expected. And Lulu especially liked the part about “God’s Story,” confessed Renton. A world without that Story—and the songs and stories that accompany it—is indeed something to mourn.

Whether compelling visions of a six-year-old, inspiring music or architecture, or comforting a child through the loss of his mother, the power of the imagination is often clear. 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 Lewis. “I think that all things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not least.”[22] 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:

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.

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.[23]

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,”[24] he was equally certain that God in God’s mercy could profoundly make it such a beginning. 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.”[25] 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.”[26]

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. It is not always clear and obvious, but rather, 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 my dad’s death and subsequent disappointment over my foolish embrace of a fearful formula for the miracle we did not get, it was Aslan’s empathetic tears for 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.[27] 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, as I have argued, 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 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.”[28] Everything was 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 RZIM.


[1] Alex Renton, “A letter to God—and a reply from Lambeth,” The Times (April 21, 2011), accessed at

[2] Ibid., emphasis mine.

[3] Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 16.

[4] Ibid., 15.

[5] Ibid., 18.

[6] Alfred Tennyson, “The Princess,” Alfred Tennyson: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 151.

[7] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), 172.

[8] Ibid., 170.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 201.

[11] Ibid., 203

[12] Ibid., 63.

[13] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Mythopoeia,” as quoted in Alan Jacobs, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), 145.

[14] Ibid., 146.

[15] Lewis, 19.

[16] Jacobs, 5.

[17] C.S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: HarperCollins, 1955), 168.

[18] Ibid., 168.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Renton, “A letter to God.”

[21] Ibid.

[22] Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 167.

[23] Ibid., 213-214.

[24] Ibid., 167.

[25] Jacobs, 312.

[26] Ibid., 76.

[27] Ibid., 181.

[28] Jacobs, 131.