“Two famous friends often mentioned together, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, often wrote about the power of myth and story over the arguments of mere fact. Stories enable us to experience new ideas, to test them, and to feel them; in other words, to make them our own; while appeals to fact are a more invasive and coercive strategy. The latest in a series of books exploring environmental issues through imaginative literature rather than polemics, Narnia and the Fields of Arbol examines the fictional corpus of Christian apologist, proto-fantasist, medievalist, and philosopher C.S. Lewis.
Despite its authors’ claim of a utilitarian purpose and style, the book is often philosophical, and quite engagingly so. This, I think, has much to do with the keen intellect, piercing observation, and boundless imagination of its subject. Not only is it an insightful literary criticism and an environmental meditation, it is valuable also as an introduction to the thought of one of the 20th century’s most enduring literary influences.
The main and most interesting theme in this book is that the environmental and agrarian values which Lewis so deeply treasured were present in his mind and life not despite his Christianity, but because of it. His view of Nature, informed by the Christian faith, Platonic philosophy, and medieval literature, saw a universe full of life and of spirit; in his Ransom Trilogy he wrote not of empty, lifeless, conquerable Space but of the Heavens, teeming with light and life and resonant meaning. In his Chronicles of Narnia he wrote not of a world in which humans may use nature according to their whims and wishes, but of a world in which nature is -- as he genuinely believed to be the case in our world -- “an index, a symbol, a manifestation of the Divine.”
Dickerson and O’Hara argue, mirroring Lewis’ own beliefs and opinions, that a proper understanding of this religion entails a belief that nature is (as it was proclaimed in Genesis) good, a feeling of responsibility toward it, and above all a sense of wonder and awe before its beauty. In fact, they go further than this, suggesting it is difficult to see how we can avoid antagonism with nature without something like Christianity which enchants it. As Lewis wrote, “only supernaturalists really see Nature….You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current.”
Exploring the Ransom trilogy, the two authors explore how the tendency to see nature as humanity’s resource comes from materialism: “Nature…calls for domination because it contains natural impediments to human progress. Since [without universal truth] there can be no higher goal than human progress, nature merits hostility from its human lords.” This is, among other things, the worldview Lewis often wrote against in his fiction and nonfiction alike. To see the world as enchanted, that is, to see it as being filled with wonder and mystery that points not only to its own beauty but to something meaningful beyond itself, is the best view for caring for the earth and avoiding environmental ruin. Modern thought scoffs at this, unable to see these things in nature just as tourists looking at a prairie or a desert cannot see how full the landscape really is. And so, the authors argue, we get global warming, pollution, massive extinction, etc.
At times, Dickerson and O’Hara take a point or an episode in Lewis’ writing further than Lewis himself obviously intended. Yet in reading this study, one cannot help but think, from the general feeling that one gets from Lewis’ writing and thought as a whole, that these environmental ideas are ones the jovial professor would have heartily approved of. ”