Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Narnia and the 7 Deadly Sins ...

This Lenten season, I've been preaching a series of homilies on the 7 deadly sins.  Last week at the close of the service in which I had just preached on lust, a young boy from our congregation came up to me with a comment.  I am certain that he is still a bit too young to have understood much about the subject, but then he surprised [and delighted] me with this observation: "Pastor, if you really wanted to talk about lust, you should have talked about The Silver Chair.  That story teaches all about the sin of lust!"

It reminded me instantly of the [abridged] article below [although King argues for a different dominant sin in The Silver Chair].  I found it after hearing Rich Lusk reference Dr King's work which traces the 7 deadly sins through Lewis's 7 Narnia novels.  The full article can be found here.  Enjoy!

Narnia and the Seven Deadly Sins

Dr. Don W. King
Department of English 
Montreat College
© 1984 Don W. King 

Several years ago I discovered an interesting relationship between the seven deadly sins and C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia.

The development of a list of seven especially damning sins is shadowy.  However, the list that came to be most influential in the church was developed by Gregory the Great (540-605) characterized by its Latin acronym, saligia: superbia (pride), avaritia (greed), luxuria (luxury, later lust), invidia (envy), gula (gluttony), ira (anger), and acedia (sloth).

William Langland's Piers Plowman, Dante's Divine Comedia, Chaucer's "The Parson's Tale," and Spenser's Faerie Queen all devote serious attention to these. It is not surprising then that Lewis knew them so well. Throughout The Allegory of Love Lewis refers to the seven deadly sins. In several other works he refers to specific sins on the list and in Poems he focuses an entire poem, "Deadly Sins," on each one.  It is my contention that he may either consciously or subconsciously have emphasized one of the seven deadly sins in each one of the seven Narnian books.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund personifies gluttony.
Jadis, the White Witch, exploits Edmund's weakness when she offers him a warm drink and Turkish Delight. From the first bite, he is hooked ... This scene recalls Eve's gluttonous indulgence in Milton's Paradise Lost ... over indulgence blinds us to the truth, turning us inward, making us slaves to our own insatiable desires.

In Prince Caspian, Lewis emphasizes sexual immorality or unchecked physical passion. I believe, however, that Lewis chose to use luxuria in the sense of lust for things in general ... as the bulk of his audience, young children, would be more likely to understand it.  In the tale Prince Caspian's uncle, King Miraz, is clearly guilty of profiteering in his desire to gain power, wealth, and position.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Lewis emphasizes greed, pictured in the thoroughly obnoxious Eustace Clarence Scrubb. Eustace is driven by a fierce rainstorm into the dragon's lair where he discovers the dragon's rich hoard. Delighted with his find, Eustace greedily stuffs his pockets with diamonds and slips a large diamond bracelet above his elbow. Sleeping on a dragon's hoard with greedy thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself". And "the bracelet which fitted very nicely on the upper arm of a boy was far too small for the thick, stumpy foreleg of a dragon." The pain this causes serves as an appropriate reminder to Eustace of his greed. Unable to shed his dragon skin himself, Eustace submits to the fierce claws of Aslan and is reborn a new, whole person.

The Silver Chair portrays the dangerous effects of sloth, a disgust with the spiritual because of the physical effort involved. Jill pole is confronted by Aslan early in the tale and commanded to set to memory four important signs ...obviously echoing Deuteronomy 6:6-9.  Jill fails, as do many of us, because of sloth.
Fortunately for Jill, however, Aslan intervenes by means of a dream and re-awakens her faithfulness. Lewis suggests we too can break the chains of sloth and regain a spiritual vision.

Pride characterizes three key characters in The Horse and His Boy. Bree, a talking Narnian war horse is acutely conscious of how he looks; Aravis, an escaped princess of Calormene, holds an extremely high opinion of herself and her position; and Prince Rabadash, the evil heir of Calormene is Lewis' supreme example of pride. When he later arrogantly refused surrender terms, Aslan appears and says to him: "Forget you pride (what have you to be proud of?) and your anger (who has done you wrong?) and accept the mercy of these good Kings".  Still Rabadash abuses Aslan until he turns Rabadash into an ass: "'Oh, not a Donkey! Mercy! If it were even a horse-even a horse-e'en-a-hor-eeh-auh, eeh-auh.' And so the words died away into a donkey's bray. . . So, just as Eustace's greed turned him into a dragon, Rabadash, whose pride makes him act like an ass, gets turned into one.

The Magician's Nephew, portrays the deadly nature of anger. The tale revolves around the adventures of Polly Plummer, Digory Ketterley, and Digory's Uncle Andrew, a somewhat ludicrous black magician who Digory thinks "mad," an obvious pun used for effect throughout the story. Digory, too, evidences a quick temper. Once Jadis enters the story, the focus of anger shifts from the others to her.  That the focusing sin in The Magician's Nephew is wrath is finally underscored in the last lines of the tale where we read Uncle Andrew's evaluation of Jadis: "'A devilish temper she had,' he would say. 'But she was a dem fine woman, sir, a dem fine woman'". In these words Lewis hints at the key problem of wrath: it is of the devil... and is another form of blindness. It turns us away from a right and whole vision of the truth, and instead leads us towards egoism, expressed by choler and revenge.

In The Last Battle Lewis displays the devastating power of envy which is unique in the list of seven deadly sins since it is the only one also mentioned in the Ten Commandments. The focus of envy in this tale centers upon the attempt of an ape, Shift, to usurp the position and authority of Aslan by having his dim-witted donkey friend, Puzzle, impersonate Aslan while being manipulated by Shift. Fashioning a make-shift lion's skin for Puzzle to wear, Shift hopes to pass the ass off as Aslan.  In effect, then, Shift's desire to become Aslan is a kind of cynical envy; while denying the reality of an Aslan, he deliberately sets about to appropriate the honor and authority associated with Aslan's name.

However, much more debilitating is the spiritual upheaval caused by Shift's envious power grab. Motivated by selfishness, expressed most often by demands of tribute nuts, oranges, and bananas, Shift uses Aslan's name to force the Narnians to placate his palate.  All this leads to a kind of spiritual heresy, for when the animals question Shift, he associates Aslan with Tash, the cruel god of the Calormenes.  The impact of Shift's lie is terrible. The eventual result of Shift's envy is the physical destruction of Narnia... although the end of the tale is far from tragic as Aslan intervenes once more. Nonetheless, the envy of Shift does much disservice to Aslan and the cause of truth. Innocent lives are taken and a world is destroyed. Once more, Lewis illustrates the destructive power of a deadly sin in the context of a Narnian tale.

What Lewis would have us draw out of all this is a clear moral vision of right and wrong, good and evil. While the Chronicles exist in their own right as imaginative vehicles of Lewis' creative energy, they are not works set in a moral vacuum. Although each book highlights a particular sin and illustrates its specific effect on characters, the message in each case is the same: the grip of sin is deadly.

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