Lewis's other virtue as a novelist

Last week I listed six virtues that make C. S. Lewis's novels, especially the Space Trilogy, so lovable. I forgot one, though: his ability to describe evil—evil persons and evil deeds—without ever making evil the least bit appealing or interesting.

This isn't because there's no evil in Lewis's world; there's plenty. In fact, it's often embodied not just in human beings but in devils, or in humans possessed by demons. The scale of evil in Lewis is cosmic. But it is also minute, even mundane. And that's what makes his depiction of evil so brilliant, so compelling, yet so unattractive. Evil is boring, ugly, deficient, and stupid. It's imbecilic, infantile, a shallow life-sucking self-sabotage of all that is—which is to say, of all that is good, beautiful, and true. It enlivens nothing and parasitically eats from the inside whatever gives it quarter.

Lewis is able to strike this philosophically informed macro/micro balance without glamorizing the good life (under fallen conditions) or idealizing the virtuous individual precisely because the drama of principalities and powers—of angels and demons in Deep Heaven—is played out every day in the ordinary dramas of neighbors and friends, husbands and wives, parents and children. The tiniest act of charity, unnoticed by a soul, even the soul that offers it, is a mighty moment in the triumph of Good over Evil; and yet the quotidian pettinesses of marriages and workplaces and churches are no less occasions for Satan and all his pomp to win a battle in their (ultimately unwinnable) war against the Lord and all his heavenly host.

All that to say, the characters and actions and ideas representing evil in Lewis's fiction are recognizably wicked, however great or small that wickedness may be, but never once do you, as the reader, find yourself drawn to the evil (notwithstanding your recognition of what might make it emotionally or psychologically tempting in situ). The evil is all too "real," but insubstantial, vaporous, nothing. Because that's what evil actually is, nothing at all, a lack of goodness and being, of what makes life worth living. Contemporary stories' protagonists, so full of "gritty" "moral grayness," are both unserious and unrealistic by comparison.

Because Lewis understood what so many have forgotten: truly to see evil, in story form, is finally to see right through it.


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