Brenton Dickieson is a freelance writer and university lecturer in Prince Edward Island, Canada. He writes a popular blog on C.S. Lewis, fiction, and theology called A Pilgrim in Narnia, and his writing has appeared in Geez, The Utne Reader, and numerous family and church magazines and academic journals. Brenton’s wife, Kerry, is also an educator, and they enjoy life with their incurably curious son, Nicolas, who has his own twitter account (@TheNicolasTweet). You can follow Brenton @BrentonDana.
The Place of the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ Fiction
I came to Charles Williams’ The Place of the Lion because of my work in C.S. Lewis. I know that Williams had a great influence upon Lewis, and I am determined to find out how deep that influence really is. Moreover, Lewis discovers the Lion at a key point in his life: his academic career is building with the release of The Allegory of Love (1936) and his continual work on The Personal Heresy (1939) . It is at this point, though, that Lewis takes an abrupt shift in direction. He writes a SciFi thriller, Out of the Silent Planet (1938) and begins working on his first books defending Christianity to the general public. Instead of a career as a public academic and controversialist, Lewis becomes a storyteller and faith-sharer.
You have to ask: What caused that great shift?
Plus… well, it is kind of obvious: the image of the Lion ends up being pretty important to Lewis later in life. Most readers of Lewis meet Aslan first. So is Aslan conceived (or pre-conceived) during Lewis’ first reading of The Place of the Lion?
This is why I have picked up this Charles Williams thriller. Plus, I’m always game for a good book, and I’ve heard this is one of Williams’ best.
To the book.
Wow. Well, frankly, The Place of the Lion is one of the most disorienting things I have ever read. I would put it in league with studying Jean Baudrillard, negotiating the price of a Tuk Tuk in Bangkok, or visiting the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. I finished reading late last night, and I am still reeling.
Now, it isn’t the story that is difficult. C.S. Lewis summarizes it succinctly in a Feb 26th, 1936 letter to his good friend, Arthur Greeves:
I have just read what I think a really great book, ‘The Place of the Lion’ by Charles Williams. It is based on the Platonic theory of the other world in which the archtypes of all earthly qualities exist: and in the novel, owing to a bit of machinery which doesn’t matter, these archtypes start sucking our world back. The lion of strength appears in the world & the strength starts going out of houses and things into him. The archtypal butterfly (enormous) appears and all the butterflies of the world fly back into him. But man contains and ought to be able to rule all these forces: and there is one man in the book who does, and the story ends with him as a second Adam ‘naming the beasts’ and establishing dominion over them.
Not only is the storyline fairly simple, but the characters are strong and knowable. Two friends—Anthony and Quentin—are deeply invested in a relationship of intellectual engagement and loving debate. When those ideas appear in real life not as ideas (ideal, Platonic forms and Jungian archetypes), each man responds differently. Quentin is fearful, desperate to hide from evil; if faced with the last great breath of humanity, Anthony is determined to stand against the ideal forms of strength, subtlety, beauty and the like. Their approach to crisis defines their roles in the story: Quentin flees from the forms; Anthony is drawn into them, and the form of the Eagle works through him as yeast through dough.
And there is Damaris, Anthony’s “girl.” Damaris is fiercely independent, working on her PhD dissertation. She shares the secret of the novel with the reader, discovering that the Greek idea of eidolon is brought into medieval concepts of angels. Although she knows the key to the localized Platonic apocalypse that has caused chaos in her little town, she has never integrated her academic knowledge with her own worldview. She thinks she (like Anthony and Quentin at the beginning of the book) can play with ideas without any consequence. When C.S. Lewis writes a fated fan letter to Williams, he captures Damaris in an intriguing way:
I know Damaris very well: in fact I was in course of becoming Damaris (but you have pulled me up). That pterodactyl…I know all about him: and wanting not Peace, but (faugh!) ‘peace for my work’.
I know Damaris well too.
So, if I can understand the story and the characters, what then was disorienting about The Place of the Lion?
The structure of the book is secure, resting on a simple plotline and character development. But the writing is a torrent, a whirlwind of dreams and images. Williams is thoroughly invested in the classical and medieval world, so his writing is laced with deeper images, layered with symbolic significance that I know I am missing as the sentences fly by. It isn’t that I read quickly—I read very slowly, often rereading a page before moving on. But it is like the imagistic elements in the book tumble over each other to come into my view. Then, the column of archetypes collapses and rebuilds again, showing the shadow of past ideas, or the echo of significant shifts in narrative, or even a mirror image of itself.
The Place of the Lion is startling to read.
I think Williams could have done more to orient the reader. In his minimalistic show-not-tell approach to the literal geography of the tale his detail is scant, and I don’t have a sense of the context before the context begins to shift. So economic is Williams’ introduction that, although I immediately understood Damaris, I don’t really even know the two friends until the second last chapter. I also had to create a mental character map to keep track of the supporting characters and to remember what they represented—for they each represent something. There is no wasted word in the Lion.
Truly, though, I think I still would have been unsettled by the book. It is a supernatural thriller, but I don’t know the operating rules of the supernatural world it is based upon—the “bit of machinery” as Lewis calls it. But neither does our hero: Anthony never knows if he has chosen well until he has chosen his path. In this matter, the Lion is less like fantasy and more like everyday life.
Did the reading help me in my original goal, to understand Lewis? Certainly the book was important to him. He began a friendship with Williams, and passed the book around among his friends, writing: “Coghill of Exeter put me on to the book: I have put on Tolkien (the Professor of Anglo Saxon and a papist) and my brother. So there are three dons and one soldier all buzzing with excited admiration.”
When Lewis’ friend, Cecil Harwood, takes the book and does not return it, Lewis is forced to ask for its return through a limerick:
There was a young person of Streatham
Who said to his friends when he met ’em
Old Lewis is dyin’
For The Place of the Lion
But I keep people’s books once I get ’em.
Moreover, Lewis recommends it to others in his letter, hoping they too will be drawn into the story. For him, it was more than a story. He wrote to Williams:
A book sometimes crosses ones path which is so like the sound of ones native language in a strange country that it feels almost uncivil not to wave some kind of flag in answer. I have just read your Place of the Lion and it is to me one of the major literary events of my life–comparable to my first discovery of George Macdonald, G. K. Chesterton, or Wm. Morris. There are layers and layers–first the pleasure that any good fantasy gives me: then, what is rarely (tho’ not so very rarely) combined with this, the pleasure of a real philosophical and theological stimulus: thirdly, characters: fourthly, what I neither expected nor desired, substantial edification.
Elsewhere he refers to it as Lenten preparation. The Place of the Lion had a profound effect on his spiritual life.
But, is the Lion our pre-Narnian Aslan? No, I don’t think so. In Williams’ thriller, the Lion and the Lamb are opposites that come together in the recreation of Eden. In that sense, Aslan is both Lion and Lamb, strength and laughter, power and weakness. I suspect, though, that Aslan does not come directly or indirectly from Williams, but emerges out of the depth of Lewis’ worldview when he finally sits down to write The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe a dozen years later.
Certainly I can see the influence of The Place of the Lion in the last book of the Ransom Cycle, That Hideous Strength (1945). And I suspect that when I read Williams’ Descent into Hell (1937), I will understand Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1941-42) and The Great Divorce (1944-45) much better. We’ll see.
But I think the biggest impact of The Place of the Lion upon Lewis, beyond the personal edification, is that it opens up the possibilities for Lewis of what a story can do. Lewis credits David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturis for creating new genre possibilities for him: “it was Lindsay who first gave me the idea that the ‘scientifiction’ appeal could be combined with the ‘supernatural’ appeal” (Oct 29, 1944 letter to Charles A. Brady).
I have been reading Lewis chronologically and have rested here in 1936-37 for some time, trying to see what gave birth to Out of the Silent Planet. I am prepared to suggest that as much as Charles Williams had an influence on Lewis’ theology, and though we will see lines of continuity between some of Lewis’ and Williams’ books, The Place of the Lion opened up for Lewis the power of a supernatural thriller that can draw out the problems of life and address them as well. As he says to Williams of the Lion in 1936: “Not only is your diagnosis good: but the very way in which you force one to look at the matter is itself the beginning of a cure. Honestly, I didn’t think there was anyone now alive in England who could do it.”
It is Williams, I think, who suggests to Lewis that his creativity could be the “beginning of a cure” for some.
It is a bold claim, I know. We cannot know all of Lewis’ inner machinery, but I would argue that, in this sense, The Place of the Lion is the beginning of Lewis’ career as a novelist.