The Thing Itself: When Death Swallowed Life
I want to attempt to describe a beautiful image to you. It’s an image that I’ve held on to for two years now. It came to me, almost fully formed, two years ago. I’ve been holding on to it ever since. I try to keep it in my mind as best I can.
C.S. Lewis said that his fiction writing almost always started with an image. Story would follow after that. When I read that my heart sunk a little. I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but I’ve never approached it like that. I’ve always first thought up histories, settings, cultures, etc., and then tried to somehow coax a decent story out of all that. This method is all well and good, but it lacks something. Something really special. Why are the Chronicles of Narnia still considered classics among the sea of fantasy writing? What is that special something that makes good fiction into great fiction, into fiction that can touch people’s lives forever? The stories I come up with are interesting and make for good reading (at least I’d like to think so) but they have a dullness and flatness about them. They remind me of old clockwork wind up toys: they may be excellently crafted, and their inner mechanisms may be very complex and intricate, but they aren’t very beautiful to look at. I’ve read many books that I’ve felt similarly about. They have an abundance of skill but are lacking in soul. And how can you produce soul? You can practice your skills until they’re sharp as a razor, but I know of no practice that can help you in constructing soul. I want to write fantasy. More than anything I’d like to write something like the Chronicles of Narnia, something with even an tiny fraction of it’s power and beauty. The method I was most used to wouldn’t work to get there. Worldbuilding, fun as it is, just won’t cut it alone. I found that confirmed by Lewis himself. As a boy he played at worldbuilding too. He created a whole imaginary country called Animal-Land, complete with a long and detailed history, dozens of characters, culture, trade, wars, adventures, etc. However, this is what he wrote about it later in life:
“…in mapping and chronicling Animal-Land I was training myself to be a novelist. Note well, a novelist; not a poet. My invented world was full (for me) of interest, bustle, humor, and character; but there was no poetry, even no romance, in it. It was almost astonishingly prosaic. For readers of my children’s books, the best way of putting this would be to say that Animal-Land had nothing whatever in common with Narnia except the anthropomorphic beasts. Animal-Land, by its whole quality, excluded the least hint of wonder (Surprised by Joy, pg 15).”
My next questions, of course, was how Lewis went from Animal-Land to Narnia: how did he capture that sense of wonder? Then I read that Lewis first came up with Narnia, not as a civilization or an interesting idea, when the image came to him one day of a lamppost in a snowy woods, and a faun walking by. The image came first. Everything else followed. This, I thought to myself, is what I’m missing. This, perhaps, is where soul comes from. The problem is that I could find no way to force images to come to me. I still can’t. The element I believed was missing was something I couldn’t create with hard work.
But then, as if by chance, an image came. It came in the most unlikely of places: my Introduction to Christian Doctrine class. Our teacher was a very kind, and very wise, old scholar who had written so many influential books on early Christianity that he really should have been teaching somewhere far more prestigious. Instead he was with us, lecturing on the development of doctrine in the early church in his own gentle tones. The subject on the day the image came was on different conceptions of Christ. I can’t remember exactly what he said. I only know that, at some point, he mentioned the idea that death, in taking Jesus’s life, inadvertently swallowed the source of all life itself. The idea that life is stronger than death thrilled me; that in the presence of life death flees as darkness flees in the presence of light. Suddenly my mind was flooded with images. A black, inky landscape. A mansion made of charred bones. A captive comes before a throne, and on the throne stirs a skeletal figure draped in tattered grey shroud. He is Death himself, ruler of the world, the final conqueror. All must come before him and submit to his rule. All will be brought to stillness, and dust. This captive is no different. Death rises to consume him as all other have been consumed before. Death feared this man once, but now he is within his own domain, the source of Death’s power. But bringing the captive here was a mistake. Unknowingly Death has invited Life itself into his home. Too late he realizes his error. He tries to throw his prisoner out of the mansion, but already vines are growing on the dusty bone walls. Already green is spreading. Already Death himself finds flowers sprouting from his skull…
The description does the image a great disservice. It does not capture it, not by a half. That’s the trouble. The image is more than just a collection of objects, colors, and shapes. It’s a living thing in my mind. Concepts and visuals intertwined into more than I can adequately express. When I read the description I just wrote I feel embarrassed. It’s just not right! It’s as close as I can come right now, but it’s so far from what I see.
Still, I wanted to share it with you today. I’m going to hang on to this image. Someday I will find a story I can attempt to place it in. Someday, perhaps, I’ll be able to share with others what I see. But perhaps not. I’ll leave you with one last Lewis quote. I didn’t understand it when I first read it. But I understand it now, and I know that even he struggled mightily to share what was really in his mind. This excerpt is from a letter he wrote to a girl who wanted his advice on a piece of her writing.
“You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.”
That’s the problem with my description. I can try to express the images: but the images are only settings for the thing itself.