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Limits of Enchantment: C.S. Lewis, Mythology, and ….Neon Genesis Evangelion?

What does a famous Christian apologetics-and-fantasy author have in common with a popular 90s Anime franchise?


Aside from both having destructive but hopeful apocalypses, they reinterpret “Christian” symbols in ways that are extremely specific and personal, and in a lot of cases, not even necessarily very Christian at all. Well we can Get Into That, but before I continue while I do talk about Evangelion for a couple paragraphs I want to step down from my ~clickbait~ and be clear that this is much more about my thoughts and relationship to the various works of one Clive Staples Lewis, half because I just finished Til We Have Faces and it’s making me reflect on everything I’ve read. Also, it REALLY gets on my nerves when people nitpick Narnia for its “inconsistent worldbuilding” in comparison to say, The Lord of the Rings, since it really is like comparing completely completely different genres. There is a plenty to be critical of in Narnia, but I personally feel like attempting to place a kind of consistent, rational-literal structure upon the stories is a pointless endeavor for the simple reason of that is not the focus of the books, nor of any of C.S. Lewis’ literary works. Tolkien might have been all about building believable worlds, but Lewis was about building believable enchantment. All his work has that theme, even as they relate to that concept of enchantment in different ways.


I interpret Lewis’ works, especially The Chronicles of Narnia, the way I interpret say, a work like Neon Genesis Evangelion. Evangelion is a series that is incredibly tied to the personal experience of its creator, Hideaki Anno, with depression and alienation, and many fans of the series have talked about how the message and themes were ones that connected with their own experiences as well. The story of Evangelion takes place in a world that is both very familiar but also built very bizarrely and inconsistently, in a similar way that The Chronicles of Narnia presents itself. However, the hard-and-fast rules of the bizarre worlds in both series mostly take a backseat to the emotional-spiritual journeys they take the audience on, and in both series the personal experiences and feelings and conclusions of their creators show through in very clear ways. The entirety of Evangelion, especially its iconic final episode, emphasizes in gruesome ways the struggle of desiring connection while fearing pain, but ultimately ends on an optimistic message:  life is worth living despite the possibility of rejection if you can move past such fears and self-determination and gain the confidence to love yourself. It’s an ending that feels very much like a personal breakthrough after years of suffering, and it’s a message that fans return to again and again out of fascination and encouragement. 


Evangelion is a story that is encouraging and heartening, based in a deeply raw, deeply honest emotional experience, but is also an extremely limited experience. I don’t think that takes away from its value at all, but there is a danger, I feel, in taking a story like Eva and equating it to a kind of universal experience of say, How to Deal With Depression and Alienation. While one person’s personal revelation and enlightenment may speak to others, it is not, and cannot, be the sole experience.  For one example of a limitation, for all its emotional depth and interesting characters, including interesting and complex female characters, Eva does still fall into various gender assumptions and stereotypes at times. Its big revelation and and breakthrough in the end, while empowering and encouraging, feels limited in that it is somewhat of an individualistic and inward solution. It is something very validating, but does not address how to translate that emotional breakthrough into further healing and action. This does not, for me, take away from the enjoyment and value of the series, but rather serves to outline its boundaries in what it can–and can not–address. I feel similarly about Narnia, and the other works of C.S. Lewis. They all come from an extremely sincere, agonizing, emotional journey that many people connect to, and he excitedly shares the thing that worked for him in his own life as his revelation and solution. For him, his Christian faith was definitely a major part of it, but also I feel more specifically his focus was less just religion, but the kind of joyous, childlike ability to find enchantment in the world in a way that goes beyond the purely physical and rational. This is something that is extremely true for him, and his sincerity shows through in the stories he creates. Even if the conclusions he comes to in his stories are not ones that are necessarily universal, many can connect with them, either through the beauty and literal craft of the stories themselves, or through the personal and emotional journey that he presents.  

Illustration by Pauline Baynes for Prince Caspian. Lucy Pevensie meets Aslan in a dreamlike, enchanted state in which she, unlike the others, is able to perceive the sleeping trees. The theme of her siblings dismissing her for her enchanted connection and observations is one that persists throughout The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as well as its immediate sequel.


It’s apparent through reading and growing up with Narnia, and especially now while reading Til We Have Faces, that a lot of Lewis’ main themes and passions seem to be not just say, praising the virtues of Christianity, but also displaying the struggle to reconcile contradictory and seemingly incompatible elements: on one hand, the very ancient, human ache for connection with the ineffable and the divine, and on the other, practical survival in a painful world ruled by modern rationalism. To me, that is not necessarily only a Christian theme–even in works like Narnia, which is full to the brim with “Christian” imagery and themes, also explores various elements of weird mystery, ritual and chaotic divinity, with an emphasis on the weirdness and wonder of perceiving mysterious things behind the “curtain” of physical reality. Behind the corners of ordinary, mundane, English lives, there is magic to be found, even when it cannot be seen. Many of the antagonists of Narnia are those who take the world at face-value, who scoff at the concept of forces beyond their practical control. “Stories for babies,” is what King Miraz, the antagonist in Prince Caspian states contemptuously, and his kingdom is later revealed to be a drab, magic-suppressed “civilized” land that Aslan chaotically tears up with miracles and metamorphoses with the inexplicable assistance of pagan Roman gods of wine and merriment, Bacchus and Silenus and the mythological maenads.
Lewis, similar to the other famous 20th century author Roald Dahl, carries his resentment from the oppressive, enchant-less structure of the British boarding schools he grew up with into his work, expressing distrust for dismissive structures and systems that reduce experiences to simply practical, impersonal explanations. It’s easy to see how that viewpoint is one that got adapted by conservative evangelical Christian thinkers into a worldview that demonizes progressive movements as something “modern” and thus godless and spiritless, and I’m not denying the conservative sentiments in Lewis’ works. Still, I can’t help but feel that there is something very appealing, and very basic, in a way that goes beyond specific religions, to the concept of seeing the world before us, explained and laid out in the data and smugness of hard Western imperial science, and feeling that there must be something more. It certainly isn’t a new thing, and many have written about it before.  

Illustration of Aslan leading Susan and Lucy Pevensie through a wild romp with two wild Roman gods and their mad devotees
Painting by Gregorio Lazzarini of the Bacchae, a story of the gods that is much more chaotic and violent (as expected) than their Narnian counterpart. Susan and Lucy, genre savvy as they are, even point out that they would not necessarily feel safe frolicking with the gods without Aslan’s mediating presence.


That being said, I do think this is a big part of why many non-Christians have been able to connect with Narnia despite its heavy-handed themes, and also why so many mediocre “Christian” fantasy series that have followed in its wake have not been able to capture the same kind of enchantment and openness. A lot of specifically-Christian media, in my own experience, commits the very sins that Lewis’s works seek to rebel against–they seek to explain everything in a rational way, to give the world a sense of order, if not through science, then through unchangeable doctrine codified in post-enlightenment rational rhetoric. Narnia, written as a series for children, has definite happy endings, a rather black-and-white morality, and a conclusion of symbolic, very obviously-triumphant Christ, but it also leaves much room for breathing, and wonder, and uncertainty, and beautiful weirdness and hermetic aspects in a lot of ways that much Christian media is loath to do. The final book of the series, The Last Battle is many things–not all positive, in my opinion–but its biggest takeaway to me reflects the concept at the core of all of Lewis’ works: There is more beyond this present life. There are things that are realer than the existing  “shadowlands” in which we currently live. In The Last Battle, the characters have just seen their home be forever destroyed, only to find the true version of itself, more vibrant and beautiful and eternal and real than the “shadowed” “dream” version they had previously lived in. This is a concept that can definitely be applied to Christianity and eschatological doctrines of Heaven-on-Earth and life after death-it certainly was a concept that he explored in The Great Divorce, his novella about Heaven/Hell/Purgatory– but also feels intensely Platonic in a lot of ways.


C.S. Lewis’s presentation of his stories is limited by himself and his context, of course–for him, the way he reconciled the above struggle between divine desire and the modern-rational world was through his relationship to Christianity.  He centers that as a kind of universal solution in his work, as his perspectives on myths and mythology are that they are concepts that point towards Christ, the “true” myth, albeit in dim or confused ways.  As I’ve mentioned in my previous Tash post, this is a very “liberal” view of Biblical interpretation for a lot of Christians, while also being extremely limiting. In Lewis’ worldview, myths and the stories non-Christian beliefs are valid and valuable only because he can see them pointing to Christ, not  because they have unique cultural wisdom of value to offer on their own. It makes sense that this is his position, as Christianity is what brought him joy and comfort and there is nothing wrong with the expression of his experience in his work. I myself am deeply appreciative of it, even as I am aware of its limitations, and even as the racist and orientalist aspects in his work is a huge stumbling block to the very theme he cares most about. Lewis is concerned deeply with the conflict between the desire for the divine and the needs/oppression of the modern physical world, and in many cultures there are tons of different, fascinating manifestations of that relationship, especially in lands where western, Christian Imperialism has been that very oppressive force on spirituality and connection he tries to explore. 


Despite these limitations, from what I read Lewis does seem intensely interested in not just Christianity, but aspects beyond Christianity in his work. Narnia is the most obvious example with the character of Aslan often being a stand-in for Jesus Christ and his pure sacrifice in The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but often to me it feels like while Christianity is his starting point, his base, he is not afraid to widen his world. There is something very ancient and henotheistic (worshipping and prioritizing only one God, but not denying the existence of others) about Lewis’ approach to his own Christ-Figure in the Chronicles. I’ve already mentioned the scene in Prince Caspian where Aslan frolics with Roman party gods, which is the most obvious example, but there are signs of it across his works as well. Narnia is full of references to various practices that would honestly make the average practicing Christian-evangelical raise their eyebrows if applied in real life–the centaurs practice divination and astrology, the Stone Table is full of mysterious ancient writings and markings and its the place of ritual sacrifice. There are references to spells and sorcerers (both good and evil), and Ancient Magic, with an overarching idea throughout all the books that this is just scratching the surface of the forces that exist both within and without the world. In the Space Trilogy it takes a bit more of a science-fiction twist, but still the emphasis is on a kind of magic-spirituality and the curious forms that relationships to that divinity takes when viewed from the perspective of different alien cultures. To reference back somewhat to the Evangelion comparisons for a bit–Lewis also loves describing the horror but also beauty and wonder of witnessing eldritch, inexplicable forms of inhuman divine figures and the ways in which they manifest in mind-bending ways. (There are also Things to say about the connection of body and perception of gender and spirituality in those books that I feel are….. interesting but are beyond the scope of this post) To Lewis, there are always things that will be inexplainable–whether it’s the human experience of joy, or seeing the face of an inhuman god–and that is just a sliver of the enchantment that exists beyond the world. It may not be understandable by a human mind, but we can, still, be awed by it and marvel in our limited ability to perceive it.

Cover of Perelandra, the second book in Lewis’ Space Trilogy
Screencap from Neon Genesis Evangelion


Til We Have Faces – Reviewing while it’s still fresh in my mind

The Invention of Life (1928) by René Magritte


So I just finished reading Til We Have Faces and I am incredibly blown away. All of you who recommended it were correct– I love it so much. The grey morality, the anguish, the beautiful romantic-classical language, the exploration of the significance of  and relationship to (fictitious to be fair) ancient Divinity in contrast with “rationalist” western thought process and the conflict between that….the complex characterization…the very postmodern structure of the story, how it starts from a more straightforward recounting of events to leaning much more into the emotional, the subjective, spiritual, and the enchanted near the end, feels like a culmination, to me, of the themes that I just outlined earlier in Lewis’ work, in an extremely fascinating and sophisticated way.


To be honest, while I have only just started to scratch the surface of what has been written about this book, my most immediate thought is that I’m a little frustrated at the various Christian-apologetic interpretations I’ve seen of TWHF that seem to frame the very last sentence at the end of the book as being solely about Jesus. While it is consistent with Lewis’ views on mythology, that he sees it as pointing towards Christ and a “natural law,” in the context of the story itself it feels somewhat nonsensical. The story is set in a (fictitious) pagan land, being an adaption of a Greek romantic myth, and Lewis does a very good job in my opinion of capturing the interesting antiquity-mindset towards faith and ritual and divinity that satisfyingly feels neither like a smug 20th century person condescending towards ancient people, nor someone elevating them into an unrealistic noble symbol. A big reason why I find the Christian interpretations of the book frustrating is because of how prominent and specific the pagan themes seem to be. I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be Christian viewpoints on the book as obviously it was written by one of the most influential Christian thinkers of the past century and all that, but I also think it’s only fair to judge the book with the elements it presents in its own internal story.

Primordial Eros (from theoi.com)

The role and character of the goddess Ungit/Aphrodite is extremely interesting to me and I am curious to know what the inspiration was, since in the story her cultic role and impact felt very real and specific without ever having to actually appear as a character. It was notable to me too, in contrast to the way in which Lewis seemed to describe say, ritual worship of Tash in the Narnia Series (although as I’ve written before,  Tash I feel was greatly marred by The Racism™), in that in regards to the worship of Ungit, while Orual did have a very reverent fear and suspicion, it was never portrayed as blatantly negative or positive, but rather just an existing force of nature. The part about Orual, described and perceived as an ugly woman, seeing parallels between herself and her own face in the misshapen crevices and textures of Ungit’s sacred stone, and seeing herself in both the role of Ungit, and the role of Psyche, as well as herself, was very fascinating and abstract and while I still need time to process and understand what that whole cryptic aspect is, I don’t think it’s an aspect of the story that can be easily explained-pigeonholed into a strictly Christian understanding, even if the Christian starting point of the author and audience lends an interesting perspective. It is, very much like the revelation that Orual has at the ending of her autobiography, a great mystery, but one that is joyous even as it is unnerving. A new, divine perspective that helps to reframe previous experiences and bring a sense of comfort and connection even as there is confusion and uncertainty, in a way that is reflective of Lewis’ own experiences in his transition to Atheism to Christianity, even as he is discussing a character who is embodies neither belief system. 


The way I interpret the ending is that Orual goes through the cathartic process of recording her true experiences and emotions in a way in which it can all be laid out in an honest way to herself. Her shift in perspective, and her visions, are not there  to invalidate her previous experience, but to give her a change of perspective and to find a way to empathize with the person she had loved and grieved over yet closed her heart to for so long due to being so burdened by the necessities and trauma of the physical-rational world. So much of the story is about witnessing the sublime in the midst of shame and grief and frustration, divinity and the relationship to it, the relationship to one’s own body existing in the physical world (and the complexity that comes from that, especially for those perceived as women), the all powerful and terrible and consuming-destructive power of love, and how it can be frightening and obsessive and also beautiful. Orual’s love and jealousy for Psyche, and the way she processes her feelings throughout the book through both self-hatred and love, are super interesting and I still will have many more thoughts about it much later when I’ve had more time to sit on it. For now, I’m still marveling at how insightful and thoughtful the book is in regards to gender and the experience and frustration of womanhood especially in comparison to the somewhat unsatisfying way in which Lewis has written women in his previous works. It’s not perfect, of course, but I can definitely see how Joy Davidman would have had a hand in the story and perspective. It is very much, in the same sense of Narnia and the other works, an emotional journey, one that is not limited to the Christian, the atheist, or the pagan faith, but intensely human, full of wonder and enchantment, and I am here for that, as limited as the presentation may be. 

Self Promo Time: If you enjoy Narnia, you may enjoy my short comic “Inexorable” about the Calormene death-god from The Last Battle

Author: maiden theory

I'm just a Bird whose intentions are good

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