Monday, October 03, 2005

The Halls of Harfang

I am a longtime reader of C.S. Lewis, and by that I mean that I have been reading his works for about 40 years (since I was about 8). I say this to assure you that I am not a johnny-come-lately fan, given that there is sure to be some “Lewis hype” coming with the imminent release of the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (Given what Peter Jackson did to The Lord of the Rings, I’m suspending judgment until I’ve seen the film.) Not only did I grow up in Narnia, but I’ve read Lewis’ Interplanetary Trilogy as well as almost every theological work he ever wrote, and a few of his “professional” ones (e.g. The Discarded Image, which was a wonderful view into Lewis the Scholar.) I say all this not to establish credentials, but to warn you that occasionally I will draw on Lewis to illustrate some point, and to assure you that when it comes to Lewis, I know whereof I speak.

I recently have been re-reading the Chronicles of Narnia, and I can’t recommend them too highly. Even if you don’t like fantasy, or consider them too juvenile, or consider their symbolism crude, let me assure you that they are well worth your time at several levels. I know they aren’t the same grade of literature as The Lord of the Rings, and they aren’t strict allegory (how could they be, when Lewis had a pathological loathing of literature with a “message”?) They are simply stories of what Lewis saw when he opened the eyes of his imagination. But when someone like Lewis writes what he sees, it is wise to pay close attention, even to seemingly trivial details.

Here’s one example. This time through The Silver Chair (which I consider the best of the series), which I’ve read dozens of times, I actually stopped and thought about what seems a minor matter in the plot: the visit to Harfang. The two children from our world, Scrubb and Pole, are on a mission given them by Aslan. Their escort, a dour marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum, is escorting them through the cold, barren northern lands to look for a ruined giant city. They had been traveling for some time through hard lands and bitter weather when, to their surprise and Puddleglum’s suspicion, they encounter a couple of humans on horseback. One of the pair is a beautiful woman who gives them seemingly comforting news: that the road they are traveling with take them to a hospitable house of “gentle giants” called Harfang. She explains:

And in Harfang you may or may not hear tidings of the City Ruinous, but certainly you shall find good lodgings and merry hosts. You would be wise to winter there or, at the least, to tarry certain days for your ease and refreshment. There you shall have steaming baths, soft beds, and bright hearths; and the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong will be on the table four times in a day.”

When asked if the giants of Harfang would welcome strange travelers, the lady tells them:

Only tell them that she of the Green Kirtle salutes them by you, and sends them two fair Southern children for the Autumn Feast.”

After the pair ride on, the Narnian travelers discuss the opportunity:

... Puddleglum didn’t want them to go to Harfang at all... Aslan’s signs had said nothing about staying with giants, gentle or otherwise.

The children, on the other hand, who were sick of wind and rain, and skinny fowl roasted over campfires, and hard, cold earth to sleep on, were absolutely dead set to visit the Gentle Giants.

In the end they decide to go there, but what is interesting to note is how the prospect of Harfang affects them in their travels:

... whatever the Lady had intended by telling them about Harfang, the actual effect on the children was a bad one. They could think of nothing but beds and baths and hot meals and how lovely it would be to get indoors. They never talked about Aslan, or even about the lost Prince, now. And Jill gave up her habit of repeating the signs over to herself every night and morning. She said to herself, at first, that she was too tired, but she soon forgot all about it. And though you might have expected that the idea of having a good time at Harfang would have made them more cheerful, it really made them more sorry for themselves and more grumpy and snappy with each other and with Puddleglum.

If you have read the story, you know that the travelers eventually do make it Harfang. There they find welcoming hosts, hot baths, warm meals – everything that the Lady of the Green Kirtle promised. They also find that the Gentle Giants enjoy eating man at their Autumn Feast. They narrowly escape with their lives, but because the story moves from there to more central and exciting themes, it is easy to overlook the “Harfang incident”. But this time through, it especially caught my eye and got me thinking.

After all, aren’t we all on a mission from Aslan, traversing the rough and often cheerless waste called life? And don’t we often long for a little respite – you know, “...steaming baths, soft beds, and bright hearths; and the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong...”? After all, there’s nothing wrong with these, is there? Of course there isn’t – even in the story, the children were feasted at Cair Paravel upon their arrival in Narnia – but the issue is how we view these things. Do we let the prospect of earthly rest and refreshment eclipse our mission? Does the allure of what we could be enjoying plunge us into self-pity when we have to struggle with the hardships of what we’ve been given to deal with? Do we forget the instructions we’ve been given because we’re too busy grousing about what we’re going through, or dreaming about what we may soon have?

There’s a sense in which the modern secular world, especially in the affluent west, is Harfang. Sure, we have lots of creature comforts, and plenty of ease in which to relax and entertainment to fill our hours – but the Giants who rule the castle are man-eaters. Since the Enlightenment Rationalists of the 18th century and the Romantics of the 19th, they’ve been spinning a flowery tale of mankind leaving behind otherworldly superstitions and building an earthly paradise. Of course, we reaped the harvest of that folly in the 20th century, with the bloody deaths of hundreds of millions, and the carnage continues to this day (1.5 million aborted children a year in America alone.) Yet still we still allow the comforts of the castle to distract us from our mission, and find ourselves counting down the days to the Autumn Feast instead of reciting the instructions we’ve been told to memorize.

Perhaps I shouldn’t generalize – this may be a problem that I alone suffer from. I know how testy I can be if I’ve been planning on a quiet evening to read a book (or whatever), but it gets interrupted by a problem with one of the kids. I know how quickly I fall into self-pity if obedience causes me even the slightest inconvenience – after all, what kind of reward is that for doing good? Don’t I deserve those soft beds instead of this hard ground? But I suspect that this problem is broader than just me, and that the Church has recognized it through the ages. The allure of Harfang has always been with us. That’s one reason why, as I get older, I sympathize more with the classic mortifications like fasting. Some of my evangelical friends can’t understand such things – after all, it’s not like we can earn our salvation, or add anything to Christ’s work on the Cross, can we? Of course we can do neither, but that’s not the point. The point is deliberately, consciously turning out back on Harfang from time to time. Sleeping on cold ground instead of between warm sheets. Bypassing the sumptuous meal in favor of sparse rations, or none at all. Reminding ourselves that we are on a mission, and that rest and feasting will be most appropriate when it is complete. After all, that’s what made Mother Theresa who she was. For many of our brethren throughout the world, the allure of Harfang isn’t much of a stumbling block – they struggle just to make it through a day. But for those of us who live in the shadow of the giant’s home, we would do well to remember that we are on a mission from Aslan and should not be distracted by the prospect of fleshly pleasures – or we just might end up on the table.


Louise said...

Per my brother's suggestion, I have red the Chronicles every three years since I was ten years old. I am 23 now. As I get older, the stories change, the typology deepens, and my understanding continues to awaken. Thanks for your insight!

SarahD said...

The Silver Chair was always my mother's favorite of the Chronicles (she read them to us when we kids were small, and then we re-read them many times later). As a child I found the Silver Chair to be the most tedious of the bunch, but as I grew older I began to understand her adult appreciation of the book. My mother was a convert to Catholicism (and to belief in God at all) fairly late in life, and Puddleglum's defense of Aslan and the world aboveground struck a strong chord in her.

Arwen/Elizabeth said...

Everyone likes to be comfortable, but I think I like it even more than the average person - especially emotional comfort - so the Harfang challenge has always been a particularly strong one for me. I'm not good at disciplining myself, not good at making myself face discomfort for the sake of a greater good. (Because of this, I've always identified with Jill, probably more than any other character in Narnia.) I guess I should thank God for the fact that he gives me opportunities to face discomfort - and in fact forces it on me - when I would never choose it myself, so that I might have the chance to reach the greater good. I'm sure I will be much more grateful for it in later days.

David said...

Your comments are insightful, of course. Upon reflection I mused that perhaps Lewis is building upon and adapting one of the great classics of Christian devotion--Bunyan's /Pilgrim's Progress/. Of course, there is no doubting that Lewis found this work fascinating, since he plays directly on it with his /Pilgrim's Regress/. What I am specifically referring to here, however, is the fact that our travelers in the /Silver Chair/ are on something of a quest, just as Bunyan's Christian and Hopeful were. In both stories, the pilgrims come upon an abode of giants, albeit through different circumstances. In both cases, the giants mean to do them mortal harm. And finally, in both cases, they ultimately escape using those gifts providence has granted them. The key is the differences between the texts. Christian and Hopeful stray from the path ordained for them for the sake of a shortcut, and fall into the hands of the terrible Giant Despair, who lives in Doubting Castle. The imagery is dark, and the two friends are never confused about their condition or the intentions of their enemy: they are cast into a dungeon and mercilessly beaten. Is Lewis setting this whole thing on its head, complimenting Bunyan by means of emulation, yet at the same time commenting that often more subtle forces seek our undoing? In his tale, the giants are equally sinister, but they snare their victims through comforts. The speak fine words. They appear courteous. A beating is hard, but is it not far crueler to fatten someone only that they may be an even more delectable morsel for your table? Being a prisoner is bad, but being man-pie fattened by the manipulation of your own lusts is worse. If this is his line of thinking, Lewis is certainly not contradicting Bunyan, for all Christian pilgrims have felt at one time or another the shackles of Despair, wondering when they would escape his dungeon. Yet it is important to take Lewis' point that simply because we are not languishing in darkness does not mean we should not beware of giants. To do so may with the very substance of our lives in the enemy's pastry.

SarahD said...

Responding to David's post, the soft, subtle, comfortable path to Hell does seem to be something of a theme with Lewis, especially in the Screwtape Letters. Reading those in high school permanently changed my worldview and the way I approach my life, for the better I think.