Beastly Metaphysics: The Beasts of Narnia and Lewis’ Reclamation of Medieval Sacramental Metaphysics

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Narnia is in fact a fictional instantiation of a certain kind of metaphysics-it is a world crafted out of a Platonic, or really, medieval Augustinian, metaphysics of participation, of superfluity, and of sacrament. I wish to examine this philosophical vision, this sacramental metaphysics, to see what it is that Lewis has adopted and how he has adapted it; how he renewed and transformed it by focusing on the beasts of Narnia and the bestiaries turned to for inspiration. Through this examination we will see how Lewis, in his fictional Narnia, addresses certain challenges posed for the Christian committed to a Platonic metaphysics, especially its tendency to erase the individual creature in favor of its ontological source. We will also see how Narnia and its metaphysics presages other attempts to reclaim medieval metaphysics, including Radical Orthodoxy.

The beasts of Narnia may seem an odd place to begin a metaphysical inquiry. One the one hand, talking animals seem too trivial for much philosophical speculation, since they are most commonly didactic tools of children’s stories-often acting, like Beatrix Potter’s naughty Peter Rabbit, as stand-ins for the child or, like Leo Lionni’s poetic field mouse Frederick, as a source for homely wisdom. On the other hand, Lewis’ use of bestiary materials to flesh out many of Narnia’s beasts may seem merely to add a quaint medieval flavor to his imaginary world. Their strange stories and moralizing “allegories” seem unlikely grounds for an ontology.

Yet bestiaries are, in fact, Lewis’ prime examples in The Allegory of Love of literary expressions of sacramentalism. These “books of beasts” describe animals (mostly real, such as the beaver and the lion, though some imaginary, such as the phoenix) and their behaviors (sometimes real, though often imaginary, even bizarre). The bestiary writers then treat the beasts as “texts” to be “read” as signifiers of important religious and moral truths, discovering in and through these textual beasts a level of reality beyond the apparent. An excellent example of the bestiary approach from the Physiologus (the earliest bestiary, dating from no later than the fifth century), and one relevant to Narnia, is the section “On the Beaver.”

There is an animal called the beaver who is extremely inoffensive and quiet. His genitals are helpful as a medicine…. When the beaver sees the hunter hastening to overtake him in the mountains, he bites off his own genitals and throws them before the hunter….And the hunter, seeing that the beast has no genitals, departs from him.

O, and you who behave in a manly way, O citizen of God, if you have given to the hunter the things which are his, he no longer approaches you. If you have had an evil inclination toward sin, greed, adultery, theft, cut them away from you and give them to the devil….[7]

Here the imaginary behavior of the beaver is to be read as a sign for an important aspect of the righteous Christian life. The beaver’s behavior is a reflection of Jesus’ statement to His followers:

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. – Mark 9:43

The clear connection here may make us suspect that the beaver’s behavior is fictitious, and it is unclear just how medieval readers received these stories, whether they thought them accurate scientific data or rhetorical tropes.[8] But in either case, the approach is to see God’s creatures as texts, so that in these creatures, the bestiarists encounter a world overflowing with meaning, a world of superfluity, in which the very being of the animals “stretches” beyond their physical existence toward some further reality-without, however, canceling out the existence or reality of the animals themselves.