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

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The beasts of Narnia are integral parts of the heightened sacramentality of Lewis’ imaginary world, are important elements in its ontological superfluity, and are so quite unlike Peter Rabbit and more like sacramental animals of the bestiaries. Narnia’s beasts are of course important characters moving along Lewis’ narrative, but they also push against the confines of that narrative, just as the animals of the bestiaries overflow their appearances.

For example, Trufflehunter the badger is a delightfully drawn character with an important role to play in leading Caspian toward his destiny as King of Narnia, including the arming of the young king with dwarvish (non-human) armor and weapons. But through a subtle use of bestiary material Lewis moves us beyond the confines of this particular narrative moment. When the dwarf smithies offer Trufflehunter arms and armor like those given to Caspian, the badger refuses:

The badger could have had the same if it had liked, but it said it was a beast, it was, and if its claws and teeth could not keep its skin whole, it wasn’t worth keeping.[9]

Trufflehunter reports here precisely what the bestiaries say is the fundamental nature of being a beast:

The name “beast” applies, strictly speaking, to lions, panthers and tigers, wolves and foxes, dogs and apes, and to all other animals which vent their rage with tooth and claw….[10]

Lewis uses this bestiary definition as a means of distancing Narnia’s beasts from technologies-unlike human beings and dwarves, they neither need nor desire technology to further their existence-and harkens back to the original gift Aslan gave the beasts in their creation: “‘Creatures,’ says Aslan to the newly created and speaking animals, ‘I give you yourselves.'”[11] So Trufflehunter’s reference here to his own bestiality, as defined by the bestiaries, bumps the reader out of the immediate and apparent narrative moment into an awareness of the creatures’ being as gift from their Creator, as a sacrament of their Creator’s gifting love. It is in ways such as this, as well as use of bestiary materials in the crafting of Aslan and other characters, that Lewis draws on the sacramental character of the bestiaries to help develop and heighten the sacramentalism of Narnia.

Thus through the beasts Lewis draws on the medieval vision that the world is “a book written by the finger of God,”[12] “reflecting, representing, and describing its maker, the Trinity.”[13] But how can what is true of texts, that they have multiple layers of meaning, be true of animals as well? How could such a metaphor as this-the universe as the liber naturae, “the book of nature”[14]-come to be taken seriously in any sense other than purely poetically? Lewis points us in the right direction in a passage from The Discarded Image, identifying two primary sources for the sacramental existence of animals:

If, as Platonism taught-nor would Browne himself have dissented-the visible world is made after an invisible pattern…the expectation that an anagogical or moral sense will have been built into the nature and behaviour of the creatures would not be a priori unreasonable. To us an account of animal behaviour would seem improbable if it suggested too obvious a moral. Not so to them. Their premises were different.[15]

The sacramental vision of the world as text arises at the intersection between two modes of thought: on the one hand, the Platonic/Augustinian metaphysics of participation, and on the other, the characteristic method of medieval Biblical exegesis, in which exegetes discover (where appropriate) symbolic levels of meaning, including a moral (anagogical) meaning hidden under the literal signification of a Biblical text.