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

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For medievals, like the bestiarists, the Bible is of course the text of texts, the text whose layers of meaning necessarily overflow the literal meanings of the words. The Bible is “the perfect gift…coming down from the Father of lights,”[16] God’s revelation of Himself and all that is necessary for the salvation of the wayfaring human being. But if it is to be the self-revelation of an infinite God-a God of infinite truth, beauty, and goodness-the Bible must possess a richness or superfluity of meaning unparalleled by any other text, like “a honeycomb, for while in the simplicity of their language [the Sacred Scriptures] seem dry, within they are filled with sweetness.”[17]

The “depth”[18] or excess of meaning found in Sacred Scripture[19] expressed itself, to the medievals, in four layers of meaning. The first, foundational, level of meaning is the historical or literal level of interpretation. The other senses are symbolic or figurative, including allegory, in which “one thing signifies another thing which is in the realm of faith”; tropology, or a moral level, in which “from something done, we learn another thing that we must do”; and anagogy, in which “we are given to know what to desire, that is, the eternal happiness of the elect.”[20] Medieval Biblical scholars were convinced that they were not adding to the text but only discovering the superfluity of meanings that God had hidden within the text. Hence Hugh’s honeycomb metaphor is apt-the exegete is only drawing out the honey that is already there.

But how did the honey get there?  The overflowing honey of Sacred Scripture is an expression of the infinite being, power, and goodness of its divine Author. This same superfluity is found in God’s original text, the universe:

[God] created this perceptible world as a means of self-revelation so that, like a mirror or a divine footprint (vestigium), it might lead man to love and praise his Creator. Accordingly there are two books, one written within, and that is [inscribed by] God’s eternal Art and Wisdom; the other written without, and that is the perceptible world.[21]

Here we meet the sacramental metaphysics that informs the bestiaries, and which Lewis instantiates in Narnia; a metaphysics that begins with the creatureliness of the creature, focusing on the creature’s ontological dependence on its Creator. As Lord Digory and Professor Kirk explain to Peter, and the others in The Last Battle, that the Narnia they had experienced before “was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or copy of the real Narnia, which has always been here and always will be here….”[22] He then mutters under his breath, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato…”[23] which, as Lewis is well aware, is not completely true.

According to Plato, as shadows and reflections are dependent on physical things for their being, so physical things are dependent on the Forms for theirs-the things of this perceptible world are but shadows cast by the really real Forms (Republic) or copies crafted by the artisan god (demiourgos) to resemble the forms (Timaeus). Though Lewis, with Augustine and others, accepts this basic ontology, he, like them, does not think that it quite satisfies certain Christian convictions about a Creator God. He is particularly wary of two things in Plato’s metaphysics: first, the tendency to erase the individual creature to merely a false appearance, since it does not have the reality of the Forms; and second, the impersonal nature of the source of being, since Plato’s Forms are impersonal abstractions.

Lewis instantiates in Narnia, not pure Platonism, but an Augustinian and medieval sacramental metaphysics in which a personal, Trinitarian God, who is absolute Being, Goodness, Truth, and Love, creates the universe ex nihilo.[24] In God, Being, Goodness, and Truth are ultimately one, bound together as an inseparable unity. Now, goodness and love are self-diffusive (i.e., their nature is to pour out of the lover toward the beloved), and in God they are not distinguishable from Being. Since God possesses these characteristics-Goodness, Being, and Love-in overabundance, He wills them to overflow as creation, following the pattern dictated by the Divine Ideas, Plato’s Forms now transferred to God’s reason into the Logos.[25] Every creature, then, possesses a measure of being and goodness, as well as a form or nature, as gifts of God’s goodness and love, and so, as in Plato, they do not exist independently of their Source, as autonomous entities, but their being is always possessed as pure gift. Nor can creatures be like anything other than their Triune Creator. Thus the being, essence, or nature of every creature-every lion, beaver, and badger, as well as every human being-comes from the Triune Creator as a gift and signifies or points back to that source. As God is a Trinity and Triune Cause-God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as efficient, exemplary, and final cause-so every creature possesses a trinity of characteristics-limit, form, and order-and through this three-fold mark it stretches beyond itself, back to its Creator.[26] It is thus through its very being that the creature can be read as a text signifying, at several levels of being, its Author.