Beauty Will Save the World – But Which Beauty?

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In The Magician’s Nephew, Uncle Andrew, though certainly more foolish than Edmund, yet too seizes upon the Empress’s beauty. Digory himself affirms that Jadis is “dazzlingly beautiful”.[10] All of the characters in The Magician’s Nephew are in fact transfixed by their first vision of Jadis. Lewis describes their reaction to her:

And well might [Uncle Andrew] stare. Digory and Polly stared too…now that one saw her in our own world, with ordinary things around her, she fairly took one’s breath away. In Charn, she had been alarming enough; in London, she was terrifying….But even her height was nothing compared with her beauty, her fierceness, and her wildness.[11]

Such an image of vitality and power is only betrayed by a subtle ripple on the features, suggestive of evil magic, according to Polly. Nevertheless, the emphasis is on beauty, and the beauty of evil only increases when it is not an earthly specimen. Thus, by extension, the most evil creature of all can appear as an angel of light.

The shock of Digory, Polly, and Uncle Andrew comes not from wondrous admiration alone. Lewis mixes into the aesthetic recipe of Jadis another characteristic component of our responses to striking beauty: the humans are terrified. For a more extended expression of this mixture, one may turn to Till We Have Faces. Psyche, the golden beauty of the land of Glome, is of course a morally good character, but her effects are not dissimilar to those of Jadis. When Psyche wades out into the plague-ridden peasants of Glome, Lewis portrays the scene as follows:

But a minute later the wailing and shouting died utterly away. Every man (and many a woman too) in that crowd was kneeling. Her beauty, which most of them had never seen, worked on them as a terror might work. Then a low murmur, almost a sob, began; swelled, broke into the gasping cry, ‘A goddess, a goddess’.[12]

Beauty is strictly aligned here, as we saw in Jadis, with terror. Moreover, the beauty is a divinizing feature; the Glomians recognize something immortal, something eternal in the very quality of beauty which leads them to mistake the bearer of that quality to be divine herself. Psyche is not a goddess, but it is in the nature of beauty to suggest the divine and the eternal.

This alliance between beauty and terror in Lewis’s fiction has an early historical pedigree. As early as 1916, Lewis coins a word in a letter to Arthur Greeves to express the combination of two experiences they enjoyed in romantic fiction: Terreauty. Lewis goes on to note that the experience of such a joint shock of wonder and fear is seldom desired in our own world-that is, the world outside of books.[13] Put another way, would one really want to meet Gandalf or Galadriel? One notes, also, that Lewis’s discovery of beauty and terror in concert is not necessarily theological in nature; he derives it from his taste from books, and he coins the word in the period of his life which could justifiably be called pre-Christian. Nevertheless, Lewis’s insight is a spiritual one, and not merely a literary one. The nexus of beauty and terror comes precisely in those books which are haunted, where the supernatural invades or inhabits the natural, that is, in what are loosely termed “romances”. Lewis expresses his delight in Terreauty in his own later fiction, particularly in The Space Trilogy, but this is simply a culmination of an early literary taste. As Lewis earlier expressed to Arthur Greeves while both are adolescents, “For myself I think I am true to the old canons-romantic beauty, eeriness, terror, homeliness, solidity – & absurdity. These were the gods we worshipped in the golden age”.[14] With the exception of absurdity, one might find this an apt description of so much of what Lewis later wrote.

Indeed, these were the insights which give Lewis some of his savoir faire when reconceiving of the supernatural and the world of fairy. Again, would we really want to be in old Narnia-to meet a faun and/or Fenris Ulf? Or for that matter, would one really want to see an angel in this world? How apt is Lewis’s revisionist theology about angels in his preface to The Screwtape Letters. As he says, “In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying ‘Fear not.’ The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, ‘There, there'”.[15] Our contemporary version of the angel still pays homage to Baroque putti with their chubby cherubs and to the sentimental seraphim in television shows like NBC’s Touched by an Angel.