A number of years ago a musician named George Benson wrote a beautiful song entitled, “The Greatest Love of All,” and these lyrics captured my attention. A few selected lines from the lyrics read as follows:
[…] Because the greatest love of all is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all inside of me
The greatest love of all is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.
At first these lyrics appear beautiful, especially with the lilting instrumentations; however, the lyrics run counter to Lewis’s ideas about love and knowledge as well as John Calvin’s theories of love and knowledge as defined in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. This paper will articulate the numerous ways in which Calvin’s definitions of love and knowledge and the Imago Dei found in Calvin are reflected in Lewis’s fiction by focusing on Perelandra, That Hideous Strength, The Magician’s Nephew, and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.
As we consider the perception of self and the search for meaning found in popular thought which George Benson articulates in his song, “The Greatest Love of All” the question presents itself: Is learning to love yourself truly the greatest love of all? While I am not denigrating having a positive self-image at all, I am concerned with the issue of from whom or where we get our self-image to love, how we know ourselves, and how we know God.
In John Calvin’s work The Institutes of the Christian Religion Book One, Chapter 1, Calvin begins with these words,” Without knowledge of self, there is no knowledge of God” (35). As one reads further in this first section by Calvin, one finds that Calvin argues, “knowledge of ourselves not only arouses us to seek God, but also, as it were, leads us by the hand to find him” (37). The second portion of this section begins with the phrase, “Without knowledge of God, there is no knowledge of self” (37). All of these statements have great social, psychological, political, and spiritual implications because they are assertions Lewis works with throughout the four works mentioned earlier. The characters that are of particular interest in these four books are Ransom and Weston, Mark and Jane, Digory and Polly, the four Pevinses and some of the members of N.I.C.E. with a special focus on Dr. Withers and Frost-all of these characters bear great consideration due either to their knowledge of God and self, or their failure to know God and self which results in the distortion of their Imago Dei or (humanity as image bearers of God).
In Perelandra, the character that most readers relate to is Ransom, the philologist- professor who gets flown, courtesy of the Oyarsa, to Perelandra or Venus. Ironically, Ransom travels in a coffin between planets and he lands in the warm drinkable waters of Perelandra. The way that Lewis describes Perelandra is Edenic and pre-Fall since the Lady he meets knows no sin because this world has not encountered evil or even temptation. Many things in Perelandra are not as our world or our myths have shown us, but once Weston arrives via his spaceship, the potential for evil also arrives. After a short discussion, Weston announces that he is the Universe, and that he, Weston, is both God and the Devil, and he calls the Force into himself completely, but as he is giving his soul, to the Other Side in a Faustian fashion, he begs Ransom, “For Christ’s sake, don’t let them” (83). In this quotation, Weston begs for relief from his infernal choice to serve demonic forces. The reader sees that Weston has lost authentic knowledge of God and self, and he is altered for the rest of the story. Although Weston is highly educated as a full professor and a scientist, he still trades his relationship with God as a creature made by God for the supposed glories of science and human knowledge, and thus, like Faust and all other humans who trade their relationship with God for anything else, Weston loses some element of his identity as a creature made in God’s image. In chapter 10 of Perelandra, Weston speaks to Ransom from within his changed Imago Dei when he proclaims:
You must be very careful, Ransom. I’m down in the bottom of a big black
hole. No, I’m not though. I’m on Perelandra. I can’t think very well
now, but that doesn’t matter, he [the evil force] does all my thinking for me.
It’ll get quite easy presently. That boy keeps on shutting the windows.
That’s all right, they’ve taken off my head and put someone else’s on me. (111)
Weston has been changed; he has become something monstrous, and he is not himself anymore. Due to his desire to seek his own way, he has become altered. His Imago Dei, while still there, is very distorted. As a result of his diabolical choices, Weston is not what he is created to be-a child of God. We see that Weston is marred permanently when Ransom desperately tries to escape from the clutches of Weston. As he is escaping, Ransom recognizes the voice of the trickster in Weston, so he throws a rock in Weston’s face which causes Weston to finally disintegrate and fall over the cliff due to Weston’s lack of strength and his inability to turn back to God (155). Once Weston is dead, Ransom commemorates Weston’s humanity by creating a gravesite for Weston in the belly of Perelandra before he emerges back into the light.
At this point in the story, Ransom is becoming all that he is intended to be-a child of God in service of the blessed eldils from various planets. Also, we note that within moments of Ransom’s emergence into the light again, he hears the words of two eldils: one is Malacandra, from Mars, and the other is Perelandra. One of the eldils, upon seeing Ransom, says this, “Look on him, beloved, and love him. He is indeed but breathing dust and a careless touch would unmake him[…] But he is the body of Maledil and his sins are forgiven. His very name in his own tongue is Elwin, the friend of the eldila” (167). The Eldils speak lovingly to Ransom because Maledil has done a great work on Ransom’s planet which saves the people from their sin. Ransom is loved by God, and because he is loved by God, Ransom has knowledge of himself and of the God who loves him. In this work, Lewis is clearly dealing with the Imago Dei, or how humanity is created in God’s image, and we see the redeemed, “ransomed” humanity connect with the creator God which enables Ransom to experience the love of God and to love himself as God’s image bearer.
Some of the scriptures which help us think more clearly about humans made in the image of God and our role as image bearers are found initially in Genesis 1: 26 where we read, “Let Us make humanity in our image, according to our likeness […]”. Then again in Genesis 5: 1- 3, we read, “He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and blessed them and called them Mankind in the day they were created. And Adam lived one hundred and thirty years and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” As an Anglican, an outstanding scholar, and an avid reader of the scriptures, Lewis wove these concepts of humanity as image bearers of God into all of his works, including the novel, That Hideous Strength, the sequel to Perelandra. In the inviting college town of Edgestow and the college of Bracton, Mark and Jane, and Ransom and the crew from N.I.C.E. or the National Institute for Coordinated Experiments reside. (I will use the acronym N.I.C.E. for brevity’s sake when I refer to this institute in this paper). Mark is a young academic, making his way through the ranks of academia, but he gets pulled into N.I.C.E because he thinks it is the “progressive” way to move to tenure and status in the university. However, early in the novel, Mark asks Lord Feverstone just what he has in mind, and Feverstone issues the following response:
Quite simple and obvious things, at first-sterilization of the unfit,
liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights),
selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education.
By real education I mean one that has no ‘take- it-or leave-it’ nonsense
[…] of course, it’ll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we’ll get
on to biological conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the
Even though Mark is a classic secularist and has never been educated in the church, something about Frost’s and Wither’s and Feverstone’s discussions strikes him as wrong; there is something fascist about their beliefs, something that Mark, in his jail cell, realizes is morally wrong with N.I.C.E., and it is these vague stirrings of moral consciousness that cause Mark to begin deciding against the machinations of Belbury and the N.I.C.E people. After Mark has his encounter with the head of Alcasan, he is left in a room which is unusual because of the spots on the wall and the strange objects, like beetles in the painting of the Last Supper. The oddness of everything he sees makes him yearn for all that is “normal”, and everything that is normal is connected with Jane, “and things he could eat, touch, and fall in love with” (297). In essence, Mark is having his first deeply moral experience (297). Mark is choosing sides; he is joining God’s side by rejecting whatever it is that Frost and Withers want him to believe and to become. It is a great moment for Mark because he begins his turning away from the Other Side in that jail cell, and he begins to use his mind to think in moral ways, ways that reflect God and Ransom’s crew of saintly people back at St. Anne’s on the Hill.
In contrast to Mark, the N.I.C.E people who inhabit Belbury are quite the opposite of Ransom and his saintly crew of people up at Saint Anne’s. The Deputy Director, Dr. John Withers, of N.I.C.E and some of the other leaders like Frost and Miss Hardcastle are people who are in various stages of altering their humanity. For example, Withers is a very distorted human being because he has become an initiate to the Macrobes, and he is a man in service to the Other Side. Frost, the man who gives Jane nightmares, is also an initiate, and he has taken on the bright, pointy look of someone one would expect to be under demonic control. Miss Hardcastle is a lesbian, who prefers young girls, and it is her pedophilia and her desire for undue power in the structure of N.I.C.E. which makes her into the monstrosity she becomes (344). All of these people have turned their humanity over to the Other Side, and they have become monstrously distorted image bearers who are losing their knowledge of self and of God due to their own desires and wishes, and it is their own cravings for power which turn them into seemingly inhuman creatures. At this juncture, Lewis argues that in order for people to truly know themselves, they first must experience God’s love, which Jane and Mark finally do together when Mark goes to meet Jane at the hotel at the end of the novel.
In the remaining two books of this exploration, Lewis continues to explore God’s love in The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. In these novels, Aslan lovingly creates Narnia and then returns to Narnia much later after evil has had its traumatic impact on all of Narnia and on the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory and Polly, the two English children, are sent into other worlds courtesy of Uncle Andrew’s magic rings, and Digory rings the bell and wakes up Queen Jadis and ultimately brings evil into the newly born world of Narnia
( 56). At this point in the story Polly and Digory are fighting with each other over whether or not to ring the bell. Ironically, Digory is the one who chooses to ring the bell. However, the ushering in of the potential for evil is not the focus of The Magician’s Nephew; rather, Lewis would have us focus on the lion, the being who brings a barren planet to life simply by singing and changing his melody in order to create different kinds of life in Narnia. Then, when the animals are created, the lion moves among them, two by two; some he passes by, and some he touches his nose with theirs-those whom he touches become speaking animals, and it is these animals whom he commands, ” Narnia, Narnia, Narnia. Awake. Love. Think. Speak. Be Walking Trees. Be Talking Beasts. Be Divine Waters” (126). The immediate response from all the creatures the lion touches is, “Hail, Aslan. We hear and obey. We are awake. We love. We think. We speak. We know”(127). Finally, we hear Aslan named in unison by all the members of his creation who can speak.
One of the first things that Aslan does in Narnia is create a sense of order and structure for his creatures to follow. He admonishes his speaking animals to treat the non-speaking animals graciously or their gift of speech will be removed from them. Also, he helps the children recognize him as a good and loving creature, and the children see and understand, but Uncle Andrew only hears the animals making animal sounds (Chapter 10). The Witch knows what is happening and tries to destroy Aslan, but when she throws the lantern at Aslan, nothing happens to him, so she flees the scene of the crime (116).
Next, when the children are flown to the beautiful garden with the scented tree in the middle of it, we see Lewis recreating Eden, and in this Eden, Digory, in other words, Adam, though tempted by the Witch, does not fail Aslan, and he returns with the apple. The apple once planted becomes a fruit-bearing tree which in turn becomes a means to keep the Witch far away from Narnia for centuries due to the way in which good and its scent affects her.
Fortunately, the children are affected quite differently than Uncle Andrew because they recognize who Aslan is; they are drawn to his love, and they obey him. Unfortunately, Uncle Andrew is unable to recognize that which is holy, and Aslan recognizes his inability to know him, but Aslan doesn’t destroy Uncle Andrew or treat him unkindly; instead, Aslan just sends him back to London as an old man who has funny stories to tell about a “dem fine woman” he met on another planet (200). The most compelling example of how Digory is changed is when Digory brings the apple back to his mother who experiences immediate healing, and his family is made whole and well again (197). In addition, Polly returns to her family, and she and Digory remain the best of friends. In essence, Polly and Digory are new people because they know who God is, and they love Him as the originator of the universe and the all powerful being who loved them enough to restore them to their own world; thus, their lives are visibly different upon their return to London. Also, they have become the kinds of image bearers that God wants all of his children to be; they are renewed in God’s love and invigorated to love Him and serve Him and others.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the way that the knowledge of self and the knowledge of God occur in this story is through redemption and forgiveness which is highlighted by Edmund’s restoration to Aslan and to his siblings. In order to understand the redemption Edmund experiences, we must understand why he needs to be redeemed. First, Edmund disobeys the Imago Dei within him by seeking instant gratification which the Witch offers him in the form of Turkish Delight. When Edmund returns to Narnia, he desires more self- gratification, and he wants the power and position the Witch had promised him, but he realizes too late that he is only a pawn for her to capture all of his siblings and stop the coming of spring in Narnia. Next, Edmund becomes a slave of the witch until he is freed by Aslan’s armies. This story is bitter sweet because we know that Edmund is rescued, and he is restored to his siblings, but it will be at a tremendous cost. When Edmund is saved from the Witch, he and Aslan have a very touching talk, but the other children are commanded not to talk with him about “what is past” (139). Edmund has been forgiven and his past is behind him. We see the self restored in Edmund and in the other children once they live in the presence of Aslan. However, the battle for Edmund and all of sinful humanity is not over until Aslan lays his life down on the Stone Table-it is at the Stone Table wherein the deep magic, deeper than the White Witch can comprehend, moves and changes all of Narnia. Aslan’s death heralds his coming resurrection, and when he comes back to life, he must destroy the Witch and her followers. Once Aslan has accomplished the Witch’s defeat, Lucy is commanded to give the life giving cordial to her brother Edmund and to all others close to dying (179).
After one reads about all of these characters as found in all four of the novels analyzed, it becomes quite clear that the scriptural passage which integrates all four of these books is found in Matthew 16:25-26 “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” For example, Ransom has to go into all out battle against evil forces in both books. First, Ransom must fight off Weston and keep Perelandra as the place the eldils and Maledil would have it. Secondly, back in England, he must destroy the Director of N.I.C.E and his minions in order for the people of St. Anne’s and those who flee Edgestow to have the opportunity to find God and to have lives that are free from conditioning and eugenics or worse. For his loyalty and love, Ransom goes to be with Maledil back in Perelandra. Then, Mark and Jane must go through severe trials in order to see themselves as husband and wife in the biblical way that Lewis would have us understand. Next, there are the children Digory and Polly, and Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy. All of the children lose themselves in another world in order to encounter Aslan and find themselves. Most importantly, all of these characters lose their way for a time, even if it’s only momentarily, but all of them find their lives when they are in the service of Aslan who loves them and causes them to love him.
At the beginning of this paper, I use George Benson’s song “The Greatest Love of All,” and the lyrics of this song cause me to reiterate the question: Is learning to love yourself truly the greatest love of all? Do Digory and Polly, and Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmund and the Studdocks become renewed, changed, God -loving people simply by telling themselves that they love themselves? Absolutely not because self-talk alone is not what changes the characters in these novels. In contrast to Benson’s popular notion, the novels we have analyzed demonstrate that the children and the Studdocks all learn to love God and others first by failing to love Him, and then via supernatural intervention, they are transformed by God’s love, and they are able to know Him and to love Him and others. Hence, readers can safely deduce that there is nothing in the novels which suggests that learning to love oneself is the greatest love of all. Instead, Lewis shows us that learning to love God provides us with the reason and the passion to love oneself and God. In essence, the children and the Studdocks know themselves by knowing God, and they know God by knowing themselves as derivative on God. Thus, the novels we have analyzed so far strongly suggest that the concepts of knowing God and knowing oneself are inseparable.
In closing, Lewis reflects Calvin’s idea that when God moves toward us and we choose and/or are called to move toward God, we become all that we are intended to be- followers of God whose Imago Dei is daily renewed into the likeness of our Creator-God.
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