The Lion, the Witch, and the Backwoods Southern Preacher

C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, and the nature of good and evil

Imagine a world filled with magic and adventure in which children consort with talking animals and mythical creatures to overthrow the forces of evil and establish an everlasting reign of joy and peace. Now imagine a different world, the American south of the 1950s, in which backwoods preachers and racist grandmothers handle snakes and kill their young. Now try to smoosh those two worlds together. What you get is a marriage of the literary landscapes created by two of the 20th century’s most celebrated writers, C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor. Despite their obvious contrasts, these two authors shared a common insight into the human condition that is especially apt in our own age of antiheroes. Lewis and O’Connor point us to the reality of good and evil and our primal need to hear stories in which the contrast between the two is made absolutely clear.

Lewis is most famous for The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of children’s fantasy books in which the struggle between good and evil plays out in a series of quests and battles over who will rule the magical land of Narnia. Some critics dismiss the Narnia books as a none-too-subtle Christian allegory, including Lewis’ friend and fellow Christian, the writer J.R.R. Tolkien. The Narnia books do contain direct allusions to the story of Jesus, who is personified throughout the series in the great lion Aslan. Yet to see The Chronicles of Narnia as simply a re-telling of the Gospels is to miss their greater wonder. After all, four of the seven books have no correlation to the narrative of Jesus’ life at all. All of the books, however, depict an imaginative world in which the truths that Lewis cared about, truths that he had learned from medieval literature and pagan mythology as well as from the Bible, are communicated as much through atmosphere as through plot. What makes Narnia so wonderfully engrossing is that Lewis manages to make it feel like a real place where anything is possible. Even though I read the books as an adult, knowing that they were fiction, I could not help but wonder after reading them if I might find a portal to some distant, amazing place at the back of my closet or in some stale painting hanging in a hotel lobby.

While Lewis does this most notably in the Narnia books, his careful attention to atmosphere pervades all of his fiction. His last novel, Till We Have Faces, retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche in a world of kings and queens, knights and spirits, that almost surpasses Narnia in its peculiar beauty. His earlier Space Trilogy, while not nearly as refined as his later work, has a similar magical flare. Even The Screwtape Letters, a satire in which an elder demon writes to his young nephew about the trials and tribulations of tempting humanity, has within its impishness an appeal to the mythical and the jovial.

The fantasy landscapes that Lewis creates heighten the struggle between good and evil that takes place in the stories. In the context of invented worlds, Lewis brings to light the stark difference between good and evil so that it is easily recognizable, to the reader if not to the characters themselves. It is because Lewis paints his characters on such a surreal canvas that we are able to accept the very real distinctions he draws between light and darkness. A number of critics in Lewis’ own day attacked Lewis for moving from his serious non-fiction work of literary criticism and Christian apologetics into the more abstract world of fantasy fiction. They saw it as a departure from seriousness into silliness. But in fact, what Lewis had learned from all of his previous work, especially his literary criticism, was that some truths only make sense when expressed through stories, particularly through stories that provide an escape from our own world into another. It is in this realm that deep and abiding truths can be drawn out to their full depth, where we can see the essential differences between heroes and villains.

Lewis’ insight is one that is lost on many storytellers in our own day. In much modern storytelling, moral ambiguity has supplanted the struggle of true good versus true evil. Antiheroes from Michael Corleone to Gregory House have replaced the great heroes of old with broken, uncertain models of antipathy. Lewis takes us down a different path. His tales of fantastic journeys through darkness into light remind us that the human heart longs for good to triumph, for magic to be real, and for hope to spring eternal. This is why I love Lewis. This is why he is one of my all time favorite writers.

And yet, in the last few years I have also fallen in love with the writing of Flannery O’Connor, which runs in what seems to be the opposite direction. Unlike the fantasy worlds of Lewis, O’Connor’s novels and stories all take place in the deep south, in churches, doctor’s offices, railroad cars, abandoned shacks, and barns. The stories seethe with some of the worst images of mid-twentieth century southern life: barefoot children speaking in choppy, uneducated slang, preachers who sing the praises of Jesus in one moment while shaking down old ladies for money the next, and people whom many would consider “poor white trash” having no compunction about thanking the Good Lord that at least they weren’t born “niggers.”

The characters at the center of her stories are more than just anti-heroes. In many cases, they are downright despicable. They are mean spirited, self-centered, and un-self-aware. The stories themselves are almost always tragic, ending in murder, rape, deception, or a loss of faith. Yet they are every bit as compelling as Lewis’ stories and for the similar reason that they utilize atmosphere to communicate the truth about good and evil. But while Lewis shows us the virtue of being good in a world where evil is always just around the corner, O’Connor shows us the evil that lurks in this world, the darkness that lives in every human heart.

The key to understanding O’Connor’s work is to begin by reading The Habit of Being, a posthumously published collection of letters that she wrote throughout her adult life. What emerges in those letters is the picture of a bright, funny, articulate woman who is striving in her storytelling to hold a mirror up to the world so that we might be able to see ourselves in all of our brokenness. Rather than portraying a world of beauty in search of perfection, O’Connor’s stories display the inner truth of the world we actually inhabit, a fallen world in which even our deepest motivations are marred by self-centeredness and self-delusion, in which there really is little hope if we rely on ourselves alone for comfort. “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic,” she wrote in a letter to an anonymous admirer in 1955. While the critics of the time sometimes referred to her work as “brutal and sarcastic,” O’Connor said “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.”

There are no perfect characters in O’Connor’s work and no untainted situations, and yet the stories are not hopeless. Even in the midst of horrible circumstances, O’Connor always leaves open the possibility of redemption. Take for example what I believe to be her finest work, the novel The Violent Bear It Away. The central character, Tarwater, is clearly doomed from the start — abandoned by his parents, raised in the woods by a raving, self-styled prophet, cared for in the end by an atheist humanist uncle who sees Tarwater as a project and attempts to rid him of any sense of spirituality. It should be no surprise, given all of this, that Tarwater’s life is marked by tragedy. He is hollowed out inside by his experiences. Yet even at his worst moment, when Tarwater has committed murder, been sexually abused by a stranger, and found himself left alone to die, he is not truly alone. O’Connor shows us, through a description of a vision, that God has not abandoned Tarwater, that God still loves him, that he can still be redeemed.

For Tarwater and for O’Connor’s other characters, redemption comes not from inside of us but from the outside. Though O’Connor is not often explicit about it, God is the one who provides her characters with their only hope and only rescue. “I think the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable,” she wrote in one of her letters. But lest anyone think that her hope is wrapped up in the perfection of a human institution, she quickly added that “the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.”

The counterpoint of good and evil that Lewis makes evident through mythology and childlike wonder is made equally evident in O’Connor’s hard realism and Gothic horror. While their styles are quite different, both kinds of storytelling are necessary to bring to light this glaring truth that has been lost in our age. When there are no idealistic heroes struggling to uphold good against evil then there is nothing for us to aspire to, no hope for our own somewhat lesser quests to end in anything but confused longing. We need stories with strong archetypes of good and evil, with good always clearly at the forefront to be rooted for. At the same time, we need stories that paint for us the world as it is, stories that show us that our lives are saturated with evil and that the only way to overcome that evil is to accept love as a gift offered by God to mend our broken hearts.

In an era in which so much storytelling celebrates moral ambiguity, we would do well to look back to the great storytellers of the past, O’Connor and Lewis included, and to learn again how to tell stories that point to solid, honest truths about the human experience. Moral ambiguity may be interesting to explore from time to time, but it ultimately leaves us unsatisfied, because deep within us we know that there is such a thing as good and evil, and we know that to deny this reality is to shut our eyes to the world. The anti-heroes of our age will likely be forgotten in a generation or two, but O’Connor and Lewis will continue to be read for as long as people yearn for great stories.

Article © 2011 by J-Tron