St. John Henry Newman’s Imagination and Modern Fairy Tales

Oratory Church of the Immaculate Conception” by Michael D Beckwith / CC BY 3.0

This article originally appeared as an assignment in an intellectual history class I took. I realized that the subject is basically designed to go viral on Catholic twitter — the four figures I analyzed are beloved in English-speaking Catholic circles, and for good reason in my opinion. This was originally a 19 page paper, so for comfort and ease of reading in this format I’ve trimmed things down a bit and adopted a looser style. It shouldn’t hurt the content too much.

Modernity (the subject of the class and the paper) brought with it a shift in how people reason. Scholasticism was on the way out and instrumental, scientific, empirical reasoning was on the way in. This created a serious problem for religious people. The old scholastic arguments still had their power, but moderns were no longer capable of really understanding or following them. Readers of this have no doubt encountered this in their own Christian journey — an atheist may ask for proof of God’s existence, and when offered the five ways or the ontological argument will usually reject it without really refuting it. I’ve had people reject the Principle of Sufficient Reason in order to maintain their atheism!

For modern Christian apologia, offering a defense of the reasonableness of religious belief in modernity became a focus. The earliest attempt I’m aware of is Pascal’s Pensées and the most famous is Kierkegaardian fideism. Newman drew from the first and was not familiar with the second as far as I’m aware (though being an orthodox Catholic he would no doubt have rejected Kierkegaardianism). He offered his own solution too. His Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent was a masterpiece in this area, answering modern epistemology excellently and developing a rock solid defense of the reasonableness of belief even after the so-called death of God. My contention here is that the Essay was also an immense influence on G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis’s respective literary projects. Newman taught these three that fairy tales are a means of ‘saying what needed to be said,’ and his famous Illative Sense formed their aesthetic sensibilities. It is through this work that we can see Newman’s presence in Elfland, Middle Earth, and Narnia.

The Imagination and the Grammar of Assent

John Newman” by George Richmond / Public Domain

The great Bernard Lonergan allegedly read the Grammar of Assent 17 times before completing his Insight. As a humble undergraduate student, I’ve only gone through 3 times. Like so many great books, it demands to be read over and over, and offers new insight each time. It was addressed to a Europe in crisis. Newman released it in the year of Vatican I, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Annexation of Italy. In his Apologia, Newman describes the state of the continent as “tending — with far greater rapidity than in that old time from the circumstance of the age, — to atheism in one shape or another.” (1) England escaped much of the chaos of the continent, but it fared scarce better in Newman’s estimation. His England was one where “Bible Religion,” a faith consisting of “little more than… reading the Bible and living a correct life,” was how most people experienced Christianity. (2) Newman sees this as a greatly deprived mode of worship, and so addresses the first half of the Grammar largely to the practitioners of this faith.

The crux of the first half of the text deals with the distinction between what Newman calls ‘notional’ and ‘real’ apprehension. Notional apprehension occurs when the mind apprehends an idea existing in one’s own mind, but nothing outside of it. When St. Anselm describes “that by which nothing greater can be conceived,” if we apprehend at all, we apprehend this notionally (St. Anselm would have no problem with this as the burden of real assent falls on the rest of the Proslogion). Science too, is a primarily notional venture. One can assent to the idea that the stars are a million billion miles away, but few people are capable of really understanding what that number means. This is because real apprehension occurs through the contemplation of “things simply external to us, brought home to us through the experiences and informations we have of them.” (3) If I told you I had a Granny Smith apple for breakfast today you would probably have a real apprehension of this idea: you have seen Granny Smith apples before, and your mind would therefore be able to bring this fact home to you in your imagination. Or returning to the stars; if I told you they were 10 miles away, you would understand that as the distance between your home and Home Depot, let’s say. Neither of these modes are necessarily better or worse than the other, and of course neither have anything to do with the truth of a proposition (I actually had yogurt and strawberries for breakfast, thank you for asking).

The main difference between the two, Newman tells us, is that real apprehension is “stronger,” as “intellectual ideas cannot compete in effectiveness with the experience of concrete facts.” (4) Real apprehension also “excites and stimulates the affections and passions,” and so “impels to action.” (5) It is here that Newman reintegrates his idea of modern ‘Bible Religion’ as being deficient — it is a merely notional religion, and he believes that it is proper to religion to be brought home really. As a Catholic, he would have in mind images of the Saints and the encounter with Christ in the Eucharist, but also something like real experiences of God in mental prayer. Lacking real apprehension of the divine, most of his countrymen have a “meagre view of revealed truth.” (6)

It is not as if those countrymen are irredeemably lost, though. Newman describes a way in which one can be moved from a notional apprehension of propositions to a real one: the direction of the mind to real things through the “impressions which they have left on the imagination.” (7) He offers a number of illustrations, but my favourite is that of William Wilberforce. Ethical truths, Newman writes, often “float on the surface of society, admitted by all, valued by few…until changed circumstances, accident, or the continual pressure of their advocates, force them upon its intention.” (8) It took an “organized agitation, with tracts and speeches innumerable” on behalf of people like Wilberforce to “affect the imagination of men” to make ending the evil of slavery “operative.” (9) It is a testament to the work of the creators of Amazing Grace that Newman’s argument is so effectively borne out in this clip.

Here one may object to Newman though. There is nothing for a cardinal of the Catholic church to hold up to show that God was there (notwithstanding the fragments of the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, or the Shroud of Turin — a nonbeliever would not accept those as evidence despite the fact that that is what they are). How then can people be brought to a real apprehension? Newman’s answer, very famously, is conscience. It reveals a law written on all our hearts, which creates a real image of a “Supreme Ruler and Judge” in our minds. (10) The imagination is the ordinary means by which we are able to really apprehend — and later really assent to — the divine, and so it is no wonder that the imaginative Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis would draw so much from him.

The Illative Sense

The second half of the Grammar is an explicit rebuke of the errors Newman saw in British Empiricism. In particular was the Lockian notion that the strength of one’s assent to a proposition ought to be related to the strength of the evidence available. Newman believes this is self-evidently false; there are many propositions that people assent to absolutely without hesitation with almost no evidence. A number of his examples will suffice. There is an “external world,” a “universe carried on by laws,” the earth is a “globe,” there really are “existing cities on definite sites, which go by the names of London, Paris, Florence, and Madrid,” and most famously that Britain is an island. (11) None of us can “think or act without the acceptance of truths, not intuitive, not demonstrated, but sovereign.” (12)

The explanation for this is what Newman calls the “Illative sense,” or the “power of judging and concluding” in situations where the empirical standard is impossible to meet. (13) It allows us not only to assent to things in the absence of empirical evidence — we all believe Britain is an island without having circumnavigated it — but to exist at all in reality. Relying on empiricism reduces us to the Cogito, but relying on the Illative sense allows us to accept things as they are. Both Lewis and Tolkien would inform their aesthetic sensibilities based on this sense. Chesterton does not, but his Orthodoxy nevertheless demonstrates a brilliant mind’s interpretation of Newman.

Apprehending the ‘Ethics of Elfland

G.K Chesterton” by Wyndham Lewis / Public Domain

Orthodoxy is a book a lot like the Grammar of Assent in that it demands to be reread. Chesterton also deliberately styles himself off Newman. The preface mentions how “the writer has been driven back upon somewhat the same difficulty as that which beset Newman in writing his Apologia; he has been forced to be egotistical only in order to remain sincere.” (14) Those of us familiar with his other polemical works will likely doubt this second part — Chesterton is forced to be egotistical because that is his style, and it is why we love him. Doubtless, Newman is all over the work. The Eternal Revolution, as many have seen, is a Development of Christian Doctrine, and the Ethics of Elfland is a Grammar of Assent.

Chesterton’s “first and last philosophy,” he “learnt in the nursery” — he believed in fairy tales, those “entirely reasonable things.”(15) Fairy tales allowed Chesterton to know “the magic beanstalk before I tasted beans,” and be sure “of the Man in the Moon before I was certain of the moon.” (16) This is the same principle Newman identified. The imagination creates images that allow real apprehension of things unseen. This becomes more apparent when Chesterton speaks of the lessons of fairytales. Jack the Giant Killer teaches the very reasonable lesson that “giants should be killed because they are gigantic,” a “manly mutiny against pride;” Cinderella teaches the same lesson as the Magnificat — “exaltavit humiles” (lifting up the lowly); Beauty and the Beast teaches that a “thing must be loved before it is loveable.” (17) These are all “separate statutes” in the larger law of elfland, learned “before I could speak” and that he shall retain “when I cannot write.” (18) These lessons were all later “meekly ratified by the mere facts” of life. (19)

In Newman’s language, fairy tales create in the mind a tangible impression of the moral law. Contemplating them allows one to really apprehend the abstract idea of ‘good,’ and really assent to the propositions ‘pride is bad’ and ‘love is good.’ This real apprehension would be contrasted with notional apprehension as he continues, strengthening the Newman connection.

Fairyland has not only a set of statutes, but its own logic. There are “certain sequences or developments… which are, in the true sense of the word, reasonable,” or necessary. (20) If Cinderella’s sisters are older than her, then it is an iron law that Cinderella is younger than the ugly sisters. Some of these facts, such as “eggs turn[ing] into birds” and “fruits fall[ing] in the autumn,” are even a kind of “magic,” and all are deserving of admiration and wonder. (21) On putting “my head over the hedge of the elves,” however, Chesterton observed a very different kind of reasoning in the “natural world.” “Learned men,” he writes,

were talking about the actual things that happened — dawn and death and so on — as if they were rational and inevitable. They talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit were just as necessary as the fact that two and one makes three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of the imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging by the tail. (22)

This can seem silly, but it’s actually quite brilliant. Chesterton is contrasting Aristotelian logic with scientific reasoning, and demonstrating the strength of one and the limitations of another. A syllogism like “all women with older sisters are younger sisters; Cinderella has older sisters; therefore, Cinderella is a younger sister” can prove that facts of reality must be so, but science can only conduct an experiment proving that Cinderella is a younger sister to the ugly stepsisters (perhaps through researching the stepmother’s marriage papers). Like Newman, Chesterton is distinguishing scientific, notional reasoning from logical, real reasoning.

Orthodoxy echoes the Grammar of Assent in another way. Both works had the believer in ‘Bible Religion’ in mind. Chesterton’s “‘personal philosophy’ in ‘The Ethics of Elfland’ begins and ends [with] the perpetual wonder that keeps the human mind open to reality as a divine revelation,” just as Newman sought to stir those “too well inclined to sit at home, instead of stirring themselves to inquire whether a revelation has been given.” (23) Orthodoxy was addressed only to “those able to sustain their sense of intellectual wonder, their drive for adventure and the thrill of discovery,” or, in other words, the same audience that loves fairy tales. (24)

A Small Wrinkle

The thread gets slightly murky here. Lewis and Tolkien were both avid readers of Chesterton and Newman. Lewis even makes a note of the “first time I read a volume of Chesterton’s essays” in his autobiography — he made an “immediate conquest” of him. (25) Both of their writings on fairy tales — and the tales themselves — are deeply marked by the Grammar of Assent, but it is unclear whether this influence came directly from Newman, through the mediation of Chesterton, or through a combination of the two.

I avoided making any claim about this in the original paper, both because it would weaken the argument and because it was kind of irrelevant. Secretly, I think it’s almost certain that it is at least a combination, and it likely tilts more towards Chesterton than Newman. Tolkien mentions G.K. by name in “On Fairy Stories,” but not Newman. However, I believe that it is best to read all of their work in light of the Grammar of Assent, and this does not change based on where the influence comes from.

Newman and the ‘Eucatastrophe’

J.R.R. Tolkien” by Betty Swanwick / Public Domain

Tolkien almost certainly owes his entire career to Newman. Orphaned as a boy, he and his brother Ronald were taken in by one of the Fathers at the Oratory in Birmingham which Newman had established, and he made sure they were put through school. (26) It is fitting, then, that the great saint plays such a major role in Tolkien’s literary project. In particular, Tolkien’s best known essay “On Fairy Stories” is deeply Newmanian, and through it one can see how the Grammar of Assent helped to shape Middle Earth.

Tolkien believes that the imagination is a capacity to form “mental images of things not actually present.” (27) The great achievement of this is creating an “inner consistency of reality” in a created world — this is art. (28) Fantasy is a highly imaginatory form of art and the “most nearly purest form,” so, when achieved, the “most potent.” (29)

This connection between the imagination and art is what could be called an “aesthetic dimension of the imagination:” or the “capacity to create, to evoke and allude to a reality beyond the thing imagined.” (30) Tolkien is approaching the “aesthetics of words through the use of [Newman’s] notion of the illative sense;” this apprehension of images in the imagination makes use of the same faculty that one uses to apprehend the image of Paris without ever having visited. (31) Writing a captivating work of fantasy requires a functioning Illative Sense, and so, like in Lewis’ Abolition of Man, Tolkien believes that a different mode of thought is needed to write good literature.

Indeed, the Illative Sense even appears in the Lord of the Rings. Alongside furnishing certitude that the great cities of Europe actually exist, the Illative Sense also plays a function in memory: it assures us that “Paris or London, unless swallowed up by an earthquake or burned to the ground, is to-day just what it was yesterday, when we left it.” (32) It allows us to apprehend these places in our imaginations, and “recall to our own minds past things or events, without these things becoming abstract.” (33) Thus, Aragorn can, on picking a flower, remember “the time when, with Arewn, they had pledged their life,” not in an abstracted way, but beholding “things as they once had been in this same place.” (34)

A question remains about the ‘potency’ he mentioned though. What effect is fantasy meant to have? Among the main functions of fairy stories is escape from “what the misusers of Escape are fond of calling Real Life.” (35) Real Life here is the “Robot Age,” where anything real or fixed would “very soon be replaced — indeed regarded as pitiably obsolete and shabby.” (36) Fairy tales have more “permanent and fundamental” things to talk about than the ephemeral scientific world. (37) Motor-cars are less “alive” than centaurs and dragons, and less real than horses; the “obsolete” elm tree is more real than the factory chimney; and the clouds are “more real” than the roof of Bletcheley station. (38) By only including the ‘real’ parts of modern life and absenting the unreal, fairy tales make it “possible for a rational man, after reflection… to arrive at the condemnation, implicit in the mere silence of ‘escapist’ literature, of progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say ‘inexorable,’ products.” (39) (Based?)

Tolkien is not at his most Newmanian here. That mostly comes at the end of the essay, in his epilogue. What emerges here, though, is a preference for the ‘reality’ of imagination and the moral universe of fairy tales over the ‘unreality’ of modern science. The ‘obsolete elm tree’ in particular is quite telling. Tolkien followed Coleridge and Ruskin in viewing the natural order of the English countryside as part of his moral imagination. It would be proper for a fairy story, distinguished by a “strong moral element,” to demonstrate the justness of the natural order contrasted with the injustice of technique, which is exactly what emerges in the Lord of the Rings. Saruman, the evil wizard, has a “mind of metal and wheels, and does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him at the moment.” (40) He’s a utilitarian and a man of science, in other words. His aim is to clear cut the forest, and so one of the great battles in the Two Towers occurs between the Ents, who are the guardians of the trees, and his army of orcs (manufactured robots).

Alongside this and other escapist elements is the ‘consolation’ of fairy stories. The highest function of the fairy story is the “eucatastrophe,” a word Tolkien coins to describe the “Consolation of the Happy Ending.” (41) The happy ending gives a fleeting glimpse of the reality of “Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” (42) In this joy we see a “sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth.” (43) It is a “brief vision that the answer may be greater — it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.” (44) Here emerges the Grammar of Assent. The Gospels contain “a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces the essence of fairy-stories.” (45) The Incarnation is the “eucatastrophe of Man’s history,” and the Resurrection is the “eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation.” (46) In Christianity, “Legend and History have met and fused.” (47)

As in Chesterton, the fairy tale becomes a means of inspiring real assent, in this case explicitly in the Gospel. The happy ending in a fairy tale impresses on the imagination the reality that human history itself has a happy ending. People online love to complain about the length of the ending in the Lord of the Rings (especially in the films), but it is important to its purpose as a fairy tale. It is a eucatastrophe; the Resurrection followed by the great commission and the ascension into Heaven. It is not the end of time, but it is the end of an age. It’s very telling that Gandalf and Frodo — Christ the prophet and Christ the priest — leave, while Aragorn, representing Christ the King, stays to reign on earth. Prophecy ends with the death of St. John, and Christ’s priesthood continues only through his servants, but his kingship continues even today. The Grammar of Assent, therefore, helped shape both Tolkien’s craft and the substance of his stories, aiding him in his end of impressing realities on modern minds dulled by unreality.

It All Began With a Picture…

C.S. Lewis” by Arthur Strong / Public Domain

C.S. Lewis was a great friend and frequent collaborator of Tolkien’s, so it is no surprise that themes from “On Fairy Stories’’ appear in his own work. Tolkien introduced him to Chesterton and encouraged him to treat the Gospel as it appears in “On Fairy Stories” — as a true myth. There are other similarities too. The demons in the Screwtape Letters aim to turn their subject’s attention from God through scientific materialism, which they teach him to call “real life,” never letting him ask what they mean by real, and the Chronicles of Narnia of course end in the ‘eucatastrophe’ of all the characters joining Aslan in heaven. (48) It would be a mistake to claim that Lewis’ views of fairy tales were merely derivative of Tolkien’s, though. Lewis wrote a great deal of essays on fairy tales and on romances generally which are collected in a volume called Of Other Worlds. In three essays, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” and “It All Began With a Picture,” Lewis outlines his own original perspective on the purpose of fairy tales, and in so doing reveals his connection with the Grammar of Assent.

Beginning with “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” does slightly weaken the claim that Lewis’ insights into the medium in these essays are wholly distinct from his. He actually reasons from Tolkien’s essay which he “hope[s] everyone has read,” drawing on his insight that fairy tales being considered childrens’ books is actually an accident of modern life. (49) All who like fairy tales “like [them] for the same reason;” they arouse in the reader a “longing for he knows not what.” (50) While some use this longing to accuse writers of fairy tales of “giving children a false impression of the world they live in,” Lewis believes that “no literature that children could read,” not even scientific books, could give them “less of a false impression.” (51) In fact, realistic stories are “far more likely to deceive,” for a child “never expect[s] the real world to be like the fairy tales,” but does “expect school to be like school stories.” (52)

These are themes which appear in Chesterton and Tolkien. The reader longs for something real which a fairy tale points to, and fairy land is a lot more like reality than realistic stories. A child raised on fairy tales “does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all woods a little bit enchanted.” (53) I think of a child in London who reads of Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood’s merry men before ever leaving the city, and so assents both to the existence and goodness of the woods based on the impression which the stories have left on his imagination. The fairy tale has taught him a lesson about reality which an encyclopedia entry on forests never could.

More substantial is Lewis’ essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” an overview of the strengths of the medium and a few thoughts on how and why Narnia came to be written. Some have said that Narnia began when Lewis asked himself “how I could say something about Christianity to children,” followed by fixing “on the fairy tale as an instrument,” and then collecting “information about child-psychology” and hammering out “allegories” which would be effective on children. (54) That method sounds like hell, and Lewis would agree. In reality, he began with “images:” a “faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge,” and a “magnificent lion.” (55)

Here again is the aesthetic dimension of the imagination — the illative sense — which appeared in Tolkien. Lewis used this faculty of apprehension to create Narnia and populate it with Aslan, Mr. Tumnus, the Ice Queen, and company.

Lewis recommends that readers of his romances who wish to understand his aesthetic philosophy more deeply can find it, “stripped of [its] fictional masquerade, in the Abolition of Man,” which is worth dwelling on briefly here. (56) Lewis believed that education after around 100 years of utilitarian influence was crippling the imagination of schoolchildren, making “men without chests,” lacking “virtue,” “enterprise,” and “honour.” (57) The modern educator must awaken them “from the slumber of cold vulgarity” and “irrigate deserts” devoid of imagination. (58) Lewis’ understanding of writing makes his pedagogy make a lot more sense: if one is taught to regard horses as animals one can ride on rather than with sentiments that are more just towards them in the “semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts” in human history where they find “noble” expression, one can never imagine centaurs. (59) Indeed, the philosophy of the Abolition of Man shines through not only in the composition of Narnia, but it appears in its actual content, as Lewis elucidates in the rest of his essay.

Lewis took the images he created in his mind — Fauns and ice witches and so on — and contemplated where they would fit, and was “enamoured” with the form of fairy tales. (60) Fairy stories can “steal part of a certain inhibition which paralyzed much of my own religion in Childhood,” namely why it was “hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ?” (61) Casting all these things in an “imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations,” could “make them for the first time appear in their real potency.” (62)

Sunday school Christianity is no doubt associated with notional apprehension of God. Indeed, for most evangelists, breaking down what post-Christians learned in Sunday school is the first step in walking with someone. With Lewis I lament the fact that children do not receive a proper theological education (the Baltimore Catechism is right there!). Unless Sunday school notions — God is love, Christ died for the forgiveness of sins, etc. — are brought into the mind in a real way, the attendees will fall away. Perhaps a great lion who was shorn, humiliated, and executed to pay the penalty for eating Turkish Delights could be what it takes to bring children to real apprehension of the Atonement, and the “magic” of death “working backward” could bring them to really assent in the Resurrection. (63)

Making religious truths appear for the first time in their real potency is a great theme across all of Lewis’ works. Like Newman, he recognized that this was a necessity for a modern evangelist. Mere Christianity and the Abolition of Man were two such works, and both had a great influence on the content of Narnia. A good teacher of English ought to teach his students how to respond to things with “just sentiments,” inside what he calls the Dao, or natural law. (64) The contents of the Dao can be known through conscience, just as they are for Newman. This “Moral Law which He has put into our minds” allows us to know the Lawgiver, and “this is a better bit of evidence than [any] other, because it is insider information.” (65)

It is from conscience too, that the famous “trilemma” emerges. Christ claims to “forgive sins: any sins,” and unless he really was God, this would be “so preposterous as to be comic.” (66) Whereas some would transform Jesus into a noble moral teacher along the lines of Marcus Aurelius or Confucius, Lewis argues that this option is not left open to us, as “a man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell… either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.” (67) It is the impression of the lawgiver created by one’s conscience that prevents even “His enemies, when they read the Gospels,” from doing this: Christ says that He is “‘humble and meek’ and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we should attribute to some of His sayings.” (68)

In a crucial scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lewis tips his hand and reveals the influence of both the aesthetic imagination he champions in the Abolition of Man and the Newmanian conception of conscience of Mere Christianity. The two eldest Pevensies, Peter and Susan, decide to approach Professor Firke, who happens to own the Wardrobe that is the gateway to Narnia. Firke, incidentally, is usually read as a stand-in for Tolkien, though I read him at first as a stand-in for Lewis himself. His philosophy is exactly Lewis’s, as you will see below. The kids tell him about Lucy’s stories of a magic land, and he asks them how they know “that your sister’s story is not true?” (69) They entertain two possibilities which might explain it: Lucy is lying or she is mad. Both Susan and Peter agree that Lucy is reliable, and all agree that “one has only to look at her and talk to her and see that she is not mad.” (70) And so, given these data, the Professor channels Lewis’ nonfiction:

“‘Logic!’ said the Professor half to himself. ‘Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.” (71)

As with Wilberforce, the makers of the 2006 Narnia film were well aware of the importance of this scene. The problem here is the same as the ‘trilemma,’ and it is as tricky for the Pevensies as it was for many adult readers of Mere Christianity. Susan and Peter respond to it with what they have learned in school, the very empiricism that Lewis and all the other authors mentioned are critiquing. Peter asks why not everyone finds Narnia in every wardrobe, noting that “there was nothing there when we looked,” and if things are real, they must be “there all the time.” (72) As Chesterton noted above though, it is no more a law of nature that wardrobes do not have magic forests in them than that tigers do not grow on trees. Professor Kirke’s cold, hard, Aristotelian logic, grounded in the Dao, is more of a law than any of the laws of nature, and so children reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe have it impressed on them that when someone claims there is a gateway to another world in the wardrobe or that God became man, it bears checking to see if it is true.


In his essay “Newman, C.S. Lewis and the Reality of Conversion,” Edward Short identifies something of a ‘golden chain’ of imagery that runs from Newman to Chesterton to Lewis; the idea of “faith as a beckoning gateway to reality.” (73) It is no accident that doors come to play the role that they do in both the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia. Passing through the door of the hobbit hole and through the wardrobe into Narnia are in both cases a call to a deeper reality beyond, and both types of the journey of the religious person to whom God has “called, shouted, broke through my deafness.” (74) The existence of this symbolic chain is unsurprising. All four authors were making the same appeal to the same people using the philosophy articulated in Newman’s Grammar of Assent. Out of one cardinal’s response to a Europe in crisis came a great religious polemic and the two greatest fairy tales of the 20th century; all three authors recognized that myth could impress the realities of the moral law on the minds of their readers, and potentially overcome the great malaise of instrumental rationality. (75) Thus, St. John Henry Newman is amongst the most important influences on modern fairy tales.


These are all pasted verbatim from the footnotes in the original paper.

(1) John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, (London: Penguin Classics, 2004), 218.

(2) John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, (Bolton: Veritatis Splendor Publications, 2016), 51.

(3) Ibid., 16.

(4) Ibid., 15.

(5) Ibid., 17.

(6) Ibid., 51–52.

(7) Ibid., 65.

(8) Ibid., 67.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid., 87.

(11) Ibid., 140.

(12) Ibid., 141.

(13) Ibid., 274.

(14) G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Milton Keynes: Aziloth Books, 2011), Preface.

(15) Ibid., 38.

(16) Ibid., 39.

(17) Ibid.

(18) Ibid.

(19) Ibid.

(20) Ibid.

(21) Ibid., 41.

(22) Ibid., 40.

(23) Susan E. Hanssen, “Dumb Ox at the Crossroads of English Catholicism: G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Thoughts not in Themselves New,” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature no. 62, issue 1, 2009.

(24) Ibid.

(25) C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of my Early Life, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 233.

(26) “Tolkien’s First Contact With the Birmingham Oratory,” The Oratory, Birmingham,

(27) J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, (London: HarperCollins, 2006), 138.

(28) Ibid., 139.

(29) Ibid.

(30) Yannick Imbert, “Natural Law and Imagination,” in Research Handbook on Natural Law Theory, ed. Jonathan Crowe and Constance Y. Lee, (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, 2019)., 284.

(31) Ibid., 287.

(32) Newman, Grammar, 140.

(33) Imbert, “Natural Law and Imagination,” 287.

(34) Ibid., 287n.

(35) Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 148.

(36) Ibid., 148–49.

(37) Ibid., 149.

(38) Ibid.

(39) Ibid., 150.

(40) J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, (London: HarperCollins, 2007), 616.

(41) Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” 153.

(42) Ibid.

(43) Ibid., 155.

(44) Ibid.

(45) Ibid.

(46) Ibid.

(47) Ibid.

(48) C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, San Francisco: HarperOne, 2000), 2.

(49) C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” in Of Other Worlds, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 40.

(50) Ibid., 40–45.

(51) Ibid., 43.

(52) Ibid., 43–44.

(53) Ibid., 45.

(54) C.S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” in Of Other Worlds, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 57.

(55) Ibid.

(56) C.S. Lewis, “A Reply to Professor Haldane,” in Of Other Worlds, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 118.

(57) C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2000), 26.

(58) Ibid., 13–14.

(59) Ibid., 10.

(60) Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories,” 58.

(61) Ibid.

(62) Ibid.

(63) C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 179.

(64) C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 14.

(65) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 28.

(66) Ibid., 51.

(67) Ibid., 52.

(68) Ibid.

(69) Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, 50.

(70) Ibid., 51.

(71) Ibid., 52.

(72) Ibid., 52.

(73) Edward Short, “Newman, C.S. Lewis and the Reality of Conversion,” in Newman and History, (Leominster: Gracewing Press, 2017), 241.

(74) Augustine, “Late Have I Loved You, Beauty so Ancient and so New!,” accessed from

(75) Charles Taylor, The Malaise of Modernity, (Toronto: Anansi Press, 2003), 5

Originally I framed my introduction around how this is constructed in Charles Taylor’s great text The Malaise of Modernity. My audience here is more familiar with the idea of instrumental reason and the tone is more casual so I cut it, but I’ve footnoted it here because I think the text is essential reading.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.