Books Personal

The Christmas Rabbits of C.S. Lewis

Watership Down

Creation is alive with the spark of God, often witnessed in the innocence of children. For those made curious by the title, it is actually an amalgam of two oddly related God moments recently experienced through the pen of two celebrated English writers.

The first came through reading Watership Down to my children. The classic Richard Adams epic is the adventure of several rabbits who break away from their warren. A note of foreboding by the youngest of the herd has not been heeded, but his history of keen perception convinces his colleagues among the rabble.

At a resting place along the way, Dandelion comforts the tired rabbits with the tale of Frith, their god.

It is a “How the Elephant got his Trunk” story, for rabbits. Their chief ancestor engaged in friendly witticism with Frith, and eventually found himself in conversation with the deity while bottom-up stuck in hole.

Earlier in the story, Frith multiplied the rabbit’s enemies as the ancestor thumbed his nose at the request to curb his prodigious copulation.

Impressed by the ancestor’s pluck while still vulnerable, Frith blessed the rabbit’s bottom with quickness and speed, with which it can ever evade them—but must run.

It is a delightful creation account, but my oldest daughter remarked Frith isn’t a real god. He is too much akin to his creatures, and too involved in playful banter with his creation.

I explained that the stories of many gods are similar. They live with humans and interact with them.

My younger daughter then piped in, “That’s kinda like our story, too.”

I was struck by her use of the word “story.” To my daughter the Christian story is the implicitly true account of the universe, but her instinctive description of it is as narrative. Unlike her elder sibling, she didn’t mind the resemblance.

A few hours later I was reading a Christianity Today article about a recently discovered article of C.S. Lewis, called “A Christmas Sermon for Pagans,” originally published in a forgotten issue of the once popular The Strand magazine, but nowhere listed within Lewis’ extensive bibliography.

The article notes Lewis’ observation that despite post-Christian peoples sometimes being called “pagans,” they are nothing of the sort. True pagans inhabited a world full of mystery, magic, and wondrous creatures.

Comparing the two, Lewis wrote, is:

like thinking … a street where the houses have been knocked down is the same as a field where no house has yet been built. … Rubble, dust, broken bottles, old bedsteads and stray cats are very different from grass, thyme, clover, buttercups and a lark singing overhead.

The enchantment of pagan reality is superior to a dreary modernity, Lewis thought. He found danger in modern man’s machine-like approach to nature, even to humanity itself.

But Christianity is an interesting middle-ground:

It looks to me, neighbours, as though we shall have to set about becoming true Pagans if only as a preliminary to becoming Christians. … For (in a sense) all that Christianity adds to Paganism is the cure.

It confirms the old belief that in this universe we are up against Living Power: that there is a real Right and that we have failed to obey it: that existence is beautiful and terrifying.

It adds a wonder of which Paganism had not distinctly heard—that the Mighty One has come down to help us, to remove our guilt, to reconcile us.

In some sense, coming back to my youngest daughter, Christianity is the fulfillment of Frith.

[To note for those truly interested: G.K. Chesterton explored very similar themes in his The Everlasting Man.]

Islam, a post-Christian religion held by most Egyptians we live among, takes great offense at the Christian claim of incarnation. While Allah intervenes in human affairs and may extend his great mercy, it is not fitting that he would become a man, sleep, snore, and defecate.

Frith, meanwhile, created the universe from his droppings. The Muslim impulse is very similar to that of my daughter, where a real god should not be so intimately involved with his creation.

It took the younger child to see it right.

“Every evening, when Frith has done his day’s work and lies calm and easy in the red sky,” wrote Adams, “[the ancestor and his descendants] come out of their holes and feed and play in his sight, for they are his friends, and he has promised them that they can never be destroyed.”

The magic of our ancestors fed the stories of our childhood. Modern man has grown too sophisticated to believe them, and Christianity played a significant role. We are not to fear the world.

The pagans did. Post-pagans, with much Christian help, shook their fear and enslaved their former enchanter. What will set the world—and us—free again?

Christmas is coming.

In one corner there may be snark at notions of traveling stars and virgin birth amid inebriation and the best of consumerism.

In another corner there may be snark at the right number of wise men and the seasonal location of a manger, amid legalism and the best of consumerism.

This year, around the Christmas tree appropriated from our pre-Christian ancestors, be rightfully pagan. Feast. Revel. Sing.

Be also rightfully Christian. Share. Serve. Marvel.

As Lewis wrote to the pseudo-pagans of his day, this may be our “way back not only to Heaven, but to Earth too.”

It is a lesson far more easily grasped by children. Perhaps also, by rabbits.


Trump is the New…

Andrew Jackson Nikabrik TrumpIdentifying the alter ego of the front-running Republican candidate appears to be American’s favorite parlor game these days. An early winner is Adolph Hitler, with Benito Mussolini making a late charge. I have even seen some suggest Jesus.

But here are two more insightful comparisons.

T. Greer goes back in American history to find the first populist candidate to upset the establishment:

In truth, we do not need to look to foreign climes to understand Trumpism. Donald Trump is not America’s Hitler. Donald Trump is the 21st century’s Andrew Jackson.

Like Trump, Andrew Jackson ran for office at a time when an entrenched political aristocracy had controlled the American political system for decades.

Like Trump, Jackson’s supporters had lost their faith in this system and felt utterly isolated from its ruling class.

As with Trump, Jackson was a fantastically well off in comparison to the average American, but still a considered a complete outsider in elite circles because he was crass, rude, vulgar, and stupid–in other words, a joke, someone not to be taken seriously until it was too late.

Like Trump, Jackson’s success was built upon getting the people who the existing system excluded or ignored engaged in politics in a way they had not been their entire lives. In both cases these people tended to be less educated, not too well off, and of Scots-Irish descent.

Like Trump, Jackson was a nativist, a nationalist, and fairly racist. Both are in essence majoritarians, and their policy is to materially improve the livelihoods of the majority demographic, even if that comes at the expense of other groups.

Like Trump, Jackson used these voters to hijack a party coalition traditionally associated with limited government; like Trump, Jackson paid lip service to this philosophy (and sometimes, as with the banks, acted on his words) but possessed a temperament that put him at odds with it.

Like Trump, Jackson did not have a firm grasp of all the issues at hand on the campaign trail (compared to his opponents, who were quite wonkish), and had a pronounced tendency to personalize all political disputes.

Like Trump, this was one of his greatest selling points with the public: Jackson was someone who spoke as a common man did while being greater than any common man was. He “told it like it is.” Both understood the media technology and news cycles of their time, and took advantage of them in novel ways to “tell it like it is” to far more people than his opponents thoughts possible. You could say that Jackson, like Trump, pioneered a new style of campaigning. By doing so he quickly learned how to outmaneuver his political opponents into oblivion.

Like Trump, attacks that came against Jackson in response only seemed to make him stronger, and like Trump, most of these attacks were focused less on his ideas–which were always rather nebulously defined on the campaign trail, painted in broad strokes, so to speak–than against his character, especially his (or his family’s) alleged lechery, gaudiness, stupidity, or savagery.

I could go on, but you get the point.

Greer continues to compare the two eras to imagine what America might expect from a Trump presidency. In short, populism is a corrective for a political establishment that has fallen out of touch with a great part of the electorate. But the presidency is a much more powerful institution than it used to be, so the curbs on Jackson’s power may not restrain Trump as effectively.

In the second comparison, Gina Dalfonzo leaves history and enters fiction. Fans of C. S. Lewis may appreciate her warning, imagining Trump to be supported by Nikabrik:

In the story, you may remember, Narnia is in a desperate situation. The Telmarines have taken over, and the citizens of Narnia have been persecuted, silenced, and driven into hiding. When Prince Caspian—a Telmarine himself, but one who sympathizes with the Narnian cause—joins forces with them, this leads to a fresh round of attacks from the other Telmarines and their king, Miraz. The Narnians try to summon help by using Queen Susan’s horn—and they are successful, though not all of them realize it right away.

Drawn to Narnia by the call of the horn, Peter and Edmund and their guide, the dwarf Trumpkin, come upon a handful of Narnians meeting with Prince Caspian. Nikabrik, another dwarf, is angry that apparently no help has come from Aslan or the old kings and queens of Narnia. While others argue that “help will come” if they can wait patiently, Nikabrik contends that there is no time to wait: They are running out of food and reinforcements.

If Aslan won’t help, Nikabrik adds, perhaps another power will:

“The stories tell of other powers besides the ancient Kings and Queens. How if we could call them up?”
“Who do you mean?” said Caspian at last.
“I mean a power so much greater than Aslan’s that it held Narnia spellbound for years and years, if the stories are true.”
“The White Witch!” cried three voices all at once. . . .

This, of course, is the same Witch who killed Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Nikabrik has already gone so far as to recruit a sorceress to raise the Witch from the dead. But the others are horrified—so horrified that a battle ensues, joined by the Pevensies and Trumpkin. By the time it’s over, Nikabrik and his allies are dead themselves.

How could one of the good guys in this story become corrupt enough to seek help from someone whose greed, brutality, and lust for power were legendary? As Lewis well knew, it can happen more easily and quickly than one might think. It’s been happening throughout history, ever since the first time the Israelites turned to a godless nation for help instead of trusting God to save them.

One can make a case that it’s happening right now within the conservative movement in the United States.

The article does not chastise Nikabrik unduly. He has admirable characteristics and noble sentiments. But fear and concern for one’s own can blind human nature to a multitude of faults, if packaged as an answer to set things right.

These are not the only comparisons out there, but rather than engaging in the dismissive accusation of fascism, consider also these critiques on the presumptive red state candidate.