Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Seeing Evil

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.

God in the Dock

A frightening truth about evil that most of us tend to forget is how difficult it is to recognize it for what it is without the benefit of hindsight.  Very few people, not even Adolf Hitler, have committed evil for its own sake.*  At the time an act is committed, there is something about it that seems somehow “good,” and, as Lewis observes above, the worst evil is often perpetrated specifically because someone believe he or she is doing it all for the sake of someone else.

Here, as much as I love Lewis and Tolkien, I think that when our literary education stops with Narnia and the Lord of the Rings we contribute to the problem.  Both show real evil, but the lines of demarcation between right and wrong are very clearly set.  For instance, I haven’t heard anyone seriously argue that Sauron was simply misunderstood and should have been given a fairer shake.  When we read those books, we all know who the bad guys are, and we are all happy when, as Lewis put it, “they are soundly killed.”  From this and other similar depictions (in movies, for example) we often get the idea that evil is something that should be clearly identifiable as evil.  Worse, we come to think that we must somehow recognize something as evil before it really could be evil.  After all, I could never be duped into supporting something like that!

For what Lewis and Tolkien were trying to create (particularly for Lewis, writing as he was for children) I don’t see this as a criticism of either author.  Narnia is precisely the depiction of evil that I want my daughter (at the ripe old age of 8) to cut her teeth on when she reads a book.  The first step is to understand that evil is very real, and that we must show bravery in the face of it.

I do think that I am making a very explicit criticism of what we as a subculture have become if we go no farther.  In real life, evil is very convincing and we have to be intelligent, critical, and discerning if we don’t want to be taken in by it.  Lewis and Tolkien both depicted this sort of evil in their less familiar works.  Tolkien did so regularly in The Silmarillion, and Lewis was even more detailed and explicit about it in The Space Trilogy (particularly Perelandra).  There is an art to it, and it is a difficult one to master. It is all too easy for an author to simply depict evil as good, and then declare himself/herself profound.** Those who get it right, though, let us see evil as it would like us to see it, but then also help us see beyond the facade to the true monster that lurks behind.  We understand how someone could think it “good” but we see it well enough to reject it anyway.

Literature is one of the best places for developing our ability to analyze and think well about these sorts of of situations before we encounter them in real life.  So, if you haven’t stepped beyond Narnia with Lewis, now is a good time to start.

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*Hitler literally believed he was aiding human evolution by purging it of those who were polluting it.  Viewed from that perspective, not only was it justified but, if he had been right, it would have been the “moral” thing to do.

**I find that many adults who read books with “real” depictions of evil are really reading this sort of moral escapist drivel.  In the end, this does far more harm than good by simply blurring the lines between right and wrong without equipping us with the tools we need to see through the haze.

Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far.  Interested in more about C. S. Lewis?  Check out Passing Through the Shadowlands–an extended project where I am blogging through his life in letters, essays, and books.

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on July 22, 2012, in Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Christianity, Meditations, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. I agree with the main point, but there is more subtlety in both Lewis and Tolkien than you give them credit for. In Narnia, we have Digory’s dilemma about what to do with the apple, where both choices at first seem wrong in one way or another. And Lewis’s most profound work in this mode is ‘Til We Have Faces, where the moral dilemmas are intensified by seeing the world through the eyes of the self-justifying (until the very end) character of Orual. In Tolkien, yea, in LOTR, we have Denethor, who was convinced he was serving Gondor the best way he could and used that to justify his compromises with evil. Sauron shows the same mentality in his conversation with Gandalf in Isengard.

  2. “For instance, I haven’t heard anyone seriously argue that Sauron was simply misunderstood and should have been given a fairer shake.”

    Interesting you say that. Of course, he is truly evil. Saruman is a more complex character, with the invitation to repent. Years ago I had an early PC game based on LOR. If you played it in a very rare manner, you could actually turn Saruman back to the good. As I recall, I only accomplished that once or twice in the scores of times I played.

    • Actually, even Sauron was given the chance to repent and apparently toed the straight and narrow for a short while after Morgoth was finally overthrown.

      In both cases, though, I think we see a transition for a character from good to evil, and the opportunity to bring someone back from evil to good. Even with Saurman, while he is acting as “ring maker” there is no question that he is evil. He has the choice to renounce that evil and return to the right path, but until he does, he isn’t “good” in any meaningful sense of the word.

      Perhaps it is a case of potentiality versus reality. Both had the potential to do good at one point, but through their choices the reality was that they became thoroughly evil.

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