One day in 1916 a young atheist purchased a book in a British train station. A fantasy novel. The author was unknown to him, but upon closer glance, it seemed to the boy that the book would entertain his own youthful, Romanticist leanings.
|Anodos and the two warrior princes|
He opened the book at home that evening. And found that "my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized."
Years later, when "the rest of [him]" finally followed suit, C.S. Lewis referenced Scottish minister George MacDonald's Phantastes as the impetus that set his reluctant feet on the path back to Christianity. "I had not the faintest notion what I had let myself in for by buying Phantastes," he said. MacDonald remained Lewis' "wise old man" for the rest of his life.
Having heard this story, I decided to figure out what kind of power Lewis had found in MacDonald's Christian fantasy. It's a flowery, symbolic read, an exercise in literary endurance nowadays. But this morning, as I jogged and listened to the 20th and 21st chapters, I came upon the passage that did it for me.
It may not have been the passage that changed Lewis. But I think it says something about him and his own journey to joy and meaning. And something about the rest of us too:
"As, however, two of you can be no match for the three giants, I will find you, if I can, a third brother, who will take on himself the third share of the fight, and the preparation. Indeed, I have already seen one who will, I think, be the very man for your fellowship, but it will be some time before he comes to me. He is wandering now without an aim. I will show him to you in a glass, and, when he comes, you will know him at once. If he will share your endeavours, you must teach him all you know, and he will repay you well, in present song, and in future deeds."
This is why I love stories—good books can teach, without half trying, about the real world—the one in which we live, the one that lives inside of us, and the one from which we came and are, whether we think about it or not, trying to get back to. It's in our makeup. That's why the hero's journey resonates with us, I think.
The hero's journey—with MacDonald's Phantastes character, Anodos, as the unwitting, unworthy but, ultimately, willing, hero. I had followed his journey for months, in halting attempts to appreciate the slowness and aimlessness of his solitary journey through Faerieland—18 chapters' worth. It seemed to me he did nothing, contributed nothing, simply fainted and moaned and went off on meaningless tangents. Despite my best efforts I wondered if C.S. Lewis simply belonged to a dead-and-gone generation that appreciated this kind of thing. Where was point B in all of Anodos' wanderings?
But in chapter 19 Anodos found a "wise old woman" who showed him a mother's love and guidance and then gently sent him away. And Anodos wandered a little more, to the tower wherein two noble brother-princes were preparing, as they had consciously for years, to slay three brother giants and save their kingdom.
Anodos listened to their story and learned that, he, unwittingly, had been sent to them by the old woman—to kill the third giant. Indeed, he had been being prepared to be sent for many chapters now. Honed by his journey, and now aware of his purpose, Anodos resolved to fulfill it—the "first worthy deed of my life," he called it.
He learned; he trained; he did his part. And brought his giant down. And he, "the least worthy" in his eyes, emerged "the sole survivor on the lists."
Grieving the death of his two noble prince-friends, he found himself "almost ashamed that I was alive, when they, the true-hearted, were no more. And yet I breathed freer to think that I had gone through the trial, and had not failed."
As a different Lewis emerged from his Romanticist read.
This story bodes for heroes—or people—of all types, I think. Some, like the princes, are already filled with purpose and passion, and dedicate their lives to a worthy quest. Most of us, though, are different versions of Anodos: willing, but weak; apathetic; lethargic in convenience; completely unconscious of a greater purpose; perhaps even a little rebellious.
But a wise old woman enabled both the princes and Anodos to achieve. Forces combined to set a teenage atheist on a path to personal salvation—and inspiration for millions of others.
I believe each person—even the most unconscious or unwilling—has a work set aside for him or her, along with the latent character to do it. And a "wise old man" to guide him to it, through it, and in the aftermath.
It's not a cut-and-dried process. Anodos' purpose did not become clear to him—or to readers—until almost the end of the book. But, apparently, his fruitless wanderings in the first 20 chapters served a wise and calculated purpose—the making of a wiser, worthy man and hero in chapter 21.
Whatever the timing, it will be right. Whatever the task, it is the true opportunity. Whatever the means, it will be the best way. And though we wander and wonder as Anodos and Lewis, aimless but searching, weak but willing, the wise old man can take care of the rest—even for the most clueless and unwitting among us.
In His time and in His way, he will bring forth those quiet, inner characteristics of true herohood in us. Our truest, noblest selves. Indeed, it may already happening in us, and has been for a while. The end result, for the outer world and the one inside us, is greater than we in our puny proximations can comprehend.
At least, that's what the stories tell.