May 14, 2008 — In my head, as near as I can describe it, is a pantheon. Actually, there might be more than one, but for the sake of clarity, let’s just say that there’s only one. The pantheon itself is embarrassingly white and embarrassingly Greek, so I won’t go into any detail about the edifice itself. At some point, I plan on renovating it to look more like it should: a study with leather reading chairs, floor-to-ceiling bookcases, and an un-drainable decanter of vintage port. But the point currently is what’s inside the place.
This pantheon is filled with the imagos of writers, musicians, painters, philosophers, and there might...might, I tell you...be one or two day-time talk show hosts. Now, I like a lot of artists, but mere appreciation doesn’t yield induction into my head-pantheon. Only those whose works have altered me on the most basic sub-atomic level reside there.
In fact, I said “filled” earlier, but a more accurate description is “sparsely populated.” But I did mean “imagos.” These artists aren’t represented in my head by statues, like in a hall of heroes, nor are they ghosts haunting its dark recesses and hallways (although that would be cool—I hate my imagination’s decisions). They’re more like half-bored train platform commuters milling around the area, some of them involved in half-hearted conversation, but most just lounging idly, as if they were awaiting some event that I have no clue about. Probably my death.
I’m not telling you all this because I think you don’t have something similar yourself. I’m sure you do, and I’m sure it’s way cooler. I’m telling you this because you need a context for the next sentence. You see, prominent in the writer’s section of my head-pantheon is Clive Staples Lewis.
I’ll be brief about why for fear of being long. After all, I do have the riveting topic of bronze furniture to get to. C.S. Lewis, to me at least, seems to be able to explain life, the universe, and everything in a way that makes sense like no other philosophical conception of the universe that I’ve so far heard, read, or had hammered into me by the short string of cults I've joined in my life His ideas are reasonable. They often hurt. They’re hopeful in humble ways. They explain the vagaries of human nature. They’ve got a sense of wonder. They have paradoxes. From the amount of time I’ve had to think about such matters during commercial breaks, I’ve come to realize that the most accurate ideas about the universe must have all these. Lewis’ elaborations on the subjects in his works are poignant, compelling, and worthy of legacy.
And, boy, does he have one...for children’s books. Ha. I got your paradox.
I’m referring, of course, to the The Chronicles of Narnia. You’ve heard about the series. Hollywood’s currently pushing it as a worthwhile end to your cash and time, so that means we’ve all heard about it. I read the books as a child, and I recently re-read them again in preparation for the debut of Prince Caspian this weekend and because I don’t have my cable hooked up in my new place yet. The stories aren’t why I dig Lewis, really, but I’ll be forever indebted to him for the image of a single, ever-lighted lamppost in the middle of a snowy wood. And for the phrase, “always winter, never Christmas.”
Anyway, Lewis’ life was completely Oxford, but all those bits of environment and influence and genetics that Voltron together to form who we are congealed for him in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he was born and spent the first decade and a half or so of his life. Once I knew I was Ireland-bound, I figured that there had to be something C.S. Lewish there for me to see that proudly touted his Irish origin.
Turns out it’s a large bronze wardrobe with a bronze man opening it while resting a bronze hand on a rather inviting bronze chair in front of the Holywood Arches Library near downtown Belfast. Mostly it’s called the C.S. Lewis Centenary statue, since it was erected on the centenary of his birth and because his name is C.S. Lewis, but the statue itself is really called “The Searcher Centenary Statue." In fact, while most sculptures that I’ve seen seem to try hard to be both obtuse and enigmatic, this Lewis statue is pretty loquacious.
First, a square cement border on the pavement takes care, more or less, of all the factual information that one usual gets with a statue dedicated to someone famous. One side of the square gives the name of the statue. Another gives his name as “C.S. ‘Jack’ Lewis – Ulsterman”, inexplicably taking pains to include his nickname and county of origin, but not spelling out his initials. A third side offers both the date of his birth and the date of his acceptance of Christianity. And the last side predicate nominatives him (writer, scholar, teacher, Christian), so that you don’t mistake him for the other C.S. Lewis.
Next, on the back of the aforementioned bronze wardrobe, on either side of a small lion’s head (I know, I know, Aslan) near the top, are not just one, but two explanations, a literal one and a metaphorical one. The former is headlined “The Searcher” and reads:
“The Searcher is based on a literary character called Digory Kirke created by C.S. Lewis. In the Magician’s Nephew it was Digory who made the wardrobe from a beautiful apple tree that had magical properties, which helped open a doorway to Narnia and Aslan.”
Like I said, I recently re-read the series, and this unattributed statement is a tad misleading. The construction of the wardrobe isn’t the plot point that this passage seems to make it out to be. You find out about the origin of the wardrobe in what more or less amounts to an epilogue of sorts. Like those bits of text at the end of Animal House that tell you how all the main characters end up in life.
The second explanation on the back of this statue details the symbolism chosen by the sculptor:
“C.S. Lewis did not just hang clothes in a wardrobe, he hung ideas - great ideas of sacrifice, redemption, victory, and freedom for the Sons of Adam and the Daughters of Eve - Set within the commonplace, revelation within something that looks ordinary on the outside - revelation through investigation. We should not stop looking, some of the greatest things can be found in the most ordinary of places, like a wardrobe.”
I’ve got a couple of things to say about this. First, the confusing and inconsistent use of hyphens is totally bronzed forever in the text itself and is not due to my lazy transcription. Second, the text is attributed to a pair of initials unfamiliar to me. Judging by the date that accompanies them (1998) and the extensive Google search I then undertook, it looks like the initials belong to the sculptor himself, Mr. Ross Wilson. I’m not sure how I was expected to know this just by viewing the sculpture, though. After all, R.W. is no C.S. But it brings me to my third point, and I might need you to weigh in on this one. Isn’t this kind of cheating? Is an artist in a non-literary media allowed to explain his work right on the work?
Anyway, reading on in the sculpture...At the bottom, beside a list of the financial contributors to the project (“help and insight,” is what they’re credited for specifically, though), is a quote from C.S. Lewis himself:
“This world is a great sculptor’s shop. We are the statues and there is a rumour going round the shop that some of us are some day going to come to life.”
This quote gets no commentary from me, but then again, neither does the following bit, either, and it’s the most interesting reading material on the sculpture. Off-center below the lion’s head is reproduced in bronze a letter from Lewis to a little girl who had written to him complaining that she didn’t understand his stories. Lewis’ reply, according to this letter, was basically, “Aslan is Christ, the stone table is the cross, and the White Witch represents little girls who write to me with annoying questions.”
Anyway, all this makes the statue both fun to read and view. Although, even with all the explanation that R.W. included, I’m still confused enough about one point that I might need a bronze letter from him myself. I know that technically the character represented physically in the sculpture is Digory Kirke, but I guess it’s also symbolic of Lewis, too, even though this isn’t explicitly spelled out like everything else about the statue. Or is just the entire sculpture representative of Lewis. To avoid this confusion that, admittedly, might just be my own, I wish he’d of just copied the likeness of Lewis himself in bronze and stuck him into the milieu instead of Digory. Which, incidentally, is the same thing I thought of the character of Professor Kirke (who, of course, is Digory in his old age—spoiler alert...too late) in the first Narnia movie. I realize the text calls for a British version of Doc Brown looks-wise, but I thought it’d be apt and even almost demanded that they cast a more Lewis-looking professor. Which, if you don’t know, is kind of like Alfred Hitchcock without the droll sag to his cheek.
All in all, I and my bias think that it’s a great statue, even if the large geometrical figure of the wardrobe is too plain to be dominating the piece. Idea-wise, though, it couldn’t be a fitter tribute...or a better place to sit and have a thoughtful lunch.
This article on C.S. Lewis squeezed in references to Voltron, Animal House, and Back to the Future. I am pleased. And I win a bet.