Two Professors in Narnia

There are two. In the seven volumes of the Chronicles of Narnia, there are two professors.  They are both good guys. [1]  They appear in the first two books about Narnia, C. S. Lewis’s “Middle Earth,” and then not again in the last five. [2]

You might ask a question at this point. You might ask, “Does this really matter?” [3] Or narnia 4you might ask, “Why now?” That, as it happens, is a good question i.e., one I would like to try to answer. You would think that would have occurred to me long before now. For one thing, I have been a professor myself for most of my life. [4] Also, I read the Chronicles to my kids, parts of them several times, when they were small. But it didn’t occur to me then.

Last week when, in the process of throwing away books I didn’t need any more, I happened across an essay by John Warwick Montgomery in which, as part of a point he was making about Narnia, he summarized all seven books in roughly 500 words each. [5] I think of what Montgomery did as achieving a certain altitude from which all seven of the Narnia stories can be seen at a glance. If you like “level of generality” better, you may certainly use that metaphor instead.

I’ve been more than usually sensitive to the level of generality recently. Last year I taught a Bible study called Disciple 1. We met for 85 hours over the course of 34 weeks and “covered,” (you know what that means) the Old Testament and the New Testament in that time. You have to achieve a certain altitude to deal with that much material in 85 hours? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

I am currently teaching an overview of Disciple 1 (I know, an overview of an overview) with meets for six hours total. The level of generality has been raised again and, while it is true that at these rarified levels, the details get blurry, it is also true that the main features, the large features that you can’t see when you on the ground, become amazingly clear. “Look at that!” you say, of a feature so large that you would think only an idiot could have missed it, “I’ve never seen that before.”

John Warwick Montgomery’s brief overview of Narnia enabled me to see some things I had never seen before. “Look at that,” I said, “There are only two professors in all the Narnia books.” This brings us to just who these professors are and what they are there for. What is it, in other words, that can best be presented by a character who is a professor?

Dr. Cornelius, of Prince Caspian, the second of the seven adventures, is the easier one to narnia 1deal with, so I’ll present him first. You need to know that Caspian, not aware yet that he is a prince, was being raised in a castle by evil usurpers who had killed his parents and taken over the throne. His favorite time of day was bedtime, when the nurse told him “fairy tales;” stories of “the old Narnia,” a place of talking beasts, and fauns and naiads and dryads, a kingdom ruled over by “two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve.” The evil Uncle finds out that Nurse has been filling Caspian’s head with such nonsense and sends her away.

In her place comes Dr. Cornelius, who, from the standpoint of the evil Miraz’s plans, is worse in every way. Professor Cornelius knows all the old stories and he knows that they were true. And he knows that remnants of the old Narnia may still exist, hiding from the current evil rulers.

“Listen,” said the Doctor, “All you have heard about Old Narnia is true. It is not the land of men. It is the country of Aslan, the country of the Walking Trees and Visible Naiads, of Fauns and Satyrs, of Dwarfs and Giants, of the gods and the Centaurs, of Talking Beasts.”

That is what Dr. Cornelius is for. He confirms the truth of the old stories. He also sends Caspian away from the castle when the boy’s life is suddenly in danger.  He sends him out to discover what he can of Old Narnia.

But the first professor, Digory Kirke, [7] has a more interesting and complicated role. Readers of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe meet Professor Kirke in his large house which is, notably, away from London which is being bombed. But if you read on a few more books, you meet him as a little boy named Digory who has an uncle who is a magician. Digory is “there” (there is no “there” there at the time) wBette and The Wardrobehen Narnia is sung into existence by a great lion. He brings home from Narnia a magic apple, the seeds of which he plants in ordinary English soil. The tree that grows from those seeds is made, eventually, into a wardrobe which Professor Kirke has in his house and which, sometimes, opens into Narnia. [6]  Here is Bette, looking into that wardrobe, warily, it seems.

The Pevensie kids—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—have the run of the house and eventually discover the wardrobe. Lucy hides in the wardrobe, but to her surprise, the back of the wardrobe open into a forest in wintertime and she just keeps on walking until she meets a faun named Mr. Tumnus.

Later, Edmund,—still a bad guy at this point in the story—also gets into Narnia that way and out of meanness, refuses to confirm Lucy’s account. He knows the account is true, but wants to make Lucy look foolish. Peter, the eldest, is puzzled and he and Susan go to see Professor Kirke.

narnia 2Kirke’s tutelage is classic. He is perfectly accepting of multiple universes and alternate time tracks. That wouldn’t be at all surprising had Lewis written The Magician’s Nephew first, so he and we would know about Digory entering Narnia and then coming back to England. It wouldn’t be surprising if we thought that Digory knew that the wardrobe was made of Narnian wood. But those things have not happened yet: not to Lewis, the author, nor to us, the readers. So Kirke’s ability to accept that Lucy was in Narnia for a long time although no England-time had passed, is really striking. The great defense against stories like Lucy’s is “all that kind of thing just can’t be true.” Professor Kirke’s response is, “Why on earth not?”

But Kirke also uses another strategy. Lewis himself uses it in his apologetic works. You might call it a “credibility triage.” Here is what Professor Kirke says to Peter and Susan (his strategy, my phrasing):

“You weren’t there, right? You don’t know any of this of your own knowledge, except that Lucy was in the wardrobe for only a brief time, as time passes in England.

So now you go to people who, by their accounts, have been there. That’s Lucy and Edmund. They give accounts that are so discrepant that they cannot both be true. Which of the two, Lucy or Edmund, do you accept as a truth-teller? Which is more trustworthy? Make your decision on that basis and live with it.”

There is more to it, of course, because no one can enter Narnia unless he or she is “called” to enter Narnia. So examining the back of the wardrobe won’t help. It’s a question of who you believe. The same thing happens in Prince Caspian, the next book. Aslan reveals himself to Lucy, only to Lucy, and tells her to persuade the others to follow her lead based only on her testimony. And there is no Professor Kirke to help them this time. On the other hand, the last time they believed Lucy, she proved to be entirely trustworthy and they remember that. Eventually.

There aren’t many Higher Ed Heroes to work with in Narnia, so it is not hard to be impressed that one of them, Dr. Cornelius, confirms the truth of “the old things” that the nurse knew only as cute stories. What Dr. Cornelius knows includes a Badger, Nikabrik, who counsels that Caspian be killed as soon as he is discovered. There is not much cuddly about Nikabrik, but he is fully a part of Old Narnia as Cornelius describes it.

The other, Professor Kirke, has the task of pushing the virtue of logic. His role is procedural. If you rule out Lucy’s testimony on the grounds that the world can’t have one time “there” and another time “here,” on what basis do you assert that? If you have contradictory testimony about another world, a world about which you know nothing at all yourself, is it really reasonable to choose the account that more closely approximates your current prejudices? Is that the best you can do? Would it be better to choose the testimony of the more reliable of the witnesses?

Kirk’s stance–and it anchors his role in the story–is that he doesn’t really care what can be reached from the back of his wardrobe, but he does wish that the children who go to our schools could be made to think more sensibly about things.

[1] That is to day that both are male and both are good. There is the question of whether Dr. Cornelius, who is half dwarf, ought to be called “a guy.” And if anyone reading this is new to the land of Narnia, let me assure you that in Narnia, dwarves are a race of people, not a kind of human.
[2] I’m going mostly from memory. If you have someone in mind who could reasonably be called a professor, please let me know.
[3] Not really. It’s a curiosity; nothing more.
[4] In the social sciences, a branch of knowledge for which Lewis had nothing but contempt. I really think that one of the reasons he wrote That Hideous Strength was to have available to him a plot in which nearly all the villains were sociologists.
[5] John Warwick Montgomery, “The Chronicles of Narnia and the Adolescent Reader” in John Warwick Montgomery, ed., Myth Allegory and Gospel. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc. 1974. Montgomery’s essay appears on pp. 97—118.
[6] A little careful distinction is needed here. The picture shows Bette pretending to enter “the wardrobe.” This is, in fact, C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe and it is the wardrobe he had in mind when he wrote the book. It is, however, made of oak and if the Digory Kirke story were true, it would be made of applewood. Oh well, it is a wardrobe and it is “the” wardrobe, and Bette was not gone for any of our world’s time when she went into it. Hm.
[7] Lewis never forgets that “kirk” is a Scottish word meaning “church.” It’s not a pun, exactly, but he does play with it. He would have loved it if the kirks of his time played the role he wrote out for Digory.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
This entry was posted in Books, Education, Paying Attention and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.