Sir Thomas Browne, Screwtape, and the "Amphibians" of Narnia

By Muth, Benita Huffman | Christianity and Literature, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Sir Thomas Browne, Screwtape, and the "Amphibians" of Narnia


Muth, Benita Huffman, Christianity and Literature


"It's not Men's country" says Trufflehunter the Narnian badger in Prince Caspian, "but it's a country for a man to be king of" (70). His friends, the dwarfs Trumpkin and Nikabrik, greet Trufflehunter's assertion skeptically; and despite our recognition that writers create conventions to govern their fantasy worlds, we readers likewise may wonder why this animal land needs a human ruler. It is easy, like Trumpkin, to see this imperative as unnecessary or even, like Nikabrik, as unfair. Yet this Narnian "rule" is not merely a hook to engage child-readers or a quaint plot device to justify human visitors from our world. The badger's potentially puzzling statement hints at a definition of humanity far more profound than an arbitrary world-building technique, as the crucial place of people in Narnia mirrors Lewis' view of humanity's role in God's creation. This view appears most succinctly in The Screwtape Letters, where Screwtape's description of human beings as half physical, half spiritual "amphibians" directly and deliberately echoes Sir Thomas Browne, a seventeenth-century writer and physician. While it is not stated as explicitly in Narnia, Lewis expands this metaphor of amphibious humanity in his fictional world. For Lewis, as for Browne earlier, humanity's participation in two natures is an essential element of human self-hood, which although making humanity susceptible to fall, also grants a unique ability to participate in creation's redemption.

Lewis sees humanity as holding a distinctive place in Creation, and to describe this position he borrows a metaphor from Sir Thomas Browne, an author who was part of the fabric of Lewis' own scholarship. Writing in the mid-1600's, Browne is known for his work in early science, what was then called "natural philosophy;' and for his early work Religio Medici, or "the religion of a doctor," in which he describes his beliefs about God and the world. Lewis, as a literary scholar, knew Browne's writing well, as demonstrated by Lewis' works of literary criticism. References to Browne appear, for instance, in The Discarded Image and English Literature of the Sixteenth Century. (1) However, Lewis' interest was more than scholarly. In Surprised By Joy, Lewis explains how, even before his conversion, he was most attracted to religious writers, whose works contained a depth "on whom I could really feed" (213), and the then-atheist Lewis finds that he is, paradoxically, "deeply and lastingly satisfied by Thomas Browne" (214). The two writers also share some interesting parallels. Like Lewis, Browne participated in a profession assumed to be conducive to atheism and wrote not as a theologian to theologians, but as a professional man to other lay people, provoking both acclaim and controversy. (2)

Like Lewis, Browne's writing positions him as a defender of older values in a time of turbulent change. Writing about personal faith was political in the 1630s and 1640s, when disputes between high-church Laudians and low-church Puritans fed into the conflict between Parliament and the Monarchy, culminating in the English Civil War and the establishment of the Commonwealth. Although Browne writes in favor of religious moderation and toleration, his positions are nevertheless partisan, close to those of high-church Bishop Laud, though more flexible (Post 48), and based on what Ingo Berensmeyer calls "liberal conservative Anglicanism" as distinguished from "Puritan radicalism" (116). As Achsah Guibbory notes, such a position was comfortably in line with those in power in the 1630s, when Browne, as a young man in his twenties, probably wrote the work. However, by the time he published an authorized edition in 1643, after the dissolution of the monarchy and the ascendancy of Puritanism in the English church, such positions had "acquired a far more dangerous edge" (120). James Wise emphasizes that Religio Medici "is implicitly-rather than explicitly--a piece of contemporary argumentation. …

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