CS Lewis' critique of Roman Catholicism
John Miller over at National Review has stirred up a little discussion with his suggestion that in the Narnia tales, the ugly ape Shift is intended as a type of the Catholic Church:"I find it hard to see the ape Shift in The Last Battle, for example, as anything other than a satire of Roman Catholicism in general and the papacy in particular."
Miller then notes the objections of a reader:
In my Friday article on Narnia, I suggested that C.S. Lewis--in his depiction of the ape Shift, a character in The Last Battle--intended to satirize Roman Catholicism. A distinguished emailer replies:
"Shift is a too-clever-for-his-own good atheist who despises & cynically manipulates the Narnians who believe in Aslan (read Christians) & allies himself with the Calormenes (read Muslims) and eventually gets carried off--presumably to Hell--by their demon-god Tash (read Allah). I wouldn't be at all surprised if some French politician ended up this way, but I don't see that it has anything to do w/ the pope."
In defense, I will simply quote from A.N. Wilson's biography of C.S. Lewis:
"The Ape's pretense that the people can only speak to Aslan through him reflects the Ulster author's view of the papacy. 'I'm a Man. If I look like an Ape, that's because I'm so very old: hundreds and hundreds of years old. And it's because I'm so old that I'm so wise. And it's because I'm so wise that I'm the only one Aslan is ever going to speak to. ... He'll tell me what to do and I'll tell the rest of you.'"
I find Wilson's interpretation persuasive. As a Roman Catholic myself, I don't exactly like it. But I do believe that's the effect Lewis was going for.
I side with Miller here: in fact, I offered just this interpretation of Narnia in a paper I gave to the Oxford CS Lewis Society back in Trinity of 2000.
I noted that Lewis had already begun his critique of Rome in The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933): The character Neo-Angular is a slap at T.S. Eliot and Anglo-Catholicism--the bishops as a barrier to a personal knowledge of Christ: “So you have met Mother Kirk [the Church]? No wonder you are confused. You had no business to talk to her except through a qualified Steward [bishop]. Depend on it, you have misunderstood every word she said.”
I then noted that the Ape in The Last Battle corresponds to standard Protestant mythology about Rome basically from the time of the Reformation on. The parallels here are clear:
1) Proclaims itself the sole interpreter of Aslan; cf. Newman, Vatican II.
2) Proclaims itself to be a Man, not an Ape; cf. Catholic doctrine of development; Newman, Vatican II.
3) The very name: Shift—picks up the two themes of shiftiness (deception) and development (change/shift).
4) The ape serves as a forerunner of the Anti-Christ, and begins the Last Days of Narnia.
5) The motif of the ape's ugliness and wrinkles is probably related to the Church of England's The Book of Homilies: "Which the idolatrous Church [of Rome] understandeth well enough. For she being indeed not only an harlot (as the Scripture calleth her), but also a foul, filthy, old withered harlot (for she is indeed of ancient years) and understanding her lack of natural and true beauty, and great loathsomeness which of herself she hath, doth (after the custom of such harlots) paint herself, and deck and tire herself with gold, pearl, stone, and all kind of precious jewels, that she, shining with the outward beauty and glory of them, may please the foolish phantasy of fond lovers, and so entice them to spiritual fornication with her; who, if they saw her (I will not say naked) but in simple apparel, would abhor her, as the foulest and filthiest harlot that ever was seen: according as appeareth by the description of the garnishing of the great strumpet of all strumpets, ‘the mother of whoredom,’ set forth by St. John in his Revelation" (Homily of the Peril of Idolatry, Part Third). [boldface mine]
6) Puzzle the Donkey is rebuked for following the Ape, rather than personal reason—a good parallel to the traditional clash of Roman authority and Protestant private conscience.
Nonetheless, the Last Battle is with Tash, not the followers of the ape. There is some reason to suggest that Lewis hoped for a return to a (purified!) Roman Church. In the end, Peter rules as the “High King” of Narnia under Aslan—the name is not likely to be coincidental: Rome as the chair of Peter. The use of the name English Edmund as a King of Narnia under Peter as High King possibly indicates hopes for a restoration of relations between Canterbury and Rome--with Rome reduced to primus inter pares (first among equals), a traditional (moderate) Anglican view of Rome.