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We speak like our gods

Friday, March 6th, 2009

C. S. Lewis was a lord of language. Sometimes he used his powers to explain the difference between Christianity and other faiths, but in The Horse and His Boy he gets readers to feel the difference as he takes them out of beautiful, Aslan-serving Narnia to Calormen, land of the demon-god Tash. There in Calormen readers enter a society that Tash has made as haughty, cruel and bigoted as himself. 

 

And what does that look like? It isn’t just all the whips that are revealing; it’s all the words. The Calormenes liked ‘talking to one another very slowly about things that sounded dull’, and all those words betray the real nature of Tashism. The stodginess, pomposity and intimidation involved in worshipping Tash all leak out into the language. For example, the Tisroc (‘May he live for ever’): ‘ My son, by all means desist from kicking the venerable and enlightened Vizier: for as a costly jewel retains its value even if hidden in a dung-hill, so old-age and discretion are to be respected even in the vile persons of our subjects’. Or try saying a Calormene proverb: ‘Application to the root of business is the root of prosperity, but those who ask questions that do not concern them are steering the ship of folly toward the rock of indigence’.


In contrast, the words of those who know Aslan are perky and bright. Their proverbs are pithy: ‘Nests before eggs’; ‘Come live with me and you’ll know me’. It seems that the living Lion makes his followers and their words lively. His joy makes them playful. And what Lewis shows so well is that the truth seems to be captured and presented better by lively speech.


In other words, we speak like our gods. One has to wonder what Lewis thought of stodgy and pompous theology.