I’ve been thinking a lot recently about Mary and Martha. A couples weeks ago I had some discussions with my juniors about a woman’s place in society, and there are so many things I wish I had said. I wish I had reminded them that the woman’s primary calling (like the man’s) is to sit at Christ’s feet, and hear his words, and that any structure that hinders her from “choosing the good part” is wrong. I wish I had reminded them that regardless of what I tell them, this “nearness-to-Jesus,” this is the litmus test.
And then this week I left school and my students to go up to Grove City for a C.S. Lewis and Inklings Conference, with Martha and Mary still whispering in my head. Martha, the teacher, the keeper of the full agenda and the red and blue pens. Mary, the student, jubilant to let down her inky guard for a long weekend, jubilant to listen.
I drove up for the conference in my grandma’s Buick, which only plays cassette tapes, and listened to the same Mark Heard album over and over and over. It’s called Ashes to Light, and you should hear it: “He looks at their faces and loves them in spite of his grief.”
I had a lot of conversations this weekend, personal conversations with close friends, and heard some good talks, very good talks. Papers on catechisms and incarnation and pedagogy, and keynote addresses on images and humility and honesty. On Friday night at the banquet Diana Glyer spoke on artistic collaboration and creating alongside one another for balance, for accountability, for prayer. Afterwards I walked up to her to tell her how encouraging it had been, and to thank her, and immediately burst into tears. Oops. She took me by the hand, and said “Tell me about yourself.” “This is my first year of teaching,” I said, “And I haven’t gotten a chance to think about these things for a long time and–thank you.”
All weekend I tried to balance Mary and Martha and failed. I made the mistake of checking my email on Saturday and immediately spiraled into a foul mood, though it only contained run-of-the-mill announcements and student requests. Then I drove home today and listened to Mark Heard over and over and over again. I have come to the point in teaching where I have stopped worrying so much about what my students think of me and have started worrying about them–so the songs reminded me of my teenagers. “Feet of clay and an inner light, they were given everything.” I thought again about how I wanted them to “choose the good part,” to accept the good gifts. I thought about Mary and Martha, and then I thought about food.
The paper I gave on Friday morning was about food in Narnia, the way its goodness depends on the giver. And the difference between Martha and Mary is the difference between feeding and being fed. The hostess cannot go hungry. If we have not first eaten the bread which means his body, the we cannot possibly be his hands and feet. If I try to teach my students what tastes sweet and what will make them strong, without first sitting at my Lord’s table, I will fail.
There is even more to it than that, though. I am now able to hesitantly believe that I am meant to be a teacher, but before that I was, am, and will be his. I am his, and there is only “one thing needed”: I must sit and hear his word.
If you’re interested, below is said paper, devoid of parenthetical citations because they look weird on a blog. I promise they were there.
The Mysterious Workings of Food in Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles
George Sayer, with whom C.S. Lewis often stayed while on holiday, describes his taste in food as “plain, solid, and traditional…roast meat of any sort.” He had no appreciation for “subtle French recipes” or even “for puddings or for fruit.” Yet the food which Lewis did love he treated with whole-hearted devotion, and since children were the original audience the Narnia books, within the Chronicles he regularly approaches the subject of food and drink with the appropriate seriousness and urgency of a child of seven. In imagining Narnia, Alan Jacobs writes, “What [Lewis] has to do…is trust the images that come into his mind–or, more accurately, trust that he is being formed as a Christian in such a way that the images that come to his mind are authentic ones, ones that lie at, or at least near, the center of his soul.” So Lewis uses the food which his characters naturally eat: Puddleglum’s eels and the feasts at Cair Paravel, to tell the goodness and mystery of gifts. The food in Lewis’s Chronicles, whether of deep magical importance or a simple symbol of good fellowship, is nearly always given and ultimately reflects the character of its giver.
Jacobs tells a story about an American named Firor who sent Lewis multiple hams in the late 1940’s, while food was still scarce in Britain. “Lewis and friends started calling him ‘Firor-of-the-Hams,’ and on one occasion a dozen or so of the Inklings signed a collective letter of gratitude to him.” It turned out that this same Firor was a doctor and a great hero who had rescued a colleague’s wife from behind the Iron Curtain, so a real generosity and solidity was reflected in his gift. Lewis implicitly trusted those who relished food as much as he did. Around the same time Nathan Starr sent Lewis bacon, along with a passage of his own Chaucerian-style verse to recommend the meat, and almost immediately received an invitation to visit Lewis’s rooms at the college. Lewis considered the right sort of food an indication of good character
So, when an outsider first enters Narnia, if he is able to fall into the right company, he is immediately fed well, signifying the virtues of Narnian culture and fellowship as a whole. When a bewildered and delighted Prince Caspian enters into the heart of Old Narnia for the first time and is led around to meet all the creatures who live in hiding, Pattertwig the squirrel offers him a nut and the bears are eager to feed him their messy honey. Lewis tells the entire episode like a travel story, with scores of new introductions, and these gifts of food are each beast’s way of making his mark on both Caspian and the reader’s imaginations throughout the ongoing procession. Even before that, when Lucy herself first enters Narnia, she understands Tumnus’s core good-heartedness not merely by his welcoming words (which turn out to be false) but by his hospitality: “a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake.” Moreover, the Pevensie children know they have found good friends in the Beavers when they see cozy smoke rising from Mr. Beaver’s dam and realize they are being brought home as dinner guests. In fact, though the Beavers are virtuous in many ways, to Lewis their most important quality may be their abundant and generous hospitality, considering Mrs. Beaver’s response when the company realizes they must run for their lives: “Now, Mr. Beaver, just reach down that ham. And here’s a packet of tea, and there’s sugar…And if someone will get two or three loaves out of that crock…You didn’t think we’d set out on a journey with nothing to eat, did you?”
In fact, one of the ways in which Lewis expresses celebration, especially after his characters have passed through great trials, is in jubilant descriptions of good (and often very British) food. When Jill and company escape from the Underworld, they are treated to the most comfortable and fulsome fare by the good dwarves, just to prove that they are home: “Not wretched sausages half-full of bread and soya bean either, but real, meaty spicy ones, fat and piping hot and burst and just the tiniest bit burnt. And great mugs of frothy chocolate, and roast potatoes and roast chestnuts, and baked apples with raisins stuck in where the cores had been.” Jill and the reader are both starved for warmth after all the grey time underground, and here at long last it comes to them by way of the dwarves’ cast iron breakfast skillets.
Narnian tradition itself centers around not just these individual exchanges of food, but a great and full tradition of feeding the multitudes. Eustace and Jill enter Narnia and within hours of being recognized as friends of the king are settled at his table for the “serious eating and drinking.”
…though Eustace had been in that world before, he had spent his whole visit at sea and knew nothing of the glory and courtesy of Narnians at home in their own land …each course came in with trumpeters and kettledrums. There were soups that would make your mouth water to think of, and the lovely fishes called pavenders, and venison and peacock and pies, and ices and jellies and fruit and nuts, and all manner of wines and fruit drinks.
Lewis’s lavish description of the banquet demonstrates not only his love for a full plate but his glowing vision for complex and purposeful fellowship between countrymen. The fanfares of the trumpets call forth the food of hard-won (rather medieval) merriment.
But beyond the solidity of Narnian fare itself, the souls of many individual characters are reflected in that which they offer their guests. As Christ himself says, “ye shall know them by their fruits.” The Scrubbs can be immediately discounted as people of worth in Lewis’s world because of their vegetarian diet, while vain, air-headed Lasaraleen serves Aravis a meal “chiefly of the whipped cream and jelly and fruit and ice sort.” However, something more unpleasant than mere empty-headedness is hinted at when Puddleglum and the children are taken captive by pale, still little Earthmen, and are given only “flat, flabby cakes of some sort which had hardly any taste.” Though Puddleglum and company do not know it, these creature are captives as well, empty and stale and sad. They are incapable of offering good sustenance in their current mind-numbed state.
On the other hand, Puddleglum himself serves Jill and Eustace eel stew, of which he himself is very disparaging, but which is ultimately “delicious…the children [have] two large helpings each. This uncomely but ultimately excellent first meal with their new friend establishes the marshwiggle and his golden, despondent soul immediately and irrevocably in the affections of children and readers alike. Likewise, when Father Christmas returns to Narnia after his long, involuntary absence, the tea he presents to the Pevensies and the Beavers wonderfully “sizzling and piping hot” imparts all the warmth and goodwill of the promise of his season. Of course, Father Christmas’s power is not really his own, but instead his good gifts of food are born from the same source which brings spring back to Narnia at long last.
This land of Narnia itself has its own mysterious reserves of good food to offer. Late in the first day of the new world’s existence, after Aslan has sent Polly and Diggory and Fledge halfway across Narnia on an important errand, and the children find the have nothing to eat, Polly finds an old bag of toffees in her pocket and Diggory cleverly buries the last one in the new Narnian earth by the side of the lake. The next morning when they wake, a toffee tree has grown up. “Loaded with little brown fruits that looked rather like dates…The fruit was delicious: not exactly like toffee–softer for one thing, and juicy–but like fruit which reminded one of toffee.” This reminding of something just out of the mind’s reach is a constant of Narnia’s character. For every true disciple, Narnia always carries the distinct flavor of home, and, ultimately, Aslan’s Country. The best and most truly homely places in Lewis’s world produce the most wonderful and mystical food for their people. The Earthmen, once free from the witch’s enchantments, are ecstatic to return to Bism, their homeland deep beneath the earth’s crust, because of the fresh precious stones it provides for them to eat like ripe fruit: “bunches of rubies…cupful[s] of diamond juice.” These worlds contain an unavoidably inherent magic.
Yet, as is clear from the reader’s first introduction to Narnia, not all the magic there is good magic, just as not all food which fills a belly fills it with good things. At first the turkish delight the witch feeds Edmund seems very good: “each piece was sweet and light to the very center…[he] had never tasted anything more delicious.” Yet Wayne Martindale writes that “An authentic pleasure is one we love to recall and rejoice to share,” so though Edmund thinks he has relished the White Witch’s food, there is nothing he wants less than for his siblings to have a taste of it. His greed for it only grows until he will do nearly anything to have more of it, until he desires nothing else. As Lewis points out sharply, “there’s nothing that spoils the taste of good ordinary food half so much as the memory of bad magical food.” The false queen has literally but subtly let Edmund pick his own poison, demonstrating the sharp, fast-acting venom of her own evil motives. When the boy later obeys her summons and asks for more sweets, she gives him only bread and water, cruelly understanding that he now hungers only for turkish delight.
And food in Narnia can contain not just bad and deceitful magic but ultimate betrayal. Perhaps the most horrifying episode in all of Lewis’s Chronicles centers around preparations for the giants’ Autumn feast at Harfang. The children and Puddleglum are betrayed by the Green Lady’s sweet words and her promises of soft beds. From the beginning of their visit the refreshments and edibles given to the guests seem false and evil. The giants give Puddleglum a liquor so strong that it immediately intoxicates him and makes him unable to help and protect Jill and Eustace. Later the three discover with revulsion that they have been tricked into eating talking stag, and are consuming the flesh of a Narnian. Thus the stage is set for the final terrifying revelation as Jill comes upon the giants’ cookery book. The Green Lady has described to the hungry travellers the wonders of a place where “the roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong will be on the table four times a day.” As Jill reads the recipes for “Man: [an] elegant little biped” and “Marshwiggle:[of] stringy consistency and muddy flavor” she understands that they are to be the “roast and the baked and the sweet and the strong.” The witch has committed an act of deep treachery in giving them over into the hands of those who will devour them. At Harfang food signifies not a gift of grace and fullness but a taking of innocence and of life.
Yet the meaning of a meal depends upon the character of the host, the provider of the feast. Aslan often invites his people in with same welcoming words the Green Lady used to lure Puddleglum and the children to Harfang, yet he means them truly. Martindale states, “Feasting is a common motif in Narnia when Aslan has finished some great work…Feasting is associated both with life, as a necessity, and with joyful celebration in peace and plenty.” Therefore Aslan’s full table not only represents good fellowship as opposed to ill, but a kind of solemn mercy. Lewis well understands the sanctity of the Eucharist and is eager and willing to write some of that same significance into the bread and wine Aslan serves to his Narnians. As the Dawn Treader’s travelers near the end of the world they come upon an extravagant feast of just this import:
There were turkeys and geese and peacocks, there were boars’ heads and sides of venison, there were pies shaped like ships under full sail or like dragons and elephants, there were ice puddings and bright lobsters and gleaming salmon, there were nuts and grapes, pineapples and peaches, pomegranates and melons and tomatoes…the smell of the fruit and the wine blew toward them like a promise of all happiness.
The feast is gorgeous and hearty and good and yet the sailors claim there is “too much magic about here.” If they imbibe Aslan’s food, they will imbibe his great and terrible grace. At last, following the example of Reepicheep, (always the most courageous in his trust of Aslan,) they eat. Ramandu’s daughter tells them that the banquet is renewed each day, and they watch as what they have not consumed nourishes great flocks of birds. The great lion feeds even the “birds of the air.”
But of course, when faced with a mysterious banquet, not all are Reepicheep, willing and able to believe that good givers give good gifts. Aslan gives Diggory the simple instruction to “Pluck an apple from the tree, and bring it back to me.” Diggory obeys, but once there he encounters Jadis who, in sharp rebellion against the command on the gate, has taken the fruit for herself and stained her mouth nastily with it. She has made herself her own giver, her own god. She then tries to convince Diggory to do likewise, to take for his own ends, to be savior to his dying mother: “We are here by ourselves and the Lion is far away. Use your magic and go back to your own world. A minute later, you can be at your Mother’s bedside, giving her the fruit.” The witch tempts Diggory to be the giver himself, not to trust and obey the ultimate and good giver of the food. Yet a refusal to trust the giver of a good meal will ultimately lead only to bondage. The stubborn dwarves in The Last Battle refuse to believe there is a world beyond the stable door though they sit in the midst of it. Aslan lays a great feast in front of them but they will not accept that they are eating anything but hay and refuse, and end by brawling over the imagined scraps. They do not trust the food because they do not trust Aslan. “Their only prison is in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” Jadis is destined for the same fate: ultimately the good and healing fruit becomes a “horror” to her, because she would not trust and ate it “at the wrong time and in the wrong way.”
However, Diggory does not follow the witch’s example, but instead brings the apple back to Aslan, trusting the giver for the way through to life. The Lion then makes good on that trust, in glorious fashion. He offers the boy an apple off of the new tree, grown to protect Narnia. “What I give you now will bring joy. It will not, in your world, give endless life, but it will heal. Go. Pluck her an apple.” So Diggory brings the apple of healing and youth home to his mother, not as the giver, but as merely the agent of her recovery. As his mother at last falls into a “real, natural and gentle” sleep it is the peace and rest of Aslan, the giver of the fruit, reflected in her eyes, which Diggory dares to hope will bring her new life.
Years before Narnia really came to be, Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it.” Lewis has crafted characters who, in consuming the food laid before them, the bread or the wine or the meat, accept also the inherent virtues and evils of the hands that have provided it, and are often changed by them. Edmund and Lucy and Eustace perhaps see this best, as they approach the end of the world, hand-in-hand, and come upon the clearest and brightest giver of all: a white Lamb, who has prepared a meal before them. “They sat down and ate the fish, hungry now for the first time for many days. And it was the most delicious food they had ever tasted.”
Alice, that essay was a delight. Thanks for sharing your words.