Just Babies Making Up a Game

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One of my favorite passages in all of literature is Puddleglum’s response to the Lady of the Green Kirtle in The Silver Chair. The Lady (an evil sorceress) has several characters trapped underground, and with the help of a little magic is trying to convince them that Narnia and Aslan and the rest of the “Overland” do not actually exist. The characters are on the verge of giving in when Puddleglum stomps on the magic fire in these words:

One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one more thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that’s a small loss if the world’s as dull a place as you say.”

I read somewhere that some regard this passage as a sort of inversion of Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, but until recently I’d never thought about it as an application of the ontological argument, or a Platonic worldview more generally. Then recently I came across this statement by Lewis himself in an October 1963 letter to Nancy Warner. Warner had mentioned that her son referenced the presence of an “ontological argument” in The Silver Chair, and Lewis replied:

I suppose your philosopher son… means the chapter in which Puddleglum puts out the fire with his foot. He must thank Anselm and Descartes for it, not me. I have simply put the ‘Ontological Proof’ in a form suitable for children. And even that is not so remarkable a feat as you might think. You can get into children’s heads a good deal which is quite beyond the Bishop of Woolwich.

Who else but C.S Lewis could draw together existentialism and the ontological argument in a children’s book? To arrive upon such an ingenuous innovation in such an accessible medium is a testimony to his brilliance.

To my mind, this passage of Puddleglum is a forceful statement against deconstructionist views of the world. If nihilism is true and all the really stable, beautiful doctrines of Christianity—say, God, heaven, objective good—are false, then the ideas in my brain are more weighty than the reality that brought my brain into existence. That is very difficult to swallow. The beauty of Christianity hints at its truthfulness.

The rising feeling of the modern West is that the noumenal is done for and we have only to do with the phenomenal—nothing transcendent remains, all thought is socially and biologically conditioned, all of metaphysics is just “babies making up a game.” Sometimes in dark moments I find myself struggling against this worldview, gripped by its dreadfulness. In those moments, this paragraph from Puddleglum helps me. It suggests not only the falsity of doubt, but its thinness—for even if true, it is unworthy of our allegiance.

And conversely, Christ is so beautiful, that even if he were not true, it would be worth it to spend our whole lives looking for him.

3 Comments

  1. Lauri Morrill

    Amen and Amen!

    Like

  2. Jani Ortlund

    Thank you so much for this. I’m with Puddleglum and you.

    love,

    Mom

    >

    Like

  3. Hi, Gavin. The way you state the argument and the way Puddleglum states the argument are different. I like this passage from The Silver Chair, but I would also suggest caution. The thrust of Puddleglum’s argument seems to be that the reality he believes in is more compelling and of greater import than the reality described by the Lady, and that for that very reason alone, he will continue to believe, whether his picture of the world is factual or not. In Puddleglum’s view, the accuracy of his beliefs is secondary to whether they “seem a good deal more important” than other proposed beliefs. But of course, the grandeur or wonder of a particular narrative is not ultimately a reason to believe it. The *only* good reason to believe any proposition is that it is true. (And by true, I mean that it corresponds to the actual state of things, which is the only definition of truth that makes any sense. Unlike Indiana Jones, I do equate truth and facts.) Thank God Christianity has the advantage of being true and wondrous and weighty and grand all at the same time―but its truth is not proven merely by its grandeur.

    Like

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