Saturday 7 May 2011

Wilton Abbey, the New Narnia, and the New Jerusalem

This morning I read a text called the Liber Confortatorius, which was written c.1082 by a Flemish monk and hagiographer Goscelin as a work of spiritual advice for a young anchorite named Eve. Goscelin first met Eve when she was a child living in the nunnery of Wilton, where he was for a time chaplain to the nuns. She was his pupil, and he had a passionate fondness for her. By the time he wrote the Liber Confortatorius she had left the life of a nun for the much stricter rule of an anchoress, and was living in France. Goscelin, who was living an itinerant kind of life in England, staying in various monasteries and writing lives of their saints (until he at last settled in Canterbury), was devastated by her departure, knowing he would never see her again.

I said the Liber Confortatorius was spiritual advice but it's really a long letter of barely-suppressed love and longing, from a monk to a nun who may not have returned his adoration. Modern critics seem to find it creepy but I (more sentimental, perhaps) found it rather moving. Anyway, the point of this post is that right at the end of the book, Goscelin indulges in a lengthy description of what heaven will be like. In most ways it's a highly traditional depiction of the Biblical idea of the new Jerusalem, but there was one passage which struck me. It was this:
The new earth, along with the new heaven, will not be as it is now, filthy, thorny and venomous. It will be such as befits those splendid bodies: a blessed, luminous, salvific, sun-filled, gracious land of the living, adorned with living flowers and everything beautiful, full of all sweet fragrances and all the delights of God's paradise... Then your Wilton will be a huge, spacious city, generously bounded by a glass wall, surmounted by a gleaming fortress of gemstone towers, erected not for fighting but as a lookout of glory, whence the daughters of Zion can look out over their whole England. Her gates will be pearls and all her doors of gold.

Whenever she wants, your mighty queen Edith will come down there, proud in the chamber of the great Christ. She will bring her beloved spouse there together [with] his most excellent friends the angels and archangels, apostles and martyrs, with Roman and English kings and prelates, with her father Edgar and her brother Edward, with Thekla, Agnes, Cecilia, and Argina, Catherine, and a great host of virgins, and her entire family of Wilton, all those the Lord has raised to dignity in his kingdom.
Goscelin of St. Bertin, Liber Confortatorius, translated as The book of encouragement and consolation: the letter of Goscelin to the recluse Eva by Monika Otter (Cambridge, 2004), pp.147-8.

Wilton, where Goscelin first met Eve, and of which he always speaks fondly, is thus transfigured into a heavenly city - no longer the dirty little Anglo-Saxon town it must really have been! And this is a family reunion, too: 'your mighty queen Edith' is Eadgyth, dedicatory saint of Wilton Abbey, a royal princess about whom Goscelin had written an influential Vita, and who must have been as familiar a figure to Eve and Goscelin as any living woman. It's a heavenly wedding reception, to which Christ brings his friends (the angels!) and Edith her family, both earthly (Edgar and Edward) and spiritual (the nuns of Wilton). And in a perfected version of the nunnery which had been their home, they all rejoice together - and Goscelin is reunited with his beloved whom he will never see again on earth.

The nostalgia of the vision and the description of the new Jerusalem are, in a way, conventional enough; but this has a very personal component, with such specific English references that it reminded me more than anything of the last two chapters of the final Narnia book, The Last Battle. Lewis may well have read the Liber Confortatorius - and I particularly wonder if he remembered that line about the nuns of the heavenly Wilton "looking out over their whole England" from its high towers when he wrote about Lucy and Mr Tumnus gazing out over the new Narnia; or the appearance of saints and kings from Anglo-Saxon history when he wrote about the children meeting famous characters from Narnian history.

Anyway, here are some relevant extracts from chapters 15 and 16 of The Last Battle; see what you think. We begin when Narnia is destroyed, and they have passed through the door of the stable, but don't yet know where they are. I quote at length because, well, I like it all:

It still seemed to be early, and the morning freshness was in the air. They kept on stopping to look round and to look behind them, partly because it was so beautiful but partly also because there was something about it which they could not understand.

"Peter," said Lucy, "where is this, do you suppose?"

"I don't know," said the High King. "It reminds me of somewhere but I can't give it a name. Could it be somewhere we once stayed for a holiday when we were very, very small?"

"It would have to have been a jolly good holiday," said Eustace. "I bet there isn't a country like this anywhere in our world. Look at the colours! You couldn't get a blue like the blue on those mountains in our world."

"Is it not Aslan's country?" said Tirian.

"Not like Aslan's country on top of that mountain beyond the Eastern end of the world," said Jill. "I've been there."

"If you ask me," said Edmund, "it's like somewhere in the Narnian world. Look at those mountains ahead - and the big ice-mountains beyond them. Surely they're rather like the mountains we used to see from Narnia, the ones up Westward beyond the Waterfall?"

"Yes, so they are," said Peter. "Only these are bigger."

"I don't think those ones are so very like anything in Narnia," said Lucy. "But look there." She pointed southward to their left, and everyone stopped and turned to look. "Those hills," said Lucy, "the nice woody ones and the blue ones behind - aren't they very like the Southern border of Narnia?"

"Like!" cried Edmund after a moment's silence. "Why, they're exactly like. Look, there's Mount Pire with his forked head, and there's the pass into Archenland and everything!"

"And yet they're not like," said Lucy. "They're different. They have more colours on them and they look further away than I remembered and they're more .. . more... oh, I don't know..."

"More like the real thing," said the Lord Digory softly.

Suddenly Farsight the Eagle spread his wings, soared thirty or forty feet up into the air, circled round and then alighted on the ground.

"Kings and Queens," he cried, "we have all been blind. We are only beginning to see where we are. From up there I have seen it all - Ettinsmuir, Beaversdam, the Great River, and Cair Paravel still shining on the edge of the Eastern Sea. Narnia is not dead. This is Narnia."

"But how can it be?" said Peter. "For Aslan told us older ones that we should never return to Narnia, and here we are."

"Yes," said Eustace. "And we saw it all destroyed and the sun put out."

"And it's all so different," said Lucy.

"The Eagle is right," said the Lord Digory. "Listen, Peter. When Aslan said you could never go back to Narnia, he meant the Narnia you were thinking of. But that was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan's real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And of course it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream." His voice stirred everyone like a trumpet as he spoke these words: but when he added under his breath "It's all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!" the older ones laughed. It was so exactly like the sort of thing they had heard him say long ago in that other world where his beard was grey instead of golden. He knew why they were laughing and joined in the laugh himself. But very quickly they all became grave again: for, as you know, there is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes.

It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a lookingglass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different - deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can't describe it any better than that: if ever you get there you will know what I mean.

[And then in the next chapter, 'Farewell to Shadowlands':]

Everyone you had ever heard of (if you knew the history of these countries) seemed to be there. There was Glimfeather the Owl and Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, and King Rilian the Disenchanted, and his mother the Star's daughter and his great father Caspian himself. And close beside him were the Lord Drinian and the Lord Berne and Trumpkin the Dwarf and Truffle-hunter the good Badger with Glenstorm the Centaur and a hundred other heroes of the great War of Deliverance. And then from another side came Cor the King of Archenland with King Lune his father and his wife Queen Aravis and the brave prince Corin Thunder-Fist, his brother, and Bree the Horse and Hwin the Mare. And then - which was a wonder beyond all wonders to Tirian - there came from further away in the past, the two good Beavers and Tumnus the Faun. And there was greeting and kissing and hand-shaking and old jokes revived, (you've no idea how good an old joke sounds when you take it out again after a rest of five or six hundred years) and the whole company moved forward to the centre of the orchard where the Phoenix sat in a tree and looked down upon them all, and at the foot of that tree were two thrones and in those two thrones a King and Queen so great and beautiful that everyone bowed down before them. And well they might, for these two were King Frank and Queen Helen from whom all the most ancient Kings of Narnia and Archenland are descended. And Tirian felt as you would feel if you were brought before Adam and Eve in all their glory.

About half an hour later - or it might have been half a hundred years later, for time there is not like time here - Lucy stood with her dear friend, her oldest Narnian friend, the Faun Tumnus, looking down over the wall of that garden, and seeing all Narnia spread out below. But when you looked down you found that this hill was much higher than you had thought: it sank down with shining cliffs, thousands of feet below them and trees in that lower world looked no bigger than grains of green salt. Then she turned inward again and stood with her back to the wall and looked at the garden.

"I see," she said at last, thoughtfully. "I see now. This garden is like the stable. It is far bigger inside than it was outside."

"Of course, Daughter of Eve," said the Faun. "The further up and the further in you go, the bigger everything gets. The inside is larger than the outside."

Lucy looked hard at the garden and saw that it was not really a garden but a whole world, with its own rivers and woods and sea and mountains. But they were not strange: she knew them all.

"I see," she said. "This is still Narnia, and more real and more beautiful then the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the stable door! I see... world within world, Narnia within Narnia..."

"Yes," said Mr Tumnus, "like an onion: except that as you go in and in, each circle is larger than the last."

And Lucy looked this way and that and soon found that a new and beautiful thing had happened to her. Whatever she looked at, however far away it might be, once she had fixed her eyes steadily on it, became quite clear and close as if she were looking through a telescope. She could see the whole Southern desert and beyond it the great city of Tashbaan: to Eastward she could see Cair Paravel on the edge of the sea and the very window of the room that had once been her own. And far out to sea she could discover the islands, islands after islands to the end of the world, and, beyond the end, the huge mountain which they had called Aslan's country. But now she saw that it was part of a great chain of mountains which ringed round the whole world. In front of her it seemed to come quite close. Then she looked to her left and saw what she took to be a great bank of brightly-coloured cloud, cut off from them by a gap. But she looked harder and saw that it was not a cloud at all but a real land. And when she had fixed her eyes on one particular spot of it, she at once cried out, "Peter! Edmund! Come and look! Come quickly." And they came and looked, for their eyes also had become like hers.

"Why!" exclaimed Peter. "It's England. And that's the house itself - Professor Kirk's old home in the country where all our adventures began!"

"I thought that house had been destroyed," said Edmund.

"So it was," said the Faun. "But you are now looking at the England within England, the real England just as this is the real Narnia. And in that inner England no good thing is destroyed."

Suddenly they shifted their eyes to another spot, and then Peter and Edmund and Lucy gasped with amazement and shouted out and began waving: for there they saw their own father and mother, waving back at them across the great, deep valley. It was like when you see people waving at you from the deck of a big ship when you are waiting on the quay to meet them.

"How can we get at them?" said Lucy.

"That is easy," said Mr Tumnus. "That country and this country - all the real countries - are only spurs jutting out from the great mountains of Aslan. We have only to walk along the ridge, upward and inward, till it joins on. And listen! There is King Frank's horn: we must all go up."

And soon they found themselves all walking together and a great, bright procession it was - up towards mountains higher than you could see in this world even if they were there to be seen. But there was no snow on those mountains: there were forests and green slopes and sweet orchards and flashing waterfalls, one above the other, going up forever. And the land they were walking on grew narrower all the time, with a deep valley on each side: and across that valley the land which was the real England grew nearer and nearer.

The images in this post are of two eleventh-century heavenly cities (from BL Harley 603 and Stowe 944, produced in Canterbury and Winchester respectively). At the Reformation Wilton Abbey, like the old Narnia, was destroyed, and not one stone of it remains; Wilton House was built on the site. But who knows what Goscelin and Eve are enjoying now?


Theodric the Obscure said...

Beautiful post; wonderful connections!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it!