Jon Kennedy
Jon Kennedy

Click to enlargeJon Kennedy's
'C. S. Lewis Overflow
Jon Kennedy's latest book is The Everything Guide to C.S. Lewis and Narnia, due in stores in March 2008, from Adams Media, F&W Publications. This series of articles is thinking inspired by readings in Lewis's work that didn't fit into the book. Click here for a list of all articles in the C.S. Lewis Overflow series.

The 'deplorable word'

Probably the sharpest illustration of C. S. Lewis's hope that the world can be changed through the use of words occurs in The Magician's Nephew, the sixth of the seven books in the Chronicles of Narnia. The nephew of the book's title, Digory Kirke, and his neighbor and friend, Polly Plummer, find themselves in the enchanted world of Charn when through his impulsiveness Digory undoes an enchantment that brings back to life the witch-queen, Jadis. Before her enchantment, Jadis had brought the end of all life in Charn through uttering "the deplorable word," a magical incantation she had stolen from her sister, whom she had fought to the death. Lewis never explained what the deplorable word was, but it is likely he considered it the "antilogos," a metaphor for the Antichrist, the antitype of the eternal living Logos or Word, which the Greek "Logos" means.

C. S. LewisAs a lifelong student of fantasy and magic, Lewis was also impressed by the concept of magic words and incantations. Writing (some years before his conversion to Christ) to his brother, Warnie, he refers to their father's membership in the Freemasons as a kind of wizardry. "Some of the 'Horrid names' used in cantations (Shadai, Gogiol) seem made for his particular intonation," he writes about the Masons' secret rituals and oaths, foreshadowing the introduction of the "deplorable word" that would come thirty years later.

Some have likened the "deplorable word" to the atomic bomb, which had been used not long before Lewis wrote the Chronicles, because many at that time saw in it the potential for utter destruction of the whole world. Robert Thomas, writing in, acknowledges this interpretation of the deplorable word, but prefers his own theory that the word is hate. "God spoke and created the world in six days. Jadis spoke and the destruction was instantaneous," Thomas writes.

It's even possible that Lewis had a simpler moral point to make in including a "deplorable word" in his children's fantasy series: to encourage children to reflect and act upon their parents' instruction to avoid "bad words" because they can wreak destruction. This passage in The Magician's Nephew might be a child-sized homily on Matthew 15, where Jesus says, "It's not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man but what comes out of the mouth that defiles him....Do you not understand that what enters in through the mouth goes into the belly and comes out into the sewer? But the things that come out of the mouth originate from the heart, and they defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. It is these that defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands doesn't defile him" (Matthew 15:11; 17-20).

Lewis may have had in mind the same power in a word that Martin Luther described in his hymn, "A Mighty Fortress":

The Prince of Darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo, his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

That word above all earthly powers,
no thanks to them, abideth;
the Spirit and the gifts are ours,
thru him who with us sideth.

As has been said several times in these reflections, a recurring theme of Lewis's work had been the preservation of the meaning and the power of words against the corrosive effects of "new speak" and the politicizing of language (see "Thinking Like C.S. Lewis").. Lewis campaigned against what Mark Galli recently summarized in a Christianity Today article with these words: "Whenever a word is misused, it means the speaker is unaware of the word's meaning, or that the cultural meaning of a word is shifting, or that some ideology is demanding obeisance.".

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