Life and Faith

C.S. Lewis and the Critique of Practicality

“I expect most witches are like that. They are not interested in things or people unless they can use them; they are terribly practical.” –C.S. Lewis, The Magicians Nephew

My children have reached the ages of 7 and 4, which means at least two things: I am very tired, and they are beginning to be able to understand an extended story. Mostly due to the latter, though the former plays a part, I’ve been reading some of C.S. Lewis’ classics, The Chronicles of Narnia, to them and rereading them myself. Lewis dedicated The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe to his goddaughter Lucy, whom he said would be too old to read fairy tales by the time the book was published, but that “some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” I seem to have reached the age where I can read fairy tales again, because I’m on my second adult read through of the series and am quite enjoying the experience.

One theme that stuck out to me on my most recent readthrough of the series is Lewis’ emphasis on the importance of play and taking delight in the simple pleasures of food, dance, and the company of one’s companions. Feasts and festivals play a major role in many of the books. At times, play even has a kind of martial purpose in defeating evil. For example, in Prince Caspian, it is largely the play of Bacchus and the revelers of the Romp who defeat King Miraz and his forces.

Perhaps my favorite example comes from Lewis’ sixth book, The Silver Chair. In it Eustance, Jill, and a dour Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum are tasked to rescue the lost prince and heir to the throne, Rilian. Throughout the book, Puddleglum habitually expects the worst and is labeled a “wet blanket” by his companions. Yet, when they face the Queen of Underland who has enslaved Rilian, he is the one who makes good use of play. Faced with an enchantment that has convinced all his companions that the underground world of the Queen is the only world, Puddlgeglum resolutely declares his devotion to Aslan. He states that he stands by Narnia even if it is only play because it is better than the world created by the enchantress. “Four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow,” cries Puddleglum, “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.” Here, play serves to rescue the prince and saves all of Narnia from being conquered.

However, even when play serves no clearly defined purpose, Lewis is clear that play has a value all its own. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the main characters come across a species called “dufflepuds”—dwarfs who have been transformed such that they have only one large foot. These creatures are extremely silly, but are valued in large part because of the laughter they bring into the world. Even pivotal, magical moments in Narnia often feature play. After Aslan defeats death in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, his first action is to play with Susan and Lucy, purely for the sake of joy. And, when Aslan creates the world of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew, he does so through song. He brings the world and its plants and animals and gods and goddesses to life not because he needs them, but because he delights in them. Creation itself, for Lewis, is a divine act of play.

In contrast, Lewis regularly describes the worst sorts of characters in his stories as “practical.” Jadis, the woman described in the quote that began this essay, ends all life on her home world of Charn and later conquers Narnia, encasing it in a century long winter that never reaches Christmas (she is far too practical for Christmas). When Father Christmas does reach Narnia and gives a group of Narnians a Christmas feast, it enrages Jadis (who, by the way, is also known as the White Witch). In her rage she cries, “What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?” She simply cannot fathom the impracticality of the feast.

Similarly, Digory’s Uncle Andrew, who is willing to sacrifice others for his own gain and fantasizes about killing the great lion Aslan, is described as “dreadfully practical.” Uncle Andrew refuses to believe that lions and animals can sing, or dance, or talk, and thereby is unable to understand the magic of Aslan or the talking beasts Aslan creates. Reflecting on Uncle Andrew’s behavior, Lewis writes, “Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.” A refusal to play leaves Uncle Andrew deluded  and witless in the midst of the beauty of Aslan’s new country.

Other examples could be given—such as the Dwarfs in The Last Battle who adopt the eminently practical stance that “the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs,” which leads to them being unable to experience Aslan’s country. The point that Lewis repeatedly makes is that there is something inherently valuable about fantasy, imagination, and extravagance. And, something damaging, even dangerous, that comes along with a refusal to play. To be clear, impracticality is not always good. However, play, laughter, and indulgence ought to play a role in our lives. We ought not to be purely practical. Jesus himself criticizes Judas for his practicality, when Judas suggests that the perfume poured over Jesus’ feet ought instead to have been sold and the money given to the poor. Extravagance, at the right time and place, is a good thing.

This idea, that we ought not let practicality rule our lives, is especially difficult for Americans to accept. There are multiple industries built around efficiency. We are taught to manage our time and resources well (or, in Christian terms, that we ought to be good stewards). And, while it has its critics, rise and grind culture—which teaches that we always ought to be producing—is prevalent in our society. Whether we like it or not, most of us find much of our value in what we are able to produce, what we accomplish. We measure whether our day was a success or not by what we got done. Even when we allow ourselves a break, it is often in the name of renewed efficiency moving forward.

Lewis teaches us that we have value purely by being, and that our lives ought to include the inefficient and unproductive. Meals that are too rich and take too long to prepare. Days and nights spent with friends and family where no goods are produced. The joy of running or dancing or playing purely because our bodies and their movements are beautiful. His emphasis likely comes out of his industrial culture, but it is just as relevant, if not moreso, in our neoliberal, capitalist culture, where markets and exchange value rule the world.

Through his emphasis on play, Lewis calls us to live into a different sort of world. One where abundance, not scarcity, is the norm. Said differently, Lewis calls us to live into the Kingdom established through Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. One wherein we needn’t worry about what we will wear, or eat, or drink. Where the last will be first and those who value pragmatism over the goodness of God’s creation will be last. Where we are loved by an infinite God who can effortlessly meet and exceed our every want or need. In The Last Battle, those who follow Aslan are led into his country and joyously instructed to journey “further up and further in.” As they do so, they find the people and lands that they loved have not gone away, but are more real. There, in Aslan’s country, they can forever play and discover and rediscover the goodness of creation. Though it is hard for those of us with practical, adult brains to do so, Lewis shows us that even we can play and rejoice in God’s goodness as we await the return of our King.

David Justice

David Justice

David is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. There he teaches classes in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core program, which is a part of Baylor's Honors College. He earned an MA in philosophy from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and an MA in Theological Ethics and PhD in Theological Studies from Saint Louis University. His research focus is the theology, philosophy, and activism of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and how we can move our society towards the Beloved Community. He and his wife Mariah are raising two sons, Abraham and Theo, in Waco, Texas. When he has free time he likes to run, read, or play video games. If you'd like to learn more about him, please visit his personal website,

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