Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Why Uncle Andrew Couldn't Hear the Animals Speak

When reading about the creation of Narnia in The Magician's Nephew, a number of things struck me.  The vivid depiction of a new world was first and foremost, along with the Biblical undertones.  Another aspect which stood out was Uncle Andrew's interaction with the animals.  The following is from a paper I wrote on this topic through the lens of Virtue Epistemology, utilizing the book "The Lion, the Witch, and Philosophy" available here
Kevin Kinghorn’s chapter in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy: The Lion, the Witch, and the Worldview focuses upon the conundrum which is Uncle Andrew and why he could not hear the animals speak in C.S. Lewis’ Magician’s Nephew.  Throughout this book, Uncle Andrew is portrayed as a magician who esteems rules and logic above all else.  His immersion into the magical world of Narnia is so different than anything he could imagine that he quickly seeks out the practicality the land may offer in the form of turning a profit.  This realism shuts him off from experiencing the magic that is found in Narnia.While the other characters in the book are amazed at the talking animals, Uncle Andrew only hears roars and growls.  He cannot comprehend anything outside of his realistic worldviews and therefore dismisses the possibility of a talking animal.  In fact, he is so set in his own beliefs that he does not give it a second thought when the children are talking with the animals.  “Uncle Andrew was blind to things that were perfectly obvious to his companions.”[1]  His concern for pragmatic overshadows the truth which is at hand.  Because of this, Uncle Andrew is able to look past what is so clearly obvious to his peers and miss out on the opportunities at hand.Kinghorn goes in depth into the philosophical ideas surrounding Uncle Andrew’s inability to grasp the unimaginable.  He uses Lorraine Code’s comments on epistemic responsibility to analyze Uncle Andrew and debate whether he is even at a place in life where sound decisions of truth could be made.  It seems that because of his internal selfishness and lack of virtues, Uncle Andrew is unable to join in the magic of talking animals and the creation of Narnia.  He is blind to the obvious because he does not value seeking out truth if it is beyond his comprehension.
            While reading The Magician’s Nephew, it is easy to see Uncle Andrew as the bad guy who is too far removed from childish imagination to see what is so clear in front of him.  Kinghorn’s essay describes Uncle Andrew interpreting “the actions of others in line with his own self-centered commitments.”[2]  But isn’t this what we do quite often in our own faith?  I think this is an important critique as it applies to our lives.  We are so focused on the realism of the world we know that we are quick to dismiss acts of God like miracles.  Think about the disciples – those whom were closest to Jesus himself – who did not quite grasp what was right in front of them.  They were too preoccupied with what was normal and real in their minds that it was hard to see the miracles being performed in front of them.            Kinghorn describes Uncle Andrew’s oblivion in light of virtue epistemology.  This is “a recent theory of knowing that seeks to reverse the traditional assumptions about how we determine whether a person is justified in his or her beliefs.”[3]  It is easy from an outside perspective to read The Magician’s Nephew and see Uncle Andrew as being wrong, but if we were in the same situation, would we possibly fall into similar thoughts?  After all, Uncle Andrew did not know he was wrong in his thoughts.  In fact he believed himself to be correct and everyone else oblivious to the truth.  He was creating his own truth, focusing on himself first.  The typical “virtue epistemologist takes an inward-outward approach and answers that, if the belief resulted from an appropriate intellectual virtue, then the person justifiably formed that belief.”  In Uncle Andrew’s particular case, he believed himself to be justified in the opinion formed about animals not being able to speak, and therefore created his own truth.            Kinghorn’s explanation of the philosophy behind epistemology is interesting but not entirely helpful at all points.  He describes the virtues as described by the philosopher Lorraine Code and uses her studies to figure out if Uncle Andrew “possessed the intellectual virtues needed to form justified beliefs.”[4]  I think attempting to analyze a fictional character goes a little too far in the philosophical game, yet I appreciate what he is doing.  While examining Uncle Andrew, he finds that he does not have the qualities to make a rational decision.  He is too selfish and does not value truth.  He also allows fear to dictate his beliefs and does not recognize his own limitations.  Therefore, Uncle Andrew is the epitome of someone not epistemological responsible.            One of my favorite lines from The Magician’s Nephew is “what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.”[5]  I think this perfectly sums up what is being discussed throughout Kinghorn’s chapter.  Uncle Andrew was not able to hear the animals speak because he was physically standing in the wrong place; he viewed from a distance, as fear overtook his will to approach the creatures.  He also did not possess the particular qualities virtue epistemology dictates for someone seeking truth.  His focus was solely on himself and how he could either benefit from such a world as Narnia, or how he could preserve himself above anyone else.  His self-preservation is what in turn made him the victim of the animals just wanting to figure out what he was.  It is clear that C.S. Lewis wrote the book to portray the effects of selfishness in the creation of Uncle Andrew’s character, however Kinghorn’s philosophy may dig a little deeper than Lewis originally intended. 

[1] Kevin Kinghorn, “Why Uncle Andrew Couldn't Hear the Animals Speak,” in The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy: The Lion, the Witch, and the Worldview, ed. Gregory Bassham and Jerry L. Walls (Chicago: Open Court, 2005), 19.
[2] Ibid, 24.
[3] Ibid, 16.
[4] Ibid, 17.
[5] Ibid, 24.

Questions for Discussion:1. Why do those seeking answers and solutions often miss what is right in front of them?2. How do you see this happen with Christians in particular?  (Think about how dismissive many are with miracles and spiritual warfare)3. Have you found yourself in situations where you were “see and hear” things wrong because you were standing in the wrong place?


  1. This is a terrific article! It makes me want to read the Magician's Nephew again to examine myself and compare my inner thoughts to Uncle Andrew.

    It's so easy to get caught up in practicality, to call a miracle a coincidence, or to say that someone who is filled with the spirit is actually just drunk with superficial emotion, or even just to focus our thoughts on work more than we do on God.

    I'm going to make it a point this week to notice God in every little thing instead of blinding myself with selfish skepticism and sensory overload with meaningless entertainment and work.

  2. Ah! It's a bit like the Dwarves in the Last Battle...I hadn't made that connection before! In each instance, the rigidity in the mind of an individual or a group prevents them from encountering a radically changed reality.

    Enjoyable meditations! I enjoy a good stroll through Narnia now and again, myself. You might find this interesting: