The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them; before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the sea-gulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember? – from the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
“And oh, the cry of the sea-gulls! Have you heard it? Can you remember?” There is nothing throwaway about this line. It reflects one of the cornerstones of C.S. Lewis’ theology: the concept of joy, which for Lewis has a technical meaning as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction” (Surprised by Joy, p.20) – or, to put it another way, a deep nostalgia for something you’ve never actually known; a powerful emotional memory of a good you’ve never actually experienced.
In his sermon The Weight of Glory, Lewis describes this as a “desire for our own far-off country”, “the inconsolable secret in each one of you”:
the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience.
One way in which we evade the force of this emotion is “to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter”. Or we may follow Wordsworth’s approach, whose “expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past”:
But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering.
(“Have you heard it? Can you remember?”)
For Lewis, this emotion of “joy” is a sign that we are made for a “transtemporal, transfinite good”, of which all the good things and good desires of this life are only a faint echo:
they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes how this emotion was stirred up within him as a child by lines from Longfellow’s translation of the Norse sagas:
I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead—
I knew nothing about Balder; but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote) and then […] found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.
And that, in a nutshell, is what Lewis is trying to do for his readers in that line from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.