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January 27th, 2014

Past Watchful Dragons

The initial shock of the sharp, repetitive pounding of needles into my skin was more than I expected. The tattoo artist, sleeved from wrist to shoulder in his own art, was no stranger to first-timers, and quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm of joking and intense concentration. It was the night of my 21st birthday; my older sister stood by and kept a firm grip on my hand as I had the design I had been sitting on for two years inked onto my ribs. “‘Past Watchful Dragons,’ what does that mean?” the tattoo artist asked as he leaned over me, putting the fine detail into the shadowing of the ink pot and quill.

“It’s a quote from C. S. Lewis, about writing…” I trailed off, staying still instead of going into full-blown explanation of the phrase. The tattoo artist had done enough quotes in his time that he simply shrugged and continued on, though we stayed on the topic of Lewis for a few more moments. Forty-five minutes later, I was looking at my new tattoo in the mirror, the black ink standing out starkly against the red, shiny skin. I could hardly believe it was there, a permanent marker on the influence he’s had on my life and my writing.

The phrase may sound a bit obscure, strange even. That’s what I wanted. I wanted whoever heard about or saw it to ask what it meant, and for me to be able to tell them the power that we as Christian writers have in our stories—our fiction, our fantasy stories, our Tolkien-esque worlds that we spend years creating.

In his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories Say Best What’s To Be Said,” Lewis explains how he as a child struggled with feeling what “one ought to feel about God and the suffering of Christ.” He says, “I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical.” He then asks the ultimate question, that suppose that, “by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons?” Here lies the true potency of the quote, with implications reaching far beyond the writing of fairy stories.

All Christian artists will at some time face the question, whether posed by someone in the Church or by themselves or by both: “If my art is not ‘Christian,’ is it still worth something to the Kingdom?”

I answer this with a resounding “Yes!”—citing Lewis as the perfect example. He was a staunch atheist, started on the road to conversion by reading the fiction of G. K. Chesterton and George MacDonald. Later in life, he himself would mix pagan mythologies with Christianity in “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and eventually would go on to retell the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche in “Till We Have Faces.” This is freeing: to know the potential my work—“Christian” or otherwise—might have by allowing Christ to work through me.

“Past watchful dragons” is not just a quote for artists, however. They are words we as Christians can live our lives by. Often times it is the things beyond the blatantly evangelistic and religious that God uses to win people’s souls. It is the relationships that we take time to invest in and build; it is simple acts of kindness, charity, and grace — an active living out the Gospel. In our modern world, the thought of the millions of members of the Body of Christ living and loving in such a way that shines the full potency of the character of Christ seems like a fairytale. But sometimes, a fairytale is all we really need.