C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia

C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia have been derided as overly Christian, and as overly pagan.  They have been described as imperialistic parables and as Biblical allegory.  I say that all misses the point.  Mind you, I’m making this claim in the wake of a cross-country move, with my copies of the Narnia books nowhere to be found as yet.  Doubtless in the same buried box as my references on Lewis and the Inklings.  What follows, therefore, is a review necessarily without footnotes, written from love and memory, founded in a childhood so coloured by Narnia that I habitually  checked the backs of wardrobes for snowy landscapes, came to expect Divinity to love me for doing my best, and still have a tendency to see bridges as chains on the limbs of shackled river gods.

Theology, politics – Lewis himself always pleaded not guilty to the accusation of allegory or parable.  He was telling a story primarily for children, or rather a set of stories.  Any moral lessons taught here are no more overt or objectionable than what was expected in children’s literature of the time – and rather less so than most.  If the great lion Aslan is supposed to represent Christ – and that is the single most common comment made about the series – Narnia at large owes precious little to anything in the Testaments, Old or New.  It’s a land populated with all the races of Western myth, and then some:  dryads and fauns; centaurs and unicorns; giants and dwarves, witches, werewolves and talking mice.  As it happens, I know both Christians and pagans whose beliefs have been shaped in part by these stories.  Since my sister first handed me a copy of Prince Caspian, back in 1967, I have read the whole series more times than I can begin to count.  There’s something very comforting about these books in Trying Times or when one is Seriously Ill.  Over the past forty-three years I’ve given some thought as to why I love them so much.

So here’s a quick personal tour of the books, and it will include spoilers, particularly as regards events in the earlier books.  (Sorry about that.)  I make no apologies for making notes on the dominant themes of each book as I read them.  In context of all the contradictory surmise and projection on the subject, I’d just like to get in my tuppence-worth.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe:

The White Witch has held Narnia in an endless winter for a hundred years.  Four siblings from our world make their way to Narnia and are instrumental in bringing back the spring.  In this book we see the dying and rising god gambit, fauns, Father Christmas, and talking animals.  We also see the first big theological question crop up.  Aslan offers himself up to be killed in exchange for the life of a hostage, and comes back to life.  Since Aslan is divine, this is seen as an allegory of the crucifixion and resurrection.

But from motivation to consequence, Aslan’s sacrifice and rebirth display fundamental thematic differences from those of Christ, and this supports Lewis’s own protestations of innocence to the charge of proselytising in these books.   He argued that Aslan enacts a mythic cycle that is far from unique to Christianity, one that plays itself out in countless cultures around the world.

Of course, these days there’s a film adaptation.  There always seems to be a film adaptation these days, when the subject is some classic piece of fantasy; and it rarely does much credit to its source material.  If all you’ve seen is the movie of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe,  do yourself the favour of reading the book.

To be fair, the four Pevensie children in the film aren’t bad.  Not as good as the older BBC adaptation, granted, where the casting and performances are about as letter-perfect as human beings could possibly be… but that earlier treatment fails utterly on the basis of its portrayal of Aslan by two small people wearing the halves of a lion costume.  Nothing can save the series once Aslan comes onscreen looking like a grade-school stage prop.

And yet for all the CG virtuosity that went into making Aslan in the new films, this key role is  once again a key weak spot.  In Lewis’s books you will find a far more intimate Aslan, and one whose grandeur is more innate and less contrived; an Aslan who not only praises each child, but chides them all as well:  not their babysitter but their teacher.  When Peter makes his first kill with the sword he’s been given, he earns not only a “Well done” but the sharp reminder never to sheath his blade uncleaned.  And yet on the other hand, in Lewis’s novel you will find a young lion gushing, “That’s what I like about Aslan.  No stand-offishness.”  Well, the Aslan in the movie is distinctly stand-offish, while the approval he lavishes  on the Pevensies leaves him seeming less godlike than like some stern, somewhat stuffy but good-hearted archbishop.

And that, I vowed, was the last I’d see of those movies.  (It wasn’t, though, not quite – I’ll get to that in a minute.)

In Lewis’s first exploration of Narnia, despite the whole death-&-resurrection bit, his dominant themes are not of redemption or salvation, but of loyalty and sacrifice.  Aslan speaks of the Oldest Magic, the willing sacrifice:  but he doesn’t say he’s the only one, or suggest that he’s offering himself up for everybody’s sake.  Politics?  If there’s a political agenda in sight, it more resembles solid old-fashioned heroic monarchy than anything as adventurous as imperialism.  One reviewer went so far as to label the stories “fascist”:  but if there are any fascists to be found in the story, the obvious candidates are not any of our heroes, but rather the White Witch and her crew of SS talking wolves.

The Pevensies and Aslan save the day; the four are crowned as monarchs over all Narnia and they grow into adults.   One day while out hunting, they chance to find their way back to our world… to find that no time has passed, and they are children again.  As with Fairyland, the passage of time between the two worlds is not consistent:  but unlike the typical homecoming from Faerie, in this case the passage of years does not return home with the travellers.

Prince Caspian:

Centuries have passed in Narnia, but only a year for Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy – the four young heroes of the first book.  Things have not gone well for the land in their absence.  Foreign conquerors have occupied Narnia and done their best to eradicate the talking beasts and the indigenous magical beings – the Old Narnians.  Young Prince Caspian, for example, has been brought up believing that Old Narnians are nothing more than unhealthy myths.  He comes to understand that the Old Narnians really exist, and he also becomes an extraneous prince, with the usual risks that entails.  He leaves home to lead the rebellion (and save his own neck in the process).  The four Pevensie children step in and help save the day again.  In a glorious, giddy and terrible rout, the old powers awaken and repossess the land.

I was visiting a friend while he happened to be watching the movie adaptation of this one, so I saw more of it than I cared to:  I’ll limit myself to a few comments:

1. Setting up a romantic interest between Caspian and Susan was inexcusably lame …and utterly predictable Hollywood thinking.

2. The scene of the river god breaking loose is infinitely less spectacular in the book, but manages to be far more powerful.   That’s a comparison worth examining for its implications regarding the nature of artistic and dramatic effect.

3. The swordplay in the onscreen duel between Caspian and the King was uncommonly good.  I recall some of the best purely European-style choreography I’ve ever seen on film.  I’m tempted to brave the film again just for another look at that scene to verify my memory, because the rest of the battle sucked runny eggs.  Just a lot of generic CG sound and fury, no rational sense of strategy at all.

But as for religious messages in the novel?  If Aslan’s death and resurrection in the first story was supposed to represent Christ, then the triumph of the old nature powers in this book might have to be interpreted as signs of a startling theological reversal for Lewis.  We are definitely given to understand that the wild old magic is good and should be free.  But Lewis hasn’t converted to Wicca:  it’s a story:  don’t waste too much time trying to find a Message.  The real theme here is straightforward:  stand up for the right.

And when the Pevensie children have done this once more, away back to home they are whisked again.  For Peter and Susan, this will be their last visit:  there seems to be an age limit, and these two are now too old to return to Narnia.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Since only Edmund and Lucy can make the trip this time, they are accompanied by an Odious Relative named Eustace, for a royal cruise out across the ocean to the east of Narnia.  On a sort of outbound Odyssey tracking a shipload of mostly ill-fated Narnian noblemen, we’re taken from island to island, each with its marvels and its perils.  Eustace gets turned into a dragon, but he learns his lesson from it, so that’s all right.

Here we finally get to a solid redemption theme –  but it’s far from the main thread of the book.  This tale is primarily a succession of wonders, a National Geographic tour or a voyage of Sinbad, with the brat-becomes-a-decent-sort tale of growth grafted on for good measure.  In case that isn’t enough for you, though, we also learn something of the geographical co-ordinates of Paradise in this world, and the most lingering moral lesson in the book is that a three-foot talking mouse with a rapier and a Cyrano complex can sail directly to Heaven, with echoes of Galahad at Carbonek.  There’s nothing particularly original about the feisty and elegant Reepicheep or his quest, but he is an irresistible character.

The Silver Chair

Eustace is back, but now Lucy and Edmund are too old to return.  In a desperate attempt to escape school bullies at their “progressive” school, Eustace and fellow student Jill Pole attempt a moderately pathetic incantation to Aslan to let them enter Narnia.  The two of them are drawn into a quest to secure the line of succession to Narnia’s throne in the company of a gloomy six-foot amphibian.  Where the previous book moved out to sea, this one moves inland to explore the wilds and wastes beyond the bounds of Narnian civilisation in search of a missing prince.

We also see something of the world beneath the Narnian landscape, and Lewis offers provocative glimpses of a still deeper world, a land of glaring light and fierce heat – but a netherworld which is a beloved homeland to its inhabitants, gnomes to whom the shallower caverns they’ve been slaving in are chillingly cold and damp places.  Freed in the book’s spectacular climax, one of these slaves extols the beauties of his home:  if the previous book hinted at a physical location of Heaven, this volume firmly shuts the door on any such tangible co-ordinates for Hell.  For a view of that neighbourhood, in Lewis’s universe, we must wait for the final novel in the series, and both its place and its nature will be considerably more subtle.

This novel gives us the themes of responsibility and power, the importance of solid teamwork, and holding firm to one’s beliefs.  The plight of the enchanted prince, the straightforward lessons and trials of the quest, and the lessons Jill and Eustace take back to the public-school bullies are all about claiming personal power and taking personal responsibility.  There’s nothing political here, and no sermon.

Lewis was a clever and often brilliant apologist for formal Anglican theology:  his novels and essays on Christianity are a delight to read even if you don’t share his convictions.   But in the course of his writings, public and private, we see him always ready to try different voices, adopt different artistic personae, as suited his fancy – or his Muse.  His mercurial voice as an author was such that he rarely felt compelled to preach unless he was under commission to speak from the pulpit.

Thus far, as Christian tract, the Narnia books are a flop.  Their pernicious paganism is about as sincere as Shakespeare’s.  Their political consciousness is quintessentially medieval.  Message?  Lesson?  No.  Whatever mythic truth or resonance the Narnia books communicate comes strictly – and significantly – from Lewis’s education in the collective myths of what we like to call Western Civilisation (Gandhi’s caveat on the subject notwithstanding).  Lewis, after a lifetime of immersion in the folk-ways of his people – that is to say, the educated English – cut his imagination loose.  He played.  And it is this sense of play, even when (at times) it is a little forced or stilted, that makes the Narnia books Lewis’s most enduring and popular works.  He was no more concerned with selling Christianity in these novels than he was with restoring the Plantaganet dynasty to the Throne of England.

The Horse and His Boy

This is the only tale in the series to feature no protagonist from our world.  It is also the only one set predominantly outside the borders of Narnia.  Set during the latter years of the first book, most of the action takes place in Calormen, a nation more or less out of the Arabian Nights. If there’s a claim of political incorrectness to be made against Lewis in these books, it’s the portrayal of Calormene culture that most earns it.  Fantasy Arabs who probably owe more to Alexander Korda’s 1940 The Thief of Bagdad than to any actual research into Middle-Eastern culture or history.  Worshippers of Tash – a deity who is not only multiply clawed and cruelly beaked but who reeks of slaughter – they can hardly be expected to act like good guys, and for the most part they don’t.  Our protagonists this time are a poor boy (Shasta) and a rich girl (Aravis) who, with the guidance of a pair of Narnian talking horses, must make their escape from this oppressive environment.  And who can blame them?  The only surprise is that there isn’t a steady stream of these runaways filtering across the border.

There’s a secondary storyline, featuring three of the four Pevensies in their adult years as Kings and Queens of Narnia, as they cope with a marriage proposal to Susan.  But for the most part what we have here is a study in class and character, privilege and prejudices… and providence:   for in this novel Aslan appears in a variety of guises and acts mostly as an agent of growth, comforting, punishing, orchestrating events as needed.  A secret mentor and all-seeing judge, he is nobody’s saviour, and he takes blood for blood.

The Magician’s Nephew

J.R.R. Tolkien criticised Lewis’s world as mythically inconsistent, and so far as it goes that’s true.  Middle-Earth is original where Narnia is profoundly synthetic.  But that’s partly because Tolkien was carefully building a world:  Lewis was simply telling a story.

But perhaps it was inevitable that anyone who discussed writing so often with Tolkien would eventually be forced to address the Creation of his literary world.  All the same, when Lewis came at it, it was as synthetic as the rest.  Every creation myth he’d read in the course of his broad education stirred around in that brain of his, and it came out in a glorious, eclectic jumble.  There are elements of Eden here, but about equally strong are the echoes of Norse myth, the rebirth of worlds that takes place after Ragnarök.

It’s a study in pride and vanity; parts of it are quite funny and other parts are chilling, while some passages can still move me to tears after countless readings; and we learn not only where the White Witch came from, but what wood the wardrobe was made of, and just why there was a lamp-post out in that forest waaaaay back in Book One… and nowhere else.

The Final Battle

Having written his world’s Genesis, Lewis turned now to his Apocalypse and the series’ conclusion.  And it pretty much defines the term “series’ conclusion”, since it’s hard to go on much beyond the destruction of the world.

When Narnia goes bad it’s a tale of political corruption and lethal graft, with overtones of the Antichrist and 1984 doublethink, as Aslan and the Calormene Tash become identified as one and the same by a canny ape in collusion with some Calormene politicians.  Dryads are reduced to lumber, talking beasts are forced to animal labour; many of the ever-cynical dwarves become so disaffected that they turn against everyone.

Here at last we see Lewis’s  allegory of Hell – and for once it is a genuine allegory:  a group of these dwarves surrounded by bounty and a rich feast who can only see lack and foulness.  For them, it is real.

Here too we finally get our one clear political statement.  It’s pretty simple:  Lewis doesn’t like politics and doesn’t trust politicians.

The world ends in a few pages of glorious prose.  The stars fall from the sky.  Aslan collects his own and heads east.  And at the series’ conclusion, on the outskirts of something very like Heaven, we get another curious scrap of theology.

A young Calormene soldier is confused to find himself here, having always worshipped Tash.  Aslan explains that who you call on doesn’t matter so much as the deed you do in its name.  Evil done in Aslan’s name serves Tash; goodness done in Tash’s name serves Aslan.  This kid has always done his best, and been true, and it is not his faith but his actions that have earned him his final reward.

This is no Christian doctrine that I’m familiar with.  This is a story influenced by the author’s faith, to be sure, but also by his fancy and a lifelong fascination with world myths.  Articulate, clear and engaging, Lewis knew a thing or two about how to put a sentence together, and he could make it come out saying exactly what he meant it to say.  If he had wanted to preach in the Narnia books, he would have preached a more pointed sermon.  One needs only read a few pages of The Screwtape Letters to know he could do it.

The deep truth, the truth that gets lost in all the chat about what he was and wasn’t really saying, is that C.S. Lewis was a terrific writer.  And the best proof of that is the fact that the Chronicles of Narnia have been in print continuously for fifty years now:  no books aiming to sell a political agenda or a particular idea of faith are likely to stay fresh to half a century of children.

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