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Through the wardrobe with Dr Williams

31 August 2012

His study of Narnia is one to savour, says Raymond Chapman

The Lion's World: A journey into the heart of Narnia
Rowan Williams
SPCK £8.99
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IT WOULD seem unlikely, as the Archbishop of Canterbury observes in this new book, that "a middle-aged bachelor teaching English Literature at Oxford" should publish a fantasy for children. In the event, the seven Narnia books are by far the best-known of the works of C. S. Lewis, which include theology, literary criticism, and philosophical science fiction. They have been much loved by children, but the purpose of the present book is to show how they contain a deeper religious message, a presentation of the challenge of Christianity for a society that has become largely ignorant of it, made with only very few direct references to the Christian story.

The ambiguous figure of Aslan the lion, wise, loving, passing through suffering and death to resurrection, but never overtly named as God, speaks of things that can lead towards faith.

As he did in many of his other works, Lewis warned that religious faith and order had become stereotyped, conformist. and unexciting. The way back was through challenge and adventure, an insight that he shared, however improbably, with G. K. Chesterton. Dr Williams sees the point of Narnia as "to help us rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity".

The life of faith is full of risks, but there is no other way, and no other person can live it for us. Aslan says to an enquirer. "I tell no one any story but his own." If we will live honestly within our own reality, we shall be given glimpses of ultimate reality to guide us on our way. For the Archbishop, the conclusion is: "What Lewis portrays with such power and freshness in Narnia is simply grace."

There have been criticisms of the Narnia books, even by admirers of Lewis. Some find, not without reason, a degree of harshness, even cruelty, in some episodes. Lewis was not setting out a soft sell, however, and he himself lived with memories of an unhappy childhood and the horror of war. These books have sometimes been compared, quite wrongly, to other fantasy books. The mythological mingling of classical, folklore, and other sources seemed even to his friend Tolkien to be mistaken. The discerning reader may rather find in the variety of talking animals a respect for every aspect of the divine creation.

This is a short book, to be savoured and read again. When Rowan Williams leaves Lambeth for Cambridge, he will bring with him literary as well as theological scholarship.

 The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London.


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