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What is the point of Narnia?

22 November 2013

Rowan Williams came late to the Chronicles of Narnia, but discovered in the series a sense of what it is like to encounter, and believe in God


A MIDDLE-AGED bachelor teaching English Literature at Oxford proposes to publish a children's fantasy; in most publishers' offices, it is a proposal destined for the wastepaper basket. Yet no one could deny the extraordinary and continuing appeal of the Narnia stories - to adults as well as children.

It is also important to recognise how much the themes of the Narnia books are interwoven with what C. S. Lewis was thinking and writing in other contexts around the same time, and with material he had already published in the 1940s.

For example: his 1946 book, The Great Divorce, foreshadows many of the ideas in the Narnia stories - most particularly a theme that Lewis insists on more and more as his work develops: the impossibility of forcing any person to accept love, and the monumental and excruciating difficulty of receiving love when you are wedded to a certain picture of yourself. It is this theme that emerges most clearly in his last (and greatest) imaginative work, the 1956 novel Till We Have Faces.

Lewis is trying to work out, in a variety of imaginative idioms, from the early 1940s onwards, the problems of self-deception above all, the lure of self-dramatising, the pain and challenge of encounter with divine truthfulness. What the Chronicles of Narnia seek to do, very ambitiously, is to translate these into terms that children can understand.

In a letter written in 1945 to Dorothy L. Sayers, he declares that he is "all for little books on other subjects with their Christianity latent. I propounded this in the S. C. R. [Senior Common Room] at Campion Hall [the Jesuit house of studies in Oxford] and was told that it was 'Jesuitical'."

Writing children's books "with their Christianity latent" is, we need to be clear, something rather different from simply writing standard defences of Christianity in code: he and Sayers would have agreed passionately that the writing has to have its own integrity, its own wholeness. It has to follow its own logic rather than be dictated by an argument. But this does not mean that it cannot be powerful in showing how an argument can be properly put into context.

SO, WHAT is Lewis trying to do in the Chronicles of Narnia? Perhaps the simplest way of answering the question is to say that Lewis is trying to recreate for the reader what it is like to encounter and believe in God.

We are most of us still vaguely aware of language about God and Jesus in our society; alarmist stories surface every year about how few schoolchildren can tell you what is supposed to have happened at the first Christmas or Easter, but there remains a general cultural memory of the Christian religion.

Sharing the good news is not so much a matter of telling people what they have never heard, as persuading them that there are things that they have not heard, when they think they have. Lewis repeatedly found, as did Sayers, that they were dealing with a public who thought they knew what it was they were disbelieving when they announced their disbelief in Christian doctrine.

The same situation is even more common today. It is not true that large numbers of people reject Christian faith - if by "reject" we mean that they deliberately consider and then decide against it. They are imperceptibly shunted towards a position where the "default setting" is a conviction that traditional Christianity has nothing much to be said for it.

People who have settled down in this position are not likely to be much moved by argument; they need to be surprised into a realisation that they have never actually reckoned with what Christianity is about.

Sayers's letters of the early 1940s, when she was writing her radio plays on the life of Christ, come back repeatedly to this point, and Lewis had already begun to explore the communication of the faith through fiction in his "science fiction" trilogy, of which the first book was published as early as 1938. In the Narnia books, he wants his readers to experience what it is that religious (specifically Christian) talk is about, without resorting to religious talk as we usually meet it.

HOW do you make fresh what is thought to be familiar - so familiar that it does not need to be thought about? Try making up a world in which these things can be met without preconceptions, a world in which the strangeness of the Christian story is encountered for what it is, not as part of a familiar eccentricity of behaviour called religion.

Narnia is a strange place: a parallel universe, if you like. There is no "church" in Narnia, no religion even. The interaction between Aslan as a "divine" figure and the inhabitants of this world is something that is worked out in the routines of life itself. Indeed, the only organised religion in this world is the cult of Tash, the god of the Calormenes, a diabolical idol.

A sharp-eyed reader will soon realise that "Narnia" is both a name for the whole of this world and the name of one particular kingdom within it. But this is not careless writing: the kingdom of Narnia is where the action of Aslan is most clearly present and recognised, where the decisive things happen that shape the destiny of the rest of this world. And this means that the kingdom of Narnia is itself the "Church", the community in which a transforming relationship with Aslan becomes fully possible.

The realm of Narnia is a "holy nation", to use the biblical term for Israel and the Church: it is the community in relation to which every human being's destiny is focused and determined, whether they realise it or not.

There is another extremely important aspect of the realm of Narnia: unlike its immediate neighbours, it is inhabited by talking animals, who are clearly shown as companions - in some sense, equals - in the service of Aslan. We are made to see humanity in a fresh perspective; the "natural" pride or arrogance of the human spirit is chastened by the revelation that, in Narnia, you may be on precisely same spiritual level as a badger or a mouse. Narnia is thus not only about encountering God in a new way; it is about thinking of your own humanity in a rich and surprising context.

THE "holy nation" includes those whom we think of as being outside the all-important human story. But, as in the alien planets of the science-fiction trilogy, it is crucial to be able to look on humanity as, at best, part of a wider story, always in need of help from those with whom the planet is shared; and, at worst, a positively toxic presence, dragging its neighbours downwards.

Lewis would have had plenty of questions to ask of fashionable environmentalism, but he sketches out with great prescience just the set of issues that more recent thinkers have brought into focus about the effects of certain conceptions of human uniqueness.

Anyone who imagines that Lewis does no more in his theology overall than reproduce what is popularly and wrongly supposed to be the "Christian" attitude to the non-human Creation has to reckon with this. It is absolutely clear that he wants to present humanity as occupying what you could call a focal but ambiguous place in Creation.

There is no narrow focus on humanity at the expense of everything else. The presence of talking beasts means that the moral world is not exclusively human, and that obligations and relationships are not restricted to intra-human affairs.

Peter, towards the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, addresses the talking dogs as "cousins"; and we have got used, in the course of The Last Battle, to the friendship between King Tirian and Jewel, the unicorn. Even more to the point, though, is the easily overlooked fact that humans themselves are initially aliens in Narnia. As The Magician's Nephew makes plain, Narnia is designed for talking beasts.

HUMANITY is a highly dangerous element in Creation, but it also has the capacity to protect, and to guarantee justice. The London cabby Frank, who becomes king of Narnia, is exhorted by Aslan to treat his animal subjects as free and intelligent, on the same footing as his own human descendants, but he still has an ultimate responsibility for them all.

The most eloquent statement of this double-edged character to human presence in the world is to be found in Prince Caspian. The Prince has just discovered that his people are descended from a tribe of pirates, and he wishes that he "came of a more honourable lineage".

"You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve," said Aslan. "And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content."

There could not be a clearer depiction of the dual sense of human dignity and human degradation that is central to the orthodox Christian tradition. Lewis is simultaneously puncturing a glib humanist confidence in natural perfectibility, and protesting against any kind of metaphysical contempt for the actual flesh and blood humanity around us.

There can be a paradoxical fusion between these two things. The search for social and individual perfection can lead to an angry impatience with "ordinary" humanity, even with the very processes of physical life. Humanity can be manipulated into a nightmare caricature of eternal life, but only by losing what makes it human. It is one of Lewis's most durable and challenging insights.

Hence the importance of the animal world in Narnia. Humans have to relate to animals as partners and equals - equals in intelligence and dignity, even if in some sense they are to be governed by humans.

THE sense that Lewis wants to convey is of a world in which humans are not alone as intelligent actors - actors in a theatre of providential and theologically meaningful events. Some varieties of impoverished and nervous modern Christian mind have been anxious about this, as about Lewis's blithe co-options of pagan mythology.

But for Lewis, the crucial theological point about the key role of human beings in the moral cosmos is intelligible only when we see that human beings are always already embedded in their relations with the non-human world, and that their moral quality is utterly bound up with this, as much as with their mutual relations.

To be invited to see trees and rivers as part of the "people" of Narnia, and to have to ask what proper and respectful relations might be between a human and a talking beast is to be jolted out of a one-dimensional understanding of human uniqueness, or human destiny under God.

There are tensions and moral complications, but Lewis is not too concerned to produce a wholly selfconsistent world. His didactic point is still a powerful one: what if you found yourself obliged to make conversation with non-human partners? To make friends with them? Start from here, and you may find that it changes your attitude to the world around you in radical ways. And, above all, the ruler and saviour of Narnia is not human.

Here, too, it is probably not a good idea to press for too much consistency. Lewis captures a great many fundamental theological ideas in the figure of Aslan; but the one that, in the nature of the case, he cannot bring in is that of the saviour who restores the divine image in human life, who "reconstructs" the humanity that has been lost by selfishness and stupidity.

But if - a substantial if - we could think about the life of the saviour, even the suffering of the saviour, without thinking of his solidarity with us, might we learn something?

I DON'T for a moment think that Lewis would have argued that this theme of solidarity is secondary or dispensable to Christian doctrine. But, in spite of everything, he is not just trying to "translate" Christian doctrine; he is trying to evoke what it feels like to believe in the God of Christian revelation, and his portrayal of Aslan is an extremely daring essay in bringing to the foreground what is obscured by a too habitual, and too easy, stress on solidarity.

Aslan's strangeness and wildness are powerfully conveyed by his animal character. And the idea that we are saved by what we should otherwise be tempted to think of as "beneath" us in the order of Creation can be read as really just an intensified version of the orthodox theological point that the saviour stoops to the lowest of conditions, and that we must stoop to meet him.

In other words, part of what is involved in accepting what Aslan offers is accepting liberation and authority at the hands of an agent who is strange, even (apparently) badly equipped to offer such things. And this is in itself a more than respectable biblical theme. "Is not this the carpenter's son?" - the question sceptically asked by Jesus' fellow-townsmen - is just about recognisably in the same territory.

Lewis once referred to certain kinds of book as a "mouthwash for the imagination". This is what he attempted to provide in the Narnia stories: an unfamiliar world in which we could rediscover what it might mean to meet the holy without the staleness of religious preconceptions as they appear in our culture.

The point of Narnia is to help us rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity - which is almost everything. There are, of course, many fine strands of hint and allusion that connect us back to the language we know. But the essential thing is this invitation to hear the story as if we had never heard it before. And, for a growing number of readers who actually haven't, the effectiveness can be measured.

The Lion's World: A journey into the heart of Narnia, by Rowan Williams, is published by SPCK at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.10). This edited extract appears by kind permission.


Recent books about Lewis

C. S. Lewis: A biography of Friendship by Colin Duriez, Lion £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9)

The A-Z of C. S. Lewis: An encyclopedia of his life, thought and writings by Colin Duriez, Lion £14.99 (£13.50)

C. S. Lewis: A life: Eccentric genius, reluctant prophet by Alister McGrath, Hodder £9.99 (£9)

The Intellectual World of C. S. Lewis by Alister McGrath, Wiley-Blackwell £19.99 (£18)

The Lion's World: A journey into the heart of Narnia by Rowan Williams, SPCK £8.99 (£8.10)

Earlier works

The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and their friends by Humphrey Carpenter, Harper Collins £8.99 (£8.10)

Shadowlands: The true story of C. S. Lewis and Joy Davidman by Brian Sibley, Hodder £8.99 (£8.10)

C. S. Lewis: a biography by A. N. Wilson, Harper Perennial £10.99 (£9.90)

Editions of works by Lewis

A Year With C. S. Lewis: 365 daily readings from his classic works Harper Collins £9.99 (£9)

A Grief Observed Faber £7.99 (£7.20)

The Complete Chronicles of Narnia: All seven tales in one volume Harper Collins £35 (£31.50)

C. S. Lewis Boxset Harper Collins £55 (£49.50)

Mere Christianity Harper Collins £7.99 (£7.20)

The Screwtape Letters Harper Collins £7.99 (£7.20)

The Space Trilogy: 75th anniversary edition Harper Collins £20 (£18)

Surprised By Joy Harper Collins £7.99 (£7.20)

The Weight of Glory: A collection of Lewis' most moving addresses Harper Collins £7.99 (£7.20)

Prices in brackets are Church Times Bookshop links (Use code CT544 )

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