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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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
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The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and their
friends by Humphrey Carpenter, Harper Collins £8.99
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
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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
Mere Christianity Harper Collins £7.99
The Screwtape Letters Harper Collins £7.99
The Space Trilogy: 75th anniversary edition Harper
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Surprised By Joy Harper Collins £7.99
The Weight of Glory: A collection of Lewis' most moving
addresses Harper Collins £7.99 (£7.20)
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