The Chronicles of Narnia

A PROJECT BY KJERSTI ANDREASSEN INTERNATIONAL ENGLISH 2011 SYKKYLVEN VGS

How Do The Popular Christian Children’s Books Relate To Christianity, And How Should The Modern Secular Reader Treat Them?

Contents:
PAGE 3: INTRODUCTION PAGE 3-5: THE REAL CREATOR OF NARNIA PAGE 5-10: AN INTRODUCTION TO “THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA” PAGE 10-25: CHARACTERS AND SYMBOLS OF NARNIA AND SURROUNDING COUNTRIES PAGE 25-28: “THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA”: A CHRISTIAN ALLEGORY OR MYTHOLOGICAL PLAYGROUND? PAGE 28-33: MISOGYNY, ETHNOCENTRISM AND RELIGIOUS OVERTONES: CRITICISMS AND CONTROVERSIES PAGE 33-35: CONCLUSION PAGE 36-43: PROJECT LOG

2

Introduction

“The Chronicles of Narnia”, a series of seven fantasy novels, are some of the most beloved children’s novels from the 20th century. The series was written between 1949 and 1954 by C.S. Lewis, and is the author’s best-known work. Still, the books have received criticism for their overt religious message, and many have expressed discontentment with the books as a form of religious propaganda. But how do the books and the message in them really relate to Christianity? And furthermore, do the religious overtones prevent them from being enjoyable for secular readers?

The Real Creator of Narnia

In order to understand the Narnia-series it is critical to understand its creator. C.S. Lewis, or Clive Staples ‘Jack’ Lewis, was a British scholar born in Belfast in 1889. While a widely read author on many topics, he is especially well-known for his fictional work which includes his series about Narnia.

Lewis's account of his early years reads like a list of books and people who shaped his life. The younger of two sons, Lewis was born to parents who were avid readers. In his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy”, Lewis describes

3

himself as "a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstair indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books." 1

One of the single most important events in Lewis’s life occurred in 1908, with the death of his mother. In “Surprised by Joy”, he put it this way: “With my mother's death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of joy; but no more of the old security.” At the same time, his father Albert Lewis withdrew and decided to send both him and his brother Warren to a boarding school in England. Warren later said, "With his uncanny flair for making the wrong decision, my father had given us helpless children into the hands of a madman." (In fact, the headmaster of the school was soon after declared insane and the school closed.) These, along with a heightened interesting in mythology and the occult, were the main reasons that Lewis soon abandoned the Christianity his mother had taught him and became an atheist.

Many years, degrees and a world war later, Lewis moved to Oxford and began work at Magdalen College. Here he became part of a literary discussion
1

Lewis, C.S; Mariner Books; “Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life”; 1955; page 17 4

group called “The Inklings”. Among the members were Lewis himself, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Lewis's brother Warren. Several of these members were Christians, although some were atheist and some anthroposophists, and some were close friends of Lewis; like his colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien, along with G.K. Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man” and several other books, played a very influential role in the conversion of “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England”2, as Lewis described himself.

After his conversion to Christianity, C.S. Lewis became a strong advocate for Christianity. Notable apologetic works include “Mere Christianity”, “Problem of Pain” and “Miracles”, as well as the fictional “Screwtape Letters”. “The Chronicles of Narnia” were some of the last works he wrote; the last book in the series—“The Last Battle”—published a mere ten years before his death in 1963.

2

Lewis, C.S; Mariner Books; “Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life”; 1955; page 28-29 5

An Introduction to “The Chronicles of Narnia”

Each of the books found in the Narnia-series have their own ‘taste’ and atmosphere. The books have separate plots and characters, to some degree, but there is still a strong connection between them. Not all of them are set in Narnia—one is set in the middle of the sea, and some take place in surrounding nations like Calormen and Archenland—but they are all interconnected.

The first book, “The Magician’s Nephew”, founds Narnia and describes its origin; laying a platform for the rest of “The Chronicles of Narnia” and introducing readers to some of the main characters. The story revolves around the children Digory and Polly, who use magic rings made by Digory’s magician uncle. The book especially sheds light on the conflict of “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”, as we are introduced to Aslan—the all-powerful lion creator of Narnia —and the evil witch Jadis.

The most important book in the series; “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”, was written before the other books but is the second book in
6

Narnia’s timeline. The story is about four siblings; Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter Pevensie; who leave London during the Blitz and come to a house in the countryside. What they don’t know is that the house belongs to Digory—the boy from the first book—and that in the house is a magical wardrobe. Lucy, the youngest, stumbles into it and the others are soon to follow. From the wardrobe they are brought into a country during a terrible reign of winter. Here they are brought face to face with treachery, redemption and the greatest battles of all. And finally, they are crowned as kings and queens of Narnia. The third book; “The Horse and His Boy”, is the only book not set in Narnia. It tells the story of a boy named Shasta and his horse Bree, who set out on an exciting journey from the dreadful land of Calormen to the safe but bewildering Narnia. Their trip takes them past scary tombs, dangerous deserts and
7

petrifying mountains, which forces young Shasta to conquer his fears. In the end, Shasta discovers he is actually the King of Archenland’s lost son, and is reconciled with his family.

“Prince Caspian”, the fourth book, magically takes the Pevensie-children from a railroad station to the ruins of their Narnian castle Cair Paravel. But all is not well in Narnia: the country is torn apart by civil war and invasion, and the evil Calormene conqueror Miraz keeps the country in an iron fist. With the help of Aslan and the four Pevensies, it becomes Miraz’ nephew Prince Caspian’s task to take back the country and restore peace.

“The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” is the fifth book in the series. It is a seafaring adventure where the two youngest Pevensie-children, as well as their annoying cousin Eustace and the recent king, King Caspian X, are the main characters. They are sent into Narnia through a magical painting that suddenly becomes alive, and are rescued by King Caspian’s ship, the Dawn Treader. Together they travel to the islands to the east of Narnia—the Lone Islands—in order to look for the seven most trusted friends of King Caspian’s father.
8

We meet King Caspian X again in the sixth book; “The Silver Chair”. This time, Caspian’s son Rilan has disappeared, and Eustace and his friend Jill come to his rescue. They must face stone-throwing giants, huge cannibals and more, but eventually rescue him from the clench of an evil witch.

The seventh and last book in the series is “The Last Battle”, and is, as the title suggests, about the last battle of Narnia. A donkey and an ape try to deceive the people of Narnia (and Calormen) by putting on a lion’s skin and telling them that Aslan and the terrible Calormene deity Tash are essentially the same. In this book all the English children who had been to Narnia returned—Digory and Polly; Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy; Eustace and Jill. Without knowing it they were sent to Narnia after dying in a train crash, and so when Narnia ceases to exist the children receive eternal life in Aslan’s Country (though perhaps more accurately called the Christian ‘Heaven’ as portrayed by Plato)—along with their parents and all the other Narnians.

9

Characters and Symbols of Narnia and Surrounding Countries

Compared to other fantasy books, the character gallery found in Narnia is quite typical, yet very atypical. You find boys (sons of Adam) and girls (daughters of Eve), animals (both the ‘speaking’ and ‘mute’ kinds) and mythological beings that are something of a mix; part animal and part human. However, the most interesting part of Narnian characters, as compared to those in other fantasy works, is their symbolic properties.

Nearly every character in “The Chronicles of Narnia” is a symbol, and nearly all symbols are characters. Therefore, in order to understand the religious properties of the series, it is important to study the individual characters. Some are good, some bad and some a little of both.

Some of the first and most important characters we meet in the series are the Pevensies from “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”. They are four children with four personalities, four personal timelines and four different ways of relating to a world of good and evil.

The oldest of the children is Peter. He is a loyal and devoted big brother who tries his best to protect his siblings and to act like a responsible young adult. Peter is mature—more so than his siblings—as he was the one to support his three siblings through their father going away to war. The
10

character of Peter is a parallell to Saint Peter, one of Christ’s disciples and the first church leader in history. This grandeur and greatness is reflected in his formal title; King Peter the Magnificent.

Susan is the oldest of the two sisters, but second in line after Peter. She is bold, adventurous and very beautiful. Susan is also the sensible one, and always strives to be more mature and more like the adults of her world. This vanity eventually becomes her downfall. In the last book readers learn that Susan isn’t entering Heaven with them, as she is interested in “nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”3 Susan is frightened that people will think her silly for believing in Narnia, and soon stops believing in it entirely. C.S. Lewis has faced much criticism for the way he portrayed Susan (and in the end gave her eternal damnation for her choices). JK Rowling stated in an interview that "There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that." However, as this paper will later show, Lewis never meant to say that sex was evil or that sensibility was a vice (rather on the contrary), but rather made her outward actions reflect an attitude that is vain, conceited and
Lewis, C.S.; “The Chronicles of Narnia”; Harper Entertainment (An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers); 2008; page 761
3

11

prideful. Susan becomes Queen Susan the Gentle, and quite rightfully so—she is the mother-figure who always tries to make everyone comfortable and safe.

Edmund, or Ed, is the youngest brother. Edmund first steps into Narnia together with Lucy, where he meets the White Witch. She tempts him to come to her castle, and he ends up betraying his brother and sisters, as well as all of Narnia,—for enchanted sweets. He is soon rescued, but not without a claim on his life: He has broken the law, and must die. However, Aslan—the High King of Narnia—takes the punishment on himself and Edmund is forgiven. Soon, Edmund is crowned King Edmund the just: he has now learned the price of justice and can be trusted to act and judge fairly. Also, Edmund initially feels that Peter treats him like a child, and is quite insecure and immature at times. But soon he learns to be the bigger person, and shows great courage and strength. Edmund goes from being a cowardous and immature boy to becoming a true King of Narnia.

Lucy is the youngest of the four children. She is sensitive, innocent and compassionate, but also very brave. She is the first to find Narnia and the first to see Aslan, and is very close to him. In cases where the other children think Aslan is far away, Lucy knows he is close by. In many ways, Lucy is the real hero of the story and unquestionably the most prominent and morally mature character in the narrator’s eyes. She is not without fault, however, and has her own battles with insecurity as her older sister is smarter, more beautiful and
12

more mature, and the one everyone admires. But Lucy overcomes, unlike her sister who gives in to her own vanity. She is crowned Queen Lucy the Valiant, as she is the only one who dares to trust Aslan completely. In Narnia, bravery does not mean foolishly risking your life, but rather admitting you cannot win battles in your own strength—yet still doing your best.

Eustace Scrubb is the Pevensies's cousin, and a rather intolerable lad. The author puts it this way, in what has become one of the most beloved opening lines ever written: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”4 We first meet Eustace in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”; where he, Lucy and Edmund are taken to Narnia through a magical painting in his house. Eustace acts like a spoiled brat for most of his first trip to Narnia, asking for a British consul in the middle of Narnia and showing grave disrespect to the King and his men. However, on Dragon Island Eustace discovers an enchanted treasure and is turned into a dragon. This experience, and the way his cousins and the other Narnians treat him, leads to a total transformation of character. Eustace now becomes more humble, and starts enjoying Narnia like the others.

4

Lewis, C.S.; “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”; Harper Collins; 1980; page 3 13

Jill Pole is a less important character, but significant nonetheless. Not much is known about her. She and Eustace attend the same school— Experiment House—a school experimenting with progressive pedagogy, which includes an eradication of discipline. She was thus, like many others, bullied at her school by a group of mean children referred to as Them, and if she needed to cry she would take refuge behind the gym. It is here Eustace finds her at the beginning of “The Silver Chair”. Jill has a more incremental change of character than Eustace, but she still goes from being someone who is miserable in the modern world to doing fantastic things in Narnia. At the end of “The Silver Chair”, Aslan and Caspian come back to England with Eustace and Jill to chasten the bullies and give the school the upheaval it needs. Jill's experiences in Narnia make her much better able to contend with the adversities that face her, including apparently overcoming her claustrophobia, and she and Eustace remain close friends during the time prior to their return to Narnia in “The Last Battle”.

Digory Kirke, or Professor Kirke, is another returning figure in the books. As a child, Digory is present at the creation of Narnia, where Aslan sings the world into being with notes “deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself” and evil enters it. We meet him again in the second book; “The Lion the Witch and The Wardrobe”, where he has become a sharp white-haired logician. He has not, however, abandoned the child in him, but rather uses logic to protect it. In the two books Professor Kirke participates, he is a
14

supportive character who encourages the children to explore Narnia and acts as a wise protector while they do. It might also be interesting that his name is derived from a middle English word for “church”. This parallel shows that Lewis considered the church to be the utmost upholder of reason. Digory Kirke is very much a symbol of the author, and both his childhood and adult life reflect Lewis’s own life: For instance, the two professors were born only a year apart; the author in 1889 and Professor Kirke in 1888. Also, in “The Magician’s Nephew”, Digory’s mother is dying—just like Lewis’s mother did when the author was ten. When he is older, it is evident that Professor Kirke “borrows” some of his logic from Lewis: After Lucy first walks into Narnia and tells the other children about it, they disbelieve her, causing her to run into the Professor crying. He asks the oldest siblings; “How do you know that your sister's story is not true?”5 He then explains that there are only three logical possibilities: either Lucy is lying, she has gone mad, or she is telling the truth (and since she is prone to neither of the first two, one must logically assume she is being truthful). This is a style of argumentation Lewis is famous for, in particular in regard to the death and resurrection of Christ, and it goes under
5

Lewis, C.S.; “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”; First Collier Books Edition; 1970; page 43 15

the name of “Lewis’s Trilemma”6. Finally, Professor Kirke has an elderly housekeeper who is very reminiscent of Janie Moore; an elderly woman Lewis lived with during his Oxford years. You find professor Kirke in the shadows making sure that all is well; like a writer looking through the pages of his novel altering its course where need be.

Most Narnians, or citizens of Narnia, are mythological creatures. This includes fauns, centaurs, dwarves, dryads, speaking beavers and swordfighting mice. Forests, fields, lakes and mountains are filled with magical creatures, bonfires that mysteriously light up during summer nights and sounds swirling through the air like in a dream. Everything in Narnia is magical—and every living thing is very alive.

One of these characters, one that “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” lends particular focus to, is the faun Tumnus. Fauns are an element from Greco-Roman mythology, otherwise known as Pan or Faunus. We first meet Mr. Tumnus on his way through a wintery forest, where he and Lucy run into each other (or, technically, come close enough to see each other and are so spooked they run in opposite directions). He invites Lucy in for a cup of tea, and then tries to kidnap her and turn her in to the White Witch.

6

“Lewis’s trilemma”; Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewis%27s_trilemma; April 24, 2011, 7:50pm 16

However; his conscience, as well as the memories of his father, who died for Narnia, makes him change his mind and rescue Lucy. But it is now too late, as they are already seen, and Tumnus is soon imprisoned and turned into one of the White Witch’s stone statues. Mr. Tumnus, as well as the other Narnians, is Lewis’s Narnian version of a ‘proper Christian’: Tumnus is imperfect and makes mistakes, but changes his ways. Tumnus then joins Aslan’s army, to find that Aslan has forgiven and accepted him.

Another very significant and endearing Narnian is Reepicheep, a talking mouse. He carries a rapier and wears a red plume tucked in his golden circlet. Despite his feeble size he is an experienced warrior, utterly fearless and faultlessly courteous, particularly to noble ladies. He is also disputatious and quick to defend his honor from witticisms and crude remarks. Reepicheep is a very Quixotic figure; endlessly noble and courtly.

The most important character in the Narnia books, the character everything else revolves around in one way or another—the very symbol of goodness—is Aslan. Aslan is a lion, and the most powerful figure in all the
17

Narnian world. He is the high king, he is the epitome of both mercy and justice, he is mystical and wild—and he is good.

When the four Pevensie-children first hear Aslan’s name, they immediately experience powerful sensations they cannot understand. Peter, Susan and Lucy experience an inexplicable delight, but Edmund, who has just betrayed his siblings, is mysteriously horrified. As the children learn more about Aslan, the mysticism surrounding his name grows and they are drawn to him without really knowing why. Aslan is the saviour-figure who makes all wrongs right. He is awe-inspiring and a little frightening, yet unquestionably benevolent and kind. In all of Narnia his power is unmatchable and his goodness unlimited. Like one of the Narnians, Mr Beaver, says toward the end of “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe”; “Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.” 7 We see this again in “The Horse and His Boy”, where Aslan acts on what is best for the main characters, and not at all what the want. In the resolution of the book, when Shasta talks about how many lions he met on his trip to Narnia, Aslan says “I was the lion.” And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should
7

Lewis, C.S.; “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe”; First Collier Books Edition; 1970; page 75-76 18

reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.” 8 It is made clear that Aslan does not always do what others want him to do, but always does what is best for them.

Furthermore, Aslan is a very clear symbol of Jesus Christ as he is found in the Christian religion. Perhaps the most specific example of this parallel is the event in ”The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” where Aslan gives his life for the traitor Edmund, and comes back to life the next day—a clear allusion to the biblical story of Christ's death and resurrection. Aslan is the savior and the Stone Table the cross on which he dies. The next morning, Aslan meets Susan and Lucy, like Jesus met the women on the day of the resurrection9. Also, ‘Aslan’ is a Turkish word for ‘lion’, and in The Bible one finds Jesus referred to as ‘the Lion of Judah’10. Aslan is the son of the Emperor-BeyondThe-Sea; representing the Father in the Christian Trinity. He, or they, live

Lewis, C.S.; “The Chronicles of Narnia”; Harper Entertainment (An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers); 2008; page 281
8 9

Luke 24:1-12 John 19:17-18, Luke 23:32-3 19

10

beyond the ocean, in ‘Aslan’s Country’ (another word for the ‘Heaven’ of the Christian tradition—although the place carries more similarities to Platonic thought than it does to Biblical metaphors). Aslan even tells the children themselves about his dual identity in “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. The youngest children have to leave Narnia for good, and tell Aslan how much they’ll miss him. Aslan replies; “There I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” 11 The parallel between Aslan and Christ could not be much more obvious.

Narnia is sustained and upheld by something called ‘Deep Magic’; a supernatural (in the true sense of the word) law that is before, above, under, inside and beyond everything else; even time itself. If it is broken, all of Narnia will perish in fire and water. It is not focused on a great deal, apart from in “The Lion, The With and the Wardrobe” where the White Witch uses Deep Magic to demand the traitor Edmund be killed. However, Aslan mentions that there is an even deeper magic at work, which says that when someone who is completely innocent is killed instead of a traitor, death itself will start working backwards and the stone table (representing deep magic). This is could be seen as a parallel to Christianity’s idea of a universal law demanding the death of all transgressors12, and that demand being satisfied
Lewis, C.S.; “The Chronicles of Narnia”; Harper Entertainment (An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers); 2008; page 541
11 12

Romans 6:23 20

through Aslan’s death—much like paying a ransom13 . The difference between the two magics is not something that applies well to Lewis’s thoughts about this world, but the idea of a moral law that governs everything is one of his strongest arguments for theism, and the chief reason for Christ’s supposed death and resurrection. Therefore it seems that Aslan is the fulfillment of Deep Magic in the same way as Christ is portrayed as the fulfillment of the Jewish law.14

Another symbol, and mythological character, who deserves mention in this context is—to everyone’s surprise—Father Christmas. Father Christmas only appears once, yet his gifts affect the entire story. Right as spring arrives in Narnia, because of Aslan’s arrival, he meets the Pevensies and gives them each a magic gift: sword and shield for Peter; bow and arrows, and a horn, for Susan; and a bottle of healing cordial, and a small dagger, for Lucy. Edmund didn’t receive a gift, as he was ‘socializing’ with the White Witch (i.e. confined to her prison) at the time. Each gift fits their personalities, with Peter being the brave warrior, Susan the mature one with perspective and Lucy the compassionate girl with a heart the size of a small country. In this way, Father Christmas is a symbol of the Holy Spirit in the Christian trinity. Thus, you have Aslan as the son, Christ; The Emperor-Across-The Sea, another name

13 14

1 Timothy 2:3-6 Matthew 5:17 21

for God the Father and Father Christmas representing the Holy Spirit. These three figures are the main symbols of goodness in Narnia.

Evil, like goodness, is portrayed in a number of different ways. The clearest personification of evil is The White Witch, or Jadis. Jadis is halfgiant and half-jinn, and therefore is terrible, beautiful, and very tall. She comes from the world of Charn, an old and dying world where everything was very magical; where sorcerers and sorceresses were everywhere and flying carpets were common means of transportation. (Here, Lewis has stolen from several other writers and works—most notably George MacDonald’s “Lilith”, in which Jadis’s sister is a character.)15 Jadis follows Digory and Polly into Narnia after they wake her up from a deep sleep and her own world dies. She then eventually takes power of Narnia, and by the time the Pevensie-children arrive Narnia has been held in a century-long winter under her rule. Her grip around Narnia is one of iron, reminiscent of that in a communist dictatorship. Jadis is pure evil—manipulative, deceiving and unable of doing good. In fact, Jadis is the Narnian version of the devil.

15

“Lilith (novel)”; Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lilith_(novel); May 1, 2011, 11:40pm 22

The second way that evil is portrayed is through the Calormene god Tash. Tash is depicted as having many arms and a bird-like appearance. Tash's religion is the only formal religion found in the Narnia-universe and he is the only being referred to by characters as a god. The books mention temples built in honour of Tash, and Calormenes are regularly seen using ritual phrases like 'Tash the inexorable, the irresistible' and 'Tash preserve us'. Rather than being worshipped lovingly, like Aslan, Tash is feared by his followers and regarded as cruel, terrible and monstrous. If Jadis is the devil, Tash is an idol. It is stated that he has his own country, like Aslan. A murderous beast that matched the description of the god Tash is also present at the Battle of Stable Hill (even though it is never explicitly stated that it is Tash, or that Tash is real). The very word “Tash” means “stone” in Turkish, just like “Aslan” means “lion”. The contrast between the two reflects the concept of the Judeo-Christian deity being the only living god.16 A god of Calormen—a country much like Turkey—it is natural that Tash be seen as a parallel to Allah as presented in the Muslim faith.

With characters, symbols and plots that match the Christian gospel so closely, it is obvious that the main message in “The Chronicles of Narnia” is Christianity. The values found in Narnia are therefore largely the same as the virtues of C.S. Lewis’s own theology—a conglomerate of courage, humility, redemption, discipline, justice, trust, forgiveness, joy and adventure. Courage
16

Deuteronomy 4:35 23

and valiance are particularly pointed at, as they are characteristics needed for every challenge the characters are presented with. C.S. Lewis wrote for an audience that had just lived through a world war, and he himself fought in one. Therefore it is difficult to know whether the battles of Narnia were more influenced by current times or the writer’s own experience—and perhaps a little of both. Either way, with the immediate popularity of the series, it seems readers could relate to it.

“The Chronicles of Narnia”: A Christian Allegory or Mythological Playground?

Some of the main criticism which “The Chronicles of Narnia” have faced pivots on the point of Lewis having set out to write a Christian allegory. While there is great merit to that chain of thought—namely that there is a strong Christian element in the story—it is categorically false and easily disprovable. Lewis, himself a professor in English Medieval literature, had a very strict definition of ‘allegory’. In his definition, an allegory is a symbol or figurative representation of a deeper, typically abstract, idea. Lewis himself stated that “if Aslan represented the immaterial Deity, he would be an allegorical figure.
24

In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.” 17 Lewis did not see himself writing an allegory, along the lines of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, but rather a supposition.

One of the more interesting feats in “The Chronicles of Narnia”, and something a number of Christians have been offended by, is the author’s use of mythological symbols and creatures. He takes features from Roman, Greek, Arabic, Norse and English mythology, as well as Judeo-Christian symbols and symbols driven from popular Western metaphors, and mixes them together in a new setting. Lewis loved myths and stories all his life, and held several degrees in the subject. But why did he include them in Narnia, and more importantly, why did he mix them? Perhaps Lewis himself can shed some light on the subject. In his apologetic work “Mere Christianity”, he says the following: “He sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.”18 Based on this, it is evident that Lewis sees myths as strands of truth, spread across history, acting like pointers to what he considers the greatest

17 18

Root, Jerry; Martindale, Wayne; Tyndale House Publishers; “The Quotable Lewis”; 1990; page 59 Lewis, C. S.; “Mere Christianity”; HarperCollins 2001; page 50 25

story of all; the Christian Gospel. In that context it makes perfect sense to blend various mythologies, different as they may be, as they each shed light on the greater tale—the same tale “The Chronicles of Narnia” tries to tell. It almost seems the Narnia-universe is something like C.S. Lewis’s sand box of how mythology can reflect ideas from orthodox Christianity.

Considering what he said about allegory and mythology, it does indeed seem that C.S. Lewis intended to retell The Bible, or certainly many central values and stories from it, in a different context. This would not be the first time he created a dramatic piece in order to make the public see Christian doctrine from a different angle, with books like the “Screwtape Letters”19 and the “Space Trilogy”20. In this line of reasoning, “The Magician's Nephew” is a parallel to Genesis, and retells a classic creation myth as well as explain how evil entered Narnia. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” tells the story of the crucifixion and resurrection from the Gospels. “Prince Caspian” is about the restoration of the true religion after corruption, and could be seen as a parallel to the story of King David in the Old Testament. “The Horse and His Boy”, the only book that is set outside Narnia, is a representation of how Lewis thinks those outside the Christian tradition and upbringing can be redeemed and go to heaven. These ideas are found in the letters of Paul in the

“The Screwtape Letters” is a satirical Christian novel, written in the form of letters between a senior demon and his nephew, so as to advise him on securing the damnation of an English man.
19

The “Space Trilogy” (or the “Cosmic Trilogy” or “Ransom Trilogy”) is a series of three science fiction novels written by C.S. Lewis before “The Chronicles of Narnia”. The books are “Out of the Silent Planet”, “Perelandra” and “That Hideous Strength”. 26
20

New Testament, especially Galatians. “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” is about virtue, moral character and how one should live (and can thus be viewed as a dramatic rendering of the Pauline letters) and “The Silver Chair” revolves around the ongoing war with the powers of darkness, a recurring theme throughout both “The Chronicles of Narnia” and the Bible. Finally; “The Last Battle” is the Narnian version of Revelation; with the coming of the Antichrist, the end of the world and the last judgement.21 In this respect, the most central story is that in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”, with “The Magician’s Nephew” and “The Last Battle” signifying the beginning and the end of Narnia itself—just like the Gospels are the most central part of the Bible, and Genesis and Revelation pertain to the creation and downfall of our world. Together, the books make up most of what Christianity entails. All these factors put together, “The Chronicles of Narnia” clearly seems an attempt to educate children about Christianity—in a way, a literary Sunday School, only more exciting.

This ‘list’ is elaborated upon from a list Lewis wrote in a letter to a young fan named Anne Jenkins. (More information on the letter is found in “CS Lewis letter tells tales of Narnia”; BBC; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/ uk_news/northern_ireland/5078462.stm; April 21, 2011.) 27
21

Misogyny, Ethnocentrism and Religious Overtones: Criticisms and Controversies

There is little doubt that “The Chronicles of Narnia” have faced much criticism, both from contemporary and later writers. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main factor seems to be religion. Considering the explicitly religious overtones of Narnia, it is not difficult to see why atheist and agnostics object to it. Especially in an age of postmodernism like today’s, where authority and moral absolutism are questioned, such resentment is inevitable. One opponent—fantasy writer and atheist Philip Pullman—has been especially vocal, and has even been quoted as saying “I hate the Narnia books...with a passion.” He even wrote a children’s book reminiscent of “The Chronicles of Narnia”, except with the message that God is an evil mastermind controlling the earth—quite a different message from that of Lewis.

Yet interestingly, not all the criticism is due to a postmodern mindset or antiauthoritarian philosophies. One of the books’ early opponents was Lewis’s colleague and close friend J.R.R. Tolkien; the author of “The Lord of the Rings”. He said “It is sad that 'Narnia' and all that part of C.S.L.'s work should remain outside the range of my sympathy, as much of my work was outside his.” Tolkien was also a professor, and one who delved much further into the worlds he created. In particular, Tolkien felt that Lewis should not have
28

mixed various mythologies the way he did, as fantasy worlds worked best when their mythologies were self-enclosed. Tolkien argued that encountering figures from different traditions in the same story would break the spell of the fairy tale. This disagreement might well have contributed to the gradual withering of their friendship which occurred when Lewis—a middle-aged bachelor—married Joy Gresham. A married man, Lewis could understandably not spend so much time discussing literature and drinking beer at the local pub, and Tolkien did not appreciate it. In fact, largely because of these factors, their friendship became staler and gradually withered.

Another interesting feat in this respect is the fact that many Christians, in particular modern evangelicals, take offense with the mythological nature of the series. They feel that Lewis’s approach to mythology and pagan philosophy is unorthodox and heretical. Claims that “Lewis believed in the power and use of spells” and “Narnia is inhabited (…) by mythological creatures (…) from pagan cults of demonic idolatry”22 appear more frequently than one might think. This criticism is also frequently raised regarding J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” series, two works often compared to “The Chronicles of Narnia”. However, this seems to be criticism spoken mainly by those unfamiliar with Lewis’s (and Tolkien’s) views on mythology as a source of truth. It also hardly represents the views of most educated, mainstream Christians.
Sorenson, David; Heaven Is Open.com; “Narnia: divine or demonic?” http://www.heavenisopen.com/ narnia.html; 2008
22

29

There are in particular two areas of criticism that do not revolve around religion—namely racism and sexism. The controversy around racism is based mainly on the way Calormen is presented, and the controversy around sexism based on the character of Susan and her fate. However, while racial- and gender equality and are both good and upstanding things to defend, the validity of the claims against the books is questionable.

The charges of racism against the books are largely accusations that Lewis depicted the Middle-East and its religions unfairly. This was done by writing about a country (Calormen) with some similarities to the region and making it a terrible and evil place. Newspaper editor Kyrie O’Connor says in an article that “you don't have to be a bluestocking of political correctness to find some of this fantasy anti-Arab, or anti-Eastern or anti-Ottoman” and that “there are moments you'd like to stuff this story back into its closet.” 23 However, is Calormen really such a controversial literary feat? First, one must always remember that in stories like this, nothing is really the way it really is in our world—despite large similarities. The real world is not flat or blackand-white, but Narnia and the surrounding countries are not necessarily reflections of those in the real world. Furthermore, all differences and disagreements are amplified and accentuated to make the world easier for

O’Connor, Kyrie; Seattle Post Intelligencer (Hearst Newspapers); “Lewis’ Prejudices Tarnish Fifth ‘Narnia’ book”; http://www.seattlepi.com/default/article/Lewis-prejudices-tarnish-fifth-Narnia-book-1188939.php; December 2, 2005 30
23

children to understand. Narnia and the surrounding countries is not a direct reflection of our world, but rather a world created for children, with heroes and villains and good and bad. Still, O’Connor has a point, especially when she says that Lewis “was writing in a time when educated Brits were hardly horrified by stereotypical depictions of viziers and Saracens and darkfaced slavers.” 24 Lewis wrote to an audience that was very different from today—a society with a great deal of social conservatism, intellectual ethnocentrism and post-war nationalism. It is also important to note that Lewis was not himself a racist, as reflected in his choice to let a Calormene soldier go to heaven. All of these are factors to consider when asking whether the books display racist tendencies or not.

The second controversy, regarding sexism and misogyny, seems one with substantially less substance. In the books, Susan is the only one of the siblings who do not join their parents in ‘Heaven’, and one of the other girls says “She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was

O’Connor, Kyrie; Seattle Post Intelligencer (Hearst Newspapers); “Lewis’ Prejudices Tarnish Fifth ‘Narnia’ book”; http://www.seattlepi.com/default/article/Lewis-prejudices-tarnish-fifth-Narnia-book-1188939.php; December 2, 2005 31
24

a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” Critic Philip Pullman comments that “Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn't approve of that. He didn't like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up.” 25 However, this hardly seems a fair criticism. In an essay about how to write children’s books, Lewis says: “To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. (…) But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”26 According to this chain of thought, Susan was not too grown-up but rather too childish, worrying about how grown-up she was. And besides, Lucy—a girl—might well be the biggest hero in all the books, and Jill Pole also becomes a very prominent female figure. However unlike Susan, they never reject play and adventure. The love of magic, excitement and adventure that Susan abandons is actually one of the most essential values in the entire series. One must therefore draw the conclusion that what Lewis disliked
Pullman, Philip; The Cumberland River Lamppost; “The Darkside of Narnia”; http://www.crlamppost.org/ darkside.htm; September 2, 2001
25 26

Lewis, C.S.; Oxford University Press; “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”; 1952; page 3 32

about Susan was not her gender. Bringing forth claims of sexism simply shows one has not understood the very essence of the books.

One might rightfully think that Lewis wrote a series for children to help them understand Christianity. However, this is not all the books are, nor does it mean they can’t be enjoyed. As always when reading about criticisms, one must keep the target group—in this case children—in mind. And this is where the fault lines become evident. Children are very rarely bothered by the books, their critics are nearly always adults. Frankly, it seems that while much of the criticism against “The Chronicles of Narnia” is valid, plenty is based on misunderstandings and malice. Most children understand what being “too grown up” means, and it is therefore unlikely that many would take offense at it. And even fewer children would take offense at the mixed mythologies or the element of magic on their own. In fact, most children love the books because of, not despite, the sense of magic and the appreciation of children. The only ‘real’ problem the books face in today’s context is their Christian overtones. While it is important to note that these books are far from “neutral”, could it be that their quality should be determined by the readers and not merely naysayers and critics?

33

Conclusion

It is difficult, nay, impossible, to judge how others should treat or view a literary work. This is especially the case for “The Chronicles of Narnia”, where both a positive and negative answer will be considered politically incorrect. Perhaps critics are right when they say the books should not be as popular as they are, considering their overt message. Or perhaps fans have a point when they claim the books bring forth positive values like chivalry, heroism and virtue, and that for secular readers the Christianity in them is easily ignored. Some claim this is a false dichotomy; that it is possible to maintain a liberal worldview and love Narnia. Yet, this conclusion, however tolerant and accepting, is still incomplete. For an atheist who grew up in a fundamentalist, conservative Christian family, the message in “The Chronicles of Narnia” will probably be very difficult to swallow. However, a secular agnostic without much knowledge of Christianity might not even notice the influence. This is why it is so difficult to judge whether people should read “The Chronicles of Narnia” as a children’s book—not because the books are poorly written, or because they have little literary value, but because people react differently to them depending on their own perspectives and experiences. Really, as it turns out, it all depends on the reader’s relation to Christianity.

Still, one option remains. Today, the books are known primarily as children’s literature, and treated as such by secular and religious media alike. In both
34

places, this usually leads to a disclaimer of the books’ religious content, and more often than not they are falsely given the label “Christian allegory”. There is a simple way to solve this: To treat the books as they were intended to. Lewis never expected the books to acquire such massive success, having only had moderate success prior to writing the series. And Lewis certainly never treated them as anything else than they were; a Christian supposition. So why is it impossible to treat the books not as Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” or Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” but as Milton’s “Paradise Lost” or Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”? Could one not treat “The Chronicles of Narnia” as Christian classics? The answer to this is yes. And, frankly, this is probably the most honest approach—for all parties involved. That way, critics are given less reason for agitation and annoyance while fans of the books can still enjoy them. It is important to remember that the religious influence in the books say nothing of their literary quality—it does not make them inherently bad nor inherently good. It is also important to remember the many people who have read “The Chronicles of Narnia” and fallen in love with them, regardless of religion. They are proof that it is possible to ignore the controversial bits and still love the books. And finally, each person must choose how he or she will choose to read it, and whether they enjoy it or not. Either way, “The Chronicles of Narnia” will continue to bewilder children of all age groups for years to come.

35

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful