What Christianity feels like: The Chronicles of Narnia and the power
- What Christianity feels like: The Chronicles of Narnia and the power
By Alister McGrath
April 2, 2013
[C.S. Lewis] C.S. LEWIS'S REMARKABLE ACHIEVEMENT IN THE "CHRONICLES OF
NARNIA" IS TO ALLOW HIS READERS TO INHABIT THE STORY THAT MAKES SENSE
OF ALL OTHER STORIES, AND SO FEEL WHAT IT IS LIKE TO BE PART OF IT.
Why are C.S. Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" - especially their
showcase opener, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - so popular,
fifty years after their author's death? Many answers might be given,
from the obvious fact that they are stories well told, to the
suggestion that they call us back to a lost childhood. But perhaps
there is something deeper going on here.
To understand the deep appeal of Narnia, we need first to appreciate
the place of stories in helping us to make sense of reality, and our
own place within it. The "Chronicles of Narnia" resonate strongly with
the basic human intuition that our own story is part of something
greater and grander - something which, once we have grasped it, allows
us to see our situation in a new and more meaningful way. A veil is
lifted; a door is opened; a curtain is drawn aside; we are enabled to
enter a new realm. Our own story is now seen to be part of a much
bigger story, which both helps us understand how we fit into a greater
scheme of things, and discover the difference we can make.
Like his Oxford friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis was deeply aware of the
imaginative power of "myths" - stories told to make sense of who we
are, where we find ourselves, what has gone wrong with things, and
what can be done about it. A "myth," as Lewis uses the term, is not a
false story told to deceive, but a story that on the one hand
resonates with the deepest structures of reality, and on the other has
an ability to connect up with the human imagination. Tolkien was able
to use myth to saturate The Lord of the Rings with a mysterious
"otherness," a sense of magic which hints at a reality beyond that
which human reason can fathom. Lewis realized that good and evil,
anguish and joy, can all be seen more clearly when "dipped in myth."
Through their "presentational realism," these narratives provided a
way of grasping the deeper structures of our world at both the
imaginative and rational levels.
Lewis may also have come to realize the power of myth through reading
G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, with its classic distinction
between "imaginary" and "imaginative," and deft analysis of how the
imagination reaches beyond the limits of reason. "Every true artist,"
Chesterton argued, feels "that he is touching transcendental truths;
that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil."
For Lewis, a myth is a story which evokes awe, enchantment and
inspiration, and which conveys or embodies an imaginative expression
of the deepest meanings of life - meanings that prove totally elusive
in the face of any attempt to express them in purely abstract or
conceptual forms. For Lewis, God authorizes the use of myth as a means
of captivating the human imagination and engaging the human reason.
Lewis thus declares that human beings construct myths because they are
meant to. They have been created by God with an innate capacity to
create myths as echoes of a greater story or "story of a larger kind."
Early Christian writers spoke of the logos spermatikos, a "seed-
bearing word" implanted within creation by God, preparing the ground
for the definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Tolkien and
Lewis both - though in slightly different ways - work with the notion
of mythos spermatikos, a "narrative template" embedded within the
human soul as part of the created order. Once more, these prepare the
ground for the definitive revelation of God in the story of Jesus
Christ. This approach is not about Jungian archetypes (although they
may perform a similar function); it is rather a fundamentally
Christian insight about the deeper structure of reality, and the best
ways of representing and experiencing it by those who bear the "image
Lewis argues that, since "God chooses to be mythopoeic," then we in
our turn must be "mythopathic" - that is to say, receptive to God's
myth, recognizing and acknowledging its "mythical radiance" and
offering it an "imaginative welcome." And, since God uses myths as a
means of communicating both truth and meaning, why should not humans
do the same? Particularly those wishing to encourage their culture to
offer an "imaginative embrace" to the Christian faith? Lewis offers a
powerful imaginative alternative to the dull over-intellectualized
apologetics of his own generation, which limited the appeal of the
Christian faith to our reason.
Steeped in the riches of medieval and Renaissance literature, and with
a deep understanding of how "myths" work, Lewis managed to find the
right voice and the right words to get past the suspicions of a "fully
waking imagination of a logical mind." Somehow, Narnia seems to
provide a deeper, brighter, more wonderful and more meaningful world
than anything we know from our own experience. Though the "Chronicles
of Narnia" are clearly a work of fiction, they nevertheless seem far
more "true to life" than many supposedly factual works. These
evocative stories help us grasp that it is possible for the weak and
foolish to have a noble calling in a dark world; that our deepest
intuitions point us to the true meaning of things; that there is
indeed something beautiful and wonderful at the heart of the universe;
and that this may be found, embraced and adored.
Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is about finding a master ring - the ring
that rules the other rings, which then must be destroyed because it is
so dangerous and destructive. At the deepest level, Lewis's
"Chronicles of Narnia" are about finding a master story - the story
that makes sense of all other stories, which then must be embraced
because of its power to give meaning and value to life.
But which is the true story? Which are merely its shadows and echoes?
And which are fabrications, tales spun to entrap and deceive? At an
early stage in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the four children
begin to hear stories about the true origins and destiny of Narnia.
Puzzled, they find they have to make decisions about what persons and
what stories are to be trusted. Is Narnia really the realm of the
White Witch? Or is she a usurper, whose power will be broken when two
Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve sit on the four thrones at Cair
Paravel? Is Narnia really the realm of the mysterious Aslan, whose
return is expected at any time?
Gradually, one narrative emerges as supremely plausible - the story of
Aslan. Each individual story of Narnia turns out to be part of this
greater narrative. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe hints at (and
partially discloses) the "big picture" which is expanded in the
remainder of the Narnia series. This "grand narrative" of interlocking
stories makes sense of the riddles of what the children see and
experience around them. It allows the children to understand their
experiences with a new clarity and depth, like a camera lens bringing
a landscape into sharp focus.
Yet Lewis did not invent this Narnian narrative. He borrowed and
adapted one that he already knew well, and had found to be true and
trustworthy - the Christian narrative of creation, fall, redemption
and final consummation. Following his late-evening conversation with
Tolkien about Christianity as the "true myth" in September 1931, Lewis
began to grasp the explanatory and imaginative power of an
incarnational faith. Lewis came to believe in Christianity partly
because of the quality of its literary vision - its ability to give a
faithful and realistic account of life. Lewis was thus drawn to
Christianity, not so much by the arguments in its favour, but by
grasping its compelling vision of reality, which he could not ignore -
and, as events proved, could not resist.
The "Chronicles of Narnia" are an imaginative re-telling of the
Christian "grand narrative," fleshed out with ideas Lewis absorbed
from the Christian literary tradition. The basic theological themes
that Lewis set out in Mere Christianity are transposed to their
original narrative forms, allowing the deep structure of the world to
be seen with clarity and brilliance. A good and beautiful creation is
spoiled and ruined by a Fall, in which the creator's power is denied
and usurped. The creator then enters into the creation to break the
power of the usurper, and restore things through a redemptive
sacrifice. Yet even after the coming of the redeemer, the struggle
against sin and evil continues, and will not be ended until the final
restoration and transformation of all things. This Christian
metanarrative - which early Christian writers called the "economy of
salvation" - provides both a narrative framework and a theological
underpinning to the multiple narratives woven together in Lewis's
"Chronicles of Narnia."
In one sense, the "Chronicles of Narnia" are just a story. Yet to the
initiated, they are a retelling of the greatest story of all, which no
human story can ever articulate adequately. Lewis's remarkable
achievement in the "Chronicles of Narnia" is to allow his readers to
inhabit this metanarrative - to get inside the story, and feel what it
is like to be part of it. Mere Christianity allows us to understand
Christian ideas; the Narnia stories allow us to step inside and
experience the Christian story, and judge it by its ability to make
sense of things, and "chime in" with our deepest intuitions about
truth, beauty and goodness.
Like Lewis's wardrobe, they throw open an imaginative gateway to
discovering and embracing the "Great Story," for which this life is
but a "title page."
Alister McGrath is Professor of Theology, Ministry and Education at
King's College London, Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester
College, Oxford University, and President of the Oxford Center for
Christian Apologetics. His most recent books, published to mark the
fiftieth anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, are C.S. Lewis - A
Life. Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet and The Intellectual World
of C.S. Lewis