Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

Rowan Williams on Lewis in The Chronicle Review

Expand Messages
  • Zachary Bos
    http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Narnia-/137037/ February 11, 2013 Why Narnia? By Rowan Williams Norman Parkinson, Corbis C.S. Lewis at home, circa 1950 A
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 15, 2013

      February 11, 2013
      Why Narnia?
      By Rowan Williams
      Norman Parkinson, Corbis C.S. Lewis at home, circa 1950
      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. The enormous recent success of the series of films
      based on the books testifies to this. And even the ferocity of some
      critics of the books bears witness to their influence. Philip
      Pullman's powerful trilogy, His Dark Materials, is confessedly part of
      a counter-campaign—as if recognizing that, for once, God has the best
      tunes, and the devil (or rather the world of strictly secular morality
      and aspiration) needs to catch up in imaginative terms.

      Why the books go on working so effectively is no easy question to
      answer. It isn't every reader, even every Christian reader, who finds
      them instantly compelling. Yet they bear many re-readings and
      constantly disclose more things to think about.

      Lewis says both that he was writing the sort of books he himself would
      have liked to read and that he felt an urgent need to write them. They
      are successful children's books—but, like most truly successful
      children's books, they are very far from just being comforting. Lewis
      wrote of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), when early sales
      were slow, that some mothers and schoolteachers "have decided that it
      is likely to frighten children," and then added wryly, "I think it
      frightens adults, but very few children."

      If these were indeed the kind of stories that Lewis felt he would like
      to read, it does credit to his appetite for challenging reading
      material. But it is also important to recognize how much the themes of
      the Narnia books are interwoven with what 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.

      The issues that Lewis was trying to work out in a variety of
      imaginative idioms from the early 1940s onward were the problems of
      self-deception above all, the lure of self-dramatizing, the pain and
      challenge of encounter with divine truthfulness. What Narnia seeks to
      do, very ambitiously, is to translate those into terms that children
      can understand. And as to why Lewis decided to address such an
      audience, there is probably no decisive answer except that he had a
      high view of children's literature, a passion for myth and fantasy,
      and a plain desire to communicate as widely as possible.

      Perhaps the simplest answer to the question of what Lewis intended
      with the Narnia series is that he is trying to recreate 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 of persuading them that there are things they haven't
      heard when they think they have. Lewis repeatedly found that he was
      dealing with a public who thought they knew what it was they were
      disbelieving when they announced their disbelief in Christian

      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 toward 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
      realization that they have never actually reckoned with what
      Christianity is about.

      Lewis had already begun to explore the communication of the faith
      through fiction in his "science fiction" trilogy, of which the first
      book, Out of the Silent Planet, was published in 1938. The first two
      deal, in various ways, with what the "fallen" character of human
      action looks and feels like in an extraterrestrial context where there
      has never been what we understand by a fall—in worlds where certain
      kinds of natural attunement to the reality of the divine have never
      been lost. We are invited to see humanity as the tragic exception in a
      universe of intelligent beings—not as the destiny-bearers whose
      fearless exploratory courage will liberate all possible worlds. Humans
      let loose on other galactic civilizations are in fact toxic
      influences, and their colonizing and dominating ambitions are readily
      laid bare. (Lewis had some very specific targets in mind among both
      popular scientific celebrities and writers of science fiction.)

      The third of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945), brings the
      action back to earth with (literally) a vengeance. It centers on the
      fate of a young couple who have no serious spiritual roots and whose
      expectations of religion are minimal and boring. What happens is that
      they are brought up directly against what religion is about—the real
      peril of damnation, that is, human souls radically and lastingly
      losing the possibility of good or well-being, but also the real
      possibility of joy beyond imagining, the fact that the world we think
      we know is soaked through with symbolic meaning and intelligent
      energy. And that is what Lewis is after 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 doesn't 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 behavior 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
      organized religion in this world is the cult of Tash, the god of the
      Calormenes, a diabolical idol.

      A sharp-eyed reader will soon realize 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 recognized, 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 where a transforming relationship with Aslan
      becomes fully possible.

      The sense that Lewis wants to convey is of a world in which humans are
      not alone as intelligent actors.

      This is just one example of how Lewis makes fresh and strange the
      familiar themes of Christian doctrine. 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 realize it or not. To present this
      without creating in the parallel universe a parallel religious
      institution is a remarkable achievement.

      There is another extremely important aspect of the realm of Narnia
      that picks up one of the themes of the science-fiction trilogy in a
      new way: Narnia, unlike its immediate neighbors, 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 the 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 outside the
      all-important human story. But 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 neighbors downward. 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 nonhuman Creation has to reckon with this.
      Leaving aside for the moment the deep roots that Lewis's actual view
      has in Christian tradition, 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 intrahuman affairs. Peter, toward
      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: The
      intrusion first of Jadis and then of the various humans from our world
      who enter it is an accident resulting from Digory's foolishness in
      releasing Jadis from her magical slumbers in Charn.

      In the event, Aslan is able (of course) to turn this accident to
      profit by making the London cabby Frank and his wife, Helen, king and
      queen of Narnia. Humanity is a highly dangerous element in Creation,
      but it also has the capacity to protect and to guarantee justice.
      Frank 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 in Prince Caspian. Prince Caspian has just
      discovered that his people are descended from a tribe of pirates (who,
      like so many other familiar figures in the books, have come by
      accident into the world of Narnia); 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 honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame
      enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be

      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. As That Hideous Strength suggests, 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.
      Animals, even the smallest, play a central role in the stories.
      Trufflehunter the badger in Prince Caspian and Reepicheep the mouse in
      Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are not only major
      agents in the drama; they can act as a moral touchstone for humans,
      their virtues and their flaws acting as a somewhat exaggerated mirror
      to human habits. The sense that Lewis wants to convey is of a world in
      which humans are not alone as intelligent actors, actors in a theater
      of providential and theologically meaningful events.

      Some varieties of impoverished and nervous modern Christian minds have
      been anxious about this, as about Lewis's blithe co-options of pagan
      mythology (Dryads and so on, not to mention the astrological subtexts
      whose presence is hard to deny).

      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
      nonhuman 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. To be human is to be
      with the nonhuman world, even to be for the nonhuman world.

      Of course there are areas of strain in this picture. Lewis thinks
      vegetarians are silly; his favored characters are all unapologetic
      carnivores. But this creates a bit of a difficulty with talking
      beasts. When Puddleglum discovers in the giants' stronghold that he
      has inadvertently eaten a talking stag, he is sickened. It is quite
      clear that eating talking beasts is strictly taboo, for the obvious
      reason that humans make real, lasting, and mutual relationships with
      these beasts.

      But as for the rest? Is it quite enough to make an easy distinction
      between the two classes of animal, one capable of intelligent
      relationship, the other created for labor and fodder? Lewis makes no
      attempt to resolve this except in the Creation scenes in The
      Magician's Nephew, where Aslan picks out pairs of animals from among
      their peers to endow them with reason and speech. There is a tension
      here between the assertions, implicit and explicit, of the
      significance of bodily life in its natural integrity and a sort of
      arbitrary gulf between beasts of the same physical nature who have
      different "mental" or even spiritual qualities; as if the fact that
      some animals have something like human dignity is conditional on their
      having a certain set of mental qualities. Press this too far and you
      end up creating difficulties for the idea of human dignity itself.

      But we have to recognize that Lewis would have found no ultimate
      incompatibility in professing a deep respect for the animal Creation
      at the same time as regarding it as being there to serve human needs,
      in at least some regards. His talking beasts introduce an insoluble
      moral complication to this fairly simple picture. But he is not too
      concerned to produce a wholly self-consistent world. His didactic
      point is still a powerful one: What if you found yourself obliged to
      make conversation with nonhuman 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. At the very least, it may save you
      from the passionate campaign against nature itself that is typical of
      the most toxic kinds of modernity.

      And above all, the ruler and savior 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 he cannot bring in is that of the
      savior 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 savior,
      even the suffering of the savior, 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 savior 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
      skeptically asked by Jesus' fellow-townsmen—is just about recognizably
      in the same territory as "Is not this a being of inferior status?"

      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.

      Rowan Williams is master of Magdalene College at the University of
      Cambridge and a former archbishop of Canterbury. This essay is adapted
      from his book The Lion's World: A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia,
      based on lectures that Williams gave at Canterbury Cathedral in 2011.
      The Lion's World will be published by Oxford University Press next
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.