Rowan Williams on Lewis in The Chronicle Review
February 11, 2013
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
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
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