- Title: The Complete Chronicles of Narnia
- Author: C. S. Lewis
- File Under: Read-Aloud, Chapter Book, All-Round Greatness
As far as I am concerned, I owe C. S. Lewis my interior life. So don’t expect me to be less than exuberantly enthusiastic about Narnia.
Please give your children the gift of imagination, adventure, wit, and wisdom. Here you will find ample scope for practicing your voices and enjoying the grown-up jokes as well as the simple pleasures, because the writing itself (apart from the deep subject matter) is of the highest quality and eminently read-aloud-able.
But I will mention, if only to give you a hint of the riches the Chronicles contain, that of all the books to avoid “teaching,” they are foremost. A glimpse into the piece that Deirdre linked to on Saturday will give you the flavor of what you are dealing with here — something that is nothing less than the highest artistic expression of the mind of a man who was both scholarly genius and spiritual giant.
I am afraid (and I hope I don’t sound harsh) that those who seek to reduce the Chronicles to lame retellings of Gospel narratives on the level of some sort of one-to-one correspondence are doomed to expose their own ignorance. Perhaps because the centerpiece of the stories is indeed an imaginative (and successful, insofar as success can be achieved in this endeavor) depiction of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can be misled into thinking that Lewis’ intention was to present, somewhat didactically, Christian truths in fictional form.
One might find credence to this reductive idea in one of his letters:
I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened.’
Unless we read and ponder the next line:
If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing.
The difference is located precisely where an idea becomes art.
This is not to say that I’d be against investigation into meaning– far from it. The symbolism of Lewis’ writings is so rich that you’ll be rewarded for sure. I’m just saying, know that until you’ve studied theology, philosophy (especially Plato and Augustine, but also certainly Aquinas), medieval cosmology, courtly love, all poetry and all prose (epic and otherwise), and all non-Asian ancient languages, you’ll be misled by what you think you do know if what you seek to do is tell children what the stories “are about.”
Such was the breadth and depth of his knowledge. Such is the shallowness of thought of those who reduce him, forcing his writings into their narrow categories (seven books? seven sacraments? seven Biblical truths? — very pat, very Procrustean), that they miss the point. It’s a mysterious process by which the artist synthesizes his learning and makes it art.
I certainly make no claim to having a grip on any of the above, but neither am I convinced that his packagers do. I get the enthusiasm. I deplore the flatness.
You see, Lewis loved the hierarchical view of the universe and of heaven. His mind was Medieval in its tone. That is to say, he immersed himself in that age of the flowering of Christian thought and art, in the process patterning his own mind to it.
At this point, I hear the restless murmurings of those who think they understand. “Yes, yes, medieval– that means allegorical. His art was allegorical, and allegory is… the lesser of the literary modes.”
The fashion today is to take Tolkien at his impatient word, and it’s Tolkien who foisted that epithet of “allegorical” on him. Now, Tolkien, another of my loves, was a man completely enamored of what Lewis called “Pure Northernness.” Lewis shared that love (for perhaps unknowable reasons, but amongst them that the early medieval mind emerged from that realm), which is one reason that Lewis had a great friendship with Tolkien and a deep sympathy for Tolkien’s work — more than sympathy, in fact; you could call it the admiration of disinterested love.
Tolkien’s tone of mind was “saga,” and he wrote a work that surely takes its place in the strictly limited canon of what we might call “the Epic” — the handful of truly great sweeping tales that mankind has to offer. (And I would argue that The Lord of the Rings uses the device of allegory on occasion, so there.)
But Tolkien had no reciprocal sympathy for Lewis’ interest in and resonance to later medieval cosmology and its texture. He was, possibly, even a bit grouchy about the whole thing. Thus, without a great deal of careful discussion or even close reading, he dismissed Lewis’ work as allegorical, and today’s critics, I’m sorry to say, lack the perspective to weigh his judgement. They accept it and try to shoehorn Lewis’ work into that narrow span. (By the way, most people don’t really understand what allegory actually is, reducing it further to symbolism.)
To be sure, Lewis appreciated allegory — and why not? The term is now (in our decidedly flat age) used as a sneer, but a man who first read The Faerie Queen at the age of eight surely knew the subtle uses of this tool. But to leave it at that is to betray that one simply hasn’t enjoyed his work as one might, for its own sake. There is symbolism in his work, to be sure — but symbolism per se isn’t allegory, nor can a true work of art be reduced to its devices. The sneer is not obligatory.
But there are also narrative depictions of philosophical and theological arguments, in which characters, rising above the emblematic, with lives of their own, enact the clash of ideas just as deftly as in the hands of a master novelist like Austen or Tolstoy, although, of course, in a different mode.
Most of all, Lewis breathes life into his hierarchical (and thus, at once profoundly Christian, classical, and realistic) view of things specific and general. In our modernist age of equality-as-the-highest-thing, it’s hard to understand a view of reality that sees each thing in its place, enhancing the whole, undiminished simply by relative location.
Depicting just this vision, however incomprehensible (including to many Christians) it may be today, was Lewis’ gift.
For insight (and a grad-school level crash course on the subject) into Lewis’ Medieval cosmology, I highly recommend Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis.
If nothing else, you will emerge convinced that you will only subtract from your understanding of Narnia by subjecting it to a conventional study of mere symbolism-as-correspondence: Aslan-stands-for-Jesus, the table-stands-for-the-cross, etc. You will be, among other things, astonished to learn the virtuosity of Lewis’ use of words themselves– at his ability to create a complex image in the reader’s mind, even if you were unaware of the treatment.
Even this insightful book only handles one aspect of Lewis’ work, restricting itself in the main to his love of the image of planetary spheres. I’ve no doubt that the author, Michael Ward, could have a go at similar investigations in philosophy and theology and linguistics in Lewis’ mind. On the other hand, such was the vast horizon of Lewis’ knowledge, it may take a few other authors to do it all justice.
What’s remarkable about Lewis’ achievement in the Chronicles of Narnia (and what he himself would value in a story) is the accessibility of his wisdom on the level of “literature enjoyed.” A tale well told — that is the highest praise of all.