by Professor Leland Ryken
The most important lessons that we can learn from C.S. Lewis’ Narnian Chronicles are the ones that Lewis himself wanted us to learn. It so happens that Lewis said enough about literature in general and the Narnian books in particular that it is possible to read Lewis’ classic children’s stories with the author himself.
One of the most important pieces of advice that Lewis gave to readers of literature is that they mustreceive a work of literature instead of using it. Lewis wrote, “A work of…art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used’. When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powersaccording to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities” (emphasis added). According to this line of thought, “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
This is not to deny that we should make use of what we read. It is instead a caution to let stories set their own agenda of concerns according to the order created by the author, not to impose our own agenda on them according to our own timetable as we progress through a story. Lewis’ rule of thumb was to let stories “tell you their own moral” and not “put one in.” The relevance of this to the Narnian stories is that the religious aspects of the stories usually do not appear until approximately halfway through the books. Many Christian readers are impatient with that and force the opening chapters into something that Lewis did not intend.
The second warning that Lewis gave is not to reduce works of literature to a set of ideas. He claimed that “one of the prime achievements in every good fiction has nothing to do with truth or philosophy…at all.” To regard a story “as primarily a vehicle for…philosophy is an outrage to the thing the poet has made for us.” Works of literature “are complex and carefully made objects. Attention to the very objects they are is our first step.” This, too, should steer us away from how many Christian readers deal with The Chronicles of Narnia.
How the Narnian Stories Were Composed
In addition to the general guidelines for reading literature, Lewis left us some very useful tips for reading the Narnian stories in particular. For example, Lewis famously said that “all my seven Narnian books…began with pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures.” ThusThe Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe “began with a picture of Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” Just as we are recovering from the shock of that revelation, Lewis adds, “This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.’”
Just in case we might think that we cannot possibly have heard things correctly, Lewis also gave us another passage of similar import — only more shocking. In countering the assumption of some of his readers that he “began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children,” Lewis claimed that “at first there wasn’t even anything Christian about [the stories].”
The order of composition suggests an order of reading. If we follow the lead of Lewis himself, a major lesson we can learn from the Narnian stories is that they are first of all stories — adventure stories, fantasy stories, children’s stories. These narrative features are not simply “a disguise for something more ‘adult’.”
How the Narnian Stories Became Christian Classics
Of course this does not mean that we need to abandon our conviction that the Narnian Chronicles are Christian classics — stories in which Christian experiences and doctrines are movingly embodied. In the same passage in which Lewis claimed that initially there was nothing Christian about the stories, he added, “That element pushed itself in of its own accord.” So there is a Christian dimension to the stories, as we have known since our first encounter with them. In a letter that Lewis wrote a year and a half before his death, he said that there is “a deeper meaning behind” the surface details of the stories.
The key to the religious meanings of the Narnian stories is the figure of Aslan. When at age forty Lewis decided to try to make a story out of his mental pictures of “a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion,” at first he “had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. …Once He was there he pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after him.”
It is pretty obvious that Aslan pulled not only the stories together but also the religious vision of the stories. Lewis himself said as much: in the letter quoted above, Lewis said that “the whole Narnian story is about Christ.”
Spiritual and Moral Lessons from Narnia
One level of Christian meaning in the Narnian Chronicles is the moral vision embodied in the stories. It is the story of a great, cosmic struggle between good and evil — and the need of every creature to choose between them. The vision of the stories corresponds to Lewis’ view of the world itself, which in one of his essays he described as a universe in which “there is no neutral ground” and in which “every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.”
In addition to this moral vision, the Narnian stories embody a theological vision. At the heart of that vision is the figure of Aslan, who represents Christ. Thus the qualities attributed to Aslan, the acts that he performs, the ways in which he relates to characters in the stories and the characters to him, the devotion that he elicits from those who believe in him and follow him — all these are an implied picture of the Christian life. We will not go wrong, therefore, if we simply view the story of Aslan as the story of Christ. The parts of the stories in which Aslan is an active participant can thus be read devotionally, and in fact this is how Christian readers intuitively assimilate the stories.
Generating outward from this christological center of the narrative world of Narnia are more general Christian themes. The stories as a whole cover the same metanarrative (“big story”) that the Bible presents. Within the mode of the fantasy story genre, we read about the creation of the world; the fall of that world from an original innocence; the struggle between good and evil (or Christ and forces of darkness) throughout fallen history; the atoning, substitutionary death and the resurrection of Christ; and the eschatological end of the world and beginning of eternity. It is no stretch to say that the Bible itself forms the subtext of the Narnian stories.
As we revisit the contours of salvation history in the Narnian stories, we are also led to contemplate the outline of Christian doctrine. Chief among these doctrines is what might be called the doctrine of God. From the stories we get a picture of God as creator, as judge, as sovereign, as the one who guides history to His ends, and as the one who saves. A view of the person emerges strongly as well. Its chief tenets are that people are moral agents who must choose for or against God, and that people have a dual capacity for great good and great evil. A doctrine of evil also emerges strongly, as we are continuously aware of the tremendous power of evil in the world and its ultimate defeat by Christ (the Christus victor motif).
The final lesson that we need to learn in regard to this spiritual depth in the stories is that the religious meanings are embodied in the form of narrative fantasy. As readers we need to experience and relish the stories as children’s stories first of all. The religious meanings can be trusted to reveal themselves at the points in the narrative (chiefly the parts where Aslan is an active character) where Lewis intended them to be present.
Professor Leland Ryken is Professor of English at Wheaton College where he has taught for many years. He is the author of the much used THE PURITANS AS THEY REALLY WERE and many other volumes. He and his son, Philip, now President of Wheaton, along with James Wilhoit, are the authors of the RYKEN BIBLE HANDBOOK.