When CS Lewis penned the Narnia chronicles, he was already a celebrated Christian author. So how much did his Christian faith influence the way he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the other Narnia stories?
“They have been for me about the most spiritual books I have read in my sixteen years as a monk,” said Brother Stanislas, one fan of the Narnia stories. On the other hand, CS Lewis’s close friend JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, disliked them because he found the Christian element too obvious.
The chronicles of Narnia are Christian stories – though that does not mean that Lewis decided to write them as a way of getting the Christian message across to children. He was already a celebrated religious writer for adults, but these books started merely as pictures – a faun carrying parcels, a queen on a sledge, a talking lion – which then became a fairy story, and then Lewis found that his Christian faith “pushed itself in of its own accord”.
He hoped that his readers (and not just children) would grasp and feel the Christian story as he never had as a child.
As a child, Lewis had gone to church and known the stories of Jesus, but though he was told how important it was and how much it should mean to him, he never felt it for himself until he was much older.
But as he was writing for children, it occurred to him that if Christ came to them as a talking lion, if he was betrayed by a schoolboy, and cruelly killed, and astonished everyone by coming back from the dead, and if his death set the boy free and his coming back to life ended the eternal winter of Narnia, then maybe readers (and not just children) would grasp and feel the Christian story in a way he never had as a child.
“Supposing”, he explained, “that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them appear for the first time in their real potency?” And as he told one parent, “When Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving him more than he ever did before.”
So The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not exactly an allegory, where Aslan represents Jesus, and everything represents something else. Rather it is just the story of Christ coming to the land of talking animals as a lion, Aslan, just as Christians believe he came to earth as a human. When Lucy is distraught to learn that they will never be coming back to Narnia, thinking she will never meet Aslan on earth, he explains: “But you shall meet me, dear one… But there I have a different name. You must learn to know me by that name.”
Click here for a story summary of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
In the same way, the other six Narnia books are full of Christian ideas and images.
The Magician’s Nephew is the Genesis of the Narnia chronicles. Just as the biblical book of Genesis goes back to the beginning, telling stories to explain how God created the world, how Adam and Eve were tempted by a talking snake and broke God’s rules by eating forbidden fruit, in this book, Lewis takes us back to the creation of Narnia.
We start with empty blackness, and then Aslan brings the world into being, bit by bit. The one thing that Lewis adds is that while in Genesis God speaks – “Let there be light” – Aslan sings Narnia into existence. Aslan puts the humans in charge of Narnia, just as God tells Adam and Eve to rule the earth. And above all, the emphasis of both stories is on how good the world was that he made.
So evil has to come from the outside. The traditional Christian understanding of Genesis is that Satan, an evil spirit, came to Adam and Eve in the form of a snake, and persuaded them to disobey God, and that is how evil entered the world. Evil enters Narnia from the outside too – Jadis the witch who comes with Digory and Polly. She tempts Digory to disobey Aslan, by taking a forbidden apple that will save his mother’s life. But unlike Adam and Eve, Digory manages to withstand the temptation. So Narnia is, according to Lewis, something like what earth might have been like if the human race had never fallen.
Click here for a story summary of The Magician’s Nephew.
Jadis the witch tempts Digory to disobey Aslan, by taking a forbidden apple that will save his mother’s life. But unlike Adam and Eve, Digory manages to withstand the temptation.
In Prince Caspian, Narnia has been conquered and changed. The talking animals are gone and hardly anyone believes in them or Aslan any more. This reflects how Lewis saw the modern world: it has lost touch with its Christian roots and grown shabby and pale. But those who hold on to old stories are proved right, in the book, when Aslan turns up. The story encourages believers to stay true, even if they feel like an outdated minority.
Click here for a story summary of Prince Caspian.
The Silver Chair is also about doubt and the loss of faith. In it, the Green Witch tries an enchantment to make our heroes forget Narnia and accept her underground world as the whole world.
As they insist they remember the sun and Aslan, she uses philosophical tricks to prove there could be no such thing – the same arguments that have been used to philosophically disprove God. It is Lewis’s way of arguing that just because the world we can see and feel seems to be all there is, that is not necessarily so.
Click here for a story summary of The Silver Chair.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the story of a literal journey, but also of Eustace’s spiritual journey. He starts out as a nasty piece of work, a lazy, greedy bully. But when he turns into a dragon, he sees himself as he really is for the first time, and he wants to change. He peels his outer skins off, but is still the same dragon, until Aslan painfully tears off all his dragon flesh. This is an image of Christian conversion: we can make changes on the surface, but only God can make us new people. Aslan finishes by immersing Eustace in water, a picture of baptism.
As a Christian, Lewis believed God was a Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So in Narnia, Aslan’s father is the Emperor-Over-the-Sea. And he breathes on his followers to empower them, just as Jesus in the gospel of John breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit”.
Click here for a story summary of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
It all ends with Lewis’s vision of heaven. It is Narnia and it is earth, brought together, but bigger, better, brighter, more solid, “more like the real thing”.
The Bible talks about the last days before the end of the world, and the rule of the Beast, and the Antichrist who claims to be Christ. The Last Battle adapts the same story for the last days of Narnia, with Shift the ape dressing Puzzle the donkey up as Aslan.
It also deals with other religions. The Calormenes mistakenly worship Tash, who is really an evil spirit. When they invent “Tashlan” on the basis that all religions are the same, Lewis presents that modern idea in a very bad light. And yet when Emeth, a good man who honestly worshipped Tash, meets Aslan, he is told, “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service thou hast done to me.”
The book ends with Lewis’s vision of heaven. It is Narnia and it is earth, brought together, but bigger, better, brighter, more solid, “more like the real thing”.
Click here for a story summary of The Last Battle.
There all kinds of other spiritual nuggets throughout the Narnia stories – such as when Uncle Andrew trains himself to hear only a roaring noise when Aslan speaks to him, or when Aslan sums up the theology of St Augustine by telling Jill, “You would not have called me, unless I had been calling you”. But I suspect that, rather than picking them all out and analysing them, Lewis (though he was a literature scholar himself) would prefer us just to read the stories and let them speak for themselves.
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Our famous follower in these pages is CS Lewis, known as ‘the apostle to the sceptics’ in 20th century Britain, but his books, including Narnia, are read around the world. He is the author of scholarly books, science fiction, popular theology and his children’s classics, the Chronicles of Narnia. All of them shot through with his imaginative and powerful retelling of the Christian story.
These pages were written by Stephen Tomkins.
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