Pushing past the Coats and Back into the Wardrobe (Guest Blog)

by Sarah Waters

Narnia, or at least the idea of a wonderland which you can access with a couple of quick steps into your wardrobe, has become a well-known phenomenon since the publication of those Chronicles many years ago now. It seems these stories are well and truly out of the closet. I’m a graduate student at the moment and C.S. Lewis aside, my other focus is Shakespeare. Who, like Lewis, pops up everywhere. There is no escape.

But what do we think of when we hear Lewis, or Narnia, or anything related to the series?

Some will think perhaps of childhood, cozied up in front of the fire or struggling to keep our eyes open as we listened to our parents reading us the tales. Others perhaps will be those parents picking up the books for the first time, often at Christmas, inspired by their kids. That’s one type: the regular reader.

Susan Narnia bow_battle Anna PopplewellThen there are those who hone in on the Christian background of Lewis, looking for the God-like qualities of Aslan, timely qualities for the festive seasons of Christmas and Easter. In fact, the first three blockbuster movies have all cashed in on the Christmas factor. Good ol’ family heart-warming stuff. This too, it is true, can be found in Narnia.

This is hardly surprising, of course. Since Lewis wrote and spoke prolifically of his Christian faith, it was bound to surface in his fiction. This has caused some major difficulties for some readers, Phillip Pullman being the classic. But he’s not alone. These readers recoil from the books, horrified at the possibility that these are neatly disguised Christian doctrine. Some refuse to read them to their children on the basis that they may, in fact, be thinly veiled Christian propaganda hidden in the sleeve of a children’s fantasy tale.

They are, no doubt, wondering if they are being conned. Perhaps one of the most helpful comments on such readers comes from Laura Miller, who in The Magician’s Book (2010) clearly expresses her horrified realisation that, on re-reading the tales, elements of Christianity may be perceived in the pages:

‘I was horrified to discover that the Chronicles of Narnia, the joy of my childhood and the cornerstone of my imaginative life were really just the doctrines of the Church in disguise. I looked back at my favorite book and found it appalling transfigured.’

But Miller also draws an interesting comparison between the child and adult reader of Narnia. The child can only see Aslan as a lion, an unhampered childhood vision. Ignorance is, in a sense, bliss. There’s a basic psychological reasoning behind this apparent ignorance on the part of the child, all to do with signs and signifiers, the essence of which is that at a certain stage in cognitive development Aslan cannot mean Jesus simply because he is a lion.

More importantly, this reading highlights a particular kind of adult ignorance, the idea that Aslan can only be Jesus. Aslan can, of course, be both a fictional lion and a saviour figure. Food for thought – especially for those readers who return to Narnia disappointed.

Lewis at His DeskPerhaps a Lewis approach is in order. Hands up who knew Lewis was a scholar? And, no, I don’t mean of theology. When it comes to theology, he was simply a laymen writing apologetics. His day job saw him working as a professor of English Literature, first at Oxford and then at Cambridge. And his literary criticism reveals much about the way he read books. Take his lecture on Hamlet for instance, where he urges us to adopt a childlike approach to books in general, channelling our inner kiddish excitement for a “child is always thinking about those details in a story which a grown-up regards as indifferent.”

But stepping back from the religious readings of Narnia and the controversy surrounding them, we turn to other kinds of readers.

Leaving the nutter and academically inclined researchers like me aside for a moment, we come to the final group (and I apologise if I have left out your reading relationship with Narnia, do comment below, I’d love to hear your story). These readers are those acquainted with Narnia, but only as a byword for a book they’ve heard or a movie they’re seen the preview of. Or perhaps they remember the name because someone, maybe last year, mentioned he was the bloke who’d died the same day as Kennedy. Well, you get the picture.

Recently I’ve been running a survey to see what people really know and think about Lewis and Narnia. Often it’s easier to make sweeping assumptions and generalisations, basing research only on what other books say (which is of course a vicious circle)—and who’s to say those claims are correct. It’s a bit like Wikipedia: really anyone can write something and claim it to be correct. And correct it will remain until someone challenges it. No, I’m not just jumping on the “public engagement” bandwagon; I really wanted to know what everyone from the youngest to the oldest thinks about Narnia and Lewis.

The results thus far have been fascinating. I think my favourite response is to the question: “What do you think of when you hear C.S. Lewis?”

The answer, intriguingly, is “John Lewis” Yes, that’s right, the British department store. And there were too many of these responses for it to be a one off joke, though the one participant that claimed to have Narnian nationality may have been a little less serious.

Lewis, last year was honoured with a plaque in a place called Poet’s Corner over at Westminster Abbey here in England. So by giving him a spot there does that make him a Poet? Well no, not quite. Though it is ironic because Lewis thought when he first started out that he was going to make it as a poet. Some of his poems are good, but we certainly don’t remember him for that today. It’s a tossup between Lewis the apologist or the children’s writer depending, primarily, on which side of the pond you inhabit. Poet’s Corner isn’t reserved for Poets; you’ll also find many famous novelists and writers of all descriptions there. So Lewis is hobnobbing with folk like Dickens, Dryden and Kipling. The plaque is more a recognition of Lewis’s literary work than anything else—recognising him as an imaginative writer.

But is that what we remember him most for today? His imaginative prose? Probably. At one point or another most children will climb to the back of the wardrobe hoping to get through to another world. Perhaps if it wasn’t for Lewis immortalising this image—an image he’d taken it really from a story by E. Nesbit though that is much less widely read today—the world of fantasy would be a very different place.

Sometimes it’s worth stepping back from our favourite authors, books or movies, and looking at them afresh. As we consider why we like them, what it is that makes them stick in our memory, and in the case of Lewis why his world of Narnia has stuck and resonates with so many of us today. For better or for worse what we read influences our lives, and Narnia—whether read aged young or old, with hatred or love—is no exception. For me remembering books I’ve read often reminds me of who I was then, who I read them with, and in what surroundings. Books in this sense, are like the wardrobe. Books are a door to another world, departed from at the end of the pages, but never—at least with the good, the bad and the ugly books—never, ever forgotten.

Sarah WatersSarah Waters is a postgraduate student at the University of Buckingham, England currently researching the influence of Shakespeare on C.S. Lewis with particular reference to his Chronicles of Narnia. My wider research interests lie in Shakespeare studies, particularly adaptation and appropriation but I also enjoy reading widely and am currently reading Gormenghast, Lord of the Flies, a few Renaissance plays, and some Dickens on the side. But I couldn’t do it all without a steady supply of tea and maybe the odd biscuit to dunk now and then.

Check out Sarah’s blog here, or tweet your thoughts to @srawaters. If you would like to take the Narnia survey, just click here.

Pie Chart Adapted (2)

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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19 Responses to Pushing past the Coats and Back into the Wardrobe (Guest Blog)

  1. Eva says:

    I first started reading the Narnia chronicles as a young child, and loved them. By the time I got to The Last Battle I was old enough to realise the parallels with Christian teaching, and I got very upset. Not because of the teaching, I was a Christian. But I felt tha C.S Lewis had somehow let me down, that he hadn’t been making up this stuff at all, but was regurgitating a story I already knew. I refused to read him for a while, until I got older and realised the brilliance of what he was doing. I think he describes it somewhere as a “baptism of the imagination.”

    Like

    • Ursula Vernon and Neil Gaiman both share the same story. I’m glad you wrote in. I’m sure Sarah is collecting stories like this!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waters says:

        Absolutely. I am really interested in hearing about everyone’s experience with Narnia. I’m particularly interested that you felt this way, this sense of betrayal even as a Christian as many of the common views expressed – it seems to me – that feel betrayed tend to be those horrified at the very idea of a Christian undertone because of their hatred of anything remotely religious, they’ve had the warm coats of the wardrobe pulled from their eyes as it were and see another depth (an inescapable one once you’ve spotted it) to the trees. Namely one which makes them cross (excuse the pun). Yes, I think you’re right part of we wonders whether Lewis isn’t cheating a bit – couldn’t he manage to come up with his own story. But he isn’t just a Biblical plagiariser of course, otherwise they storied would have been relegated and only be read by a few. More Pilgrim’s Progress than Harry Potter. Thankfully it has managed to avoid relegation, for the most part. I think while the Christian dimension is certainly there, so is much more and so it’s sad that for many once their vision is hampered by the epiphany of allegorical elements, they cannot see beyond it. I’m glad to hear that your journey was progressive, from enjoyment through frustration, and back to a renewed love. Thank you for sharing your story.

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  2. Sahara says:

    Thinking of Lewis makes me think of magic. Not real magic, and not because of his stories, but because of the spell he wove with all of his writings, Narnia and otherwise. In ’09, I made a pilgrimage to Oxford to take an “unofficial” tour of his haunts, and even those days were just a pinkish magical fog.

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    • Very cool. I love that experience of being lost in a world. It is a kind of magic. Wardrobes are not so uncommon.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sarah Waters says:

      There’s certainly something magical, it almost makes you tingle, about Lewis, the sort of Lewisian myth which cloaks Narnia, his Oxford hideouts, and perhaps even our fascination with Lewis himself. This reminds me of Lewis talking about Hamlet to his good friend Arthur Greeves. The way he tells Greeves to read the play for me sums up Narnia, Lewis and many aspects of his work: he tells Greeves “…just surrender yourself to the magic”.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My first encounter with Narnia was through my class teacher, Miss Maher (she later became Mrs Thorpe just in case she reads this!) reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to us when I was about 8 years old. I was utterly entranced. I lived in a world then where there were not many books and did not read all of them them until my wife and I read them together in the early years of our marriage when we decided not to have a TV. People were more intrigued by that decision than by the fact that we were Christians, by the way! We do have one now and I sometimes miss the times we would read a book together in the evenings and in the nights when one of the children was feeding.
    I was intrigued by Laura Miller’s reaction in Sarah’s excellent essay and could not help but wonder if a young Lewis might have responded in the same way. I wonder how the older Lewis would have spoken to the younger one about this? That sense that Christian faith is a kind of entrapment is very strong at the moment.
    Have you written about Ursula Vernon and Neil Gaiman elsewhere?
    Thank you for posting this. I look forward to exploring Sarah Waters’ blog and especially her work on Shakespeare.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, check out Sarah’s work for sure.
      I wonder what that generational Lewis convo would be like! I do find Susan sort of puzzling in Last Battle. There are times when Lewis needed an editor. Probably he could have edited himself in that 20 years younger scenario you mention.
      We have left TV behind at different times. I’m trying to be culturally engaged as a Christian thinker, so I don’t leave it behind altogether. But that sort of quasi-monasticism is tempting to me.
      Could you explore this for me: “That sense that Christian faith is a kind of entrapment is very strong at the moment.” I’m not sure I understand it, though I get the context.
      I haven’t written about Ursula Vernon & Gaiman. I might.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sarah Waters says:

        Do you mean the paradox of the Christian faith – by which I mean how through a commitment to faith (a kind of voluntary sentence or link of chains – and now thanks to Christmas I’m having A Christmas Carol chains flashback..) you are made free, or have I got completely the wrong end of the stick? I’ve not tackled Gaiman and Vernon’s work specifically or directly, but have considered some in that area with reference to their respective viewpoints and they touch upon some fascinating areas of discussion. Susan the poor sole survivor on this world opens up another debate entirely. But one certainly worth exploring, I have done some work on women in Narnia and Susan of course plays an integral role in this debate. I like the idea of the younger Lewis acting as a ruthless editor on the older Lewis’s work. Now there’s an editing room where I’d like to be a fly on the wall.

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      • Happy New Year, Brenton! The sense in which I used the word, “entrapment”, is that Christian faith is seen by many as some kind of closed system that uses beauty, enchantment, friendship etc. as means to catch the unwary. The atheist biologist, Lewis Wolpert, acknowledges that without beauty his life would be empty but then says that said that all beauty is meaningless.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Sarah Waters says:

      I think you’re onto something – I think Miller expresses the sentiment of many they feel betrayed and frustrated at themselves for missing the apparently obvious meaning. But I think you’re right, a younger Lewis would have probably stopped reading – with considerable horror – a story if he through someone were trying to twist his arm back into religion. But that said, he said himself he wrote the kind of stories he wanted to read – books he enjoyed as a kid. I think the young Lewis would have been increasingly frustrated by his older counterpart who I envisage playing the devil’s advocate and thoroughly infuriating his younger self. Fight! I think the justification an almost argumentative tone – or at least someone prepared for those ready to argue with him – we find in Lewis’s later works, reflects the progression we can track between his young and more mature selves. As an academic he was geared up to justify, and part of this perhaps originates from his desire to question in his younger years. I think perhaps the older Lewis would have encouraged his younger self to look at what was there besides the obvious, to not get bogged down by biblical bits but rather to enjoy the story for what it is at face value, a children’s series. But I’m intrigued to here what others think about this.

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      • The least attractive aspect of Lewis is when he corals his story and his characters within his own take on the biblical narrative. Other versions of the last days are available other than that he offers in The Last Battle! And I agree with Brenton that his treatment of Susan is strange. My daughter, Beckie, thinks that killing everyone off in order to get them to Narnia for ever is strange & it is the only Narnia story that she has never loved. Lewis is at his best when he does, as you pointed out, he surrenders himself to the magic.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. mallorb says:

    Reblogged this on Robert Malloy.

    Like

  5. Pingback: Mr Lewis – a new rival for the role of Father Christmas? Watch out Dickens! | Shakin' Spearians

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Can you add a thin slice to your pie for The Abolition of Man? That’s the first I heard of Lewis (with delight!), and the first I read (and so, probably, the first I’d think of… though it’s hard to be sure about that). (Rachel Trickett’s answer was The Allegory of Love, which probably applied to a lot of people till he started broadcasting.)

    I wonder about the young and old Lewis – the young was argumentative and opinionated, even smugly so, yet also (I think) open to enjoying things he didn’t ‘buy’ – even ‘lies breathed through silver’ (!), as he went on thinking a good while.

    As to “couldn’t he manage to come up with his own story” – whoa! – move over, Shakespeare (or Chaucer, for that matter, and so on and on: ‘Lewis among the “pre-originals” ‘ – ?). How about, Narnia as (shades of David Lindsay?) philosophically (as well as theologically) interested ‘multiverse science fiction’?

    (Brenton: television keeps leaving me behind, first going so largely cable, then, what’s left, going digital – though I can – and do – catch up via dvds and YouTube.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Sarah’s link to the survey is still open, so go ahead. Personally, it took four or five readings to get Abolition of Man, then it came in a flash–not all the details, but the shock of the argument.
      I’m working on the question of how stories echo other stories. Lewis came up with his own stories in the way we all do, that all have: taking bits and pieces from other worlds and recreating them into something new and fresh.
      I’ve become a Netflix person, so I find now that commercials shock and dismay me when I see them!

      Like

    • Sarah Waters says:

      Yes, absolutely – as Brenton says the survey is open so please do share your views that way, I’d love to hear them. I hasten to add the pie chart you see before you is a heavily condensed version of the enormous scope of views which that question has already thrown up. It’s interesting that The Abolition of Man was your first encounter – I think that’s become one of his lesser known works now, though that’s not to say by any means that that should discredit it in any way. I very much enjoyed reading it. Yes, you’re right – Allegory of Love was certainly his breakthrough at least in terms of academic studies, and then he hit the crowds of the general public by being broadcast right into their living rooms. I think you’re spot on about the younger Lewis too – I am almost imagine him Gandalf-like smoking a pipe and uttering those words. I know, I know. That was sort of my point – no story is really entirely new – they tend (even if it’s only in part) to hark back to past narratives, and are cemented in their contemporary culture no matter how much they may struggle to break free. But point taken – Shakespeare is of course a classic instance like Lewis of taking well-known tales and narratives and reinvigorating them in his own way. I’m intrigued by your final point about Narnia as multiverse science fiction and I wonder if you might be able to elaborate a little on your thinking behind this? It certainly sounds fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Mr Lewis – a new rival for the role of Father Christmas? Watch out Dickens! | The Shakespeare Standard

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