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.
Then 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.
Perhaps 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 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.