I made the statement almost by accident to some of my grad students: Narnia has a pretty sophisticated political philosophy, especially when you consider it is written for children.
Just look at the outline of a number of the books:
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is about the question of whether the Queen is the rightful ruler of Narnia or a usurper; much of the action of the book is political intrigue at the wake of her overthrow and the securing of the Pevensie children as rightful rulers
- Prince Caspian is also a political intrigue, as Miraz has murdered the Telmarine king of Narnia thus displacing Prince Caspian from his place in succession to the throne; much of the book from the Narnian perspective is about the question of loyalty to Caspian and the old stories of Narnia, while the Pevensie children are learning the lesson of listening to Aslan so that when they land in the midst of the ensuing civil war they can recognize true Narnian leadership
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader begins with a secure crown, but the king turns to his responsibilities as emperor; with the goal of returning loyal Narnian courtiers from their exile under Miraz the Usurper, Caspian X and his crew break up a local economy based on slavery and sets a new governor in place; in the end, King Caspian’s greatest test is the question of what kind of leader he wants to be
- The Silver Chair is entirely about a powerful witch who played a very long game to overthrow Narnia by first murdering Caspian X’s queen, then enthralling the heir to the throne, and then preparing an army of earthmen who will break out of the soil and overthrow the people of Narnia while the aged king is at sea and the counsel of the king has grown cautious and weary
- The Horse and His Boy is about a stolen prince raised as a peasant and the subtleties of dealing with a corrupt and powerful regime next door; there are powerful lessons of political leadership for all levels of ruler at all kinds of courts in this Narnian tale
- While The Magician’s Nephew looks like the least political book, it is about a queen-mage of another realm who ends her world rather than admitting defeat in civil war; after a failed attempt to overthrow the rulers of earth—she has some problems with scale there—she inserts herself into the fabric of Narnia and sets up her future tyranny; in The Magician’s Nephew Aslan sets up both the structure of kingship and queenship in Narnia—that a human should rule—and crowns the first king and queen
- The Last Battle is about the last king of Narnia and the question of what authentic Aslan rule looks like; after several mistakes, the lines of allegiance are drawn clearly and we see the model of a political ruler with his back to the wall; while we don’t want to forget the lessons of heaven and beauty, any student of history will see the complexities of policy in this book
That brief summary does justice to each of the stories while highlighting the political realities in the books. Narnia is about what it means to lead well and what it means to follow well. While you will not find much of today’s right-left tension in Narnia—the social problems in fairyland and Arthurian romance are not exactly the same as ours—you will find throughout Narnia a calling to the centre of what it meant to be an ethical political leader.
This is what makes Narnia so subversive as political texts. It suggests that great leadership is a certain kind of great followership. Here is an exchange from the 11th chapter of The Magician’s Nephew. Aslan is addressing the first king and queen of Narnia. When the king objects to the idea of him being worthy, here is how Aslan responds:
“Well,” said Aslan,”can you use a spade and a plough and raise food out of the earth? … Can you rule these creatures kindly and fairly, remembering that they are not slaves like the dumb beasts of the world you were born in, but Talking Beasts and free subjects? … And would you bring up your children and grandchildren to do the same? … And you wouldn’t have favourites either among your own children or among the other creatures or let any hold another under or use it hardly? … And if enemies came against the land (for enemies will arise) and there was war, would you be the first in the charge and the last in the retreat?”
The quality of good leadership is embedded in this child-perspective version of a Presidential oath of office, but it is also revealed in the first King’s response. Moments earlier, he was a London Cabby; now he is being charged with the kingship of a new world. When asked if he would lead self-sacrificially in times of tension, the Cabby responds with humility:
“Well, sir,” said the Cabby very slowly, “a chap don’t exactly know till he’s been tried. I dare say I might turn out ever such a soft ‘un. Never did no fighting except with my fists. I’d try -that is, I ‘ope I’d try – to do my bit.”
I would suggest that we need in our world today the kind of leadership that Lewis espouses in Narnia. We have a drama coach with great hair ruling Canada, slowly discovering that he lacks the depth of being and perspicacity of his royal father. The leaders of France, Germany, and the UK are faced with the greatest refugee crisis since the last world war and they are lost in internal politics. It is clear that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has lost the plot when a fifth generation of Palestinians are living in concentration camps, antisemitism is on the rise, and his biggest announcement is that he has hacked into 15-year-old Iranian documents. One of the world’s greatest civilizations is still limping along under the control of megalomaniacal post-Soviet dictator intent on undermining Western politics–and capable of doing it in between shirtless photo ops. And the United States has elected in a free and open system a man who believes that women are material objects there to serve his interests and that anyone who disagrees with him is wrong because he is the prime arbiter of truth.
I think it is time to again hear the lessons of leadership from Narnia. Do any of the leaders mentioned above—some of the most powerful nations on earth and working across the political spectrum—strike you as people who know that good leadership is good followership, that political power is exercised in service to people and working alongside them for their good?
I don’t know that Narnian political leadership is possible in our generation. It may require poverty or war or necessity to cause the people—and these are all elected position—to ask again for integrity in leadership. But I still think that Lewis’ subversive commentary on good leadership is needed for us, today, if never at another time. I will leave the reader with another moment where the mantle of rule is being placed on another unworthy leader. This is the closing scene of The Horse and His Boy, where Prince Cor is tested by his father.
And presently, as was certain to happen sooner or later, King Lune said if was time for young people to be in bed. “And tomorrow, Cor,” he added, “shalt come over all the castle with me and see the estres and mark all its strength and weakness: for it will be thine to guard when I’m gone.”
“But Corin will be the King then, Father,” said Cor.
“Nay, lad,” said King Lune, “thou art my heir. The crown comes to thee.”
“But I don’t want it,” said Cor. “I’d far rather-“
“‘Tis no question what thou wantest, Cor, nor I either. ‘Tis in the course of law.”
“But if we’re twins we must be the same age.”
“Nay,” said the King with a laugh. “One must come first. Art Corin’s elder by full twenty minutes. And his better too, let’s hope, though that’s no great mastery.” And he looked at Corin with a twinkle in his eyes.
“But, Father, couldn’t you make whichever you like to be the next King?”
“Oh dear,” said Cor. “I don’t want to at all. And Corin – I am most dreadfully sorry. I never dreamed my turning up was going to chisel you out of your kingdom.”
“Hurrah! Hurrah!” said Corin. “I shan’t have to be King. I shan’t have to be King. I’ll always be a prince. It’s princes have all the fun.”
“And that’s truer than thy brother knows, Cor,” said King Lune. “For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there’s hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”
When the two boys were going upstairs to bed Cor again asked Corin if nothing could be done about it. And Corin said:
“If you say another word about it, I’ll – I’ll knock you down.”
It would be nice to end the story by saying that after that the two brothers never disagreed about anything again, but I am afraid it would not be true. In reality they quarrelled and fought just about as often as any other two boys would, and all their fights ended (if they didn’t begin) with Cor getting knocked down. For though, when they had both grown up and become swordsmen, Cor was the more dangerous man in battle, neither he nor anyone else in the North Countries could ever equal Corin as a boxer. That was how he got his name of Corin Thunder-Fist; and how he performed his great exploit against the Lapsed Bear of Stormness, which was really a Talking Bear but had gone back to Wild Bear habits. Corm climbed up to its lair on the Narnian side of Stormness one winter day when the snow was on the hills and boxed it without a time-keeper for thirty-three rounds. And at the end it couldn’t see out of its eyes and became a reformed character.
Aravis also had many quarrels (and, I’m afraid, even fights) with Cor, but they always made it up again: so that years later, when they were grown up, they were so used to quarrelling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently. And after King Lune’s death they made a good King and Queen of Archenland and Ram the Great, the most famous of all the kings of Archenland, was their son. Bree and Hwin lived happily to a great age in Narnia and both got married but not to one another. And there weren’t many months in which one or both of them didn’t come trotting over the pass to visit their friends at Anvard.