The Narnia novels of C.S. Lewis are one of those sets of texts which provoke controversy, not only over their own literary worth but over the nature and purpose of children’s literature. Denounced as crypto-indoctrination by some, and defended as meditations upon Christian themes by others, they got at enough of us early enough to provoke strong feelings long into adulthood. Perhaps unusually, Rowan Williams has a strong affection for the works despite not having discovered them until he was an undergraduate at university. In The Lion’s World he offers a set of literary and theological reflections upon the Narnia novels, and places them within his vision of Lewis and Lewis’ thought. They are based on lectures given at Canterbury Cathedral during Holy Week 2011, and present Williams’ thoughts on the most popular works of an author whom “[he] can only confess to being repeatedly humbled and reconverted by…in a way that is true of few other modern Christian writers” (xi).
Williams is clear that his reading of the novels approaches them as works of literary art, not as a “code” which needs to be cracked in order to get the “real” or Christian meaning. He presupposes that “theological insight will emerge from the narrative and the interaction of its characters” rather than from “concentrating on what traditional theological themes are encoded in this or that detail” (5). The book takes Lewis’ purpose as being the presentation of ideas about God not as a translation of existing doctrines into another universe, but to offer readers the chance to “experience what it is that religious (specifically Christian) talk is about, without resorting to religious talk as we usually meet it” (19). The apologetic impulse in these novels, William suggests, has its root in a sense that when people rejected Christianity in the mid twentieth century (and the same may well be true today), they imagined they knew what they were rejecting. The Narnia novels present a chance to shock the imagination, to side-step all the musty assumptions about “churchy people”, and to dramatize religious feeling instead of making dogmas “palatable”. Through a series of investigations of the particular narrative arcs and themes of the novels, Williams produces a compelling reading which continually relates them to this dramatization of religious experience, and to issues of narrative and the self. There are some points when the passion for detail looks a little over-done: given what we know about Lewis’ attitude to consistency (as evidenced by his jumbling of different mythologies together) and the order of composition, is it really possible to interpret the fact that both a single country and the whole world are called “Narnia” as pointing towards the notion of a community through which Aslan’s reconciling action becomes most fully manifest? On the other hand (rather like Michael Ward’s work on medieval symbolism in the novels) the reading is so compelling from a theological and literary point of view that intention seems rather beside the point.
This does not answer all the charges against Lewis levelled by modern critics, of course, and Williams addresses the issue of Lewis’ perceived misogyny and racism in one of the less compelling passages. He takes care to set the novels not only in their historical context, but their literary tradition, pointing out that the violence at the end of The Silver Chair is totally consonant with the adventure stories of the early twentieth century, or that the fictional framework of much of Lewis’ work is actually Edwardian rather than mid-century, or even that the speech of the Calormen is borrowed from the Kai Lung style which parodies its own transcription of Arabian Nights clichés. These are all effective defences if the reader already wants to “save” Lewis’ work, or can see some value in it by the end of The Lion’s World. Some readers may retort that they don’t choose to read Kai Lung or Nesbitt or Haggard either, so Lewis’ reliance on other people’s prejudice for his literary materials hardly makes the Narnia books less unpleasant to modern taste. However, this chapter does explain why these objections might be integrated into a reading of Lewis’ novels rather than a wholesale rejection of them.
There are other problems with many readers have with Lewis which cannot be dealt with via questions of literary influence, and Williams does not ignore these. He handles the “not a tame lion” question particularly sensitively, suggesting that the use of this phrase by Shift is a rigorous testing of the hope and presence offered by Aslan: “the ultimate test of any religious, or indeed, imaginative vision is to see if it can surivie the most uncompromisingly cynical, parodic, hostile representation of this; this is what Lewis is doing here, and it needs to be taken very seriously” (59). For many people in British (and US) Christianity, this “cynical” representation is not to be found in the polemics of New Atheism or even fanatical statements from other religious groups, but from their own tradition, where the phrase “not a tame lion” has provided a glib justification for an emphasis on power, wrath and aggression in visions of God. It is refreshing to see the words subjected to a careful critique based on their repetition through the series, and the uses to which they are put.
The Lion’s World is a meticulous and profound exploration of the literary and theological shape of some of the best-loved children’s books in English. Williams makes connections from Lewis to Tolkien, Pratchett, Merton, Shakespeare and Augustine, always coupling a concern for the implications of the stories with an intense attention to the way they question and challenge the reader. It is certainly a rather more satisfying and compelling exploration of the way Lewis’ fiction explores religious themes than the recent Deep Magic, Dragons and Talking Mice by Alister McGrath, largely because Williams pays such close attention to the works as narrative, rather than as encoded ideas or a hidden religious project. It is a critical emphasis which will be familiar to anyone who has read his work on the Bible, and this possibly may slightly undermine the intentions of the book: after exploring this book, some people may be sent back to reread Lewis’ novels, and others may want to read more of Williams’ own work. Either way, The Lion’s World is an arresting and moving book.