books, c.s. lewis, christianity, literature, medieval, narnia, theology
Over the last few months I’ve been reading through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, chapter by chapter, and recording short talks on each one. It began after the first week or so of lockdown, as part of our church’s move to online services. I wanted a way of talking with our congregation which didn’t involve preaching or pastoral advice (though both of those were also necessary), but which did involve exploring ideas of faith and literature. Lewis’ novel seemed an ideal choice, as I thought many households might have a copy, or at least a recollection of the story.
I didn’t want to prescribe “set reading”, but at the same time I did want to go into the details of the text. I already had quite a lot of thoughts about it, so I didn’t need lots of preparation, though I looked forward to the chance to read it slowly.
The result was eighteen brief talks: one each for the seventeen chapters of the book, and one to round up and reflect. They range from less than a quarter of an hour to more than three-quarters, and add up to about seven and a half hours in total. You may be unsurprised to hear that, having recorded the eighteenth episode, I did not immediately start on Prince Caspian, the next novel in the series.
I thought some readers of this blog might find the episodes interesting – they’ve been arranged on a playlist which makes navigating them relatively easy. You might even want to do your own read-along, and whether you do or no, I’d be very interested in your thoughts.
A few things surprised me, which emerged in the process of reading the book so methodically, and stopping to comment after every ten or so pages. For a start, I was impressed that the book stood up to this kind of reading so well. There can seem something a bit artificial about working through a novel like this, though my education gave me plenty of experience in acting as if any given chunk of text contains enormous significance – in some ways it felt like being a school student or an undergraduate writing a commentary paper again.
However artificial it might have felt at first, I was surprised and pleased by how much there was to say about the book on a page by page level. It hung together better as a piece of literary work than I had remembered or expected. Small details revealed their implications – like the list of animals which the Pevensie children imagined might be in the wood when they first arrived. These seemed shaped to hint something about their differing characters – Peter thinking of hawks and stags suitable to a king, Lucy of badgers stubborn and stalwart against opposition, Edmund of sly foxes and Susan of fluffy bunnies. But they also gesture forwards to the very end of the novel, when they will hunt the stag which Peter imagines, and it will lead them out of the wood back to the place they are currently standing.
Or the sets of contrasting meals eaten by the children with Mr Tumnus, the White Witch, the Beavers and then finally with Aslan at Cair Paravel. Without the slow pace, I don’t think I would have noticed the way these reflect on each other, to provide positive and negative models of shared meals, and build towards the Eucharistic atmosphere of the high feast with Aslan.
Even relatively trivial elements became more interesting as I worked through the book chapter by chapter – such as the fact that the White Witch’s first appearance (a sledge, reindeer, a dwarf with a tasselled cap in a snowy landscape) seems to be encouraging the young reader to expect Father Christmas, and then to discover someone horrible has replaced him. Then that the pattern is reversed when the Mister Beaver scuttles out at the sound of harnesses in order to keep lookout for their enemy – and in fact finds Father Christmas instead. The book seems a lot more dynamic and intricate now I’ve traced these patterns in its narrative progress.
Secondly, I was intrigued by the parallels which kept appearing to other works, and to the context of the time. I was familiar with Farah Mendlesohn’s brilliant sketch of The Lion as a novel infused with the presence of the Second World War, not least in the availability (or otherwise) of sweets and the shadow of Manichean struggles. But other elements pointed towards the contemporary context – the murderous bureaucratese in Maugrim’s notice about Tumnus, the literal “underground” of animals under tyranny, Edmund’s fascist-tinged daydreams of private cinemas and road-building programmes and laws which single out people who annoy him. It’s a book much more in dialogue with its place and time than I had thought. That can perhaps be a drawback, if we assume that all books should be “universal”, but it certainly has less of the “escapism” which has sometimes been attributed to it.
It is also more in dialogue with the other books of its time. The style is heavily influenced by E. Nesbit, as other people have pointed out, and there are other connections which emerged in tracing the movement of the text. The robin which leads them to safety has more than a touch of The Secret Garden, whilst Peter’s fight with Maugrim makes more sense in the context of The Box of Delights and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The Beaver plot kept recalling The Borrowers and The Silver Sword. Puzzling over the person of Mr Tumnus led me to Pan-figures in The Wind in the Willows, Murder Must Advertise and Saki, whilst kind listeners wrote in to point out that I had missed Pan-figures in The Man Born to be King, The Man Who Was Thursday and the work of Elizabeth Goudge. I even speculated that the Turkish delight, perhaps, the book’s most famous image, might have been influenced by a Dorothy Sayers scene…
Thirdly, the novel was more enmeshed with Lewis’ other writings than I had assumed. Obviously there is plenty of the kind of doctrine which he had outlined in books like Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. But I also found Narnia imbued with the imaginative vision of The Discarded Image and the scholarly enthusiasms of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama). The presence of the merpeople and the importance of their music in the feast at Cair Paravel seems explicable only in light of Lewis’ writings on the nature of distance in the medieval universe. When thinking about the enlivening of the statues in the witch’s castle, I looked up William Dunbar’s poem on the Resurrection, as well as Lewis’s comments on it in Sixteenth Century, and found in Dunbar’s imagery practically a map of the chapter. Something similar happened when I looked up the medieval carol “Adam lay i-bowndyn” as an example of the sort of medieval tradition Lewis was gesturing towards, and found lines which had a direct bearing on the book.
The great example of this is Michal Ward’s work in Planet Narnia, and I probably wouldn’t have thought to look for these kinds of connections without having read Ward’s scholarship. They really illuminate Lewis’ form of imaginative fiction – as well, incidentally, as throwing doubt on the popular canard that Tolkien’s work was careful and reflects belief in a solid fantasy world, whilst Lewis’ was haphazard, random and bodged together myths to force through a doctrinal message. On the contrary, Narnia seems to be infused with all sorts of literary and theological traditions, often by borrowing or drawing on images, rather than simply having dryads spouting atonement theology.
This leads to the final point which struck me: just how much Lewis does with his material. All these allusions and influences come together into a story which is much more complex than using an E. Nesbit rhetoric to tell a fairy-tale plot with a Bible story meaning. The Lion reshapes chunks of the Gospel narratives, telescoping some characters together, giving others different roles, and backfilling plot from the Epistles, whilst encrusting it with typological images.
The girls who go to deal with Aslan’s body also walked with him in the garden the night before. Edmund has his hand on the door just as Mr Beaver chants an old poem about Adam and the flesh of Adam – Edmund is bound at about to be stabbed in the throat when he is rescued from above – Aslan is degraded and killed in a way which makes the parallels between him and Edmund much more clear. Edmund is Judas, but also Isaac and also Old Adam.
The Witch’s plan is flawed because Aslan knows what was said in the moments before the world existed – the only plot I can think of in modern fiction which hinges on the doctrine of the pre-existence of the Second Person of the Trinity, and the identification of Christ with the Sophia of Proverbs. Either to praise or to dismiss The Lion as a simple and straightforward telling of Jesus’ death and resurrection is completely impossible. (It is also, incidentally, to miss the way in which this novel casts doubt on the possibility of any straightforward telling of that story, or the possibility of doing so which conveyed any of its meaning.) As I said above, this aspect of the book made it seem much more intricate and dynamic after the process of re-reading it. It made me want to dash around reading a whole pile of other books, not least of them the Bible. If you’d be interested in listening to me padding through those chapters, you’d be welcome.
What a joy it is to have discovered your blog, through Twitter giving me one of your posts. I will be reading and reading …
How kind of you – I’m very cheered that you’re enjoying reading it!
I’ve just finished listening to the whole series, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them (and left odd comments on YouTube as they occurred to me).
One comment on the whole experience; I read the Narnia books (and many of the other children’s books commented on in the talks) as a child, but for me there was a sort of displacement, because I was reading them in Australia, and they do not reflect the Australian landscape or culture at all. And where the original English readers might have encountered this as a book which takes them from the familiar to the fantastic and then back again, for readers elsewhere in the world, it takes them from one sort of unfamiliar place to another. And so the whole thing about “enchanted England” actually serves to suggest that somehow the place where one is (in my case, Australia) lacks a certain special quality which might be found elsewhere (in England, or perhaps Europe more broadly).
I’ve realised as an adult that while, as a child, I wasn’t conscious of any of that, it shaped my own attitudes and gave me a subtle sense that the sort of place I lived in was perhaps second-rate compared to the place where all the really good stories happened, and culturally disconnected from wider systems of meaning.
I think since then the Australian children’s literary scene has probably been much enriched (and it’s probably also true that I didn’t have good help navigating it at the time), but it’s interesting to me to think about how works like this can have a very different sort of impact at this sort of cultural distance.
You may not find that a helpful thought, but there it is! 🙂