New York City. An hour to kill before boarding the bus home. There’s a bookshop. Good. There, on a wire frame rotating rack, I bumped into truth. I was in the fiction department ? no, even worse ? the science fiction department. I may be the only person you know who started reading CS Lewis without knowing that he was a Christian.
I marvelled at the depiction of Good Friday and Easter that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe represents. But that lands us smack in the middle of the big argument about Narnia. Namely, do these books have any integrity as stories or are they ? Bah! ? allegories? Folks such as Philip Pullman despise them, finding them clumsy attempts to force-feed children some dubious medicine by sugar-coating it with cutesy talking animals.
Lewis’ great friend Tolkien escaped this charge. But although he didn’t re-tell the Christian story, he found that he could not help having his Christian beliefs profoundly influence his books too. If you compare the Ring Trilogy with any of the legion of copycat works, one glaring difference stands out for the Christian: Tolkien knows that salvation involves the sacrifice of great power rather than the wielding of it. Understood properly, the whole cycle of books is an illustration of the principle that the first will be last and the last, first. But Narnia, to some people, looks less like an illustration and more like a photocopy with disguises and embellishments. A photograph of the gospel story with the characters and places all photoshopped to look like something else.
It’s a strange idea that you can explore truth by writing fiction
Lewis always maintained that he was doing something different. He merely wanted to experiment with what Christianity might look like in a world different from ours. The result may look superficially similar to allegory, but there is an integrity that makes all the difference. Other than the recurrent admonishments never to close a wardrobe door on yourself, the stories have the feel of tales rather than teaching, exploration rather than instruction, and the author, like us, is interested in Narnia for Narnia’s sake in a way that never quite comes off in a work such as Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.
But what is the best thing about the Narnia series? For those of us who’ve read them, I think it is the fact that there are seven chronicles ? and each with enough difference, yet continuity, to satisfy us when we finish one but leaving us sorry that it’s over too soon.
Which of the seven is the best? Well, no doubt that’s a matter of individual taste. But for me The Silver Chair towers over the others, mainly because of three features that I will never forget: the dance, the chair and the smell of burnt Marsh-wiggle.
When I first heard of the Trinity being referred to by the ancients as a dance, or Jesus as Lord of the dance, or that the life of the Church was a dance, I really didn’t get it. In my subculture, dance was…well…not much like the Trinity or Christianity.
But I understood when I read the end of The Silver Chair. One of the lead characters, Jill, emerges with her companions from a long stay in a huge underground tunnel system, and when she pops her head out into the surface world again, her eyes can barely make sense of what she is seeing.
The imagination and the writing are brilliant. A lesser author thinks they know exactly how to write this scene: the hero emerges triumphant, pops her head out and is home and safe in the green meadows of Narnia, with bright sunshine and one perfect puffy cloud in the sky.
Not Lewis. Unexpectedly for Jill, it’s night-time. And it’s winter. She happens upon a busy, private scene full of noise and motion. A stray snowball flies through the air and hits Jill ‘fair and square in the mouth’. This is the Great Snow Dance. It is more like life than life itself. There are musicians, of course, playing a sweet yet wild tune. And the dancers are fauns and dryads, laughing and performing a complicated formal dance at some speed. Around the dancers, spaced out in a circle, are a ring of dwarves whose job it is to stand still and throw snowballs. And here’s the best part of all: these snowballs are to be thrown at an exact time and speed that they pass through the dancers and into an empty place at the ring of dwarves on the other side. But, Lewis tells us, it is a game as well as a dance, because every once in a while, a dancer or a thrower will be just a little bit off and someone will get a snowball in the face. And then he wrote three glorious words: ‘and everyone laughs.’
And everyone laughs! How my heart aches to be in such a community: different gifts interacting dangerously at such a pace that there is beauty and laughter. I have never encountered a painting that meant more to me than this picture.
There is a saying, perhaps from the Second World War, ‘There are no atheists in foxholes.’ More recently, Regina Spektor wrote and sang about how no one laughs at God when the doctor calls after some routine tests. But atheists such as Richard Dawkins would reckon that to be a temporary insanity. A person is driven by desperation to believe in an irrational fairy tale God which, in more rational moments, they would not.
Lewis has an alternative explanation, of course. Isn’t it our everyday lives that are irrational? Don’t we spend all our time acquiring things, as if they were important? Don’t we act as if we were going to live forever? Isn’t it precisely when we face horrible loss ? a relationship breaks down, a relative dies, we hear the concern in the voice of our doctor ? that Christian and atheist alike stop and step back and say ‘Whoa!’? As things come into true perspective we find ourselves saying, ‘I’d give all those things I expended such energy on for just one more month with the ones I love.’
Perhaps, in those foxholes, we reach out for a real hand that is really extended to us, and it is the rest of our lives that we spend grasping at straws.
I’m conscious that a good number of people reading this article will not have read The Silver Chair, so I’ll say no more than that in Lewis’ made-up world, people also have this problem and Lewis has woven a tale that enables every reader to see and understand it.
THE SMELL OF BURNT MARSH-WIGGLE
This same theme is also picked up in the climax of the book, when the ‘baddie’ makes a concerted attack on the children and their Narnian friends. But it is not a battle as such; it is an attempt to persuade, even brainwash, the good guys into mental captivity.
Lewis makes us think that it would have worked, except for one thing: the children have a Marsh-wiggle as an ally. Ok ? a what? Well, if it’s true that Lewis created Narnia by wondering what Christian truth would be like in a different world, then I think he created Puddleglum the Marsh-wiggle by wondering what Eeyore would be like as a Christian. A Marsh-wiggle looks more like a tall humanoid made of sludge but in terms of demeanour and joie de vivre is virtually indistinguishable from AA Milne’s pessimistic donkey.
When the hungry children met him, he proposed to go fishing for their dinner, even though he was pretty sure that he wouldn’t be able to catch anything. And when he returned with a dozen in his pail, he was sure that they were tough ones and would take so long to cook that the children would probably die before they were suitable to be eaten. And so on and so on. You can imagine the rest: he idly wonders if the fact that he can eat them safely necessarily means that they wouldn’t be poisonous to other creatures from another world, and even does the classic thing of starting a story, ‘Why I knew a girl once who...’ and then not finishing it because it might bring their spirits down.
He’s pessimistic, yes. But he is also loyal and unswerving and self-sacrificial. Thus what you first found aggravating about him becomes endearing as you appreciate his steadfastness. And so it is that when the baddie who co-rules the Kingdom Underground is employing all kinds of tricks: soothing music, gentle rational-sounding words, and even fragrant drug smoke from powder thrown into the crackling fireplace, it is Puddleglum who saves the day by ruining the moment.
The voice of evil tells them that they can see the real tunnel-world around them, and their idea of a surface world, their ‘Narnia’, is a fantasy. In reply, through the thrumming music and the musky smoke, the children and friends find themselves agreeing that Narnia must have been just a dream. Until Puddleglum the Negative, Puddleglum the Brave, changes things. Lewis writes so cleverly: first, he tells you that Puddleglum took action, without telling you what action. Then he tells you that Puddleglum knew it would be painful, but you still don’t know what he has done. And perhaps you’re imagining, like those copycats of Tolkien I mentioned earlier, that he’s going to fight ? summon all his remaining strength and smash that baddie in the mouth with his great webbed fist. But instead…instead, dear reader…oh, wait…I guess you’ll just have to read the book to find out.
Many other delights await you…flying on Aslan’s breath, reacquainting yourself with old friends from previous books, a parliament of owls, and a strange civilisation of sympathetic but hungry giants.
Maybe it’s a strange idea that you can explore truth by writing fiction. But then again, the Lord Jesus is famous for telling story-like parables. That’s not bad company to be in.
Our favourite Narnia stories...
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Lewis beautifully and tantalisingly draws back the curtain on the mysterious realm of Narnia, and its noble lion, Aslan. It helps us to see that faith is about gradually going into something that we don’t fully understand, but that we know we can trust. And once we’ve discovered this new land of faith, the world around us never seems the same again.
Alister Mcgrath is a theologian and the author of CS Lewis: A Life (Hodder & Stoughton)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Which Englishman can resist a sea voyage? I admire the gradually rising tone, from piratical openings on the Lone Islands, to fabulous dragon encounters midway, to Eucharistic-mystical transcendence at the end. The undergirding solar imagery is brilliantly deployed. And Eustace Clarence Scrubb: what an odious prig, what a splendid salvation!
Michael Ward is a Lewis scholar and author of Planet Narnia (OUP) and The Narnia Code (Tyndale)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
It’s my favourite story because the children see a picture of the sea and then they actually go into it and the whole room gets flooded. I like all the islands that they visit and the adventures they have, especially the dragon.
Noah Brierley is eight years old and the son of our feature writer, Justin