Why did C S Lewis write the Chronicles of Narnia?

Plenty has been written about the themes - faith, innocence, love - but little has been said about Lewis's "need" to write the books.

A middle-aged bachelor teaching English Literature at Oxford proposes to publish a children’s fantasy: in most publishers’ offices, it is a proposal destined for the wastepaper basket. Yet no one could deny the extraordinary and continuing appeal of the Narnia stories — to adults as well as children. The enormous recent success of the series of films based on the books testifies to this. And even the ferocity of some critics of the books bears witness to their influence. Philip Pullman’s powerful trilogy, His Dark Materials, is confessedly part of a counter-campaign – as if recognising that, for once, God has the best tunes and the devil (or rather the world of strictly secular morality and aspiration) needs to catch up in imaginative terms.

Why the books go on working so effectively is no easy question to answer. It isn’t every reader, even every Christian reader, who finds them instantly compelling. Yet they bear many re-readings, and constantly disclose more things to think about. In this brief guide to some of their themes, I don’t intend to try and answer the question of why they are popular — though there are some obvious things to be said. I am more interested in what precisely C S Lewis thought he was doing in writing the books in the first place.

The question of what Lewis thought he was doing is not quite the same question as "What prompted him to write?" On this, there are various theories. Some biographers, including A N Wilson in his brilliant and contentious study of 1990, have made much of the fact that Lewis began work on The Lion at a time in his life when multiple stresses, personal and intellectual, were driving him back towards a long-lost world of childhood imagination where matters did not have to be settled by constant conflict. He had been much taken aback by a rather traumatic debate in Oxford with the formidable philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who had severely trounced him in argument, exposing major flaws in his book on miracles. Is it wholly an accident that the Narnia books have such a quota of terrifying female figures assaulting the simplicities of faith, hope, and love? And is Lewis retreating from argument back into the world of myth and fairy-tale which meant so much to him as a child? More damagingly, John Goldthwaite claims that the Anscombe debate "stung him back into the brooding of adolescence rather than the innocence of childhood", generating a fantasy picture of noble martyrdom at the hands of evil that finds its expression in Aslan’s slaughter by the Witch.

Lewis gives a little colour to such an explanation when he says both that he was writing the sort of books he himself would have liked to read and that he felt an urgent neeto write them. But the theory of an origin in some sort of panicked retreat from debate is pretty doubtful. Apart from the oddity of imagining Elizabeth Anscombe as the White Witch or the Queen of Underland (she was a passionately devout Roman Catholic who wanted simply to avoid the slightest suggestion that the faith was being defended by faulty reasoning), it is an odd reading of the books that sees them as being in flight back to the simplicities of the nursery. They are successful children’s books — but, like most truly successful children’s books, they are very far from just being comforting. Lewis wrote of The Lion, when early sales were slow, that some mothers and schoolteachers "have decided that it is likely to frighten children", and then added wryly, "I think it frightens adults, but v. few children". If these were indeed the kind of stories that Lewis felt he would like to read, it does credit to his appetite for challenge in his reading material. And in response to the notion that he is indulging in adolescent self-glorifying, we need to read all that is said again and again in the books about the dangers precisely of such melodrama.

But it is also important to recognise how much the themes of the Narnia books are interwoven with what he was thinking and writing in other contexts around the same time, and with material he had already published in the 1940s — as well as the fact that the first seeds of the actual Narnia narrative seem to have been sown as early as 1939. For example: his 1946 book, The Great Divorce, foreshadows many of the ideas in the Narnia stories — most particularly a theme that Lewis insists on more and more as his work develops, the impossibility of forcing any person to accept love and the monumental and excruciating difficulty of receiving love when you are wedded to a certain picture of yourself. It is this theme that emerges most clearly in his last (and greatest) imaginative work, the 1956 novel, Till We Have Faces. These issues are very much the issues that Lewis is trying to work out in a variety of imaginative idioms from the early 1940s onwards — the problems of self-deception above all, the lure of self-dramatising, the pain and challenge of encounter with divine truthfulness. What Narnia seeks to do, very ambitiously, is to translate these into terms that children can understand. And as to why Lewis decided to address such an audience, there is probably no very decisive answer except that he had a high view of children’s literature, a passion for myth and fantasy and a plain desire to communicate as widely as possible.

In a letter of 1945 to Dorothy L Sayers, he declares that he is "all for little books on other subjects with their Christianity latent. I propounded this in the SCR [Senior Common Room] at Campion Hall [the Jesuit House of Studies in Oxford] and was told that it was 'Jesuitical'." Against such a background, writing children’s books "with their Christianity latent" makes good sense enough. It is, we need to be clear, something rather different from simply writing standard defences of Christianity in code: he and Sayers would have agreed passionately that the writing has to have its own integrity, its own wholeness. It has to follow its own logic rather than being dictated by an argument. But this does not mean that it cannot be powerful in showing how an argument can be properly put into context. And if we turn back to his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, we shall find that this Jesuitical lack of scruple is simply a reflection of God’s unprincipled methods in nudging us towards faith. "A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading," says Lewis; apparently harmless literary works are littered with traps for the unwary, seductive style, compelling narrative and literary integrity blinding us to the doctrine that a writer takes for granted and so insinuating the doctrine when we’re not paying full attention.

This post originally appeared at blog.oup.com

Rowan Williams is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. His most recent book is The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, from which this blog post was exerpted.

Was the White Witch born of a flouncing from the formidable philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe? Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images.

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism