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 need to 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.