Rowan Williams on Narnia - an archbishop interrogates utopia

The archbishop goes beyond the wardrobe door.

Wild thing: Aslan and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) in the 2005 film of The Chronicles of Narnia

The epigraph that prefaces this short volume is a quotation from Francis Spufford’s delightful memoir of childhood reading, The Child That Books Built: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must write children’s books.” Here Spufford is making a reference to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s celebrated dictum “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. It is a maxim that has attracted a good deal of criticism and some mockery – if you can’t speak about something, how can you be other than silent about it? – and it has never been entirely clear what the gnomic philosopher meant.

In contrast, Spufford’s variation on Wittgenstein is straightforward and illuminating: children’s books enable their authors – and their adult readers – to gain access to parts of human experience that books written for grown-ups don’t touch. The boundaries may be increasingly porous – childhood and adulthood are rapidly hanging social institutions, not purely biological states – but it is true that children’s books disregard distinctions between what is real and what is imaginary in ways that most books meant for adults do not even attempt. It cannot be accidental that fantastic fiction is a branch of literature with a strong appeal for children and adults alike.

Spufford is on to something important but I’m not sure how much it helps Rowan Williams’s argument in regard to C S Lewis. The seven volumes of Narnia stories have never struck me as offering a glimpse into the world of childhood. Set in a magical realm reached through a wardrobe in an upstairs room in the house of a professor, they are all too obviously a literary rendition of a middle-aged male’s nostalgic memories of growing up in Edwardian England. At that time, writers such as George MacDonald – a Scottish Congregationalist minister and author of many novels of fantasy, including the influential Phantastes (1858) – were still being widely read, and the Narnia books are based as much on Lewis’s adult reading as on his memories of being a child. Partly for that reason, the series has always had, for me, a distinctly stuffy, derivative quality.

It is this kitschy, neo-Edwardian atmosphere – as much as the traces of racism and misogyny that Philip Pullman, a ferocious critic of the Narnia books, has identified in them –that mars any enjoyment there might be in entering the world imagined in the series. These books lack the freshness of vision of Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), the first and best of his three “science-fiction” novels – an exquisite blend of interplanetary travel and metaphysical quest whose only obvious predecessor is David Lindsay’s extraordinary A Voyage to Arcturus (1920), which is soaked through with a dark Gnosticism that Lewis, though greatly impressed by the book, rejected as “so Manichaean as to be almost satanic”.

Soon to be former archbishop, Williams first set out his view of Lewis in three lectures given at Canterbury Cathedral in 2011. This new concise, pellucid, richly thoughtful study can be read with profit and enjoyment by anyone, whatever their beliefs or lack of belief, who is interested in fundamental questions about the place of humankind in the scheme of things. As Williams observes, “There is no ‘church’ in Narnia, no religion even” in Narnia. Even so, it is the Christian world-view that Narnia embodies that Williams wants to understand and convey to his readers. Though he mounts a partial defence of Lewis against some of the more lurid critiques, Williams is not chiefly concerned with apologetics. His overriding aim is to uncover what is unfamiliar and challenging in Lewis’s view of things, particularly for contemporary readers who cannot think of the world as anything other than a human construction. Williams has used other writers to define what is disturbing and challenging in Christianity –most notably in Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction (2008).

Packed with arresting insight, The Lion’s World is his most successful exercise to date in this Christian version of hermeneutics. It has often been argued – by myself, among others – that monotheism is excessively humancentred. Against this view, Williams argues that theism can counteract a narrowly anthropocentric viewpoint. Pointing to the central role of animals in Narnia, he notes that Aslan, the “great lion” that figures in all seven books as a symbol of divinity, is non-human – an astonishingly bold move on Lewis’s part, given how Christianity is usually understood.

As Williams writes, “Some varieties of nervous and impoverished Christian mind have been anxious about this, as about Lewis’s blithe co-options of pagan mythology.” I am still not persuaded that Christianity can escape anthropocentrism, but the idea that “human beings are always already embedded in their relations to the non-human world” is true and important – and just as challenging to nervous and impoverished secular thinkers as it is to believers in religion. It is not only conventional understandings of Christianity that Lewis is contesting, in Williams’s interpretation, but an entire modern world-view.

“To be human is to be with the non-human world,” Williams writes, “even to be for the non-human world.” Narnia’s talking beasts free the mind from the world-view – underpinning what Williams describes as “the passionate campaign against nature itself that is typical of the most toxic kinds of modernity” – in which human beings are set apart from all other creatures, then invested with the special rationality needed to subjugate and remodel the world. It is a fantasy of human omnipotence that Lewis probed in many of his fictions – particularly The Great Divorce (1944-45) and That Hideous Strength (1945), but also in The Abolition of Man (1943), his most persuasive book of advocacy, in which he argues that refashioning nature and human nature to fit ideas of perfection or progress not only empties the nonhuman world of value but also dehumanises humankind. As Lewis pointed out and Williams recognises, Christians aren’t the only people who find such a prospect repugnant. So do adherents of every religion and philosophy that recognises a world beyond the human to which humankind must, in the end, submit.

Written during the Second World War, The Abolition of Man is strikingly prescient regarding those currents of 21st-century humanist and transhumanist thinking in which the future for the human species lies in leaving behind its animal inheritance. By exiting the earth and becoming minds in cyberspace, humans might manage to escape ageing and death. At the same time, they would cease to exist as human beings. As Williams writes, summarising what he takes to be Lewis’s meaning in the Narnia books, “Humanity can be manipulated into a nightmare caricature of eternal life, but only by losing what makes it human.” It may be that the necessary technologies will eventually be developed but the cost for those who use them will be, in effect, to vanish from the human scene. No doubt there will be some who are happy to pay this price and for my part I’m more than happy to let them do so. As Williams shows in this mind-opening little book, Lewis’s achievement was to point out just how high the price will be.

The Lion’s World: a Journey into the Heart of Narnia by Rowan Williams is published by SPCK Publishing and priced at £8.99