July 08, 2005,
Adults who want to read the new Harry Potter book but feel embarrassed to admit their fondness for kid lit would do well to consider the words of C. S. Lewis: "Critics who treat adult as a term of approval," he said, "instead of merely a descriptive term, cannot be adults themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence."
I haven't read any Harry Potter myself a problem I hope to correct in the coming weeks but I have read plenty of C. S. Lewis, and in particular his seven-volume classic, The Chronicles of Narnia. These books of course were written with children in mind, even though Lewis had none of his own. (Isn't it strange how some of our most popular children's writers, such as Margaret Wise Brown and Dr. Seuss, were childless?) And they may be best experienced as children, though their aims are as mature as anything found in literature.
That's because the fundamental purpose of the Narnia stories is to convey the reality of Christian truth a project that became Lewis's lifework following his conversion in 1931, after his friends Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien convinced him of it during a nighttime walk. Lewis spent the next 15 years or so giving the lectures and writing the books that would make him the 20th century's most famous Christian apologist (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, etc.). Then, in 1949, he began writing the Narnia stories in earnest, adding to his reputation.
One of the reasons they succeed as children's literature is because they are rollicking good stories full of talking animals, dastardly villains, and climactic sword fights. They can be enjoyed as if they were nothing deeper than dashed-off fairy tales. But there's actually much more than rousing adventure going on in Narnia. If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then Narnia is the continuation of Sunday school by different devices. The first book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, presents the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection. Another one, The Magician's Nephew, recounts the creation and the fall. The last in the series, The Last Battle, describes the end of the world.
Some readers have said that the Narnia stories are Christian allegories i.e., literary representations of Biblical events. Lewis insisted that he was up to something else. He called the Narnia stories suppositions: "Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened."
Perhaps this is a distinction that only an English professor like Lewis could love. The bottom line is that readers of the Narnia books are meant to come away with a keener appreciation for what the Bible teaches us. Lewis's approach works because he doesn't whack readers over the head with what he's doing. "Some people," he once commented,
seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I'd write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out "allegories" to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn't write in that way. It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.
When I read the Narnia books to my first-grade son this spring, I didn't tell him that Aslan the Lion is a Jesus figure, and the connection didn't dawn upon him. But something tells me that learning about Aslan prepares him to learn about Jesus, which he'll be doing more and more as he grows older.
It's also perhaps worth noting that even children who grasp the fundamentals of Narnia will miss a fair bit of what was going on in Lewis's imagination, like a joke in a Disney movie that's meant to keep the parents engaged. Lewis happens to pack some rather adult commentary into his tales. I find it hard to see the ape Shift in The Last Battle, for example, as anything other than a satire of Roman Catholicism in general and the papacy in particular. Those menacing Calormenes, who loom large as villains in The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle, resemble Islamic soldiers on the march against Christian Europe. The Silver Chair begins by mocking "co-educational" schools "what used to be called a 'mixed' school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it."
The next time my family wanders into Narnia, incidentally, it won't be through a wardrobe, or a picture hanging on a wall, or any of the other ways in which Lewis says children from our world have made their way into that other one. Our portal won't be on the printed page or even on the silver screen (the forthcoming movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe promises to be a box-office smash this December). Instead, it will be via a set of new audiobooks, played on long summer drives: The Complete Chronicles of Narnia, read by the likes of Kenneth Branagh (The Magician's Nephew), Lynn Redgrave (Prince Caspian), and Patrick Stewart (The Last Battle). I've previewed one of them, and it has reconfirmed my belief that actors who "perform" on audiobooks are far preferable to authors who merely "read" their own words.
One thing is certain: Unlike Susan Pevensie a character in the books who grows up a little too fast my family plans to return to Narnia as much as possible.
John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America's Disastrous Relationship with France.