Concealed religious doctrine or old fashioned storytelling? Rowan Williams, author of The Lion's World: A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia, picks apart the legendary children's series. Below is an excerpt of the book's introduction.
Not every reader has been charmed by C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, and the recent release of high-earning film versions of several of the books has renewed the controversy. Critics of Christian faith have been predictably vocal--though their comments often suggest at best a superficial reading of the books. But even among Christian readers, the reaction has not always been friendly. Notoriously, Lewis’s friend, J. R. R. Tolkien, found them intolerable. He hated the random mixture of mythologies (classical Fauns and Dryads, Northern European giants and dwarfs, and, to add insult to injury, Father Christmas) and the failure, as he saw it, to create the kind of fully coherent imaginative world that he had spent his energies on for so long.
Narnia is a very long way from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And Lewis seems to have had little or no interest in filling out the details in the way Tolkien--or Terry Pratchett--loves to do. He pays no attention to questions of what language his imagined people speak (Narnians and their neighbours in Calormen do not seem to need interpreters). He spends little time in elaborating details of culture or tradition (the Calormenes are taken over almost wholesale from the Arabian Nights, or so it seems at first; there are some qualifying factors, as we shall see). Very occasionally, as at the end of The Horse, there is reference to this or that episode of semi-legendary Narnian history, but these are casual moments. Lewis wants only to create a brief illusion of some extra dimension. And, as at least one reported conversation shows, he was blithely indifferent to breaches of internal consistency in the stories. His good friend, the poet Ruth Pitter, challenged him about how the Beaver family in The Lion manage to produce potatoes for their meal with the children, given the wintry conditions that had prevailed for most of living memory; not to mention oranges, sugar and suet for the marmalade roll . . . Tolkien, one suspects, would have produced an appendix on the history and architecture of greenhouses in Narnia. But this is not Lewis’s way. Some have impatiently concluded that he is not taking seriously enough the job of creating an alternative world – and thus of being too preoccupied with writing a piece of apologetic.
In fact, there has been quite a bit of discussion about how far he can be said to have had a plan for the whole sequence. Michael Ward’s brilliant monograph on the way in which each book is coloured and shaped by the imagery associated with a particular astrological sign--in a way very typical of some kinds of mediaeval literature--has provided not so much a structure for the interpretation of ideas in the stories as an overall key to their symbolism and to what might be called the ‘flavour’ of each book. Whatever exactly Lewis intended when he wrote The Lion, it seems pretty clear that the completed sequence does carry some of the marks of a pattern such as Ward proposes. But it remains very uncertain whether Lewis meant to write a whole series from the start. In a letter to a young reader in 1957, he discusses the order in which the stories should be read (he is inclined to prefer that they should be tackled in chronological order, i.e. beginning with Magician’s Nephew), and denies that he had a series in mind when writing The Lion. Again, in 1959 he wrote to a schoolgirl, Sophia Storr, that he had not initially envisaged what Aslan was going to ‘do and suffer’ in The Lion.
What he says here does underline that he is not in fact casting around for a set of disconnected symbols to carry a piece of concealed religious doctrine but allowing his characters to emerge in the course of the story itself and according to its logic. To try and map the entire set of stories on to a single theological grid is difficult. As I hope to show, there is a strong, coherent spiritual and theological vision shaping all the stories; but this does not necessarily mean that they must all be read as self-conscious allegories of theological truths.
The books must stand or fall, finally, as stories, and I believe that the theological insight will emerge from the narrative and the interaction of its characters, not from concentrating on what traditional theological themes might be encoded in this or that detail--though there are a fair few instances.
As I have said, in my book, I am not out to decode images or to uncover a system; but I do hope to show how certain central themes hang together--a concern to do justice to the difference of God, the disturbing and exhilarating otherness of what we encounter in the life of faith; a relentless insistence on self-questioning, not so as to understand ourselves in the abstract or as ‘interesting’ individuals, but simply to discover where we are afraid of the truth and where we turn away into self- serving falsehood; a passion to communicate the excess of joy that is promised by the truth of God in Christ. And, as I explain further in the first chapter, I want to capture something of what Lewis is trying to do in communicating–to a world that frequently thinks it knows what faith is–the character, the feel, of a real experience of surrender in the face of absolute incarnate love. Because that is what matters most: the possibility Lewis still offers of coming across the Christian story as if for the first time. Whether for the jaded believer or the contented unbeliever, the surprise of this joy is worth tasting.
Reprinted from The Lion’s World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia by Rowan Williams with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © 2013 by Rowan Williams.