What Lewis Wouldn't Do

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June 19 2001 3:00 AM

What Lewis Wouldn't Do

When you take God out of Narnia, is there anything left?

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In his essay "On Three Ways of Writing for Children," C. S. Lewis enumerated "two good ways and one that is generally a bad way" of creating children's literature. To illustrate the latter, he recounted reading a manuscript of a story about a magic machine that a fairy had given to a child. "I had to tell the author," wrote Lewis, "that I didn't much care for that sort of thing. She replied 'No more do I, it bores me to distraction. But it is what the modern child wants.' " Better, Lewis argues, to start with the question "What moral do I need?" and better still "not to ask the questions themselves."

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Fifty years later, Lewis is surely looking down from heaven in horror. The New York Times recently reported that his beloved "Chronicles of Narnia" series will soon be supplemented by new, secularized installments; HarperCollins plans to bring us, as the title of Doreen Carvajal's article put it, "Narnia Without a Christian Lion." All the Narnia books, new and old, will be marketed aggressively, and according to a memo obtained by the Times, "no attempt will be made to correlate the stories to Christian imagery/theology."

If this is the case, the new books will differ quite markedly from the originals. "The whole Narnian story is about Christ," Lewis once wrote to a school-age fan. "That is to say, I asked myself, 'Supposing that there really was a world like Narnia and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?' " Aslan the Lion, the hero of the "Chronicles," dies, is resurrected, and saves people with his blood. (Lewis figured Christ as a lion because the lion is the king of the beasts, but also because the Bible refers to Christ as the Lion of Judah.) Other characters also recall figures from the Bible or church history. In The Horse and His Boy, for example, Bree the horse suffers from the heresy of Docetism (the heresy, named after the Greek for "to seem," that Jesus only appeared to be human and suffer). Bree muses that when the other Talking Beasts speak of Aslan as a lion, they must be speaking metaphorically—"they only mean he's as strong as a lion. ... If he was a lion he'd have four paws and a tail, and Whiskers!" Aslan then appears to Bree and shows him that he is a "true Beast," not only refuting the Docetist heresy, but also recalling the risen Jesus' appearance to Doubting Thomas in the Gospel of John.

But Narnia's "Christian imagery" goes beyond a sprinkling of biblical allusions; the entire story line mirrors the Christian salvation story. TheMagician's Nephew tells the creation story and the way evil seeped into Narnia; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ; PrinceCaspian tells how right religion was corrupted and then restored; and so on, until the final volume, The Last Battle, where Ape (the Antichrist) tries to take over Narnia, which leads to Aslan's second coming. In addition to all the usual challenges of attempting a sequel to a classic, HarperCollins will have to figure out what it could possibly add to such a complete, iconic tale. Will the publishing house insert amusing anecdotes and preteen adventures amid all the divine revelation?

In fact, this would be strange but not impossible. Despite the series' heavily religious coding, it's far from clear that most children decipher or even notice it. I didn't when I read them in grammar school, and neither did the Jewish and Hindu friends I polled. We just thought we were reading a riveting tale, one in which, as in so much children's literature, good triumphs over evil and a hero brings on a utopian reign of peace. Like all successful religious allegories, Narnia can be read on many levels: The "Song of Songs" can be either an erotic love poem or a description of God's relationship with Israel; the famous medieval unicorn tapestries tell both of the capture and taming of a unicorn and of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Indeed, part of what makes the Narnia series endure is its light touch. (The same goes for other children's classics with Christian casts, such as Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.) It's bittersweet to see Lewis' restraint, his lack of preachiness, rewarded with an attempt to make the denizens of Narnia as unchristian as, say, the wizard named Harry Potter.

Lauren Winner teaches at Duke Divinity School.

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