With the first film version of C.S. Lewis' beloved children's classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe appearing in theaters today, his work has found itself at the heart of a vicious debate, now under way for more than a year. Lewis, as many adult readers have long known, was a devout Christian apologist and literary scholar whose spiritual beliefs are reflected in the seven volumes that comprise The Chronicles of Narnia. Some liberals, like the popular children's author Philip Pullman, therefore dismiss him out of hand, claiming that the books amount to pernicious proselytizing—"propaganda in the cause of the religion [Lewis] believed in." Other secular critics argue that the books succeed despite the Christian elements—which they agree are the weakest part. On the flip side of the debate are Christians who see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as fundamentally Christian, and, inspired by the involvement of Walden Media, a production company with evangelical ties, are hopeful that the movie will be presented as such. Whatever the differences among these critics, they all essentially agree that Christianity must be at the heart of any serious analysis of C.S. Lewis' work.
It's easy to see why this is so, since Lewis is a famous proselytizer, and adults reading The Chronicles will find it impossible to miss the Christian overtones. But it is nonetheless unfortunate: Judging the Narnia books solely by their Christianity is an impoverished way of reading them. It is a reflection more of our polarized moment—in which a perceived cultural divide has alienated Christians from secular culture and secular readers from anything that smacks of religious leanings—than of the relative aesthetic merits and weaknesses of Lewis' books. Lewis, devout Christian though he might have been, would have been the first to say so—in large part because the litmus-test approach has led us to overlook children's experience of the books. The real genius of Narnia is the way Lewis built, out of a hodgepodge of literary traditions and predecessors, a patchwork world of unconventional characters who understand and instruct children without seeking to domesticate or indoctrinate them. The result is indelible, and anything but strictly allegorical.
The books describe the adventures of eight English children (primarily the four Pevensie siblings: Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter) as they are whisked in and out of Narnia to help save the land from successive threats. Narnia is a place of talking animals, fauns, and dryads whose inhabitants evince a curious mix of pastoral levity and militaristic vigor. Many of the books culminate with a fantastic battle scene between oppressive invaders or scheming witches and the Narnians, in which the children serve as the country's military and spiritual leaders. The books have different heroes and heroines, but what unifies them is the "beautiful and terrifying" presence of Aslan, the son of the "King over the sea." Aslan is the most indubitably Christian element of the stories. When in the first volume he sacrifices himself in order to redeem Edmund, and in the last leads the talking animals to a beautiful afterworld, it's so easy to see Lewis ringing his Christian themes that you marvel at how you utterly missed them as a child. But miss them you most likely did, and for good reason.
First of all, Lewis' Christianity was always of a very strange sort. As Adam Gopnik pointed out in a recent New Yorker piece, it seems to have developed out of an adoration of Norse mythology and Lewis Carroll. Born in Belfast in 1898, Lewis had from his youngest days a love affair with mythology and imaginary animals—one form of constancy throughout what proved to be a fraught childhood. He wrote stories about a mouse world in which adults were the threatening forces of discipline; his elaborate construction of these alternative worlds gave him a sense of "momentous joy," one that he associated with the grand fantasias of Wagner and Teutonic legend. When Lewis was 9, his mother died painfully of cancer. After her death he was sent to a boarding school in England where the headmaster was so brutal to his students that a parent eventually sued him; the experience permanently alienated Lewis from his father and thrust the harsher realities of life abruptly upon him. Years later, an Oxford don and an atheist, he was still dabbling in his beloved myths and legends when his colleague J.R.R. Tolkien encouraged him to see the world's "mythical" aspects as Christian in origin. Even after he converted, Lewis' religion was always of the "fable-first" kind, as Gopnik puts it. Therefore, the Narnia books are never about Christianity in the way that, say, Dante's Inferno is. Lewis' love of fantastical worlds was as essential to their conception as his experience of religious belief. In fact, that love w as his original experience of religious belief.
Second of all, Lewis was never that interested in story—that is, plot—as a mode of persuasion. In one essay, he describes his surprise at realizing that, unlike his friends, it was not "the momentary suspense" of an adventure novel that compelled him, but the specific details of the world conjured up by the author—the atmosphere, or what he called "the mood that led one to [love] such a book." And it is the atmosphere of the Narnia books, rather than the often static, underdeveloped plots, that gripped me as a child. That atmosphere is hardly what one might call reverent or characteristically Christian. Narnia is a land with roots in "deep magic," and its population of smart-aleck fauns and dwarves—not to mention Bacchus and a group of ecstatic maidens—would surely have horrified many traditional Christians. It is hard to see in what ways these figures, or wonderful animal characters such as Puddleglum the depressed "marsh-wiggle," contribute to Narnia's "allegorical" purposes. Even Aslan, the magisterial lion who is the series' explicit Christ figure, is an invention as radical and original as it is religious; he communicates almost wordlessly with the Pevensie children, who find solace burying their hands in his mane and often flinch while looking in his terrible eyes. He is a symbol, to be sure, but he is also a character any agnostic child can relate to—one who resists neat categorization, like the animals in Where the Wild Things Are who "gnash their terrible teeth" yet are mysteriously alluring.
Most important, though, is the fact that kids read differently from adults, and Lewis understood this. What was sacred to him about children's literature concerned the freedom it allowed the child's imagination. "To enjoy reading about fairies—much more about giants and dragons—it is not necessary to believe in them," he wrote in another essay on children's books. "Belief is at best irrelevant; it may be a positive disadvantage." This is surely a curious thing to say if you are a children's writer primarily interested in dogmatically persuasive storytelling.
That's not to deny the presence of the Christian elements in The Chronicles. It's to say that Lewis had an insight many of his peers didn't: His bleak childhood, so vividly present to him, made him intuitively understand that kids long to be treated as adults yet simultaneously look to escape from the harsh truths of dawning adulthood in the refuge of their own inventions. Narnia was his synthesis of these conflicting wishes. It is a place where girls like Lucy—the youngest of the Pevensie siblings—can serve as a queen and feel responsible for the arrest of a friend by the "secret police." But it is also a place where she can bring her brother, Edmund, back from death's door with a drop of a magical potion. Above all, it is a place where children see things adults can't, a notion that Lewis loved, and not simply because children's visionary powers conveniently worked as an allegory for religious belief. After all, in most children's adventure stories (from Lewis Carroll to E. Nesbit, another influence on Lewis), child heroes have access to a world of perception to which their adult counterparts are blind. In making Narnia a land that only children could pass into freely, Lewis captured a child's (wise) intuition that her imagination is somehow not like adults', and that this difference is, strangely, her sole source of autonomy, unlegislated by any beliefs other than her own.
Millions of kids have read The Chronicles of Narnia for 50 years without detecting their religious underpinnings largely because the moral lessons of the Narnia books are extricable from their spiritual ones. Rereading the books, I was struck that many fondly remembered favorite scenes are in fact places where Lewis consciously wrestles with questions of moral and spiritual import. Consider when Eustace, a glum and joyless cousin of the Pevensies, has been transported to Narnia and, having greedily put on a magic bracelet, is accidentally turned into a dragon:
It was very dreary being a dragon. He shuddered whenever he caught sight of his own reflection as he flew over a mountain lake. He hated the huge batlike wings, the saw-edged ridge on his back, and the cruel, curved claws. He was almost afraid to be alone with himself and yet he was ashamed to be with others. On the evenings when he was not being used as a hot water-bottle he would slink away from the camp and lie curled up like a snake between the wood and the water. On such occasions, greatly to his surprise, Reepicheep was his most constant comforter. The noble Mouse would creep away at from the merry circle at the camp fire and sit down by the dragon's head. … And poor Eustace realized more and more that since the first day he came on board he had been an unmitigated nuisance and that he was now a greater nuisance still. And this ate into his mind, just as that bracelet ate into his foreleg.
To be sure, you could read Eustace's transformation and repentance as a Christian morality tale—he eventually scratches off his dragon skin with the aid of Aslan and emerges pink, vulnerable, and kind. But to me it was (and is) an accurate and inventively tactile portrait of how children feel when they behave as they know they ought not to. The depiction of Eustace's loneliness is hardly marred by schematically dispensed wisdom, and yet it is truly an illustration of the punishment that attends spiritual and moral failure, with no instructively chiding chimes. The realization comes from within, for Eustace and for the reader.