A child, in a game of hide-and-seek, enters a large wardrobe. However, the wardrobe is more than furniture – it is a doorway into another world. That entrance is the introduction of the world of Narnia.
C.S. Lewis’ children stories, beloved by one generation, are block-buster movies in today’s empire of Disney. In that wonderland of cinema, the books are overwhelmed in images of battling dwarves and unicorns. Echoes of Tolkien (and the grand cinematography of LOTR movies haunt Narnia). But Narnia is something very different from Middle Earth, though Lewis and Tolkien were extremely close friends. Unlike Middle Earth, Narnia has a direct connection with the world we inhabit. Its mythology echoes our own (necessarily, Lewis would have said). Middle Earth has echoes of our world, but it stands on it own – complete with the deep mythos of the Simarillion.
Every volume of Lewis’ Narnia has, at its heart, an allegory of the Christian life. Whether it be Creation in the Magicians Nephew or Golgotha and the Resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, every volume has something to say about the Christian life. Tolkien actually criticized Lewis for this very thing. Both were devout Christians, but Tolkien saw himself as a writer of myth, a very deep vocation that cannot be understood apart from reading a great deal about the Inklings and the work of Owen Barfield (another friend) in particular. It is an area of Tolkien neglected by all but a few (I wrote my senior thesis in seminary on Barfield).
Lewis ignored Tolkien’s critique and proceeded to do what he did best – defend and explain the gospel of Christ. Narnia is a very deep, imaginative apologetic for the gospel of Jesus Christ and nothing less. If someone is not converted to the faith by reading it, then they are certainly not made into an enemy of the gospel. If you like Narnia, then you should at least wish the gospel of Christ were true.
In The Last Battle, Professor Digory Kirke exclaims, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!” I have seen a number of fairly silly speculations about the Professor’s meaning, though it is quite clear in the greater body of Lewis’ work – and is a key to the Narnian tales. It is the relationship between worlds – an allegory which is yet real. The stories of Narnia could have stood on their own as pure modern allegory (as stories within themselves that only bear resemblance to the gospel). However, Lewis’ genius and Christian belief, are made far more clear in the literary device of connected worlds. This world has a relationship to another world – and there are doors and windows between them.
Digory, as a young lad, visits Narnia at the time of its creation. The world’s creator, Aslan, sends Digory on a journey to find an apple. The apple was planted and grew into a magical tree, The Tree of Protection, that kept the evil Witch from attacking Narnia for some centuries.
Digory took a piece of fruit from the tree back to Earth and gave it to his ill and bedridden mother to eat, healing her of her illness. When the fruit was eaten to its core, Digory took the core and planted it in his yard. The tree grew just as well as its sister tree in Narnia, and seemed to have a link to the other tree – it sometimes moved when there was no wind…at least not in London. The tree was eventually blown down and its wood was used to build a wonderful Wardrobe. (From WikiNarnia).
As an old man, it is Professor Digory who first helps the Pevensie children in their questions regarding a magical world and their sister Lucy’s tales of a magical Wardrobe.
“You mean there really could be other worlds all over the place?” Peter asks.
The Professor responds, “But nothing is more probable! Oh! I wonder what they do teach them at these schools!”
In the same conversation the Professor uses Lewis’ classic defense of the gospel – only this time with regard to the child Lucy’s story of a magical world. Professor Digory is the voice of C.S. Lewis.
And here the intuition of Narnia connects with the experience of the Christian convert, Lewis. He was a great student of the classics and a master of the medieval period. In his early years at Oxford (during which he was an atheist), Lewis became friends with J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, and engaged in long conversations about the Christian faith. Much of that conversation turned on the topic of myth. Lewis had a love of myth, of the ancient stories. They stirred a place within him that had an element of longing. Tolkien’s point was that all these myths – the repeated tales of the dying and rising god – were actually fulfilled in the historical reality of Christ. Lewis’ conversion to the faith was expressed precisely in terms of those myths:
“Rum thing. It all seems to have happened once.”
As Lewis himself found Christianity to be the fulfillment of humanity’s deepest, even mythic longings, so, too he offered the gospel in the same manner. His logical books, Mere Christianity, the Problem of Pain, Miracles, are all interesting reads – but it is his fiction where his voice finds its fullness. In that fiction there is always a mythic or allegorical connection between worlds. In the Perelandra Trilogy, the myth bursts onto the scene complete with science fiction and Merlin himself, in a mix of Authurian Christianity that could only be written by an Englishman. The Great Divorce takes a trip to heaven (and hell) in a book whose imagery Lewis warns his readers not to take literally – though its richness cannot help but empower the theological imagination of everyone who reads it.
Lewis is a Christian for whom Christianity has not lost its mythic power. The weakness of literalism is its acute limitation to itself. Lewis would be the first to say, “Yes. Christ’s death and resurrection are historical events.” But he would have hurried to add that their historical character does not rob them of their mythic character – indeed the very fact that they are real inherently means that they are mythic – for the true character of reality lies in its mythic power.
Lewis and Tolkien agreed that God is the great maker of myths. God tells the story of the world and the story is the world itself. We are created with an ear for story and we long to hear it. Tolkien once said, “If God is mythopoetic, then we must become mythopathic.” If God is a teller of stories, then we must become able to hear those stories. Both Tolkien and Lewis, specifically as Christians, become the greatest story-tellers of the 20th century.
And this brings me back to the heart of my own thoughts. The mythic character of reality is another way to speak of a one-storey universe. In Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s terms, the world is sacrament – pointing to and participating in something beyond itself. It is possible to simply speak on the most literal level – to speak of events (such as Christ’s crucifixion) – and relate them to ideas (such as atonement) which inhabit the world of the mind. But such literalism renders the greatest event in the universe into the merest incident of which our later doctrine is the greater reality. The intuition of Lewis is the same as the intuition and teaching of the fathers. The Cross is both event in history and also the truest event of the Great Myth. Its power is such that it draws other things to itself. It is the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, Isaac on Mt. Moriah, the staff of Moses with the snake, the outstretched arms of Moses at the battle with the Amalekites, the Tree that Moses cast into the bitter water, the Footstool of God. At the Feast of the Holy Cross the Church declares: “Let all the trees of the wood, planted from the beginning of time, rejoice; for their nature hath been sanctified by the stretching of Christ on the Tree” (Magnification of the Feast).
The intuition of Narnia (it’s all there in Plato) is that the world is sacrament and icon, doorway and ladder. The angels of God are constantly ascending and descending. The saints surround us as a great cloud of witnesses. Heaven and earth are full of the glory of God and secular materialism is a bankrupt, empty philosophy that robs the world of wonder. Enter the Church and the icons are windows to heaven – not “like” windows to heaven – just windows to heaven. The Baptismal font flows with the streams of the Jordan and the dragons who lurk there are crushed. Christ is in our midst and offers His true body and blood, “In the fear of God, with faith and love draw near!”