Thu
Jan 20 2011 3:38pm

Through a magical doorway: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe by C. S. LewisThe Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis opens with one of the most magical sequences in children’s literature, as a child opens a very ordinary door to find herself stumbling into magic. It is a tale of children sent away from war only to find themselves in the middle of a very real and unreal one, a tale of how trying to escape danger may put you into worse danger, human or witch, a hodgepodge of fairy tale, Roman myth, Norse tales, Christian theology, talking animals, Father Christmas and an inexplicable lamp post that has somehow been burning with no source of electricity, gas or other fuel for centuries. It absolutely should not work on any level. And yet it does.

Its author, C. S. Lewis, was an Oxford don, influential literary critic and Christian writer. His (allegedly) non traditional relationship with a Mrs. Moore while at Oxford has led to all kinds of prim yet entertaining speculation (neither participant chose to leave a written or oral record of their relationship). I mention this partly for the gossipy thrill, but mostly because the Narnia books are frequently critiqued for their interesting and sometimes contradictory gender statements. While writing the Narnia books, Lewis met the woman he would marry, quite happily: the American writer Joy Grisham, which perhaps explains some of those contradictions. (A few movies have been made about this.)

Lewis is also, of course, renowned for his long standing friendship with fellow Oxford don and writer J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s success with the Hobbit probably helped inspire Lewis to write the Narnia series; certainly, the two writers had challenged each other to write “time travel” and “space travel” stories, and Lewis was one of the few trusted to read and comment on The Lord of the Rings in manuscript form. The Narnia books were to damage this friendship, but traces of this friendship can still be seen in some of them, particularly The Magician’s Nephew.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe tells a deceptively simple tale: a young girl stumbles into a magical wood through a wardrobe, and later brings her siblings through that same doorway, where they are completely unaccountably hailed as magical saviors and after an improbable and rather ridiculous battle crowned kings and queens of Narnia, grow into wise and gracious adults, and then stumble back through the doorway, children again. As I say, deceptively simple: much more is going on here.

And I’m not just talking about the Christian overlay to the book, a concept which seems all the more strange in a book containing some very pagan elements indeed. Equally strong is the background of war, violence and despair. Unlike many children’s fantasies, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is set firmly in a very historical period: World War II. This allows Lewis to have a good reason for sending four children to a mysterious country house where these sorts of things might happen (in an intriguing aside, Lewis tells us that some of the stories associated with this house are even stranger than this one, making me wish that Lewis had taken the time to tell us those tales as well). But it also allows Lewis to draw parallels between his imaginary war and the real one; to give readers the hope that, as in Narnia, a glorious prosperous time would be coming, if not quite as quickly as many in England would have liked.

Rereading it, I noticed several things. One, Narnia, at least the country, if not the world it is set in, is small. Very small. Everyone seems to be able to walk from one end to the other in a day or so. Assuming an average walking speed of about three miles/five kilometers per hour, and making an overly generous assumption that everyone is walking for about 16 hours when not opening Christmas presents, that’s about 39 miles, or 80 kilometers. Maybe. They don’t seem to be walking that fast, unless they are riding on the back of a lion. Which makes the complete amnesia about the lamp post towards the end of the book all the more inexplicable: surely, in a country so small, they would have stumbled across the lamp post before this? Magic, I guess.

That’s not the only inconsistency in a book that suffers from the occasional signs of fast writing. If the witch on page 29 of my edition knows nothing about the wardrobe, how exactly does she know by page 35 how to get back there? If no one in Narnia has ever seen a human, who exactly are all of those kings and princes vying for Susan’s hand at the end of the book? (Lewis never did address this point, and the later books are filled with other humans.) Not to mention the decidedly odd celebration of Christmas in the same book featuring a number of merrily pagan fauns, a centaur or two, and the Crucifixion…er, that is, Aslan’s sacrifice.

But a larger problem is something that Lewis does not address here (although, to their credit, the film adaptations do). How do you handle returning to childhood after years as an adult? And what sort of an adulthood was this, one where we are told that Susan was courted, that Edmund became the Narnian equivalent of an attorney, that Peter continued to fight wars, that Lucy was, well, Lucy. The children never really forget being adults, we’re told, which brings up another issue: how do you handle being under the control and orders of adults again when you have been the one accustomed to rule?

A second problem: severe overreactions. Yes, Edmund’s spiteful behavior to his younger sister, and later deserting his siblings to go tell a witch where they can be located, is pretty bad (although I find his musings on just what sort of king he intends to be, right down to the private cinema, highly amusing). But, and this is key: for much of this, he’s under an enchantment. We can argue that he perhaps fell too easily under this enchantment, and possibly should have been more suspicious of a beautiful lady in a sleigh offering hot drinks and Turkish Delight, but the majority of the terrible things he does, including the actual treachery, in strict contrast to the actions of characters in later books, are done when he is at least partly under the control of an evil witch.

Considering that, calling him a traitor and demanding his blood, or Aslan’s, seems a bit much. This remained a problem throughout the series, where genuinely terrible (however temporary) punishments occur for seemingly minor or forgivable infractions.

This sort of thing happens in real life as well, of course, and Lewis had just lived through World War II, one of the most hideous historical examples of what can happen to people caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. What Lewis offers in answer to this (a theme repeated in The Horse and His Boy) is his belief that these horrific examples of injustice somehow fit into a divine plan. Yes, Aslan’s death is, well, quite literally overkill, but without that death Narnia could not have been saved. Which means, I suppose, that all of Edmund’s greed for Turkish Delight was also part of Narnia’s salvation.

Of course, in some ways, aside from getting horrifically cold and wet and hungry, Edmund never gets really punished at all. (And we never learn if his sisters told him about what Aslan did on his behalf, although I like to think that Lucy did.) This, too, will be repeated later: punishments are both too much, and too little, for what actually happens.

On that subject, I’m going to be discussing what Neil Gaiman correctly calls “The Problem of Susan” in later posts, but for now, what strikes me as how little Susan fits in, even here. When she hears Aslan’s name, she feels that something wonderful has passed her by; that same mention fills Peter with bravery, Lucy with wonder, and Edmund with dread. She gets a blister on her heel as everyone else is enjoying the trip, and so on. And, in a perhaps presentiment moment, if she is the least enthusiastic about Narnia to begin with, she is also the only one to protest leaving it, to argue that they should not go past that lamp post.

Other quibbles. I don’t like that we don’t get to hear any of Aslan’s speech to Edmund (my guess is, Lewis tried but failed to write a convincing dialogue sequence here), particularly given that we will get his speeches to Lucy and Shasta later. And I am somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of hordes of animals shivering in the cold waiting hopefully for humans to come and rescue them; it seems to me that in general, humans have done the exact opposite with most animals, when not domesticating them. And Father Christmas’s little speech about how “battles are ugly when women fight” has always set my teeth on edge. Wars are ugly, regardless, and Lewis, having lived through two particularly horrific ones, knew this as well as any, and it sets up a gender distinction I’m not overly happy with. (Lucy does eventually go to war anyway in a later book, only without cool magical weapons, making this speech all the more annoying.)

The book’s dedication, to another Lucy, has also always bugged me: Lewis firmly tells her that she is now too old for fairy tales, but later she will be able to read them again. I’ll be taking that idea up again in later posts, because it’s one that Lewis both seems to agree and yet disagree with as he wrote the series.

I’ve avoided discussing too much of the Christian qualities in this book, partly because I’ll be addressing them later. For now, I’ll just note that as a child reader, I thought it was awesomely cool that Narnia just happened to have a resurrection story as well, and although I certainly recognized the similarities, this did not hamper my enjoyment of this book. And it still doesn’t, however much I am now amused at the image of devoutly pagan creatures merrily supporting a Christ-like figure. Aslan’s sacrifice puts a personal, sad touch on the resurrection tale, and if I found his death deeply unfair, I at least was happy to see him return. (Mostly because of the unfairness. As a character I must admit Aslan is a bit dull.)

For all of this, this is a highly magical, wondrous work, filled with humor, good food, and a sense of fun, with the nice conceit that time moves at different rates in magical worlds, and vibrant characters sketched with just a few quick sentences. If my adult self questions just what a sewing machine is doing in a beaver dam in a preindustrial society, I can readily understand just why Mrs. Beaver, of everyone in Narnia, would have one. (And I was delighted that she had the sense to bring along food.) Lewis is quite good at creating a sense of place, of explaining how it might actually feel to be in an imaginary country. If I now find his attempts to explain the process of imagination rather intrusive, when I first read the book, I shut my eyes, and followed his instructions, and realized I could indeed imagine what it would be like to ride on the back of an imaginary lion. It’s a fast read, quite good either for those cold winter nights when you are convinced winter will never ever go away or for those short summer nights when you are equally convinced that the heat will never ever end.

Incidentally, I’ll be rereading this series in publication, not chronological order, partly because I believe they read better that way (the inconsistencies between books are a little less glaring), partly because that is how I was introduced to the series. Quite a few Narnia fans, however, firmly believe the books should be read in chronological order. If you’re a fan of chronological order, you should begin with The Magician’s Nephew, and accept the fact that many of that book’s details flat out contradict the details in this one.


Small sidenote: After reading this book, I spent years looking for Turkish Delight. Italy had none, and the U.S. was not much better until I stumbled across it in a Florida mall years later. I couldn’t resist. But oh, it’s awful. Talk about unmagical disappointments.


Mari Ness previously channeled some Narnian thoughts here, in a slightly less respectful manner. She currently lives in central Florida, and although it would have been only appropriate for her to nibble on Turkish Delight while composing this post, she declined.

54 comments
Pellegrina Stoat
1. Pellegrina
Turkish Delight from England, while not awful (imho), is not a patch on Turkish Delight from Turkey! I suspect the Pevensies had the English kind, though.
Jer Brown
3. designguybrown
Truly one of my favorite fantasy series. However, unlike many others, I like to read the books in chronological order rather than how they were published (i.e. starting with Magician's Nephew). It seems to make Narnia feel like a part of a more complex universe rather than 'but a story'.
Just me.
reepacheep
4. reepacheep
Nonsense, Turkish Delight is well worth selling your brother and sisters and a magical kingdom into slavery. You should try it from the Niagara-On-The-Lake area of Ontario, Canada.
reepacheep
5. J. Swan
A couple of thoughts:

1. Yes, fresh Turkish delight is awesome--anything packaged is terrible. It loses something rather dramatically by being preserved. However, fresh cooked/baked or whatever it is, is quite good, and comes in about 100 different varieties in the Bazaar in Istanbul.

2. If you've read C.S.Lewis's other works on theology (and his concept of joy) you'll see that mixing pagan elements with Christianity wouldn't bother him at all or seem inconsistent. He is not, in a lot of senses, a strict theologin, although uncompromising on basic tenants. A mixture of pagan and Christian that all bows in the end to one God or creator would be fine in his book.
Bill Siegel
6. ubxs113
Being Jewish, I was shocked in 3rd grade when my
neighbor insisted that Aslan was really Jesus. Never could enjoy the series quite as much after that.

And I didn't try Turkish Delight until well into adulthood, but when I did my opinion of Edmund got considerably worse.
reepacheep
7. Dr. Thanatos
I enjoyed these books as fantasy, but I was a bit turned off by the somewhat heavy-handed religion. The Lion keeps saying things like "I am the great builder of bridges" or "my father is the great Emperor Over the Sea" and "I'm not a tame lion." As a non-christian I am perhaps more sensitive to this than those who are christian. It's a bit harder to ignore than the very subtle catholic underpinnings of Tolkein. An enjoyable read, as I said, but from time to time I would want to reach into the book, grab the Lion by the mane, and tell him "I get it, I know who you represent, can we move on, please?"
katherine m.
8. kittenscribble
I was raised without any sort of religion and enjoyed these books immensely as a child. I think that what I felt, when I found out that Aslan was actually Christ, is comparable to what other children must have felt when told that there is no Santa Claus. The books have never been the same since.

Also, I too looked forward to my first taste of Turkish Delight, but it didn't disappoint. I would totally go off with strange women if bribed with it. Tastes differ, I guess.
reepacheep
9. elsiekate
"The Narnia books were to damage this friendship, but traces of this friendship can still be seen in some of them, particularly The Magician’s Nephew."

could you, or are you going to talk more about this? i just googled and i'm finding a lot about the differences in their theology, but nothing so far about the friendship and how the rift came about or manifested.

i just reread four of the books (had gone to see "voyage of the dawn treader" which inspired me) so a lot of this is fresh for me--i'll enjoy seeing what you have to say!
Chris Long
10. radynski
I haven't re-read this since I was a kid, but I still have the books - all in one big collection, back when they were still numbered (correctly) in order of publication.

Maybe 10 years ago I tried to re-read Dawn Treader, which had always been my favorite of the series, and it was horrible. It left such a bad taste in my mouth that I didn't bother with any of the others, for fear of losing too many fond memories.
reepacheep
11. J. Swan
"The Narnia books were to damage this friendship, but traces of this friendship can still be seen in some of them, particularly The Magician’s Nephew."

could you, or are you going to talk more about this? i just googled and
i'm finding a lot about the differences in their theology, but nothing
so far about the friendship and how the rift came about or manifested.
---------------------------------
I believe it was fairly simple: Tolkien didn't like the Narnia books, and he told Lewis so. Tolkien didn't like his allegory that obvious. In addition, he had issues with Lewis' opinion of Catholicism (didn't like) and Lewis' marriage to a divorced woman. They were basically a lot closer when they were younger and grew apart over time.
reepacheep
12. Jan Spoor
Don't judge real Turkish Delight by the awful, commercial, chocolate-covered jelly stuff that is made by Fry's in the UK. I remember once when I was small my mum made some like the Pevensies have in the book, right down to the powdered sugar--it was delicious!

And don't think of British "Christmas" as being a religious thing. It's not, really. When Father Christmas shows up, he's much more something out of Dickens's Christmas Carol (think the wonderful Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present in "Scrooge"). Christmas is about cold and snow and wonder and excitement and presents and fires and good food and family. Think of Dylan Thomas's "A Child's Christmas in Wales".

For a comparable modern reference, look at how Christmas is treated in Rowlings' Harry Potter novels. I once saw a discussion online between a (I would guess fairly 'Christian') American and some Brits about Christmas; the American didn't get why Christmas in HP wasn't about going to church, the Gospel story, angels, etc. The Brits, rather blankly, asked "What? Why would it be?"

And, finally, when I read that dedication, it makes perfect sense to me. The "Lucy" to whom Lewis was dedicating the book probably didn't even read it until many years later. She was a Susan--a teenager, busy with growing up and learning about the adult world, trying out personas, and trying to fit in with her adolscent peers the way teenagers do. The last thing she wanted to read was some dumb kids' book about witches and fairies or whatever. But I imagine when she got a good bit older she came back (or Lewis hoped she would) and read the book and appreciated it. I don't think that Lewis is *telling* her (instructing her, deciding for her) that she's too old--I think he's acknowledging her strongly held belief that she's not a child any more, and he's saying "you may not believe it now, but one day you're going to be so *tired* of being an 'adult' that you'll actually welcome coming back and enjoying children's stories."

From which you'll gather that I think Philip Pullman and Neil Gaiman (both of whose work I love) go a bit overboard in their ranting about Susan...
Pamela Adams
13. Pam Adams
There must be something about the name Susan...... Arthur Ransome's Susan Walker is always busy in cooking and keeping up the campsite rather than in sailing and having pirate adventures.
Claire de Trafford
14. Booksnhorses
The Magician's Nephew is my favourite and always has been, so I'm looking forward to that review. I read it first and I think that the LWW always seemed a bit inconsistent after that (and does more so now I'm older); the Horse and His Boy is next favourite as I was/am a horse mad girl.

I didn't notice the Christian overtones at all when I was little, despite being put thru sunday school, but I did search out proper Turkish delight when I was older (the rose stuff is my fav) and I still buy it at Xmas out of homage to Lewis.

I felt then, and feel now, sorry for Susan. Girls do sometimes go through a very shallow teenage phase (and who doesn't?) but who's to say that she wouldn't have grown out of this like the Lucy in the dedication?
reepacheep
15. Bayushi
1) Growing up Jewish, I had no idea of the Christian mythology in it until someone told me in eleventh grade. I was /shocked/.

2) Real Turkish Delight is fantastic, much like Aplets & Cotlets without the nuts. There's a place in Pike Place Market called Turkish Delight that sells the real stuff, and it is /awesome/. It also comes in many flavors and involves NO chocolate whatsoever. (Raspberry, strawberry, rose, orange, probably more that I'm forgetting.) It's kind of like very, very firm jelly, cut in cubes and dusted with powdered sugar. It is NOT like the scary stuff found in the British Depot, the stuff that tastes like jellied perfume covered with nasty chocolate.

3) What happens with Susan annoys me. More later, when you get into it.
Pamela Adams
16. Pam Adams
As a child, it took several readings for me to realize that the children had been evacuated during the Second World War.
Ty Margheim
17. alSeen
I don't think that there are many people who have a problem with reading the Narnia books in chronological order as a reread.

It is a crime against literature to read them that way your first time though. It's like watching Star Wars 1, 2, and 3 before 4, 5, and 6. Just like you aren't supposed to know that Darth Vader is Luke's father until after Empire, you aren't supposed to know about Narnia before you read Lion Witch and the Wardrobe. You arne't supposed to know why there is a lamppost in the middle of the forest or who the White Witch or Aslan are.

Reading the Magician's Nephew first takes away a lot of the magic and mystery of the Narnia books.

Once you've read them though, those issues are irrelevent.
Ron Griggs
18. RonGriggs
I've just finished reading The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia by Laura Miller (first paperback edition published in 2009.) Laura, who is not a Christian, talks about the incredible way Narnia enchanted her as a child, her disillusionment later when she found out about the "secret meaning" of the book, and her reactions in returning to it later as an adult. She and I have different opinions on certain aspects, but the book is well worth reading for any Narnia-lover, and maybe especially for those who love the books in spite of the Christian allegory.
Rob Trotter
19. shadar
@alseen / 17
I've been convinced that the correct way is 4,5,1,2,3,6

You get the "I am your father" reveal, then go and see the back-story (the rise of the Empire/Palpatine and the birth of Vader), then watch 6 and get to watch the final downfall of the empire (and vaders redemption).
reepacheep
20. Teka Lynn
I think it's worth remembering that Edmund (and Lewis) were living through a period of strict rationing and austerity. The idea of having any sort of food you liked, especially a frivolous sort of sweet like Turkish Delight, as much as you liked...THAT was a fantasy at the time. No wonder Edmund was so easily ensnared.
reepacheep
21. Teka Lynn
I found out early on that Narnia had a specifically Christian mindset. I was very pleased to find out that a series I loved so much was taken seriously enough by adults to have books about it in my church library. It gave Narnia a certain cachet in my mind: see, this is REAL literature, not just children's books!

I admit to a weary sort of irritation when I got to the end of Out of the Silent Planet to find more religious allegory. "Oh no, not again."
Cait Glasson
22. CaitieCat
Like several others, I was raised without a Christian focus (my parents were Catholic and Protestant in 60s Britain, and decided the whole topic was better left right out), and never noticed the Christianity until it was mentioned in front of me. Simply put, if you're not raised with the religion, the parallels in the book are really not at all obvious. Having no idea about the idea of Jesus having sacrificed himself for other people's bad works, the parallel...just doesn't appear. Growing up with the attitude of "Ugh, religion! Change the channel quick!" just guts the books of all that.

Makes them much more enjoyable, I think, though I did notice the tininess of Narnia as a kid, and liked others better for their more expansive worlds.
reepacheep
23. inkrivergirl
I think it's important to remember that it is not necessarily a BAD thing that Lewis includes his religion in his stories. It was an important part of his life and I think it's unfair to expect him to leave his values and morals at the door when he went to write fiction. You may not appreciate the Christian allegory, but it's there intentionally.

I am a Christian; I do not support Lewis's inclusion of Christianity because I am one. I read The Shadow Speaker recently, where the main character was Muslim. It didn't hamper my enjoyment of the book at all. I support his inclusion of Christianity because it was his religion and I think that he had the right to include it. I could spend all my time talking about The Mists of Avalon and how much I hated the blatant pro-paganism, but I choose to enjoy the book complete with the author's values and views. I hope that people will do the same with Lewis.

Sorry to rant on, but it irks me when (most, not all) people get angry with religion incorporated into fiction ONLY when it's Christianity and not other religions. Complain about none or complain about all. (Though I won't deny Lewis can be heavy-handed. But he was an apologeticist, so what do you expect?)
reepacheep
24. Dr. Thanatos
Inkrivergirl@23,

I think you misunderstood me. I don't particularly object to religion in fiction; nor do I have issues here with the specific religion that is being discussed.

But Lewis' implementation strikes me as clumsy and heavy-handed and distracted me from enjoying the books as a whole. It's like every time Aslan appears he has to say "in case you've forgotten since the last time I showed up, I represent You Know Who." Same thing in his sci-fi trilogy; he can't be subtle. That's his style and that's how he chose to write and I respect that; but I don't think it makes me hostile to christianity to say that his particular approach didn't work well for me.

Regarding your last paragraph, no one that I read on this thread specified that it was christianity in this work that bothered them, only the way Lewis infused it into the work. This is, after all, a blog thread about Narnia, not a blog thread about all works of religious fiction. I think it's fair to complain about Lewis' use of christianity in this context without feeling obliged to complain about all writers. And shouldn't we expect a highly educated apologist to write with a more skilled hand?
Bill Siegel
25. ubxs113
i just want to throw out there, i don't mind religious allegories be they christian or whatever. it was just that i was so young when i found out about Aslan that i had to change my entire perspective of the series, and it lost some of the original mystery and magic for me. i was able to still read and enjoy the series, it just had a completely different context.
Beth Mitcham
26. bethmitcham
It does seem like a lot of people say "then someone told me that Aslan was Jesus and I've disliked the books ever since," which does sound like "ew- Christian cooties." Even as a kid I noticed the Aslan/Jesus parallels, but lots of fantasy books draw on various myths and stuff so why should I expect Christianity to be exempt?

ubxs113, I'm sorry that your younger self felt you had to change your whole perspective, because your early view on it was just as valid. Authors don't get to decide how you read a book!

I read once that Lewis didn't think of it as an allegory, but that he figured if you believe in Christianity, then it'd show up in other worlds, and what would that be like? Which is subtly different, and gives a more sf-nal take on the subject. And in many of the books this is just a thing in the background. Yes, Aslan is keeping track of things in Horse and His Boy, but most of the time that doesn't make any difference to Shasta. This is how Christianity would develop on a different world, and how it would be to have talking animals, and how it would be to have major historical figures pop in and out of time.
Joseph Blaidd
27. SteelBlaidd
I think it's important to remember in discusing the religious influence in Narnia that Lewis came late to his faith. As such he is more aware and more deliberate in his use of it than the life long Catholic Tolkin. That Lewis was better known as a Christian writer after Tolkin helped convert him was part of what caused some of their falling out.

Oh and Narnia is not an Alagory, Pilgrims Regress is an allagory and painfull as most of them are.
Narnia was written in part as a bit of a Christian Primer but also for fun. But, written by a man who had nither children of his own nor nieces and nephews, so while he thoroughly respects childrens' intelegence his skill at speaking to them is not very practiced with Wardrobe.


On a more specific note. Regarding the calls of Traitor, remember that it is the witch who enchanted him that is calling for his blood. Having laid a trap for him it should not be suprising that she dosen't give him any slack to get out, especialy as she is mostly useing him as bait for her real prey.

And he wasen't a lawyer. As King he would have been the Judge. Consider the wisdom neccessary to hand down rulings in such a way that all parties before the bench consider themselves fairly treated.
reepacheep
28. Elaine Thom
It wasn't the allegory or the Christianity that Tolkien objected to, it was the mishmash of mythology. Father Christmas and fauns and Bacchus, that kind of thing.

I loved Narnia as a kid and somewhere along the line noticed the Christian message. But last time I picked up one of them, I bounced off. Part of it was careless language - how can I believe in the setting and characters when the adults speak forsoothly, and a youngster from the same cultural context come out with things like "I'm just a kid"? Part of it was the worldbuilding. As an adult reader I can't help wondering what the Narnians ate during the hundred years of winter. Or as Mari pointed out, the puny size of the country, but they'd totally forgotten/lost track of the Lantern?

Susan's fate, OTOH, never bothered me. She'd never quite fit right, and having rejected the whole thing, there was no reason for her to reappear in Narnia. Maybe someday she'll appear in Aslan's Country, the England portion, where their parents were.
Madeline Ferwerda
29. MadelineF
I heard about Narnia being "Christian Allegory" long after I'd read through all the Greek Myths I could find. And so from the first my reaction to that is "pish!" Christianity has a flood? So do the Greeks. Christianity blames all the world's troubles on some nosy chick? So do the Greeks. Christianity says humans were formed from mud? etc etc etc.

I had the view that there are plenty of common chunks of mythology, and "sacrifice for the good of the world" is one of them. If it shows up in several mythologies and then in a fantasy book, why make it the hill that you die on that, in the fantasy, it's This One Mythology in disguise? Even if the author said so. Authors are wrong about their own books all the time. Why *work* to make it so you don't like a book that you once liked, simultaneously giving primacy to a religion you find distasteful?
simon
30. simonk1905
Turkish delight is minging.




That is all.
James Hogan
31. Sonofthunder
Ah, Narnia. Thanks for doing this series, Mari! Greatly looking forward to your thoughts. I wish I remembered more about my Narnia experience...sadly, my family never owned the books growing up, so I read them when I was at a friend's house. I'm pretty sure I read them after I'd already read Tolkien, so for me, even back then, Narnia seemed a bit simplistic. But then, that's part of its charm, I suppose. I also am of the opinion that reading LWW first is best...just because I remember reading Magician's Nephew last...and I remember how much I loved it, just for the fact that it revealed so much about the world I'd been immersed in for so long. It was a pure delight for all the cool answers and reveals. I think part of the magic of LWW is that you're discovering Narnia along with the kids, and it is indeed glorious!!

I'm also a Christian and so I noticed the parallels right off. The end of LWW isn't exactly subtle(and I don't think that's a bad thing, either!) Along with inkrivergirl @23, I have no problem with Lewis writing so transparently(and obviously too strongly for some) what he believed in. It's not quite my style and even though I'm a Christian, I don't think I could bring myself to write something so...obviously Christ-based in a work of fiction, but Lewis so desired. He does the same in his Space Trilogy. So I do love him for being so open about what he believes. Even if his Narnia series(while enjoyable) has never been in my favorite books list(I actually enjoy the Space Trilogy far more), they're still a delightful series of books that I like to lose myself in once in a while...
Mari Ness
32. MariCats
Whoa. I did not expect this many comments. I see I'm going to have to have one of those many posts answers again.

Anyway!

Ok, to everyone, you have convinced me that I should have been more specific in my Turkish Delight dislikes. Let me change that statement to: the Turkish Delight for sale at Sawgrass Mills in South Florida is awful. But I will keep an open mind about Turkish Delight should I ever get to Istanbul, Seattle or Niagara-on-the-Lake!

(But I'm sticking with my statement that the supposed Turkish Delight from that mall was just horrible. I couldn't even finish it, and I have one major sweet tooth.)

Now to more substantive matters:

@designguybrown - I don't think there's any consensus on what order the books should be read in - just based on this thread, some people prefer publication order, and some people prefer chronological order. I think you should read them in whatever order works for you. For me, I do have a few issues with the contradictions between Wardrobe and Magician's Nephew, and I find it's easier to slide into Narnia if I don't have to think much about that. When I was a kid, though, contradictions didn't bother me much, and I loved getting an explanation about that lamp post, and I might have preferred knowing that before reading Wardrobe.

@ J Swan I have read some of Lewis' other works, mostly his literary criticism (he has some great things to say about how no one is trained to read and scan certain types of poetry anymore, changing our interaction with it), along with The Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy and a couple of other things. So, no, I'm not surprised exactly, and given that we live in a world that mingles references to multiple religions including Christianity and paganism, and that Lewis was very familiar with the way several pagan tales and local bits of folklore were folded into Christian customs and saints tales, it even makes sense and follows the late ancient/medieval literary tradition.
Mari Ness
33. MariCats
@ubxs113 Huh. I found that realizing Aslan was "really" Jesus changed my perception of the series, but not necessarily lessened my enjoyment.

@kittenscrabble - Same.

@Dr Thanatos I find that the heavy handedness, as you put, it varies from book to book - it's fairly strong in Dawn Treader and Last Battle, but I don't find it particularly strong in Wardrobe, Caspian or Silver Chair. And I do think it works very well thematically in Dawn Treader (which is, really, a religious revelation story with a dragon) and Last Battle, which I'm going to get into at length later.

@elsiekate - Most of what I know is from Humphrey Carpenter's excellent biography of Tolkien, which details how Tolkien and Lewis initially became friends, and then drifted apart after World War II.

From Tolkien's letters (number 252 in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien):

"....as many people still regard me as one of his intimates. Alas! that ceased to so some ten years ago. We were separated first by the sudden apparition of Charles Williams, and then by his marriage. Of which he never even told me; I learned of it long after the event. But we owed each a great debt to the other, and that tie with the with the deep affection that it begot, remains. He was a great man of whom the cold-blooded official obituaries only scraped the surface, in places with injustice."

Tolkien doesn't mention it here, but his painstaking detailed writing approach was the direct opposite of Lewis's considerably more slipshod approach to Narnia. Tolkien, after all, sat down and worked out phases of the moon, and tried to give a real sense of what it was like in the medieval era to really, really have to walk everywhere and food supply issues and so on. Lewis has a sewing machine in a beaver dam. I suspect that realizing that Lewis had, um, borrowed a part of The Magician's Nephew from an unpublished manuscript Tolkien hoped to publish wasn't helpful.

@radynski - I'm still fond of Dawn Treader, although I think you are right that it reads differently when you are an adult.

@Jan Spoor - oh, yeah, I'm aware that Christmas is really more of a secular holiday and that Santa Claus and Father Christmas are not exactly purely Christian figures. I think an equally good comparison is the appearance of Santa Claus in the very secular Oz -- both figures are there because they are associated with presents and fun and children.

We'll be getting to Susan, at some length, later :) I just hadn't realized how much is foreshadowed here.
Mari Ness
34. MariCats
@Bayushi - I'm really beginning to suspect that without the Christian upbringing, it's not that noticeable. I noticed, but, well, I was raised Christian.

@ClairedeT - And, see, I have the exact opposite reaction: I read Wardrobe first, so Magician's Nephew seems inconsistent. But I agree about the talking horses in The Horse and His Boy.

@alseen - This is a bit off topic, but my guess is that if you start with Star Wars I, your chances of continuing on are not good. But perhaps my Jar-Jar hatred is prejudicing me here.

@Teka Lynn - It's been years since I read Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, but if I'm remembering correctly, my main objection to both was that they are both very boring. I didn't have an issue with the allegory. My main criticism of That Hideous Strength is that it's very muddled.

Also, I should admit that I put an Oz book into one of my church libraries, and I'm not sorry about this.

@CaitieCat - :: nods :: I'm definitely seeing that in this thread, and to be fair, even if you are aware of the Christian elements, I don't think Lewis hits anyone over the head with it in this book. The head hitting is in Dawn Treader and Last Battle.

@inkrivergirl -- I hope I wasn't implying that it's a bad thing that Lewis included Christian elements in this series. (For that matter, I think some of the most powerful sections of The Lord of the Rings come from Tolkien's deep Catholic faith. Even if Tolkien is less obvious about it, that is a very Christian work, and that's not a bad thing.) I also agree that it's unrealistic to have expected him to leave his faith out of his works. And I don't think those Christian elements hampered my enjoyment of the book until Horse and His Boy and Last Battle, but I'll be discussing my very specific issues in those posts. And even there, Horse and His Boy remains one of my favorites in the series.

I do, however, plan to discuss these elements, mostly because Lewis was fairly explicit in his intentions: what would happen to the resurrection story when placed in a magical world of talking animals? What would happen to faith and belief in this situation?

@bethmitcham - Well, I'd agree with Lewis that Narnia isn't an allegory, in the specific literary sense of the word, or much like the ancient and medieval allegories Lewis was probably thinking of. Aslan is a character, however boring, not a personified Christian concept.

@SteelBlaidd - Some of this discussion probably more properly belongs in Kate Nepveu's Lord of the Rings blog, but I'd definitely argue that The Lord of the Rings, at least, contains several Catholic elements, and that these elements add power to the book.

I agree that Aslan is less a lawyer and more a judge here, but I can't help but notice that he gets out of death by the nice lawyerly trick of knowing the law better than the Witch does.

@MadelineF - I don't find Christianity distasteful. I may no longer believe in it, but that's not really the same thing. And certainly Christianity shares certain elements and beliefs with other cultures -- flood myth and so on -- and it is not the only religion with a resurrection story.

With that said, Lewis, who was very familiar with pagan tales as well (he studied mythology at length, often in the original languages) took pains to ensure that, even in a series with very Greek fauns and centaurs, certain references would be very Biblical. This is certainly stronger in Dawn Treader, with the baptism, the Lamb, and so on, but it is in all the books, and Lewis knew what he was doing.

Although I agree that this isn't a bad thing, and not much different than basing a book on non-Christian religions, which happens all the time too.

@Elaine Thom - Susan's fate bothered me. I didn't realize how much it was foreshadowed until the reread.

@Sonofthunder - Finding out how that lamp post got there was awesome.

Comparisons between The Lord of the Rings and Narnia are probably inevitable and unfair. I think LOTR is a greater book, but Narnia is easier to read.

I'm really not a fan of Lewis' Space Trilogy, but that has nothing to do with the Christian elements in it and everything to do with finding the first two books very boring and the third book very muddled.
reepacheep
35. Sihaya
I knew alot of Susans when I first read the Narnia books. They were girls who'd decided that there was a list of "things that matter," and that anything not on that list had no value at all. They *did* wear nylons and lipstick, as well as chase the opposite sex (rather than talking to them like friends). They did not read fantasy books, and they didn't want to become astronauts, doctors, firefighters, cowgirls or circus clowns. They left Narnia around age eight and they never came back. I was encountering a bevvy of Susans when I started reading the Narnia books. The books helped me feel better by letting me know that I wasn't the only one who noticed them and that I was maybe, just maybe going to find that I was on the right path.

My trouble with Susan is that these days I often feel like I'm surrounded by her. Susans keep their heads down. They entertain themselves with fashion and mutual snarking, but they don't imagine their potential or the potential of their children. The whole world is stuffed with Susans, and the Lucies are becoming scarce.

I think other people's trouble with Susan is that she's a big old mirror, and readers don't like what they see when they look at it - an internal sort of death.

And don't get me started on the accusation that the story is slipshod because the kingdom is long but narrow (historically accurate along the Rhineland), the cycles of the moon haven't been planned out (are you kidding?), the children talk like children in EVERY kid's book of the forties and fifties, and an anthropomorphic beaver family actually owns anthropomorphic stuff! Hmph!
reepacheep
36. KidsTheseDays
I find it sad that so many readers enjoyed this book as children, but then became disgusted by it when they discover, as illuminated adults, that it is an alegory. To all those who felt "shocked," "turned off" or who could "never feel the same way again" about the book, it is okay. Loving The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will not revoke your atheism card. I am sure FSM will forgive you.
reepacheep
37. Dr. Thanatos
Speaking for myself only: I am not an atheist, but I am not a christian. I didn't feel shocked or turned off by the presence of religious imagery in these books; I felt distracted by the lack of subtlety.

I'm a little perturbed by some of the comments above and let me explain why: I have been accused of atheism because of not being a christian obviously you are either one or the other, he said sarcastically; there are no other options...] and I would hesitate to assume that the folks commenting above are atheists simply because they were turned off by this.
Mari Ness
38. MariCats
@Sihaya - I knew the Susan type too, but I look at the Susan in the book a little differently because of things that happened to her, which I'll get to when we reach The Last Battle, which seems a more appropriate place to discuss Susan.

But I think you're right that we need more Lucies! (Lucys? I have no idea which spelling is right.)

As far as the phases of the moon is concerned, no, this doesn't bother me. It did bother Tolkien, who spent his writing life obsessed with things like that -- an obsession he'd shared with Lewis. To watch your friend sympathize with the worldbuilding you are trying to do, and then turn around and write something in direct opposite to that, while stealing some of your ideas -- yeah, I can see that it would be painful. Not painful enough to completely end the friendship, as Tolkien notes, but enough to have the two of you grow apart.

I don't mind the beaver owning human things. I'm just amused that in a clearly pre-industrial age featuring medieval and Greek items with no manufacturing center creatures are running around with umbrellas and a sewing machine. It adds to the fun -- the sewing machine wasn't manufactured, so it clearly got there by magic. At least, that's my explanation.

@KidsTheseDays - I agree with you about Wardrobe and five of the seven books, and mostly agree with you about the sixth. But I suspect most of the problem is coming from The Last Battle (and to a much, much lesser extent a couple of minor bits in The Horse and His Boy) where the religious issue is more blatant and for some people more problematic, especially the scene where some people rush through the Stable door, and some people fall into Aslan's shadow, and we have no idea what happens to them. We'll get there.
reepacheep
39. inkrivergirl
@Dr. Thanatos

I definitely agree about the subtlety issue, but I think that most children hardly notice it. Lewis likes to be very clear and explain things in his other work, so maybe writing fiction was something he wasn't prepared to do at that point. On that note, I don't think he ever did any serious fiction without Christianity as the message: even Til we Have Faces went that way.

Regarding your issues with Aslan constantly reminding us that he's Jesus, throughout the Gospels Jesus constantly reminds us that he's Jesus, so in terms of characterization and repeated "I am the son of the Emperor-over-the-sea" it's semi-accurate. I concede that Lewis could have been more subtle even with that, but subtlety wasn't his intention; someone (I can't find who) called them "Christian Primer."

I was being unfair in my last paragraph, I admit. This is a Narnia thread, I should not have brought it up.
Madeline Ferwerda
40. MadelineF
Shoot, MariCats, you seem to have gotten the idea that I was commenting at you. I had the idea that I was discussing _The Lion, etc_, and people's reactions to it, as seen in this thread and many other places. My offering was that if you Roll to Disbelieve, that's a perfectly legitimate way to treat the book, and then you can legitimately go on enjoying it.

Now, in terms of discussing the book, you seem to be arguing in your comment that what Lewis meant really matters. Eh, I say, it's a philosophical disagreement, but I don't think his opinion of what he was doing matters much more than anyone else's.
reepacheep
41. Ingrid C
Comment #35 suddenly made me think that we see Susan mostly from the outside, while we experience Lucy and Edward from the inside. Automatically, that makes Lucy and Edward more like us, and the elder brother ( I think it goes for Peter too) and sister like those other people who always seem more capable at dealing with the world, but less sensitive, than ourselves. I would have to reread to see if that idea holds up.
Wesley Parish
42. Aladdin_Sane
My intro to the Chronicles of Narnia seems to have differed from everybody else's - I never read it as a child. I read it during my adolescent years on the urging of a friend - and he was most insistent on reading it with the allegorical messages kept firmly in mind. He started me on The Magician's Nephew ....

My present criticism of it would be mostly that it has too much of the pastiche and not enough of the solid world-building work in it. He should have rewritten it. Oh, and he uses the jack-hammer when he should use the knitting needle ...

I think The Horse and His Boy, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and The Silver Chair are probably the better works in the series; that is just my humble opinion.

Narnia's small size didn't affect me too much at the time, and seen in retrospect it was a comfortable child-sized country - nowhere near as bad as the Shannara series, which - without nearly as much excuse in that it's written for adults, not children - fits the fate of the universe into an area about the size of the North Island from Lake Taupo to Tauranga to the Bombay Hills - or the South Island from Christchurch to Kaikoura to the Southern Alps ... but then Asimov is a prime offender in this, and frequently never leaves his suburb of New York.

And I do like what passes for Turkish Delight, such as is available in this world ... presumably in Narnia it's even better ... :)
James Goetsch
43. Jedikalos
Lewis was a Christian--he really believed that Jesus was the "one true myth" as he would put it. Quite naturally he would put that into what he wrote. Pullman is an atheist with his Golden Compass--that definitely comes through as well. Is there some rule that people shouldn't put what they think is true into what they create?
reepacheep
44. David DeLaney
Just wanted to add another instance of the decided opinion that the first time you read this series? It should be read in publication order.

The Magician's Nephew is full of references and nods to things that happened in the previous books, and explanations for things, and if it's the first one you encounter you won't know what's going on for parts of it or why. TLtW&tW is taking you in from a blank slate, and introduces and sets up things properly for the first book in a series, and the next three follow in storyline order from it...

(Not to mention that if you really want to read the series in chronological order? You have to put TLtW&tW down on around page 194, pick up The Horse and His Boy, read it all the way through, then pick TLtW&tW back up and finish it; book 5 takes place almost literally between paragraphs near the end of book 1.)

If you're rereading the series and have encountered everything in it already, by all means, read it in any order you like. But to my taste, encountering TMN first would have been full of "where did THAT come from?" and "...okay, who are these? why did they do that?", and without knowing where all the references point it's a rather shallower book.

--Dave
T Neill
45. Anarra
Bayushi @15
"2) Real Turkish Delight is fantastic, much like Aplets & Cotlets without the nuts."

I was just going to extol the virtues of Aplets and Cotlets. If you don't like regular Turkish Delight, try that. It's made by Liberty Orchards in Washington. I grew up on this stuff. It's wonderful! Though I didn't know it's relationship to the Turkish Delight in Wardrobe until I was an adult.


I, too, urge that first reading be in publication order. I am crushed that it appears that when it's time to get a set of these books for my nephews they will only be available very used or in chronological order.

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe really does, IMO need to be read before Magician's Nephew. Otherwise, as mentioned above, a great deal of the magic of first discovery of Narnia is lost.
reepacheep
46. HelenS
I think Aplets and Cotlets are terribly dull. Real lokoum is another matter entirely.
reepacheep
48. ericshanower
Can't stand the idea of reading The Magician's Nephew first. I've read the supposed justification written by Lewis that those who argue for a chrono(il)ilogical reading of the books trot out. It's no justification, simply an author speaking kindly to an enthusiatic child.

Don't understand any controversy about Susan. I never had trouble with her.

The Christian allusions (if you care to read them as such) are easy for me to dismiss--Christianity is as much a fantasy as Narnia, so what's the problem with reflections of Christianity in a fantasy story? All the Narnia books can be read as 99% free of Christianity if you just accept that Aslan and all he represents is more-or-less equivalent to Ozma of Oz or the cosmic characters of the Marvel Comics universe. (The 1% left over includes one section--can't remember which book--where Aslan tells Lucy that she can recognize him in our world, but I just chalk that up to Aslan getting a little too big for his britches.) This should be pretty simple for non-Christians, but Christians can do it too.

Joy Gresham's first husband, William Gresham, author of Nightmare Alley, was an Oz fan. He's written about how after the particularly acrimonious divorce, he found comfort from, of all things, The Scarecrow of Oz. Just thought that might serve as a nice connection to your previous series of essays.
reepacheep
49. Don Simpson
Aslan obviously represents a sun god. He goes away and winter comes, he returns and defeats winter. Slain, he is reborn with the dawn. Even if he weren't a traditional solar symbol like the lion, it would still be obvious.
Pamela Adams
50. Pam Adams
The children not only forget the lamppost, but English as it is spoken in 1940's Britain. Clearly growing up to be Kings and Queens changed them in many ways.

Somewhere- perhaps near the end when Aslan has spoken to Edmund- there's a bit about him 'having started to go wrong at school. I think Lucy says it.
Chuk Goodin
51. Chuk
I actually picked up TLtW&tW for the first time in my church library when I was about 8 or maybe 9, but I still didn't make the Christian allegory connection until I was probably in my mid-teens. Certainly didn't wreck the books for me (despite now being an athiest), although I can see how a re-read might want a little more subtlety. I'd read them to my kids except they tend to want more fighting and exploding in their books.
reepacheep
52. Farah Mendlesohn
As lots of people have said, real Turkish Delight is amazing. Britain in the 1930s was more cosmopolitan than we tend to remember and the real thing may well have been available. But the real point, as my Dad explained, is that Edmund is living through sweet rationing. Noel Streatfield has a wonderful scene in Curtain Up where the protagonists are sent American candy and are in ecstaties. Anyone of them would cheerfully have sold a sibling for more.
reepacheep
53. sushisushi
As far as the Turkish Delight goes, Fry's have been making the chocolate-covered one in Britain since 1914, so it's entirely likely Edmund may have known that one. Although, my recollection of the passage in the book includes a description of it being covered with sugar, which would imply 'proper' Turkish Delight, which was certainly available at the time, too (albeit much more expensive than the Fry's stuff).

On the Christian message, it completely passed me by as a child, despite full immersion in a Catholic school, family and country. I liked Narnia enough to search out Lewis' other books in my secondary school library and, man, was I in for a surprise. I was expecting something like the Silmarillion and got a whole load of undigested religious guff, which wasn't even hidden behind a good story. The space trilogy wasn't too bad, but I bounced off the Screwtape Letters something awful. It remains one of the two books I've never finished, out of sheer exasperation at the author's unsubtle ideas.
Wesley Parish
54. Aladdin_Sane
Peter spake thus: "The Werewollf King hath won thy hand in the tournament, High Queen Susan, albeit he hath won not thy heart."

Petter dippeth his sword into the fiery furnace, and maketh it glowing fiery hot like unto the stars themselves.

"As thou wottest, High Queen Susan, a vow is a sacred thing and may not be lightly cast aside for any light reason. As he hath won not thy heart, but only thy hand, we the High King of Narnia do propose that he shall have thy hand, but no further part of thee. Stretch out thy hand, our dearly loved sister, and lay it upon the anvil. This shall not hurt, and our dear sister Lucy shall heal thy pain."

* * *

Thus spake the Werewolf King: "I shall set this hand in gold, to be in remembrance of peace and a joy between the Narnians of the Night, and of the Day, and the Human Overlords, a reminder of peace and prosperity, and long, lazy lunch-hours."
Margaret Schroeder
55. Merona
I am taken by Chuk’s description of discovering the books at age 8 or 9 in the church library, because my experience was identical* at every stage.
-----------
*Except that I started with the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. No one would recommend this. It was quite disorienting. But that was the only Narnia book that was there. Later I caught up on the rest of the series from the public library, and many things became clearer.

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