The Great C.S. Lewis Reread

“Too Old for Narnia”: Belief, Fandom, and the End of Wonder

Not too long ago, my eldest daughter decided it was time for my youngest daughter to join her in one of her favorite fandoms: Jurassic Park. Toward the end of the movie, my youngest got deeply agitated and asked, “Does it hurt the actors when those dinosaurs bite them?” No, we explained, those are just special effects. Robots and computer generated drawings. “Well,” she asked, “Does it hurt when the robots bite them?” All of us older folks had a good laugh about that. She was so young and full of wonder, and the world was full of living dinosaurs and strange things.

At the end of Prince Caspian, Peter announces that he will not be returning to Narnia, and neither will Susan, because Aslan has told them they are too old. As a kid this upset me, because I worried that I wouldn’t find a portal to Narnia before I aged out. As an adult, this had gotten all wrapped up in a variety of questions about what exactly Lewis means by this declaration, and especially how it connects to that big question that is lurking out in front of us in this series: What exactly happened to Susan Pevensie that she wasn’t invited into Narnia for the Last Battle?

Now, we know that there’s not a hard-and-fast age limit for Narnia. (Skip this paragraph if you’re reading along and haven’t read all the Chronicles yet… some major spoilers here.) In Prince Caspian Peter and Susan are different ages (14 and 13). In Dawn Treader we’ll see that Edmund and Lucy are told they also are getting too old for Narnia—Edmund’s 12 and Lucy’s only 10 at the time. And in their final Narnian adventure, Eustace and Jill are 16. In another weird quirk of Narnia, the royal Pevensie family all grew up once in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Aslan didn’t kick them out because they were too old at that time. In fact, we see Susan, Edmund, and Lucy in Narnia during this time period in The Horse and His Boy, when they are 26, 24, and 22… a strange and sad fact when we realize that Edmund and Lucy will die on Earth when they are 19 and 17.

I’m going to suggest in this article that what Lewis is getting at in Prince Caspian isn’t so much Peter and Susan’s age in terms of the number of years they’ve lived, but rather the way they process information and, most specifically, the nature of their belief in Narnia and Aslan. As we’ve reminded ourselves in each article for Caspian, Lewis told us that this novel is about the restoration of true religion after it has been corrupted. There’s a major theme exploring the battle between belief and skepticism running through this book, another duality in the narrative.

Lewis gives us a major clue, a key, that he’s driving at something more than age early on in the book. Caspian is talking with his uncle, King Miraz, and telling him all about the stories he has heard about Narnia’s Golden Age. In those days there were talking animals and Naiads and Dryads and Dwarfs and Fauns and so on. Miraz sternly replies that this is nonsense “for babies.” He repeats that. “Only fit for babies, do you hear?” Then he tells him, “You’re getting too old for that sort of stuff. At your age you ought to be thinking of battles and adventures, not fairy tales.”

Miraz grills one of his noblemen, Lord Glozelle, on this topic, too. “Does your Lordship believe those old wives’ fables about Peter and Edmund and the rest?” Glozelle replies, “I believe my eyes, your Majesty.” As we move through the book we see that skepticism and even pragmatism is consistently shown as something that prevents our heroes from achieving their goals, and can even become truly dangerous… as when the enemies of Aslan suggest resurrecting the White Witch. And, as was implied in a previous article, the re-establishment of the old religion seems to be centered around the question of belief in Aslan and the re-awakening of magic.

Throughout the novel we see little glimpses of Peter and Susan’s “old age” as they focus on practical things or even suggest rational solutions to magical problems. Note that even when they first begin to be pulled into Narnia, Peter’s first thought is that Susan is grabbing him (it’s Edmund who declares this is clearly magic at work… he recognizes the feeling of it). When Lucy asks Peter if they might have possibly returned to Narnia Peter says they could be anywhere, which is a funny thing to say after being magically whisked away from a train station. Susan rather wisely and in a grown-up way suggests they should make sure how many sandwiches they have for lunch. Lucy often sees Susan as the big sister who can’t help but be the annoying second mother.

The most important scenes on this theme center around Lucy seeing Aslan when no one else does. She tries to convince the others to come with her and follow Aslan.

Susan asks, “Where did you think you saw him?”

“Don’t talk like a grown-up,” Lucy says. She didn’t think she saw him, she actually did see him. Notice that, “like a grown-up,” Susan is communicating her basic disbelief. She doesn’t see Aslan, so of course her baby sister must have seen something else. Lucy is mistaken, and elder Susan will decide how exactly Lucy misunderstood.

They settle on taking a vote: follow Lucy and her supposed Aslan, or follow the path that makes sense looking at the landscape. Their dwarf friend is by the far worst of them in the conversation that follows, suggesting it was a regular lion Lucy had seen, or worse, that Aslan is an old, enfeebled, or witless lion by now. None of the children stand for that, but again we have the skeptical reality: Aslan would be over a thousand years old by now, so of course Lucy didn’t see him.

Edmund is the only one who votes with Lucy. “When we first discovered Narnia a year ago—or a thousand years ago, whichever it is—it was Lucy who discovered it first and none of us would believe her. I was the worst of the lot, I know. Yet she was right after all. Wouldn’t it be fair to believe her this time?” He’s a bit embarrassed to vote this way, and he blushes when he says it, but he’s on Team Lucy. He hasn’t seen Aslan but he believes it could be him, and he believes Lucy is telling the truth.

Peter, on the other hand, says—note this—“I know Lucy may be right after all” but he still votes to go in the opposite direction. Lucy caves and they all start down the mountain, away from Aslan, with dangerous results.

Lucy eventually has another encounter with Aslan, who chastises her for giving in to her siblings, and tells her to try again. They are asleep at this point. It’s the middle of the night. Lewis writes, “It is a terrible thing to have to wake four people, all older than yourself and all very tired, for the purpose of telling them something they probably won’t believe and making them do something they certainly won’t like.” (Emphases mine.) Older people are less likely to believe what Lucy knows.

After suggesting that perhaps Lucy is dreaming, they follow her. Edmund is the first to see the shadow of their old friend. He asks what the shadow could be; Lucy responds that it’s Aslan, and Edmund says, “I do believe you’re right, Lu.”

As they continue to follow, eventually all of the siblings see Aslan. He slowly becomes clearer to each of them, with those who believe most seeing him the soonest. There are apologies: Peter to Aslan, and Susan to Lucy.

In fact, Susan says something interesting. She admists that her behavior was even worse than the others realized. “I really believed it was him—he, I mean—yesterday.” She voted against following Lucy even though, on some level, she knew it was Aslan: “And I really believed it was him to-night, when you woke us up. I mean, deep down inside. Or I could have, if I’d let myself.”

Edmund believed Lucy. Susan and Peter both believed, too, or at least believed that Lucy might be right. But they chose the pragmatic thing, the practical thing, the non-magical, the thing that made the most sense. They “believed their eyes,” as Glozelle said. You know, like an adult would do.

Now, Peter is forgiven. Aslan tells Susan that she had made her decision because she had “listened to fears” and breathes on her to give her courage. Then he goes after our Dear Little Friend the dwarf and teaches him what a lion—and especially a magic lion—is really like so he will have no doubts again in the future.

In the final chapter, Susan and Peter tell the others that they’ve been talking with Aslan about a lot of things, including the fact that they need their English clothes back before they return home. Lucy doesn’t even understand what they’re talking about when Peter says they need to change, and Susan explains it to her before exclaiming, “Nice fools we’d look on the platform of an English station in these.” Once again, the older kids had this reasonable (adultish) concern, and they brought it up in pragmatic conversation with the Great Lion. But Aslan also told them they’d not be returning to Narnia. They are “too old” now.

I can’t help but think that this is similar to the normal progression in how children think. When they are four or five, they might ask Father Christmas the names of his elves and reindeer. Around eight or nine, it might be “How do you fit down that chimney?” or “How do you get to every single kid in one night?” A couple years more and it’s narrowed eyes and asking Mom, “Whose handwriting is this?” on the gifts. Susan and Peter are becoming, naturally, more focused on the “real world” around them. They are growing up in the same way that everyone grows up and they’ve lost some of the wonder in the world.

There is one last interesting moment to consider, here: We’re aware that there’s a conflict between believing in Aslan and believing in what our eyes see. The Telmarines, who have been taught to believe with their eyes, experience a moment of doubt when confronted with Aslan’s magic. Aslan is offering to send them back to the “real world” if they don’t want to live in the new, re-awakened Narnia. He sets up three sticks like a door, and tells them if they walk through they will arrive on a beautiful island back in our world. They can’t see another world on the other side of the threshold, though. They say, “We don’t see any other world through those sticks. If you want us to believe in it, why doesn’t one of you go? All your own friends are keeping well away from the sticks.”

Peter and Susan know that this means they must be the ones to go through (though everyone’s favorite mouse, Reepicheep, offers to be the first to take the leap). As the children walk through they began “seeing three things at once.” A cave on the tropical island. Narnia. And the railway station they had been on before. So now, even believing only what they can see, they see the truth of their own world, the truth of Narnia, and even the truth of Aslan’s word in a place they have never been or seen before. It’s a nice little bow on the present Lewis has been wrapping for us.

Forgive me for this aside, but I couldn’t help but think, as I was writing this article, about how we grow in our various fandoms. Many of us first come across our favorite science fiction and fantasy lands as children, whether Narnia or the Star Wars universe or Harry Potter, and all those things were made for children in one way or another. When I was a child, I didn’t ask whether cannibalistic teddy bears made sense or if the Death Star had construction workers on it or whether the explosion might have destroyed a certain moon of Endor. I didn’t scoff at the computer generated effects in The Last Starfighter, or ask questions about Lewis’s views on gender in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Star Wars is an interesting flashpoint for me on this topic. I saw A New Hope when I was four. The Phantom Menace came out when I was 25. And while I liked things about it, I didn’t experience the magic again in my twenties. I don’t think it’s because of the movie…my kids, for instance, when I showed it to them, loved Jar Jar Binks. It’s because I became “too old” for Star Wars. And, honestly, it seems to me that some of the current movies are doing their best to make sure Star Wars ages with us instead of inviting us to step out until we find the magic again. The current movies have a lot of talk about politics and how much fuel is needed for starships and where do weapons and blue milk come from and “it’s not realistic” that the heroes would all survive stealing the plans to a battle station. Meanwhile, during The Rise of Skywalker I had so many questions I couldn’t tell what was happening (I’ll keep it spoiler free but the questions were largely “How?” and “Huh?” and “Wha?”). Meanwhile, I’ve talked to a number of kids who told me that they just had a lot fun. And, like the wise Professor Kirke, there are a whole lot of adults who still believe in the magic, too, and they also had a great time. (Okay, look, I still love Star Wars, so don’t haze me in the comments. And if the fine people at Del Rey are reading this, hey, I have a great idea for a novel and I’m glad to say Jar Jar is definitely in it.)

We have choices to make when we outgrow the magic of our favorite fandoms. We can walk back into the real world and acknowledge that for whatever reason we can’t believe anymore… just embrace that this is the truth and be happy with our fond memories of the past. Or we can turn on the creators or other fans because we feel pushed out…upset that this franchise is “no longer for me.” That’s when we get people harassing other fans or actors or directors and saying cruel things to real human beings because we don’t like the way they are treating our fictional constructs.

I don’t think outgrowing our beloved fandoms means we’ll never return to them, and of course Lewis leaves the door to Narnia opened just a crack (Peter, at least, returns eventually). Somewhere down the line we might find that magic again. Maybe there’s another movie coming, or a TV show, or a novel or comic that’s going to have that sudden lightning strike of magic and wonder that makes us believe again, like kids. (I’m told this is called The Baby Yoda Effect.)

Lewis, of course, would say something more profound is happening here. For him this is all about myth and fairy tales and what they signify. The stories we love are all about deeper truths. The myth of Star Wars resonates most where it strikes at the true myth beneath all things. Lewis would, no doubt, hate some of the fandoms we love, love some that we hate, and either way he would keep encouraging us, insisting that if we are seeing some true thing in what we love, if there’s this inexplicable feeling of joy that washes over us when the music begins, or when we turn the first page, then we should follow that joy further up the mountain, even if all we see is the barest shadow of a lion. Because in time that joy will lead us face to face with someone who sang the worlds into being, someone who loves us deeply.

In the meantime, it’s not all bad, Lewis tells us. The children find themselves back in England and although it’s “a little flat and dreary,” it’s also “unexpectedly nice in its own way” with the familiar smells and the sky and summer ahead of them. Being sent home still means that, well, you’re at home.

Being “too old” is a phase, a thing we hopefully grow through. We are young enough for fairy tales as children, and one day we become “old enough” to read them again. As Lewis wrote to Lucy Barfield in his dedication for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “You are already too old for fairy tales… But someday you will be old enough to begin reading fairy tales again.”

Matt Mikalatos is the author of the YA fantasy The Crescent Stone. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

 

 

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