This is the first article in a short series on spirituality in children and young adults' literature. This Mother's Day I fondly recall the many, many times my own mother read aloud to us as youngsters. From My Bible Friends to Sam Campbell's tales of wild critters to The Chronicles of Narnia we encountered truths and wonders that opened our eyes to the presence of God in reality. Thanks to all moms (and dads and grandparents and older siblings and babysitters) who opened new worlds to us by sharing good stories! - Joelle Chase, Spirituality Editor
"It isn't Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are-are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
- C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia have long been asserted to be an allegory for the Christian life. Indeed, they are quite clearly a parallel to the Biblical story of salvation. However, Lewis disliked the term allegory and argued against its use in relation to his books. Lewis believed that the role of fiction was to “give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life’. . . add to it” (Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” in Of Other Worlds, 38). Thus, in writing the stories of Narnia he was not trying to replicate or fully represent the events of the Bible; he was weaving the principles of salvation into the story of a fairy tale land, to bring to light different elements than those upon which Christians usually focus. In a letter in 1954 Lewis wrote “I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’; I said, ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as he became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.’” Clearly Lewis did not intend to allegorize the Biblical story: he meant to take the elements of that story and apply them to a magical land and let the story unfold as it would in a made-up world. Instead of this method limiting Lewis’ imagination, it shows that he was more imaginative and liberal in his perceptions of God than most Christian writers will ever hope to be. And through his made-up world, readers are able to gain a new perspective on God than perhaps they would otherwise.
The Chronicles of Narnia are also often categorized or dismissed as children’s literature. But Lewis himself did not intend children to be his only audience. “It certainly is my opinion that a book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then” (Lewis, “Fairy Stories” in Of Other Worlds, 38). As a child, I was first introduced to Narnia by my third grade teacher at after-lunch story time. I fell in love. But as an adult, after reading the books countless times, I have come to experience a deeper enjoyment and spiritual fulfillment from the books.
Each book is packed with spiritual truths and unique comments about the nature of God, the nature of man, and the connection between the two. One particular theme that is recurring throughout the seven books in the series is that of the fall of man and how we encounter and handle deception, as well as a focus on the resources God provides to help us overcome. As he also demonstrated in his masterful The Screwtape Letters, Lewis is able to get in the head of the devil and his methods of temptation and deception in a unique way.
Although The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was written first, to study the series as a Biblical parallel, one would start with The Magician’s Nephew. This book introduces the creation of Narnia and includes an original temptation scene similar in many ways to the Biblical one. Digory is alone in the garden, having been asked to pick an apple from the tree and bring it back to Aslan. He is met by the Empress Jadis, who has become known as the Witch. Her temptation of Digory is revealing. Digory’s mother, back at home in London, is dying. The Witch chooses to tempt Digory not to take a bite of the apple himself, but instead, to take some back to his mother and thus heal her, instead of obeying Aslan’s command to return with the apple. This interesting twist on the scene instantly illustrates so much about Satan’s ability to strike straight at the heart of our weaknesses. Digory would not have been tempted to take a bite himself. Perhaps he was not hungry. His heart was willing to obey, and he already loved and respected Aslan and feared and hated the Witch. So, she does not tempt him to do something naughty. She tempts him by offering him the chance to do something good for someone else. He is a good kid, and he loves his mother more than anything. The temptation to take the apple home to her and bring her healing is almost more than he can bear. But, as he is facing this desperate choice the Witch suggests that he leave his friend Polly behind. This misstep gives Digory the strength to resist, and he succeeds in overcoming this temptation.
Lewis illustrates in this short scene the cunning of the devil, and how he does not always begin to work upon our hearts with obvious sin. He knows our weaknesses and adjusts accordingly. This update on the age-old story of Eve and the serpent provides an interesting angle and reveals more about Satan’s cunning. But, it also provides us with hope. Digory’s desire to do what is right is awakened by the mention of his friend. God puts people in our lives whose very names are reminders of what is right, honorable, and holy. God does not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear. Even though Satan knows us well, God knows us best.
Another compelling example of how Lewis weaves the theme of mankind’s handling of Satan’s tricks is in the book The Silver Chair. In this story Jill and Eustace from our world are sent into Narnia to help recover the kidnapped Prince Rillian. Because of Jill’s selfishness as they first entered Narnia, she finds herself alone when she meets Aslan to receive his instructions. He gives her several signs to look for in their search for the prince. He instructs her to repeat these every morning and night, to always have them on her heart so that she will be always prepared to follow Aslan’s directions. Jill agrees to this, memorizes the signs, and goes (is blown) down into Narnia. Of course these signs are symbolic for God’s word and His directions to us in our lives. But, even though Jill begins with good intentions, she very quickly becomes distracted by their many adventures and characters they meet. She stops repeating the signs to herself. She convinces herself that it is not important anymore. And, of course, her lapse in her commitment to Aslan causes all kinds of misfortunes and detours that they could have avoided on their long journey.
Satan loves to distract us. It is one of his favorite methods in our abundantly busy modern lives. But, just as Aslan gave Jill two faithful companions, Eustace and Puddleglum, who reminded her of the signs, God gives us others as well. Our true friends are there to lift us up when we are down, and to bring us closer to God when we forget how He has led us in the past. As the three adventurers descend into Underland they discover just how soporific the lies of the enemy can be. The prince has been enchanted to forget who he is, and an entire civilization has been enslaved, because the Witch has worked her magic to make their minds lazy. They do not think for themselves. They do not think at all. They blindly follow the routines into which they have fallen, and the Witch’s potent magic even begins to convince the adventurers that what they remember as a sun could not be anything more than an imagined, larger lamp. Satan distracts and he wills our minds into a laziness that breeds dullness, so that when the time comes for us to be sharp and alert, we find that we have not exercised nearly enough. Of course a way is provided for them all to escape, with the prince. However, the lesson is a sobering one. Are our minds alert? Are we repeating the signs, night and day?
A final and perhaps most serious deception practiced by the enemy takes place in the conclusion of the series, The Last Battle. This book is a treasure trove of interesting truths about God and unique perspectives. I love Aslan’s comments to the soldier who thought he was serving Tash (the cruel god of the neighboring country Calormen). Lewis provides a very thought-provoking answer to the oft-asked question of who has the “truth,” or, if I have the truth, how can others go to heaven? As the young, noble soldier of a different faith meets Aslan in the next world, he worries that he will not be allowed to stay because he served Tash instead of Aslan. Aslan responds:
Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child? . . . Unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.”
The deception practiced in this, last installment of the series, is a powerful one. Shift, a cunning old monkey, claims to speak for God, and reverses many of the tenets of Narnian life and previous commands from Aslan. At first the loyal Narnians do not believe that Aslan would go back on his word in such ways. But as Shift continues his deception, including dressing up a donkey to look like a very poor version of Aslan, the Narnians slowly and sadly believe what he says. His wily words break down their protests, but the visual image of a “lion” convinces them more than anything else. The willingness of Puzzle, the innocent and trusting donkey, and the other gullible Narnians, to follow this false Aslan illustrates the power of the voice of authority and how easily it can mislead. Although the animals initially question Shift’s proclamations, they are not equipped to be able to counter argue, and Narnia faces collapse and invasion. There are many lessons to learn here, but one important one is the use and abuse of power. Those in positions of authority must take to heart their positions so that the trusting and innocent are not misled and destroyed. “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:2).
The Last Battle tells of an apocalypse for Narnia, and Shift’s deception brings the final demise of the gentle country of Narnia. This serves as an important warning and it is no mistake that Lewis saves this deception for the most critical scene of all. Narnia falls, but the faithful and true Narnians are saved as Aslan comes to redeem and take them “further up and further in,” following their Narnian kings and the greatest King of all, who ceased to look like a lion to them.
While there are many other interesting spiritual truths to be found throughout the series, these few examples of spiritual deception and redemption show that C.S. Lewis used these children’s stories to illustrate deep and profound attributes of God as well as to explore the nature of man in our attempts to follow His will. Although none of these stories necessarily contain brand new ideas, exploring the story of salvation through the fantasy world of Narnia gives it a fresh and unique flavor that just might help you see God in a new light. I highly recommend that you revisit these little gems. Each book can be read in just a couple of hours, and each page contains kerns of beauty, joy, and truth, and a new perspective on God through a fictional world.
Jennifer Payne taught high school English for 14 years before she "retired" to stay at home with her children in 2012. She and her husband Jason, with children Juliana and Alistair, live in Niles, Michigan.
Painting by Aleksey Mikhailovich Korin (1900)
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5988