The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is pedantic, often trite and repetitive, allegorized ad nauseum, poorly edited, and shocking to find in the repertoire of an author of C. S. Lewis’ caliber.
Now that I have your attention, allow me to explain why very little of the preceding statement is true.
Pedantry (here used as “unimaginative and pedestrian”—with apologies to Lemony Snicket!) is a term which might be applied to Lewis by the reader who has read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe only once. But Lewis’ juvenile writings are like the proverbial onion whose layers must be peeled away to reach the core. Just as the center of the onion often has the most concentrated flavor, the core of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe yields fresh insights with each return to Narnia. Superficially read, the book might give the impression that it is just for children and so be easily dismissed by adults as another piece of fantasy claptrap that only serves the purpose of getting the kiddies to drift off to sleep at night. We might even focus on the similarities we see with other works of children’s fantasy and accuse Lewis of having no imagination of his own.
But what of the saying, “imitation is the highest form of praise”? Rather than calling Lewis unimaginative, we can praise the man for a mind that seems to have had the capacity to hold on to everything he had ever read. Lewis was naturally influenced by his experiences just as all of us are. It is not unimaginative plagiarism that causes Lewis to use a piece of furniture to invade the land of Narnia, but recognition that this device works. Why reinvent the wheel when a writing desk worked for George MacDonald, a looking glass sufficed for Lewis Carroll, and Barrie brought the delicious advent of pixie dust? And, as we are taught in college, the great author writes about what he knows. Lewis and his brother Warnie spent hours as children “imagining” in a spare room containing a big old wardrobe.
If The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not pedantry, then, what is it? We will see below that, in writing about what he knew, Lewis managed to address the deep needs of humanity through a very personal expression of faith using many such literary devices as allegory. In the process, Lewis provided a cathartic experience both for himself and his readers.
The wardrobe itself, of course, is the key to how this all works. Upon repeat readings of the book, we begin to understand that the wardrobe is more than a piece of furniture and that its usage has rules. Yes, the wardrobe is a doorway into another world, but it cannot be used carelessly or at the whim of any individual. Lack of access to their own world (whether because of weather or the crowding of adults) makes Narnia available and accessible to the Pevensie children. Lewis, through the story, is decrying the necessity of a time that required the removal of children from their familiar surroundings because of the danger of falling bombs. The perils of war remained heavy upon Lewis’ heart, as did the separation from his mother as a result of her untimely death when he was nine. The wardrobe becomes a way to escape and explore feelings too private to be shared otherwise.
For Lewis, there was good precedent for using fantasy to work out these ideas for both children and adults. In his essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Lewis says that “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” He further offers that “there may be an author who at a particular moment finds not only fantasy but fantasy-for-children the exactly right form for what he wants to say.” He was supported in these statements by his friend and fellow fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien, who felt that if fantasy “is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults.”
Fantasy satisfies something deep within the human being that wants to create worlds and desires to interact with those worlds in ways that have been denied in our real one. Narnia is Lewis’ chance to participate in the creation of a land in which old tales can have different endings or may simply be explored to see why things have to happen the way they do. Animals talk, trees are alive, ideas are personified, time seems to stand still—all so that other things can be made sense of and explained. The great danger of fantasy, of course, is preferring the other worlds; but note that Lewis brings his heroes and heroines back out of the wardrobe for reality checks. He does not allow his characters (or himself) the luxury of “hiding” forever in Narnia.
In really good literature, there comes a point where the reader recognizes that the soul of the author is being laid bare. One may not always understand what drove the writer to expose himself through his prose, but there is a delicious sense of being allowed into secret places where one is tantalized with suggestions of things too personal and perhaps painful to expose other than through the veil of literature. The heart of C.S. Lewis lies exposed in The Chronicles of Narnia, most especially in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which becomes an outlet for the passion and the personal pain of a very private man.
Several of Lewis’ biographers concede that he would have continued writing only theological books if it had not been for a fateful debate with Elizabeth Anscombe in 1948. Lewis had just finished his book Miracles, and Anscombe took him to task at a public meeting over his philosophical definition of naturalism in chapter three. Although she was not questioning his faith, Lewis’ inability to answer her argument left him mortified and feeling like a failure. He resolved never to write another theological work so that he would never again be open to such humiliation. In addition, Lewis was in a constant search to understand the nature of God and the great gift he believed he had been given because of Jesus Christ. So in many ways, the creation of Narnia can be understood as an outlet for a passionate, private man—one searching to find his Maker in a relationship that had relevance for both the Creator (God) and the creature (Lewis). Rereading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe from this perspective brings the man, Lewis, into sharper focus and presents good proof that there are indeed better ways of telling the truth than through mere argumentation.
Now we must turn to the issue of allegory. The following definition will suffice:
Allegory is a form of extended metaphor in which objects, persons and actions in a narrative are equated with the meanings that lie outside the narrative itself. The underlying meaning has moral, social, religious or political significance, and characters are often personifications of abstract ideas as charity, greed or envy. Thus an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning.
Immediately upon reading the above definition, one might be led to say that Lewis does use the device too much. Lewis, in fact, embraced the use of allegory to such a degree that it disturbed his friend Tolkien, who abhorred the use of allegory and fought tooth and nail to keep people from finding it in any of his own “Fairy Stories.” Nonetheless, as blatant as Lewis’ use of allegory is, it works in this story for several reasons.
First of all, the use of allegory can enhance any story. How boring is it to read a story that only has one meaning? Multiple levels of meaning are what create a classic—a book to which we return over and over because there is always something new to find, or a new way to think about something because of ever-increasing progress in maturation. A twenty-something person doesn’t view or think about the world the same way that a forty-something person does—or as a child or teenager does.
Having read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in at least four different stages of life now, I can honestly admit that it has meant something different to me every time I’ve read it. Discussing the book with a ten-year-old is profoundly different from discussing it with a group of adult peers as a fifty-year-old. As Lewis himself said in “Essay on Stories,” “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty.”
Secondly, Lewis’ use of allegory is completely blatant for good reason. There are no surprises and no guessing games as to what things could possibly mean. Lewis never stoops to the use of obscure references, theological language, or confusing double entendre. (Okay, there is that one reference to Lilith; but was Lewis being snobbishly well-read, or just trying to throw in something for his more esoteric friends?) When the children are in Narnia, the entire story is a metaphorical children’s Bible. Lewis capitalizes the pronouns used to describe Aslan just as the pronouns for Jesus are capitalized in the Bible. Aslan is a lion, a clear reference to one of Jesus’ messianic titles—the Lion of Judah. The stone table is decorated with pagan etchings, a place of sacrifice as pagan as the cross used by the Romans to kill Jesus. Queen Jadis is the personification of evil and, although not an exact representation of Satan, close enough to elicit the comparison. Edmund on one level is just a bratty little kid, but on another embodies greed, self-serving behavior, and disdain for the consequences of his actions for himself or others. Aslan willingly gives up his own life for Edmund, who is not worthy of the sacrifice. Mr. Tumnus, the faun, is the Judas who betrays the presence of the children to Queen Jadis, which ultimately leads to the capture of Aslan. Even Father Christmas is included. What child doesn’t recognize Father Christmas as the giver of good gifts? The list is endless and provides the opportunity for conversation on whatever level the conversers are capable of or comfortable with.
Thirdly, the use of allegory doesn’t mean that the comparisons have to be exact. After all, we are talking fantasy fiction, and the author has the prerogative of creating and composing his own tale. For instance, Queen Jadis may display many of the character traits known of Satan, but Lewis leads us more toward a personified evil than an exact duplication of a stereotypical character. Similarly, Aslan doesn’t die on a cross, yet his sacrifice is every bit as poignant and relevant within the context of this story as Jesus’ was in His. This is what Tolkien called “a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it.”
And this leads us to the cathartic nature of the story. If we are to find the reading of the tale worthy of our time and relevant to our lives, we must trust the author to use what works—such as allegory—and allow him that artistic license. After all, a great part of the satisfaction of writing is found in the purification or purging of the emotions; that is, catharsis. Lewis’ use of allegory in his story allows for the release of his disillusionment, disappointment, and personal grief. We must allow Lewis to be Lewis, forcing him to “neither laugh at nor explain away the magic of the tale” (to once again use Tolkien’s words).
Ultimately, we recognize that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has accomplished well the four elements Tolkien considered essential for the fairy story: “Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation.” The book is good because we are free to become children without losing our identity as adults. We are encouraged to have the open and accepting heart of a child that is so hard to hold on to as we age and become jaded by our world.
While both Tolkien and Lewis agreed that fantasy could be a realm left for children, they believed that older people were probably most desperately in need of recovery, escape, and consolation. I would personally neither separate fantasy from adults nor the other three from children.
In the exercise of our imaginations we can find relief from the constant pressures of our world. Reading fantasy is the purest use of imagination aside from writing and creating it ourselves. It does not matter that our individual mental pictures of Aslan aren’t the exact mental picture that C. S. Lewis had of him. In sharing the fantasy, we become co-creators with Lewis and experience a partnership in a different world where problems may be confronted, worked on, and finally talked about and resolved for the benefit of the real world. The individual imaginations meet to compare, discuss, and grow. Books are the best vehicles for this exercise because the reader is not at the mercy of anyone else’s visualization of the story. How many of us have experienced the disappointment of a visual interpretation of a favorite story by a screenwriter or director in a movie?
Recovery—the need to take a step back to regain a fresh view and make a new start—is needed by all people, although it could be conceded that children do not have enough life experiences to necessitate fresh starts. However, if as adults we don’t take the time to stop and think about what we believe and why we believe it, we are in real danger of stagnation and decay. Lewis’ use of allegory proves to be a very non-threatening way to explore some hard topics, such as fear, death, suffering, pain, love, and commitment.
Only a very foolish or hypocritical person would deny the need for escape—which does not mean desertion, but rather a break to be able to assess where one is and appropriate the necessary means to recover the clear view. Remember that Lewis did not allow the four children to remain forever in Narnia, but took them back and forth through the wardrobe at different times and for different reasons.
Lastly, a good story provides consolation, i.e. the happy ending. This is what Tolkien coined “the Eucatastrophe”— the good catastrophe—that “denies universal defeat” and brings “Joy beyond the walls of the world.” We don’t always get to have happy endings in our lives, but if we lose the hope of an ultimately happy ending we can easily give up the need for imagining, recovery and escape, making life meaningless and empty. Lewis regained his own child-like heart by opening a wardrobe door to another world and he generously invites those who would read to come along.
Before concluding, I must briefly address two more parts of my opening salvo.
First, poor editing is just a fact we have to accept about Lewis, and is the only criticism that cannot be argued against in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. C. S. Lewis rapped out the seven books in this series between 1950 and 1957. He obviously was not the slave to detail that Tolkien was and was more interested in getting the story out there than noticing whether pronouns for Mr. Tumnus in one chapter match pronouns for Mr. Tumnus in the next chapter. Only the literature majors really pick up on such things (anyone else needing their their perception validated?).
And finally, many critics of Lewis’ juvenile fiction have accused him of the repetition of phrases and the overuse of some words and ideas, citing these “failures” as proof of poor writing. (As discussed above, the use of allegory falls into the supposedly-trite category.) But obviously, the man who was capable of writing books such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters and Surprised by Joy was not at a loss for words. In fact, Tolkien actually became miffed at Lewis’ productivity and accused him of being too prolific a writer.
But the continued popularity of both Lewis’ nonfiction and fiction, long after his death, proves that people find what Lewis has to say relevant. It would be wise to remember that even though these Narnian tales were written for all ages to enjoy, the primary target audience was children, or at least those who could allow themselves to have the heart of a child. The repetition of a phrase like, “it is very silly to shut oneself into a wardrobe,” actually makes sense when we think about human nature. As children, all but the most profoundly exceptional have to hear the same admonitions and instructions over and over again before they are finally learned. Those who have raised a child have heard themselves say, “How often do I have to repeat myself?” more than they care to count.
And this tendency toward “deafness” is not limited to children. As adults, we find constant repetition in our workplaces, homes, churches—anywhere something significant has to be accomplished. Repetition may be annoying, but it’s how the human being learns.