The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Pastiche, Pullman, and Power

What Makes Lewis's First Fantasy Novel a Classic

December 7, 2007
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J.R.R. Tolkien famously complained that Narnia was a “mishmash” of mythologies. Reading the first Narnia book, an adult might think that maybe Tolkien was right: this book really does read like a pastiche. Fauns and centaurs from Greek mythology, evil wolves from Norse mythology, not to mention Father Christmas showing up—no wonder Tolkien the purist found this book irritating and inconsistent.

But Lewis’s first book in the series has its own charms: starting with “all winter and never Christmas,” then ending with spring and Easter, it reads like the perfect holiday gift book, easily spanning the seasons, so that you really could give it as either a Christmas or Easter present, or both.

Talking beavers in The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeAnd you have to wonder: was Lewis even thinking of writing a series when he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? The book truly is a stand-alone work. If my memories from my juvenile years spent poring over A Companion to Narnia serve me right, there are quite a few things in this book that are contradicted in later books[1], which to me underlines the impression that for Lewis, the first book was written as a lark, followed by a series of larks, without any sort of general overall plan in mind.

So it amuses me when self-styled Arch-Nemesis of Narnia, author Philip Pullman (of The Golden Compass, whose movie opens today) accuses Lewis of writing deliberate propaganda to indoctrinate innocent children into Christianity. LWW, with its portrayal of the death and resurrection of Aslan the Lion, does seem at first to be the strongest proof of deliberate catechetical intent on the part of the author.

But the evidence seems to suggest that Lewis wrote the books for fun, with no particular purpose in mind except to imaginatively explore a Christian speculation: “Supposing that there really was a world like Narnia, and supposing it had (like our world) gone wrong, and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours), what might have happened?”[2]

In other words, Lewiss goal in writing LWW was not to bring the Gospel to the unchurched child, but to indulge in a minor Christian speculation, similar to wondering whether or not Christ would go to Mars to save Martians, if there were Martians. (And Lewis was definitely fascinated by this latter question, as his Space Trilogy attests to.)

Thus, although Lewis was a convert and a Christian apologist, when it came to fiction, he wrote about what he found interesting: not what he decided that his audience needed to hear. In other words, he understood the difference in purpose between fiction and non-fiction, a distinction which seems to have eluded writers like Philip Pullman.

If Lewis was setting out to write a Christian tract, he certainly had a very roundabout, meandering, and even sloppy way of doing it. If his end goal was to get kids reading the Bible, why bother to drag in the fauns and dryads? Pullman, who apparently did start with ambitions to write a literary tract for atheism, has had much greater success in writing a book that is undoubtedly propaganda disguised as fantasy (but, I think, he has had significantly less success in writing a children’s classic, or any sort of classic, for that matter).

Tumnus the faun in The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeLewis, in his own words, began the book because of pictures in his head that haunted him: a faun with a scarf wrapped round his neck, walking through a snowy wood. A lady in white on a sledge. And then, the key image, the Lion. And so began the story of Narnia, with a book whose very title suggests pastiche, random objects strung together to make a story: a lion, a witch, and a wardrobe.

But the book he created was a whole entity far more than the sum of its parts, light as Christmas marzipan yet containing such power that no child or adult who read it was ever again able to think of lions, or witches, or wardrobes, in quite the same way.

It’s a rare book, one that shouldn’t work, and yet it does. It reminds you of The Wizard of Oz. But I loved the Oz books, and I never cried over them, either as a child or as an adult. When I read the LWW, I did. Both times. It reminds you of Alice in Wonderland. I adored Alice’s adventures, but I never felt for Alice what I felt for Lucy or Edmund. Alice is a charming girl, but you’re never moved or appalled by her actions the way you’re touched by Lucy and Edmund’s.

In the end, the book is a classic because it truly is itself, something new that resonates with us here and now, even as it reminds us of older, well-loved things.

I don’t think Lewis intended to write a series, but once he had written this first book, I can understand why he didn’t want to leave Narnia, not yet. Unlike Tolkien, who couldn’t ever completely abandon Middle-earth once he had been there, I don’t think Lewis wanted to stay in Narnia. But I do think he definitely wanted to do some more exploring before he left. His explorations took the form of six more books, The Chronicles of Narnia.

But once he had penned The Last Battle, and brought his characters out of Narnia and further up and further into Aslan’s real country, he was content to leave. After all, it wasn’t really Narnia that had attracted him in the first place, but Aslan. You sense that Lewis was happy so long as he could be where Aslan was.

And hopefully, he still is.

[1] John J. Miller notes a few in his National Review article “Xmas in Narnia”: “ ‘There’s never been any of your race here before,’ says Mr. Beaver to the Pevensie kids. As we learn later in the series, however, this isn’t true. Perhaps this can be chalked up to Mr. Beaver not knowing any better. Yet his statement is actually the result of Lewis not knowing any better. When he started writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he did not plan to compose six sequels. Later books suffer from some near-sightedness that found its way into the first one.” See http://www.nationalreview.com/miller/miller200512220847.asp for the very interesting entire article.

[2] I forget the original reference for this quote, but it’s quoted by Michael Nelson in his article “For the Love of Narnia” in the 12/2/2005 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Chronicle Review which was republished here: http://dedulysses.wordpress.com/2005/12/26/for-the-love-of-narnia-refutes-pullmans-problems-with-lewis/

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Regina Doman specializes in writing books based on fairy tales, including most recently, The Midnight Dancers, a novel for teens and adults based on "The Twelve Dancing Princesses." (See www.fairytalenovels.com.) She also writes, edits, and oh yes, is helping her husband raise their seven children in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. She’s a member of St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, and can be reached via www.reginadoman.com.

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