C.S. Lewis’s classic children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is one of the ten bestselling books of all time, standing shoulder to shoulder with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in the elite list of world bestsellers.
What is it about the genre of fantasy fiction that makes it so enduringly popular? Is it a further sign of modernity’s malaise and its inability to cope with reality, or is it perhaps a sign of hope in our deplorably darkened days?
The answer was given by C.S. Lewis’s friend and mentor, J.R.R. Tolkien, in his famous lecture “on fairy stories,” delivered in 1939, shortly after the publication of The Hobbit and while Tolkien was working on The Lord of the Rings. According to Tolkien, fairy tales assist in the “recovery” of the human spirit, the “re-gaining . . . of a clear view,” which enables us to see things “as we are . . . meant to see them.” Fairy tales transcend the barren limitations of “how things are” to explore the fruitful possibilities of “how things should be.”
Tolkien’s view of fairy stories was inspired by G.K. Chesterton, a writer who exerted a profound influence on Lewis as well. In the chapter entitled “The Ethics of Elfland” in his book Orthodoxy Chesterton’s words seem to prefigure Tolkien’s own arguments:
My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. . . . The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. . . . Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticized elfland, but elfland that criticized the earth.
For Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien, the goodness, truth, and beauty of fairy stories is to be found in how they judge the way things are from the perspective of the way things ought to be. We do not condone selfishness merely because it is normal, nor should we. A healthy perspective always judges selfishness, and most especially our own selfishness, from the perspective of selflessness. In the language of religion, we always judge sin from the perspective of virtue. This moral perspective, which fairy stories share with religion, is condemned by the materialist and the relativist.
Materialists habitually dismiss fairy stories for being “escapist” and representing a childish flight from reality. Responding to such criticism, Tolkien accused his accusers of seeking to imprison the imagination within the stifling walls of materialist presumption. “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?” Tolkien then implies that the materialist critics are themselves the jailers, treating “the Escape of the Prisoner” as though it were “the Flight of the Deserter”: “Just so a Party-spokesman might have labeled departure from the misery of the Führer’s or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery.” The real reason, therefore, behind the prejudice against, and the hostility for, fairy tales on the part of many literary critics is purely a prejudice against, and an hostility toward, metaphysics in general, and Christianity in particular.
Fairy stories serve as a moral mirror, showing us ourselves in the light of a Christian understanding of reality. It is in this light that we need to see the truths that emerge in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, seven books published in the 1950’s, which are awash with Christian symbolism and deep theological perception.
In The Magician’s Nephew the character of Uncle Andrew, seemingly a parody of H.G. Wells, serves to epitomize the connection between modern scientism and medieval magic. Like the medieval alchemists, Uncle Andrew uses or abuses the power of “science” for egocentric and therefore evil purposes, seeking to domineer nature in pursuit of illicit power. Refusing to subject himself or his scientific discoveries to any ethical constraint, he falls under the power of Jadis, the wicked Queen of Charn, who serves as a Satan figure, not only in this story but also in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which she is known as the White Witch. Furthermore, Jadis utters the Deplorable Word, a magical curse that destroys all life on the planet except for the person who utters it. In the chill climate of the Cold War in which The Magician’s Nephew was written there are clear parallels with the power to destroy all human life on the planet with the push of a button. This horrific power, by which the U.S. or Soviet president could destroy millions of lives with the use of a “deplorable word” ordering a nuclear strike, was justified by modern-day Uncle Andrews as part of the military strategy of “mutually assured destruction,” a Cold War doctrine that was as mad literally as it was acronymically. The fact that this political analogy is intended by Lewis is made clear in the cautionary words of Aslan to the children of our world:
Let the race of Adam and Eve take warning. . . . It is not certain that some wicked one of your race will not find out a secret as evil as the Deplorable Word and use it to destroy all living things. And soon, very soon, before you are an old man and an old woman, great nations in your world will be ruled by tyrants who care no more for joy and justice and mercy than the Empress Jadis. Let your world beware. That is the warning.
For all its relevance in terms of its applicability to contemporary politics, The Magician’s Nephew is most memorable for its analogous retelling of the Creation story from the Book of Genesis. As Aslan, the figure of Christ, sings the creatures of Narnia into being, echoing the Great Music with which Ilúvatar (God the Father) creates Middle-earth in The Silmarillion, we see the role of God not merely in His divine attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience but in his role as the great artist, the composer of the great symphony of Creation, the source and well-spring of all beauty. There is also deep mystical significance in the words of Creation that Aslan utters: “Narnia, Narnia, Narnia, awake. Love. Think. Speak.” The juxtaposition of love, think, and speak resonates with trinitarian significance and is suggestive of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Further profound theological exposition, this time on the nature of sin, is poured forth in the verse on the gates to the Garden that contains the life-giving fruit:
Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for others or forbear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
Shall find their heart’s desire and find despair.
Here we see an understanding that the fruit in the Garden, whether in Narnia or Eden, is not evil but good. Even the fruit that we are forbidden to eat is good, because God does not create evil things. The evil is not in the fruit but in the motive for plucking it. It is the sin of disobedience that poisons the fruit. The fruit of God-Love (God and Love, properly understood, being synonymous and therefore always interchangeable) is always to be plucked for others to eat, necessitating a selflessness on the part of the plucker. Seeking it for ourselves poisons it with the prideful canker of selfishness that leads to despair, a psychological and spiritual reality that Lewis explores with unsurpassed brilliance in The Great Divorce.
If The Magician’s Nephew provides a mythopoetic retelling of the Creation story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does the same for the Passion of Christ.
Aslan offers himself to be sacrificed in the place of Edmund, who had betrayed his family and friends to the White Witch. The Witch reminds Aslan of the “Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time”: “You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill.” Here the Witch reveals herself as a Satan figure, the primeval traitor to whom all treachery owes its ultimate allegiance. “And so,” she continues, “that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property.” Knowing that the Deep Magic cannot be denied and that Justice must be done, Aslan offers himself to be sacrificed in the place of the offender.
In the chapter entitled “The Triumph of the Witch” we see the enactment of Aslan’s passion. He has his agony in the garden; he is scourged, beaten, kicked, ridiculed, taunted. Finally, he is bound and dragged to the Stone Table on which he is killed. Following his resurrection, Aslan explains “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know”:
Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who has committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.
Aslan, the sinless victim, saves the life of Edmund and, with him, the life of every other “traitor.”
I’ve offered only the merest hint of the feast that awaits the reader of The Chronicles of Narnia, which offers the reader a full seven courses, from Aslan’s creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew to the apocalypse of The Last Battle.
We cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven unless we become like little children. Since this is so, we should not think ourselves too grown up to walk with eyes of wonder through the wardrobe of the imagination into the Kingdom of Narnia. By engaging our imaginations in fairy stories such as these, we discover the place that every heart desires, where we can live happily ever after.