As I noted on Friday, I decided to re-read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in preparation for watching the movie. In retrospect that turned out to be a mistake (more on that when I review the movie), but I did enjoy re-reading this children’s classic.
For those of you living in a cave, let me recap the basic story line. Four children are sent off to a professor’s country house during the London Blitz of WWII. Exploring the house on a rainy day they find a wardrobe that turns out to be a portal to a magical world. This world, Narnia, is under the control of the White Witch who keeps it in a perpetual winter – without Christmas! The children, who appear to be the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, soon find themselves deeply enmeshed in this fantastical world.
The true ruler of Narnia is Aslan, a giant lion, who returns at the same time the children arrive. Together they must battle the White Witch to return Narnia to its former glory and end her reign of terror.
C.S. Lewis’s famous work is really a simple children’s fairy tale with a straightforward plot and stock characters. But what makes it a classic is the way Lewis’s writing and imagination bring this genre to life.
The story is well known as a Christian allegory; and not always a subtle one. In fact, J.R.R. Tolkien famously felt that Lewis went a bit over the top with the allegorical aspect. There is an interesting debate to be had on whether allegory by its nature detracts from the power of the story (see here and here for starters), but I think in this case the allegory only adds a layer of meaning. A great many people over the last fifty years have enjoyed the story without being put off or distracted by the symbolism. Today, some people seem more easily offended, but there are still non-religious Lewis fans.
Much of the power of the book comes from its simplicity and clarity. Lewis’s touch is light and has that classic British dry wit, but he can also generate depth and emotion. Lucy is such a precocious and generous child that we can’t help but feel bad when her brothers and sisters don’t believe her. We admire her devotion to Mr. Tumnus and feel her pain when Aslan seems lost. We can relate to Edmund’s falling under the witch’s spell and we feel his deep gratitude when he is forgiven. We can sense the power and the innate goodness of Aslan and so feel the pain when he is kicked and beaten and tied up. The despair of his death touches us.
The symbols and ideas may be obvious (the simple faith of children, the corrosive nature of jealousy, the power of devotion and self-sacrifice, etc.) but they are no less powerful because they reflect the basic realities of our human nature. We all want to be loved, to have friends who will remain faithful, to live a life that makes difference.
One of the more difficult things is to take a simple or well known idea and replicate it; to take a classic form and re-imagine it. This is what Lewis has done with the children’s fairy tale. If you think it is easy to do, try it yourself. Lewis deft touch provides an enchanted setting, engaging characters, and a exciting plot but at the same time leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination. Unlike Tolkien, Lewis’s Narnia isn’t a complex world with whole races and languages – an entire history – created nearly from scratch. Rather, Lewis takes the ingredients of children’s stories, fairy tales, and mythology and uses them in his own unique way. He does all of this in two hundred pages.
Lewis and Tolkien are a part of my childhood and I am happy to report that, fifty years after their publication, they are still worth reading.