The Lion's World

Rowan Williams, The Lion's World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia. Oxford :Oxford University Press, 2012, 168 pp. $16.95/£11.00 (hardcover)

When the film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first hit screens in December of 2005, a gaggle of secular movie critics gleefully pilloried Christian moviegoers for naively interpreting the film (and the novel on which it was based) as an allegory for Christianity. "Don't you know," they mocked, "that C. S. Lewis himself said that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was not a Christian allegory?"

Were these critics correct in their claims? Yes and no. Lewis did, in fact, say just such a thing, but when he said it, he did not mean what the critics naively thought he meant. Lewis was an English professor, and, as such, used literary terms in their proper sense. The Narnia books are not, technically speaking, allegories. In an allegory like Pilgrim's Progress each character (and often each object) in the story stands for something in our world; there is a one-to-one correspondence between the fictional character and what he represents. The fictional character has no real separate existence as a literary creation; he merely stands in for a concept: Despair, Faith, Hope, Salvation, Temptation, and so forth.

That is not the case with Narnia. Aslan, as Lewis explained, was not an allegory for Christ; rather, he was the Christ of Narnia. He is what the Second Person of the Trinity might have been like had he been incarnated on a magical world of talking animals and living trees. Yes, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis does reenact, in the world of Narnia, the gospel of death and resurrection that leads to redemption, but he only does so once in the seven Chronicles.

More often, Lewis laces his tales with second, Christian meanings that do not simply recapitulate biblical episodes. In his brief, but richly insightful new book, The Lion's World: A Journey into the Heart of Narnia, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, mines those meanings in a lucid and winsome way that will appeal to readers of all ages and backgrounds.

Delving not only to the heart of Narnia but to the heart of Lewis, Williams demonstrates how the Narnian stories do not so much teach us Christian doctrine and practice as help us to experience it alongside the characters. Lewis helps us to feel (rather than know) what it means to believe in the atonement, to stand face to face with the incarnate Creator, and to have all of our self-delusions and self-justifications stripped away. 

Lewis, writes Williams, recreates "for the reader what it is like to encounter and believe in God." Lewis does this for his readers because he knows that what most of them need--especially if they have grown up in the church--is not to attend another Sunday School class or hear another Sabbath sermon, but "to be surprised into a realization that they have never actually reckoned with what Christianity is about."

In a wonderful flash of insight that I have not read in the work of any other Lewis scholar, Williams points out two oft overlooked aspects about the Chronicles: 1) "There is no 'church' in Narnia, no religion even"; 2) "'Narnia' is both a name for the whole of this world and the name of one particular kingdom within it." Based on these two insights, Williams concludes "that the kingdom of Narnia is itself the 'Church,' the community where transforming relation with Aslan becomes fully possible."

It is into that kingdom and community that Williams invites us to travel, warning us as he does that if we would be fellow Narnians, we must humbly lay aside our pride, even our pride as human beings: for in Narnia, we not only turn out to be, at times, a "positively toxic presence," but are placed on a level playing field with talking animals and living trees. Without (thankfully) descending into radical environmentalism, Williams uses Narnia (as well as the Space Trilogy) to temper our arrogance and show us that we are but a part of God's greater plan for the cosmos.

Properly humbled, the reader is able to learn from Lewis (via Williams) that grace is often something that disrupts our sense of order and control. Neither Lewis nor Williams shies away from the anarchic, often erotically-tinged nature of the romps, rebellions, and bacchanalian feasts that continually erupt among Aslan's followers. In a wonderful phrase, Williams dubs Lewis a "Tory anarchist" who was skeptical of all utopian schemes to perfect man, nature, and society.

Even more shocking, Williams marshals the full weight of Lewis's writings against our self-analytical, overly-introspective age. Once Edmund has been saved by Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he ceases to think about himself and just looks at Aslan. Though Williams does not quote that specific passage, he shows that throughout the Chronicles, the child protagonists are encouraged to identify the exact nature of their bad choices (that is, their sins) and then to forget about it and move on. 

Many moderns criticize Lewis for advocating self-forgetfulness, but Williams, to his credit, insists that we learn from Lewis on this point rather than stand in judgment over him. Lewis's warnings against introspection "may sound to a compulsively self-absorbed age like prescriptions for insensitivity or immaturity," but the fact of the matter is that joy (true Joy) only comes when we stop thinking about ourselves.

In addition to defending Lewis on this point, Williams also devotes a much-needed chapter to defending Lewis from his critics. One of the more persistent criticisms of Lewis in general and Narnia in particular centers around a meeting of the Oxford Socratic Club, during which philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe "bested" Lewis by revealing flaws in his argument that naturalism is self-refuting. Lewis, so the story goes, was so traumatized by this event that he forsook rational apologetics and ran for cover in the adolescent fairy world of Narnia.

Luckily for lovers of Lewis, Williams's refutation of this ultimately ridiculous argument has been seconded in an excellent new biography of Lewis written by the accomplished apologist Alister McGrath: C. S. Lewis - A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. Lewis, McGrath argues, not only accepted Anscombe's philosophical criticism of Chapter 3 of Miracles, but followed up by so reworking and expanding Chapter 3 as to gain the approval of Anscombe, a committed Catholic believer. True, McGrath admits, after the debate with Anscombe Lewis did retreat somewhat from taking on more recent philosophical arguments, but he did not abandon rational apologetics for fantasy. Not only did he continue to publish apologetics essays, his Narnia books carry on a strain of imaginative apologetics that he had begun long before with his Space Trilogy.

Just as McGrath and Williams take pains to clear up this unfortunate misreading of the Anscombe debate and its aftermath, so do both writers defend Lewis from charges of misogyny, racial stereotyping, and general medievalism. Unfortunately, in these areas, their support for Lewis is more defensive (well, what do you expect of a man of Lewis's age and background) than offensive. Although they are to be commended for not patronizing Lewis (as, alas, many modern Lewis critics have done), I wish they had had the courage, or at least open-mindedness, to entertain the possibility that Lewis's views on the sexes might just be more biblical than ours.

Is it not possible that the true misogynist is not the traditionalist who (like Lewis) identifies essential, God-created differences between the sexes, but the feminist, whether secular or Christian, who argues that there is no such thing as masculinity and femininity--that what people like Lewis call essential differences are merely social constructions? Given that the latter has led to the emasculation of true masculinity and the ridiculing and even erasing of true femininity, while the former respects and celebrates the complementarian distinctions between men and women, it seems to me that Lewis's views should be wrestled with rather than defanged and swept under the rug as Williams and McGrath tend to do. 

Still, The Lion's World merits close reading, opening up as it does fresh vistas on tales that, the very moment we think we know them, surprise us again in a thousand new and astonishing ways.

Louis Markos (see his website here), Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include Lewis Agonistes, Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, Apologetics for the 21st Century, and On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis.