The Soul of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

"Fairy tales, romance and adventure appeal to us, not just because they are different from our ordinary experience but because they present in easily assimilable form an essential element of that experience, the shrouding mystery of life and the tremulous human desire for an unseen glory."--S.L. Bethell

There has been a renewed interest in fairy tales and various other strains of fantasy and imaginative literature in recent years, prompted no doubt by the publishing of the wildly popular Harry Potter series, the film production of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and now C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This interest is nothing new historically speaking, for imaginative literature has been around as long as the imagination. But the recent revival of interest in myth and fairy is not without confusion, for clarity and wisdom do not always accompany interest. A quick look at the current debates regarding fantasy literature would immediately prove this point.

Indeed, this is why a story like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe can be so often read and yet not be appreciated for its multi-layers of meaning. Readers, and even some literary scholars, confuse the distinctions between the various strains of fantasy literature, leading to anecdotal interpretations of the Narnia narratives, which miss the intention of its author and obscure the deeper significance of the story.

Only someone who understands how the imagination works in relation to truth, who recognizes the layers of meaning in Lewis' fantasy, who is careful to pay close attention to Lewis' own journey to the Faith, and who takes Lewis objective in writing The Chronicles of Narnia seriously could accomplish such a task.

In The Soul of the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Gene Veith attempts to do just that, to steer clear of the aforementioned deviations by allowing Lewis' spiritual pilgrimage and stated objectives in writing fantasy speak for itself. He is sensitive to the concerns and aims of Lewis and is careful not to veer from what Lewis expressed as his intention in writing The Chronicles.

Veith's carefulness, however, does not keep him from cataloging the spiritual realities that lay behind the story, nor does it stop him from commenting on the correspondence between the world of Narnia and the world you and I inhabit everyday. In fact, Veith understands such an attempt to be in keeping with Lewis' vision: to disciple the mind through the use of the imagination, providing impressions of goodness, which are rendered attractive, and thus prompt us to live in aspiration of them.

Veith carries this task out by revealing the relationship between Scripture and the symbols of Lewis' creation. In other words, the Christian threads that string the story together and serve as the thematic core is here brought to the foreground and made explicit. Veith takes note of the characters, references, descriptions, moods, and senses of the story and spotlights the Biblical sympathies and overtones--often citing Scripture to make it plain.

Now, some of you will balk at this approach, and trust me, I do sympathize with you. As a long time lover of fantasy literature, I lean in the direction of Kathryn Lindskoog when she says, "A microscope and flashlight are the wrong tools to use in the land of wonder." Like most fantasy lovers, I find the embodied quality of truth in fairy tales appealing, and in some cases, more convincing than the propositional. To piece the story apart is, well, to lose the story altogether! But in Veith's treatment, I rarely winced. He seemed to share my love and appreciation for storied truth, and in reading him, I gathered the impression that writing a companion to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was as difficult for him to write, as it would be for a fantasy lover to read!

Now, in the last half of the book, Veith moves beyond The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to tackle, what he refers to as, "The Fantasy Wars." But in moving beyond the title story, he does not leave it behind; rather he uses the story, along with other "good fantasy" stories, as a rubric by which to make judgments.

In this section, Veith makes strides toward distinguishing "good fantasy" and "bad fantasy." Wisely, he roots the discussion in the understanding of how fantasy works, being able to discern and make judgments about worldview messages, and what consequence a particular work of fantasy may have on the reader (p.113-129).

As you might have suspected, Veith does not avoid the debate in the Christian community over the Harry Potter series, a sticky wicket indeed! He offers some analysis of the continuity and discontinuity between the worldview of J.K. Rowling with that of Lewis and Tolkien, pinpointing how the worldview differences of the authors are actually manifested on the written page. To agree with Veith completely at this turn, one must share his vision of fantasy literature. My guess is some will part company in these chapters.

For brevity sake, I will not attempt to trace or evaluate Veith's position on Harry Potter. But I will assure you that he recognizes and addresses the central points of contention, and approaches the discussion with the complexity and sensitivity it is seldom given but certainly deserves. His conclusion regarding Harry Potter, I contend, will satisfy next to no one, and I suspect that's the point.

Before closing the book, Veith tackles the fantasy writing of the well-known atheist Philip Pullman and his series, His Dark Materials, a trilogy of three novels: The Golden Compass in 1996 (also entitled Northern Lights in the British edition); The Subtle Knife in 1997; and The Amber Spyglass in 2000. Veith takes the inconsistency between Pullman's atheistic beliefs and his career as a fantasy writer to task, revealing both Pullman's hatred for Narnia (a series Pullman described as, " the most ugly and poisonous things I have ever read, with no shortage of nauseating drivel.") and his sinister, under-handed agenda to promote atheism through the imagination. Whatever gray may have existed regarding Harry Potter is thankfully missing in Veith's evaluation of Pullman.

Veith brings his work to a fitting close by showing how the legacy of Lewis is broad enough to reach a modern and postmodern world. In his non-fiction, works like Miracles, Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain, and other writings; Lewis highlights the objective and logical quality of the Christian faith. Such an approach to evangelism has proven effective for years among moderns. But on the flip side, Lewis' fiction, works like The Chronicles of Narnia, The Great Divorce, The Space Trilogy, and Till We Have Faces; appeal to the imagination and seek to tell the narrative of the Christian story. Such an approach to evangelism has recently proven effective among postmoderns.

In contrast to those who separate the logical and the imaginative, Lewis understands these two approaches as reflective of the essential nature of Christian truth. This is why Lewis often referred to the Biblical story as the myth which became fact. For in his assessment, a Christian view of truth culminates in the person of Jesus Christ, who brings actuality and mythology together, who bridges the gap between the heavenly and earthly realms, and who marries the Word with flesh. This is the reality Veith recognizes in the writing of Lewis, and one he encourages us to not forget.

Gene Veith - Colorado Springs: Cook Communications, 2005 
Review by Nate Shurden