Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reclaiming Narnia

Prince Caspian
After I wrote my last post, I went surfing to see how widespread my idea about Narnia being faerie is. (Somewhat after the fact, I admit; also, not that common.) What I discovered in the process was that Narnia has been largely co-opted by two different camps. On the one side is the overtly theological camp, which wants to read even more theology into Narnia than C. S. Lewis would have welcomed. I’ve read enough of his work to know that Lewis himself believed in the old-fashioned notion that the best of Greek and Roman (pagan) culture had some genuine good in it, and this good found fulfillment (for him) in Christ. I think he would have said this about fairy tales, as much as he did about ancient poets. So no, it’s not a theological allegory, a parlor trick for duping people into learning religious dogma; he even says as much.

The other camp—there seem to be always two camps these days, and always squaring off over some shared misunderstanding. Anyway, the other camp holds that the Narnia books are too Christian, too theological, too inconsistent, too this and too that … Virtual whiners, we might call them. Fault-finders. They apparently dislike what the “theology” camp likes. Both are missing the point.

If, like me, you’re disgusted by this kind of co-opting and want to reclaim Narnia, here’s my suggestion. Read these books aloud to children (preferably about 6 years old). You’ll discover a few things, I think. One is that Narnia reads extremely well aloud. At least, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does. You can easily and intuitively inject the correct emotion into just about any piece of dialogue. There are pauses and surprises that come right out of the book at you—and better yet, at your rapt child-audience. Watch their faces while you read, and then tell me that it’s “too theological” or it’s an “allegory.” Nope. It’s gripping fiction for children. It’s fantasy that captures—and expands—a child’s imagination. And sometimes (not always), a child might even think Aslan is kind of like Jesus. But don’t count on it.

Lewis once wrote (I think in his autobiography) that adults shouldn’t be too snobby about how children first encounter classic themes and stories. He saw value in first becoming acquainted with a retold, childish form of those old stories. Later in life, coming across the “genuine article,” they’ll experience (he thought) a shock of surprise—pleasant and appealing—and associate their earlier fond memories with it.

I suspect he had something like that in mind for Narnia, and especially the story of one person giving up his (or her) life for another out of love, beyond the demands of mere justice. Yes, that’s a story in the Bible, and Lewis was profoundly attached to that biblical story. He made no secret of that, even in the Narnia books. But it’s also a story that Lewis would have said is found in the best of “pagan” literature, in certain fairy tales and in other great works of art. It’s a story of love that we do well to encounter in our dew-eyed youth, if only so that we can believe in such love later in life, when it’s both harder to believe in anything that good, and also more necessary.

PS: This post comes as I’m re-reading Prince Caspian—aloud to kids.

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