The Success of C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia

Amber Cowart

C. S. Lewis, a well-known author and apologist, is best known by people of all ages for his seven volume series entitled The Chronicles of Narnia. As Lewis wrote about the land of Narnia, an imaginary world visited by children of this world, he had two obvious purposes: to entertain the readers and to suggest analogies of the Christian faith. Although some feel that his stories are violent, Lewis is successful at using fiction to open peoples' hearts to accepting Christ as their Savior because he first entertains the audience with a wonderful story.

Lewis talked about how he came to write the books of Narnia, saying that they "all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood" (Lewis 79). The Chronicles tell of the different adventures of English children as they visit the kingdom of Narnia and fall in love with the lion Aslan. Aslan, "the son of the Emperor over Sea," can be compared to this world's Jesus Christ (Schakel 133). As a child, Lewis always favored fairy tales and fantasies; as an adult, he decided to write one (Lewis 60). And so began The Chronicles of Narnia. Rather than planning to write a fictional book that succeeded in using apologetics, Lewis admits that the "element" of Christianity, "as with Aslan," entered "of its own accord" (Hooper 31). Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis' biographer, describes Lewis as being the most religious man he ever met (Schakel 132). For this reason, no matter what Lewis wrote, his religion would greatly impact all of his works.

Although Christian symbolism can be found in The Chronicles, Lewis recognized the importance of getting "past those watchful dragons" which are people who are not open to the beliefs of Christianity because they were told they should believe it (Hooper ix). But how should Lewis go about getting past those who are not open to the idea of Christianity? He believed that the best way to do this was to present it in a fictional world, a world in which it would be easier to accept. The audience grows to love Aslan and everything that he symbolizes; they begin to wish for someone like Aslan in this world. After finding this love for Aslan, they will ideally transfer that love to Christ when presented with the Gospel later in life. It is important to remember that The Chronicles of Narnia are successful because many readers do not realize the resemblance of Aslan to Jesus Christ. Even though Christian themes are present, the Chronicles are not dependent on them (Schakel 132). Peter J. Schakel, a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, states that a non-Christian reader can approach the book as a fictional story and "be moved by the exciting adventures and the archetypal meanings, and not find the Christian elements obtrusive or offensive" (132). For this reason, "the Narnian stories have been so successful in getting into the bloodstream of the secular world" (Hooper 99).

Hooper discusses how Lewis will be successful in sharing the gospel if he can get past the "partition of prejudices" that prevent non-Christians from accepting the beliefs of Christianity (99-100). In other words, to get past those "dragons," it is paramount that The Chronicles are self-sufficient in entertaining the reader (Schakel xiii). It is important to not describe The Chronicles of Narnia as an allegory, an "extended metaphor in which objects, persons, and actions in a narrative . . . are equated with meanings that lie outside the narrative itself ", but instead to describe them as "pure story" (Schakel xii). The readers should enter Narnia first with their hearts and only later with their mind (Schakel 134). When the audience begins by interpreting the symbolism evident in The Chronicles, they destroy Lewis' primary intention: to entertain. It is especially important to respond in this manner when reading the stories to children (Schakel 134). Although Schakel suggests that adults should begin by reading about Narnia imaginatively and later to reflect intellectually, he warns that it would be harmful to "explicate the 'meanings' of the books" (135). If the audience cannot enjoy The Chronicles of Narnia as just a story, it will be impossible for them to get anything else out of it. Schakel believes it is important for the children to first fall in love with and long for Aslan and then to transfer that love and longing towards Christ (134). Schakel discusses it well when he says "children should be left to enjoy [The Chronicles] imaginatively and emotionally, without being asked to reflect upon [its] significance.… out of that enjoyment 'meaning' will come" (135).

David Holbrook, a literary critic of fiction and fantasy works, begins by saying "I felt there was something seriously 'wrong' with [The Chronicles. Some people have found them to be] so full of hate" (9). Instead of presenting factual information, he offers opinions of unnamed people; for example, "I even heard of one psychotherapist…"(Holbrook 9). Holly Bigelow Martin, a free lance writer living in New Jersey, supplies quotes that take the same views as Holbrook and then continues by giving a rebuttal to them and supporting the use of The Chronicles of Narnia in the secular classroom. Fifth grade teacher Susan Cornell Poskanzer admits that she is disturbed by the violence presented in The Chronicles, but she has also had "great success with the stories in her fifth grade class" (Martin 2). Third grade teacher Kathy Reilly and first grade teacher Lisa Fulton feel that children find more violence in other places, like television, and are therefore not worried about the small amount of violence found in The Chronicles of Narnia (Martin 2). Others feel Lewis is not successful because of his "story telling abilities, his old-fashioned views, his alleged hatred of women, and his theology" (Martin 2). Peter Hollindale, another critic of Lewis, does not agree with the Old Testament theology that he uses as well as the "feudal dictatorship" found between Aslan and the evil characters of Narnia (Martin 3). Martin continues by offering quotes of those who support the Christianity found in The Chronicles and its use in the secular classroom. In an article found in The Horn Book Magazine, Lillian H. Smith feels Lewis is successful at entertaining children because of his strong talents as a "picturemaker" (Martin 4). Martin also demonstrates the success of presenting Christian ethics in the secular classroom, but she reminds us that due to the way the world is going, this is the most success we may receive from the books when used in the secular classroom (7). This is partially due to the fact that teachers are not allowed to talk about Christianity in the secular classroom. English professor Dr. Corbin Scott Cornell admitted that none of his students recognized any of the Christian symbolism as children, but they did receive the lessons of Christian ethics (Martin 7). Although the readers may not notice the symbolism as a child, they will learn from the ethics of The Chronicles of Narnia, grow in character, and therefore be more accepting of the Gospel.

While using psychoanalysis to critique The Chronicles of Narnia, David Holbrook offers his views of symbolism found in Lewis' books. But in order to apply psychoanalysis and phenomenology, he admits he must "put the Christianity in brackets" (27). Holbrook is therefore saying that he will ignore ideas of Christianity that come to mind in reading The Chronicles. He writes about the metaphors involved in the different volumes of The Chronicles, and uses the symbolism of the objects listed in the title of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as an example. Traveling through the wardrobe, one of the passageways into Narnia, is symbolic of "going through the mother's body" (Holbrook 27). He gives reference to the White Witch as being Digory Kirke's mother who has passed away and can now be found bewitching the world of Narnia (Holbrook 27). Another metaphor that he uses is in describing Aslan as the substitute for a person's lost relative (Holbrook 30). It is important to realize that in order to analyze The Chronicles of Narnia in this way, one must ignore the Christian ideas that can be found in the books. Holbrook feels that Lewis uses a tone of "authoritarian insistence" in his books, "often… he implies that if you do not accept his kind of religion something terrible will happen to you" (272). Holbrook is reading too far into The Chronicles of Narnia and needs to take a step back and look at it as a fictional children's story. It is difficult to understand how he can find such bizarre symbolism in the books.

C. S. Lewis has a strong respect and love for children. He feels there is a need to speak with children as if they are his equals and not as if they are beneath him (Schakel 134). Lewis has a deep respect for all of his readers and he would take at least an hour almost every day to respond to the letters he had received from his audience (Dorsett 3). Many children had a long correspondence with Lewis, and "as their pen relationship deepened," he discussed "a variety of matters" with the children including the books about Narnia, the art of writing, and the spiritual symbolism in the books (Dorsett 5). He corresponded with some families and children for many years. Having a sincere care for his readers, both adults and children, he voiced this care many times as he repeatedly wrote to his fans. He talked with them as if they were his friends, discussing his next book and asking their opinions as to his writing techniques. He felt answering the letters written to him by his fans was a "God-given duty" and he enjoyed it immensely (Dorsett 4).

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the fifth book of the series, Aslan tells the children that although they must return to their own world, they can find him there also (Hooper 123). Aslan says, "There I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there" (Hooper 123). Some of Lewis' readers wonder what the significance of this statement is and begin to search for Aslan here on earth. Hila, an eleven year old girl from the United States asked Lewis what Aslan's name is in this world (Dorsett 31-32). His response was this:

As to Aslan's other name, well I want you to guess. Has there never been anyone in this world who (1.) Arrived at the same time as Father Christmas. (2.) Said he was the son of the great Emperor. (3.) gave himself up for someone else's fault to be jeered at and killed by wicked people. (4.) Came to life again. (5.) Is sometimes spoken of as a Lamb.... Don't you really know His name in this world. Think it over and let me know your answer! (Dorsett 32)

When Lewis' readers find Aslan in the real world, they will find out that his true name is Jesus Christ. And when this occurs, Lewis is successful at opening a person's heart to accepting Christianity.

C. S. Lewis can be credited with writing some of the most well-known books on Christian apologetics and also writing fictional books that are appealing to both Christians and non-Christians. Although there are many different views as to whether Lewis should use fairy tales to share the Gospel, it is evident that he is successful in doing so because of his strengths as a good entertainer.

Works Cited

  • Dorsett, Lyle W. and Marjorie Lamp Mead, eds. C. S. Lewis Letters to Children. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985.
  • Holbrook, David. The Skeleton in the Wardrobe: C. S. Lewis’s Fantasies: A Phenomenological Study. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1991.
  • Hooper, Walter. Past Watchful Dragons: The Narnian Chronicles of C. S. Lewis. New York: Collier Books, 1979.
  • Lewis, C. S. Of This and Other Worlds. Ed. Walter Hooper. St. James Place, London: Collins, 1982.
  • Martin, Holly Bigelow. "C. S. Lewis in the Secular Classroom." The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 22.4 (1991): 1-7.
  • Schakel, Peter J. Reading with the Heart: The Way Into Narnia. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979.