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The secret of the wardrobe
By Steve Tomkins

Aslan, here in the Disney film, is said to represent Jesus
It took CS Lewis just three months to knock out the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the work had one major critic... his friend JRR Tolkien. Yet the book went on to be one of the all time great fantasy novels. What makes it so outstanding?

JRR Tolkien was among the close friends to whom CS Lewis read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as he was writing it. Tolkien hated it.

"It really won't do," he protested. "Doesn't he know what he's talking about?"

Perhaps the fact that he was still working on The Lord of the Rings after a decade while Lewis knocked off The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in less than three months had a little to do with it.

Tolkien was in the minority. And though Lewis has had more and fiercer detractors since, he is still in the minority. Whatever Disney will do to sales of the Narnia books, 65 million have been sold to date.

And numbers of course do not tell the whole story. I don't mind admitting the death of Aslan made me cry 30 years ago as a child and a few days ago as a parent. If that reflects anything more than my own emotional instability, it suggests that Narnia is not just on a lot of shelves but in a lot of hearts.

CS Lewis
Lewis combined Greek and Roman myths with English folk tales
What is its appeal? There is plenty that it shares with the classic children's stories. From Hansel and Gretel to The Cat in the Hat, children love tales of "adventures without parents". Lewis's style is perfectly clear and comprehensible, but not remotely condescending. And Narnia is a place of magic - talking animals, witches, children getting turned into dragons.

In other ways it is unique. There is the memorable character of Aslan, the lion who rules Narnia - wise and good, but still very dangerous. He must be one of the few main characters in a young children's book to be murdered, and so brutally and cruelly. Fewer still have survived the experience. The fact that he has to die because of the betrayal of one of the children makes it all the more emotionally demanding.

There can also be few children's books that contain so much theology as the Narnia stories. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is about atonement and resurrection, divine self-sacrifice and redemption. That might sound a bit much for a children's story, and something for parents rather than their audience to pick up on. But not necessarily.

There can be few children's books that contain so much theology as the Narnia stories

Lewis's idea was not to write an allegory for clever readers to decode, where Aslan represents Christ. Rather, Aslan is Christ, coming to the world of talking animals as a lion, just as he came to earth as a human. Lewis found children better at understanding this than adults.

He was not concerned with teaching children the Christian story in disguise, as he expected them to know it already. Rather he wanted them to feel it. As a child himself, he knew the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, and knew it was meant to be important, but he had never felt its importance. If he could retell it in terms of a fairy story, it might make sense to children and they might grasp the nobility, tragedy and power of it.

This is another reason for the popularity of the book. The image of the dying god has proved to be one of the most resonant in human culture, present in a host of ancient religions quite apart from Christianity. By making this the heart of his tale, Lewis drew on something with primeval power.

And if a reader never made the connection, no matter. It was Tolkien (though not single-handedly) who made Lewis become a Christian, by convincing him that the ancient myths they both loved, about dying gods and the like, were God's way of preparing for the gospel.

Barbara Kellerman in the BBC's Chronicles of Narnia
Winter - but never Christmas - for 100 years
Rather than disproving the uniqueness of Christianity, they showed that human imagination was being prepared for the "true myth" of the first Easter. Lewis hoped to do something similar with his own stories, sowing images and ideas that would make readers better able to embrace Christianity when the time came.

This idea of paganism as the road to Christ encouraged Lewis to fill Narnia with characters you might not expect to find in a Christian fable - the cavorting god Bacchus, river spirits, fauns and centaurs.

One more uniqueness of the Narnia books is their medieval tone. It is not only the knights and quests and archers and forests, it is a matter of values. The stories celebrate heroism, chivalry, honour, nobility and military valour, ideas that Lewis drank up from the classic literature that absorbed him, and which he found sadly lacking in the modern world. In this sense his writing drew on 2,500 years of storytelling.

The Narnia books then are an unusual blend of the Bible, pagan legend, fairy tale, medieval epic, myth and parable. Perhaps the only thing missing is a hobbit.

Steve Tomkins is author of A Short History of Christianity, published by Lion Books.

Your comments:

CS Lewis was in fact a staunch atheist until he found faith in Jesus Christ. His book 'Mere Christianity' provides an intelligent yet simple introduction of the faith that he found to be true.
Tim, newcastle

Thanks, Steve, for your illuminating and perceptive review. I wonder, though, if Lewis ever actually labelled his Narnia books as 'fantasy'. From what you are saying, they sound more like 'reality' - the retelling of stories we already know, but do not yet feel?
Jon Harris, London, United Kingdom

I am one of those 65 million readers. I have read all of the "Narnia" books and I was pleased to see this well written article about them. It was during my teenaged years that I discovered Narnia and I have now read, and re-read all of the tales and have passed them on to a host of (believe it or not!) adult readers who had missed the privelege of doing the same. I await the movie (The Lion, the Witch and the Wadrobe) with bated breath.I feel like a teenager again!
J. Murray, St. Augustine, Trinidad

I've never liked the Chronicles of Narnia as much as other stories. They were too obviously moralistic and allegorical for me - I have never had a problem with a story that has a meaning or message, but something so blatant? I didn't like it. I also found that the stories were too fairy-tale for me. The characters never seemed real.
Claire Fitter, South Wales, Great Britain

Finally a sensible and accurate comment on the books of Narnia! There have been so many inaccuracies in the press both of the symbolism of the books and the intentions of the author that I was beginning to wonder that any in the broadcasting world had actually bothered to read the stories themselves.

I first read the Narnia books as a child in the 1950s. I was totally entranced by them, but I did not realise the religious significance till I was in my late teens. I still read them occasionally - my favourite is The Voyage of the Dawn treader - and I continue to gain a great deal of strength from the stories. I cannot wait to see the films - I always had a hope that they would be screened one day!
Kris Saunders, Canterbury. UK

I found the Narnia books very interesting as an adolescent, but had already outgrown them, and I found Tolkien, when I later discovered him, beat them into a cocked hat. LOTR has a unified, Christian message relevant to today, unlike Lewis' childish allegory.
Malcolm Dunstall, Folkestone

I first read the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was a child of 8 years old, and it was a life changing experience. I typically re-read them every year or two, even though I'm 40 now. As a person raised in the Jewish tradition, and in my own adult life having embraced such diverse religious traditions as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism, I must say that I never once guessed at a Christian theme, until it had to be pointed out to me--"See how Aslan is Christ, and Edmund is Judas," etc. Well, never mind. Christian themes or lack thereof are not in the slightest, in my opinion, what makes the Narnia books timeless and riveting literature. It is their values of good and evil, with many shades of grey in between. Honor, courage, adventure, and a world of wonder that can be accessed by stumbling through a lucky door--it is this world of sheer imagination, with no sense of doctrine or creed--that makes the Narnia books a wonderland for me. I'll leave the Christian alle! gories to others to enjoy, and I myself will read them to soar on the wings of sheer imagination.
Lynn Ginsburg, Boulder, CO USA

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