Along with the pleasure of lighting the Advent wreath, of busy preparations and programs and starry night silence, I love to return to the land of the lamp post in December, to do battle against the White Witch who made made Narnia always winter but never Christmas.
I refuse to join the war between fans of Narnia and fans of Middle Earth. C.S. Lewis’ friend, fellow Inkling and Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien famously disliked the Narnia tales so much that if it hadn’t been for the encouragement of Roger Lancelyn Green and Charles Williams Lewis might have never finished the first book in the series. This cheers some who dislike allegory as much as Tolkien did, and with J. R. R. as an ally, they’re definitely in good company.
Nevertheless, I’m with those who refuse to choose. I’m crazy for all things Inkling and I love both Narnia and Middle Earth. LOTR is a powerful, adult work and because I’m plagued by my own orcs and have my own burden to carry through Mordor, I love Middle Earth. I do not tire of revisiting the Shire and I adore Rivendell and Rohan. I love the Middle Earth landscape and the heart of the man who made it and knew himself to be sub-creator.
And I love The Chronicles of Narnia for what they are: a series of inter-connected fairy tales for children and adults who still love to be little. I love the childlike wonder of the Oxford don who sub-created the land of the Lion. And I refuse to choose.
Recently I discovered a literary defense of The Chronicles of Narnia on the Close Reads podcast, whose co-host Angelina Stanford earned her MA in English literature. Having been steeped in The Faiere Queene before she stepped through the wardrobe, Stanford instantly recognized what Spenserian expert C.S. Lewis was up to in his design.
Edmund Spenser’s epic is an interconnected series of tales through which King Arthur comes and goes much as Aslan does in Narnia. Spenser blends classical and medieval elements as does Lewis, Narnia’s creator. In fact, Stanford says that students who are “well versed in Narnia “find The Faiere Queene a piece of cake.” Narnia, she adds, is “a Spenserian wonderland.”
So if Tolkien, a philologist whose expertise was in Anglo-Saxon literature and Nordic legend didn’t care for Narnia, well, perhaps we can understand his difference in taste. And still admire Lewis, who specialized in medieval and Renaissance literature and who refused to dumb his children’s books down but gave them multiple layers so adults could access higher levels each time they approach the Chronicles.
I agree with Stanford’s recommendation that newcomers to Narnia ignore the newer reordering of the books (which has The Magician’s Nephew as the first) and begin where the Narnian himself began, with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
And so, since December is a month of childlike wonder, I offer a few reasons to wander through the wardrobe and allow your feet to crunch Narnian snow.
1. Narnia is for hearts who long for meaning, who see no sense in accepting the unproven assertion that the material world is all there is.
We enter Narnia through the eyes of Lucy, the youngest of the four Pevensie children. A child of innocent wonder, Lucy discovers a country in a winter without Christmas. When she learns that a White Witch has made it so, she’s instantly up for a fight.
Gradually we learn that Aslan the Great Lion is “on the move” in the frozen land. When Lucy hears this at the Beavers’ table, she has “the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.” But of course that doesn’t mean that the rumor is true.
Meaning isn’t meaning unless it means something real. When Aslan reaches Narnia, Christmas is restored. Yet when Father Christmas meets the children he has hasn’t brought the sweets and trinkets of sentiment and silliness, but weapons, a horn and a cordial that heals.
If Aslan isn’t on the move there’s no need for a battle. His reality is the hinge of all meaning, including the meaning of Christmas in Narnia. And his rule is the only rule worth fighting for.
2. Narnia reveals how sin can corrupt our reason.
While Lucy awakens to greater wonder and greater truth with each step “further in,” Edmund descends from cruel tease to absolute traitor, all for the love of a magical candy. Edmund doesn’t sell out his siblings with straightforward treachery, but once Turkish Delight has a hold on him, his desires change his reasoning. Without allowing himself the possibility that Lucy might be on the right side, Edmund justifies everything the Witch stands for, and does it in the superior voice of a more experienced older brother.
Lewis sets a straightforward truth here, one he develops in The Screwtape Letters as well. Material things are good when rightly used, but our attachment to their pleasures can quickly lead us from the happy path. Once caught in the tangles of an attachment, we misuse our reason to obtain our trifles and accomplish our treachery.
“How do we know?” Edmund whines, trying to prevent Peter and Susan from listening to Lucy. A reasonable question, except that his motive is corrupt. His reason has gone along with it. We must guard the motives for the questions we ask, especially when we desire an answer that furthers a pleasure.
3. Forgiveness is real in Narnia. And so is penance.
It’s not just that Aslan dies in Edmund’s place and gives him back his life. It’s that because of Aslan’s sacrifice Edmund is filled with a greater love than he would have otherwise had. Edmund receives not only Aslan’s forgiveness, but Lucy’s, and Peter’s and Susan’s. Edmund becomes the warrior who smashes the Witch’s wand in the passion of of his penance. Peter tells Alsan:
We’d have been beaten if it wasn’t for him…He fought his way through three ogres…and when he reached [the Witch] he had the sense to bring his sword smashing down on her wand instead of trying to go for her directly and getting made a statue himself for his pains. That was the mistake the rest of us were making.
When we see ourselves clearly in light of our failings, we do not shrug off our sin with a careless “I’m only human” but grow in love and zeal for the Lover who never lets us go. And the knowledge of where we’ve been makes us wise. In the Pevensies’ Narnian rule, Edmund became a “graver and quieter man than Peter, and great in council and judgement.”
4. Narnia honors the least of these.
For starters, there is Lucy, the youngest child and the one “most filled with longing.” But “the least of these” are honored throughout the tales. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr. Tumnus gains the courage to stand up to the White Witch once he’s met Lucy. Humble robins lead the way to the Beaver’s home where Mrs. Beaver instantly recognizes when she meets the children that a prophecy has been fulfilled.
And though he doesn’t appear until Prince Caspian, who can forget the valiant mouse Reepicheep, the true saint who dives off the Dawn Treader because he understands that Aslan’s country is greater than anything in Narnia?
Who can’t delight in a scholar of world renown still childlike enough to write a sentence like this?
Giants of any sort are now so rare in England and so few giants are good tempered that ten to one you have never seen a giant when his face is beaming. It’s a sight well worth looking at.
And respectful enough of children’s understanding to write this:
If you’ve been up all night and cried until you have no more tears in you–you will know that in the end there comes a sort of quietness.
There does indeed.
December offers many ways to prepare oneself for the coming of the Holy Child. A wander into the wardrobe is a wonderful way to recover the dignity of innocence and to accept the serious nature of our call.
Reads and Other Seeds
Close Reads #52: “Narnia Nostalgia” is the podcast that schooled me in Lewis’ Spenserian allusions, asking what good is a children’s book if only children can read it? “Narnia Nostalgia” first explores the question of why some great works of literature aren’t immediately accessible and then details the adult literary merit of The Chronicles of Narnia. Like many podcasts, this one takes time to acclimate to the voices and banter before the meat of the discussion begins, but I was grateful I stayed with it.
For younger children, the picture book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe illustrated by Tudor Humphries is good introduction to the land beyond the lamp post.
Many books have addressed the literary fellowship of “The Inklings,” C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and their friends who met regularly to discuss works in progress. My introduction was Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings. Highly recommended. I loved the discussion of this book on the podcast A Good Story Is Hard to Find as well. If you treasure friendship, you will too.
Featured photo courtesy of Pixabay. Chronicles of Narnia with Lord of the Rings photo by Chris Bair on Unsplash. Turkish Delight by Chris Buttigieg at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Pauline Baynes’ Narnia illustration is my own.
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