C S Lewis

Intriguingly, at the same time that Tolkien was teaching at Oxford and writing allegories about good and evil, another English don there was doing the same. This was C S Lewis, who created the Narnia series, which is just now receiving its canonization through the medium of film. As with the later Harry Potter series, there are seven books about Narnia, though there the resemblance ends.

The Narnia books travel through time without any system, and have different protagonists. The first book, and I think the best one, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, describes how a family of four children, staying with an old Professor during the war, step through a wardrobe and find themselves in Narnia, a world of talking animals. Sadly, it is now ruled by a wicked witch, who has imposed an age of ice that stifles everyone and everything. The four children lead a revolt, in which they are guided by the lion Aslan, who is an incarnation of God. The parallels with Christianity are taken further when Aslan allows the witch to kill him so that the younger boy Edmund, who had been tempted over to her side, can be released.

 

Aslan however, like Jesus Christ, rises from the dead and destroys the witch’s forces and enables the elder boy Peter to kill her. The four children then rule in Narnia as Kings and Queens for many years, until by chance they walk through the wardrobe while out hunting, and find themselves back in this world. Hardly any time has passed however, for time moves at different rates in different worlds.

In Prince Caspian they find themselves back in Narnia when they are summoned by a prince who is in danger from his wicked uncle. He comes across a horn, which legend says will bring back the High King Peter and his fellow rulers, and so it happens when he blows. They restore him to the throne, with a little help from Aslan, and then go back home. The elder two are told this is their last visit to Narnia, but the younger two, Edmund and Lucy, in fact do come back, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when they join a prince several generations down the ages who is in search of seven lords who had gone on a voyage of exploration and never returned. They find some of them, notably one who had been abandoned on an island where dreams come true. They comment that he must have had a wonderful time, only to be told, in a phrase that has stuck in my mind for nearly half a century, that the reference was to dreams, not daydreams.

Before the Dawn Treader however there had been two books with different protagonists, one of whom was the old Professor of the first book. He, as The Magician’s Nephew, had been drawn into different worlds, in one of which he finds only statues. Striking a mysterious gong, he wakes one of them who becomes, as we realize, the witch of the first book in the series. She clings onto him to get away from her dead world, and engages in entertaining adventures back in London before travelling with him again through time and space to another world, which Aslan is just bringing to life. This is Narnia, and perhaps the most memorable scene in all Lewis is Aslan singing a song of creation to bring a world alive. Unfortunately, the protagonist has brought evil to this new world in the form of the witch and, though for the moment she dashes off into hiding, we are aware that she will be back.

The fourth book in the series, The Horse and His Boy, stands outside it, and very simply tells a story of a boy of that world but another country who goes on a trading trip to Narnia with a resourceful talking horse. Typical of Lewis’s vision is the horse’s assertion that he has as much right to possess the boy as the boy has to call the horse his.

The sixth book resumes the wayward thread, with the protagonist being Eustace, the irritating cousin of the original family, who had accompanied Edmund and Lucy in their voyage on the Dawn Treader. Finally there is The Last Battle, which describes the end of Narnia, with three of the children returning to support the forces of good. The battle ends with the end of the world of Narnia, but this means entry into a sort of Christian paradise, where the good guys from all the previous books enjoy salvation with Aslan.

The children imagine that they will have to go back, but are told they do not need to, and realize that they had in fact died in a train accident at home. Their parents have met the same fate, but not the elder girl Susan, who had ceased to believe in Narnia. I always felt rather sorry for her, but remember being told by a friend at University, a religious sort who liked the books as much for their Christianity as for the adventures, that this was what life was all about. I have always felt that a rather dismal answer, however true.

This series was really Lewis’s only great achievement, though before the war he had also written a science fiction trilogy involving a scientist called Ransome. I have never read the first two books in the series, one of which is set on Venus, but the last book, That Hideous Strength, I found both powerful and illuminating. It describes the creation by some other scientists of a machine and a dogma about the supremacy of science that then take them over, so that they end up simply serving the machine. Unfortunately this is a machine that demands sacrifices including, in a horrifyingly memorable scene, one of them. When I read the book I thought it exaggerated, but since then I have often noticed how people lose all sense of morality when serving what they think is a worthy cause, and end up losing sight of any half decent goal in their frenzy to fulfil the compulsions of the moment.

Lewis also wrote a number of non-fictional works of a theological sort, including The Screwtape Letters, about an old devil teaching a younger one about how to tempt people. It has remarkable insights into human weakness, and the manner in which temptations are strongest at times of both great joy and great sorrow. There were also other stories about the acceptance or denial of Christianity, but at times these verge on unconvincing preaching.

In Narnia however Lewis created a world in which the message is presented in a manner that commands attention. The animals are totally human, from the faun who is forced to betray Lucy at the beginning, through the fighting mice who support Caspian, to the donkey who is dressed up in a lion’s skin to impersonate Aslan before the last battle. Lewis also creates memorable ways of transferring people and objects between worlds, as with the wardrobe made of Narnian wood, or the lamp-post that the witch takes with her from London to Narnia, and that continues as a strange beacon through the ages, in the midst of a Narnian forest.  The books then may not be as powerful in terms of moral allegory as Tolkien, but they certainly tell memorable stories. 

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