Fantasia: The Gospel According to C.S. Lewis

Last June, before Hobbits and Harry Potter began crowding out all other arts coverage, The New York Times ran a front-page story about The Chronicles of Narnia, the seven-volume series of children's fantasy books written by the English novelist C.S. Lewis in the 1950s. The article was called "Marketing 'Narnia' without a Christian Lion" -- and apparently the headline was as far as either Andrew Greeley or Charles Colson got before throwing down their newspapers in disgust. Greeley (who is a gadfly sociologist, priest, and romance novelist) and Colson (the famously born-again Watergate-era adviser to Richard Nixon) are widely published Christian commentators. Both took the Times headline to mean that, as Greeley huffed in a syndicated column, Lewis's publisher HarperCollins "intends to censor out of C.S. Lewis's masterpiece that which is most essential to it -- its Christian imagery -- because that imagery would be offensive to secularists." Readers who experience the bowdlerized versions of the stories, Colson complained in a radio commentary, "won't . . . really be experiencing Lewis at all." Moreover, "it won't do them any good," he asserted, as though literature were like vitamins or brussels sprouts. Urging his readers to boycott HarperCollins, Colson commended Zondervan Books for its plan "to continue publishing the Narnia books in their original form."

In truth, the dudgeon of Colson and Greeley was somewhat misdirected. HarperCollins is already republishing the Narnia series in its original format, both under its own imprint and under the Zondervan imprint, which is actually a HarperCollins subsidiary. And the Times story -- which neither Colson nor Greeley took the time to read carefully -- was not about publishing a new version of the Chronicles with the Christian elements excised, but rather about the new strategy HarperCollins had launched to market Narnia.

Still, the publisher's new, three-part marketing scheme did raise hackles, particularly among Christian conservatives. The first element of the new strategy raised no objections: to publish several editions of the complete Chronicles, ranging from cheap to deluxe and from one-volume to seven volumes, along with an audio edition read by famous actors. A second element -- to create a line of Narnia toys -- provoked alarums of tackiness, but not much more.

The final element of HarperCollins's campaign, however, aroused real concern: a new series of wholly secular Narnia novels and picture books that the publisher plans to commission for younger readers. Online Lewis discussion groups like MereLewis and alt.books.cs-lewis were flooded with angry and fearful comments about HarperCollins, mostly from Christian fans of Lewis. As columnist Frederica Matthewes-Green summarized their laments, "to many [conservative Christians], downplaying Lewis's faith seems like one more in a string of insults."

But whose agenda are C. S. Lewis's defenders pursuing? Not Lewis's. As Douglas Gresham, Lewis's adopted stepson and a nondenominational Christian preacher in Ireland, argues, "the surest way to prevent secularists and their children from reading [the Chronicles] is to keep it in the 'Christian' or 'Religious' section of the bookstores." After all, the Narnia books have rarely been marketed as "Christian" literature; nor, surely, have they been read that way, especially by children. As Lauren Winner recollected in Slate, when she and her non-Christian friends read the Chronicles in grammar school, "we just thought we were reading a riveting tale, one in which, as in so much children's literature, good triumphs over evil and a hero brings on a utopian reign of peace." That's the experience most young readers have, and it's the experience Lewis wanted them to have: "a pre-baptism of the child's imagination" that, years later, may draw them into faith.

This was the experience that Lewis himself had. Growing up in Belfast in the early 1900s, he felt that Christianity was boring; mythology, on the other hand, was interesting. Although Lewis was taken by his parents to the Anglican church on Sunday mornings, worship there was as much a political act as a religious one, a way for Irish Protestants to let it be known that they were loyal subjects of the crown, not Roman papists. What Lewis found in church was arid, sterile, and cold -- "the dry husks of religion," as he put it. In contrast, the Irish, Norse, and Greek myths he read in storybooks were filled with dash and color: gods, wars, exotic creatures, intrigue, and emotions. So taken was Lewis by mythology that as a child he created an imaginary country called Boxen and wrote stories about it. The stories "were an attempt to combine my two chief literary pleasures -- 'dressed animals' and 'knights in armour.' As a result, I wrote about chivalrous mice and rabbits who rode out in complete mail to kill not giants but cats."

Sent to England for his schooling, Lewis came under the influence of a tutor who was much enamored of The Golden Bough, a monumental new work about religion and mythology by Sir James Frazer. Frazer regarded religion as a human effort to make sense of the frightening and incomprehensible: thunder, pestilence, famine, death, and so on. In particular, Frazer found in human cultures a recurring story of a god whose death and resurrection saves his people. This god usually was associated with agriculture and fertility: Just as in the cycle of nature the plant is broken, the seed enters the ground, and life springs up, so was the god broken, buried, and restored.

Frazer was an atheist, and so, for many years, was Lewis. But Lewis never ceased to find the stories of dying and resurrected gods stirring. The thrill, he wrote, was akin to watching a diver "flashing for a moment in the air, and then down through the green, and warm, and sunlit water, into the pitch black, cold, freezing water, down into the mud and slime, then up again, his lungs almost bursting, back again to the green and warm and sunlit water, and then at last out into the sunshine, holding in his hand the dripping thing he went down to get."

Lewis's studies in English literature led to a faculty position at Oxford, where he quickly became close with the philologist and fantasy novelist J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a committed Christian. Whenever he encountered a story of a god dying to save his people in mythology, Lewis told Tolkien, he was "mysteriously moved, even though no one knows where [the mythological god] is supposed to have lived and died; he's not historical." Why, he wondered, was he not similarly moved by the Christian Gospel's avowedly historical accounts of Jesus' death and resurrection?

The answer, Tolkien told him, was to recognize that the Gospel story was mythic and should be appreciated as such -- "but with this tremendous difference: that it really happened." Lewis later wrote: "By becoming fact [the dying-god story] does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle." But "it is God's myth where the others are men's myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we would call 'real things.'" The Christian dying-god story, Lewis came to believe, lay at the exact intersection of myth and history.

The Chronicles of Narnia was Lewis's attempt to bring children to that intersection in the hope that, with the passage of time, they would realize that Christianity stood there. The stale, stained-glass version of Jesus that churches typically presented was, Lewis believed, as much of a turnoff for other children as it had been for him. Instead of Bible stories, he'd give them adventure stories involving children and mythical creatures, including a powerful and tender lion named Aslan. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe featured a menagerie of familiar mythic characters, ranging from centaurs to Santa Claus. Indeed, it was this pastiche of mythologies that Tolkien most disliked about the Chronicles -- in his own Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkien was fastidious about creating a world with no stray elements.

The Chronicles fulfilled Lewis's intention of telling the entire Christian story -- from the Creation, to the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, to the end of time -- without ever mentioning Christianity. For example, the climax of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe comes when Aslan voluntarily dies in order to spare one of the English children from the full consequences of his behavior, only to rise from death in triumph over the diabolical White Witch. In The Magician's Nephew, Aslan sings the world into creation and then watches as evil enters it. The Last Battle brings the end of the world and the Last Judgment. Summarizing the books makes them sound more formulaic than they are. The chief pleasure of reading the Chronicles lies not in the Christian element but rather in the stories and characters that make these elements seem -- in the course of things, and without bold allegorical labels -- appealing and exciting.

Lewis's influence is strongly evident in our present cultural moment. J.K. Rowling, for instance, based her famous "platform nine and three-quarters" -- the place at London's King's Cross Station where young wizards enter the world of the Hogwarts School in her Harry Potter series -- on the wardrobe through which English schoolchildren pass into the land of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (Rowling has also apparently based the scope of the Harry Potter series -- a projected seven volumes -- on Lewis's books as well.) And though Tolkien, for his part, said that he didn't especially like the Narnia books, he also took inspiration from Lewis, his close friend and colleague on the Oxford University English faculty during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Throughout the 12 years that Tolkien spent writing the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with no confidence that they were any good or would ever find an audience, Lewis was his faithful reader, critic, and cheerleader. "The unpayable debt that I owe to him," Tolkien wrote, was "sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my 'stuff' could be more than a private hobby."

Given all this, what accounts for Lewis's relative eclipse -- in the popular culture, anyway -- by Tolkien and Rowling? Does Narnia speak less directly to our time, or to the children of our time, than Middle Earth or Hogwarts? Or is it simply the case that Lewis's world adapts less readily to our Hollywoodized, secularized sensibility?

More likely it's the latter -- which makes it ironic that Rowling, like HarperCollins, has been pilloried recently by angry conservative Christians for writing playfully in the Harry Potter books about witchcraft and wizardry. Rowling doesn't understand the objections. Like the Chronicles, the Harry Potter books are infused with a Christian worldview: Both Lewis and Rowling celebrate courage, loyalty, friendship, compassion, forgiveness, persistence, and self-sacrifice with an compellingness that puts William Bennett's Book of Virtues to shame. She's a member of the Church of Scotland and, whenever she's asked, says, "I believe in God, not magic." In fact, Rowling initially was afraid that if people were aware of her Christian faith, she would give away too much of what's coming in the series. "If I talk too freely about that," she told a Canadian reporter, "I think the intelligent reader -- whether ten [years old] or sixty -- will be able to guess what is coming in the books." In truth, it's not much harder to find Gospel parallels in the Harry Potter stories than in the Chronicles. "Rejoice . . . ," says a wizard on the occasion of Harry's birth. "Even Muggles like yourself should be celebrating this happy, happy day!" Shooting stars streak across the heavens to mark the baby Harry's coming. "I wouldn't be surprised if today was known as Harry Potter Day in the future," says one of the teachers at Hogwarts when she hears the news. Substitute "Gentiles" for Muggles, "star in the east" for "shooting stars," and "Christmas" for "Harry Potter Day" and you get the idea.

If any of this -- good versus evil, appealing young heroes who prevail by developing Christian virtues -- sounds like Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring and its successor books, well, it should. "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," Tolkien wrote to a Jesuit friend; "unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. . . . For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism." Those who invent mythic worlds, Tolkien wrote in an essay called "On Fairy Stories," serve as "subcreators" who "make . . . because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker."

Tolkien carefully avoided any hint of biblical allegory and injected no overtly religious elements into the Ring stories -- Middle Earth is devoid of temples, gods, and rituals. But what he did instead was even more deeply faithful. Tolkien created a world in which hope, the ultimate Christian virtue, is woven into the fundamental nature of reality -- in which, as Frodo and Sam approach the end of all things, it makes sense for them to renounce the power that would enslave and instead submit to the power that frees. In doing so, Tolkien, like Lewis and Rowling, offers his young readers "a pre-baptism of the child's imagination."