Inside the Wardrobe: Is 'Narnia' a Christian Allegory?

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C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), always multifaceted and versatile, continues to elude definition and provoke controversy. A major polemicist and great proselytizer, Lewis was regarded by millions as a modern Christian knight. He wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, a remarkable children's series often described as Christian allegory.

Lewis also produced seminal works of literary criticism on medieval and Renaissance subjects, enduring science fiction novels, one of the world's great spiritual autobiographies, Surprised by Joy, and many works beyond category, most notably The Screwtape Letters. Lewis has fair claim to being one of the most important writers in English in the first half of the twentieth century--the modern era he loathed in so many ways.

Born and raised in Belfast, Ireland, by middle-class, Anglican parents, Lewis was "a visionary boy," creating whole worlds of talking animals. Lovers of Narnia will see its origins in Animal-Land or Boxen, the fantastic, and astonishingly detailed world invented, populated, and chronicled by Lewis and his beloved older brother. Having lost his mother when he was nine, Lewis endured English public schools, survived World War I, won a scholarship to Oxford, became a don and friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, and began publishing beyond the academy when he was forty. In his forties and fifties, he was an extremely popular writer and also a renowned scholar and critic. He died the same day as President John F. Kennedy.

The Narnia series has received renewed attention with the release of the film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the first volume in the series. The film is being marketed to Christian audiences, so it will be interesting to see how the filmmaker renders the book's core spiritual pattern and significant Christian elements. For many readers, Lewis's Christian doctrine is the heart and soul of the narrative; not to recognize the spiritual imperative is naive, or worse. To religious readers, The Chronicles of Narnia are adroit instruction, like precalculus, preparing children for the real thing.

At many junctures throughout the seven volumes of Narnia, didactic lessons are prominent. This is, from the outset, a story in which the four young protagonists--Lucy, Peter, Susan, and Edmund--are regularly addressed as "Son of Adam" or "Daughter of Eve." Yet, I contend that despite its richly spiritual pattern and iconographic components, The Chronicles of Narnia are neither consistently allegorical nor primarily didactic. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in particular can very well be read without persistently allegorical interpretation.

There are certainly Christian elements in Lion, which recounts the four children's discovery of Narnia through a magic wardrobe. In the book Edmund initially disbelieves his sister Lucy's account of that other world. When Edmund reaches Narnia he succumbs to the temptation of the White Witch and betrays his siblings. Narnia suffers under the tyranny of the Witch: it's always winter and never Christmas. But the good creatures of Narnia have hope: Aslan the Lion, the mysteriously absent "Lord of the Wood," is on the move. Aslan, whose very name fills the children with "that strange feeling--like the first signs of spring, like good news," sacrifices himself to save Edmund. Bound, shaven, mocked, Aslan is killed, mourned, and miraculously restored to life, "great and terrible at the same time." He storms the castle and revivifies innocent creatures literally petrified by the Witch. Summarized thus, it is a story of fall and redemption. Martyred and resurrected, Aslan is unmistakably a Christ-figure whose sacrifice resonates throughout the seven volumes of Narnia.

It also seems evident that Christian doctrine becomes progressively central in the series. By volume seven, The Last Battle, even the most stubborn skeptic would perceive the drama of apocalypse and redemption. The denouement of The Last Battle is "Chapter One of the Great Story, which goes on forever. …