Lessons from the Lion: Far from Being Simple Allegory, the Chronicles of Narnia Reveal the Power of a Great Story

By Smietana, Bob | U.S. Catholic, April 2006 | Go to article overview

Lessons from the Lion: Far from Being Simple Allegory, the Chronicles of Narnia Reveal the Power of a Great Story


Smietana, Bob, U.S. Catholic


In early December, just after the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe opened, my daughter Sophie's second-grade teacher organized an unofficial class trip. She had read C.S. Lewis' classic tale to her students and invited them to join her at a local theater on a Saturday morning to see the film.

The day before the trip, a note from a concerned librarian appeared in Sophie's backpack, tucked inside her homework folder, warning us of the dangers of letting Sophie see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The librarian wasn't concerned about the religious themes of the movie--as many critics have been--or about the more violent aspects of the film, in which four children get caught up in a war in the magical world of Narnia. She was concerned that the film might make my daughter and her friends cry. The death of the great lion Aslan, she said, might be too much for tenderhearted students--especially those who don't know the whole story. She recommended that we tell our children not to fret and reassure them that the story has a happy ending.

Somewhere, I thought, C.S. Lewis must be rolling over in his grave. He had a much higher opinion of children.

Many people assume that Lewis had a Christian agenda in mind when he started work on The Chronicles of Narnia. That is, he wanted to indoctrinate children and dreamed up an allegorical tale that would bring basic Christian truths to life--one that would serve as a kind of fictional catechism.

That idea is "all pure moonshine," Lewis wrote in a New York Times essay about The Chronicles. "I couldn't write in that way at all. Everything began with images. A faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sled, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't anything Christian about them. That element pushed itself in of its own accord."

Instead of teaching theology, Lewis said, he wanted to tell children a story, one that might strip away centuries of "stained glass and Sunday school"--and, I suppose, the fears of watchful librarians--and reveal the emotional core of the gospels. Not to evangelize or indoctrinate children but instead to let them feel both the sorrow and the joy hidden inside the story of Jesus. Lewis believed that if he told the tale well, that would be enough.

Like many contemporary children's writers--J. K. Rowling, Madeleine L'Engle, Philip Pullman, and G. P. Taylor, to name a few--Lewis understood that stories, rather than sermons, are the best way to discuss the great questions of life. Pullman, who won the Carnegie Medal for children's literature in Britain in 1996, said, "There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book."

The reason? Children understand the power of stories, Pullman said, something adults have mostly forgotten.

In his Carnegie medal acceptance speech, Pullman--an outspoken atheist--suggested that the best way to shape moral values in children is to make sure school libraries are well funded.

"We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts," Pullman said. "We need books, time, and silence. 'Thou shalt not' is soon forgotten, but 'Once upon a time' lasts forever."

Taylor, another bestselling British children's author, suggests that more Christians should try imitating Lewis in this regard. Instead of "bashing people over the head with Bibles," he says, Christians ought to try what Lewis--and for that matter, Jesus--did: Tell good stories.

"People look at the characters within Lewis' books," he said, "and they see certain moral values, and certain bad behaviors, and then they can make up their own mind. No one is telling them what to do."

Narnia is not a red state

Novelist Susan Howatch argues that a "Christian novel"--that is, a story told for the entertainment of believers--is an un-Christian idea. Christianity "is for everybody--not just for insiders," she says, and Christian writers should weave the great themes of the faith--forgiveness, suffering, hope, alienation--into stories that will appeal to a wide audience. …

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