Learning to Breathe Narnian Air
In 1956, after completing the last book in The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis wrote a short article in the New York Times Book Review explaining how a childless professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature came to write fairy tales.
Dismissing the idea that he had some master plan to “say something about Christianity to children” which led him to choose the fairy tale genre, researched the reading habits of children, selected some Christian doctrines, and then wrote allegories, Lewis writes,
Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling (taken from On Stories And Other Essays on Literature).
However, after settling on the fairy tale genre, he began to realize that these stories might have a remarkable power for readers.
I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which paralyzed much of my own religion since childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But suppose casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past the watchful dragons? I thought one could.
This paragraph can give us great insight in how we ought to read the Narnian stories. We ought not begin by trying to identify every Christian correspondence or layer of meaning. Instead (and this is especially important when introducing children to the stories) we ought to first immerse ourselves in the stories as stories. We must learn to trek across the Narnian countryside, swim in the Narnian seas, distinguish Calormenes from Archenlanders, and navigate the etiquette of centaurs (it’s a very serious thing to invite a centaur to dinner; they have two stomachs after all).
Indeed, we must learn to breathe Narnian air, a metaphor that Lewis uses elsewhere to describe what it means to come to know God. Then, having learned our Narnian stars and feasted at Cair Paravel—in other words, once we’ve stolen past the watchful dragons—we can then turn our attention to the deeper, Christian layers of meaning, the textures of the story that have bubbled up from Lewis’s mind.
As Aslan says to Lucy on one occasion, “This was the very reason you were brought into Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you might know me better there.”
Joe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary.