I have been thinking this about Rowan Williams, who earlier this year announced he would be retiring as Archbishop of Canterbury. Despite his clear intellectual and spiritual gifts, I have referred previously about finding him hard to understand. But this has been challenged recently. A few weeks ago I read the beautiful, simple and profound letter he wrote to a 6 year old who wrote to God asking who invented him. And the other day I saw he had written a book on C.S Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. Despite a self-imposed ban on buying more books, I just had to buy this one.
The Narnia effect
The Narnia books had a very significant role in shaping my Christian faith. I read them as a young teenager and then around the time I decided to be a Christian at 16, I re-read them. No books, before or since, have given me the experience of entering another world like these did. Yet it was not merely escapism. The Narnia stories equipped me with theological reference points which helped anchor my faith during the inevitable ups and downs of teenage life. My bible still has the final paragraph from The Last Battle written in the back:
‘Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has ever read: which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before’
I still find it as inspiring now as I did 25 years ago.
Short and sweet
A few years ago, Michael Ward published Planet Narnia, a ground-breaking and highly academic study of how the seven planets of the medieval cosmos provides the ‘key’ to unlock the thread of the seven Narnia Chronicles.
Williams’ book is very different. It is short and sweet – but packed full of deep insights. The subtitle describes it perfectly: it really is a journey into the heart of Narnia stories. And it’s a journey of appreciation where you find yourself accompanied by an expert guide who gracefully and generously explores the theological and literary treasures of Lewis’ imagination.
The point of Narnia
In Narnia, Williams says that Lewis is doing nothing less than ‘trying to recreate for the reader what it is like to encounter God’ (p.16). He makes the point that ‘there is no church in Narnia, no religion even’ (p.19). Instead the theological truth is embedded within the ‘non-religious’ bravery, treachery, sibling tension, bullying, reconciliation and forgiveness which are jam-packed into the stories. The message is not simply conveyed by clunky allegory but embedded and woven within the story.
Encounter with divine truth
Williams particularly explores the themes of self-deception and the inescapable challenge of encountering divine truth. The self-deception of Edmund and Eustace is challenged and overcome through encounter with Aslan. Susan however, despite her earlier heroism in the first two books, travels in the other direction: by The Last Battle she refuses to acknowledge that she ever went to Narnia at all. ‘Susan is guilty of what Edmund is initially guilty of, no more and no less, which is the refusal to admit the reality of Narnia when you have actually been there’ (p.41).
None of us can ultimately avoid an encounter with divine truthfulness – and a positive outcome from this encounter cannot be forced. Indeed many characters in the stories illustrate ‘the impossibility of forcing any person to accept love and the monumental and excruciating difficulty of receiving love when you are wedded to a certain picture of yourself.’ (p.14)
Subversion of the established order
Williams also captures brilliantly the subversive nature of Aslan’s authority. This is part of what makes him such an attractive and powerful character. ‘Evil is cast as the ultimate force of reaction; we are invited to see ourselves as living ‘under occupation’ and summoned to join a resistance movement.’ (p.140)
Aslan’s wildness, his animality, represents the unpredictable world of grace which opposes the ‘ordered state of sin’ of the White Witch, King Miraz or the prisons we build for ourselves. ‘Transcendance is the wildness of joy; and the truth of God becomes a revolution against what we have made of ourselves’ (p.139).
This is why Aslan’s victories lead to riotous partying – an ‘explosion of liberating festivity’ (p.50). As Williams points out this, uncomfortably for some, includes more than a hint of pagan revelry as both the god Bacchus and a drunken Silenus make appearances to celebrate the liberation Aslan brings.
As well as being a figure of resistance, Aslan is also of course, the source of true renewal. He is the focus of hope not because he ‘saves souls’ but because he is the liberator of the whole of creation and the bringer of new life.
Engaging with the critics of Narnia
‘The ending of The Silver Chair is painfully weak: the facile satire directed against progressive education is too obviously Lewis indulging in partisan grumbling.’ (p.44)
Williams gives a whole chapter to engage head-on with ‘the critics of Narnia’ and discusses the accusations that the books have overtones of racism and sexism and that they glorify violence. Whilst sharing his discomforts about some passages within the books and acknowledging that Lewis ‘was a writer of his time’, he also convincingly demolishes some of the more unfair criticisms.
Helping others discover Narnia
I loved this book. I would heartily recommend it for anyone who enjoyed the Narnia books or who is sceptical about their value. Rowan Williams has written in a way which illuminates the great depth of these classic books and explains the significance of C.S. Lewis’s achievement. I hope The Lion’s World will help more people discover Narnia for themselves and explore further the great truth contained in these works of fiction.