A mark of excellent children’s literature is that it appeals to adults. My children insist that I read to them on a daily basis and I insist on reading them books that I too enjoy. Fortunately, it is not very difficult to find such books: ones that I genuinely enjoy reading and that they genuinely enjoy listening to. Close to the top of the list are the seven books by C.S. Lewis that chronicle the adventures of English children in the land of Narnia. My children love the adventure stories of other children and I enjoy the sound practical lessons and theology woven by Lewis throughout the stories. I offer here three noteworthy lessons from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first installment of the Narnia series.
In one of the more memorable chapters in the book, Peter and Susan go to seek council from Professor Kirk concerning the irregular behavior of Lucy. The two older children are completely taken aback by the Professor’s reading of the situation. He tells them they are going against logic to assume that Lucy is lying about the magic wardrobe that leads to the magical country of Narnia even though Peter and Susan made a failed attempt to reach Narnia in the wardrobe themselves. “There are only three possibilities,” the Professor says. “Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.” There is a wonderful jab in this scene at the mistaken yet prevalent idea that scientific knowledge reigns supreme, with the Professor giving more credence to the specific and non-scientific knowledge they have of their sister rather than to the empirical experiment they conducted in the wardrobe.
So Professor Kirk is teaching the children something about what it means to judge rightly. This is not the mistaken notion that we should not judge at all but rather it is teaching how to judge as Saint Joseph did to Mary when she was found to be with child. The Mosaic Law would have condemned Mary as a sinner, and indeed, what further proof would one require that she was not? She was not married, yet she was pregnant. One can only imagine that Joseph applied his personal knowledge of her and was humble enough to realize that here were things afoot that he did not comprehend. He decided to break off the betrothal quietly and for this the Bible labels him as ‘just.’ Based on what Joseph knew of the facts, he did the reasonable thing to do. This is exactly the logic the Professor applied to Lucy. It can at first appear to be a denial of logic or of the facts. But the same could be said of Saint Joseph. Lewis uses this episode to introduce children to the difficulties inherent in judging the actions of others. Lewis also in this story teaches us how to cope with the concept of wonders, even invisible and incomprehensible ones.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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The first talking animal the children meet in Narnia is a Beaver, who brings them to his dam. Mr. Beaver is a believer in Aslan, the Son of the King over the Sea and the true ruler of Narnia. Aslan, however, is only a memory at this point. He has not been seen in Narnia for generations. The last one hundred years have been ones of tyranny and persecution in Narnia under the despotic and severe rule of the White Witch. Many creatures have given their allegiance to the Witch who certainly has power on her side, even if she is not the legitimate ruler of Narnia. Many animals, however, have remained loyal to the true King and the belief that He will come and set all to rights.
Mr. Beaver is an example of one of the faithful animals and he keeps his faith alive through the knowledge and recitation of little poems, old rhymes as he calls them.
Wrong will be right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more,
When he bares his teeth, winter meets its death
And when he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again.
Mr. Beaver has a quiet and confident faith that Aslan will return, as the songs say. He focuses on the promised return of Aslan rather than the horrible times in which he finds himself. The Beaver is ready for Aslan because he has been anxiously expecting him for his whole life. But Mr. Beaver has been expecting him in large part because of his faith in, and knowledge of, the old songs and sayings. In the same way we must know the “old sayings” and seemingly simple rhymes of our faith, the wisdom woven into rote prayers and catechism questions, and let these humble guides lead us through the difficult and dark times in our lives. By following the example of Mr. Beaver, children and adults can learn to find the strength and endurance gained through faith.
Sin and Responsibility
The steady but rapid decline of Edmund is wonderfully portrayed by Lewis. Edmund is a bad boy, but he is not thoroughly wicked. He serves as a morality tale to those who would flirt with sin. At the beginning of the book he is pointedly interested in finding snakes and Peter alludes to Edmund being a bully at school. So Edmund is already somewhat inclined to evil. When he first sees the White Witch, however, he is afraid of her. It is only after he has snuggled up to her and eaten her food that he becomes more comfortable. His desire for her approval and her sweetmeats makes him overcome his complaining conscience. And once he tastes it he must have more, even if that means consorting with the Witch.
Edmund’s journey to evil reaches a climax when he sneaks away from the Beavers’ dam, setting out alone for the Witch’s house. He knows quite well he is doing wrong. The land itself attempts to restrain him, his path to the palace being a very difficult and painful one. The only way he perseveres is through the idea of being a King and “paying out” Peter for being angry with him. Edmund starts with gluttony, but that one sin quickly metastasizes into lying, pride, and an ultimate betrayal of his siblings and Aslan. The lesson here is obvious: we might think we can control ourselves, but sin inevitably leads to more and worse sin. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe provides its readers with an intense and accessible illustration of how easy it is to fall and how quickly the fallen state can become one of enslavement, as it quite literally does for poor Edmund.
Another interesting point in the fall of Edmund is Peter’s surprising complicity. Lewis wants his readers to realize that Edmund would probably not have gone through with the betrayal if he did not have the spur of vengeance against Peter to drive him on. Perhaps if Peter had been more patient with Edmund, things would have been different, as Peter himself confesses to Aslan upon meeting him. Our sins (and our good actions as well) have far-reaching and unintended consequences.
A Final Thought
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is often cited as a classic example of the literary device called allegory: where the characters and situations in a story directly represent someone or something else. But I think this label may be misapplied. For instance, Aslan does not represent Christ. Aslan is Christ. This is strongly suggested several times throughout the series (at the end of Prince Caspian when Aslan is talking to Peter, when Aslan talks to the cabby in The Magician’s Nephew, when Aslan appears as a lamb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader). It is a helpful first step to see the similarities between Christ’s sacrifice and Aslan’s. Encountering a familiar story dressed in strange robes often enhances the understanding or illumines some hitherto dark aspect of the story. But I think Lewis meant for his story to be deeper than allegory. The story of Alsan’s sacrifice, death, and resurrection in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is not allegorical, rather it is archetypal. Lewis is unfolding something profound about the God who is self-diffusing love and who shows that love perfectly on the cross.