The world of Narnia has a distinct aura, a tangible presence that remains evasive, elusive yet alluring. The feeling of the Narnian world is somehow familiar, eliciting that nostalgic pull that calls from the heart of the Imaginal Realm. Many years had passed since I last read C.S. Lewis’s series of seven short novels for children, and I returned to them with fresh eyes and a much wider perspective than my childhood consciousness brought to the stories. While still enchanted by the places, the names, the people of Narnia, I was also aware of the underlying Christian themes woven into the stories in a way I was not as a child. Recognizing these themes elicited a mixed reaction from me, for on the one hand I could appreciate what Lewis was trying to communicate, but on the other I have been so deeply influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien and his profound distaste for allegory that occasionally I wished the stories could stand for themselves, apart from any parallel meaning intended by the author. At times I felt I was losing the real experience of Narnia to the allegory behind it.
The Chronicles of Narnia tell the full arc of the history of that realm, from its creation in The Magician’s Nephew and its parallels with Genesis, to The Last Battle, with its coming of the Antichrist and the Last Judgment, ending in the extinguishing of the world of Narnia. Yet each one also feels somewhat disparate from the others, in tone, style, and feeling. They almost seem to not quite hang together, while at the same time being compelling and hugely popular. My two favorite stories were The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the Dawn Treader, interestingly perhaps the most and the least allegorical of the tales respectively. Although The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe tells of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, with Aslan the Lion representing Christ, that story also feels like the one in which the pure realm of Narnia, apart from any allegorical meaning, shines through most brightly. The world of Narnia has a life of its own in that tale, more exuberant than in any of the other stories, perhaps in part stemming from the fact it was the first book Lewis wrote in the series. The four Pevensie children, the frozen Lantern Waste, Mr. Tumnus the Faun, Aslan himself, all have an imaginal reality to them which stands above and beyond the allegory that later came to be told through their actions. The Christian allegories Lewis is telling are taking place in a genuine part of Faërie, to draw on Tolkien’s term for the Imaginal Realm. Indeed, these aspects of Narnia came to Lewis before the Christian themes worked themselves into the tales, and Aslan himself seemed to be appearing in Lewis’s dreams for some time before he began writing, as the Imaginal Realm can so often do when the veils between worlds begin to thin.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, my second favorite of the novels, appears to be the least allegorical, intended to depict the spiritual life of those upon the journey to the World’s End. There is a numinosity to this story, and one feels saturated by the light of the East as the voyagers enter the sweet seas whose waters give strength and vitality. I felt a longing to enter into this depiction of Narnia more strongly than in all the other tales, as the Dawn Treader sails through the sea of white lilies toward Aslan’s country. Perhaps the magnetism of both The Lion and The Dawn Treader comes in particular from that tangible sense of Narnia as a real place, alluring one to enter into its landscapes.
Looking beyond the purely Narnian and Christian themes, there is also a Platonic element to Lewis’s stories. Particularly in The Silver Chair, which takes place in an underground realm, the allegory of the Cave from Plato’s Republic is echoed in the witch’s enchantment of the children who have entered her domain. She is attempting to convince them that no world exists beyond her underground realm, and the children appeal to her by describing their own world which is quickly fading from their memories. In their penultimate defense they attempt to describe the Sun, which the witch dismisses as an imaginary enhancement of a lamp. Finally, they appeal to Aslan and try to describe a lion, only to be told they are just embellishing upon a cat. But in the end the children and their companions overthrow the witch’s enchantments because the power of the world above, the world beyond the shadows of Plato’s cave, is stronger and more real than the lies she is weaving below in the darkness. Carrying the Platonic theme further, in the final chapters of The Last Battle, after the world of Narnia has ended and the many familiar characters drawn from all seven books are traversing a new landscape, they discover that the new land is the real Narnia and that the one with which they were familiar was merely a copy, a Shadowland. The Professor, or Lord Diggory, exclaims: “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato: bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”
The Last Battle was difficult for me to read for many reasons, not least of which because of the judgments passed upon so many of the characters. When Aslan stands at the door of Narnia as the world is ending, in one moment all the creatures of that world are judged and divided. Those who glance upon him for even a moment without love in their eyes are cast aside; Talking Beasts become dumb and descend out of Aslan’s realm forever, to a place unbeknownst even to the author. Furthermore, all of the characters from our world who have played roles in the various stories are drawn together into the real Narnia, a place that is an allegory for Heaven, because in their own world they have all died in a sudden train accident—all except Susan, who was once a Queen of Narnia and who played a major role in both The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and in Prince Caspian. She has apparently dismissed her memories of Narnia as merely fantasy, games she played with her siblings as children. Yet at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Aslan says, “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.” Has he forgotten his own words? Is doubting one’s experiences so deep a sin that Susan is not only banned from ever entering the real Narnia, but also loses all of her siblings and parents to a single train accident and, one assumes, must now bear this grief alone in England? Where is Aslan’s compassion and forgiveness? Does he not recall that she wept alongside Lucy over his dead body upon the Stone Table before his resurrection? Or is there perhaps some other hidden answer, a consolation not directly written on the pages of the final book?
Perhaps the most difficult aspect for me about the closing of The Chronicles is that because the world has come to an end we as readers cannot hold on to the glimmer of hope that we may find a doorway to that world as well. Fairy-story gives us faith in the real existence of the Imaginal Realm, and a trust that we too may some day be given the grace to enter its domain. But what if “the gates should be shut and the keys be lost,” as Tolkien writes, and we are locked upon the outside? Whence then do we turn to enter into Faërie? Perhaps it is in this sense of loss and nostalgia that one can truly reflect upon the potency of Lewis’s stories, for though they do at times bear the flaws of an all-too-human author, do we not still wish to return to the woods of Lantern Waste, the palace of Cair Paravel, and the sweet waters and white lilies of the eastern Silver Sea? Perhaps we may yet be granted that wish, for the time of the Narnian world does not align linearly with the time of this world—and some new doorway may someday open, allowing a different epoch of Narnia to be explored by some fortuitous wandering soul. With the ending comes both nostalgia and hope, a sense of loss mingled with the potential for remembrance and rebirth.
Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles of Narnia. New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1994.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” In The Monsters and the Critics. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.
 C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle: The Chronicles of Narnia, (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1994), 212.
 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronicles of Narnia, (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1994), 199.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 109.
2 Replies to “Back Through the Wardrobe: Returning to “The Chronicles of Narnia””
I’ve never read any of the tales of Narnia, but I really enjoyed your synopsis and particularly your take on the apparent loss of equanimity in the story telling. Tolkien really does hold the search for truth straight through to the end, doesn’t he? Certain characters go to Valinor, and even then some die (granted, much later than if they had stayed) and some do not. But even the smallest of those story elements has a purpose and an evolutionary story of it’s own, as if he slowly refined each detail to remain coherent within the reality of the whole.
Maybe the magic and equanimity of Tolkien’s task is really felt as he leaves the ultimate truth up to the imaginal capacity of the reader themselves? letter 246 (http://faculty.smu.edu/bwheeler/tolkien/online_reader/TolkienLetters246.pdf):
“‘Alas! there are some wounds that cannot be wholly cured’, said Gandalf — not in Middle-earth. Frodo was sent or allowed to pass over Sea to heal him — if that could be done, before he died. He would have eventually to ‘pass away’: no mortal could, or can, abide for ever on earth, or within Time. So he went both to a purgatory and to a reward, for a while: a period of reflection and peace and a gaining of a truer understanding of his position in littleness and in greatness, spent still in Time amid the natural beauty of ‘Arda Unmarred’, the Earth unspoiled by evil.”
Can you imagine the scene of Samwise meeting Manwē?
One thing Tolkien does so well, as you say, is to wrap up his endings. He thinks everything through to the last detail, which is of course why it took him twelve years to complete The Lord of the Rings. It truly is a masterwork. While I certainly enjoy reading The Chronicles of Narnia, the same care and time was not given to them. But as Michael Ward, who wrote Planet Narnia, a book I am currently reading, said—why do we need to compare Lewis and Tolkien and their different processes?
That Frodo and eventually Sam are able to sail to the Undying Lands is a great gift, even as we know that they remain mortal and also die out of this world eventually. I wonder if Samwise did indeed meet Manwë, or if rather he simply went to the isle of Tol Eressëa and spent his last years among the Elves there. Somehow I think it is the latter. Tol Eressëa is still in many ways a middle land, between Middle-Earth and the godly realm of Valinor. I do not know if Frodo or Sam would have set foot on those farthest of shores. But who really knows…