Back Through the Wardrobe: Returning to “The Chronicles of Narnia”

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.

Chronicles of NarniaThe 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?”[1]

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.”[2] 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,”[3] 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.

Works Cited

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.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle: The Chronicles of Narnia, (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1994), 212.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: The Chronicles of Narnia, (New York, NY: Harper Trophy, 1994), 199.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” in The Monsters and the Critics, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London, England: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006), 109.

Pathways to Truth: Article Review of “Unfinished Creation”

Imagination is the reconciliator of paradox. In the words of S.T. Coleridge, imagination “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and to unify.”[1] Andrew Linzey draws on the importance of imagination for theological exegesis in his short article “Unfinished Creation: The Moral and Theological Significance of the Fall” published in Ecotheology: Journal of Religion, Nature & the Environment. By using a fantastical tale from The Acts of Philip about a leopard who chooses out of pity not to eat a lamb, Linzey begins by demonstrating the ways in which story, and particularly fantasy, make a strong claim on the imagination, and can thus communicate religious and spiritual truth in a way that didactic reduction cannot reveal. He quotes Rachel Trickett’s essay “Imagination and Belief” to hone in on the ways the unifying qualities of imagination can aid in the quest for theological truth:

To see truth as a process of stripping bare, paring away, is a common rational perception; to see truth as a gathering together, a process of accretion which may appear to lead to paradox and contradiction, but which, in the end, resolves them by asserting completeness, is a function of the imagination.[2]

Linzey’s desire to emphasize the need for imaginative narrative within a theological context is to demonstrate the importance of the story of the Fall, as told in Genesis, for an establishment of ethical truth in regards to creation. The focus of the article soon shifts away from imagination and fantastical narrative when Linzey begins to unpack what seems to be the primary aim of his article, which is a defense of the fallenness of creation and its implications for the development of an ecological ethic.

Linzey is specifically addressing theologians who have rejected the concept of the Fall “simply on the grounds that it is an imaginative story.”[3] The implications of such a rejection lead for Linzey to the following conclusions, which have an extensive ethical impact, particularly in regards to an ecological morality:

  1. There is no evil in the natural world.
  2. There is no possibility of redemption for nature, animals in particular.
  3. There is no human obligation to cooperate with God in the redemption of nature, animals in particular.
  4. There is no morally just God.[4]

Knowing that Linzey is a prominent figure in the Christian vegetarian movement lends a deeper context to this short article, and why he has chosen to argue for the fallenness of the created world. The fallenness of creation can alternatively be seen as an impetus toward world-rejection, which has also had significant impact on the Christian relationship to the Earth. Yet for Linzey it is the teleological striving toward redemption that is of primary importance, which can be seen as a call to engage actively with the ecological crisis particularly by attending to our relationships with non-human beings. Linzey concludes by addressing one form of this engagement that takes place at a practical, daily level: “It is therefore unsurprising that the frequent backcloth to this theological issue is the intensely practical question, namely: What, or whom, are we to eat?”[5] This short article seems to take three rapid turns, from the importance of imagination, to a defense of the story of the Fall, to a brief argument on behalf of vegetarianism as a concluding statement: “The truth is that human beings can now approximate the peaceable kingdom by living without killing sentients for food.”[6] Coming to the article’s end one can feel as though something has been left behind, that the conclusion does not align with the introduction, and that perhaps the argument for imagination has really been used to argue for vegetarianism, without actually going deeply into the full implications of either thesis and thus cutting each short at the undeserved expense of the other.

Noting the wider context of Linzey’s position as an animal ethicist explains the turn toward an advocation of vegetarianism, and perhaps the numerous articles and books he has written on theology and animal rights can stand in place of opening up the argument further in this brief essay. His method of research for the article draws on contemporary theological and ecological scholarship, as well as returning to the primary sources of Genesis and The Acts of Philip. The argument on behalf of imagination is primarily a tool to unlock the treasures held within the narratives of the primary literature, which in turn is used to address a very specific question: ‘What, or whom, are we to eat?’ Returning to the content of the opening fantastical narrative it becomes clear the direction in which Linzey was headed, that the story was a means to argue for a specific and valid viewpoint in regards to the human relationship with non-human beings and the Earth itself. Yet, by using the argument on behalf of the value of imagination in such a way, he actually seems to undercut the purpose of the article, for in the end Linzey has drawn on the power of imagination, and fantastical narrative, not for its inherent value as a revelation of truth, but rather to forward one specific perspective reduced out of that story. To return to Trickett’s statement on different ways to approach truth—’To see truth as a process of stripping bare, paring away, is a common rational perception’—Linzey appears to have inadvertently used an argument on behalf of the unifying nature of imagination to actually strip bare and pare away the fullness of story to put forward a rational argument aimed at revealing one particular truth.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden

Works Cited

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906.

Linzey, Andrew. “Unfinished Creation: The Moral and Theological Significance of the Fall.” Ecotheology: Journal of Religion, Nature & the Environment 4 (1998): 20-26.

Trickett, Rachel. “Imagination and Belief.” In God Incarnate: Story and Belief, edited by A.E. Harvey. London, England: SPCK, 1981.

[1] S.T.Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (London, England: J.M. Dent & Co., 1906), 159.

[2] Rachel Trickett, “Imagination and Belief,” in God Incarnate: Story and Belief, ed. A.E. Harvey, (London, England: SPCK, 1981), 38-39.

[3] Andrew Linzey, “Unfinished Creation: The Moral and Theological Significance of the Fall,” Ecotheology: Journal of Religion, Nature & the Environment 4 (1998): 22.

[4] Linzey, “Unfinished Creation,” 23-25.

[5] Linzey, “Unfinished Creation,” 25.

[6] Ibid, 25-6.