The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I was a very factual child who read mostly history and studied maps (and watched Westerns and documentaries). It was not until I was sixteen or seventeen that I stumbled into 'the arts'. They came along in a series of individual encounters, some of which excite me still, others of which have faded. The novel was 1984, the poet was W.H. Auden, music was Stravinsky's 'Rite of Spring', art cinema was Luis Bunuel, painting was J W Turner; and, opera was The Magic Flute. Each incidence opened a door that, passed through, meant a world never the same. Imagination had been ignited and enriched.

This meant, however, that, on the whole, I had never encountered the classics of children's fiction (unless possibly adapted for television and not scheduled against a documentary or a Western)! In my twenties, I spent a happy fortnight at a friend's house in the south of France where I discovered shelves devoted to the literature of childhood and lay for hours under the olive trees catching up, most especially I recall E. Nesbit and P. L. Travers (realizing only much later that the latter was a sophisticated follower of the esoteric)!

Now, after a long hiatus, I find myself once again, enjoying exploring the literature of children.

This year I have happily worked my way through Susan Cooper's excellent series, 'The Dark is Rising' and now find myself with C.S. Lewis' 'The Chronicles of Narnia' and having traversed Narnia's creation in 'The Magician's Nephew' have got to the second in the series (and the first written), 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe'.

I confess to being an admirer of Lewis. As a scholar, his capacity to guide you through the thought world that shaped the literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance enabling you to see with its eyes and imagine in it a valid way of seeing not simply one to be 'progressed beyond' is remarkable. As a writer of fiction, I have enjoyed both his science fiction and his haunting re-imagination of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. What to make of the Chronicles?

They do carry the air (as was true and as irritated Tolkien) of being 'tossed off'' and full of inconsistency as an imagined world (as distinct from Tolkien's careful and labored planning). They are more obviously and simply for children in a way that Tolkien's imagined world was not, or became not to be, after the Hobbit. Their 'middle class commonplaces' can grate as can the differentiation between male and female (though these can be overdone and you could argue that, however trapped in convention his girl characters are, their qualities and contribution to the unfolding action (and indeed their wisdom) outstrips the boys.  Meanwhile, they are, in certain of their key set pieces, masterpieces of imaginative writing - the coming to birth of Narnia as a 'creation myth' or Aslan's slow walk to sacrifice for example and the simplicity of its meaning (and, of course, its theological reference).

But, what impresses me most, is the way Lewis consistently reminds you that the world that you 'see' is continually conditioned by who you are. The world the wise or compassionate see is different to the world seen out of egotism or fear. Learning to see well, with one's own eyes rinsed and cleansed, is the task the world sets us and our own conscience calls us to. The Professor, for example, giving a lesson in 'logic' to Peter and Susan about their failure to recognize that the world Lucy has seen first out of the back of the wardrobe, Narnia, was a possibility. Lucy never lies, was not obviously mad, so maybe she was telling the truth? A truth, that of other worlds, Peter and Susan complacently dismiss even when faced with Lucy's principled and passionate claim. It is a beautiful accounting of the imaginative flexibility of the world and how epistemology, what you know, is deeply linked to what and how you value.

Lewis, in passing, also gets much of child psychology right, for example, just how far can you resist admitting your own failings and no further (in the case of Edmund's 'beastliness' and seduction by the White Witch) and, more simply, the continual fixation on the next meal!

I remain continually struck by Lewis versatility whilst plowing a consistent set of themes - from high scholarship, through Christian apologetic to imaginative art for both adult and child - and doing it to purpose, even when that purpose might unsettle his reputation. Can a quite serious academic be truly serious if he writes about fauns, witches and lions? But the linkage is simple, Lewis is defending the arts of the imagination (of which, I suspect he thought Church going was one and ethics certainly another) as truth bearing, indeed the truth bearer if we are to live towards the reality we are called to embody.


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