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Conceptual Fiction: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

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Conceptual Fiction is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on major works of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism and alternate history. These books are celebrated in recognition that literary experimentation with ways of conceptualizing reality has been as important as experimentation with language in creating fiction of lasting value. Dismissing these books as genre or escapist works has created a blind-spot in literary studies that this feature aims, in some small part, to rectify.

In his book The Allegory of Love, C.S. Lewis discusses the peculiar tendency of allegorical literature to externalize the inner life. As Lewis explains, people in the Middle Ages, who didn’t have access to Freud or Jung (perhaps a blessing?), were forced to “personify their passions.” Lacking a technical language for discussing psychological states, they explored them by means of stories.

This led to, in Lewis’s words, “the emergence of mental facts into allegory.” Two characters meet on the battlefield, one is named Avarice and the other is called Charity, or one is Wrath and the other Mercy.  By presenting their confrontation in personified form, the medieval mind could describe inner conflicts that were difficult to circumscribe, at the time, in more abstract ways.

To some extent, a youngster’s mind is much like the medieval psyche. Children learn about their own characters and choices through stories, not concepts. For this reason, the externalization of inner conflicts in the form of action-oriented narratives is a perfect foundation for their tales – or, put more directly, for their journeys of self-discovery, which at a young age are made via stories of imagination. Don’t talk to kids about ego, id and super-ego. Don’t try to explain Jungian archetypes and synchronicity to them. Just tell them a tale.

And Lewis does just that, magnificently, in The Chronicles of Narnia. True, there are other stories for youngsters that have more action and sharper hooks in the plot. There are certainly more modern and progressive tales for children.  Heaven knows, there are spectacles for the young with more dazzling special effects.  But no writer does a better job of imparting mythic grandeur to his storytelling than Lewis, of creating an external world that mirrors the deepest conflicts of a child’s inner life.

Laura Miller describes her own adult conflict, trying to reconcile the appeal of the Narnia with the author’s didactic intentions. She describes feeling “tricked” and “horrified” when she learned about the “secret” meaning in a text that had so delighted her at age nine. Yet when given the assignment to describe a work of literature that changed her life, she returned to C.S. Lewis, and realized that her disagreements with the author didn’t destroy the radiance of the story. “When I finally came back to Narnia,” she writes, “I found that, for me, it had not lost its power or beauty, or at least not entirely… What I dislike about Narnia no longer eclipses what I love about it.”

Of course, you don’t need to understand the religious symbolism of this work to fall under the sway of its quasi-medieval splendor – and I suspect that a significant proportion of its fans have read it without probing deeply, or at all, into its theology. I read the entire series aloud to my sons, and did not explain any of the Christian symbolism to them at the time. Yet their lack of insight into Lewis’s personal values did not limit their fascination with the tales of Narnia. They could feel a larger-than-life significance in Aslan, without having to assign it to a specific religious denomination.

I prefer to follow Lewis’s own lead, as demonstrated in another of his books — the much under-rated The Abolition of Man — and point out that the most important values are those that tend to cut across the standard party lines, whether philosophical, ideological or denominational. The Chronicles of Narnia is much the same. You cannot reduce this work to a catechism any more than you need to believe in Zeus and Athena in order to appreciate Homer. Lewis’s work has enjoyed its well-deserved popularity because it is built on an acute psychological understanding of human nature, not dogma.

What about Aslan? Is he simply a sugar-coated Christ, and Lewis no different than the proselytizers who leave pamphlets at your door? In point of fact, we have known at least since Sir James Frazer published The Golden Bough that the concept of the dying and resurrected deity predates Christianity. It is a timeless story, eternally linked with the natural realities of death and regeneration. Elements of it exist in almost every culture. As I point out in my own book Healing Songs, the Greek story of Orpheus bringing his wife Eurydice back from the dead is echoed in similar stories found in over fifty Native American tribes. Did Greek mythology travel to pre-Columbian America? Hardly. The appeal of the rising-from-the-dead story is trans-cultural, respecting no dividing line between nations, races, creeds.

Children’s adventure books always have heroes and villains, and Lewis’s series is no different in this regard. Yet despite what you may have heard about these books, they are especially nuanced in looking at that murky area between self-righteousness and villainy. Characters in this work are constantly confronting hard choices, and sometimes making bad decisions. Even better, they find ways of recovering from the wrong choices of the past – a matter of great interest to youngsters, but rarely dealt with in children’s literature. Forgiving others – and forgiving yourself; finding ways not to right past mistakes (sometimes they can’t be made right) but recovering from them nonetheless; learning from painful experience… these are matters that Lewis handles masterfully. And not by talking about them in a pedagogical way. As with the allegorists that Lewis wrote about with such discernment, this novelist always weaves the deepest interior issues into a vivid external landscape, populated by characters who grapple mano-a-mano with the obstacles at hand.

All that said, I am not sure that these stories work as well for adult readers. After you have tasted the rich psychological novels, the fruits of James and Dostoevsky and others, it is hard to assume the mind-set that would allow one to enter fully into the universe of Narnia. The Harry Potter books, for example, are much better suited to appeal to both children and adults. I did not read C.S. Lewis as a child, and only came to his stories as a grown-up and a parent. I fear that this limited my ability to give myself over completely to the magic of this alternative universe.

But for the fresh, unimpeded mind of a nine year old—the mind that knows even better than us jaded grown-ups that the universe is a magical place—The Chronicles of Narnia have an almost inexhaustible richness. Moreover, the stories are built on such enduring themes of youthful wish-fulfillment, that they are likely to hold their charm for later generations. It’s almost impossible to predict literary trends these day — who knows if we will even have books and book retailers in a few decades time? — but I have confidence that the youngsters enjoying these stories today will be sharing them with their own children and grandchildren.

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