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The Great Book Adventure: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

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It's got a nice ring to it, doesn't it?: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? The syllables line up politely and bounce off the tongue in twos and threes. Besides, a little bit of alliteration is always a nice touch. I do find myself wondering, however, why C.S. Lewis picked these three pieces of plot to feature in the title. Was it just for the sake of sound or was he trying to suggest something about the nature of the story, as opposed to the plot?

It is a captivating story and one I would gladly fall into given the chance. Have you ever had that feeling about a book? It happens to me occasionally. Something about a story — could be the characters, could be the setting, could be anything — fills me with the most desperate longing to fall into the pages and live the fantasy. That was how I felt while reading this book. What I wouldn't give to be able to press my hand against the wood of that wardrobe door, with the surly English rain pounding away outside. The coats, I'm sure, are the softest you can imagine. Most of all, though, I want to feel the snow. I dearly want to experience that moment of realization when the wardrobe is no longer a wardrobe, when there's suddenly snow beneath my feet and a lamppost shining in the distance.

Believe it or not, walking through the back of a wardrobe is a decidedly Celtic way of beginning things. The are plenty of stories from the British Isles in which the hero crosses some barely tangible boundary and ends up walking into an otherworld. It's not a piece of furniture in the old stories (at least that I've read); they usually walk into a fog or a forest, or take a new turn at a crossroads. The point is, what was an ordinary place becomes magical for the right person at the right time. It's not surprising, given that Lewis was a British-born scholar. I suppose it interests me because he was also one of the greatest Christian theologians in recent history.

That's how I've known him of old, for books like Mere Christianity and Miracles (whew! now there's one that'll twist your brain). I always knew he had written the Chronicles of Narnia, but had never gotten around to reading them. The Christian influence is pretty clear and we'll get to that in a moment, but it was the mixing of that with the magical and mystical which intrigued me most. Elements of the story like Mr. Tumnus the faun, the centaurs, the Dryads and all the rest are part and parcel of the world Lewis created. Even the evil creatures like the Incubuses, Efreets and Minotaurs have their roles to play. These things all come from different cultural traditions, but are woven seamlessly into the story. Perhaps it comes from living in a time when the pendulum is swinging back towards religious fundamentalism, but I found comfort in such nonjudgmental presentation. Make no mistake, however, this is a Christian book, though perhaps not exclusively.

The story goes that when Lewis started writing the Chronicles, he and J.R.R. Tolkien (a close friend and colleague) got into an almighty row over the books. You see, for most of his life Tolkien held a very public hatred for allegory of any kind. Whatever your feelings on the subject, there are no two ways around it – this book is heavy on symbols. Aslan is Jesus Christ. The Witch is the Devil. Peter is Peter, for crying out loud. There were times, like Aslan's sacrifice, when I thought Lewis was laying it on rather thick. The Deep Magic and the Deeper Magic, which go largely unexplained, seem like convenient excuses for why events unfold the way they do. In these places, I could understand Tolkien's perspective. Overall, however, I didn't find it that much of a drag on the story.

I think I was able to make my peace with the allegory because it's not just part of the story, it is the story (which brings me back around to the title). The lion, the witch and the wardrobe are in the title because they are the three most important things in the book. The wardrobe is the entry point, the beginning of a journey to Christian faith. Along that journey, the Devil will be encountered. He (she in the book, I suppose) is a part of the world, but not really in control of it, just as the Witch doesn't really rule Narnia. Nevertheless, there will be times of trial on the journey, when the Devil is hot on our collective heels. In the end, though, we find the lion/Christ/faith and He saves us from all that the world can do to us.

While Lewis's perspective is undeniable, I don't think readers have to be Christian to enjoy The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There's a lot to be said for it on a surface level. It is a delightfully written story, and I think it becomes more truly entertaining as we cast our suppositions aside. Likewise, Aslan could just as easily represent enlightenment or adulthood as he could Christ; it depends greatly, I think, on the point of view you bring as a reader. And shouldn't great books have that flexibility? Shouldn't they be solid enough to have their own literary identity, while leaving enough open that each reader can find something different? I don't find that many books are like that, especially these days. Perhaps they should be.

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