-Guest post by The Ginger Waif.
For my first Christmas, I received a handsome boxed set of all seven Narnia books. It should be noted that I was born in October, and the gift was first wrapped by my gleeful parents and then unwrapped in front of a two-month-old baby. That was how we did things in my household, but despite their very sensible attitude toward books and many other important subjects, my parents are distinctly in the believer category. They’re the sort of liberal, pragmatic Catholics who don’t do or mean any harm, but I was sent to a religious school and reared with a rather in-depth education on all things theological (which is, of course, the perfect way to get an atheist at the end of twelve years).
So how’d I fail to notice until around middle school that C.S. Lewis’s fantastical opus is intended to be approximately 100% Christianity by volume?
I exaggerate a little bit. I did notice that Aslan was a magical awesome guy who had a father living somewhere distant who no one ever saw or had any information about. The conclusion I came to, however, was that Aslan and Jesus should have a club to discuss their similar situations, not that one was meant to stand in for the other. It was only much later that I pieced together that Eustace’s dragon-transmogrification was supposed to be Saul’s conversion or that Aslan’s country was supposed to be heaven or… Well, actually, I have no idea what’s up with Puddleglum. But we’ll leave that aside.
Narrative obtuseness isn’t among my vices. I was and am addicted to retellings and twists on myths and fairy tales. I could certainly tell at a tender age that the assorted flood myths were pretty much the same idea spun all over again, for instance, and I never had any trouble grasping that, say, The Lion King is Hamlet, albeit with a pronounced uptick in lions (which seems to be the way to dress up a story). But what connection was there between the fantastic land of Narnia and all that stuff from my religion classes?
Within the confines of the story, Aslan is real. Aslan actually turns up and saves things with his majesty and leonine greatness. Aslan actually doesn’t seem to be omnipotent (probably not something that Lewis intended), removing the insurmountable challenge of the theodicy*. That magical tree he has Digory plant only keeps Jadis at bay for a hundred years, for instance. He seems to have to stand around being lame and useless unless certain criteria are fulfilled, but when he does get there, he’s there to save the day. Aslan usually pulls off being cool by standing around and saying things and getting his human minions to do the dirty work, so he’s kind of a jerk, objectively. Aslan may be god for the purposes of the story, but he’s a solid character with flaws and weaknesses. Also he’s friends with Santa. Jesus never even met Santa. So there’s that.
I’m sure the estimable zombie Lewis would object if he were here, but I’d like to see him defend his position. His Narnia is actually a much gentler and more welcoming world than most Christianity would have it. Narnia’s gleefully Manichean and its deities are reasonably well-developed personalities with motivations and justifications, which is much more fun and appropriate to a fantasy book, if not a world religion. Women have agency, the wicked are redeemable, and respect for the world and curiosity are paramount virtues.** Faith in the powers that be gets you results, as best the powers that be can manage, and there’s something really touching in trusting Aslan, as opposed to pathetic. Because Aslan’s actually there and will actually come save you. Physically. With roaring and golden mane flying and lion hugs. Aslan’s your friend and your hero, even if he’s kind of a butt about it sometimes. Narnia resembles the actual implications and realities of Christianity not at all. And in the end, it’s a wonderful story.
And how’re we doing on explicitly atheist fantasy lit for kids? I suspect I’ll be drawn and quartered for this, but Philip Pullman? No. The Golden Compass will never be freethinker Narnia. There’s some neat worldbuilding and such, and some of the baddies are genuinely creepy, but the plot is choppy and badly executed, the characters are flat, and there’s nothing remotely special in the writing. And frankly, Pullman’s got none of the charm and all of the racial- and gender-based failboating I said I wasn’t going to talk about.
It’s nice to have a message, but the tale’s still all in the teller. Yeah, Narnia is intended explicitly to be a Christian story. Even where it’s not precise allegory (I actually have no idea what A Horse and His Boy has to do with anything except talking animals), it’s informed by a Christian worldview. So’s the LoTR universe as a whole and Star Wars and most of the Western Literary canon after the middle ages or so. I’ll take a good story over ideological purity on this matter. And I think what makes Narnia good despite itself is that it Most Christian fantasy fiction is laughably bad, of course, because it actually holds to a Christian premise.
In his attempt to convert, Lewis ends up quite defanging his own argument. The only reason Narnia is so deeply, enduringly lovely is that it resembles the world as imagined by Christianity not one bit.
*If you haven’t previously buried yourself in weird philosophical questions for recreational purposes like I have, theodicy refers to the problem inherent to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God figure. You’ve probably come to the conclusion yourself. God can’t be all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful. It’s really got to be two of the three at best.
**Please do not take this as a blanket endorsement of Lewis’s values. He was an old, wealthy white dude raised the turn of the twentieth century and a product of his time. His flaws in thinking, especially as regards race and gender, are an entirely different and mostly irrelevant discussion.