Narnia — not merely Christian, you know

Michael Coren had a piece in the National Post a couple days ago about C.S. Lewis, motivated in part by the upcoming film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He describes the story as “a delicious mingling of childhood fantasy, Christian metaphor and sublime story telling,” and goes on to say: “As pure literary fantasy, the books are an unrivalled success. Yet they also succeed as Christian metaphor. Neither clumsy nor didactic, Lewis colours secular magic with Godly reality.”

Well, now. This is certainly true (although I think Tolkien might have argued that the books were a little, if not clumsy, then perhaps a bit slapdash). But the idea that these books are “Christian metaphor” has been so repeated, and repeated, and repeated by Christian apologists — Coren himself uses the phrase twice in just a few paragraphs — that I think articles like this just contribute to one of the great blind spots in Narnia appreciation. Namely, I think it needs to be acknowledged that the Narnia books are a wonderful introduction to pagan mythology.

Seriously, the two biggest influences on my own childhood love of myths, especially the Greek and Roman kind, were the Beethoven sequence in Disney’s Fantasia and the fantastical creatures that populated Lewis’s Narnia books. These myths were not mere “fantasy”, but part of a great cultural heritage that Lewis believed was far more in touch with the Truth than the secular ideologies of our day. Indeed, if I understand him correctly, Lewis probably would have balked at the idea that these robust myths could be summed up as mere “children’s fantasy,” and he probably would have balked at the idea that the magic portrayed in these books was “secular”. Secularism, understood as a product of the Enlightenment, was as resolutely opposed to the pagan religions of the past as to the Christian religion of the present — and if Lewis brought “Godly reality” into the “secular” world, it was through a magical, pagan back door. To quote what Lewis wrote in ‘Is Theism Important?’, from God in the Dock:

When grave persons express their fear that England is relapsing into Paganism, I am tempted to reply, ‘Would that she were.’ For I do not think it at all likely that we shall ever see Parliament opened by the slaughtering of a garlanded white bull in the House of Lords or Cabinet Ministers leaving sandwiches in Hyde Park as an offering for the Dryads. If such a state of affairs came about, then the Christian apologist would have something to work on. For a Pagan, as history shows, is a man eminently convertible to Christianity. He is essentially the pre-Christian, or sub-Christian, religious man. The post-Christian man of our day differs from him as much as a divorcée differs from a virgin. The Christian and the Pagan have much more in common with one another than either has with the writers of the New Statesman; and those writers would of course agree with me.

These sorts of distinctions and definitions become especially pressing when certain Christian writers start attacking, say, the Harry Potter books for their pagan elements while turning a blind eye to those exact same elements in Lewis’s books.

I myself am a Christian and I cherish the fact that Lewis was capable of expressing his beliefs through all sorts of literature, including children’s fantasy. But I think we owe it to Lewis and his beliefs to be more forthright about this aspect of Lewis’s writings. When I see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I will not only be asking if they got the story’s Christian underpinnings right, but if they got Lewis’s love of pagan mythology right.

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  • SDG

    “When I see The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I will not only be asking if they got the story’s Christian underpinnings right, but if they got Lewis’s love of pagan mythology right.”

    Amen to that, Peter! Well said.

    I, too, would quibble with Coren’s description of pagan mythology as “secular,” but along a somewhat different axis. The words “secular” and “religious” have become a bit slippery since the Reformation, and are commonly used to mean something like “non-sacred” vs. “sacred.” In traditional usage, though, “religious” meant pertaining to a consecrated order, like a nun or a monk, and “secular” meant not so pertaining.

    Thus, one could distinguish “religious priests” from “secular priests” without implying that the one was devout and the other impious; a “religious priest” was simply one who belonged to a religious order like the Franciscans or the Dominicans, while a “secular priest” was simply your typical diocesan priest who has received Holy Orders but has not taken vows to a particular religious order.

    I almost wish we could go back to using the categories of “sacred” and “profane,” but unfortunately “profane” too has shifted in meaning, and no longer means only “that which is ordinary or set aside in a special way for God’s service, that which is outside the temple [pro + fanum],” but “that which has been profaned, i.e., has wrongly been treated as profane or ordinary, but ought to have been treated as special or set aside,” as profane usage of the Lord’s name.

    Oh, well. I have never yet seen a Centaur that I thought was properly impressive based on the picture I got from The Chronicles of Narnia. Maybe now I will!

  • Marie S.

    Thank you for pointing out that there is also a Pagan side to Narnia! As a Pagan myself, it is refreshing to finally encounter someone who is willing to admit that Lewis was also influenced by Paganism and not just Christianity.

  • As a non-theistic pagan agnostic I second Marie S’s post. I am doing a study of Lewis’s Pagan Unconscious to show that as he subscribed to the Medievalist view that Christ was a fulfillment of Pagan desire, he was in essence arguing for a Pagan Christ.