The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis, is a book many children love, and which has been made into a film more than once. Adventure story, allegory or myth?Lewis himself referred to it as a fairy tale. I have told in an earlier blog of my discovering the book in my twenties, and I have re-read it since then to my younger children. I do remember my older grandchildren missed out on this, as their mother asked us not to tell them Christian stories, worried that we would be inculcating something she has rejected. And this is so obviously an allegory of Lewis’ Christian beliefs: Aslan and the Emperor over the sea are so blatantly Jesus and the Creator.
Middle daughter heard this story, as a bedtime book I think, when she was five- or so she tells her five year old son now. She loved it. She loved I think, the Englishness of it and probably identified with the youngest girl in the story, Lucy. Kings and Queens and Castles too! It was much more gripping than the Wizard of Oz.
It does work as an adventure story for children – with talking animals, a wicked witch and evil ghouls and ghosts and werewolves (not too scary though.) In spite of the dated slang (Edmund is “beastly” to Lucy,) and the boy/girl role differentiation, which is also dated, and a plot hinging on evacuation of children from London in WWII, it still is a good read as a children’s book, as are the whole series of Narnia stories. I re-read LWW this week, with pleasure, because I found a hardback copy, with the original and delightful illustrations by Pauline Baynes, in a charity shop for 1 pound 50! I will substitute this book for the deteriorating paperback on the shelf.
The allegory, though. With Tolkien, I am suspicious of allegory. So is middle daughter, who realised in late teenage years that the death of Aslan was Good Friday. It did take that long to click, even though she was in church twice every weekend (!) with us. She felt obscurely manipulated, I think.
My concern is more with the understanding of the death of Aslan. I grew up as a Roman Catholic in the 40s and 50s, being told that Jesus had to die to satisfy God’s justice. Someone innocent had to be punished for human evil. If this had happened as retribution for an infraction at school, I would have been incensed, but, as children do, I absorbed this view as a given aspect of religious reality. I was embarrassingly older before I discovered that this understanding of Jesus’ death was based on Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century! I then discovered Abelard’s view, that Jesus died as a consequence of sin, killed by people’s, not the Father’s will, and that the redemptive aspect was his love and forgiveness. And even later I noticed that in the 6th century hymn Vexilla Regis, the death of Jesus is seen as a contest between Jesus and Death and the ancient Enemy, from which he emerges as conqueror. I think all of these could be seen as mythic in the sense that they purport to explicate the meaning of what is a historical fact, the execution of Jesus.
This conflict between the Lord of life and the powers of evil and death, personified in the White Witch, seems to be what is in Lewis’ mind, though many of his readers unthinkingly hold to the first theory mentioned, which is often called substitutionary atonement. The conference between Aslan and the Witch, the deep magic she calls on and the deeper magic of the emperor’s that prevails, all echo Venantius Fortunatus, the author of the Vexilla hymn, and of many others who saw death and the devil as the enemy.
A bit heavy for children.
“Always winter and never Christmas”, though: that has resonance. Based on a fact, an extra cold long winter in the 40s, but touching on imagination and myth.
No wonder my daughter missed the theology implicit in the allegory at the age of five! She caught the story, though, which does reflect a great story, the ongoing conflict of good and evil, the real power of “witches and dragons” and the greater power that I believe overcomes them.