In search of Narnia

Read C.S. Lewis’ children’s classics as an adult, and their mix of fantastical imagination, complex theology, and philosophical ponderings converge towards a fundamental human desire for truth.
Lion print for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes.
Lion print for Allen & Ginter Cigarettes. Credit: Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images
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Seventy-one years ago C.S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published and the Chronicles of Narnia have remained a classic of children’s literature ever since. The story begins with four ordinary siblings evacuated to the English countryside following the outbreak of the Second World War. There they find a wardrobe that leads to the magical land of Narnia. Like many children’s stories, Narnia carries the readers from one adventure to another, leaving them wondering ‘what comes next?’ after each chapter. A significant theme is religious conversion, while the narrative shows each character growing out of childhood. Lewis taps into mythology, classical literature, and philosophy to educate his young readers. Yet Narnia’s fanciful storyline is meant to illustrate a profound truth that both Platonic and Christian philosophy put at the centre of education: ‘what comes next after life?’ — and one is never too young to wonder about it. 

Narnia has to be read again with not-so-young eyes to unfold its hopeful youthfulness. Complex theology, child-like imagination, and silent contemplation converge towards the same desire for truth, and the ultimate ‘what comes next?’ of death. There is something counterintuitive in writing about Narnia – any intellectual exegesis runs the risk of obfuscating its simplicity.

On the surface, a magical adventure story unfolds throughout the books – but these exploits drive some of the young characters to a path of conversion. One of the main narrative arcs in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the transformation of Edmund. He betrays his siblings, but after Aslan, the great lion and a symbol of Christ, sacrifices himself to redeem him from the White Witch, he repents and proves his value, becoming a king of Narnia. Arvis in The Horse and His Boy, Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and Jill in The Silver Chair, undergo a similar spiritual epiphany upon meeting Aslan.

Narnia also presents conversion as a return, drawing the reader back to childhood classics. As seen in Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’, Edmund is lured by Jadis the White Witch who has frozen Narnia in a perpetual winter. Medieval and mythological motifs are also present throughout the series: Caspian’s wife appears like Parzival’s Grail Maiden, Prince Rillian beguiled by the Green Witch harks back to Tannhäuser and the Venusberg, and King Tirian, tied to a tree, is reminiscent of the Norse god Odin. Lewis converts patterns of classical culture into children’s literature by linking these kernels of imagery to the broader narrative. 

However, Christianity, as Lewis presents it in Narnia, is not one belief system among others, but rather the means through which all mythologies point towards the same end – salvation through Christ. When True Narnia, a symbol of the New Jerusalem, appears, the professor cries ‘It is all in Plato! What do they teach them at these schools?’ Plato’s Cave and Lewis’s Wardrobe are thus aligned into one symbol.

Yet, in the same way the world outside Plato’s Cave poses challenges to those who venture into it, Narnia is far more difficult than the real world. When the sibling protagonists, the Pevensies, recognise their former castle Cair Paravel in ruins, they are overcome with loss. Returning to Narnia is impossible, since it is never how it was on the last visit. When in Narnia, the Pevensies are not children, powerless in the face of war – but kings and queens. Upon their return to 1940s Britain, they miss that higher, nobler form of themselves. Eustace returning to Narnia just a year after his first trip, realises his friend Caspian is now a dying old man. The discrepancy between Narnia and Earth’s timeline is a bitter lesson in nostalgia, showing that the painful wish to ‘go back to how things were’ is inseparable from the impossibility of returning.  

Aristotle’s empiricism is also present; characters often need to see Narnia to believe in it. When Lucy first tells her siblings of her adventure, she is rebuked by them all, until they venture into Narnia themselves. Bree the horse has to meet Aslan to understand he is a real lion. Honesty remains a key Narnian virtue – Edmund’s lie makes him an outcast among the children until he repents. Narnians show a fair share of the ‘proper pride’ which Aristotle defends. To be Narnian comes with a set of moral standards akin to natural law: refusing slavery, not eating fellow speaking animals, respecting Aslan.

Lewis follows Aristotle in maintaining the importance of telling the truth, and of natural law as the core of society. Yet, following Plato, Lewis stresses that law, like any knowledge, can only emanate from an external, higher entity. When iniquity prevails, Narnians call on ‘sons of Adam and daughters of Eve’ to re-establish justice. Narnian characters learn to become brave, but they must also learn to call for help, or in other words, learn to pray. Characters pray for Aslan’s intervention when everything is lost. Indeed, faith and hope are perilous acts of trust in Narnia – the characters are expected to trust in Aslan, but Aslan is ‘not a tame lion.’ He is the animal image of a Pantokrator, an icon where half of Christ’s face is mild, and the other half stern; whoever meets him feels the deepest fear and the highest delight. The mare Hwin tells Aslan: ‘You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else’. The encounter between Aslan and Jill by the stream of water is a staging of Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel: to a parched soul, there is no other source of water than truth itself.

The moral and literary conversions lead towards Aslan, but the Lion himself directs everyone towards his Father. Aslan is at once the Lion of Judah announced in the Old Testament, the eternal son of Narnia’s invisible Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, and the sacrificial victim, leading everyone who believes in him towards the Father. The gospel is retold allegorically through a story of talking animals; yet the narrative goes the other way round, too. Aslan tells Lucy she met him in this leonine-shape so that she can know him better in her world, and indeed in The Last Battle it is Lucy who says: ‘In our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.’ 

In Narnia, no feelings are spared and no escapism is allowed. The reader must be ready to see beloved characters suffer and die. Narnia bears Lewis’s own experience of grief, war, and death. The loss of his mother and of his friends, his loss and recovery of faith, are woven into a narrative that mirrors a generation’s struggle through two world wars, and humanity’s permanent confrontation with the problem of evil.

Narnia’s teachings are just as demanding as the ones Lewis presents in The Screwtape Letters (1941) and Mere Christianity (1952). Taking Plato’s Phaedo one step further towards Christian Platonism, Narnia’s ending spurs the desire and hope for heaven. Following Plato, Narnia shows that one must be ready for death, and for the death of everything one cherishes. Following the gospels, it teaches that to anyone who is ready for it, death is where the true adventure begins.

Marie Daouda

Dr Marie Daouda is a lecturer in French at Oriel College, Oxford.

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