The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Hope Springs Eternal
“One day, you will be old enough to start reading fairytales again”.
– C.S. Lewis
I recently was talking with a friend regarding C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Now as some of you may know, I’m a huge C.S. Lewis fan – That Hideous Strength is probably one of my favorite works of fiction. Throughout all his works, Lewis constantly points us to more; I’ve heard him depicted as “a theologian who taught English”. In our conversation, I admitted to thinking that Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia is one of his worst works; thankfully, this friend challenged me to write an article on this, so here you go. You know who you are.
I’m going to start by saying that I was wrong about The Chronicles of Narnia being Lewis’ worst work – it’s just different. So you can stop now if you like; but please keep reading.
The more I thought about the series, the more I thought about how the whimsy of it had captured my imagination as a child, but how I, like Susan, had “grown up” and moved to Lewis’ more mature works. But did that mean that the Chronicles were a lesser work of fiction because of this? Or was there something hidden in the pages that I was missing?
The more I delved, the more I realized that I had missed something – the virtue of hope that’s spread throughout the series. The simplicity of the series is that they’re written for children, so of course they’re not going to have the same level of depth that something like That Hideous Strength, The Screwtape Letters, or The Great Divorce will. This was why I had originally left them for other works by Lewis. But that’s how it’s supposed to be – in fact, the series would lose their wonder if they were to be written for adults. In their simplicity, the Chronicles of Narnia are written for simple minds, minds that can wonder at the world and hope for more. So I want to dig deeper with you, dear reader, on this subject: the virtue of hope.
Lewis writes about heaven and hell and the nature of temptation, as Ransom grapples with the devil in Perelandra. He shows us the danger of sin and the wiles of the devil in The Screwtape Letters. And in The Great Divorce he shows us the tragedy of the soul that decides to remain in hell because they’d rather not chance it on the bus to heaven. Children might see these things as sad; but it takes the person that has experienced more to fully comprehend the depths of this tragedy.
But in The Chronicles of Narnia, we receive something different – it’s a story unlike one we’ve ever read before. Like his compatriot J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis pulls us into the lands of Narnia through our own daily experiences by putting us in the shoes of the Pevensie children. While we may not have been hiding from the destruction of World War II, we’ve all been schoolkids at some point in our lives. I’m sure we’ve all wanted a huge house like the Professor’s to get lost in, and we can hopefully all relate to playing hide-and-go-seek where even the smallest basement becomes a new world to discover and explore.
And there our hearts are caught and held. For we all were children at one time and knew what it was like to wonder at the world. We all too had a wish to escape through a magical wardrobe and leave the care and strife of this world. But here’s the thing – the care and strife comes with us, and we become better for it. We never left Jadis – she came with us through the wardrobe, following us at every turn. But we learned how to confront her, to fight her temptation. But we view our struggles through the lenses of the Pevensie children, of Diggory and Polly, and so many others.
Lewis shows us ourselves as children and how our little faults can have devastating consequences. Edmund only tells a small little lie about the wardrobe not existing, only a small little lie about never having been to Narnia. He’s only a selfish boy in war-torn England who wants his sweets. What’s so wrong with that? But his selfishness has far-reaching consequences and ends with his siblings almost being captured by the White Witch, who wants them all dead. But the lesson here is for little children to learn that even they can be heroes like Peter and that even they can wreak havoc with little white lies like Edmund.
But what about Lucy? Her joy, her innocence, her belief in the goodness of others; she alone of her siblings thinks that Edmund is still worth saving even after he’s betrayed them to the White Witch. Maybe we smile a little when we see Lucy, wishing we could be more like her while the pragmatist inside of us tells us otherwise.
In these times of human misery being broadcast around the globe, when we’ve been betrayed by those who we thought we could trust the most, when war and death are everywhere, hope still exists. It undoubtedly is still out there because if someone like Lewis, who lived through the horrors of World War I, was able to see it, so can we. If it becomes possible for someone to look into the void and see the light beyond it, then it’s possible for us too. Reading Lewis becomes a gateway whereby this becomes possible. Because Lewis experienced the very real horror of what trench warfare was, literally lived in the Wasteland, we can learn from his example to find the way out. And the way out can be found in his works. In particular, his Chronicles of Narnia points the way for us who are still stuck in the trenches.
And that’s the beauty of these series; because every work of art contains in some way the artist in it. Just as all Creation holds the beauty of the Creator in it, so the Chronicles of Narnia holds a piece of Lewis in it. There is no escapism in Narnia, rather there is the reality and splendor of Truth. It shines so simply because things were, for us, once very simple; and by bringing his books to children, Lewis paints something for all of us to see clearly, without the grime and confusion of modern life.
I’d like to briefly reflect on Lewis’ final book in the series, The Last Battle. Throughout this book, we see our Narnia torn apart before our very eyes by an evil ape; it’s still hard to read after all the reader has been through with the characters. Susan no longer cares about Narnia because she’s “grown up” (what a terrible phrase!), and those who try to rescue Narnia are instead locked inside a barn. But the end times are ushered in by Aslan and Narnia collapses in anticipation of the greater kingdom to come. Lewis brings us into the horrors of World War I, into the desolation of the Wasteland with him in this book. All we’ve ever loved begins to fade away; gone are the days when we witnessed Aslan sing Narnia into existence, gone are the cold days of tea with Mr. Tumnus. Instead, we see our heroes defeated and imprisoned in a stable.
But herein lies the hope; for only through the darkness of the stable (the allegory is not hard to see) are the characters able to see something more lying beyond; only through the darkness of the stable does hope await. Though we are unable to truly see why we are being brought into the darkness, unable to see why all we love is collapsing around us, yet we still hope, we still yearn. For beyond the barn lies the light of Aslan’s Lands, and the Emperor beyond the Sea. And we rejoice.
Lewis builds this anticipation, preparing us for the stable where we might enter into the dark of night and emerge into the light of a star, which dazzles us with its brilliance. Dazzled, we see that what we had thought was heaven was only a foretaste; what we thought was happiness was only a taste to prepare us for something even greater, Love Himself. Here then lies the simplicity of the Chronicles of Narnia – Lewis, like Tolkien, beckons us (albeit more explicitly) to taste the longing of our final home.
I know that I tend to always end on this note of hope; but isn’t that what our life is about? We bring life into this world, hopeful for better. We engage in the polis because even if things are dark, people are vicious and things seem all topsy-turvy, yet we still hope that things can change. And just like Lucy, we hope that our sibling can be rescued from the clutches of the white witch; even if we, like Edmund, have caused havoc. The hope of redemption still awaits for us! Awaits, daily!
And may you become so old that you become truly young again, and begin to read fairy tales once again. For the truth is stranger than fiction; for truly the enormity of the heavens will come down upon earth soon, and the Hand that held all existence in place will take flesh, and make His dwelling amongst us.
But it starts, by entering through the wardrobe.