Last Friday, 22nd November, was a day for celebrating what J.K. Rowling’s ghosts call “death-days”: on this date, exactly fifty years ago, President John F Kennedy was shot on the streets of Dallas; the Surrey-born agnostic author Aldous Huxley, best known today for his dystopian novel Brave New World, died (no longer able to speak or see) in Los Angeles; the Christian apologist, academic and author Clive Staples Lewis died peacefully of kidney failure at his home in Oxford. The assassination of the leader of the free world overshadowed the passing of two literary greats, although in 1982 the novelist Peter Kreeft published a book that imagined a religious conversation between the three men after death. As the columnist Oliver Moody quipped in The Times this week in his appraisal of Huxley: “An Englishman, and Irishman and an American walk into the afterlife on the same day. Fifty years later the American has two airports and a space centre to his name. The Irishman, who once tried to rhyme ‘dunces’ with ‘responses’, has a new slab in Poets’ Corner. The Englishman has a quiet corner of a Surrey graveyard.”
Moody’s allusion to Lewis here is slightly unfair. He was, indeed, an Irishman who loved the culture he was born into, but a Protestant who, after risking his life for Britain’s cause on the Western Front, had no desire for involvement in Irish Independence and lived and died in England. He was no poet, but Poets’ Corner is mostly populated by the remains of those who wrote in prose. He was an essayist, a literary critic, a teacher, a writer of science fiction, a re-interpreter of myth and a Christian polemicist. His enduring legacy, however, is his children’s fiction. The seven books that comprise The Chronicles of Narnia have been translated into forty-seven languages and, even today, three million copies are sold annually.
I’m not sure if there is a child in the world who has not read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and tried to part their clothes aside and touch the back of the wardrobe in their bedroom in the hope that it will open into the snowy world of a story where Christmas finally comes and evil is vanquished. After years of the White Witch’s tyranny, where it is, “always winter but it never gets to Christmas,” Aslan the Lion, returning like the sun, allows Father Christmas to dispense gifts before melting the snow and bringing about the return of spring. What is on the surface a fantasy tale written for Christmas is, of course, really the Easter story. Aslan sacrifices himself for Man’s sin, personified by the child Edmund. He faces humiliation and pain before sacrifice at the hand of the White Witch on the pagan stone table. However, owing to his knowledge of magic written when “Time dawned” – in The Magician’s Nephew it is Aslan who first brings light into the new world of Narnia as he creates it through song – death is not the end. As, “very slowly up came the edge of the sun,” the stone table cracks and Aslan is able to rise again to breathe his spirit on the animals turned to stone and to defeat evil.
Aslan is the only character who appears in person in all seven Narnia books and he is the guiding moral presence for the characters. In The Horse and His Boy he appears in the guise of several different lions to aid Shasta; in Prince Caspian he guides the children along the correct path to find the prince; in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader he appears several times but ultimately as a Lamb, who then transforms to explain to the children that, in their world, he always tells them “the way” and that they know him but by “another name”. Finally, on their death and on the death of Narnia in The Last Battle, it is Aslan that leads them to a heaven that is a new Narnia and a new Earth, and in imagery reminiscent of the Book of Revelation, implies that their eternal future will be a book of life “which no one on earth has read” and that, “this is the morning”.
It is in The Silver Chair (incidentally, the next book to be filmed by Walden Media) that Lewis wrote most explicitly about the evils of atheism. When The Lady of the Green Kirtle (those studying Keats at AS should recognise the allusion) realises that, on invoking “the name of Aslan” Prince Rilian has persuaded Jill, Eustace and Puddleglum to cut his bonds, she initially uses stratagem rather than violence to persuade them to stay in the Underworld. Enchanting them with music and a magical fire, she hypnotises the children and the Marsh-wiggle into repeating, “There is no sun. There is no sun.” She uses logic and probability to define their descriptions of the overworld as a dream and their analogies between Aslan and a cat, and the sun and a lamp, as a fallacy. It is only when Puddleglum, after stamping out the magical fire, declares:
“Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s the funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
It is upon this declaration of faith that the Witch now takes on her true form as a serpent and, in the familiar style of good triumphing over evil, is slain by the knightly Prince Rilian. His shield shortly takes on the blazon of “the Lion, redder than blood or cherries”, taken as a sign that “Aslan will be our good lord, whether he means us to live or die.” The Narnians and the children are rewarded by a return to “the sunlit lands.”
One does not have to be Richard Dawkins to argue alongside one of the (convert) Evelyn Waugh’s most famous fictional characters that, simply because something is beautiful, it does not mean that it is true.
Within the context of the novel, Puddleglum is proven right that the sun exists but when he asserts that it does he is making a statement of faith that there is something better. In the real world, no lions will appear on our shields; no swords will slay the serpents that attack us. Christianity is one of sixteen faiths listed on the World Religions Database (and there will be other, smaller religions beside these) and it is obvious that, at best, the followers of fifteen of those religions will be wrong. It is more likely that all of them are. The world was not created by a lion singing, nor, it is certain, by the Word proclaiming, “let there be light.” The species of the globe did not originate in a single day and they (including homo sapiens) face eventual extinction. We occupy no special place in the vastness of the universe. The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike – suffering, pain, disgrace and death are experienced by those who strive to treat others with consideration as well as those that do not. The possibility of reward and punishment does not always exist on the earth but there is no evidence that “wrong will be right when Aslan comes in sight” in an afterlife. Of the many differing and divided stories that were written about the Son, only four became canonical and even those gospels, only one of which can possibly have been written by someone whose life crossed with that of Jesus’ if dating is correct, contradict each other and approach the biographical task with differing prejudices and agendas. To mark fifty years since the author’s death, a stone was placed in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey last week. The inscription was a quotation from one of Lewis’ essays: "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." Yet it is possible to envisage a world view that does not depend on perceiving the risen Son.
The Narnia stories have weathered fifty years remarkably well. Yes, the language now seems a little outdated. Yes, the sexism now leaves us feeling slightly uncomfortable (all three main villains are Witches; the incompetent Head of Experiment House “was, by the way, a woman”; J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, A.S. Byatt and Philip Pullman have all objected to Susan Penvesie’s eventual exclusion from Aslan’s Country as she is “interested in nylons and lipsticks and invitations”). Yes, the depiction of the southern desert state Calormen (rather like Tolkein’s portrayal of the south and the east) now seems suspiciously like Islamophobia. Philip Pullman, whose atheistic trilogy His Dark Materials is a conscious rebuttal of Narnia, called C.S. Lewis’ books “blatantly racist and sexist”. However, they are comforting, well-written, moral, funny and wise.
If I were to have children, I know I would read them the entire Narnia series. Yes, Lewis used them to preach a dogma I cannot believe in and even despise. But each child is capable of making their own mind up if Lewis’ stories – or even the stories in the Bible – contain any reality amid the fiction. Books can contain truth even if they do not reveal the Truth. As Portsmouth-born author Neil Gaiman misquoted G.K. Chesterton as saying, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” The books remain an inspiring read and, although the covers of all novels must eventually be closed, the fantasy within the pages is an attractive one. Narnia is, like religion, simply too good to be true. If, in the style of Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen”, somebody were to say to me on Christmas Eve that Lewis’ imaginary land existed, I would be tempted to part the clothes and run my fingers down the wood at the back of my wardrobe, “hoping it might be so.”