Skip to comments.Why ‘The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe’ Became A Fantasy Classic For All Ages
Posted on 10/16/2020 8:45:02 AM PDT by Kaslin
Seventy years after its first publication, C.S. Lewis's classic 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' remains resonant with readers young and old.
Since its publication 70 years ago today, C.S. Lewiss The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been translated into 47 foreign languages, made into a movie series that grossed more than $700 million at the box office, and was included in Time magazines list of the top 100 novels published since 1923.
Featuring a land of magic, evil witches, and otherworldly creatures, the world of Narnia introduces millions of children to the fantasy genre every year. Its a rare modern novel that genuinely deserves the label classic, with an undeniable influence and resilient following that now stretches across three generations with no sign of abating.
There is something undeniably unique about The Lion that makes its enchanting tale capable of drawing its readers to return to its pages again, and again, and again. Indeed, for adults of all ages, theres a wellspring of valuable, affecting lessons that to be gained by opening the old wardrobe, and diving in once more.
Popular writer, scholar, and lay theologian Clive Staples Lewis made the cover of Time magazine in the fall of 1947, more than three years before publishing the first installment in what would become The Chronicles of Narnia.
Following the success of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis was in the process of writing Mere Christianity as the characters and world of Narnia burst forth from his imagination. Seven decades later, its quite clear that while summarizing his wartime radio broadcasts into what would become Mere Christianity, Lewis yearned to convey many of those same thoughts to societys youngest members as well. Ultimately, he came to realize the best way to communicate the ideas that he had in his head to children was through the genre of a fairy tale.
As wildly popular as The Lion and the rest of the “Narnia” saga have remained for children through the years, some adults still view fairy tales as something reserved for little kids. Such things may be fine for reading to youngsters at bedtime comes the old refrain but aren’t meant for serious adults.
Its wrong to think of a fairy tale in terms of the next step on a stage of progression, explains Dr. Daniel Coupland, professor of education at Hillsdale College in an interview with The Federalist. Its not just a step in a process so that we can move to on reading adult literature. Indeed, as Coupland sees it, fairy tales like the books of Lewiss Narnia series can actually be more enriching years after we first read them in grade school.
Granted, after the modern successes of Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Percy Jackson, and the renewed interest in The Lord of the Rings franchise, adults are increasingly more open about their love of fantasy and fairy tales than in the past. Still, some stigma remains.
Despite this, Coupland warns adults they’ll be missing a lot if they pass up the chance to explore Lewiss “Narnia” books. Dont dismiss a fairy tale. Now that you have more life experience and you know more about the world, youll actually be able to see more in the stories than the first time you read it.
Lewis laid his cards on the table:
When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown-up.
To put it another way, to think that fairy tales are only for children, is, well, childish. We dont have to drop fairy tales simply because we have a more expanded experience and know more about the world. If anything, the knowledge and understanding we gain from living make reading fairy tales and works of fantasy all the more important, as theres a greater chance we can uncover something good, true, and beautiful in their pages.
The Lion has a great deal of wisdom to impart, from deep, everlasting things, to characters that give us exemplars to emulate and dispositions to loathe.
While Aslan the lion stands as one of the most beloved characters of the series, one of the greatest strengths of The Lion, lies in its realistic portrayal of the four Pevensie children. The two boys, Edmund and Peter, draw the starkest distinctions of how one should act and live.
We all see Edmunds around us and Peters around us, and we all long to be Peters and we dont want to be Edmunds, says Coupland.
In “The Lion,” Edmund Pevensie pursues to satisfy his own longings, desires, and appetite. Hes an example of a liar, and, worst of all, a person who in chase of his own pleasure is willing to be a traitor to his own family.
In contrast, you have Peter, the eldest Pevensie boy. Peter is not a perfect character, Coupland notes. He makes mistakes. And yet, he is courageous and hes willing to give up his own desires and his own safety for the sake of another person. Above all, Peter displays an inspiring amount of courage.
Courage isnt the only virtue Peter demonstrates. Coupland explains, Hes a good example of charity. He takes on the responsibility for protecting his family, even Edmund, who has been a traitor.
Part of what makes Peter such a likable character is that hes a good example of a human character we can emulate. When Peter falters especially in later books we can see ourselves in his struggles as well. Hes always held up as the noble and the high king Peter, Coupland notes, And theres something there that young children just want to follow.
Lewis knew what children were like, but never pandered to them. Trying to please young audiences by inauthentically injecting literary storylines, themes, or scenarios that young people want to see leads many novels to lose their way catering to readers rather than leading them. Thankfully, Lewis wasnt solely concerned with fame, book sales, or increasing his celebrity status, he just told the story he wanted to tell.
The Lion and the entire Narnia series have stood the test of several generations because readers resonate with the stories. And, as Lewis is so good at articulating what it means to be a human being, certain morals naturally bubble to the surface.
Children are especially and profoundly drawn to a sense of right and wrong they just know. So, when Lewis explores the truth of human nature using magical and otherworldly vehicles, the effect is all the more arresting and convicting.
For Coupland, Lewiss skill at conveying delicate, even heavy themes, is beautifully portrayed near the end of The Lion:
The pinnacle of the story is what happens to Aslan at the Stone Table. Aslan comes in and makes this offer to the White Witch that goes beyond the law. So, in this little childrens book you see one of the most profound conversations about justice, about the importance of following the law, and yet, we also get this image of grace as well something that transcends the law. Even if you cant get a grip on it as a child, it stays with you.
Coupland argues, We resonate with these ideas because these ideas are human ideas. And yet, in the final analysis, the enduring allure of Lewiss work doesnt end there. The Lion and the books that follow it touch on this longing that we have for something other; an interaction that we long for; a connection to the Divine; a connection beyond the natural world.
As human beings, we have such a deep desire for that, says Coupland, We recognize the God-shaped hole in our hearts and long to see that satisfied.
Lewis is good. I enjoyed his work. But I think Tolkien was a much better writer.
Today parallels The Last Battle. Praise the Lord, King Jesus is coming!
I have always wondered about Lewis treatment of the kids becoming adults. Susan gets dumped on because she has an interest in the opposite sex whereas the other kids are ostensibly celibate. Susan has a normal ness that more folks relate to, but missed the train to paradise because she wanted a normal life in the real world. With husband and children.
However, the popularity of the men is due to their actual story telling abilities, without the sex and agenda pushing.
I remember watching the 1978 animated version, which scared the crap outta me. It wasn’t the story, I just thought the animation was creepy.
Tony Torn, June 2, 2008
At the Telluride Film Festival in 2004, I found myself at a crowded cocktail party jammed up against Bob Shaye, the founder of New Line Cinema. Bob's legendary career had gone all the way from distributing the midnight movie classic Reefer Madness in the '70s, to spearheading the massively successful Lord of The Rings movies. The Return Of The King had just won multiple Oscars, and Shaye was riding high. Now, pressure was on to find the next worldwide fantasy film franchise. Recently, New Line had announced that they had found what they were looking for in Philip Pullman's challenging fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, & The Amber Spyglass. My wife and I were both huge fans of the books, and we told Shaye how excited were were at the prospect of a series of films based on them.
I had first heard of these books at Burning Man exactly one year earlier. Wandering the Playa on an odd, moonless night lit by a freakishly bright planet Mars, I encountered two young men from Portland who had created beautiful, skeletal puppet-animals that swooped around them, attached to their hearts by luminous cords. "They are our Daemons" they explained, having been inspired by the Pullman books. I picked up the The Golden Compass soon thereafter and quickly became hooked.
(Warning, plot spoilers appear in the next three paragraphs).
The trilogy tells a powerful and inspiring tale that struck me as deeply spiritual. In the books, humans from an alternate dimension are linked, for life, with animal familiars called "daemons" who act as externalized soul-bodies. Unlike shamanistic animal spirit guides, these familiars are not gained through a vision quest but are part of one's self from birth. The protagonists of His Dark Materials are a pair of heroic pre-teens who fight a fundamentalist authority, The Magisterium, that seeks to control "original sin" by severing children from their daemons, an act which Pullman harrowingly depicts as profound spiritual murder.
As the trilogy moves into it's final volume, The Amber Spyglass, and becomes more ambitious in scope, our heroes take this fight beyond death, as they discover the true nature of "Hell"; believers in such an afterlife, defined by divine judgement, find themselves in a Hell created solely by their belief that such a place exists. Our hero's quest is to free these miserable souls, trapped in a limbo of self-imprisonment, so they might dissolve and become one with the ecstatic "dust" that makes up the energy of the universe.
Also in the final book (in which most of Pullman's most provocative ideas are presented), the death of "God" is featured, a pathetic aged cripple piloting a heliocopter. In Pullman's Gnostic inspired cosmology, this figure is directly tied to the concept of the Demiurge, a deity who is essentially imperfect, while a greater, transcendent intelligence beyond human comprehension is the true force behind the cosmos. Finally, the young heroine's sexual awakening as she leaves childhood behind is the catalyst that heals the war-ravaged universe, in a conscious reversal of the Eden narrative, where Eve's sinful embrace of pleasure leads to expulsion from paradise.
The Dark Materials books were, in the end, a profound attack on the values of organized religion, and a forceful articulation of an alternative theology, born of a marriage of Eastern philosophy, Gnostic hermetics and quantum physics. I was impressed that New Line had decided to put their considerable muscle behind such a sophisticated take on spirituality, especially at such a time of fundamentalist retrenchment across the world, and I told Shaye so. His response, in retrospect, should not have surprised me, though at at the time I was taken aback:
"If it's up to me, the word 'God' will never appear in conjunction with these films," he said. "I'm going to make sure the story is about the fight against authority in general, not against the church. If the public ever gets the feeling that we are talking about religion in any way, we'll be done for."
* * *
Shaye was eventually proved right. In late February 2008, New Line Cinema ceased being an independent film company, as it was absorbed into it's parent company, Time Warner. Shaye, who had built the company into the biggest independent studio in the world, was out of a job. Industry pundits agreed that one of the factors to blame for his downfall was the "failure" of The Golden Compass, the first film in the projected trilogy, which earned barely more in it's entire North American run than the Disney adaptation of C.S. Lewis The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe did in it's opening weekend.
Despite Shaye's attempts to secularize the film's image, right-wing bloggers attacked the film as a "stealth atheist" campaign from Hollywood. Pullman was an "avowed atheist." The Catholic Church attacked the film (the evil Magisterium of the stories having much in common with the Vatican), and Protestants were appalled by an article Pullman had written for The Guardian in London, attacking the sainted C.S. Lewis' Narnia tales as "one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read."
The Golden Compass ended up being a massive hit everywhere in the world except the United States. The worldwide market apparently couldn't care less that Pullman was an "atheist." Despite its rejection by U.S. audiences, going forward with the second and third films in the trilogy purely for the worldwide market would be a no brainer. But New Line had bet heavily in the wrong direction they had pre-sold the foreign run of the films at a fixed rate, relying on the easily influenced North American market to make the film profitable.
For now, the idea of completing the series seems dead in the water thanks to the cultural narcissism of Hollywood, where success isn't success unless it happens in the USA, and executives terrified of alienating the religiously conservative audiences of the heartland.
* * *
In the end, it was Pullman's outspoken debate with the legacy of C.S. Lewis that "outed" the project as theologically challenging. In his Guardian article, timed to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Lewis's birth, Pullman attacked The Narnia books as being racist and sexist, exposing Christianity's obsession with rejecting life in favor of death:
"One of the most vile moments in the whole of children's literature, to my mind, occurs at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan reveals to the children that 'the term is over: the holidays have begun,' because 'there was a real railway accident. Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead.'
"To solve a narrative problem by killing one of your characters is something many authors have done at one time or another. To slaughter the lot of them, and then claim they're better off, is not honest storytelling: it's propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology. But that's par for the course. Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it."
Pullman also takes on what writer Neil Gaiman would later dub "The Problem of Susan":
"And in The Last Battle, notoriously, there's the turning away of Susan from the Stable (which stands for salvation) because 'She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.' In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn't approve of that. He didn't like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she'd been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win."
When Pullman started making his provocative if somewhat strident criticisms of the Narnia books in 1998, he was a newly celebrated writer of novels for young adults, trying to get some publicity by going after a sacred cow. The notion that a mere nine years later a pair of multi-million dollar movie franchises would be at stake would have seemed an idea more fantastical than anything in either series of books.
* * *
As I write this article, the second film in the Narnia franchise, Prince Caspian, has entered it's second weekend of release, and although it's trailing behind Iron Man (and slightly behind the popularity of the first Narnia film), it has still earned more stateside revenue than The Golden Compass ever did. Even more than The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, in which a huge battle scene was invented by the filmmakers to flesh out Lewis's rather dainty paragraph-long description, Prince Caspian sells war and crusade to a public hungry to escape into a visceral states of victory and moral certitude.
Lewis's Christianity is not a simplistic, unreflective variety of dogma. He came to his faith midway through life, after embracing the story of Jesus Christ as "a myth that happened to be true." He freed himself to create new myths in service of that truth, and proved very adept at the task. There is something appealing in the notion of a Christ figure in lion form, and the special quality the books have of describing spiritual discovery in terms of imaginative child's play (worlds within wardrobes, indeed) make the Narnia books catnip to the young mind.
But the books also express the uncut prejudices of a colonial world view. Lewis grew up in the age of Rule Britannia and the "white man's burden." In writing for children, he drew wistfully on the values of his own childhood, where a wog is a wog and patriarchy is the natural order. It is interesting to notice how comfortably these notions fit into the Christian moral universe Lewis builds into the Narnia books.
But in the end, moral judgments aside, which books make better movies? The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe may have suffered from a certain blandness, but the story feels like it belongs on screen. The simplicity of Lewis's storytelling the fact that, for the most part, he doesn't explain but merely presents works as cinema in a way that The Golden Compass has difficulty doing, with its awkward set-up (anytime you need a voice over "explaining" how the world works, you are in trouble) and an "uplifting" ending that feels entirely false.
Despite these structural flaws, which point out the folly of dumbing down Pullman to begin with, The Golden Compass brings vivid life to an amazing world that owes nothing to the cliches of fantasy that Narnia helped build, right down to the refreshing performance of the lead child actress, a scowling young Jodie Foster type who is a million miles away from fawningly "cute." And despite the stated goal of dropping God from the discourse, how could one mistake the villainous Magisterium for anything other than a church, with their long robes and cathedral-like headquarters?
But the first book was never the "problem." It is in the later books that Pullman gets into proselytizing his alternative religious vision. How the filmmakers were going to tackle the notions of a Hell created by the Christian vision of judgement, a young heroine who embraces sexuality to save the Multi-verse, or a usurper demiurge squatting on God's throne, we may sadly never know.
* * *
The question remains: how disingenuous was the stated goal of the filmmakers to skip over Pullman's more provocative themes? Did they really roll the dice thinking that there would be no backlash? Did they feel that they could somehow sneak a serious critique of the last two thousand years of western belief past the cultural watchdogs and into the multiplexes of In God We Trust, Inc.?
Books may not be cool anymore in our hyper-mediated world, but what better way to spread provocative thought?
Pullman's book are subversive in the best possible way. They pass from hand to hand, and in the solitary act of reading, one after another comes into direct contact with a provocative vision, a planting of questioning seeds.
This brings us back to a central question. Is Pullman an atheist? He has often self identified as one. There is something in his attacks on Lewis that smells a bit of the self-satisfied humanist intellectual, and his moral universe is so reasonably balanced with modern progressive values that they seem based in the head more than the heart.
There is a case, however, where he beautifully articulated his goals in taking on such charged and transcendent themes in his writing. In a public interview at The Guardian Hay Festival in 2002, he offered the following:
"When it was possible to have a belief about God and heaven, it represented something we all desired. It had a profound meaning in human life. But when it no longer became possible to believe, a lot of people felt despair. What was the meaning of life? It seems that our nature is so formed that we need a feeling of connectedness with the universe. If there is no longer a king, or a kingdom of heaven, it will have to be a republic in which we are free citizens. We ourselves as citizens have to build the republic of heaven."
(A detailed article by Pullman going deeper into this concept of "The Republic of Heaven" can be found here.)
For many of us, eager to validate a non-hirearchical vision of the divine and yearning to be reunited with our lost anima-animals, Pullman's work brings hope and joy. But until we find away to make the leap, as Lewis did with Christianity, into believing that these are "myths that happen to be real," we will continue to be outmaneuvered by the Magisteriums of the world. In their lack of faith in the power of Pullman's "myth," New Line missed a powerful opportunity to give strength to a truly progressive, post-monotheistic vision that could help us climb out of the self-fufilling "Hell" that we find ourselves in.
“I have always wondered about Lewis treatment of the kids becoming adults. Susan gets dumped on because she has an interest in the opposite sex whereas the other kids are ostensibly celibate. Susan has a normal ness that more folks relate to, but missed the train to paradise because she wanted a normal life in the real world. With husband and children.”
It’s legitimate, but a concern for children and young people older than the target audience, young people whose imaginations are first being formed, who are in the old Latency Perdiod dismissed by sexual radicals, who are still enjoying virginity and the ability to with chastity form healthful, non-sexualized crush attachments to same-sex role models, to learn how to be adults who are not, to use a concept from C.S. Lewis’ adult space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength), “bent” (warped, twisted, corrupted).
When children are formed in innocence, they naturally transition into adult, child-bearing Susans, who can devote themselves to the most important job in the world, Mothers.
The very good—it introduces kids to the Bible—especially kids who have no idea that they’re reading “Bible stories”—retold in a fantasy setting.
Silly H’wood actors trying to babble on about how it’s not specifically about Christian ideas, when it very expressly is and unapologetically anti-Mus—er—Calormene.
Of course, Susan didn’t die young in the railway accident, so there’s always hope for her—but a sequel about her and hopefully her kids would have been nice. There’s also some literary criticism about borrowing a little much from Edith Nesbit’s works. But overall, I’m splitting hairs.
Take a look at the world around. Single parent homes are "normal." Cruising cyberporn is "normal." Gay marriage is "normal."
I think Lewis was evoking Matthew 22:14. In a world corrupted by sin, "normal," simply doesn't make the cut. We are called to rise above, "normal," and the tedium of our daily lives.
Years ago, as a teen, I attended a presentation in which the presenter drew an X-Y graph. "Normal" behavior was all the way to the right, "Abnormal," all the way to the left. "Healthy," was all the way to the top, "Unhealthy," all the way at the bottom.
For example, relatively few people engage in rigorous daily physical workouts, although that's a very healthy behavior, so that would be plotted quite far to the left, but up toward the top. Eating garbage fast food for every meal, every day would not be considered, "normal," and would certainly be, "unhealthy," and plotted in the lower left.
This presentation has informed much of my life in the ensuing decades, and it applies not just to physical health, but also fiscal practices, and spiritual and moral behaviors, etc. The more I've reflected upon and plotted my behaviors, the more I've come to recognize that things considered, "normal," and things considered, "healthy" are often at great variance.
My 6th grade teacher read to us after lunch, usually a half hour or 45 minutes. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was one of the books he read. Also on the list: A Wrinkle in Time and Chronicles of Narnia, Chronicles of Prydain.
We loved having him read, and he picked some good books. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe and Wrinkle in Time both had enduring messages about freedom and communism; I definitely got the point even though I was 11 years old.
As for the two Chronicles series, well that was just for fun.
Because it is well written
God bless my second grade teacher for introducing me and my classmates to C.S. Lewis’s Narnia.
Fascinating concept, I’d like to subscribe to your TED talk.
(Not really being sarcastic - that sounds like a very interesting thought experiment. I’ll have to look at it more closely later.)
Same for my 3rd grade teacher, Miss Olson, for The Chronicles of Narnia”.
The Wade Library is located in Wheaton College in Illinois. They have over 2000 original letters from C.S. Lewis along with his writing table and, wait for it, THE WARDROBE! I actually made an appointment to tour this private library and got a chance to touch the WARDROBE. Huge fan of his. I credit his book, “Mere Christianity,” with making me a Christian.
Narnia ping list!
A discussion of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
But then, maybe like Lewis, I'm a dinosaur.
It works. I first read the series at about age 7, and still remember the electric shock when "to them, he no longer looked like a Lion."
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