How Should We Read The Chronicles of Narnia?
by Leland Ryken
The most important lessons that we can learn from C.S. Lewis’ Narnian Chronicles are the ones that Lewis himself wanted us to learn. It so happens that Lewis said enough about literature in general and the Narnian books in particular that it is possible to read Lewis’ classic children’s stories with the author himself.
One of the most important pieces of advice that Lewis gave to readers of literature is that they must receive a work of literature instead of using it. Lewis wrote, “A work of…art can be either ‘received’ or ‘used’. When we ‘receive’ it we exert our senses and imagination and various other powers according to a pattern invented by the artist. When we ‘use’ it we treat it as assistance for our own activities” (emphasis added). According to this line of thought, “The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
This is not to deny that we should make use of what we read. It is instead a caution to let stories set their own agenda of concerns according to the order created by the author, not to impose our own agenda on them according to our own timetable as we progress through a story. Lewis’ rule of thumb was to let stories “tell you their own moral” and not “put one in.” The relevance of this to the Narnian stories is that the religious aspects of the stories usually do not appear until approximately halfway through the books. Many Christian readers are impatient with that and force the opening chapters into something that Lewis did not intend.
The second warning that Lewis gave is not to reduce works of literature to a set of ideas. He claimed that “one of the prime achievements in every good fiction has nothing to do with truth or philosophy…at all.” To regard a story “as primarily a vehicle for…philosophy is an outrage to the thing the poet has made for us.” Works of literature “are complex and carefully made objects. Attention to the very objects they are is our first step.” This, too, should steer us away from how many Christian readers deal with The Chronicles of Narnia.
How the Narnian Stories Were Composed
In addition to the general guidelines for reading literature, Lewis left us some very useful tips for reading the Narnian stories in particular. For example, Lewis famously said that “all my seven Narnian books…began with pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures.” Thus The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe “began with a picture of Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.” Just as we are recovering from the shock of that revelation, Lewis adds, “This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.’”
Just in case we might think that we cannot possibly have heard things correctly, Lewis also gave us another passage of similar import — only more shocking. In countering the assumption of some of his readers that he “began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children,” Lewis claimed that “at first there wasn’t even anything Christian about [the stories].”
The order of composition suggests an order of reading. If we follow the lead of Lewis himself, a major lesson we can learn from the Narnian stories is that they are first of all stories — adventure stories, fantasy stories, children’s stories. These narrative features are not simply “a disguise for something more ‘adult’.”
How the Narnian Stories Became Christian Classics
Of course this does not mean that we need to abandon our conviction that the Narnian Chronicles are Christian classics — stories in which Christian experiences and doctrines are movingly embodied. In the same passage in which Lewis claimed that initially there was nothing Christian about the stories, he added, “That element pushed itself in of its own accord.” So there is a Christian dimension to the stories, as we have known since our first encounter with them. In a letter that Lewis wrote a year and a half before his death, he said that there is “a deeper meaning behind” the surface details of the stories…
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|Recommended Reading: The Chronicles of Narnia | The World According to Narnia: Christian Meaning in C. S. Lewis’s Beloved Chronicles|