SAN FRANCISCO — More than half a century after the original series was published, HarperCollins Publishers has announced its plans to create a new series of Narnia children's novels and picture books, using a stable of established children's fantasy writers.
The publisher seems eager to give the kids what they want, but not necessarily their parents.
Children like the Narnia Chronicles because they evoke a fantasy wonderland populated by people like Digory, Polly, Lucy, Edmund and the great lion, Aslan. Catholic parents like them because they know Aslan is a Christ figure and the author, C.S. Lewis, wrote the books in part to evangelize readers.
C.S. Lewis Co. director Simon Adley, holding the Narnia copyright, assured Lewis fans this spring that his estate would play a role in the new series, to avoid “exploitation of the books.” Weeks later, however, a HarperCollins strategy memo was leaked to the media that was less reassuring.
“Obviously, this is a biggie as far as the estate and our publishing interests are concerned,” wrote an involved HarperSan Francisco executive. “We'll need to be able to give emphatic assurances that no attempt will be made to correlate the stories to Christian imagery/theology.”
With the leaking of that memo, the fat was in the fire. Catholic, Protestant and agnostic commentators alike denounced the memo.
“The Narnia books are classics just because of their overarching Christian moral structure,” chided Ottawa Citizen editorialist John Robson. Seattle University professor John G. West, co-editor of the C.S. Lewis Readers’ Encyclopedia, fumed that “they're turning Narnia into a British version of Mickey Mouse.”
Another commentator quipped, “The series will be just another amputee pretending it still walks on both feet.” And newspaper letter-writers were generally “repulsed by the greed and blatant ignorance of HarperCollins and C.S. Lewis's estate.”
Not everyone has been so alarmed by the publisher's plans, however.
“It's just the Harry Potter thing, and after all, they're just trying to make money,” said Toronto writer Michael Coren, author of the biography, C.S. Lewis: The Man Who Created Narnia. “They'll have a hell of a job de-Christianizing Lewis, because his Christianity is so implicit — and so frequent. So what if they do? Anybody who likes the spin-offs will read Lewis himself. Anybody who likes the abridged version will go back to the original.”
He cited the movie Shadowlands, starring Anthony Hopkins, which he said was another “de-Christianized version of Lewis.”
“But so what?” he asked. “It didn't hurt anything, and it got more people reading him.”
The Author's View
When Lewis first began publishing his Narnia books in 1950, he apparently made no attempt to advertise their Christian motifs. Yet, in a 1954 letter, he wrote that the Narnia Chronicles began with the premise of the Son of God becoming incarnate as a lion in a different reality — a world with a “doorway” to 20th century Britain through a wardrobe in the attic of a London home.
Narnia's Christianity may be only implicit, but it is pervasive. In Volume 1, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Christ-lion Aslan gives up his own life to save a child who's turned traitor — Aslan then returns to life.
In another volume, a boy turns himself into a dragon by dwelling on his resentments. When he then wishes to regain his friendship with the other children, Aslan leads him to a pool of water — baptism — where he painfully rips off his scales and frees the boy within.
And in the final volume, The Last Battle, the children take part in an Apocalypse — the End-time for the world of Narnia — mirroring the Bible's Book of Revelation.
Until the Harry Potter revolution in juvenile literature, the seven volumes of Lewis’ Narnia series were the most influential children's books in the world, voted so by successive polls of parents, librarians and teachers, and by their sales: 65 million copies in 30 languages over 50 years.
In the last four years, however, British writer J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books have sold 100 million in 42 languages.
The Potter books haven't cut into Narnia's market. They've greatly expanded it. HarperCollins’ decision to extend the Narnia series was reportedly sparked by the fact that, once Pottermania really took off, Narnia sales rose 20%.
In a formal June 4 statement on its C.S. Lewis Publishing Program, the publisher says its goal is “to publish the works of C.S. Lewis to the broadest possible audience, and leave any interpretation of the works to the reader.”
In a brief interview with the Register, June 12, HarperCollins executive Lisa Herling would first refer only to the June 4 statement: “The works of C.S. Lewis will continue to be published by HarperCollins as written by the author with no alteration.”
Then when pressed to confirm whether there would be new Narnia books, written by new authors, she did say, “It is expected that there will be future books.”
Creating New Classics?
Focus on the Family writer Paul McCusker, producing the Narnia books as radio plays, said, “I've been fascinated by the reaction to the news of the new Narnia books. I've gotten dozens e-mails from people wondering what's happening.”
McCusker sees no problem in a publisher downplaying the Christianity in Lewis’ own books, since Lewis himself “never made a big deal of it. ... He was amused that kids picked up the biblical imagery quicker than adults.”
And if downplaying it improves the marketability and broadens the books’ exposure, so much the better, he said.
But writing new stories, shorn of his Christianity, is another matter. “Lewis's Christianity was integral to his worldview,” he said. “How true could the new books be to Narnia, if they take that out? Could you trust any writer who'd do it?”
What can't be anticipated is the effect on the HarperCollins writers themselves, from immersion in the original, McCusker said. “You can pray there'll be something redemptive in the process of writing them.”
Christopher Mitchell is director of the Marion E. Wade Center in Wheaton (Ill.) College, home of the Lewis archives. He said the new books will likely be, not sequels to the old plot line, but rather stories stuck in the gaps of the existing tales.
“Clearly, they're facing a great challenge,” he said. “The minimum they'll have to achieve, to stay true to Lewis's intention, is to make good attractive, while not making the bad any less bad. It's always easy to create believable evil characters. Making goodness believable and attractive is hard. And the new books will be judged from the perspective of the classics.”
Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft said that the providential order, “the benign concern of a hidden God,” distinguishes Christian fantasy from the pagan alternatives, like Harry Potter. The fantasy universe differs in detail, but not in principle.
“Good and evil, justice and injustice, loyalty and betrayal, life and death, these remain the same, no matter how different the fantasy world,” Kreeft said.
Christian fantasy serves at least three purposes, Kreeft said: Human beings inevitably see the world through moral categories. The moral imagination, the lens of these perceptions, is inevitably shaped by stories, tales and myths. “False myths,” where falsehood triumphs and evil brings happiness, are intellectual pornography, actively corrupting the young, said Kreeft.
The Harry Potter books are largely innocuous, Kreeft thought. If they have a problem, it lies not in the fact that their magic is demonic, but rather that it is so pedestrian and technological — concerned with things like baking cakes, traveling and playing pranks.
“Real” magic, the magic of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, is “a beauty that can't be controlled,” something that “we enter into,” rather than simply use.
Catholic father-of-eight Paul Moroney said that he was first exposed to the Narnia books as a boy, read them again in college, and has read them aloud to his kids — when the books could be dug out of the bedrooms of the older kids.
“If the new books don't have a Christian message,” Moroney said, “I couldn't see us going past the first one.”
Joe Woodard writes from Calgary, Alberta.