The Christian Message of The Chronicles of Narnia
“When I was 10, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am 50 I read them openly.”
So said C.S. Lewis, author of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which film crews have just begun to shoot in Europe.
Before the hype for these films start, it might be a good idea to follow Lewis’ lead and read his own fantasy tale: The Chronicles of Narnia. More than mere fairy tales, they are an imaginative and captivating account of Christian salvation history.
Lewis did not set out to write an allegory about Christianity. He wrote the seven books one at a time and without any general plan. He later acknowledged, though, that in the process he gave them a Christian content. How?
First, there was what he called the author’s reason.
Certain images came to mind and he felt compelled to write a fairy tale about them, or as he said with the title of a talk on the books, “It All Began With a Picture.” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was inspired by the mental image of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. Lewis was 16 years old at the time. When he was about 40 he began to make a story out of this and other images — a queen on a sledge and a magnificent lion.
At the time Lewis was having dreams about a lion. These inspired the character Aslan — the name is the Turkish word for lion — the catalyst behind the novels. The author explained that “once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in with Him.”
In this last statement, he refers to Aslan with the divine pronoun. This is because he represents Christ. In fact, Lewis claimed in a 1961 letter that the “whole Narnia story is about Christ.”
Although he set out to write a fairy tale, he felt the influence of what he called “the man’s reason” and began to turn it into a story about Christianity. “At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.”
This Christian element revolves around his idea of how redemption would take place in a world of talking beasts called Narnia. Lewis believed that Christ would become a talking beast just as he became a man in our world. In particular, he would become a lion, since it is the king of beasts and Scripture calls Christ the “Lion of Judah.”
The series gives the following account of Christian salvation history in Narnia: The Magician’s Nephew — the Creation and how evil entered Narnia. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe — the redemptive death and resurrection of Aslan. The Horse and His Boy — the calling and conversion of a heathen. Prince Caspian — restoration of true religion after a corruption (Lewis’ Protestant streak comes to the fore). The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ — represents the spiritual life. The Silver Chair — the continued war against the powers of darkness. The Last Battle — the coming of the Antichrist (the Ape), the end of the world and the Last Judgment.
Although the books are still published in the order they were written, the above order is the one to read them in.
Some might feel casting theology in fairy tales is a bit silly, yet for Lewis therein lay the whole beauty of the Chronicles. He believed fairy tales were more than a bunch of kiddies’ stories. He held they also have a religious dimension. In a 1947 letter he lays out his philosophy on the matter: “Don’t ordinary fairy stories really already contain most of the Spirit, in solution? … Is not redemption figured in The Sleeping Beauty?”
Moreover, Lewis was drawing a lesson from his own early aversion to things religious. During his childhood religious education he had been told he had to feel moved by the thought of God and the sufferings of Christ. However, he found that the obligation to feel simply froze his feelings. Fairy tales, on the other hand, seemed to offer a way around this danger. “Supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday-school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency?”
This is what Lewis set out to do in the Chronicles of Narnia, and one hopes the Disney film will be faithful to their story line. Reading them may do a lot to help us, our children and our friends, discover (or rediscover) Christ in his “real potency.”
Brother Dominic Farrell
is a seminarian
of the Legionaries of Christ.
- February 20-26, 2005