Despite growing up bookish in a Christian home, Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, did not discover C.S. Lewis until he was in his teens, when he read several of his apologetic works. When he eventually turned to the Narnia books, he was nonplussed, finding the theological message too obvious (a feeling that he says was partly the result of seeing a 1967 television production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). It was only upon rereading that he realized that the books provide much of what he loved about Lewis’s other books—“a doorway into a simple intensity of feeling about God that was able both to register all the range of ambiguous and confused human feeling and still evoke an almost unbearable longing for that fullness of joy which Lewis points to so consistently in his best writing.”
The Lion’s World builds on a series of lectures that Williams gave at Canterbury Cathedral in Holy Week 2011. In the book, he answers some of Lewis’s critics and shares some of the ideas in Lewis’s writing, especially the Narnia books, that he has found especially meaningful.
Although I grew up as a voracious reader in a Christian home, I, like Williams, didn’t read the Narnia books as a child. After seeing a cartoon version on TV, I did read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but I stopped there, mostly because the descriptions of the later books that appeared on my copy of Lion did not mention Aslan, and a Narnia book without Aslan seemed like a waste of time. (I did not, I should add, get the religious symbolism, being only seven years old and reading the book entirely on my own.) So it wasn’t until college that I returned to C.S. Lewis, and at the time, I was newly invested in questions of faith and wanted overt religious teaching. I wasn’t bothered by the obviousness of the message. Today, I’d prefer more subtlety, but in this book, Williams shows that the Narnia books are more subtle and complex than they may appear at first.
He begins, however, with a discussion of the books’ critics, who are many. J.R.R. Tolkien, for instance, didn’t like the mixture of mythologies, but Lewis wasn’t interested in creating an internally coherent alternate world, as Tolkien did. Nor was he interested in creating a systematic theology in a form palatable to children. Williams writes,
To try and map the entire set of stories on to a single theological grid is difficult. As I hope to show, there is a strong, coherent spiritual and theological vision shaping all the stories; but this dos not necessarily mean that they must all be read as self-conscious allegories of theological truths … Lewis repudiates the idea of reading the stories as allegory and instead suggests that they answer the question of what sort of Incarnation and redemption would be appropriate in a world like Narnia.
If you press the theological questions too hard, you’ll end up in a mess. What’s important are the stories. It’s theology through narrative and imagination, through thinking of what it’s it like to be in the presence of great power and great good, to know you’ve done wrong in the face of such power, to be part of a world that’s bigger on the inside. These are stories about seeing the truth about yourself and being given grace and love even when you don’t deserve it. Williams writes that Lewis “wants his readers to experience what it is that religious (specifically Christian) talk is about, without resorting to religious talk as we usually meet it.” It is true that Lewis uses a great deal of Christian imagery, but some books have surprisingly little obvious Christian symbols, are there’s also a lot of pagan imagery. It seems like Lewis uses whatever works for the story, and even if it’s sometimes heavy-handed, those moments don’t predominate.
As for some of the criticisms regarding depictions of foreigners and of women, Williams doesn’t let Lewis off the hook, but he does put those depictions in context, pointing out that Lewis was a man of his time, and he was drawing upon literary traditions from before his time, with all their flaws. In writing about the much-discussed problem of Susan, Williams notes that Lewis wrote to a reader that he did have hope that Susan would find her way back to Narnia, and he encouraged her to try to write how it would happen. I found the idea of C.S. Lewis encouraging Narnia fanfic back in 1960 to be utterly charming. I wonder if anyone has written that story.
It’s been a long time—probably about eight years–since I’ve read the Narnia books, and I’ve worried that they would lose their luster for me now that my own theology has become more complex and I’ve become more aware of the criticisms of the books. But Williams helps me see that even a jaded adult like me can find a lot of value in a good, imaginative story.