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A lively and engaging exploration of the many Christian themes in C.S. Lewis's widely-known and universally loved children's stories.
"Reality," wrote C. S. Lewis, "is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed." When Lucy comes back out of the wardrobe after her first couple of visits to Narnia, Peter and Susan disbelieve her story because it's not something they would have guessed. For Professor Kirke, the very unlikelihood of her story is one of the reasons he believes it. If she were making it up, wouldn't she have made up something more plausible? If she were going to pretend to have been in another world for several hours, wouldn't she have hidden in the wardrobe for more than a minute? Surely no one so young could have invented the idea of a world where time runs differently from time on earth.
"But do you really mean, Sir," asks Peter, "that there could be other worlds-all over the place, just round the corner-like that?"
"Nothing is more probable," answers the professor. He speaks for that other professor, Professor Lewis. Indeed, he speaks for all mere Christians. For the most fundamental tenet of the faith is that there is another world (if you can call it that) just around the corner. A chief concern ofthe Christian faith is how to get from this world to that one. And the means by which we get from here to there are not what you would have guessed.
In the Chronicles of Narnia, we see a fictional outworking of a thought experiment from the second chapter of Lewis's book Miracles. What if, outside the vast system we call Nature (we might also call it the Universe) there existed other Natures? Each of these Natures would be as self-contained as ours; parts would be interlocked in spacetime relationships and causal relationships, but they would have no such relationships with any part of this universe. Which is to say, under normal circumstances, no amount of travel could get you to one of those other Natures, and no action within this Nature could produce a reaction in one of those Natures. "This does not mean that there would be absolutely no relation between [different Natures]," says Lewis; "they would be related by their common derivation from a single Supernatural source. They would, in this respect, be like different stories by a single author." The true connection between any two Natures exists in the mind of the Maker, to borrow a phrase from Dorothy Sayers.
Now, if two such Natures ever did come into contact somehow, each would be supernatural to the other; Lucy is no less supernatural to Tumnus than Tumnus is to her. "But the fact of their contact would be supernatural in a more absolute sense," Lewis continues-"not as being beyond this or that Nature, but beyond any and every Nature." Whether or not Lewis believed in the existence of other Natures, he did believe in the existence of a transcendent Supernature. To step through the wardrobe is not only to see Narnia, but to get a glimpse of the mind of the Maker, which exists beyond this and all other worlds, and out of which they all derive.
In Peter Pan, Neverland is the geography of the Darling children's inner world. When Mrs. Darling peeks into her children's minds, she finds maps of Neverland. Before Peter Pan climbs in the nursery window, he already exists in the Darlings' imaginations. Narnia and the Pevensie children's relationship to it are another matter altogether. The Pevensies may enjoy rich imaginative lives, but their imaginations do not give rise to Narnia any more than they give rise to London or Professor Kirke 's house. They explore, they play hide-and-seek, they climb trees and swim and lie in the heather. But we never hear of them playing make-believe. Lewis is careful from the start not to leave the possibility that Narnia is a figment of anybody's imagination. As peculiar as it seems, the world on one side of the wardrobe is as real as the world on the other. "We take reality as it comes to us," Lewis writes: "there is no good jabbering about what it ought to be like or what we should have expected it to be like."
As if to underscore Narnia's reality, Lewis lovingly renders Tumnus's cave as a place of snug hominess. Except for the fact that he 's a faun, Tumnus might be an English householder. He sits Lucy down in front of a cozy fire and serves her just the sort of tea she might get at home. The stories he tells of Narnia-of nymphs and dryads and summer dances, of red dwarfs and treasure hunts, of the feasts of Bacchus and Silenus-are fantastic to be sure, but the familiar domesticity of his little cave is the overruling impression of Lucy's first visit.
It is Lucy, in fact, who seems the figure of myth in this scene. She is the supernatural being who is intruding on the everyday life of the faun. Tumnus was merely going about his business. And if Tumnus isn't what Lucy expected to find when she stepped through the wardrobe in the spare room, Lucy surely isn't what Tumnus was expecting to find while walking home with an armload of parcels. A book on Tumnus's shelf asks Is Man a Myth?
The answer sits in his living room drinking his tea. For Tumnus, Lucy is much more than a little girl who has blundered into his forest. She is the "Daughter of Eve from the land of Spare Oom where eternal summer reigns around the bright city of War Drobe." He doesn't have it quite right, of course, but he does understand that she is a central figure in the mythology of Narnia.
But for all the hominess of Tumnus's cave, Narnia is enemy-occupied territory. The usurping White Witch rules in Narnia, and hers is a tyrannical rule. She has made it always winter. She is the spirit of death settled over the land. Death-white herself, she has managed to stop the life-giving cycle of the seasons whereby life springs forth from winter's pall. She has managed even to take away Christmas, that one spark of life and joy in the middle of the year's dead time. By banishing joy from the realm, she hopes to cut down all signposts leading back to her great enemy, Aslan. The least sign of joy represents a weakening of her power. Misery is the White Witch's only happiness. It's the only sign that she is still in charge.
The overthrow of the White Witch begins in Tumnus's cave, when Tumnus tearfully admits that he is the witch's agent, a hired kidnapper. Tumnus is one of those rare figures who repents of his sins before he ever realizes he has the need. His act of common decency, refusing to harm a girl who has never done him any harm, is the story's first act of rebellion against the White Witch. He lets Lucy go in the full knowledge that he may be tortured or turned to stone. This act of self-sacrifice is a faint echo of Aslan's greater sacrifice, on which the whole story hinges. By a simple but very difficult act of love, Tumnus keeps alive the hope that two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve will sit on the four thrones at Cair Paravel.
When Edmund comes through the wardrobe and discovers that Lucy's "imaginary country" isn't imaginary after all, he doesn't have the good fortune of finding a friendly Narnian. He finds-or is found by-the White Witch. The White Witch knows the old lore of Narnia as well as anyone does; she certainly knows what it means to have a Son of Adam in her dominion. "This may wreck all," she mutters to herself. But she is crafty, and she is determined not to lose her grip on Narnia.
At first, Edmund is so terrified of the witch that he can't even move. Even when the White Witch drops her menacing manner and invites him into her sled with mock solicitude, Edmund obeys her out of fear, not out of any hope of real warmth or comfort underneath her mantle.
But Edmund is a boy of appetites, and it is through his belly that the witch wins him to her side. The White Witch's rule over Narnia has been defined by the removal or destruction of whatever joys and pleasures she can remove or destroy. So when she offers Edmund the seemingly simple pleasure of a hot drink on a winter's day, it is with the intention of taking all other pleasures away from him. From the time he drinks the witch's potion and eats her Turkish Delight, Edmund loses every defense that might have protected him from her. Giving himself over to his animal appetites, he becomes something less than human.
Greed and gluttony overcome all the better tendencies in Edmund, including his table manners. But the witch, who was at first very stern when Edmund didn't treat her with the courtly manners due a queen, is no longer bothered by his egregious breaches of courtesy. She is greedy, too, and she loves power more than she loves her own dignity.
Soon Edmund is so busy shoveling Turkish Delight into his mouth that it doesn't occur to him to wonder why the witch should be so interested in his brothers and sisters. The more he eats, the more he wants to eat of the enchanted confection. The hook is set. A few minutes earlier, Edmund had been terrified at the thought of being carried off on the witch's sledge. Now he begs the White Witch to carry him to her house, in hopes of getting more Turkish Delight.
The White Witch's feigned kindness has shaded over into outlandish flattery and false promises. In his singleminded greed for more Turkish Delight, Edmund has grown so foolish that the White Witch need not exercise any particular subtlety anymore. It doesn't strike Edmund as strange that she would consider this sticky, red-faced, swinishly greedy boy the "cleverest and most handsome young man I've ever met." It begins to make perfect sense to Edmund that this magnificent queen should want to adopt him as a prince and later make him king of Narnia. His sense of superiority seems to grow, in fact, the deeper he sinks into swinishness. When the White Witch asks to be introduced to Edmund's brothers and sisters in order to make them courtiers in Edmund's court, Edmund's answer is telling: "There 's nothing special about them." What began as a simple sin of appetite quickly begins to express itself in other, more spiritual sins.
By the time he is reunited with Lucy, Edmund is already feeling a little sick from the Turkish Delight. When he hears from his sister that the queen is really a witch, he feels even more uncomfortable. It's worth noting that Edmund does not doubt that Lucy is telling the truth about the woman he calls "the queen." Later he will pretend to doubt, of course, and the witch, by warning him about the unreliability of fauns, has given him the raw material from which to build a lie. But there in the forest, with the first wave of nausea from the Turkish Delight coming on him, Edmund knows the truth about his patron and benefactress. Nevertheless, "he still wanted to taste that Turkish Delight again more than he wanted anything else."
Back on this side of the wardrobe, it becomes apparent that Edmund is not just a glutton and a fool, but a traitor also. The narrator describes Edmund's betrayal of Lucy as "one of the nastiest things in the story." It certainly is. Lucy believes she will be vindicated at last. It never occurs to her that her brother might lie-or even have reason to lie-about their adventure. But Edmund's generalized bad temper has crystallized into premeditated spite. When he denies having been to Narnia, he breaks Lucy's heart. Like his mistress, the White Witch, Edmund takes pleasure in taking good and innocent pleasures away from others. The witch's hold on him reaches across worlds all the way to England.
When all four Pevensies make it into Narnia at last, Edmund is exposed for a liar and a traitor. It's one of many chances he has to admit his guilt and be restored to his brother and sisters. Instead, he convinces himself that he is more sinned against than sinning. "I'll pay you all out for this, you pack of stuck-up, self-satisfied prigs," he mutters-as if the others had wronged him and not the other way around.
In spite of the cold, in spite of the fact that they have no food, the Pevensies decide to stay in Narnia in hopes of helping Tumnus. Lucy feels responsible for the faun's troubles with the White Witch. The children do not realize that it was Edmund, not Lucy, who betrayed Tumnus to the witch. And yet it is Edmund who votes against trying to help: "A lot we could do," he says, "when we haven't got anything to eat!" Edmund's appetite is still keeping him from doing the right thing.
Not knowing how else to start, the children follow a robin who seems to understand human speech and seems eager to help. Robins, as Peter points out, are always good birds in the stories he has read. This is the first instance of a theme that recurs throughout the Chronicles: the children know what to do because they have read the right imaginative stories.
Edmund isn't so sure the robin means them well-or at least he claims not to be sure. He frames his reluctance as a philosophical question: how do we know what we know? The faun said the queen was bad (Edmund still insists on calling her a "queen" rather than a "witch"). But who is to say the fauns are on the right side? It's not necessarily a bad question to ask. But coming from a boy who has met the White Witch, who has experienced her wickedness firsthand, the question is mere sophistry. It is his desire for Turkish Delight, not his desire for truth or caution, that motivates Edmund. Having raised the doubt in his brother's and sisters' minds, he doesn't seek out any resolution. Instead, he immediately changes the subject from doubt to fear: "Has anyone the least idea of the way home from here?" and from fear, Edmund moves immediately to his new favorite topic, his stomach. "And no chance of dinner either." He may talk of philosophical dilemmas, but in the end, this is all about Edmund's appetite.
The Beavers' house is another sanctuary of warm domesticity in the icy world that is Narnia under the White Witch. Here the old ways of honor and hospitality and simple pleasures survive in spite of the witch's efforts. Mr. Beaver is the first person to utter the name Aslan. In the hopeful, conspiratorial tones of a resistance fighter, he whispers, "They say Aslan is on the move-perhaps has already landed." Though none of the Pevensies know who Aslan is, they know this is a name of "enormous meaning." But it's not the same meaning for all of them. For Edmund, who has already sided with Aslan's enemies, the name evokes "mysterious horror." Edmund doesn't know it yet, but Aslan means the death of everything he has come to value. Neither does he know, however, that the death of his old self means freedom to a new life.
For the other three Pevensies, the name of Aslan sounds like life in its fullness, not death: "Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer." Strength, beauty, gladness-the approaching Aslan brings abundant life to those who rejoice to see him coming.
The Narnians cannot deliver themselves from the White Witch. Their only hope is Aslan, and Aslan is on the move. Not surprisingly, it is Edmund who wonders if the White Witch can turn Aslan into stone. Mr. Beaver laughs at the naíveté of the question: "The White Witch won't be able to look Aslan in the face, much less turn him to stone." The conflict between Aslan and the White Witch isn't a dualistic conflict between "two equal and independent powers." Aslan is the source and origin of all that there is. It is in Aslan that all things, including the White Witch, "live and move and have [their] being" (Acts 17:28 NIV). She may seem invincible from the Narnians' perspective, but she has no real hope of overpowering Aslan. Twisted and perverse as she is, everything she has twisted and perverted is something she owes to Aslan. Lewis's description of Satan's rebellion against God applies equally to the White Witch's rebellion against Aslan: "It is like the scent of a flower trying to destroy the flower."
Excerpted from The World According to Narnia by Jonathan Rogers Copyright ©2005 by Jonathan Rogers. Excerpted by permission.
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