To understand the mythology of C.S. Lewis and his imaginary world of Narnia we may compare it to the world depicted in the novel and film The Da Vinci Code, that is, in the sharp perspective of "faith and fiction".
The contrast between these two imaginary worlds is instructive. Dan Brown draws on the work of de-mythologisers in a work of fiction, insinuating that it contains much fact, so as to lead his readers towards conclusions that are opposed to faith. He wants us to believe that the real world is, or should be, his fictional world.
Lewis, on the other hand, is a re-mythologiser. He reworks the great archetypes of the Scriptures, particularly the Redemption, in a fictional parallel world, Narnia, the name of its central region. He draws on mythological symbols from different cultures to create a new mythology, suggesting, at times in a somewhat obvious way, that this parallel world offers a key to better understanding greater realities that lie behind our world.
Fiction and faith
The "Lewis Code" is much more subtle than the "Da Vinci Code". Lewis uses fiction to evoke faith. Brown uses fiction to question and undermine faith. We need not linger on his facile world of faithless fiction.
In the "other world" that Lewis constructed we are faced with one obvious question: what precisely is Narnia? The name provides no clues at all, possibly based on the town of Narni to the north of Rome, apparently never visited by Lewis.
It is more important to look at the key figure, Aslan the lion, for he unlocks the massive moral and spiritual struggle that is worked out in Narnia. That Aslan is a Christ figure may not seem obvious to Christians accustomed to the great New Testament metaphor of the Lamb of God. But in Hebrew tradition a fierce lion is consonant with the Davidic Messiah. This King is the Lion of Judah.
Nevertheless, when the film The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe appeared, an American critic shared her insights into the "real meaning" of Lewis' work. She claimed that Aslan is in fact the British Lion and Narnia is the British Empire, assaulted by evil totalitarians in the Second World War, hence the setting of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
This lady's insights drew scorn and much mirth from C.S. Lewis buffs. But I am not so sure we can dismiss her clumsy opinions out of hand. There are interesting links between the tidy, but embattled, British world of Lewis the Oxford don and his wildly imaginative world of Narnia. In the other world he found a freedom and a sense of light and hope largely absent from the gloomy post-War Britain of Clement Atlee, lingering rationing and weed-filled bomb sites.
Lewis wanted to maintain the links between the two worlds, to underline his view that Narnia is not some parallel universe going about its own business, as in science fiction mythology, but a real world that is inextricably linked to our world, even as there are only a few ways into it. The drama of fall and redemption, of death and resurrection, of mortality and immortal life is fought out in both worlds, and participation in the struggles of Narnia has direct bearing on how the central characters, the children, are meant to live when they return to our world.
However, in terms of a prevailing culture depicted by Lewis in his imaginary realm, it would be wrong to see Narnia as a "little England". The reflected culture of Britain with talking animals can swiftly change to something akin to gothic Balkan mythology when one enters the Northern realms of brutal cannibal giants. Moreover, we pass into an earlier world that is a blend of medieval Baghdad and pre-Islamic Constantinople when we venture into the desert realms. The marshlands of Puddleglum could be any dreary region of Northern Europe.
Like Middle Earth in Tolkien's books, Narnia reflects, yet reworks, a familiar culture, at the heart of a world that is much wider than tea and toast with bourgeois beavers. That becomes clearer when one reads the Narnia books in the order, not of their publication but as they follow the historical time line intended by the author, that is from the creation of Narnia through to The Last Battle. There is now an edition of the Narnia books that respects Lewis's chronology.
The divine power in Narnia is a "deep magic" that lies behind the creation of the world centered around Narnia, a creation in which Aslan, by his own account, was involved. That is an echo of classical orthodox Christology, that the Divine Word, God the Son, is involved in creation. The power of the deep magic is evoked above all in the redemptive self-sacrifice and resurrection of Aslan.
However, while it is subject to the principles of the deep magic, Narnia is not a world based on or shaped by the laws of fatalism. The ugly and grotesque animals are not all bad, nor are the attractive animals necessarily good. There are good dwarves just as there are bad dwarves.
Here Lewis may have reworked a literary device he used in the mid-1930s, in his polemical work The Pilgrim's Regress, where toiling hordes of red or black dwarves represent Communist or Fascist totalitarian systems. Again and again Lewis rejected the counterfeit religion of the 20th century ideologies.
Therefore, as in our world, in Narnia we find that there is free will and choice, scope for growth and change. The two weak and sinful boys, Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are converted and forgiven, but in different ways.
In the case of Edmund, forgiveness comes through making a confession to Aslan after his treacherous collaboration with the White Witch. In the case of Eustace it is granted in a more dramatic way, where the scaly monster Eustace has become is cleansed, not without pain, by immersion in a deep baptismal bath. This is evocative of the angel's song in Cardinal Newman's Dream of Gerontius, when the soul is lowered into a cool cleansing purgatory pool.
Narnia is not entirely a story of happy endings. By contrast, the courageous female character among the four Pevensey children, Susan, later becomes worldly, vain and foolish as her life continues as a young adult in our mid-twentieth century world. She comes to forget Narnia. Lewis implies that, because of this, she may well be damned, although in correspondence he indicated that this was not necessarily so.
But what Lewis the Christian apologist wants to get across to his readers, children and adults, is that people can change, that conversion is possible, and here it flies in the face of that pessimistic social determinism that afflicts our culture today: once a drunk always a drunk ....
Throughout the Narnian saga, as in Tolkien's mythology, Lewis maintains the Christian ethical understanding of good and evil, based on natural law. This is not only understood in the Catholic sense as a moral law inherent in human nature and articulated in divine precepts, but in terms of the way the whole cosmos is constructed for us and all creatures, hence the talking animals and mythical creatures are also moral agents and subjects.
This flows on into his adaptation of existing mythologies. Thus Lewis respects the classical Judeo- Christian understanding of witches and witchcraft, what all Christian parents should teach their children - that all witches are bad.
The "deep magic" is not to be confused with the so-called "white witchcraft" of Harry Potter or New Age practitioners, rather it represents a kind of sacramental application of divine goodness, the all-powerful love and serene justice that prevails in the end. Lewis studiously avoids any sympathy for the occult, which fascinated him when he was young, and which he later pointedly rejected in The Pilgrim's Regress. That kind of "magic" he rightly likened to a swamp.
When he was writing the Narnia series, from 1949 to 1954, Lewis was at the peak of his literary output but he was overworked. In mid-1949 he passed through a physical and mental breakdown, which may also have been a mid-life crisis.
At this time a kindly angel came to him, in the form of a remarkable Italian priest, Father Giovanni Calabria of Verona, an admiring pen pal who opened a correspondence with Lewis, in Latin, after he read what at that time was the only Lewis work in Italian, The Screwtape Letters.
The support and comfort of an ecumenically minded priest he never met was of great help to Lewis as the Narnia saga came to its conclusion. His correspondent died in the year Lewis wrote the last book The Magician's Nephew. Father Calabria was beatified in 1988 by Pope John Paul II. So God sent a Catholic saint to comfort the Anglican Lewis just as he completed the project for which he is best remembered by a much wider audience than he could ever have envisaged in his lifetime.
In the final work of the saga, The Last Battle, the true Narnia is revealed as the Kingdom of Heaven. The Platonic influences in Lewis' thought are evident. Our world, and that "other world" Narnia, are images, "shadowlands", dim reflections of the real world that is to come, what we call heaven.
As in his science fiction works, sharing in the final glories of heaven is not reserved only for the "sons of Adam and daughters of Eve", even as they are the supreme material creatures. All the good animals and mythological creatures as moral agents and subjects are destined for the Kingdom. May that be the destiny of a great Christian author, best described in an excellent recent work by Alan Jacobs as "the Narnian".
Monsignor Peter J. Elliott is the Episcopal Vicar for Religious Education in the Melbourne Archdiocese.