Turkish Delight, fur coats and perpetual winter? It must be…
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Children of 8 upwards, adults
The story starts firmly in reality. It is 1940 and the four Pevensie children are evacuated from London to live with a professor in the country. In one of the many rooms in the professor’s rambling old house, Lucy discovers a wardrobe which leads into a snow-covered world, called Narnia. The presence of the children is soon discovered by the wicked White Witch (who has ruled Narnia for the last 100 years). She comes across Edmund and bribes him to bring the rest of the children to her castle where all her enemies are turned to stone. Rumours of the return of the creator of Narnia, the great Lion, Aslan, weakens the witch’s power but sheis determined to get to the children before he does. She sends out her spy, a terrifying wolf called Maugrim, whom Peter slays. The children meet Aslan, and on his instruction, they go to rescue Edmund who is about to be killed by the witch. Aslan offers himself to her instead of Edmund and the witch kills him on the Stone Table. The children stay with Aslan and next morning he returns to life. They return to the witch’s castle and bring the stone statues back to life. Edmund fights the witch and is wounded, but Aslan finally destroys her. Aslan crowns the four children Kings and Queens of Narnia. Some years later they discover their way back into the wardrobe and back home – where no time has passed at all.
About C S Lewis?
Author, critic and educator, C S Lewis was born in 1898 in Belfast. Christened Charles Staples Lewis, but known as Jack to his family and friends, it was his childhood nurse who inspired in Lewis his lifelong fascination with mythical creatures from her retelling of stories of the ancient gods. Lewis lived with his parents and older brother (‘Warnie’) in a big rambling house, which provided the inspiration for his highly imaginative stories which he began inventing as young as 9 years of age. A large wardrobe in one of the many rooms in which Jack and Warnie used to tell each other tales, became the device for the way into the land of Narnia. As a child Lewis read endlessly, and was greatly influenced by authors such as E Nesbit, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Rider Haggard and Beatrix Potter. He detested boarding school where he was sent after the tragically early death of his mother, and escaped further into the world of books by studying many German and Norse myths and legends. When he finally left school his father sent him to a private tutor with whom he lived and studied. One of the authors he read for the first time then was poet and novelist George Macdonald, whose work made a deep impact and influenced his writing of Narnia. Although interrupted by the First World War during which he served in France, Lewis achieved an outstanding record as a classical scholar at University College, Oxford, and remained as Fellow and Tutor of Magdalen College, Oxford from 1925-54. During this time he became great friends with J R R Tolkien whose strong Christian faith led him also to follow Christianity, the subject of which came through in much of his writing for adults including ‘Out of the Silent Planet’ (1938), ‘Perelandra’ (1943) and ‘That Hideous Strength’ (1945), a trilogy of science fiction stories with allegorical overtones.
Lewis received many honours during his career including Honorary Doctor of Divinity at St Andrews University, and the Carnegie Medal in 1956 for The Last Battle which recognised the whole of the Narnia Chronicles. In 1952 he met and married American writer Joy Davidman, who died just eight years later. He died in 1963, the news of which in the public eye was overshadowed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy on the same day.
C S Lewis always said that ‘he wrote the books I should have liked to read’, and the Narnia Chronicles, which have proved so immensely popular are a combination of all that he liked as a young reader – talking animals, fantastical beasts and creatures from myths and legends, witches, and good versus evil. Having never forgotten what it was like to be a child, he incorporated all these elements into his stories and created one of the most highly imaginative and totally absorbing worlds in children’s literature into which young readers can escape. The books are read on two levels – as straightforward fantasies, or combined as allegorical tales with a deeper meaning. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the story is of the redemption of Narnia by Aslan, a great Lion who gives himself up for the children’s sins, and then rises up again from the dead. Many readers recognise the hidden story of Jesus Christ and enjoy this extra allegorical dimension to the exciting and thrilling adventures.
Separated, as in so many children’s adventures, from their parents, the children – Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy – are faced with the problem of how to deal with this painful deprivation. For Peter, the eldest, the temptation is to become self-righteous and see Edmund as the one who is wholly bad; for Edmund the separation is devastating and his seduction by the White Witch and subsequent betrayal of his siblings represent an abandonment to infantile gratification (cf the Turkish Delight – ‘the more he ate the more he wanted to eat…’). It is Lucy, the youngest and most timid of the four children, who is the most open to Narnia’s possibilities and the one who is able, like Susan, to set aside her own anger and fears and express concern for others – initially Mr Tumnus who cannot, as a result, bear to betray her to the White Witch. Later in the story it is Lucy and Susan who observe and mourn Aslan’s death in a scene that recalls the tending of Christ’s body in the Garden of Gethsemane. The story ends with the White Witch’s prisoners released and colour, song and laughter restored to Narnia – reconnection with liveliness and responsiveness rather than retreat into an endless winter.
This is, then, a story about the struggle to remain open to experiencing both one’s inner and outer worlds in a responsive way; it is Lewis’s astute rendering of this emotional dilemma that accounts for the enduring popularity of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with both child and adult readers.
In the final volume of the Narnia Chronicles, The Last Battle, Lewis’s Christian allegory results in splitting, ie the division into good and evil of the protagonists in a finite way that belies the subtlety of his characterisation in the previous volumes. There are racist overtones in his description of the enemies as ‘dark men with white eyes flashing dreadfully in their black faces’. The creation of the false lion who is trying to enslave the gullible population of Narnia implies an anti-communist cold-war stance.
Pauline Baynes’ illustrations have become as much a part of the Narnia Chronicles as the stories themselves. Recommended to Lewis by his friend J R R Tolkien, Baynes’ drawings brought Lewis’s magic to life and have contributed greatly to Narnia’s popularity. A picture book version illustrated by Christian Burningham is now also available.
The Chronicles include:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), Prince Caspian (1951), The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ (1952), The Silver Chair (1953), The Horse and His Boy (1954), The Magician’s Nephew (1955), The Last Battle (1956)
Helen Levene works in publishing.