Books

When We're Old Enough to Read Fairy Tales Again

Phoebe Kate Foster

'Too direct a treatment of the spiritual aspects of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and they lose the secular audience; too oblique an approach to it, and they lose the church crowd they're specifically trying to draw in.' Phoebe Kate Foster examines C.S. Lewis, his Chronicles of Narnia, and questions the new film's hit or miss probabilities.

"Thirty was so strange for me. I've really had to come to terms with the fact that I am now a walking and talking adult." to come to terms with the fact that I am now a walking and talking adult."
-- C. S. Lewis

It is a weighty matter to write about a literary icon. However, since fairy tales were his favorite genre, let's start with one before proceeding to the grown-up business.

Once upon a time, there was a very clever and rather complicated man named C.S. Lewis (although he liked to be called just plain old "Jack") who loved to write. He wrote a great many things -- religious books for grown ups, and essays for scholars, and works of poetry and philosophy, and science fiction novels. Though he was a professor at a famous English university and a very learned man and became rather famous himself, Jack had a big secret. You see, he'd never really grown up.

When Jack was very young, he'd made up tales about a place called Animal-Land, where brave mice and chivalrous rabbits went forth in armor to do battle with their great and terrible enemy, the cat. On rainy days, Jack would tell his brother these stories while they sat in their grandfather's old wardrobe.

Referenced book:
The Chronicles of Narnia
by C. S. Lewis

HarperKidsEntertainment
November 2005, 778 pages, $29.99

One day, when Jack was a very old man -- oh, in his 50s or so -- he wrote a series of books for children and for adults like himself who'd never really grown up either. The stories were about a marvelous imaginary world he called Narnia. To get there, you had to go through a mysterious door hidden behind the coats in a large armoire. Once you arrived there, you found all sorts of fabulous things -- talking animals, and evil witches, and enchanted food, and dwarves and fauns, and best of all, a magnificent mystical lion named Aslan who was The King, not just of the beasts but of humans as well. As lions go, he wasn't safe or tame or even particularly nice (at least not as we normally mean by the word), but he was something much better and more important. He was good -- so good, in fact, that he was willing to sacrifice his life for others and break the power of evil over the land of Narnia and its inhabitants forever after. Hooray!

A number of people (mostly church folks, of course) thought Jack's seven books about the happenings in Narnia were a retelling of Bible events, from creation and the fall of man to the death and resurrection of Jesus and finally to the Battle of Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ. On the other hand, most children (and some adults) didn't worry too much what The Chronicles of Narnia "meant" and just enjoyed them. The stories were exciting, but also worthwhile because they said many things that all good men know in their hearts to be true but have a hard time expressing in words for themselves.

Time passed, and Jack the adult man living in the real world (whatever that is) died, like all humans do.

Jack the little boy who never grew up went on to live happily ever after in a wonderful place where no one grows old (or grows up) because time is no more.

And moviemakers, 40 years after his death, went on to turn one of Jack's books about Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, into a very expensive and much talked about film scheduled for release shortly before Christmas this year.

Which is all well and good, but those who, thanks to Jack's books, were lured through the magic door in the wardrobe into the amazing kingdom he created cannot help but wonder a few things. Can Narnia and Tinsel Town, two places as different as night and day and oil and water, find any common ground? Can the Lion lie down with movie moguls and not get up with fleas? Can Hollywood producers perform a miracle or cast a spell to make everyone happy with their movie version of this childhood classic?

Of course, no one can speak for Jack and how he would have felt about this turn of events. But we do know he had some pretty strong things to say about what the real world is like. For instance, he said, "As long as this deliberate refusal to understand things from above, even where such understanding is possible, continues, it is idle to talk of any final victory over materialism." And he also said, "Enemy-occupied territory is what the world is." And, "Let's pray that the human race never escapes from Earth to spread its iniquity elsewhere." And, "You and I need the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness."

In other words, Jack would probably think that Aslan and Disney Studios make strange bedfellows. Very strange bedfellows, indeed.

1">"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it... it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become." y describe it... it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become."
-- C. S. Lewis

The Chronicles of Narnia is arguably author C. S. Lewis's most notable literary achievement. At the very least, it is the one that made him a well-known and beloved name in many households in the mid to late 20th century. In October 2004, HarperCollins reissued in one huge and handsome volume the seven books that comprise the series, for the first time arranged in the preferred order of the author. The edition also contains the original artwork of Pauline Baynes and Lewis's On Writing for Children, an essay remarkable in its insights, considering that its author spent most of his time in the company of musty, rumply old Oxford professors like himself and never had children of his own.

For over half a century a revered work in the canon of children's literature, the Narnian tales gained particular popularity among mainstream Christians, a receptive audience already familiar with Lewis as a prominent Christian apologist. In England during WWII, he had become a well-known radio personality on the BBC with a series of talks on religion. On September 8, 1947, he made a splash in the U.S. by appearing on the cover of Time with a heading that read: "Oxford's C. S. Lewis -- His Heresy: Christianity."

Lewis's fame grew quickly in America. In books such as The Problem of Pain, The Abolition of Man and his famous Mere Christianity, his take on faith was refreshingly no-nonsense, gritty, unsentimental, sufficiently intellectualized to appeal to the well-educated, and above all, practical and as far away from a pie-in-the-sky view of piety as one can get. His irresistible combination of sophisticated urbanity and excruciating sincerity succeeded in winning over even hard-core agnostics and atheists to God's side -- countless people have directly attributed their conversions to Lewis's influence. He was shrewd enough not make the mistake of trying to prove the existence of God, but instead portrayed belief in the Great Unprovable as the only rational answer for modern-day thinking people.

With a wrenching poignancy and unflinching honesty, he wrote numerous volumes on suffering, grief, loss, the mystery of joy, natural law, human and divine love, his own conversion experience and spiritual journey, offering no easy platitudes or glib recipes for happiness. While critics point out flaws in Lewis's exegetical logic, his appeal was as a practical-minded realist whose keen insight into human nature was unimpeachable. "We are all fallen creatures," he wrote, "and very hard to live with," as well as, "Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn." He was also fearless in exposing religious hypocrisy. "It's so much easier to pray for a bore," he said in a letter to a friend, "than to go and see one," and "Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive."

Early on, Lewis used his taste and talent for fantasy to great advantage in persuasively presenting Christian ideology to the masses. The Screwtape Letters was a series of letters from an elderly demon to his young nephew regarding the best ways to bring about the eternal damnation of a particular human. In The Great Divorce, Lewis conjectures what might happen if a group of souls headed for hell got the opportunity to visit heaven. To this day, these remain tried-and-true staples on bookstore shelves, a mainstay of Bible studies and at the top of college reading lists for religion courses.

Eventually, the more conservative evangelical circles discovered Lewis's apologetic works to be an appealing tool for reaching lost souls -- after all, he'd been one himself for quite a number of years before, as he phrased it, "I gave in, and admitted God was God" at the age of 33. If anyone did, he knew the mindset of entrenched skeptics and scoffers. His track record in wooing the target audience to religious orthodoxy was so impressive that even dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalists were willing to overlook the fact that Lewis's denomination-of-choice, the Church of England, did not preach the necessity a "born-again experience" for salvation or hold literalist Biblical interpretation as part of their creed.

When, in the 1950s, the seven books of his epic fantasy The Chronicles of Narnia were published, they found an enthusiastic readership which has continued to grow from the post-WWII era through successive generations of Baby Boomers, Generation X'ers and Generation Y'ers. Lewis's Christian-scented adventures appealed to practically everybody in the church world. Here were kids' books you didn't have to ban or burn or be ashamed of, and written so engagingly that even adults took a liking to them. Here were good solid values and morals served up in a palatable form -- and Christological symbols and Biblical parallels (if you wanted to find them there.) The Chronicles of Narnia had everything -- unambivalent good won, unmitigated evil lost, plus a noble lion (who could be seen as a type of Christ) who died a substitutionary death for a naughty little boy (who could be seen as representing fallen mankind) and then came back to life and reigned forever -- and on top of it, the stories were such grand and colorful adventures that they didn't seem at all like a Sunday school lesson or a lecture on 'being good.'

And even if you were a secularist or a non-Christian, well, the religious stuff was sufficiently low-key and not-in-your-face that the books could simply be enjoyed as a damned good read in the fantasy genre.

In short, the perfect book and the perfect candidate for a film.

Or is it?

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