For more than half a century C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been a classic of children’s literature. Indeed, in some circles it has been the classic children’s story—the book in which many children discovered that they loved literature, the book that awakened their imagination and appetite for fantasy worlds. For many children it is also the book that awakened or enhanced their grasp of the Christian supernatural—the unseen transcendent reality that surrounds our everyday existence. One of the extraordinary things about Lewis’s masterpiece is at what an early age children begin to relish the story (in our experience, as young as four is not uncommon).
But The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is also paradoxically widely read by adults, who bring adult understanding and literary sophistication to it. Undoubtedly a majority of these adult readers were first introduced to the book in their own childhood. Many of them remain readers of the book because they, in turn, are reading the story to their own children and grandchildren. In this way, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has the status of a social institution by which succeeding generations of children are initiated into the pleasures of the book by adults who want them not to miss a good thing. Such adult readers actually experience the story on two levels—the level of the children to whom they read the book and also their own level as mature readers who have a superior grasp of the nuances of the story. The ability of the book to hold its readers into their late years is perhaps just as remarkable as how early it attracts the young.
We have written a reader’s guide for adult readers of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. As a new movie version of the story is released, likely even more adults will find themselves interested in revisiting a classic tale from their childhood, while some who have never read this story will be attracted to it for the first time. For all readers who wish to reflect on the book or discuss it with others from an adult vantage point, our reader’s guide is an ideal companion.
This reader’s guide to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is based on four guiding principles:
For ease of reading, our chapters in part 1 correspond with Lewis’s chapters in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and even bear the same main titles.
Who is the better reader of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—the child or the adult? The answer is not as easy as one might think. There are some significant ways in which the child’s response is better and should remain the model toward which adult readers aspire.
Lewis himself said something close to this in his commentary on Edmund Spenser’s long narrative poem The Faerie Queene. Lewis was of the opinion that this epic poem demanded to be read on two levels: there is obvious benefit from employing a sophisticated literary approach, but just as important is a simple and childlike receptivity. As Lewis explained, “Its primary appeal is to the most naïve and innocent tastes. . . . It demands of us a child’s love of marvels and dread of bogies, a boy’s thirst for adventures. . . . The poem is a great palace, but the door into it is so low that you must stoop to go in. . . . It is of course much more than a fairy-tale, but unless we can enjoy it as a fairy-tale first of all, we shall not really care for it.” These perceptive observations on how to approach Spenser’s epic are equally applicable to other examples of fantasy literature, including Lewis’s own children’s stories. We read such stories best when we read with the heart of a child.
Accordingly, to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the spirit with which Lewis wrote and read fairy stories, we need to read for enjoyment first. Children experience a story at the level of sheer enjoyment, unencumbered by inquiry into allegorical meanings and theological implications. Too often readers assume that Lewis began writing his children’s stories with an intentional Christian objective and then crafted a story to express his meaning. This was decidedly not the case. As Lewis recounted, when he wrote the Narnian stories “everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.” In other words, the imaginative impulse definitely came first in Lewis’s creative process.
Why is a proper understanding of this relationship between the imagination and moral purpose so significant? Because adult readers who mistakenly believe that Lewis’s primary intention in writing his fiction was to convey religious ideas will tend to leapfrog over the story in order to search for the “hidden” message. In so doing, they not only risk distorting the theological meaning but also may miss the wonder of the story itself.
The theological imagination operates by the rules of the imagination, not by the rules of the rational intellect. It produces stories and poems, not essays. Before we can understand a work produced by the theological imagination, we must take time to enjoy the story or poem. As Lewis’s friend and former pupil George Sayer explained, “[Lewis] wanted the moral and spiritual significance of his works of fiction to be assimilated subliminally, if at all, and he was annoyed when his publisher outlined the theme of Out of the Silent Planet [one of his science fiction novels] in the blurb on the dust jacket. Over and over again in talking about his fiction, he would say, ‘But it’s there for the story.’”
Thus our first and essential step in the reading process must simply be to enjoy. This approach has its own rewards, for if we allow ourselves to wholeheartedly enter the story with our imaginations—to look, listen, surrender and receive, as Lewis advised—then “we shall be deliciously surprised by the satisfaction of wants we were not aware of till they were satisfied.”
The theological imagination achieves its theological purposes by means of what we can call delayed action insight. We begin by enjoying the narrative and entering its imagined world. Engaged in this way, the story seemingly has no theological designs on us. But gradually it dawns on us that more has been embodied and communicated than simply a narrative. Thus even though immersion in the story is the first item on a reader’s agenda, this does not preclude a further and equally significant purpose of the story: to awaken us to theological truths, helping us to observe, understand and experience spiritual realities in a deeper and more meaningful way than we otherwise would.
Speaking specifically of his Narnian stories, C. S. Lewis described his strategy this way:
I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. . . . But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past these watchful dragons? I thought one could.
Elsewhere Lewis affirms that aid in overcoming their own emotional barriers to faith was something he saw as necessary for both his young and adult readers. In other words, Lewis was not simply packaging theology in the form of fantasy in order to reach those too young to read works of apologetics. Instead he recognized the power of fantasy to reach all ages, regardless of educational background or intellectual ability. The success of Lewis’s strategy is eloquently illustrated in the following account by award-winning author Katherine Paterson, as she recalls the effect of Lewis’s Narnian tales in her own life:
Over twenty years ago a college English professor said something that has bothered me ever since. He wondered aloud if it was possible to describe Christian experience effectively except by fantasy or science fiction. I’ve tried to fight this view, because I don’t write fantasy or science fiction. But he may be right. I say this as one haunted by visions of the great lion Aslan, whose bright goodness never fails to flood my spirit with awe and joy. I was once very much involved with a young man who, when I tried to share with him my love for C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, said earnestly that he felt it was wrong of Lewis to distort the Bible in this way. I should have known at that moment that the relationship was doomed. Aslan is not a distortion but a powerful symbol of the Lion of Judah, which can nourish our spirits as the reasoned arguments of a thousand books of theology can never do. We can dare to face the dark, because we’ve had a shining glimpse of the light.
This is what a story like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does best: it awakens us to the transcendent light shining all around—the bright gleam of divine reality that we could not apprehend as effectively through our reason alone.
While this guide is addressed to adult readers who want to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe at a sophisticated literary level, we have suggested that the ideal reader is also attuned to the child within. At its core, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a book about children, written for children. This reader’s guide keeps this foundation constantly in view. But as Lewis himself said, “A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.” Lewis also declared that he enjoyed fairy tales better as an adult than he did in his childhood.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is ready to meet you at whatever level you are prepared to receive it. At the simplest level, we can read it for its plot—to find out what happens next and how it turns out. At a more advanced level, we can read for the pleasures of characterization and of entering the imagined world of the story, with the realization that worldmaking is one of Lewis’ most characteristic gifts as a storyteller. If we have read widely enough, we will naturally be receptive to the archetypal patterns in the book, as well as the impressive range of literary genres that converge in it. At a more specialized level of response, we can relish the “how” of the story—the exquisite style and techniques that doubtless account for the staying power of all the Narnian stories.
Lewis was a champion of the idea that the less sophisticated levels of reading—reading like very young children, in a sense—are not bad, they are simply incomplete. After listing the ways in which the unliterary read stories, Lewis writes, “Let us be quite clear that the unliterary are unliterary not because they enjoy stories in these ways, but because they enjoy them in no other. . . . For all these enjoyments are shared by good readers reading good books.” We hope, then, that this reader’s guide will help you to continue to enjoy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in all the ways you have read it in the past, as well as encourage you to learn new perspectives and approaches that may enhance your future enjoyment and understanding of this and other stories. As Lewis wrote to his boyhood friend and literary companion Arthur Greeves, “Re-reading old favourites is . . . one of my greatest pleasures: indeed, I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.”