In a quiet, snowy wood at night, a small and curious-looking creature, appearing like a man from the waist up but with legs like a goat, approaches a solitary lamppost, its light shining incongruously among the trees. He is so startled by the presence of a creature he has only read about in books (it just might be a human child) that he drops several packages he is carrying, though he retains his grip on an umbrella. Tumnus is a faun in the fairytale land of Narnia and is the first creature that eight-year-old Lucy Pevensie encounters after she has entered Narnia through a magical wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.1 After a brief discussion with Lucy at the lamppost, Tumnus invites her to his home for tea. While she is there, she scans some of the books on a shelf and notes their peculiar titles, such as Is Man a Myth? To Tumnus, humans are legendary or mythological; conversely, humans consider fauns to be mythical creatures. Yet here they both are, living comfortably together in a world of fantasy.
There is no disputing the recent surge in popularity of fantasy literature. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and films, motion pictures based on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, by J. R. R. Tolkien, and a film bringing to life The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis, are but a few factors contributing to this resurgence of interest. Without a doubt there is something broadly attractive in fantasy stories — something that appealed to Lewis’s longing for fulfillment. As a fan of fantasy literature, and especially as one who has loved the Chronicles of Narnia ever since I discovered them as a college sophomore, I, too, am pleased to observe this renewed popularity of fantasy.
But despite the trend in the sales of movie tickets and books, I have noticed there is a popular misconception concerning works such as the Chronicles. Many have the idea that the books are only for children and that when one grows up, such “children’s books” are no longer of value. Those with this mindset believe that as people grow to adulthood, they should move on to more important matters than the interests of childhood. Among other things, this means leaving imaginative “children’s literature” behind.
The more literarily astute, such as Lewis, recognize that a good book remains a good book regardless of its classification. With the possible exception of reference works, Lewis believed, the contemporary distinctions between adult and children’s books, particularly the association of fantasy with children, is artificial. To think it proper only for children to read these kinds of books is a recent and false distinction, according to Lewis. He pointed out that most of the great fairy tales were not addressed to children specifically but to readers of all ages.2 Walter Hooper observed that Lewis “wrote fairy tales simply because he liked them himself and because he found them the best art form for what he had to say.”3 Consequently, while most children thoroughly enjoy the Chronicles of Narnia, there is much in them to be savored and pondered by adults.
If you have read any of the seven books of the Chronicles, you already have some idea of the charm of the stories. At first glance, they appear to be only for children, but hidden within the pages (sometimes not so hidden) are treasures of deep philosophical, theological, and especially moral value. For example, The Silver Chair presents several intriguing similarities to Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, and Aslan’s death at the Stone Table in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe reflects the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. Certainly there is a danger of reading too much into the stories, or “using” them instead of “receiving” them, as Lewis would say;4 nevertheless, the books are rich in meaning on several levels. The Chronicles are marvelous artistic achievements that appeal not only to the heart via imagination and wonder but also to the head via reason and intellectual astuteness.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Bible will explore the ethics of this popular series — what it tells us about right and wrong ways of behaving. If you have not read the Chronicles of Narnia, I encourage you to do so, but even if you haven’t, you will still benefit from this book (though, in that case, it will help to first review the plot summaries of the Chronicles in the appendix). The Lion, the Witch, and the Bible will provide you with a fascinating look at the Golden Rules of Narnia and at key points made about virtue and vice throughout the series. The Narnia books were not intended as ethical instruction manuals per se, but they are filled with lessons for both casual and careful readers. They teach us how our everyday decisions contribute to the development of our moral character, whether for good or ill. Furthermore, they show that individuals having the courage to act on their moral beliefs can have an impact on social events and even the course of history.
Morality is serious business. Good and evil are at war in this world, and the choices we make really do matter. Sometimes shocking to the first-time reader of the series, the Chronicles show us numerous contests and battles: Aslan against the White Witch, Rilian against the queen of Underland, the Calormenes against the forces of Archenland, and many more. The children themselves often participate in these battles, having to struggle and suffer and sometimes enduring wounds. But they — and we, the readers — learn in the process that evil must be opposed with courage and fortitude.
Many fairy tales depict a world of violence and evil. As Jim Ware wrote,
When we travel in the company of fairy-tale heroes or heroines, we soon find that the world is far more dangerous and sinister than we had suspected. . . . This vision of the world as a kind of Venus’s-flytrap — bright, beautiful, and malevolent — is fundamental to fairy stories. . . . Evil is an ever-present threat in the land of Faerie. In fact, the unspeakable glory and light of that land owe their power largely to the contrasting darkness and ugliness of its less attractive corners.5
This element of fairy tales has caused some concern among parents. Why must fairy tales depict violence, evil, and the dark side of life? By doing so, Ware points out, fairy tales are able to effectively communicate the power of light as well as the power of darkness.6 In the Christian view, it is true that the world is fractured, but it is also true that light still shines in the darkness (see John 1:5).
In responding to concerns over serious elements in fairy tales, especially the charge that such stories will frighten children, C. S. Lewis argued that because children will at some point encounter such evils in the real world, there is nothing wrong with allowing them to be exposed to evil via fairy tales, so long as good prevails in the end.7 Lewis was not advocating gratuitous and graphic violence, of course, but he was concerned with giving children a view of the reality of evil in the world. It is significant that in Lewis’s stories evil is overcome, for a fairy tale in which evil consistently overcomes good offers little hope. Children and adults can come away from his stories with a better understanding of positive moral behavior. For Lewis, the genre of Narnia (that is, fairy tales) called for the exploration of themes of good and evil.
In a world where dictators store nuclear weapons in their arsenals, where fanatics plot how to bring terror to our doorsteps, where the end of the world wars and the Cold War has brought no end to fighting, it is easy to see that the battle between good and evil exists and must be engaged. On a more personal level, we can see how individual choices to do what is wrong can lead to destruction: CEO hubris bringing down corporations, selfishness resulting in the devastation of the family, and sexual promiscuity spreading fatal diseases are only a few examples. It may be, in fact, that we live in a world more ready than ever for the kind of moral guidance offered by the deceptively simple tales of Narnia.
Indeed, there have been times when people were inclined to believe that standards of morality are unimportant and that ethical choices should be left to personal taste. But more and more, we are realizing that good and evil are real and that it makes a difference which side we choose to line up on. The everyday choices we make are turning us into people who are helping the good cause to win or who are standing in the way of the good. In this light, the Chronicles are not only great fun to read but also eminently useful in showing us how we ought to live — for our own well-being and that of all of society.
Let us, then, go through the wardrobe ourselves, enter Narnia, and see what we can learn there about right living that we can use when we get back to our world.