The BEST: The Chronicles of Narnia

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The BEST: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
Reviewed by Sarah Rindner

Summary: The Chronicles of Narnia, published from 1950-1956, is a seven-part series of fantasy novels written by author and Christian theologian C.S. Lewis. Many children grow up and appreciate the series for its compelling storylines and fantastical horizons without fully appreciating its deeper philosophical and religious messages. Lewis’ prose sweeps readers into magic of Narnia, and they are reluctant to leave.

Why this is The BEST: Some young Jewish readers may have been warned that Lewis’ stories are Christian allegories – the great lion Aslan is really Jesus – and that we should temper our enthusiasm for books which harbor such theologically alien assumptions. On some level, I take these warnings seriously, but I, nevertheless, reread the books last year with my son. I simply could not resist, knowing how they would make his eyes sparkle, as they once did mine. I am also glad that I reread them because, despite Lewis’ strong Christian identification, Narnia contains profound messages for readers of any faith. Here I list just a few: 

  1. Life does not boil down to an epic battle between good and bad actors. The most important battles take place within. There are some villains in The Chronicles of Narnia: a handful of witches, an evil King in Prince Caspian and some nasty Calormenes in A Horse and His Boy. But unlike in, say, Harry Potter, Narnia does not feature a great bogeyman who persists throughout the series. Some books do not contain any villains whatsoever. Instead, Lewis presents us with individuals, mostly children, who struggle with their own weaknesses and temptations and sometimes heroically prevail. Thus, the character Edmund, who in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe sabotages his siblings by following after the White Witch, ultimately realizes the error of his ways and becomes one of the greatest Kings of Narnia. Susan, a heroine at the beginning of the series, grows into a vain and petty adult. By the end of the great epic, she drops out of the narrative. Of course, good and evil do exist. And regarding the abstract concept of goodness, there is perhaps no author that treats it with as much texture, color, and vividness as Lewis (think of the “Lion’s Song”). Yet, for Lewis, good and evil are options to continuously choose between and struggle with, not immutable states of being.
  2. Although goodness and evil are not permanently imprinted on our DNA, culture does matter. The culture of Narnia, for the most part, is a good one which values freedom, bravery and truthfulness. Neighboring Calormen, on the other hand, is a fiercely hierarchical society, which worships a cruel and vindictive god, and in which people treat others as chattel. In Narnia, animals are able to speak, whereas in Calormen they have forgotten their tongue. A cosmogonic myth in The Magician’s Nephew suggests a reason for this difference. But there is another possibility: freedom allows for intelligence and personal responsibility, and tyranny makes people dumb. Lewis wrote The Chronicles of Narnia after the horrors of the second world war in which a few free nations fought against an enemy intent on devouring freedom.
  3. Lewis celebrates the model of a small nation intent on fighting for its values even when surrounded by a sea of enemies who wish to destroy them. Narnia is in some ways a stand-in for England. But something about its geography, a small country surrounded by a large neighbor that wishes to destroy it, as well as what it stands for, also recalls the ancient and modern states of Israel. While visiting the Calormene court, King Edmund observes the following regarding Narnia, “We are a little land. And little lands on the borders of a great empire were always hateful to the lords of the great empire. He longs to blot them out, gobble them up” (A Horse and His Boy, p. 68). Narnia does not pose an actual threat to Calormen, but the very existence of the former as an independent and sovereign nation enrages the latter. Calormene culture also has its upsides: lavish food, elaborate landscaping and architecture, but Lewis gives you a keen appreciation for a scrappy, small country filled with brave people and creatures who are willing to fight for goodness and for the perpetuation of their way of life.
  4. Fantasy is wonderful but is no substitute for real life. One of the aspects of Calormene culture that Lewis parodies is their tendency to say about their great leader, the Tisroc, “may he live forever.” Even in Narnia, no one lives forever, and the very fact that this is a turn of phrase in their society reflects some underlying blind-spots. One of the most devastating parts of the series is the destruction of Narnia in the final book. Rather than read this destruction as Lewis’ attempt to presage the eventual downfall of the West, it seems to me that Narnia’s destruction at the end of the series  returns the reader back to our world, that is, the one that really matters. Living in an imaginary world for a period of time can be intoxicating, but it’s also an escape. What matters most is the moral work we have to do right in front of us.

In the inaugural issue of The Jewish Review of Books Michael Weingrad published an intriguing essay, “Why is There No Jewish Narnia.” In it Weingrad asks the question, “Why are there no works of modern fantasy that are profoundly Jewish in the way that, say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is Christian.” Weingrad looks at this question from various angles, and despite some promising candidates, he concludes, “We will have to wait some time, if not forever, for a genuinely Jewish fantasy work to appear.” I hope we will not have to wait too long, but in the meantime, we still have much to gain from a classic like The Chronicles of Narnia.

Sarah Rindner is a writer and educator who recently relocated to Israel. Her work regularly appears in Mosaic magazine, Jewish Review of Books, and other publications.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published on December 26, 2019]

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