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Reflections on Narnia

After 75 years, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe remains a relatable classic

As a new Covid-19 strain sweeps through the UK (now allegedly having hopped the pond to the US), Christmas break has proven for many to be a bitterly disappointing end to the Year of the Plague. Family members in different countries have been separated, international residents have been stranded in hotels, and elderly shut-ins have been given an extended sentence of loneliness.

Meanwhile, on my side of the pond, governors like Gretchen Whitmer have continued to issue a torturous series of restrictions and relaxations. For small businesses, the effect has been not unlike repeatedly plunging someone’s head in a bucket of ice water with ten-second breathers in between dunks. (Though a few, like the small diner I wrote about in The Spectator USA, still remain defiantly open as I write this.) While there is excitement about a vaccine on the horizon, nobody is fooled: spring is still a very long way off indeed.

Good literature is supposed to expose its readers to times and places different from their own

In the face of these tightened restrictions, various great minds have thought alike and harkened back to the chilly reign of the White Witch in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “Always winter and never Christmas” is a fantastical curse no more. It has come true in our very own ordinary world. Pockets of holiday celebration have taken on a spirit of defiance akin to the spirit of the Narnian woodland creatures who dare to partake of Father Christmas’s bounty, and pay for it. “He has been here!” a little squirrel pipes up before the Witch turns them all to stone, pounding his spoon. “He has, he has!” (Lewis would later assure a concerned young reader that Aslan had circled back to restore the poor animals in the story-world, an unintentional omission from the happy ending.)

Fittingly, 2020 also marked the first Narnia chronicle’s 75th anniversary. Like many other readers, I have cherished memories of the book from my own childhood. Though it was not beloved by all of Lewis’s peers at the time, most famously grating on fellow Inkling J. R. R. Tolkien for its delightfully haphazard world-building and grab-bag array of mythical creatures. Nor has the series stood the test of time, by the lights of some critics. Ever the curmudgeon, Peter Hitchens recently retweeted an old reflection arguing that the series “will not last much longer,” owing to the “specific bonds of class and time” in which its young mid-century English heroes are “trapped.” He writes:

They’re completely accessible to me, as a child of the English middle classes of the 1950s who actually read the Boy’s Own Paper and the Children’s Encyclopaedia, bought treats at Tuck Shops, understands and recognises the appalling, Edwardian jargon of boarding schools, the spite, bullying, gangs, sport obsessions and other elements of these places, and also remembers the various sorts of ‘grown-ups’ who moved about on the edge of our savage little society, occasionally intervening. But all that stuff about the term being over and the holidays beginning, and much of the rest of the attitudes and tone of voice in the books, must now be baffling and off-putting to anyone under the age of about 60. In fact, the books now slow down and stumble, for me, whenever the Pevensie children feature at any length. I keep feeling embarrassed for them. They are rather more incredible to a modern child, I should have thought, than the White Witch, a pair of talking Beavers, or a Faun. Is it possible that children ever talked and acted like this?

I would beg to differ from Peter’s take, on several levels. In practice, he seems to forget that this frame would have been wholly alien to an American audience, yet it doesn’t seem to have stopped the series from becoming, if anything, more popular in the states than in the UK. In principle, he forgets that good literature is supposed to expose its readers to times and places different from their own. This is of its essence; its power to unify mankind across decades and centuries of history.

The petty spitefulness of a character like young Edmund Pevensie is not bound by time or place

Hitchens is wrong on the substance as well. The particularity of the boarding-school frame may be foreign to today’s young readers, but the childish cruelty and petty spitefulness of a character like young Edmund Pevensie is not bound by time or place. From age to age, it endures, all too recognizable. The delight in picking on his younger sister Lucy, the resentment of his older brother Peter, the puffed-up flights of fancy as he imagines putting everyone in their place once the Witch makes him king, all ring true. So too does his instinctive horror at the first mention of Aslan’s name, carried to the point of blasphemy when he vandalizes another lion’s stone statue in the belief that it is the Great Lion himself. Edmund Pevensie’s spirit lives on to this day, in the spirit of all bullies and vandals who leave their mark on monuments of stone, jeering at those who would still call them sacred.

Edmund is not permanently irredeemable and goes on to repent and fight for the good with distinction. Admittedly, the other children have relatively static character arcs. But even for the stolid Peter, there are realistic notes in his coming of age. He feels contempt for Edmund, especially on Lucy’s behalf, but his anger is softened by a grudging affection. His little brother may be “rather a little beast,” but “he’s only a kid.” Peter’s clash with the Witch’s chief wolf is also notable for its economy and psychological realism. It shows the touch of a writer who has experienced such nasty, brutish, short encounters first-hand. The fight is over almost as soon as it has begun, as Peter overcomes his foe in a hot red flurry of fur and flesh. And so, in the blink of an eye, he wins his spurs, though he doesn’t feel very brave at the time.

The character of Lucy is, of course, the story’s beating heart, as the character through whose eyes we first glimpse the wood beyond the wardrobe. It is on her honesty alone that the fantastic tale first rests, prompting the older children to take their concerns about her mental soundness to old Professor Kirke. This sets up the Narnian spin on Lewis’s famous trilemma: either Lucy is mad, or she is lying, or she is telling the truth. The “liar, lunatic, or Lord” incarnation of this argument had yet to make its much-quoted appearance in Mere Christianity, published two years later.

God, like Aslan, has not left Himself without witness

However, as Professor Kirke constructs it, the argument is more analogous to an argument for the reliability of the apostles in relating the extraordinary things they saw, which sceptics from David Hume to Sam Harris have airily dismissed. For, as we modern men all know (though first-century Jews were doubtless in a less enlightened position on such matters), virgins do not give birth, and dead men do not rise from the dead. And if things are real, then as Lucy’s older siblings argue to the professor, “they’re there all the time.” The professor’s rhetorical reply is best pictured with a single raised eyebrow: “Are they?”

Lucy’s steadfastness is vindicated, as Christians believe the first apostles were also. In this conviction, men of faith have held fast through long winters past, and will hold fast for long winters yet to come. For God, like Aslan, has not left Himself without witness.

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