Book “Review”: The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis

If you have not yet experienced this: you will. Your parents move (or you do) and find another box. It’s not their (your) stuff, it contains relics from a childhood past. Items left behind to wait for the day the child finds their own home, to be retrieved and cherished. Of course, the child has been on their own for a decade or more, and the box of stuff is no longer a series of nostalgic reminders. It’s photos from that prom, a borrowed sweatshirt from an ex no one liked, cheap childhood novelty toys, and for me, books.

The Chonicles of Narnia are among my old childhood friends. There are a few other worlds I revisit fondly as an adult from time to time but it had been a while since I went back to visit Aslan with the Pevensies.

With much of the other young adult literature, the writer’s motivation is simple. Tell a story, entertain, the good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and everyone lives happily ever after (until the next adventure). Well, the Chronicles of Narnia are a bit different. They are full on Christian propaganda, and I had no idea.

In my defense, I was a child, and I tend to read adventure stories quickly, my attention on what comes next, not allegorical intent. It wasn’t until this final read through of my childhood copy, with advanced warning that Aslan isn’t just a metaphor for Jesus, or Narnia’s version of him, he is actually Jesus as he appears in Narnia, that I realized just how obvious it all is.

C. S. Lewis’ obsession with pastoral living is unreasonable. In every adventure, when the good guys win, it means schools are destroyed, bridges are broken, anyone who represents progress, technology, or capitalist interests are overthrown in grand style, and the good, honest woods folk get to go back to partying, which they can only do because food magically appears. They drink wine regularly but at no point do we hear about even small scale production. The beaver has a sewing machine, but where did it come from? It is fantasy, which would be fine, if it wasn’t also propaganda.

I love stories of valor, honor, trust, love, adventure, bravery, redemption, and people being all around kind to each other. I cried many times as people and creatures rallied around each other to preserve life, liberty, and happiness. There are also some very good points made: how easy it is to use fake religion to control people, how greed and imperialism fail to respect the autonomy of others, the importance of honoring your word, and the joy of doing good, simple work with and for others.

When Aslan lays down his life to redeem Edmund, I cried. Not because I believe a historical man named Jesus was born of God and physically died for us, but because I value honorable sacrifice when it makes meaningful change for the good. I cried when the little field mice came and chewed through the ropes that bound him, because I remember the scenes, later, of the mice who, through that kindness, were rewarded with speech, and bigger hearts than anyone else. And I cried when Reepicheep, leader of those mice and fierce warrior, achieved his lifelong dream of reaching the end of the world, and beyond.

But it’s like when I listen to country music, or car commercials, or watch touching moments in a TV show. I can tell when someone is manipulating my emotions and I don’t always consent to it. As I feel tears welling up, I also notice where they come from and what the author’s purpose is in stimulating them. In this case, Lewis’ purpose is to glorify agrarian living. To make Jesus into a magical being that children can more easily be taught to love. To demonize anyone who speaks a different language, or has a different skin color. The neighboring empire, with designs of conquest, is populated by dark skinned people who wear turbans. The irony of a man writing an idealized pastoral England standing up against an evil imperialist nation is not lost on adult me.

When the Harry Potter novels came out, there was an outcry among American christians that this was satanist propaganda, intended to idealize devil worship and teach children how to use magic. Real magic, not just pretend magic and satanic beliefs. I thought it was absurd at the time and fortunately, my parents didn’t quite fall for it. In retrospect, I can see exactly why it was an issue. Generally, when people accuse you of something you didn’t do, out of the blue, it is because they, themselves do or did it. Sudden accusations of cheating, assertions of lying, someone deciding you are jealous or insecure when you yourself don’t feel that way… Voter fraud, human trafficking rings, nepotism… When people fling unfounded accusations, the first place to look for the problem is at the feet of those doing the flinging.

And so it is here. The Chronicles of Narnia are a series of fantastical stories, delightful, propaganda through and through. They were written specifically and deliberately to make contemporary christian beliefs simpler and easier to stomach for children, and to encourage them to forgo higher education and technology. The irony of a man with a liberal arts education and a higher degree writing stories that painted progressive schools as places that breed bullying is no longer lost on me.

As adventure stories, they are delightful, simple, and easy to read. But the next time I revisit beloved childhood friends in the form of talking animals, I’m going to Redwall Abbey.