A Feature Review of
The Lion’s World: A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia
Reviewed by Peter Stevens
Recently, while discussing the role of fictional stories in spiritual formation with my students, I found myself returning to the works of C.S. Lewis as an example. While I did not discuss The Chronicles of Narnia, I can undeniably say that the fictional works of Lewis have shaped me spiritually. From a young age, I have read and reread the Narnian stories. They have become a part of my spiritual formation and of many others as well. Lewis has had this effect on Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, as well. He also confesses to repeatedly reading and studying the Lewis’ works and writes of Lewis, “He is someone that you do not quickly come to the end of – as a complex personality and as a writer and thinker” (xi). In The Lion’s World, Williams explores this complexity of Lewis in conjunction with the depth of the Land of Narnia that Lewis created. He doesn’t set out to “decode images or to uncover a system;” instead he aims “to show how certain central themes hang together – a concern to do justice to the difference of God, the disturbing and exhilarating otherness of what we encounter in the life of faith” (6).
Williams begins by discussing Lewis’s intent for writing Narnia. Lewis realized that he lived in a culture that thought they knew what Christianity was all about and denied it, without actually knowing what they denied. He found that he was, “dealing with a public who thought they knew what it was they were disbelieving when they announced their disbelief in Christian doctrine” (17). It was a culture that believed they knew what they were against because it was a part of their culture. Because of this, Lewis wrote fiction to help his readers engage with religion without religious speak. “He wants his readers to experience what it is that religious (specifically Christian) talk is about, without resorting to religious talk as we usually meet it” (19). Lewis attempted to make world where we can encounter the Christian story in a strange new way, specifically a world aimed at children. This strange encounter with the Christian story is what Lewis called “mouthwash for the imagination.” Williams writes that, “The point of Narnia is to help us rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity – which is almost everything” (28).
Chapter 2 is a brief look at the criticisms of Lewis’s work. The three main critiques of Lewis are racial stereotyping, sexism, and violence. In addressing the critiques, Williams both defends and accuses Lewis in his writing. Essentially, there are faults in Lewis, but if we faithfully read Lewis’ work, but he is certainly not one sided in these areas of criticism. While he portrays violence, he is certainly not unashamedly for it. While may show women in an old fashioned light, his stories are not without their strong women. While these things exist in his work, it is important to remember what culture Lewis came out of and see that in fact there are times when he is against those things of which he is accused. Williams sums it up like this, “In short, Lewis is indisputably a writer whose instinctive – and sometimes quite deliberate – attitudes to women and ethnic ‘others’ are abrasive for most contemporaries. But – as with any pre-modern writer – what is interesting is not how Lewis reflects the views of an era but how he qualifies or undercuts them in obedience to the demands of a narrative or a spiritual imperative or both” (45-46).
After the critiques, Williams moves on to a more in depth look at the lion himself. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Aslan comes the “rightful king of Narnia, but he makes his first appearance as a rebel against the established order” (50). He destroys the endless winter of the witch. Again, in Prince Caspian, Aslan is, in a more pronounced way, connected with conspiracy and revolt. Williams suggests Lewis, “is introducing us to a God who, so far from being the guarantor of the order that we see around us, is its deadly enemy” (50). This likely comes out of Lewis’s childhood. While growing up, Lewis was angry at God for making a world filled with suffering. In Narnia, however, Aslan is the one who delivers us from, “Tyranny and suffering and above all the dreary dictatorship of unthinking and bullying power” (51).