Rowan Williams on The Chronicles of Narnia

Given that I’ll be talking about The Lion’s World—a book by a former Archbishop of Canterbury that discusses The Chronicles of Narnia from a Christian perspective—I feel it is only fair that I say at the outset that I am sympathetic and receptive to theistic arguments and apologetics. In particular, I am sympathetic to the sensitive accounts of religious experience provided by people like Francis Spufford (and, yes, C. S. Lewis), as well as to Terry Eagleton’s contention that the particular brand (and I say “brand” for a reason) of atheism popular at the moment tends to be philosophically vacuous and socially complacent. Those are fighting words, I know, but I’m not trying to start an argument; in fact, I have absolutely zero interest in discussing this, since it’s the kind of thing that tends to generate ill will all around. I simply want to lay all my cards on the table so readers know where I’m coming from.

Onwards.

The Lion’s World could almost pass itself off as literary criticism. Certainly, Rowan Williams has the core disciplinary jargon and concepts down pat; he speaks of Lewis’ understanding of humanity as “always already embedded in [its] relations with the non-human world” and argues that Lewis is “in a very specific sense…as hostile to the notion of a ‘real self’ underlying the flux of experience as any deconstructionist critic or psychoanalyst.”

More to the point, perhaps, Williams’ reading of the Narnia series is unusually nuanced. If you (like I) read the series first as straightforward adventure/fairy tale and later as straightforward Christian allegory, The Lion’s World serves as a useful corrective. Obviously, Narnia is allegory, but that is not Williams’ foremost concern in this book. He reads Narnia as a work that aims “to make fresh what is thought to be familiar” by forcing us “to experience what it is that religious (specifically Christian) talk is about, without resorting to religious talk as we usually meet it.” Williams is accordingly less interested in the one-to-one correspondences than he is in the moments when Lewis does something unexpected—say, by creating a world in which humans are the intruders rather than the pinnacle of all creation. By tracing moments like these, Williams reveals the full subtlety and poignancy of Lewis’ theological thought.

This is not to say that Williams shies away from discussing the series’ failings or contradictions. On the contrary, he devotes an entire chapter to negotiating the charges of racism and sexism, acknowledging biases where he finds them, but also pointing out the moments in which the criticisms lapse into unhelpful caricatures of Lewis’ writing—which, he argues, is much more complex than it would appear at first blush. Williams suggests, for example, that Susan’s problem is not so much growing up (and, in particular, becoming a sexually mature woman) as it is wanting to be grown-up, which, Williams reasonably concludes, “is a very different thing.” Susan denies the full wonder of her childhood experiences not (presumably) because she has stopped believing in it, but rather because denying it allows her to assume a certain persona that is socially comfortable.

And this in turn segues directly into Williams’ most insightful and, in fact, intensely moving chapters: those in which he fleshes out the theological assumptions that underwrite Lewis’ depiction of Aslan.

Christianity tends to be thought of (sometimes disparagingly) as a uniquely comforting religion, but that is a gross oversimplification (and I say that as someone who’s not even particularly familiar with its complexities). For one argument as to why, see the above link to Eagleton, who lays great emphasis on the fact that Christianity’s promise of transformative love becomes possible precisely—and only—at the point of ultimate suffering. For another, related argument, see Lewis himself, who was very contemptuous of what he called “Christianity and water.” Christianity is a comforting religion, Lewis believed, but only once you have accepted that in a certain sense, you don’t matter at all.

At least, the “you” that identifies with your day-to-day concerns and preoccupations doesn’t matter, and it is that that Williams examines in the later chapters of The Lion’s World. According to Williams, Aslan is less the judge of good and evil than he is the thing that makes it possible for us to judge ourselves—to see ourselves as we “truly” are once separated from the stories we tell (and believe) about ourselves. This kind of storytelling is satisfying in the short term, Williams suggests, but it often entails a good deal of harm to other people, and it typically threatens to fracture under stress regardless. The problem, then, is that:

Neither self analysis nor the hope of seeing your face perfectly and justly reflected in the eyes of a human other will deliver you from the ever-present attraction of fiction over reality…There is only one means of deliverance and it is the confrontation with the truth in the form of a living person who has no distorting lens of self-vision in their vision of you. To meet Aslan is to meet someone who, because he has freely created you and wants for you nothing but your good, your flourishing, is free to see you as you are and to reflect that seeing back to you. In his eyes you can indeed see yourself reflected perfectly and justly.

The sting is that that external perspective carries with it the dissolution of all the fictions we identify with. And as Williams notes, the story of Eustace’s transformation from a dragon back into a boy (courtesy of Aslan’s claws) demonstrates how painful that dissolution can be:

“However many skins do I have to take off?” asks Eustace. We cannot answer for ourselves. We can only signal that we want help to be stripped in this way. And…Aslan cannot protect us from the pain this entails. There are two non-negotiable things in contact here—the unalterable character of Aslan himself on the one hand, and the irreversible actuality of what we have done or what we have made of ourselves on the other. The former cannot change; only the latter can. And it can change only by being laid open in one way or another to the energy and action of the former.

On the face of it, of course, this sounds horrible. But what Lewis aims to show—at least, according to Williams—is that our happiest, most intensely real experiences already involve this kind of openness. The process of dissolution might be painful, but the state itself is more blissful than anything else we know:

Even the most “routine” experience of happiness, as Lewis observes…involves a degree of self-forgetting; joy is what happens when we are not analyzing ourselves. So the strict warnings about the stories we tell ourselves, warnings that may sound to a compulsively self-absorbed age like prescriptions for insensitivity or immaturity, are all to do with giving ourselves the space and the liberty to be “surprised by joy.” If joy is real and irresistible, if it answers the most serious hunger we have, our need for truth is in fact answered. What we finally see reflected in the face of truth is both the depth of our hunger for joy and the tangle of ingenious strategies for avoiding what we most want, strategies that we devise because we fear the dissolving of our self-possession that joy brings with it. The startling, even shocking, response of the horse Hwin to Aslan—”I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else”—is a particularly dramatic way of expressing the acceptance of this dissolution.

I could go on, but I’d be saying more of the same. Rowan Williams has attracted a great deal of criticism for the way he handled the questions of female bishops and same-sex marriage during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, and I fully understand and share the frustration. That said, I would urge anyone at all interested in The Chronicles of Narnia—regardless of their opinion of Williams or even of Christianity/religion in general—to read The Lion’s World. Because in the end, I think that what Williams says of Lewis is equally true of Williams’ reading of Lewis: it “makes fresh what is thought to be familiar” in a way that is thoughtful, powerful, and—at least for me—true at a very deep level I can’t quite put my finger on.


The Lion’s World was published in August 2012 by SPCK.

Find out more about it on Goodreads.

Buy it on Amazon.

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3 Comments

Filed under Books I've Read (and Thought About)

3 responses to “Rowan Williams on The Chronicles of Narnia

  1. I have read and reviewed this book; and before I read it, I was thoroughly convinced that Archbishop Williams was a fool. “The Lion’s World” caused me to change that opinion and made me happy to do it.

    • He definitely doesn’t seem like a fool. For one thing, he’s written on Dostoevsky, and I commend anyone who can do that, since I’ve never been able to get into his novels.

      • A year or two ago, Williams debated atheist Richard Dawkins at Oxford–an atheist’s home turf, you’d think–and wiped up the floor with him. WTG!

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