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Lion's World, by Rowan Williams
Lion's World by Rowan Williams (London: SPCK,
Subtitled “A journey into the heart of Narnia”, Rowan Williams' latest book attempts just that: not a review but a critical analysis of exactly what Clives Staples Lewis was attempting in creating his other world. For the Chronicles of Narnia remain perhaps the most controversial books for children ever written. Not for children, of course, who continue to enjoy them, including through Disney's lavish film productions of each book. But adults continue to wrangle over their worth, not only as literature but also over the theology that winks out from behind the text.
Williams is, of course, both a formidable literary critic as well as a theologian. This book is based on lectures he gave at Canterbury Cathedral in 2011, and he carries forth into the book the winsome conversational style that those familiar with him appreciate. This is a very personal book in substance as well as style. Not for nothing is it dedicated to his children.
The Lion's World touches upon all the books, but not seriatim. Williams jumps around, picking here and there snippets of the stories to make his points. He begins with "the point" of Narnia, as he sees it, and then addresses what he considers the most serious criticisms of Lewis' opus. Going on, Williams then focuses on the Lion, Aslan. The experiences of Aslan change the children, and those experiences are different as they grow older in the stories. The essence of this experience is the confrontation between the fantasy world we are so adept at creating and the real world that God creates, including our selves as they are meant to be. In that confrontation, there is both judgment and love, and an invitation to accept both. Finally, Williams posits the theme of grace as Lewis' overarching intent in his stories: to find ourselves “surprised by joy” (the title of his autobiography) as each story unfolds and the whole ends with the Last Battle. But of course, Narnia readers know that as hideous as war and destruction are, all lead to Something much better. Death is hard, its loss and destruction are very real, but resurrection relativizes its sting. The grave is a gate, or in this case, a wardrobe door.
Lewis' critics accuse him of all the postmodern sins: sexism, racism, violence as solution, and antipathy toward Eastern religions. Williams does an able job of refuting most but not all these charges, for some, he admits, are correct. Lewis is of course a man of his times, but also a writer steeped in Edwardian children's literature, a point which has escaped his critics, and much of the cast of the stories reflects this background. But as Williams notes, the character Lucy has nothing of the self-effacing wallflower or diligent housewife. Some see latent racism in the way Lewis creates the Calormenes, the dark-skinned "bad guys" who wear turbans and brandish scimitars. They are all too much like the "Saracens" of crusader lore, admits Williams: Lewis indulges in Western stereotypes. But he could have mentioned Emeth, the Calormene searching for God, whose name means truth, and who meets Aslan instead of the demonic Tash in The Last Battle.
And the stories all have a goodly measure of chivalric violence, and bloody death. The Snow Queen's end in the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe is violent, and this writer finds unforgettable the film version's depiction of it: the huge Lion falling out of the sky on the astonished Queen (played wonderfully by Tilda Swinton), decked out in the mane she had shorn from Aslan at his death on the Stone Table. Williams does not counter the criticisms directly, though he does score the fastidiousness of some in an age of "unprecedented gross" violence as entertainment (just as he notes that the Indiana Jones films' depictions of Eastern religions, much worse than Lewis’, have received no rebukes). The violence of Narnia is no different from the violence of our own world, and children know this — perhaps our children know it as well if not better than previous generations.
What is subversive is the violent streak, so to speak, of the Lion. It is in service to a rebellion against the Way Things Are, beginning with the author's innocent collusion with children's views of grown-ups, but ending with a titanic shrugging off of that Way in the end. The “Deep Magic” of Aslan's death and resurrection now applies to the destruction of Narnia, the deaths of the Pevensie family in a rail accident, and their reunification in a world newly-created from the old.
This is not exactly how Rowan Williams expresses it, however. He is fascinated in this work as in so much of his literary opus by the strangeness, the alien quality, of God's encounter with humanity in Christ. But that only happens in particular instances, with particular people and the one Christ. In considering this theme in Narnia, he also appeals to other works of Lewis, especially That Hideous Strength, the last volume of his science fiction trilogy; The Great Divorce, Lewis's meditation on damnation; and as mentioned above, Surprised By Joy, with brief forays into other works. Williams' encyclopedic knowledge of Lewis' works, and the copious secondary literature that has grown up around it, enables him to expound convincingly from Narnia the themes of Lewis' theology that have influenced him.
The first is the distinction between the seemingly infinite capacity of human self-delusion which God's offer of grace confronts. We are incapable of learning the truth about ourselves by ourselves: we can only find it in God's truth. Williams lingers long on the depiction of Eustace in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Transformed into a dragon, he cannot peel off its scales. Try as he might, he needs Aslan to rip it all off, causing terrible pain; yet at the end, Eustace is thrilled to be back in his ordinary human body, to be himself again, but now his real self. Crucifixion must come before new creation.
The confrontation with the revelation of the divine in Narnia is strange, alien, terrifying even. The feast that Aslan spreads for the dwarves in Battle seems like offal to them. We are so crooked that the straight seems bent to us. Jesus comes among us in humble birth, and dies in humiliation and scorn. Yet in this apparently insignificant life All is revealed. It is “bigger on the inside than on the outside,” as one of The Lion's World chapters is titled. And as we acquiesce to God's offer, we must also leave behind the once-comforting or enriching images to embrace new ones: we are never done in growing into the Real. The four children experience this in ways unique to each.
Another theme dear to Williams is that this creation, including human artistic creations, are themselves windows into the Real. Lewis' images of the "mountains of Aslan" as opposed to the “Shadowlands” are of course Platonic, but we are not to forsake this world, leave it behind like Eustace shedding the dragonskin. Rather, Aslan's realm is an intensification of this world. Williams recalls the phantoms of the damned in The Great Divorce, for whom blades of grass and fallen leaves are massive heavy things. As some of them leave off their self-delusions, they become more substantial. The Narnian image is Aslan rolling in the grass, playing with the children, at the end of Lion. Or the Christmas revels that infuriate the Snow Queen in Wardrobe.
In the final analysis, it is not God who is strange, alien, but we. We are terrifying, not Christ. And the self-forgetfulness that we are invited to accept, the stripping away of our delusions, is only death — the death of our refusal of humanity.
The power of the Narnia stories is that they work quite beautifully as children’s stories, but they are not only subversive as children’s literature at its best is subversive. They are also subversive for adults as well. Just as children get to glimpse a bit of adult life, so too adults get a glimpse of Larger Life. As Williams points out, here is Lewis’ aim: not Christian apologia or creed dressed in fantasy tales, but rather fantasy tales that allow fresh glimpses of Christ. These have, he says, “repeatedly humbled and reconverted” him, as “few other modern Christian writers” have done.
The Lion’s World is not only a precious resource for readers of C. S. Lewis, but also for understanding Rowan Williams himself a bit better.