Reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with C. S. Lewis

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Misconception #3 is to assume that when Lewis composed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, he started with a set of ideas and then created fictional details to embody them. While strictly speaking this concerns the composition rather than the reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, our conception of the origin of a work exerts a formative influence on how we read and interpret that work. Lewis’ comments on the genesis of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe are surely some of the most surprising passages in the whole realm of literary autobiography:

All my seven Narnian books . . . began with seeing pictures in my head. At first they were not a story, just pictures. The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: “Let’s try to make a story about it.” At first I had very little idea how the story would go. But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it. I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time. Apart from that, I don’t know where the lion came from or why He came. But once He was there he pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him. (Of Other Worlds 42)

Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then . . . drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out “allegories” to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord. (“Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said” 36)

The application of this to the reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is far-reaching in its import. If the composition of the book begins with images, our reading of it must begin the same way. The order of composition suggests an order of reading and assimilation. The story—the imaginative construct—has a place of precedence in the sense of coming first.

In summary, if we intend to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in any of the following three ways, C. S. Lewis would like us to forget about it: using the book instead of receiving it, viewing it primarily as a set of ideas, and assuming that the story is simply the vehicle that Lewis created to clothe a Christian vision.

How to Read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Good practice #1 is to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe first as an escape from the real world to an imagined world. To be transported is the goal, and to be unencumbered with anxiety about fears of escapism. I am permanently indebted to Lewis for liberating me from the burden of anxiety and guilt under which I had struggled since my freshman year in college, when I used Laurence Perrine’s book Story and Structure as an introduction to narrative. The opening chapter of that great book claims that all stories are either interpretive or escapist. Here is the prison-breaking passage from An Experiment in Criticism:

Now there is a clear sense in which all reading whatever is an escape. It involves a temporary transference of the mind from our actual surroundings to things merely imagined or conceived. This happens when we read history or science no less than when we read fictions. All such escape is from the same thing; immediate, concrete actuality. The important question is what we escape to. (68)

The first thing we need to do when we reread The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is to allow ourselves to be transported. The magic of walking through the back of the wardrobe should, indeed, never end.

Good practice#2 is to enter into the particulars of the imagined world that a writer creates. Worldmaking is one of Lewis’ greatest gifts as a fiction writer, but it is equally a quality that he relishes in the literature about which he wrote. Lewis endorsed Tolkien’s theory of the writer as a subcreator—someone whose function (in Lewis’ words) is “not . . . making a ‘comment upon life’ but making . . . a subordinate world of his own” (Of Other Worlds 27).

When we enter the imagined world of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we should relish rather than scorn the details that make up the surface level of the story and the obvious human experiences that are portrayed. Lewis’ formula of responding first “to the central, obvious appeal of a great work,” is one of the most important literary principles that we will ever encounter (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century 26). We should avoid the error of Renaissance humanists, whom Lewis scolds for not being able to “bring themselves to believe that the poet cared about the shepherds, lovers, warriors, voyages, and battles. They [wrongly assumed that these elements] must be only a disguise for something more ‘adult'” (28).

To pay attention to the surface details of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe means that we will not be troubled in the least by the unlifelike qualities of a fantasy story. According to Lewis, it is the “unliterary” who “mistake art for an account of real life” (An Experiment in Criticism 75-76).

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