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

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Reading  with C. S. Lewis: this was my chosen approach when I co-authored a reader’s guide to Lewis’ classic story. Why was that a natural choice? The answer: Lewis bequeathed a richer legacy of literary criticism and theory that addresses his imaginative writing more than any other author I know. From Lewis’ nonfictional writing we can glean a large and detailed picture of how Lewis thinks we should read literature, and how we should not read it.

With the understood premise that I have garnered my data from C. S. Lewis himself, I propose to cover three topics: how not to read  how to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and how to read a children’s book as an adult reader.

How Not to Read

I need to be honest with you: my editor found this approach uninvitingly negative and excised it from my book. I think she was wrong to do so. We cannot read very long in Lewis’ criticism before we sense that Lewis was preoccupied with sparing his readers from wrong ways of reading. Just recall how much of An Experiment in Criticism is devoted to analyzing wrong ways of assimilating art and literature. Here are specimen chapter titles: “The Few and the Many,” “False Characterisations,” “How the Few and the Many Use Pictures and Music,” “The Reading of the Unliterary,” “On Misreading by the Literary.”

“The first thing to grasp about the sonnet sequence,” writes Lewis in his big book on sixteenth-century English literature, “is that it is not a way of telling a story” (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century excluding Drama 327). Lewis devotes half of his famous essay on Hamlet to an analysis of how not to read the play, that is, by fixing attention on the characters instead of the play: “I confess myself a member of that school which has lately been withdrawing our attention form the characters to fix it on the plays” (“Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” 93).

Lewis believed that readers need to be cut off at the pass from incorrect ways of reading, and I therefore conclude that to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the spirit of Lewis’ own ways of reading literature, we must avoid the pitfalls that he himself delineates. Here is what Lewis thought about three common forms of misreading; and, as I elaborate them, you will doubtless recognize them as ways in which Christian readers commonly deal with the Narnian Chronicles.

Bad practice #1 is using The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe instead of receiving it. C. S. Lewis is against using a work of literature in the sense of immediately harnessing it to advance a reader’s agenda of interests or beliefs. This is not to imply that we do not make use of what we read. Rather it comments on an author’s right to be listened to before being judged, and also asserts a proper sequence by which we should go about assimilating a work of literature. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis states this principle: “We sit down before [a] picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way” (19).

The application of this principle to a reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is two-fold. For someone who is reading the story for the umpteenth time, Lewis’ directive is an encouragement to stare at the text carefully, deliberately looking for new effects, new meanings, new intricacies. For any Christian reader, moreover, Lewis’ axiom of receiving rather than using is a call to not be coercive or impatient regarding the religious meanings of the story. The religious meanings can be trusted to reveal themselves at the appropriate time, which, let me say, is a relatively late point in the story. Lewis’ formula is, “let the pictures tell you their own moral” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 33).

Bad practice #2 is to value The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe primarily as a collection of ideas. Lewis saves some of his sternest warnings for this practice. He claims that to regard a work of literature “as primarily a vehicle for . . . philosophy is an outrage to the thing the poet has made for us” (An Experiment in Criticism 82). Furthermore, “one of the prime achievements in every good fiction has nothing to do with truth or philosophy . . . at all” (An Experiment in Criticism 83).

Now, let me anticipate a later point that I will make and say that Lewis would not wish us to think that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is devoid of religious ideas, nor that we should make something of them. The caution is that we should not reduce a work to its ideas, thereby suppressing other equally important aspects of it.

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).

Good practice #3 is to view the far-flung fantasies of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a window to reality and truth. One of my favorite passages in Lewis’ literary criticism is his brief foray into Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. First, Lewis lists aspects of the story that make it “a specimen of the most scandalous escapism” (“On Stories” 14). And yet, Lewis claims, the story is “full of the simplest and most attainable things—food, sleep, exercise, friendship, the face of nature, even (in a sense) religion” (“On Stories” 14). To clinch the point, Lewis writes that “the whole story, paradoxically enough, strengthens our relish for real life. This excursion into the preposterous sends us back with renewed pleasure to the actual” (“On Stories” 15). I am also reminded of Lewis’ statement that a person “does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 29-30).

Good practice #4 is to value the artistry and technique of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a self-rewarding aesthetic experience. Enjoyment of the text was a very high priority with Lewis. He writes that “every episode, explanation, description, dialogue—ideally every sentence—must be pleasureable [sic] and interesting for its own sake” (An Experiment in Criticism 84). Lewis was of the opinion that “a great deal (not all) of our literature was made to be read lightly, for entertainment. If we do not read it, in a sense, ‘for fun,’ . . . we are not using it as it was meant to be used” (Christian Reflections 34). On one occasion Lewis uses the word Deliciousness to denote this dimension of literature: “We demand what I should call Deliciousness—what the older critics often called simply ‘Beauty'” (“Williams and the Arthuriad” 374).

Lewis rejects the view that the content of literature takes precedence over its form. In An Experiment in Criticism, he writes that a work of literature “is not merely logos (something said) but poiema (something made)” (82), and in the same discussion he claims that “an ‘appreciation’ of sculpture which ignored the statue’s shape in favour of the sculptor’s ‘view of life’ would be self-deception. It is by the shape that it is a statue” (84). Even more memorably, in A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis writes, “it is easy to forget that the man who writes a good love sonnet needs not only to be enamoured of a woman, but also to be enamoured of the Sonnet” (3).

Good practice #5 is to recognize and value the religious and moral viewpoints embodied in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Despite Lewis’ dislike of allowing literature to become “a religion, a philosophy, a school of ethics, . . . anything rather than a collection of works of art” (An Experiment in Criticism 86), he does not question that literature has a moral and ideational dimension. “Wisdom by itself does not make . . . a poem,” he writes, “and the value of a poem is by no means in direct ratio to its wisdom. But the demand for wisdom remains” (“Williams and the Arthuriad” 374). Speaking as a writer of children’s literature, Lewis writes, “The only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind. . . . ” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 33), showing that Lewis does, in fact, espouse the possibility that a story will have a genuine moral.

How to Read a Children’s Story as an Adult Reader

My third and final topic is how Lewis advises us as adult readers to read a children’s story. For half a century, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has been a classic of children’s literature. In many Christian circles, it has been the classic children’s story—the book in which many children discovered that they loved literature, and the book that awakened their imaginations and appetite for fantasy worlds. For many children it was also a book that awakened or enhanced their grasp of the Christian supernatural and the attractiveness of Jesus.

But The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is also paradoxically a book widely read by adults who bring adult understanding and literary sophistication to it. Undoubtedly a majority of these adult readers were first introduced to the book in their childhood. Many of them remain readers of the book because The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has the status of a social institution in which succeeding generations of children are initiated into the pleasures of the book by adults who want them not to miss a good thing. Adult readers actually experience the story at two levels: the level of children—either their own recalled childhood and/or the children to whom they read the book—and the level of mature readers with a superior grasp of the nuances of the book.

Who is the better reader of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: the child or the adult? If we can trust the scattered statements of C. S. Lewis, the answer is not as clear-cut as we might think. There are some ways in which the child’s response is better, and is something that adult readers should strive to retain.

Lewis himself said something close to this in his commentary on Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. The Faerie Queene, according to Lewis, “demands for its full enjoyment a double response” (Spenser’s Images of Life 1). One level is that of an “innocent and naïve” taste (“Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 132), for which Lewis elsewhere uses the adjective “simple” (Spenser’s Images of Life 17). The other level Lewis labels “sophisticated” (Spenser’s Images of Life 17; “Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 132).

The first axiom that Lewis wishes us to apply to reading a children’s story is not to be condescending toward such a book. The view of Lewis on this subject doubtless flows from the fact that he himself did not read The Wind in the Willows and E. Nesbit’s Bastable family books until he was in his late twenties (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 24), though he was a devotee of fairy stories from childhood. Lewis takes his stand against “the modern view” that accuses adult readers of fairy stories of “arrested development because we have not lost a taste we had in childhood. But surely arrested development consists not in refusing to lose old things but in failing to add new things?” (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 25).

In this same essay, Lewis further considers his own growth as a reader:

[I came to] enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy stories . . . growth; if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. . . . I think my growth is just as apparent when I now read the fairy tales as when I read the novelists, for I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood (“On Three Ways of Writing for Children” 26).

Elsewhere Lewis wrote that “no book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty. . . . The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all” (“On Stories” 15).

What these comments suggest is that we should read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe unapologetically as adult readers. This was my approach for my reader’s guide to the book, in which I combed Lewis’ critical writings for the frameworks that I myself have long used in my teaching of British literature and the literature of the Bible. I was astounded to see the thoroughness with which the usual frameworks applied. Adult readers emphatically do not need to leave their sophisticated literary ways of reading behind when they assimilate The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Secondly, and paradoxically, adult readers of the book need to continue to read the book as a child. The childhood responses and delights should not be suppressed. For this, too, Lewis serves as a guide. Regarding Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Lewis says,

Its primary appeal is to the most naïve and innocent tastes. . . . It demands of us a child’s love of marvels and dread of bogies, a boy’s thirst for adventures. . . . If you have lost or cannot re-arouse these attitudes, all the commentaries, all your scholarship . . . will not avail. The poem is a great palace, but the door into it is so low that you must stoop to go in. (“Edmund Spenser, 1552-99” 132-133)

Lewis added that “it is of course much more than a fairy-tale, but unless we can enjoy it as a fairy-tale first of all, we shall not really care for it” (133).

I am also reminded of Lewis’ chapter entitled “The Reading of the Unliterary” in An Experiment in Criticism. At the end of the chapter, Lewis writes,

Let us be quite clear that the unliterary are unliterary not because they enjoy stories in these ways, but because they enjoy them in no other. Not what they have but what they lack cuts them off from the fullness of literary experience. These things ought they to have done and not left others undone. For all these enjoyments are shared by good readers reading good books. (38)

To apply this to the adult reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, we should read the book with a child’s imagination as well as an adult’s understanding and literary sophistication. At the end of his classic essay on Hamlet, Lewis writes,

I am trying to recall attention from the things an intellectual adult notices to the things a child or a peasant notices. . . . In a sense I have kept my promise of bestowing all my childishness upon you. A child is always thinking about those details in a story which a grown-up regards as indifferent. . . . I claim that only those adults who have retained, with whatever additions and enrichments, their first childish response to poetry unimpaired, can be said to have grown up at all. Mere change is not growth. (“Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” 104-105)

Leland Ryken is the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College, Illinois. This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.

Works Cited

Lewis, C. S. An Experiment in Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961.

__________. A Preface to Paradise Lost. New York: Oxford University Press, 1942.

__________. Christian Reflections. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1967.

__________. “Edmund Spenser, 1552-1599.” Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Ed. Walter Hooper. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1966. 121-145.

__________. English Literature in the Sixteenth Century excluding Drama. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954.

__________. “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” Selected Literary Essays. Ed. Walter Hooper. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1969. 88-105.

__________. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966.

__________. “On Stories.” Of Other Worlds. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966. 3-21.

__________. “On Three Ways of Writing for Children.” Of Other Worlds. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966. 22-34.

__________. Spenser’s Images of Life. Ed. Alastair Fowler. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1967.

__________. “Williams and the Arthuriad.” Taliessin Through Logres. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1974.

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