Confession: I used to hate Narnia.
Other evangelicals feel the same way–they’re just afraid of their Lewis-loving friends. But it’s okay. This is a welcoming place.
Here was my old cynic line: Narnia was okay, but it couldn’t compare to more polished fantasy series like Lord of the Rings or–pause for effect–Harry Potter.
Lest Narnia fans think any unspeakable words against me1, don’t worry. I like Narnia now. But before I tell you why I changed my mind, you should know the reasons I used to hate it:
- The world seemed shallow. Unlike, say, Lord of the Rings, which has the heft of a real place with real history, Narnia feels half-baked and arbitrary. Like Lewis threw a bunch of random stuff into a “world” on some whim.
- There’s no character development. Crazy things happen to Narnia’s main characters. But we rarely get a feel for it. Peter learns he’s going to be the High King of a fairy land. Edmund is kidnapped by a witch and a dwarf. All four Pevensies live well into adulthood before being transported back to childhood. Everyone seems to take it in stride. The Pevensies on the train platform in Prince Caspian are the same as the ones playing hide and seek at the start of the series. Shouldn’t all that stuff…change a person? And don’t even get me started on Jill from the Silver Chair. She has all the personality of a house plant.
- My friends wouldn’t shut up about CS Lewis. This was the most important reason. Everyone back home kept crowing about Narnia as “masterpieces of literature.” I couldn’t let that stand. As a self-respecting cynic, I had no choice but to insult them.
But one evening at Pepperdine, everything changed.
I was in the corner of the library, sighing over the ocean and sunny hills while outlining my class notes. At the corner of my vision, I saw a book called Planet Narnia by Michael Ward. Curious, I scanned the first chapter. Then I read the whole thing.
I’ve loved Narnia ever since.
Here’s how Ward taught me to stop worrying and love Narnia:
- Ward showed that Narnia does have cohesion and complexity. It’s just different from a series like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.
The cohesion in Narnia stems from ancient cosmology. Each book captures the essence of one of the seven planets. For instance, Wardrobe is based on Jupiter, the kingly planet. Prince Caspian is Mars, the warrior planet. And The Last Battle is Saturn, the planet of old age and doom. As a professor of Renaissance literature, Lewis was an expert in planetary influence2. And he incorporated the themes meticulously.
Seeing the books this way opened up layers of meaning. I stopped viewing Narnia as a slapdash kid’s book. It became a work of craftsmanship.
If you don’t believe me, please read Planet Narnia immediately. I’ll wait.
- Narnia may lack the character development we’d expect from novels. But the Narnia books aren’t novels. They’re stories. They focus on transporting the reader to a world permeated with a particular planetary influence, as viewed through the lens of Christianity.
Instead of criticizing it for not being a novel, I should have admired it for what it was.
- I got over my anti-Lewis phase. Is he over-used? Probably. Are other, equally-capable writers from that time ignored at his expense3? Yeah. But Lewis is still useful and helpful. Pretending otherwise didn’t make me edgy or sophisticated. It just made me a jerk.
What do you all think of my old Narnia gripes? Are any of them fair? Would anyone be open to forming a Michael Ward fan club with me?
1 Yes, that was a Magician’s Nephew reference. I can play the Narnia game…
3 I’m mostly thinking of Ronald Knox. Most of his work is free on the internet, and it’s fantastic. Start with The Belief of Catholics. Even for the Protestant among us, it’s loaded with great (and still relevant) insight on theology and culture.