Why did Lewis write The Chronicles of Narnia? What purpose did he have in mind when he penned one of the world’s most popular series of books? In his essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” Lewis confesses that “there are usually two reasons for writing an imaginative work, which may be called the Author’s reason and the Man’s.” The Author presents the ideas and allows them to bubble and ferment, while the Man comes in to critique, question, and shape those thoughts. Lewis illustrates this bipartite process by describing the interaction between the Author and the Man which led to writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Author imagined a “faun with an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, and a magnificent lion” and determined that the best form for what he wanted to say was a fairytale. The Man then analyzed the situation and decided that by “casting all these things into an imaginary world” one could “steal past” Sunday school inhibitions to make the glory of God or the suffering of Christ “for the first time appear in their real potency.” Reflecting on examples from Lewis’s essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” and The Chronicles of Narnia, we discover that Lewis succeeds in achieving the purposes of both Author and Man in the Narnia series.
Before we can analyze Lewis’s level of success, we must better understand the relationship between Author and Man as Lewis describes them. The Author’s impulse is a desire, and like every other desire, it needs to be criticized by the whole Man. Lewis contends that if the Author’s desire is lacking, then the book can’t be written, but if the Man’s judgement is lacking, the book shouldn’t be written.” In the beginning, material for a story “bubbles up” in the Author’s mind. For Lewis, the bubbling began with mental images. However, the images remain images until there is a “longing for a Form; verse, prose, short story, novel, play.” The longing for form combined with the mental images completes that Author’s impulse. Much as an artist longs to create a painting that incarnates the images he has in his mind’s eye into a form that best expresses them, the Author cannot rest until he finds the perfect form. Finally, after much “bubbling” the perfect form bursts from the Author’s mind. Then the Author’s impulse is complete. This is where the Man enters the scene. The Man asks the hard questions, creates doubt, and dampens the spirit of the Author with a myriad of critiques, yet to the delight of the Author, sometimes the Man says, “This is good.”
With a basic understanding of the interdependence between the Author and the Man as Lewis presents them, we can move forward to Lewis’s description of the development of his purposes for writing The Chronicles of Narnia. For Lewis, “Everything began with images, a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sled, a magnificent lion.” Then the bubbling started. When the bubbling was complete, “the Fairytale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff” Lewis had to say. Next, the Man must critique and assess to achieve an equally necessary purpose: to bypass the rigidity of traditional Sunday school attitudes so the reader could feel an intensity of emotion about God which they perhaps had not been able to feel before. Could the fairytale allow the reader to steal past the inhibitions of uptight religious experiences? At the end of the Man’s inquisition, Lewis “thought one could.”
Lewis’s use of metaphors throughout The Chronicles demonstrates the Author’s notion that a fairy tale was the best form for what he wanted to say. As Lewis points out in his essay “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare,” there are some things which cannot be apprehended directly, “but of which we can get a faint inkling by means of metaphor.” However, he contends that the meaning we get depends on the type of imagery used, the validity of the imagery, and on the reader knowing that the metaphor is a metaphor rather than a literal description. Even in his description of the creation of imaginative work, Lewis is metaphorically using terms such as bubbling and sneaking to describe the process. As Author, Lewis had mental pictures longing to take form. In The Magician’s Nephew, the birth of Narnia is described as “a stretch of grassy land bubbling like water in a pot… in all directions it was swelling into humps…of different sizes.” The new “humps burst” with the “crumbled earth pouring out of them.” Finally, what bubbles out of each hump takes form, animals of all kinds.. Through this description, Lewis draws the reader into the magical world of Narnia as well as offers a metaphor for his description of the creative process in “Fairy Tales.” Life in Narnia bubbles, longing to take form until it bursts from the mounds into the form of various animals just as Lewis describes the Author’s process of mental images bubbling, longing to take form, then bursting into life-filled stories.
The parallels between Lewis’s experience as the Author and the birth of Narnia continue when Aslan touches some of the animals with his nose, causing them to draw apart from “their own kinds” to follow him. Aslan selects particular animals perhaps because they “seemed the ideal Form” for what Aslan needs for them to do. Then Aslan “opened his mouth” and breathed a “long, warm breath” over the selected animals. He commanded them to “wake. Love. Think. Speak.” Aslan completes the process by setting apart a few, empowering them to speak and engage the rest of the new world in all its wonder.
Amid the miracle, Digory notices something that is reminiscent of Lewis’s description of a story as a “thing inside him pawing to get out.” Digory brings the phenomenon to the attention of the group, “Don’t you see… This is where the bar fell – the bar that she tore off the lamp-post at home. It sank into the ground, and now it’s coming up as a young lamp-post.” The lamp-post growing out of a planted metal bar later becomes the guidepost to the wardrobe which links Narnia to our world. Aslan did not create the lamp-post directly, but it formed through something brought from our world. The reader who reads The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first may wonder as I did, why is there a lamp-post in the middle of the forest? What does this have to do with anything? Lewis skillfully connects the two books through the appearance of the lamp-post, the first thing planted on Narnia soil that Aslan does not bring to life, but was planted by the Witch. The lamp-post “shone day and night in the Narnian forest. … and when, many years later, another child from our world got into Narnia… she found the light still burning.”
We need look no further than the description of Lucy’s first visit to Narnia to experience the sensations of “stealing past” the accepted paradigm of our old life and into a new world. As Lucy navigates through the “soft folds of the coats” she notices something “soft and powdery and extremely cold.” She realizes she is “in the middle of a wood.” Lucy’s adventure begins because she leaves the world she knows by stealing past rows of warm, comfortable, and familiar coats in a wardrobe without hesitating or questioning. Once she realizes she is in a snow-covered forest, she is both frightened and excited. She continues walking toward a light she sees in the distance. The light from lamp-post calms her enough to proceed. When she reaches the source of light, she realizes it is a lamp-post. At that moment, Lucy experiences wonder, excitement, and curiosity as she gazed upon Narnia for the first time. Lucy has left the inhibitions of our world behind to explore something new. She does, however, look back at the wardrobe and thinks, “It is still daylight there. I can always get back if anything goes wrong.” Similarly, new Christians often keep one eye on their old world when they first experience Christ. Lewis frequently inserts the phrase, “for she knew that is a very silly thing to shut oneself into a wardrobe,” into this section of Lucy’s adventure. Lucy experiences wonder, but she wants to ensure she can go back to what is safe and secure. Through the inclusion of this phrase, perhaps Lewis illustrates that the wardrobe provides a link to what Lewis refers to as “stained glass windows and Sunday school associations.”
Through his use of metaphor and vivid description, Lewis draws the reader into the plight of Narnia and the potency of unchecked evil. Lucy soon forgets the wardrobe when the Faun comes into the scene; “And soon after that a very strange person stepped out from among the trees into the light of the lamp-post.” The Faun befriends Lucy but secretly aims to betray her. He is afraid of the White Queen and plans to turn Lucy over to the Queen. After spending time with Lucy, the Faun confesses the plot and helps Lucy escape. His goodness prevails, and Lucy returns to our world unscathed. However, no one believes her when she shares her adventure. Through Lucy’s angst and despair that no one believes her, Lewis successfully “steals past” another inhibition imposed by “stained glass.” Lucy’s emotional response evokes intense feelings regarding the event more powerfully than any literal attempt to describe the feelings newly converted Christians experience when they try to share the experience with others. When her efforts to explain the wonder of Narnia fail, Lucy is despondent. The wonder of Narnia remains in her soul, but no one understands her. “For the next few days, she was miserable…She could have brought herself to say that the whole thing was only a story made up for fun. But Lucy was a very truthful girl, and she knew that she was really in the right, and she could not bring herself to say this.” While Lucy has not met Aslan yet, she has seen his world and all its wonder. Lucy is unable to convince anyone that Narnia is real, much like trying to explain the Incarnation to someone who doesn’t believe it. Through this metaphorical account, Lewis demonstrates the difficulty of conveying the Christian experience.
In The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe especially, Lewis skillfully “steals past” the restrictions of Sunday school rhetoric to open the reader’s eyes to free will, a crucial element of our humanity that sets us apart from the rest of God’s creation. Consider Aslan’s statement to the animals he sets apart in The Magician’s Nephew.
“Creatures, I give you yourselves,” said the strong, happy voice of Aslan. “I give to you forever this land of Narnia… The Dumb Beasts whom I have not chosen are yours also. Treat them gently and cherish them but do not go back to their ways lest you cease to be Talking Beasts. For out of them you were taken, and into them, you can return. Do not so.”
Lewis subtly invites us to imagine God similarly instructing Adam and Eve, hinting at the Biblical creation story through Aslan’s words to Narnia’s select. Aslan also warns them not to choose to return to what they were, much as God warned Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit. The allegory of free will is not direct but implied. Throughout both books, Narnia’s citizens describe the children as the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve. Another indication of the uniqueness of man occurs when Aslan makes a Son of Adam and a Daughter of Eve the first King and Queen of Narnia rather than one of the animals.
Lewis continues to show that, for his purpose, the fairytale is the best form to say what he wants to say about the consequences of choice when he gives Digory a task to rectify bringing the Queen to Narnia. Digory agrees but secretly wants Aslan to cure his Mother. The mission: bring an apple back from a tree hidden in a Garden deep in the north of Narnia. Rather than commanding Digory, “Do not eat the fruit of the tree,” Aslan instructs Digory to bring the apple back to him in order to plant a tree that will ultimately protect Narnia from the Queen. Digory brought evil to the land, so he must atone for it by completing this task for Aslan. Lewis here demonstrates the consequences of the choices we make. The comparison to the first Adam does not end here because Digory meets the Queen in the garden and, much like Satan tempted Eve, the Witch tells Digory that the Apple will heal his mother and make her live forever. Digory remembers the warning at the gate of the garden,
Come in by the gold gates or not at all,
Take of my fruit for other or forbear,
For those who steal or those who climb my wall
He chooses well and refuses to yield to temptation. Upon Digory’s return, Aslan rewards him by giving him an apple that cures his mother, a much different ending than the Fall of Man.
Edmund’s journey in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe provides a compelling story of temptation, betrayal, and redemption through the eyes of an angry child. While the tale itself is not allegorical in the truest sense, Edmund’s thoughts, choices, and behaviors closely parallel the journey to salvation. Again, Lewis uses metaphors and imagination to draw the reader into the fairy tale thereby leaving no room for the rigid rules of “stained glass” religion to obstruct the power of the story. Edmund meets the White Queen on his first visit to Narnia and she easily deceives him. He delights in everything the Queen promises and everything she provides. Lewis’s vivid description of the Queen, her sledge, and the Turkish Delight draw the reader into Edmund’s temptation and cause the reader to wonder, “Would I recognize the deception?” Lewis achieves his purpose of making the power of temptation feel real through this short interaction. As the story progresses, Edmund denies Narnia’s existence once he and Lucy return to our world because he wants the delights all to himself. Edmund fails to realize the damage he has done until the siblings return to Narnia and discover that the White Queen had captured the Faun. However, Edmund’s heart remains hardened until he arrives at the Queen’s castle. Once he enters her court, he learns the truth. The Queen wants him and his siblings dead. After the siblings rescue Edmund, Aslan forgives him, but Narnian law requires the death of a traitor at the hand of the White Queen. Unbeknown to Edmund, Aslan pays the price of his treachery by sacrificing his life for Edmund’s. He is beaten, tied, shaved, and shamed in every imaginable way but does not struggle. Finally, the Queen’s army kills Aslan. Here the story closely parallels Christ’s suffering for humanity’s sin. Aslan returns to life, and he immediately enters the battle to defeat Queen. Lewis’s depiction of salvation through the sacrifice of an innocent comes through the narrative with a power that evokes strong emotion in the reader, thereby making Christ’s sufferings feel real.
Through examples from his essay “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said” and The Chronicles of Narnia we see that Lewis selected the best form to “steal past” religious inhibitions that control what we “ought” to feel about God and Christ’s suffering. Lewis’s use of metaphors and imagination in the form of fairy tale draws the reader into the story through vivid descriptions and events while bypassing the direct exhortations that inhibit our ability to experience the feelings which a true understanding of the Gospel ought to inspire. By “casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school association,” Lewis “makes them appear… in their full potency.” Lewis selected the best form for the story that “bubbled” up from his mental pictures of a Faun, a Queen, and a Lion. The simplicity of the Narnia series was the perfect form for Lewis to achieve the Man’s purpose of breaking through the inhibitions that keep us from genuinely experiencing God and Christ.
Thomason, Charotte B. 2018. “For What Purpose.” An Unexpected Journal 1, no. 2. (Summer): 49-63.
Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///for-what-purpose/