Narnia is a realm dominated by one voice – the roar Aslan of the East. He has cried out many times in our history, drowning out all others. Sometimes in love, sometimes in anger. Sometimes with great cause. But only ever when it has suited him.
- Cybil of Beaversdam.
There is a deep magic, unknown to most. There is a deeper magic, unknown even to the wise. Then there is the deepest magic – known to everyone.
I first read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was six. The triple volume we had in our house contained the first three books in the series – The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy. I can still remember the front cover now; a thick, starry-blue border, edging around a rolling green landscape that swept up to high mountains beneath a clear sky. In the foreground stood the Great Lion himself; Aslan looking gold and glorious as always. It was an evocative image, and it drew me in.
My parents were surprised and overjoyed when I started reading it off my own bat. I devoured the books; first reading The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, then The Horse and his Boy, and finally The Magicians Nephew. I remember whisking my way through pages and pages of text, whilst my friends at school were still stumbling through picturebooks. Words like “gifted” were bandied about over my head in hushed tones.
I didn’t care about that, though. I was worlds away – dancing with fauns, fleeing from wolves and exploring the lantern wastes. I was in love. In love with Narnia, its people, its places, its culture. It was a vision of a totally animate world; and yet, one that was still earthy – it wasn’t some ethereal Neverwhere, hard to imagine separately to its bookish casings – it felt like (what I now call) ethnography; a thick description of a real place with realistic people. There are plenty of less-than-pleasant parts of Lewis’ vision – the sexism towards adult women, the blatant xenophobia, the authoritarian glint in Aslan’s leonine eye – but I didn’t notice any of it. To my six-year-old mind, the nasty hobby-horses of Lewis’ rode past unnoticed; the Christian allegory, 1950s ethnocentricism and 1930s misogyny moving over my head, perhaps intended to be visible to older children. What did stick with me was the obvious Paganism upon which Lewis drew – the walking trees, the speaking beasts, the divine waters. I recognized them at once as friends and true gods, following them into the wild, forgotten places of the text, whilst Lewis played his Game of Thrones in the wide, open country of chapter upon chapter.
Because Lewis did focus upon heroes. Heroes, by and large, I didn’t really care about. Peter, Edmund, Eustace, Jill, and even Lucy seemed rather old-fashioned to the millennial me. I was frustrated by how I was expected to only empathise with a person if they hailed from my own world. I felt patronized even at age six by this authorial choice. It was for this reason that my favourite in the series was The Horse and His Boy; here was a book where those irritating Pevensies and their fellow travelers only got involved at the edges. This book is also, incidentally, populated by characters who have the least interest in Aslan – Shasta and Hwin barely knows who he is, Aravis doesn’t care, Bree doesn’t get him at all despite using him as something of a battle-standard.
But what I really loved about Horse was that it gave a precious insight into ordinary Narnia. Towards the end of the book, Shasta, on his way to the capital of Archenland, manages to find his way into Narnia proper. There, he meets a community of everyday Narnians – dwarves, fauns, talking beasts. Simple people, leading their uneventful, happy lives in the forest. He spends a-few short hours amongst them, eating bacon and seeing what he’s been missing all those years in the south, before rushing off to save the day. The narrative follows him, but my heart remained in those quiet woods. I read that chapter again and again, wishing the pages would open up and lower me down gently onto a bower of golden leaves and celandines; only to be greeted by a band of dwarves with a kettle on the boil.
I read the rest of the books only later, receiving them a couple of years later at Christmas. I loved Prince Caspian – the trees and awakening gods avenging themselves on dull Telmarine Narnia struck a chord that still sounds in my heart today. As The Voyage of the Dawn Treader didn’t actually take place in Narnia, and ended in what seemed at the time to be a sort of fuzziness I couldn’t pierce (i.e. Christian allegory) so I didn’t much care for it. The Silver Chair, overwhelmingly bleak, had brief points of relief for me in shedding light on the irascible marsh-wiggles and a positively Bosch-esque winter celebration when Eustace, Jill and co. return to Narnia.
Then I read The Last Battle. Each page left me feeling worse and worse. Here was the land I loved being torn to pieces. The trees being felled, the waters stilled, the animals broken as dumb beasts. Things got worse, and worse. And then, when all seemed darkest – Lewis rewarded me with the utter annihilation of Narnia, and most of its people, in fire and death.
What replaced it? A heroes reunion. Christian Allegory. More Pevensies. In short, everything I cared least about, was assured salvation!
The Narnia I loved – that magical Arcadia half-way between dreaming and waking – was replaced by something I found utterly incomprehensible. Like an onion, but bigger on the inside – what utter madness, I remember thinking, that doesn’t make sense at all! My visual imagination struggled to grasp this eschatological bulb, trying to imagine it as simultaneously England-and-Narnia-and-Everywhere all at once. I failed. The Christian intention of the books, once entirely invisible to me, had now become all there was to see. Sad though it is, Aslan’s Country seemed entirely foreign to me.
I was ten at the time, and I cried. I cried because I didn’t understand why Narnia had gone, or if it had gone, at all. I cried because I felt that all those nice, ordinary Narnians – simple people, who asked for nothing except a peaceful life – must’ve been exactly the sort to be tricked by Shift and his idiotic donkey-lion… who (and I really couldn’t believe this part) was allowed into this post-Narnia place, despite the fact that he had shown exactly the same level of ignorance that the others had done; they had been damned, yet he had not. I cried because I knew the Narnia I had believed in, was, in the eyes of the author, gone. And what’s more, he felt that was a good thing.
Now I am older. I ended up converting to the faith that Lewis himself followed – Anglican Christianity – in the vain hope of recovering some of the mystery I had felt close to in reading those first books, and that had been thoroughly banished by the Last Battle. Rather ironic really. I now realize that it was at around the time that I read that damn book that the rot to set in – the gradual loss of innocence that was less about becoming interested in stockings and lipstick and boys, as Lewis might have it, and was more about believing the world didn’t actually have any magic in it at all. Lewis successfully broke the spells woven through my Pagan heart, by shattering it in two – for a while, anyway. In the depression that followed, I was vulnerable in precisely the way that Christianity is so adept at addressing. As such, I became a Christian.
In the end, Christianity did little for me. It energized the worst parts of my character – the self-righteous, self-hating, self-denying tendency that I still have trouble with – and left me feeling harrowed and guilty over my sexuality and my philosophical outlook. I spent years worrying about being gay and about possibly doing something that would get me sent to hell. The voices I heard on the wind told me I was safe. But the angry words of other Christians told me something different. I doubted.
Gradually, though, I was guided back into Paganism. Those voices in the wind revealed themselves as gods, not one God and saints. Those angry words were shown to be vacuous and fearful by plenty of good education and reflection. At Cambridge and through Druidry, I found my community – my Narnia. And now, after all these years, I’ve found myself again too.
Personally, I think authors need to take responsibility over what they write. The impact children’s books have on those that read them can be immense. I am sure that the Narnia books are one of the formative influences in my life. So much of my pleasure and pain has flowed from the triumphs and mistakes of Lewis’ work. His vast knowledge of Pagan, particularly Classical culture, flowed into the Narnia books – where the themes they created helped nourish my love of the same. However, his hamfisted, doctrinaire submission of those themes to Christian allegory helped quicken the despair I felt as I lost the magical sensibilities of my childhood.
So: I figure that an update is necessary. A Narnia for the 90s. Or the Noughteens. Regardless, just as I have peeled back my own character’s Christian patina and liked what I saw beneath, so I’m going to try and do the same for Narnia; and see what happens!