I’ve been joyfully re-discovering the Narnia series through my nine-year old, who has just finished reading it through for the first time, and so was excited to read Rowan Williams’ thoughts on this and his other writings. (I ought to confess at this point that I bought the book for Christmas for Greg, but oops, I’ve read it first!) And I have to say I wasn’t disappointed – in fact this is the best, most inspirational and beautiful book I have read in a very long time (mind you, I have been doing doctoral reading for the last seven years…).
This post isn’t a full review but a sharing of some of the most exciting points that Williams draws out.
Well, you weren’t expecting me to start with this now were you… and I’ve got to say it is a bit of a surprise to find a man with such a big beard and bushy eyebrows writing on sex and CS Lewis! But Williams highlights again and again that Lewis’ depiction of Aslan is riotous, bacchanalian, hedonistic and very physical (Susan and Lucy roll on the ground with him; he gives Caspian ‘the wild kisses of a lion’).
Williams is clear: ‘Aslan’s animality permits the evoking of physical pleasure without trespassing directly on the realm of adult erotic experience’. Nonetheless, through the Narnia series and elsewhere (eg the experience of Jane in That Hideous Strength) Lewis is able to ‘evoke a world in which the profoundest physical enjoyment is one of the best and clearest images of what it is to meet God. That meeting is … never a substitute for physical fulfilment, nor is physical fulfilment a means to encounter with God. It is simply that erotic satisfaction fully enjoyed is one of the most powerful glimpses we can have of what union with God is like’.
2. Aslan’s Response to Our Wrongdoings
There is failure in Narnia. All the humans who visit there are flawed and make mistakes, some of them serious, and the animals do too – just think of Puzzle in The Last Battle. Lewis’ depiction of how Aslan deals with that failure is deeply moving: through a look; through a conversation out of earshot of the others; always in love and grace.
Williams makes the comment that, ‘Lewis is reinforcing a point familiar from St Augustine – that most sins are actually not dramatic acts of defiance but a half-conscious and certainly half-witted drift towards falsehood or a course reluctantly undertaken out of feebleness and cowardice. Aslan does not despise any of this, nor does he make light of it; he simply deals with it’.
Can I be honest? When I read that I cried and saw myself burying my face in Aslan’s mane as I accepted his forgiveness for my own half-wittedness and cowardice.
3. Aslan Grows
There is a moment in Prince Caspian when Lucy meets Aslan for the first time since The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and exclaims that he is bigger: “‘That is because you are older, little one’, answered he. ‘Not because you are?’. ‘I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger’. It’s a stunning depiction of the growth of faith through the years of our lives and of what happens when that faith is allowed to mature.
As Williams says, ‘Lewis is determined to turn on its head the common assumption that faith is one of those things that the intelligent human will simply grow out of: on the contrary, we shall be constantly growing into it, without end.’ But, ‘part of the growing also means that the habits of faith that serves us well at earlier stages may not survive untouched’.
This is exhilarating reading for those of us who have walked this path of faith for many years and seen it change and develop.
4. Putting Us in Our Place
In my last blog post I looked at how Jesus’ Kingdom theology encompassed the whole of creation, not just human beings, and the Narnia series is a wonderful depiction of that reality. Williams highlights how Lewis helps us appreciate the role that we play within the wider created order: as Aslan says to Prince Caspian, ‘‘You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve… And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth’”.
The humans in the Narnia series are actors among many others and have to learn how to take their place within this. Williams writes about this characteristically insightfully: ‘human beings are always already embedded in their relations with the non-human world and … their moral quality is utterly bound up with this as much as with their mutual relations. To be invited to see trees and rivers as part of the “people” of Narnia, and to have to ask what proper and respectful relations might be between a human and a talking beast is to be jolted out of a one-dimensional understanding of human uniqueness or human destiny under God’.
To put it another way: ‘In Narnia’, says Williams, ‘you may be on precisely the same spiritual level as a badger or a mouse’. Now that puts me firmly in my place.
(Rowan Williams, The Lion’s World: A journey into the heart of Narnia, SPCK: 2012)