A Journey into the Heart of Narnia Rowan Williams

SPCK, 128pp, pbk

978 0281068951, £8.99

I am always afraid when adults, particularly theologians and psychologists, interfere with children’s fiction – a theology of Winnie the Pooh or the real Harry Potter. The conservative or the child in me wants to scream ‘leave it alone, let me remember how I enjoyed it the first time’. With the Archbishop’s treatment of Narnia I didn’t have to do any screaming. Reading The Lion’s World was almost like reading something C.S. Lewis himself would have written.

‘The books must stand or fall finally as stories’. Thus Williams respects the integrity of the Narnia saga. It is first and foremost a bold sweep of the imagination. It paints a world where our imaginations can be at home, have adventures, encounter good and evil and come face to face with the possibility of being loved by something great, terrible and beautiful. ‘Like most truly successful children’s books, they are very far from being comforting’.

The Lion’s World is a delightful book. In shape it is a pleasant variation on the normal paperback – truly a pocket book, handy for reading on the bus. The layout and Monica Capoferri’s illustrations (yes, a serious book with drawings) are reminiscent of the Narnia style. The paragraphs have indentations quoting the author’s most significant point, thus helping one to recall the vital points of a whole chapter.

‘Lewis is trying to recreate for the reader what it is like to encounter and believe in God’: the Archbishop is not an uncritical reader of Lewis. He points out the weaknesses and sometimes finds that there is no excuse (such as cultural relativity) for a particular stance. But he is a stronger defender of Lewis against critics such as Philip Pullman, and the Lewis that we encounter in the book is a thoroughly orthodox apologist for the Christian faith and one who makes the eternal truth available to children and adults alike.

The Archbishop obviously knows and loves the works of C.S. Lewis and (from his adult works and literature, including the science fiction, as well) the consistent demand for an honesty that overrides all the illusions and delusions that humankind uses to satisfy vanity and feed the ego. It was the honesty which forced Lewis – the most reluctant convert – to accept the reality of God.

Narnia is a place where transformations can take place, where illusion and self-importance can be stripped away. It is a place where penitence and penance are possible and through which the characters (and the reader) can see a divine hand at work in and for all creation.

In the chapter titled ‘Bigger inside than Outside’ we are introduced to Lewis’s treatment of that most joyful of mysteries – the Incarnation. ‘It’s – it’s a magic wardrobe. There is a wood inside it, and it’s snowing, and there’s a faun and a witch and it’s called Narnia; come and see’. In order to convince her brothers and sister of the reality of Narnia Lucy uses the same words with which Philip introduces Nathaniel to the Lord of glory – ‘come and see’. How could all that be in a wardrobe? How could anything good come out of Nazareth? How could Godhead be found in a stable? But the wood of the wardrobe, the dust of Nazareth, the reality of the stable are truly related to the mysteries that they reveal and the flesh and blood of Jesus essential to the mystery of the Incarnation: ‘The humanity of Christ is not abolished by its glorification in the Ascension.’ It is in this chapter that it becomes hard to tell where Lewis ends and Williams takes over.

The Archbishop uncovers for us the theology and vision of this great lay theologian, but one cannot help feeling that the magic of Narnia has drawn him further in and further up, delving deeper into the mines of beauty and wisdom and love which flow from the heart of the King. To give the Archbishop the last word: ‘In a word what Lewis portrays with such power and freshness in Narnia is simply grace’.