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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Surprised by Jack

C.S. Lewis critics bump into the back of the wardrobe

Issue: "The Obama era," Feb. 14, 2009

Nearly every Christian with a liking toward fantasy has their favorite Narnia book, Narnia scene, or Narnia character. But so do many non-Christians. C.S. Lewis' classic children's books are a milestone of literary consciousness for young readers of every background and persuasion: for some, a passport through the wardrobe into the real, living Kingdom of Christ. For others, a painful journey from delight to dismay.

That was the experience of Laura Miller, columnist for Salon.com and regular contributor to The New York Times. In her early teens, Miller was stunned to realize that the stories that enchanted her childhood were really thinly veiled allegories for Christianity-i.e., dreary, guilt-mongering stuff pandered by the Catholic church she was forced to attend. Appalled, she thrust Narnia aside and moved on with her growth and eventual emancipation.

Only much later was she able to reread the series and discern the many influences that had appealed first to the author, then to his disillusioned reader: "treasures collected from Dante, from Spencer, from Malory, from Austen, from old romances and ballads and fairy tales and pagan epics." Her relief was so great she wrote The Magician's Book, recently published by Little, Brown, about her journey from Narnia and back again.

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If the subject isn't relevant to general readers, it struck a chord with reviewers. One such is Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked (which casts the green-hued villainess of Oz as the good guy). In his review, Maguire shares his own voyage from Narnia: not a sudden shock but a growing awareness of the "bullying in Lewis' tales," the "classism, racism, sexism, and its depiction of a godhead whose mercy extends only to those pure enough to deserve it (known in some circles as the Problem of Susan, after the Pevensie sister who is expelled from Narnia for her interest in 'nylons and lipstick and invitations' . . .)."

Gregory Maguire also moved on, even while looking back with affection. Another reviewer, Elizabeth Ward in The Washington Post, rejoices that "Miller largely succeeds in rescuing the Narnia series from the narrow Christian box into which it has been crammed." The unconsciously ironic title of Ward's review, "Saving C.S. Lewis," betrays a certain cluelessness.

For Lewis traveled his own spiritual odyssey, with striking similarities to Laura Miller's. Like her, he found the church of his childhood to be stultifying and stale, while his imagination was fired by fantasy and myth. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he charts his progress through skepticism, atheism, and materialism in search of the fleeting moments of transcendence he'd experienced as a boy. Literature urged him on, and he gradually came to perceive that the writers who most influenced him had some belief in God. "Perhaps (Oh joy!) there was, after all, 'something else', and (Oh reassurance!) it had nothing to do with Christian Theology." A vain hope: When two Christians-G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald-turned out to be his favorite authors, he could not fool himself much longer. Returning to the church and the word, he found them glowing with the light that had first appeared to lead him away.

"[I]n your light do we first see light" (Psalm 36:9). Once we understand Christ all things point to Him. But if we don't understand, we pluck those "other treasures" (such as literature, nature, relationships) from their source and allow them to wither. God's mercy is not for those "pure enough to deserve it" (mercy is never that!) but humble enough to desire it-and Him. Susan Pevensie's real "problem" was not lipstick and invitations but separating those things from the One who gave them.

Lewis himself wouldn't mind readers such as Laura Miller delighting in his stories, even while rejecting the "Christian" in them; he didn't set out to write theology. But his imagination had been thoroughly baptized, and Christ was the only hero who could emerge. If light dawns on the reader, she is doubly blessed.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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