The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

by C.S. Lewis

Cover image

Illustrator: Pauline Baynes
Series: Chronicles of Narnia #1
Publisher: Collier Books
Copyright: 1950
Printing: 1978
ISBN: 0-02-044220-3
Format: Mass market
Pages: 186

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Although it's been more than 20 years since I last read it, I believe I have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe more times than any other book. The count is certainly in double digits. As you might guess, I also have strong opinions about it, some of which are unorthodox, and I've been threatening to write this review for years. It seemed a fitting choice for my 1000th review.

There is quite a lot that can and has been said about this book and this series, and this review is already going to be much too long, so I'm only going to say a fraction of it. I'm going to focus on my personal reactions as someone raised a white evangelical Christian but no longer part of that faith, and the role this book played in my religion. I'm not going to talk much about some of its flaws, particularly Lewis's treatment of race and gender. This is not because I don't agree they're there, but only that I don't have much to say that isn't covered far better in other places.

Unlike my other reviews, this one will contain major spoilers. If you have managed to remain unspoiled for a 70-year-old novel that spawned multiple movies and became part of the shared culture of evangelical Christianity, and want to stay that way, I'll warn you in ALL CAPS when it's time to go. But first, a few non-spoiler notes.

First, reading order. Most modern publications of The Chronicles of Narnia will list The Magician's Nephew as the first book. This follows internal chronological order and is at C.S. Lewis's request. However, I think Lewis was wrong. You should read this series in original publication order, starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (which I'm going to abbreviate as TLtWatW like everyone else who writes about it).

I will caveat this by saying that I have a bias towards reading books in the order an author wrote them because I like seeing the development of the author's view of their work, and I love books that jump back in time and fill in background, so your experience may vary. But the problem I see with the revised publication order is that The Magician's Nephew explains the origins of Narnia and, thus, many of the odd mysteries of TLtWatW that Lewis intended to be mysterious. Reading it first damages both books, like watching a slow-motion how-to video for a magic trick before ever seeing it performed. The reader is not primed to care about the things The Magician's Nephew is explaining, which makes it less interesting. And the bits of unexpected magic and mystery in TLtWatW that give it so much charm (and which it needs, given the thinness of the plot) are already explained away and lose appeal because of it.

I have read this series repeatedly in both internal chronological order and in original publication order. I have even read it in strict chronological order, wherein one pauses halfway through the last chapter of TLtWatW to read The Horse and His Boy before returning. I think original publication order is the best. (The Horse and His Boy is a side story and it doesn't matter that much where you read it as long as you read it after TLtWatW. For this re-read, I will follow original publication order and read it fifth.)

Second, allegory.

The common understanding of TLtWatW is that it's a Christian allegory for children, often provoking irritated reactions from readers who enjoyed the story on its own terms and later discovered all of the religion beneath it. I think this view partly misunderstands how Lewis thought about the world and there is a more interesting way of looking at the book. I'm not as dogmatic about this as I used to be; if you want to read it as an allegory, there are plenty of carefully crafted parallels to the gospels to support that reading. But here's my pitch for a different reading.

To C.S. Lewis, the redemption of the world through the death of Jesus Christ is as foundational a part of reality as gravity. He spent much of his life writing about religion and Christianity in both fiction and non-fiction, and this was the sort of thing he constantly thought about. If somewhere there is another group of sentient creatures, Lewis's theology says that they must fit into that narrative in some way. Either they would have to be unfallen and thus not need redemption (roughly the position taken by The Space Trilogy), or they would need their own version of redemption. So yes, there are close parallels in Narnia to events of the Christian Bible, but I think they can be read as speculating how Christian salvation would play out in a separate creation with talking animals, rather than an attempt to disguise Christianity in an allegory for children. It's a subtle difference, but I think Narnia more an answer to "how would Christ appear in this fantasy world?" than to "how do I get children interested in the themes of Christianity?", although certainly both are in play.

Put more bluntly, where other people see allegory, I see the further adventures of Jesus Christ as an anthropomorphic lion, which in my opinion is an altogether more delightful way to read the books.

So much for the preamble; on to the book.

The Pevensie kids, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, have been evacuated to a huge old house in the country due to the air raids (setting this book during World War II, something that is passed over with barely a mention and not a hint of trauma in a way that a modern book would never do). While exploring this house, which despite the scant description is still stuck in my mind as the canonical huge country home, Lucy steps into a wardrobe because she wants to feel the fur of the coats. Much to her surprise, the wardrobe appears not to have a back, and she finds herself eventually stepping into a snow-covered pine forest where she meets a Fawn named Mr. Tumnus by an unlikely lamp-post.

MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW, so if you don't want to see those, here's your cue to stop reading.

Two things surprised me when re-reading TLtWatW. The first, which I remember surprising me every time I read it, is how far into this (very short) book one has to go before the plot kicks into gear. It's not until "What Happened After Dinner" more than a third in that we learn much of substance about Narnia, and not until "The Spell Begins to Break" halfway through the book that things start to happen. The early chapters are concerned primarily with the unreliability of the wardrobe portal, with a couple of early and brief excursions by Edmund and Lucy, and with Edmund being absolutely awful to Lucy.

The second thing that surprised me is how little of what happens is driven by the kids. The second half of TLtWatW is about the fight between Aslan and the White Witch, but this fight was not set off by the children and their decisions don't shape it in any significant way. They're primarily bystanders; the few times they take action, it's either off-camera or they're told explicitly what to do. The arguable exception is Edmund, who provides the justification for the final conflict, but he functions more as plot device than as a character with much agency. When that is combined with how much of the story is also on rails via its need to recapitulate part of the gospels (more on that in a moment), it makes the plot feel astonishingly thin and simple.

Edmund is the one protagonist who gets to make some decisions, all of them bad. As a kid, I hated reading these parts because Edmund is an ass, the White Witch is obviously evil, and everyone knows not to eat the food. Re-reading now, I have more appreciation for how Lewis shows Edmund's slide into treachery. He starts teasing Lucy because he thinks it's funny (even though it's not), has a moment when he realizes he was wrong and almost apologizes, but then decides to blame his discomfort on the victim. From that point, he is caught, with some help from the White Witch's magic, in a spiral of doubling down on his previous cruelty and then feeling unfairly attacked. Breaking the cycle is beyond him because it would require admitting just how badly he behaved and, worse, that he was wrong and his little sister was right. He instead tries to justify himself by spreading poisonous bits of doubt, and looks for reasons to believe the friends of the other children are untrustworthy. It's simplistic, to be sure, but it's such a good model of how people slide into believing conspiracy theories and joining hate groups. The Republican Party is currently drowning in Edmunds.

That said, Lewis does one disturbing thing with Edmund that leaped out on re-reading. Everyone in this book has a reaction when Aslan's name is mentioned. For the other three kids, that reaction is awe or delight. For Edmund, it's mysterious horror.

I know where Lewis is getting this from, but this is a nasty theological trap. One of the problems that religion should confront directly is criticism that questions the moral foundations of that religion. If one postulates that those who have thrown in with some version of the Devil have an instinctual revulsion for God, it's a free intellectual dodge. Valid moral criticism can be hand-waved away as Edmund's horrified reaction to Aslan: a sign of Edmund's guilt, rather than a possible flaw to consider seriously. It's also, needless to say, not the effect you would expect from a god who wants universal salvation! But this is only an odd side note, and once Edmund is rescued it's never mentioned again.

This brings us to Aslan himself, the Great Lion, and to the heart of why I think this book and series are so popular. In reinterpreting Christianity for the world of Narnia, Lewis created a far more satisfying and relatable god than Jesus Christ, particularly for kids.

I'm not sure I can describe, for someone who didn't grow up in that faith, how central the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus is to evangelical Christianity. It's more than a theological principle; it's the standard by which one's faith is judged. And it is very difficult for a kid to mentally bootstrap themselves into a feeling of a personal relationship with a radical preacher from 2000 years ago who spoke in gnomic parables about subtle points of adult theology. It's hard enough for adults with theological training to understand what that phrase is intended to mean. For kids, you may as well tell them they have a personal relationship with Aristotle.

But a giant, awe-inspiring lion with understanding eyes, a roar like thunder, and a warm mane that you can bury your fingers into? A lion who sacrifices himself for your brother, who can be comforted and who comforts you in turn, and who makes a glorious surprise return? That's the kind of god with which one can imagine having a personal relationship. Aslan felt physical and embodied and present in the imagination in a way that Jesus never did.

I am certain I was not the only Christian kid for whom Aslan was much more viscerally real than Jesus, and who had a tendency to mentally substitute Aslan for Jesus in most thoughts about religion.

I am getting ahead of myself a bit because this is a review of TLtWatW and not of the whole series, and Aslan in this book is still a partly unformed idea. He's much more mundanely present here than he is later, more of a field general than a god, and there are some bits that are just wrong (like him clapping his paws together). But the scenes with Susan and Lucy, the night at the Stone Table and the rescue of the statues afterwards, remain my absolute favorite parts of this book and some of the best bits of the whole series. They strike just the right balance of sadness, awe, despair, and delight.

The image of a lion also lets Lewis show joy in a relatable way. Aslan plays, he runs, he wrestles with the kids, he thrills in the victory over evil just as much as Susan and Lucy do, and he is clearly having the time of his life turning people back to flesh from stone. The combination of translation, different conventions, and historical distance means the Bible has none of this for the modern reader, and while people have tried to layer it on with Bible stories for kids, none of them (and I read a lot of them) capture anything close to the sheer joy of this story.

The trade-off Lewis makes for that immediacy is that Aslan is a wonderful god, but TLtWatW has very little religion. Lewis can have his characters interact with Aslan directly, which reduces the need for abstract theology and difficult questions of how to know God's will. But even when theology is unavoidable, this book doesn't ask for the type of belief that Christianity demands.

For example, there is a crucifixion parallel, because in Lewis's world view there would have to be. That means Lewis has to deal with substitutionary atonement (the belief that Christ died for the sins of the world), which is one of the hardest parts of Christianity to justify. How he does this is fascinating.

The Narnian equivalent is the Deep Magic, which says that the lives of all traitors belong to the White Witch. If she is ever denied a life, Narnia will be destroyed by fire and water. The Witch demands Edmund's life, which sets up Aslan to volunteer to be sacrificed in Edmund's place. This triggers the Deeper Magic that she did not know about, freeing Narnia from her power.

You may have noticed the card that Lewis is palming, and to give him credit, so do the kids, leading to this exchange when the White Witch is still demanding Edmund:

"Oh, Aslan!" whispered Susan in the Lion's ear, "can't we — I mean, you won't, will you? Can't we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn't there something you can work against it?"

"Work against the Emperor's magic?" said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.

The problem with substitutionary atonement is why would a supposedly benevolent god create such a morally abhorrent rule in the first place? And Lewis totally punts. Susan is simply not allowed to ask the question. Lewis does try to tackle this problem elsewhere in his apologetics for adults (without, in my opinion, much success). But here it's just a part of the laws of this universe, which all of the characters, including Aslan, have to work within.

That leads to another interesting point of theology, which is that if you didn't already know about the Christian doctrine of the trinity, you would never guess it from this book. The Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea and Aslan are clearly separate characters, with Aslan below the Emperor in the pantheon. This makes rules like the above work out more smoothly than they do in Christianity because Aslan is bound by the Emperor's rules and the Emperor is inscrutable and not present in the story. (The Holy Spirit is Deity Not-appearing-in-this-book, but to be fair to Lewis, that's largely true of the Bible as well.)

What all this means is that Aslan's death is presented straightforwardly as a magic spell. It works because Aslan has the deepest understanding of the fixed laws of the Emperor's magic, and it looks nothing like what we normally think of as religion. Faith is not that important in this book because Aslan is physically present, so it doesn't require any faith for the children to believe he exists. (The Beavers, who believed in him from prophecy without having seen him, are another matter, but this book never talks about that.) The structure of religion is therefore remarkably absent despite the story's Christian parallels. All that's expected of the kids is the normal moral virtues of loyalty and courage and opposition to cruelty.

I have read this book so many times that I've scrutinized every word, so I have to resist the temptation to dig into every nook and cranny: the beautiful description of spring, the weird insertion of Lilith as Adam's first wife, how the controversial appearance of Santa Claus in this book reveals Lewis's love of Platonic ideals... the list is endless, and the review is already much longer than normal. But I never get to talk about book endings in reviews, so one more indulgence.

The best thing that can be said about the ending of TLtWatW is that it is partly redeemed by the start of Prince Caspian. Other than that, the last chapter of this book has always been one of my least favorite parts of The Chronicles of Narnia.

For those who haven't read it (and who by this point clearly don't mind spoilers), the four kids are immediately and improbably crowned Kings and Queens of Narnia. Apparently, to answer the Professor from earlier in the book, ruling magical kingdoms is what they were teaching in those schools? They then spend years in Narnia, never apparently giving a second thought to their parents (you know, the ones who are caught up in World War II, which prompted the evacuation of the kids to the country in the first place). This, for some reason, leaves them talking like medieval literature, which may be moderately funny if you read their dialogue in silly voices to a five-year-old and is otherwise kind of tedious. Finally, in a hunt for the white stag, they stumble across the wardrobe and tumble back into their own world, where they are children again and not a moment has passed.

I will give Lewis credit for not doing a full reset and having the kids not remember anything, which is possibly my least favorite trope in fiction. But this is almost as bad. If the kids returned immediately, that would make sense. If they stayed in Narnia until they died, that arguably would also make sense (their poor parents!). But growing up in Narnia and then returning as if nothing happened doesn't work. Do they remember all of their skills? How do you readjust to going to school after you've lived a life as a medieval Queen? Do they remember any of their friends after fifteen years in Narnia? Argh. It's a very "adventures are over, now time for bed" sort of ending, although the next book does try to patch some of this up.

As a single book taken on its own terms, TLtWatW is weirdly slight, disjointed, and hits almost none of the beats that one would expect from a children's novel. What saves it is a sense of delight and joy that suffuses the descriptions of Narnia, even when locked in endless winter, and Aslan. The plot is full of holes, the role of the children in that plot makes no sense, and Santa Claus literally shows up in the middle of the story to hand out plot devices and make an incredibly sexist statement about war. And yet, I memorized every gift the children received as a kid, I can still feel the coziness of the Beaver's home while Mr. Beaver is explaining prophecy, and the night at the Stone Table remains ten times more emotionally effective for me than the description of the analogous event in the Bible.

And, of course, there's Aslan.

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king, I tell you."

Aslan is not a tame lion, to use the phrase that echos through this series. That, I think, is the key to the god that I find the most memorable in all of fantasy literature, even in this awkward, flawed, and decidedly strange introduction.

Followed by Prince Caspian, in which the children return to a much-changed Narnia. Lewis has gotten most of the obligatory cosmological beats out of the way in this book, so subsequent books can tell more conventional stories.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2021-03-01

Last modified and spun 2021-05-03