By Riane Konc
The first time I read The Chronicles of Narnia, I was 6 years old. Until I reread it as an adult, I forgot almost everything about the plot. I just recall knowing that the series was much longer than the books that most of my first grade peers were reading, and so I went into library time with a bit of a swagger.
What I remembered from the story throughout adolescence and early adulthood came more from repeated viewings of the televised 1980s BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a single story from the series. No matter how many times I watched it, I was swept up in the plot: four siblings who are whisked through a wardrobe into a magical world, one that has been cursed by the White Witch to an eternal winter. It had everything I was looking for in a story: curses, wars, ancient prophecies, and talking animals. There was betrayal and sacrifice and sibling rivalry. And once I understood that the story was also an allegory, I loved it even more.
Just Another Fact
I grew up in the church, and the account of Jesus’ sacrifice, death, and resurrection was nothing new to me. At the age of 6, I could have explained the basics of the gospel to anyone who asked, and I probably did. I was pretty zealous as a child: my sister and I once chased a student around the playground at school, yelling, “Accept Jesus into your heart!” Our methods were not the best.
But constant exposure to the story of Jesus also had an unintended negative side effect: I had become used to it. Knowing that Jesus suffered and died for me lost its emotional punch pretty early on, and it became another fact of life: The sky is blue. Toilets flush the other way in Australia. Jesus was beaten and tortured and died for me. A duck’s quack doesn’t echo and no one knows why.
Watching The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—in which the White Witch represents Satan and Aslan represents Jesus in a fairly clear allegorical gospel tale—renewed Jesus’ story for me in an important way. Watching the White Witch tempt, trick, and coerce Edmund into danger and bondage—all for the chance at more Turkish Delight!—made me think about the stupidity and consequences of sin in a way that lectures or groundings from my parents never could. Seeing the lion Aslan completely broken—shaved and tortured—then lashed onto the stone table to die crushed me. Watching the Witch bring down her knife over his body was horrifying and sobering and brought me to tears in the way that the crucifixion always should. And then later, hearing the stone table cracking and seeing Aslan alive—alive!—and ready to wage victorious war upon the White Witch and her army of wolves and monsters was thrilling and relieving and invigorating in the way that the resurrection always should feel.
Thirsting for Beauty
Of course, I eventually stopped watching the BBC version. I came upon an old VHS as an adult, but instead of the engaging adventure I remembered, I found cheesy special effects and cringe-worthy acting. I couldn’t pay attention to the story because I was too distracted by the obvious green screens, the plastic armor, the stuffed-animal-looking Aslan. How did I ever think this was good? I thought.
This is part of the reason that, for the longest time, I refused to reread The Chronicles of Narnia. I assumed it would be another exercise in disappointment, another magical memory from childhood tarnished.
I don’t know what lured me back to the books when I was 23. I had recently graduated from a Christian college, had stopped attending church, and was in a full-blown crisis of faith, perhaps best described as agnostic on my good days. For me, doubt was (and is) taxing and painful, especially since the faith I was doubting had been stitched into the fabric of my being since earliest memory. My life felt empty and dry, and I was thirsty for something beautiful.
Then—somewhat out of the blue—the thought occurred to me that it might be a good idea to reread The Chronicles of Narnia. And unlike the disappointment of returning to other childhood books, rereading this series had the opposite effect. It was more rich and beautiful and magical than I remembered. What that series as a whole revealed to my adult mind about God was equal to the way that one part of the stories had spoken to my childhood understanding about Jesus.
I Saw Myself
There are a million lessons in Narnia, a million symbols that point to Jesus, and it would be difficult to lay out the ones that were most meaningful to me, one by one. What I know is that the series was in every way transformative, in its small moments and its broadest strokes. Sometimes one line of dialogue would ring so true that I would start crying right there on the spot, never mind that the speaker might be a talking beaver or an impish rat. Rereading this imaginative children’s fantasy as an adult reshaped the way I understood the love of God and even the way I viewed the problem of evil (“Why do bad things happen to good people?”), which had added so much fuel to my doubting fire.
Most powerfully, in the final book (The Last Battle) I felt like C. S. Lewis aimed an entire chapter directly at me. In it, Aslan has reclaimed Narnia, but the dwarves living there don’t realize it. They cannot see the beauty around them: they stand in a field of flowers and imagine that they are trapped in a musty stable; they are handed violets to sniff and claim they stink of stable litter; they are presented with a banquet feast and they cannot even see it. They refuse to see because the dwarves fear, above all, being tricked. They are so guarded of their dignity, so proud of themselves for being too smart to be taken in by anyone, that all they see is darkness when all the lights have long been flipped on. They won’t look like fools, believing in magic that might not be there, and so they miss the magic that unfolds in front of them.
Reading that chapter, I wanted to pull the dwarves out through the pages and shake them. It was so frustrating, so infuriating, and a hundred times more so because I saw myself in those dwarves.
Magical and Mysterious
In a way, the scene with the dwarves is a single representation of the consistent idea Lewis returns to over and over in the series: the idea that the world that God created, and what is going on outside of earth, is so much more magical and mysterious than we can comprehend. There’s a reason that the main characters in the series are children: most of the adults we meet have lost their sense of wonder and imagination and don’t want to be caught believing in something that defies logic or sense.
But in Lewis’s Narnia, the stakes are higher than in most books. The stodgy adults aren’t just refusing to believe in illusions or boogeymen or Santa: they are missing out on Heaven on earth, on knowing Jesus, on experiencing the full magic of existence. And because the reader knows that Narnia and Aslan stand for things that are real, it is that much more maddening to see anyone refuse to entertain the idea of this ultimate reality.
When I finished rereading The Chronicles of Narnia, my theological questions were certainly not all answered, nor were all my doubts assuaged. I doubt they ever will be. But even now, years later, when I am feeling doubtful, Narnia stays with me. I remember the deep magic of creation and life, here and now, before and after. I remember the necessity of childlike faith. I remember that some wardrobes are entrances to the world Jesus meant me to inhabit. All I have to do is open the door.
Riane Konc is a freelance writer living in Covington, Kentucky.