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Narnia: A Christian allegory?

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When he was born, 119 years ago today, Clive Staples Lewis couldn't have known that he'd be responsible for one of the most popular Christian books of all time. Even as he was writing the Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis claimed that the series was not intended to be a simple Biblical allegory.

Despite his assertion, this is the vision of Narnia that has been passed down to us since its first publication in 1950, and which has led to contention in recent years, when the series has been accused of being both sexist and racist. It is easy to see the overt Christian message in the series. Lewis stated that Aslan was an embodiment of Jesus, and the series takes us from the creation in The Magician's Nephew, through the death and resurrection of Christ in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, to the apocalypse in The Last Battle, where all are judged and sent to Lewis' vision of Heaven or Hell. The capitalisation of "He" when talking about Aslan, the sometimes too-didactic instructions to the children and the highly troubling depiction of "heathens" in that final book all suggest that Lewis was rather more successful in his allegory than he claimed to be.

Yet there are also aspects of the text which draw upon other sources, often pre-Christian in nature. Lewis was incredibly well-read, particularly in Celtic medieval literature, and it comes across in the structure, plot and language of the texts. The Voyage of the Dawntreader is in the tradition of an immrana, an Old Irish tale which follows a hero's journey into the Underworld. Characters from Greek and German mythology, such as centaurs and dwarfs populate the series, whilst Lucy's description of "Heaven" in The Last Battle, draws heavily upon Plato's theory of Forms, where the world is merely an imperfect copy of a better place:

"I see," she said. "This is still Narnia, and, more real and more beautiful than the Narnia down below, just as it was more real and more beautiful than the Narnia outside the Stable door! I see ... world within world, Narnia within Narnia...."

Using Christian imagery in children's texts was not an idea invented by Lewis. Several classics are much more heavy-handed in their promotion of Christian values, from Little Women to What Katy Did. Lewis' friend, J.R.R. Tolkein, was not immune to drawing upon Christian scripture to influence his work. In more recent times, even Disney's Frozen has been interpreted as highly Christian in outlook. Indeed, it would probably be easier to point to Western texts, especially those written up until the middle of the twentieth century, which don't draw upon Christian teachings in some manner, whether in terms of plot, events or the language used.

It's true that Lewis' treatment of Susan in the novels is reductive, excluding her from Narnia based on her interest in "nylons and lipstick and invitation". It's also true that the presentation of the villainous Calormenes, the neighbours to Narnia, does sometimes stray into territory more akin to an imperialist narrative. But it's also true that these are, first and foremost, children's books.

I first came to the series via the 1988 BBC TV series, a show I loved so much that I may have worn out the video tape. All I saw was a wonderful fantasy land, where animals talked, horses had wings (I was very into winged horses) and magical things happened. It was only much later in life that I realised that the books could be read in a different way, an aspect which, for me, has only enhanced their literary qualities.

Children will interpret books in their own way. In the same way that they probably perceive Frozen as a tale of sisterly love, rather than a conflict between Christ and the anti-Christ, they probably first see Aslan as a magnificent and thrilling king. What the allegory element does is open the text up to re-readings, extending the life and magic of the Narnian universe for older children and adults. To my mind, there is little to criticise in the Christian undertones. What would be ideal is to have more mainstream children's books with other cultural undertones to reflect our more diverse modern society.

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