The Hidden Story of Narnia: A Book-by-Book Guide to C. S. Lewis’ Spiritual Tales by Will Vaus (Winged Lion Press, 2010)
When the film version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe hit movie screens in December of 2005, religion-aversive media critics proclaimed with self-satisfied glee that all those naïve Christians who saw the Christian gospel lurking behind the plot of the film were wrong. C. S. Lewis himself had clearly stated that his novel was not to be read as a Christian allegory. Were the critics telling the truth? Well, yes and no. Yes, Lewis did say that the Chronicles were not Christian allegories, but no, when he said that, he did not mean what the critics thought (or wanted to believe) he meant. The Chronicles, English Professor Lewis was trying to teach his readers, were not technical allegories (like Pilgrim’s Progress), in which each thing in the book represents something else in our world. What they were, instead, were “supposals.” Lewis asked himself what the Second Person of the Trinity might have been like had he incarnated himself on a magic world of talking beasts and living streams. Aslan, that is to say, is not an allegory for Christ but the Christ of Narnia.
In The Hidden Story of Narnia, Will Vaus, an author of several other books on Lewis who holds an M.Div. from Princeton Seminary, carefully unpacks the many ways in which Lewis works through his “supposal” without ever reducing the Chronicles to thinly-veiled sermons. In a language that should prove equally challenging and accessible to academics, non-academics, college and high school students, and even well-read children, Vaus presents a clear and concise analysis of the spiritual architecture that undergirds each of the Chronicles. Not only does he make clear all the links between Aslan and Christ and between the Narnia books and the Bible; he also links the themes of the Narnia books to the vast corpus of Lewis’s other works so as to make clear the unity of Lewis’s Christian worldview. He further challenges his readers to see and wrestle with the greater moral and ethical dimensions of the Chronicles, highlighting the nature of virtue and vice in a manner that would surely have gained Lewis’s hearty approval.
In his chapter on The Magician’s Nephew, for example, Vaus not only makes clear the biblical concept of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) as it is embodied in Aslan’s creation of Narnia out of his head, but contrasts the pride, vanity, and selfishness of Uncle Andrew and Queen Jadis with the unselfishness and love displayed by Digory. Along the way, he also offers a dozen or so pointed insights that truly open up the spiritual complexity of the novel: Aslan’s choosing and gifting of certain animals with the power of speech not only combine the story of Noah with that of Pentecost but mimic how God made Adam from the earth and then raised him to full human status by breathing into him the breath of life; just as the temptation of Eve is preceded by the Fall of Satan, so the temptation of Digory is preceded by the prior evil of Jadis that finds its way into the Edenic Narnia; Digory is tempted three times by Jadis to take the apple as Jesus is tempted three times by Satan in the wilderness; Andrew and Jadis represent people who not only do evil but whose pursuit of evil has seared their conscience; Jadis’s pride is manifested in her belief that, to use a popular modern phrase, everything is about her.
The rest of Vaus’s chapters are equally rich with insights. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he explains, the Witch offers Edmund something (kingship) that is not hers by right to give, but which Aslan, who does have the right, intends to give Edmund as a gift. The same dynamic is worked out in Genesis 3 where the serpent offers Adam and Eve something, a God-likeness, “which is not his to impart and which, in fact, is already theirs” (28). “The key to restoring Narnia” in Prince Caspian, Vaus argues, “is not to follow majority rule, but rather to follow the vision of faith” (62). Tied to this reminder that the Chronicles are not “democratic” in the American sense but celebrate hierarchy tied to stewardship, Vaus suggests, very insightfully, that Lewis intends us to see Miraz as “a type of [Oliver] Cromwell who supplants the rightful monarchy” (56). In his chapter on The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Vaus connects the woman in The Great Divorce who is not a grumbler but a grumble with the transformation of Eustace into a dragon. The question as regards Eustace is not so much his status as a sinner as his status as a person: “Is there still a real boy left underneath all the dragonish thoughts? (71). In addition to specific insights like these, Vaus also does a fine job explaining such things as Lewis’s Augustinian view of eternity, his focus on desire, his understanding of the Tao, his love of the Eucharist, and his low opinion of school stories, and then using those explanations to further our appreciation of the Christian themes that underlie the Chronicles.
Still, despite the many strengths of The Hidden Story of Narnia, there are some weaknesses. Although Vaus forges many good connections between the Chronicles and works like Mere Christianity and The Problem of Pain, he does not (aside from a brief reference to That Hideous Strength) make links to The Space Trilogy or Till We Have Faces, other novels where Lewis conveys powerful Christian messages through the fantasy modes of science fiction and myth. At times, plot summary takes the place of a more searching analysis: the meeting of Aslan and Bree, the divergence of Trumpkin and Nikabrik, Lucy and the Magician’s Book, the dwarfs in the stable. Also, his chapters sometimes read more like fleshed-out outlines than carefully constructed essays that draw us progressively deeper into the stories and their spiritual and symbolic richness. Part of that sketchiness comes from the fact that Vaus offers almost no direct quotes from the Chronicles themselves. Alas, I cannot hold Vaus too much at fault for this decision since I suspect it was prompted by Vaus’s unwillingness to deal with the C. S. Lewis Company. Many a Lewis scholar has dreaded this onerous duty, and I, for one, have vowed that if I write another book on Lewis, I too will avoid using direct quotations so that I won’t have to seek permission for those quotes from the Company.
I do, however, hold Vaus at fault for perpetuating what is, to my mind at least, the worst publishing decision since Gutenberg—the decision to publish the Chronicles not in their original order of publication but in the order of Narnian chronology. Two generations of children have had their experience of the Chronicles marred by the new, finally unjustified ordering. Our entry way into Narnia must be made through the Wardrobe, just as the entryway into salvation is through the gospel, not through a reading of Genesis. To encounter The Magician’s Nephew first, rather than sixth, is to have the joy of recognition spoiled; to enter The Horse and His Boy third, rather than fifth, is to be whisked off to Calormen before we have gained a proper understanding and love of Narnia. Vaus tries his best to justify the new ordering by arguing that just as the hallway of mere Christianity leads us into the many rooms of the Church “so The Magician’s Nephew serves as our introduction to all the other Narnia books and, most importantly, to Aslan himself” (22). But this is simply not true. Our introduction to Aslan must be via the numinous power that overcomes the children when they first hear his name mentioned in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Thankfully, though, Vaus’s choice to follow the new ordering does not distract from the power and thoroughness of his readings of the individual books. These he carries off with great skill and precision, even throwing in an added and much appreciated bonus that greatly increases the value of his book. Vaus concludes, not with a mere recapitulation of his points, but by laying down seven guidelines, tied to the seven books, for living like a Narnian; his guidelines are practical without being didactic and help his readers to carry the message of Narnia into their own lives.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in St. Austin Review and is republished here by the gracious permission of the author.