Narnia for Grown-Ups
Adults love Narnia for its complex portrayals of good and evil and its celebration of the sacred in everyday life.
BY: Devin Brown
A list of elements in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" that appeal to younger readers isn't hard to come up with-it might include an exciting story, wonderfully memorable characters, and a number of helpful lessons about life in the real world. But the story has an equally devoted following among older readers.
What are some of the aspects of C.S. Lewis's masterpiece that appeal to adults? Here are three of them.
In Narnia, much as Tolkien did in Middle-earth, C.S. Lewis provides us with a complex understanding of good. For example, in the chapter where the children meet Aslan, the narrator suggests most people don't understand that something can be "good and terrible at the same time." While this may not fit some Christians' overly-sentimentalized image of God, it certainly describes Aslan, the Christ-figure in the story. And despite those who think good always means happy, he is also portrayed as good and sad at the same time. In spite of those who assume that good always means easy, Aslan is both good and demanding. In "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," and in all the Chronicles, following Aslan involves facing a good deal of hardship, real hardship, hardship which must be taken seriously.
Mr. Beaver tells the children, "He isn't safe, but he's good." By this he means that while Aslan does provide comfort and consolation, he will also be a source of prodding and punishment when this is what is needed. When Aslan comes to Narnia, he also comes into the lives of the four children, and his coming is a calling as well, a calling beyond what is comfortable and safe, beyond what they have known and are used to.
By the way, it should also be pointed out that if there are older readers who see God as only good but not terrible, there may be some who see God as only terrible and not good. Lewis's story provides an equally powerful antidote for this imbalance also.
Secondly, in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" adult readers will also find a complex understanding of evil. We don't just see the actions of evil characters, we come to understandwhy
they behave the way they do. Over and over we see illustrations of the claim that no man (or woman) does evil in their own eyes. Like Sauron, depicted by Tolkien as a great single eye, those who commit evil in Narnia have lost any capacity for self-criticism. Sensitive readers will wonder to what extent in their own lives, they, like Edmund, are guilty of blaming others for their own failings. And at the same time, also like Edmund, they may wonder if they are totally blind to this fact.
The great desire of Lewis's evil doers is dominance. As the poet W. H. Auden has noted, this kind of evil "is not satisfied if another creature does what it wants; he must be made to do it against his will." In Tolkien's words, evil has one central desire, and that is "to rule them all."
Besides avoiding simplistic portraits of good and evil, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" has a third area of appeal to an older audience. Time and again Lewis provides examples of finding the sacred in the ordinary, re-enchanting a world that for some older readers may have lost the sense of transcendence it had when they were children. While "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" includes elaborate feasts and formal celebration, for most readers it is the commonplace meals and the everyday beauty that resonate most profoundly, stirring feelings which run deep. You could say that in Narnia we find an appreciation forthe sacramental ordinary.
And this is something which adults may have a greater need for than do children.
The Chronicles of Narnia, perhaps more so than any other set of books, are able to unite very different kinds of people who join in their enjoyment and appreciation of them-not just the young and the old, but also believers and non-believers, the literary and the non-academic, and even very different kinds of Christians. And this is a remarkable gift Lewis has, one which we need now more than ever.