The books made me aware that something was lacking in my daily routine of school and Hebrew school, of TV cartoons on Saturday mornings and games of handball in the apartment garage. I longed to step into another world, one that would be wilder, more fluid, and more infused with wonder than the decidedly unmagical San Fernando valley where I lived.
That longing began my own spiritual search. I had a strong Jewish upbringing, and many years of Jewish education. I read Bible stories in the original Hebrew, and learned the wisdom of my ancestors encoded in the Talmud. But there was a different kind of Mystery I sensed in the Narnia books, something that was less about study and prayer and more entwined with nature and wildness, freedom and courage.
I know "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is seen as a Christian story, and certainly C.S. Lewis meant it that way. Sometime in my ninth or 10th reading of the book, I suddenly caught the echoes of Jesus' story in Aslan's sacrifice. Being Jewish, I was probably slow to grasp this, as the whole story of the crucifixion was alien territory to me. I was dismayed, and immediately felt guilty. Would Narnia have to go into the category of attractive but forbidden Christian things, like the beautiful carols I didn't sing at school, or the Christmas trees I secretly desired? My mother would never have forbidden me to read the books any more than she would have stopped me from helping a friend to decorate a Christmas tree. It was my own sense of exclusion-that if the essence of this secret world was Christian, it could no longer be my secret world.
No, I swiftly decided; the Christian imagery was only one part of the book, after all, and subtle enough that possibly no one but I had made the connection. I could ignore it and continue loving the books and slipping between their covers into Narnia.
Grasping the book's underlying symbolism didn't make me a Christian. Perhaps it made me a writer: It was my first realization of the multiple layers of meaning that literature can convey. And "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" conveys more than Lewis may have intended.
Edmund is a child, who betrays his family out of just those childish impulses that we've all felt at some time: resentment, spite, the urge to get back at an older brother. He gives in to the worst side of his nature, with dreadful consequences that require a huge sacrifice to redeem.
Aslan chastens, forgives and protects him, as adults do for children. Like the God of my own upbringing, he functions as a protective father. And like Christ--but also like all the dying and reviving Gods of nature--he is resurrected.
That magical world exists, right here--and animals do talk.
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What I miss most in Lewis' books, now, is some powerful, positive woman figure. J.R.R. Tolkien gives us Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn who chafes against the restrictions of her gender. But for Lewis, positive visions of female power are limited to little girls and mothers.
And yet the White Witch is also, ironically, an icon of the White Goddess, the ancient, pre-Christian Goddess of Old Europe, in her death aspect. She is evil, but she is also powerful. And somehow, as a young girl reading these stories, I took away some hint that it is possible for a woman to be something radically different from a mom, a social worker, a teacher, a nurse, or any of the role models around me.
And it is Lucy, a young girl, who opens the door to Narnia and leads the others in, who holds to her own truth against opposition and betrayal. Although her brothers fight the physical battles, Lucy fights a moral battle with her own family, staunchly defending the truth of her experience in the face of their united disbelief, and Edmund's outright lies.
I can look back from an adult perspective, now, and see all the ways in which Lewis' vision was constricted by the attitudes of his time, his fear of women's power, his unquestioned assumption that people of his own race and class were the only ones who really matter.
But what stays with me are the deeper lessons in the books, the values that still, today, transcend denominations and offer a needed antidote to a world of reality TV shows, cutthroat businesses, and attack-dog politics. The books teach us that courage, friendship, and loyalty are good, and sneaking, lying, sniveling, and betrayal are bad. That people need to take care of each other, stand with each other, and look out for those who are younger or weaker. That sacrifice is sometimes necessary to save what we love.
That book the librarian handed me, so long ago, set me on my own spiritual journey. Whenever I caught a whiff of Narnia, of a world behind the world, more fluid and magical than this, I pursued it. I read fantasy, mythology, history, anthropology. I went out into nature, listened to the wind in the trees and the waves on the shore. And ultimately, I found my way to the Goddess, the great cycle of birth, growth, death, and regeneration that moves through nature and human culture. For me, Aslan is one of her names.
Now, of course, I know that that magical world exists, right here. Animals do talk: All it takes is the will to listen and the ears to hear. All of life is constantly communicating, and magic is simply the training of the mind to be open to the conversation going on all around us. Nature does shimmer with enchantment, and her powerful but fragile life does require all of our courage and loyalty, and sometimes great sacrifice, to protect.
I'm looking forward to the movie. I hope it does justice to the book. And I hope it introduces a new generation of children to enchantment, and to those values of caring, courage, loyalty and truth that are necessary to preserve a world where true magic can flourish.