SPOILER ALERT (for a 69-year-old book series. C’mon.)
Netflix, if you’re reading, please don’t butcher perfection.
I know that this series is your response to Amazon’s Lord of the Rings prequel series (the most expensive in television history), but please don’t make it into a somber, brooding, dark shadow of Lewis’ light, bright books. That’s not why I, and millions of other fans, fell in love with the Narnia universe.
There’s a vein of fun and hope and wonder in the seven books. In the preface to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lewis writes, “Some day, you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” My inner child starts dancing when I read Lewis’ books. They’re vehicles for the imagination and portals to “what if,” where the fauns, satyrs, dryads, nyads, gods, and wizards accept us as we are.
But, there’s something more – something spiritual in the Narnian experience. And I’m not talking about their obvious allegories of the Christian faith.
As readers, we witness the birth of the Narnian realm, the death and resurrection of its Creator, and its ultimate demise. Although Narnian mythology isn’t real in our world, it still feels meaningful and true.
Narnia, with its emphasis on beauty, truth and transcendent values, is church “light.” It’s a compass in a directionless, post-modern world.
There’s a certainty and a beauty in it that is missing from much of today’s culture.
But, how did the Narnian stories become so spiritual to begin with? What prompted Lewis to create such an ethereal experience?
In fact, where do all our spiritual desires come from?
In his book God: A Human History, Reza Aslan traces the history of spirituality to the primitive animism found in 10,000-year-old caves. As with many contemporary scholars, Aslan argues that our longing for something beyond this world is a byproduct of our consciousness.
“Although Narnian mythology isn’t real in our world, it still feels meaningful and true.”
After we were made aware of our sentience (whatever that means), we started assuming the world around us shared the same sensations; we assumed “things” had souls, too (children still see eyes and mouths in their toy cars). And because humans are brilliant pattern seekers, what if, after venerating a “living” tree or a “living” rock, a tribe were “blessed” with a fruitful hunt? Not only did Nature have a soul, it had the supernatural capability to listen and aid.
And yet, the sum is greater than the parts, and Aslan’s thesis is more historical than psychological.
At least, our spiritual experiences have evolved past object worship. Can psychology offer greater insight? Within the Narnian context, what made Lewis want an icon larger than himself? What made him create a world between this and the next?
Looking at Lewis’ life, it seems clear that his bouts with sorrow encouraged an escape into imagination.
Although he grew up financially stable, his Father’s cold and clinical attitude after his mother’s death, coupled with his experiences at a brutish, violent boarding school, contributed to his despair and thoughts of suicide: “All that was tranquil and reliable vanished from my life.”
“Looking at Lewis’ life, it seems clear that his bouts with sorrow encouraged an escape into imagination.”
Later, Lewis became a soldier during the first World War and saw his good friend Paddy Moore shot in the head. His step-son Douglas called Lewis’ trenches “lice-ridden and flea-infested” with “a mixture of earth and blood.” Perhaps Lewis coped with tragedy by creating a spiritual life? By writing about other worlds?
Lewis was highly intellectual. He was a post-Darwinian age governed by reason. All things needed to be proved and mapped.
Writing about his church-going experiences as a child, Lewis said, “The reason I felt nothing in church was because I was told I should feel something.” Indeed, after the death of his mother, a wish-granting God morphed into a vengeful one.
“I was certain God did not exist, yet I was angry at Him for not existing.” And yet, Lewis’ spiritual experience didn’t end there.
After returning from the War, his intellectual “snobbery” failed to satisfy a longing, an itch for something greater. Lewis started reading fairy tales and Celtic, Norse, pagan and Greek myths (elements of which he incorporated into the mythology of the Narnia books).
He began to feel like a child again: “When I became a man, I put away childish things including the desire to be grown up.” The conclusion seems obvious. After experiencing a succession of tragedies, Lewis tried to return to the seclusion and security of his childhood years.
Surprisingly, the intellectual Lewis, who had three degrees in Philosophy, Greek and Latin, dismissed his feelings as a “psychological impulse.” For Lewis, his desire was for something he couldn’t describe or satisfy. Then, after influence from his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien and, in his own words, “reluctant” acceptance of transcendent truth, Lewis converted to Christianity in 1931.
Regardless of the conduit of his faith, it was Lewis’ reason that led him to accept a purpose higher than himself.
Irrespective of the history or psychology behind our spiritual experiences, one thing seems certain: they exist. They are just one other way we interpret the world around us. Denying them is silly, reductive, and oftentimes detrimental from the full range of the human experience.
Frank Schaeffer, in his book Why I am an Atheist Who Believes in God, wrote, “If evolution has no direction or purpose, what on earth was Duke Ellington doing here?” Let’s substitute Ellington with Lewis.
During post-World War Europe, Narnia’s chronicler saw meaning in his longing and imagination, when many had given up on the sanctity and potential of the human spirit.
Indeed, many thinkers today, like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, attempt to hold on to a formless, reason-based existence. Yet, spirituality doesn’t seem to be going away.
It’s evident that these immaterial feelings play a role in our day-to-day lives. At least they do in my relationship to the Narnia books.
Narnia is boundless, yet relatable. It’s a land full of magic, yet clear values. It’s a land with a rich culture, mythology, and spirituality. Narnia is the personification of an unexplainable longing, Lewis’ “deep desire which we can’t describe or satisfy.”
Do I need to explain these feelings? Do I need to explain my love for a children’s book series written 69 years ago? Do I need to beg Netflix not to screw up something so sacred to millions of readers? I can try doing all three. But, even if I won’t be able to, that deep desire, even outside the Narnian experience, will still be there.
And Lewis understood that to lose it, is “to lose all.”