on 14 August 2012
`I can only confess', writes Rowan Williams, `to being repeatedly humbled and reconverted by Lewis in a way that is true of few other modern Christian writers'. This is a serious statement, not least from an Archbishop who speaks and writes eleven languages, and who is also a world-renowned theologian and accomplished literary critic and poet. As ever, Williams acknowledges his opposition: `Not every reader has been charmed by C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories'. But here, in The Lion's World, is Williams' gallant and supremely eloquent defence of their author, as a believer, a writer and a modern-day literary apostle.
Williams notes that he `came late to Narnia', even with his own `obsessively bookish childhood'. Before he had walked through the Wardrobe or sailed in the Dawn Treader, he had read many of Lewis' apologetic works - Mere Christianity, The Problem of Pain and Miracles - alongside his other notable works of fiction. For this, we must be grateful: Williams' narrative is enriched with a majestically broad understanding of Narnia's context within the wider themes that echo across Lewis' work, and which, at their best, convey `a simple intensity of feeling about God'. The Lion's World is not a systemic guide to interpretation - Williams is happy to leave such a task to the likes of Michael Ward, whose excellent book Planet Narnia is reverently referenced - but rather a series of reflections on Lewis' central themes: the exhilaration of an encounter with the Divine `other', the avoidance of self-delusion, and the joy of the surprising discovery of God.
For all the uplifting grand narrative, Williams does not ignore the thorny issues with which readers of Lewis must contend. In Narnia, so clearly a book `latent with Christianity', there are considerable leaks in a supposedly watertight world. Fruit and vegetables grow in the depths of winter; all inhabitants seemingly speak the same language despite obvious cultural contrasts; Narnian `history' is only casually dealt with on a few occasions. Tolkien was famously horrified at his friend's conflation of European and Classical mythology; the addition of Father Christmas was more than a bridge too far. Theological concerns remain, too: Lewis has been harshly criticised for an excessively liberal doctrine of salvation espoused in The Last Battle; he is also frequently ambiguous when doctrinal themes emerge - sometimes portraying Aslan as the second person of the Trinity, yet in one memorable passage in The Horse and His Boy apparently presenting him as the complete Trinity itself. The White Witch's usurpation of Aslan (the `son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea') is obviously theologically problematic, as is the obvious lack of any representative of the Holy Spirit throughout most of the stories. Perhaps most serious are the charges of racism and misogyny frequently levelled at Lewis: Susan's famous banishment from Narnia has been seen by many as damnation for discovering sexual maturity, whilst The Horse and its Boy is frighteningly evocative of a crusade against blatantly Arabic Calormenes.
Williams deftly addresses each line of attack, and, whilst not excusing Lewis' own shortcomings, provides a key to understanding them in context. Crucially, Narnia was not Tolkien's Middle Earth. To demand such internal consistency would be to miss its raison d'être as a landscape for the imagination. Similarly, hammering home orthodox objections to Narnia's doctrinal implications misses the central thrust of Lewis' work: some issues are better served by narrative than by systematisation. Lewis was not simply mapping his stories onto a `theological grid'; his narratives and characters possessed their own integrity, and perhaps the most enduring testament to this is the many secular readers who have enjoyed Narnia at face value. Lewis was, clearly, `a writer of his time'; yet, at least in part, he has suffered from misreading. Susan's exile from Narnia is undoubtedly linked to her `growing up', yet it is unfair to portray this as a reactionary swipe against female independence. Rather, it is Susan's wilful forgetting of what she knows deep down to be true that is the cause of her alienation from Aslan's world. Similarly, much of Lewis' `racism' can actually be seen as a parody of the dominant orientalism present in so much of the writing of his day. As Williams puts it, the key question `is not how Lewis reflects the views of an era but how he qualifies or undercuts them in obedience to...a spiritual imperative'.
Williams' own writing is lucid and inviting, and consistently echoes the same `almost unbearable longing' for the radiance of God, so present in Lewis' own work. Speaking of what motivated Lewis to write, Williams slips easily back into the pulpit, and the familiar Welsh-tinted sonorous voice leaps out of the pages and embraces us: `Sharing the good news is not so much a matter of telling people what they have never heard as of persuading them that there are things they haven't heard when they think they have'. This is Williams the spiritual leader at his very best: utterly captivating, majestic and inspiring, delivering a soaring proclamation of the joy of knowing Christ whilst also serving up critics of Christianity, who have often used Lewis' writings selectively, a gratifyingly eloquent broadside. It is in the last chapter that Williams claims the summit, expertly revealing within Lewis' narrative a theme close to the Archbishop's own heart: enlarging the world through faith, and enlarging our own lives through the dynamic encounter with the Divine. `The familiar world has to be broken open by the life it contains in order for joy to be full'.
In his conclusion, Williams offers us a wonderful summary of Narnia's central themes, which, far from being closed systems, are springboards for imaginative leaps of faith and expansions of our Christian lives. In Lewis' narrative, we, as Christians, are rebels, agents of `Divine anarchy' overturning ordered sin and evil, restriction and death. Yet we are also rebelling against ourselves - it is we who are the oppressors, guilty of self-delusion - for which we must turn to God for help. Finally, as we enter a meaningful relationship with the Divine, we are torn free from our shackles, and we begin a ceaseless journey of joy, in which each of us discovers a new depth of existence rooted in the sustaining power of God. Certainly, Lewis' narrative offers just such an opportunity to be `surprised by joy' and discover afresh the exhilaration of the Christian faith; yet Williams, with a characteristic edge of humour, implores us to benefit from Narnia by simply `letting down the guard of our imagination from time to time'. In other words, says our Archbishop and rightly revered spiritual leader, just get on and read it.
on 22 August 2012
This is a brilliant meditation (not analysis) on what is, on one level, a rather lightweight series of children's books. As a gifted writer and theologian, Rowan Williams reveals the real ingenuity of Lewis's writing and his spiritual insights. Williams' discussion of the removal of the dragon's skin from Eustace is peerless. He also make some very good non-theological points, such Lewis' borrowings from Edith Nesbit and that his world is Edwardian rather than postwar. However I found Williams' constant apologies for Lewis' non-PC views rather grating to say the least. Having said that, reading some of the comments in the readers' reviews of the Narnia chronicles elsewhere in Amazon I recognise his hand-wringing defence of Lewis may be necessary nowadays. Sometimes I feel he distances himself from Lewis by saying "Lewis says this" and "Lewis says that", but at other times he identifies himself quite closely with Lewis, so perhaps this is just Rowan Williams the former professor elapsing into an academic style of writing. Most of the time, this book is very readable and certainly worth reading. But I can only give it four stars because of the PC aspect.
on 28 August 2012
This book published by S.P.C.K. is a little gem, small enough to go into a shoulder bag or a bedside table. It has good sized clear print for ageing eyes. The tender modern illustrations by Monica Capoferri capture the otherworld of childrens' fantasy yet span images reminiscent of medieaval Sienese paintings to modern artists of the 21st century.
This book is no easy read. It has challenging theology where Rowan interprets a range of books by C.S. Lewis and refers to other writers such as Philip Pullman, Dostoevsky, Thomas Merton and Michael Ward. He does not let us get away with self satisfaction or leave us quite comfortable with our own self -appraisal, neither does his mentor C.S.Lewis. It has deep theology, a history of childrens' literature when Lewis was a boy, and an understanding of the veils and hidden revelations behind the plots and actions of the stories. There is an understanding of Lewis's sympathetic vision of animals in the totality of creation yet not overlooking the predjudices and bias over certain animal characters and humans in the stories.
You do not have to have read all of the Narnia books, though it would help, whilst many of Lewis's adult novels are analysed, also his philosophical treaties.The Lion's world is a world within the world, packed with delights like a conjuror's box. It gives us insight into Rowan's thinking- a gift he leaves us as he approaches retirement as Prelate of the Anglican church.
on 23 August 2012
In Rowan Williams we have perhaps one of the most erudite, spiritual and theologically literate Archbishops since Michael Ramsey, his departure to Cambridge to be Master of Magdalene College will therefore be a loss not just to the Church, but more widely to society. In this second to last book to be published before his departure Rowan seeks to explore the Narnia series and defend it and its legacy (along with C S Lewis) against its atheist and post-atheist detractors such as A N Wilson and Philip Pullman.
Whilst I am a practising Anglican, I am no fan of Lewis, his fiction or his theological method and (unlike Rowan) find myself much more persuaded by the likes of Wilson and Pullman over the flaws within the Narnia books than I do by those who defend them - in many ways the books are deeply flawed when taken at their most literal level. Like all authors, Lewis places his own concern and foibles at the centre of his books (thus the polemic against Eustace's parents' in `Dawn Treader' reflects Lewis' own dislikes, this places Eustace on the back foot from which he is eventually redeemed - talk of being set up for a fall). Of course the redemption of Eustace is important (and spiritual), but he has been cast so low by Lewis (as have his parents) that his redemption must be both spiritual and cultural.
However, Williams sees Lewis' theological and authorial method as being not merely bad allegory, but a subtle rejuvenation and retelling of the Christian story for those who have heard it (or more likely, believe that they have heard it) - Lewis described it as being like "mouthwash" in that it washes away the staleness and bad taste, leaving one feeling refreshed. Whilst I have no problem with this understanding of Narnia, as such, Lewis' writing is ham-fisted, even if it is retelling and refreshing the Christian narrative and no amount of theological or literary wishing away can change this fact. One would also have to ask as to how many people who had approached the Narnia novels as non-Christians came away as Christians, or found this refreshing helpful. (Indeed, there is at least one published author who has felt betrayal at Lewis' use of Narnia as a retelling of the Christian story!)
It has to be said that Lewis was a good (popularist) communicator, his books for me lack depth, coherence (in particular his `mad, bad or God' argument over the divinity of Jesus) and are very dated. (JK Rowling does a far better job of communicating the Christian faith in her Harry Potter books than Lewis does in Narnia - the ending of the `Philosopher's Stone' is a good development of Marian theology! Furthermore, the theme of salvation is a constant one within the text, the character trajectories of Snape, Draco Malfoy and Dudley are all fine examples, yet the books do not in themselves descend into allegory.) I am in agreement with Tolkien in that Narnia is a mix (perhaps more a mess) of different influences and is inconsistent even within its own text. I also (like Tolkien) dislike allegory something that Lewis appears to use in Narnia, which although Lewis and Rowan try to distance Narnia from this literary form, though what else can Narnia be reasonably read as other than as allegory?!
This is perhaps one of Rowan's most accessible books (alongside his two books of meditation on Ikons). Unlike Professor N T (aka. Tom) Wright, there are not two sides to Rowan's writing, an accessible side (Tom Wright) and the academic theologian (N T Wright) - in this Wright is a theological Iain (M) Banks - rather Rowan writes with the same care and depth of learning whether he is writing dense academic theological prose aimed at fellow theologians (e.g. his book on Arius or `Wrestling with Angels') or writing for a more general audience. Yet in doing so he does not patronise or dumb down what he is saying to fit the expectations of his audience, rather he is able to speak at all levels. (One of the main problems the media have had with Rowan is that he does not speak in sound bites, but requires his listeners to think and respond - he is therefore not easily quoted.) I do not, however, agree with his arguments in defence of Lewis and of Narnia, for me it is too defensive, too willing to forgive the flaws in the story. However, one has to recognise the enduring legacy of Narnia and that it continues to attract new readers.
Despite my not sharing Rowan's love of Narnia I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Narnia or C S Lewis - one does not have to agree with Rowan (with Lewis or love Narnia) to appreciate what he (Rowan) saying (and to enjoy the way in which it is said). He is by far the best Archbishop and theological author we have had in the past-40 years. Ultimately this is a humane book, which exploring the legacy of Lewis and Narnia and is, as such an enjoyable, challenging (if too short a) read.