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A characteristically brilliant exploration and engagement
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.