From the Manger to the Stable: Finding the Truth in Narnia
Why should Christians care about Narnia, the fictional world of Talking Beasts presented in C. S. Lewis’s seven Chronicles? One could argue that Narnia is just a myth and cite Peter’s reminder that Christians do “not follow cleverly devised myths” (2 Peter 1:16), but the reality of Christ. But although C. S. Lewis used the vehicle of myth, his goal was not fantasy for its own sake. Lewis saw myth as a way of awakening the imagination to the reality of transcendence. He was concerned with breaking the enchantment of modern secular life that conditions people to believe in materialism, the view that the physical world is all there is. We can see this in Lewis’s use of two key symbols: the wardrobe and the stable.
As its title suggests, the wardrobe is important in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (LWW), the second of the Chronicles, but the first to be made into a major motion picture. Lewis himself observed children evacuated from London during World War II. He noticed that they were immersed in the world of immediate experience and closed to higher things (the transcendent). This is just how Lewis portrays the Pevensie children in LWW. When Lucy claims to have found another world through the back of a wardrobe, her siblings, Susan, Peter and Edmund, conclude that she is either lying or going mad. They never seriously consider the possibility that she is telling the truth, even though Lucy is very honest and perfectly coherent. The other children dismiss this idea not because of logic, but because they have accepted the idea that the physical universe is a closed system, like an ordinary wardrobe, with a back on it.
To their surprise, this enlightened view of the world is challenged by the professor, who points out that a materialist bias has closed their minds to the logic of the situation. The professor even puts in a plug for classical education: “Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?” If there are three possibilities (Lucy is lying, deranged, or telling the truth), and the evidence is decisively against the first two, the children should at least acknowledge the probability of the third. Lewis here echoes his argument in Mere Christianity: given Christ’s claims to be divine, He is either a liar or a lunatic or our Lord, and it is easy to see that Christ’s accurate prophecy and wise teaching exclude the first two possibilities.
For Lewis, a wardrobe opening into Narnia symbolizes a world that is not closed but open to transcendence. Finding Narnia is finding the spiritual realm, where good and evil are no longer mixed in a murky gray but stand out sharply in black and white. Finding Narnia is also discovering one’s own sin, as all of the children do, and especially Edmund, who betrays the others to the White Witch, the Satan figure of Narnia. But finding Narnia is also finding Aslan, the Christ figure who sacrifices himself to atone for sin and to bring new life to believers. Lewis does not just open minds to the transcendent, which might lead them to some nebulous New Age spirituality. As readers identify with sinful protagonists, Lewis shows them their need for a savior and points them to Christ, the transcendent incarnate.
Lewis was an atheist as a young man but underwent a powerful conversion to Christianity in his early thirties, after which he devoted his life to defending the faith. He was painfully aware that many remained enemies of Christ and closed to the transcendent. In The Last Battle, Lewis describes the end times of Narnia. An anti-Christ figure, Shift the Ape, uses the donkey Puzzle, dressed in a lion skin and shown only in firelight outside a stable , to impersonate Aslan. Many Talking Beasts are deceived. Syncretism, the fusion of contrary religions into a more inclusive civil religion, is brewing.The false god Tash is said to be one and the same as Aslan. The architects of the deception, Ginger the Cat and Rishda Tarkaan, are cynical unbelievers who use their cleverly devised myth to enslave the free Narnians and plunder their resources for Calormen. However, Tirian, last king of Narnia, is not deceived and calls on our world for help, which comes in the form of Narnian veterans, Jill Pole and Eustace Scrubb.
Together, Tirian, Jill, and Eustace expose Shift’s deception by showing Puzzle to the Narnians. There is a last battle for Narnia around the stable between the Calormenes and those loyal to Aslan. A group of dwarves refuses to take sides. Realizing that they had been fooled by Shift, they refuse to be taken in again. The exposure of a false religion does not lead the dwarves to the truth, but to apostasy, a falling away from the faith. During the last battle, many people are thrown into the stable. Believers in Aslan are stunned to discover a whole new world, with all the kings and queens of Narnia, including Lucy. Lucy sees the Christian significance: “In our world too, a stable once had something in it that was bigger than our whole world.” But the dwarves see nothing but a “pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.” When Aslan appears and offers the dwarves a great banquet, they cannot appreciate the gift: “They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable.”
The joyous reunion of believers in a new Narnia and the tragic self-condemnation of unbelievers serve as a pointed reminder that ideas have consequences. A wardrobe that remains closed to transcendence, or that opens only to find false religion, may morph into the pitch-black hole of a self-imposed hell. But a wardrobe that opens to Christ Jesus, born in a stable, is a portal to paradise.