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The Chronicles of Narnia (Series) | Context


Inspiration for Narnia

Many aspects of Lewis's life factored into the writing of The Chronicles of Narnia. As a child, Lewis loved imaginative stories populated by Knights and humanlike animals. With his brother Warren, he developed tales and sketches of a land called Boxen, which stretched from India to "Animal-Land." These stories and illustrations were published in 1976 as Boxen: The Imaginary World of the Young C.S. Lewis. Lewis also developed a deep love of mythology. His studies of literature and classics (the literature and languages of ancient Greece and Rome) under the tutelage of family friend William Kirkpatrick helped steer Lewis toward university studies in those disciplines. In his 30s Lewis's discussions with literary colleagues helped him understand the relationship between literature, mythology, and religious ideology, particularly Christianity. Lewis's conversion to Christianity happened during that time period. Finally, Lewis sheltered children evacuated from London during World War II, which gave him the idea to write a similar story.

Lewis also viewed the fairy tale as an ideal format for presenting the tales he had in mind, as fairy tales need not explain themselves—they simply tell the bare bones of a story. The characters don't need to be particularly deep psychologically, and the focus of a fairy tale is the action. Fairy tales can be told briefly and avoid lengthy sections of description or analysis—all elements that appealed to Lewis in penning the world of Narnia.

Although a devout Christian himself, Lewis did not set out to write a children's series with Christian themes. In a later essay, the author noted that many people assumed his original goal was to "say something about Christianity to children," but this was not the case. The Chronicles of Narnia "began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion," wrote Lewis. As the Narnia writing proceeded, however, Lewis found the Christian overtone "pushed itself in of its own accord." Lewis saw the value of allowing children to discover Christian values through the unpressured, pleasurable, personal experience of reading, to feel the impact of the stories and to interpret the characters and events for themselves, instead of being told directly what faith should be. As a child, Lewis had felt "a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of [his] religion" because he was instructed in how "one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings," he wrote. Lewis believed that delivering the core messages of Christianity through stories set in a fictional world would relieve that sense of pressure or obligation for children reading the books.

Christian Interpretations

Some readers hold that The Chronicles of Narnia is an allegorical portrayal of the life of Jesus Christ, as told in a fictional world. In an allegory, all the actions, characters, and other literary devices serve as metaphors of the concepts being presented. This does not hold true for the Narnia series, as many aspects of the tales do not match up directly with the mythos surrounding Jesus. Lewis himself has stated that the stories of Narnia are not an allegory, but a "supposal," an act of supposing. In this case, Lewis imagined what God and Jesus might be like in a fictional world like Narnia. Nonetheless, many aspects of the books come directly from Christianity or can be interpreted as Christian in nature:

  • The Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea as the Christian God: This character, who does not appear in the stories directly, is the supreme ruler of all worlds and the father of Aslan.
  • Aslan as Jesus Christ: Aslan's death in place of Edmund Pevensie is a clear parallel to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ as a means of absolving mankind's sins.
  • Adam and Eve as the Parents of Humankind: This biblical couple is mentioned directly in the final chapter of The Last Battle. When King Tirian meets Narnia's Queen Helen and King Frank, he felt like the reader might feel "if you were brought before Adam and Eve in all their glory." This biblical pair is also alluded to throughout the series when human children are called Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.
  • Edmund Pevensie as Judas: Edmund turns traitor to Narnia by betraying his siblings to the White Witch. As a result, Aslan must sacrifice his own life to save Edmund's. Similarly, Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus to the Roman authorities, who arrest Jesus and take him to his death.
  • Walled Garden and the Apple of Life as the Garden of Eden: The walled garden of Narnia may be viewed as the Garden of Eden. In The Magician's Nephew Digory Kirke plucks an Apple of Life from the central tree, from which he is forbidden to eat. The tree can be equated with the Biblical "tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 2:17), from which Adam and Eve are also forbidden to eat. Queen Jadis/White Witch tempts Digory to eat the apple, just as the serpent in the Bible tempts Eve to do so, thus equating Jadis with the serpent. Here, however, arises one difference in the stories: Digory resists eating the apple, while Eve gives in. In Narnia it is Jadis who eats the apple, which gives her endless youth so that her evil can live on. In the Bible, Eve causes the "fall of man" by eating the apple (this is also known as "original sin," since Adam and Eve disobey God for the first time), which causes mankind to know and understand evil—thus, similarly bringing evil into the world.
  • Aslan's Country as Heaven: In The Last Battle the Narnians enter into Aslan's country, which they discover is even bigger and more "real" the further up and further in they go. Aged or dead companions return to youth and life, and all pain drops away from the characters. Similarly, many Christians believe that the Biblical "Kingdom of Heaven" is the home of Jesus, is infinite in scope, and is a place where the sick or injured will be eternally cured.
  • Serpents as Evil: In both Narnia and the Bible, serpents generally represent evil. A serpent tempts Eve in the Garden of Eden (the Bible), while a serpent murders the queen and kidnaps Prince Rilian in Narnia (The Silver Chair). A sea serpent also attacks the Dawn Treader and nearly destroys the ship, endangering the crew on their noble quest to rescue the seven lost lords.

In Lewis's own words, from a letter he wrote to a young reader in 1961, each of the stories has a central theme related to Christianity:

  • The Magician's Nephew: the Creation and how evil entered Narnia
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: the Crucifixion and Resurrection
  • Prince Caspian: restoration of the true religion after corruption
  • The Horse and His Boy: the calling and conversion of a heathen
  • The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: the spiritual life (especially in Reepicheep)
  • The Silver Chair: the continuing war with the powers of darkness
  • The Last Battle: the coming of the Antichrist (the ape), the end of the world, and the Last Judgment

Scholarly Debate about the Order of the Series

Readers can choose to read The Chronicles of Narnia in chronological, publication, or composition order, and scholars and fans alike debate what order is the best to follow. Most agree the original sequence, which follows the publication dates, is best. Following the publication order will likely preserve the wonder of discovering Narnia and meeting Aslan, as experienced through the Pevensie children's point of view. To illuminate Lewis's thought process, readers may want to read the books in the order the author composed them; and reading the books in chronological order may give readers a leg up on the Pevensie children, since readers will know more about Aslan and Narnia than the children do when they enter the world for the first time.

Here are the various reading configurations:

Publication order:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
Prince Caspian (1951)
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)
The Silver Chair (1953)
The Horse and His Boy (1954)
The Magician's Nephew (1955)
The Last Battle (1956)

Chronological order; some scholars claim Lewis wanted the books to be read in this order:
The Magician's Nephew
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
The Horse and His Boy
Prince Caspian
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Silver Chair
The Last Battle

Composition order (order in which Lewis wrote the books):
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
Prince Caspian
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Horse and His Boy
The Silver Chair
The Last Battle
The Magician's Nephew

Lewis and the Pevensies' England

Although most of the action in The Chronicles of Narnia take place in Narnia itself, significant portions happen in the children's own time and home, 1940s England. As The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe opens, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—all with the last name Pevensie—are sent to the country to live with Professor Digory Kirke in order to escape German air raids of World War II. Although the Pevensies are fictional, this situation was reality for millions of people (mostly children) at that time. Lewis drew from his own experience hosting evacuee children in making this part of the Narnian tales.

Boarding school is a fact of life for the Pevensies throughout the books, and more often than not, schooling is not portrayed in a flattering light. Boarding schools of the time were often cheerless, strict in discipline (including corporal punishment), and dull—students spent a lot of time memorizing, giving recitations, transferring information into copybooks, and other rote tasks. Classes were often large, teachers were underpaid and did not always have a college degree, and resources could be minimal. The food served could be of poor quality or meager, and students sometimes suffered ill health from cold and damp. At some schools, children also suffered emotional abuse or neglect. Lewis himself was a student at boarding school after the death of his mother Florence at age 10, and his experiences were mostly unpleasant ones. A tutor, William Kirkpatrick, was arranged for Lewis, and the boy was much happier with this style of schooling. This, too, becomes a part of the Narnian stories when Peter is tutored by Professor Kirke (named after Lewis's tutor Kirkpatrick); and Prince Caspian is tutored by Doctor Cornelius.

The Pevensies travel by train to and from school and to meet up with one another on other occasions. Lewis, too, traveled by train during his school years, just as the characters did. Cars were not yet common in 1940s England, and moreover, gas was rationed during the war, so most people traveled long distances by train. People didn't generally travel for pleasure, since money was tight and resources were limited. Among the working class especially, many people never traveled beyond their own city, so a trip of any kind was a special occasion. Trains were used to evacuate children to the countryside and to transport military personnel, and trains were also the target of German bombing raids. It was not uncommon for trains to be involved in accidents, and such accidents usually resulted in a small number of deaths and a greater number of injuries. That fact that the most of the human characters from The Chronicles of Narnia die in a train wreck during The Last Battle may have been a convenient plot device employed by Lewis, but it was also not unheard of in that era.

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