Since its publication 70 years ago today, C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” has been translated into 47 foreign languages, made into a movie series that grossed more than $700 million at the box office, and was included in Time magazine’s list of the top 100 novels published since 1923.
Featuring a land of magic, evil witches, and otherworldly creatures, the world of Narnia introduces millions of children to the fantasy genre every year. It’s a rare modern novel that genuinely deserves the label “classic,” with an undeniable influence and resilient following that now stretches across three generations — with no sign of abating.
There is something undeniably unique about “The Lion” that makes its enchanting tale capable of drawing its readers to return to its pages again, and again, and again. Indeed, for adults of all ages, there’s a wellspring of valuable, affecting lessons that to be gained by opening the old wardrobe, and diving in once more.
Not Just For Kids
Popular writer, scholar, and lay theologian Clive Staples Lewis made the cover of Time magazine in the fall of 1947, more than three years before publishing the first installment in what would become “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
Following the success of “The Screwtape Letters,” Lewis was in the process of writing “Mere Christianity” as the characters and world of Narnia burst forth from his imagination. Seven decades later, it’s quite clear that while summarizing his wartime radio broadcasts into what would become “Mere Christianity,” Lewis yearned to convey many of those same thoughts to society’s youngest members as well. Ultimately, he came to realize the best way to communicate the ideas that he had in his head to children was through the genre of a fairy tale.
As wildly popular as “The Lion” and the rest of the “Narnia” saga have remained for children through the years, some adults still view “fairy tales” as something reserved for little kids. Such things may be fine for reading to youngsters at bedtime — comes the old refrain — but aren’t meant for “serious” adults.
“It’s wrong to think of a fairy tale in terms of the next step on a stage of progression,” explains Dr. Daniel Coupland, professor of classic children’s literature at Hillsdale College in an interview with The Federalist. “It’s not just a step in a process so that we can move to on reading ‘adult’ literature.” Indeed, as Coupland sees it, fairy tales like the books of Lewis’s “Narnia” series can actually be more enriching years after we first read them in grade school.
Granted, after the modern successes of “Harry Potter,” “Game of Thrones,” and “Percy Jackson,” and the renewed interest in “The Lord of the Rings” franchise, adults are increasingly more open about their love of fantasy and fairy tales than in the past. Still, some stigma remains.
Despite this, Coupland warns adults they’ll be missing a lot if they pass up the chance to explore Lewis’s “Narnia” books. “Don’t dismiss a fairy tale. Now that you have more life experience and you know more about the world, you’ll actually be able to see more in the stories than the first time you read it.”
Lewis laid his cards on the table:
When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown-up.
To put it another way, to think that fairy tales are only for children, is, well, childish. We don’t have to drop fairy tales simply because we have a more expanded experience and know more about the world. If anything, the knowledge and understanding we gain from living make reading fairy tales and works of fantasy all the more important, as there’s a greater chance we can uncover something good, true, and beautiful in their pages.
Exploring Relatable, Flawed Human Characters
“The Lion” has a great deal of wisdom to impart, from deep, everlasting things, to characters that give us exemplars to emulate and dispositions to loathe.
While Aslan the lion stands as one of the most beloved characters of the series, one of the greatest strengths of “The Lion,” lies in its realistic portrayal of the four Pevensie children. The two boys, Edmund and Peter, draw the starkest distinctions of how one should act and live.
“We all see ‘Edmunds’ around us and ‘Peters’ around us, and we all long to be ‘Peters’ and we don’t want to be ‘Edmunds,’” says Coupland.
In “The Lion,” Edmund Pevensie pursues to satisfy his own longings, desires, and appetite. He’s an example of a liar, and, worst of all, a person who — in chase of his own pleasure — is willing to be a traitor to his own family.
In contrast, you have Peter, the eldest Pevensie boy. “Peter is not a perfect character,” Coupland notes. “He makes mistakes. And yet, he is courageous and he’s willing to give up his own desires and his own safety for the sake of another person.” Above all, Peter displays an inspiring amount of courage.
Courage isn’t the only virtue Peter demonstrates. Coupland explains, “He’s a good example of charity. He takes on the responsibility for protecting his family, even Edmund, who has been a traitor.”
Part of what makes Peter such a likable character is that he’s a good example of a human character we can emulate. When Peter falters — especially in later books — we can see ourselves in his struggles as well. “He’s always held up as ‘the noble’ and the ‘high king’ Peter,” Coupland notes, “And there’s something there that young children just want to follow.”
Eternal Truths of Right and Wrong
While Lewis knew what children were like, he never pandered to them. Trying to please young audiences by inauthentically injecting literary storylines, themes, or scenarios that young people want to see leads many novels to lose their way — catering to readers rather than leading them. Thankfully, Lewis wasn’t solely concerned with fame, book sales, or increasing his celebrity status, he just told the story that he wanted to tell.
“The Lion,” as well as the entire “Narnia” series, have stood the test of several generations because readers resonate with the stories. Indeed, because Lewis is so good at articulating what it means to be a human being, certain morals naturally bubble to the surface.
Children are especially and profoundly drawn to a sense of right and wrong — they just know. So, when Lewis explores the truth of human nature using the ethereal, the magical, the otherworldly as a vehicle, the effect is all the more arresting and convicting.
For Coupland, Lewis’s skill at conveying delicate, even heavy themes, is beautifully portrayed near the end of “The Lion”:
The pinnacle of the story is what happens to Aslan at the Stone Table. Aslan comes in and makes this offer to the White Witch that goes beyond the law. So, in this little ‘children’s book’ you see one of the most profound conversations about justice, about the importance of following the law, and yet, we also get this image of grace as well — something that transcends the law. Even if you can’t get a grip on it as a child, it stays with you.
Coupland argues, “We resonate with these ideas because these ideas are human ideas.” And yet, in the final analysis, the enduring allure of Lewis’s work doesn’t end there. “The Lion” and the books that follow it touch on this longing that we have for something other; an interaction that we long for; a connection to the Divine; a connection beyond the natural world.
“As human beings, we have such a deep desire for that,” says Coupland, “We recognize the God-shaped hole in our hearts and long to see that satisfied.”
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