The fall of 2005 was a big time for the Time Warner media empire. On the movie side of things, they put out the Dukes of Hazzard. Time Warner Book Group, meanwhile, was publishing Jonathan Rogers’ book, The World According to Narnia: Christian Themes in C.S. Lewis’s Beloved Chronicles. The excitement, apparently, was more than Time Warner could handle. The very next year, Time Warner sold its book division to Hachette Book Group, and shortly after that The World According to Narnia ceased to exist as a paperback book. (The Dukes of Hazzard, on the other hand, seems to be doing just fine).
But Time Warner’s loss is the Rabbit Room’s gain. We are happy to announce the new, Rabbit Room Press edition of The World According to Narnia. We are now taking orders, to be shipped in early September. If you order now, you will be helping to fund the first print run. We appreciate all orders, of course, but pre-orders help us order bigger print runs and save per-unit.
To give you an idea of what to expect from The World According to Narnia, here’s an excerpt from the introduction. If you like what you read, order here.
Introduction: Imagining Reality
C.S. Lewis once received a letter from the mother of a nine-year-old boy named Laurence. Laurence was afraid the Chronicles of Narnia had led him into idolatry: he felt he loved the Great Lion Aslan more than he loved Jesus. What, the mother wanted to know, should she say to her son?
Lewis always took the sensitivities of children seriously, and his response to Laurence’s concerns was characteristically thoughtful and reassuring. He wrote,
Laurence can’t really love Aslan more than Jesus, even if he feels that’s what he’s doing. For the things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps more than he ever did before.
That, really, is how the Narnia stories do their work on you. Instead of giving you a lecture on the importance of staying warm, Lewis builds a fire and says, “Here—feel this.” You can hardly help but love Aslan for the things he says and does. You can hardly help but desire what’s good and right and true. You can hardly help but feel that a life of virtue is an adventure you wouldn’t want to miss out on.
Christianity begins with a set of truths to believe, presented in the form of a story: God became a man, lived a perfect life, died to pay for the sins of his people, and rose again to lead them into heaven. But faith, in the end, isn’t just about acknowledging truths, even truths as important as those. The facts can only matter to us—really matter—if they are translated to our wills and desires. And that happens by way of the imagination. As Lewis put it, “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” Imagination is a serious business. It makes it possible for us to feel awe. It gives substance to our yearnings for something beyond ourselves. Imagination is what convinces us that there’s more to the world than meets the eye. And isn’t that the first principle of faith?
As young Laurence found, the truths of the gospel can leave a believer cold. That’s not a comment on the gospel or its power, but rather a comment on the state of the human heart, which can sleep through whole hurricanes of love and grace. The gospel permeates the life of the believer by way of the imagination. The Chronicles of Narnia awaken the reader to the imaginative possibilities of the Gospel that have been there all along. The Chronicles serve as a reminder that if the Gospel doesn’t fill you with overwhelming awe and joy and fear and hope, you may not have really understood what the Gospel says.
One of the delicious ironies of Narnia is the fact that Lewis so carefully constructs a world of metaphor in order to insist that the God of the Bible is not a mere metaphor. Throughout the Chronicles, characters who think they’re using imaginative language turn out to be talking about real life. Digory’s Aunt Letty idly wishes for “fruit from the land of youth” to heal Digory’s mother; Digory goes to the land of youth and fetches some. In Prince Caspian, Trumpkin the Dwarf thinks Susan’s Horn of help is make-believe, but once he hears it, he wonders why nobody blew it sooner. In The Silver Chair, Jill Pole sees a peculiar line of huge rocks and wonders if they might have given rise to legends of giants in the North. Then the rocks stand up and reveal themselves to be real giants.
Lewis can be unsparing toward those who would reduce Aslan to an abstraction or an idea rather than a living, breathing Lion, more real than the whole world put together. Consider the scene toward the end of The Horse and His Boy in which Bree, a rather self-satisfied Talking Horse, tries to explain his concept of Aslan to Hwin and Aravis:
“No doubt,” continued Bree, “when they speak of him as a Lion, they only mean he is as strong as a lion or (to our enemies) as fierce as a lion. Or something of that kind. Even a little girl like you, Aravis, must see that it would be quite absurd to suppose he is a real lion. Indeed, it would be disrespectful. If he was a lion he’d have to be a beast just like the rest of us. Why!” (and here Bree began laughing) “If he was a lion he’d have four paws, and a tail, and Whiskers!”
Enamored of his own voice, his eyes half-closed with smug superiority, Bree doesn’t notice what Hwin and Aravis can’t miss: Aslan the Great Lion approaching from behind.
The brush of Aslan’s whisker against his ear is enough to send Bree running for terror and for shame at having been such a fool. Aslan appears on the scene with an alarming reality that makes the “real world” seem pale and shadowy by comparison. “Touch me,” Aslan insists. “Here are my paws, here is my tail, these are my whiskers.” Aslan is no abstraction, but a true Beast, as concrete as Bree himself. It is a supremely Narnian moment: the old, familiar story of Doubting Thomas springs vividly to life as the reader comes to terms with what it would be like to be face to face with God made flesh.
In the end, things work out well for Bree because he realizes he is a fool and he wishes to be wise. Uncle Andrew, the magician of The Magician’s Nephew, doesn’t fare so well. As Lewis writes, “What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what kind of person you are.” And Uncle Andrew is the kind of person who can’t see any reality beyond the one he has created for himself.
Uncle Andrew, like Digory, Polly, and Frank the Cabman, is on hand at the creation of Narnia. But whereas the others are enraptured by Aslan’s creation song and the miracle of a world appearing where there had been no world before, Andrew is so self-absorbed and terrified that he misses the whole thing. Or, rather, by an act of the will he chooses to miss it: “‘Of course it can’t really have been singing,’ he thought, ‘I must have imagined it. I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?’ and the longer and more beautifully the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring.”
It takes imagination to step outside one’s presuppositions. Andrew’s materialistic worldview doesn’t allow for talking animals. In the absence of imagination, Andrew finds it easier to explain away the things he sees and hears than to come to terms with them. He understands growling and barking. He understands fear. But he’s lost the ability to understand a miracle when he sees one. “The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are,” writes Lewis, “is that you very often succeed.”
Over and over again, the Narnia books demonstrate that imagination is more than just make-believe. Sometimes it takes imagination to see what’s right in front of your face. Imagination is the way we step outside ourselves, challenge our assumptions. Imagination, you might say, is just another word for open-mindedness.
But we must not make the mistake of thinking that Narnia represents the triumph of imagination over reason. Rather, it represents the triumph of reason and good sense by way of imagination. Consider Peter and Susan’s conversation with Professor Kirke in Chapter Five of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lucy’s insistence that she has been to Narnia has made them suspect she’s going mad—especially since she claims to have been there with Edmund, who denies the whole thing. But when they express their concern to the Professor, his response astonishes them: “‘How do you know,’ he asked, ‘that your sister’s story is not true?’”
It’s a moment of real enlightenment for Peter and Susan. They had been unable to reason out the contradictions between Lucy’s story and Edmund’s because they were starting from the wrong set of presuppositions. As the Professor makes clear, to say that a thing is unexpected or even unprecedented is not, logically speaking, the same thing as saying it’s impossible or untrue.
The Professor doesn’t defy reason. Rather, he insists on a more rigorous logic than Peter and Susan had applied before. There are three logical possibilities, according to the Professor: Lucy is lying, Lucy is insane, or Lucy is telling the truth. From a strictly logical point of view, the third possibility—that Lucy is telling the truth—seems at least as likely as the other two. And yet pure logic doesn’t seem to be enough to justify such an unexpected conclusion. It takes a certain amount of imagination even to leave such a possibility on the table.
That’s what Narnia means: shedding your preconceived notions of what’s true and real, and opening yourself up to the possibility that your categories—or the categories that have been foisted upon you—aren’t sufficient to make sense of the world you live in. Lewis uses fantasy to talk about the real world because it takes imagination to see what’s true and real in this world too. The very basis of the Christian life is the ability to stand outside this world and see that this isn’t all there is. From where we sit, the things of earth look so real and solid that it’s hard to believe there’s something more real and more solid; it’s hard even to leave that possibility on the table. It takes a certain amount of imagination to see that God imbues every blade of grass, every conversation, every relationship with eternal meaning. It takes imagination to feel the truth of the Gospel in our truest selves.