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The Soul of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

By Craig von Buseck – The following is an interview with author and professor, Dr. Gene Veith on his new book -- The Soul of the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The mysteries and meanings of C. S. Lewis's classic Narnia series are revealed by Dr. Veith, a leading Christian scholar and culture expert.

Craig von Buseck: In the first chapter of your new book, The Soul of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, you write, "As Lewis was piecing together his pictures of the fawn, the witch, the lamppost and the lion into a fairytale, the thought occurred to him -- he would work to break through the inhibitions, misunderstandings and connotations that often block children and adults from coming to terms with the Christian message." That sounds like this was Lewis' underlying motive for writing the book.

Dr. Gene Veith: Well I think it is, and it's also what a good story can do and how it can function in religious ways. The thing is that Christianity teaches an amazing truth, this idea that God came down to Earth and He died for our sin. These are mind-blowing concepts, and yet we often forget how mind-blowing they are. We've heard this so often -- we learned it in Sunday school and we hear it in church, and sometimes we take it for granted and sometimes don't even notice the magnitude of it. This is certainly true for non-Christians who don't understand the wonders of what the Christian worldview is all about.

So I think what Lewis did was to tell the same story from a different angle and with a different imaginative approach that could break through that sense of familiarity with Christianity. It is to de-familiarize -- we get so familiar with something that we ignore it. But sometimes through a good story or thinking about it from a slightly different angle can de-familiarize it and help us to experience it in a fresh way that breaks through a lot of our preconceptions.

von Buseck: You write in the book that Lewis grew up being taken to church, but that things were desensitized for him and he looked on Christianity as so far beyond the human experience that he couldn't grasp it, he couldn't relate to it. As a result he became an Atheist for a time. Do you think that is one of the things he was trying to do with the Narnia books, to bring it down to a fairytale level, something you can really connect to, rather than the stained glass look at things?

Dr. Veith: Yes, and again, nothing against the stained glass and the tales of Scripture -- people who come across them in a fresh way are blown away by them. But I think that Lewis wasn't just trying to tell it in a fairytale way to make it more down to Earth for people -- I guess that's part of it -- but he was also making it more wonderful. It's amazing how in some people's minds church today and Christianity are boring. How can it be boring with this amazing truth that it teaches. Yet that's the way that some people relate to it -- and that's probably our fault in the stodgy way we present it sometimes. But Lewis talked about 'stealing past watchful dragons', using another fairytale image -- like there are these dragons that are preventing the truth from coming in. He was trying to tell the story in a way that would get past some of those defenses.

von Buseck: You write about Lewis's encounter with the author of Phantastes, nineteenth-century Christian author George MacDonald. For Lewis this was a 'baptism of the imagination.' Talk to me about that concept.

Dr. Veith: Part of the post-modern world is that we have a very materialistic worldview. Certainly Lewis did at that stage where he had given up his Christianity and was all caught up in all the modern ideas. But the view that this world is all that there is, that just this physical, material realm is all that exists, that's really very stifling. It's very imprisoning. And J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis's great friend and the author of The Lord of the Rings, was instrumental in Lewis coming to faith, made the point that fantasy provokes escapism. Tolkien said that for people that are in a prison, it's a healthy thing to want to want to break out of it. I think that one of the things that fantasy did for Lewis, since he was very much in this materialist prison, but he picked up this little book on fantasy writing by George MacDonald on a train ride. He said that the impact of this work was so influential to him because it broke him out of that narrow, materialistic way of thinking that he always had. It filled him with this yearning and this desire for something beyond just this world.

Another feature of Phantastes, by George MacDonald was a sense of goodness that it portrayed -- a sense of the beauty of moral reality. It's not something oppressive or restrictive as many materialists assume it is. But he saw the great attractiveness of that. It's kind of an odd book. Some people have no idea what he's talking about. It's very wild and obscure. But other times it just pierces the imagination. But for Lewis, he said that was the 'baptism of the imagination'. He wasn't a Christian then and he wasn't a Christian right after. But he saw that book as sort of a step towards his coming to faith later -- it baptized his imagination.

We do think not just with our intellect and our reasoning, but we think with our imagination. The associations we have, what attracts us and repels us, they are all very much tied up in our imagination. So for Lewis, reading that fantasy book really was a step toward the conversion that came later.

von Buseck: So did these concepts come together in the writing of the Narnia books?

Dr. Veith: Yes, they really did. Fantasy and C. S. Lewis came together in many ways. Again, Lewis was into these materialistic philosophers, and then reading George MacDonald opened his mind up to other things. Then later, his good friend Tolkien was reading The Lord of the Rings to him and they were talking about these very issues, and that played a part. Tolkien was witnessing to Lewis. Lewis was always interested in mythology and other things and Tolkien used that interest to really make the case for Christianity. Tolkien pointed out that in many of the mythological stories and the literary works that he loved so well, you have the image of the dying god -- the god who comes and sacrifices himself and dies for the people. And you always find that very moving when you find it in these fictional stories. But Christianity is about what you would consider a myth that is true. God really did come and He really died for us. And what moves you in these other stories is really something that points to the truth of the gospel. And of course, the image of the dying god that dies for a sinful person is exactly what The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is all about.

von Buseck: It's interesting, because Tolkien kind of resisted the call for the Lord of The Rings books to be allegorical.

Dr. Veith: Yes.

von Buseck: But Lewis jumped right into allegory. How would you define allegory and how did Lewis use it in the Narnia books.

Dr. Veith: Well, both Lewis and Tolkien were scholars of medieval literature. Tolkien was much more interested in the legend and he used it in The Lord of The Rings. And Lewis's first book was called The Allegory of Love, which is a great literary study of the medieval allegories. And he really showed how to read those and how to appreciate them as not just dry, symbols of ideas, but as great, creative works of art. And so in his scholarly vocation, Lewis was doing a lot with allegory, and he was attracted to it. I think allegory is a way to bring non-visual ideas down to earth, literally, by expressing them in a tangible way.

When Bunyan writes Pilgrims Progress, he writes about going through the 'Slough of Despond' and he's writing about the emotional experience of depression. He describes it as wading through a muddy swamp and sinking deeper and deeper and you can't move your feet. You're trapped unless someone reaches down and pulls you out of the mud. And of course he's making some real insights about what depression is like. But in doing it, he also shows how to get through depression. But the word depression itself is allegorical -- it refers to a low spot in the ground, so that's what Bunyan was dramatizing.

Now The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is not allegorical in exactly that same sense.

von Buseck: It's not a perfect allegory.

Dr. Veith: No, and when you read Lewis's scholarly work on allegory, points out that Spenser, who wrote an allegory called The Faerie Queene -- an allegory about Christianity that Lewis used as a model for Narnia -- what Spenser does is set up a really good story, but then there are these allegorical moments. There are these central scenes in each of the different sections of the story that are symbolic and that take us into the heart and the theme of the whole work. Of course, that's the way that The Chronicles of Narnia is. It is a fantasy, it's a fairy tale, and yet in these key moments the story is resolved. It's nothing that's imposed on the story. It's the story as it works out itself. You have the symbolic reconstructions or replays of profound spiritual truth. You see that certainly in The Chronicles of Narnia.

More from The Chronicles of Narnia Special Section

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Order The Chronicles of Narnia

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Craig von BuseckCraig von Buseck is Director of Ministries for Send him your e-mail comments on this interview.




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