The British literary scholar, Christian apologist, and children’s-book author C. S. Lewis is one of two figures—Churchill is the other—whose reputation in Britain is so different from their reputation in America that we might as well be talking about two (or is that four?) different men. A god to the right in America, Churchill is admired in England but hardly beatified—more often thought of as a willful man of sporadic accomplishment who was at last called upon to do the one thing in life that he was capable of doing supremely well. In America, Lewis is a figure who has been incised on stained glass—truly: there’s a stained-glass window with Lewis in it in a church in Monrovia, California—and remains, for the more intellectual and literate reaches of conservative religiosity, a saint revered and revealed, particularly in such books as “The Problem of Pain” and “The Screwtape Letters.” In England, he is commonly regarded as a slightly embarrassing polemicist, who made joke-vicar broadcasts on the BBC, but who also happened to write a few very good books about late-medieval poetry and inspire several good students.The New Yorker has a really good piece on C.S. Lewis this week.
The best and most interesting segment is this one:
The emotional power of the book, as every sensitive child has known, diminishes as the religious part intensifies. The most explicitly religious part of his myth is the most strenuously, and the least successfully, allegorized. Aslan the lion, the Christ symbol, who has exasperated generations of freethinking parents and delighted generations of worried Anglicans, is, after all, a very weird symbol for that famous carpenter’s son—not just an un-Christian but in many ways an anti-Christian figure.
When “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (magical title!) opens, four children who have been sent to the countryside discover an enchanted land on the other side of an old wardrobe; this is Narnia, and it has been enslaved by a White Witch, who has turned the country to eternal winter. The talking animals who live in Narnia wait desperately for the return of Aslan, the lion-king, who might restore their freedom. At last, Aslan returns. Beautiful and brave and instantly attractive, he has a deep voice and a commanding presence, obviously kingly. The White Witch conspires to have him killed, and succeeds, in part because of the children’s errors. Miraculously, he returns to life, liberates Narnia, and returns the land to spring.
Yet a central point of the Gospel story is that Jesus is not the lion of the faith but the lamb of God, while his other symbolic animal is, specifically, the lowly and bedraggled donkey. The moral force of the Christian story is that the lions are all on the other side. If we had, say, a donkey, a seemingly uninspiring animal from an obscure corner of Narnia, raised as an uncouth and low-caste beast of burden, rallying the mice and rats and weasels and vultures and all the other unclean animals, and then being killed by the lions in as humiliating a manner as possible—a donkey who reëmerges, to the shock even of his disciples and devotees, as the king of all creation—now, that would be a Christian allegory. A powerful lion, starting life at the top of the food chain, adored by all his subjects and filled with temporal power, killed by a despised evil witch for his power and then reborn to rule, is a Mithraic, not a Christian, myth.