The Chronicles of Narnia remain a staple high fantasy book series for young adults. The themes C.S Lewis incorporated in his book echo a deep appreciation for mythopoetic story-telling and allegory. In this blog post, we’re going to explore the not-so-hidden mythology behind his work. From Christian theology to Greek and Roman legends.
Most of the books I read today are picked up after serious consideration. I might spend hours before I decide to buy a novel!
We only get to read a handful of books during our life, so wasting time reading something you don’t like is unwise.
But when I was a kid, we didn’t have Goodreads, Amazon, and YouTube to check out reviews and whatnot. I’d simply barge in my local bookshop and wander around, trying to find something eye-catching.
This is how I discovered the world of Narnia.
Believe it or not, I thought nothing of it in the beginning. Just another random author promoted in the fantasy section of the shop. Little did I know that C.S Lewis was one of the most important writers of the 20th century, sitting right next to the legendary Tolkien, and inspiring Rowling to write her own mythopoeic saga.
As I grew older, the question of what Narnia is all about became much clearer. The cosmogony, the mythological narratives, the Christian values jump out of the pages of all seven books, without much shelter, compared to other contemporary writers.
Where and What is The World of Narnia?
As I mentioned, there are seven books in the series:
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
- Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia
- The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
- The Silver Chair
- The Horse and His Boy
- The Magician’s Nephew
- The Last Battle
We get to observe how the world of Narnia was created and subsequently destroyed in a semi-apocalyptic event, similar to Noah’s ark story.
The rise and downfall of different functions, the wars, the exploration of Aslan’s country (heaven?).
But let’s do a quick overview of each book.
(Note: There’s a big debate on what order we should read them. The major storyline takes place in the first four and the last book)
1. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
The four Pevensie siblings, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy discover a magical wardrobe that’s a portal to another world. They find Narnia, a land covered in snow. It’s winter forever… without Christmas.
(The concept of magical portals is abundant in mythology. In Irish mythology, the Aos Si live in a world that co-exists with ours. They walk among the living but remain undetected, except in rare cases where we can interact with them by happenstance or… through liminal spaces!)
The White Witch is the main antagonist and represents the archetypal Snow Queen, which we encounter in folklore tales but also in Norse mythology, namely the Goddess Skadi.
The benevolent force in this world is Aslan, a talking Lion. We’ll discuss more about this in a minute but he is Jesus Christ.
The four kids, after going through a proper Hero’s Journey, save Narnia and become Kings and Queens, jumpstarting a Golden Age.
2. Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia
There’s a big time difference between Earth and Narnia. When the Pevensies return to Narnia for their second trip, 1300 years have passed. Their Kingdom is now in ruins, the Golden Age has ended.
They have to save Narnia once again.
Lewis admitted that the second book in the series is about restoring truth, religion, and faith after corruption.
3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The concept of the Otherworld is highlighted once again. The Irish heritage of the author shines through, as he’s employing the Immaram genre of Irish literature. Essentially a sea journey to the Otherworld.
Specifically, he was inspired by the early monastic text of The Voyage of Saint Brendan, providing even more evidence about the Christian values infused in the Chronicles of Narnia.
Moreso, at one point Aslan appears as a lamb, further establishing his true identity.
On the other hand, the transformation of Eustace into a dragon is a wink to Fafnir’s curse in Norse mythology.
4. The Silver Chair
The first book where the four Pevensie siblings aren’t involved.
Aslan asks Eustache Scrub, from the previous book, and his classmate to help find Prince Rillian.
We discover that the prince is entrapped in a silver chair* by the Lady of the Green Kirtle under the pretense that he will turn into a snake and kill them all.
Eventually, she’s the one who has the ability to turn into a snake. Perhaps this reminds you of the serpent from Genesis.
*In Greek mythology, Theseus and Pirithus are bound on a chair in the underworld, and eventually saved by Hercules during one of his twelve labours.
5. The Horse and His Boy
Taking place during the Golden Age of Narnia, this is the first book that, seemingly, isn’t connected to the main story.
Yet, in between the pages, we can underscore Aslan’s divine providence.
“I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept. I was the lion who gave the horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you”
6. The Magician’s Nephew
The 6th book in Chronicles of Narnia is filled to the brim with allegories and metaphors about our world.
Inspired by Genesis, The Magician’s Nephew outlines the creation of the world of Narnia. Jadis tempts Digory to eat one of the forbidden apples in the garden, the same way the serpent tempted Eve to bite an apple from the Tree of Knowledge.
This is the original sin. Yet, unlike Eve, Digory refuses the apple.
Aslan breathed life into Narnia. Scholars believe that this is an explicit metaphor about the Holy Spirit.
Lewis’ conception of Good vs Evil closely echoes Milton’s Paradise Lost. The walled garden near the edge of the world and Jadi’s Satan-like behavior are a direct reflection of the 17th century epic poem.
But the metaphors don’t end here. It seems that the author patched bits and pieces from different sources together.
For example, he borrowed the aspect of music from Tolkien’s Silmarillion and we can clearly see the influence of The Great Chain of Being in his love of nature. The mythos of Atlantis and the creation of portals to enter that world is another one.
7. The Last Battle
We get to visit Narnia one last time. But the reader will discover that the world is corrupted. An impersonator has appeared, a false God pretending to be Aslan.
Lewis taps into another archetypal event, that of Apocalypse.
The Lion reveals that the “real” Narnia (Heaven?) has remained safe all these years. Only some chosen beings will enter his realm, while the rest of creation will rot and degenerate over time.
In the end, Aslan reveals his true nature and promises that the story just began. And it’ll go on forever “and in which every chapter is better than the one before”.
Narnia and The Bible
After the release of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” movie in 2005, there was a renewed interest in Lewis’ work. Consequently, another round of debates and arguments revolving around the somewhat explicit Christian narrative in his books began.
The author didn’t set out to create these powerful allegories in his work, yet he was eager to point out that, in fact, his whole series is merely a retelling of the Biblical story.
He didn’t see his characters and stories as allegories, but rather a parallel potentiality of how Jesus Christ would appear in another world.
In Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fire Balloons”, priests are concerned about sin and the spirit of Christ on Mars. They stumble upon non-humanoid balls of light that have transcended the duality of human nature and are now basking in the light of God. The One God.
This immaterial deity, omniscient and omnipotent, without regard for Earthly boundaries, is how Lewis was inspired to adapt our version of Jesus Christ to Narnia.
The line of thought is clear: If God appeared as a human in the world of humans, then God would appear like a talking animal in the realm of talking animals. So, He became Aslan, a lion.
“What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?”
He ends with: “This is not allegory at all.”
Because, from his point of view, it is not! It’s only an interpretation, a suppositional hermeneutic of the already established theology.
Indeed, there isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between Biblical events and Narnia, so the latter becomes a clever theological innovation.
Tolkien vs Lewis
Members of the literary group Inklings, both got to read and critique each other’s work.
While Lewis was heavily inspired by Tolkien’s mythopoeic saga, the latter had issues with the explicit use of Christian allegories in Narnia.
He believed that fantasy stories should only allude to or borrow elements and narrative from Christian theology, without relying too much on direct parallelisms. Otherwise, the story is limited by a religious impulse.
Still, at the end of the day, Tolkien admitted that there’s value in these books for others. The talking, walking Treebeards are based on Lewis. Likewise, Professor Digory was based on Tolkien.
Animism, Fairy Tales, and Love of Nature
The influence of Western mythology in Narnia is undeniable. His disdain for modernity and the subsequent exploitation of nature left him with a sour taste. Through his work, he aimed to exalt the spirit of the land.
We encounter multiple mythological creatures, like
The fairy tales he loved so much as a kid became a blueprint for the fantasy stories he wrote as an adult.
Moreso, every tree, rock and river contained a spirit, akin to the philosophy of animism.
Of course, the juxtaposition between his Catholic devotion and his love of nature placed him in a weird position.
His work was either considered religious propaganda or underlined as heretical with neopagan influences.
From a secular perspective, scholars insist that the work transcends the boundaries of dogma and the implied proselytism. Instead, it taps into autobiographical elements that found their way through the Wardrobe to Narnia.
The point is that Lewis’ intentions were innocent. He wrote about his life in a way that didn’t hold back punches; he expressed the turmoil, the passion, the disdain he has experienced, whether it had to do with religion, war or modernity.
“Some Day You Will be Old Enough to Start Reading Fairy Tales Again”
I wholeheartedly share his vision and ideas. Narnia is an intimate piece of literature, personal, expressed with unconditional love.
Whether you are an atheist, a Christian, a pagan, 9 or 99 years old, Narnia has something for you. Because it is a story about our world, through the eyes of a fantastic writer.
Writer. Seeking to discover my private mythology through dreams.