Philip Womack

Back in the magic land of Narnia

Katherine Langrish’s warm, perceptive guide to the Chronicles will be of value to newcomers and devotees alike

Fledge carries Digory and Polly over Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. Credit: Illustration by Jonathan Barry/ Mary Evans Picture Library

C. S. Lewis’s enchanting Chronicles of Narnia series has, in recent years, come under critical fire. It’s racist, sexist, colonialist; blatant propaganda for Christianity, hoodwinking children into a life of religious submission. These barbs seem to me to miss the point. As a geeky nine-year-old, I had a dim sense that Aslan had something to do with Jesus Christ. But so what — he was a talking lion! (And, even to children who weren’t Scripture swots, he clearly isn’t Jesus Christ, but something else.) Dyed-in-the-wool atheists get it wrong. I’ve never met a child who marched blindly from Narnia to Christ; but I have met children (now adults) who, already knowing Christ, have felt his joy in Aslan. What the Narnia books do is make sense of faith for those who believe: and for those who don’t — did I mention the talking lion?

From Spare Oom to War Drobe, Katherine Langrish’s warm, perceptive new book, is a swift-moving read-through of the series with an informed, passionate friend. Langrish is highly attuned to wonder in Lewis’s writing: the way that rambling houses play a part in nearly all the books, with surprises at the end of twisting passages. (The title, incidentally, refers to what Mr Tumnus the Faun says when he meets Lucy, and she tells him where she’s from.)

There is much excellent insight into Lewis’s intertextuality: Edmund Spenser, fairy tales, Norse legends and Irish saints’ tales; and on how his life, particularly the death of his mother, influenced his work. There is, though, nothing on his slightly odd relationship with an older woman.

Susan is still alive at the end of the Chronicles – and has yet the possibility of repentance. We hope

Narrative problems in the Chronicles are acutely unpicked, and Langrish is splendid on how, far from being arrant propaganda, Lewis demands that children question the world around them.

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