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Ellen Callihan

February 14, 2006


Summary of

The Way Into Narnia: A Reader’s Guide

by Peter J. Schakel

            Like any reader’s guide worth reading, The Way Into Narnia begins with why and how the Narnia stories came to be the way they are, followed by what makes the stories worth reading. To accomplish this, Peter Schakel divided his book into 3 basic categories: the author and the books, the Chronicles as fairy tales, and lastly, his annotations. My focus is mainly going to be on the Chronicles themselves with a brief touch on a few of Lewis’s “Narnian” influences.

            C.S. Lewis had many things happen in his life which greatly influenced his writing. In his childhood, Lewis was surrounded by books and well-educated parents who encouraged him to read. Upon learning to read, Lewis absorbed everything that he could get his hands on. Naturally, this hunger for the written word instilled in Lewis the desire to create his own stories and he soon started writing about what he called Animal-land. When his mother died of cancer, Lewis retreated into Animal-land to help him cope with his grief.

            When Lewis went away to school at Wynyard, he was confronted with a tyrannical headmaster and beatings. This helped to shape the negative feelings about schools in the Chronicles, and especially in The Silver Chair.

            Eventually, Lewis came to live with a retired schoolmaster. It was during this time that he was first introduced to The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser. This book helped to shape his mental picture of what Fairy-land was. He also came to love George MacDonald’s Phantastes – A Faerie Romance. Lewis later remarked of this work that his “imagination was, in a sense, baptized.” This was because he liked the numinous (an aura of spirituality, of the supernatural) that he found within its pages.

            Next, Lewis came to reside with his late friend’s mother and sister. During this time, he was forced to abandon his isolationism and solitary nature which allowed him to learn about people and everyday life outside of school. Some of these experiences he later used for his stories.

            Another one of Lewis’s major influences came in the form of J. R. R. Tolkien. Both of these men became fast friends and spent many hours talking of Norse gods and mythology and their shared interest in Northernness. Tolkien also played a part in Lewis’s recovery of belief in Christianity after a conversation that they had about the link between the story of Christ and myth.

            Schakel suggests that if it had not been for all of these influences, as well as others, C. S. Lewis would not have been able to write the Chronicles as effectively as he did.

            As far as the reading order goes, Schakel takes a chapter to describe the different points of view and recommendations. Lewis’s own words in Letters to Children sums up my feelings on this subject. “The series was not planned beforehand…So perhaps it does not matter in what order anyone reads them. I’m not even sure that all the [books] were written in the same order in which they were published. I never keep notes of that sort of thing and never remember dates.”

            Schakel’s next topic focuses on the differences between fairy tales, fantasy, and myth. Lewis said, “I wrote fairy tales because fairy tale seemed the ideal form for the stuff I had to say.” In his mind, Lewis tells us, there were images that he gave a story. One of the reasons that the form of fairy tales was so appealing was because of the setting of Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. In it, the Spenser’s world of Faerie is as Lewis’s world of Narnia. They are both enchanted and enchanting places, full of adventure, mystery, wonder, and excitement. This sort of realm is not only for children, said Tolkien, but also for a more mature audience. This is because it awakens and at least partially satisfies a sense of longing; a desire for an Other-world.

            Fantasy, is described as being that which takes us out of our Primary world to be in a Secondary world. Schakel says that the Chronicles do for many readers what Phantastes did for Lewis: baptize their imaginations. Readers encounter in Narnia a bright shadow, a divine aura, a world aglow with a divine spirit that continues with them as they return to our world and find it transformed by that radiance.

            Myth, Schakel says, deals with matters beyond and above everyday life, concerning origins, ending, aspirations, purpose and meaning, in concepts or narratives that appeal to the imagination and the emotions rather than the intellect. The cool part about Lewis (and Tolkien, respectively) is that his writing has such a mythical resonance that the effect on readers approaches Primary Belief. This sort of an effect can also be found in religious experience as well. In my opinion, I think it pretty much sums up what people feel when they “experience” religion. Having never seen or been in contact with those people in Bible stories, readers of the Bible experience a resonance that rings true to them and this helps them to create a foundation of beliefs. Peter Schakel says in his book that fairy stories, fantasy, myth and religious experience all create a powerful imaginative and emotional appeal, a sense of wonder and longing, that can be satisfied only by something beyond the realm of this world.

            Now, having said all of that, let’s dive into the Chronicles, shall we. First on the list is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. According to Peter Schakel, the main ideas that we should be getting out of this book are ones based on magic and meaning. There are two types of magic that can be found within this story. The magic of the magicians found in the story and the magic of the storyteller from without. The magic of the storyteller is that which enables both the spectator and the designer to enter the world of the story. An example of this type of magic can be found right at the very beginning of the story. It begins “once there were” instead of “once upon a time.” This difference helps the reader connect with a reality; a time that they are familiar with. Another example is the wardrobe, or portal through which they are able to get to Narnia. It’s just a well-known, everyday object that just so happens to be magical and able to transport the children into the world of Narnia. Also, the way in which Peter and Susan, who were at first skeptical of Narnia, are later proved wrong by their being able to enter. The magic of being able to mix familiar and unfamiliar, as well as clear all reasons for doubt helps to make people more comfortable in that world.

The presence of magic and enchantment is established by a stock element of fairy stories: the theme of good vs. evil; or in this case, Aslan vs. Edmund and the White Witch. Upon this discovery of evil, the characters are now major role players in this new world where they have to decide which side to be on. Because Edmund mistook the evil for good and betrayed his brother and sisters, the battle for his life plays a major role in the story. It is interesting that the Witch’s claim on Edmund’s life is one based on magic. She demands that the Deep Magic, which represents the moral law or the law of nature, needs to be appeased. However, unbeknownst to her, there is a Deeper Magic, which represents the magic inherent not in created things, but their creator, which can override the Deep Magic.

It is at this point in the story where meaning is most essential for the reader to correctly interpret the story. Lewis uses the idea of supposition to connect the story of Christ with the story of Aslan. According to Schakel, Aslan does not “stand for” Christ, in the suppositional world he is Christ.

Looking at another aspect of the story, Schakel points out that there is use of a police-court model. The Witch uses term like, “For every treachery I have a right to kill,“ “his life is forfeit to me” and “his blood is my property.” Aslan later uses business terms when he tells everyone that the Witch has “renounced her claim on your brother’s blood.” Edmund owes a debt that he cannot pay, and Aslan offers to pay it for him.

Finally, Aslan’s death has two important dramatic effects. One, a new perspective of the law of grace instead of death is given after Aslan’s sacrifice and resurrection. And two, the meaning and effect of death have changed when Aslan tells the girls that if the Witch had known the Deeper Magic, she would have known what would happen, for the Deeper Magic gives life.

In the next book, Prince Caspian, Peter Schakel explains that the main ideas are believing and seeing. The opening of the book begins with the Pevensie’s return to Narnia and the background of Prince Caspian who summoned them. The idea of believing comes in when after the first four chapters it is evident that some of the characters do not believe in talking animals and a supernatural lion. King Miraz dismisses them as being “fairy tales” and Trumpkin calls them “old wives’ tales.” Schakel points out that Lewis’s use of such dismissive words confronts the issue of believability head on for both the Narnians and for the readers. It is clear from the ancient relics that the Pevensies find, as well as their mere presence in Narnia, that there is truth in the old stories which have been questioned or forgotten.

Some believe, but some disbelieve. Dr. Cornelius teaches Caspian that King Miraz, through rejecting what he knows to be true, has obscured and hidden reality by creating falsehoods that people have begun to believe. Nikabrik, on the other hand, does not reject the reality of Aslan, but has become bitter out of despair. Trumpkin was subject to doubt. Schakel points out that central to the book’s development of this theme is that belief leads to trust, and that trust not only endures the hard times but is shown to be trust only by enduring the hard times.

After the children and Trumpkin set out to look for Caspian and the others, the theme of seeing comes to the forefront. The directions are chosen through memories of the old days, but unfortunately, their memories and the passage of time in Narnia don’t jive very well and they soon become lost. Lucy sees Aslan who she can tell wants them to go in the opposite direction. However, the others did not see him and therefore discredit her suggestion, relying on their own judgments. After becoming tired and wasting time, Lucy once again sees Aslan, this time in a dream, and is once again tells them of the direction that they are to go. They then rely upon the old adage “seeing is believing” but reluctantly accompany her.

Schakel tells us that in Lewis’s thinking, the old adage must be reversed to believing is seeing. Those who believe are able to see; those who do not believe cannot see. What a person sees depends on who he or she is and what he or she is looking for. As their trust increases in Lucy’s having seen Aslan, each one is eventually permitted to see him. The rest of the story is mainly built around the destruction of King Miraz and the triumph of Caspian and the Pevensies. However, the ultimate theme of the story, according to Schakel, is trust, handing everything over and relying completely on Another.

In The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” Schakel believes that Lewis’s central themes are longing and learning. Right from the very beginning, Edmund and Lucy are longing to be in Narnia; that is they until they enter it once again, this time through a picture frame. The longing continues then, but in a different form. Instead of the action taking place on land as it had done before, it takes place on a ship in the ocean sailing with toward unknown lands of mystery and excitement.

Next, the idea of learning and maturation take center stage. Caspian becomes a main character in this area because of all that he needs to learn to become a better king. He learns to conduct himself as a noble king on the Lone Islands who is able to free all slaves and rescue his friends. He is gripped by greed on Deathwater Island and jealousy when he learns that he is not to go on to the End of the World. But he grows in wisdom and learns to rely on his mind instead of his passions.

Eustace is the next character who really has a lot to learn. Lewis describes him as being absorbed completely in modern, materialistic culture and values. He is disagreeable and selfish, not to mention bossy. It becomes his turn to learn some things when the “Dawn Treader” reaches Dragon Island. After Eustace slips away from the others, sleeps on a dragon’s hoard and transforms into a dragon himself, he finally realizes how much he had wronged the others through his earlier actions. This encourages him to try to make up for things and behave nicely for the first time since they arrived. Later on, after having had his dragon skin removed by Aslan, Eustace is plunged into a pool of water which Schakel tells us is significant of his baptism and conversion. He is now a “different boy.”

Lucy’s opportunity to learn arrives when the ship reaches the Island of Voices. Her experience comes through looking through the Magician’s book or the book of life. Schakel tells us that within that book of life is a set of temptations hinging on the theme of false power, of doing things only God should do or knowing things only God should know. She gives in to temptation of eavesdropping on her friends and in a way loses her innocence. Her redemption comes after reading “the loveliest story” she has ever read. This story, Schakel tells us, is the story of Christ. It is a beginning and a useful part of Lucy’s spiritual growth as the story of Christ is for us. It is through learning to know God (or Aslan) that we are able to progress further toward spiritual maturity.

Schakel concludes by saying that the longing returns when Aslan tells the children that he will “open the door in the sky” at the end and that Edmund and Lucy will not return.

In The Silver Chair, the main themes are said to be freedom and obedience. When Jill first meets Aslan, he gives her instructions to memorize and remember four signs that will lead her and Eustace to Prince Rilian who has been missing for ten years. Schakel tells us that the signs become for Jill what the words of the law were for Israel: a source of direction and guidance, and she must keep them before her at all times. As the Israelites found freedom through obedience to the law, so obedience to Aslan’s directives will lead to inner freedom for Jill and Eustace and freedom from slavery for the prince. However, when they come upon the evil green sorceress, who is a serious internal threat to them, they yield to the temptation of relaxation, of decreased vigilance, miss the second sign, and stumble over the third. They have now begun to think of themselves and rely on their own judgment.

Luckily for them they escape from the giants and return to following the signs. Their descent under the ruins to the Deep Realm is reminiscent of the traditional trip to the underworld in classical literature. It images the descent into the depths of despair, the pilgrimage into the dark night of the soul, which must either crush the spirit or force it to rise from the worst with new strength and courage. They find the prince, free him, and then must return him to his father in order to complete their reasons for being in Narnia. They do and are able to return to the real world with new courage and maturity from having completed their tasks.

In The Horse and His Boy the central themes are said to be the importance of place – of a homeland – and finding and regaining one’s sense of personal identity. Through the journey of the four main characters, each is able to come to a deeper understanding of themselves: each returns home or reaches a new homeland and finds a new identity. This theme of finding a new identity opens with a “lost child” motif, in which a child is separated from his or her parents by being sold, kidnapped, or put away, then later reunited with them. Readers, says Schakel, relate powerfully to this motif because of the natural and universal need, to know who they are, but also, for Christians, to know whose they are.

This motif also fits in nicely with the Bree’s quest for his homeland of Narnia. Ever since he ran away, was captured and then forced to work like an ordinary horse, he has been longing for home. This too is something that humans have desired and needed throughout the centuries. Schakel tells us that poets of all times have written about people’s concern with their origins, with the community in which they were born, with a place that gives them a sense of their beginning and thus helps give them a sense of identity. For Lewis this natural longing for home reflects something more than a natural origin. It suggests, and The Horse and His Boy illustrates, the longing a soul has for its real heavenly home. Lewis calls this the “desire for [our] true country, which [we] shall not find till after death.” This, then, helps us to understand the symbolism of the North.

Going back to the idea of personal identity, as we meet each of the four characters, we are able to immediately recognize the different attitudes towards others and themselves. Both Bree and Aravis feel that they are better than either Hwin or Shasta because of their upbringing and social status. As their journey unfolds, each of the four encounter tests which help to lead to self-understanding and growth, and these opinions of themselves are, in some cases, drastically changed. For all four, an encounter with Aslan is then the final step in gaining their fullest sense of identity.

The next book in line for analysis is The Magician’s Nephew. The themes that Schakel points out are ones revolving around endings and beginnings. Structurally and thematically, the book suggests, beginnings and endings cannot be separated. As we know from reading the story, Digory and Polly, use the magic rings and discover an Other-world that is full of enchantment, but is not a Faerie world. It begins with Charn, a world that is dying due to the use of black magic and the Deplorable Word by Queen Jadis. However, in contrast to Charn, there is another world, the as yet “empty world” of Narnia. This world is also one of enchantment, but its magic is of a different kind. A voice that seems to come from the depths of the earth, even to be the deep voice of the earth, begins to sing, the voice of Aslan, marvelously bringing into that world the light and warmth needed for life. The dominant quality of the book, according to Schakel, is the newness, vitality, and richness of the creation scene: that sense of life and growth lingers on as the principal flavor of the story.

But one can never disassociate it completely from the sense of defeat and death that preceded it, in the story of Charn. Life leads, inevitably, to choice, and choice, just as inevitably, makes wrong decisions possible. Because of the presence of Jadis in Narnia at its birth, Aslan tells the humans that “evil will come of that evil.” Narnia did have, and continues to have, the potential to become a “strong and cruel empire” similar to Charn if its people also become selfish and cruel. Although Charn is, of course, the prime example of evil associated with a city, it is not the only one. The oppressiveness of London is also an example. Narnia, on the other hand, is rural and its goodness is manifest in the effects it has on those who have been corrupted by the city.

Finally, according to Schakel, The Last Battle contains main themes revolving around endings and transcendings. This final chapter of the world of Narnia gives readers a “sudden glimpse” of Reality or Truth. The “peculiar quality of ‘joy’” in it affords readers a gleam or echo of evangelium, not just “in the real world” but in the Real World.

In The Last Battle, there is a heavy reliance on irony. From the opening scene, the story requires readers to discern the discrepancy between reality and appearance. The theme of treachery, introduced through Edmund in the first of the Chronicles to be published, reappears in the one published last when Shift’s untrustworthiness and deceit is revealed. 

Despite the arrival of the children, the situation continues to deteriorate. Either people believe in Aslan and Tash, care only about their own profit or begin to rely on themselves for decision-making. Any optimism is quickly changed to false hope as the King and the children realize that there is nothing that they can do to save Narnia. This occurs immediately after Tirian feels his heart grow lighter and Jill expresses her hope that Narnia would go on and on, Jewel the unicorn warns that all worlds will come to an end, “except Aslan’s own country.” They realize that once Cair Paravel has been taken there will be no help and there is no reason for hope because “Narnia is no more.”

Another element of ending is signified by the stable door. This represents death. However, the important thing, Schakel points out, is that neither death nor the door represents an end but a beginning, not an exit but an entrance. Eucatastrophe overwhelms catastrophe, and therefore the end of Narnian history is not the end of the story. Everyone has an opportunity to choose for him or herself whether he or she will see and/or accept Aslan and enter the stable door, or turn away from it, never to be seen or heard from again. The door has become the portal to the most otherly of Other-worlds, Aslan’s country.  It is the place where those who love and long for Aslan find fulfillment. The Professor explains to the children that where they had just been was not the real Narnia for it “had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or copy of the real Narnia,” which is eternal and unchanging. The happiness that they all found there satisfied their longings and becomes as Heaven is to us, a place where we can all live “happily ever after.”



-          Do you think that there is a broader theme that encompasses all of the Chronicles and inseparably connects them all?


-          Do you agree with the themes that Peter Schakel has chosen for each book? Or is there something better for any of them?





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