February 14, 2006
The Way Into
Narnia: A Reader’s Guide
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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?