27 December, 2010

Simple Symbolism

Last night, the husband and I watched Prince Caspian on the good old iplayer. A lot of literary critics have sneered at CS Lewis for the obvious way he has packed his Narnia stories full of Christian symbolism, but in my opinion it is a beautiful example of how the messages in the stories we write don't have to be sophisticated to work. If you fill your writing with subtle messages that you're going to need to explain to the reader before they understand them, what have you really achieved? Forget for a moment whether or not the Christian message is your cup of tea and just consider Narnia...

Firstly, there is Aslan, a obvious representative of Jesus (the "Lion of Judah"), but it's the stories themselves that represent the major parts of the gospel message without preaching. In Prince Caspian, the people who want to believe in Aslan are losing heart because they have been waiting for him to come back for hundreds of years. It is only the most innocent and trusting of them, Lucy, who believes she has seen him and it is her faith that provides the strength to defeat an army. There is a wonderful scene where Prince Caspian almost calls back the White Witch to help him because he is losing faith that Aslan will ever come, it is only those around him that help him to resist by destroying her on his behalf. All the way through the characters are struggling with the questions of why Aslan isn't doing the same thing he did before and why he won't prove his existence to them. I won't insult your intelligence by explaining the messages of these plotlines, but I could go on with many more examples of concepts that will be familiar to any Christian. I think the Narnia stories could teach people about the real message of Christianity and the real struggle that faith is, more than any number of Hell-fire preachers on street corners pretending that they've got it all sorted ever could.

Phillip Pullman has a similar approach. You don't have to read very deep between the lines of His Dark Materials to find his scorching criticism of the church and organised religion. But - and here's the key point - you don't have to be anti-religious to enjoy Northern Lights or a Christian to enjoy the Narnia stories. They are not sermons but both just great stories that generations of children have loved or will love. CS Lewis was a great theologian, but he was also a good story-teller. Perhaps the fact that he wrote these stories for children dictated the simplicity, but you know, I don't think the symbolism was really for his younger readers. Both he and Pullman could teach writers of all ages that a great story with a simple subtext (that you can take or leave as you like) will win over a good story with a sophisticated subtext for most people most of the time.


  1. Hello Chloe.
    Interesting points you've made here my friend. As someone who was raised as a practising Catholic (until I joined the army), I can see where religious connotations might come into these stories. Having said that, I've never read about Narnia or seen the movies. I've been passively educated about it in conversation.
    At it's most basic level, all these great writers have simply underlined the conflict between good and evil, although the faith and hope aspects are more defined than in a Harry Potter episode. No, I'm not a fan, I've only seen two of them.

  2. I have to say that I am not a huge fan of the new films. The books are best of course, followed by the charming BBC versions from the late 80s/early 90s. the days before CGI when talking beavers were just people in beaver costumes...

    But CS Lewis's best writing is in his non-children's books. The Screwtape Letters in particular is a great book.


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