The Chronicles of Narnia and the Power of Myth

C.S. Lewis's remarkable achievement in the "Chronicles of Narnia" is to allow his readers to inhabit the story that makes sense of all other stories, and so feel what it is like to be part of it. (CREDIT: JOHN CHILLINGWORTH / GETTY IMAGES)
C.S. Lewis’s remarkable achievement in the “Chronicles of Narnia” is to allow his readers to inhabit the story that makes sense of all other stories, and so feel what it is like to be part of it. (CREDIT: JOHN CHILLINGWORTH / GETTY IMAGES)

Why are C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia – especially their showcase opener, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – so popular, more than fifty years after their author’s death?

Many answers might be given, from the obvious fact that they are stories well told, to the suggestion that they call us back to a lost childhood. But perhaps there is something deeper going on here.

To understand the deep appeal of Narnia, we need first to appreciate the place of stories in helping us to make sense of reality, and our own place within it. The Chronicles of Narnia resonate strongly with the basic human intuition that our own story is part of something greater and grander – something which, once we have grasped it, allows us to see our situation in a new and more meaningful way. A veil is lifted; a door is opened; a curtain is drawn aside; we are enabled to enter a new realm.

Our own story is now seen to be part of a much bigger story, which both helps us understand how we fit into a greater scheme of things, and discover the difference we can make.

Like his Oxford friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis was deeply aware of the imaginative power of “myths” – stories told to make sense of who we are, where we find ourselves, what has gone wrong with things, and what can be done about it. A “myth,” as Lewis uses the term, is not a false story told to deceive, but a story that on the one hand resonates with the deepest structures of reality, and on the other has an ability to connect up with the human imagination.

Tolkien was able to use myth to saturate The Lord of the Rings with a mysterious “otherness,” a sense of magic which hints at a reality beyond that which human reason can fathom. Lewis realized that good and evil, anguish and joy, can all be seen more clearly when “dipped in myth.” Through their “presentational realism,” these narratives provided a way of grasping the deeper structures of our world at both the imaginative and rational levels.

Lewis may also have come to realize the power of myth through reading G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, with its classic distinction between “imaginary” and “imaginative,” and deft analysis of how the imagination reaches beyond the limits of reason. “Every true artist,” Chesterton argued, feels “that he is touching transcendental truths; that his images are shadows of things seen through the veil.”

For Lewis, a myth is a story which evokes awe, enchantment and inspiration, and which conveys or embodies an imaginative expression of the deepest meanings of life – meanings that prove totally elusive in the face of any attempt to express them in purely abstract or conceptual forms. For Lewis, God authorizes the use of myth as a means of captivating the human imagination and engaging the human reason.

Lewis thus declares that human beings construct myths because they are meant to. They have been created by God with an innate capacity to create myths as echoes of a greater story or “story of a larger kind.” Early Christian writers spoke of the logos spermatikos, a “seed-bearing word” implanted within creation by God, preparing the ground for the definitive revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Tolkien and Lewis both – though in slightly different ways – work with the notion of mythos spermatikos, a “narrative template” embedded within the human soul as part of the created order.

Once more, these prepare the ground for the definitive revelation of God in the story of Jesus Christ. This approach is not about Jungian archetypes (although they may perform a similar function); it is rather a fundamentally Christian insight about the deeper structure of reality, and the best ways of representing and experiencing it by those who bear the “image of God.”

Lewis argues that, since “God chooses to be mythopoeic,” then we in our turn must be “mythopathic” – that is to say, receptive to God’s myth, recognizing and acknowledging its “mythical radiance” and offering it an “imaginative welcome.” And, since God uses myths as a means of communicating both truth and meaning, why should not humans do the same? Particularly those wishing to encourage their culture to offer an “imaginative embrace” to the Christian faith? Lewis offers a powerful imaginative alternative to the dull over-intellectualized apologetics of his own generation, which limited the appeal of the Christian faith to our reason.

Steeped in the riches of medieval and Renaissance literature, and with a deep understanding of how “myths” work, Lewis managed to find the right voice and the right words to get past the suspicions of a “fully waking imagination of a logical mind.” Somehow, Narnia seems to provide a deeper, brighter, more wonderful and more meaningful world than anything we know from our own experience. Though the Chronicles of Narnia are clearly a work of fiction, they nevertheless seem far more “true to life” than many supposedly factual works. These evocative stories help us grasp that it is possible for the weak and foolish to have a noble calling in a dark world; that our deepest intuitions point us to the true meaning of things; that there is indeed something beautiful and wonderful at the heart of the universe; and that this may be found, embraced and adored.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is about finding a master ring – the ring that rules the other rings, which then must be destroyed because it is so dangerous and destructive. At the deepest level, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia are about finding a master story – the story that makes sense of all other stories, which then must be embraced because of its power to give meaning and value to life.

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Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, and Gresham Professor of Divinity. Among his many books are The Big Question: Why We Can’t Stop Talking about God, Science, and Faith, C.S. Lewis – A Life. Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet and The Intellectual World of C.S. Lewis.

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