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Lessons from The Lion: far from being simple allegory, The Chronicles of Narnia reveal the power of a great story.

In early December, just after the film version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe opened, my daughter Sophie's second-grade teacher organized an unofficial class trip. She had read C.S. Lewis' classic tale to her students and invited them to join her at a local theater on a Saturday morning to see the film.

The day before the trip, a note from a concerned librarian appeared in Sophie's backpack, tucked inside her homework folder, warning us of the dangers of letting Sophie see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The librarian wasn't concerned about the religious themes of the movie--as many critics have been--or about the more violent aspects of the film, in which four children get caught up in a war in the magical world of Narnia. She was concerned that the film might make my daughter and her friends cry. The death of the great lion Aslan, she said, might be too much for tenderhearted students--especially those who don't know the whole story. She recommended that we tell our children not to fret and reassure them that the story has a happy ending.

Somewhere, I thought, C.S. Lewis must be rolling over in his grave. He had a much higher opinion of children.

Many people assume that Lewis had a Christian agenda in mind when he started work on The Chronicles of Narnia. That is, he wanted to indoctrinate children and dreamed up an allegorical tale that would bring basic Christian truths to life--one that would serve as a kind of fictional catechism.

That idea is "all pure moonshine," Lewis wrote in a New York Times essay about The Chronicles. "I couldn't write in that way at all. Everything began with images. A faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sled, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't anything Christian about them. That element pushed itself in of its own accord."

Instead of teaching theology, Lewis said, he wanted to tell children a story, one that might strip away centuries of "stained glass and Sunday school"--and, I suppose, the fears of watchful librarians--and reveal the emotional core of the gospels. Not to evangelize or indoctrinate children but instead to let them feel both the sorrow and the joy hidden inside the story of Jesus. Lewis believed that if he told the tale well, that would be enough.

Like many contemporary children's writers--J. K. Rowling, Madeleine L'Engle, Philip Pullman, and G. P. Taylor, to name a few--Lewis understood that stories, rather than sermons, are the best way to discuss the great questions of life. Pullman, who won the Carnegie Medal for children's literature in Britain in 1996, said, "There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children's book."

The reason? Children understand the power of stories, Pullman said, something adults have mostly forgotten.

In his Carnegie medal acceptance speech, Pullman--an outspoken atheist--suggested that the best way to shape moral values in children is to make sure school libraries are well funded.

"We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts," Pullman said. "We need books, time, and silence. 'Thou shalt not' is soon forgotten, but 'Once upon a time' lasts forever."

Taylor, another bestselling British children's author, suggests that more Christians should try imitating Lewis in this regard. Instead of "bashing people over the head with Bibles," he says, Christians ought to try what Lewis--and for that matter, Jesus--did: Tell good stories.

"People look at the characters within Lewis' books," he said, "and they see certain moral values, and certain bad behaviors, and then they can make up their own mind. No one is telling them what to do."

Narnia is not a red state

Novelist Susan Howatch argues that a "Christian novel"--that is, a story told for the entertainment of believers--is an un-Christian idea. Christianity "is for everybody--not just for insiders," she says, and Christian writers should weave the great themes of the faith--forgiveness, suffering, hope, alienation--into stories that will appeal to a wide audience.

That lesson seemed forgotten in the days before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was released in theaters in December. Marketing firms and churches alike tried to turn the film into a means for evangelism or billed it as "safe family entertainment" for the faithful. In effect, as Peter Steinfels argued in The New York Times, Narnia became a red state in America's culture wars. Lewis' magical realm was transformed into a place where good Christians are welcomed, and evil unbelievers are banished forever. But that view of Narnia strips much of the grace from Lewis' stories.

Take for example, The Last Battle, the final and most controversial of The Chronicles of Narnia. In it, Susan Pevensie, one of the heroes of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is literally left behind. While children from the earlier books join Aslan in heaven, she remains on earth.

Still, as Lewis mentioned in a letter to a young fan, the door to Aslan's country is still open to Susan. All she has to do is ask, and she will be welcomed.

That kind of grace pervades The Chronicles of Narnia--especially The Last Battle. Toward the end of the book, a vast multitude escapes from their doomed homeland into Aslan's country. From there they travel to the very gate of Narnian heaven--an enormous walled garden where Aslan dwells. But no one dares approach the gate and knock. Rather, they wait in fear and trembling, worried that the great and terrible creature guarding the gate will bar them from entering.

Finally the gate opens and a guardian appears. But who should appear but Reepicheep, the valiant talking mouse from an earlier tale. With a bow and bright cheery voice, he invites all to enter. "Welcome in the Lion's name," he says. "Come further up, and further in."

Among those welcomed into heaven are two people who called themselves enemies of Aslan in life. One is a dwarf who murdered several talking horses; another is a Calormene warrior named Emeth who devoted his whole life to serving the god Tash.

When Emeth first flees Narnia, he fears for his life. Surely Aslan will tear him limb from limb as an infidel. Instead, Aslan offers him grace and welcomes him as a son. Not that Aslan and Tash are equal paths to heaven--the very idea causes Aslan to rebuke Emeth with a mighty roar. Instead Aslan looks upon Emeth with the abundance of his mercy and calls him "Beloved." When the other characters come upon Emeth, he is lost in wonder at being offered such amazing grace.

The real Lewis

Walter Hooper, Lewis' literary executor, says grace and gratitude are the keys to understanding Lewis' work. For several months before Lewis' death in 1963, Hooper served as his personal secretary. When he first met Lewis, Hooper was surprised to find that he lived in a "shabby little house" that had fallen into disrepair. When he learned that for years Lewis had given away two thirds of his writing income to charity, Hooper suggested Lewis keep more for himself.

One day he asked Lewis point blank, "Why did you give away so much?" He never forgot the tone of Lewis' reply.

"I thought Christ was so good in having me," Lewis said, "that the least I could do was return what I made in his service."

That sense of gratitude also shaped Lewis' relationships with the great loves of his life--his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, and his longtime companion, Janie Moore. Lewis' late-in-life marriage to Gresham, who was suffering from cancer when they met, has been well documented in the film Shadowlands and in Lewis' book A Grief Observed.

Lewis' relationship with Moore, with whom he lived for 30 years before meeting Gresham, is more mysterious. She was 20 years his senior; Lewis and her son Patrick had been comrades during World War I. When Patrick died in battle, Lewis felt obligated to care for his friend's mother. Upon return, Lewis moved in with Moore and took care of her for the next 30 years. He supported her financially, and when she became ill, nursed her until her death at 78.

When they met, Moore was a vivacious 45-year-old. Most Lewis scholars acknowledge that at some point their relationship turned romantic. No one knows how long the romance lasted, but it probably ended after his conversion to Christianity in his 30s.

From then on, Lewis remained uncommonly faithful to Moore. He had a full life--teaching at Oxford, writing, and speaking--and could have afforded to send her to a nursing home when she became ill. Instead he took care of her himself. Hooper often was asked why Lewis "wasted" so much time caring for Moore, and later, for Gresham.

"We want a 'sensible' Lewis more like us," he says, "one who would put an old lady in a nursing home. And, dare I say it, a Lewis who would not marry a dying woman, with all the care, nursing, and expense involved. I think it would help if, instead of thinking of this marvelous writer who wasted untold hours and energy on two women, we thought instead of an exceedingly generous man who happened to write some very good books."

Hooper says Lewis' attitude was best summed up in an incident that occurred late in his life. Lewis and Hooper came across a beggar. Lewis stopped to give the man some money, and then went on his way.

"Aren't you afraid he will spend it on drink?" Hooper asked him.

"Well," Lewis said, "if I'd kept the money, I would have spent it on drink. My rule is: when in doubt, give."

I want to meet Aslan

Despite the warnings of the school librarian, I took Sophie to see The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I'll never forget the look of wide-eyed wonder on her face when she saw Lucy Pevensie first enter Narnia through the wardrobe. I hope she never forgets it either.

We also took Sophie's younger brother and sister to see the film. My son liked "the fighting parts," while my 3-year-old daughter, Marel, liked the "happy part," when Aslan came back to life.

Some weeks later, Marel picked up a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe sitting on the coffee table in our living room. She looked at the illustrations, and when she came to the map of Narnia, held it up for me to see.

"How do we get to this place?" she asked.

"Through the wardrobe," I told her.

"I want a wardrobe," she said. "I want to meet Aslan."

Somewhere, I hope, C.S. Lewis was smiling.

Recommended reading by and about C.S. Lewis

* C.S. Lewis at the BBC: Messages of Hope in the Darkness of War (HarperCollins, 2003) By Justin Phillips. This behind-the-scenes look at the World War II radio broadcasts transformed Lewis from a little-known Oxford don into one of Britain's most recognized writers.

* The Collected Letters of C & Lewis: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931-1949, Vol. 2 (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004) Edited by Walter Hooper. Second of a three-volume collection, including correspondence with J. R. R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Arthur C. Clarke, and St. Giovanni Calabria.

* The Screwtape Letters (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) The first of Lewis' books to achieve popular success features a series of satirical letters between Screwtape, a senior demon, and his nephew Wormwood. (The audiobook version narrated by Joss Ackland is particularly wonderful.)

* The Great Divorce (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) In this novel a writer joins a bus tour from hell (known as "the gray town") to heaven, where angelic creatures plead with them to leave hell behind and "enter into joy"

* The Weight of Glory (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) This collection of essays and sermons delivered by Lewis during World War II offers guidance and inspiration during a time of great doubt.

* A Grief Observed (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) A heartbreaking, honest memoir, written after the death of Lewis' wife, Joy. The most recent edition includes a foreword by Madeleine L'Engle on reading A Grief Observed after her husband's death.

* Jack: A Life of C & Lewis (Crossway, 2005) By George Sayer.

* The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C S. Lewis HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) By Alan Jacobs.

Two of the best Lewis biographies.

* The Voyage of the Down Treader (A Chronicle of Narnia) (HarperTrophy, 1994) Dragons, sea serpents, pirates, a beautiful maiden, and a talking heroic mouse--who could ask for anything more?

BOB SMIETANA is the features editor of the Covenant Companion in Chicago.
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