I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this, Archbishop Rowan Williams latest book. Published by SPCK, this is a real gem – Rowan looking critically, kindly, and intelligently at C.S.Lewis’ Narnia, and in particular the character of Aslan. Whilst this release could be seen to be riding the crest of the wave of popularity and interest in Narnia generated by recent film adaptations, having read various books by and about Rowan, it is safe to say he is a big fan! This book, then, from the outset is written by someone who has engaged deeply and seriously with Lewis, and his various writings.
So what is this book about, who is it for, and who should read it? As a big time Lewis fan, I’d say its for people like me, people interested in Lewis, people interested in how Rowan writes, and those interested in/fond of the Narnia books. Like many people my age, my parents got me to read the Narnia saga – and it has formed one of my fondest childhood memory blocks. The recent, excellent film adaptions have rekindled that fondness: for one friend the closing scene of “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” was emotional enough to move him to tears, as Reepicheep paddled over a wave into Aslans country. Narnia, and its famous author, have a really important place in the culture of the UK – and there is something fascinating going on underneath the surface in these books.
Rowan opens his survey of the Narnian world with a clear statement, that he has identified that “there is a strong, coherent spiritual and theological vision shaping all the stories; but this does not necessarily mean that they must all be read as self-conscious allegories of theological truths“. This is not to say that the Narnia books do not stand on their own feet as works of fiction: Rowan is full of praise for their enchanting nature, but it is an interesting point and counterpoint. Rowan is in many ways the perfect interpreter and reader of Lewis, particularly from my Evangelical position: both are essentially Orthodox, yet not fully Evangelical (in the technical sense), both are highly educated, highly intelligent Cambridge Dons at heart, both fierce advocates for the Christian faith, both misunderstood and misinterpreted by many.
The way in which Rowan engages with Narnia and her Lion is fascinating, and readily denoted by the chapter headings. He opens with “The Point of Narnia”, before moving (in superbly well-read and graceful fashion) to “Narnia and its critics”. After a brilliant examination of the charges of racism, sexism, etc, Rowan turns to the crux of the issue in his third chatper; “Not a tame lion”. This issue is then personalised, as the fourth chapter is “No story but your own”, before setting the examined characters in a wider context with the fifth chapter, “The Silent Gaze of Truth”. The final chapter before concluding is a tribute to a fundamental element of the first Narnia book; “Bigger inside than outside”. As Rowan stirs the pot, adding flavours from Lewis’ other writings, and wonderful anecdotes and quotations from within the Narnian corpus, we see a cohesive whole forming. That Rowan manages this in less than 150 pages is impressive; and whimsically compelling.
Rowan is a masterful interpreter here. He brings out some of the vital truths that Narnia demonstrates, in clear and surprisingly forceful terms. There are many pages of my copy with corners turned – denoting a quote for meditation, further usage, or that bears further thought. Rowan identifies one thing particularly; “It is a consistant theme in Lewis. The truth of God is found in rebellion against the oppressive cliches of the world… Against this joyless order stands the unpredictable world of Grace“. This observation flows into and informs one of the most interesting points that Rowan makes, out of Lewis, that of the worth and place in creation of humanity. Probably one of my favourite quotes from this extended point is Rowans superb observation that “Humanity is a highly dangerous element in creation, but it also has the capacity to protect and guarantee justice“.
I could go on, in continually positive terms, because I think this is a brilliant book, an excellent piece of writing (and reading!) and a very useful piece of theology. This is a book that bears careful reading – and one that can be easily given to anyone with an interest in theology, Williams, Lewis or similar. It is a thinking mans apologetic for Narnia; with an explicit Gospel message woven intelligently throughout.