C. S. Lewis began The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe during World War II as a gift to a goddaughter, but quit after one false start and only picked up the story and completed it a decade later. What resulted was not only the start of a healthy run of seven popular books, but one of the most revered and important works of children's literature in the 20th century. Another magical journey to wonderland, this time by way of the Gospels rather than Lewis Carroll, the story remains the quintessence of modern-day mythmaking for that age when one is wide-eyed with wonder and receptive to all kinds of flights of the imagination. Lewis's theological references are allegorical and do not proselytize in the way that current "Christian fiction" does, so non-Christian readers needn't fear they're exposing themselves or their children to distasteful dogma (and even for unbelievers there's good material here for some critical thinking primers). This is a fable, not a sermon, and a delightful one that has lost none of its magic for its intended audience over the decades.
The heroes are Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, four children sent from London to live with a kindly old relative — Professor Kirke, the grown-up Digory from The Magician's Nephew — in his sprawling country estate, to escape the Blitz. As they all explore the labyrinthine house, Lucy discovers a nondescript wardrobe full of musty old coats and mothballs, which she soon discovers is actually a portal into the mythical land of Narnia. Lewis's storytelling here is that of a master; he handles the journey from house to wardrobe to magical world in such a natural and off-the-cuff fashion (Lucy makes her way past row after improbable row of old coats, until she realizes they've turned into tree branches and she's in the woods of Narnia) that it's ten times more effective dramatically than had he made a great fanfare of it.
In Narnia, Lucy befriends a faun named Tumnus, who warns her of the White Witch, Queen Jadis. The Witch has enshrouded the entire land in a cloak of ice and snow so that it's "always winter, never Christmas," and she turns anyone who defies her into statues. He guiltily confesses he's been sent by the Witch to abduct any human beings who enter Narnia, but he lets Lucy go back home. Where, not surprisingly, none of her siblings believes her story, most snarkily Edmund. But then Edmund himself manages to find his way into Narnia, where he meets and is easily seduced (mentally, that is) by the White Witch herself. Jadis fears the prophecy of four human beings, two "sons of Adam" and two "daughters of Eve," who, once they sit upon the four empty thrones of nearby castle Cair Paravel, will spell her downfall.
Soon enough, all four children are in Narnia, and discover Tumnus has been arrested by the Witch. But they soon meet up with the adorable, bickering Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (who are beavers), who tell them of the return of Aslan, the great lion, who will bring summer to Narnia once again and vanquish the White Witch. But Edmund, still duped by the Witch's charm (and her yummy Turkish delight), slips away to warn her. The rest of the children are guided by the Beavers to Aslan's camp, where he is preparing an army to face the Witch.
A recently discovered letter to a child fan confirmed that, despite claims to the contrary, Lewis always openly intended the Narnia stories to be an allegory about Christ. And the story here reflects many of the themes you'll find in Lewis's apologetics. Early in the book, I smiled to notice something that escaped me entirely when I first read it as a child: Lewis trots out his "lord, liar or lunatic" argument as an exercise in logic. The children confide in Professor Kirke about Lucy's accounts of going to Narnia, and he reasons that if a person isn't a habitual liar, or insane, then the only logical conclusion is that they must be telling the truth no matter what kind of whopper they're asking you to swallow. Lewis uses the same approach in his theological writings to prove the divinity of Jesus. Of course, "lord, liar or lunatic" as an argument is crippled by a fatal flaw, in that those aren't the only options to consider when someone presents you with an extraordinary claim (a person can innocently make a false claim because they're honestly ignorant or misinformed, not because they're liars or lunatics). So as an exercise in logic, it's really as bad as the old "all cats die, Socrates was a cat" routine. But even if the story fails to teach young readers sound logic, it presents them and their parents with an excellent springboard for discussion on how to evaluate ideas critically. (It's also interesting to note that a lot of Christians have criticized Lewis's use of a lion — when they think a lamb would have been more apropos — to symbolize Christ. But I don't see a lamb kicking ass in a major battle scene.)
Then there's the sequence involving Aslan's crucifixion (on a sacrifical altar here, not a cross) and resurrection. When Jadis demands Edmund's life, Aslan offers himself instead, symbolically taking on the sins of man, as it were. If one were a horrible heathen like me, one might point out that a "sacrifice" that lasts only three days — let alone the matter of hours that Aslan spends dead here — isn't much of a sacrifice at all; one might also make a strenuous moral objection to the idea of an innocent party suffering by proxy for the crimes of the guilty. But I suspect Christian readers don't see it that way.
The funny thing is, when you take a scene like this, remove it from the realm of theological discourse where it is meant to be taken seriously by adults, and plunk it down into the midst of a magical children's fable, it does duty just fine as archetypal myth. Aslan's sacrifice scene itself is quite moving, though, to be sure, we're meant to be more affected by the happy twist that immediately follows. (Just as we're meant to ignore the implication that Aslan/Jesus knew all along it would turn out this way, thus muting the significance of his sacrifice even more and making his via dolorosa before the event incongruous. But this wouldn't be the first myth in human history to lack for consistency.) There's a reason that scene was what Pauline Baynes chose for her cover illustration, and not the powerful but scary scene that precedes it. It would take half a century and a guy named Mel Gibson to convince Christians everywhere that disturbing, graphic death imagery constitutes good family entertainment.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe remains an exciting and even thought-provoking classic no matter what side of the theological fence you sit on. Though believers and skeptics alike can nitpick its themes and allusions to death (and the fact that you can do this at all gives the story a literary weight simply absent from most children's literature), on the whole this is an uplifting story about how it's good to be a good person, and bad to be a bad person, and when bad people rise to power and threaten the world, it's up to the good folks to rally and fight for what's right. Which is a message that certainly resonated in postwar England, no doubt. There are some other themes hiding in the bushes — the importance of honesty, keeping promises and treating others with respect, that sort of thing — but mostly, this is just a marvelous, timeless adventure for young and young-at-heart alike.
Followed by The Horse and His Boy.