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The Other Side of the Wardrobe
It is a glorious tale, much beloved as fantasy. The heroic scale of the Narnia Chronicles is a reminder that the basic Christian message is just that—heroic.

"A children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story," wrote C.S. Lewis. "The good ones last."

The Other Side of the Wardrobe

Indeed. Having a sensible mother who attended to such things, I read The Chronicles of Narnia when I was about nine years old. I re-read them when I was 19, and discovered that they were about so much more than lions, witches and wardrobes. C.S. Lewis follows his old friend J.R.R. Tolkien to posthumous Hollywood glory with the release of Disney's adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I expect the attention paid to the film may move many former children to read the books again.

C.S. Lewis's first published Narnia book has the Pevensie children stumble into a magical world where an evil witch has decreed that it shall be "always winter and never Christmas." To our ears, that sounds altogether familiar as the sort of thing public school boards decree for their "holiday" concerts, but Lewis's contemporaries would have recognized such banality as wicked indeed.

The children soon discover that their arrival in this frosted world has been expected—prophesied, to be precise—and they are soon caught up in an epic battle between the evil White Witch and Aslan, the majestic lion, son of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea and the proper ruler of Narnia. Aslan, who allows himself to be killed to atone for the betrayal of Edmund Pevensie, is resurrected and definitively defeats the White Witch.

It is a glorious tale, much beloved as fantasy, and much beloved by those who recognize in Lewis's masterpiece a brilliant re-telling of the Christian story—the story of redemption in Christ Jesus as it might have taken place had the Son of God come in the flesh to a world of Talking Bests like Narnia instead of to Earth.

The heroic scale of the Narnia chronicles is a reminder that the basic Christian message is just that—heroic. Our lives are lived out on a cosmic scale, wherein the battle between good and evil is a bloody affair. The wages of sin are real, and the matter of atonement, redemption and salvation is equally real. Perhaps no greater violence is done to the Christian Gospel than to tame it, making a pathetic domestic chattel out of the roaring king of the beasts.

Saint Paul warned at the beginning that we could easily empty the cross of Christ of its power, converting the redeeming sacrifice of the Son of God into a mere model of good behaviour, tolerance, and most dangerous of all, niceness. Our age is guilty of that in spades, and to rediscover Lewis is to rediscover the remedy.

The Christian Gospel is a muscular thing, in which sin abounds in repetitive wickedness, but grace abounds all the more in the variety of virtue. The daily toil and petty trials of the Christian in this world are united to the great cosmic battle between truth and falsehood, grace and sin, love and fear, salvation and damnation. It is not really a matter of just trying to get along politely.

Narnia lies just on the other side of the mysterious wardrobe. The Christian imagination is that the mystical and the supernatural lie just on the other side of the ordinary, the mundane, and the natural. our world is "charged with the grandeur of God," Lewis's fellow Englishman Gerald Manley Hopkins wrote, and in Narnia we are reminded of just that. Christianity is not about some faraway place where the pains of this world are given over to palliative care; it is about this world, amidst the brokenness of which the great redemption was won, and where even today the graces of salvation are poured out. Just on the other side of the dreariness of history lies the splendour of eternity, constantly whispering to us. Lewis heard those whispers better than most, so to him goes the last word, explaining that the extraordinariness of Narnia is present here and now:

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—they are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals that we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours."

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain of Newman House, the Roman Catholic chaplaincy at Queen's University in Kingston.

Originally published in the National Post, December 8, 2005.




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