Chad Chisholm, CIFC Director
Can an enchanted wardrobe also be for grownups? After all, the Narnia stories were intended for children. Further Up & Further In: Understanding Narnia is a new book about the imaginative world of C.S. Lewis, and it begins with this question.
The issue of how we as adult readers should approach the layers of meaning within The Chronicles of Narnia is the latest topic taken up by Joseph Pearce who has authored several books about C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, and countless authors who either influenced this triumvirate of Christian authors or were influenced by them. Pearce’s biographies and histories are very readable—full of wit and wisdom—and they provide insight into the philosophies and fictional worlds that they explore. Aside from his expanding body of impressive professional work, Pearce has a compelling personal story of how he came to faith in Jesus Christ after dabbling away his youth in the radical politics of London.
Pearce explores the Narnia stories as part of a broader and ongoing conversation between generations of storytellers, readers, great thinkers, and the Creator God who formed them all. While many of us might want a champion to rescue the Narnia stories from the mess that Hollywood has made of them, Pearce’s book avoids the popular cultural phenomenon and goes to the core of these stories. For the most part, Pearce’s newest book is an intertextual study of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, which means he examines the interconnections between Lewis’s work and the ideas and writings of other authors. While Pearce is most known for his biographies, Further Up & Further In might be considered an intertextual biography of Lewis’s characters, themes, symbols, and their underlying meanings.
As an intertextual study of Lewis’s fiction, Pearce’s book often poses questions that lead him to other books and authors in search of an answer. To answer the question of whether Narnian wardrobes are for adults as well as children, Pearce returns to the essential role of the fairy tale itself. He argues that “fairy stories give us the moral framework necessary to see the world as it is, in all its glorious heights and goriest depths, from the perspective of the way it should be.” According to Pearce, if we do not accept the moral ethos that the fairy tale presents to us, then we risk being “dehumanized. We become less than we should be, less than we are meant to be. We become dragons who devour the innocent and lay waste to the world around us” (6).
In other words, we as adults should walk into wardrobes because “adults need fairy stories even more than children do.” From here, Pearce then dives into the individual novels in the series (each a chapter in his book) to explore the literary and philosophical truths within each of Lewis’s fairy stories. Aside from providing sound literary criticism and theological insight into the stories, Pearce uses his skills as a writer to enable us to also re-experience those moments in The Chronicles of Narnia that first captivated us as readers.
Along the way, Pearce provides much new and needed insight into the Narnia stories that might have escaped the notice of many readers (myself, at times, included). For example, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Pearce explains that Eustace Scrubb’s parents—who are vegetarians, non-smokers, teetotalers, modern-minded, and wear “a special kind of underclothes”—have all of the characteristics of Shavians, or followers of the writer George Bernard Shaw who had “a supercilious approach to history and tradition, both of which he treated with indifference or contempt.” Pearce reminds us that Shaw “believed that humanity was inexorably progressing toward a better future,” but he also maintained a “general contempt for the common man, leaving him suspicious of democracy and prone to support the rise of totalitarianism in all its forms” (112).
Readers in the mid-20th century would have more easily recognized Lewis’s critique of the Shavian mindset in how he handles Eustace’s conversion from modern arrogance to Christian humility: “[Eustace] denies the existence of dragons and is, in consequence, unable to see that he is himself a dragon, a monster who wants to lay fairyland to waste” (116). As Pearce concludes, “The punishment is the cure! In becoming a dragon, [Eustace] would cease to be a dragon; in seeing the monster he had been, he experiences a desire for love, a desire for communion; in short, a desire for conversion” (122).
Pearce’s account of the Narnian world is most powerful when he explores its ‘deep theology,’ and how Lewis uses it as a commentary for our own world. Pearce begins his chapter on The Magician’s Nephew with a discussion that sheds light on the characters of Uncle Andrew and Digory Kirk. Pearce discusses the more “broad-minded days” when “the physical sciences” where one of many branches of science (from the Latin word ‘knowledge’) concerned with “what was called natural philosophy.” The splitting of the natural sciences from the other philosophies during the Enlightenment period might have been a more powerful split than that of the atom itself because, according to Pearce, “science is no longer seen as being inseparable from ethics or subject to virtue.”
In placing the knowledge of nature outside the sphere of the love of wisdom, the materialists of the Enlightenment have delivered the physical sciences into the hands of those who employ it to pursue the will to power, connecting modern scientific research with the experiments of medieval alchemists and their experiments in “magic.” In this way, believers in scientism, such as Uncle Andrew, can be seen as synthesizing both medieval “magicians” and modern scientists, thereby making magic synonymous with certain types of technology. (36-7)
Unlike his Uncle Andrew, Digory becomes the ethical and virtuous scientist who learns from his earlier mistakes when he was seized with a wild curiosity to strike the bell in the enchanted room on Charn. However, according to Pearce, Lewis uses Digory to do more than represent an older and better view of scientific study: Digory’s actions and choices convey to us the “deep theology” at work in the Narnia series. Aslan declares that “as Adam’s race has done the harm, Adam’s race shall help heal it,” which Pearce argues is “the role of humanity in salvation history made manifest in The Magician’s Nephew” (56).
In his refusal to succumb to the temptress in the garden, Digory, as a “son of Adam,” can be seen to be the Adam who does not fail, as distinct from the biblical Adam who fails so miserably. In this sense, Digory has more in common with Christ, who, as the New Adam, resists the temptations of the devil during His days in the wilderness in order to do the will of His Father than he has with the Adam who falls into sin at the devil’s behest. Digory is, therefore, transformed from being a figure of the Old Adam who fails into a figure of Christ, the New Adam who succeeds, a literary transfiguration that signifies the soul’s conversion from the life of sin to the life of grace. (59-60)
In the end, Pearce is constantly giving us as readers a deeper understanding of a country we might already know, or a country we long to rediscover as adults. In better understanding Lewis’s Narnia and the intertextual richness that helped to form it, we can better understand where we belong both as readers and as persons who belong to eternity. As Jewel the unicorn says in The Last Battle, “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”