A review of C.S.Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

For many years now our family has enjoyed the most wonderful Summer holidays in Cornwall.  And it’s at this time that my tradition is to read a book by C.S.Lewis.

Having exhausted his science fiction trilogy, and his essays and works on the Christian faith, I have now turned to the Chronicles of Narnia.  Last year it was “the Magician’s Nephew,” this year “the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

One of the best known and loved of Lewis’s works, the out-line of the story will be known to most.  Children are playing hide and seek in an Uncle’s large house.  One child, Lucy, bolts into a wardrobe and into another world, populated by Fauns. talking animals, and an evil witch who has cast the land in a perpetual Winter, and cancelled Christmas.  Lucy is shortly followed by Edmund, who meets said Queen and is turned to the dark side by a box of Turkish delight.  Then enter the rest of the gang, older children Peter and Susan.

They are befriended by Mr and Mrs Beaver, and taken to meet the land’s power for Good, Aslan.  An epic confrontation between good and evil follows.  What is also well known is how this is modelled on the Christian Gospel, with its vicarious sacrifice to pay the price for evil and treachery, and resurrection and the defeat of evil.

For my money Lewis does this without distorting or spoiling the story.  It is, above all, an engaging, fast paced, imaginative and moving story.  And I think you would feel that with no knowledge of Christianity.  For those of and sympathetic to the Christian faith it offers another level of meaning, and it is skilful how the events do parallel those in the Gospel.  As well as the main notes, we get the torment and persecution of Aslan by monsters echoing the torture and taunting of Christ, and the women watching the tomb and tending to the slain Christ are echoed by Lucy and Susan in this story in their ministering to Aslan at the stone table.  But the foundation to all this, I have to stress, is a really good story.  None of it would work if it wasn’t.

I love also the black and white illustrations by Pauline Baynes, sketches that capture the magic and wonder of the story.

Lewis’s gender politics are dated and have been a problem for many, and hotly debated.  That they were the norm when he wrote does not mean that they do not grate.  There is a line here that made me wince about battles being uglier if women fight.  No, war is ugly whoever fights, and World War One destroyed the notion of wars fought by poetic, chivalrous combat.

It is a problem, but not one in my view that should spoil the story.  We have to be sympathetic to the fact that he was writing in and of his time, and his female characters, Queen included, are so epic.  Lucy and Susan drive the action as much as if not more that their male counterparts.

A wonderful story, well written by a master story-teller.  Young or old, this is here to be enjoyed.


A review of C.S.Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew”

This is the prequel to “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” but was written after that book, first published in 1955.  Nothing unusual in this, we do it today with successful franchises, going back to before the beginning for new adventures and fresh insights into the world of the tales.  George R.R. Martin has just written a prequel to his staggeringly popular ‘Game of Thrones’  series, for example.  Then there’s the Star Wars prequels.  So you can see from these examples that sometimes this is successful, sometimes not.  Questions to consider; does it link in coherently with the world building of the series as a whole?  Does it bring fresh excitements and understandings?  Does it work as a stand-alone tale?  For George Lucas, arguably, there were real problems with these things.  Here, it most definitely does.
This is a cracking story that you could come to with no other introduction to the works of Professor Lewis.  It tells, as many of our richest children’s stories do, of a new friendship in the long Summer holiday, of exploring long secret passageways and secret rooms, of sinister relatives, and a heartbreaking reality of  dying mother.  Then, an exploration into a wider fantasy world, with a wicked Queen, a certain magical and heroic lion, and the birth of a new world.  Welcome to Narnia.
There are wonderful scenes that live on in the imagination, including the ‘multi-verse’ anticipating glade of pools that provide routes into different worlds and a haunting vision of evil in the dying world of Charn, with its progressively evil rulers represented in statue form, so the increasing moral despair and degradation in their faces is preserved and plain to see.  Then the evil breaks into this world, and there’s a semi-comic and chaotic chase involving the evil Queen, a hi-jacked Hansom cab, the Police, and various others.  The creation of Narnia is a hauntingly beautiful beautiful scene, life birthed by song.  And we see the origin of Narnia’s eco-system of intelligent, talking animals, and the framework is set for the future novels with a human King and Queen and the introduction of evil magic to this new world.
It’s a cracking story well told.  Seasoned readers of Lewis will enjoy spotting Lewis’s signature themes explored in his more grown up novels and writings such as the power of myth, the estrangement of evil, and more.  It’s a joy, and I recommend it.

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength.”

The last of his “Space Trilogy,” this is widely held to be the most problematic of the series, and / or people’s least favourite instalment.  See my reviews of the previous books here and here.

My feelings are indeed mixed.  On one level it thoroughly gripped and engaged me in places, and even the most problematic sections are full of powerful and rich imagery. In the end I was left reeling and troubled, challenged and entertained, and definitely left with a book I won’t forget.

Mark and Jane Struddock are a young married couple recently ensconced in their first married home in the fictional University town of Bracton, part of the equally fictional area of Edgecombe.  In his Preface Lewis says that if these places are based on anywhere, then they are based on Durham.  Mark has a teaching post there, and has recently been initiated into the in-crowd there, the smart set ostensibly bringing about progress. Through the influence of the Charimanship of Lord Feverstone, aka “Devine” from the previous novels, Mark is then introduced to the organisation of N.I.C.E at their headquarters “Belbury” on virtue of his work as part of that University smart-set in helping NICE to buy a piece of the Bracton University grounds that it has a strong interest in.  N.I.C.E is ostensibly set up to propagate the values of science in advancing the progress and welfare of mankind through eliminating troubling “red-tape” on areas such as vivisection and the “curing” of criminal behaviour. It is gaining national political and media support by the day.  Mark begins to advance through the organisation and become embroiled in an Orwellian world of fear and double talk, where he is torn between advancing his career and influence there, and the terror of losing his soul…

Jane meanwhile has been troubled by dreams including the decapitation of a well known scientist / criminal Alascan, and the unearthing of a mysterious sleeping figure beneath Bracton wood.  Jane learns from her involvement in a Christian community at the nearby village of St Annes that she is in fact a seer, and her dreams have a direct bearing on reality, including the machinations of N.I.C.E and their interest in Bracton wood.  Jane meets the Director of St Annes, a spiritually and physically powerful man who we learn as interplanetary traveller Ransom from the previous novels.  The St Anne’s community must stop the evil of N.I.C.E which turns out in fact to be under direct control from the forces of Hell and their “principalities and powers.”  And the figure under the Bracton woods turns out to be none other than Merlin of Arthurian legends, whose old powers will decide this titanic struggle once and for all.

So as you can see from the above, this really is a heady brew.  What I loved were the descriptions of political intrigue first at the University then at N.I.C.E.  Lewis nails the insidious nature of organisational corruption, and the slow, corrosive drip by drip effects of evil talk and decisions on advancing poisonous agendas.  He’s good at describing evil, and how it feeds on itself, always ravenous for new souls, always pitiless in its elimination of weakness, and how this can be justified by facile agendas in the name of progress.  Keen readers of Lewis’s wider works including his essays will recognise many of his recurring themes: the seduction of the smart set as a gateway into evil society; why vivisection is not justified; the hidden horrors of a “curative” as opposed to a penal approach to punishment; the romance and hidden realities of myth; how “myth” is misunderstood and is in fact a valid expression of reality; his views on the primacy of masculine roles in religion and marriage and the misunderstandings of equality; and more.

The baddies are hugely entertaining too.  Like “Paradise Lost” and various works of Shakespeare, this is a work where we get impatient for those on the wrong side to take the stage.  There is the vague and vacuous Deputy Director Wither, who behind the facile reassurances of his conversations and political double talk is a mind of terror and horror. There’s the clinical nihilism of Frost, the bonhomie masking the sexual sadism of Police chief “Fairy Hardcastle,” and more.  Seeing this lot ensnare Mark Struddock, and their battles with each other, is vastly entertaining.  At the same time, they remain an utterly ruthless and frightening foe, a massive fascist regime no less, capable of taking over a whole town with its own Police Force and instituting a reign of terror where all manner of evil is sanctioned.

What I found problematic are found in the following strands:

Mark and Jane both undergo a slow conversion to Christianity through the pages of the book.  Their marriage was almost dead as it was not earthed in sustainable values.  Mark is converting through disillusionment, horror and terror.  Jane through the influence of the Christian community she is driven to and what she sees there.  This includes a Bear and Jackdaw both under Ransom’s healing spell.

This turns out to be a decisive battle between the cosmic powers of good and evil on Earth, and when Merlin joins the fray, much rich imagery abounds from the mythic heritage of Arthurian Britain and “Logres.”

In the past instalments and especially “Perelandra” Lewis really nailed a magical and nourishing marriage of theology between imaginative fiction and theology.  The conflict between Ransom and the “Un-man” in preventing another Fall of creation on Venus is gripping and powerful stuff. The integration of some theological themes and the fiction of “That Hideous Strength” was to me not as successful.  His views on marriage and equality are hard to reconcile with our lives now, and I found them immensely challenging.  And the introduction of the Arthurian themes, and the “tame” animals threaten a kind of imaginative confusion and incoherence.  It’s nothing if not audacious.

Definitely a not good jumping on point for those new to Lewis and although he says the book can be read as a standalone in his Preface as well as the culmination of a trilogy, I would only recommend the latter, because it can be bewildering already and if you are not familiar with Ransom and some of the background on the cosmic powers, it will for many I fear be too much.

To sum up, a flawed but powerful culmination of the Space trilogy of C.S. Lewis.





A review of C.S.Lewis’s “Perelandra.”

“Perelandra” is the second novel in C.S>Lewis’s science fiction trilogy.  In the first, “Out of the Silent Planet, ” Dr Ransom, a Cambridge philologist, travelled to Mars kidnapped by a Dr Weston for his own nefarious and mistaken purposes, to colonise Mars and use Dr Ransom as a propitiatory sacrifice.  Weston is humbled and defeated and Ransom returns to Earth literally on the side of the angels, an important part in Maledil’s (God’s) cosmic project.

In this second book, the narrator, called “Lewis” in a pleasing conceit, travels to his friend Ransom’s house as summoned, encounters an angelic “Eldil,”, and on Ransom’s further instruction seals Ransom up in a coffin like object which whisks its’ occupant to the titular planet (which is in fact Venus).

So straight-away you have to forget what we now know about Venus as super-hot uninhabitable Hell, and enter Lewis’s imaginative conception of an unspoilt sea-world paradise, with floating islands and one forbidden ‘fixed’ land.  It’s not hard to do as this book is so good, the writing so rich and involving, and it’s all held together by the integrity of Lewis’s world-view.

Ransom arrives on Perelandra adrift on its’ sea, under a golden sky, and grabs hold of a floating island, an organic entity that sustain a diverse and bountiful eco-system, full of lush plant, animal and bird life.  Because, in Lewis’s story, it is un-fallen, untainted by evil, it is not characterised by a red in tooth and claw predatory fight for survival, but mutual, peaceful, dependence and co-operation.  On one of these islands Ransom meets “the Lady,” a figure of love, intelligence and enquiry, who is bewildered by Ransom’s thought processes and eager to know more about him.  The Lady is obviously very close to Maledil.  She has been looking for her companion, a man, from whom she has been separated.  But then something falls from the sky, and it’s Weston’s spaceship.  Weston himself is not sure why he is there, but is propounding a new philosophy, a vague belief tin some kind of God, a vacuous belief in which anything can fit.  And  unfortunately for Weston it does.  Weston is possessed by a demonic entity, here called the “Un-man, ” and from that point forward is damned and no more.  The Un-man strives to seduce the Lady away from the ways of Maledil through arguments that seek to put her above God, through the choice of going to the fixed land, forbidden to her and the man.  It’s an attempt at another Fall of mankind on another world, again using arguments of pride and the need to separate from God to grow.  Ransom must stop this attempt through any means necessary, be it argument or physical force.  The conflict is the central drama of the book.  Will the world fall to darkness, or will, with Ransom’s help, Maledil’s work drive forwards on its best path to fulfilment without a catastrophe of death and ruin?

The book succeeds on different levels, as a science fiction thriller and a work of propitious imagination, of world-building, of an epic fantasy clash between good and evil, and of theological and philosophical argument, on such huge topics as the conflict between good and evil, spiritual warfare, separation from God, the nature of evil, how other intelligent life on alien worlds does not negate the Christian world-view of the centrality of humanity on this one, and a lot more.  It is intensely readable and enriching.  Some may be frustrated by character’s breaking off from what they are doing to engage in deep philosophical debate, but what they discuss is so wrapped up in what is going on, it wasn’t a problem for this reader.

In tone this is a darker work than the previous one, as it confronts more head on the reality of evil.  And in its depiction of demonic possession, it can be frightening and horrifying.  The Un-man is a creature as frightening as anything contemporary horror has given us.  It has the almost casual obscenity of Pazuzu from the film “The Exorcist,” more sadistic playground bully than Milton’s tragic-heroic figure from “Paradise Lost.”  It can seem frightening plausible and seductive in its arguments, before wandering off to torture small animals!   The book’s depiction of damnation of Weston also raises a shiver of horror, as the ghost of Weston, a pitiable scrap occasionally allowed to re-occupy his shell of a body, describes the torments of being disembodied and melted down into the infernal presence.

Ransom must fight the Un-Man physically, and Ransom’s dread before the combat, the spiritual resources he finds to bear it after a torturous internal dialogue with his own doubt and fear, is also compelling reading.  The fight itself is a prolonged violent struggle that is also stronger stuff than anything in the previous book (and in any other of Lewis’s fiction that I can remember) and is a page turning tour-de-force.

Ransom and his foe are literally cast into the depths before the denouement, which I will not spoil here.  Suffice it to say it is an intense read, conjuring up massive imaginative conceits and visions with epic cosmological, philosophical and theological argument.

An amazing read, one I won’t forget, with much that I found helpful.

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “A Grief Observed.”

A Grief Observed, written by C S Lewis in notebooks he found around his house as a way of trying to come to terms with or understand the agony of his bereavement of the loss of his wife Joy Davidman, is a piece of writing well known for its rawness and honesty, and also for it’s description of a process.  Lewis moves from rage and disgust with God (describing Him variously as a cosmic bully, vivisectionist and sadist) to a realisation of the nonsense of this idea (ultimate bullies and sadists would not be able to create the wonderments of our creation) to a sense of the bigger picture of death, loss and Gods purposes that leads to Lewis being able to reconcile faith and loss.

One of the most admirable things about this little book is how it firmly rejects the easy answers, the cop outs.  Lewis includes with these both the ideas of lost loved ones simply waiting for us on some farther shore, and the equally simple but unsatisfactory cop-out of loss and pain being the fruits of an evil god.  There are no short-cuts through such human agony, and any attempt to package it away so we can pretend there is no pain to go through will only worsen things.  Lewis has a gift for analogy that he uses to his usual excellent effect here, such as the one towards the end of the book that compares the bereavement as being in a dark place, that at the start may feel like a cellar or dungeon, but in time we may come to realise that our own preconceptions may have misled us, we hear a wind which suggests we may be in the dark countryside before the dawn.  Or hear a friendly chuckle which suggests the presence of a friend in a darkened room.  Lewis comes back to themes and ideas he has explored in other books; that our ideas of ‘reality’ are shaped by our immediate animal sensations, we cannot comprehend a fraction of what is going on in our own minds or bodies at any time, how much more the wider realms of world and God?  In other words, we constantly confuse the little for the big picture.

Joy Davidman must have been a wonderful woman, and she shines through this book as a fierce intelligence and integrity, and it is these aspects that Lewis feels in touch with as his grief progresses.   And this is a book not only about loss but also about human love.  It describes a relationship that celebrates the raw individuality of the other, and how the two becoming one flesh does not mean that differences are lost or subsumed, but that rather those differences are celebrated  by their union.  In a passage that will upset the preconceptions many hold about Lewis, he mocks gender stereotypes, laughing at the idea that sensitivity is a female trait and chivalry and honour male ones.  with Joy he found someone with which he could not pretend or hide behind ideas.  And this is one of the many losses that he feels keenly.

Facing bereavement of one kind or another will come to us all if we continue to live.  This books is an invaluable contribution to our struggle to understand this inescapable part of the human condition.

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “Out of the Silent Planet” (Book One in “The Space Trilogy”).

“Out of The Silent Planet” is a beautiful and haunting science fiction story first published in 1938.  In the Preface Lewis admits a debt to H.G.Wells , most notably “First Men in the Moon,” and that is there in the adventure elements of the novel and in certain shapes of the narrative such as the departure from Earth and one of the travellers being set upon his interplanetary voyage completely unawares, as well as in the strangeness of man and alien race meeting.

But there are huge philosophical differences in the world-views of these writers.  Lewis was of course writing informed by his Christianity, although to call it a “Christian novel” would be to do an injustice to its universal appeal, as Well’s novel, informed by his scientific humanism, also has universal appeal.

‘Ransom,’ the hero of the novel, a Professor of Philology from Cambridge, is on a walking tour when he is asked by a distressed woman to look up her son, now very late from his work, at a nearby mansion.  At the mansion Ransom interrupts a struggle between a “simple” villager, the woman’s son, and two men, who appear to be trying to drag him somewhere.  The man runs off and Ransom is invited the mansion belonging to the two men, one of whom he recognises as Cambridge peer called Devine.  The other is wealthy industrialist called Weston.  Under the guise of hospitality they drug Ransom who awakes on a space-ship on his way to ‘Malacandra,’ aka Mars.  He learns he is to be given to an alien race called the Sorns and this understandably terrifies him.  He escapes on the surface of the alien world and soon meets other inhabitants of Malacandra; the otter like Hross, the long and slender Sorns, and creatures of light called Eldil.  Weston and Devine, who are there to variously strip Malacandra of its gold (there’s a lot) and colonise it in the name of progress, cause a violent death of one of Malacandra’s creatures and Ransom decides to go to the Sorn and give himself voluntarily to them to atone.  There he meets the planet’s ruler, Oyarsa, and the outlines of a far bigger adventure begin to be understood.  This is to be developed further in the next two instalments of the trilogy of which “Out of the Silent Planet” is the first.

Dated in its scientific elements it may be, but “Out of the Silent Planet” is as much as a timeless classic as the Narnia stories, of which it shares its imaginative re-telling of the Christian worldview.

This should not deter the most cynical and hardened atheist or agnostic reader, as long as they love great writing and stories, told with imaginative verve.  Regular readers of Lewis will be familiar with some of his ideas contained in his essays and other work; the idea that there is a spiritual duality, an “enemy” as Lewis often calls it.  That our spiritual sickness and great evils arise from the false idolatry of certain ideas, small pieces of a larger picture that we mistake for the whole act itself, and as a result these small ideas become twisted (or ‘bent’ as is described in the novel).  So bodily survival is a necessary imperative but when we are prepared to decimate other races, species and lands to preserve the life of our own race and species evil occurs, because we fear and misunderstand death.  We see physical reality as an end in itself and not symptomatic or part of something larger.  Devine in this story represents humanity’s greed in his lust for Malacandra’s gold, but as Oyarsa says, this is the lesser evil, almost at the level of the animal, next to the evil of Weston which has larger spiritual and cosmological implications.  Weston represents the utter pride of humanity in itself, and of the crudest and bluntest and most weapon like understanding of evolutionary science.  His is almost the evil of Lucifer before the fall.  Weston’s worldview and those he represents, is the desire to be God.

Again I apologise if I am putting you off the novel.  If you are a lover of science fiction or old adventure stories, I urge you to read this.  The theological implications underpin but do not intrude.  This is a novel that nourishes as much as it entertains, which is a pretty fair description of the best of Lewis’s writing.

A review of C.S.Lewis’s “Fern-seed and Elephants and other essays on Christianity”

Fern-seed and Elephants is a short collection of essays of C.S. Lewis in which he vigorously defends orthodox Christianity against a range of challenges in secular and modern thought, including the ravages of various stains of liberal theology to which he objected.   His gift is to make clear that which has been made needlessly abstracted, rescuing from needless obfuscation.

The essays are taken from previously published addresses, sermons and periodical pieces from 1945-1959.

‘Membership’ looks at what it means to belong to the Church, the Body of Christ, organically as art of a whole, as opposed to a unit as part of a collective.  He brings out how the individual, with all that makes it unique, finds its fullest expression when part of this larger organic community.  In accepting with humility ones place in an ordained hierarchy and larger scheme of thing, one becomes for the first time fully and gloriously alive, truly realising the self.  It’s a wonderful paradox.

‘Learning in War-time’ meets head on the kind of existential problem that studying, and learning an academic discipline may have brought in a time of national and international crisis here hearth and home is threatened.  Is such learning in this context futile and selfish?  Not at all, Lewis replies, reminding his hearers (this was originally preached) and readers that we always at all points of history are learning whilst acing he greatest existential challenge of all; one’s own mortality.  The fact that this has never made learning futile gives own pause and puts ‘learning in war-time’ in its proper context.

‘On Forgiveness’ neatly draws out the difference between asking God forgiveness and merely asking Him to excuse our behaviour.  Lewis rescues forgiveness from being merely a nice idea to reinstating it as the supremely uncompromising, massive and redeeming challenge it undoubtedly is.

In ‘Historicism’ Lewis asks to be excused from the train of thought that purports to understand history as a symphonic whole, with a full grasp of the underlying causes and effects.  He sensibly points out that fully grasping everything that happens in the world in the present at any given moment is impossible, or even our own lives, with their exponential complexities.  So how then can we hope to look into the past and read it with absolute confidence, declaring that we understand the forces that have shaped our past?

‘The World’s Last Night’ is Lewis’s own “An Inconvenient Truth.”  Modern theological thinking may seek to explain away end-time teaching in the Gospels, he says, but it remains and is unambiguous.  The curtain will come down, suddenly, and prediction is impossible.  Lewis rightly decries those who have tried to nail it down to a date and time as foolish and way off the mark.  It is meant to be unknown.  Our modern comforts and tendency to rationality balk at the idea of God suddenly invading Creation again, but Lewis tells us that, like the above on Forgiveness, that is the clear teaching and really there are no ifs and buts.

‘Religion and Rocketry’ debunks the notion that other life in the universe challenges basic Christian theological assumptions.  To challenge our own redemption and primacy to God, we need to know, are these alien races sentient as we are?  Have they had their own ‘fall’ from grace?  If so does their redemption have to copy ours?  The hypotheses that seek to form a challenge to Christianity collapse under their own weight.

‘The Efficacy of Prayer’ looks at petitionary prayer and the challenges that are posed if it is answered, or unanswered.  Lewis rightly points out that we can ask for things in prayer and are obliged to do so, but we are praying with humility to a supreme power and intelligence who knows what we need before we ask and knows what can and can’t be granted.  And yet still we are obliged to pray.  Why?  Lewis draws out the dance between free-will and omnipotence.  We ask because that is relationship.  Asking helps to redeem and transform.  And even Jesus Christ did not find a particular prayer answered in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Finally the titular ‘Fern-seed and Elephants’ looks at the tendency of some theological and academic thought of not seeing the wood for the trees.  In other words, in seeking to find elaborate truths between the lines of the Gospels, the stark simple truths those lines tell are missed.  And the assumptions on which such critical reductionist thinking draws are too vast to be borne.   To say with confidence that such and such a teaching of Christ is a backward projection of the Church is to say with confidence that you can read the book of the past as with ‘Historicism’ above.

My little synopsis of the essays above are just that, highly reductionist summaries, and I urge you to read these complex, intelligent and yet clear as spring water essays in their fullness.