Secular Narnia

In this issue, Rebecca Sicree recalls some delightful misunderstandings of C.  S. Lewis’s Narnia books that occurred among her small children, both when she read the books aloud as well as when the children read them on their own. Mrs. Sicree’s reminiscences brought to my mind a young lady in a graduate class I taught ten years ago. She asked if her term paper might consider the influence of the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser on the Narnia books, which she had read and loved as a child. It was an unconventional topic for an M.A. program, but I acquiesced because I thought that she would learn more and write better on an original subject about which she cared (and this proved to be the case).

In the course of our discussions about the paper, my student revealed that she had also enjoyed the trilogy, His Dark Materials (1995–2000), by Philip Pullman (1946–). When I asked her if she found disconcerting the clash between Lewis’s Christian symbolism and Pullman’s atheism, she was nonplussed. She had missed both the Christian significance of the Narnia books and the atheist implications of Pullman’s books, which many critics see as a calculated rebuke to Lewis.

For a moment, I was surprised that a bright student in a master’s program in English had failed to recognize the opposed religious implications of these children’s books, even upon reconsidering them as an adult, but I ought to have anticipated her obliviousness. This is an ominous sign of the times. Rebecca Sicree’s children have their mother to provide a Christian context. Our public culture has been so thoroughly drained of Christian meaning and imagery, however, that Christianity is invisible to most men and women of my student’s generation.

R. V. Young is Professor of English Emeritus at North Carolina State University, and a former editor of Modern Age: A Quarterly Review. His Shakespeare & the Idea of Western Civilization is forthcoming in January from Catholic University of America Press. He and his wife are parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Dunedin, Florida. They have five grown children, 15 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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