The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, published in 1950, was the first of the seven Chronicles of Narnia to be published. The book became an almost instant classic, although its author, C. S. Lewis, reportedly destroyed the first draft after he received harsh criticism on it from his friends and fellow fantasy writers, including J. R. R. Tolkien.
How should we analyse The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: as Christian allegory, as wish-fulfilment fantasy, or as something else? Before we embark on an analysis of the novel, it might be worth briefly recapping the plot.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: summary
The novel is about four siblings – Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie – who are evacuated from London during the Second World War and sent to live with a professor in the English countryside. One day, Lucy discovers that one of the wardrobes in the house contains a portal through to another world, a land covered in snow.
Soon after arriving there, she (quite literally) bumps into a faun (half-man, half-goat) named Mr Tumnus, who takes her to his house and gives her tea while he tells her about the land she has wandered into. Its name is Narnia, and it is always winter (but never Christmas) ever since the White Witch cast a spell over the land. Indeed, Tumnus confesses to Lucy that he should report Lucy’s presence in Narnia to the White Witch, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he helps her find her way back to the portal so she can return home.
When Lucy gets back and tells her three siblings about her adventure in Narnia, none of them believes her – although Edmund, intrigued, follows her into the wardrobe when she goes back there and finds himself in Narnia, where he meets the White Witch. She gives him Turkish Delight and he tells her about himself and his brother and sisters. She tells him she will make him a prince if he persuades his other siblings to come with him to Narnia.
However, when Edmund talks to Lucy about where they’ve been, and he learns that the White Witch is bad news, he denies that Narnia even exists when Lucy is telling Peter and Susan about it. He accuses her of lying. But eventually all four of them go through the wardrobe into Narnia. When Lucy takes them to visit Mr Tumnus, however, they find that he has been arrested.
The children are befriended by Mr and Mrs Beaver, from whom they learn more information about Narnia. There is a prophecy that when two boys and two girls become Kings and Queens of Narnia, the White Witch will lose her power over the land; this is why the White Witch was so keen to lure the children to Narnia, with Edmund’s help, so she can destroy them and ensure the prophecy does not come true. The Beavers also tell the children that Aslan, the great lion, is on the move, and that he is due to return.
Edmund slips away from them and goes to the White Witch, telling her everything he knows. She takes him to the Stone Table, where Aslan is due to reappear, and orders her servants (wolves) to track down Edmund’s siblings and kill them so the prophecy cannot come true. Mr and Mrs Beaver take the other three children to the Stone Table to meet Aslan.
The snow in Narnia is melting, and Father Christmas appears: proof that the White Witch’s spell over the land is losing its power. Father Christmas gives Lucy, Peter, and Susan presents which will help them in their quest. They arrive at the Stone Table and meet Aslan. The White Witch’s wolf captain Maugrim approaches the camp and attacks Susan, but Peter, armed with the sword Father Christmas gave him, saves his sister and kills the wolf.
The White Witch arrives, and she and Aslan discuss her right to execute Edmund for treason, invoking ‘Deep Magic from the Dawn of Time’. Edmund is spared, but that night the children witness the White Witch putting Aslan to death on the Stone Table. Aslan has gone willingly to his death, in order to save Edmund.
However, the children are surprised and relieved when, the following morning, Aslan comes back to life, citing ‘Deeper Magic from before the Dawn of Time’, which means that a willing victim who sacrificed himself in place of a traitor can be brought back from death. Aslan and the children march to battle against the Witch, with Aslan raising additional troops for his army by breathing on the stone statues in the White Witch’s castle courtyard: traitors she had turned to stone with her magic.
Many years pass. The four Pevensie children have grown into young adults, and have been Kings and Queens of Narnia (reigning jointly) for many years. One day, while they are out hunting the White Stag (which, when caught, can grant wishes), they ride to the lamppost where Lucy first met Mr Tumnus: the location of the portal leading to and from their (and our) world. Without realising this, the four of them pass through the portal and find themselves back in the wardrobe in the professor’s house. They are children again, as they were before they left all those years ago: time hasn’t passed in our world while they have been away.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: analysis
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a classic children’s novel which looks back to both earlier fantasy fiction by Victorian writers like William Morris and George MacDonald (the latter a particular influence on C. S. Lewis) as well as pioneering children’s novels by E. Nesbit. Indeed, the Pevensie children were partly inspired by Nesbit’s Bastable children, who feature in a series of her novels, including The Story of the Treasure Seekers. Nesbit, however, had also written portal fantasy novels (as had George MacDonald, such as his 1895 novel Lilith) involving children leaving our world behind for a fantastical other world: see her novel The Magic City, for example.
Say ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ or ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and many people will say, ‘Oh, the C. S. Lewis book(s) that are Christian allegory, right?’ But C. S. Lewis didn’t regard them as allegory: ‘In reality,’ he wrote, Aslan ‘is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” This is not allegory at all.’
In short, Lewis rejects the idea that his Narnia books are allegory because, for them to qualify as allegorical, Aslan would have to ‘represent’ Jesus. But he doesn’t: he is Jesus, if Narnia existed and a deity decided to walk among the people of that world. We might think of this as something like the distinction between simile and metaphor: simile is like allegory, because one thing is like something else, whereas in metaphor, one thing is the other thing. Aslan is not like Jesus (allegory): he is Jesus’ equivalent in Narnia. Perhaps this is a distinction without a difference to many readers, but it’s worth bearing in mind that if anyone should know what allegory is, it’s C. S. Lewis: he wrote a whole scholarly work, The Allegory of Love, about medieval and Renaissance allegory.
Readers might quibble over Lewis’s categorisation here, and decide that what he is outlining is a distinction without a difference (perhaps clouded by his Christianity, and his unwillingness to see his children’s books as ‘mere’ allegory for Christianity, but instead as something more direct and powerful). But if we stick with mid-twentieth-century fiction and animals for a moment, we can find an example of unequivocal allegory: George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), which we have analysed here. Certainly, there are subtle differences between Orwell’s novel in which animal characters ‘stand in’ for human counterparts, and what Lewis is doing with Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is, nevertheless, a novel in which Lewis draws on the Christian story of salvation through a godlike figure (Aslan’s sacrifice on the Stone Table, and subsequent resurrection, are clearly meant to summon the Crucifixion and subsequent Resurrection of Jesus Christ), in order to promote the Christian story. But what if we aren’t ‘sold’ on the Christian aspect of the story? Does the novel’s only value lie in its power as an allegory – or whatever term we might employ instead of allegory?
Part of the reason for the novel’s broader appeal, even in an increasingly secular age, is that it provides escapism and wish-fulfilment aplenty. The whole idea of a portal to another world symbolises the children’s literal escape from a dreary wartime world (where the danger of being bombed during the Blitz has given way to a rather dull life in the countryside with a professor) into a world of crisp snow, magic, and adventure. Although The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was published five years after the end of the Second World War, children in the early 1950s were still living through a time of rationing and austerity. Even that Turkish Delight that Edmund is given – his thirty pieces of silver to betray his siblings, of course – must have seemed like an almost unattainable treat to Lewis’s original readers.
Even the device with which the novel ends, by which the four children learn that during the years they have spent in Narnia, no time has passed back home, recalls the force of a powerful dream whereby we feel we have ‘lived’ an intense, and intensely long, experience only to wake up and discover it’s only the next morning after all.