C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was one of the most influential Christian authors of the 20th century, and his popularity has only grown in the decades since his death. A professor of literature at both Cambridge and Oxford, he was a prolific author of works of literary criticism, apologetics, philosophy, theology, science fiction, and fantasy, in addition to lecturing and broadcasting.
Without question, his most successful and widely-known work is the seven-book series The Chronicles of Narnia. Infused with Christian themes and a profoundly Christian worldview, this series has been the subject of several studies and guides since it first appeared on bookshelves in 1950 (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first of the series to be published).
The prolific Joseph Pearce, who has written several books on Lewis and many other great authors—including G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, J.R.R. Tolkien, and William Shakespeare—has now penned a guide to world of Narnia. In addition to his many books, Pearce is the editor of the St. Austin Review, series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions, Senior Editor at the Augustine Institute, and the Tolkien & Lewis Chair in Literary Studies at Holy Apostles College & Seminary. In 2003, he wrote a book about C.S. Lewis’ relationship with Catholicism titled C.S. Lewis and the Catholic Church (Ignatius, 2003), and he has published several articles about this Christian man of letters. His new book, Further Up and Further In: Understanding Narnia (TAN Books, 2018) goes into great detail exploring each book of the series, breaking them apart, going deep into Lewis’ “wardrobe” to understand the realm of Narnia. The book is, says Peter Kreeft, “the best (most readable, most mature, most profoundly wise, and most wonder-full, i.e. most Lewisian) of the plethora of books written about the Chronicles of Narnia.”
Pearce recently spoke with CWR about his new book.
CWR: How did Further Up and Further In: Understanding Narnia came about? Did you bring the idea to the publisher, or did the publisher approach you?
Joseph Pearce: I mentioned to the folks at TAN Books my longstanding desire to write a book on the deeper elements of The Chronicles of Narnia, a sort of “Narnia for Grown-Ups”. They thought it was a great idea and offered me a contract.
CWR: You have written about Lewis in the past, so what prompted this book now?
Pearce: As stated above, I’ve wanted to write a book on this theme for a very long time. The problem was that I had so many different projects that it took a long time for this one to move to the front of the queue.
CWR: Why is it important to understand Narnia? Particularly as Catholics, what can we gain from a deeper understanding of Lewis’ world?
Pearce: Lewis, like his friend Tolkien, possessed the gift of bringing great truths to light through the telling of stories, much as Christ does in His parables and indeed in the story of His life. In reading The Chronicles of Narnia we find ourselves in the presence of great and necessary truths. For instance, the final pages of The Last Battle shine forth the most sublime eschatological theology, akin to the final canti of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
CWR: You speculate that Chesterton—had he the chance to read them—would have loved The Chronicles of Narnia. Is there a continuity from Chesterton to Tolkien and Lewis, particularly when it comes to how we treat “fairy stories”?
Pearce: Tolkien and Lewis expressed a great debt of gratitude to the philosophy of myth which Chesterton elucidates in his work, and especially in the chapter “The Ethics of Elf-Land” in Orthodoxy. We can see Tolkien and Lewis as practitioners par excellence of Chesterton’s mythological philosophy.
CWR: Have you found any of the seven Narnia books more difficult than the others to “understand”? Or more difficult to explain the understanding to others?
Pearce: Lewis is always a great teacher, even when he’s writing stories, so none of the works are difficult to understand on a deeper level, though some of these deeper meanings might not be obvious to the casual reader. Hence my desire to write the book. The Last Battle is the darkest of the books, at least until we reach the heavenly light of the final pages, and it contains some of the deepest theological insights. This is why I spend two chapters on this book, and not the one chapter which sufficed for the other books.
CWR: How do you feel the film adaptations—the Disney/Walden adaptations, as well as the BBC adaptations from the 1980s—of the Narnia books have “understood” Narnia?
Pearce: I only watched the first of the Disney/Walden adaptations (i.e. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), and found it disappointing, mostly because of the vulgarization of the characters. After friends informed me that the later adaptations were even worse, I decided to boycott them. I do like the earlier BBC adaptations, even though they are very low budget and very low tech—or perhaps it’s because they are low budget and low-tech! They have an innocent charm. I have enjoyed watching these with my daughter.
CWR: To understand Narnia, one must understand Aslan. How are we to understand Aslan? He is, after all, “not a tame lion.”
Pearce: Aslan is a figure of Christ in all seven stories, which means that the Christian dimension is centred on a proper understanding of who he is and the role he plays. It is for this reason that I spend a good deal of time in my book highlighting the theological aspects of Aslan’s character, actions and words, and the Christological “signature” that he leaves in each of the books.
CWR: On the topic of Narnia, is it just me or is the line “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it” one of the most clever and pleasantly witty opening lines in all of literature?
Pearce: It’s not just you. I write about this marvelously memorable opening line to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in my book. And there’s much more to it than meets the eye, especially when, a few lines later, it is linked to some clues about the character and beliefs of Eustace’s parents. Those who read my book will see how Lewis presents us with clues, which are all too easily overlooked, connecting Eustace’s parents to the socialist ideas of George Bernard Shaw. By extension, we see in Eustace’s character the disastrous consequences of raising children with such ideas.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Pearce: I would only wish to reiterate what an honor it has been to spend time with this wonderful series of books, going “further up and further in” in pursuit of the deep theology and philosophy that are found in its pages.