I have heard the Chronicles of Narnia described as "brilliant" or a "masterpiece" before, but until I began rereading them again just this month I had no idea why people talked about them so. You must remember it has been ten years or more since I read them last, so although I knew in theory that they were allegorical I mostly took my mother's word for it. "Allegorical" does not actually begin to cut it.
When I was in high school (which was the last time I made any formal study of English, with the exception of one class as a freshman at Stanford) we talked a lot about Christ figures. I feel like people talk a lot about Christ figures in literature, and I do believe that after finishing the Chronicles as an adult (am I an adult?) I will find such talk even sillier than I found it in high school. The reason is this: generally, when people put a Christ figure into their stories, they put in a figure that stands for some idea that Christ in turn stands for. Perhaps it is the idea of the Dying God, or the idea of Sacrifice, or the idea of New Life. But when Lewis put a Christ figure into the Chronicles, that figure stood for the person of Christ, in many aspects. Usually, a Christ figure communicates only an idea. Aslan communicates a character. And he does it quite well. Lewis once said that he hoped children, reading the Chronicles, would recognize Jesus the more easily when they were older thereby. I am having the opposite experience. I am reading about Aslan and saying, "I know that person! That is exactly what he's like!"
But what makes the Chronicles a brilliant masterpiece, I think, is that the allegory goes far deeper than just Aslan. I feel as if almost every page is packed with allegory. These are, I suppose, books about what it is like to be Christian. And the truth is that it doesn't come across as heavy-handed to me at all. Obvious ... obvious, perhaps, but I am not at all sure how obvious it all is to someone who isn't already Christian. But more important than their obviousness or obscurity, now that I am reading, is their accuracy. More perfectly than any story I have ever imagined (and certainly more than any I have ever read or heard), the Chronicles capture what it is like. The world of Narnia is really not like our own world at all, and yet if you know what to look for you hardly notice that - that's the genius of the allegory, what makes them an allegory among allegories. And what a good time for these to come back into my life, too. I feel as if the air of Narnia were working on me these past months, and soon enough I shall be ready for adventures once more.
I'm reading The Silver Chair right now, and the following passage struck me as so sweet that I just had to repost it. How I would love to storytime these some time! I hope you find this as sweet as I just did:
"Will you promise not to - do anything to me, if I do come?" said Jill.
"I make no promise," said the Lion.
Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer.
"Do you eat girls?" she said.
"I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms," said the Lion. It didn't say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
"I daren't come and drink," said Jill.
"Then you will die of thirst," said the Lion.
"Oh dear!" said Jill, coming another step nearer. "I suppose I must go and look for another stream then."
"There is no other stream," said the Lion.
It never occurred to Jill to disbelieve the Lion - no one who had seen his stern face could do that - and her mind suddenly made itself up. It was the worst thing she had ever had to do, but she went forward to the stream, knelt down, and began scooping up water with her hand. It was the coldest, most refreshing water she had ever tasted. You didn't need to drink much of it, for it quenched your thirst at once. Before she tasted it she had been intending to make a dash away from the Lion the moment she had finished. Now, she realised that this would be on the whole the most dangerous thing of all.