A Childhood in Narnia

An interview with Elizabeth Cunningham, author of The Maeve Chronicles

The recent release of Andrew Adamson’s blockbuster film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is introducing a whole new generation of children to the fantasy novels of C.S. Lewis. At least, let’s hope that the audiences who packed movie houses this holiday season will turn from the screen to the page to discover the imaginative and theological depth of Lewis’s work, a quality that can’t be rendered by special effects, however superb.

A Medievalist who taught at both Oxford and Cambridge and counted among his close friends novelists J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis was first known for his Christian apologetics, among them The Allegory of Love, The Problem of Pain, and Surprised by Joy, the latter an account of his dramatic conversion from atheism to Christianity. The Chronicles of Narnia, seven novels for children, were first published in the early 1950s and enjoyed great popularity. Lewis is less well-known for his adult fiction, a science fiction trilogy, and a single novel Till We Have Faces that retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche, though their kinship with the Narnia novels is clear.

Claimed by Christians—and recently by the Christian right—as a defender of the faith, C.S. Lewis never managed to confine his imagination to Christian orthodoxy, and in all his fiction his love of pagan myth is plainly evident. Instead of renouncing the old gods and goddesses, the spirits of the trees and the rivers, Lewis sought to baptize them, as one of his fictional characters observes in his adult novel That Hideous Strength. Whether or not Lewis fully succeeded in reconciling the pagan and the Christian, their co-existence in the Narnia books has affected the imaginative, moral, and literary sensibilities of uncounted children, some of whom grew up to write fiction themselves.

What follows is an interview with Elizabeth Cunningham whose new novel, The Passion of Mary Magdalen, the central novel of The Maeve Chronicles, will be published in Spring, 2006. The author of four critically acclaimed novels, in The Maeve Chronicles, Cunningham brings us the adventures of a feisty, outspoken Celtic Mary Magdalen, who loves Jesus with all her soul, but remains an unconverted pagan.

Q: How old were you when you first read The Chronicles of Narnia?

A: I was seven years old. I can still remember discovering the books. I grew up as the daughter of an Episcopal minister in a small rural town. I came upon the books in the library of the parish house—that would be the original hardcover edition. I can still feel my sense of excitement as I picked up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I can picture exactly where I stood, the light of an overcast day coming in through the windows. I must have had some sixth sense that I couldn’t have expressed then that I was about to encounter something that would shape my entire life. I asked my mother about the books, and she must have read them aloud to us the first time—there is something very powerful about hearing a story. After that I read and re-read the whole series at least once a year until I was in my twenties. Later, of course, I read them aloud to my children.

Q: Can you describe the effect the stories had on you as a child?

Like many children of my generation and temperament, I lived in hope that I would slip into Narnia through some mysterious entryway like Lucy’s wardrobe. That you could get to Narnia from this world I absolutely believed. In a sense (though not as literal a one as I wanted as a child) I did spend my childhood going to and from Narnia. I learned from these stories to walk between the worlds, to use a shamanic term. There was the mundane world of school and home and there was a magical world—just as real—where anything might happen, where a child could meet adventure and be called upon to act courageously. What I love about Narnia still--and must have sensed even then—is that Narnia, a world where everything is alive and able to speak, is our world, if we have the eyes to see it, if we willing to awaken to what Aslan calls Deep Magic.

Q: As a minister’s daughter, you must have been aware of the element of Christian allegory particularly evident in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, with its story of Aslan’s sacrificial death and resurrection. How did the Christian parallels affect you?

A: I was certainly aware of the Christian dimension, though whether I figured it out for myself or had it explained to me by an adult I can’t recall. Aslan gave me a pure, simple, and direct way to love the divine mystery that was not so available to me through the church. My earliest memory, age three, is of confessing to my cousin my plot to kill God and Jesus by rolling a boulder onto them. Why I hated them so much at such a young age, I don’t know, but it probably had to do with my already troubled and unhappy relationship with my father the priest. And God the Father has never seemed a benign figure to me. As for the Holy Ghost (as the spirit was called then) he was all mixed up in my child’s mind with the cartoon figure Casper.

In the Narnia stories, C.S. Lewis doesn’t trouble himself or the reader with the other members of the Christian trinity. Aslan is the Incarnation, and he is gloriously incarnate. You can bury your face in his mane, feel the ripple of his muscles when you ride on his back. He breathes on you to give you courage, and when he gazes at you, you have to face yourself with absolute honesty. He is not tame. He is fierce and wild and terrible and good, and he was—and is—completely real to me.

Although I didn’t think about it then, it occurs to me now: There is no religion in Narnia, no church, with Aslan as a god to be worshipped. Aslan just IS. The Narnia stories opened the way for me to love Jesus without being a Christian—just as my narrative character Maeve does. What matters in Narnia is not the recital of a creed or the conforming of beliefs to orthodoxy—but honesty, valor, love, the willingness to forgive and be forgiven.

Q: How has C.S. Lewis’s way of telling stories influenced your own fiction writing?

A: In a word, profoundly. C.S. Lewis once said that he wrote the stories that he wanted to read, and I have adhered to that principle even though for years I kept hearing from publishers that they did not know how to categorize my work. The Tolkien model of fantasy writing became the predominant one in the publishing industry—fantasies that take place in a wholly other world. All my stories take place in this world, and they all have elements of magic, which some call fantasy, but to me is just another dimension of reality. I think people hunger for this kind of story—witness the cult of Harry Potter. Finally the entertainment industry seems to be catching on.

In all my stories, I hear echoes of Lewis’s. The Wild Mother takes up the Adam, Eve, and Lilith midrash, which I first learned of from C.S. Lewis. The narrative of How to Spin Gold, a retelling of the Rumplestiltskin story, has a strong kinship with the narrator of Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, which I believe is his fictional masterpiece. In all my books whenever my characters arrive at that place where human frailty and divine mystery meet, I know that I am still in Narnia and C.S. Lewis is with me.

Q: In The Passion of Mary Magdalen you are in fact telling the Passion story and Jesus appears as a character with no allegorical veil. Moreover your Maeve is an unconverted, unrepentant, openly sexual pagan. She even has some rip-roaring fights with Jesus. What do you think C.S. Lewis would think of your novel?

C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist and man of his time and class, might well be appalled by my novel. Being female and born in a different time and place, I have explored subjects—sexuality being one of them—that C.S. Lewis left largely (though not completely) untouched. I also have a taste for irreverence and pushing the boundaries that he may not have shared—but then he was not born into the church as a preacher’s kid.

But I would like to believe that C.S. Lewis the storyteller would be enthralled, for I learned the art of storytelling from him. I think he would recognize in my work the great themes of all stories: trial and courage, frailty and forgiveness, love that is stronger than death.

In my depiction of Jesus, I always bore in mind what Narnians always say of Aslan: “He is not a tame lion.” Jesus is not a tame man. People have a tendency to apologize for Jesus, to find elaborate theological excuses for his sometimes difficult moods and behavior. I didn’t want to do that. I love Jesus. Maeve loves him, and love requires not explanation but response.

As for what C.S. Lewis would have thought of Maeve, he might have wanted to disapprove of her, but she is so honest, courageous, funny, and endearingly human, well frankly, I think he would have fallen in love with her. He might also recognize that, like him, I long for a re-union of the pagan and the Christian. He tried to baptize the old gods. In my story, the pagan and the Christian, as incarnate in Maeve and Jesus, are lovers. In their passionate union nothing of their unique particularity is lost. They become more themselves, not less. They are not two halves of a whole. Each one is whole—and holy. Together, they are divine.