Of course, the Narnia stories are themselves stories, and we should be enjoying them on that level. As we have been talking about various “lessons” that we can take away from them, I have wanted to be careful that I didn’t wreck the stories by making sure that everybody gets Edified. But at the same time, C.S. Lewis knew that stories instruct, and he was not shy about doing that.
But one of the things that we are taught in these stories, over and over, is the importance of the right kind of story. Stories don’t just instruct us about authority, or nobility, but they also teach about what they, the stories, are doing.
In The Horse and His Boy, how does C. S. Lewis compare English essay writing with Calormene story-telling?
“For in Calormen, storytelling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays” (p. 35).
We have come to think that in order to be important, it has to be boring. We teach history the way it was taught under Miraz.
But what is the difference between dull and true history? “The sort of ‘History’ that was taught in Narnia under Miraz’s rule was duller than the truest history you ever read and less true than the most exciting adventure story” (PC, p. 199).
C.S. Lewis was one of the great scholars of the twentieth century. One of the reasons he was so great is that he understood the limitations of scholarship, and the kinds of handicaps that scholars frequently labor under. People thought that exciting stories were for children, but if you wanted something that was true, it had to be told or written in a boring way by adults with long faces. And of course, you should know, having read many of Lewis’s stories, that he did not believe this at all. The right kind of adventure story was full of truth. And the worst kind of history was full of lies (and was dull to boot). How does C.S. Lewis teach us to trust the right kind of stories? Caspian said, “‘Sometimes I did wonder if there really was such a person as Aslan: but then sometimes I wondered if there were really people like you. Yet there you are’” (p. 70).
Although the Narnia stories are full of stories, there is one kind of story that is consistently excluded—and that exclusion tells us a story. As we learn about story, what important principle does Aslan reiterate a number of times? “‘. . . no one is ever told what would have happened.’”
Stories are training; they are preparation. When Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy find themselves in Narnia again at the beginning of Prince Caspian, they are in a desolate area. How do they figure out what to do? What is helpful to the children as they adjust to Narnia? “‘In the books . . .’” (p. 6). And consequently, what sort of examples do they come up with? “‘Hermits and knight-errant and people like that always manage to live somehow if they’re in a forest’” (p. 11).
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, how did Edmund’s reading come in handy? “Edmund, the only one of the party who had read several detective stories . . .” (p. 124). In that same book, Eustace came close to being lashed. How did he put it? “‘get two dozen.’ I didn’t know what this meant till Edmund explained to me. It comes in the sort of books those Pevensie kids read’” (p. 74). And at the end of their voyage, how does the adventure of Caspian differ from that of Sleeping Beauty? “‘But here,’ said the girl, ‘it is different. Here he cannot kiss the Princess till he has dissolved the enchantment’” (p. 203). As Lewis tells us his stories, one of the things he loves to do is hold up the mirrors of other stories, so that we can see the reflections of each in the other.
So far, we have considered some very important things, things like nobility and authority. If we have not grown up around this, how can we ever learn it? For example, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, how did Reepicheep think? “For his mind was full of forlorn hopes, death-or-glory charges, and last stands” (p. 67). He learned a great deal from the stories he had grown up with.
And in The Horse and His Boy, what is the difference between Calormene and Narnian culture? “‘For the gods have withheld from the barbarians the light of discretion, as that their poetry is not, like ours, full of choice apophthegms and useful maxims, but is all of love and war’” (p. 117). This is one of the ways we can see that Lewis is not simply being bigoted against the Calormenes. Earlier we saw that he praised Calormene story-telling highly—it was much better than English essay-writing. But when it came to poetry, the Narnians were much better at it than the Calormenes were.
Just as reading the right kind of story prepares you for life, so the wrong kind of books leave you woefully unprepared. Eustace was a reader, but this really didn’t help him in Narnia. Actually, it didn’t help him in our world either, but it was more obvious in Narnia. “He liked books if they were books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools” (p. 3). In short, the books he read were dull and boring, and very modern. When Lewis was writing the Narnia stories, there were numerous propaganda books floating around trying to persuade progressive people (and Eustace’s family was progressive) that communism was the future. And what better way to prove it than to have pictures of fat children doing exercises in model schools?
But whatever virtues such books might have had, they were very weak in all the important respects. This important point is reinforced later on when Eustace had to deal with a dragon. “. . . as I said before, Eustace had read only the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons” (p. 87).
Even though this is all true, it is not true that stories are “just useful.” It would be a mistake to think of stories as the sugar coating on the nasty pill of facts that children have to swallow. In Prince Caspian, when Trumpkin tells them that explaining how he got there is complicated, they don’t mind. “‘But it’ll be a long story,’ said the Dwarf. ‘All the better,’ said Lucy, ‘We love stories’” (p. 40). In other words, the right kind of people love the right kind of stories. They love the stories, and this is why they are useful. People who by-pass the stories to get to the useful picture of the grain elevator find out, at the end of the day, that they aren’t very useful.
Stories have the important function of dividing people, identifying their basic allegiances. We learn that Prince Caspian is the right kind of person because he loves the right things. What did Caspian think about stories? “Nurse would tell him stories” (p. 41). What is Caspian’s hope? “‘. . . like in the stories?” (p. 47). Why is Caspian, though a Telmarine, good? “‘. . . love the Old Things’” (p. 53). And, of course, he loved the old things as they came to him in stories.
In contrast, what did Miraz think about stories? “‘At your age you ought to be thinking of battles and adventures, not fairy tales’” (p. 42). Miraz represents the Telmarines generally. Because of the bad things they had done to the Old Narnians, they “‘. . . are now trying to cover up even the memory of them’” (p. 51). This is why they disliked the old stories. But among the Telmarines in Prince Caspian, who decided to stay? “Some of them, chiefly the young ones, had heard stories” (p. 214).
Occasionally, you can find a good guy who doesn’t believe the old stories, but this is rare. Does Trumpkin believe the old stories? “‘As firmly as that, I daresay’” (p. 70). And even though Trumpkin starts out not believing the stories, Aslan makes him a believer soon enough.
Because stories are so important, they can be twisted by those who are evil. In The Last Battle, what warning does the centaur give the king? “‘Sire, do not believe this tale. It cannot be. The stars never lie, but Men and Beasts do’” (p. 19). Stories carry the truth, but they also carry lies. Stories can be lying stories.
Not only that, but people can get the wrong things out of them. In Prince Caspian, Nikabrik had more “faith” than Trumpkin had. “‘Trumpkin believed none of the stories. I was ready to put them to the trial’” (p. 166). But what does Nikabrik appeal to out of the old stories? “‘As for power, do not the stories say that the Witch defeated Aslan, and bound him, and killed him on that very stone which is over there, just beyond the light?’” (p. 168). Nikabrik misses the point completely.
What is the answer to this? Someone reminds him of the rest of the story. “‘He came to life again’” (p. 168). But how does Nikabrik reply, still missing the point? “‘They say she [the White Witch] ruled for a hundred years’” (p. 169). We see this kind of story-twisting in our own day, when people go back into history and try to make the bad guys into the good guys.
In The Last Battle, this element of twisting is a very important part of the story. “‘Is it not said in all the old stories that He is not a tame lion””‘Well said, well said, Jewel,’ cried the King. ‘Those are the very words: not a tame lion. It comes in many tales’” (p. 20). And later on in the book, how do the bad guys (by saying the same thing) make their lie more powerful? “By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger” (p. 116).
Stories help us to understand what side we are supposed to be on. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, how does Peter know the robin is a good bird? “‘That’s a nasty idea. Still—a robin, you know. They’re good birds in all the stories I’ve ever read’” (p. 61).
And how does the Witch protect against Edmund finding out what she is like? “‘If your sister has met one of the Fauns, she may have heard strange stories about me—nasty stories that might make her afraid to come to me. Fauns will say anything, you know, and now . . .” (p. 40). Edmund, when he was back with his brother and sisters, and who was already turned halfway into a traitor by the Witch, raises all the wrong questions. He got the story skewed. “‘If it comes to that, which is the right side? How do we know that the Fauns are in the right and the Queen (yes, I know we’ve been told she’s a witch) is in the wrong? We don’t really know anything about either’” (p. 62).
And he keeps doing this. What sort of question does Edmund continue to raise? “‘I think it’s a nice beaver,’ said Lucy. ‘Yes, but how do we know?’ said Edmund” (p. 65). And he continues “‘If it comes to talking about sides,’ said Edmund, ‘how do we know you’re a friend?’” (p. 67).
How does Edmund rationalize his alliance with the Witch? He does it by twisting the story, just like Nikabrik did. “‘Because,’ he said to himself, ‘all these people who say nasty things about her are her enemies and probably half of it isn’t true’” (p. 89). But even on his own account, this means that half of it is, and he is still on her side. But that is what happens to you when you twist stories—you get all jumbled.
In The Magician’s Nephew, what important lesson has Digory learned from the stories he has read? “‘And you’re simply a wicked, cruel magician like the ones in the stories. Well, I’ve never read a story in which people of that sort weren’t paid out in the end, and I bet you will be. And serve you right’” (pp. 27-28).
C.S. Lewis did not just write stories; he read them. Not only did he read them, but he made pretty sure that all the good characters in his books had the pleasure of reading the same stories he had read. And it was a very nice gift to give to them.
Of course all this points to the real story, the final story, the story that never ends. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, what wonderful thing does Lucy encounter in the book of spells that she read? “And she never could remember; and ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician’s Book” (p. 157).
This “good story” is one that she (and all the others) eventually got into. And when they did get into it (in The Last Battle), did Aslan remain as Aslan? “And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after” (p. 210).
So the stories ended because they actually began. Did the wonder of it ever grow old? No, not at all. “. . . in which every chapter is better than the one before” (p. 211).