Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

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Q&A With "Into the Wardrobe" Author David C. Downing

  • Staff
  • 2006 7 Jan
Q&A With "Into the Wardrobe" Author David C. Downing

In a recent interview with, David Downing, C.S. Lewis expert and author of "Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis and The Narnia Chronicles," discusses his own exploration of the classic children's book series, "The Chronicles of Narnia."  Why do you think "The Chronicles of Narnia" have become children's classics?

David Downing:  I think part of their ongoing appeal is that they can be enjoyed at so many levels. Children can enjoy the fast-paced adventures, lovable characters, and vividly-described settings. Older readers appreciate Lewis's perceptive psychology and the soul-nourishing spiritual vision that gleams through all the "Chronicles." And even seasoned literary scholars are amazed by how often details in these "simple" stories are based on ideas borrowed from Aristotle or Plato, as well as the dozens of subtle biblical and literary allusions.  Your book, "Into the Wardrobe," is comprehensive while still an approachable size. The appendix, bibliography, and index are troves of easily accessible information covering the whole series. For a project of this scope, and for it being as obviously well-researched as it is why wasn't this produced as a more encyclopedic volume?

Downing:  My editors at Jossey-Bass and I agreed that we wanted to blend solid research with popular readability. We wanted "first-time visitors" to "Narnia," such as those who have only seen the film version of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," to find here a helpful introduction. But we also wanted to offer more substance and insight to seasoned readers of all seven "Narnia" books, so we included more substantial sections on the writing of all seven books, plus the in-depth notes and bibliography you mentioned.  One fantastic chapter gives etymologies to Narnian names, in much the same way as John Granger's "Looking for God in Harry Potter" does for that series. While the convention of "making names mean something" is noticeable in the "Potter" books, it doesn't seem to be as much in the "Chronicles." What was your motivation for digging so deeply into word origins, and did you expect such fascinating "Easter eggs"?

Downing:  I knew from reading Lewis's other books that many Narnian names had special meanings. He explained in a letter that Aslan is Turkish for "lion," a name he encountered in "The Arabian Nights." And he discusses the Hebrew word Emeth, meaning "true, faithful," in "Reflections on the Psalms." So when we meet a Calormene nobleman named Emeth in The Last Battle, we know Lewis is giving us a clue to his character.

As a classical scholar, Lewis knew Greek and Latin, of course, but he also read German and French, as well as Anglo-Saxon, medieval Italian, and even Old Icelandic. So it becomes a kind of treasure hunt to look into hidden meanings of Lewis's names, to find added insights into their character based upon their names.

One of my favorite names, the morose Marsh-wiggle in "The Silver Chair," is explained in Lewis's scholarly tome, "English Literature in the Sixteenth Century." There Lewis mentions a rather minor English poet who was sometimes unintentionally funny, as when he called the fiery river Styx in hell a "puddle glum." Lewis said he couldn't help but smile over the odd phrasing. And he makes his readers smile when turns that phrase into the name of one of his most memorable Narnian characters, Puddleglum.  Are there any parallels between the seven books and Lewis' nonfiction books? Which of his nonfiction books would match best with the seven books in the series, if one wanted to get a larger picture of Lewis' worldview than what the stories give?

Downing:  Lewis wrote over 40 books in his lifetime, and I think you could make a case that there is something in virtually every one of Lewis's others books that casts new light on the "Narnia" stories. Lewis had a vast and orderly mind, so that ideas he discusses in his scholarly and theological works become embodied and amplified in his imaginative works.

At the same time he was composing the "Chronicles," Lewis was revising his BBC radio talks for publication as "Mere Christianity" (1952). I think the discussion of Christian faith and living in that book is the best guide to the key themes in the "Narnia" series. Lewis discusses the Atonement in that book, a passage that can't help but remind us of Aslan's sacrifice. He also talks about how the Spirit breathes divine life into us beyond our mere physical life, turning us from stone statues into living beings. That analogy reminds us very much of the scene in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" where Aslan turns the stone creatures under the witch's spell back into living, breathing creatures.

One can see Lewis's obvious love for the medieval world-view in "The Discarded Image," and we find that world-view embodied throughout all the "Chronicles" -- a world of kings, queens, and nobility; of chivalry and poetry; of star-gazers, mystics, and knights on quests.  Can you recommend some forerunners to the "Narnia" series or some later fantasy books for those who love adventure stories with spiritual overtones?

Downing:  For me, the "Chronicles of Narnia" are in a class all their own. "The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature" rates the Narnia books as "the most sustained achievement in fantasy for children by a 20th-century author." That makes him a writer without too many peers, either before or after him.

I think you can enjoy some of Lewis's predecessors, such as George MacDonald in "Phantastes" and the Curdie stories, or Lewis's successors, such as Madeleine L'Engle or (some would argue) J. K. Rowling. For me personally, these books offer only a fraction of the delight and enchantment I find in the "Narnia" tales. I wish I could find more satisfaction in other fantasy books or secondary materials based on Narnia. But for me, this is too much like trying to substitute carob bars for real chocolate.

I think one of the most exciting recent examples of fantasy with spiritual overtones is Leif Enger's "Peace Like a River." This might be for slightly older readers, but Enger creates a fascinating blend of C. S. Lewis and Garrison Keillor, with a bit of J. D. Salinger and Zane Grey thrown in for good measure!

David C. Downing is a leading C. S. Lewis expert, award-winning author, and professor of English at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, Pa. His articles about Lewis have appeared in such publications as Christianity Today, Christianity and Literature, Books & Culture, Christian Scholars Review, and numerous other journals. His books include "Planets in Peril," about the Space Trilogy; "The Most Reluctant Convert," a biography of Lewis that was named one of the Top Ten Religion Books of the Year by the American Library Association; and "Into the Region of Awe," a study of the mystical elements in Lewis's life and writings.

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