To many American readers, it probably doesn't seem strange that a British Christian leader would write a book about C.S. Lewis's Narnia. But as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams himself notes, Lewis's children's stories have always been more popular in America than in Britain, especially among intellectual elites. Williams has published several significant volumes of theology and poetry, but earlier this year he released a relatively slim volume on how the Narnia books can reinvigorate readers' understanding of the Christian message. While working as CT's editorial resident, Melissa Steffan interviewed Williams as she reported a separate story on new interest in Lewis in the UK. (Meanwhile, the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College is today hosting a conference on why Lewis has had more influence in the U.S. than in his own country. Audio will be available shortly.)
Why write one more book on Lewis and Narnia?
The book began with three lectures in Canterbury while I was archbishop, trying to explain what I thought was going on in the Narnia books and what the main themes were. I wanted to emphasize two things.
First, the Narnia books were mostly designed to give you a feeling for what it's like to be a Christian—not to make an argument or create an allegory, but to give a sense of what it's like to respond in faith to Christ, what it's like to be in a world where all your understanding is decisively shaped by that faith. Second, I take up a theme that comes up many times in the books, which is that we learn from our relationship with God to identify much more accurately how dishonest we are with ourselves about ourselves. Quite often you come back to the theme of stripping away the comforting story we tell about ourselves.
Did you grow up reading C.S. Lewis?
I've had a fascination with Lewis since my teens, (but) I didn't grow up reading Narnia. I came rather late to Narnia, but I read quite a bit of Lewis as a teenager—Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce and some of the other books. As a schoolboy in the final year of high school, I read his book on Paradise Lost, which was very important for my English studies.
What was your introduction to the world of Narnia? What captivated you about it?
I suppose I read the Narnia books mostly as a student, and I enjoyed the wit of the books. Humor is very visible in them. I enjoyed the energy of the characterization.
And I just found myself very, very deeply moved by some passages, and I identify a lot with those moments of encounter—where you discover the truth about yourself in the face of God. Those are some of the most moving passages, because Lewis is particularly good at giving you a sense of joy in the presence of God.
What is it about Narnia, which can seem so obviously Christian to many readers, that appeals to non-Christian or secular audiences?
It's not an easy question to answer. I think it's partly that the narratives themselves have a great deal of force. You know, they're very simple stories—I don't mean simple in the sense of crude—but emotions are strong. They're about loyalty and betrayal, victory and defeat. They have that sort of buzz; they just keep going and keep your attention.
They have at their heart something very mysterious, something that comes in alongside your ordinary human interactions and gives them an extra depth, an extra dimension, because Aslan is not a presence who's visibly there all the time. Yet, there's something or other breathing over your shoulder and making you think again, reminding you that you're responsible to something bigger. I think that appeals to almost any intelligent or sensitive reader of any age.