Authors and texts

Narnia's lion really is Jesus - Sunday Times - Times Online
AN unpublished letter from the novelist C S Lewis has provided conclusive proof of the Christian message in his Narnia children’s books.

In the letter [to be published in a new collection of Lewis' letters], sent to a child fan in 1961, Lewis writes: “The whole Narnian story is about Christ.â€?
“Supposing there really was a world like Narnia . . . and supposing Christ wanted to go into that world and save it (as He did ours) what might have happened?â€? he wrote.

“The stories are my answer. Since Narnia is a world of talking beasts, I thought he would become a talking beast there as he became a man here. I pictured him becoming a lion there because a) the lion is supposed to be the king of beasts; b) Christ is called ‘the lion of Judah’ in the Bible.â€?

Lewis' letter of course does anything but 'provide conclusive proof'. Not so much because we couldn't trust the evidence but because it relies very heavily on one simplistic model of authorship and what it means for a text to be about something. Basically it goes like this: "Text is about what the author intended it to be about and the best way of finding out is asking the author herself." But this will only give us an answer to one thing: "What the author says about the text when asked what it is about." Authors are extremely unreliable as sources of textual information. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be interested in what they say about their work and take it into account in the analysis of their texts but their perspective on the text is only one of many and it is not necessarily a privileged one.

Any text can just as easily be viewed as an independent entity with its own internal structure (domain of linguistics or psycholinguistics), as a cultural and social artefact (domain of sociology, history, criticism or social psychology), an expression of internal psychological states (domain of psychology or psychoanalysis) and a vehicle for entertainment and enlightment of the readers (domain of literary criticism and the readers themselves - thoughts, reflections, book-club discussions). The author may only have fairly limited control over these alternate perspectives and in fact her perspective may change in light of some of the others.

This article pits Lewis' stepson's and others' assertion that the Narnia series is just "an adventure story that draws on a variety of religious and folklore sources" and not Christian novels against this letter from Lewis himself. But these people are right as long as they do not say 'Lewis explicitly intended not to write a Christian fairy-tale'. Furthermore, the need for controversy is very much limited to certain contexts. I doubt that a careful reading of the Chronicles of Narnia can leave any doubt about the Biblical parallels but the doubt can be about their relevance to it being "an adventure story that draws on a variety of religious and folklore sources". Motives of sacrifice, love, duty, etc. are of course common expressions of what might be called universal narrative archetypes (topoi). Think of a child reader in the atheist Czech Republic (or even secular Britain) who has no idea about the meaning of Christ's sacrifice (and only the vaguest familiarity with the plot of his story), it will certainly not make the stories narratively (or morally) any less comprehensible. Presumably, even the 'Left Behind' series can be read as a straight up 'super natural thriller'.

The implicit question in all this is, has the author included any hidden messages in the work of which we should be wary? Will readers of these books suddenly become Christian? (Or would unreflective readers of Mein Kampf be more likely to acquire neo-nazi feelings?) This is a complex question with which I will no doubt continue to wrestle in the future but in short, I very much doubt that there is a straightforward causal connection. (I read all this stuff when I was little and look how I turned out!)