Article published Dec 6, 2005
Narnia's message to young people
By Joe Killian Staff Writer
GREENSBORO -- When is a children's story more than a children's story? When it's "The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe."
This week, the film version of C.S. Lewis' book will premiere in Greensboro, and excitement over the movie -- a fantasy epic on the level of the Academy Award-winning "Lord of the Rings" films -- has sparked renewed interest in the original books.
There's plenty of anticipation (and some controversy) in the Christian community, where the books are often praised as religious allegories. But in a new book, one Triad author explains why the Narnia books, like most great children's literature, are more than heavy-handed morality tales."
There's no denying these are Christian works," said William Chad Newsom, author of "Talking of Dragons: The Children's Books of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis."
"Lewis was very clear on that. But they're also enormously popular books and have been for years. I think it's true that a non-Christian moviegoing audience will get something out of this, too. The idea of facing danger with courage, of overcoming sorrow with love and compassion -- these are universal things."
Newsom's book takes a look at the way in which Tolkien and Lewis -- fantasy authors who were also good friends -- used elements of traditional fairy tales to breathe new life into biblical stories. Although Newsom said the books are first and foremost great stories, he said they're also good tools to help parents talk with their children about spirituality.
The book, the first in Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" series, is the story of a group of English children who travel through a magical wardrobe into the land of Narnia. The children join forces with Aslan, a magical lion, to defeat the evil White Witch and save Narnia. Lewis intended the story to be a thinly veiled retelling of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, complete with references to God, Jesus, Judas and St. Peter.
"Lewis' friend, (the author) Dorothy L. Sayers, always said that the problem with teaching children the gospels and the story of Jesus is that we have, over the years, made the most exciting story of all time the most boring," said Newsom.
"Lewis thought that if he could take Christian stories and strip them of their stained glass and Sunday school associations, he could get children to understand the emotions they were supposed to take from the Christ story."
Throughout Lewis' life he exchanged letters with fans -- many of them children. Once, said Newsom, Lewis got a letter from a mother who wrote that her son was distraught. After reading Lewis' books, she said, her son worried he loved Aslan more than Jesus. Lewis wrote back that her son should not worry -- if he understood his love for Aslan, he understood the way he should love Jesus.
It is, according to some parents, a phenomenon that's still happening now."We have read all the Narnia books with our oldest children, and we're doing it again with our youngest," said Margaret Hanes, a Greensboro mother of three. "You'd be amazed how quickly they pick up on the spirituality in the books without any help from an adult. It makes it easier and a lot more fun to talk to them about God and Jesus than giving them a lecture on what they should believe. It helps them understand that on their own, through a story they enjoy."
Hanes was just one of many Narnia fans at a Greensboro Barnes & Noble where handsome reissues of all the Narnia books are on display in advance of the movie.
"With the movie coming out, I believe they're going to be hot Christmas items," said Susan Carroll, a bookseller at the store. "We do have people coming in asking for them, and we're selling a number of different Lewis titles, including all the Narnia books in one volume."
There has been some controversy over recent movies based on children's books, such as "The Hobbit" and the Harry Potter series, that use magic, witches and wizards to teach moral lessons to children. Ironically, explicitly Christian works, such as the Narnia series, are sometimes lumped into lists of books with "occult" messages. But, said Newsom, fairy tales historically have used veiled Christian symbols and morals to teach children right from wrong.
"I think part of the problem some Christians have with magic in stories like these is in differentiating between magics," Newsom said. "There's a very good book called 'Looking for God in Harry Potter' in which (Christian writer) John Granger explains the difference between 'invocational magic' and 'incantational magic.' When someone in a story is doing invocational magic they are calling upon dark spirits in a Faustian deal to gain powers through magic. Incantational magic comes from within a person and is often a gift from God. Many prophets and other characters in the Bible are given this sort of magical power.
"That's the sort of magic you'll see from heroic characters in the works of Tolkien and Lewis, and there's always that distinction," said Newsom.
Newsom, who lives in Liberty and works in Greensboro at Jefferson Pilot Financial, also has written his own children's book, "Polycarp: The Crown of Fire," which uses fairy-tale elements to teach children about Christian history. He is reading the Narnia books to his 5-year-old daughter who, he said, already understands and loves the tales.
"One of the themes of my book is that one of the best ways to instill these lessons is to turn the home into a storytelling culture," said Newsom. "Filling the home with great literature and fairy tales -- the great stories of the world -- can help our children understand what it means to be a good Christian and a good person. The best children's stories are fun to read but they also incarnate truth."
Contact Joe Killian at 373-7023 or firstname.lastname@example.org