Salon: ‘A Spy in The House of Narnia’

Certainly it would take days to unpack all the upside-down and almost exactly backwards ideas in this Salon article, A Spy in the House of Narnia, an interview with the Salon founder and author of the new title, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptics Adventures in Narnia. Long story short: child loves the Chronicles of Narnia until she learns they are largely allegorical. She returns to them years later to demonstrate they really aren’t Christian books but works of remarkable imaginative artistry.

Two quick notes:

(1) To all those writers of books reducing imaginative literature to cardboard, tit-for-tat allegory, shame on you. Here is the life story of a reader-casualty of that school of faux literary criticism that is largely projection and mechanical mix-and-match. Be it Baum’s Wizard of Oz as silver-and-gold political allegory, Narnia as the Fifth Gospel, The Lord of the Rings as World War II, or Harry Potter as the veiled Jesus, this woman’s inability to grasp (even after reading Lewis’ OHEL volume!) that there is an explicitly Christian artistry that is profound and edifying without being primarily didactic is your legacy. As much as my first book, Hidden Key to Harry Potter, leaned in this direction to make headway against the heavy winds blowing from the Harry Haters, is almost exactly as much as I regret writing it (and the reason it has been revised three times since 2002). Can someone please send this woman Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia? Or is it too late for her to get that she lives in a false dilemma (“A poem or novel can only be either Christian allegory or profound artistry, not both, just one or the other”)?

(2) What a shame that it seems to have never occurred to her that the beauty, truth, and nobility she loved in Lewis’ imaginative subcreation could be the heart of the Christian faith whose outward forms were so repugnant to her as a young woman and as an adult. I am baffled that she believes after reading all Lewis’ letters, literary criticism, and imaginative fiction that he lived in two antiseptically sealed and separated worlds, his art and his faith, and that having experienced the books so intimately and joyously as a child that she could conclude as an adult, a la Pullman, that Lewis was a racist, sexist, homophobe and pervert, a pathetic man that Christians refuse to see as he was.

I covet your comments and correction.


  1. John, your notes have led me away from reading this Salon article. Because if this is the tack she takes, I don’t want to hear it. Those who dismiss Lewis as racist, sexist, homophobic et al (remember, he also liked to smoke & drink & eat unhealthy foods! Gasp!!!) are just shallow. They are the perpetually superficially offended, whose minds & imaginations have been dulled & deadened by their preconceived fashionable notions of correct thought.

    Not something I want to spend my time reading when I can get that all the time in the press & popular culture.

  2. Hi, new poster here. The first thing that struck me after reading this is how much she sounds like Lewis himself! Lewis said that all his favorite books had turned against him: they all seemed to be advocating a faith that he wanted no part of. This was, in the end, one of the major factors in his beginning to question his earlier resistance to faith. Like Lewis, this author is annoyed by the presence of Christianity in her favorite stories; unlike Lewis, she refuses to see this as a signpost towards potential truth. She’s already decided to reject it, and any place it has in Narnia must therefore be a mistake. (How she could have read his non-fiction and not seen this parallel is beyond me).

    I like your comment about the four levels, and that it’s narrow-minded to think that a work must be exclusive. Why can’t it be operating on several (or all) levels at once?

    I guess it’s not so much that I disagree with her conclusions: she’s entitled to her opinion and experience, after all. But I think she’s completely missed the POINT of what Lewis was doing.

  3. My first reaction, which is not very charitable, is – what a lot of nonsense. And, John, I’m like you, I don’t even know where to start.

    I think where I started to realize that she has much bigger problems than feeling betrayed in finding out that Narnia might be Christian allegory was when she talks about believing that Narnia was real. Um, OK. I am pretty sure that by the time I was eight years old I could tell that a place that had all sorts of magical things and talking animals was not real. So just how Lewis betrayed her on that one, I’m not sure.

    Maybe someone should point out that there is some Christian content in some in the books of some of the other authors that she talked about. Or maybe not – then she’d go on a rant about Jane Austen.

    I haven’t read anything by Pullman, by choice. And from every quote that I read, I am certain I’ve made the correct choice, for me. My impression of Pullman, though, is that he is very conflicted about his own religious past and hasn’t really figured out how to resolve it. So the problem with this author ranting about Lewis, and quoting Pullman just shows how much she has missed the point entirely.

    And who was Mrs. Moore that she brought up? I seemed to have missed that in all the things I’ve read about Lewis. I guess I’m glad for that.


  4. Pat, Mrs. Moore was the mother of one of Lewis’ war buddies, who had died in WWI. Lewis lived with her for quite some time & there was a lot of speculation, I don’t know if anything was conclusively proved, that he & she had a sexual relationship for part of that time. Of course, this was before Lewis was a Christian. But still probably more than you wanted to know. Anyway, I thought the wikipedia article on Lewis covered this topic in a very reasonable manner. Look under the section entitled Jane Moore.

    BTW, I don’t necessarily believe the speculation. I think, for the most part, that much of it came after this time in Lewis’ life & perhaps even after his death & nowadays everyone has sex on the brain, so most speculators were probably just imposing their naughty thoughts upon Lewis.

  5. For those who think I advocate a strictly allegorical reading of Harry Potter, please read this review of How Harry Cast His Spell at Suite 101, or better, buy and read that book.

    There are allegorical elements in Ms. Rowling’s work. But, as with Lewis, the greater artistry and depth of meaning is in the more subtle symbolism and scaffolding of the stories which gives us the anagogical or mythic content. For more on that, Deathly Hallows Lectures is your best bet for Harry Potter as Planet Narnia is for Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.

    And to get the allegorical level beyond a cut-and-paste Bible-code interpretation, by which I mean the political, social, and educational allegories implicit in Harry Potter, Travis Prinzi’s Harry Potter and Imagination (available for pre-order now!) is far and away the best book. Prrinzi simply owns this category of interpretation which he opens up in such a cogent way that it brought me to a different and better understanding of the Potter books and their meanings beyond their surface and moral layers.

    To close, another 5 star Amazon review of Deathly Hallows Lectures! Thank you, B. C. Pollard!

    5.0 out of 5 stars December 10, 2008
    By B. C. Pollard (Illinois, USA) – See all my reviews

    Do you want to know why Harry Potter is so popular? Or maybe, why does everyone seemed to be drawn into the Potter phenomenon except some religious fundamentalists and some unimaginative intellects? This is the book that explains it all.

    John Granger, who has defended the depth of Rowling’s work for some time now, provides excellent insight and analysis about the themes in Rowling’s work as she has finished her 4000 page epic series. If you want to know why Harry has his mother’s green eyes and why Snape’s death was symbolic and perfect even though most of the potter fandom thought it was anti-climatic. Maybe, you thought the trio’s camping trip lasted too long although in the whole scope of the book it was only a handful of chapters. These examples only scratch the surface of the insight that are gleaned from this wonderfully written book.

    Again, John works hard to explain that Rowling has read all of the classics and uses aspects from of them to create the “shared text” of our age. Rowling’s symbolism and the four levels of meaning she employs in her text show us not only how to read her stories but all of the great literature, and John Granger shows us in this book how to see all of it.

  6. Interesting interview. I read it before your comments, and I agree 100%. I think that reductionism is absurd and, in her own case, self-defeating. I definitely see Narnia as allegorical, but that doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it.

    Moreover, she overlooks the possibility that she is the one betraying the books on the religion issue. To her, it seems that viewing it as a quintessentially Christian work betrays how much it resonated with her. Well, isn’t it likewise possible that it resonated with her because it is a story of the one Great Truth – God, and particularly Christ’s saving sacrifice and resurrection? And if that is the case, then is the betrayal not hers for denying it?

    You know, I think Kat (welcome, by the way!) is on to something with the Lewis comparison. From your post last week (“Thinking Matters”), I followed the cybertrail to find a peom by Tolkien written to address this very issue with Lewis (there was a short excerpt in the article you linked to, and through some creative google searching I found the whole thing). Tolkien argued that mythology all pointed to God, but Lewis countered that God was a myth, and that all myths, including Christianity, were ‘lies, even if breathed through silver.’ Tolkien’s poem actually started him thinking about myths, and Christianity, as pointing to the one Truth, an idea Tolkien seemed to articulate as “mythopoeia.”

    The poem is fantastic, so if anyone’s interested in reading it: Mythopoeia


  7. John,

    Your comment above reminded me of something you might appreciate hearing. I’ve been slowly but surely making my way through DHL (my grad program readings have been taking up most of my time : / ), and I’ve made it through the section that makes the big Dante claims. As a result, I’ve finally committed myself to reading the Commedia. (I decided on the Dorothy Sayers translation). I’m not sure how I made it through four years of high school and four years of English/Theo/Philosophy study without ever having to turn a page of Dante, but I did. Now that winter break is approaching, that era’s about to end. Thanks for giving me the nudge I needed to rectify the problem! :]

  8. Your welcome. I have no problem putting reviews out for good books.

    On the topic on hand. I don’t have much to add except seems like too many people try to oversimplify things and impose their beliefs on it. Maybe, I missed the point of what she was trying to write. But I don’t think many people on this site will be too contrarian to your views on the article, John.

  9. I just listened to a lecture yesterday on Tolkien & the lector made a great point in regard to Lewis & how Tolkien helped him see Christianity as the fulfillment of all the good stories he loved. The lector said, “An atheist has to be more careful than most of what they read.”

  10. Finished reading the interview last evening and came over to post a comment, only to discover (what a delight this place is!) that Kat had already posted something similar to my thoughts. Kat, just want to add my welcome. I agree that Ms. Miller’s dismay over Lewis’ “Christian content” does sound oddly familiar…I found myself going to the shelf to pick up *Surprised by Joy* to find that wonderful passage where Lewis describes being hounded by his favorite books, and by the irritating realisation that all of his favorite writers, the ones who brought something raw and dense and real to the page, were Christians. He writes of that season of life with such humor in hindsight, how it was a pity all these great writers had that “bee in the bonnet” about Christianity and how he loved them in spite of that awful fault — and yet one can sense that deep down, it really bothered him at the time. Clearly good books were one way the Hound of Heaven finally tracked down Lewis (“the most reluctant convert in all of England”) which might account at least partly for Lewis’ understanding of the power of words and especially the power of imaginative, symbolic literature.

    One can only hope that Ms. Miller will have that kind of experience one day (perhaps on the way to a zoo, like Lewis did!) and come to understand that Lewis’ Christianity didn’t get in the way of his imaginative brilliance, but was its basis and permeated everything he did, not in some overt tacked on way, but suffused like light through his writings. I do hope someone gets her to read *Planet Narnia*, John. I’m tempted to write her and encourage her to read it myself.

    With all that said though, one of the things that struck me in a sobering way was Ms. Miller’s horror that someone might be aiming for “conversion” through their writing. Conversion means change and I can’t imagine any imaginative, symbolist writer worth his or her salt not longing for people to come away from an encounter with their text not only with new “insights” but effectively changed in some way through the cathartic experience of journeying through the story. We know that Lewis deeply believed in the human need for conversion and that we desperately need help from outside ourselves to be transformed. I just finished reading *Voyage of the Dawn Treader* out loud to my six year old, and I was moved to tears again by the scene in which Aslan peels the horrid dragon skin off Eustace. Lewis knew that God could and would use all sorts of things to move people to a place where they could be ready for the necessary transformation. That we need to shed our old skins, deep down down to the very heart, is never a question.

  11. Thanks for the welcome, Nzie and Beth.
    revgeorge, I believe that quote is straight out of Surprised by Joy: “A young atheist can’t be too careful of his reading.”
    I also agree with Beth’s point above that symbolic writing is all about putting ideas into story, and so any reader (young, old, Christian, atheist, etc.) must go in prepared to be changed.

  12. exactly…!!!

  13. yeah…!!!

Speak Your Mind