One element that is often overlooked is captured in C.S. Lewis’ quote above: the role that great stories and good fiction has in equipping children for the terrible realities of life.
Fictional stories are not mere escapism. Ancient myths and modern legends tell us great truths about human nature and the world we live in. Stories about hope, heroic courage and overcoming evil can inspire and equip us.
C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles made a big impact on me when I was young, because they forged my imagination about what a life of faith could look like. My favourite book in the series is The Magician’s Nephew, the prequel to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
In The Magician’s Nephew, two children, Digory and Polly, are tricked into travelling out of our world by magic. They arrive in a vast, desolate, eerily-quiet city where nothing seems to be alive.
Due to Digory’s rash behaviour, they awaken the former ruler of that land, the Empress Jadis, from an enchanted sleep. She tells them about the world they have arrived in, (called Charn) and boasts about her oppressive rule, her devastating magical powers and the brutal wars she fought:
“It is silent now. But I have stood here when the whole air was full of the noises of Charn; the trampling of feet, the creaking of wheels, the cracking of whips and the groaning of slaves, the thunder of chariots, and the sacrificial drums beating in the temples. I have stood here (but that was near the end) when the roar of battle went up from every street and the river of Charn ran red…All in one moment one woman blotted it out for ever.”
She tells them about her bitter war against her sister and why no living thing survives in Charn now:
“It was my sister’s fault…She drove me to it…Her pride has destroyed the whole world…She even knew I had the secret of the Deplorable Word. Did she think – she was always such a weakling – that I would not use it?”
“What was it?” said Digory
“That was the secret of secrets…it had been long known to the great kings of our race that there was a word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft-hearted and bound themselves and all should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it. I did not use it until she forced me to it. I fought to overcome her by every other means. I poured out the blood of my armies like water…
Enduring reality of evil
The Empress Jadis is incredibly destructive and evil, but she does not come to any swift end. By various misadventures, the children end up taking her to the brand new, untainted world of Narnia.
Later she becomes the White Witch who dominates Narnia for a hundred years, using her magic to ensure its ‘always winter but never Christmas’. It’s a powerful way for a child to grasp cruel tyranny and its enduring reality.
The story we live by
The focus of many religious debates is the doctrines and formulations of belief. But perhaps its more helpful to think about what story we live by?
In what do we invest our lives? What shapes our key decisions? What do we truly have hope in? Authentic faith is to shape your life around what you believe, to live by a different story.
Vladimir Putin has decided to live out a story of imperial conquest, military violence and cruel domination. In contrast, many Ukrainians are choosing a story of courage, self-sacrifice and brave defiance.
‘Better to die’
This week, the Archbishop of the Ukraine Orthodox Church was interviewed on BBC radio. His courage and moral clarity was inspiring and this quote struck me:
‘It is better to die a free person, than to live as a slave’
He is choosing to live under a different story to one Putin wants. And its a story which contains the most radical truth of all: that dying is not the worst thing that can happen to you. This story and truth shows why Russia will not win this war.
Putin may have military power, but the Archbishop, President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people are showing true authority.
At the end of The Magicians Nephew, the Lion Aslan sends the children back to London with a warning which reads very relevant for today:
“It is not certain that some wicked one of your race will not find out a secret as evil as the Deplorable Word and use it to destroy all living things. And soon, very soon, before you are an old man and an old woman, great nations in your world will be ruled by tyrants who care no more for joy and justice and mercy than the Empress Jadis. Let your world beware. That is the warning.”