Considered a classic of children’s literature, Clive Staples Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of seven high fantasy novels published in the 1950s that explore the imaginative realm of Narnia, full of the occultism. Perhaps most popularly known for its traditional Christian themes, the collection additionally borrows from other religions and mythology to narrate the adventures of its child protagonists. Lewis himself was an intellectual and a Christian apologist, likely to have come across parts if not the whole of Gnosticism, an interreligious phenomenon that reached its height around the second century CE. The Chronicles presents elements of the Gnostic myth and ideology, yet it doesn’t qualify as Gnostic in its entirety. The purpose of this paper will be to examine Lewis’ writing for theological and cosmological thematic similarities with Gnosticism and how, by large, the evidence is vastly insufficient in classifying the series as such.
In Lewis’ intended reading order, The Chronicles arranges its books in the following: The Magician’s Nephew (i); The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (ii); The Horse and His Boy (iii); Prince Caspian (iv); The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (v); The Silver Chair (vi); and finally, The Last Battle (vii). In this order the books narrate the creation of the Narnian world, the introduction of evil, the redemption of the world, and eventually, the unfolding of Narnia’s own apocalypse. Similar to The Secret Book of John (BJn), the foundational work for Gnostic study, The Chronicles follows a typical story arch from order to violation, disorder to recovery, then to final restoration throughout the seven novels. This paper will only discuss the first, second, sixth, and seventh books of the series in relevance to aforementioned themes. In addition, when using the term “Gnostic,” this is in relation to the heretical movement of the early Christian Church. The movement’s doctrine taught that a lesser divinity, the demiurge, created and ruled the material world and that Christ was an emissary of the remote yet supreme Invisible Spirit, esoteric knowledge (“gnosis”) of whom enabled the redemption of the human soul. A work resembling this structure, or referring to its ideology, would be Gnostic in nature.
For the world of Narnia, the application of a Gnostic label is open to interpretation. Talking beasts and mythical creatures, animate with souls and intellect, inhabit the fictional realm. While some may be partly human in nature, mankind isn’t native to the world but comes to it through various magical means throughout the series. In The Magician’s Nephew, two human children are able to transport to Narnia by wearing rings that bring them to the “Wood between the Worlds,” an intermediary realm composed of ponds that, when stepped in, act as doorways to other worlds. On their journey, they awaken the White Witch—the introduction of evil into Narnia. Also known as Jadis, she’s reminiscent of the Gnostic demiurge Ialdabaoth and accompanies the children against their will until they witness the God-lion Aslan creating the new world of Narnia through song and bringing life by breathing into every creature (BJn 44 Layton, cf. 19.22-26).
Though Aslan is responsible for fashioning the material Narnia, characteristic of the demiurge, the Witch more so resembles Ialdabaoth in that she expresses ownership over “traitors of the Law,” also called “Deep Magic,” in the second novel (Lewis 2001, 175-76). This Law is a contract with Aslan that those who break the Law – essentially all creatures – belong to Jadis as their penalty. Contrast this concept with the Torah and one would see a splitting difference: The Judeo-Christian figure of Satan doesn’t have possession over sinners. However, Gnostic belief holds that the God of the Hebrew Bible actually conceals his true identity as Ialdabaoth who formed physical human bodies to arrest light (theft of souls) from the Pleroma, the spiritual universe that’s home to the totality of divine powers and emanations (BJn 36 Layton). Therefore, the unrepentant of the material universe in Gnosticism are “traitors,” not in the sense they actively betrayed but are instruments of betrayal by Ialdabaoth and his minions of darkness.
Concerning the nature of this Witch, she’s immortal and has the appearance of a woman, yet isn’t human but part-giant and part-Jinn, descending from the material Adam and his legendary first wife Lilith, a female demon according to Jewish mythology (Lewis 2001, 147). Though Jadis didn’t create Narnia like Ialdabaoth would have the earth, she seems to assume his role within The Chronicles, while Aslan reflects some aspects from the demiurge and more from Christ self-originate, the only begotten son of the non-gendered Invisible Spirit. This latter entity may take form in the series as well: Throughout Lewis’ books there are subtle references toward a higher being above Aslan and all others called the “Emperor-beyond-the-sea,” also repeatedly noted as Aslan’s great Father. There’s a hierarchal pattern of degradation from The Chronicles similar to what occurs in Gnostic myth. This mysterious Emperor somehow sired his son Aslan, to whom Jadis follows, then minor “gods” (Lewis 2001, 72; see: “River-god”), and lastly the Narnian creatures. Of course, there are complications with these literary comparisons.
Firstly, it’s possible to interpret the Narnian God as a close reconstruction of Christianity’s triune God: the Emperor-beyond-the-sea as Father, Aslan as Christ the Son, while Aslan’s breath (through which he gives life and provides characters with courage) equates the Holy Spirit. The Ialdabaoth character in BJn is a lesser emanation of the Invisible Spirit, and logically he doesn’t rival the height of the Narnian God. This alone provides significant evidence in favor of a Christian influence far greater than anything Gnostic for Lewis’ production of the series. Secondly, the centrality of a creative demiurge to Gnosticism isn’t present in The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, nor in the rest of Narnian canon. Such a demiurge is fundamentally malevolent, and the material realm he spawns is inherently bad (BJn 23, 36 Layton). The intended purpose of Narnia, a physical world, by Aslan was for merriment and justice, and the Godlike lion is strongly benevolent in character (Lewis 2001, 70-72). Likewise, the Emperor-beyond-the-sea is characteristically good and male, thus he can’t match the Invisible Spirit, which is neither male nor female, neither good nor bad.
In addition to the cosmological and theological elements paralleled by Gnostic myth and Lewis, a chapter from the sixth book of The Chronicles mirrors Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Book VII of The Republic). According to the analogy, which influenced Gnostic scripture, most of humanity lives in comfort with their ignorance toward a greater reality beyond what they can see. Once these “prisoners” gain the knowledge of this reality’s existence, they venture out beyond what their senses permit, only to return to the cave because they aren’t capable of comprehending what they’ve never seen before. While Plato’s work was commentary on the inescapable nature of the human condition, Gnosticism advances that knowledge (“gnosis”) can, indeed, attain an escape (or salvation unto Pleroma).
In “The Queen of Underland,” the twelfth chapter from Lewis’ The Silver Chair, two children from Narnia and two from earth are in a similar existential crisis. The malevolent queen of a cave-like underworld below Narnia seduces the children with a spellbinding odor and a musical instrument, attempting to convince them that there’s no such country as Narnia nor earth, only the Underland. The less they noticed her efforts—i.e. the more ignorant they were—“the more it got into your brain and your blood” (Lewis 2001, 629-30). After a short while, she convinced them their origins were only a dream until one of them fought back, remembering the land above their heads. The queen strikes another resemblance of Ialdabaoth and his efforts at concealing the true reality above from material humanity. Here, Lewis is describing the negative, prison-like function of the material universe as a Gnostic would. Light and darkness, a major theme throughout Gnosticism, is also prevalent in this chapter:
“You see that lamp. It is round and yellow and gives light to the whole room, and hangeth moreover from the roof. Now that thing which we call the sun is like the lamp, only far greater and brighter. It giveth light to the whole Overworld and hangeth in the sky.” (Lewis 2001, 631)
The physical language of light and darkness in BJn is just as important in illustrating the stark differences between ignorance and truth as it is for Lewis. The entirety, or the spiritual realm home to divinity, is described as an “immeasurable, incorruptible light” in which its “goodness bestows strength upon… all the aeons” (BJn 30 Layton). Contrary, darkness appears both as a cave and a prison, home to forgetfulness of the spiritual and full of chaos (BJn 45, 50 Layton).
Last in discussion is the seventh book, The Last Battle, which narrates the destruction of Narnia in its last days only to reveal it still exists on a higher plane than before. This notion suggests that the New Narnia is the true reality, while the old was merely an illusion. If Lewis weren’t aware of his closeness to Plato’s allegory in The Silver Chair, he surely is in the final novel of the series:
“That [Old] Narnia was not the real Narnia. That had a beginning and an end. It was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia… just as our own world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world… It’s all in Plato, bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?” (Lewis 2001, 759)
This cosmological theme of a shadow world is common throughout Gnostic tradition, especially in BJn. Gnostic belief follows that matter is but a poor copy or reflection of the spiritual realm, and that physical mankind itself is simply a projection of the image of a spiritual humanity (BJn 39 Layton). Lewis seems to be quite cognizant of this philosophy, especially from Plato. It’s indeterminable if Lewis were educated on Gnosticism, but on Platonic philosophy it’s clear.
Gnosticism’s history of intertextuality – weaving together Judeo-Christian traditions and both philosophy and mythology from the Greco-Roman World – is a fundamental reason why vastly different literature such as The Chronicles of Narnia can appear Gnostic in part. Lewis was an esteemed academic and had avid interest in storytelling. No doubt he invested time in researching and enjoying the same works that early Gnostics themselves read and revised into their scripture. One could argue the series itself is intertextual as well, although mostly borrowing from traditional Christian thought than Gnostic. Obvious among that collection are Judeo-Christian texts (i.e. Genesis and the Gospels, especially of John) and Plato. Yet, it’s uncertain if Lewis himself dabbled in the Gnostic phenomenon and so it’d prove unwise to qualify any part and especially the whole of The Chronicles as Gnostic in production. However, because of the similar textual influences upon the early Gnostic authors and Lewis, elements of Gnosticism – as defined earlier, according to the heretical movement of early Christian history – do appear across the seven novels, they just don’t define their genre.
Layton, Bentley. The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations and Introductions. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1987.
Lewis, C. S. The Chronicles of Narnia. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
Written for UNC-Chapel Hill RELI 217: Introduction to Gnosticism, Spring 2017
BJn = Secret Book of John