Saturday, 13 December 2008
Bibliotherapy: what to read when you’re losing faith in Father Christmas
I grew up in a secular household, where Christian catechism was as unfamiliar to me as Ancient Greek, so as a child, I had no idea that my favourite book, ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’, was also a religious allegory. Since then, I’ve read disapproving critiques of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia – most notably by another writer I admire, Philip Pullman, who happened to teach at my Oxford junior school. But for all the accusations that Lewis was a heavy-handed evangelist, nothing can take away from my childhood delight in his magic.
Which is why I often return to Narnia, particularly in times of distress or anxiety; and I’d recommend ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ to anyone who is losing faith in the idea of Christmas, especially this year, when gloom and uncertainty are gathering pace. The story begins in wartime, after the four children are evacuated from London, but they must face another form of danger in snow-covered Narnia, where the White Witch has cast a spell to create an everlasting winter, with no celebration of Christmas.
When Father Christmas finally returns to Narnia, it is a sign that the evil witch’s power is weakening, and the gifts he gives are far more important than toys: a sword and shield for Peter, a bow and arrows and ivory horn for Susan, and for Lucy, my favourite, a small dagger and a diamond bottle containing a healing “cordial made of the juice of one of the fire-flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun.”
Lewis himself knew all about suffering – his mother died of cancer when he was 9, despite his fervent prayers for her recovery, and two weeks later, he was sent to a grim boarding school that specialised in beatings. At 19, in the savage winter of 1917, he was wounded in the trenches of the First World War, where boys of his age died all around him; yet Lewis regained a belief in God. But you don’t have to share this conviction to be cheered by the hopefulness of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, and its glad welcoming of Father Christmas as a gleam of light against the forces of darkness and the dying of the year.