I love books. Always have. This isn’t really surprising. I’m a nerd who writes for a geek website. Books are important to me and they have been for a vast majority of my life, marking moments in my own coming-of-age narrative. I am also an atheist, a fact that would have been shocking for a much younger version of myself, clad in her Catholic school uniform and altar serving on the weekends. These two elements of my life and my personality might not seem as though they are intrinsically linked, but the older I get, the more I realize how my love of reading very much became a part of the impetus for my religious questioning. And it might be all C.S. Lewis’ fault.
I may not remember learning to read but I remember learning to love books. I learned early, when I was three or four and already shutting myself indoors to read through board books and the classic Little Golden Books, eventually graduating the hallowed grounds of chapter books and the wonderful world of Beverly Cleary. I was a frequent flyer at the school and local libraries, usually checking out the standard titles for a kid who hadn’t yet hit the double digits. I enjoyed reading, but it wasn’t until the third or fourth grade that I really fell in love. That was when I got my first box set collection of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and all bets were off.
The Chronicles of Narnia, for those unaware, is a series of seven books for children which tell the story of the magical land of Narnia, from its creation in The Magician’s Nephew all the way to its destruction in The Last Battle. On the surface, these stories are about the various rulers of Narnia and the children from our world who discover and explore within its vast borders. Sometimes those children and those rulers are one and the same. It is a perfect entry point into the world of high fantasy, with its vast history and a story structure which presents challenging concepts in a manner that is easily digested by a child’s mind while maintaining a layered meaning that interests adult fans as well. In a world before Harry Potter, it was my perfect escape; a world that showed me children like myself going on adventures and learning to become leaders in their own right. And some of them were girls!
But while The Chronicles of Narnia, to some, might just be exciting flights of fancy, they are also deeply rooted in religious allegory. Aslan is, after all, a Christ figure, and a blatant one at that. C.S. Lewis was not being subtle and was not trying to hide those biblical stories within his prose. He was merely dressing up Christian teachings in a way that made them accessible to those who had never even seen a Bible.
But that’s the thing. I had seen a Bible. I was a pre-teen kid who was being raised Catholic. I got an illustrated children’s Bible when I was six years old and had read it cover to cover at least five times. The stories, much like Lewis’ adventures in Narnia, were fascinating tales of adventure, especially those in the Old Testament, and there was as much magic in those pages and there was in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I read stories of Moses fighting to free his people at nearly the same time I was reading the pages of The Horse and His Boy, learning about the sacraments while reading a scene in which Eustace’s sins are washed away by Aslan, and trying to make sense of the Book of Revelation while trying to make the same sense out of the strange tales set within The Last Battle. The Bible is full of parables of heroes and villains and love and loss. It is, in many ways, a near perfect compendium of adventure tales, mixed, as you do, with exhaustive genealogies (oddly, they didn’t include all the begetting in the children’s version).
This was Lewis’ point, of course. He wanted to teach the same lessons one learns by reading the Bible in a format that would reach a much wider, perhaps more reluctant, audience. He was an evangelist who appealed to audiences using allegory instead of scripture. He taught, rather than preached. But for a child who encounters all of this at once, the two can, and in my case did, become difficult to distinguish. I don’t mean that I couldn’t remember what happened in the Bible vs. in the land of Narnia, rather that it was difficult to see much of a difference between the adventures of the Pevensie children and their friends and those of the Biblical heroes. Weren’t they all traveling on a similar Hero’s Journey?
No sooner had I completed The Chronicles of Narnia than another series of books crossed my path. At 12 years old, I was handed a copy of Philip Pullman’s modern classic The Golden Compass, a story of a girl my age in a world both like and unlike mine who set off on a journey filled with danger and intrigue. It fed perfectly into the part of my burgeoning fantasy fandom that had been sparked by my time in Narnia (and, by this age, Hogwarts) but with one very important difference. While Pullman’s book was seeking to teach me something about religion, his was not a bright and cheerful allegory. It was a dark and fascinating critique, not of faith necessarily, but of the Church and the institutions of religion. Over the course of that book and its two sequels (The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), Pullman crafted a world in which the Church and its leaders, hungry for power, sought to control every kind of existence and did some very un-Christian things to get there.
The His Dark Materials trilogy presented a view of religion as an institution that had lost sight of the ideas of its original founding document, one which was power mad and patriarchal, even while the main villain of the series was a woman. The first book in the series crafted a view of that institution separate from its faith as we meet Mrs. Coulter, a woman whose research is backed by the Church. But that research has nothing to do with furthering the message of God or the teachings of Jesus. Instead, it was about finding ways to increase the power of the Church and hurt people in the process. Scientists did not necessarily fare better in Pullman’s world, but those who sought knowledge for power, rather than for the sake of knowledge itself, and who went out discovering that knowledge in ways that took shortcuts by hurting people, were equally bad. Not even the angels escaped unscathed.
In all of these instances, the villains were people who gained power by exploiting religious belief, but Pullman didn’t necessarily create a world in which religious belief was unfounded. In fact, one of the most powerful moments of the final volume hinges on the idea that everything Christians believed was literally true. Angels and demons existed. So did God. The trouble arrived when God no longer really served as leader of his people but rather as a figurehead lauded and protected in a glass cage that became his prison. He lived only at the will of the angels who used his existence as a means to an end, the end of power over mankind. Lyra and Will, the heroes of the series, thus perform their most dangerous and blasphemous act in the same moment as their most merciful. They allow God to die because if their adventures had taught them or their readers anything at all, it was that goodness and faith are not mutually exclusive.
At the same time, the books recognized the importance of storytelling, even of religious storytelling, to teach and guide and that growing up means a loss of innocence and an entrance into a world where good and evil aren’t so black and white. Pullman casts a storyteller as a central figure of the final novel, The Amber Spyglass, placing her in a position to recognize the narrative importance of Lyra and Will’s relationship. It is no accident that the woman is a religious scholar, taking her philosophical understanding of the world from the teachings of dozens of religious faiths. She understands her role as someone who can teach through allegory and who can shape the minds and actions of young people through the means of story and knowledge. The Biblical tree of knowledge, to Pullman’s characters, was not forbidden, and someone had to be the serpent. To the version of myself rapidly moving into teenagerdom, Pullman himself was my serpent, his books, in many ways, my forbidden fruit.
It’s strange to admit that what many critics say about Pullman’s books, that they will make children question their faith, is true, at least in my very specific case. The His Dark Materials trilogy is not a series which rejects religion outright, but rather one which calls into question the elements of organized religion which place power into the hands of the few, dictating the actions and beliefs of the many without allowing for individual exploration of faith or the questioning of those teachings. The series offers, through the guise of adventure fantasy, a place for young people to learn to think for themselves, to question elements of their religious (or other institutional) upbringing, and to speak truth to power.
Looking back, however, it is plain to me that a single work of fiction cannot be blamed for the fact that, despite (or perhaps as a result of) more than a decade of religious education, I graduated with a high school diploma and the firm belief that the faith in which I was raised was no different that the stories with which I surrounded myself: beautiful, exciting, challenging, and, ultimately, fictional.