C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist, philosopher, and author of The Chronicles of Narnia. Although he was born into a Christian family, he became an atheist and remained one until he gradually realized that there had to be a God, and converted to Christianity. He was quite familiar with the subject of disbelief.
Disbelief is a recurrent theme, both major and minor in many of the Chronicles of Narnia. The fear of being ‘taken in’, or exposed as gullible is something everyone fears, but it’s sometimes best to swallow one’s pride and accept the impossible—and this is precisely what C.S. Lewis implied throughout the series. One intriguing aspect of this oft-portrayed struggle is that Lewis himself, a professing atheist, said he was afraid of being ‘taken in’ by the apparent flaws of theism; yet when he slowly came to faith in Christ, he realized that he was so concerned about being ‘taken in’ that he could scarcely be taken out of his own mental prison.
Aslan, creating Narnia by singing.
In the very beginning of Narnia, Uncle Andrew—Andrew Ketterley, the amateur magician that sends Polly and Digory into another world during one of his devilish experiments—refuses to believe that the beasts that he hears talking are really talking, or that he’s witnessing a singing lion, creating and perfecting a new world:
Then when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was a lion (“only a lion”, as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make believe that it wasn’t singing and never had been singing – only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world.
“Of course it can’t really have been singing,” He thought, “I must have imagined it. I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever hear of a lion singing?” And the longer and more beautifully the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song. Soon he couldn’t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Pevensie children, namely Lucy, inadvertently discover a wardrobe with magical properties. Lucy’s brothers and sister dismiss her story of a different world and a gentlemanly Faun as a falsehood:
“What do you mean, Lu?” asked Peter. “What I said,” answered Lucy. “It was just after breakfast when I went into the wardrobe, and I’ve been away for hours and hours, and had tea, and all sorts of things have happened.”
“Don’t be silly, Lucy,” said Susan “We’ve only just come out of that room a moment ago, and you were there then.”
“She’s not being silly at all,” said Peter, “she’s just making up a story for fun, aren’t you, Lu? And why shouldn’t she?”
“No, Peter, I’m not,” she said. “It’s – it’s a magic wardrobe. There’s a wood inside it, and it’s snowing, and there’s a Faun and a Witch and its called Narnia; come and see.”
The others did not know what to think, but Lucy was so excited that they all went back with her into the room. She rushed ahead of them, flung open the door of the wardrobe and cried “Now! Go in and see for yourselves.”
“Why, you goose,” said Susan, putting her head inside and pulling the fur coats apart, “it’s just an ordinary wardrobe! Look! There’s the back of it.”
Then everyone looked in and pulled the coats apart, and they all saw – Lucy herself saw – a perfectly ordinary wardrobe. There was no wood and no snow, only the back of the wardrobe, with hooks on it. Peter went in and rapped his knuckles on it to make sure that it was solid.
“A jolly good hoax, Lu,” he said as he came out again; “you have really taken us in, I must admit. We half believed you.”
“But it wasn’t a hoax at all,” said Lucy, “really and truly. It was all different a moment ago. Honestly it was. I promise.”
“Come, Lu,” said Peter,” that’s going a bit far. You’ve had you joke. Hadn’t you better drop it now?”
Lucy grew very red in the face and tried to say something, though she hardly knew what she was trying to say, and burst in to tears.
It had been one year in our own world and over a thousand years in Narnia since the Pevensies left the events of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when they were mysteriously drawn back—but to their deep disappointment, they did not see Aslan. When tromping through the woods in search of Aslan’s How and Prince Caspian (on Trumpkin the Dwarf’s word that there was trouble and the Narnians needed help), Lucy sees Aslan, who wants her and her siblings to follow him:
“Look! Look! Look!” cried Lucy.
“Where? What?” said everyone.
“The Lion,” said Lucy. “Aslan himself. Didn’t you see?” Her face had changed completely and her eyes shone.
“Do you really mean – ?” began Peter.
“Where did you think you saw him?” asked Susan.
“Don’t talk like a grown-up,” said Lucy, stamping her foot. “I didn’t think I saw him, I saw him.”
“Where, Lu?” asked Peter.
“Right up there between those mountain ashes. No, this side of the gorge. And up, not down. Just the opposite of the way you want to go. And he wanted us to go where he was – up there.”
“How do you know that was what he wanted?’ asked Edmund.
“He – I – I just know,” said Lucy, “by his face.”
The others all looked at each other in puzzled silence.
“Her majesty may well have seen a lion,” put in Trumpkin. “There are lions in these woods, I’ve been told. But it needn’t have been a friendly and talking lion any more than the bear was a friendly and talking bear.”
“Oh, don’t be so stupid,” said Lucy. “Do you think I don’t know Aslan when I see him?”
“He’d be a pretty elderly lion by now,” said Trumpkin, “if he’s the one you knew when you were here before! And if it could be the same one, what’s to prevent him having gone wild and witless like so many others?”
Lucy turned crimson and I think she would have flown at Trumpkin, if Peter had not laid his hand on her arm.
“The D.L.F doesn’t understand. How could he? You must just take it, Trumpkin that we do really know about Aslan: a little bit about him, I mean. And you mustn’t talk about him like that again. It isn’t lucky for one thing: and it’s all nonsense for another. The only question is whether Aslan was really there.”
“But I know he was,” said Lucy, her eyes filling with tears.
“Yes, Lu, but we don’t, you see,” said Peter.
Lucy, a prime example of honesty, is disbelieved by Trumpkin and all of her siblings. Though a vote is taken, and Edmund comes to her defense, Lucy is still ruled out and goes with the others though their tramp into the dense forest, later to be proved correct.
Eustace Scrubb, as portrayed by Will Poulter in the 2010 movie by Walden Media.
The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ begins with a (priggish) main character, Eustace Scrubb, introduced into the Pevensies’ lives under extenuating circumstances, much to his annoyance. The Pevensies’ obnoxious cousin who scoffs at their talk of Narnia, Eustace disapproves of Edmund and Lucy staying at his house for the summer. Listening in the doorway one afternoon, he barges in and begins teasing Edmund and Lucy about Narnia (even making a corny rhyme, which he says is an assonance):
“Still playing your old game?” said Eustace Clarence, who had been listening outside the door and now, came grinning into the room. Last year, when he had been staying with the Pevensies, he had managed to hear them all talking of Narnia and he loved teasing them about it. He thought of course that they were making it all up; and as he was far too stupid to make anything up himself, he did not approve of that.
But in a drastic conversion experience, minutes later Eustace, Edmund, and Lucy are sucked into a Magical painting of a sailing ship—and as it turns out, King Caspian is aboard. Though Eustace spends about another two months in his usual annoying form, they land on one of the many islands that they discover and he is transformed into a dragon as a result of his own selfishness. He is later changed back into a boy again by Aslan, much humbled by his experience. Eustace Clarence Scrubb never doubts Narnia again.
Disbelief reappears in The Silver Chair, but this time in a much milder and benign form. Eustace—who had been to Narnia previously—attempts to explain his experiences to Jill Pole, whose reaction is skeptical:
Both children were quiet for a moment. The drops dripped off the laurel leaves.
“Why were you so different last term?” said Jill presently.
“A lot of queer things happened to me in the hols,” said Eustace mysteriously.
“What sort of things?” asked Jill.
Eustace didn’t say anything for quite a long time. Then he said: “Look here, Pole, you and I hate this place about as much as anybody can hate anything, don’t we?”
“I know I do,” said Jill.
“Then I really think I can trust you.”
“Dam’ good of you,” said Jill.
“Yes, but this is a really terrific secret. Pole, I say, are you good at believing things? I mean things that everyone here would laugh at?”
“I’ve never had the chance,” said Jill, “but I think I would be.”
“Could you believe me if I said I’d been right out of the world—outside this world—last hols?”
“I wouldn’t know what you meant.”
“Well, don’t let’s bother about worlds then. Supposing I told you I’d been in a place where animals can talk and where there are—er—enchantments and dragons—and-well, all the sorts of things you have in fairy-tales.” Scrubb got terribly awkward as he said this and got red in the face.
“How did you get there?” said Jill. She also felt curiously shy.
“The only way you can—by Magic,” said Eustace almost in a whisper. “I was with two cousins of mine. We were just –whisked away. They’d been there before.”
Now that they were talking in whispers Jill somehow felt it easier to believe. Then suddenly a horrible suspicious came over her and she said (so fiercely that for the moment she look like a tigress):
“If I find you’ve been pulling my leg I’ll never speak to you again; never, never, never.”
“I’m not,” said Eustace. “I swear I’m not. I swear by—by everything.”
(When I was at school one would have said, ‘I swear by the Bible.’ But Bibles were not encouraged at Experiment House.)
Jill’s reaction to Eustace’s ludicrous tale wasn’t one of blatant disbelief, but rather one of muddled doubt—and it seems possible that this reaction can be thought of as like Lewis’s own casual childhood acceptance of Christianity. However, unlike Lewis, Jill grew in trust rather than falling away and went to Narnia herself.
But despite all the other examples of disbelief and cynicism within The Chronicles of Narnia, the chief among these is that of the Dwarfs in The Last Battle—and this distrustful, rebellious band of Dwarfs is a Narnian equivalent of atheists. A disbeliever in his early adulthood, C.S. Lewis later described himself in a manner much the same as he did the Dwarfs. Lewis said in Surprised by Joy, “I had (and this was very precisely the opposite of the truth) ‘seen through’ them. And I was never going to be taken in again.” He also said regarding Christianity, “There was no danger of my being taken in.”
Both Lewis and the Dwarfs were wounded, confused, and trying to deal with the fact that their long-held beliefs might actually be lies; and both of Lewis’s earlier quotes are similar to what Griffle the Dwarf said in the latter part of this conversation with King Tirian in The Last Battle, when they learn that the Narnians have been taken in by a false Aslan of Shift the ape’s making. Tirian attempts to regain the support of the Narnians, but the Dwarfs reject his leadership:
“You must think we’re blooming soft in the head, that you must,” said Griffle. We’ve been taken in once and now you expect us to be taken in again the next minute. We’ve no more use for stories about Aslan, see! Look at him and old moke with long ears!”
“By heaven you make me mad,” said Tirian. “Which of us said that was the real Aslan? That is the apes’ imitation of the real Aslan. Can’t you understand?”
And you’ve got a better imitation I suppose!” said Griffle. “No thanks. We’ve been fooled once and we’re not going to be fooled again.”
“I have not,” said Tirian angrily, “I serve the real Aslan.”
The Narnian Dwarfs, forever to think that they are stuck in a stable.
Later, in The Last Battle, when the Dwarfs are brought to Aslan’s Country—the real Narnia, an indescribably beautiful paradise—they are still in a mental prison, in literal, not metaphorical terms. They think that they are imprisoned in a filthy stable. Though Aslan, with one shake of his glorious mane, prepares a fine feast for the Dwarfs, they are still stuck in their mental stable thinking that they are eating nothing more than what you might find in a stable, such as an old turnip, or a raw cabbage leaf, or a trough of water that a donkey has been at.
“You see,” said Aslan, “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
Whatever else you may say about Dwarfs no one can say they aren’t brave. They could easily have got away to some safe place. They preferred to stay and kill as many of both sides as they could, except when both sides were kind enough to save them trouble by killing each other. They wanted Narnia for their own.
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis said, “Remember, I had always wanted, above all things not to be ‘interfered with’. I had wanted (mad wish) ‘to call my soul my own’.”
Although the depiction of disbelief in The Chronicles of Narnia closely aligns with Lewis’s personal experiences, the disbelievers’ stories and decisions also closely resemble that of the Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13.
In the parable, some seeds fell by the wayside and were consumed by fowls—just like when Lucy saw Aslan but none believed her; some fell upon stony places, and initially grew strong but then fell away because they had no deepness of earth—just like Susan failed to believe in Narnia once she had “grown up”; some were among the thorns, and were choked by their own bitter hearts and painful circumstances—just like the Dwarfs in The Last Battle; but others fell onto good ground, namely Digory, Polly, Peter, Edmund, Lucy, Eustace and Jill.
The Kings and Queens of Narnia.
Interestingly enough, whenever there was disbelief in Narnia, it resulted in the disbeliever missing out on something wonderful — like Aslan’s Country, Narnia itself, Talking Beasts, or seeing Aslan; Lewis wanted to show that cynicism and a loss of wonder deprive a man of the greatest things in life, and possibly even life itself. The Chronicles may not be realistic in some ways, with its Centaurs, Fauns, and Talking Beasts, but it is very approximate to real life in its colorful and sometimes tragic showing of disbelief.
Lewis, C. S. “The New Look, Checkmate.” Surprised by Joy. Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955. 204-206+. Print.
Lewis, C.S. The Complete Chronicles of Narnia. New York: Harper Collins, 1998. Print.