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An Interview with Devin Brown
January 29, 2008
Last week I posted a review of Inside Prince Caspian, a new book by Devin Brown and a follow-up to his earlier work Inside Narnia. These books provide literary analysis of the Narnia books and have greatly enhanced my understanding of and enjoyment of C.S. Lewis’s imaginary world. I thought it would be interesting to follow the reviews with an interview and Brown was kind enough to spare some time. I asked him not only about his books, but about C.S. Lewis, the Narnia series, Harry Potter, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a variety of other subjects. I hope you find the interview as interesting as I did!
TC: Why C.S. Lewis? Why do you have such a fascination with the man and his work?
I suppose most people have their own special set of writers, musicians, or artists that are an important part of their life. As I get older, it is remarkable to see how much richer the work of my particular set has made my life.
While I have a number of favorite authors whose lives and thinking interest me, C.S. Lewis has been at the top of the list since I was around 16. I think his overall appeal for me lies in the fact that he was such a man of letters in the old fashioned sense. He was a poet, philosopher, literary scholar, college professor, Christian apologist, and fiction writer all in one, and his profound faith permeated all of these roles.
TC: The Narnia books are among the select few that children and adults seem to equally enjoy. Why do you think this is? Why the wide appeal?
It is only relatively recently in terms of human history, that myths and fairy tales have become viewed as something to be relegated to children’s bookshelves. From the times of the ancient Greeks to as recently as the collections by the Brothers Grimm, there has been a certain kind of story that tells us who we are and why we are here. Lewis, in his Chronicles of Narnia, provides us—young and old—with this special kind of story.
Lewis himself spoke about this special story that appeals to all ages. He wrote, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” He claimed that “the good ones last,” meaning that their appeal lasts far beyond our childhood and that they continue to speak to us as we grow and develop.
Of course, in using a simple story as a vehicle for deepest truth, Lewis was following Christ’s example. When Jesus wanted to tell his disciples about God’s love, he did not write them a long, philosophical essay. He gathered them around them and began like this: “Once there was a man who had two sons, and the youngest said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’” He went on to tell the story of the Prodigal son.
TC: Have you read the Harry Potter books? If so, do you think they will have the lasting popularity of the Narnia books? Why or why not? How are they similar to the Chronicles of Narnia and how do they differ?
I have read the first two Harry Potter books, and enjoyed them—though not as much as the Narnia stories (and obviously not enough to finish all seven).
I see two ways to read these books. On one hand, they can be seen as simply a modern day version of what Lewis called the “Boys’ Book,” our culture’s story of “the immensely popular and successful schoolboy who discovers the spy’s plot or rides the horse that none of the cowboys can manage.” The previous generation had the Hardy Boys, before that there was Tom Swift.
According to Lewis, the problem with this kind of story is that it is “all flattery to the ego.” We identify with the protagonist and so picture ourselves as the “object of admiration.” Lewis argues that we run to this kind of book to escape the “disappointments and humiliations of the real world,” but in the end, we return to our own world and our own lives “undivinely discontented.”
But the Harry Potter stories are more than this. In his very last speech in Sorcerer’s Stone, Dumbledore states, “There are all kinds of courage.” And thus Rowling’s deeper message is that there are all kinds of heroes—Harry is one kind, Ron is another, so is Hermione, and so is Neville Longbottom. These stories remind us that each of us is a wizard, though we may not realize it. When read this way, the Harry Potter books are like the Narnia stories, in that they don’t make us look down on real woods because we have read of enchanted ones. As Lewis notes, reading this special kind of book “makes all real woods a little enchanted.”
Having said this, I predict that fifty years from now, we will find that the Chronicles of Narnia are still being bought and read by young and old. I am not as confident about the Harry Potter books.
TC: How can the literary analysis you provide enhance the reader’s understanding of the books?
I am not sure people need convincing that the literary analysis I provide in my books will enhance their understanding of the Narnia stories. Sometimes they may doubt that studying these stories in a serious way will increase their enjoyment of them.
Certainly the Narnia books can be read and enjoyed on a number of levels. But just as knowing more about a piece of music or a painting makes our appreciation and enjoyment of them richer, I believe that careful reading and careful thinking about these books will also add to our delight.
Taking a different tack, I am a firm believer that God wants us all to use our divinely-given intellect more than we typically do, that we are all called to think more deeply and more carefully about all sorts of things. I hope the ideas I present in my books will help, in a small way, to encourage the life of the mind. Perhaps talking and thinking about the Narnia books, for some, may be the start of talking and thinking about other topics.
Check back tomorrow for the conclusion to the interview
Devin Brown is a Lilly Scholar and a Professor of English at Asbury College. This summer he is teaching a week-long seminar at The Kilns, where participants will get to eat, sleep, and take classes in Lewis’s home in Oxford.