Monday, 4 August 2014

Re-reading Narnia: 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe'





Here is my much-worn, much-loved childhood copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I was given my first Narnia book, The Silver Chair, when I was seven years old – a little girl living in Yorkshire in the 1960s. I went on to read the series out of sequence, ending with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: it depended on what I could buy with my pocket money or find in the public library.  The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was published in 1950, The Last Battle in 1956, the year of my birth: so I suppose I was among the first generation of child readers of these tales.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the effect the Narnia stories had on me. I adored them, I was super-possessive about them. I regarded Narnia as my own, private, secret kingdom – so much so that when my mother, who read aloud each night to me and my brother, suggested she might read us The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe, I vetoed the suggestion.  Narnia was mine; I wanted to keep it all to myself.  It was horribly selfish, but that was how passionate I felt.  I read and reread them for years.

It’s decades now, though, since I sat down and read all of them through.  Did the charm fade?  I don’t know. The books were so much a part of my childhood that they still feel to be a part of me.  So I’ve decided to begin again, to remind myself of what enchanted me and discover if it still has the power to do so. Over the next few months, I’ll be reading the Seven Chronicles of Narnia and letting you know my thoughts.  Don’t expect academic crispness. These are likely to be long rambling posts with lots of digressions and asides as I follow wherever the fancy takes me.  I hope you’ll tell me your own thoughts along the way.  

So here goes: let’s talk about Narnia.

The first thing that strikes me now about The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe is how short it is: 170 pages, many with full, half, or quarter page illustrations by Pauline Baynes.  I’d guess the length is not more than 35,000 words – about right for a book for seven-year olds; but books for seven year olds written today do not commonly explore such rich emotional depths when dealing – if they deal at all – with subjects such as death, rebirth, police states, loyalty and treachery.

TLTW&TW is described by CS Lewis, in his dedication to his god-daughter Lucy Barfield, as a fairytale. Like a fairytale it deals in images, in strong, simple emotions, in primary colours, in poetic metaphor: and like a fairytale, it demands suspension of disbelief and a willingness to go along with the narrator.

Es war einmal ein KönigThere was once a King –

There were once four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.

It doesn’t matter where or when a fairytale takes place, so Lewis disposes of the Blitz – the reason the children are sent away from London – in half a sentence. What they leave behind doesn’t matter. What matters is where they arrive: this house ‘in the heart of the country’. Which country?  We aren’t told. It could be Scotland rather than England: the housekeeper has a Scottish name, and the children talk excitedly of mountains, woods, eagles and stags: but it’s the seclusion that matters. This is a secret and special place, and the further in you go, the more secret and more special it gets: inside the house there is a room, inside the room there is a wardrobe, inside the wardrobe there is Narnia…

Old houses and old castles are important places in fairytales, and there is often, too, a special hidden room.  In The Twelve Dancing Princesses, the soldier must follow the princesses through an opening under the bed:

The eldest went to her bed and tapped it; whereupon it immediately sank into the earth, and one after another they descended through the opening…

and down a stair to a fabulous land where the trees have leaves of silver, gold and diamond, and where twelve princes row the princesses across a lake to a beautiful palace, to dance all night till dawn. This land is neither good nor bad (though one senses it is disapproved) but magical: other. Alternatively, as in Bluebeard or in the English folktale Mr Fox, the secret of the hidden room may be horror and death. Narnia will turn out to contain both beauty and terror.

So when Lewis chose a homely wardrobe for his doorway to Narnia  (we all had wardrobes in our bedrooms back then, before the days of fitted cupboards) he was employing a device common in fairytales, where the domestic and ordinary frequently reveals the magical and the unexpected.



Here is the wardrobe – ‘the sort with looking-glass in the door’ – standing alone in an empty room. ‘Nothing there’, says Peter.  But Lucy investigates. ‘This must be a simply enormous wardrobe!’ she thinks, pushing her way further in through the fur coats.  And next:

Something cold and soft was falling on her. A moment later she found she was standing in the middle of a wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air.

A word about Lucy.  Philip Pullman has accused the Narnia books of being – among other bad things – sexist, of delivering the message ‘Boys are better than girls’. People who agree with this tend, I suspect, to be thinking of ‘the problem of Susan.’ But I was a little girl reading the Narnia books, and I was never in any doubt that the main character, the clear heroine of the three titles in which she takes a prominent part, is Lucy. Any child, boys included, reading TLTW&TW will identify with Lucy for the simple reason that it’s so unfair when her siblings don’t believe her about Narnia – and even more unfair when Edmund actually lies about it. It’s as easy to identify with Lucy as it is to identify with Jane Eyre, and for the same reason: children hate injustice.

Lucy’s main-character status has always been so obvious to me, I’m puzzled why Philip Pullman has failed to spot it. Is she too gentle for him? She may not be Lyra, or even Dido Twite, but the Narnia books were written for and about children, not teenagers - and quite young children at that. Judging by the games they play and the way they squabble, Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies, is probably about seven years old in TLTW&TW – the same age as me when I first read it. This would make Edmund eight or nine, Susan perhaps ten and Peter between eleven and twelve. Seven year olds – of whatever sex – don’t tend to be feisty, kick-ass action heroes. Lucy is sensitive, courageous, honest and steadfast, and Lewis clearly cares for her far more than he does for any of the boys. Peter and Susan are ciphers in the way older children often are in family stories of the era. Like John and Susan in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, their main role seems to be that of surrogate parents to younger, livelier, more irresponsible siblings. Edmund is a very ordinary little boy whose silliness, jealousy and deceit are realistically sketched. Most children have occasionally behaved and felt like Edmund. But Lucy stands out. It is she who discovers Narnia, she who befriends the faun, Mr Tumnus.  (And it’s Lucy and Susan, not the boys, who witness Aslan’s death and return to life: but more on the religious front later.)


Like Snow White, Lucy is quickly befriended by a denizen of the forest. And as in the seven dwarfs’ cottage, the cosy safety of Mr Tumnus’ house is soon compromised by the power of a dangerous queen. More terrifying still, Tumnus confesses himself  to be a deceiver, an informer: ‘I’ve pretended to be your friend and asked you to tea, and all the time I’ve been meaning to wait till you were asleep and then go and tell Her.’ Because, and remember these books were written during the Cold War, Narnia is quite literally a police state.

‘We must go as quietly as we can,’ said Mr Tumnus. ‘The whole wood is full of her spies.  Even some of the trees are on her side.’

Ashamed of himself, Tumnus is not now going to hand Lucy over to the White Witch, though this will put him at serious risk of torture and death –

‘…she’s sure to find out. And she’ll have my tail cut off, and my horns sawn off, and my beard plucked out, and she’ll wave her wand over my beautiful cloven hoofs and turn them into horrid solid hoofs like a wretched horse’s.  And if she is extra and specially angry, she’ll turn me into stone and I shall be only a statue of a Faun in her horrible house until the four thrones at Cair Paravel are filled – and goodness knows when that will happen, or whether it will ever happen at all.’

This is strong stuff for young children – strong stuff for anyone. I think the reason why, in my experience at least, children aren’t very upset by it, is that they feel safe in the hands of the narrator. Lewis never forgets who he is writing for. The potential terror of Lucy’s predicament is modified by Tumnus’ repentance. The danger to her, once recognised, is already over. And for Tumnus himself, well – the danger is real enough, but this is clearly the kind of story in which good characters will, ultimately, be all right.

Children are sensitive to narrative voice, both as readers and auditors. A parent reading aloud to a child can offer reassurance at scary moments. Lewis-as-narrator offers reassurance partly by interposing himself between the child-reader and the text – commenting upon it or explaining it, thus keeping frightening or sad material at a safe distance; as in this passage from the chapter after Aslan’s death:

I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing were ever going to happen again.

Is this condescension?  I don’t think so. As a child, I never felt Lewis talked down to me, I felt he spoke as an equal, that he treated me seriously. He acknowledges the depth of children’s emotional experience, misery as well as happiness. By addressing the child reader directly, he turns Susan and Lucy’s grief into something we can share and understand, and the moment of Aslan’s death is thus softened and becomes more bearable.


The other method by which Lewis gently defuses fear or terror is a deft use of comedy – for example when the children and the Beavers bustle to get away from the White Witch.

‘…The moment that Edmund tells her that we’re all here she'll set out to catch us this very night, and if he’s been gone about half an hour, she’ll be here in about another twenty minutes.’

‘You’re right, Mrs Beaver,’ said her husband, ‘we must all get away from here.  There’s not a moment to lose.’

The tension is both heightened and comically undercut by Mrs Beaver’s insistence on the careful and extensive packing of ham, tea, sugar, bread and handkerchieves –

‘Oh do please come on,’ said Lucy. ‘Well I’m nearly ready now,’ answered Mrs Beaver at last… ‘I suppose the sewing machine’s too heavy to bring?’

Hurry, hurry! – the child reader thinks, yet at the same time is both amused (Mrs Beaver is being funny) and reassured (Mrs Beaver is a mother figure, and if she’s not scared, neither need we be).

If Lewis were not so skilful, this could and would be a deeply unsettling book.  There’s Edmund’s treachery – to his own brother and sisters, no less.  There’s the scene of the Faun’s cosy house in ruins –

The door had been wrenched off its hinges and broken to bits. …Snow had drifted in from the doorway and was mixed with something black, which turned out to be the charred sticks and ashes from the fire. Someone had apparently flung it about the room and then stamped it out. The crockery lay smashed on the floor and the picture of the Faun’s father had been slashed to shreds with a knife.

It’s no small achievement to be this frank, this clear about spite and violence and hate – confirmed by the denunciation on the door signed ‘MAUGRIM, Captain of the Secret Police’ – in a book for small children which most of us remember as full of magic and delight. There’s the threat to Edmund himself from the White Witch, who is ready to murder him. There’s the truly upsetting scene when the Witch turns to stone a happy little party of fauns and animals, for the crime of telling the truth. (This is also the moment at which Edmund feels compassion for the first time.)

‘What is the meaning of all this gluttony, this waste, this self-indulgence?  Where did you get these things?’
‘Please, your Majesty,’ said the Fox, ‘we were given them …’
‘Who gave them to you?’ said the Witch.
‘F-F-F-Father Christmas,’ stammered the Fox.
‘What?’ roared the Witch… ‘…How dare you – but no. Say you have been lying and you shall even now be forgiven.’
At that moment, one of the young squirrels lost its head completely.
‘He has – he has – he has!’ it squeaked, beating its little spoon on the table.



All this, before we’ve even got to the death of Aslan.

As is well known, JRR Tolkien didn’t get on with Narnia, and one of the things that annoyed him about the series was Lewis’s carefree – or slapdash, depending on your viewpoint – world-building, bundling together everything and anything he’d ever loved in myth, legend and fairytales. Thus Narnia has not only talking animals out of Beatrix Potter or The Wind in the Willows, it also has nymphs, naiads, dryads and river gods from classical mythology, and giants and dwarfs out of the Northern legends. It borrows Green Ladies from medieval romances, and mystical islands from Celtic voyage tales and, in this one first book, it has Father Christmas.

But when a writer has come up with a lovely phrase like ‘Always winter and never Christmas’, well what is he to do? I don’t mind this single meeting with Father Christmas in Narnia, although I do think Lewis was wise not to invite him back. He seems to me to echo the appearance of Grandfather Frost in Russian fairytales – the white-bearded old spirit of the snowy woods who just may, if you address him politely, give you gifts (rather than freezing you to death). Personally I find Father Christmas in Narnia easier to accept than Tolkien’s facetious reference to golf in The Hobbit, when Bilbo’s ancestor Bullroarer Took knocks off the head of the goblin king Golfimbul. ‘It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of golf invented at the same moment.’ Such self-conscious flippancy was one of the things that put me off The Hobbit as a child.

And now for the vexed question of religion.

People talk a lot nowadays about the Narnia stories as religious allegories.  They really aren’t. Lewis wrote a textbook about medieval allegory – ‘The Allegory of Love’ – and knew what it was and what it wasn’t. There is Christian symbolism in the books, but that is not at all the same thing. And it went clean over my head as a child. Aged about ten, I remember saying shyly to my mother that ‘it almost feels as if Narnia is real’.  (What I actually wanted to say was ‘I believe Narnia is real’ – because the alternative, that Narnia had no existence except between the pages of a book – was almost unbearable.) My mother didn’t spoil the book for me by telling me that Aslan is meant to be Christ.  She just replied quietly, ‘I think you’re meant to feel that.’ And so the religious message in the books remained invisible to me – at least until The Last Battle more or less rubbed my face in it. Indeed, talking to some teenage Muslim girls a year or two ago, I got surprised looks when I mentioned the Christian elements in the Narnia stories. They hadn’t noticed, either.  There is a difference, I think, between the ways in which children and adults read. Children are more immersed in a book – more trusting, more literal. They take what they read at face value. They don’t come up for air and think, as adults do, ‘Just what is this author trying to say?’  



Does this make children potentially more vulnerable to prejudice and propaganda? Perhaps. But it’s interesting to look at a much more obvious attempt at Christian fantasy by the Catholic children’s author Meriol Trevor, written a decade after the Narnia books, in 1966. In The King of the Castle (Macmillan), a sick boy, Thomas, finds his way into the world of a picture hanging on his bedroom wall and meets Lucius, a shepherd with a phoenix ring, who believes himself to be the son of the High King. Reviled, disbelieved, eventually hanged, Lucius is restored to life by a Messenger of the High King, and claims his kingdom. The Christian message was obvious to me when I read the story as a child, but it didn’t capture my imagination, and a recent re-reading showed why: Lucius is wooden, the resurrection scene almost perfunctory, and there seems no narrative reason why the viewpoint character Thomas should be in this world at all.  The book has nothing of the verve, the colour, the energy of the Narnia stories.


Philip Pullman speaks for many who consider the Narnia books outrageous propaganda for the pernicious doctrine of an all-powerful God who demands innocent blood to atone for the sins of a supposedly corrupt humanity. From this viewpoint TLTW&TW is dodgy stuff.  For a Christian reader, however, such a view is a travesty of the New Testamant stories and the doctrine that declares Christ to be a facet of a living and loving God who shares in the suffering of the world. No one, least of all myself, is going to be able to reconcile such opposite perceptions.

But remember CS Lewis called his book a fairytale, and in fairytales the world over, good and innocent characters who die, come back to life.  Think of Snow White in her glass coffin! In The Juniper Tree, the murdered boy is transformed into a beautiful, mysterious bird which deals out justice, rewarding the good and destroying the wicked, before turning back into a living child again. In Fitcher’s Bird, the third bride is able to restore her murdered sisters to life and escape the house of the sorcerer. Resurrections occur in fairytales because here, if nowhere else, there is a real chance that justice and goodness may prevail over evil and tragedy. Lewis came to Christianity through stories: he took them seriously: he regarded the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ as a fairytale which really happened.  We don’t have to follow him all the way.  But we can still be moved by the tales.

It is perfectly natural for a child to read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and to see Aslan as no more and no less than the literal account makes him: a wonderful, golden-maned, heroic Animal. I know, because that’s the way I read it, and that is why I loved him. Though the death of Aslan at the hands of the White Witch is the heart of the book, that ‘deep magic from the dawn of time’ works just as well on a non-Christian level. A beautiful, icy queen: a golden lion. ‘When he shakes his mane, we shall have spring again…’ Of course Aslan comes back to life! Who can kill summer?


My childhood copy of the map of Narnia...


Picture credits

All artwork by Pauline Baynes.  The full colour illustration of Lucy and Mr Tumnus is from Brian Sibley's 'The Land of Narnia', Collins Lions, 1989

24 comments:

C.J.Busby said...

Katherine, that's lovely! I think I absorbed Narnia at about the same age you did, and I felt almost tearful reading your post because it bought back that intensity of it all. And of course I never realised Aslan was meant to be Christ - and in fact I didn't really get it even after reading The Last Battle, I just remember a sense of terrible disappointment at the bit where he started to look 'less of a lion and more of a man', and I resolved internally that MY Aslan was definitely never going to be anything other than a glorious golden lion...

Gillian Philip said...

Yes, Cecilia! That's exactly my experience. I couldn't understand why Aslan looked "less like a lion and more like a man", and I wasn't happy with that, but for me he stayed eternally a lion. Fabulous post, Katherine, thank you!

Tom Sarmo said...

This was an intriguing, fascinating post--Thanks. (I've always thought Pullman tiresome. He's allowed his opinions, but doth protest a bit much.)

Becca McCallum said...

This was such a lovely post. I really must re-read the Narnia books again.

Funny, but this bit where you said : " It could be Scotland rather than England: the housekeeper has a Scottish name, and the children talk excitedly of mountains, woods, eagles and stags..." - had never occurred to me. I like that idea!

Shveta Thakrar said...

I love this. What a wonderful post!

julia jones said...

Amazed by your reminder that the LWW is so short when there's so much in it! Love this book, love your post. One thing pleasing and reassuring is that so many children in primary schools today also know the world of Narnia. It may well be because of the LWW film (not the dire TV version I hope) but I notice whenever I;m talking about the concept of a portal (usually to 9 & 10 year olds) the Wardrobe is almost always the first example they suggest.

Austin Hackney said...

Well, there are elements in this book which are powerful, entrancing and steal children's imaginations away to wonder, for sure.

However, it seems to me that all those elements are those that belong to an older, perhaps more honest tradition of tale-telling than Lewis's deliberate, deceitful attempt to snare children in his Christian net.

There is something inherently dishonest about it all. It is the typical - and deeply distasteful - tactic of evangelical proselytism that pretends one thing and means another.

The commentators above who describe their disappointment and confusion at the revelation at the end of the final book that, in fact, Aslan is 'less of a lion and more of a man' pretty much sums up why this series is irrevocably broken.

Lewis makes a contract with his young readers: this is a fairytale, fantasy; Aslan is a mythical creature; you can trust him, you can trust me; this is a story. And he summarily breaks that contract. He has lied. It isn't a fairytale. It's a work of Christian apologetics, dressed as a fairytale. And in the end, Lewis cruelly and unashamedly, having caught his readers in the trap, rips away the disguise and says, "Ha-ha! Actually, it'a all about Jesus!"

No wonder so many of us were turned off by that and had to retell the story to ourselves to make it okay - not about Jesus but about a magic lion!

Just at the literary level, it's as terrible an abuse of the 'author-reader' contract as 'it was all just a dream' or the 'deus ex machina' solution to a crime novel.

Add to that the undeniable, overt and pompous misogyny that I really don't think Lucy's (criticised for her fat legs!) story can compensate for - that Susan is banned from heaven because she begins menstruating, the representations of the White Witch, seducer of innocence and so on; the deliberate racism in the representation of the Calomorenes and the glorification of martyrdom and there are undeniably problems with these books.

I think, in the end, however, it is the deliberate intent to deceive that bothers me.

Fairytales, real fairytales, don't deceive, they illuminate. Lewis says it's a fairytale, but it isn't.

That's just part of the deceit.

Shoo Rayner said...

You have taken me back to my childhood. I certainly identified myself with Lucy. She was brave and true of heart.

BY the end of the series I wanted to become Prince Caspian when I grew up, sailing through seas of water lilies with Reepicheep at my side. I even designed the island castle where I would live!

My big Narnia moment was at about the age of 11 - I too read and re-read them. Aslan tells Lucy:

"But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."

It was a blinding revelation. All that scripture I'd been taught relentlessly at school and church was not the whole truth. Aslan or God or Jesus also exist in other worlds and have different names - if that was the case, then maybe they had different names in this world too? And perhaps all the different gods in this world are really one and the same?

I felt very different sitting in church the next Sunday. The service was embarrassingly hip and very 60's, the lessons read from the New English Bible. I remember thinking - if they can just throw away all the majestic language of King James and the book of common prayer and replace it with this bland nonsense, they can't really believe in everything they've taught me up until now.

So C S Lewis turned at least one child away from the church!

That was around the time that Lucy's greatest qualities became square and old-fashioned. Thankfully, seven and eight year olds still identify with those qualities and haven't yet become too worried about being cool.

I wonder how many bankers read the Narnia books as children and found themselves identifying with Edmund as they grew up?

Lucy would have made a wonderful, old-fashioned, caring, community-based bank manager.

Sue Purkiss said...

Excellent post, and very interesting comments. Austin - did you read the books as a child, or is your response that of an adult? I would have been a bit older than Katherine when I read the books, and I got them from the library - it was a long time before I read the last one. Like Shoo, I took away the message that God could have different names and be seen in different ways. But predominantly, what I took away was the the stories of the earlier books. As for Susan - maybe it was a bit harsh. But from a child's point of view, she did get a bit sensible and boring when she grew up, didn't she? I can remember that very difficult time on the cusp of becoming a teenager - when my friends had developed ahead of me and were no longer interested in the things I was - they seemed to have voluntarily crossed into a very different world. Sue (Susan!)

Katherine Langrish said...

First, my thanks to everyone who's commented so far. I was hoping for a variety of reactions and you've provided them! Austin, I do understand your point of view, though I don't personally feel so strongly, nor do I really agree that the books are deceitful. Lewis said some very different things about what this book 'means': and I think the clearest and truest thing he said about it was that he wanted to imagine what the story of the Gospels would have been, if transferred to another world, Narnia. That doesn't make Aslan Christ, any more than it makes Narnia Palestine. Writers are often unsure as to what their books really 'mean': and do come up with different explanations at different times and to different audiences. For me at least, Narnia is simply Narnia, and in this book - NOT necessarily in some of the others - I can still enjoy the story almost as much as I did when I was small.

Katherine Langrish said...

(I don't think Lucy is ever criticised for having fat legs, by the way, but some little girls in the next book certainly are. More of that in a week or two!) :)

madwippitt said...

Fab post. I too read them at a similar age - although lured in by the Horse and His Boy first - as I'd been lucky enough to be given a boxed set. My first encounter with Pauline Baynes' illustrations, and I've loved them ever since.
I never twigged the Christian bit till many years later. I've always thought that you can read things into books if that's what you like to do: but it's also perfectly possible to simply read a book for the sheer joy of a good story, well told without any need to dip beneath the surface for subtexts.
And this was the first book I ever read where a character dies: I believed it utterly and vividly remember it reducing me to tears. I had to hide behind the sofa with it so no-one could see me sniffling ...

Paeony Lewis said...

Which is the book that includes the desert? I think it was one of the two Prince Caspian volumes. I remember liking them the most and The Magician's Nephew the least, although I enjoyed them all and the wardrobe entrance to Narnia became embedded in my psyche (hidden entrances to unknown fantasy worlds, big and small - I've always been intrigued). I have no great insights about the books, and as a child I never noticed any Christian parables or felt influenced - to me it was traditional good and evil, but with realistic characters who were given the opportunity for growth, so there were shades of grey too. My only disappointment was when Narnia was closed to the children - that felt so unfair to me and I felt sorry for Susan.
Later, at high school, I discovered 'That Hideous Strength' and his other SF novels - I enjoyed them too.

Paeony Lewis said...

Meant to say, I adore your map, Kath. Also, why is Pullman so obsessed with the perceived Christian parables? That's his adult interpretation. When we write something and send it out into the world, we no longer control how others interpret our words. I have a picture book that has done well and is used in Christian churches (especially in the US), but I NEVER wrote the story with this in mind. It took me by surprise.

mashadutoit.com said...

Paeony, I think the desert book was "The Horse and his Boy" ?
Another one with a great female character, although she does get quite a nasty punishment.

This is such a lovely article - like others here, it echoes my own experience of the books. I've got fairly mixed feelings about Christianity, having grown up in South Africa under Christian National Education and all that. But even if one can read the books as an allegory, I certainly did not experience them as such when I was a child.

The sheer joy of them, and the writer's obvious empathy for his characters were what I remember most.

(Oh, and so happy that you mention the Arthur Ransome books as a parallel. I used to think about how similar Lucy and Titty are, although they do have their differences too. Both thoughtful girls, painfully honest, but loyal too.)

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh, I did so enjoy this! And incidentally, Lewis loathed allegory, and would never have set out to write one. I can't remember which of his books he said that in:perhaps 'Surprised by Joy'. Yes, I always knew Lucy was the heroine, but was annoyed that later on Jill seemed less special than Lucy.
I was a Christian child, yet it took me years to connect Aslan's dealt with the Christian story.
I actually loathed the 'Out of the Silent Planet' trilogy, especially That Hideous Strength' because they seemed to me preachy and sexist in a way that Narnia wasn't. All that stuff about only having sex in order to produce children, and contraception being wrong. His attitudes towards sex were definitely weird. And I thought That Hideous Strength had a kind of pornographic violence.
But Narnia was part of my childhood and remains part of me. As for Susan, she was always a grown-up really, like Susan in Swallows and Amazons, who seemed like the same character to me..

John Pyle said...

Nice post, and interesting discussion! I think, if memory serves, Lewis described fairy tales (and classical mythology) as "true," or "coming true" in the story of Christ. Also, I think in Surprised by Joy he describes child-friendly versions of myths as an entry into real literature (showing again respect for children, and where they are).

I see these as connected: Lewis may have thought he was introducing children to the deep truth he had found in Christianity, by giving them a fairy tale that works on its own as a fairy tale (not as an allegory for something else). That he saw the truth of these tales as fulfilled in the gospel doesn't destroy his desire to let them be authentic fairy tales. So they can be appreciated as such, I think. There doesn't have to be a conflict between the two points.

On a personal level: These books didn't find me when I was a child, but I recently read this one out loud to my kids. It really reads wonderfully in that context.

catdownunder said...

I re-read these some years ago when a relative gave me and my father tickets to see the play. It did not, for me, translate well into a play.
I didn't enjoy my re-reading as much either. Some of the magic had gone - I think it was because I understood too much.

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks to all for these comments. Masha, I agree - those two Susans could have been the same person. does something about the name Susan suggest 'responsible'? Leslie, I liked Out of The Silent Planet, and I liked the 'world' of Perelandra, but Ransome does become such a bore. That Hideous Strength is obviously and heavily influenced by Charles Williams, to its detriment. Lewis's best adult novel is 'Till We Have Faces', which is streets ahead of the space trilogy.

Leslie Wilson said...

Oh yes, Till We Have Faces is a brilliant novel. I had forgotten about that; thanks for reminding me. I was thinking on the dog-walk this morning, though, that the bit in the Narnia stories I really hated (apart from The Last Battle, which I disliked intensely and still do) was the perjorative portrayal of vegetarians and pacifists, and the assumption that a progressive school would be rife with bullying, whereas Lewis himself suffered dreadfully at a perfectly conventional school (he called it Belsen, I think).

Austin Hackney said...

Hello again.

Your friendly neighbourhood Devil's Advocate here...

I don't disagree that the first book is almost always taken - as I read it myself as a child - at 'face value'. As a child, I was entranced by the transition through the wardrobe into Narnia and everything that followed. I seem to remember thinking, at Aslan's resurrection, that it smelled a bit fishy (there's a pun there for anyone familiar with a little Koine Greek and ancient Christian history) but it didn't trouble me over much.

However, when someone is being subtley manipulated or deceived by someone else with an ulterior motive or a hidden agenda, the idea is that they shouldn't realise it at the time!

The heart of the matter for me, the reason why I just can't bring myself to like this series as a whole (despite enjoying the first book very much as a child) is this fundamental dishonesty. It may not, in the strictest sense, be an allegory - and there's nothing dishonest about an allegory - but it is certainly artful in its agenda to seed a sensibility to Christianity in its readers.

Lewis was first and foremost a Christian apologist and amateur theologian. And there simply is no escaping that in these books. The fact, as some here have claimed, that he says otherwise only compounds the problem. The man was clearly either self-deluded or a liar. Not a popular opinion, perhaps, but one substantiated to a reasonable degree by the evidence of his life and work.He was a very messed-up man. Not a very nice man at all.

As the books progress, the mask slips increasingly, until the face of the sneaking, misogynistic, racist apologist is finally revealed.

There is a lot in this series that should seriously disquiet the mind and heart of any right-thinking person, it seems to me.

Evenso, I think it is possible to accept this fact in the light of an adult understanding without diminishing the cherished memories of a childhood reading.

It is not the story per se - all stories, as stories, are worth the telling - it is this underhandedness that I don't like.

However, I have a feeling that I am a voice crying in the wilderness - to use a Biblical reference!

Let's see what we think after we've looked afresh at Prince Caspian, which I believe Kath is going to treat next time.

Leslie Wilson said...

Austin - the dishonesty is your reading, and not everyone would agree with it. Most of Western literature is underpinned by a Christianised collective unconscious, and there is no escaping it. As for racism and misogyny, if you are to object to those you will restrict kids only to very recently written books, for those things also permeate Western culture. Would you denounce E Nesbit for racism? Or indeed, misogyny? For, progressive as she was, there is still plenty of sexism in her wonderful books. I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where I was allowed to read what I liked (partly because my parents didn't have time to police our reading, partly because they were proud of my brother's and my precocity). I took from the many books I read what I wanted and was able to process, and discarded the rest, and it enriched me enormously. I think the responses of everyone who has posted show that if indeed Lewis did have such a hidden agenda, it didn't work.
And yes, Lewis was a messed-up man, and so are a lot of great writers; look at Dostoyevsky!
I'm not sure, incidentally, that I would ever want to describe myself as a 'right-thinking person' as I find such persons scary. Quakers, though based in Christianity,tell their members 'think it possible that you may be mistaken' and I think that is a good premise.

Katherine Langrish said...

I should like to characterise Austin's comments - along with Philip Pullman's criticisms - and indeed Lewis's Christian agenda too - as 'passionate opinions'. Passionate opinions breed strong, statements. Sometimes these may be unfair or perceived as unfair. Other people may then react as strongly. I will reiterate that though there are points in Lewis's writings where I do feel he's culpable of racism I don't see the Narnia books - as a whole - as an exercise in deceit. I don't believe deceit was his intention. I never felt deceived. I don't like using the 'they are of their time' argument, but that is also certainly the case, as Leslie suggests. Many of the children's books I read in the 1960's treated almost any foreigner as either a threat or a joke, for example. Sometimes both. Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are offensive to many Native Americans. Tolkien's Southrons are as dubious as Lewis's Calormene. Evil witch queens such as the White Witch abound in books by TH White and Alan Garner (and evil faerie queens still ramp merrily away today in books by Holly Black and Melissa Marr), and owe most of their existence to folklore. I don't see Lewis as a misogynist despite unpleasant references to fat legs. Fatness, as an attribute of bad or weak characters in children's and adult books, is unfortunately still with us. In fact it's still rife in the real world, let alone fiction. And so on and so on. So - sorry, Austin! - I still find these books delightful - if patchy. And I shall try to be as honest as I can in reporting my reactions to them... :)

Austin Hackney said...

Leslie, hello!

For me it isn't the fact of an underlying Christian influence which, as you rightly say is necessarily ubiquitous in our culture - it is the deliberate pretence, among Lewis and his devotees, that it is not so that bothers me. That's what I mean by deceit.

Further, I absolutely must make it clear that at no point have I ever, nor would I ever, restrict anyone's reading of anything! You made that up! I'm NOT for banning books. Good grief!

And yes, I would call Nesbit out, too, from a contemporary perspective. But I wouldn't stop anyone reading her books. However, I don't think she had a deliberate, hidden agenda and I can happily read The Railway Children, for example, with the awareness that it is of its time and place and enjoy it very much. As I also enjoyed the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

I like your final comment but it is a bit of a double bind as your conviction that it is true as a right-thinking person makes it somewhat tautologous!

But yes, as a scientist, as well as a writer, I do think it is important to challenge one's own assumptions. But if the idea holds up, it holds up. I'm a little bit worried by people who hold to their convictions regardless of all evidence but just as scared by people who pretend they don't have convictions or refuse to have them even provisionally.

Interesting stuff, isn't it?