Monday, 19 December 2011
Top Ten All-Time Bestselling Books, 7: C S Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950)
Still running up this hill: and we've reached number 7, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: 85 million copies sold.
This is the best-made and most compelling of the Narnia books: four English schoolchildren, evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz, find a magical wardrobe. Passing through it they move (in a splendidly realised, dream-like pun) from fur coats to fir trees: they have passed into the Fantasy realm of Narnia where all the animals can talk. Here they find themselves in the battle between the White Witch -- whose malign magic is keeping the world always winter -- and Aslan, a magical talking-and-flying lion. Edmund, one of the four kids, seduced by the White Witch, betrays his brother and sisters for some Turkish Delight. To redeem him Aslan delivers himself willingly into her clutches. She kills him, but he comes back to life, and in a big conclusive battle the wintry evil is defeated and the White Witch killed. It's a book with genuine charm (impossible to fake, that); inventive, witty, well-plotted and immersive.
Now, alright. Let's talk turkey, and by turkey I mean: Christ and his wattle. I have seen this novel described as an allegory of Christ’s passion, but it’s not—this may seem like an unimportant quibble, but I'm going to insist upon it. Tolkien, Lewis’s friend, always expressed his ‘cordial dislike’ of allegory; and although Lewis was fonder of the mode, he isn’t writing it here. What The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe does is explore the logic of incarnation, something of central importance to Christians. Aslan doesn’t allegorically represent or symbolise Christ; he is the form Christ’s incarnation would take in a reality populated by talking animals. Similarly, Christ in this world (I mean our world, the one we're in now) was not a ‘symbol’ for God; he was actually God, incarnated in human form.
Nevertheless, though not allegorical, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe clearly adumbrates a Christian story, and does so because Lewis considered that story true. Some find the way this religious proselytising is handled in the novel to be sneaky; and I know people who talk about how disappointed they were when they grew old enough to spot, or had people point out to them, the Christian burden. I don’t see that myself.
It is striking, mind you, how bourgeois the fantasy is—the extent to which, indeed, the fantasy is precisely of bourgeois life. A faun with an umbrella and a pile of department-store goods under his arm, good food (easy to overlook how intense the craving for good food was in Britain in the immediate aftermath amongst WWII), fine clothes, pets—all of which presumably means there are department stores in Narnia; and that tea—which Mr Tumnus has—is imported from somewhere. (Incidentally: Tumnus knows what tea and cakes are, wears a scarf and owns an umbrella; but he has no idea what a ‘spare room’ is? Pull the other one). Above all, this book prizes the sanctity of the family unit. The family unit in this novel is so important it even takes precedence over the life of God; for Edmund’s venal failings must be bought-back by Aslan’s death. The pets thing is crucial too; Lewis was, from an early age, fascinated and charmed by the notion of talking animals, and he wrote his fantasy in part to give himself an imaginative platform for the elaboration of this dream. But the talking animals of Lewis’s world are much more house-pet-like than they are (say) the numinous god-like talking animals of Norse or Egyptian religion, or the uncanny unsettling talking animals of folklore. To grow up with a loved pet is, surely, to enter, half knowingly, into the belief that your cat or dog or hamster is, in some sense, a person; that you talk to them and they look just like they can understand you. This is the mode of anthropomorphisation that informs Lewis’s vision. Even Aslan is, in effect, a housecat on a large scale: the book’s repeated stress on his ‘wildness’ notwithstanding. I could add that I’m not necessarily deprecating the book when I say this—religious observation may be no less heartfelt because it happens within a comfortable middle-class milieu, and the love people (and especially children) feel for their pets can be as genuine and as intense, or intenser, as that they feel for other people. It would be clumsy and insulting to sneer at this: love, after all, is love.
Nonetheless, I’ve always felt it is the metamorphosis of Lewis’s re-imagining of the Christian story that is the most interesting part of the novel. Gender-bending the traditional maleness of Satan, such that your cosmos’s principle of wickedness becomes a proud but sexually alluring woman is not ideologically neutral, of course; and there is a strain of sexism (in places it touches on active misogyny) running though the Narnia books—most egregiously where poor old Susan gets excluded from heaven at the end of the series because she starts wearing lipstick. A similar pressure of deformation elevates the Lion of Judah, an aspect of Christ only marginally adumbrated in the Bible, to the central expression of the messiah’s nature. The lamb pops up too, from time to time, in the later books; but you can’t help feeling that, subconsciously, Lewis just wants a more carnivorous Jesus than the one supplied by his actual Bible. A Christ with bigger teeth.
This is political too, of course; and for many (genuine, devout) Christians part of the struggle of their faith is precisely to find a way of decanting off all the hippy, Communist, wimpiness with which their saviour is characterised in the NT. There is a certain type of Conservative for whom, the cosier he is at home, the more he feels that Christian values of ‘love’, ‘mercy’, ‘forgiveness’ and ‘turning the other cheek’ are best manifested in the world via helicopter gunships, daisycutters and the sanctioned torture of tan-skinned detainees. Lewis isn’t quite in this camp; but it is a striking thing that Aslan in Narnia neither (apparently) requires nor is offered worship by the other creatures. They speak highly of him, follow him as a warlord and leader (although it is the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve who, it seems, must actually rule)—but there are no churches or temples to Aslan, and he provokes no soul-shaking terror and wonder in the hearts of his people. It’s tempting to ascribe this to a littleness in the scale of Lewis’s imaginative conception (this is a kid’s book, after all); or to spin it more positively, a sort of modular simplification of the larger questions of belief.
It’s Lewis’s fantasy, and he can do what he likes, of course (I can go further: the fact that so many scores of millions of people have bought his fantasy suggests that he was in tune with very widespread views). But I always used to wonder—what does Aslan eat? In this world the animals are all of them more than sentient: they are intelligent. They have, in a word, souls. Eating beings with souls is called cannibalism. Is that what we’re dealing with here? It moves our thought in a rather startling direction; because, I suppose, the answer to the question what does God eat? is liable to be—us. The good shepherd looks after his flock, of course; but he doesn’t do so just for the sake of it. On the contrary; he does it because the sheep are valuable comestibles. The good shepherd enjoys roast lamb as much as any of us.
You might feel that this is to miss the point of the book, and I might (almost) agree with you—Lewis’s worldbuilding is not predicated upon a logic of internal consistency. To ask ‘what does Aslan eat?’ is no more to unpick the world described in the novel than to wonder, as I do above, how a fundamentally medieval world supports a trade in tea or the manufacture of umbrellas. To be a little more precise: as the series goes on, Lewis becomes patently more concerned with internal consistency: the Narnia of Prince Caspian or The Horse and his Boy is much less interpenetrated by marks of bourgeois prosperity, and The Magician’s Nephew goes so far as to explain away the most egregiously anachronistic feature of Lewis’s medievalised realm, the cast-iron lamp-post. But by doing so the books lose something, too; a sense of the way fantasy exists not as a locus of radical otherness, but on the contrary as a holey-space that precisely intersects our world of middle-class comforts, restrictions and anxieties. Tolkien does something similar in Lord of the Rings, except that he separates out his bourgeois eighteenth-century hobbits geographically from his medieval Gondorians and tenth-century Rohan riders. Lewis, by jumbling it all in together, Cair Paravel next to the department store that Mr Tumnus has just visited, makes a bolder imaginative alloy,
My real criticism of this novel relates to a different matter. It is that it ends just when it is getting interesting. The Pevensie kids become the kings and queens of Narnia: King Peter the Magnificent, Queen Susan the Gentle, King Edmund the Just and Queen Lucy the Valiant. They grow to adulthood in this world, until, many years later, they chance upon the lamppost again, and tumble back into our world, no longer adults, now children. Only a few hours have passed on Earth, for all the year (decades?) they spent in Narnia. Then Lewis stops; but this is where the story starts, surely -- what would it be like to have an adult consciousness inside the body of a child? To have passed through puberty, and then suddenly to have the hormone tap switched off? You could hardly go back to you former existence; but neither could you expect to live as an adult. Would you go mad, or use your beyond-your-seeming-years wisdom to some purpose? How would you cope? Would you try to explain? Would you betray yourself, and reveal the Narnia portal to the world -- would governments attempt to exploit it? The psychological interest in the story begins at the end; but that's exactly the place where Lewis drops the bar down and ends things. Grrr!