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!

31 comments:

SpaceSquid said...

It's been a long while since I read it, but I'm pretty sure The Magician's Nephew also addresses your cannibalism issue - it was never the case that every animal in Narnia could talk. IIRC, the children watch Aslan takes two of every animal and gives them the power of speech, whilst the other beasts just go about their business as ever they did.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Have you read this piece of fan fic? http://paperclipbitch.livejournal.com/99563.html

It addresses a number of the issues you raise rather brilliantly.

My own favourite is The Silver Chair which I realised only a few years ago is shaped around Pilgrim's Progress.

Aishwarya said...

I don't know if you've been following Ana Mardoll's detailed, chapter by chapter discussion of the book? Very long (longer if you read the excellent comments) but very worth reading. http://www.anamardoll.com/search/label/deconstruction%20%28narnia%29

Liviu said...

This is a book that needs to be read in childhood (like Jules Verne or Harry Potter) to be appreciated; sadly due to its mystical overtones it was unpublishable in communist Romania so I never had the chance to read it then (and never even heard of it until I came here as otherwise I might have fought for access to an English copy like i did with Rider Haggard or Agatha Christie for example from this list)

I read it with my 8 year old son two years ago when he got is as recommended reading from his 2nd grade teacher and he really enjoyed it and the whole seven volumes - we even bought a few for his extensive library - but for me it was simply a children book that I have no memories to relate too like I have with Verne, Christie, Rider Haggard, Karl May, Dumas, etc

Adam Roberts said...

SpaceSquid: I don't remember that about Magician's Nephew, though I don't doubt you; I'll go back to it. My broader point, I think, is that the later Narnia books represent a kind of Lewisian recoil from the implications of L,W&W, manifested in part by over-elaborate retconning and explaining.

Farah, Aishwarya: those are brilliant links! Thank you both.

Liviu: you raise an interesting question -- how far does childhood exposure to these books soak them so deeply into our affections that disinterested criticism becomes impossible. Although I did read Lewis as a child, for me it is Tolkien who wholly captured my heart, and whom therefore I find it almost impossible to get a critical perspective on. That's 4 and 3 in the upcoming list ...

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

Re eating animals, you may recall that in The Silver Chair, the kids are horrified to find that the giants they're staying with have recipes involving "talking stag." Though again, that would seem to imply the presence of other, non-talking-and-therefore-okay-to-eat animals.

Richard B said...

Excellent piece, I had often wondered why the Aslan figure wasn't a little more lamb-like, thank you for throwing light on the idea of Christ-with-teeth.

I'm glad you brought up the Susan-and-lipstick episode, for the longest time I ascribed to the 'burgeoning sexuality excludes her from Eden' POV, but now I wonder if the lipstick is more about the broader point of putting away childish things: Susan moves on, not so much sexually - although that will happen - but away from unfounded belief, and Lewis the author punishes her for her... lack of Faith?

She no longer sees as a child, and that - as Screwtape will tell you - doesn't really cut it, Faith-wise.

It may be that the ending is not premature but perfectly rounded for the bachelor Christian Lewis.... that through the journey of Narnia the adult soul becomes as a child, the ideal state is that those troublesome hormones fade away and you have the mind of an adult in - effectively - the body as - not of, but as - a child.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Andrew Rilstone has a very interesting essay on Susan and why she's banished from Narnia. His argument is that Susan is damned not for caring about lipstick and invitations, but for caring about them to the exclusion of everything else, including, of course, Narnia.

It's a persuasive argument, but even if you buy it there's no getting around the fact that when called upon to depict a person who abandons their faith for worldly things, Lewis lit on a young woman expressing her sexuality.

SpaceSquid said...

@Adam Roberts: Yeah, that scene in TMN certainly fits in well with your theory, it simply seemed worth noting.

Of course, there are animals that feature (briefly, I think) in The Lion... that aren't specifically shown to speak, but that's a mathematician's objection, and I apologise for it ahead of time.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

We are told Susan doesn't get to heaven in the here and now, but she is *not* banished.

I think Gaiman's story deals very well tho with the brutality of a God who leaves a 16 year old on her own.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Farah: I think Susan is banished from Narnia, or at least she's missed her chance to go there. But yes, one of the points that Andrew makes is that she's not damned.

I remember reading The Last Battle for the first time (I hadn't yet clocked that Aslan was a Jesus figure, but even then my response was "this is rather Christian, isn't it?") and feeling terribly sorry for Susan for losing her entire family in such a horrible way. I'm not sure I agree that the Gaiman story deals with that well - it strikes me as too consciously sensationalistic, but it does make the point that someone who has been dealt that sort of blow, and who knows that it came from God, would not be inclined to return to God's embrace - even for a chance at heaven.

Rich Puchalsky said...

" because, I suppose, the answer to the question what does God eat? is liable to be—us. "

Ruatavara's Case pretty much the ur-text on that. However, here is some doggerel:

On getting hungry by and by
God decided to make a pie
And into the crust of Earth he rolled
Some crunchy, munchy, tasty souls!

Now some of his pumpkins try instead
To eat up God with their wine and bread
But our experience makes that a lie
Was ever a baker eaten by pie?

Open your heart to what is true
You live for God to devour you


I also remember that the non-talking animals in Narnia were established quite early, and that people thought it was fine to eat them and horrific to eat the talking ones. I would have pointed out the Rilstone piece but after all it was pretty much inevitable that you'd get a link to it as soon as you mentioned Susan's lipstick.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Susan really, really isn't banished from Real/Final Narnia. I've re-read this several times because Pullman so infuriated me.

No one can be banished until they look on the face of Him (Aslan/Jesus) and reject him for the final time. Susan hasn't done this.

At the end of the Last Battle several dwarves who have denied Aslan look on his face for the last time, and their faces light up and they are admitted through the door into Aslan's world. The message is very clear (and is there in the Screwtape letters as well), there is always the opportunity for redemption.


[Related: as a kid my main reaction was 'oh good, make up, boys and silliness isn't as important as everyone seems to make out']

Mike Taylor said...

Lots to say here! :-)

The family unit in this novel is so important it even takes precedence over the life of God.

Are you sure you're not reading back into the novel from the changes made in the recentish movie adaptation? That was much stronger on the importance of family than the book is, to the point where it greatly reduces Aslan's importance.

Poor old Susan gets excluded from heaven at the end of the series because she starts wearing lipstick.

I do wish that critics with the wit to know better would stop perpetuating this pernicious myth. You don't need to read Rilstone's (brilliant) essay Lipstick on my Scholar to recognise that the plain text of The Last Battle simply does not support Pullman's reading of it. That someone as widely influential as J. K. Rowling uncritically parrots it is distressing; that someone as insightful as you would do the same is merely mystifying.

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.

That seems a strange thing to say about a book in which the Christ figure is willingly killed. Surely the point Aslan being represented by a lion is to show how absurd, how counter-intuitive, that sacrifice is? Anyone might expect a lamb to be sacrificed; but a lion? No. That is unexpected, and for that reason powerful.

There are no churches or temples to Aslan, and he provokes no soul-shaking terror and wonder in the hearts of his people.

I would say that there is plenty of soul-shaking terror of Aslan in the books. One such passage is in Eustace's relation of his encounter with Aslan while he (Eustace) was in dragon form: "I was terribly afraid of it. You may think that, being a dragon, I could have knocked any lion out easily enough. But it wasn't that kind of fear. I wasn't afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it - if you can understand." This passage is powerful precisely because it draws the distinction of fearing what God might do, and fearing God.

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?

As SpaceSquid and Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX have pointed out in earlier comments, there is a rock-hard distinction drawn between talking (=sentient) animals and dumb animals throughout the Narnia series. You see it time and time again, as for example when Trumpkin kills the bear that Susan couldn't shoot for fear that it was a talking bear, and when Tirian and Jewell are shocked that talking horses have been harnessed.

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?

That is certainly where a story begins, and one that I would very much like to read. But I don't think it's quite fair to complain that it's not the one Lewis wanted to write. (I might just take a stab at it myself some day.)

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Thanks for the reference Mike.

Adam Roberts said...

Hi Mike: I think we have an actual disagreement, here. (Which is good: disagreement is good). I’ll need a few comments to reply, given Blogger’s restrictive wordlimits.

Let's start with Susan. I say: "Poor old Susan gets excluded from heaven at the end of the series because she starts wearing lipstick." You rebuke me for "perpetuating this pernicious myth" adding "that someone as insightful" as I would say such a thing "is merely mystifying". Actually I think you're attacking me for Pullman's views, which isn't wholly fair. Rilstone's essay is fun, but tendentious, I’d say. More importantly, I stand by what I say in the post. I do not claim that Susan is forever banished from heaven; I say that at the end of the Narnia books she is excluded, and so she is. Rilstone makes a lot of play with the (he claims, wrong) view that Susan is excluded for liking lipstick. He insists that Susan is not excluded for wearing lipstick; she is excluded for "interested in consumer beauty products to the exclusion of everything else" (and also ‘for talking about Narnia as a childhood game’, and for preferring being 21 to being 11 or 71). I do agree that, in Lewis's larger theology, being interested in anything to exclusion of being interested in heaven is the root of all sin. It's also true that in a letter of 1957 Lewis says: 'the books don't tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there's plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan's country in the end... in her own way.' And maybe she does. But that's not what the books say: the books say that the other Pevensie children get to go to heaven, but that Susan is excluded from that because 'she's interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations.'

Two things occur to me. One is that if we're going to bring in extra-textual material, such as the non-Narnia stuff Lewis wrote, then we're going to want not to cherry pick; and I'd suggest the conclusion we'd come to is that, even for his day and class and religious views, Lewis's attitude to women was pretty fucked-up. The thread to Rilstone's essay has some examples of this: but there is a very unpleasant mixture of condescension and irrational fear in the way he viewed femaledom; women were simultaneous patently inferior to men (the whole 'slaves go back to your masters, wives go back to your husbands' thing) and alarming, destructive, dangerous. In the Narnia Satan is a sexually alluring woman: that's more extreme even than most Fundamentalist theologies.
...

Adam Roberts said...

[2] .... The second point speaks, I think, to what Farah says -- 'as a kid my main reaction was 'oh good, make up, boys and silliness isn't as important as everyone seems to make out'. The salient here, I'd suggest, is as a kid. One of the things that is pernicious, it seems to me, about Lewis excluding Susan from heaven at the end of the Narnia books is the way it takes the partial pre-pubertal view of sex and elevates it to one of holy certainty. A 9-year-old who previously has enjoyed playing kid's games with her older sister will naturally be annoyed when that sister starts to mature sexually, and becomes interested in eg boys. From the 9-year old's perspective it will seem 'silly'. But I'd submit it only seems silly to a 9-year-old because a 9-year-old doesn't really understand what sex is, or how powerful its pull can be. And that's fair enough, for 9. But Lewis was 56 when Last Battle was published; and describing an individual's first period of sexual maturity as 'the silliest time of one's life' -- as he explicitly does -- is to do more than to inhabit an 'unless you become again as a child' sentiment. It is to stigmatise sex itself as something wicked, bad and wrong. And ... it's not. This, I think, is Pullman's and Rowling's broader point. And as far as that goes, I think they're right.

Adam Roberts said...

[3] ... What else? I said: The family unit in this novel is so important it even takes precedence over the life of God. You asked: 'Are you sure you're not reading back into the novel from the changes made in the recentish movie adaptation? That was much stronger on the importance of family than the book is, to the point where it greatly reduces Aslan's importance.'

I take the point about the film; but I’d stand by my point, which isn’t so much about the family as about the bourgeoisification of Lewis’s vision. One of the things that’s strong about the New Testament story of Christ’s ministry, it seems to me (I speak as an atheist) is the way the apostles are not blood relations. I take the point there to be: looking out for and loving your family is easy, compared to looking out for and loving strangers, but the latter is what Christians ought to concentrate on. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe this spiritual family (that we’re all God’s chillun) is literalised, such that they realy are a tight-knit family unit.

I said that, perhaps subconsciously, Lewis wanted ‘a Christ with bigger teeth’ than his Bible supplies. You disagreed, saying that this ‘seems a strange thing to say about a book in which the Christ figure is willingly killed.’ It’s true that Aslan goes willingly, passively (hence ‘passion’) to his death, just as Christ does in the NT. But it’s also true that Aslan rides into battle with a big fuck-off army that slaughters thousands of bad guys, before Aslan himself, personally, kills the White Witch. That’s not in the New Testament. Christ in the NT is distressingly specific about your proper cheek-orientation when your enemy strikes you. When the apostles cut off the Roman soldiers ear, Christ rebukes them and fixes the ear back on. When Christ blesses the peacemakers in his Mountain sermon, ‘peacemaker’ is not a euphemism for ‘rifle’.

I said: There are no churches or temples to Aslan, and he provokes no soul-shaking terror and wonder in the hearts of his people. You disagreed: ‘I would say that there is plenty of soul-shaking terror of Aslan in the books. One such passage is in Eustace's relation of his encounter with Aslan while he (Eustace) was in dragon form: "I was terribly afraid of it. You may think that, being a dragon, I could have knocked any lion out easily enough. But it wasn't that kind of fear. I wasn't afraid of it eating me, I was just afraid of it - if you can understand."’ You find this passage powerful , I can’t say I do. It seems to me that characters occasionally talk about Aslan being wild and scary, but that this is told, not shown. But more to the point: my post wasn’t really a critique of the whole series, a few glancing references aside. It was about the first novel.
...

Adam Roberts said...

[4] ...

And that, I think, is my main point, in the post; one with which you don’t engage, perhaps because you consider it beneath notice. It’s that LW&W is the best of the Narnia books not just because it is better plotted, but precisely because it is gnarlier, conceptually; that Edwardian creature comforts and Medieval kingdoms are jammed together without there being any attempt to explain them. In the later books the medieval elements are much more self-consciously foregrounded, and Lewis goes a long way towards explaining away what we might take to be (in the first books) simply chronological inconsistencies. But this lessens the effect, I think, because it is exactly the oddness of a Faun walking through a snowy wood with an umbrella under its arm that is so powerful.

So, yes, by Prince Caspian a character like Trumpkin can distinguish between dumb bears that need to be shot and talking bears that look exactly like dumb bears but mustn’t be shot; and presumably Narnians are happy eating dumb sheep and dumb cows but would be horrified to eat a talking cow or talking sheep (although this chimes unpleasantly in my imagination … as if people in our world were happy to eat one kind of human being, but refused to eat another). But that’s exactly the sort of retconning that Lewis brings in as the series proceded. In LW&W he activates a powerful fantasy – what if the animals could talk! – whilst leaving dangling the corollaries (if animals can talk must we all subsist upon mung beans and soya? Obviously not!)

Gareth Rees said...

I think the Susan issue is an example of a general problem with The Last Battle. For the young fan of the series—or at least for me—the last book came as a rather unpleasant shock. Because at this point it was clear that the whole series had been a bait-and-switch. I cared about the characters and the setting: I wanted to hear more about Narnia and more about the adventures of Susan and the others. But suddenly it was clear to me that Lewis does not care in this way: for him, the allegory is more important. The effect is like discovering that someone has been pretending to be your friend in order to convert you to their religion.

Rilstone claims that, “For Lewis, literally anything apart from heaven is an evil if it is allowed to become an end in itself, rather than the means to an end.” And this is where I think most readers disagree: fictional characters are worthwhile in themselves, not only as means to the end of Christian evangelism.

Sean said...

Adam, a few responses to your responses:

1. When asked why Susan was excluded from Narnia, Peter's response is not because she now uses lipstick, etc. Rather it is because she "is no longer a friend of Narnia". As the discussion continues, we're first told that she denies Narnia exists, and then that she cares for nothing else except lipstick, etc. It's fairly clear that the main issue here is her rejection of Narnia, a symptom of which is her preoccupation with her appearance. This fits well with Lewis' repeating theme of wanting to become part of the "Inner Circle". That is, rejecting goodness in order to obtain the acceptance of those around you. His treatment of erotic love in "The Four Loves" is a pretty good indication he had nothing against sex in itself.

As to Lewis' supposed sexism, if this were true why is the most virtuous character in series (Lucy) female?

You claim that Lewis had a fucked up view of women, but he had close friendships with women (ex. Dorothy Sayer, Ruth Pitter) and I've never read anything to suggest that they felt he treated them in a misogynistic way.

2. We certainly do see Christ leading a huge army to destroy his enemies in the NT. It's a substantial theme of Revelation. Having a resurrected Aslan perform this function is perfectly in line with Christian theology. And, if Revelation isn't enough, the gospels portray Christ saying some rather un-meek and mild things about returning to judge the earth, and having His enemies brought before Him and killed.

3. The first book has several references to the awe and fear inspired by Aslan. See, for example, the children's reactions when first hearing Aslan's name, or their reaction when they finally lay eyes on him.

4. I think the children being siblings is more of a plot contrivance than anything else. Most of the main characters in the rest of the books aren't related and are just as dedicated to each other.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

And on the matter of sexism, there is a hearty defence of Polly in The Magician's Nephew when Diggory accuses her of being girlish in Charn. Not only that, but Lewis nails it when he says Diggory behaves this way to avoid acknowledging that he *knows* he is doing something wrong. Lewis's analysis of sexist behaviour is rather modern in this scene.

-
For all I was taken aback by the realisation that these were Christian fantasies not only did I not object to the end of The Last Battle, for many years it was my very favourite of the series (and when I went off it, it had more to do with the portrayal of the donkey).

I agree with Sean that too many people have homed in on the lipstick, but that is symptom, not cause.

Adam Roberts said...

Farah, Sean. I agree entirely that the lipstick is a symptom. What it is a symptom of is: adult female sexuality. Sean asks: as to Lewis' supposed sexism, if this were true why is the most virtuous character in series (Lucy) female The answer, I think, is that Lucy is prepubescent.

That Lewis was friends with some women is also true, although I'm not sure that it has a direct bearing on what I'm arguing. Farah's point is a good one, particularly the psychological acuity of the portrait of Diggory's nastiness as a way of evading his self-knowledge that he is in the wrong. But nonetheless I wonder if there's a slippage between the lager accusations of 'sexism' on the one hand, and the bickering of two pre-sexual, pre-adolescent children on the other.

Lewis had a superbly inventive, supple and in some ways penetrating mind; but it was also a mind that operated within a very restrictive conceptual strait-jacket. By this I don't mean his Christian faith as such; I mean the fact that he actively preferred a medieval way of looking at the world to a modern one. To read his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (as I have done, more than once, with -- as the phrase goes -- pleasure and profit) is to see that although he kind-of accepts the Copernican revolution intellectually, emotionally and spiritually he vastly prefers the Ptolemaic, Dantean cosmos. But the world is as it is, not as we wish it to be, even if we believe our wishes are in consonance with one or other religious holy texts. We all need to find a way of steering a path between 'unless ye become again as little children' on the one hand, and not staring myopically through a glass darkly ('... I put away' childish things...') on the other. As far as this goes, I don't think Lewis does.

Adam Roberts said...

Sean: We certainly do see Christ leading a huge army to destroy his enemies in the NT. It's a substantial theme of Revelation. Having a resurrected Aslan perform this function is perfectly in line with Christian theology. And, if Revelation isn't enough, the gospels portray Christ saying some rather un-meek and mild things about returning to judge the earth, and having His enemies brought before Him and killed.

Where in the gospels does Christ talk about having His enemies brought before Him and killed?

Revelation, yes: in amongst a lot of rather fruity stuff there is an implied Last Battle. Lewis takes that as his starting point for, er, The Last Battle. (Indeed, in that novel Lewis rather undersells the Saw-like weirdness of the source text: there's none of the squashing millions of people to death such that their blood pools over an area of one thousand six hundred furlongs, for instance). Inter alia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is an imaginative retelling of the Passion. There's nowhere in the story of the passion where Christ rides to war, or kills people, or orders people killed, or does any of that hyper-masculine neoCon stuff. Very specifically, and on the contrary, he does the exact opposite of this.

Sean said...

Adam: "What it is a symptom of is: adult female sexuality."

I think the problem of interpreting it this way is twofold. First, the text isn't specifically interested in Susan's sexuality per se. It's interested in Susan's rejection of Narnia, which results in the desire to be accepted those around here. Second, the interpretation promotes a view that Lewis clearly rejects. As mentioned before, "The Four Loves" demonstrates that Lewis has nothing against sexual maturation. Similarly, in "Mere Christianity" he calls sexual sin "the least bad of all sins".

Moreover, understanding Susan's exclusion to be do to a rejection of Narnia, which manifests itself in worldly tendencies, fits much better with the text, and matches ideas Lewis expounds on in other works. It ultimately just fits better than viewing the situation as "Susan was left out because she hit puberty".

"The answer, I think, is that Lucy is prepubescent."

Yet we see an adult Lucy in The Horse and His Boy viewed positively. Similarly, the adult Polly in The Last Battle is included in Narnia (and according to Lewis' own timeline, Lucy would be sixteen in the final book). On the flip side of that, Susan is regarded as "trying to seem more grown-up" in Prince Caspian and (I believe) LWW. This isn't presented as her trying to act sexually, but as her trying to act in a way she believes will give her acceptance or authority.

"Where in the gospels does Christ talk about having His enemies brought before Him and killed?"

We see it in Luke 12:46, and Luke 19:27, among others places.

"There's nowhere in the story of the passion where Christ rides to war, or kills people, or orders people killed, or does any of that hyper-masculine neoCon stuff."

But remember that LWW was originally planned as a stand-alone story. As such it gives something of a broad sweep of Christ's death, resurrection, and return for judgement.

I'm certainly not going to defend the misuse of theology for political purposes, but that, I think, is a different issue than what we're talking about here.

"That Lewis was friends with some women is also true, although I'm not sure that it has a direct bearing on what I'm arguing."

I disagree. You're arguing that Lewis was a misogynist. If this is true, we should expect to see demonstrated in the way in acted towards women.

It's simply wrong to argue that Lewis is sexist because a female character is portrayed negatively in the Narnia stories. In that case, almost all authors are sexists. The truth is that female character are pretty evenly distributed among positive and negative portrayals. As are the male characters. We simply don't see any consistent anti-male or anti-female views in the books.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

See Sean's comment, but I am very curious why you see Lucy as prepubescent. I never saw her that way and Jill sees her as very much grown up.

Adam Roberts said...

Farah -- just so I'm clear, you're asking: why, in a post about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, do I see Lucy Pevensie as 'prepubescent'?

Farah Mendlesohn said...

No, I thought you were implying she was prepubescent by The Last Battle, Ie in contrast to the grown up Susan.

Susan is prepubescent in ltww and on the edge of adolescence-as is Peter- on Prince Caspian. Lucy seems To reach adoliescence at the end of Dawn Treader.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think Adam can be forgiven for mistaking Lucy for prepubescent given that she never gives any indication of being otherwise. There are a lot of young women in the series who go through puberty and out of the other side, but only one of them performs her sexuality, and she's the one who doesn't get to go to heaven at the end of the story.

Like Adam, I agree that lipstick is a symptom, but surely the important question is, why this symptom? Why did Susan have to abandon Narnia for lipstick and invitations? If the problem is being more interested in worldly things than in heaven, then she could just as easily have been obsessed with money, or class, or, hell, even social justice, and her exclusion would have been just as justified. For that matter, if the important part of her failure is having rejected Narnia, then why does she have to be interested in anything worldly at all? Why not simply say of her that she has chosen not to believe in it? Lewis chose, instead, to tell us that Susan rejected Narnia for performed sexuality, and I think that's telling.

Sean said...

Abigail:

I would argue that Susan does reject Narnia for class or status. From the earlier books she's described as trying to act grown-up, at least grown-up in the way she perceives it. Again, this doesn't mean acting sexually, rather it means acting in a way that she believes will elevate her in the eyes of others. And that's what we see in the last book. Susan rejects Narnia, mocks the others for believing in it, and focuses her efforts on worldly pursuits.

If Lewis is trying to send a message that sexuality is a particularly bad or unforgivable sin, then he's flying in the face of everything else he ever wrote on the subject.

Consider that he once stated that people often engage in sex, not because they want to, but because they feel that this is a way to be accepted into the "inner ring" or in-crowd. This is really what Lewis is concerned about.

We see the same thing happening to Mark in That Hideous
Strength. He wants to be accepted by the in-crowd so he begins making intellectual, moral and professional compromises to make that happen. Lewis views the failure of Mark and Susan not as a single particular physical sin,
but as the much deeper spiritual sin of pride. This is the message Lewis explicitly states in his other works. If we miss that then we misunderstand how Lewis thought about such things.

Jojo P. said...

"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" It has an inspiring and thought provoking quality that appeals to children and adults equally.



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