Is C S Lewis any good today? Revisiting The Chronicles of Narnia
This July to August I did an epic re-read of The Chronicles of Narnia. It’s been years since I’ve read the series, though they were a mainstay of my childhood (to the point I even owned an activity and recipe book inspired by Narnia and spent my school holidays working through them). I’m now more aware of the accusations of Lewis’ sexism, racism and sledgehammering Christianity over children’s heads and wondered how I’d fare. From this white straight woman’s perspective (which is not the be all and end all by any stretch), it was in some ways better and in some ways worse than I remembered. I think I agree with Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, who wrote;
Narnia is a strange blend of magic, myth and Christianity, some of it brilliantly fantastical and richly imaginative, some (the clunking allegory) toe-curlingly, cringingly awful.
I’ve split my thoughts into categories for ease of blogging.
The oddly modern nature and humour of Lewis writing
Look, it’s not all the time, and there’s a lot of points in these novels where I wanted to fling my book across the room, but I had genuinely forgotten how readable Narnia is given its age. Aside from the occasional reference to things like the war or antiquated language around clothing or exclamations of feeling, the books read easily. There are also many moments which are laugh out loud funny (many of which I missed the humour in when I was younger). For example:
On our protagonists being stuck underground with no way out to safety: And you must always remember there’s one good thing about being trapped down here: it’ll save funeral expenses. The Silver Chair
(Pretty much everything Puddleglum says is A plus gold).
On Jill and Eustace’s school getting a makeover: When the police arrived and found no lion, no broken wall, and no convicts and the Head behaving like a lunatic, there was an inquiry into the whole thing. And in the inquiry all sorts of things about Experiment House came out, and about ten people got expelled. After that, the Head’s friends saw that the Head was no use as a Head, so they got her made an Inspector to interfere with other Heads. And when they found she wasn’t much good even at that, they got her into Parliament where she lived happily ever after. The Silver Chair
On the folly of mice vs dragon:
Caspian: “A dragon has just flown over the tree-tops and lighted on the beach. Yes, I am afraid it is between us and the ship. And arrows are no use against dragons. And they’re not at all afraid of fire.”
Reepicheep: “With your Majesty’s leave-” began Reepicheep.
Caspian: “No, Reepicheep,” said the King very firmly, “you are not to attempt a single combat with it.” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
On girls vs boys:
Edmund: “Girls aren’t very good at keeping maps in their brains”, said Edmund.
Lucy: “That’s because we’ve got something in them”, replied Lucy. Prince Caspian
On education in Calormen (putting aside the slightly uncomfortable Orientalism): For in Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you’re taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays. The Horse and his Boy
These are just examples and there are many more besides.
Hodge podge mythology and talking animals
When I was a kid this was a good deal of Narnia’s charm and damn the world-building and I have to admit I’m still the same today. Who could forget the time Susan and Lucy attended a bacchanalia (minus the sex), all those dryads and naiads, centaurs (and the quote about breakfasting with one being a serious business), Father Christmas showing up randomly in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, dwarfs, witches, giants and all manner of talking animals. This post on Tor.com explores this more thoroughly than I ever could. But I still love the riot of clashing cultures, myths and allegories today. Plus the food porn!
Pauline Bayne’s wonderful illustrations
When I was a kid, these illustrations were the bomb and now on a re-read, I couldn’t help but feel nostalgic at the wonderful images throughout the Chronicles, with many of them so memorable, I recognized them instantly or in some cases even knew when they were coming. I used to try and copy the illustrations and paint them, and spent one school holiday drawing and painting Pauline’s White Witch. They are definitely lovely and add to the charm and imagination of the series for me.
Issues with plot structure and well-drawn characters
Even as a kid, I recognized Narnia was no Pulitzer prize winner on this front. It used to bother me (without me being able to articulate why) how Aslan always swooped in and solved all the plot problems with a deux ex machina (and I get it fitted with Lewis’ Christian worldview but it does not a good story make). This time around, I really noticed how this device undermined the grand finales of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Horse and his Boy and Prince Caspian by taking any conflict out of the protagonist’s journeys. In addition, The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle seriously suffer in my opinion from too much allegory at the expense of good story-telling. Both of these books have some seriously cool moments that get overshadowed by evangelizing.
Interestingly as an adult, I found the Pevensie children seriously annoying. Where once Lucy was my ideal role model, this time it was Eustace and Jill who really shone, and I suspect that’s because they have proper character flaws that impact on the story as well as more of a character arc alongside Puddleglum (incidentally, The Silver Chair is by far my favourite Narnia book as an adult). The Pevensies (aside from Edmund that time he sold out his family for Turkish Delight) are that bit too good and proper and squeaky clean for my liking.
So much has been written about this topic, I probably can’t say much that hasn’t already been said, but there’s no two ways about it; Lewis has a particular way of presenting women. They are all virginal and innocent children, scary house matrons, talking animal 1950s house wives, absent, or evil. Jadis and The Lady of the Green Kirtle as the devil stand-ins is more than a little problematic for obvious reasons, but then there is also The Problem of Susan (this link takes you to Neil Gaiman’s most excellent short story on this issue) to contend with. Susan does not follow her siblings and parents into Narnia because she has come to love the superficial and forget Narnia. This is the full conversation about Susan in The Last Battle often discussed:
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”
“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”
“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”
“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
Though I don’t *think* I am a Narnia apologist, I tend to disagree with J K Rowling and Phillip Pullman who see this as Lewis being squicked out by women becoming sexual creatures and agree with those who see this more as Susan has become too superficial and placed her belief and love in the material which precludes her from Narnia. Lewis himself intended to write a sequel where Susan made it back to Narnia. He wrote in a letter dated January 22 1957:
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 is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end—in her own way.
Having said that, the lipstick and nylon bit is super uncomfortable in terms of having a particular sexist connotation and I do think others make valid points about Lewis being pretty mean spirited about Susan. For example, I think this Reddit commentator makes a pretty valid point:
In LWW they grow up. Into adults with adult worries (running a kingdom), adult desires, adult bodies, adult logic. They live full lives. Have friends, maybe lovers. Then suddenly they’re kids again. That’s got to be confusing at best, traumatizing at worst. They live two years in the real world. Get back to normal life, then bam, back to Narnia. They help Caspian, discover that thousands of years have passed, and all they knew and loved is dead. They start to hope they get to stick around, make a new life in Narnia, and then they get sent home and Peter and Susan are told they can never go back. How could you not try to forget? To pretend it was all a game, to focus on the real world, and lipstick and maybe boys and relationships and normal human things. Remembering would be painful.
This particular issue is why I think Gaiman’s story is particularly powerful and why excellent fan fiction pieces abound on the internet about poor Susan. This one from Tumblr is particularly great.
I am not a person of colour, but there’s no two ways around this, Narnia can get pretty racist, particularly with the Calormenes in The Horse and his Boy, with Lewis coming across as Orientalist in a lot of his world-building and descriptions (lest I forget the part about the city smelling of refuse, onions and garlic). All of the Narnians are described as ‘fair’ and ‘beautiful’ compared to their dark skinned treacherous allies and Aravis’ arranged marriage situation isn’t super nuanced. Plus, you could also argue that Shasta is the white saviour who gets Aravis safely out of this terrible situation (though Aravis does do quite a lot in the novel, which was written later when Lewis’ views about women were beginning to change). In The Last Battle, a Calormen does make it to Heaven, but no one else gets a speaking role and it is still clear that his way of speaking is ‘other.’
Then there’s also the uncomfortable colour coding of good and bad characters. The black haired dwarfs are coded as bad (or at least seriously flawed) in Prince Caspian and The Last Battle with Susan (who had dark hair) banned from Narnia and Lucy seen as the perfect child (with her blonde hair and blue eyes). Pauline’s illustrations also depict Jadis/The White Witch as having black hair (though this is never specified in the books themselves). Whether intentional or not, as a kid I definitely picked up on dark hair/darker skinned people as being flawed and/or the other while the fair skinned, blonde types were bound to be good. There is some pretty interesting defence of the books on the sexism and racism score that you can read here and an account of a Muslim man reading Narnia here.
That weird ending in The Last Battle
It’s quite strange. I oscillate on how I feel about the ending of The Last Battle. Some years I like it and other years I hate it as many others have done before me. These days I tend towards the latter. Mainly because as a kid, it was pretty damn traumatizing to read about a whole world being brutally destroyed after a bunch of misery and death and finding out everyone was dead for real and in heaven.
How you stomach that ending I suspect depends on your worldview. Personally, I find Pullman’s ending in His Dark Materials about the republic of heaven far more inspiring than that given to us in the Chronicles. It just seems pretty damn mean to end a seven book series with, Hooray kids, all of Narnia is brutally destroyed and you are DEAD but don’t worry, forget about your sister and friends and head on over to heaven. These days, I’d probably tell those who aren’t ardent fans to stop at The Silver Chair.
In conclusion …
Are these books worth a read? Definitely. Should that read be taken with a grain of salt? Absolutely. And if your kids are reading, prepare for some awkward conversations about Calormenes, the problem of Susan and when Christian allegory can interfere with good story-telling. But will I be watching the Netflix adaptations? You can bet the entire contents of my wallet.