I finally read the Chronicles of Narnia
September 15, 2015 § 1 Comment
There’s this book I read this August called The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. This blog post’s not about that book, but I should mention that it was terrific. It explores the flowering & criss-crossing of four famous British dudes’ careers, & their friends’ careers too sometimes, which would sound pretty boring–if the dudes in question weren’t C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, and if I at least didn’t give a Lot of Damns Indeed about the intersection between (in this case Christian) spirituality and the spinning of fantastical worlds by some of fantasy’s most influential authors. The authors keep up the best tone, interspersing academic gravitas with humor, exasperation, insight, and genuine affection for their subjects. If you’re the kind of nerd who likes literary biographies you should check it out for sure. It’s a doorstopper I got through in a few weeks of commuting and was sorry to see end.
Anyway! C.S. Lewis. The Fellowship told me a lot of interesting stuff about him, but I felt guilty reading it having read Exactly None of Lewis’ work. I got about a third of the way into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the fourth grade and ditched it for being a bore. Unkindly? Maybe. Tiny me got fed up fast with children wandering into fantasy worlds and under-reacting to them. She liked stories about the inhabitants of fantasy worlds better than tales of interloper-conquerors. Full disclosure: current me maintains the same preference, but seeing as I have gained a bit more patience in the last seventeen years I thought I’d give the ol’ Narnia tomes a go.
Then I binge-read all of them in less than a week because it turns out they are short and WEIRD!!! WEIRD!!!
I confess that it was exhilarating to read these books! I borrowed the co-pilot’s single-volume edition, which has beautiful illustrations, and I just tore through them all borne on a wind of what the heck what the heck what the heck???? sometimes soaring high on beautiful, imaginative descriptions and sometimes buffeted by complete bullshit. I don’t know why I didn’t expect them to be quite as odd as they were? I was warned, but I guess there’s nothing like direct experience when it comes to comprehending the cocktail of Christian apologist children’s lit. As neither a child nor a Christian I’m way out of the target audience here, but hey!
The Four Weird, Difficult Things With Which To Grapple In The Chronicles of Narnia
#1: Nothing Is More Awesome Than Authority Figures
Somewhere around The Silver Chair it occurred to me that the Chronicles’d stand a poorer chance of recognition in the modern era if they’d been published within the last decade, rather than nestled in that mid-twentieth-century pocket of time where many Anglophiliac favorites were born. It’s not because we’ve lost our taste for quaint detail. It’s not even because the Dark & Gritty sensibilities of popular adult fiction have bled so thoroughly into fiction for younger readers (though they have)–it’s because nowadays, when fictional kids escape the real world, they escape real power structures with it. When they pass through the door into the plot, they get to make their own decisions in a way they wouldn’t in life in their parents’ house. They meet adults, some good, some bad, but often the kids turn out to be right and the adults turn out to be wrong–based solely on their own intuition and experiences! A lot more kids in Western culture are going to schools closer to Eustace and Jill’s dreaded “Experiment House” where–gasp!–girls and boys go to the same classes and they don’t read the Bible and a woman (proved to be hysterical in a crisis) runs the place!
…Lewis’ opinions about the proper education of children come across as kinda strange to me, but like, what a shock, it’s 2015 and my upbringing was Liberal as Heck. What’s odd is the way it burrows into the text so much. Most of the central plots of Narnia center around rejection of a Bad Monarch and/or the search for a Correct Monarch, endorsed by
Jesus Aslan. Aslan himself is the Correct Monarch overcoming the Bad White Witch (if you ever see a woman holding sole rather than joint rulership in Narnia, expect her to be evil) in Magician’s Nephew; again in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with the Pevensies serving as Correct Monarchs over the Narnians despite not being citizens of Narnia themselves. Children of Adam are better than any other race, remember! Prince Caspian has the title character reclaiming the throne from his evil uncle; a subplot includes Dwarves expressing a desire to govern themselves instead of submitting to another human king and being condemned for it. The Silver Chair focuses on the quest to retrieve Caspian’s son and rightful heir from the clutches of another Bad Witch Monarch and install him on the throne where he belongs. The Last Battle sees a false Aslan fooling the Narnians until replaced at last by the real Aslan, who in turn ushers the old Narnia to its end and all the Correct People to a new, better, eternal Narnia.
Some of this feels Christian: accept that there will always be a God whose authority is absolute, and whom you can trust to never be wrong. Some of this feels colonial: if you really are better and more civilized than those other folks, feel free to sweep in and take charge. None of it feels utterly foreign to fantasy, especially since a lot of fantasy since Lewis and Tolkien has smelled pretty strongly of Lewis-and-Tolkien ethos, but it is…odd. Oddest of all perhaps is how difficult it is to track common values between successive Correct Monarchs other than (of course) them all being down with Aslan. Is it just some inherent quality
of being white and British or pseudo-British that makes them worthy? If it were a matter of abiding by, er…Aslanian…principles faithfully that might be easier to parse, but a lot of Correct Monarchs and their champions get the privilege of Aslan literally showing up and telling them exactly how to achieve their plot goals. Which brings me to:
#2: Make Up Your Mind, Aslan
You know that friend who only ever texts and never calls? And who doesn’t use a lot of punctuation or mood-signifying emoticons, so it’s always impossible to tell whether “sorry I’m busy” means they’re really busy or they just don’t want to hang out? That’s Aslan. Aslan confuses the hell out of me. Sometimes he’ll let hundreds of his most loyal animal subject-worshippers march into mortal peril; sometimes he steps in at the last minute to save the day; sometimes he gives you cryptic advice and fucks off; sometimes he saves your mother from death (The Magician’s Nephew) or helps you beat up the people who pick on you in school (The Silver Chair). Aslan’s few moments of direct intervention, especially in England beyond the borders of Narnia, badly damage the coherence of Narnia’s cosmology.
In real theism, monotheism especially, you can sort of talk your way around god(s) not fixing all your problems. There’s no real evidence of divine intervention in the lives of mortals, but there are philosophical roads to walk wherein that doesn’t disprove the presence of divinity. Are they on any of my usual routes? Nah, but they can be on the map. In Narnia, however, there is not only zero doubt that God exists but zero doubt that He is completely capable of assisting you personally. So when He does not, He comes off as peculiarly callous, especially when you personally are in the category of His chosen protagonists; when He does His picks are mystifyingly small and selfish. I’m sad that Lewis was sad about his mom, but having Aslan save Digory’s mom in The Magician’s Nephew kind of invoked the spirit of this song in the whole series retroactively:
(Thank you, God, for fixing the cataracts of Sam’s mum
I didn’t realize that it was such a simple thing
I feel such a dingaling, what ignorant scum
Now I understand how prayer can work
A particular prayer in a particular church
In a particular style, with the particular stuff
And for particular problems that aren’t particularly tough
And for particular people, preferably white
For particular senses, preferably sight
A particular prayer in a particular spot
To a particular version of a particular god)
So Aslan’s erratic appearances constitute a very mixed message, and when he deigns to appear the messages he delivers are likewise also mixed. He’s reliable when it comes to the basics (“don’t be an asshole,” “side with me over my evil opponents”) and a few poignant themes that run throughout (my favorite is “you aren’t allowed to hear anyone else’s story, only your own”). But–OK, look.
My favorite installment in the series was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I’d argue that Prince Caspian might be the better novel, just in terms of solid pacing and structure, but Voyage was my favorite because it recaptured some of the wonder I’d wanted from the start. Its episodic nature meant that each stop on the journey was a new discovery, both for us and the cast; the magic of Narnia could feel like true, wild, unpredictable magic rather than the means by which god-emissaries of good and evil teach children lessons. Lessons were learned, but they felt more…earned, more specific; applied to individuals in individual arcs rather than dropped onto the table and swept off with a lecture from Aslan and an off-you-pop-now. As the cast drew nearer to the end of the world–the horizon where the ocean ends and gives way to Aslan’s country–the landscape became stranger and stranger, as if proximity to the true and timeless home of God transformed all that approached it. It was beautiful and compelling to read!
And Aslan only shows up twice in Voyage. Once when Lucy performs a magic spell to make the invisible visible–when she doubts that she could have affected him with her magic, he asks “Do you think I wouldn’t obey my own rules?” The second time is in the guise of a lamb at the End of the World. After revealing himself to Lucy and Edmund, he informs them that they cannot pass into his country from Narnia, as they must do so from their own world in their own time.
“Dearest,” said Aslan very gently, “you and your brother will never come back to Narnia.”
“Oh, Aslan!!” said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voies.
“You are too old, children,” said Aslan, “and you must begin to come close to your own world now.”
“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It isn’t you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”
“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.
“Are–are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.
“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. That was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”
Gosh! That’s a good ending. It serves to guide the children into adult responsibility, one day–into a love for their own world that once they understand it can equal their love for Narnia; into belief in Aslan-by-another-name that will be more challenging since he won’t appear to them again but that their memories of Narnia will help sustain. It feels like the conclusion of a trilogy begun with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and continued in Prince Caspian: the three-part story of the Pevensies and the adventures they had in Narnia before Aslan told them they were ready to return to England and grow up.
Except it’s not the ending. There’s still The Silver Chair, Eustace and Jill’s odd quest through fragmented Arthuriana that ends in Aslan giving them weapons to beat their bullies with, and after that The Last Battle, Narnia’s version of Revelations that summons all the Pevensies back (save Susan–more on that in a minute) for one climactic burst of anvilicious excitement before it’s out with the old Narnia, in with the new and then this happens:
Then Aslan turned to them and said: “You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.”
Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”
“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”
Their hearts leaped, and a wild hope rose within them.
“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are–as you used to call it in the Shadowlands–dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”
And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.
GUESS WHAT KIDS YOU DIED TRAGICALLY AT A YOUNG AGE!!!! LOL NO MORE SCHOOL
#3: Adulthood is for Sinners
How on earth do I process this? Voyage-era Aslan thinks the children should grow up and “grow closer” to their own world; Last Battle-era Aslan joyfully welcomes the children into Heaven (which is, disappointingly, just a shinier version of Narnia merged with a shinier version of England) and congratulates them on never having had to grow up. Hooray…? It’d be one thing if England had gone to complete shit in the intervening period and all the Pevensies had suffered horribly or something, but it couldn’t have been more than a few years. All the children seem to have done between Voyage and Last Battle is attend high school. Susan, we’re told, is absent because she’s “no longer a friend of Narnia”–she’s become far too interested in things like wearing makeup and nylons and going to parties and having friends outside her own family.
A lot has been made of this dismissal of Susan, and rightfully so. Recent criticism points to Susan’s emergent femininity as the reason for her exile from Narnia, and suspects misogynist slut-shaming undertones. I think the more salient aspect of Susan’s sins, though, is not that they’re feminine but that they’re adult: beginning to enter the world of flirtation and social gatherings is her first step away from the priorities she had as a child (well, and as an aged-up, sexless archetypal monarch for a bit). Growing up is, you’ll remember, exactly what Aslan told them to do. Sorry, Susan! Aslan changed his mind!
But hey–at least Susan gets to survive.
I’ve been turning over the end of the series in my head for some time, and I can’t make it make moral sense no matter what I do. At the heart of Christianity lies this assumption that the next world will always be preferable to this one, sure; that you just have to suck it up on this imperfect planet and behave and then one day you’ll get to chill with Christ in the great hereafter. OK. Not my thing, but OK. But surely–surely the calling of good Christians is to do good things in this life in order to earn entry into the next???? Right??? When you’re writing this hyper-didactic book for children, surely you want them to take away that the way to be cool with Aslan is to be cool with Jesus and the way to be cool with Jesus is to, in this world, take up the awareness and responsibility of being a good adult person?
Maybe there’s something about the loss of innocence here, in these children who are constantly referred to as Daughters of Eve and Sons of Adam. Maybe that love of strong authority has come back in such force by the end that the moral is not only “find the correct authorities to love and obey” but “never assume authority yourself,” even to the point of “never grow old enough that anyone can look to you for authority.” But that’s so disturbing! Not to mention kind of…esoteric. For most people, whatever creed they hold to, the death of children is a tragedy–a calamity!–not a gift, from God or anyone. And it’s not like this is the glorious early death of martyrdom! They just conveniently got in a train crash so that they wouldn’t have to leave new-Narnia the way they’d had to leave the old one.
Note the first metaphor Aslan chose, before the more lyrical end-of-a-dream one: the term is over, the holidays have begun. Sounds pretty appealing to a kid. A little irresponsible as a promise from Jesus, though…? If Narnia were pure escapism, that’s one thing, but it’s been stuffed with lessons from its opening scenes. Lewis just seems to have a very…anti-education stance here? Also confusing? I won’t dump a bunch of autobiographical details on you here, but while he had a difficult primary school experience Lewis was really All About Oxford and hanging out with his best friends there who were all highly educated adults. But look at the portrayals of school we get: the Pevensies bored and restless with it; Lucy distrusting her school friends enough to magically spy on them; Experiment House; the Telmarine invaders being the only ones in Narnia to establish schools that are subsequently disbanded by the rightful government; Susan liking her life with school friends too much to go to Heaven; the last paragraph of the whole series having that one line from Aslan. I guess…education is Knowledge of Good and Evil? Education makes you an adult, and being an adult is Bad and no one should have to do it?
Professor Kirke is our only Good Adult that hails from Earth (save Frank and Helen from The Magician’s Nephew) and, uh, C.S. Lewis confessed that Professor Kirke was his author avatar. Contrast Professor Kirke with his uncle the Magician of the first book’s title, whose foolish avarice leads to the waking of the White Witch and who embarked upon a long program of intense personal research to learn magic. He is described as “practical”–an adjective used almost exclusively as a pejorative throughout the Chronicles, with which to brand those who insist upon reason and self-determination when faith and obedience ought to have sufficed. Experiment House is practical, the Dwarves are practical, Uncle what’s-his-name is practical–and Susan is practical. It’s less that the practical cast members of the Chronicles are sympathetic (for the most part they aren’t) but that their “practicality” is what marks them as outside Aslan’s favor, as much as their cruelty or their alliance with evil forces. The Last Battle has the false puppet-Aslan leading the Narnians into slavery using the language of efficient industrial work. Come to think of it, having a job is also not the province of full Narnian citizens: the Talking Beasts blessed by Aslan with sentience are expected to do whatever they feel like until called upon by Aslan or human monarchs for plot reasons, though the mute animals are treated just like animals in England and frequently eaten or used for manual labor.
So, to review: adulthood is Bad, education is Bad, employment is Bad, having friends outside your family is Bad. Dying at fourteen to live in a magical land is Pretty Great Actually. I…ah…
#4: Where Have All The Humans Gone
Children aren’t simpler, underdeveloped first drafts of adults. They’re smart. They’re complicated. They want things, and sometimes they get them, and sometimes they don’t, and either way they change as they move through time and experience just like everybody else. I would have forgiven so much more about the Chronicles–yes, even (and especially) The Last Battle–if the child protagonists had felt like people. Who are these kids? Eustace has the most personality of the lot, another reason why Voyage was my favorite, but it’s partly because Lewis was having such fun talking about what a little shit he was and how he’d been poorly influenced by his prissy liberal vegetarian parents. Also, he doesn’t show up for quite a few books. Narnia was built for the Pevensies to rule, and the Pevensies are just such nonentities.
Allowing them to even dream of adulthood or agency without punishment would have gone a long way towards fixing that problem, I think. People…get defined by what they want to be as much as who they are, and that goes double for children? And plucking characters out of a modern-ish Earth context and plopping them into a fantasy world requires those characters to be pretty damn well defined when they arrive. They dramatically underreact to leaving their world for Narnia, responding to what should evoke wonder or anxiety with placid curiosity; they take talking animals and proof of magic so much in stride! All of them have the same speech patterns, nearly, despite being different ages and not, you know, a hivemind. Those who err, like Edmund, just kind of turn back to Aslan and get forgiven and move on without a second thought. And as if they already hadn’t lost enough tethers to reality, there’s that whole business in Wardrobe and later Caspian where they lived full lives as monarch-archetypes in Narnia, aged back down to the children they were when they first left, and then began to take on their adult personas again after enough time spent among the Narnians requiring their rule. How could anyone not be affected by that?
Narnia is rare among beloved fantasy today in that it assumes the existence of divinity that is beneficent, and explicitly linked to a faith still practiced by huge majorities in the Western world. Tolkien was Catholic as heck but he never pulled this kind of stunt; Middle-earth is far more shrine than pulpit. I’m more accustomed to reading modern fantasy that has gods but gods that…I don’t know, aren’t omniscient or flawless enough to merit capitalization. Gods show up as mentors or as final bosses or as sexy anthropomorphizations of the text’s favorite theme. They hardly ever wield the kind of power that Aslan does–within the text or without. Aslan comes through as a Divine Power, his unspoken other name bursting through his every appearance with parallels and symbolism, and it’s heady stuff at times, and I’m honestly pretty impressed with Lewis that he managed to so thoroughly invoke Christ when writing about a huge magic lion!
But. Just as mortal characters are defined by what they want and what they want to be, divine characters are heavily defined by the mortals that worship them. You put God in your book, you have to put humans in, or you weaken the whole effort. I expect children reading the Chronicles were meant to want to befriend and love Aslan just as the Pevensies did, but what does the love of the Pevensies mean? Who are they? What barriers ever existed between them and the kind of Good Behavior that earns them divine favor?
OKAY OKAY OKAY THIS WAS WAY TOO MANY WORDS I JUST. THIS BOOK!!! THIS BOOK IS WEIRD!!!
IN CONCLUSION this was a strange fun thing to do, that was also very frustrating. If literally anyone got to the end of the post, tell me what your feelings are about Narnia and its denizens! Did anybody read this as a kid and have emotions about it? Lots of folks did, right?
Leaving you with a couple better rebuttals to Lewis-ethos than I’ve got: first, the entirety of The Chronicles of Prydain. Seriously. Read ’em. I’ve recommended that series here before, but having read Narnia I appreciate its ending that much more–in which the hero, after seven books of trials and tribulations, weary from a long, sad war, is offered the chance to sail away from Prydain into happy eternity with everyone he loves. He rejects the offer, choosing to stay and keep his job as a pig-keeper. Then and only then is he made High King of Prydain, with all the weight of responsibility to the land and its people.
Second, a good song by the Mountain Goats: this one’s for you, Susan.
it’s good to be young but let’s not kid ourselves
it’s better to pass on through those years and come out the other side
with our hearts still beating
having stared down demons,
come back breathing
people were mean to you,
but I always thought you were cool
clicking down the concrete hallways
in your spiked heels
back in high school