The following notes about the Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis are from four emails that I wrote in the fall of 2015 (with some noted additions in the spring of 2020 and some additional editing on November 25, 2021). The emails rebut various objections to the Narnia books. I have put my emails here, because I noticed that a friend on Facebook was wondering whether her daughter was ready to read the Chronicles, or perhaps to be read to from them. I do not wish to write much on Facebook, for reasons detailed elsewhere in this blog; so I asked interested persons to read me here.

My explorations continue in “Return to Narnia.”

Side of boxed set of The Chronicles of Narnia from 1970s

I started reading the Chronicles in the summer before fourth grade. They had been on a list of suggested reading supplied by my school. I do not believe I was corrupted by those books, or by any other books; but anybody may read below for signs to the contrary!

Spines of Chronicles of Narnia in boxed set

The emails here were part of a conversation, albeit one in which I was the most loquacious. I have edited the emails to stand alone, but have preserved the original timestamps (according to Istanbul time).

I. Fri, Nov 13, 2015 at 6:03 PM

I have been thinking a lot about childhood. On Tuesday morning, I got up early, as usual (three or four o’clock), and prepared for my class. But I felt rotten, and eventually I went back to bed. I ended up asking my five students to have class without me. I sent them a photo of some of the notes I had written. After class, they sent me photos of what they had written on the whiteboards in working through the notes. So I was pleased. They had done better than my junior mathematics tutorial at St John’s College, on a day when our tutor could not be present.

I stayed home on Tuesday, and the next two. To pass the time, I ended up reading most of the Chronicles of Narnia.

It continues to bother me that I can have loved the Narnia books, while others both find them contemptible and feel the need to tell the world about their contempt. But then, provoked by the New Yorker article, “Pond Scum,” I have had similar concerns about Thoreau.

At the age of eight, when I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, what did I think of the resurrection of Aslan? I don’t think I found it very plausible. If Lewis was trying to make Christian mythology more palatable, he failed with me.

I do not understand the concerns of Polly Toynbee, expressed in the Guardian almost ten years ago:

Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come.

Who falls in love with Aslan, and what is Toynbee’s point about responsibility? I didn’t fall in love with Aslan; but there is a lot about responsibility in the Narnia books, lessons I can agree with, like, “Leaders should be first into battle and last to retreat.” Actually the glorification of war in the books does bother me a bit, but I don’t recall noticing this as an issue that other people have. Having been born in 1898, Lewis saw trench warfare. Some years before that, in 1908, he had seen his mother sicken and die. I cannot fault him for how he works out issues of war and death in his writing.

Toynbee complains, earlier in her article:

Every one of those thorns, the nuns used to tell my mother, is hammered into Jesus’s holy head every day that you don’t eat your greens or say your prayers when you are told.

This is not the message of Narnia, as I see it. Neither can I understand Toynbee’s statement,

here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America – that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right.

I could discuss various issues in Lewis’s books, but not with somebody who just wants to engage in this ridiculous name-calling.

In The Horse and His Boy, Lewis observes, “If you do a good deed your reward is usually to be set to do another and harder and better one.” Does Toynbee object to this? Does anybody?

By the way, this is not obviously a moral matter, but in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eustace says: “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

The retired Narnian star Ramandu replies: “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

The reply sounds like something I was saying recently about the mind [namely that it differs from the brain, considered as an object to be studied by the methods of natural science]. Maybe Lewis had corrupted me.

It might be pointed out that in her Guardian article, Toynbee was reviewing mainly a Disney movie version of Narnia; and I’m not sure I would be able to stomach this version myself. I liked Pauline Baynes’s original illustrations of the books, and I liked Roger Hane’s quite-different cover art for the Collier editions that I bought myself as a child. This ought to be enough assisted visualization.

II. Sat, Nov 14, 2015 at 8:21 AM

Thoughts with Paris now.

People want to respond. From a distance, they can only speak. Their words may be seen as offensive – their words may be offensive, because self-serving:

  • “This is why I don’t want refugees here.”
  • “This is why we need guns.”
  • “This is an attack on my religion [namely Islam].”
  • “This is due to Western support for Syrian rebels.”

Responses to such comments may be just as self-righteous: “STFU.”

For those of us at a distance, a good response might be something like what is called “mindfulness.”

An interesting article about this was posted on Twitter in a recent hour: David Forbes, “They want kids to be robots: Meet the new education craze designed to distract you from overtesting,” Salon, Sunday, November 8, 2015.

If you know that the education craze being referred to is Mindfulness, then perhaps you need know little more, but can infer the rest of the article. I scanned much of it myself. But I think it has a point.

Like prescribing antidepressants to Amazonian peasants who worry about their hungry children, perhaps teaching stress-reduction techniques to overworked schoolchildren is not the best response to a problem.

Empowerment is normally a good thing. Learning how to deal with your own problems is what education is all about.

But what really are your own problems?

The article mentions neuroscience research as being used or misused to back up mindfulness training in schools. It is relevant to Narnia for the following reason.

In The Horse and His Boy, two talking horses and the children riding them must reach Archenland ahead of a band of Calormene raiders. Having crossed a desert, and having found water, grass, and a place to rest, the stallion Bree wants to dawdle. The mare Hwin reminds him that when they were enslaved Calormene horses, spurs and whips could have pushed them on. Should they not now push themselves on, to beat the raiding party?

As a male and a war-horse, Bree claims to know more about what equines can do than a female and a girl’s riding horse like Hwin would know.

Lewis says it is “one of the worst results of being a slave”: to lose the power of forcing yourself to do anything.

I think this is a fine teaching.

But yes, growing up in a free society, learning how to drive ourselves towards our goals, we may indeed become slave-drivers of ourselves, working nonstop for something that we assume is worthwhile, only because we never have time to ponder whether it really is.

Note added, May 17, 2020: The last paragraph alludes to Thoreau’s sentence in “Economy” in Walden: “It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.” Regarding Hwin’s suggestion that horses with masters can always be driven to run faster, I note that many Wikipedia articles show “record progressions” for human athletes, as for example in running the marathon; but I find no such articles for horses. Horse racing seems to be of interest, insofar as horses in a race are free to compete with one another. The glory of the win goes to the horse, not the jockey. Unlike humans though, horses have not the freedom to complete against the clock, because (as far as I know) they cannot read a clock and know whether they ran faster than themselves or another horse in another race; so their absolute speeds are of little interest.

III. Mon, Nov 16, 2015 at 4:26 PM

Philip Pullman’s 1998 Guardian article, “The Darkside of Narnia,” is preserved on the web by a fan of C. S. Lewis. Pullman says,

For an open-eyed reading of the books reveals some hair-raising stuff. One of the most vile moments in the whole of children’s literature, to my mind, occurs at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan reveals to the children that “The term is over: the holidays have begun” because “There was a real railway accident. Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead.” To solve a narrative problem by killing one of your characters is something many authors have done at one time or another. To slaughter the lot of them, and then claim they’re better off, is not honest storytelling: it’s propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology. But that’s par for the course. Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it.

I quoted this on January 16, 2013. As somebody else observed, Lewis’s female characters are as strong, and as fallible, as the male. I remarked that I had admired Aravis, and I ended up finding something of a real-life version in Ayşe, my wife.

A theme of Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia is that people perceive what they want to perceive. In The Magician’s Nephew, at the creation of Narnia, the “Magician” of the title cannot hear the speech of animals, though all of the other humans can; for the “magician” only wants to exploit the animals. In The Last Battle, at the destruction of Narnia, the skeptical Dwarves who passed through the stable door cannot see that they are not inside an actual stable.

I have to wonder if people see sexism and racism in the Chronicles because they want to find it.

Pullman says in the same essay, just before the paragraph above,

the American critic John Goldthwaite, in his powerful and original study of children’s literature The Natural History Of Make-Believe (OUP, 1996), lays bare the misogyny, the racism, the sado-masochistic relish for violence that permeates the whole cycle.

Why would a popular writer like Pullman want to attack a fellow writer in this way? I don’t think the attack is correct, at least concerning misogyny and racism. There are swordfights, impalings, and bondage in the Chronicles: whether this is owing to a “sado-masochistic relish” on the part of the author, I do not know. But suppose sexism and racism are reflected in Lewis’s writing. What should be done? Has any child been encouraged or hardened in prejudice by Lewis’s books?

It seems to me more likely that prejudices have only been reduced by the books.

When I was not much older than when I started reading the Narnia books, I bought a copy of National Lampoon, #100 I believe, so it had a feature showing the previous 99 covers. The magazine had amusing aspects: for example, samples of bad writing by would-be novelists. But I was disconcerted by what might be called racism.

Or is it not racist (in addition to ableist) to depict Stevie Wonder wearing 3d glasses and a big goofy grin? Perhaps it depends on context. Concerning the Stevie Wonder cover, the editors commented, “It’s a cruel joke, but he’ll never see it.” This bothered me. But the depiction of the dark-skinned Calormenes in the Chronicles of Narnia did not bother me. Should it have? If so, then I suppose I ought to be bothered too by the dark-skinned Klingons in Star Trek. In the episode called “The Day of the Dove” (which seems more and more to describe our world, by the way), the Klingon Kang tells Kirk, “We have no devil, but we understand the habits of yours.” Perhaps this is because the Klingons have a god like the Calormene Tash, who turns out to be the Devil anyway.

So yeah, in Star Trek we had the good whitey Earthlings battling the evil Klingon Darkies. It was a questionable choice on the part of Gene Roddenberry. And yet not all the Earthlings were white. There was a black woman on the Enterprise, whose job was to answer the telephone. Captain Kirk kissed Lieutenant Uhuru once, when he was forced to, and supposedly this was television’s first interracial kiss. Nichelle Nichols was going to quit the role of Uhuru after a season, but was dissuaded by none other than Martin Luther King, who told her Star Trek was the only program he and his wife let their children stay up to watch.

So even if Star Trek was flawed from a racial aspect, on the whole it was apparently progressive.

What then about the Chronicles? In The Last Battle, in which Narnia is swallowed up by the Calormene Empire, there is one good Calormene, at least, Emeth, who has worshipped Tash all his life, but in a good way, which means the worship was really for Aslan. One may question the theology if one likes. Emeth refers humbly to himself: “me, who am but as a dog.” Some Narnian talking dogs take offense at this; but another dog points out that Emeth means no harm, and that anyway, dogs refer to naughty pups as boys and girls.

Live and let live: it’s what Narnia is about and what Star Trek is about.

In The Horse and His Boy, when Aravis first tells her story, Lewis points out that Calormene children are brought up to be good story-tellers, whereas English children are taught only to write essays. Nobody actually wants to read those essays, but they do want to listen to Calormene stories: this is what Lewis says.

Aravis’s skin color is not mentioned, but it must be dark like that of other Calormenes – and unlike that of Shasta, the boy she runs north with. Shasta turns out to be the lost crown prince of Archenland. He marries Aravis, who thus becomes the queen of a “white” country and the mother of its greatest king. No issues are raised here in the book.

In The Last Battle, when a girl is giving her understanding of an incident, a boy is told – by a man – not to interrupt her: not to mansplain, one might say.

I found a blogger who seems to have written a lot about the Chronicles of Narnia, mostly negative. I infer from the blog that there is fan-fiction about Narnia. Somewhere the blogger recommends using such fiction to correct aspects of the Chronicles. That’s great.

But the fact that Narnia is for children is emphasized in the books themselves. When you get too old, you cannot get into Narnia, but you have to learn Aslan by another name. Presumably Lewis means Jesus Christ, but that’s up to the reader. On the last page of the last book, Lewis says that all seven books have been but the cover and title page of the real story, which is now just beginning. In the books, this story is the story of the main characters, who have died on earth. Apparently Pullman attributes this conclusion of the books to a “life-hating ideology.”

But come on. Does one really think the young reader is left looking forward to nothing but death? The point is to get on with life. As Sartre has a character say at the end of Huis Clos: “Let’s get on with it.” In the play, “it” is life in hell; but the audience will leave the play to get on with their lives on earth: and this is what Lewis’s readers should do – rather than, say, become preoccupied with Lewis’s flaws in constructing an imaginary world!

Note added, May 17, 2020: I have now found (on Library Genesis) the book, which Pullman refers to, by John Goldthwaite. Reading what he said about Lewis, forgetting that Pullman had called him an American critic, I figured Goldthwaite was part of a British academic tradition devoted to tearing down one’s colleagues. In “Nature and Death” I reported detecting this tradition in Simon Blackburn’s reading of Collingwood. However, according to an obituary, Goldthwaite (1940–2020) was a Massachusetts native, a graduate of Phillips Andover and Yale, and not an academic. His book has 25 pages on Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia. I have now read them, and you can read them too. It his remarkable how much studying Goldthwaite has done of a person he detests. Goldthwaite’s objection is basically that Lewis is not Christian enough, but indulges in his Narnia books his un-Christian fantasies of using violence against people he doesn’t like. An example is the bullying classmates of Jill and Eustace: at the end of The Silver Chair, with Aslan’s encouragement, they are beaten with a riding crop and the flats of swords.

A search of Goldthwaite’s book turns up a single instance of the string fascis, as follows (the bold emphasis is mine):

If, like C. S. Lewis, you have been gifted with a true eye for God’s favor, you can, simply by looking at them, save boys and girls the trouble of looking into their mirrors to see for themselves if they are saved or damned. Freckles and fat are unmistakable signs; tears and odd hobbies render you suspect as well. Indeed, whomever Mr. Lewis deems contemptible or risible, pray that you aren’t one yourself – for Mr. Lewis, children, speaks for God.

It is a shabby performance, lacking even the Puritans’ reservation that for children excluded from heaven there will at least be “the best room in hell.” Lewis’s critics have called his method and message fascistic; certainly, it is anything but Christian to teach children to judge their neighbors. Dumpy girls with fat legs are Lewis’s Jews. This is wicked enough; to implicate Christ in such a travesty is to commit, by one’s own canon laws, a great sin.

Goldthwaite is alluding to a classroom of “mostly dumpy, prim little girls with fat legs” who follow their teacher in fleeing Aslan in Prince Caspian. Apparently Lewis gives those girls a physical appearance intended to emphasize their fault for not recognizing a deity. For Goldthwaite, it seems, this is tantamount to antisemitism.

It’s not good to draw invidious conclusions from a person’s appearance. I like to think I never cared for the instances where Lewis seems to do this. And yet I would not Bowdlerize Lewis’s books because of them. It sounds as if Goldthwaite would:

These lines, and many others like them, were written in cold blood. Lewis had ample opportunity to edit them out or to rewrite them in a better spirit. He chose to let them stand. His editors and publishers, to their own shame, have let them stand as well. People commonly, and unnecessarily, I think, worry about the violence in some children’s books. Here is the real violence. Mother Goose would have slapped this saint silly.

On the contrary, nothing you read in a book is “real violence” – not the way slapping a person silly would be, if it actually happened, particularly if the silliness were due to brain damage. If you give it your mind, a piece of writing may be disturbing or insulting, and perhaps therefore you could call it emotional violence. But the impulse to shield children from it, in the books they read, can itself feed fascism.

IV. Mon, Dec 7, 2015 at 1:44 PM

Concerning the question of Lewis and death, Pullman says as part of the earlier quotation,

To solve a narrative problem by killing one of your characters is something many authors have done at one time or another. To slaughter the lot of them, and then claim they’re better off, is not honest storytelling: it’s propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology.

I don’t think Pullman is right here. At any rate, I never read the end of The Last Battle as saying, “The rest of your life will be unpleasant, until after you die.” This would be dishonest, I suppose. But I think the message is rather that now, at the end of the books, is the time to enjoy real life (however you understand reality).

Pullman continues:

But that’s par for the course. Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it.

If the Narnia books really were nauseating, then the reader would not need to be told that they were.

It is curious that Christopher Hitchens exhibits the same style of writing as Pullman, in an article that explains what is wrong with this style: “Hopeless: Did Bob Hope ever say anything funny?” Hitchens is writing in 2003:

Poor Vincent Canby was really up against it in last Tuesday’s New York Times, which awarded him acres of space to celebrate the passing of a national laff-meister. Canby, who died three years ago, must have been glad he wouldn’t live to see his Hope obituary in print. Read this without writhing, if you can.

I skip the quotation from Canby’s obituary of Hope, to which Hitchens responds:

It’s always a bad sign when a Times reporter has to signal the fact that he’s dealing with wit. Some of them do this by resorting to the stale words “he quipped,” or “he shot back,” lest we miss the “barb” altogether.

If somebody is funny, the reader does not have to be told. The reader has to be told that Hope was funny; ergo he was not funny. Thus Hitchens. But then by the same logic, Canby’s account of Hope must not be that painful, or else Hitchens would not have to tell us it is. And Narnia is not nauseating!

Or if it is nauseating to Pullman, then he should just go read something else, because he is not able to read the Narnia books clearly enough to criticize them properly. Or is it I who am mistaken to think Pullman is simply wrong to say the following?

And in The Last Battle, notoriously, there’s the turning away of Susan from the Stable (which stands for salvation) because “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn’t approve of that. He didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win.

This is clever writing, but it gets the text wrong. Susan was not turned away from Narnia. She was not on the train with those who were killed and sent to Narnia. She remained alive on earth.

Susan was criticized by the Friends of Narnia for being interested in nothing except nylons etc. Grown-up things or superficial things are not in themselves a problem; confusing the superficial with the grown-up is a problem. Digory’s Uncle Andrew suffers from vanity as much as anybody in the books.

At the end of The Last Battle, one can infer that Susan must live on as an orphan with no siblings. I don’t know if I ever thought much about this, but it is indeed a dreadful situation for her. Is there anybody who makes a big deal out of this? I thought Pullman was complaining about how Lewis killed characters that the reader liked, and then pretended they were OK. But perhaps the real problem of death is what it does to those left behind. Lewis does not seem to deal with this problem; but then neither does Pullman address it.

6 Trackbacks

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