Return to Narnia

1

My subject is the Chronicles of Narnia of C. S. Lewis (1898–1963). I consider this heptad of books (published 1950–6) as constituting (1) literature (2) for children (3) that I enjoyed in my first decade and continue to enjoy in my sixth.

  1. By literature, I mean a work of art whose medium is prose. Prose may also be a work of craft, intended to fulfil some purpose. This purpose could be to serve a market for fantasy or children’s books. Art as such has no purpose that can be specified in advance.

  2. Writing for children may take certain liberties that annoy adults.

  3. As with any post in this blog, I write out of my own personal interest. As a child, I read other fantasies, such as those of Lloyd Alexander, John Christopher, Ursula LeGuin, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Only the works of C. S. Lewis have stayed with me. This essay may be considered as an exploration of why, or least an example of how.

The seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia, Collier edition

Because Lloyd Alexander’s stories had supposedly been inspired by the Welsh Mabinogion, in childhood I read also the novels of Evangeline Walton, marketed as actual retellings of the Mabinogion’s Four Branches. Walton’s tetralogy also did not stay with me, and this may be because it was not for children. Nonetheless, I have remembered one scene, perhaps because of its “adult” theme:

Long have we been together, Lord. No other man’s head has ever lain beside my head; no other man’s hand has ever found the smooth white path between my breasts, nor fondled the twin rosy globes of them. No other man’s ever shall.

Those words from Prince of Annwn (1974) are intended for a husband who is, however, absent, having given his shape to another man for the night. This other man finds that he cannot honorably take advantage of the opportunity that he thought he had been given for carnal delight. However, this story seems to be an interpolation into the much sparer original text of the Mabinogion. Walton’s novel thus appears to be a feminist elaboration of ancient tales. I find interest in the novel now that I could not as a child.

Back then, I also read a child’s version of the Iliad. Now I cannot imagine telling children a story about men in conflict over a woman enslaved for concubinage. Children do know conflict, and writers such as C. S. Lewis can tell of it. They may even tell of war and death.

I may remember him, above all other writers for children, simply because of how he puts himself into his work, as here:

Aravis immediately began, sitting quite still and using a rather different tone and style from her usual one. 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.

That’s from The Horse and His Boy, which in particular I shall talk about more. Lewis follows the example and fulfils the demand of Thoreau in the first paragraph of Walden:

In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives; some such account as he would send to his kindred from a distant land; for if he has lived sincerely, it must have been in a distant land to me. Perhaps these pages are more particularly addressed to poor students. As for the rest of my readers, they will accept such portions as apply to them. I trust that none will stretch the seams in putting on the coat, for it may do good service to him whom it fits.

Beyond the present one, this essay has two more parts. The last came first, the middle next.

2

I am aware of various condemnations of the Chronicles of Narnia. These condemnations astonish me, and I respond to some of them here.

Others have already responded. See for example the annotation, by one John Gough, of Philip Pullman’s 1998 Guardian essay, “The Dark Side of Narnia.”

I too responded to Pullman’s philippic, in the post “Narnia.” That essay is not required reading for this one, which is however a supplement to that one. Neither perhaps are the Chronicles themselves required reading.

They comprise seven books, in which human children enter another world. That world may be called Narnia, but Narnia is also one of several countries in that world. Narnian culture is medieval, though there are creatures from Greek and Roman mythology, along with talking beasts. Everybody who talks would seem to do so in English. There is a patron saint, or god, called by the name Aslan, which happens to be the Turkish word for lion; he usually appears as a lion, although he may tell the visiting children that he takes another form and name in our world.

Critics such as Pullman find the Chronicles too Christian. For other critics, such as John Goldthwaite, they are not Christian enough, or are falsely Christian. I shall not have much more to say here about Goldthwaite, who devotes 25 pages to the Chronicles in his book The Natural History Of Make-Believe (Oxford, 1996). I added some notes about him to the other Narnia post, and I have posted my annotations of his own words.

For Goldthwaite,

Lewis’s career as misanthrope, misogynist, xenophobe, and classroom bully has been well and depressingly documented.

I hope nobody can find reason to call me such names. Goldthwaite does not document his own assertion. The assertion is also irrelevant to a judgment of the Narnia books themselves.

That may be easy for me to say, who have not been a target of the kinds of prejudices that Goldthwaite alludes to. As an American living in Turkey, I may see xenophobia, though as Anne Mustoe wrote in A Bike Ride: 12000 Miles Around the World (1991):

If I had a prize to award to the nicest, kindest people in the world, it would go to the Turks …

(I have quoted more of the passage elsewhere.) I can corroborate Mustoe’s assertion, while still observing that a foreigner may be suspect who would actually come to live in Turkey.

At school I was sometimes derided, as everybody was, for such reasons as children may find if they are looking for a target. From those days, I can also recall unpleasant encounters with adults, such as one or two pathetic customers on my newspaper route.

C. S. Lewis may have been sexist and racist by some definition, and his bad attitudes may somehow have infected his books. I am not sure what this would mean. The United States is suffering from racism now, as seen in police killings of unarmed black people. According to an essay from a couple of years ago,

Look at any children’s book about jobs, and you’ll notice a common theme: the police officer almost always appears next to the firefighter or paramedic. Before you know how to read, you’re already being indoctrinated with the idea that police officers are just as noble and benevolent as the people who protect you from being burned alive or falling into deep, scary wells.

As I understand Nick Slater here though, in “The Nice Cop” (Current Affairs, January, 2018), what is needed is not a policing of children’s books, but a direct addressing of three problems:

  1. Cops have too much contact with citizens.

  2. They’re too heavily armed.

  3. They’ve been trusted to ‘police’ themselves.

Thus, we must not routinely arm the police, particularly with the weapons of war; and when armed backup is needed, it ought to be accompanied by a civilian observer.

As for the Narnia books, there is a creepy assertion by a character in the first of them, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950): “battles are ugly when women fight.” One might condemn this as sexist and militarist; but this would be like condemning the dining room that serves bad food in small portions. At one of the Gulf War protests that I attended in Washington in January, 1991, Molly Yard received no applause for a complaint that women in the military were kept from the better-paying jobs.

I don’t know what Lewis is doing, elsewhere in Lion, when Mrs. Beaver recalls knowing good dwarfs. Mr. Beaver agrees; however, he says, such dwarfs were

precious few, and they were the ones least like men. But in general, take my advice, when you meet anything that’s going to be Human and isn’t yet, or used to be Human once and isn’t now, or ought to be Human and isn’t, you keep your eyes on it and feel for your hatchet.

Who is it that is not exactly one of us?

According to the Declaration of Independence of the United States, all men are created equal. Thomas Jefferson wrote this, though he

  • did not include women among the men,

  • owned men and women as slaves.

He still had the right idea, even as Lewis may have. In the one book of the Chronicles that takes place entirely in Narnia, a talking stallion points out to a girl riding a talking mare, “[She] isn’t your horse any longer. One might just as well say you’re her human.” Lewis describes the response:

The girl opened her mouth to speak and then stopped. Obviously she had not quite seen it in that light before.

She was not from Narnia, but was on her way there. She was Aravis of Calormen, the storyteller mentioned above.

I said the Chronicles were literature. I mean to consider them,

  • neither as religious propaganda,

  • nor as works of amusement in the genre known as fantasy.

One may so consider them; then one would be taking them as works of craft. I propose to treat them as works of art that happen to be written down in words. I allude here to the theory of R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943) in The Principles of Art (1938). Collingwood distinguishes

six kinds of art falsely so called;

  • called by that name because they are kinds of craft in which the practitioner can by the use of his skill evoke a desired psychological reaction in his audience, and hence they come under the obsolete, but not yet dead and buried, conception of poet-craft, painter-craft, and so forth;

  • falsely so called, because the distinction of means and end, upon which every one of them rests, does not belong to art proper.

Let us give the six their right names.

  • Where an emotion is aroused

    • for its own sake, as an enjoyable experience, the craft of arousing it is amusement;

    • … for the sake of its practical value, magic

  • Where intellectual faculties are stimulated

    • for the mere sake of their exercise, the work designed to stimulate them is a puzzle;

    • … for the sake of knowing this or that thing, it is instruction.

  • Where a certain practical activity is stimulated

    • as expedient, that which stimulates it is advertisement or (in the current modern sense, not the old sense) propaganda;

    • … as right, exhortation.

The bold emphasis and the separation into bullet points is mine. The separation suggests precision; but Collingwood has warned in a footnote that a classification of the ends of craft can only be rough. Strictly speaking, activities as such “must be absolutely spontaneous. Consequently they cannot be responses to stimulus.”

Collingwood says that. Then goes ahead and talks about the stimulation of activities, as above. His practice is justified by his theory of the overlap of classes, expounded in An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933).

For the instruction of the students in my analytic geometry class, I devised an exercise; I then summarized the exercise in some tweets, so that it might also serve as a puzzle. Here are the first and last tweet:

1. Analitik geometri dersi // Analytic geometry lesson

Düzlemde doğrusal olmayan M, A, ve B noktasını seçin

M = (4,3), A = (7,4), B = (−1,5)

In the plane pick noncollinear points M, A, and B pic.twitter.com/TqHqkPnlWk

— David Pierce (@Davutdeler) April 1, 2020

9. Elipsin, eksenleri gösteren denklemi, aşağıdadır

(−542 + 17√1037)((29 + √1037)𝑥 − 14𝑦)² + (542 + 17√1037)((29 − √1037)𝑥 − 14𝑦)² = 14² ⋅ 11² ⋅ √1037

The equation of the ellipse showing the axes is above pic.twitter.com/VFzX0yZEkG

— David Pierce (@Davutdeler) April 1, 2020

I hoped that the exercise would be stimulating; however, I cannot actually make students (or anybody else) do the associated thinking.

Neither can C. S. Lewis make anybody a Christian, or a pagan, or just confused. At least he cannot, without the other person’s cooperation. Apparently some critics worry that he will receive such cooperation; but this is not my concern. Here is how Collingwood distinguishes art from the six kinds of craft delineated above.

These six between them, singly or in combination, pretty well exhaust the function of whatever in the modern world wrongfully usurps the name of art. None of them has anything to do with art proper. This is not because (as Oscar Wilde said, with his curious talent for just missing a truth and then giving himself a prize for hitting it) ‘all art is quite useless’, for it is not; a work of art may very well amuse, instruct, puzzle, exhort, and so forth, without ceasing to be art, and in these ways it may be very useful indeed. It is because, as Oscar Wilde perhaps meant to say, what makes it art is not the same as what makes it useful. Deciding what psychological reaction a so-called work of art produces (for example, asking yourself how a certain poem ‘makes you feel’) has nothing whatever to do with deciding whether it is a real work of art or not. Equally irrelevant is the question what psychological reaction it is meant to produce.

I would consider the Chronicles of Narnia alongside the novels of Jane Austen, who for Collingwood is “the Napoleon of fiction” and stands with Beethoven and Hegel as one of the persons who created the nineteenth century:

from their work begins everything that, in contradistinction to the old times of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we call modern.

That was from a lecture, probably delivered in 1934.

Jane Austen may have written Pride and Prejudice when she was twenty, and one of the important characters may be a girl of sixteen; but the novel is not a children’s book. The Chronicles of Narnia are children’s books. Not only fantasy, but all fiction requires suspension of disbelief; children’s books require something more, if one is no longer a child oneself. Here yet again I would quote Collingwood, this time from Speculum Mentis (1924); the bold emphasis is mine:

art is the simplest and most primitive, the least sophisticated, of all possible frames of mind … Children and savages are not better artists than grown and civilized men … but … are in a special sense natural artists; art is to them a life in which they are immersed as in a flood of warm water which bears along in its course passive and effortless organisms. A grown and civilized man achieves aesthetic experience by the effort of deliberately shutting out other competing interests; he refuses to look at a given object historically or scientifically, and will see it aesthetically. Hence, for the civilized man, art has become a somewhat alien thing and difficult of approach … art is difficult for him not because it is intrinsically difficult, but because his entire education has been designed to wean him from it

A few weeks ago I encountered a doleful tweet about a kind of education that has made art difficult to approach:

The single biggest failure of my life as an English Professor is being unable to shake my students’ belief that what we’re doing is finding “hidden meanings” in a text rather than improving the quality of attention we’re giving it.

— Mike “Quarantine Curious” Sell (@mike_sell) May 7, 2020

There were a number of responses; one was mine, mentioning how Freud had encouraged us to find hidden meanings. Thus I learned more:

If I can jump in, I’d look to what Paul Ricoeur called “the hermeneutics of suspicion” started by Nietzsche, Marx, and, yes, Freud. Though they all resisted the notion that the text was a riddle. When Freud analyzed dreams, his method was persistent, contextualized reading.

— Mike “Quarantine Curious” Sell (@mike_sell) May 9, 2020

I have not read Ricoeur, but C. S. Lewis would seem to arouse suspicion in another writer whose criticism I shall take up, Ana Mardoll.

I may have written a blog post about each chapter of Collingwood’s New Leviathan, and about each book of Homer’s Iliad; but Mardoll has written at least one post, and sometimes five, about each chapter of most of the books of Lewis’s Chronicles. I’m not sure why, given xer or his remark:

God, this is such bad writing and I marvel that I ever once thought Lewis was a good author. My worst, most self-indulgent fanfic has put more consideration into “what do these characters know and what do they not know” than this entire book.

The criticism reminds me of a grown-up writer’s assessment of a child:

Cameron’s psychological problems run even deeper. He can name every one of his beloved, imaginary Pokemon characters, but the plain realities of the actual world he inhabits are an enigma: Ask Cameron the name of the real-life city councilman sponsoring the referendum to renovate the park just across the street from his house—a park he plays in daily—and he draws a blank.

That is from “More U.S. Children Being Diagnosed With Youthful Tendency Disorder” (The Onion, September 27, 2000). It is satire. C. S. Lewis is not a child like the fictional Cameron, but he is writing for children. In the dedication of the first book of the Chronicles, he anticipated that readers would outgrow the work:

My dear Lucy,

I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books … some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again … I shall still be

your affectionate Godfather,
C. S. Lewis

Literature for children may still be bad literature; but I’m not sure what makes it bad, if it is popular with children.

Opinions about how to write are recalled by Somerset Maugham (1874–1965), in the Preface to The World Over (volume II of The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham, Doubleday, Garden City, New York):

I once read an article on how to write a short story. Certain points the author made were useful, but to my mind the central thesis was wrong. She stated that the “focal point” of a short story should be the building of character and that the incidents should be invented solely to “liven” personality. Oddly enough she remarked earlier in her article that the parables are the best short stories that have ever been written. I think it would be difficult to describe the characters of the Prodigal Son and his brother or of the Good Samaritan and the Man who fell among thieves. They are in fact not characterized and we have to guess what sort of people they were, for we are only told about them the essential facts necessary for the pointing of the moral. And that, whether he has a moral to point or not, is about all the short-story writer can do.

Regarding characterization, books for children may resemble short stories for adults. If we are not satisfied with what Lewis tells us in his books, I think we have to ask whether it nonetheless suits a child.

3

I never thought much of Lucy Pevensie’s art criticism, but now I am reconsidering. Here is why she likes a certain painting of a ship at sea:

Well, for one thing, I like it because the ship looks as if it was really moving. And the water looks as if it was really wet. And the waves look as if they were really going up and down.

Those words are how C. S. Lewis gets Lucy, her brother Edmund, and their cousin Eustace into another world. The picture frame becomes the portal. The scene is laid in “The Picture in the Bedroom,” which is the first chapter of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (1952), which is the third of the seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia. In the story, the ship in the picture becomes real, and the three children find themselves falling into the sea beside it, then rescued and brought on board for a series of adventures.

Provoked by a taunting question of Eustace, Lucy’s words get the plot moving. I first read Lucy’s aesthetic judgment, perhaps in the summer of 1974, when I was nine. My appreciation of abstract art may also go back that far: I only know that I was enchanted by the abstractions of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which opened in October of that year. I knew, or I came to know, that a picture did not have to look real to be good.

Frank Stella, Darabjerd III, 1967 (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn, 1972)

Nonetheless, Lewis’s books read real. This may be the best explanation of why they have stayed with me, more than any other books I read as a child.

Box for the Narnia books

After reading library copies, I bought for myself a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia. This was the Collier Books edition of 1970, with paintings by Roger Hane on the paper covers. I don’t know when I made the purchase (except probably not before 1974, and the books themselves had been printed in 1973 and priced at 95¢ each); but in March of 1975, as I know from his calligraphic inscriptions, my godfather gave me the four Hobbit books of C. S. Lewis’s friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. I read them, but only once, I think, before the aughts of this century. When I read them again, some scenes were vaguely familiar, but usually I could hardly believe I had read the books before.

The Tolkien books

I return to Lewis now by chance, because I looked up the words of Christopher Hitchens about Bob Hope that I happened to quote in my post “Narnia.” I reread the post; then I made some additions, having meanwhile managed to find the bitter criticism by John Goldthwaite that Philip Pullman had cited in a quotation that I had made.

I have now read more criticism, by Pullman and others, and reread the Narnia books themselves.

At the beginning of the fourth book, The Silver Chair (1953), the season is autumn, and Jill Pole is crying behind the school gym, having been bullied in some unspecified way. Eustace Scrubb finds her and starts to give advice. Jill cuts him off, saying,

you’re a nice person to start telling us what we all ought to do, aren’t you? I suppose you mean we ought to spend our time sucking up to Them, and currying favour, and dancing attendance on Them like you do.

Would a child really talk that way? If not, then here Lewis may benefit from being read in a different time and country from his own. “Sucking up,” yes, but I don’t know whether schoolchildren would talk about “currying favor”; and as for “dancing attendance,” I don’t know this expression at all. However, I first read Lewis’s words more than twenty years after he had written them, and on the other side of the Atlantic. It was clear enough what they meant, and any oddity of expression could be attributed to the chronological and geographical differences just mentioned, rather than to Lewis’s ineptness.

Narnia books 1, 3, 4, 5

Eustace objects that he hasn’t been like what Jill describes, this term. Readers of The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” know how and why he changed over the summer. Jill acknowledges the fact of the change:

They’ve noticed it. Eleanor Blakiston heard Adela Pennyfather talking about it in our changing room yesterday. She said, “Someone’s got hold of that Scrubb kid. He’s quite unmanageable this term. We shall have to attend to him next.”

Some people think C. S. Lewis needs attending to. Philip Pullman considers the Chronicles of Narnia to be “morally loathsome,” according to Laura Miller in The New Yorker (December 26, 2005); however, Pullman does respect “the struggle that [Lewis is] undergoing as he searches for the answers. There’s hope for Lewis. Lewis could be redeemed.”

Lewis could be redeemed! I wonder how, because I think the Chronicles of Narnia already have what Pullman praises about fiction. Here is how Miller reports on a lecture by Pullman at the University of East Anglia, on the subject of religion and education:

“We learn from Macbeth’s fate that killing is horrible for the killer as well as victim,” he said, before reading a passage from “Emma,” by Jane Austen, in which the heroine is mortified when Mr. Knightley reproaches her for mocking poor, garrulous Miss Bates. The scene, Pullman said, shows that “we can learn what’s good and what’s bad, what’s generous and unselfish, what’s cruel and mean, from fiction”; there is no need to consult scripture. As Pullman once put it in a newspaper column, “ ‘Thou shalt not’ might reach the head, but it takes ‘Once upon a time’ to reach the heart.”

The scene from Emma shows that fictional characters can learn; whether readers learn is another question. Reaching the heart may indeed require a story. Here’s the beginning of a once-upon-a-time story:

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judæa, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.

And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.

And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.

Those are verses 5–7 of the first chapter of the Gospel according to St Luke. Here’s how another once-upon-a-time story starts out:

Now it came to pass in the days when the judges ruled, that there was a famine in the land. And a certain man of Beth-lehem-judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he, and his wife, and two sons.

And the name of the man was Elimelech, and the name of his wife Naomi, and the name of his two sons Mahlon and Chilion, Ephrathites of Beth-lehem-judah. And they came into the country of Moab, and continued there.

And Elimelech Naomi’s husband died; and she was left, and her two sons.

And they took them wives of the women of Moab; the name of the one was Orpah, and the name of the other Ruth: and they dwelled there about ten years.

And Mahlon and Chilion died also both of them; and the woman was left of her two sons and her husband.

Then she arose with her daughters in law, that she might return from the country of Moab: for she had heard in the country of Moab how that the Lord had visited his people in giving them bread.

Those are the first six verses of the first chapter of the Book of Ruth.

King James Bible, Oxford Worlds Classics edition, Michaelangelos Jeremiah on cover

Pullman knows about the Hebrew and Christian bibles. His grandfather was an Anglican parish priest in Norwich, where the University of East Anglia is. Pullman tells Miller,

Although I call myself an atheist, I am a Church of England atheist, and a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist, because that’s the tradition I was brought up in and I cannot escape those early influences.

On the contrary, he has escaped those early influences, at least in his conscious thought, if he thinks the religion of his grandfather and C. S. Lewis is nothing but commandments.

The scene that Pullman describes from Emma has its like in the Narnia books, and I wonder why he does not acknowledge this.

Collingwood, Philosophy of Enchantment

Let me quote Collingwood on Jane Austen. This is from a lecture that he probably gave in 1934, but was published only posthumously, in The Philosophy of Enchantment (2005):

The problem in all her books is the problem of knowing one’s own mind. Every one of her heroines is placed in a situation where a resolute and fearless facing of her own motives is demanded of her. The catastrophes are one and all caused by failure to distinguish one’s real thoughts and desires from those which one idly supposes oneself to have; and the happy endings take place invariably by a moral crisis in which these illusions are swept away and the heroine is left face to face with her real self. This crisis, tragic as in Emma, or comic as in Northanger Abbey, is the turning-point of all the books, whose common theme is thus conversion of the soul, as Plato would call it, from illusion to reality.

I think Lewis addresses the problem of knowing one’s own mind. Thus in “The Magician’s Book,” the tenth chapter of Voyage, Lucy finds, in the book of the chapter’s title, “An infallible spell to make beautiful her that uttereth it beyond the lot of mortals.” The illuminations of the manuscript tell what will happen, if Lucy uses the spell. Wars will be fought, as if Lucy were Helen of Troy (this is my analogy). Ultimately, Lucy’s elder sister Susan, “who had always been the beauty of the family,” will be jealous. This thought does the trick. Lucy is about to say the magic words, when she notices a stern Face, glaring at her from the page. The spell unread, Lucy turns over a new leaf.

Maybe Lucy turns the page for external reasons, because of a “Thou shalt not” from the Face. Alternatively, moved by the Face to reconsider, Lucy sees that she does not really want to provoke the strife of the scenes in the illuminations.

The latter alternative cannot be entirely correct, because of what ensues:

A little later she came to a spell which would let you know what your friends thought about you. Now Lucy had wanted very badly to try the other spell, the one that made you beautiful beyond the lot of mortals. So she felt that to make up for not having said it, she really would say this one. And all in a hurry, for fear her mind would change, she said the words (nothing will induce me to tell you what they were).

Lucy will regret saying the words, because they spoil a friendship. Let me say only that I recognize, from my own childhood, the kind of rationalization that induces Lucy to say the words. It is a symptom of having one’s psychê divided into the three parts that Socrates analyzes in Plato’s Republic.

Move forward two books. In “The Hermit of the Southern March,” the tenth chapter of The Horse and His Boy (1954), the fifth of the Narnia books, a stallion called Bree is carrying a boy called Shasta; a mare called Hwin, a girl called Aravis. A lion attacks the latter pair. Though Shasta jumps down to help, Bree gallops on. Later he is ashamed. The quartet have been headed north, to Archenland and Narnia, the lands of talking beasts from which the horses were captured as foals. Now Bree feels unworthy to go back.

There turn out to be all kinds of ways to criticize Lewis for this episode. Many of these are detailed in two blog posts of Ana Mardoll: “The Scourging of Aravis” and “All Her Troubles.” I think these posts take the voice of Adela Pennyfather, the girl at school who would be “attending to” Eustace. Nonetheless, some of my comments now will be in response.

How could a boy leap from a galloping horse, get to his feet, and not already have been passed by a pursuing lion? For the purposes of Lewis’s story, one must accept it as possible. This may be easier for children.

Before dismounting, Shasta told Bree to stop; but by Lewis’s account,

Bree always said afterward that he never heard, or never understood this; and as he was in general a very truthful horse we must accept his word.

One can read this as a snide way of calling Bree a liar. Alternatively, it is advice not to think him a liar, regardless of our first inclinations.

Shasta will be praised for his bravery. Hwin will not, though she could have thrown her rider to save herself. Maybe Lewis did not think of this; in any case, I never did. But I also think the book is about Shasta.

Lewis has not given us Aravis’s point of view, as the lion dragged its claws across her back. However, though Lewis is an omniscient narrator, he may focus mainly on one character. This character can be a boy or a girl: Lucy, in Voyage; Jill, in Chair; Shasta, in Horse.

In the episode from The Horse and His Boy, the horses and Aravis are out of commission, but somebody must continue north, to warn of an impending invasion from Calormen in the south. The reader understands this. The skeptical reader may well ask how the characters have come to understand this.

Children can be credulous and obedient. An example has somehow stayed with me since 1994, when my bicycle and I spent a night at an Ontario campground where some families, with cars, would spend the whole summer. My assigned campsite was crossed by a path where resident children rode their own bicycles. I asked a girl not to come through for 24 hours. I then heard her instruct her friends, “We can’t go there for 24 hours!” She had taken me literally and seriously. I wished I could have been more precise: “Don’t use this path until you see that I have left in the morning.”

After the lion attack, Shasta sets out on foot. “If you run now,” he has been told, “without a moment’s rest, you will still be in time to warn King Lune”—he being the king of Archenland whose castle, called Anvard, is the target of the invading Calormenes.

Shasta’s heart fainted at these words for he felt he had no strength left. And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one.

Lewis’s stories are vehicles for such teachings. If you can tell a better story, do; but if your concern is to create a better fantasy world, I think you have missed Lewis’s point.

Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden stories provided inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Bond’s boss is M., because Ashenden’s boss is R. However, Maugham just wanted to write stories. He knew about some interesting persons from working under cover during the Great War, and so he wrote about them. He didn’t write spy stories as such. Fleming did.

It seems to me likewise that C. S. Lewis did not write fantasy as such. He had things he wanted to tell, and fantasy was a way to do it. Tolkien and others have criticized him as a fantasist. Even a fantasy world has to make sense, and it makes no sense to have Father Christmas pop up in a world of medieval technology, populated by dryads and fauns, as he does in the first Narnia book (it is he who says battles are ugly when women fight.)

Le Petit Prince, and the Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear

It also makes no sense for the Owl and the Pussycat to go to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat; or for the Little Prince to travel between asteroids with the help of migrating birds. I too was surprised to find Santa Claus in Narnia; but surprising things happen in dreams as well. St Nicholas as a character was the author’s choice; I noted it and continued enjoying the story.

In the borderland between Calormen and the northern countries, the person who tells Shasta to run is the title character of the chapter: the Hermit of the Southern March. He appears at an improbably convenient time; but this is all part of the plan of the lion, who turns out to be Aslan, the Jesus Christ of Narnia, the Face (as I called it) that warned Lucy off the beauty spell.

Aslan could have made a more efficient plan for saving Archenland. I think I understand such complaints in general. Those persons are hypocrites who discern the hand of God, just when it suits their purpose. I said Maugham wrote spy stories accidentally, because he happened to have been a spy himself; he also wrote stories about missionaries, because he knew such persons from his travels. In one of these stories, “The Vessel of Wrath” (collected in Ah King, 1933), a missionary says of a reprobate,

No one is hopeless. Everyone has some good in him. I shall pray for him every night. It would be wicked to doubt the power of God.

“Perhaps Miss Jones was right in this,” says Maugham, “but the divine providence took a very funny way of effecting its ends.” Martha Jones gets Edward Wilson to help her fight a cholera epidemic; then she gets him to marry her. As she explains to the Dutch Controleur of the colony,

Except for the cholera Edward would never have found himself. Except for the cholera we should never have learnt to know one another. I have never seen the hand of God more plainly manifest.

Maugham supplies another point of view:

The Controleur could not but think that it was rather a clumsy device to bring those two together that necessitated the death of six hundred innocent persons, but not being well versed in the ways of omnipotence he made no remark.

Driving horses to exhaustion, then having a boy proceed on foot, was a clumsy way to save Archenland: granted.

Lewis also explains the event as the filfilment of prophecy. Shasta turns out to be Prince Cor, son of King Lune. When Cor was a week old, a Centaur foresaw that the child would save Archenland from deadly danger. A disgraced courtier in the pay of Calormen stole the infant, but could not manage to kill it.

Christians may complain that all of this is the stuff of pagan myth. They may also complain about the myth of Santa Claus. I believed in Santa Claus as a child; and yet I must have understood that he was only my parents. One Christmas eve, I set out pictures that I had drawn for Santa and Rudolf; those personages didn’t take the pictures, but they left behind their words. I believed they had written notes to me, even as I well knew that the handwriting was my mother’s. Thus did my mother and I engage in make-believe.

Aravis is fleeing Calormen to avoid an arranged marriage with the old man who would have raped her. In running off to save Archenland, Shasta leaves Aravis in the hands of an unknown old man. The danger here would be a reasonable concern, if we were reading an ordinary grown-up novel. It seems however that the children and the horses can understand the Hermit to be trustworthy.

It is true that the trust of children can be misplaced. I can remember when our primary-school teachers warned us not to accept rides from strangers. Maybe Lewis is grooming.

He may not have considered what child marriage means. Neither then has Aravis, who objected to her would-be spouse, only on grounds of class, age, and ugliness:

Now this Ahoshta is of base birth, though in these latter years he has won the favour of the Tisroc (may he live forever) by flattery and evil counsels, and is now made a Tarkaan and lord of many cities and is likely to be chosen as the Grand Vizier when the present Grand Vizier dies. Moreover he is at least sixty years old and has a hump on his back and his face resembles that of an ape.

One should consider such passages if, with John Goldthwaite, one objects to Prince Caspian’s rejection of the daughter of the Duke of Galma. “Squints, and has freckles,” says Caspian of her, in Voyage.

Appearances may be the only way for the unsophisticated to explain not finding somebody congenial. Near the end of Voyage, on the last island before the Last Sea, Caspian does find the daughter of Ramandu congenial; and she smiles back. Lucy notices all of this. We readers do not know that anybody has noticed, until two chapters later, when Caspian is inclined not to return with the ship. Lucy reminds him, “you’ve almost promised Ramandu’s daughter to go back.” Caspian and the unnamed daughter are later married. Such things happen in fairy tales.

Towards the end of Horse, in Archenland, Shasta is cherished as the savior of the country and as the long-lost Crown Prince Cor. Nobody knows how he faced down the lion, till the girl who will later be his wife comes to Anvard:

Then Aravis told it. And Cor, who had very much wanted the story to be known, though he felt he couldn’t tell it himself, didn’t enjoy it so much as he had expected, and indeed felt rather foolish. But his father enjoyed it very much indeed and in the course of the next few weeks told it to so many people that Cor wished it had never happened.

I think again of Collingwood’s words about “a moral crisis in which these illusions are swept away and the heroine is left face to face with her real self.”

A Garden for Art: Outdoor Sculpture at the Hirshhorn Museum

In “Doing and Suffering,” I mentioned how Lewis refers to Plato. He shares with Plato not only the idea of a higher level of reality, but also a format of writing. Plato writes dialogues; the Narnia books have dialogue in them. The two writers bring characters to life. The characters’ thoughts are then in principle independent of the authors’. Readers may not understand this. I have written elsewhere about misreading the Republic as a guide to state-building. Glaucon and Adeimantus may take Socrates’s words as a guide; but the brothers may also be foolish. To include a character in a dialogue or a novel is to exhort or invite us, not to be like that person, but only to consider whether we want to be.

Revised May 24 and 25, and June 3, 14, and 26, 2020

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: