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Thursday, 13 June 2013

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Teresa

It's been ages since I read the Narnia books, and I'm sure I'd notice things now that I didn't notice then. But a lot of the criticisms of the books seem to be like criticisms of the time and culture in which Lewis was writing. That doesn't keep the flaws from being flaws, but it keeps me from holding them against Lewis. If he were alive and writing them today, I wonder what he'd change.

Regarding Susan, I recently read Rowan Williams's book on Narnia, and he mentioned that Lewis actually suggested to a young reader who was troubled by Susan's fate that she attempt to write a story of how Susan might find a way back to Narnia. He suggested that it was possible but a more serious story than he wanted to write. I found that suggestion pretty charming, and it aligns nicely with what you say here about second chances.

Helen

Dear Teresa, what took me about a billion rambly words to express, you have put in a nutshell! I do think it makes an enormous difference if you first read the books as a child, I notice that Pullman did not.

I hadn't realised that Rowan Williams had written about Narnia; that sounds a very interesting book. The story of Susan's second chance is lovely and pleased me immensely. It fits with what I think of Lewis, that he took children seriously and writing for them seriously. According to the back of the Puffin editions, he said that 'a children's story is the best art form for something you have to say'.

Alex

I haven't come across the Rowan Williams book either and must look out for it. I first read these as an adult and loved them but then found that for the most part they didn't bear a re-read. The one exception was 'The Silver Chair', to which I still return on occasions. I don't know if you'll be able to get there but did you know that there's an exhibition at the Bodliean this summer about all the fantasy books for children written by authors linked to Oxford? I think it takes in Lewis, Tolkien, Pullman, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner. i shall definitely be trying to get there.

Helen

Dear Alex, I'm looking forward to reading them to my daughter now! If you don't mind my asking, what is it about 'The Silver Chair' that you particularly like? I enjoyed reading it very much too.

I almost certainly won't be able to go to that exhibition so I expect a full report from you - no pressure :)

litlove

What a wonderful post! I have to confess up front that I only ever read the first Narnia book and that we did in religious studies in school. I was 11 at the time and because no one explained to us WHY we were reading the book, I had absolutely no idea that it was a Christian allegory and thought the teacher just couldn't be bothered with a lesson plan (which was fine by me - we could have read a book in every lesson and I'd have been happy).

Having read your post, I feel perfectly certain that children don't notice any racism - and it sounds like the Calormenes (sp?) are dark in the way Oompa-loompas are orange. And as for sexism, I don't notice little boys being any nicer to little girls than they ever were.

Something I read recently and really liked concerned a book written in the 1930s, and talking of this book, the author talked about 'how difficult it is to re-enter the past fully enough to understand it on its own terms' and yet we had to if we wanted to avoid 'generational chauvinism' a way of 'spurning, in an arrogant and unforgiving way, both the past and the invariably naive and unliberal simpletons who inhabit it.' I nearly cheered. Who are we to assume we're so perfect now? Anyway, ahem, I will just get down off the soap box now...

Catie

Oh I loved Narnia so much as a child! I remember how sad I felt when I finished them. I did notice the Christian allegory in 'The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe'- not on the first read-through though. And I was (and am) a Christian, brought up in a Christian household and so pretty familiar with the stories, ideas etc. I actually really enjoyed it as an allegory, I think it makes sense of some aspects of Christianity really well.
But then I have always struggled with the criticisms of it- maybe I was not bothered by it because I am Christian? I like your post, it feels quite spot on for me. And as for reading things as being of their time- such a tricky thing to do! But good to remember I think.

Helen

Dear litlove, thank you! And do spend as long on the soap box as you like, you always have something interesting to say.

I think that for me the difficulty is 'The Last Battle', when there's a very clear dichotomy between the Other, who are not saved, and the 'Good'. That stems partly from a personal dislike of the whole sheep and goats, Last Judgement business, and partly yes from being in this moment in time when we are all I think very sensitive to cultural and religious difference.

I like the term 'generational chauvinism' very much and I hope I'm not often guilty of it. But I don't think we can re-enter the past, even the fairly recent past like the 1950s, not really. I definitely agree that it's pointless to judge the attitudes of one time against the attitudes of another, and exhausting really - I mean if you flew into a strop about every instance of sexist thinking in English literature, for example, you'd just be too exhausted to enjoy your book. I suppose that I see a good reader as judging a book on its own terms, and those perhaps include ideological as well as literary.

As for children, well, I think that they draw on more than just a few novels for their moral framework. :)

Helen

Dear Catie, I'm glad you loved the books too! Like you, I wonder whether I don't mind the Christian elements so much because I was brought up with them? Perhaps that gives me blind spots. Maybe you should re-read them and let us know what you think? :)

Lori, the eclectic book gatherer

My view is that you really can't judge an older book by whatever values, or lack of values, present day society has. It somehow doesn't seem fair. Whenever I read a book, I instantly put myself into that time and accept it. In fact I often tend to unfavourably compare modern things to older ones.

For example, to identify or describe the appearance of someone of another race is not racist, it's the truth. Why would I be offended to be described as a white female, for that is what I am! I also think the Christian elements are a good, positive thing. What disturbs me, and people are often afraid to discuss, is all the anti-Christian propaganda in more modern books, and the obscene language and violence; that is what I find disturbing. So it seems as if today there's this atmosphere where people are supposed to accept every idea that is against their beliefs, but if they uphold their own, they are accused of being small-minded or prejudiced. Now I too, must get off my soap box!

I think we should read and enjoy the Narnia books for what they are, and that is mainly being just good tales!

Helen

Dear Lori, heh heh, it's soap boxes all round here!

I completely agree that you shouldn't judge a book by present-day values. And life would be so much poorer if we only read books with whose values we agreed. But I think it is good to be aware of those values and to be aware of where you disagree with them, if you see what I mean, not jumping up and down shrieking 'sexist pig!' every paragraph but knowing that the author's attitudes towards women affects how s/he portrays them, for instance.

It sounds as if that's exactly what you do, when you put yourself in that time - you are already conscious of the differences.

Sherry

Thank you. I enjoyed your "defense" of Lewis's Narnia and linked to it at my blog. I think you entered into the spirit of the books quite well, and I tend to agree with you.

Helen

Dear Sherry, thank you so much for your lovely comment. I'm glad that you enjoyed the post!

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