Things I should be doing right now:
- Beginning to revise for my exam on ‘Teachers and responsibility’ next week
- Marking exam papers for my English language class
- Setting the oral exam for my English language class
- Taking a deep breath and hurling myself at the mountain of paperwork I need to submit to the school where I teach
- Finishing a report on someone’s novel
- Editing a friend’s poetry collection
- Scraping the weeks of accumulated filth off the house...
But instead I am writing here... Two things have helped me through the past few weeks – well, two non-human things, my family have been lovely supportive human things – cheese and Narnia. I don’t have much to write about cheese and certainly nothing of interest, but I do want to write about the Narnia books. So I shall.
I hadn’t reread all seven books since I was a child and I was a little hesitant. I remember loving the stories very much, but since then they have come in for a lot of criticism, notably from Philip Pullman (another writer whose work I love). I didn’t really want to return to Narnia and find all the magic rubbed off and just a bundle of twigs of racism, misogyny and religious propaganda remaining.
(Lucy and Mr. Tumnus, illustration by Pauline Baynes for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1950; found at Brian Sibley His Blog, which has a nice piece about Baynes)
Well, I reread all the books, which makes it quite obvious that I enjoyed them (very much!). However, I was scrupulous in amassing evidence for and against the charges brought against C.S. Lewis, and while I’m sure that Lewis has more than enough advocates I feel impelled to write my reactions here, why were web-logs invented if not for this sort of bellyaching? Since I’m feeling all bullet-pointy and subheadingy today:
Lewis is an expert synthesiser of myths, religions and fairy tales. In Narnia he has picked out all the best bits from especially Greek but also English, Norse and Western European literature – fauns, centaurs, satyrs, dryads, giants, talking animals, magic potions, etc. – to create a world we all want to inhabit too. There are echoes of the Odyssey in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a play on Hamlet in Rilian’s relationships with his parents and the Lady of the Green Kirtle and endless allusions to the mediaeval English literature Lewis knew so well. Christianity is also a clear reference point, most obviously in the figure of Aslan and his sacrifice to save others in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Eustace’s ‘conversion’ and the words of the lamb in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and the life beyond death in The Last Battle.
(Aslan by Pauline Baynes, from The Magician’s Nephew, London: The Bodley Head, 1955; found here)
But propaganda? Now I know you can have really quite insidious forms of propaganda, but aren’t you at some point supposed to make it clear that you should vote for Cyril or join the Purple Party or stop eating cauliflower? I realise that personal experience isn’t in any way statistically significant, but I’ve yet to encounter anyone who, as a child, even noticed the religious symbolism, let alone felt curious enough to visit a church as a consequence. It passed me by and I was brought up as a Catholic. Lewis could write ‘propaganda’ – because I suppose you could classify The Screwtape Letters as that – so it seems surprising that if he wanted to lure children to his Christian ways he didn’t do it more effectively. (Ha ha, here I show my bias...) It does seem odd now, because to Adult-Helen the Christian themes were very obvious.
(Bacchus and entourage by Pauline Baynes, from Prince Caspian, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1951; found here)
For me, the Christian element is part of the rich mix of sources on which Lewis drew to write the Narnia books. It informs the values he upholds and the behaviours he approves in his characters – kindness, honesty, courage. Yet these values are not held exclusively by Christians, I don’t think that by promoting them he is being particularly sectarian. His religion was important to Lewis personally, but it also contains some very good stories – stories which, as he might have known, often have their roots in still older religions and cultures. These stories include creation myths and gods (and goddesses) who die and are reborn. Although Christianity is no small part of the books, I can’t help reading them as celebrating not just religious values but, intertwined with them, the value of imagination. Yet with a different religious upbringing, how would I feel about this?
(Puddleglum, illustration by Pauline Baynes for The Silver Chair, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1954; found here)
As a white European, it’s more than possible that I miss subtle – maybe even not-so-subtle – racism, or dismiss it. Is this what I am about to do?
(Tashbaan by Pauline Baynes, from The Horse and His Boy, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1953; found here)
It is the Calormenes who attract the accusations of racism on the part of Lewis. If you read the books in the order in which Lewis wrote them, they first appear in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where they are described as having ‘dark faces and long beards. They wear flowing robes and orange-coloured turbans, and they are a wise, wealthy, courteous, cruel and ancient people’. They also deal in slaves. Much of the action in The Horse and his Boy occurs in Calormen, the land from which the children and the Talking Horses are trying to escape. Calormen lies to the south of Narnia across a desert, and its climate seems to be hotter. Pretty early on skin colour is remarked upon by a Calormene noble who wishes to buy Shasta from his foster-father: ‘This boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white like the accursed but beautiful barbarians who inhabit the remote North.’ I did feel more uncomfortable reading that. There’s nothing overt, just the alignment of beauty with the fair and white, and the contrast with the dark. The ruler of Calormen, the Tisroc, is a clever, cruel despot with a sense of humour; his son is brave but rash and greedy. The other Calormenes live in fear of their absolute ruler and are good at baths, gardens and intrigue. In The Last Battle they ally with Shift the Talking Ape to infiltrate Narnia and conquer it. In this book their worship of Tash and dedication to him of human sacrifices is more prominent, as is their skin colour – the Dwarves, admittedly characters we are not intended to like, repeatedly call them ‘Darkies’, which draws attention to this.
But the Calormenes are not the only villains in the Narnia books. Narnia and the children are generally threatened by outsiders, and the White Witch/Jadis, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, Uncle Andrew, the giants, the Telmarines and the slavers of the Lone Isles are apparently all white-skinned, or at least we are not told that they are dark which, I believe, for a white British author of the mid-twentieth century comes to the same thing. Moreover, there are sympathetic Calormene characters: Aravis, Emeth and to a lesser extent Lasaraleen.
My conclusion, after a lot of thought, is that it is the Calormene culture rather than race which Lewis is portraying as Other and in opposition to the culture of Narnia. Religion is included in that. I see the Calormenes as the imaginative, cultural and religious Other Lewis chose to create. To do so, just as he used one set of literary and cultural references to create Narnia, so he used another to create its opposite: chiefly, I think, the Arabian Nights but also Ottoman history and the history of ancient cultures. The society he imagines is, in Edward Saïd’s term, Orientalised, a fantasy on several levels and too general to be linked to any one ‘real’ society. And yet I think that it can make us uncomfortable, at least, it did me in The Last Battle, because of its conflict with Narnia. There’s a distinct whiff of ‘my English, classically educated and Christian culture is better than your vaguely foreign and exotic culture’ which, being part of his culture, I didn’t notice as a child. So, I don’t find the books to be racist, but perhaps rather Little Englander sometimes.
It’s hard to argue that Lewis is really sexist when he has created characters like Lucy, Jill and the tomboy Aravis. There are some casually sexist remarks bandied about, occasionally by the narrator, but when the girls hear them they usually challenge them:
‘I hope you’re right,’ said Susan. ‘I can’t remember all that.’
‘That’s the worst of girls,’ said Edmund to Peter and the Dwarf. ‘They never can carry a map in their heads.’
‘That’s because our heads have something inside them,’ said Lucy.
Nobody argues with Father Christmas when he says ‘battles are ugly when women fight’. Would you argue with Father Christmas though? Is this view unusual even today? And is the view of a character necessarily that of the author anyway? Susan, Lucy and Jill all fight with bows and arrows. In The Last Battle Jill is not only given a knife in lieu of a sword (she’s too small for an adult one) but apparently dies in battle.
(Tea with the beavers by Pauline Baynes, in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as before; found here)
The adult women in the books are rather different. For a start, there aren’t many: Aunt Letty, who takes a no-nonsense approach to Jadis; Digory’s mother, Queen Helena and Caspian’s wife, who doesn’t even get her own name, who are all pretty characterless; the grotesque giant Queen of Harfang, whose seeming motherly feelings for the children disguise her literal desire to eat them; and of course Jadis/the White Witch and the Lady of the Green Kirtle, who is both substitute mother and intended wife for Rilian. With the notable exception of Mrs Beaver – whom I believe I can include in this discussion of adult females – the only admirable woman of any real note is the grown-up Polly, who never marries and somehow retains the spirit of Narnia into old age. But when you are a child reading these books, do you notice or care? You identify with the children, not the adults. It’s quite possible that Lewis had some interesting ideas or complexes about women and mothers in particular, but I don’t think any girl would read these books and come away diminished because of her gender. Still, perhaps your experience is different?
(The White Witch and Edmund, by Pauline Baynes, from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as before; found here)
And then of course there is Susan. Pullman claims that Susan is cast into hell for liking boys and clothes, but this is not how I read it. Susan, like Peter, visits Narnia twice before being told by Aslan that she is too old to return. But Susan isn’t just too old, she is changing. Already in Prince Caspian she is sceptical, closing herself off to the wonders of Narnia. At the end of The Last Battle, when all the other children are finally back in Narnia together, her absence is explained thus:
‘Sir,’ said Tirian, […] ‘Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?’
‘My sister Susan,’ answered Peter shortly and gravely, ‘is no longer a friend of Narnia.’
‘Yes,’ said Eustace, ‘and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, “What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.”’
‘Oh Susan!’ said Jill, ‘she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.’
‘Grown up, indeed,’ said the Lady Polly. ‘I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.’
I interpret Susan’s ‘crime’ as rejecting Narnia and what it stands for – religion, the imagination. This isn’t necessarily a consequence of growing up, as Polly, Digory and Peter have all remained true, but becoming an adult does often coincide with a curbing of creativity, imagination and the religious impulse and a more worldly attitude. Perhaps Lewis wanted to make this point and needed to choose a character to show this. She’s not cast into hell, as Pullman says, there’s no suggestion she’s even on the train when it crashes, but she is shut out of Narnia, albeit of her own volition.
But – it is so unfair! This is Susan, who watched over Aslan after the White Witch had killed him and who danced with him in the beautiful dawn! Aslan seems to give everyone else a second chance…
(Pauline Baynes, cover illustration for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as before; found here)
My amazing and original conclusion: C.S. Lewis was a product, perhaps even a rather conservative one, of his time. He had religious convictions and these, like his literary loves, are present in the Narnia books. He wasn’t a card-carrying feminist but gives us some great heroines and some powerful villainesses in a very male-dominated culture. His Calormen is definitely Orientalised and presented as anathema to Narnia, but unless you believe that culture is the inevitable product of race, I don’t think you could argue that it’s racist. It is not unproblematic though. Overall, I acquit Lewis of all charges – except for being utterly mean to Susan, as a character rather than as a female. How could he do that to one of the Pevensies?
If anyone has managed to read this far without dying of combined boredom and exhaustion – what do you think of the Narnia books? Do you think that they are less innocent than I suggest?
(Surely everyone’s favourite mouse? Reepicheep, illustration by Pauline Baynes for The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952; found here)