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The Passion of C.S. Lewis

The priest who performed the marriage ceremony also prayed for Joy’s healing, and whether the cause was spiritual or psychological, the effect was remarkable. Joy’s cancer went into remission; and for the next three and a half years she and Lewis enjoyed a full life together. As Lewis put it, rather embarrassingly, they “feasted on love.” Joy went everywhere with him and he even tried to include her in the regular Thursday meetings of his all-male discussion group, the Inklings. As A.N. Wilson reports, those friends “who were forced to meet Joy did not enjoy it, and pretty soon made excuses to avoid meeting her again.” Lewis took her to Greece, which she had always longed to visit, and consulted her about his writing. But then Joy’s cancer returned, and she died in July 1959.

Biographers and critics have tried to understand how Lewis could have chosen to devote his life to two such different but equally demanding women. One possible explanation comes from Lewis’s father, Albert, who wrote to Lewis’s brother that his younger son was “an impetuous, kind-hearted creature who could be cajoled by any woman who has been through the mill.” It is also true that both Janie Moore and Joy Davidman were evidently very much in love with Lewis and regarded him as a truly great man—something that is often irresistible. And both seem to have had an effect on his writing: the domestic heroine of Lewis’s science-fiction fantasy, That Hideous Strength, is named Jane, and the more active and adventurous girls in the later Chronicles of Narnia, like Aravis in The Horse and His Boy and Polly in The Magician’s Nephew, surely owe something to Joy Davidman.

3.

Many critics who first read The Chronicles of Narnia as children report being unaware of its Christian meanings or of any other hidden messages, but several complain that when they reread the books as adults they were shocked and dismayed. In Revisiting Narnia, a diverse collection of present and former fans (it includes a Catholic, a liberal feminist, an agnostic, a New Age witch, a postmodernist, and several popular authors of fantasy) both praise and criticize Lewis. Other readers have been wholly negative. One is the immensely gifted and popular British writer Philip Pullman, author of the best-selling trilogy His Dark Materials, who has described himself as a Christian atheist. Last year he denounced the Narnia books as religious propaganda, and called the series “ugly and poisonous.” He summed up their message as “Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on.”2

Some generally favorable critics, too, have expressed doubts about the portrayal of Jesus as the huge, beautiful, and terrible lion Aslan. In most juvenile classics, they point out, the heroes and heroines tend to be relatively small and powerless; they are mice, rabbits, dogs, cats, hobbits, and of course children. They win through moral rather than physical strength, because they possess the standard folk-tale qualities of intelligence, courage, kindness, and luck. But Lewis believed in what used to be called “muscular Christianity,” which preferred to represent Christ as athletic, masculine, and even militant. This may have been responsible for the selection of a lion the size of a small elephant as the Narnian representation of Jesus, rather than the traditional innocent, meek, and mild Lamb of God. A better choice, Adam Gopnik suggested recently in The New Yorker, would have been “a lowly and bedraggled donkey” who is killed by lions but finally reappears “as the king of all creation.”

Aslan does appear to Lucy and her cousin Eustace in the form of a lamb at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when they are about to return to their own world; and as a cat in The Horse and His Boy, but he soon reassumes his original shape and power. Even before they meet him the mere sound of his name (which means “lion” in Turkish) causes joy in good characters and horror in those who are under an evil spell.3 When Lucy cries that she cannot bear to live in her world without Aslan, he says that he is there too: “But there I have another name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” Several critics have seen this as an obvious reference to Jesus Christ, but it is possible that for readers of other faiths it might have other associations.

Lewis, like many fundamentalist Christians, emphasizes Jesus over God the Father; indeed in some ways he goes even further than they usually do. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan declares that he is the “Son of the Emperor over Sea,” but this emperor never appears. It is Aslan who creates the world by singing it into being; and it is he who oversees the apocalypse that ends The Last Battle.

The religious controversy is not the only one currently swirling around Narnia. Lewis has also been charged with racism as a result of his portrait of the Calormenes in The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle. Calormen (apparently from the Latin word for heat, calor) is a desert country far to the south of Narnia. Its people are dark-skinned and prone to violence; the men wear turbans and carry scimitars, and their diet is heavy on oil, rice, and garlic. They are cruel to animals and worship a four-armed god with a vulture’s head who loves blood and demands human sacrifice. The rulers of Calormen are autocratic, corrupt, treacherous, and brutal; slavery is common, and most women cannot read or write or choose their husbands. However successful the film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe may be, it is hard to see how The Horse and His Boy could be made into a sequel without serious political and cultural repercussions.

Other critics see The Chronicles of Narnia as anti-feminist. In Narnia, as Philip Pullman points out, girls almost always come second to boys. They have fewer adventures, and none (unlike Shasta in The Horse and His Boy and Caspian in Prince Caspian) has a book named after her. In the early stories girls usually stay well out of the fighting, or at a safe distance. Though Susan is a skilled archer, she does not take part in the battle at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Lucy appears only after everything is over, to cure wounds with the magic potion Father Christmas has given her.

In Narnia there is also no such thing as a good and strong supernatural female figure, as there often are in fairy tales. The Narnian embodiment of virtuous power is male, while the embodiment of evil power is the White Witch, who appears to be based partly on Hans Christian Andersen’s evil Snow Queen and partly on George MacDonald’s North Wind (who is really Death, and rules over a kingdom of ice and snow); both of them also abduct and enchant a little boy.

The Narnia books also diverge from the pattern set by one of C.S. Lewis’s favorite juvenile authors, E. Nesbit, from whom he borrowed a good deal. In Nesbit’s The Five Children trilogy the heroes are four temporarily parentless siblings, two of each gender (the fifth child is a year-old baby who only complicates the action). Like Lewis’s characters, they travel in time and space and meet fabulous creatures. The book some consider Nesbit’s masterpiece, The Enchanted Castle, also has four child protagonists, and a plot in which figures from prehistory and Greek mythology appear. But where Lewis was an old-fashioned Tory, Nesbit was a Fabian socialist and a feminist. Her children have little interest in religion: the clergymen in her books are kind but clueless, and the temporal and spiritual authorities the children meet on their travels are often cruel and dishonest. Nesbit’s characters do not get much help from adults; instead they learn to rely on their own intelligence and courage, and it is often the girls rather than the boys who confront dangers and solve problems.

Some contemporary criticism of C.S. Lewis, though justified, may be partly excused on the grounds that he was subject to the beliefs and prejudices of his time and place. His dislike and suspicion of Oriental countries, and his preference for all things Northern and for heroes who are fair and fair-haired, were typical of conservative writers of his generation. As a conventionally educated man born in 1898, and living most of his life in the then almost completely masculine environment of Oxford, he might have easily assumed that girls were weaker, less interesting, and more fearful than boys. This might also explain his distaste for what at the time was seen as typically feminine—and, to judge by what happens at the end of the series, a dislike of typical adult women.

Many readers have been infuriated by Lewis’s final condemnation of Susan Pevensie, the former wise and gentle Queen Susan, as “no longer a friend of Narnia.” In The Last Battle she is cast out of Paradise forever because at twenty-one she speaks of her earlier experiences as only a childhood fantasy, and is “too keen on being grown up” and “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Apart from the fact that these seem very minor sins, it is hard to believe that Susan could have changed that much and forgotten her happiness in Narnia and her commitment to Aslan. Apologists have claimed that her banishment was necessary to demonstrate that even those who have once been saved can fall from grace. Nevertheless it has seemed deeply unfair to many readers that Edmund, Susan’s younger brother, who has betrayed the others to the White Witch, is allowed to repent and stay in Narnia, while Susan, whose faults are much less serious, is not given the opportunity.

It has been suggested that some of the problems in the Narnia books arose because Lewis himself did not take them as seriously as his works for adults like The Allegory of Love and Mere Christianity. Readers have been made uneasy by his anachronistic and indiscriminate borrowings from other sources. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for instance, there are not only giants and dwarfs and a witch from Northern European folk tales, but a whole zoo of talking animals, including two badgers who seem to have waddled straight out of Beatrix Potter. There is also a large population of fauns, dryads, nymphs, and centaurs from Greek mythology, plus a character who only appeared in the popular imagination in the nineteenth century: Father Christmas with his sleigh pulled by reindeer.

J.R.R. Tolkien, who was a close friend of Lewis’s, spent decades planning the world of The Lord of the Rings, giving it a consistent geography, an elaborate history, and several languages. He hated The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, regarding it as too rapidly and carelessly put together out of mismatched scraps. Yet Tolkien has been overruled by generations of readers who remain enthusiastic fans of Lewis even though some of his moments of imaginative triumph involve incongruous juxtapositions. The famous scene at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when Lucy goes through the wardrobe and comes out into a snowy winter landscape lit by a London street lamp, and meets a faun carrying an umbrella and several brown-paper parcels, proves that sometimes anachronism can be magical.

Tolkien’s invented world has been described as mainly pre-medieval. One perceptive critic, Mary Frances Zambreno, an American medievalist, suggests that Lewis based Narnia on the concepts of time and space and history that prevailed in the Middle Ages.4 In Narnia, she points out, just as in the Middle Ages, history was seen as finite. The world was created at a specific time and will be destroyed at another specific time. (According to the Lewis expert Walter Hooper, Narnia lasts exactly 2,555 years.) Outside of heaven, there is no idea of infinity or of progress. Like earth in medieval maps, Narnia is the center of its universe. Aslan’s homes are far to the east or west; Calormen, to the south, “corresponds to the Islamic Kingdoms of the Middle Ages, complete with deserts, Moors, and exotic walled cities” as well as pagan gods. Paradise is a walled garden with a fountain in the center. “Narnia” was also a word known to medieval scholars—it was the name given by the Romans to the ancient Umbrian city Nequinium.

Another possible interpretation of the stories occurred to me while I was watching the film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The computer-generated Aslan there is halfway between the cartoon Lion King and an animal you might see in the zoo or a circus, but what he most resembles is the traditional British Lion, that ubiquitous nineteenth-century symbol of Empire, visible in hundreds of political cartoons and frozen in stone in front of hundreds of public buildings. Possibly The Chronicles of Narnia can be seen not only as a fairy tale or a religious allegory, but also as a history of the creation, success, and eventual decline and fall of the British Empire. In its prime Narnia, like Britain, controlled the sea and set up outposts on distant islands. But by the time of The Last Battle the country has been weakened and invaded by ugly aliens and godless foreigners. Most of its territory has been lost, and the land is ecologically devastated. Antichrist has appeared in the form of an ape named Shift. In the end the country is totally destroyed. Aslan, his human allies, and the talking animals and minor gods escape into a kind of super-Narnian heaven (“higher up and further in”) only by dying as an empire—and becoming history and literature.

4.

Perhaps the most important, though least obvious, way in which the Narnia books differ from most classics of juvenile literature is that they do not free children from the authority of adults. In the classic stories heroes and heroines usually have adventures and face dangers on their own; they solve problems and defeat their adversaries with only occasional help and advice from grownups. Often the good adults turn out to be unable to help the children, as in the Harry Potter books. And even when they seem to be on your side, adults may turn out to be weak or corrupt; at times it seems best not to trust anyone over fifteen. In some recent children’s fiction, such as Lemony Snicket’s popular Series of Unfortunate Events, the grownups are usually stupid, selfish, actively evil, or all of these things at once. The implicit lesson of such tales is subversive: they suggest that though some adults may wish you well, and may give you the knowledge or skills that will help you through life, essentially you are going to be on your own.

In the Narnia books, by contrast, children merely seem to be on their own. Behind everything that happens is the power and wisdom and intention of Aslan. Usually disaster can only be avoided by Aslan’s visible or invisible intervention. With his aid battles are won, souls saved, and enemies defeated. Even when he does not seem to be there, he is: in The Horse and His Boy Shasta learns that Aslan has already preserved his life four times when he thought that chance, luck, or his own skill had done so. Without Aslan’s help, all seven books tell us, we would fail and evil would conquer. As Alan Jacobs writes, this is “a narrative world in which obedience to just Authority brings happiness and security, while neglect of that same Authority brings danger and misery.” The attitude of the good characters in the Narnia books toward Aslan is one of almost abject love and adoration mixed with literally holy terror. Or, as Russell W. Dalton puts it in Revisiting Narnia, “The ultimate virtue in Narnia, it seems, is to submit completely to the will of Aslan.”5 “That is the greatest joy in life, even if it leads to trials and…death.” Other characters in the stories “are called upon to be good and faithful, but they should not presume that they can really accomplish any good.”

It is no surprise that conservative Christians admire these books. They teach us to accept authority; to love and follow our leaders instinctively, as the children in the Narnia books love and follow Aslan. By implication, they suggest that we should and will admire and fear and obey whatever impressive-looking and powerful male authority figures we come in contact with. They also suggest that without the help of Aslan (that is, of such powerful figures, or their representatives on earth) we are bound to fail. Alone, we are weak and ignorant and helpless. Individual initiative is limited—almost everything has already been planned out for us in advance, and we cannot know anything or achieve anything without the help of God.

This is, of course, the kind of mindset that evangelical churches prefer and cultivate: the kind that makes people vote against their own economic and social interests, that makes successful, attractive, and apparently intelligent young men and women want to become the apprentices of Donald Trump, or of much worse rich and powerful figures. This mindset could even be called deluded, since in this world a giant lion does not usually appear to see that the right side wins and all the good people are happy. In Narnia faith in Aslan, who comes among his followers and speaks to them, may make sense: but here on earth, as the classic folk tales have told us for generations, it is better to depend on your own courage and wit and skill, and the good advice of less than omnipotent beings.

Letters

Christian Allegory May 25, 2006

  1. 2

    The Dark Side of Narnia” The Guardian, October 1, 1988.

  2. 3

    One probable source for the figure of Aslan is the fantasy novel The Place of the Lion (1931) by Lewis’s friend Charles Williams. In this book, the Platonic archetypes appear in three-dimensional form: a huge lion represents strength and kingship. Aslan may also be a version of the biblical Lion of Judah.

  3. 4

    Medieval Time and Space in the Chronicles of Narnia,” in Caughey, Revisiting Narnia.

  4. 5

    Aslan Is on the Move,” in Caughey, Revisiting Narnia, p. 141.

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