This weekend’s long-anticipated opening of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first film adaptation of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s fantasy novels, has brought in the past few weeks a torrent of Narnia commentary in the media–most of it intelligent and worth reading, but also, in many instances, absolutely wrong.
For those unfamiliar with the stories, (and given the power of the Hollywood publicity machine, I wonder how many remain?), Narnia is a magical country in a parallel universe created and ruled by a Christ-like lion deity named Aslan. Various English schoolchildren find themselves transported there by magical means; the wardrobe of the first book, for instance, leads to an snowy enchanted forest, which an evil White Witch has made “always winter and never Christmas.”
The series is generally called Christian allegory, but that’s simplistic as well as somewhat misleading. Lewis, whose theological writing for adults made him one the 20th-century’s great Christian apologists, coined the word “supposal” to describe Narnia–suppose the Son of God appeared as the King of Beasts in a land of talking animals? And suppose that humans, with all their sins, entered this world? What then?
To call the stories allegory also gives no hint of why readers return to them many times (as I have over the years, even past childhood), long after the page-turning adventures hold no more surprises. Lewis was a master stylist, and his children’s series are marked by the same dryly witty prose, comic characters, and shrewd insight into the human condition that distinguish The Screwtape Letters and his other books for adults. Yet Narnia has its enemies, and now they are out in force.
Chief among them is the British fantasy writer Philip Pullman, whose popular His Dark Materials trilogy was conceived as an atheistic answer to Lewis’s vision. Pullman, as the Washington Post reminded readers Thursday, sees Narnia as “a peevish blend of racist, misogynistic and reactionary prejudice.” In the British Guardian last week, Polly Toynbee wrote that “Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America–that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right.”
Even critics generally appreciative of Lewis have come up with some strange notions. Last month, in The New York Times Magazine, Charles McGrath wrote that the Narnia stories “are not nearly as well written” as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And writing in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik declared that a lion isn’t a very Christ-like animal–Aslan really should have been a humble donkey instead.
So let’s consider these complaints:
Narnia is sexist. “Girls always come second to boys,” Alison Lurie wrote last week in the Guardian. “They have fewer adventures.” Actually, Lewis typically makes his main protagonists in each story one boy and one girl, and the girl is usually more sympathetic. The English child who discovers Narnia in the first book is a girl, the brave and virtuous Lucy, who also has the closest relationship to Aslan.
Lewis clearly favors independent, free-thinking girls over those stuck in traditionally frivolous female roles. In The Horse and His Boy, Aravis, a girl escaping a forced marriage in an autocratic land south of Narnia called Calormen, runs into an old acquaintance who seems to be something of a Maureen Dowd in miniature: “The fuss she made over choosing the dresses nearly drove Aravis mad,” Lewis writes. “She remembered now that Lasaraleen had always been like that, interested in clothes and parties and gossip. Aravis had always been more interested in bows and arrows and horses and dogs and swimming. You will guess that each thought the other silly.”
Narnia is racist. Speaking of those Calormenes, McGrath’s complaint in the New York Times that they “are oily cartoon Muslims” is typical, if not quite correct; actually, they are pre-Islamic Islamofascists who keep slaves, oppress women, and worship a Baal-like god named Tash. That they have dark complexions, which Lewis’s critics harp on more than Lewis did, really isn’t the problem. As it happens, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’s evil White Witch, interpreted by Tilda Swinton as an Aryan goddess in the movie, is “not merely pale,” as the book describes her, “but white like snow or paper or icing-sugar…proud and cold and stern.”
The Calormenes speak in a flowery, Arabian Nights-style manner worthy of Osama bin Laden, but Lewis gives them their due for that. In Calormen, he explains in The Horse and His Boy, story-telling “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.”
Lewis is religiously intolerant. Critics are horrified that a bland, minor character named Susan doesn’t make it to heaven in The Last Battle, which depicts Narnia’s Armageddon. Susan had convinced herself that Narnia wasn’t real, and was “interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Philip Pullman accuses Lewis of condemning Susan for reaching puberty, although since she was supposed to be about 21 during her nylons-and-lipstick phase, puberty would seem to be long past. The passage appears to be more about the danger of focusing only on material things–and denying the truth–than sexuality.
In any case, those upset by Susan’s exclusion from heaven in The Last Battle never mention that in its final chapter, an honorable (but Tash-worshipping) Calormene is surprised to find himself face to face with a welcoming Aslan. As Gregg Easterbrook noted in The Atlantic a few years ago, the message here is that “paradise awaits anyone of good will.” So it hardly seems fair to lump Lewis with Left Behind fans.
Aslan should have been a donkey. Adam Gopnik’s complaint in The New Yorker is interesting, but he forgets that Aslan exists in a post-Christian universe: Jesus has come and gone from earth centuries before two Victorian children travel from London to witness Aslan’s creation of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew. So, since he’s already risen as the King of Kings, there seems no reason that his new incarnation shouldn’t be the King of Beasts.
J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman are better writers than C. S. Lewis. This is just jaw-droppingly wrong. Rowling and Pullman are writers of great accomplishment, and both the Harry Potter and His Dark Materials books are absorbing page-turners. But leaving religion entirely out of it, I can’t imagine reading anything in either series more than once. Pullman’s imagined worlds are fascinating and powerfully eerie, but his characters are flat, humorless, and generally annoying. Rowling, unlike Pullman, writes with sympathy and charm, but the Potter stories often descend into potboiler mode. Maybe in a generation or two Rowling and Pullman will prove to be as enduring as Lewis, but I doubt it. And until then, he stands head and shoulders above them.
– Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.