Lately there has been much discussion in the press and online about the Narnia books and their creator, C. S. Lewis. With the recent release of the movie “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” there has been a resurgence of interest in all things Narnia. I have been getting frustrated with some of the prevalent things being said and thought that I should discuss them here. I apologize that this post is so late coming (life has been conspiring to delay it).
The first issue I would like to discuss is the issue of gender issues within Lewis’s Narnia books. I have read quite a few articles lately that claimed that the books were sexist towards women. I beg to disagree (and I did write a senior honours thesis on the topic, so I have done a great deal of research on the gender issues and portrayals in the Narnia books as well as several other children’s books). The two biggest examples given to support the idea of sexism in Narnia are Susan being “kicked out” and the White Witch being both female and the primary symbol of evil.
First let’s deal with the issue of Susan. She was never kicked out of Narnia. She leaves Narnia when the other children do in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. After that, only the two younger children return to Narnia again until the final book, The Last Battle. Susan isn’t kicked out, she chooses not to return when the others do. The books tell us that Susan stopped believing in Narnia as she grew older and her focus shifted from childhood beliefs to the concerns of a teenager (namely, boys and makeup). This is normal, which is why it is included in the books. The vast majority of people go through a period of questioning their faith (and often abandoning it, at least temporarily) when they are adolescents. This is when people are working through the difficulties of transitioning from Mythic-Literal Faith (Fowler’s Stage Two) to Synthetic-Conventional Faith (Fowler’s Stage Three)*. That is a difficult transition for many people. Just because Susan stops believing in Narnia doesn’t mean she never will again. She does remember it, but she thinks they are like many childhood memories – embellished by imagination. It is likely that Lewis included this because it is common and an important part of faith (a big issue in the Narnia books) to touch on. Susan isn’t kicked out, Aslan specifically says that she will return to Narnia someday. In The Last Battle, she is the only one of the children who doesn’t die. They die in a train crash and go to the perfected Narnia for their afterlives. Aslan tells them, when questioned, that Susan will join them one day when she too dies. Thus, her faith has not been that lost (or Aslan wouldn’t know she would be back). This could have easily have been one of the boys, but Peter was the ring-leader and needed to remain so for the books to really work and Edmund was not only much younger and thus able to make multiple visits, but also the child most affected personally by their first visit. Edmund saw more facets of Narnia than anyone else and thus had the opportunity to cement his faith more than the others.
The second “sexist” issue is the White Witch. Generally in children’s books (as well as in many adult books) the biggest sexism issue is that the women are passive and possess little real power. This is clearly not true in Narnia and we first see that through the White Witch. She is a real source of power and certainly a very dangerous adversary. She isn’t particularly feminine, nor is she passive. She goes and gets what she wants, often with her own two hands (although she does have many subordinates working for her). It’s hard to say that a character as formidable as the White Witch is a symbol of sexism. Yes, she is evil, but the books clearly don’t think that women are evil or Lucy wouldn’t have been the Daughter of Eve with the power to find Narnia in the first place.
This brings up the other gender issues that I think people have missed when they read these books. Lucy is truly the least stereotyped little girl I have encountered in children’s classics. She breaks all the rules. Not only is she not passive, she fights back when she is told to be so. Santa Claus gives her a tiny dagger and a vial of healing potion as her gift. She is annoyed because he tells her to stay away from the battle. She says she is brave enough and wants to participate. And the thing is, she does. She doesn’t play a big offensive role in the battle in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because she has to heal everyone else with her vial, but in The Horse and His Boy we see her as Queen Lucy the Valiant (not a typical feminine title, I would point out) going to war. She is armed and armoured and leads her own troops into war beside her brother. That is hardly something that would happen in a sexist book. Yes, Eowyn goes to war in The Return of the King, but she has to use deception to get there because no one will let a woman into battle. Lucy marches right in, long braids and all, and when the protagonist in The Horse and His Boy questions it, he is told that she does as she pleases regardless of what anyone else thinks. That’s a pretty strong woman. I’m not going to go heavily into her (because this is already incredibly long), but Aravis in The Horse and His Boy is pretty strong and self-reliant too. Not to mention that the Queens in Narnia are equal to the Kings.
I guess my point is, this series is incredibly complementary to women (they are powerful and determined and self-reliant) so I have trouble seeing the sexism argument. In my mind, feminists should embrace Lucy as what every little girl should be allowed to be!
The issue of racism also comes up a lot concerning the Narnia books. The biggest argument is that Lewis portrayed the Calormenes (a group clearly based on images of middle-eastern cultures) as being cruel. I admit, there is that feel to them. But that isn’t the whole story. Aravis is a Calormen, and she is far from the stereotype. So Lewis didn’t see the culture as all bad, or it couldn’t have produced Aravis. He does clearly have some odd ideas about middle-eastern cultures, but given that he was a relatively sheltered academic in the middle of the twentieth century in England, his ideas are not surprising. Tolkien, Lewis’s contemporary and peer, also had odd and not terribly complementary ideas of other cultures. His Asian/middle-eastern based peoples in The Lord of the Rings are pretty squarely on the evil side too. The fact is, in the wake of World War II Lewis wouldn’t have had a lot of unbiased information about the people of the middle east. Considering what he probably thought about the people in the region, I’m pleased that he created a culture that does have a very human side. And not all cultures are portrayed in complementary ways in books, but without the tension the books wouldn’t be as gripping to read. I guess I just feel like, in context, it’s not that big a deal. It’s not like “What Makes the Red Man Red?” from Disney’s "Peter Pan"!
The other big criticism I read about Narnia lately is that the books are “just kids’ books, so they couldn’t be very good”. This is not only naive, but it’s insulting to everyone under the age of 18. There are a huge number of children’s books that are fantastic stories, well written and wonderfully put together. Narnia has some inconsistencies, but nearly every book does somewhere. Yes, Tolkien spent years developing nearly every aspect of Middle Earth, but that doesn’t mean he was free from flaws. Narnia has some of those little things that don’t quite match too, but given that Narnia as a place is developing thorough the series, that isn’t surprising. Nor does it lower the quality of the books. Lewis managed to create a feeling and momentum throughout that few writers surpass, although many great writers match it. This alone is impressive. These books have been read and loved for over fifty years. You can’t have that kind of lasting power without quality. Why bother looking for little things to nitpick? You could be enjoying the books!
This is awfully long now, so I’m going to try and wrap it up.
Yes, there is Christian symbolism in the Narnia books. Lewis said so, it’s there, if you go looking you will find it. So what? Without it being pointed out, few people realize that! Most kids have no idea that it’s there, they just enjoy that fantasy story. So stop harping on it! It’s not brainwashing any more than anything else. Every story has an agenda (most have several). That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell them. Enjoy that fantasy and wonderful story if you don’t like the religion (enjoy it if you do too). There’s bigger things to worry about (just pick up a newspaper, it’s full of them).
So my point here, is look hard before you start griping. These are amazingly good books. I am not Christian, so I’m not pushing them for that reason. I really don’t care about the religious images in the books. They are amazing books and should be read! I haven’t seen the movie yet (tomorrow night, hopefully), but it looks like a good telling. From what I’ve read, it’s extremely well done. I’ll post movie-specific thoughts after I see it.
I know this was long, and I’m sorry. I just had a lot to say on the issue. Feel sorry for Michael since he has been hearing all of this extensively for weeks. Maybe I’ll sit down and write a proper paper about it. I’m thinking about it anyway.
*James Fowler. Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development. Several Printings.Posted by Katie at December 17, 2005 04:52 AM | TrackBack