Monday, January 16, 2006

Some Notes on Narnia

This month my book group is reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and, on Thursday, going to see the movie. I just finished the book, and it's left me thinking about children's literature, religion, sexism, and Philip Pullman. . . . I've read it twice before, once when I was in elementary school and enjoyed the story, but not enough to go on to the rest of the series; and once in college, when the allegory hit me like a swipe of Aslan's paw. This time I was reading it neither for story nor for meaning but for style, I suppose; I was thinking about the tone in which Lewis was writing, and the themes that kept emerging from his work, and particularly whether I felt the charges Pullman lays at his (wardrobe) door were justified. (For the record, I tend to say I'm a Christian agnostic -- I practice the Christian faith, but God is an ongoing conversation in my life -- so I arrive at the debate with sympathies on both sides.)

So, some observations:

  • I love, love, love Lewis's understanding of the things that are necessary to children's comfort, like food and warmth, and how he takes care to describe in full everywhere the Pevensies go, the people they meet and the experiences they have. . . . Part of what I love is child-psychological and part of it is stylistic. Child-psychological: the Pevensies keep wondering when it will be dinner, or breakfast, or thinking about how it's very cold or what Aslan's fur feels like, and that emphasis on immediate sensual experience is wonderfully childlike -- Lewis knew his audience. And stylistically, Lewis satisfies his readers' desire to experience these things by describing everything in relevant, child-friendly, never-boring detail: what they eat, and what it's like to sleep in a beavers' den, and even their emotion -- which I usually frown on, but which works here because the comparisons are so right: "Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realize that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer." Lovely.
  • And "always winter and never Christmas" -- goodness, what a perfect phrase, and a perfectly awful thought! Enough to strike cold in the heart of any child.
  • At the same time I'm amused by the hints of the Oxford don that keep poking through: "'Come out, Mrs. Beaver. Come out, Sons and Daughters of Adam. It's all right! It isn't Her!' This was bad grammar of course, but that is how beavers talk when they are excited . . ." God forbid there be an unacknowledged line of bad grammar in the book!
  • Coming back to the descriptions, compare these two passages:

He was only a little taller than Lucy herself and he carried over his head an umbrella, white with snow. From the waist upward he was like a man, but his legs were shaped like a goat's (the hair on them was glossy black) and instead of feet he had goat's hoofs. He also had a tail, but Lucy did not notice this at first because it was neatly caught up over the arm that held the umbrella to keep it from trailing in the snow. He had a red woollen muffler round his neck and his skin was rather reddish too. He had a strange, but pleasant little face, with a short pointed beard and curly hair, and out of the hair there stuck two horns, one on each side of his forehead . . .

Nothing like this man had ever been seen on Privet Drive. He was tall, thin, and very old, judging by the silver of his hair and beard, which were both long enough to tuck into his belt. He was wearing long robes, a purple cloak that swept the ground, and high-heeled, buckled boots. His blue eyes were light, bright, and sparkling behind half-moon spectacles, and his nose was very long and crooked, as though it had been broken at least twice. This man’s name was Albus Dumbledore.

I kept hearing echoes of Sorcerer's Stone in reading Lion, Witch, though of course the influence goes the other way. . . . J. K. Rowling has gone back and forth on what she thinks of Narnia, but I'm certain that she must have read Lewis quite a lot at some point, enough that his stylistic rhythms got in her brain and came out her fingers. It's also simply good writing for children.

  • J. K. Rowling and Lewis are also alike in the kitchen-sinkness of their fantasy worlds, that they've taken anything they liked from any mythology at all and thrown it in for the fun and the wonder of it. Tolkien scorned this, of course, and now that I'm thinking about it, JKR seems to have found a middle way between the two Oxfordians: She's taken everyone else's fantastical elements, made them coherent in the mythology of her wizarding world, and left out what doesn't fit (no Father Christmas, for example), while Lewis just doesn't seem to care. But this kitchen-sinkness does contribute to the delight of each world, that you turn a corner and discover "Oh! giants!" or "Oh! dragons!" -- the wonder and pleasure that they too are at Hogwarts or in Narnia.
  • I am not at all impressed with Lewis's characterizations, at least of the children. Peter and Susan have about as much personality as the Witch's statues, all "I say!" and "old chap"; Edmund exists to be reformed, and Lucy to be wide-eyed and innocent. They're fine as entry-points to the world of Narnia, but otherwise terribly wooden.
  • Edmund is an interesting case, though, because while he obviously is there to be Judas and repent, his emotions early on in the book give children a less-than-perfect character to identify with -- not only in his greed for Turkish Delight, but the way he resents Peter and lets down Lucy and is sulky and dumb (closing the wardrobe door). There's a comfort in that too for children, I think, that fictional characters can have the same failings they do in real life, and it works for Lewis plotwise because Aslan gets to forgive him.
  • Lewis is sexist, but at least at this point in the series, it's no more than what one would expect from any conservative gentleman of the 1940s: the girls do the cooking and cleaning and washing-up; Peter is automatically made High King; the descriptions of Queen Susan the Gentle and Queen Lucy the Valiant emphasize all the men who want to marry them, while Peter and Edmund get to exist on their own, etc.
  • I wonder what Christian schools who read the book in class do with the fact that Mr. Beaver drinks beer.

To conclude: In an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Mark Morford describes his disappointment at revisiting Narnia as an adult and finding it flat, episodic, lacking character, devoid of meaning beyond the "annoying Christian allegory," and his utter bewilderment at what children find so magical in it (what he once found so magical in it). I see his criticisms, but I think Lewis somehow tapped into that great well of childhood emotion, need, wonder, and delight, setting his readers right there; cutting his unfamiliar fantasy world with enough touches of home (toast and tea) to be safe and reassuring, yet still magical and wondrous; getting to identify with little Lucy or slightly evil Edmund and come out the other side a King or Queen. I acquired a boxed set of the Chronicles in our office move, and I think I might read the rest of the books -- partly to keep seeing what the fuss is about, and partly because I too long for the reassuring and magical and wondrous. Fascinating stuff.


  1. I love reading your thoughts on things. The are well-formed and take multiple sides into account.

    Do read the rest of the Narnia books. I've always hated the MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW, but others like it. My favorites are THE HORSE AND HIS BOY and THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER. Since i am, as you are, something of an agnostic Christian, i love the way he presents a more inclusive Christianity in his worlds (on top of having good stories).

  2. I cried for days at eleven after reading THE LAST BATTLE when I realised there was no more Narnia, and tried to pretend that I'd never read it, because then Narnia would still exist. VOTDT was also my favourite. The beautiful imagery of the world's edge, so sparely and so powerfully described, is still with me.

    By the way I loved the film! It was utterly delicious, hardly a single wrong note. My only quibble was that when all four children go into Narnia, they're hiding after accidentally breaking a window -- when in Lewis's world, they definitely would have hung around to "own up" (with the possible exception of Edmund!)

  3. Jeeze, Pullman really hates Narnia. I think Lewis' treatment of his female characters are a bit dated, but I hardly think they can be considered misogynistic (sp?). It seemed to me as a child, and seems to me as an adult, that Lucy is the main character, and a very brave one at that.

    I was dismayed at the description of the bad guys in the Last Battle, however, because Lewis made them have dark skin. He probably did not mean this to be intentionally racist (after all, the most evil of his characters was the White Witch and so very, very Caucasian), but it is a blight on the books and would need to be changed in any movie.


  4. The Narnian Chronicles are my son's bedtime story right now. I tried starting "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" a couple of years ago but he would have none of it. (We were knee deep in Potter at the time.) But after seeing the commercials he renewed interest and we read it over the holidays then saw the movie.

    Cheryl, I think that you are right on about the things that appeal to a child... food, how things feel and smell. It's also interesting that Rowling and Pullman have mastered that too, like Honeydukes or the continued quest for food in "The Scarecrow and his Servant" Kids relate to that. It grounds the story and makes it real.

    My judge of a successful story is if I get a "Read more, Mom! Puuuhhleeeease! You HAVE to read more." I know it’s an excellent story if the boy talks about it later, like when he wanted Harry to come live with us (we could get bunk beds) or after reading “Millions” we had a very tearful conversation about what would happen to his stuffed animals when he dies. “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” brought on an intense discussion about how old Santa Claus is, does Santa have any kids or grandkids of his own and where exactly is the North Pole?

    We are on to “Magician’s Nephew” and while I’m bowdlerizing a bit by skimming over the tiresome “You’re just a stupid girl.” parts, it’s still a turning out to be a good read.


    "Books invite all, constrain none."

  5. Hi! I'm not a native speaker and I don't seem to understand the part about "bad grammar". What exactly is wrong in Mr. Beaver's speech?

  6. Alexandra Victoria: In formal English grammar, the beaver should say, "It isn't She!" for reasons that I don't know how to explain. This is SUPER formal, though, and not something most everyday English speakers worry about.