Easterbrook piece from October ATLANTIC
- [Unable to display image]he glistening citadel of this dateline does not in
fact exist, but to children it can be more real than many an actual place:
Cair Paravel is the capital of Narnia, the setting of what was, until Harry
Potter, the world's best-selling fantasy series. The seven-volume <A
Chronicles of Narnia</A>, by the mid-century Irish writer C. S. Lewis, has
some 65 million copies in print in thirty languages. In the books several
English schoolchildren are transported to a realm where a human society
modeled on the Arthurian court coexists with strange creatures, intelligent
animals, and magic. Always the young visitors perform some improbable feat
to rescue the kingdom from sinister forces. Presiding over events is Aslan,
an enormous supernatural lion who called forth Narnia, loves English
schoolchildren, and appears whenever hope seems lost.
Although Narnia has survived countless perils, the Chronicles themselves are
now endangered. On one front they face the dubious honor of corporate
marketing. On another literary voices have begun to denounce them as racist
and sexist works. What's in progress is a struggle of sorts for the soul of
children's fantasy literature.
American readers may already know of the corporate designs on Narnia. The New
York Times reported in the spring that the publishing conglomerate
HarperCollins, which recently acquired the rights to Lewis's work, plans a
major marketing push for the Chronicles. Toy stores will be inundated with
Narnia plush, and HarperCollins will commission new volumes for the series.
Any parent who has encountered one of the odious Winnie-the-Pooh movies
produced by Disney—sitcom and psychobabble invade the Hundred Acre
Wood—will gasp at the thought of the HarperCollins marketing
department's deciding it knows better than C. S. Lewis did what constitutes
The Chronicles of Narnia. Besides, Narnia's world was destroyed when its
dying sun exploded, in the final volume of the Chronicles. This would seem to
preclude sequels—but hey, who wants to be a stickler?
Furthermore, HarperCollins intends to soft-pedal the spiritual subtext of the
Chronicles. Lewis, a prolific writer of Christian commentary, enfolded
religious themes into the stories, allowing children to read them as
adventure yarns and adults to appreciate the symbolism. In one book Aslan
dies and is resurrected; in another he appears as a lamb and serves the
children roast fish, the meal Jesus requested after the Resurrection.
According to a HarperCollins memo quoted in the Times, concerning a proposed
documentary, the publisher deems it essential that "no attempt will be made
to correlate the stories to Christian imagery/theology."
Only British readers are likely to be familiar with the Chronicles' second
tribulation: critics attacking the books' reputation. The centenary of
Lewis's birth was widely celebrated in England in 1998, but amid the general
affection was prominent dissent. The novelist and critic Philip Hensher, a
rising figure in the London literary establishment (he's a Booker Prize
judge), censured the Chronicles as "poisonous" and "ghastly, priggish,
half-witted" books intended to "corrupt the minds of the young with
allegory." Corruption by allegory? Bailiff, take him away! Never mind that
one of Hensher's own books, <A
Kitchen Venom</A> (1996), all but glorifies pederasty. What Hensher meant by
corrupting the young was exposing them to what he derided as "Lewis's creed
of clean-living, muscular Christianity."
Hensher's broadside is part of a fad of anti-Narnia writing in Britain. The
offensive has been led by Philip Pullman, whose The Golden Compass (1996),
The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000)—the <A
His Dark Materials</A> trilogy—are the most important recent works in
the English fantasy tradition (The Golden Compass won the Carnegie Medal,
Britain's top award for children's literature). Pullman has deplored the
"misogyny" and the "racism" of the Chronicles, which, he claims, reek of a
"sneering attitude to anything remotely progressive in social terms or to
people with brown faces." He has called Lewis a bigot, his devotees
"unhinged," the Chronicles "appalling" and "nauseating drivel"; and he went
so far as to complain that Lewis made a technical error in a joke about how
centaurs eat breakfast. A technical error about an imaginary creature?
Both Lewis's and Pullman's series take place on earth and in a parallel
world; both have as protagonists astonishingly capable children; and the
subtext of both is the search for the divine. But in Lewis's books children
seek the divine in order to experience happiness and perfect love, whereas
in Pullman's trilogy they seek it in order to destroy it. The plots of His
Dark Materials are driven by the premise that God is evil—a celestial
impostor who pretends to have created the universe and who so intensely
hates flesh and blood that he wants people to live a repressed, joyless
existence followed by hell, even for the righteous. Christian illusions
about God are to blame for all the world's miseries; Christianity is "a very
powerful and convincing mistake, that's all," one character declares. The
protagonists in the books strive to acquire ancient, mysterious objects they
can use to bring about God's death. Along the way children are tortured and
murdered, often with Church approval.
Perhaps we'd rather not know what it says about the postwar literary drift
that 1950s fantasy concerned children who make common cause with a loving
divine, and today's presents children who engage in grim battle against an
immoral God bent on oppression. Moreover, this change occurred over a period
in which Western children's living standards, education, health, and freedom
improved dramatically. Still, good questions remain about whether the
Chronicles really are racist, sexist, and overbearing about religion.
[Unable to display image]here's no denying that Narnia is an Anglo Anglican's
fantasy. The realm is forested and cool;"Narnia and the North!" is a
rallying cry;and threatened by encroaching southern cul-tures. The principal
bad guys, the Calormenes, are unmistakable Muslim stand-ins: bearded desert
dwellers who spread oil rather than butter on their bread. The sociological
structure of Narnia is aristocratic and favors British imperialism. Aslan
decrees that the Golden Age of Narnia will begin when "Sons of Adam and
Daughters of Eve" sit on the thrones at Cair Paravel; because the portals to
Narnia are in England, this means, in effect, that Brits must rule. The
Chronicles record the deeds of two fearless heroines, Lucy and Jill, but
they also contain numerous digs at feminism. When Lewis spoofs the postwar
anti-traditionalist movement by having Jill attend a school called
Experiment House, he gives the school a headmistress, which is supposed to
signal its absurdity.
I have three children, aged six to twelve, and a few months ago I finished
reading the Chronicles to them. Even as a fan I must admit that certain
passages made me wince. For example, the wicked dwarfs ridicule the
Calormenes as "darkies"; I skirted the word, because I don't want it in my
kids' heads. But does having characters say "darkies" make Lewis racist? He
was, after all, employing language then in common parlance—and placing
it in the mouths of the wicked. "Many older books contain race or gender
references discordant to modern ears," John G. West Jr., a co-editor of <A
The C. S. Lewis Reader's Encyclopedia</A>, told me recently. "We don't stop
reading Twain or Darwin because they used racial terms no author uses today."
While reading aloud I also reworded what is to Narnia's detractors the most
objectionable passage, which occurs near the end of the series. In it Susan,
a heroine in early books, does not ascend directly to heaven with the other
children, because she is "no longer a friend of Narnia ... she's interested
in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations." Lewis, a
bachelor until late in life, when he married a Jewish-born divorcee (hardly
the choice of a Christian bigot), had conflicted views about women and seems
to have held his character's sexual independence against her. But does
leaving Susan back in London attending dull parties make him sexist? It's
hardly unrealistic to craft a character whose priority is socializing.
Recently Pullman cited the Susan passage in denouncing the Narnia books to a
reporter for The Washington Post, saying that for Lewis, a girl's achieving
sexual maturity was "so dreadful and so redolent of sin that he had to send
her to Hell." But the Chronicles don't send Susan to hell. She just doesn't
participate in the special ascension that other characters experience.
Instead she continues with normal life and, presumably, joins her companions
in paradise later.
In Narnia, after all, heaven has an open-door policy. In the final book of
the Chronicles, Emeth, a noble Calormene, dies trying to save others. Emeth
("Truth" in Hebrew) then finds himself in heaven, being praised by Aslan,
and asks why he has been permitted to enter when in life he worshipped in a
rival faith. Aslan tells Emeth that the specifics of religion do not matter:
virtue is what's important, and paradise awaits anyone of good will. This
seems an up-to-date message;and a reason the Narnia books should stand
exactly as they are.