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Easterbrook piece from October ATLANTIC

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  • Stolzi@aol.com
    [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
    Message 1 of 1 , May 26, 2002
      [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.
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