Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Lipstick on My Scholar

1: In the beginning....

The Devil I will leave strictly alone. The association between him and me in the public mind has already gone quite as deep as I would wish: in some quarters it has already reached the level of confusion, if not of identification. -- C.S Lewis "The Inner Ring"


According to the Bible, the first man and the first woman lived in a garden. God gave them only one rule:

"You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it, you will surely die."

But there's also a Talking Beast in the garden(1). The Beast misquotes the rule, and thereby hugely extends YHWH's list of prohibited substances:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God really say 'You must not eat from any tree in the Garden?' "

You may eat of any tree except... You may not eat of any tree. The serpent knew that you only need to change a couple of words to turn a text on its head. He knew that in the presence of a misquotation, people very rarely go back and check the original. And he knew that if you repeat them often enough and confidently enough, the misquoted words will eventually become better known than the real ones.

2: Being for The Benefit of Mr Pullman.

Phillip Pullman writes books. Some children seem to like them, which is nice; and so do some adults, which is okay. His books are better written than J.K Rowling's, although they don't sell nearly so many copies.

J.K Rowling's books have been turned into hugely successful movies, with the result that she is richer than the Queen. Phillip Pullman's books have been turned into very serious plays by the English National Theater, with the result that he is admired by the Times Literary Supplement and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

"His Dark Materials" has been compared with C.S Lewis's "Chronicles of Narnia" because it is a serious tale with literary and mythological allusions which uses symbolism to deal with profound religious questions. "Harry Potter" has been compared with the "Chronicles of Narnia" because there are seven books in the series.

When people ask Phillip Pullman what he thinks of C.S Lewis he always gives the same answer:

"Susan isn't allowed into the stable and the reason given is that she's growing up. She's become far too interested in lipstick, nylons and invitations. One character says rather primly: 'She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up.' This seems to me on the part of Lewis to reveal very weird unconscious feelings about sexuality. Here's a child whose body is changing and who's naturally responding as everyone has ever done since the history of the world to the changes that are taking place in one's body and one's feelings. She's doing what everyone has to do in order to grow up".

"And it is a god who hates life because he denies children life. In the final Narnia book he gives the children the end-of-term treat of being killed in a railway accident so they can go to heaven. It's a filthy thing to do. Susan is shut out from salvation because she is doing what every other child who has ever been born has done - she is beginning to sense the developing changes in her body and its effect on the opposite sex."


J.K Rowling doesn't dislike C.S Lewis and God nearly as much Phillip Pullman does. After all, her books outsell Lewis's and she's richer than God. But her comments about Narnia have an oddly familiar ring:

"There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She's become irreligious basically because she found sex...I have a big problem with that."

Recently, the newspapers have been talking about C.S Lewis, because there is a new movie coming out, starring New Zealand and a computer. These articles become rather repetitive after a while.

"The reason Lewis gives for (Susan's) exclusion from paradise is that "she likes lipstick and nlyons and invitations". To Pullman this has suggested that Lewis considered a girl reaching sexual maturity to be such a terrible thing she should be banished to hell." (Times)

"Pullman has often spoken of his disgust at the exclusion of Susan from paradise at the end of the stories. She has started to become, not a sexless angel, but a young woman interested in evil snares such as "nylons and lipsticks and invitations." (Independent)


It's clear that nylons and lipstick are the most important things about which C.S Lewis ever wrote, and the offending passage deserves the closest possible analysis. It occurs at the end of chapter 12 of "The Last Battle", which is the final book in the Narnia series regardless of what order you read them in. Seven of the protagonists from the previous books have been re-united in Aslan's country, which they have entered through a magical doorway in Narnia.

"Sir," said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. "If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?"

"My sister Susan," answered Peter shortly and gravely, "Is no longer a friend of Narnia."

"Yes," said Eustace, "and whenever you've tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says 'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.' "

"Oh Susan!" said Jill "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grow-up."

"Grown-up, indeed," said the Lady Polly. "I wish she
would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she'll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."

"Well, don't let's talk about that now," said Peter.


Can you see what has happened?

Lewis: "She's interested in nothing except nylons and lipstick and invitation."
Pullman: She's become far too interested in nylons and lipstick and invitations.
Rowling: She's lost to Narnia because she likes lipstick
Times: She's excluded from paradise because she likes nylons and lipsticks and invitations.
Independent: She's interested in evil snares such as nylons and lipsticks and invitations.

The sin of "liking nothing except lipstick..." has become the sin of liking it too much, which has become the sin of liking it at all. Finally, lipstick has become an intrinsic evil. It's rather as if you had read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and concluded that, since the White Witch uses Turkish Delight to bribe Edmund to betray his siblings, Lewis thinks that confectionery is a great evil.

Pullman, to be fair, is trying to make a sophisticated point. He doesn't say that, in the story itself, Susan's sexual maturity causes her to stop being a friend of Narnia. Rather, he thinks that the story allows us to to infer things about C.S Lewis's unconscious attitude to sex. This game - discovering feelings that writers didn't know they had on the basis of things they didn't say - is great fun, and anyone can play it. (There's is a bit-part player in "Prince Caspian" called Mrs Prizzle. Well then, the fact that Lewis chose this name proves that he had an unconscious desire to spank women using the penis of a bull (2). See how easy it is?)

But Rowling and the two journalists have not understood Pullman's subtle point about Lewis's unconscious motivations. They've reproduced his comments without going back and checking the book. As a result "Susan is sent to hell as a punishment for her sexuality" has become one of those things which "everybody knows".

Did God really say...? Did God really say....?

3: What did C.S Lewis say about lipstick?


Lady, a better sculptor far
Chiseled those curves your smudge and mar,
And God did more than lipstick can
To justify your mouth to man
-- 'Epigrams and Epitaphs'



It is probably fair to say that Lewis did not spend much of his career thinking about lipstick. Women have been painting their mouths since ancient times; Desmond Morris helpfully points out that artificially reddened lips resemble a vagina and are therefore very sexually arousing to men. But modern "lipstick" was first sold in 1915, when Lewis was 17. Obviously, women's tights couldn't have been made from nylon until the 1930s; but once they became available, they were greatly preferred to the unattractive and inconvenient cotton variety. "Nylons" were hard to come by and therefore greatly sought after during the war and into the 1950s. (In the film "Vera Drake" one pair of nylons is swapped for eight packets of cigarettes.) Lewis must have regarded both of them as relatively new-fangled items.

Lewis may not have quite approved of women's make up in general. Arguing that something is not necessarily important because it is in a newspaper, he remarks in passing that "a very commonplace protest against make-up would be News if it came from a film star."("Letters to Malcolm" XXII) So he evidentially thought that disapproving of cosmetic products was a unremarkable thing to do.

Perhaps this simply shows that Lewis was a little old fashioned, and still believed, like his Victorian parents tthat make-up was appropriate for prostitutes and actresses, but not respectable women. But he also felt that the cosmetics and fashion industries "manipulated" men's sexual tastes and encouraged women to aspire to an imaginary idea of "beauty" that it's impossible to live up to.

It's all a fake, of course, the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full grown woman to be. ("Screwtape Letters" XX)

Feminists would probably agree with him about the falsification of women's bodies for commercial ends; although they might doubt whether the Devil is creating "the beauty myth" in order to stop people from marrying the partners with whom "spiritually helpful, happy and fertile marriages are most likely." (Screwtape is, incidentally, very proud of the fact that most women now dislike men with beards. "There is more in this than you might think." Occasionally, Lewis says something so off-the-wall that I actually can't imagine what he means.)

So, 'she likes lipstick and tights' doesn't mean 'she wants to look nice and attract men'. It means 'she wants silly, expensive, new-fangled consumer goods in order to conform with what the fashion industry says is pretty this season.' Do Pullman and Rowling have an – er – unconscious belief that the only way a person can make themselves look nice is by buying stuff? That would amuse Screwtape no end.

4: What did C.S Lewis say about heaven and hell?

"It's all in Plato; all in Plato, bless me what do they teach them in these schools." -- "The Last Battle".


Lewis believed in a literal heaven and (up to a point) a literal hell. He also believed in purgatory, but let's not worry about that for the time being. He thought that whenever you desire something on earth, you are really desiring heaven; but that nothing on earth can ever really satisfy that desire. He believed that if you love heaven more than anything else, you will in fact, go to heaven; but if you love anything more than heaven, then you won't.

The idea that we should desire heaven and nothing else could be very austere and puritanical. Pullman, typically, says that it is a life-hating creed. In fact, the opposite is true. Lewis can come across as almost cloyingly romantic. He rejects asceticism, the idea that they material world is evil and we should turn away from it and seek heaven. The material world is good, because it is heaven's reflection. His image of "visionary gleams" shining on us from another world is pure Wordsworth:

"There have been times when I think that we do not desire heaven; but more often I have found myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desire anything else?....All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it -- tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear.("The Problem of Pain" )


For Lewis, of course, these glimpses and promises came through Wagner, William Morris and the landscape of Southern Ireland; but he quite acknowledges that other people experience "joy" through different things -- through sport, or gardening, or hobbies such as woodworking or sailing. These are all Good Things. In "The Last Battle" it is strongly implied that Edmund is a railway enthusiast, and it isn't remotely suggested that this innocent pleasure is a barrier to him coming back to Narnia. They only become Bad Things when you start to love them instead of heaven. For Lewis, literally anything apart from heaven is an evil if it is allowed to become an end in itself, rather than the means to an end. The devil in Screwtape doesn't remotely care whether human beings are soldiers or pacifists, provided soldiering or pacifism become more important to them than heaven. Even love, according to Lewis, "ceases to a be a demon only when it ceases to be a God."

This idea is absolutely central to Lewis's thinking. You mustn't confuse means with ends; you mustn't confuse copies with realities; you mustn't confuse reflections for the original; you mustn't confuse a secondary, partial good with a primary or total good. "You can't get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first." The idea pops up over and over again in different forms. He says that classical Paganism was a Good Thing in so far as it was a reflection or shadow of Christianity; but a bad thing otherwise. He say that, as a little boy he used to snaffle his father's tobacco, and because he wasn't an experienced smoker, came away with the idea that cigars are a second rate substitute for cigarettes. He says that the human race is like an ignorant child preferring to carry on making mud-pies in a slum because he has no conception of what is meant by a holiday at the seaside.

"The woman who makes the dog the center of he life loses, in the end, not only her human useful and dignity but even the proper pleasures of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication ....If Esau really got the pottage in return for his birthright, then Esau was a lucky exception."


To be damned, then, means to turn away from heaven and instead pursue some little earthly substitute -- which can't, by definition, have satisfy you. Hell is populated by little people who have become so atrophied as human beings that they have become incapable of wanting any kind of happiness. On no possible view does Lewis send Susan to hell as a punishment for liking lipstick. He may, however, define hell as "That state in which you would rather have pretty red lips than be Queen of Narnia."


5: What happens to Susan?

"I think that there are in the end only two kinds of people: those who like happiness, and those who really don't"


It is untrue to say that Aslan expels Susan from Narnia. Susan isn't present at Polly and Diggory's re-union dinner; presumably, because she choses not to be there. Since she isn't there, she doesn't witness the the phantom of King Tirian calling for aid. Therefore, she doesn't play any part in the scheme to recover the magical rings; so the isn't on the train which crashes, so she doesn't die. Since she isn't dead she doesn't go to heaven.

It is also quite untrue to say that Susan is sent to hell. By the end of the book Narnia has come to an end, and all the Narnian talking animals have been judged by Aslan. Those which don't please him are turned into dumb beasts, and disappear into Aslan's shadow. This is a sort of Narnian last judgment. But there's no hint that Susan has met this kind of fate. Our world hasn't yet come to an end; and Susan is presumably still alive and will have every opportunity of coming to Aslan's country by a more circuitous route. (When Lucy asks Aslan if he will tell her how to get into his country from our world, he replies "I shall be telling you all the time".)

Susan is not blamed for becoming an adult. We are told that of the seven "friends", only Jill and Eustace are young enough to be at school. It follows that Lucy, the youngest of the Pevensies must be at least 16 when she comes to Aslan's country. In fact, according to Lewis's "Outline of Narnian History" Peter is 22, Susan is 21, Edmund is 19 and Lucy is 17. So Aslan can hardly be singling Susan out because she has hit puberty.

Certainly we are told that children beyond a certain age can't enter Narnia; this is why the younger Eustace and Jill encounter King Tirian in the "old" Narnia, but the other four only see him in Aslan's country(3). However, this exclusion from Narnia does not represent any kind of punishment or loss of paradise. On the contrary, they are being sent back to their own world to learn to know Aslan under a different name and so find their way back to his country. (Lucy, incidentally, has taken this seriously: when she is shown the magic stable which in some way contains Aslan's country she immediately says "In our world too, a stable once had something in it that was bigger than the whole world": the only explicit reference to Christ in the whole saga.)

Granted, Jill says that Susan is "too keen on being grown up." (Not "grown up" or "keen on being grown up" but too keen on being grown up.) But Jill is herself still a child. Polly, a very old lady, corrects her immediately and says Susan's problem is not maturity but immaturity. ("Grown-up, indeed... I wish she would grow up.") Polly thinks that Susan was the kind of school girl who would rather have been in her 20s, and will carry on behaving like a 20 year old when she is 50.

So, we are left with the actual reasons that Lewis gives for Susan's absence from Aslan's country:

1: She denies that she ever really came to Narnia; she says that her experiences there were only part of a game that she and her siblings used to play as children.

2: She is interested in consumer beauty products and parties to the exclusion of everything else.

3: She is an air-head, fixated with staying at a "silly age", probably 21.

Susan has lived in Narnia; she has reigned as Queen of Narnia during its golden age. She and Lucy have had an intimacy with Aslan that ever Peter does not experience(4). She comforted Aslan during his agony before going to the Stone Table, and he let her stroke his mane. After his resurrection, she celebrated with him and he let her ride on his back. However, she now denies that any of this ever happened, and instead seeks joy exclusively through beauty products. Pullman wants us to believe that "Susan became interested in lipstick, and is therefore thrown out of Narnia." I think Lewis is really saying "Susan ceased to love Narnia, and therefore, became a pathetic figure -- a woman of 50, trying to be a girl of 21, capable of loving nothing apart from lipstick."

Susan is committing Lewis's cardinal sin: getting confused about what is real and what not. She choses to believe that Narnia is only a play-world, something which she and her three siblings made up. This reminds us of the scene in "The Silver Chair" where the Witch imprisons Prince Rillian in a cave and tries to convince him that there is nothing outside it: that Narnia was only ever a figment of his imagination. Indeed, there is a certain similarity between Susan's voice and that of the Witch:
.
'What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'

'Well, 'tis pretty make-believe thou to say truth it would suit you all better if you were younger. And look how you can put nothing into your make believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world. As for you, My Lord Prince, thou art a man full grown. Fie upon you! Art thou not ashamed of such toys."


Prince Rillian is saved by Puddlegum who tells him that even if the Witch is right "the made up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones." Whether anyone wakes up Susan, we don't know.

Susan's state of mind is also an an ironic inversion of that of Peter and the others. Peter has discovered that Narnia is "not really real"; in the sense that it is only a shadow or reflection of the real Narnia in Aslan's kingdom. Susan thinks that Narnia is "not real", in the sense that it is something made up or copied from the real world. For Peter, Narnia is "not real" because there is something more substantial above it; for Susan is is "not real" because it was only ever a fantasy. Susan thinks that Narnia was "just a story"; from the point of view of Aslan's country, our world and Narnia are both just the first page of a story which is now beginning.

You might compare Susan's and Peter's perspectives to the contrasting viewpoints of "allegory" and "symbolism" suggest by "Lewis" in "The Allegory of Love". The allegorist takes something in a story to point to something in the world outside the story. ("The dragon represents the Spanish Armada"). The symbolist takes something in the real world to point to something outside it, ("The Pelican is a symbol of God's love.") "To the symbolist, it is we who are the allegory."

Lewis's parable is intended to provoke a response. Parables often work like that. They don't so much instruct us try to provoke us into seeing the point for ourselves. We listen to this part of the story and say – don't be absurd. No-one, having run their hands through Aslan's mane, could possibly decide that they prefer parties. Yes they could, says the story teller – and every day people give up heaven for equally trivial reasons -- sex, booze, money, power...

Even readers who don't share Lewis's conviction that there is a source of "joy" outside of the material world can surely go some way with him on this point. Doesn't most of the human race spend most of its time giving away things which they know will make them happy in return for things which they know will not?

6: ....and Finally.

At the end of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe", the Pevensie children are crowned kings and queens of Narnia. For many years, they govern it along Tory lines:

They made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live....And they themselves grew and changed as the years passed over them."

Peter becomes a "deep chested man and a great warrior". Edmund is a "graver and quieter man". And as for Susan -- the Susan who Lewis wants to keep as an infantilised, asexual angel; the Susan who Lewis blames for wanting to look pretty and damns for becoming sexual:

Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet, and the king of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage.

Game, set and match, I think



NOTES

(1) Genesis does not say that the Serpent is Satan; although certain New Testament passages imply that he is. Much depends, therefore, on the order in which you chose to read the books of the Bible.

(2) No, seriously. See "The Skeleton in the Wardrobe" by David Holbroke. This book also proves that Aslan is an unconscious portrait of the sadistic schoolteacher described in "Surprised by Joy". Oldie had a beard; Aslan has a mane. Q.E.D (I will grant you that "Pizzle" is the dialect term used in "Tess of the D'Urbevilles" to describe the "characteristic part" of a male pig.)

(3) If we go by the ages in the "Outline", then 13 would seem to be the cut off point: since Edmund and Lucy are 10 and 12 at the end of "Dawn Treader" when they learn that they are becoming too old to return to Narnia. (Peter and Susan, who missed that trip, are 14 and 15.) But this makes Eustace a full 4 years younger than Lucy, which is hard to reconcile with the rest of "Dawn Treader."

(4) My forthcoming book "The Cair Paravel Code" will conclusively prove that Lucy was Aslan's consort and the mother of his cubs.

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127 comments:

Helen Louise said...

*grin* awesome entry. It does annoy me when people do that "Aslan sent Susan to hell for liking lipstick" thing. Gah.

You're also way too good at puns. Grr, I don't know how long it would have taken me to think of "Lipstick on my scholar". Ah well.

American Ronin said...

This may be your most awesome post here yet.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Impressive entry.

I actually spent a good deal of time this summer trying to put into clear words Lewis' contrast between "allegory" and "symbolism" in The Allegory of Love. And there it is, clear as day.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Damn you, Andrew. You're coming dangerously close to making me forgive Lewis for what he did to Susan.

It's got nothing to do with thinking that he'd punished her for liking lipstick. I just thought it was a mean thing to do the character. She was sacrificed to Lewis' need to make one last point.

But then, The Last Battle has never been a book that sat well with me. The whole notion of being glad that all my favorite characters have just died (and yes, I know they've gone to heaven) doesn't appeal to me and in fact reminds me rather powerfully of the Left Behind ethos although, in all fairness, those books are so terrified of death that they insist on the fact that true believers are taken bodily into heaven before they die. At least Lewis has the guts to do the thing properly.

Whenever I think of The Last Battle, I think of Susan when she gets the news that her entire family has died in a train crash. I don't care how silly and frivolous she is, does she really deserve that kind of pain?

For Lewis, of course, these glimpses and promises came through Wagner, William Morris and the landscape of Southern Ireland; but he quite acknowledges that other people experience "joy" through different things -- through sport, or gardening, or hobbies such as woodworking or sailing. These are all Good Things. In "The Last Battle" it is strongly implied that Edmund is a railway enthusiast, and it isn't remotely suggested that this innocent pleasure is a barrier to him coming back to Narnia. They only become Bad Things when you start to love them instead of heaven. For Lewis, literally anything apart from heaven is an evil if it is allowed to become an end in itself, rather than the means to an end.

Um, setting aside for a moment the fact that I don't believe in heaven and hell, I'm not sure where the distinction is. How do you know that you, or anyone else, loves something for itself as opposed to loving it as a reflection of heaven? Is it simply a matter of degree? A casual Star Trek fan is OK, but someone who speaks only in Klingon has gone too far? Or what?

SK said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
SK said...

Excellent essay, with just one tragic error marring it.

I grew up in the County Down, sir, and it's not in Southern Ireland, so it isn't.

(misspelling corrected)

Philip said...

I really enjoyed this entry, and agree with nearly all of it...

But you haven't mentioned the short story "The Shoddy Lands", which I think provides more convincing evidence than anything in the Narnia books that Lewis felt uncomfortable around, and possibly contemptuous of, sexually-active or even sexually attractive young women. (I'm not saying it's the only possible reading -- it clearly isn't -- but reading the story without at least wondering about the possibility requires some pretty determined looking-the-other-way.)

I seem to remember getting a similar feeling from The Dark Tower as well, but it's far too long now since I read that so I could be misremembering. There's also the weirdly puritanical condemnation of Jane's use of contraception in That Hideous Strength.

Also, Pullman's other point -- that Lewis deprives Jill, Eustace and the other three Pevensies of the opportunity to experience the pleasures of ordinary life in order to send them to Aslan's land as children, or at least youths -- is also something which makes me uncomfortable. It's true that the mundane world can't possibly compare to Heaven, but it requires a very specific mindset to believe that children's deaths are therefore a good thing.

None of which is to say that I necessarily agree with Pullman's main point either.

Adam said...

Nicely argued, Mr Rilstone.

Whenever I think of The Last Battle, I think of Susan when she gets the news that her entire family has died in a train crash. I don't care how silly and frivolous she is, does she really deserve that kind of pain?

I can't help thinking this might answer the question "does anything wake Susan up?"

Andrew Rilstone said...

I grew up in the County Down, sir, and it's not in Southern Ireland, so it isn't.

I am an idiot. I know perfectly well what part of Ireland Lewis came from. Home rule, the Ulsterior Motive, and all that. Saying he came from the South would be as silly as describing him as an Englishman in (say) a FAQ.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet, and the king of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage.

So Susan grew into a desireable woman in Narnia and then became obsessed with being a desireable woman on Earth? Interesting.


So, 'she likes lipstick and tights' doesn't mean 'she wants to look nice and attract men'.It means 'she wants silly, expensive, new-fangled consumer goods in order to conform with what the fashion industry says is pretty this season.

That's 'nylons and lipstick and invitations'. She wants to be pretty and popular; which pricipally means being attractive to men. If her fault is being a slave to fasion then why lipstick and nylons (both icons of, specifically, desire) and not dresses and hats?

A better charitable reading might be that it's 'nylons and lipstick and invitations' because, as icons of desire, they're things that children aren't supposed to be interested in. The implied distaste is Jill's, and by extension the (child) reader's. Susan has lost Narnia because she thinks only 'grown-up' things are important, and has become shallow.

I don't think that's the whole truth, though. Why is it Susan who loses Narnia, and why through a desire to be 'popular'? There's a fairly obvious feminist reading here, if we consider the attitudes of the time.

In terms of those attitudes, the least ambiguous indicator of adulthood (or at least, the end of childhood) is interest in sex. But a young man who is interested only in chasing girls is an aberration. Romance is supposed to be a (pleasant and natural) distraction from the more serious business of making something of himself - that is, choosing a role in society. A young woman, on the other hand, already has a role - being a woman - and is just supposed to keep busy until she finds a husband. Moreover, because men are supposed to do the choosing sexuality is seen as fundamentally a female attribute -
it's the set of qualities that women use to attract men.(1)

So, if Lewis wants a character to grow up and lose touch with their childhood self then a girl is the natural choice. Boys grow up slowly as they find an adult role for themselves, and their childhood interests carry over and influence their choice of role. Girls enter their adult role as soon as they become marriageable, are expected to abandon childhood interests that don't fit it, and are defined by a quality (sexual attractiveness) that children aren't supposed even to be aware of.(2)

I can also take this further into a more critical reading. Susan hasn't got engaged to a nice young man; she's making herself attractive and going to parties. Social popularity was the one public way that women in her time and place could exercise power over men. Naturally, this could have no good result - if she isn't 'punished', it's at least clear that she's doing the wrong thing.

Did Lewis mean all this explicitly? I think not - he was just writing as a traditionalist within the attitudes of his time. But I wonder if misreadings of the "going to hell for liking lipstick" kind come from modern readers confusing the things that Lewis does deliberately with the attitudes that he takes for granted.



(1) Hence cooking as a metaphor for sex appeal in (particularly American) advertising and popular culture of the 50s. "Blueberry Boy Bait", anyone?

(2) Compare and contrast: "all men just boys at heart" and "that little tomboy has grown up into a beautiful woman".

Mike Taylor said...

Wow. Andrew, thank you. You've got a wonderful knack of saying exactly what I think I'm thinking, but much, much better than I would have said it. How none of the broadsheets have picked you up for a weekly column yet, I don't know.

Just one quibble. You summarise the final judgement of Narnia thus: "all the Narnian talking animals have been judged by Aslan. Those which don't please him are turned into dumb beasts, and disappear into Aslan's shadow". In fact the book seems to imply that that it those who he doesn't please, not those who don't please him, that go into the darkness. That seems to be a pretty central part of Lewis's thinking: the animals who want to be apart from Aslan in fact get what they want (just as those who want to be with him do).

As for your observation that "most of the human race spend[s] most of its time giving away things which they know will make them happy in return for things which they know will not" -- that would be poignant at any time, but coming a couple of says after George Best wore out his second liver, it's painfully cautionary.

--

Abigail wrote "The whole notion of being glad that all my favorite characters have just died (and yes, I know they've gone to heaven) doesn't appeal to me". I think Lewis's response to that would be that you've misread what he (and the LWW characters) consider to be Life.

And you also say "I think of Susan when she gets the news that her entire family has died in a train crash. I don't care how silly and frivolous she is, does she really deserve that kind of pain?" Not to want to put words in Lewis's mouth, but I think the real issue (as he perceived it) would be whether she needs that kind of pain. (Remember the megaphone quote from Problem of Pain?)

Deepa Manthravadi said...

Good job. Now I might actually consider getting these books. So then, is this alledged racism in the books something that has also been misrepresented, or is its a product of old fashionedness too? Convice me, and I'll toddle along to Amazon to order LWW.

How disappointing for Mr. Pullman and Mrs. Rowling (especially after the "great 'shipping fiasco of 2005", I would have thought she'd value the meaning of adequate representation.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Abigail wrote "The whole notion of being glad that all my favorite characters have just died (and yes, I know they've gone to heaven) doesn't appeal to me". I think Lewis's response to that would be that you've misread what he (and the LWW characters) consider to be Life.

I'm sure he would, but as someone who's always viewed the idea of heaven as, at the very least, bad asset management, I can't buy into his interpretation.

And you also say "I think of Susan when she gets the news that her entire family has died in a train crash. I don't care how silly and frivolous she is, does she really deserve that kind of pain?" Not to want to put words in Lewis's mouth, but I think the real issue (as he perceived it) would be whether she needs that kind of pain

Um, if those words ever came out of Lewis' mouth, I would feel obliged to hit him with something heavy.

Horrible things happen to us in life, but the notion of a God who makes those things happen as a sort of character-building exercise is too gruesome to consider. Not to mention that I don't really think Lewis cared about what happened to Susan, or how she reacted to the death of her family.

I think Sam Dodsworth is onto a something, by the way. That Susan is left behind for her actions is not misogynistic, but that Lewis chose her and not one of the boys to be the fallen Pevensie may very well be.

SK said...

Horrible things happen to us in life, but the notion of a God who makes those things happen as a sort of character-building exercise is too gruesome to consider.

You have read The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, right?

Mike Taylor said...

I said "I think Lewis's response to that would be that you've misread what he (and the LWW characters) consider to be Life."

To which Abigail replied "I'm sure he would, but as someone who's always viewed the idea of heaven as, at the very least, bad asset management, I can't buy into his interpretation."

Well, if you're going to adopt a stance that flatly refuses to accept (even for literary purposes) the view of reality from which Lewis is writing, you can hardly be surprised if your evaluations don't match up with his! As Lewis wrote in another context, with poetic language you will get nothing out of it unless you're prepared to meet the poet half-way; and he goes on to imply that the same is true of what he terms "religious language" (as opposed to "theological language" which he regards as a special case of the scientific.)

To be quite clear, this a literary rather than religious point. What I am trying to express is that you don't have to believe in a Heaven yourself to understand and empathise with what Lewis is portraying as Heaven. It is quite clear from the books that Lewis is presenting a universe in which it is better to be what we call "dead" than "alive", because that death is the holiday at the end of term. It think it's a mistake to be tricked out of the literary power of what he's done by applying your own, incompatible, beliefs -- on a par with, say, my refusing to enjoy the Norse myths because I don't believe in Odin.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Mike, you're probably right in everything that you say, and I do accept that within Lewis' invented world, the ending of The Last Battle is a happy one. I just can't make myself feel it. It's one thing to meet an author half-way. Completely surrendering my own preconceptions is quite another.

SK, no, I haven't read those books. I probably should have made it clear that I'm a Lewis philistine.

Andrew, I keep forgetting to point this out: the numbering on the different sections is off. There are two number 3s.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Andrew, I keep forgetting to point this out: the numbering on the different sections is off. There are two number 3s.

I'll fix that, otherwise someone might read them in the wrong order...

Kevin Boone said...
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Esrom said...

I concur that one can't really fault Lewis as being sexist for Susan's lapse. It was either her or Peter who would go, and either way could be spun in some way as being wrong.

Ironically, I feel that Susan got the least attention of the four wardrobe children TLtWatW and PC, but due to her absence in tLB, many people pay more attention to her than to the other characters except for Aslan.

The scene still bothers me though, because it feels pointless. We never see the progress of her denial of Narnia. It's a classic case of ignoring "show, don't tell." The reader gets nothing out of it other than a sense of loss and incompleteness. Normally, such ambiguity would be fine, but in the big Apocalyptic closer it just feels out of place and poisons one's enjoyment of the characters' 'rapture.'

Earl Wajenberg said...

If you go back to "Prince Caspian" and "The Horse and His Boy," you can already see a certain ... lack of grip on Susan's part. She's rather airheaded in "Horse" and, in "Caspian," there's a point when she has trouble remembering what England is called while she's in Narnia. A creature of the moment, it seems.

Louise H. said...

Well, if you're going to adopt a stance that flatly refuses to accept (even for literary purposes) the view of reality from which Lewis is writing, you can hardly be surprised if your evaluations don't match up with his!

I think this might be one of the problems in discussing Lewis's work. I find it very difficult to create a meaningful response to something which is an allegory of a view of reality with which I don't agree.

I could ignore the allegorical element, but once I know it's there that's very difficult to do. I know the author is not just telling me a story but also telling me what he thinks is true. When I criticise the statement that it is good to be killed so that you can live in Narnia, I'm not criticising Lewis's imagination but his theology.

Now if he was writing a science fiction novel in which people turn out to be some form of caterpillar-variant and dying in rail crashes is the way that they hatch into a new life on another world, then I could consider that as an imaginative idea and (maybe!) suspend my disbelief to go along with the idea and see where it takes us. But I know Narnia is heaven, so I know that what Lewis is actually saying is that death is *in reality* a good thing. And I think he's wrong. I can imagine being someone who believed that was right, just about, but that's nothing like the suspension of disbelief that fiction brings.

re Susan

Andrew's essay is as usual meticulously argued but I think he is giving Lewis too much credit. Regardless of the precise phrasing of the reference to lipstick, Lewis paints a clear picture of the sort of girl Susan has become; frivolous, silly, a "party girl". And then he makes it clear that people like that don't go to Narnia. You can split hairs as much as you like about whether Lewis implied that she is too grown up or too childish, whether the problem is with the lipstick or the lifestyle. And clearly her rejection of Narnia was meant to be a major factor. But it comes across as a dismissal of a type of woman as not worth saving based on her superficial appearance and interests (remember both Edmund and Eustace, who both actively did dreadful things, were actively saved by Aslan.) For Susan we get "Oh, lets not talk about that now." End of story.

It seems to me that what she is being condemned for is not her sexuality but her frivolity. It's pure Vanity Fair. She is not the "tall and gracious woman" that she was in Narnia. She's in her early 20s and she's rather silly. And probably rather annoying to boot.

Fair enough in one way. It's Lewis's heaven, he can exclude who he likes from it. But it strikes me as a very superficial, sexist response. Do you have to be dignified and sensible to go to heaven?

What is being argued, it seems to me, is that Susan is too much of "this world" to go to the next. But it's a very male, very superficial way of judging who is too "worldly" for Heaven. You can certainly argue that she is unable to go there because she has lost sight of Heaven in her love of worldly things. But that's not well demonstrated by the examples picked; lipstick, nylons and invitations are a social life (and one that Lewis probably didn't understand or approve of), not a rejection of the spiritual. It's arguable that it is the equivalent of Peter staying behind because he was too involved with the Golf club. Except of course that it isn't because we are expected to picture Susan in high heels and make up, recoil at this travesty of gracious womanhood, and therefore accept her fate as inevitable.

It is a condemnation of a lifestyle, one that is essentially harmless (and often temporary)but which is easily misunderstood and disapproved of. It is possible to argue that what Lewis was condemning was the underlying rejection of the spiritual in this particular instance, but he makes no real attempt to make this clear. It is enough to dress Susan up in her modern, tasteless attire and let us shudder.

Earl Wajenberg said...

"Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one's life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can."

Compare Polly's summation (the last word on Susan, as far as Lewis is concerned) with everyone else's appearance. The oldsters are not simply rejuvenated; they, like the children, now look *timeless*, neither young nor old. I believe it was in "The Silver Chair" that Lewis remarks that, even in our world, it is the silliest children who are most childish and the silliest grownups who are most grown up.

By trying to concentrate on a single age that she considers ideal, Susan is rejecting both her earlier childhood and her later maturity. I think that is much more the point Lewis was trying to get across than anything in particular about the merits or demerits of lipstick. That is just mentioned in passing, and the "*all* she thinks of" part is the important bit, to indicate her shallowness.

Timeless people are something Lewis rather likes. George MacDonald, in "The Great Divorce," appears neither old nor young. Ransom, in "That Hideous Strength," combines features of youth and age. When the children return to Narnia in "Caspian," and at Caspian's resurrection at the end of "Silver Chair," the children mildly transcend their ages.

Katherine said...

Kevin,

Why do you think that Lewis thought contraception was ‘a destructive agent in society’? As far as I can remember he never said or suggested any such thing. In ‘Mere Christianity’ he refuses to condemn all uses of contraception. In a letter written in 1947 he says: “I’ve never propounded a general position about contraception. As a bachelor I think I shd. be imprudent in attacking it: on the other hand I shd not like the job of defending it against almost unbroken Xtian disapproval.” Lewis took the argument from authority very seriously where morality was concerned but he never gave any other reason for disapproving of contraception.

Merlin may disapprove of Jane Studdock’s use of contraception but Merlin is a ‘bloodthirsty old man’ and I do not think that we should see everything he says as an expression of Lewis’ views. In any case, what really annoys Merlin is not that Jane has been using contraception but that she has not had a child, which is another matter entirely. Lewis certainly thought that Jane should have been making babies and keeping house instead of having some silly idea that she could write a thesis on Donne and have her own career.

That brings me to Lewis’ attitude to women. Lewis was certainly a sexist. Indeed, ‘sexist’ hardly seems strong enough to describe the way he felt. It was not only that he thought little of women’s abilities and considered that they should always be subservient to men; he seems to have felt some sort of fear of them. Anyone here who has read Lewis’ writings will know what I mean. The ancient, female thing in Dymer, Ungit, Fairy Hardcastle; they all seem to express Lewis’ horror of the ‘dominance of the female’ that he said was one of the things he most feared for the human race.

Women are really only acceptable when they are ruled by men. That is why Jane Studdock is scolded for not obeying her husband and why the Green Lady in Perelandra says: “The King is always older than I, and about all things.” Lewis’ attitude to women explains his very offensive suggestion that the man should be in charge of the household so as to protect the outside world from the woman. It also explains that embarrassing and carelessly researched essay ‘Priestesses in the Church.’

I am sure Lewis was not ‘just expressing the attitudes of his age’. His sexism was quite unusual even in his time, especially for such a kind-hearted man, although I suppose it may have been common among Oxbridge dons. Some of it comes from his religion of course; Christianity has always put women in second place. Some of it springs from his odd upbringing. I don’t know that any of that really explains it though.

Lis Riba said...

If you haven't yet seen it, Neil Gaiman has written a short story titled "The Problem of Susan" which is well worth reading...

Phil Masters said...

(Screwtape is, incidentally, very proud of the fact that most women now dislike men with beards. "There is more in this than you might think." Occasionally, Lewis says something so off-the-wall that I actually can't imagine what he means.)

If you can't interpret a Lewis passage, Andrew, then I really don't feel qualified to try. But coming to that cold, I take it as meaning that the devil has persuaded men to remove one of their sexual characteristics, thereby becoming effeminate, and women to like this, thereby disrupting the natural order of things and perhaps tending towards lesbianism.

Just don't tell people who think this way about the gay sub-sub-culture which favours beards and general rugged outdoorsy machismo.

Peter becomes a "deep chested man and a great warrior". Edmund is a "graver and quieter man". And as for Susan -- the Susan who Lewis wants to keep as an infantilised, asexual angel; the Susan who Lewis blames for wanting to look pretty and damns for becoming sexual:

Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet, and the king of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage.

Game, set and match, I think

Err, I think not, I'm afraid.

That passage describes a pretty woman, certainly - but it sounds to me like a small child's (and particularly a small girl's) image of adult feminine attractiveness. It's prettiness rather than beauty. I doubt that many adult women would really want hair down to their ankles, and I don't think that many adult men are especially attracted to it either. (How many pin-up images do you see with very long hair?) This appearance is described as attracting men, to be sure, but we note that the effect has only got as far as rather remote offers of dynastic alliance. There's no sense of sexuality there.

In other words, Susan has become a fairytale princess. It'd be cruel to say that she's turned into Princess Barbie, but the imagery is much the same as the look for which the makers of Princess Barbie seem to aim.

(I'm also tempted to invoke that Marks and Spencer commercial which rather brilliantly manages to depict a room full of attractive women in tight-fitting dresses or stripped to lacy lingerie, with no sense of lubriciousness whatsoever. The same company's food advertising is more pornographic. "Magic and Sparkle" indeed.)

Well, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe is a children's fantasy novel in fairytale mode. It's thus absolutely no criticism of Lewis to say that it rewards one of its female protagonists by turning her into a fairytale princess. But a fairytale princess is not the same thing as a sexually mature woman.

Sam Dodsworth said...

I am sure Lewis was not ‘just expressing the attitudes of his age’.

I think perhaps I overstated my case on this. What I was trying to say was that Lewis' attitudes were conservative, but not so conservative in their time that he would have felt the need to justify them. So Susan's fate is probably better read as making a point about what it means to be 'grown-up' made in a sexist way than as a point about the role of women.

But don't underestimate the sexism of the time, either. When Joanna Russ was a student in the late 50s(*), she heard a lecturer tell the class that women shouldn't become writers and that the proper use of their creative energies was having the best and most healthy babies.


(*) In America, yes, but I wouldn't expect Britain to be less conservative.

Sam Dodsworth said...

It's thus absolutely no criticism of Lewis to say that it rewards one of its female protagonists by turning her into a fairytale princess. But a fairytale princess is not the same thing as a sexually mature woman.

And, arguably, being a 'party girl' is the closest she can get to being a fairytale princess on Earth. There's a story there, if Neil Gaiman hasn't done it already.

SK said...

Abigail: You haven't read The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, okay, but it occurs to me that you only need to have read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe to see that Lewis was not unaware of the issue you raise re: pain; otherwise, why all the emphasis on Aslan not being safe?

Aslan will not keep you from pain; he will even cause pain, if it's for your own good. See the removal of Eustace's scales in Voyage of the Dawn Treader for an example.

Lewis sees Aslan (and God) in some senses as like a doctor. The pain he causes is like the pain of resetting a dislocated joint, intense but necessary.

(And this shouldn't be used as ammunition for the sadism argument, either, as there's no evidence that Aslan enjoys inflicting pain and those on whom we see it inflicted certainly don't enjoy it).

Louise:

(1) Don't all stories (that are not simply time-passers) tell you what the author thinks is true? It seems odd to single Lewis out for something which is after all pretty much the point of literature.

(2) Narnia specifically isn't heaven. Aslan's country is heaven. Susan isn't banned from either alone: she's banned form Narnia for the same reaosn Peter, Lucy and Edmund are, and she doesn't go to Aslan's country with them because she wasn't on the train -- she might well go later ('don't let's talk about that now' can mean 'we'll talk about that later', remember).

(Christianity may have always put women in second place... but for a lot of its history the Church was Catholic, and a certain woman was a very very close second -- with all men other than Christ well below her. So I'm not sure how well that point stands).

Louise H. said...

I'm sure this is old ground for Lewis-ians, but I was thinking about the train crash on my way into work this morning (once I'd finished thinking about Neil Gaiman, which is a far nicer topic of contemplation while walking through the rain). It struck me that the sudden removal of almost all the family to Heaven as an act of Grace has more resonance with the Rapture than of death as normally perceived. Maybe it's too simplistic to assume that Lewis was using a rail crash to symbolise, well, a rail crash.

I'm not sure it makes it any more comprehensible from an atheistic viewpoint, Rapturing being one of the more peculiar elements of Christianity (our local Xian rock band associated with the Pentecostal church I briefly attended in my youth did a very catchy and frighteningly bleak song about those left behind, I remember) but it makes more sense than to assume that Lewis thought premature death might be a jolly nice thing.

And then of course there's no question of going back to save Susan because she's missed the boat, so to speak. Thinking about the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Sam Dodsworth said...

(Christianity may have always put women in second place... but for a lot of its history the Church was Catholic, and a certain woman was a very very close second -- with all men other than Christ well below her. So I'm not sure how well that point stands).

What roles did actual live women have within the Church in those times, and what attributes was Mary worshipped for? I don't think you've thought this through.

SK said...

Um, no, I think that the rail crash was just a rail crash -- those kinds of things do often, by their very nature, kill groups of people who know each other, you know.

Lewis never (at least as far as I can remember) referred to the 'Rapture', as opposed to the Second Coming: his view of the end of time is closer to the 'judgement day' of Narnia where everyone faces Aslan and decides where they want to go, than this peculiar modern idea of certain people just 'disappearing' and the rest carrying on as normal.

The idea of people being 'left behind' on Earth I don't think would have occured to Lewis, any more than anyone is 'left behind' in Narnia.

So in conclusion: no, it's not the Rapture, it's just a train crash. I think it's there for two reasons:

(1) It's the last book, so a Big Reunion is called for; and as Peter, Lucy et al are too old it can't happen in Narnia.

(2) Lewis wants to show that the end of Narnia is not the end of the world; that life goes on, bigger and better. So he has to show Aslan's Country, ie Heaven. So he needs viewpoint characters. But living people can't enter heaven (except in dreams, cf The Great Divorce) so they have to die.

Because he thinks that all fantasy much involve a real-world element (either a mundane character through which the fantastic is focalised, or a mundane setting in which the fantastic element is placed) this means he has to kill at least one real-world character. Combine this with the last-book reunion and you have the train crash.

Susan's falling-away is I suspect almost an afterthought on Lewis's part, because he thought that perhaps otherwise the ending would have been _too_ trite and happy -- everyone is in paradise, yay! The storyteller in him realises that life isn't that neat and happy, so he has to have some jarring note just to be true to life. (But not _too_ jarring: note that if he'd really wanted to he could have contrived a reason to have Susan on the train and killed her, and then she really would be lost. He doesn't do that, thus quite specifically leaving open the possibility of her coming back to Aslan/Christ at a later date).

Kevin Boone said...
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Phil Masters said...

(1) Don't all stories (that are not simply time-passers) tell you what the author thinks is true? It seems odd to single Lewis out for something which is after all pretty much the point of literature.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

A story which wasn't informed at all by the author's viewpoint would probably be pretty dull. But there's also words for one wherein it looms in the foreground. And professional literary critics may arguably be obliged to seek out the good in such stories, but the rest of us aren't particularly obliged to hold our noses and join them.

Personally, I found that my ability to put up with Lewis diminished as I acquired the ability to see what he was up to. (Never mind the Susan thing - it was the stock Christian symbolism, the cheap snarking at non-traditionalist education, and the smug assumptions of religious superiority that lost me.) You may see this as a capacity for pleasure being spoilt by too much analysis; I prefer to say that education is the best defence against propaganda.

Of course, I don't expect someone who shares more of Lewis's assumptions to agree with me, any more than I'd expect a Lewisite to share, say, my intense fondness for Pratchett's Small Gods.

Phil Masters said...

And, arguably, being a 'party girl' is the closest she can get to being a fairytale princess on Earth.

By the way, just for reference, doesn't "party girl" have rather stronger connotations than Lewis's descriptions of Susan's behaviour?

Not that they're ruled out, mind, because Lewis presumably wouldn't actually have said anything about sexual promiscuity in a children's book. But my understanding of the term makes it rather distracting here.

Sam Dodsworth said...

By the way, just for reference, doesn't "party girl" have rather stronger connotations than Lewis's descriptions of Susan's behaviour?

You're right - I wanted to say 'debutante', but didn't think Susan was quite posh enough. Circumlocutions like "girl who wants to be 'popular'" are clumsy, but I can't find a simple term that does the right job.

Kevin Boone said...
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Mike Taylor said...

What an excellent discussion ... I don't think I've ever seen matters so potentially contentious discussed by so many strangers with such civility. Thank you, all of you!

And now, back to your regularly scheduled arguing.

Louise H. wrote: "It's Lewis's heaven, he can exclude who he likes from it. But it strikes me as a very superficial, sexist response. Do you have to be dignified and sensible to go to heaven?"

Sorry to pick on you, Louise, as a lot of people seem to be saying things like this. I am perplexed every time I read this. Isn't the text absolutely clear that it's Susan who excludes herself from Narnia, not Aslan? "What wonderful memories you have! Fancy you still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children."

It seems to be a strong thread in Lewis's perception of Christianity that everyone gets what they want, whether that is God or the absence of God (which of course in Narnia means Aslan or the absence of Aslan). That's why I criticised Andrew's misrepresentation of the Narnian final judgement. Elsewhere, Lewis writes (I paraphrase from memory) "Every decision we make slowly turns us into a creature fit either for Heaven or Hell".

(By the way, I hope no-one reads that as a comfortingly cuddly "Christianity-and-water". I think the idea of being lost due to my own bad choice is even more terrifying that due to God's judgement.)

Phil Masters said...

I can sort-of understand why a person who disagreed profoundly with Lewis's world-view might find that this made his books unsatisfactory, but I think it's unfair to suggest that he had a hidden agenda. His agenda couldn't have been more open if it had been printed on his forehead.

However, it does seem to pass a lot of children right by. I don't recall spotting it when I first read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - which may just mean that I was stupid, but in that case, judging by many of the comments I've seen in various places as the film release approaches, well, an awful lot of people were stupid when they were young.

Phil Masters said...
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Phil Masters said...

(Footnote to my last: I should have been clearer about one thing - I don't think that Lewis's agenda was really hidden; the symbolism is, indeed, up front and central. However, it clearly involves conveying ideas to children in a form which is only obvious to older, more widely educated audiences. Saying that somebody is "up to" something doesn't necessarily imply that he's being secretive about it.)

Earl Wajenberg said...

Posters to this thread may be interested in the article from the on-line section of "The Chronicle of Higher Education"
here,
which is a critique of Pullman's critique of Lewis.

Charles Filson said...

Went There

Found this bit informative:

To Pullman, this means that Lewis didn't want Susan to "underg[o] a transition from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn't approve of that. He didn't like women in general, or sexuality at all."


In truth, Lewis was portraying Susan making the same mistake he had made as a boy: throwing out the good of childhood with the bad for lack of understanding what it really means to grow up. When he turned 10, Lewis once wrote, he "would have been ashamed" if he had been found reading fairy stories. "Now that I am 50 I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness."

Kevin Boone said...
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Kevin Boone said...
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NickPheas said...

Alison Lurie has her say in today's Guardian
http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/childrenandteens/story/0,6000,1656323,00.html

It does strike me that there is a case to answer as far as sexism goes, but as much criticism can be levelled for a lack of stublety. Lewis chooses to be a quick dig in at the kinds of people who come forwards at Christian Union meetings and years later can't quite remember why, and wonder if what they felt was real, or insanity, or just been swept up in things. OK, he can, they're his books, but I don't think the book would have been any different had all eight humans returned.

He does though choose a woman with which to illustrate the point. Coupled with the ultimate force of evil in this world being a woman, and a sexually agressive woman at that. Something's going on there. Would the point have been lost had Edmund repreised his Judas role?

I do feel though that Susan was ever the character Lewis had the least to say about, even in tLtWatW. Lucy, Edmund, Peter get their set peices, Susan fires a few arrows and gets told off for wanting to tell more. She has first hand contact with Aslan, but only while Lucy is about. In tHaHB I seem to remember her as dismissive queen to Lucy's sympathetic Queen. I can't remember if she actually does anything in PC. Lewis probably used her to cruelly illustrate a point because there was nothing kinder he had to say about her.

culfy said...

"She is also said to be "too keen on being grown up" and "interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations". Apart from the fact that these seem very small sins"

Exactly the point that Andrew is arguing against (nothing wrong in make-up and stockings in themselves, only if your horizons cannot encompass a world consisting of more than stockings and make-up)

NickPheas said...

culfy said...

"She is also said to be "too keen on being grown up" and "interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations". Apart from the fact that these seem very small sins"


Exactly the point that Andrew is arguing against (nothing wrong in make-up and stockings in themselves, only if your horizons cannot encompass a world consisting of more than stockings and make-up)


This is true. It occurs to be that all parties, Andrew, Pullman, Lurie, me, thee, have so far been focussing on the manifestations of Susan's sin, and not the sin itself.

Susan is an apostate. She has seen Aslan, served Aslan, but now denies Aslan's existance. There is no reason to assume that lipstick was the thing that seduced Susan from Aslan's side, just that having lost her faith in Aslan, and denied Aslan, she finds other things to care about.

None of that gets about the observation, common to pretty much all of Lewis' critics, that it is telling that in seeking a character to be an apostate and so denied Heaven, he choses to damn a woman.

Kevin Boone said...
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culfy said...

From today's Observer

"In The Last Battle we find out that Susan has become interested in "nylons, lipsticks and invitation' -metonym (sic) for sex - and is no longer a friend of Narnia. She has comitted the sin of growing up."

Sigh!

Kevin Boone said...
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Dotan said...

This is straying from the topic of Susan, but I'll add myself to the list of people who completely missed out on the Christian allusions when reading the books. When I was presented with a Lion singing a world into existance, I understood this to be a Lion singing the world into existance, like Väinämöinen in the Kalevala, not a metaphor for Jesus or Jehovah. In the same way that when I read Le Guin mentioning that Segoy (a dragon, it turns out) spoke Earthsea into existance, I didn't assume that she was alluding to her actual beliefs.
The sacrifice in LtWatW? Odin, Baal, Baldur, Osiris.
I actually thought, while working my way through the earlier volumes, that "Last Battle" was an allusion to Ragnarok, an event that cropped up every couple of years in The Mighty Thor. I mean, the wolf lieutenant was called Fenris Ulf, wasn't he?
(Yes, I read the C. S. Lewis FAQ on Andrew's site. Does anyone know why that name was changed from the original? Was this an attempt to court the norse myth loving child demographic?)
So when I actually read Last Battle, I felt as if Lewis had pulled the rug from beneath my feet. There was obviously something going on here, and I had no idea what. So the book hit me with three blows, the removal of Susan, the train crash death, and the destruction of Narnia and the appearance of the land beyond the sea as an improved Narnia.
I should note that it really wasn't clear to me as a kid that Christians think of Jesus as being God. I thought he was suppossed to be the son of God. To me, God was a disembodied entity that created the world, brought the plagues on Egypt, and bossed Moses and the Patriarches around; Jesus was a miracle baby that became a preacher wandered the Galilee performing (sorta lame) miracles, got crucified and went to heaven. His story takes place in history, and doesn't really feel like mythology.

Phil Masters said...

I should note that it really wasn't clear to me as a kid that Christians think of Jesus as being God.

Sigh indeed. Did assorted church fathers curse each other with dysentry and sing theological sea-shanties for this?

It occurs to me, by the way, that the Problem of Narnia really is the Problem of The Last Battle. Subtract that, and all the issues with the earlier books - the grousing about then-modern education in Dawn Treader, the parochial Clash of Civilisations stuff in Horse and his Boy, all the sometimes-clunky Christian symbolism - would just look a bit dated most of the time, and trivially cranky most of the rest. I suspect that even the likes of Pullman would just see Lewis as someone to disagree with, not as an active evil.

But The Last Battle is where it all turns septic. We get Lewis taking on responsibility for big-time Judgement, sending characters to Heaven or Hell, depicting ecumenicalists as conscious agents of Satan, declaring that Young Death Is Good, and blowing up his much-loved fantasy world to boot. It's a pretty deranged little book, really, and the idea that Lewis was (consciously or not) sick of the whole Narnia thing and wanted it Dead, Dead, Dead makes a lot of sense.

It also means that, if Disney do find that they've got a viable franchise on their hands, they've got a real script and marketing nightmare coming up at the end of the decade. The two-track (Christians and Others) presentation idea will work okay for most of the series; it'll be easy to lose the Modern Schools Are Horrid stuff (brats and bullies can appear anywhere, after all), and with Horse, they can play up the fact that the human heroes are from the same background as the baddies, downplay the religious stuff, do the whole thing as a fun Arabian Nights fantasy, and borrow the not-too-Arabian costumes from Peter Jackson's Southrons for double safety. But trying to adapt Last Battle, the book where even quite young readers go "Oh dear, this is a Christian rant", is another matter.

I suspect that they'll just take the money and run, somehow - if the franchise does last that long.

SK said...

it is telling that in seeking a character to be an apostate and so denied Heaven, he choses to damn a woman

No more telling, surely than that it is a boy he chooses to betray Aslan? Or that Caspian has a wicked uncle rather than a wicked aunt?

He had a 50/50 chance of picking a woman as every book has a balance of male and female earth characters -- and does that not in itself tell you something? Or, indeed, that usually it's the female characters who come out better than the males -- Lucy, Jill, Polly?

No, no, we'd rather focus on one line in one book and claim that it's 'telling'.

But The Last Battle is where it all turns septic. We get Lewis taking on responsibility for big-time Judgement, sending characters to Heaven or Hell, depicting ecumenicalists as conscious agents of Satan, declaring that Young Death Is Good, and blowing up his much-loved fantasy world to boot. It's a pretty deranged little book, really, and the idea that Lewis was (consciously or not) sick of the whole Narnia thing and wanted it Dead, Dead, Dead makes a lot of sense.

Can we go through those one by one?

We get Lewis taking on responsibility for big-time Judgement, sending characters to Heaven or Hell

... which is something a lot of authors do, isn't it? Lewis may be more explicit than most, but if you want to tell me that no other author has ever judged a character of theirs...

depicting ecumenicalists as conscious agents of Satan

Not sure where this comes from. Aren't we talking about the book where the Muslim sorry Calormen arrives in heaven -- a scene I love, but which has had Lewis vilified by fundamentalish groups (seriously, search google and you'll find many websites claiming Lewis is the antichrist mainly because of this scene).

How much more ecumenical can you get than that?

declaring that Young Death Is Good

As mentioned, I don't think that's what he's saying -- less 'young death is good' and more 'death, at any age, isn't that bad really'. It's meant to be a reassurance, 'even when we die we just go on to better things' -- not an invitation to speed the process along!

and blowing up his much-loved fantasy world to boot

And again, if anybody has the right to blow up a world, isn't it the author?

There I think Lewis realised that for his myth to be complete it had to encompass the beginning and end of a world (I think he had started thinking of it, by this time, as a mythology rather than just a set of stories sharing a setting). After all, the end of the world crops up a lot in the Pagan myths he loved: the allusions to Ragnarok from the man who loved Wagner are not, I'm sure, coincidence!

'The beginning of the world' and 'the end of the world' are, I think, both stories Lewis, with his attraction to the mythic and the theological, quite reasonably wanted to tell.

And, frankly, I think a law that stated that once a much-loved fantasy series got over six books the setting had to be destroyed with no way back would not make the fantasy genre a poorer place.

rwr said...

So, 'she likes lipstick and tights' doesn't mean 'she wants to look nice and attract men'. It means 'she wants silly, expensive, new-fangled consumer goods in order to conform with what the fashion industry says is pretty this season.'

Oh, COME ON. As you yourself advocate, read the text carefully: "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations." [my italics]

Phil Masters said...

We get Lewis taking on responsibility for big-time Judgement, sending characters to Heaven or Hell

... which is something a lot of authors do, isn't it? Lewis may be more explicit than most, but if you want to tell me that no other author has ever judged a character of theirs...


Oh, certainly. Though authors consciously sending characters to a literal heaven or hell always strikes me as a risky literary device. It can work as a commentary on existing moral systems, usually with an element of dark irony attached, but once the author gives himself the role of God, declaring what's ultimately right and wrong with no appeal, he risks looking megalomaniac - and seems to be trying to ban other people from arguing with him, to boot.

Unsuccessfully, of course. People just argue all the harder. Which was rather my point there.

depicting ecumenicalists as conscious agents of Satan

Not sure where this comes from. Aren't we talking about the book where the Muslim sorry Calormen arrives in heaven -- a scene I love, but which has had Lewis vilified by fundamentalish groups (seriously, search google and you'll find many websites claiming Lewis is the antichrist mainly because of this scene).


It's a long time since I looked at the book, I admit, but my recollection of that scene is that the Calormen wanders off into some kind of shadowy realm of uncertainty. The implication seemed to be that he can reach Heaven, yes, but he has to get his facts and ideas straightened out first. Not so much ecumenicalism as a justification for dilligent missionary work.

But what I was actually thinking of was the baddies attempting to create a synthetic idol mixing elements of Aslan and the eeevil Calormen god (Tash? Tesh? Whatever.) There seemed to be a strong message there that "Saying that other religions contain elements of the truth is misguided and probably diabolical; Correct Thought has to be kept pure or it stops being correct".

Which, I admit, would clash somewhat with Lewis's apparent fondness for pagan myth as a foreshadowing of Christianity. But I guess that the point is that when you have the revealed truth, holding onto anything else as anything more than a source of good stories is a mistake.

As mentioned, I don't think that's what he's saying -- less 'young death is good' and more 'death, at any age, isn't that bad really'.

Chop the logic how you will, the blunt fact remains that the main characters of the series reach a happy ending which they can only attain by dying. Some of us are never going to find that pretty.

And again, if anybody has the right to blow up a world, isn't it the author?

Indeed. But it will always generate problems for people who took to the series as a set of fantasy novels, rather than as a myth-cycle or an allegory. Hence, The Last Battle (a) will cause the film-makers enormous problems if and when they come to adapt it, and (b) can be adduced as evidence to suggest that Lewis was tired of Narnia and wanted rid of it. (After all, even if he planned to close out the myth eventually, he could have told plenty more stories first, if he'd wanted to.)

SK said...

Though authors consciously sending characters to a literal heaven or hell always strikes me as a risky literary device. It can work as a commentary on existing moral systems, usually with an element of dark irony attached, but once the author gives himself the role of God, declaring what's ultimately right and wrong with no appeal, he risks looking megalomaniac - and seems to be trying to ban other people from arguing with him, to boot.

Again, this is what all authors do: they present the way they think the world works, wrapped up in a story. you can agree or disagree with what they present, but you can't really disparage him for presenting it!

(You could argue on a literary level that he should have been more subtle, which i can see a case for, though then you have to acceptwith the fact that Pullman is even less subtle in his trilogy and disparage him even more)

But what I was actually thinking of was the baddies attempting to create a synthetic idol mixing elements of Aslan and the eeevil Calormen god (Tash? Tesh? Whatever.) There seemed to be a strong message there that "Saying that other religions contain elements of the truth is misguided and probably diabolical; Correct Thought has to be kept pure or it stops being correct".

The sin of the baddies, though, is not that they are trying to create a composite being but that they are lying about Aslan for their own gain.

Also note that while Lewis thinks that all relgions are in some way reflections of the true religion, that doesn't mean that you can just mix and match. Like his analogy of the maths question where some answers are more right then other doesn't mean that you can arbitrarily pick an answer.

This is, I think, an inevitable consequence of believing that there is a true answer to the questions of religion, and that Lewis -- by admitting that other religions reflect the true one rather than simply being totally false -- goes as far towards real inter-religion (as opposed to say intra-Christianity ecumenism) ecumenism as you can without abandoning the idea that religion has an objective truth value.

Chop the logic how you will, the blunt fact remains that the main characters of the series reach a happy ending which they can only attain by dying. Some of us are never going to find that pretty.

Well, no, but even those who don't find it pretty are going to die (and remember that not all the characters die young: Diggory and Polly are not exactly spring chickens). Would you prefer that the books simply ignored this and didn't talk about death at all? Lewis realised that death was an important part of life -- and remember that the country had just been through two wars, so the idea of shielding children from death as we do nowadays probably wouldn't have occured to Lewis. Children would be asking what happened to the uniformed people in the photographs on the mantlepiece.

Lewis is not so much saying 'you should want to die to get to heaven' but 'when you do die, which could be when you are old like Polly or tomorrow, don't fear'.

But it will always generate problems for people who took to the series as a set of fantasy novels, rather than as a myth-cycle or an allegory.[...]After all, even if he planned to close out the myth eventually, he could have told plenty more stories first, if he'd wanted to.

Um... he could have told them afterwards too, if he'd wanted to (it may come as new, but the Narnia books were not written in the order--- ow, gerroff!)

Ahem. 'Have told all the stories you want to about somewhere' is not the same as 'are tired of it'.

Back in Lewis's day, before it became accepted that if you have a dead horse you flogged it for seven series and then as many films as the actors would sign up for, putting out lunchboxes all the while, the idea of (gasp!) actually ending a story need not have implied that you wanted to see the back of it forever.

So no sets of fantasy novels ever come to an end, or do they really just all continue on until people stop buying them? And is that a good thing? (Even the Patternfall war ended... until Zelazny needed to pay college fees)

Kevin Boone said...
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SK said...

I know I've said this before, but the ending of Narnia bears comparison with the ending of Douglas Adam's Hitchhiker series. In `Mostly Harmless' all the characters die, and the Earth is destroyed. I don't think Adams was making a particular point, he justed wanted readers to realize that the series was well and truly finished.

Um, that's exactly the opposite of what I was saying. The ending of Narnia is completely unlike the ending of Mostly Harmless because Lewis was making a (series of) specific points, not just ending the series out of weariness or in a fit of pique.

The two, in fact, are alike only in the way that opposites sometimes look alike, from a distance.

Kevin Boone said...
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SK said...

Have you any reason to think the others are right?

Mike Taylor said...

SK expostulated: "The ending of Narnia is completely unlike the ending of Mostly Harmless because Lewis was making a (series of) specific points, not just ending the series out of weariness or in a fit of pique."

Absolutely! I find the notion that Lewis brought Narnia to an end because he was tired of it extraordinarily imperceptive. (Apologies if that comes across as offensive, but that's how it is.) It seems as clear as day to me that Lewis was not merely stopping Narnia in some arbitrary way, but ending in the fullest sense -- bringing it to consummation, if you like.

He's even explicit about his priorities in the books themselves: at the end of Dawn Treader, Lucy says "It's not Narnia, it's you Aslan". The Last Battle stands as demonstration of that.

(And by the way, the number of mainsteam commentators in the recent rush or articles who have misread Narnia as analogous to Heaven ... *sigh*. What can you do with these people? Have they not read the books they're critiquing at all?)

Kevin Boone said...
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Phil Masters said...

Again, this is what all authors do: they present the way they think the world works, wrapped up in a story. you can agree or disagree with what they present, but you can't really disparage him for presenting it!

Well, indeed. But the point isn't that Lewis presents a point of view; it's that he puts himself in the place of God while doing so. There's some sleight of hand there; the author says "God works this way, therefore if you disagree with me, you disagree with God".

You can reasonably say here that an author talking about how he honestly thinks God works has little choice in the matter... But I think that an author talking about that topic should accept that he's on tricky ground, because unless he can really, convincingly produce the sacred text of a new religion, he's at risk of looking like he's bullying the reader (or is just plain vain).

(You could argue on a literary level that he should have been more subtle, which i can see a case for, though then you have to acceptwith the fact that Pullman is even less subtle in his trilogy and disparage him even more)

I really hope that you're not expecting me to leap to the defence of His Dark Materials at this point.

(Wonderful imagery, plot all over the shop. And the Dust is probably the biggest demonstration of Nick Lowe's theory of dubious plot devices since the first Star Wars trilogy.)

(Lowe's essay is well worth a look, actually; he doesn't mention Lewis at all, but he has something relevant to say about authorial disguises: "The disguise favoured by most writers, not unnaturally, tends to be God, since you get the omnipotence while reserving the right to move in mysterious ways and to remain invisible to mortal eyes.")

Ahem. 'Have told all the stories you want to about somewhere' is not the same as 'are tired of it'.

Well, one could say it more or less is - but that comes down to chopping semantics. My point is more that killing off one's characters, setting, and themes in one huge crunch could be a matter of thematic completion, or a symptom of boredom - or indeed, very possibly, both. (There'd be nothing wrong with saying "If I do more than one more novel in this setting, I'll be climbing the walls - so let's end this one properly.")

Actually, I don't pretend to know what was going through Lewis's mind - but I do note that he didn't do anything more with the setting.

So no sets of fantasy novels ever come to an end, or do they really just all continue on until people stop buying them? And is that a good thing?

That's probably between the author's talent, conscience, fans, publisher, and credit card bill. The sight of Mike Moorcock shoe-horning more and more prior plot into Elric's biography after killing his hero and the hero's sidekick, blowing up the universe, and literally readjusting the cosmic balance, in his second book, is certainly less than terribly edifying.

Theo Axner said...

But what I was actually thinking of was the baddies attempting to create a synthetic idol mixing elements of Aslan and the eeevil Calormen god (Tash? Tesh? Whatever.) There seemed to be a strong message there that "Saying that other religions contain elements of the truth is misguided and probably diabolical; Correct Thought has to be kept pure or it stops being correct".

I really don't think this is a dig at ecumenicism, as such (to me, the scene with Emeth near the end seems set up specifically to counter that interpretation). Tash doesn't represent Islam, but rather Evil, and in some sense Old Testament-style idolatry. The followers of Aslan in Narnia aren't really practicing a religion as such, either. What I think Lewis is getting at here is moral relativism, and to some extent (his idea of) a certain kind of New Age thinking that holds the divine to be beyond good and evil, which in Lewis' opinion was just a slightly camouflaged worship of sheer power in itself. This is touched upon much more explicitly in his earlier book Perelandra.

The sin of the bad guys of TLB isn't really religious mix-and-matching, but erasing the difference between good and evil. That's the way I read it, anyway.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Surely Lewis gives two different takes on ecumenicism in "Last Battle"?

In the first, the evil monkey Shift sets up Puzzle the Donkey as a false Aslan; claims that Tash, the demonic being worshipped by the Calormene's is the same as Aslan, and eventually tries to make a syncretic figure called Tashlan the object of worship. Ginger the Cat is the first to spot what is really going on.

"Aslan means neither less nor more than Tash...Especially, Aslan means no more than Tash."

In the second, the noble Calormene Emeth goes into the stable and encounters Aslan; and is told that, although he has been a Tash worshipper all his life, all his worship and service had been accepted by Aslan.

"'Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days'. 'Beloved, said the Glorious One, unless thy desire had been for me, thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.' " (*)

This is rather emphatically not about missionary work; it's about the salvation of just "heathen": Lewis thinks that a person may be following Aslan unconsciously. That's why the evangelicals dislike this passage so much.

The two passages represent two sides of ecumenicism; the kind which says "All religions really say the same thing" and the kind which says "We should recognise the good elements in different religions." Lewis repudiates the one but accepts the other.

It is dangerous to talk about "Satan" in the context of Narnia; it isn't at all clear that Tash is intended to represent Satan. (Tash isn't the one who introduces sin and evil into Narnia; and he isn't the one whose unseated by Aslan's sacrifice. But then, the White Witch isn't a fallen angel.) And the characters who set up the Tashlan cult aren't conscious worshippers of Tash -- they don't believe in any god, and think that "Tashlan" is a useful means to power. So I don't think you can say that Lewis makes the syncretists concsiously in league with the devil.

Screwtape laments the fact that if you make a human being an atheist, you can't persuade him to be a devil-worshipper; and devil-worshippers can't also be atheists. He hopes that he will one day create a materialist magician who worships diabolical forces without believing in them. "Then the victory will be near." The worshippers of Tashlan are illustrations in the fairy tale idiom of a similar idea; the mad scientists in That Hideous Strength give it a sci-fi spin.


Phil is quite right, of course, to say that "Last Battle" is primarily religious in its theme and inspiration, and people who are not Christians are likely to just not be terribly interested in it. (Unless they are able or willing to "suspend disbelief.) And I agree that Hollywood adaptation of "Last Battle" or "Magicians Nephew" is inconceivable. Aunty Beeb made her excuses and left after the "Silver Chair." My money would be on Uncle Walt filming the basic trilogy and leaving it at that.



(*) This is Pascal, isn't it? "You would not be seeking me unless you had already found me."

Andrew Rilstone said...

By the way: without trying, I made the following list of stories which end with the main character entering heaven:

Watership Down
The Happy Prince
The Old Curiosity Shop
The Pilgrims Progress
Les Miserables (explicitly in the musical, but I think we all knew what Hugo meant by supreme sunsets and supreme dawns)
Most Grail narratives
Lord of the Rings (arguably)
Titanic
Cold Lazarus
The Flying Dutchman

A shorter list, but the following end with the protagonist going to Hell:

Marlowe's "Dr Faustus"
Motzart's "Don Giovani"
Cerebus
Most "Punch and Judy" shows.

Do skeptical materialists find the depiction of the afterlife a barrier to enjoying all of the above; or is there something unique about the way in which Lewis depicts heaven which makes it especially hard to swallow?

Tom R said...

Re racism and/or religious chauvinism in Narnian books, especially in rel. to Calormenes... I refer newby lurkers (again) to this post http://fathermckenzie.blogspot.com/2005/10/chapter-eight-chiefly-concerning.html, which is even named after our noble host today.

Louise H. said...

I find The Happy Prince virtually unreadable for a number of reasons.

Watership Down; I think the difference is that I'm pretty sure that Richard Adams doesn't believe in Frith and nor does he expect me to; its enough that his rabbits do. Frith is not an allegorical representation of the Christian God; all he seems to want from his creations is that they are fecund and good at running away from things.

If it's any help I find the last book of His Dark Materials uncomfortable for exactly the same reason as I find The Last Battle difficult. They both scream at you "This is the Truth in fictitious form". Despite comments above, very few fiction books claim to represent reality and as soon as they do I stop being interested in them as fiction. Who was that horror/SF writer who claimed to be abducted by aliens and that his books reflected his experiences? The books immediately lost any interest they might have had; instead of being creative they were merely misguided.

I know that authors are continually making judgements about their characters. There is something different however about authors making theological judgements, and having the power within the book to see them through. So Wormtongue betrays both Theoden and Saruman and comes to a sticky end. Frodo sees his task through and goes to the Undying Lands. Both could be considered moral judgements of a sort, but there's nothing particularly theological about them. They follow logically from the characters' actions and the reactions of the people around them. But Edmund betrays his family and Aslan is sacrificed to save him from the death penalty; Susan rejects Aslan and fails to travel to the Land Beyond. If Aslan was another character in the books then this would be pretty much the same, but he isn't. He's God and everybody knows it. More to the point maybe, he's Lewis, ensuring that everyone gets what is appropriate to them. He's no more a character than a narrator's voice is.

If El-Ahrairah turned up at the end of Watership Down and announced that Hazel hadn't had enough baby bunnies so couldn't go and join Frith then it would be a bit downbeat but it would be just as acceptable an ending in many ways. It would say nothing about Adams except that he likes disappointing his readers. (In particular it wouldn't necessarily mean that Adams was opposed to contraception).

If Aslan turned up at the end of the Last Battle and told Peter than he couldn't go on to the country Beyond because Aslan had seen the way he'd been looking at Caspian then it would be saying an awful lot about Lewis. That's allegory for you.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Do skeptical materialists find the depiction of the afterlife a barrier to enjoying all of the above; or is there something unique about the way in which Lewis depicts heaven which makes it especially hard to swallow?

The only title on your list I've read voluntarily is "Watership Down" - I've not thought about it before, but this may not be a coincidence. (I gave up on Cerebus long before he went to hell - Cerebus goes to hell? - the only version of "Doctor Faustus" I've seen is the Jan Svankmajer one, and although I remember being exposed to "The Happy Prince" as a child I don't remember who went to heaven. And as you know, Arthurian myth doesn't have any resonance for me.)

All that, though, is just lack of interest - Arthurian myth bores me, but it doesn't actively annoy me in the way that bad Libertarian fiction does. So if the ending of "The Last Battle" annoys people then I think there must be something more going on than just an atheist's objection to heaven and hell. At a guess (because I never read "The Last Battle" - again, probably not a coincidence) it's that there's too much Lewis in the judgements being made. There's nothing so off-putting as a writer who lets their desire to make a point outstrip their skill.

Mike Taylor said...

Kevin Boone wrote: "Yes, it does come across as offensive. So I won't be reading, or posting, any more. I thought this was one of the few sites where people were prepared to discuss issues like this without rudeness. Seems I was wrong. Have fun talking to yourself."

Well, that's a shame. Good luck finding somewhere more civilised and forebearing than this for discussing deep issues. I'll be surprused if you find somewhere, though.

Phil Masters said...

Phil is quite right, of course, to say that "Last Battle" is primarily religious in its theme and inspiration, and people who are not Christians are likely to just not be terribly interested in it. (Unless they are able or willing to "suspend disbelief.)
There's more than mere ordinary suspension of disbelief required, I think. Most of us can manage that most of the time. "Suspension of active objection" might be nearer the mark.

And I agree that Hollywood adaptation of "Last Battle" or "Magicians Nephew" is inconceivable. Aunty Beeb made her excuses and left after the "Silver Chair." My money would be on Uncle Walt filming the basic trilogy and leaving it at that.
Unless the very rich Christian businessman who's apparently involved in this project pushes the point.

But I think (from quite distant memories) that a viable and somewhat agnostic movie could be made out of Magician's Nephew. Sure, the religious symbolism is increasingly explicit, but you've also got some nifty landscapes and generally plenty of scope for the FX department to blow the budget, coupled with the kernel of a straight adventure story about unhappy children, wicked uncles, cross-dimensional adventuring, and magical super-weapons. I think that a competent scriptwriter could handle this.

(I also think that Horse and His Boy could be less of a problem than some people expect. A lot of the objectionable material seems to come in authorial asides or incidental descriptions which can simply be quietly lost, leaving another adventure story with at least one heroic Calormene and lots of Arabian Nights scenery. Lewisites who object to the loss of incidental racist or sexist material can be very, very safely ignored.)

Do skeptical materialists find the depiction of the afterlife a barrier to enjoying all of the above; or is there something unique about the way in which Lewis depicts heaven which makes it especially hard to swallow?
I don't think it's his Heaven that causes the problem, it's the who and how of the getting there.

I haven't read or seen all of the examples you quote, but from what I know, I think that most or all of them involve just one or two characters dying and going on to the afterlife. Their fates mostly seem to serve as ways to mitigate the pain of tragic deaths, or to ameliorate the loss involved in a heroic death while emphasising the heroism; or they represent a reward at the end of a hard or virtuous life which has reached its natural conclusion; or they're just statements of conventional morality.

For myself, I might not agree with the assumptions in every case, but I somewhat understand the underlying beliefs, and I can, yes, suspend disbelief and accept that this all fits the authors' world-view. I might find some of those stories sentimental or silly, but I suspect that some Christians might agree with me in those cases. And maybe I'm a bit of a sucker for sentimental literary devices that ameliorate tragedy myself.

Now, if Lewis had killed off any one of his viewpoint heroes in any of the earlier books - well, he'd have traumatised a good few children, but he'd score points for gritty realism. If he then showed that one victim going on to Heaven, that'd be another bit of amelioration of tragedy - but sure, Lewis was a Christian, so I'd know that he meant it. And he wouldn't be denying the tragedy of young death, just presenting his opinion of what follows and at worst sugaring a pill a bit. If he even had a big battle scene with a couple of casualties, the same principle would apply.

But there's a significant difference between an individual death, heroic or tragic or in the fullness of time, and rather casually slaughtering a large proportion of your heroes from past books, many of them young, and then saying "But it's all okay because they all went to Heaven." That's slipping from "comforts of religion" to rather sinister death cult thinking in my book, and I suspect it's what makes a lot of people who don't share Lewis's views very uncomfortable.

Charles Filson said...

The other day my sister-in-law who is dearer than a sister to me, and dislikes it when I describe her as a Liberal, is also rather agnostic...or spiritual in a definately non-christian sense of the word, expressed trepidation about seeing Narnia because of the fuss being made over it by Christian groups.

I mention this by way of suggesting that perhaps its nothing about Narnia itself that is so objectionable to some, but rather the company it keeps.

There are many other authors of Sci Fi and Fantasy who make reference to the Bible or Christianity in their writing. Many far more blatently than Lewis in Narnia: Anne McCaffrey, Phillip K. Dick, David Webber, Barry Longyear, and so on. Many other novels are far more blatently sexist, racist, or whatever. Perhaps (I know, Captain Obvious here) Narnia would not be so objectionable if the thoughts behind the story were not so accessible.

Okay, so now that I am on board, please continue. ;-)

Charles Filson said...

So I think that what Phill is saying probably true in one sense, it might be off the mark in that any film made from any Narnia movie will be objectionable.

Even if all the films are done really well so that the symbolism is very subtle, critics will dig into the books and point out why the film is objectionable. If the books fail they will stretch the text or dig into other comments by Lewis or whatever.

In fact, I think the Susan issue makes it pretty obvious: the films or books don't need to be objectionable for them to receive critisism. The Theological viewpoint espoused by Lewis was objectionable to some, and so those people will (mis)interpret the Lipstick and Nylons comment to show lewis as afraid of mature sexual women.

In example; H.G. Wells' Time Machine also has an infantilised female as the protagonist's ideal women. I didn't hear a lick of critisism about her when a movie version of Time Machine was released.

So to sum up: It is, 'in-my-humble', not Narnia that is offensive, but the Theology behind it.

Phil Masters said...

There are many other authors of Sci Fi and Fantasy who make reference to the Bible or Christianity in their writing. Many far more blatently than Lewis in Narnia: Anne McCaffrey, Phillip K. Dick, David Webber, Barry Longyear, and so on.

Uh, wuh?

I haven't read all of those writers, but I don't recall much in the way of explicit biblical references in any of the McCaffrey that I have read. If anything, she probably tends to the newage-waffly in general. And Dick's imagery is ... well, Dickian, and all over the place.

Whereas Lewis's biblical and Christian references, while not very explicit, permeate the books. Aslan's death and resurrection, the tendency to address humans as "Sons of Adam", the general structure of the apocalypse (owing much more to St John the Divine than to, say, the Norse myths)... The more you look, the more you find. (I remember reading something about the use of the lion in medieval European symbolism, and thinking "Oh, right, that's where Lewis got it.")

In example; H.G. Wells' Time Machine also has an infantilised female as the protagonist's ideal women. I didn't hear a lick of critisism about her when a movie version of Time Machine was released.

Uh, wuh? (2)

From what I recall, the Eloi are consistently and unambiguously described as child-like throughout the text of The Time Machine. There's no sense of a sexual impulse towards them in the narrator; his protectiveness towards them is distinctly paternal. (You could even, at a stretch, see the Morlocks as a Freudian symbol of adult sexuality which destroys the child on contact; all that living in damp caves and doing deeds of darkness would be worth at least an essay.)

This was fairly well represented in the first movie of the book, albeit slightly mangled by the need to cast adult human actors as Eloi. I haven't seen the second, more recent movie, which evidently cast a (distinctly sexually mature) adult woman as the main Eloi character, but my impression is that that made them much more like contemporary humans and much less child-like, so the idea of a sexual relationship between her and the Time Traveller wouldn't be particularly gamey. (The second movie certainly, by all accounts, mangled the plot in other ways.)

SK said...

Okay, Phil M, one more time round before we each admit that we'll never understand what the other is on about.

Do you object to:

(a) Lewis's philosophy of salvation

(b) His presenting this philosophy in fictional form (rather than as, say, an essay)

(c) His presenting this philosophy in fictional form in a book for children

(d) The way he presents it, ie by literally showing people (well, talking animals) being sorted into the saved and the unsaved -- that is, you'd be fine with something that just as unsubtlyy made clear who was saved and who wasn't, but didn't show the actual process of sorting (say, The Power and the Glory).

(e) the combination of (c) and (d) (ie, explicit presentation of heaven in a book for children).

(f) other (please specify)

Tick all that apply.

Mike Taylor said...

Phil Masters wrote: "From what I know, I think that most or all of [the examples you quote] involve just one or two characters dying and going on to the afterlife. Their fates mostly seem to serve as ways to mitigate the pain of tragic deaths, or to ameliorate the loss involved in a heroic death while emphasising the heroism."

And there, you have summed up the issue with admirable economy. The crucial point here is that this absolutely is not how Lewis sees it. For him (and probably for most Christians who take their faith seriously), Heaven is not a consolation prize awarded to ameliorate the pain of the end of mortal life; it is the prize that mortal life is a gateway to. Lewis's world-view absolutely does come through in the ending of TLB, but you can also read it stated much more explicitly in many of his essays, including First and second things.

So it seems to me that it's really this altogether different world-view that some people object to in TLB, rather than any one of the specific things that happen. "The term is over, the holidays have begun" - Heaven is more real and more important than mortal life (whether in Narnia or in our world).

This is strong meat; no wonder if polarises opinion so powerfully.

Phil Masters said...

Do you object to:

(a) Lewis's philosophy of salvation


Well, I disagree with that, certainly. Objections tend to focus more on what's done than what's merely thought.

(b) His presenting this philosophy in fictional form (rather than as, say, an essay)

I've no great objection to people presenting their ideas in fictional form, but I think that they should realise that this can sometimes make their fiction rather dull, and that it certainly tends to lose the interest of people who don't buy the premise.

(c) His presenting this philosophy in fictional form in a book for children

That maybe adds a twist of slightly unpleasant manipulativeness, certainly.

(d) The way he presents it, ie by literally showing people (well, talking animals) being sorted into the saved and the unsaved -- that is, you'd be fine with something that just as unsubtlyy made clear who was saved and who wasn't, but didn't show the actual process of sorting (say, The Power and the Glory).

That merely makes the whole thing clunky and ostentatiously didactic. It's an aesthetic error, not a moral one.

(e) the combination of (c) and (d) (ie, explicit presentation of heaven in a book for children).

That's merely compounding problems.

I think that Philip Pullman overstates his case rather badly at times, but at heart, I think that he's onto something. Lewis created a bunch of very popular children's books, but at heart, they're propaganda - and in some places, maybe potentially dangerous propaganda. And I think that they should be called on this from time to time.

(f) other (please specify)

If I have an instinctive objection as such to anything, it's to so much credit being given to a bunch of books which I find fundamentally flawed. I could wish that all that energy and Hollywood technical brilliance could be applied to more worthy subjects.

SK said...

I think we may be getting close... what is the difference between 'people presenting their ideas in fictional form' and 'propaganda'?

Phil Masters said...

Mostly, I suppose, the urgent wish to make conversions.

Fiction can say "This is my truth, tell me yours." Propaganda is concerned primarily (in fact, in the pure form, solely) with changing others.

SK said...

I'm going to assume you mean that fiction can say 'this is what I think the truth is; tell me what you think the truth is and then we can think about who's right'.

Otherwise you are denying the possibility of fiction from any but the most subjectivist viewpoint, nd that can't be right, can it? I mean, you can't think that when he wrote 1984 Orwell was saying 'here's my truth'?

Given that, isn't all literature an attempt to convince; if not an attemtp to convince on answers, an attempt to convince the reader to look at the questions in a specific way?

Phil Masters said...

So it seems to me that it's really this altogether different world-view that some people object to in TLB, rather than any one of the specific things that happen.

Well, yes, really. As Andrew himself said a few posts back, Last Battle is an explicitly Christian book in a way that the others, for all their heavy use of Christian imagery and strong moral position, just aren't. And a lot of people can live with an author who thinks differently to themselves, but not one who's telling them how to think.

(And my own sense that Lewis is tending that way throughout the series is what destroys its interest for me.)

Phil Masters said...

I'm going to assume you mean that fiction can say 'this is what I think the truth is; tell me what you think the truth is and then we can think about who's right'.

Yes, basically. (Though there's nothing wrong with fiction that simply sets out to entertain.)

Otherwise you are denying the possibility of fiction from any but the most subjectivist viewpoint, nd that can't be right, can it? I mean, you can't think that when he wrote 1984 Orwell was saying 'here's my truth'?

Actually, I think that Orwell was telling a very important and urgent truth, from his point of view there. He wasn't saying "this is how the world is"; he was saying "this is how the world could be if we're not very careful" or "this is an extreme version of the evil of which people are capable, and people like this must be stopped".

And I suspect that Orwell of all people would have been more than willing to argue about how right or wrong he was. He'd probably have seen the creation of an argument as far more important than admiration of his world-creation abilities.

The truth doesn't lie in the imagined world of the story (any more than I suppose that Lewis thought that Narnia "really existed"); it lies in the telling.

Given that, isn't all literature an attempt to convince; if not an attemtp to convince on answers, an attempt to convince the reader to look at the questions in a specific way?

Leaving aside the literature which exists simply to entertain (and we could probably split hairs all night about whether, say, The Importance of Being Earnest is trying to "convince" anyone of anything), the difference is between asking questions while offering possible answers, and hitting people over the head with tablets of stone on which supposed answers are inscribed.

SK said...

He wasn't saying "this is how the world is"; he was saying "this is how the world could be if we're not very careful" or "this is an extreme version of the evil of which people are capable, and people like this must be stopped".

Well, exactly: he was trying to make converts to his cause of 'stopping tyrants'.

If a writer writes (other than just to make money or to entertain) it's probably because they want to share some idea or truth which they believe (this is why writers have big egos: it takes an enormous ego in the first place to think that you have something to say that is worth other people not only reading, but maying you money to read it).

My point is that C.S. Lewis, in writing what you 'propaganda', is doing exactly the same thing as most writers do: putting forward his ideas (through the medium of fiction) in the hope that readers will read them, think about them, and come to share them.

Orwell did it; Greene did it; Pullman does it; Shakespeare did it, Milton did it, Marlowe did it...

You can object specifically to Lewis's ideas. You can think that any book which espouses those ideas is immoral. But the very act of writing a book in order to present ideas and convince people of them... if you object to that you can't jus apply it to Lewis, you have to object to all literature.

That's the distinction I'm trying to make: between objecting to the particular ideas, and objecting to the act of writing in order to present an idea (whatever that idea may be).

the difference is between asking questions while offering possible answers, and hitting people over the head with tablets of stone on which supposed answers are inscribed.

This the aesthetic problem, though, whihc I was trying to leave to one side to concentrate on the more fundamental objection which you seem to have with the work of Lewis.

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Propaganda is concerned primarily (in fact, in the pure form, solely) with changing others."

Non-loaded question: Is this merely descriptive, or do you intend us to add "...and therefore bad" at the end of the sentence.

If the former then I agree with you and I think "propaganda" is a possible description of the Narnia books.

If the latter, then I think you'd have to say that -- oh, a lot of Dickens work, "Uncle Toms Cabin", some of Orwell, blah, are "bad", and I wouldn't agree with this.

Admittedly, there is a problem with the words "good" and "bad" in this context: a well made knife is a "good knife", but this doesn't mean you think that the murder done with it is a "good" murder (although if the killer is a very skilled as his work, you might say "He is a good hit man. The best in the business".) So we could get into a muddle about whether, say "Birth of a Nation" is a "good" movie. (All together, now: "It's all in Plato!")

Abigail Nussbaum said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Abigail Nussbaum said...

You know, I think the argument could be made for calling 1984 (and also Animal Farm) propaganda, and although I see a difference between propaganda that tells you how things might be by presenting an exaggerated picture of the future and propaganda that tells you how things are by presenting a thin allegory, both are rather objectionable when they overwhelm the fundamental purpose of literature, which is to entertain (I'm using a rather wide definition of 'entertain' here, one which encompasses both Virginia Woolf and Harry Potter).

As I've gotten older, 1984 has come to seem shrill and overblown, possibly deserving of its own equivalent of Godwin's law - whenever a discussion about government overstepping its bounds starts quoting from the book, the probability of reasonable discourse begins to approach zero. I might say the same thing about The Handmaid's Tale and the issue of women's rights.

Now, Orwell and Atwood wrote their alarmist tracts because they felt besieged - Orwell saw the rise of fascism and neo-fascism and Atwood was seeing an anti-feminist backlash. I'm curious - did Lewis feel that Christianity was under attack when he wrote Narnia?

Phil Masters said...

the difference is between asking questions while offering possible answers, and hitting people over the head with tablets of stone on which supposed answers are inscribed.

This the aesthetic problem, though, whihc I was trying to leave to one side to concentrate on the more fundamental objection which you seem to have with the work of Lewis.


Well, no, I don't think that you should be leaving it aside. It's a large aesthetic problem for me, and my first-order reason for not bothering much with the Narnia books these days.

Further objections to the books, which compound the problem, amount to deep-seated problems with Lewis's philosophy - the feeling that, bluntly, he's not only a bit racist and sexist, but that he promotes an actively dangerous sort of death-cult thinking - but I think we've already taken that debate about as far as it's going to go.

"Propaganda is concerned primarily (in fact, in the pure form, solely) with changing others."

Non-loaded question: Is this merely descriptive, or do you intend us to add "...and therefore bad" at the end of the sentence.


I don't know about "and therefore bad"; I might prefer "and hard to make any good". If a writer is solely concerned with changing minds, he's liable to lose focus on what's required to tell a good story.

Or perhaps substitute "and therefore dangerously tricky". If propaganda is also any good as literature, but if it promotes a bad cause, then there's a certain need to sound alarm bells and raise red flags. But those of us who happen to agree with the case being made aren't going to worry so much.

For an extreme case, rather than an attempt to Godwinise the debate - presumably, if Mein Kampf was a masterpiece of German prose, we still wouldn't want it taught in schools. More pleasantly, no one much gets too annoyed about Macbeth being a set text, because any "message" it seems to contain is either unexceptionable (chaos and tyranny are rather bad) or fairly irrelevant today (obscure stuff about Stuart dynastic rights). Whereas The Taming of the Shrew is rather controversial, and I could see a not-actually-mad person objecting to it being set for school exams, because it appears to propound a rather dodgy view of personal relations.

(All together, now: "It's all in Plato!")

Including the propaganda for tyranny, by the way. Plato isn't the nicest writer to teach himself...

SK said...

fundamental purpose of literature, which is to entertain

Cough cough splutter. But that is a whole other discussion.

Phil M: Yes, I think we've reached the end of where we can usefully push this. Can we just agree that there's nothing inherently wrong (morally or inherently) with writing a novel to try to convince people of one's views?

The moral rightness or wrongness of such a book depend on the rightness or wrongness of the ideas it proposes (and therefore will be disagreed about by people who disagree about those ideas) but is independant of the book, pretty much.

The aesthetic judgement on the other hand is independent of the ideas (bad ideas may be conveyed in a good book, and good ideas in a bad one).

And therefore one's judgement of Lewis comes down to two things:

(a) What you think of his ideas

and

(b) How well he writes.

Which are respectively the moral and aesthetic concerns, and are independent.

did Lewis feel that Christianity was under attack when he wrote Narnia?

Not so much 'under attack' as he felt like people had got used to the idea and therefore didn't see it as the revolutionary, massive idea it is. Narnia was in part an attempt to present the familiar in an unfamiliar guise, so that peopele didn't think 'oh, yeah, babyjesus, cross, heard all that before, don't care' but actually thought about what it would mean for God to enter the world and die.

In a way, I think Lewis would have been happy to have offended Phil, because it means that he has made Phil think about Christianity rather than just seeing it as part of the wallpaper of daily life in this country (cf Rilstone essays passim).

Charles Filson said...

Phil,

McCaffrey alludes to scriptural passages in many of her stories, and in Dragon Riders..._All the Weirs of Pern_ I think, whichever one the master harper dies in, she quotes directly from that 60's song by the Byrds, and calls it the greatest book ever written or something like that.

Dick, might be Dickian, but he blatantly plagerises many of his story lines straight from the Bible...of course there are only what?...2, 12, 33 or 56 dramatic situations depending on who you read anyway, so that's not surprising, but Dick actaully claimed to have heard voices from Thomas or Phillip or...well never mind.

The point was that Biblical imagery or even quotation does not draw critisism in most cases. It the case of Lewis I think that it is not Narnia or the imagery contained in it that is objectionable so much as the underlying theology.

Characters dying and going to an afterlife is, as Andrew pointed out, fairly common. Most of the other imagery is also common and would not be abjectionable on its own.

And Well's imagery may seem paternal, but this is the only imagery he presents of women. We have the steril Mrs. Watchet or the infantilized Weena. The female Characters in Narnia present a much more positive image of women, and Lewis seems far less frightened of womanhood than Wells if this is the type of argument one would make.

My point being that since Wells is not overtly pushing an agenda with his story, the meaning behind his infantilized leading lady is never questioned, whereas since Lewis is writing with the intention of instruction, his characters are scutinized to no end.

John C. Wright said...

"I doubt that many adult women would really want hair down to their ankles, and I don't think that many adult men are especially attracted to it either."

I take it the writer here is not from our planet. Newsflash: Men like women with long hair, and some of us like women with very long hair, in the same way, and for the same reason, that some women like men with beards.

If you want to say that a woman is extraordinarily feminine in a children's book, and you have to do it in five words: "hair down to her ankles" is much more tasteful than "built like da brick house".

The argument about the role of women in Christendom shows a similar not-from-this-planet knowledge of history. The Roman matron was kept by her lord and could be killed under Roman law. Christianity forbad concubinage and polygamy, forbad marriage against the will of the woman, allowed women to assume roles of power like Abbesses, and roles of spiritual authority, like saints.

No, women in Christendom were not equal to men: but, dear heavens, compare their roles to the way they were treated in the ancient world, or in the Far East or Middle-East!

Jo Walton said...

My problem with The Last Battle, which, as with the rest of the series I did not recognise as Christian allegory (despite going to church every Sunday of my childhood, sometimes twice) was not that it killed the characters or even that it destroyed Narnia, but that it seemed to sit uneasily with the reality of the other books. I never doubted, either as a child or since, the reality of the other books in their own terms. That Aslan died and was alive again, that Susan won the apple-shooting contest, that Reepicheep lost his tail, that Jill forgot the order of the signs, that Bree wasn't sure if free horses rolled, Diggory's mother and the magic apple -- these things were real, within the story, they rang utterly true.

The Last Battle never rang true in the same way for me.

I don't know if it was Lewis being too heavy handed with the allegory, or trying to load too much into it or what, but my reaction to The Last Battle, at forty as at four, remains "Oh, that." I never liked Tirian and Jewel much, I hated the whole Puzzle plot, and I didn't want to see Narnia, which I had seen sung to life, broken into pieces and put back into the box.

I always re-read the series joyfully, and either skipped The Last Battle or plodded through it dutifully, wanting more Narnia but not, somehow, that. There's not enough Narnia in it, not enough sugar-coating maybe, not enough Joy, not enough of what I was reading the books for. A unicorn. If you say so.

When, reading this thread, I compared The Last Battle to the end of Watership Down, my strongest sense of the difference is how right Hazel's death and ascension is, how exactly it fits with every other word of the book, how appropriate an end it is. I don't think I've ever read it without tearing up. In contrast, my continued reaction to The Last Battle has been its completely opposite sense of unfittingness.

Susan's apostacy, however, was a great comfort to me when I was a teenage girl and all my friends were into lipstick and invitations and nylons and I just wanted to read my book. They were turning into Susan. I remained a friend of Narnia, even if there was no Narnia and no such thing as Aslan, because, with Puddleglum, I liked it better than the sham that was being offered to me as reality.

Paul Brown said...

Lewis seems far less frightened of womanhood

Sorry, but having read "The Shoddy Lands" were women are basically accused, without even a trace of irony, of being vacuous, self obsessed morons it's quite clear that Lewis was a mysogynist of quite massive proportions. Of course, just having dodgy opinions doesn't mean that someone can't produce impressive art, but that story made me distinctly uncomfortable thinking that the person who wrote tLtWatW also came up with that.

Charles Filson said...

Paul,

I have not read that story, so I'm not sure what in it makes you feel that way. It is a short isn't it? I will have to go and get a copy.

Whatever is said, I find it hard to believe that what you represent is Lewis' own person opinion of women. In A Grief Observed he refered to his wife's mind as "lithe and quick and as muscular as a leopard.”

Then there is the examples of all the strong female characters in Narnia. His references to intellectual equals and friends who were women, like Elizabeth Anscombe and various unnamed scholarly aquaintences.

The personal statements that he made about women, the one's that are accessible to us now, seem to indicate a guy who was actually quite progressive regarding women, for his time. So even if he disparages women in Shoddy, I'm not sure you can extrapolate that to Lewis himself being a misogynist.

Earl Wajenberg said...

I think it's over-reaching to say "Shoddy Lands" criticizes women. It certainly criticizes a certain *kind* of woman, to wit, the kind of woman that Susan was turning into.

I think it is also important to remember that Lewis's views on women in general very likely changed over time. His last novel, "Till We Have Faces," written after his marriage, has a powerfully, sympathetically, subtly drawn female narrator, for instance.

SK said...

'The Shoddy Lands', as I recall (for anyone who wants to read it it's in The Dark Tower), is not so much anti-women as anti-the-modern-world.

And unlike the claimed dislike of women, this dislike of the modern world and its trappings is perfectly in keeping with what else Lewis wrote.

Sam Dodsworth said...

The Roman matron was kept by her lord and could be killed under Roman law. Christianity forbad concubinage and polygamy, forbad marriage against the will of the woman, allowed women to assume roles of power like Abbesses, and roles of spiritual authority, like saints.

I don't want to go too far off topic here, but arguing that women were less oppressed in the Christian Middle Ages than in the Roman Republic is not an argument that Christian societies didn't oppress women, or that there wasn't a misogynistic streak in many traditional forms of Christianity.
Would you argue that the Romans were essentially in favour of women's rights because, unlike ancient Athens, widows could own property and women were allowed to be Vestal Virgins or gladiators?


Newsflash: Men like women with long hair, and some of us like women with very long hair, in the same way, and for the same reason, that some women like men with beards.

Amen, although I'd change both statements to "some men", and add that quite a lot of women like men with long hair, too. (I'd also argue that this is another side-effect of the attitude that being desireable is inherently feminine, but I don't insist on it.)

Phil Masters said...

I take it the writer here is not from our planet.

Possibly not. But the buggers lost my capsule and all the message crystals. Sigh. Still, at least I avoid the problem with glowing green rocks, too.

Newsflash: Men like women with long hair, and some of us like women with very long hair, in the same way, and for the same reason, that some women like men with beards.

Oh, sure. Human tastes go quite wonderfully all over the place, I'm happy to say, and a liking for long hair on women (or beards on men) hardly qualifies as extreme or bizarre.

But as a symbolic signifier, very long hair seems to be more about fey winsomeness than sexual maturity, most of the time. It's associated with elf-maids, fairytale princesses, and pallid Pre-Raphaelite victim-heroines. Meanwhile, the likes of the Venus de Milo and Manet's Olympia clearly both prefer something more manageable.

(Actually, one or two women I've known with - quite nice - very long hair, have cut it much shorter soon after having children. The explanation is a simple matter of sticky little clutching fingers.)

But whatever. I don't attach great significance to this, except in a negative sense - that long hair isn't terribly symbolic of sexual maturity (and incidentally isn't terribly practical either).

If you want to say that a woman is extraordinarily feminine in a children's book, and you have to do it in five words: "hair down to her ankles" is much more tasteful than "built like da brick house".

Exactly. That was my point. Long hair is the kind of marker for "attractiveness" that one can safely put in a fairytale-style children's book (or put on a doll for small girls) without making the sexual element very strong.

So Susan has grown up to be "attractive" - probably because, well, that's one of the things that children would like to think could come to them - but it's not really a very sexualised sort of attractiveness. And hey, if she's so attractive, how come all the suitors we hear about are people who have seemingly never even met her?

I honestly don't see that passage as a big issue, in fact. It's a throwaway line at the end of the book, saying "these people grew up to be wise and accomplished and good-looking and generally fine". It's unexceptional and unexceptionable. But equally, I think that it makes poor evidence for any serious argument about the author's view of maturity or sexuality or the price of chips.

Mike Taylor said...

Jo Walton wrote: I always re-read the series joyfully, and either skipped The Last Battle or plodded through it dutifully, wanting more Narnia but not, somehow, that.

"It's not Narnia, Aslan, it's you."

Those are Lucy's words, but I don't think it's a big stretch to attribute them to Lewis himself (and I think that in general, when he projects himself through any of the Narnia characters, it's much more often Lucy than Aslan). I hesitate to put words in Lewis's mouth (though actually I notice I've done it a lot in this thread :-) but I think he would say that to be overly concerned with Narnia is exactly the same mistake as being overly concerned with the Earth. In his explicitly Heaven-centric view, they are both nothing more than foothills to the True Mountain.

brad said...

I would put it another way. For C.S. Lewis, Susan Pevensie is ultimately a sock puppet to be used to teach theological truths.

For us, though, Narnia is--or ought to be--*real*, a genuine act of subcreation, something that matters for its own sake.

This is, I think, J.R.R. Tolkien's objection to the Narnia series: that the (sub)creator does not really *believe* in his own creation...

Arthur said...

Sorry to resurrect this so late, but there's one major example of potential misogyny I can think of in Lewis which hasn't been brought up in this discussion - at least, not anywhere I can find. There's a bit in That Hideous Strength, where Ransom patiently explains to the heroine that "you do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love because you never attempted obedience". There's an explicit theme about marrying couples obeying one another, and about women ultimately obeying their husbands. Which is fine in loving, caring relationships, but all of us have heard about battered wives staying with their abusive husbands because "I deserve it because I failed him" or "if I love him and work harder he will change".

(Then again, I don't think That Hideous Strength would have ever sat right with me: it's explicitly condemning science as a dangerous undermining of cosmic authority, and as someone who believes in the scientific method I can't put much stock in appeals to authority.)

Charles Filson said...

I'm not sure that Lewis would have actually stated it quite like that.

I think, and I am certain that I will mangle this, that what he was saying was not that religion or faith trumps but that science does not trump religion in spiritual matters.

At least from reading his work _Miracles_ I don't think he meant us to apply the Bible to science, but instead he seemed to argue that a Miracle is specifically a one-off and not provable or disprovable by the scientific method. The lesson that I took away from Lewis in _Miracles_ was that to either try to prove or disprove miracles, or to use the mysteries of Christianity to explain the physical world sort of misses the point of religion and God.

Science addresses how people can function. Religion/Philosophy addresses what people ought to do with that function. Neither one can really address the purpose of the other.

At least that is the impression that I developed from _That Hideous Strength_ and _Miracles_ and Lewis in general. I could have been reading my own opinions into it.

SK said...

I haven't read Miracles (one of those I mean to) but while I think your interpretation can cover Lewis's views, you might lso lead the unwary into thinking that Lewis believed in some kind of subjective, 'internal' religion whereby science dealt with the 'outside world' and religion with the 'inside world', when of course nothing coul dbe farther from the truth.

(This seems to me to be the danger when people start talking about science and religion having different domains: they are in code saying that the domain of science is 'things that are true' and the domain of religion is 'things that are not true'; and that while religion can tell us what kind of peopel we should be, ultimately it is all fairy stories. Useful fairy stories, but fairy stories). They see religion as myth, as Lewis did, but they forget that Lewis's religion was about how muth became fact -- how religion intruded into the domain of science and transformed it.

Regarding That Hideous Strength, I think it's rather unfair to apply a novel portraying the couple as (as I recall) basically good, decent, in-love people, just misled (in Lewis's view) by modern society into expecting the wrong things from each other, to such a degenerate case as 'battered wives staying with their abusive husbands'.

Arthur said...

Fundamentally, the advice Ransom gives is "go to him in obedience, and you will find love". I know it's a little unfair to apply this to a degenerate case, but ISTR that the idea of obedience is presented as the true essence of marriage in the book. If something is presented as being universally applicable, it's not unreasonable to see how it applies in every case.

SK said...

That's exactly the point: obedience is presented as par tof the true essence of love: a marriage which is working perfectly will involve obedience.

You may or may not agree with this, of course. But if you want to attack Lewis's views, attack them directly: don't set up a straw man by applying them to a degenerate case.

But in the case of a wife-beater, the marriage is clearly not working properly for reasons other than lack of obedience, and therefore the question of obedience becomes moot. It would be papering over far deeper cracks. A violent marriage has already lost its 'true essence' and to regain it the violence would have to stop; the obedience advice in that case would be inapplicable, whereas it is (according to Ransom, who may or may not reflect Lewis's views exactly, remember) applicable to the sitution in That Hideous Strength.

Andrew Rilstone said...

When Lewis found that William Gresham was prone to drunkeness and violence, he advised Joy to divorce him.

Charles Filson said...

SK,

Well, I was pretty sure I would mangle it.

On the other hand, stating that my explanation may lead people to think that "the domain of science is 'things that are true' and the domain of religion is 'things that are not true';" is not an argument against my statement.

If logic leads from 'Religion cannot explain physics' to 'religion cannot speak truth' then that is where we should at least be willing to follow. On the other hand I don't think that this reasoning is sound.

I would find it really hard to convolute anything I have read by Lewis, and I have read a bit though not as much as some around here, to say that Science is bad because it undermines God's authority. I think that instead what he intended (based mostly on _Miracles_ but you can also read this in 'Hideous Strength') was to say that those who apply science to trump religion in matters of religion are misapplying science.

On the issue of the marital advice in 'Hideous Strength' I completely agree.

Eli B said...

The kind of "obedience" praised in That Hideous Strength is hard to define, but hardly absolute. Jane is advised to get away from her husband right away, when he's fallen in with the villains; her (male, married) friend won't tell him where she is, and gives him hell when he doesn't take her story of abuse seriously. The one case where she's told she must defer to Mark's authority is in formally joining Ransom's inner circle.

Lewis also hints at a lack of sexual happiness between them, and implies that Jane's bad attitude may be to blame - but his treatment of this is so demure that the point is not at all clear, at least to me.

Stephen Donaghy said...

Hi, just a though picking up an earlier thread that it is Susan who rejects Aslan. As a cradle Catholic this is the theology that I've been inculcated with - God doesn't want anyone to go to hell but the sin of Pride makes people choose to reject Him. As a result they condemn themselves to everlasting torment.
Also on the latest thread about obedience as I recall that is Germaine Greer's argument defending Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. It is only when Kate overcomes her pride to subserve herself to her partnership with Petruchio that she full develops as a person. To quote the so-called prayer of St Francis "it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life" or in an alternative version "For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to eternal life."

Abigail Nussbaum said...

(4) My forthcoming book "The Cair Paravel Code" will conclusively prove that Lucy was Aslan's consort and the mother of his cubs.

A compelling theory, but it seems that the filmmakers disagree with you - they're shipping Lucy with Mr. Tumnus.

Ayne said...

Lyra is a Mary Sue. It is for this reason more than anything regarding faith or 'religion' that I threw away Amber Spyglass in disgust. I'm not especially interested in reading other people's wish-fulfillment fantasies.

AJ Hall said...

Regarding That Hideous Strength, I think it's rather unfair to apply a novel portraying the couple as (as I recall) basically good, decent, in-love people, just misled (in Lewis's view) by modern society into expecting the wrong things from each other, to such a degenerate case as 'battered wives staying with their abusive husbands'

Sorry to chip in rather late, but I have to disagree about the nature of "obedience" as portrayed in the Studdock marriage - it seems to me that it is quintessentially about battered wives staying with abusive husbands. When Ransom sends Jane back to make one appeal to Mark to ask him to leave N.I.C.E (an appeal in which she is forbidden to use any factual arguments such as "they're all a bunch of icky devil worshippers and God and his angels are on to them" but simply told to rely on begging it as a favour because she's his wife) Ransom offers no guidance on what Jane is supposed to do if Mark refuses her appeal and instead insists on her returning to Belbury with him. What that would have entailed is made entirely clear: before she can find Mark she falls in with the sadistic lesbian secret policewoman Fairy Hardcastle, who is yet another of Lewis's nightmare This-Is-What-Happens-When-Women-Get-Above-Themselves characters. Fairy tortures her, and she escapes back to St Anne's On The Hill. While after this incident there is no immediate suggestion that she should return to Mark (and Dr Dimble does indeed pronounce that if Mark has the authority within N.I.C.E he claims to have not only would he not delivery Jane up to him, he would not deliver his dog)the central question is left completely in abeyance; Jane was put in a position where she was tortured precisely because she was doing her best to follw Ransom's strictures as to obedience; given the set up in the book had she actually managed to meet up with Mark at the time the situation would be likely to have been even worse. Given this background, it's difficult to see how it doesn't cover wifebeating.

Dawn said...

First: the essay was excellent, and this has been an interesting discussion--I actually read through all 111 comments.

You may see this as a capacity for pleasure being spoilt by too much analysis; I prefer to say that education is the best defence against propaganda.

Please don't tell me you're forgetting that Lewis was a professor of literature--he may not have appreciated "modern" education, but he must have believed in education. Particularly of the classics, philosophy, and history (not a bad curriculum).

Regarding Disney: Disney distributed the film, but they were not the ones actually making it. I'm a little irritated that so few people are making the distinction.

As for Susan and all the deaths: sometimes as a writer you have to kill characters you love, even destroy a world if the story requires it. In Lewis's case, he needed to destroy Narnia because Narnia wasn't the ultimate goal; the ultimate goal is Aslan's country. You can't experience the very best, the ultimate Joy of Aslan's country if you don't allow Narnia to end. So he does. With Susan, yes, he simply makes a point. But to some degree you have to say her character brings her in that direction. With the rest, they needed the reuniting and in Lewis's worldview death is the gateway to real life, a life more substantial, more real.

There was a famous writer who once said, "I have to kill all my little darlings." An good author who cares may weep for them, but will kill them nonetheless.

Mez said...

In honour of De-lurking Week, I step forward to point out that the doctrine of "obedience" has been used many, many times by religiously-inclined advisers precisely to send abused & beaten wives back to violent &/or drunken husbands even quite recently. It was far more common, though, before the last half of the last century. Sometimes the suffering as seen as "your cross to bear", and a test of strength & virtue.

Hearing this so often meant that when I read That Hideous Strength, I was repelled & shocked by that theme.

MatGB said...

113 comments? I thought I'd check back after my post linking here got yet another google referral. I remain impressed Andrew, and still haven't seen the film yet...

Not sure I get the idea of Lyra as a Mary Sue though, seems a little missing the point. Ah well.

StillWater said...
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Ivriniel said...

Excellent article, I didn't read all the comments, so if someone has already said this, I apologize.

Do you suppose it's a coincidence that the two characters who come down the hardest on Susan: Jill and Polly, are the ones who are the least like conventional 1950's females?

Jill, with the possible exception of Aravis, is Lewis's female character with the most girl power. She's sent off on a quest in the wild lands of the North, and she's an excellent scout and pathfinder. No other female character is subjected to a battle the way Jill is. You can't imagine Susan doing the things that Jill does. Jill, with her "tomboyish ways" would have gotten hard time back in England from the girly-girls with their lipstick, nylons and invitations.

Polly, as an unmarried woman also defies the conventions for women in her age. Women in the mold that Susan goes into also would have looked down their noses at a woman like Polly Plummer.

Mike Taylor said...

Two years after this was posted, and I still feel the need to comment ...

On re-reading "C. S. Lewis: letters to children" I found a letter in which Lewis himself explicitly states his own understanding of Susan's situation -- something, somehow, seems to have gone unquoted so far in this discussion:

-------------------------------

22 January 1957

Dear Martin

The books don't tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there is plenty of time for her to mend, and perhaps she will get to Aslan's country in the end -- in her own way.

-------------------------------

All of which is rather a long way from "Lewis considered a girl reaching sexual maturity to be such a terrible thing she should be banished to hell".

Valery said...

I agree that nylon and red lipstick are really very important:)

The boy with the green tambourine said...

Thanks for a fascinating discussion.

I read Dawn Treader and Last Battle a good deal later than the other Chronicles, and I liked them less (not just because I was grown up, I think). The morality of Dawn Treader is rather basic: bravery is good; whinging is bad. And Last Battle is simply missing something as a novel. It just isn't satisfying.

The theology of it is also annoying: Good done in the name of Tash is actually accorded to Aslan, while bad done in the name of Aslan is actually service to Tash. I can agree with the notion that being good is the most important thing, but this analysis is far too simplistic, even for a ten-year-old, surely?

Lewis stated that he didn't intentionally write Wardrobe as an analogy. It started, he said, with pictures. And certainly he borrowed a lot of imagery from Greek mythology, most obviously Mr Tumnus. It does work as an analogy, but it also works as a novel in its own right, which Last Battle certainly doesn't. And that, I think, is its problem.

Someone made the interesting point that Narnia has two devils: Tash and the White Witch. And neither is a fallen angel. I think this shows that Lewis was prepared to write a good story, and let the analogy go hang, if he felt it was better to do that. In Last Battle, he was probably just a bit careless. Perhaps the suggestion that he was getting tired of Narnia isn't far off the mark.

milf said...
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Andrew said...

Rather insightful. However, the Problem of Susan, for me, will forever remain C. S. Lewis's big damn problem (flaw?). His attitudes toward female sexuality are just bizarre.

At the end of LWW, Lewis rewards Susan with long hair, beauty beyond comparison, and numerous marriage proposals from the kings of faraway lands with the assumption that her marriage(s) will benefit the kingdom of Narnia in some way. These proposals are so far from personal romance that they have to be buffered through an ambassador.

Susan returns to her adolescence after experiencing some 500 years as a woman with legendary beauty. And this is a *reward.* This is what Aslan wanted of her--this was her reward for deposing his political rival Jadis. C. S. Lewis wouldn't have made her into this knockout princess at the end of LWW if that wasn't what Susan was supposed to be.

So we're treated with this image of her as a beauty queen, and then in the Last Battle we learn that Susan has taken an (allegedly) all-consuming interest in making herself appear beautiful and desirable to other men.

Well...duh.

What else is she going to do? Join a convent? Become Aslan's virginal bride a la Lucy?

So, Lewis presents with a binary, most likely an unintentional one, but a terrible binary nonetheless. It's fine to be a pretty pretty princess, courted by hundreds of suitors, when you're under the subjugation of male dominance. Susan is very much Peter's "queen consort," though I hesitate to use that phrase because of rabid and weird Peter/Susan shippers out there. He is the High King, the other three siblings defer to his authority. Furthermore, Aslan is a distinctly male deity, who deplores sexual proclivities. In other words, it's fine for Susan to dress up, wear lipstick and nylons, and receive invitations when they're filtered through the hegemonic structure of Aslan and Peter. *But,* when she returns to earth, and attempts to discover her sexuality without patriarchal influence, her actions are frowned upon. Not just frowned upon, but she would be *denied* entry to heaven should she die imminently.

As Lewis writes, Susan has become somewhat of an atheist with Narnia. She does not accept Aslan's rule in her life. She attempts to regain what she had spent 500 years doing, and she's punished for it.

Female sexuality, then, is only good when it's regulated by patriarchy. And that's why Susan is innocent, and C. S. Lewis can go slap himself with a sea bass.

JordanBaker said...

I don't know, you call case closed, but it seems pretty clear that Susan is allowed to be desired, but only passively. She can be hot, and men can ask for her hand in marriage, but if she actually does anything to try to attract a man, that's grounds for criticism.

Additionally, Susan is said to be excessively interested in obviously female things. It's not that Susan is too into jazz music or gambling.

And you may say she's not sent to hell, but what do you call it when you're 21 and your whole family dies in a train wreck? That's a pretty crap fate.

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TonyTheProf said...

I've just come across your posting. I had a grandmother who was a deal old lady, but would (as my mother said) look like mutton dressed as lamb; even when she was very old (and in a nursing home), when I went to take her for a drive, she had to put on the lipstick, the rouge on the cheeks, and it didn't make her look any younger. She was also notorious in the family for being 40 for around 20 years, to anyone who asked her age. She was sweet, but she was obsessed by her appearance in a way that my great-aunts (of around the same age) never were, and in many ways she was far more immature than them (even in her 80s)

When I read the passage about Susan, that struck a chord, because I could see how someone could become fixated on appearance so much, especially the bit about wanting to be a certain age, then trying desperately not to leave it.

TonyTheProf said...

Just a postscript - Lewis in his letter to one child did say that we don't know what happened to Susan, and she could well have found her way back to the light.

PerthGryphonMan said...

Great entry. Neil Gaiman's story, the 'problem of Susan', I encountered today, and it disturbed me a lot, particularly the dream sequence at the end. I thought to myself, 'It's wrong, but I don't know where.' It's really nice to read a clear, cogently argued account of Lewis' thought in this matter. Thanks!

Pondering Reader said...

An interesting entry and an even more interesting discussion! I, too have a distaste for The Last Battle. I read the book quite a while ago and it's just dawned upon that Susan was left behind. The book had bothered me when I read it, but not because of "the Problem of Susan", but because of how abrupt everything seemed. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could see how Lewis had pieced his world and Aslan's Land together, but having pretty much everyone important die seemed... too fictional? I, as many others, did not catch the hints at Christianity as a child. They were simply books with a great creature who seemed to know a lot about the worlds that existed. (Though, I suppose that should have been a hint towards the omnipotent being that is God.)

I don't suppose I'll ever be satisfied with The Last Battle and how the Chronicles ended, but it makes me wonder... Why haven't any of Lewis' critics tried to write a proper end for Susan themselves? Surely it isn't as satisfying as seeing the author himself tell us that she has been redeemed, but it sure beats critiquing a man who's been dead for five decades.

C.S. Lewis himself has said that Susan may find her way back to Aslan, so why don't we narrate that ourselves? Our imaginations can work for more than just arguments, you know. ;)

(Side note: If you see < em >, it's because Blogger apparently reads old HTML codes but not new ones. em stands for emphasis and should create italics.)