Saturday, December 03, 2005

On Criticisms of Narnia

I found this article at Guardian Unlimited occasionally a little puzzling. Particularly this:

Lewis, however, had a preference for what used to be called "muscular Christianity", which recommended a strong and even militant faith, and the portrayal of Christ as athletic and super-masculine. This may have been responsible for his choice of a beautiful but terrifying lion the size of a small elephant as his allegorical figure of Jesus, rather than something nearer to the traditional innocent, meek and mild Lamb of God.

Or what may have been responsible for the choice of beautiful but terrifying lion is that it's quite as traditional as the "traditional innocent, meek and mild Lamb of God." Indeed, the two go very closely together, as in this well-known passage from Revelation:

I saw in the right hand of Him Who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals.

And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, "Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals?"

And no one in Heaven or on the Earth or under the Earth was able to open the book or to look into it.

Then I began to weep greatly because no one was found worthy to open the book or to look into it; and one of the elders said to me, "Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals."

And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the Earth.

And He came and took the book out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne.

And notice, by the way, that the Lamb is in this passage not 'mild' but a terrible and powerful being with seven horns and seven eyes.

There are basically three major fields of criticism that come up in criticism of the Narnia books.

The charge, attributed (I hope with some exaggeration) to Pullman, that Narnia is religious propaganda is as silly as some people's condemnation of His Dark Materials as anti-Christian propaganda. I think the label 'propaganda' is very difficult to pin on any children's story. Is The Cat Who Went to Heaven Buddhist propaganda? (It's an exquisite little story, by the way. If you haven't read it, go to the children's section of your local library and look it up.) Are the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer Jewish propaganda? Is Arni's The Mahabharata: A Child's View Hindu propaganda? One might as well call The Dark Is Rising series Manichaean propaganda. It's difficult to see that there is any meaning in using the term this way. Anyone who talks in this way is somehow failing to be mature enough to be able to read children's books.

I am much more sympathetic to the other two criticisms, which pertain to race and gender.

I'm not sure, though, what is meant by the 'serious political repercussions' of a The Horse and His Boy movie. I do think people's worries about the Calormenes are a serious issue; but putting it in terms of 'political repercussions' misses the real point of the worry, which is that The Horse and His Boy, read a certain way, reads a little too much like one of those old dark continent adventure tales, and thus has to face the same sorts of questions. Plus, putting it in terms of 'political repercussions' just propagates a bad way of looking at the matter: there's always a danger that, sometimes, comes too near the top, of the Western critic advocating that (say) we treat Muslims well, but adding in support of this, or in explanation of this, some argument or statement that paints Muslims in ominous tones as people who go around taking frightful vengeance on people who stir up their wrath -- as if Muslims weren't by and large decent and reasonable people just trying to get along with their lives in a world that keeps trying to paint them in ominous tones. I hope there's no hint of that here; but I don't know what else there would be.

It is certainly true that Lewis tends to write boy stories, and is uneven in his characterization of girls; I always liked Polly, Aravis, and Lucy, but not so much Jill and Susan. I think a protest of what happened to Susan is entirely reasonable; although the problem is not, as Lurie suggests, one of bad writing. We are, after all, talking about a good portion of a lifetime, one that includes adolescence and young adulthood, so there's time and opportunity enough for Susan to change; and I'm not sure the later off-stage Susan is entirely unrepresented in the earlier Susan, despite the turn for the worse. Susan was always a little wavery and indecisive, and, despite Lurie's suggestion otherwise, it's actually the sort of failure she would find dangerous. Likewise, the problem is not unfairness, since unfairness is really not a significant criticism of point of plot -- whenever was a fictional plot fair? It could have been handled better, though; it's too easy to read in a problematic way. It should be noted, incidentally, that Lurie is speaking nonsense in saying that Susan is 'shut out of paradise forever' -- this is a massive eisegesis. We don't actually know what happens to Susan, at all. We don't even have any indication that she died with everyone else, so we don't ever hear the end of Susan's story. In fact, there have been occasional rumors -- how creidble I do not know -- that Lewis toyed with writing a story about Susan's redemption after having inherited Diggory's house, but never did it. It's difficult to know what to make of such rumors, since fans have been aching for some closure about Susan ever since the beginning. The Problem of Susan a common topic in the underground world of Narnia fan fiction (underground because C.S. Lewis Pte., the C. S. Lewis estate, has a reputation for being ruthlessly defensive of its copyrights -- cracking down hard on fan tributes of any kind has been one of the many bad mistakes of the estate, which has earned them much anger among C. S. Lewis fans).

I think it's entirely possible to have an ethical critique of fiction without falling into a sort of literary puritanism in which we go about wagging our finger at artifacts of our own flawed manner of reading. I think such an ethical critique needs to focus on ways of writing and reading. We can with great fruitfulness pinpoint weaknesses, incompletenesses, distortions etc., involved in reading a work a certain way, as well as tendencies in the work to be read a certain way, without thereby suggesting that there's something vaguely evil about people who like to read that work, particularly if they read it a different way. A well-considered critique can have the beneficial result of improving the way we read every work. We learn from the lapses as well as from the excellences, and are enriched in the learning. But it's difficult to do; the key to it is a judiciousness most of us lack.

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