October 1, 1998
“The Darkside of Narnia”
Why are we marking the centenary of CS Lewis’s birth with parties and competitions? His books were reactionary and dishonest, says Philip Pullman
The centenary of C S Lewis’s birth on November 29 is being celebrated with all manner of hoopla, much of it connected in one way or another with the Narnia books. There will be an adaptation of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company, a 100th birthday party at the toy shop Hamleys, a competition for children to draw greetings cards based on the Narnia stories, and fresh editions of the seven books, with newly coloured illustrations.
As if that wasn’t enough, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe was recently named their favourite story by such celebrities as Geri Halliwell, Liam Gallagher and Peter Mandelson, and the same book starred in a recent range of pictorial stamps.
So Narnia sells by the lorry-load. But other aspects of Lewis’s life and work have never been neglected. He and his coterie, the Inklings, have been the subject of biographical attention for some time: Humphrey Carpenter and A N Wilson have both written about him, and two years ago, in plenty of time for the centenary, HarperCollins brought out the massive C S Lewis: A Companion And Guide, by Walter Hooper. Then there was the Richard Attenborough film Shadowlands, and only the other day I saw a theatre poster saying that Joss Ackland was to play C S Lewis in a dance spectacular… No, I must have dreamt that.
The interesting question is why. What is there in this tweedy medievalist that attracts such devoted (and growing) attention, not only to the works but to the life? Acolytes know all the facts: how he and his brother Warnie made up stories during their Ulster boyhood; how he promised a soldier friend in the first world war trenches that he’d look after the friend’s mother, and maintained a curious relationship with her for years thereafter; how as an unbeliever he wrestled with belief and gave in one famous night after a long conversation with his friends Hugo Dyson and J R R Tolkien, coming to the conclusion that the story of the Gospels was a myth like those he already cherished, ‘but one with this tremendous difference that it really happened’; how he went on to write all the books, and how late in life he married Joy Gresham, who soon afterwards died.
All this is already nearly myth on its own account. In a bookshop recently I heard a customer ask where she could find C S Lewis’s Shadowlands. Perhaps she was ignorant of the fact that Shadowlands is about him, not by him; and perhaps it didn’t matter, because she’d find it in the same part of the shop as his works anyway; but I felt (not for the first time) as if Lewis was beyond the reach of ordinary criticism, because the facts are becoming less important than the legend, and the legend, as we know, is what gets printed.
To be sure, there is something to be said for him. The literary criticism is, at the very least, effortlessly readable; even a critic such as Stanley Fish, whom one would not imagine to have much sympathy for Lewis in (say) political terms, acknowledges his rhetorical influence. The psychology in The Screwtape Letters is subtle and acute. He said some things about myth and fairy tale and writing for children which are both true and interesting.
But there is no doubt in the public mind that what matters is the Narnia cycle, and that is where the puzzle comes, because there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.
Why the Narnia books are popular with children is not difficult to see. In a superficial and bustling way, Lewis could tell a story, and when he cheats, as he frequently does, the momentum carries you over the bumps and the potholes. But there have always been adults who suspected what he was up to. His friend Tolkien took a dim view of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, particularly disliking Lewis’s slapdash way with mythology: ‘It really won’t do, you know!’ And the American critic John Goldthwaite, in his powerful and original study of children’s literature The Natural History Of Make-Believe (OUP, 1996), lays bare the misogyny, the racism, the sado-masochistic relish for violence that permeates the whole cycle.
For an open-eyed reading of the books reveals some hair-raising stuff. One of the most vile moments in the whole of children’s literature, to my mind, occurs at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan reveals to the children that “The term is over: the holidays have begun” because “There was a real railway accident. Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead.” To solve a narrative problem by killing one of your characters is something many authors have done at one time or another. To slaughter the lot of them, and then claim they’re better off, is not honest storytelling: it’s propaganda in the service of a life-hating ideology. But that’s par for the course. Death is better than life; boys are better than girls; light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on. There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in Narnia, if you can face it.
There is the loathsome glee with which the children from the co-educational school are routed, in The Silver Chair: “with the strength of Aslan in them, Jill plied her crop on the girls and Caspian and Eustace plied the flats of their swords so well that in two minutes all the bullies were running away like mad, crying out, ‘Murder! Fascists! Lions! It isn’t fair.’ And then the Head [who was, by the way, a woman] came running out to see what was happening.” There is the colossal impertinence, to put it mildly, of hijacking the emotions that are evoked by the story of the Crucifixion and Resurrection in order to boost the reader’s concern about Aslan in The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.
And in The Last Battle, notoriously, there’s the turning away of Susan from the Stable (which stands for salvation) because “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing 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, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win.
Walter Hooper’s attitude to the Susan passage, in his Companion And Guide, is forthright: it has “a terrible beauty that makes the heart ache, and which is perhaps only matched by Dante’s Paradiso”. But Hooper is a devotee, if that word expresses a fervent enough passion. His book is almost a thousand pages long, but it’s not as wide-ranging as it seems. He finds room for several paragraphs about the footling and an irrelevant question of whether a female (a distant connection of Lewis’s) could succeed to a baronetcy, but none for a single mention of (say) Victor Watson’s or David Holbrook’s less-than-favourable views of the Narnia cycle. More seriously, A N Wilson’s excellent biography (Collins, 1990) might as well not exist at all.
But Wilson made the mistake of being fair about Lewis, not partial, and being fair about saints is doing the Devil’s work. I haven’t the slightest doubt that the man will be sainted in due course: the legend is too potent. However, when that happens, those of us who detest the supernaturalism, the reactionary sneering, the misogyny, the racism, and the sheer dishonesty of his narrative method will still be arguing against him.
Philip Pullman is a leading children’s author and won the Carnegie Medal in 1996 for his novel Northern Lights. The sequel, The Subtle Knife, is published in paperback this month (Scholastic, £5.99)
(This article was originally found on The Guardian URL at http://reports.guardian.co.uk/articles/1998/10/1/p-24747.html. Unable to find it with the original address, this is a copy of the one taken off that URL in 1998.)
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