The Darkside of Narnia by Pullman

The Guardian
October 1, 1998
“The Darkside of Narnia”
Philip Pullman

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 Unable to find it with the original address, this is a copy of the one taken off that URL in 1998.)
© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc.1998


  1. Deitra Lee Pawley said,

    December 19, 2007 at 12:17 am

    I am deeply disappointed in this article you obviously know nothing about Narnia or C.S. Lewis ,The Chronicles of Narnia are more than childrens books they are anologies C.S. Lewis wrote these after he became a Christian and they have been read by countless people all over the world both young and old .When C.S. Lewis wrote these books ,he wasn’t just writing silly childrens stories these stories have adeep underlining message .Aslan is a representive of God,yes everyone dies at the end but “The last Battle ” is an anology of the last book in the Bible “Revelation” people are not perfect and C.S. Lewis made sure people knew that your article is to put politely horrible

  2. Mattias Westermark said,

    February 27, 2008 at 4:08 pm

    I think that Lewis other books, “Out of the Silent Planet “, “Perelandra” and “that hideous strength” are even more appalling, morality-wise. He writes good stories, but they owerflow with a very obvious contempt for women.

    The authour Niel Gaiman writes a lovely short story in the collection “Fragile Things” called “The Problem of Susan”, which is about Susan after the ending of The Last Battle.

  3. Lars-Henrik Eriksson said,

    February 28, 2008 at 2:22 am

    But Pullman is right! I have read the entire Narnia series and enjoyed it for its *literary* qualities. I was, however, irritated by the obviuos preaching. Like Pullman, I was also disturbed by Lewis’ treatment of Susan.

    Beside the Narnia series, I have read Lewis’ “interplanetary trilogy”. Again with great enjoyment — in particular “That hideous strength”. This does not change the fact that most of the the *ideas* Lewis put forth in his books are appalling. His sexism, homophobia, fear of sexuality, praise of submission to authority and contempt of science are all too obvious.

  4. Konrad said,

    May 14, 2008 at 1:15 am

    Having Just re-read A Horse and His boy I have top agree with Pullmans analysis.

    The book is unquestionably racist, with every dark skinned character (except for Aravis) being either Cruel and or Evil (most of them) or a twit (Aravis’s friend). On a first reading I liked this story the most from all of the Narnia cycle but on a re-reading I have to say that it is terrible.
    The fact that they are following a religion based on Islam is also quite clear.

    One of the driving messages is in it seems to be that you are only free if you allow divine forces to control your life, instead of doing things yourselves. Only the evil characters ever take decisive action towards a goal and are punished for it, while those who submit to Aslan’s will are rewarded.

    About the only character development in the whole book is the proud horse becoming a humble horse. The remaining characters are for the most part unchanged they where good or evil to begin with and remain so. Granted the Evil Prince is forced to act good. His evil countrymen (who are dark skinned and do not follow Aslan) brand him as the Ridiculous for it.

  5. Emanuel said,

    June 11, 2008 at 12:55 pm

    Mr. Pullman has been very frank about his distaste for the writings of C. S. Lewis. We are never in any doubt as to the worldview of Jack Lewis even if the interpretation of that worldview is shaded by secular, athiest, or politically correct ideologies. It is a shame that Mr. Pullman’s worldview is not as transparent in his dark materials novels which are beautifully written but horrific in their message and attempt to brain wash children to be God-haters as Mr. Pullman is himself. There is some sort of disjuncture here. The “hero’s” model is Satan who with his souless estranged wife is successful in destroying a senile god and dragging the power behind him down from heaven. Who is throwing dust in our eyes. It was not C. S. Lewis.

  6. ms. Smith said,

    June 11, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    Mr Pullman I read your message and I like yor books but
    i disagreed that C. S. Lewis was truley racist or femminst .I think your argument is too weak and i dont think in C. S. Lewis actual life he didnt do anything that show he was like that. I think in the book where he claims girls shouldnt fight is because in the the time period he was born society was like that girls shouldnt go to battle nor fight . There also hero who are girls too such as lucy ,polly and jill . To be honest i think in C. S. Lewis book girls are better then boys because
    in the magican nephew isnt the boy who bring evil into narnia ? It was polly who told him not to ring the bell but the boy grab her arm so she couldnt reach for her ring and ring the bell. then he was the one who gave the witch time to grab polly hair .Then when polly told him he should apolgize he didnt know why ! When the witch was in london he waits at home until polly arrives and forget about the witch . He also lies saying he was under a spell …
    It isnt just him in that one book , throughout the series i read there was a lot of negative things about the boys so i doubt C. S. Lewis perfer boys over girls
    after all Lucy is brave and kind . She also the one who most faithful and see Alsan before Edmund and peter, in the book Prince Caspian .

    The reason Susan didnt go to heaven wasnt because she grew up it was because her faith was too weak she didnt belive in narnia or Aslan ( God, Jesus) so it was a good thing she wasnt in the railroad accident because as long as one is alive there is a chance that she can eventualy go to heaven .

    I also think the reason that proves C. S. Lewis is not a racist is that Aravis and emeth both go to heaven. emeth is one of the most ideal heros i read and he dark skinned . beside the Witch (Satan ) is White isnt she?

  7. lucy said,

    October 24, 2008 at 9:08 am

    My god, Phillip, you are an ignorant jerk! C.S. Lewis’s stories are beauiful! They tell of a land that is so unlike our world and yet we can all relate to it some how. And Susan IS NOT, like a cinderella where the ugly stepsisters win! She is a tratic heroine who’s lost her way in a mist of parties and friends and can’t remember the childlike way she used to be. You don’t know what you’re talking about so shut up. And by the way, phillip pullman, your books, (Forgive me for using this word) Suck. they really do. they should all be burned.
    And “The problem of Susan by neil Gaiman” also sucks. I read it, it was awful.
    Go fall in a ditch pullman.
    BTW: I agree with Deitra up there. You know squat about Narnia.
    Lucy who loves narnia

  8. Jasmine said,

    February 3, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    I am a third year undergraduate writing a thesis on classical influences in ‘The Chronicles Of Narnia’, and as part of that I am focusing on some of the influence Lewis had, in turn, on other writers of the twentieth century – Philip Pullman included. What I have learnt over this long period of research and analysis of every word in ‘The Chronicles’ is that, by and large, Lewis meant well, and wished to share the joy he felt in his own conversion to Christianity with others, but his words are reflective of the world he grew up in and lived in; it is unfortunate that, occasionally, people cannot always take that into account and put Lewis’ work in context. This does not mean I agree with Lewis: on the contrary, I find Lewis’ treatment of Susan very distasteful, and the racial overtones are hard to ignore – but the fact remains that Lewis wrote these stories as a man in his fifties, set in his ways and opinions. Therefore, I think that, another 50 years after he wrote ‘The Chronicles’, we cannot judge Lewis with the context of modern society. Whilst I respect Pullman’s opinions, I must profess that his censorship, if correct in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries, was not correct when you take into account the time in which Lewis was writing; he wrote about what he knew and what he believed, and he cannot be blamed for that.

  9. Chardon-Nodrahc said,

    March 7, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Well, I’m French and I translate the text. It can be difficult to understand …

    Pullman sees only the bad side of Narnia. Susan part to become adult, but the other girls compensate for his betrayal. Lucy is not one of the nicest? Polly is less sharp than Digory, Jill is less odious qu’Eustache! There are villains who are girls and other boys. In my opinion, Lewis had to leave someone. And Susan is the least important of the Friends of Narnia. Eustache and Jill go in the last book, so it can not leave Narnia. In addition, it has changed the lives of Digory and Edmund. Peter King is the great and Lucy is too beloved of Narniens. So, he took Susan.

    Then the Carlomenes have dark skin and they are wicked, but Telmarins have pale skin and they are evil too.

    Pullman, you do not like Narnia, but let those who love it love it.

  10. Jaxbackatya said,

    April 29, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    I love how the people who do not agree with the blog’s message do not have anything to back it up with, just foul language. I just want to say:

    1-He isn’t saying they are terrible, he is saying that under the thin literary veil lurks something you may not have seen. And judging by the responses, YOU DIDN’T and you feel stupid and threatened.

    2-You loving the books isn’t proof of anything.

    3-Some people love God and have a strong relationship with him, and still do not want propaganda peddled to our children. We can go to church and not want to have faith ‘snuck in’ like we cannot be trusted to make our own choices. The point is, aside from the literary beauty of these books, they are dishonest. I didn’t get the Narnia books to be preached to, that is why I go to church.

    4-I admit to reading the books and not seeing the messages. I did not like the books. I thought they stretched a bit in a literary sense and the imagery was clumsy. I did feel some sexist undertones to the stories, which made me a little uncomfortable.

    5-Go see the movie adaptation, it supposedly takes the christian propaganda to a point where the only way you could not see it is if you were blind (or so I am told)

  11. Marie-Laure said,

    July 6, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    Sorry, but I am french, so excuse my bad english. I just want say what I have feel when I read what Pullman said about Narnia… I didn’t like the books. I LOVED the books !!!! So, I were very schoked and sad.
    We can read a book and just spend good time. No need to all denounce !!!
    I loved the book because I feel good when I read it. So, I don’t need to know if Lewis had wanted to say anything else… I just want wonders. So, let us dream…..
    ( Sorry for my english :S)

  12. February 10, 2011 at 5:35 am

    [...] Over the years, I have had a very love/hate relationship with Lewis’ fantasy series2. One of the books’ most divisive elements is its use of Christian imagery … some might even say allegory. I’ve spoken with countless friends who still remember the day they realized that Lewis had woven covert religious themes into his narrative. At ALA last month, Neil Gaiman reminisced about this moment in his own life. Laura Miller wrote a book about it. Phillip Pullman wrote several. [...]

  13. March 22, 2011 at 6:24 am

    [...] you’re Philip Pullman, that is. ↩ No comments [...]

  14. June 5, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    I do not drop a ton of remarks, however after reading a few of
    the remarks here The Darkside of Narnia by Pullman | The Old
    Artificer. I do have some questions for you if you tend not to mind.
    Could it be just me or do some of the remarks look like they are coming from brain
    dead people? :-P And, if you are writing on other online social sites, I’d like to keep up with everything fresh you have to post. Could you list of every one of your public sites like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

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