Why are we marking the centenary of CS Lewis's birth with parties and
competitions? His books were reactionary and dishonest, says Philip
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
or another with the Narnia books. There will be an adaptation of The
Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe presented by
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
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
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
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
The interesting question is why. What is there in
this tweedy medievalist that attracts such devoted (and growing)
to the works but to the life? Acolytes know all the facts: how he and
his brother Warnie made up stories during their
boyhood; how he promised a soldier friend in the first world war
trenches that he'd look after the friend's mother, and
a curious relationship with her for years thereafter; how as an
unbeliever he wrestled with belief and gave in one
night after a long conversation with his friends Hugo Dyson and J R R
Tolkien, coming to the
conclusion that the story
the Gospels was a myth like those he already
cherished, 'but one with this tremendous difference that it really
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
Shadowlands. Perhaps she was ignorant of the fact that Shadowlands is
about him, not by him; and perhaps it didn't
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
the reach of ordinary criticism, because the facts are becoming less
important than the legend, and the legend, as we
is what gets printed.
be sure, there is something to be said for him. The literary criticism
is, at the very least, effortlessly readable; even a critic
as Stanley Fish, whom one would not imagine to have much sympathy for
Lewis in (say) political terms, acknowledges his
influence. The psychology in The Screwtape Letters is subtle and
acute. He said some things about myth and fairy
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,
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
and when he cheats, as he frequently does, the momentum carries you
over the bumps and the potholes. But there have
been adults who suspected what he was up to. His friend Tolkien took a
dim view of The Lion, The Witch And The
particularly disliking Lewis's slapdash way with mythology: 'It really
won't do, you know!' And the American critic
Goldthwaite, in his powerful and original study of children's
literature The Natural History Of Make-Believe (OUP,
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
to my mind, occurs at the end of The Last Battle, when Aslan reveals
to the children that "The term is over: the
have begun" because "There was a real railway accident. Your
father and mother and all of you are - as you used to
it in the Shadowlands - dead." To solve a narrative problem by
killing one of your
characters is something many authors
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
in the service of a life-hating ideology. But that's par for the
course. Death is better than life; boys are better than
light-coloured people are better than dark-coloured people; and so on.
There is no shortage of such nauseating drivel in
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:
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
minutes all the bullies were running away like mad, crying out,
'Murder! Fascists! Lions! It isn't fair.' And then the Head
was, by the way, a woman] came running out to see what was happening."
There is the colossal impertinence, to put it
of hijacking the emotions that are evoked by the story of the
Crucifixion and Resurrection in order to boost the reader's
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)
interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and
invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being
In other words, Susan, like Cinderella, is undergoing a transition
from one phase of her life to another. Lewis didn't
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
been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she'd been
allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly
Walter Hooper's attitude to the Susan passage, in
his Companion And Guide, is forthright: it has "a terrible beauty
heart ache, and which is perhaps only matched by Dante's Paradiso".
But Hooper is a devotee, if that word expresses a
enough passion. His book is almost a thousand pages long, but it's not
as wide-ranging as it seems. He finds room for
paragraphs about the footling and an irrelevant question of whether a
female (a distant connection of Lewis's) could
to a baronetcy, but none for a single mention of (say) Victor Watson's
or David Holbrook's less-than-favourable
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
the slightest doubt that the man will be sainted in due course: the
legend is too potent. However, when that happens,
of us who detest the supernaturalism, the reactionary sneering, the
misogyny, the racism, and the sheer dishonesty of his
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
Subtle Knife, is published in paperback this month (Scholastic,