The Dark Side of Narnia

(Annotated by John Gough)

Mon, 12 Oct 1998

Why are we marking the centenary of CS Lewis's birth with parties and competitions? His books were reactionary and dishonest. 

                                                                   Philip Pullman


JG: Interesting words. Of course "reactionary" is usually a figment in the mind of the "actionary", surely. What is it that Lewis is alleged to be "reacting" against? Does he urge the burning of suffragettes at the stake? Is he an unregenerate capitalist? And "dishonest" is equally subjective, and needing to be argued carefully if it is to be accepted. But we shall see.


The Guardian -- Thursday October 1, 1998


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.


JG: Excuse me. Where is the shockingness in any of this. Am I missing something? Is it dreadful to be popular?


But other aspects of Lewis's life and work have never been neglected.


JG: Perhaps an editor's blue pencil slipped near here. Have some aspects of Lewis's life and work been neglected? I'm sure his last adult novel "Till We Have Faces" has been widely overlooked. Similarly his ground-breaking reader-response theory "An Experiment in Criticism". In fact, generally, lewis, as critic, has been neglected in the age of Leavis, and more recently, post-unreconstructed-deconstructuralist-modernism.


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.


JG: Ho ho, it is, to be sure. Joss Ackland did star with Jean Simmons in an earlier (pre-Attenborough) television version of "Shadowlands". Indeed Ackland is a rather good resemblance to Lewis.


The interesting question is why. What is there in this tweedy medievalist

 JG: Ouch! How should a person respond? Who, me? I like tweed! And "medieval"? So what? Is this a reason for sneering. More to the point, does it connect with Lewis, as poet, novelist, fantasist, critic, or person? And if not, why should we pay attention to a tweedless post-modern such as Pullman? Are we to commit the critical sin of "Ageism" - Dark Ages Bad, Modern Ages good - all ages are equal but some ages are more equal than others.


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.


JG: Careful, careful. This "soon" after seems too pat. Again, the years of remission of her terminal cancer would hardly have seemed "soon" to her, her children, or Lewis. What if she hadn't died "soon" after. Would that alter Pullman's inuendo? What is he inuending? That marriage is only real when it lasts? Really?


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.


JG: If Pullman knew his Lewis he would have immediately said, you don't mean Lewis's "Shadowlands" because that's a dramatisation by someone else, you mean "A Grief Observed", in which Lewis reflects on his sense of loss after his wife died.


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.


JG: What are we to make of this expression "rhetorical influence"? The term "rhetoric" usually means two things - argument which is regarded as hollow, and argument as a formal process. What did Fish mean by it? Is it his expression? I don't know. But I feel that Pullman uses every bit of his own rhetorical skills to pull down Lewis, whether or not there is critical substance behind his argument.


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.


JG: We do in fact have a puzzling difficulty here. Lewis is being judged, like many prolific writers, by one set of books which may or may not be representative, and which probably do not capture the achievement or significance of a life spent in literature, both critically and creatively. Meanwhile, there are many who know Lewis almost exclusively for his adult science fiction fantasy trilogy, and others who know him for his Christian apologetia - which may have only slim connections with Narnia, and may have little overlap in readership. But "ugly" and "poisonous"? State your case, please.


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.


JG: What "cheating"? This is a big claim, that will need carefully chosen examples to make the allegation stick.


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!'


JG: Tolkien would have prefered to keep Father Christmas, for example, away from Greek naiads, Celtic ogres, and Northern giants. Is this what Pullman has in mind by "cheating"? Maybe he will give more examples. If the examples aren't forthcoming, then maybe Pullman's criticism is cheating, by crying stinking fish with nary a fishbone or cacase in sight.


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.


JG: This is familiar stuff. David Holbrook in the early 1970s was one of the first to complain about such alleged faults. (See "Children' Literature in Education" no. 10, 1973 - "The Problem of C.S. Lewis - and I replied in "CLE" vol. 8 no.2 1977 pp 51-62 - "C.S. Lewis and the Problem of David Holbrook".) It is easy to list " misogyny, the racism, the sado-masochistic relish for violence", but harder to offer convincing examples. Holbrook (in my opinion) couldn't do it, without fudging the evidence, or special pleading. Lewis's mother died from agonising cancer when he was about 8 years old. Later his older brother became an alcoholic. Meanwhile Lewis himself never had children of his own, and only married late in life. Moreover, his imagery can be given lurid Freudian interpretations, should anyone be so inclined. (Wardrobe, containing envelopping furs! Towers in the snowy field. Magic wands and swords!) This is hardly a diagnosis of pychiatric pathology. Nor does it amount to a clear critical account of a complex body of work. Meanwhile, Freud has been dismantled by his own critics. What price, then, a Freudian symbol between friends?


For an open-eyed reading of the books reveals some hair-raising stuff.


JG: Oh yeah? Let's see Pullman do something about almost all the young adult and older children's books written since, say 1990, full of issues such as drug addiction, incest, racism, violence, sexual brutality, ... What I'm getting at is that what is "hair-raising" in some eyes is tame in others. And modern children's books often deserve warnings such as "For Mature Audiences Only", and in the days of the trial of "Lady Chatterly's Lover" or the banning of "Ulysses" would have been prosecuted for obscenity. But the prosecutors would not have blenched at Lewis.


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.


JG: Perhaps this is the nub of Pullman's attack. Lewis believes in a Christian afterlife. Moreover he believes that, for those who go to heaven, their heavenly life is preferable to the human suffering of mortal existence. In what way is such a view "vile"? I must stress that such a view is quite different from Pullman's rendering of it: "Death is better than life". No, no. Lewis claims that "Heaven is better than life". Heaven and death are not the same thing. The difference then is one of faith. We all believe in death. But those with faith in an afterlife see more beyond death than non-believers. Don't mistake my own assumptions. I have no personal belief in any afterlife. As far as I'm concerned, we are nothing but well-intentioned chemicals, and when we're dead that's the end of us, except for memories of us retained by our survivors. But that doesn't mean I can't read Lewis with at least wistful sympathy - if only it could be so. Nor does it prevent me from believing that, under some circumstances death, even without any compensatory afterlife, is better than a life of unrelieved misery. But perhaps I'm straying from whatever points Pullman is making.


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.


JG: Oh, how shuddersome. Yet, what is that loathsome glee I hear from Pullman, wielding the anti-Alsan crop and plying the flat of his dis-believer's sword as he assails Lewis - "vile, lothsome, it isn't fair! You sell by the lorry load, and I ...". And on what logical grounds does Pullman object to anyone "hijacking the crucifixion"? Surely he is unlikely to have much sympathy with anything supernatural in the New Testament, or any other part of the New Testament. Why would he find "hi-jacking" offensive? Does he read the New Testament story of the crucifixion, filled with strong positive up-lifting sympathetic emotions, which then turn to feelings of vileness and repulsion when it comes to the resurrection? In what sense is Lewis's story, at this point at its most allegorical ("stealing past whatchful dragons", as he once suggested), any form of hi-jacking?


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.


JG: This is vapid fluff. Take a Lewis passage out of context and you can turn it to any purpose you want. Yet look at other passages and you find that Lewis was as adult as you could want. Try, for example, the ending of "That Hideous Strength", with a sexuality that may seem startling. Reactionary, I don't doubt. After all, Lewis lived in an age when difficulties (practical, legal and moral) relating to contraception made attitudes to sexuality different from ours. Nowadays sex is as much a sport as anything else. Before the pill it was more "natural" because it was so closely and unavoidably linked with procreation. Pullman's glib explanation of Susan's behaviour, "in other words ..." misses Lewis's point.


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.


JG: Hooper, indeed, is a devotee, and needs to be read with caution. He swipes at Holbrook in "Past Watchful Dragons", not even wanting to sully the pages by writing Holbrook's name. But what is at stake with Susan is not that she turns into a woman, as such, but that she stops believing. Dantesque, indeed. Where do the disbelievers go? 


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, 

JG: Ah, just so! 

the reactionary sneering,

JG: What, no examples?

the misogyny,

JG: Alleged on the basis of one misinterpretation - even Holbrook did better than that.

 the racism,

JG: Well, come on Pullman - tell us about the Calormene's, those proud cruel pagan pastiches straight out of "One Thousand and One Nights" - don't just allege, without an example.


and the sheer dishonesty of his narrative method


JG: What, still harping on that, and not a case in sight to support your tirades?


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)


JG: Lewis also won the Carnegie. Lewis is still being read. Not all Carnegie winners are so fortunate.

John (John Gough)

Lecturer in Education

Deakin University SDS, 221 Burwood Hwy, 

Burwood, Victoria 3125, Australia

phone: Australia, Melbourne area code 03 9244 6390

fax: Australia, Melbourne area code 03 9244 6734


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