Why are we marking the
centenary of CS Lewis's birth with parties and competitions? His books
were reactionary and dishonest.
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
"cheating"? This is a big claim, that will need carefully
chosen examples to make the
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
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
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
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
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,