Thursday, October 11, 2012

C.S. Lewis, Heavy-Handed Bastard

I am coming to realize that, sometimes, an attempt to enjoy a classic work of literature can be marred by the attitudes of the author. This came about over the past week or so as I have begun reading the Chronicles of Narnia to my daughter. Now, I know all about the Christian overtones, though to be honest I never noticed those as a kid. When I first read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I missed all the religious symbolism. It wasn't until much later that I read about the amount of allegory lurking in the Chronicles, and I didn't think much about it afterwards.

But, having seen the first movie one rainy Sunday, we thought we'd read the books. Aside from learning that TL,TW,&TW was not the first book, narratively speaking, I learned some other troubling facts while reading The Magician's Nephew.

First, TL,TW,&TW is downright subtle when it comes to the religious stuff in the rest of the books. Chapter after chapter was "Hey, this is Genesis in Narnia! Look, there's a tree! With fruit you can't eat!" and other things where I found myself wanting to say "Yes, I get it, can we please move on with the story?" I did not say this, because I was reading to my daughter, and I try not to editorialize when I do so.

(I do stop, at the beginning of each new Lemony Snicket book, and ask my daughter if she wants to go on after we've read the part where the author advises us not to. It's become a thing now that we're halfway through the series, and it's in fun. But that's a different sort of narrative aside.)

I'm not sure how I feel about this heavy-handedness, not because it's religious - I go to church, and I drag my daughter with me, although Lewis' persistent proselytizing gets old - but simply because with the first book in the chronicles, it feels like the allegory got in the way of the story. I can foresee this becoming a bit of a problem later on in the series. (I am familiar with Neil Gaiman's short "The Problem of Susan" for example, in which he, too deals with some of this.)

Second, and by far the more troubling, is the sheer sexism in the book. Now, I know that books are a product of their times. Kipling was heavily influenced by the English Imperialism than ran rampant over everything at the time, and reading some of his works today leads to some cringing. Fenimore Cooper's portrayals of the Native Americans are nowhere near as balanced as that last movie made them out to be. But those were books for adults. Narnia is for kids. Lewis had to have known young girls.

And as far as I can tell, his message to them is "Know your place." He makes blunders in biology (it is the female elephants that are in charge, not the males- which may or may not have been know at that time) based solely on his own chauvinistic leanings. Of course the men are called to a meeting and the women left behind; that's the men's job. And the female character is not only shunted to the sidelines, but is physically cowed by the male character at one point, and it's all very casually dealt with. Too casually.

So, while we will continue to read the series, I foresee the need to have conversations with my daughter about what's going on. We've had similar conversations about the Disney Princesses, too, because as a general whole they are piss-poor role models for young girls.

Or maybe we won't have to. She may not be quite old enough to grasp some of the connotations lurking beneath the surface (which are not as direct as Ariel's whining or Cinderella's "I need a Prince") and I confess to editing some as I read. Where Lewis wrote "he-elephant" and "he-beaver" I left off the gendered pronouns, as it changed nothing in the narrative to do so. And I'm hoping that the rest of the chronicles, most of which were actually written before the first book, will not be as bad.

But if they are, then we'll deal with them, and have a talk about why they are the way they are, and how you go about separating the message from the story. Because this won't be the last thing she reads where that may become necessary.


trocadero said...

I'm thinking that even if your daughter doesn't pick up on the connotations of some of it, it may still be worth talking about it. In society generally, the problem is that we frequently 'don't notice' when something's not right. Everything she sees/reads/views, etc is helping her build her understanding of the world. I had to laugh about your editing as you read aloud:) I've done the same:) Thanks for your post!

trocadero said...
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orion_mk3 said...

The Magician's Nephew isn't the first book in the series. It's the fifth. The publishers occasionally put it first, but that's like insisting you can't understand Star Wars without watching The Phantom Menace.

I do agree with you overall though. I love the Narnia series but the most overtly allegorical (Magician's Nephew and Last Battle) are by far the worst and I rarely reread them.