Monday, January 11, 2010

Through the wardrobe, and what I found there

Laura Miller's fabulous The Magician's Book is the story of her relationship with C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. It's wonderful: clearly written and honest, the story of a story as well as the story of a reader. Reading her book made me think of my own reactions to The Chronicles.

Miller writes of loving The Chronicles wholeheartedly at first, of wanting nothing more than to be able to go to Narnia someday, and then, feeling terribly betrayed when she discovered the Christian symbolism in the books. I remember a similar cycle of love and betrayal, but mine came differently.

I read The Chronicles of Narnia for the first time in second grade, and I realized on the first reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that Aslan was supposed to be Jesus. And I was fine with that - it didn't ruin the story for me at all. If anything, that was the first time that I felt any sort of realization of what the death of Jesus was supposed to mean to me. Lewis makes it so clear - Edmund was a jerk, and he made a mistake that he couldn't take back, and then things got so much larger than that. I could see how someone could behave like Edmund much more than I could understand the disobedience in Eden or Judas' betrayal. Aslan was real, and people loved him, and you could see the horror of his death, and the joy of his resurrection - I cried at them both. (I sometimes still do.) Jesus was a guy in a story that, to be honest, I wasn't really that interested in reading, someone I loved in the way you love a relative you've never met - because you're supposed to. And the stylized and formal and flat prose of the biblical versions of the Passion did nothing to make me feel pain over his death or delight in his resurrection.

No, my betrayal came later, in The Last Battle, and it was twofold. There was, first, The Problem of Susan. Susan, who does not get to go back to Narnia because, "she's interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown up." Here's the thing: Susan was my favorite of the four Pevensie children. And as someone who, in second grade, liked to wear pretty dresses, and put on lipstick when I played dress-up, I was furious that those things, things that seemed specifically associated with being a girl, were enough to keep you out of Narnia. The betrayal got worse a few pages later, when I realized that Lewis seemed to be saying that those things were enough to keep you out of Heaven as well. And that, in order to create Heaven, Lewis destroyed Narnia.

That, for me, was the last straw, and the reason that, while I have reread my favorite books in this series - The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Horse and His Boy - over and over, I've only reread The Last Battle when I've needed to for academic reasons. Lewis tries to create a place that's better than Narnia, one whose beauty and wonder continues to unfold as the lucky people who get to enter (and, oh, I had problems, even then, with the people left outside the stable door) go further up and further in, but he doesn't. I loved Narnia, and so, with all the passion in my young heart, I hated the new place that was supposed to be better. It wasn't. And I knew, reading, that Lewis was talking about going to Heaven, and I didn't care. Narnia was better.

Like Miller, I read The Chronicles differently now, as an adult, as a medievalist and academic, as a writer, than I did as a child. I see the flaws and the beauties, and there are many of both. And I see how these books have shaped me, as a reader, as a writer, as a person, and I'm grateful for them.

And I still wear lipstick.


  1. I understand your disillusionment with The Last Battle, but I had a different take on it. I saw Susan's failure to re-enter Narnia not as a "Now she's not worthy" situation, but a "Now she's not interested" situation - she prefers the temporal to the eternal, as it were, and to the exclusion of. Nobody (including God) is going to force somebody to spend forever in a place they don't really want to be.

    On the "destruction of Narnia", I never understood it as a destruction and replacement, but a re-making, an expansion. It's still Narnia, but more fully entered into - it's at least as much the Narnians who are being changed as it is Narnia.

    The people in the circles I'm from don't like this book either, to some degree, but for a different reason - they see it as too inclusive (the Tash part of the story). That part never bothered me, either. I guess that would all be a foretelling of why I'm now Eastern Orthodox, and no longer Fundamentalist Baptist...

  2. The Last Battle never had such negative connotations to me. For the atheist, I suppose I could get a sense of the "betrayal", even Tolkien accused Lewis (who, strangely, said there wasn't much point in trying to educate children about Christianity) of religious propaganda.

    However, I would hope the atheist would read some Joseph Campbell and then reread Lewis with new eyes (and maybe heal some old hurts).

    "The Susan Problem" is a well-discussed matter. It's true, Aslan was honoring Susan by not forcing himself on her. The severity of the crimes really isn't the issue (they, in fact seem trivial) but how they speak of the heart. In her heart she no longer desires Aslan, who *is* Narnia.

    And yes, higher-up and further-in isn't a dissolution, but a deification. This is the new Narnia, even more Narnia than the first one was. Lewis might not have captured your imagination with it, but it's a sound thought. And the two phrases, "higher up and further in" where things "the inside is larger than the outside" and (from Tolkien) "the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise."

    They still make me weep.

  3. I, too, saw Susan's absence as a question of disinterest, rather than a question of disqualifying sin, but recognized, even at the very early age when I first heard it, that some would take it the other way.

    Having read quite a bit of Lewis on both sides of the wardrobe door, it's hard to wrap one's mind around Lewis's conception of God---probably rightly; He's not a tame lion. But he's good.

  4. Kempiosha - I can see what you're saying about the Susan Situation being more about the divide between focus on the temporal rather than focus on the eternal. I can even see that there's an argument for saying that's how Lewis would have wanted people to read it (leaving aside the thorny question of authorial intent for another day.) But the thing is, I have never been able to read it as anything other than Susan being rejected because she has grown up and become interested in stereotypically feminine things. And maybe that's because I'm a woman, and maybe it's because I'm a woman who doesn't believe that loving God means not going to the MAC counter. I don't think I would have the difficulty that I do if Susan had simply been presented as being "not interested in Narnia anymore" without the specifics being given.

    nothinghypothetical - Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I can't speak to reading the Chronicles as an atheist. I read them for the first time, and still do, as a Catholic. And so I see the recreation of Narnia at the end of The Last Battle as a failure of storytelling. Narnia perfected absolutely is a sound thought - I just don't think that Lewis pulled off the execution. I don't know if he could have, as he had already created such a wonderful place, a place where so many people desired to go - to simply say "it's like that, except more" isn't very effective as worldbuilding goes.