I tend to spend a somewhat questionable amount of time considering what would it would be like if I went out for drinks with an author. James Tiptree Jr. and I would get along swimmingly. Neil Gaiman and I would be super awkward and uncomfortable, but in a loving sort of way. And I think C.S. Lewis and I would probably try to kill each other with the broken bottles.
He’d be trying to stake me in the heart like a vampire with smashed end of a PBR, but it’d be okay, because I’d go for the throat with the neck of a broken raspberry Smirnoff Ice bottle– also, apparently Lewis and I would have terrible taste in drinks.
What I’m saying is, we have somewhat differing opinions on the subject of morality in children’s books. Also, we are both kind of jerks, and you know that’s never a good combination.
It had, until just recently, been fifteen years since I last read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I listened to the audiobook over the past two days, with Michael York reading aloud to me in that lilting way that an Englishman reads to children, apparently. There were some unfortunate things about the audiobook; firstly, that Aslan’s name was pronounced “Ass-land” with alarming frequency, and secondly, that all animal or animal-like characters except the noble ones (namely, Aslan and that other lion) had Scottish or otherwise poor- people English accents. Why do the Scots hate the English? It is certainly a mystery.
But I don’t really want to discuss the Scottish lack of independence. I want to discuss Edmund.
Pictured: Edmund & Aslan
Before I go any further, since it’s been about fifteen years since I’ve read the other five books, so for the purposes of this essay, we are only discussing Wardrobe.
My suspicion is that if we were to poll opinions of Wardrobe and family placement, we’d possibly find an overlap between middle children and a certain antipathy towards the book. But, then again, maybe not. Edmund Pevensie, lying, cheating, bullying, family-selling little rascal that he is, is without a doubt the most interesting thing in this story.
It’s rough out there for a middle child. I’m not saying that I would sell my sisters for a plate of Turkish Delight… I’m saying that I, aged ten, probably would have paid someone a plate of Turkish Delight to turn them into stone.
If either or both of my sisters ever read this blog: Let’s keep it real, the feeling was definitely mutual. And, if you’re reading this, it is a feeling that is probably being rekindled.
Wardrobe is a little sparse on those two literary staples, ambiguity and character development, so it’s easy to cling to what little there is. This is a book of absolutes, especially with regards to Good and Evil. It’s always clear to the children and the reader what is Good and what is not. They hear Aslan’s name, and they simply have feelings and those feelings turn out to be absolutely right. They never have any questions, never get anything wrong– except for Edmund. To be frank, it’s fairly boring. Mr. Lewis, one suspects, was not a subtle man.
The characters don’t develop in any meaningful way, unless we count that weird bit at the end where the children become kings and queens who have so forgotten their own world that they don’t remember what a lamppost is. No lessons are learned, except the Jesus-Aslan is light lesson– and we don’t get the impression that they were bad Christians at the beginning, or had to really be converted in any meaningful way. They are an evangelical’s dream, these brats: they encounter Jesus, and immediately fall to their knees in profound devotion.
Except, again, for Edmund. Edmund starts off as a miserable little toad, which makes it quite rewarding when the line comes, “For the first time he felt sorry for someone other than himself,” (Chapter 11) when the witch is busy turning the peasants into stone. Edmund goes through hardships– hardships that are the consequences of his own stupid-ass actions, and for which we aren’t supposed to feel pity. Edmund is the only character who has to come around to Aslan and discover the Goodness.
Admittedly, Edmund’s becoming Good did eliminate what little character complexity the story had. It also rather worried me that a ten-year-old proves his redemption through his usefulness in battle, which would have gotten him killed if not for his sister’s diamond-magic-healy juice, but it is what it is.
The other issue, and the issue that I daresay Lewis did not necessarily realize while writing, is that Edmund is almost certainly the most relatable of the children.
Everyone lies, and everyone cheats. Everyone feels stupidly sorry for themselves, or resentful of their siblings. Everyone wishes that the person who called them a beast would get what’s coming to him (Peter). Everyone gets pig-headed about stupid things because they’ve committed to their argument even though they know it’s wrong. And most especially, everyone does these things when they’re ten.
We all want to find a world in our wardrobe and then befriend a faun, like Lucy, and we all want to be brave and in charge of everyone else, like Peter, but we all feel like Edmund. Susan is basically a non-entity, except that she’s motherly, kind of, and occasionally wrong, but timidly so (as I said, it’s rough out there for a middle child).
It’s also clear that Lewis, who did not have any children of his own and presumably was never a child himself, has neither time nor patience for Edmund’s bullshit. And yet, Edmund is also the most necessary character of Lewis’s goals and narrative; Judas has to get the ball rolling on the Jesus story, after all (more on that in a future post). Which makes for quite the juxtaposition; in the disconnect between the author and the character, the reader finds herself with her own interpretations. It occasionally seems that Edmund would have been a better human all around, and nothing would have gone wrong, if he had just been content to stay in his place– which is to say, under Peter’s thumb, and doing as he’s told by his elder siblings. It’s not a sentiment likely to appeal to the middle children of the world, or anyone who feels bullied by another.
It was especially interesting to me that Peter’s chosen insult for Edmund was beast (or beastly). Lewis’s world is a world of strict hierarchy; God, angels, man, devils, animals, plants, that sort of thing. Men ruling women; the world being upended and going wrong when a woman rules; and animals as subservient to man. When greeting Aslan, Beaver explicitly tells Peter, “Sons of Adam before animals” (Chapter 12).
If one pays attention, Peter literally never says anything to Edmund, pre- Edmund’s redemption at the paws of Aslan, that isn’t said in anger, or otherwise snapping at him. The reader might get the impression that Edmund’s overall bad character would improve substantially if he could just be somewhere where Peter wasn’t (and actually, that’s exactly what happens. The White Witch turns out to a better influence on Edmund’s overall character than Peter). Much later, Edmund’s badness is credited to a school he attended, which seemed to have made him miserable, but this is only mentioned just after the end battle.
It doesn’t help anything that Lewis occasionally fails to see Edmund’s perspective, even when Edmund has a point. At the beginning of Chapter 9, we are treated to the following line about Edmund’s feelings on his siblings:
… “And he had heard the conversation, and hadn’t enjoyed it much either, because he kept on thinking that the others were taking no notice of him and trying to give him the cold shoulder. They weren’t, but he imagined it.”
But it’s made perfectly clear in the chapter immediately preceding this line, when the others are trying to work out if he snuck off before or after hearing about Aslan, that his siblings literally have no idea whether he’s present or not, unless he’s actually speaking– which could be precisely defined as their “taking no notice of him”. And of course they’re giving him the cold shoulder; they’re still pissed off at him about lying and saying he was indulging Lucy’s made-up stories. Two things to admit: first, that that’s not to say that Edmund should be the center of his siblings’ attention, at all times. That would be a touch entitled. But that doesn’t mean that he’s incorrect, either. Secondly, what’s really going on here is the plot; someone’s gotta tell the White Witch about Aslan, in order to further the next piece of the story, and Edmund has to be separated from his siblings for a stint in order to fuel his redemption.
Even so, what Lewis seems to be saying is that Edmund is wrong, even when Edmund is right. Lewis also eschews even the tiny bit of complexity that might come with Peter, Susan, and Lucy staying pissed off at Edmund for an extra hour or two after the initial conflict, which is not precisely the height of maturity, but is perfectly understandable. By eschewing even this tiny ambiguity, Lewis reflects these character flaws back onto Edmund, therefore making him even more interesting as a character, and his siblings even less.
Does Judas have free will? Or is he merely a pawn in a grander scheme of the Savior, and pre-destined to act as he did? I suppose I’ll leave this to the philosophers.
Ultimately, Lewis comes down in Judas’s favor, and in favor of the theology I was taught, which is to say that no sin is too great to be forgiven for, if you only repent. For now, anyway; maybe that will change as the books go on. I will find out.