Greetings from the great midwest! I hope your holiday celebration times are going well, especially now that you are (1) no longer covering for me at work while I sit around at home recovering from a concussion and caring for a sick cat and (2) no longer staying at the office until so late that they turn the lights off around you or start testing out the fire alarm in a covert attempt to make you go home. Also, Choke, yo, where’s that analysis on Lull at? Kelly Link herself called me up on the phone to say that she thought our blog had a great dearth of Kelly Link. (This is a lie. Also, if Kelly Link ever reads this… please don’t call me)
Anyway, the subject at hand: my closing thoughts on the Narnia books.
As you well know, I trudged through all seven books using Gutenberg Canada, and I honestly think that you may have enjoyed this experience more than I did, because it seems that the more didactic Lewis got, the more grumpy I became, and the more amused you were. Until now, I had not read the Narnia books for more than fifteen years, and, they hadn’t stuck in my head. Admittedly, there were a few of those nostalgic pangs of delight, brought to me by childhood memory: Lucy and Mr. Tumnus hanging out in his house, the wee foray into Charn, the calling home of the stars during the unmaking of Narnia. But by and large, in the end, all I can say in short honesty is that I dislike these books. And I dislike Lewis.
It’s not that the books are Christian allegory— I knew that, and hey, do what you do, C.S.— and it’s not that Lewis’s method is didactic. It’s that he’s petty, and his personality jumps right off the page. He’s the kind of man who tells you, unasked, what he thinks of vegetarians, or people who call their parents by their first names, or any other behavioral or lifestyle choices different than his own. He’s the kind of man who seems to delight in other people Learning A Lesson. I feel like I grew up with a veritable treasure trove of such men, at church, or the friends of parents’ friends, all of whom seemed to have nothing better to do than to deliver judgements onto people they had barely met based on half an understanding without the slightest interest in seeing anyone else’s perspective. The kind of man who assumes that you will listen to him, is ready to punish you if you don’t listen, and has absolutely no interest in listening to you. My dislike of Lewis says more about me than it does about him, probably, and I have no doubt that I can be every bit as didactic and petty as he can, but this is my letter, and here it is.
So, why did I keep reading?
For one reason, because there is a great deal of literature out in the world that is not merely influenced by Lewis, but is outright reacting to Lewis (and, frequently enough, reacting to that aforementioned personality of his). Much of Diana Wynne Jones’s work, Grossman’s Magicians series, Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and Valente’s Palimpsest all come to mind as a few examples that are on my bookshelf of works influenced by Lewis and Narnia (although, Pullman was reacting more strongly still to Milton’s Paradise Lost, and while I read in a review that Valente’s Palimpsest was a retelling of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe turned on its side, I don’t actually know if that was Valente’s intent or the reviewer applying a touch of that Barthes “death of the author” magic). In order to fully understand reactionary work, you must understand the action in the first place, and Mr. Lewis does seem to inspire quite a good deal of heated reaction.
But the bigger reason that I kept reading is that I really wanted to read and fully understand (1) Sarah Monette’s blog posts on the Narnia books, (2) Neil Gaiman’s short story, The Problem of Susan, and (3) Sarah Monette’s analysis of Neil Gaiman’s short story, The Problem of Susan.
Which is to say that I read seven books so as to better read six blog entries and one short story. Go Onion, A+ use of time and energy!
I can’t link to Gaiman’s story, since it belongs to part of the collection of short stories, Fragile Things, and has no place online… although, I imagine the enterprising soul equipped with the power of Google probably doesn’t need to leave the computer behind to read it. Anyway.
So here, Ms. Monette grumbles about the Pevensies (her words, not mine), here, she discusses The Silver Chair and The Horse and His Boy, and here she discusses The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle. She goes onto discuss “The Sexual Politics of Narnia” (Awesome), and then the witches, those Daughters of Lilith.
And of course, here is her take on Gaiman’s The Problem of Susan.
What was most striking to me, in my reading of the seven books, was how much of an aside Susan’s fate was, that which inspired Gaiman’s story and so much contention in Lewis’s readers. It seemed so unnecessary, so much of a throwaway mention, an unnecessary detour in a book that is otherwise moving from point a to point b to point end of the world like it’s got a schedule to catch. In my less charitable moments, I wondered if part of Lewis’s motivation was getting the cast down to that holy number, seven, seven kings and queens of Narnia. Susan’s already been set up as a character for you to roll your eyes at— Oh Susan, falling in love with Rabadash, you idiot— but she’s Learned The Lesson, at the end of each book she appears in, just like any other character. And then those lessons turn out to be for nothing. Now she likes nylons and lipstick and invitations, and she wants to be (oh horror of horrors) grown-up.
That’s the thing about Lewis’s worldview: you’re either in, or you’re out. One can go to Narnia and prance around for a bit and become a dragon and learn all sorts of behavioral lessons about being chivalrous and brave and faithful, but when push comes to shove, you’re either one of these angelic, brave children fighting the final battle (children!) or you’re one of those vegetarians, someone who likes make-up, someone who Reads The Wrong Kind of Books (Eustace, pre-dragon transformation). Besides this being the kind of worldview that, I suspect, makes some readers want to rip their hair out (especially the adult who returns to the books to find both what they loved as a child, but also this pettiness that they had happily missed), it also opens Lewis’s world and sentiments up to examinations and conclusions that can be brutal. I think Grossman’s The Magicians tries to do this in a pathetic sort of way (that’s another post for another day– and for you, Choke, because I don’t wanna) but it’s Gaiman’s short story that manages to pull apart the unseen consequences of The Chronicles of Narnia with an efficiency and a mercilessness that truly made reading all seven books worthwhile for me. Sometimes, when you’re frustrated with an author, all you really want is to know that you’re not the only one who saw the cracks in the veneer.
That’s all for now. Happy whatever holiday comes next and I will see you again in 2015!
Lots of love,