As stated in my last entry, the NARNIA book series seemed to be almost universally beloved by everyone up until the 2000’s, when it suddenly got a very negative critical re-evaluation. Let’s take a look at some of these criticisms made by the Literary Elite.
[WARNING: Here Be Spoilers For All Seven Books!]
-“NARNIA is racist and/or sexist!”
These are two words that get tossed around a lot in criticism by people trying to sound smart. Calling someone or something “racist” is a good way to just shut them up and end any dialog. Lewis’s writing in the NARNIA books is, unfortunately, dated to the 1950’s, but there’s a world of difference between something being insensitive versus being truly racist or sexist.
Let’s start with the Calormenes. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: the word sounds like colored men. Supposedly that was not Lewis’s intention; he instead derived the term from the Latin word calor, meaning heat. The Calormenes are a desert-based culture, made up of many cliches of Arab cultures. So it would seem natural to think their religion, in which they worship a cruel God named Tash, is intended as an allegory of Islam as well as an amalgamation of other eastern religions. They are also dark-skinned, referred to as “darkies” by the Narnian dwarfs, and one bit of writing has offended some readers:
“Then the dark men came round them in a thick crowd, smelling of garlic and onions, their white eyes flashing dreadfully in their brown faces.”
Now, to be fair, Lewis does make it a point to present positive Calormene characters in both Aravis and Emeth. And, he also reveals that those who follow Tash but are good-hearted are the same as those who follow Aslan, which is a nice message of Universalism: “It doesn’t matter what your religion is as long as you’re a good person.” But still, the truth does remain that the Calormene people as a whole are presented as enemies of Narnia, and the fact they are also dark-skinned and have a religion and culture that are presented negatively compared to the Narnian religion and culture…may not sit well with some.
Then there’s the sexism issue; Lewis is accused of having a strict idea of gender roles, telling his female characters they’re not allowed to fight in battle, and presenting Lucy and Susan as simple ingenues (we’ll get to The Problem of Susan issue later). Yet Lewis appears to have changed his opinion as he continued the series, with Aravis, Polly, and Jill being presented as much more headstrong and active female characters. Plus, as I pointed out before, THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW actually makes the man responsible for Original Sin, which I thought was ingenious.
So no, I do not think NARNIA is racist or sexist. It’s dated to an older way of thinking, and that may make it insensitive. And as I said before, there is a world of difference between being insensitive and being truly racist or sexist.
-“NARNIA is just Christian propaganda!”
Once again, a word is being thrown around incorrectly. Yes, Lewis liked to drink the Jesus Juice and he makes this very obvious in the books. However, “propaganda” does not simply mean “any story that has a message or moral.” If that was the case, every single Aesop’s Fable would be “propaganda.” If you want to see what real Christian propaganda looks like, check out any Chick Tract or pamphlet handed out by Jehovah’s Witnesses or Jews For Jesus, which serve no purpose whatsoever other than trying to convert the reader.
If that was all NARNIA was, then it would not be a global franchise popular via so many adaptations. Time and time again I’ve heard people say “I’m not religious but I still love the NARNIA books” or “Yeah, I know it’s all allegory and the lion is supposed to be Jesus or whatever, but I don’t care about that. It’s just a good story!” THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE in particular is a very strong story that stands on its own.
So honestly, here is my conclusion on this matter: who gives a fuck what Lewis believed? What does it matter if he prayed to Jesus, Mohammad, Aslan, or Harry Potter?
Having a message in a work of art is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, it adds to the story: we are seeing a talented writer present a portrait of his religion through children’s fantasy. Getting back to the issue of the Calormenes, Lewis presents them as a well-meaning people but misguided in their religion. If that was Lewis’s personal opinion of Muslims, then that’s his business and he has a right to tell a story showing that opinion. Just as Philip Pullman has a right to write a story attacking all religions equally. That’s the beauty of Freedom of Speech!
-“The Ending of THE LAST BATTLE…”
THE LAST BATTLE does have a very dark twist of an ending. All of the Friends of Narnia – Digory, Polly, Peter, Edmund, Lucy, Eustace, and Jill – go from being in a train accident to finding themselves in Narnia and New Narnia, (eventually revealed to be the true Narnia after the Apocalypse happens to Old Narnia). Eventually Aslan reveals that all of them have DIED and now get to live forever in this afterlife, where “the real story begins.”
Even though this is presented as a happy ending, there’s always been a layer of darkness to it that has bothered some readers. Lewis has killed off all the main characters, and done it in a very cryptic way; their death has happened in the background without them fully realizing it, and when it is revealed to them, they’re happy about it. This has led to the criticism that the NARNIA stories, Christianity, and organized religion in general all “glorify death” as the best thing that can happen to you and that your real adventure will be in the afterlife.
I guess I have no rebuttal to this criticism. It is a very dark, slightly disconcerting way to end the story. I would have preferred an ending that embraced life over death.
-“NARNIA tells children that growing up is a bad thing.”
Many classics of children’s literature glorify childhood over adulthood. CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE LITTLE PRINCE, PETER PAN, or even CALVIN AND HOBBES give the message that children have a power, innocence, and virtue that’s lost when they become adults. Yet, at what point does the sentiment “growing up is bad for you” become unhealthy? Growing up and maturing as adults is part of life, something we all must do, and is it really healthy to vilify this action?
Throughout the NARNIA books, Lewis obviously focuses on children and presents them as very innocent, and tells us that grown-ups don’t see the world in the same way they do. All of this is relatively harmless–until we get to that infamous LAST BATTLE ending. As Pullman put it: “Lewis loves his child characters so much that he would rather kill them off so they can be children forever than allow them to grow up.”
My ex-girlfriend hated the NARNIA books for this reason! As she put it: “We all have children’s stories we love and feel nostalgic for our childhoods. It’s okay to an extent. But it’s unhealthy to hate being an adult. You’ll wind up being a man-child who lives in a state of arrested development. If you want to be a functioning adult and part of society, you need to let go of childhood at some point and grow up. NARNIA gives kids the bad message that growing up is the worst thing that can happen to you. It even tells them that they’re actually better off dying.”
I think there is some truth to this critique. All I can I say is I’ve tried to address this point in my own writings. In fact, I wrote a fantasy story once where a character actually asked this out loud: “Is it inherently wrong to become mature? Or can coming of age be a good thing?”
And now comes the most infamous of all the comments. Here we go:
-“The Problem of Susan”
In probably the single most controversial and written-about plot-point of the series, one I’ve heard debated more than any other, it’s revealed in THE LAST BATTLE that Susan is no longer one of the Friends of Narnia, having lost interest in that fantasy world and become more preoccupied with “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” When it is later revealed that all of our heroes, including Mr. and Mrs. Pevensie, have died and are now in the afterlife, this means that poor Susan has lost her entire family…and nary a thought is spared on her.
I have heard every criticism you can imagine about this:
“Lewis was a raving misogynist!”
“Susan has been locked out of Heaven forever just for being a woman!”
“She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that.” –JK Rowling
“Susan has been denied salvation merely because of her fondness for nylons and lipstick – because she has reached puberty, in other words, and has become sexualized.” -Philip Pullman
The common response I and others made was: “Susan’s crime isn’t that she’s a woman. It’s that she’s a superficial person interested in superficial things.” But someone did make a valid point to me: “Lewis could have chosen any items in the world for Susan to be obsessed with. Yet, even if he didn’t intentionally mean it this way, he subconsciously chose ‘nylons and lipstick,’ two items that are not only inherently feminine but also inherently sexual. And also ‘invitations,’ which implies socializing and dating. Again, he is sub-textually vilifying the act of growing up.”
A more religious interpretation is that Lewis is using Susan to represent those who stray away from their faith by being attracted to items of the material world. Hence, Susan’s crime isn’t specifically in becoming a sexually mature woman; it’s in embracing the secular world over the spiritual. But then again, is that really a good message to give children? “The worst thing you can do is be an apostate.”
My thoughts on this case? I honestly believe Lewis, while well-intentioned, simply threw this plot point out there without fully thinking it through. To kill off Susan’s entire family and then seem to simply forget about her or give the reader any resolution as to her fate comes off as cruel, and I feel Lewis just failed to consider the full effects of what he was doing. While there are some defenders who say “Just because Susan may not be a Friend of Narnia at the moment doesn’t mean she may not come back to it later, or that she won’t rejoin her family after she dies,” the truth is that Susan is in for a very difficult and lonely life. Even Neil Gaiman, a fan of the series, has criticized this plot point and written a short story entitled THE PROBLEM OF SUSAN, depicting an adult Susan haunted by the death of her family and with fantasies sexualizing Aslan and the White Witch.
Yet Lewis clearly was not blindly against the act of growing up or of romance. Remember, in THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE, all four children do grow up in Narnia, and we are told the following:
“And Susan grew into a tall and gracious woman with black hair that fell almost to her feet and the kings of the countries beyond the sea began to send ambassadors asking for her hand in marriage. And she was called Susan the Gentle.”
So what is a dear fanboy like me to do? Well, there’s truth to some of these, and less to others, but I think many of us who grew up with NARNIA have had to acknowledge these flaws in reviewing the text. Yet the world over continues to love this series. Join me next time as we look over some of its many adaptations!