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Narnian Apocalyptica

Unable to sleep last night, I got up and spent two hours re-reading The Silver Chair and The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis.

I had recently started re-reading the series, based on a really awesome series of blog posts by Ana Mardoll, who is doing a chapter by chapter break down of the Narnian books. It makes for fascinating reading, because as with many such things that you love as a kid and never take a really close look at, there’s…well, a lot going on.*

Susan, always a problem, get so much the short end of the stick when you look closely that it’s…honestly, kinda bizarre.

To take another beloved children’s classic, we all mostly hate Mary in the Little House books, because Mary is very hateable. Not a problem, no question, and while Ma gets really weirdly passive aggressive and pits them against each other on occasion, still, there’s Something About Mary, and not in the good way.

Now much has been made of the problem of Susan. I knew that going in. But even as I thought that she got screwed, I did recall Susan being sort of like Mary in the books as a kid, and then I went and re-read them and actually looked closely, and…

Huh.

There is a really weird dichotomy between what Susan does and how the narrator tells us to feel about it. Susan is actually a very practical, tender-hearted person who cries to find herself back in Narnia and won’t shoot to kill if she can help it. The narrator, however, appears to detest her, and even Aslan (who is really a colossal dick in many, many ways throughout the books—such is the prerogative of gods) isn’t great. We are told flat out that “Susan was the worst” and other such, when she’s…actually behaving pretty reasonably all around.

Lewis, when he gets on a roll, is a really good writer. He is fun. The were-wolf’s speech in Prince Caspian is lovely. The whole sequence with the Isle of Dreams in Dawn Treader (particularly the American version, which is a LOT better–there’s a wiki with the side-by-side changes, yes, I was shocked too) is fabulous. I even liked the discussion of various kinds of loam eaten by dryads. And I will hear no evil said of Marsh-wiggles.

And as much as I detested Last Battle for many, many, many failures, for unbounded racism and generalized despair and some “Hey, let’s shoot Bambi’s mother!” gratuitous tearjerking and “YAY! Everybody dies! Let’s all be thrilled and gloss over how Eustace and Jill’s parents and poor Susan must feel right now!”—despite all that, as apocalypses go, the end of Last Battle can stand toe to toe with Revelations any day, as far as I’m concerned. The stars falling and the damned creatures running into Aslan’s shadow and the lighting and the monsters….it’s a helluva thing.

As a kid, I recall hating the first half of Last Battle. I have, in fact, only read the first half twice (unless I blotted it out) and once was as an adult, last night.** But I know I read the apocalyptic bits any number of times, because man, that’s a scene.

He’s a fine writer.

As a narrator, on the other hand, he tries to do this avuncular thing that works pretty well about ninety percent of the time and just crashes and burns the other ten percent. He shows beautifully. His telling—when it works it works, but in some cases, you get this weird tug-of-war where Lewis-the-writer shows you a thing and Lewis-the-narrator tells you how to feel about it, and Lewis-the-narrator is flat-out wrong.

It’s…yeah. I have no idea how to even process that. I’m not sure it even can be processed—he’s the author, what he says goes, so perhaps wrong is the wrong term. But it’s weird. If you read it and decide that he’s an unreliable narrator—dude. Edmund is enchanted, abused, and NINE YEARS OLD. Eustace has been kidnapped and (while whiny) is doing exactly the right things in trying desperately to get his captors to take him to a British embassy (although he’s still a dick to Reepicheep, which is one of the unforgivable sins.) Nikabrik the dwarf is the only sane one of a bunch who are running a losing war based on astrology (and Caspian drew first!)

And poor Susan just gets screwed, from first to last, by a profoundly dickish god, presumably because Lewis needed an object lesson in The One Distracted By Worldly Concerns to go with his Virtuous Pagan and make a nice set.

I’ve often noted that writing dialog is an entirely different skill-set than writing everything else. You see this illustrated most starkly in fan fic. There are people who cannot write a book, who should never be allowed within ten feet of a book, who can nevertheless write dialog that leaves you convulsed on the floor. And there are people who can write exceedingly well who produce some profoundly wretched dialog. (Mr. King, I am looking in your direction.)

Maybe the narrator, like dialog, is a different skill than Writing The Rest Of The Stuff. Or maybe sometimes we’re just wrong about the books we’re writing. I don’t know.

That’s all. There is no moral, except I should probably not read beloved but problematic children’s books at two in the morning.

Tomorrow, my mother arrives, and then—to France and cheese! Woot!

 

 

 

 

*In fairness to Mr. Lewis, many authors might not hold up so well to a line-by-line scrutiny—but on the other hand, if they weren’t such beloved children’s classics, one wouldn’t feel the need to go over them with a fine toothed comb in the first place.

**Okay, look, I KNOW because it’s Lewis, that Rilian and Jewel are not an item, but…dude. I mean, you don’t even have to walk across the street to ship that, and I don’t even do slash.

Originally published at Tea with the Squash God. You can comment here or there.

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The "turning back into a boy after being a dragon" scene stuck with me, though if it hadn't been for the hurty arm-band... DUDE. DRAGON. WHY GO BACK?? >_>

As for Susan...

1: Wicked Girls Saving Ourselves -- -- http://seananmcguire.com/songbook.php?id=238 -- "And one queen said 'I am not a toy', and she never returned." (Album is Wicked Girls.)

2: http://www.whofic.com/viewstory.php?sid=27395 -- "From a World More Full of Weeping" -- Dr. Who + Susan = eeeeheheheheheh! It has become my personal headcanon.

Wait, what? Somebody turned into a dragon?

I actually only ever read half the series-- Lion, Witch, & Wardrobe, The Last Magician, The Last Battle, and I think I read The Horse & His Boy...once. Maybe. I don't recall if it was just unavailability at the library or I lost interest or what, but I totally missed out on the others. I tried to do a series re-read a few years back when the first movie came out, but got too annoyed by the blatant nature of the allegories and couldn't get through them. But I might have to reconsider if there are dragons, because that was my teenage obsession.

And this is an example why many of us who have never even met you treasure you.

Edited at 2012-09-14 01:51 am (UTC)

I always thought the "Susan was the worst" bits were one of those inscrutable English things that don't really mean what they say.

This is why 1) as a child I never read The Last Battle and 2) why I never went back and read any of them as an adult except for I think The Magician's Nephew and The Lion et al. And then I got rather unaccountably annoyed that the GREAT EVIL THINGIE is always a woman. And always the SAME woman. I mean, come one, at least have more than one Big Bad.

I loved the Narnia books as a kid. I think it also helped that I had almost zero knowledge of or experience with Christianity until I was in my teens, so they were really just books about kids going on adventures to a magical land with talking animals to me. Which is awesome.

Usenet informed me, around 1991, that Narnia was Christian allegory. I was astounded. :)

I basically just did the YES THIS dance at this entire post. Quite a lot of the Narnia books doesn't stand up to rigorous inspection (or even juvenile inspection; wee Keleri found The Last Battle depressing and frustrating, and the Silver Chair was vaguely disturbing), but there are scenes and lines that will stay with me for ever. The werewolf's speech (SHOW ME YOUR ENEMIES), the lamppost in the winter wood, a voyage into the unknown trackless sea and all that lay beyond, a voyage to a god's land, Tesh traveling ghostly across Narnian hills, a wood between worlds, dying Charn, the glorious empress Jadis...

I think I just got hooked on this Narnia blog...

Oh, Rillian and Jewel. Just...endless, endless tears.

Those characters never met in the books as far as I recall, so I'm stumped. What?

I read the entire series start-to-finish (in chronological order rather than published, because my English father re-arranged them before I was allowed to start reading) between the ages of 6 and 8... and I STILL haven't forgiven Lewis for The Last Battle.

I do remember feeling bitter and resentful towards Susan, though. Not because of Lewis's puzzling dislike of her - I adored her in the first two books - but because later we find out she turned away from the memory of the adventure/fantasy, pretending it was all pretend. I realize now that she had her reasons - what do you MEAN I'm TOO OLD?! - but when I was 8, that was a serious sore spot. Mostly because I felt very passionately that if I'd been lucky enough to stumble through a magic wardrobe, I would never, ever have gone back. :)

As I recall, the first time they go back is entirely by accident-- they basically stumble on the lamppost again after decades of ruling as king and queens, and they're like "oh right, we came from another world" and then they tumble out of the warddrobe and they're all children again. That's how the movie played it, anyway. I don't know if they changed much from the books.

When I watched the movie, I was just horrified by that ending. They spend years and years and completely grow up into adults and presumably gain all the experience and maturity that entails... and then they get thrown back into the bodies of children and young teens. Do not want. D: But no one ever seems to comment or reflect on this at all.

I’ve often noted that writing dialog is an entirely different skill-set than writing everything else.
THIS. Yes, so much yes. Dialogue is definitely its own skill-set.

I read the Narnia books when I was, uh, about eight? Ten? I didn't really pick up on all the Christian undertones (and overtones) but I do remember being deeply dissatisfied with how some of the female characters were treated even then. Although, er, honestly the only part that really stuck with me was the 'Eustace gets turned into a dragon' bits, and how he was a dragon, and the turning back, although yeah I was so disappointed when he did because dude, dragon. XD

Having just reread a bunch of mid-20th-century British stuff (especially George Orwell's letters and essays), I think that readers these days are missing a lot of context - especially school stories and Catholic apologetics - when we read the Narnia stories now. I think it's where the creepy-uncle tone comes in, anyway.

Excuse me, now I have to go reread Peter's challenge to Miraz. That rocked.

We just finished reading the whole of the Narnia series to our daughter and I found it to be an odd experience for a few reasons. However, the biggest reason has to be that I only read The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe + A Horse and His Boy as a child and Jeff and I were roughly alternating chapters of the book. In places, I was just pronouncing the words and waiting for it to make sense (I actually kind of love doing this with books/movies/tv shows where I don't care about spoilers). Second to this is the fact that I was raised Catholic, but we're raising Sylvia in some sort of atheist/secular humanist variant. I kept waiting for her to go wait-what? but she seems to have accepted the main premises in the same carefree way that she accepts the fairy books. Finally, my copy of the Narnia series is the omnibus edition that was published to go along with the movies and it must be British as I have never seen the word "leant" used as the past tense of "lean."

I grew up Catholic and I didn't see the religious allegory in it, either-- but when I reread it later I was... kind of offended! "Are you telling me God is a dick who attacks and mauls and terrifies little girls for being bratty? Who in their right mind wants that God!?"

Years of "God is love and compassion" nearly undone by one lion-y mauling. Good times.

There is a really weird dichotomy between what Susan does and how the narrator tells us to feel about it.

This can be functionally rephrased as "there is a really weird dichotomy between most of what happens on-page and how the narrator tells us to feel about it."

I agree. This explains to me how, after loving the books at ten to thirteen, I never really got back to them. When I was young, the fantasy story was enough. But as I grew up, the narrators instructions grew increasingly uncomfortable. But I never realised why until Ursula pointed it out.

The only one I remained comfortable with was The Horse and his Boy, in which there was much less instruction, since is sits out to the side of the main Son of Adam, Daughter of Eve thread.

I loved these books when I was very young. Then, at some point somebody told me the Christian paralells and I was crushed, because they were morals, not just fantasy. I was teaching Sunday school at the time (which, how I reacted does indicate I wasn't going to for much longer). But I'm stupid into trope and how I felt about the Narnia series is why I fell for Lev Grossman's 'The Magicians' and 'The Magician King' books.

And, in these books that are so very much the product of someone who is aware of Harry Potter and Narnia and other stories that fall into those magical chosen one stories, Grossman does briefly examine the Susan problem with the mentioned-in-passing character Helen Chatwin. Ten damns but I can't find the exact passages where, in a few lines, the offhanded way Susan is treated is mirrored perfectly in Helen.

You might love Grossman's books. You might hate them. You will probably want to punch the protagonist. But as an examination of the sorts of books one grew up reading, where there is a possibility for magic and adventure, they're good ones.

... as someone who just grabbed the Magician but hasn't gotten into it yet, just how badly am I gonna want to punch this guy? I could barely make it through the later Harry Potter books due to the "I want to slap him silly" factor.

Not only was Susan screwed, she was totally Set Up.

Lewis gives them all appellations: one is Brave and one is Good and one is Just, but Susan? well, Susan just gets to be Beautiful.

And then, at the end, she gets popped right back into war-time deprivation and her experience from Narnia is that she was pretty to look at. I don't wonder why she turned to the things that her siblings put her down for liking - it was what she was built up to be in the other life that Aslan gave her.

(I swear, that if I were a) still in college and b) an English student, I'd be able to work that rant up into a good dissertation).

"And I will hear no evil said of Marsh-wiggles."

Hear, hear!

I am torn between Reepicheep and Puddleglum for the title of Most Awesome Narnian in All History. And if they don't cast Alan Rickman as the latter for "The Silver Chair" I will pout, I tell you!

I didn't read the Narnia books as a child -- I tried the Oz books and didn't make it even thru the first one because the tone of the narrative was so patronizing, and I guess I thought that Narnia would be the same way. And I've never felt any particular desire to read them as I got older, especially since most of the discussions of them I encounter make it quite clear that I wouldn't like them now either, but for very different reasons.

I read and enjoyed some of Lewis' other work as a young adult, but since I realized that Christianity is not the One True and Only Way, those have sort of palled as well. It's not quite the same thing as the books getting a visit from the Suck Fairy, but definitely something with a family relationship thereto.

God damn it, Ursula, now I have to read Narnia again.

Oh well. I've been meaning to anyway.

That was my thought exactly. The boxset's been staring at me for some time now.

I’ve often noted that writing dialog is an entirely different skill-set than writing everything else. You see this illustrated most starkly in fan fic. There are people who cannot write a book, who should never be allowed within ten feet of a book, who can nevertheless write dialog that leaves you convulsed on the floor. And there are people who can write exceedingly well who produce some profoundly wretched dialog. (Mr. King, I am looking in your direction.)

Can I tear this paragraph out and repost it on Tumblr? With attribution, of course.

They really are different skills. Scene-writing requires an expertise in stringing together descriptive language, such that it pulls the readers in and helps them to see everything happening as if you were there. Dialog-writing requires getting into the characters' heads, understanding their motivations, and then putting them together and just letting them talk in your mind. (I myself am much better at the latter than the former, though can't match the esteemed Ms. Vernon on either ground.)

My issue with the last battle is with the section you mention, with creatures going into Aslan's shadow. I'm sure it's probably okay if read young or with a Christian background, but when I read it I was twenty one and already set on being a Holocaust historian, and that bit just came across as horrific.

There's a series by burntcopper that doesn't feature Susan much, but focuses on the boys joining up to go to war, and the authorities/soldiers etc going What. These people do not act like normal English school boys. They act Entirely Too Familiar With War. http://archiveofourown.org/series/8533

my experience with these books is so different because I ALWAYS knew they were "christian" and I was brought up (and at the time believed) that that was a really great and good thing.

Since I left my religion behind as an adult my feelings for Narnia aren't really scornful. I think that regardless of authorial intentions they CAN be just stories. I've not read many stories that didn't have some flaws or questionable lessons or whatnot so... Yeah. I have all this nostalgia for some of the characters and ideas and the old BBC Narnia series and you'll never take that away from me. XD

Speaking of being a wrong/unreliable narrator, though, I've long felt like that's what I was at times over the course of my old webcomic ("Untitled!"). I've felt so guilty for years over how preachy I tried to be and also the stupid ways in which I handled some parts of the story and character relationships, but somehow it seems like there was SOMETHING going on that, youngster that I was, I just wasn't conscious of. Something that made up for whatever awful hateful things might have been trying to convey... *sigh*

And I suppose in a way Narnia can sometimes shine in that way, too. Perhaps there was something in Lewis that fought back against the destructive ideals he was forcing himself to espouse... I don't know.

Sometimes--and I say this of myself as much as anyone!--we are better writers than we deserve to be.

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I can credit the Narnia books, in part, for my break with fundamentalist Christianity -- remember that bit where Aslan tells the Calormenes that they worship him even if it's not in his name, as long as they worship good? I fell in with people who wouldn't even go that far. Don't worship Jesus by name? Hell. Baby and die before being saved? Hell. That wasn't my god, and after arguing about it very vehemently at Bible study I just... searched my soul and realized that this just wasn't my god and I didn't even want him to be. Neither was Aslan, either; I always thought that bit was a nasty magician's force, even though it managed to be queasily redemptive too. But Aslan beat that "you are going to HELL on a TECHNICALITY" god in spades. C.S. Lewis was one of the few fantasy authors they kept in their library, too, except I think it was actually the even less thinly veiled Perelandra/That Hideous Strength/etc. rather than the morally-suspect Narnia, all soft on Calormenes. (One or the other of those books had a really amazing description of evil, but as a retelling of Adam and Eve they were kind of boring.)

Susan, wow. I so didn't want to be Susan. I wanted to be Lucy, and I understood Eustace. But she got such a raw deal, and it didn't seem fair even when I was a kid, and it was shocking and horrifying when I read it again. Susan got the same petty, nasty, over-the-top raw deal that desert island pagans and babies got from those fundies I mention up above.

I may be weird for actually liking The Last Battle. The part about willful blindness and "name doesn't matter; good matters" are what stuck, interestingly enough. I'm still a heathen, though; it's a window, not a welcome mat, to me.

Hm. I can follow all of this but your linked dropped me in to the part where the analyst is having sympathy for Nikibik's ethnic whining and, um. Huh?

Try this one -- it has an index to all her Narnia posts so you can read them in order.

Taking a Doylist perspective, the main point of Susan is probably to present the lesson that God sometimes is arbitrarily mean to some people, and we have to deal with that.

This is a very important lesson, and is somehow left out of Sunday school.

Ugh, I've read a few absolutely GORGEOUS Susan fanfics and now I adore her but as a child I thought she was a bit of a drip. Possibly this is because I was nerd!girl with no friends who would have given almost anything to be absorbed into a fantasy world... I actually remember thinking the narration was unfair but also thinking that Susan was a SNOB.

One good Susan fic had her as Minerva McGonagall, she was the Lost Queen who brought the Lost Narnians (the centaurs and such in the HP world) home. Wish I had a link!

It's on Archive of our Own somewhere, I remember just having seen a Narnia/HP fic in the Narnia section.

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