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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…


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.


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.

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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. :)

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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.

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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.

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... 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.

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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!