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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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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.

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.

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
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.

C. S. Lewis's Christian Apologist theology runs deep and profoundly through everything he writes. You'll find a similar thing in his Space Trilogy, especially in Perelandra. He can sculpt an amazing primordial paradise... then send you clawing your hair out at his insidiously ass-backwards ethics.

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

Is there a word for this? I want there to be a word for this, because there are other works where that exact same thing happens.

**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.

*snort*

I would propose "narrative dissonance" if nothing else comes to mind.

Thank you, Ursula.

Thank you for reminding me that it's possible to engage pleasantly with something you find problematic.

Thank you for showing we can talk about something we don't like without implying there's something wrong with the people who do.

Thank you for telling a story that makes a statement without implying something about those who disagree,

I feel much better, and oddly, more ready to be critical of Narnia.