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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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Oh god, this. Thisthisthisthisthis. I loved huge chunks of the Narnia books -- the writing is so *beautiful* in some descriptions, especially -- but I haven't been able to re-read them properly as an adult. I'm happy with the If You Do Good, I Claim You Regardless Of Which God You've Named bits, way less happy with the angry, Not Tame bits where Aslan goes around being secretive and mysterious and letting little girls be traumatised by watching his murder, because if you're going to set up a bunch of children as legendary kings and queens that seems like the wrong mix of Treating Like Children and Treating Like Adults. As a child, that seemed... weird. Which, coming from someone who just accepted everything as Fairyworld Logic, is saying something.

This disconnect from what happens and what you are told is happening is just... yes. This is the core of what bugs me in those books.

(Much love to the incredible level of detail Mardoll puts into her deconstructions, but this, right here, is the specific example of a general point that I have such an incredibly hard time articulating to english majors. I love this post.)

I read the Narnia books as a very Christian kid who was also very into mythology, so I got the allegory pretty quickly. (And to be honest I don't quite understand why so many people were hurt or upset by there being analogues to Christian religion in there. It's not like Lewis was secretive about his Christianity.) And in addition to what other people have said that they liked the part in The Last Battle in which it's said that if you did a good deed in the name of the God of Evil, it was really a deed in honor of Good, and vice versa, I also loved that it showed (like in Prince Caspian) pagan gods happily coexisting with the Christian god stand-in.

I haven't read the books in a while because of the problematic parts that I couldn't see before, or excused as not that bad (the racism and sexism, especially), but I'll always carry with me some of the imagery : the Magician's book and the End of the World in The Dawn Treader; or the silent forest full of trees and pools and the dead world of Charn in The Magician's Nephew.

I am coming so late to the party, but, on the off chance, a couple of things. I love parts of the Chronicles and I love how the ideas in them can be cracked open for terrific meta and playing around. The return to England from Narnia and the end of the war is a fascinating time to play with the adults in children's bodies and if you take Aslan at his word that he is a "true beast" than it opens up great avenues of cultural exploration and worldbuilding.

You are absolutely write about the inconsistency in Lewis' treatment of Susan. At the end of LWW we are told she is the beautiful one desired by all the kings and he tells them to live in this world -- yet she is condemned for her beauty and for living in this world.

And, you are so right that Aslan is often a real jerk (especially to the girls) and (I like writing him and I still think he's a jerk) and it's those jerk-qualities which make me very uncomfortable drawing a direct parallel between Aslan and Jesus or God, or whomever as so many of the Narnian Christian fen do. Thank you for the wonderful post!

I actually never read any of the Narnia books. I did, however, on a friend's insistence, read Lewis' science-fiction trilogy and.... well. Um. He doesn't bother to hide anything about anything about his allegorizing there.

But I'm commenting to say that yes, you are sometimes completely right about that last observation, that sometimes authors don't know everything about the books they write. It's all a point-of-view question. They can only see the interpretation they want to put in there, but literature is a fractured mirror with pieces slightly askew, most of the time---it's going to mirror everyone's very different experiences and assumptions going in a little differently.

I've read all the books as well as most of Margoll's blog. Love all the books, her blog not so much. Relentlessly nitpicky and generally very unfair. In fact more than unfair, downright biased. On more than one occasion she exaggerates or distorts to make a point