Cair Paravel, Narnia October 2001

In Defense of C. S. Lewis

A rebuttal of recent denunciations of the classic Chronicles of Narnia as racist, misogynist, "poisonous" works
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The glistening citadel of this dateline does not in fact exist, but to children it can be more real than many an actual place: Cair Paravel is the capital of Narnia, the setting of what was, until Harry Potter, the world's best-selling fantasy series. The seven-volume Chronicles of Narnia, by the mid-century Irish writer C. S. Lewis, has some 65 million copies in print in thirty languages. In the books several English schoolchildren are transported to a realm where a human society modeled on the Arthurian court coexists with strange creatures, intelligent animals, and magic. Always the young visitors perform some improbable feat to rescue the kingdom from sinister forces. Presiding over events is Aslan, an enormous supernatural lion who called forth Narnia, loves English schoolchildren, and appears whenever hope seems lost.

Although Narnia has survived countless perils, the Chronicles themselves are now endangered. On one front they face the dubious honor of corporate marketing. On another literary voices have begun to denounce them as racist and sexist works. What's in progress is a struggle of sorts for the soul of children's fantasy literature.

American readers may already know of the corporate designs on Narnia. The New York Times reported in the spring that the publishing conglomerate HarperCollins, which recently acquired the rights to Lewis's work, plans a major marketing push for the Chronicles. Toy stores will be inundated with Narnia plush, and HarperCollins will commission new volumes for the series. Any parent who has encountered one of the odious Winnie-the-Pooh movies produced by Disney—sitcom and psychobabble invade the Hundred Acre Wood—will gasp at the thought of the HarperCollins marketing department's deciding it knows better than C. S. Lewis did what constitutes The Chronicles of Narnia. Besides, Narnia's world was destroyed when its dying sun exploded, in the final volume of the Chronicles. This would seem to preclude sequels—but hey, who wants to be a stickler?

Furthermore, HarperCollins intends to soft-pedal the spiritual subtext of the Chronicles. Lewis, a prolific writer of Christian commentary, enfolded religious themes into the stories, allowing children to read them as adventure yarns and adults to appreciate the symbolism. In one book Aslan dies and is resurrected; in another he appears as a lamb and serves the children roast fish, the meal Jesus requested after the Resurrection. According to a HarperCollins memo quoted in the Times, concerning a proposed documentary, the publisher deems it essential that "no attempt will be made to correlate the stories to Christian imagery/theology."

Only British readers are likely to be familiar with the Chronicles' second tribulation: critics attacking the books' reputation. The centenary of Lewis's birth was widely celebrated in England in 1998, but amid the general affection was prominent dissent. The novelist and critic Philip Hensher, a rising figure in the London literary establishment (he's a Booker Prize judge), censured the Chronicles as "poisonous" and "ghastly, priggish, half-witted" books intended to "corrupt the minds of the young with allegory." Corruption by allegory? Bailiff, take him away! Never mind that one of Hensher's own books, Kitchen Venom (1996), all but glorifies pederasty. What Hensher meant by corrupting the young was exposing them to what he derided as "Lewis's creed of clean-living, muscular Christianity."

Hensher's broadside is part of a fad of anti-Narnia writing in Britain. The offensive has been led by Philip Pullman, whose The Golden Compass (1996), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000)—the His Dark Materials trilogy—are the most important recent works in the English fantasy tradition (The Golden Compass won the Carnegie Medal, Britain's top award for children's literature). Pullman has deplored the "misogyny" and the "racism" of the Chronicles, which, he claims, reek of a "sneering attitude to anything remotely progressive in social terms or to people with brown faces." He has called Lewis a bigot, his devotees "unhinged," the Chronicles "appalling" and "nauseating drivel"; and he went so far as to complain that Lewis made a technical error in a joke about how centaurs eat breakfast. A technical error about an imaginary creature?

Both Lewis's and Pullman's series take place on earth and in a parallel world; both have as protagonists astonishingly capable children; and the subtext of both is the search for the divine. But in Lewis's books children seek the divine in order to experience happiness and perfect love, whereas in Pullman's trilogy they seek it in order to destroy it. The plots of His Dark Materials are driven by the premise that God is evil—a celestial impostor who pretends to have created the universe and who so intensely hates flesh and blood that he wants people to live a repressed, joyless existence followed by hell, even for the righteous. Christian illusions about God are to blame for all the world's miseries; Christianity is "a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all," one character declares. The protagonists in the books strive to acquire ancient, mysterious objects they can use to bring about God's death. Along the way children are tortured and murdered, often with Church approval.

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Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is the author of The Leading Indicators and The King of Sports: Football’s Impact on America.

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