Thursday, December 4, 2014

Revisiting Narnia, Part the Second

A while back I wrote about my re-read of the Narnia books on the occasion of my seven-year old girl's discovery of them. She's a terrific reader, but I felt that she could not only get more out of the books with some guidance on some ways to think about literature but might also enjoy it more if she has someone with whom to discuss them. As an added bonus, it's been great fun reading them. As I'd said before, these are first and foremost entertaining books which are quite simply a pleasure to read. As a second added bonus, my re-reading of Narnia coincides with my finally having time to finish Lev Grossman's grown-up Narnia tribute series The Magicians. What has the experience been like? Read on!
Reading together, on the train

Revisiting Narnia
I'll confess that  I'd forgotten much of the plot and characters of the Narnia series;  I read them long enough ago to have little more than a vague memory of finding them enjoyable. As an adult, I've learned that CS Lewis was a Christian apologist who wove themes of his faith into the books. What I didn't realize until the current re-read is just how pervasive and how heavy-handedly obvious those themes are. Jesus figures appear from time to time in science fiction and fantasy,  from Michael Valentine Smith (of Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, but if you need me to tell you that your youth has been truly and thoroughly wasted) to Paul Atreides (Herbert's Dune, but you knew that) all the way through Harry Potter. I'm sure someone reading this will correct me, but I don't recall any fictitious messiah figure who takes the Christ story quite so literally as Narnia's Aslan who comes back to life after being ritually killed in atonement for the misdeeds of another. What's neat about this is that it opens a discussion into the myth without the cultural baggage that comes with a modern-day religion followed by millions of real-world humans; Aslan's sacrifice and the way in which people react to it (with some remembering and some doubting or questioning) can be discussed on their own, divorced from the real world.

The straightforward nature of the messages in these books makes them ideal as discussion points for a young reader getting her first taste of real fantasy; in addition to the obvious discussion of plot, Narnia gives very easy answers to the one important question about any fantasy book - or any book at all, for that matter - that of "what is this book about?" It's easy to find answers, including:
  • A magical world created by a talking lion
  • The value of belief and obediance
  • The conflict between tradition and modernity.

Chloe and I had terrific discussions about how these themes were developed. We would talk about which characters were portrayed positively and which negatively, who was rewarded and who was punished, and a bit about which details were a central point of focus. We did not go word-by-word into the language used to describe various characters and settings because this wasn't that kind of reading; in the balance between education and entertainment, I wanted these to be entertaining. Closer readings will come later.

((As an aside, entertainment and attentiveness are not mutually exclusive. My lovely bride asked what I thought of the Harry Potter books, I rattled off a few flaws - most notably an over-reliance on coincidences to move the plot. She asked, with some exasperation, if  could just read something for fun rather than pick it apart. My answer is that, for me, picking things apart IS half the fun. End of aside)).

How to Love Something Problematic
I don't share Lewis's Christian faith, but don't have many real issues with it. What I do have issues with are his sexism and anti-modernity. There are some interesting ways in the Narnia books, some of which we discussed, in which Lewis's ideas of gender roles are presented. One not-so-subtle one (and this is one of the few areas in which Chloe and I did discuss language) is in the way Narnians refer to those from our world as "Sons of Adam" or "Daughters of Eve". What at first seems like a simple nod to the Jewish creation myth can be read to contain something else; by splitting human lineage into male descendants from the first man and female descendants from the first woman one emphasises and exaggerates gender differences, strengthening the expectation of gender roles (ie, Peter is given a sword and shield to fight up close and lead in battle, while his female siblings are given a bow and arrow to offer support from a distance and a magical healing potion). Imagine how different it would feel to have them described as "Sons and Daughters of Adam" or "Sons of Eve and Daughters of Adam".  In later books there are equally troubling messages about modernity, about schooling, and even corporal punishment.

There's a larger meta-lesson here about tolerance and acceptance. One can read a book with some viewpoints which are archaic or even problematic and still appreciate the setting, plot, and other elements. I see it as important to understand them, acknowledge that the messages are there, and make ones own judgements. I see Lewis as wrong about many of these things, but that doesn't take away the enjoyment one feels in reading his books any more than H.P. Lovecraft's racism and anti-semitism diminish the pleasure in reading his Cthulhu mythos stories. Like Lovecraft, Lewis is an important figure in the field with a wide enough influence to make him worth reading for historical purposes if no other.

The Gift of Innocence
All that said, young readers have a remarkable ability to take a piece of fiction at face value. For those who don't remember the last book, The Final Battle, is exactly what it sounds like: the last kind of Narnia along with all of the talking animals, the Centaurs, and everyone else  about whom we've come to care fight an uncomfortably Middle-Eastern seeming invading force and are killed. All of them. Aslan then judges all of the fallen, brings some of them to what is clearly an analogy for heaven. The world-travelling schoolchildren were not killed in the final battle, but learn that they all died in a car crash in the real world and would, therefore, get to stay in the afterlife with everyone else. As an admitted materialist (in the sense of philosophy rather than commerce), I saw "everyone dies, including the children who were killed in a train wreck" to be a bit of a downer. Chloe took the talking lion's assurance that the children had arrived in "the true Narnia of which the other Narnia was a mere shadow) to have many more joyous adventures at face value, and finished the book with a bright smile and look of wonder rather than the stream of tears I'd expected.

Narnia's Shadows
As I mentioned, in between the Narnia books I read Lev Grossman's Magicians novels. These books - dealing with a hidden college of magic - have been described as an adult Harry Potter. There are elements of that, but what they really are is an adult retelling of Narnia. Characters in the book grew up reading series of Narnia-like books about a magical world called Fillory. In the sequences of The Magicians and sequels taking place in Fillory - a part of the book which becomes more prominent as the series moves on - we are treated to a rundown of all the high-points of the Narnia books. This includes not only talking animals and the idea of four humans becoming royalty (and not having to do much in terms of ruling), but such specific plot elements as the sea voyage to the end of the earth and a final, apocalyptic battle at what seems to be the end of the world.

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