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Book Review: Revisiting Narnia edited by Shanna Caughey

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The financial success of the Disney version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe means that the sequel (i.e., Prince Caspian) has already been greenlit by the studio. Meanwhile, copies of Lewis’ books continue to sell remarkably well (indeed, they currently appear to be among the top 10 bestsellers, according to USA Today’s bestseller database). Given the considerable attention being paid to Lewis and his fanciful tales of a magical land inside an old dusty wardrobe, it is not surprising that there has been an increase in critical discussion of his works as well.

The recently published book Revisiting Narnia looks to explore the fantasy, myth, and religion found in Lewis’ Narnia books. Edited by Shanna Caughey, the book is a collection of essays from a disparate and diverse group of writers, philosophers, academics, and others. From the musings of scholar Colin Duriez to the thoughts of Ingrid Newkirk, the co-founder and president of PETA, there is an interesting and occasionally unexpected range of opinion (some favorably inclined toward Lewis, some less so) to be found in this book.

Newkirk, for example, wonders if a “modern-day” Lewis would have been a PETA protester. She notes that Lewis was quite concerned with the pain and suffering of animals, and that he rather doubted that experimentation on animals could be justified “by showing it to be right that one species should suffer in order that another species be happier.”

Believing that “his religion and his era fail him,” and that his religious-based values and the “unenlightened social context of his time” posed barriers to enlightened understanding, Newkirk contends that a modern Lewis might well have transcended his mere concern for animal suffering and adopted far different notions in “consciousness about animals.” Whatever one may think of Newkirk’s own perspectives regarding animal rights, she makes some very intriguing points regarding Lewis and his abhorrence of experimentation on animals.

One seemingly pedantic debate about the Narnia books relates to the order in which they should be read. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was the first Narnia book written. After writing four more (Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair and A Horse and His Boy), he then wrote a prequel to the rest called The Magician’s Nephew which described the creation and corruption of Narnia at the dawn of time. The last book in the series then described the literal end: the destruction of Narnia and the creation of the “new” one in The Last Battle.

In the years since his death, The Magician’s Nephew is normally presented as the “first” book in the series given its place in the chronology in Narnian history. Peter Schakel, an English professor and author of several books about Lewis (as well as another book called Approaching Literature in the 21st Century: Fiction, Poetry, and Drama) and Wesley A. Kort, a professor of religion at Duke University, both argue convincingly for the so-called “original” order. Since one of the very real pleasures associated with reading The Magician’s Nephew is to recognize the beginnings of so many elements of the other stories, it is hard to disagree with them.

Martha C. Sammons contends in “The Chronicles of Narnia: For Adults Only?” that Lewis did not write his stories “just” for children, and that he did not “begin by first asking what children want and then trying to dish it out to them or treating them like a distant and inferior race.” She notes that a “fairy story” worth reading at all is worth being written for and read by adults, and that in his dedication to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Lewis himself said to the young Lucy he was addressing, “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”

To Sammons, and Lewis as well, adults need fairy tales more than children do; children already have a sense of wonder about the world around them, and it is adults who need to recapture that spark of joy. The adventures of Peter Pan do not simply resonate with adolescents who likewise fear the looming responsibility and concerns of adulthood; they also appeal to those who have crossed that threshold and wish to recall the single-minded pleasures of childhood. In similar fashion, Sammons suggests that the Narnia books should not be shunted aside as merely “children’s literature,” but recognized instead as another wrinkle in the ancient tradition of fairy tales shared by young and old alike.

On a more substantive level, fantasy and science-fiction author Lawrence Watt-Evans writes “On the Origins of Evil,” which explores Lewis’ perspective on the dichotomy of good and evil. In an articulate exploration of the Chronicles’ Christian roots, Watt-Evans tries to identify the origin of Tash, a being not mentioned in the first book (and consequently makes no appearance in the film) but who becomes of much greater significance later. Tash, you see, is the vulture-headed god of the Calormenes, a neighboring people, and while Aslan is the creator of Narnia and the author of all that is good, Tash is the god of all that is vile and evil. Which, of course, leads to the question: where did Tash come from, and why did he suddenly appear within the confines of the great and glorious world Aslan created?

Given Lewis’ philosophical rejection of any idea of a duality of good and evil (i.e., the idea of two equal forces) it is clear that he believed evil was essentially a perversion of good, rather than a unique and independent force. Watt-Evans suggests that perhaps Tash was essentially created by people, much like the characters in Lewis’ The Great Divorce fashioned their own torments while in Hell:

Perhaps, then, the Calormenes created Tash. Their centuries of rejecting Aslan and calling him a demon, their selfish and brutal society built on slavery, eventually made their evil manifest as an actual Tash. Uncle Andrew [in The Magician’s Nephew] was able to transform the speech of the beasts, including the Lion himself, to mere growling and roaring; the Dwarves [in The Last Battle] could see and feel the interior of the stable rather than the realm that truly lay beyond the door. Why, then, could not the Calormenes create their own deity?

As Watt-Evans notes, Lewis does not answer this question definitively; as Aslan says in The Horse and His Boy, “I tell no one any story but his own.” Still, it is an interesting, and engaging, discussion. In similar manner, philosopher and writer Natasha Giardina’s essay “Elusive Prey: Searching for Traces of Narnia in the Jungles of the Psyche” offers an intriguing perspective as she explores why she – an “expert” on children’s literature – had such a difficult time remembering any particular visions of Narnia. Ultimately, a little “googling of the brain” led her to identify her childhood distance from Lewis’ books, as well as her frustration with the characters (“I can remember just how irritated I was by Peter, Susan, and Lucy, who were far too gormless and saccharine for my liking. I took particular offense at Lucy.”).

She also assesses Edmund’s temptation far differently than Lewis undoubtedly intended: “The lesson of the story is that sinners must atone for their sins and seek forgiveness, but for some reason, I didn’t get that part. Perhaps Lewis crafted his demon-food too skillfully, because once I had experienced those guilty pleasures, I never could go back to hot buttered toast.”

In “God in the Details: Narrative Voice and Belief in the Chronicles of Narnia,” Naomi Wood suggests that some readers may well prefer and embrace Narnia’s “pagan flavor” in preference to its otherwise “muscular Christianity.” In “Coming of Age in Narnia,” Sam McBride explores some of the lessons of Narnia, which as he puts it is essentialy about “what it means to grow up.” He suggests one of the principal lessons appears to be that true maturity “involves unlearning some of the things learned while growing toward maturity.”

James Como, a professor of rhetoric and public communication and a member of the New York C.S. Lewis Society, writes the essay “Believing Narnia,” which articulates Como’s belief “in” the Chronicles as an illustration of Hope, and that eternal. Joseph Peace explores “Narnia and Middle-Earth: When Two Worlds Collide,” in which he outlines various perceptions of the interrelationship between the two works and their authors.

In “Aslan is on the Move: Images of Providence in the Chronicles of Narnia,” Russell Dalton examines some of the theological visions of God which manifest in the stories, asking whether God is a “stern and terrible lion” or a “cuddly cat” or some elusive combination of both. In her essay “Why I Love Narnia: A Liberal, Feminist Agnostic Tells All,” Sarah Zettel describes why she loves the Narnia Chronicles precisely because she is a “non-Christian, progressive, feminist liberal.”

One of the intriguing points she raises is that much of contemporary fantasy fiction is “full of religion and yet there was almost no faith.” In a purely world-building sense, then, Lewis’ ability to translate faith into story is itself a success: “The reality of Aslan is the root and wellspring of the books, and the characters all act accordingly, even when they are in denial of that reality.”

Cathy McSporran’s essay “Daughters of Lilith: Witches and Wicked Women in the Chronicles of Narnia” offers an intriguing portrait of the two witches who appear in the Chronicles (Jadis the White Witch, dispatched at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the “Lady of the Green Kirtle” who features prominently in one of the middle books). McSporran’s theme: “In the Witches, wickedness is conflated with rebellion against the principle of ‘natural’ authority, particularly masculine authority.”

These are only some of the essays to be found in Revisiting Narnia, a collection to be appreciated for its commitment to a diversity of opinion. From Christian theologians to advocates of paganism and those who profess no particular theistic bent whatsoever, it is very interesting to see the myriad number of ways in which Lewis’ works are viewed. Whether it is Sally Stabb’s reflections on manners in Narnia (as she notes, “in the middle of all sorts of nasty goings-on, most of the main characters in Narnia are exquisitely polite”) or Mary Frances Zambreno’s exploration of “medieval time and space” in the Chronicles, there is a veritable cornucopia of literary, social, and cultural analysis to be found in this book. Recommended.

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About Bill Wallo

  • Eric Olsen

    fascinating, thorough, highly readable – thanks Bill!